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Clemente: The Legend of 21

NightBlue Performing Arts Company, in partnership with ArtoCarpus, proudly presents the Chicago Premiere of Clemente: The Legend of 21 at Stage 773. This musical, written and directed by the renowned Luis Caballero, tells the tale of struggle and triumph for one of baseball’s greatest players, Roberto Clemente. Beginning on the day of his death, this musical chronicles Clemente’s life from enduring poverty and racism to becoming an inspiration for generations to come.

Clemente was a Puerto Rican professional baseball player who played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He was the first Latino player to win a World Series as a starter and received numerous awards during his career including National League and World Series MVP, being named All-Star 12 times and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously. His passion, aside from baseball, was charity work in Puerto Rico and Latin American countries where he delivered food and baseball equipment to those in need. He perished in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while in route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

“Clemente is a monumental figure for everyone,” said David Walters, Artistic Director of NightBlue Performing Arts Company. “You don’t have to be a baseball fan – or even a sports fan to appreciate the impact he made in the world. His story goes well beyond sports to overcoming adversity and hatred. His composure and dedication to helping others less fortunate is an inspiration to this day.”


Aug 22, 2014 - Sep 14, 2014

@ Stage 773

1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago

Show Type: Musical

Box Office: 773-327-5252

Stage 773


As Its 80th Anniversary Season Winds Down, The Grant Park Music Festival Still Has Some “Wow Factor” For Late Season Audiences

By Lori Dana


Since Chicago labor organizer James C. Petrillo first envisioned it, as work for unemployed musicians and a cultural oasis for weary citizens in the midst of the Great Depression, the Grant Park Music Festival has continually grown: in scope, in the depth and breadth of its musical offerings, and in the estimation of critics and audiences from all over the world. From humble beginnings as a volunteer band playing free concerts in the Grant Park music shell named for the fiery Petrillo, the festival has grown into a venue for one of the world’s finest full orchestras and its complementary vocal chorus, performing for thousands of local residents each week and millions more via classical radio station WFMT’s international streaming broadcasts. Musicians flock to Chicago from all over the country every summer, lending musical talent honed in cultural powerhouses like The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, and The Seattle Symphony (as well as our own CSO and Lyric Opera Orchestra) to the festival.


Thanks to the foresight of its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar, and his colleague and collaborator Chorus Director Christopher Bell, The Grant Park Music Festival has some of the most creative and compelling programming out there. In addition to an orchestral line up which this year included classical favorites (Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”, Handel’s Water Music), some stunning lesser known works by Dvořák, Janáček, Danielpour and Poulenc, mariachi, jazz and opera collaborations, contemporary classical debuts, and themed programs for families (spooky music) and adults (Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins); GPMF also presented community outreach concerts featuring both orchestra and chorus in several Chicago neighborhood locales.

As eclectic as it sounds, the festival programming successfully weaves together wildly different musical genres into surprisingly strong programs. A common thread holds these together, whether cultural, thematic or visual (several programs have had accompanying film or dance components). In doing this, maestro Kalmar and company almost always succeed in delighting and educating their audience. That audience has grown exponentially with the festival’s move to Millennium Park. Ensconced in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion since 2004, The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus now perform in a state-of-the-art space designed by brilliant American architect Frank Gehry. Equipped with a sound system housed in steel arches spanning its Great Lawn, Pritzker puts the sound quality of other, older outdoor venues to shame; and has helped The Grant Park Music Festival reach a performance zenith. It is truly the greatest jewel in Chicago’s lavish crown of summer festivals, and remarkably it is still…FREE.


Happily, there is still time for those who haven’t yet experienced the amazing sound of a classical symphony rising above the gentle hum of street traffic, punctuated by the cries of gulls from the lakefront or the periodic wail of a siren from Michigan Avenue. There is still time to enjoy the fragrant cool of the freshly mown Great Lawn surrounded by gently swaying trees, while relishing a home made picnic, or a bottle of wine with friends. There are three marvelous weeks of concerts still to be enjoyed, beginning Wednesday August 6 with Pink Martini’s incomparable vocalist Storm Large singing Kurt Weill, and ending on Saturday August 16 with Ravel’s dramatic and dreamy Impressionist ballet, Daphnis and Chloe.

The full concert schedule can be found on line at…

Classical Concerts in Millennium Park ~ The Grant Park Music Festival

Grant Park Music Festival images by Norman Timonera

2  500x72By J. Scott Hill

The first thought I had after seeing Writer’s Theatre’s production of Days Like Today was: who has a four-season vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard?  I don’t doubt the possibility, just the probability.  So many other plays and films and television shows and books depict profoundly wealthy people closing up their Martha’s Vineyard escapes in the fall.  Many of the hotels, shops, restaurants, and other businesses on Martha’s Vineyard completely shut down for the winter.  As the action of Days Like Today hurdles mundane months from scene to scene, the principal characters all just happen to land at the Martha’s Vineyard getaway house on New Year’s Eve.

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Days Like Today is a little farfetched, and a bit pretentious.  Still, Laura Eason’s adaptation is far less farfetched and pretentious than its inspiration, the plays of  Charles Mee (particularly Summertime), and Days Like Today is more engaging.

Days Like Today is the story of a young woman, Tessa, left at the altar for no particularly compelling reason. Tessa’s father, Frank, is a classics professor who is gay and dating a much younger man, a former student of his named Edmund.  Tessa’s mother, Maria, is a cougar who is sexually adventurous and dating a younger man, a former dance instructor of her daughter’s named Francois. (Get it?  Her husband is named Frank and her boyfriend is named Francois and they are both teachers.  Really!?) Tessa’s misery is further complicated by a pizza delivery guy, James, who falls in love with her at first sight, and who just happens to have a Ph.D. in classics, just like her dear old dad.  By the time everybody shows up at the Martha’s Vineyard house on New Year’s Eve, most of them are surprised to find that Tessa has not left there since her wedding day disaster.

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Either Tessa’s job — translating the photo captions of a single Italian coffee table book into English and French — pays extremely well and in advance, or she has a duffel bag full of small unmarked bills, because if she were getting any money from either of her parents they would have known that she was still at the vacation house.  Such inconsistencies, annoyances, and first-world problems are prevalent enough to make even a Glencoe audience raise a skeptical eyebrow.  Laura Eason has done a fine job of rhinoplasty on the upturned nose of Charles Mee’s plays, but a rewrite would make the characters more organic and thereby more sympathetic.

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Luckily, Laura Eason’s book is paired with Alan Schmuckler’s amazing songs.  Tuneful and catchy, poetic and profound,  from “10,000 Times” to “Tuscany” to “Quartet,” Schmuckler’s music and lyrics carry this story into our hearts.  Some of the credit for the wonderment in the music goes to the musicians, particularly the complementary playing of Paul von Mertens on woodwinds and Carmen Kassinger on violin/viola.  Like nearly every piano played in a theatre pit band at any time anywhere, the piano played by Austin Cook should be turned around with the harp facing the wall, and a mattress placed between the piano and the wall to muffle the sound; from a seat in the audience of any reasonably acoustically designed theatre, a piano onstage almost always sounds too loud.

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Days Like Today is graced with a phenomenal cast of singer/actors. The jilting groom Arnaud is played by Jarrod Zimmerman, who is fine in the role, but justifiably doesn’t have a lot to do.  Tessa’s new suitor James is played to charming effect by Will Mobley. Jonathan Weir as Frank, Susie McMonagle as Maria, Stephen Schelhardt as Edmund, and Jeff Parker as Francois could each deftly carry Days Like Today, if the narrative were told from a different angle. Emily Berman’s subtle performance as the emotionally overwhelmed Tessa is only surpassed by her extraordinary alto.

Days Like Today is an unconventional love story full of actors and songs you will likely adore, actors and songs that are able to largely make up for residual pretentiousness in the characters and story that adapting playwright Laura Eason did not quite delouse from the original Charles Mee source material.




(“Days Like Today runs through July 27 at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. 847-242-6000.)

Writer’s Theatre

Days Like Today production photos by Michael Brosilow.

* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Days Like Today – Writer’s Theatre – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago


e  vert 500x72By J. Scott Hill

The classic television series The Beverly Hillbillies was a popular hit during its original run, from 1962 to 1971, and has been a fixture in syndication ever since.  The strangers-in-a-strange-land premise works because the country folk are neither stupid nor naive (except for the clueless Jethro Bodine), but are merely culturally ignorant of things that the Beverly Hills elite — and nearly everyone else — take for universal and mundane.

Like seemingly every other popular hit from classic television or modern romantic comedy, The Beverly Hillbillies has been adapted for the musical theatre stage.  Unlike some shows with similar origins, this show’s creators managed to secure the rights to the original theme song.

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The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical recently had its world premiere at Theatre at the Center just over the state line in Munster, Indiana.  This is not high art, surely; but  The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical never takes itself seriously enough to pretend to be anything but a fluffy, nostalgic diversion.  The script by David Rogers and Amanda Rogers could easily pass for a multi-episode arc from the original series, with a rehash of the premise’s origin story tacked on the front.  The songs, by Gregg Opelka, are pleasant yet largely forgettable (with the exception of the terrific “Mamma’s Boy,” a song sung by Percy, a character who was not part of the TV series).

Theatre at the Center’s set for The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical is lavishly done.  Set Designer Ann N. Davis’s take on the Clampett’s country hovel is as rustic as her Clampett mansion is opulent.

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The success of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical lies in the particular performances of the actors.  Much of the credit here can go to Director David Perkovich. Perkovich let some of the actors get away with straight out impressions of the TV actors in the same roles, while other cast members developed their own takes on these familiar characters. Several of the actors in The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical are among the heavy hitters of Chicago’s musical-theatre scene:  James Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, Norm Boucher, Summer Naomi Smart, and Bernie Yvon have been name-above-the-title stars in other musicals around town.

The ensemble is terrific.  Summer Naomi Smart is perfect as the tomboy bombshell Elly May. John Stemberg’s height and build make him an excellent Jethro Bodine, as does his flawless take on Max Baer, Jr.’s delivery. Norm Boucher’s Milburn Drysdale is the consummate shyster.

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Even though Kelly Anne Clark is much younger than Granny is, she plays the age convincingly.  Cantankerous and crotchety, Clark’s take on granny is more quick spoken and acid tongued than Irene Ryan’s, but no less endearing.

The Beverly Hillbillies has always been chiefly about a man named Jed. James Harms, not unlike many of his fellow ensemble members here, is so far above his part that it is astonishing he took it.  Then again, so was Buddy Ebsen.  James Harms plays Jed Clampett as a gentle, thoughtful, and wise patriarch.  If you have ever seen James Harms play Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha (and if you have ever seen a production of Man of La Mancha in the Chicago area, then you probably have seen James Harms in that role), then you already know that his name in the program means something wonderful will be happening onstage.

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A fine ensemble led by James Harms through a pretty good script (given the iffy, if beloved, source material) provide some delicious, though exceptionally light, fare. The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical would benefit from more memorable songs, but is still far better than any reasonable theatregoer could expect.




(“The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musicalruns through August, 10 at Theatre At The Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Indiana. 219-836-3255.)

Theater at the Center


* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical – Theatre At The Center – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago


The Second City Etc's performance of "Apes of Wrath"By J. Scott Hill

I suspect that the funniest, edgiest writing done nowadays for The Second City e.t.c. is being done by women.  Not that I find anything in particular about the content or delivery of recent revues that overtly indicates a woman’s touch. The Second City e.t.c.’s last revue, A Clown Car Named Desire, was the funniest, edgiest Second City revue by any cast in recent memory, and  e.t.c.’s new revue, Apes of Wrath, maintains A Clown Car‘s high standards while it so happens to keep the same three female writer/performers — Carisa Barreca, Brooke Breit, and Punam Patel.

Sketches cover such topics as the inanity of the new media outlets that have sucked the viability out of newspapers, anti-vaccinationists, purity balls, artificial intelligence, that old acquaintance one occasionally runs into who is still living in the long-gone glory days of high school, and an apology from a Christian apologist on behalf of the rest of the faith.  This wonderfully acerbic show bares its fangs and claws at our ridiculous modern world and tears away at the juiciest morsels for our delighted consumption.

The Second City Etc's performance of "Apes of Wrath"

Plus, at one point in Apes of Wrath, the line “Fuck you, Neil deGrasse Tyson!” is uttered.  Since I will admit to no small amount of hero worship for Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, “Fuck you, [Pluto denier of all Pluto deniers] Neil deGrasse Tyson!” might very well stand as the high point of my years in the audience.

This entire ensemble is praiseworthy.  Asher Perlman is the show’s metronome: he maintains the pace with his infectious energy.  Eddie Mujica disappears into a wide variety of characters, especially when he is working off the audience as Pepe, an immigrant about to take his United States citizenship test.

Tim Ryder is new to the e.t.c. stage, but a familiar face around Chicago’s improv and sketch comedy scene.  Ryder excels at bringing a warmth to cold and emotionally distant characters — whether he is playing a socially inept chess savant or the (dwarf) planet Pluto.

The Second City Etc's performance of "Apes of Wrath"

The men in this ensemble are terrific, but the best moments in this stellar show mostly come from the three women. Carisa Barreca spends the show subverting the image that the audience likely infers from her sweet Mary-Tyler-Moore smile, and we fall into her trap every time.  Punam Patel is a performer who has always been outstanding, but just keeps getting better — and is one of the sharpest improvisers working in Chicago today.

I am often surprised by which Second City people move on and when; that Brooke Breit has not yet been seduced out to New York or Los Angeles is a blessing for Chicago, but is overdue.  Sitcom or sketch comedy, on camera or in the writers’ room, Brooke Breit’s talent is ripe for an even wider audience.

Razor-sharp Apes of Wrath is a worthy successor to A Clown Car Named Desire on The Second City e.t.c. stage.  A superb ensemble — led by Punam Patel, Carisa Barreca, and the amazing Brooke Breit — are not afraid to cut anyone or anything down to size.


3-1/2 STARS


(“Apes of Wrathis in Open Run at The Second City e.t.c., 1608 N. Wells, Chicago — in Piper’s Alley. 312-337-3992)

The Second City – Performances – Apes of Wrath


Apes of Wrath production photos by Todd Rosenberg.


* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Apes of Wrath – Second City – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago

BW1 500x72By J. Scott Hill

As Chicago struggles to put this winter of nearly seven feet of snow (and repeated bouts with polar vortices) behind it, the Beast Women come back for their 2014 Spring Series2014 Spring Series marks their second round of shows in their digs at the Den Theatre.  The Den Theatre has a couple of very cool, intimate spaces perfect for the kind of late-night entertainments the Beast Women provide.  Plus, the Den is home to one of the coolest lobby bars in the city. The Beasties are a good fit for this venue, and — for those who dare the ascent up the Aztec pyramid of a stairwell up to the Den — vice versa.

Sassy emcee Michelle Power remarked that Beast Women 2014 Spring Series opening night marked the 175th performance of the all-female cabaret.  It is a credit to the producers of this longstanding variety show that they are still able to find fresh, vital new performers to complement their stable of veterans.  The first act, singer-songwriter Dhaea (DYE-ah), makes catchy, heartfelt music.  Her song “Stairwell” could easily find a home in medium rotation on WXRT right between Death Cab for Cutie and Jason Mraz.  With Dhaea’s smiling voice, and clever hooks like “When morning comes, I’ll say good night,” three chords and the truth have seldom been as gleefully infectious.

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Several of the acts aimed to titillate.  Burlesque beauty Boobs Radley showed the audience nearly all of her country charms to the tune of KD Lang’s “Big-Boned Gal.” Vaudezilla Vixen Zara Estelle teased the crowd in a bright blue coiffure and — eventually — precious little else. Kiss Kiss Cabaret Coquette Camille Leon slunk and slithered across the stage to Skylar Grey’s cover of “Addicted to Love.”

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Beast Women co-producer and performance artist Jillian Erickson shared her madness with an excerpt from her solo show 3:00 a.m.: Slipping Beyond the Boundaries of a Bruised Mind.  Spoken word artist J. Evelyn rendered powerful, poetic images of someone downtrodden and abused.

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Shelley Miller, a singer/songwriter clearly influenced by Lucinda Williams, deftly bent her guitar’s strings as she played and sang her bluesy number, “Walk Away.” Comedian Mary Zee dragged the appreciatively guffawing audience through her life, covering topics such as drinking (and not-drinking) challenges, her sister’s baby, and her parents’ first date.  Lauren Lewis and her ukulele charmed the crowd with a witty ditty about dating a zombie.  Kamani Raqs belly-danced with hypnotic levels of control, elegance, and art.

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Singer Sparkle Motion stepped out of her usual house/electronica/R&B vibe to deliver a heartfelt blues dirge a cappella (featuring the glorious cosigning, harmonizing, and ham-boning talents of Medina Perine). With lyrics like “I want my knife to go in your neck until I feel something scrape,” Sparkle Motion turns the tables on such misogynistic blues standards as Louisiana Red’s “Sweet Blood Call” and empowers the hell out of herself.

Beast Women 2014 Spring Series will be a different show each night, so the line up of performers you see may vary considerably from those mentioned here, but the Beast Women have proven themselves over and over again to be the best female variety performers in Chicago, period. So, put on your crampons and invite a sherpa or two to join you in the climb up the Everest-like stairs to the Den Theatre.  You may not find any Yeti, but the Beasties you will see are sure to delight.


3 1/2 STARS

(“Beast Women 2014 Spring Series” runs Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. through June 14 (with the new talent showcase Beast Women Rising on Sunday, June 8, at 7:00 p.m.) at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago..)

The Den Theatre

Beast Women Productions

Beast Women 2014 Spring Series performance images by Hunter Matthews.


By Venus Zarris

In what can best be described as the ultimate character defining performance, Melissa Lorraine blazes across the stage of Theatre Y’s remarkable production and becomes Medea. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and Medea throws open hell’s gates to deliver catastrophic wrath upon her opportunistically philandering husband, Jason. Rage so complete can easily fall into a one-dimensional portrayal, yet Lorraine’s Medea fires on so many emotional and intellectual cylinders that we are taken with her on a mesmerizing descent into well articulated madness.


Poet Robinson Jeffers has penned a beautiful adaptation of Euripides’ horrific tale of betrayal and revenge, made even more lyrically lovely and dramatically bleak by this macabre staged hallucination. Director Kevin V. Smith takes us on a theatrically Dali-esque journey through the text of this classic tale by realizing a stream-of-consciousness dreamscape. The surreal backdrop of fluctuating artistic imagery and dramatic styles jolts the story out of its conventionally classic milieu and blasts the audience into a thought provoking unreality. Smith throws Medea down Alice’s rabbit hole and what emerges through this wild looking-glass is a sometimes inspired, sometimes distracting, yet always fascinating purgatorial suspension of disbelief.

Theatre Y presents a rare artistic collaboration between an artist, Melissa Lorraine, who grounds the story in staggering emotional authenticity and an artist, Kevin V. Smith, who bewilders the text with fantastically stylized kaleidoscopic surrealism.


Just as Katharine Hepburn defined Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer or Patti LuPone defined Eva Peron in Evita or Margaret Hamilton defined the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, Melissa Lorraine defines Medea. We feel for her anguish, we grasp the gravity of her unrelenting dilemma and we are horrified by who she is transformed into. Lorraine commands the focus; she reveals every intimate devastation and diabolical dreadfulness of Medea. She owns the stage and the completeness of her performance affords Smith the latitude to play as he wishes with all other aspects of the production. There is not another actor in Chicago who could manifest Medea so resplendently atop such whimsical directorial artistic license. You will be hard pressed to find another actor anywhere who could create a Medea as nuanced and as eviscerating.


Aaron Lamm and Nicholas Wenz deliver performances that are wise beyond their years as Medea’s children. Simina Contras brings a hypnotic ferocity to the stage with her physically overwhelming and emotionally beguiling performance as Medea’s devoted servant, The Nurse. Kevin V. Smith and Hugo Duhayon’s improvisational work with the Chorus of Corinthian Women bookends the production in a very present and contemporary context of genuine and personally poignant revelation. The exceptional costume, makeup and hair design by Branimira Ivanova and lighting design by Devron Enarson add intriguing visual depth to this unique interpretation.


Once again, Theatre Y creates a production that is as extraordinary in vision and delivery as it is provocative and captivating. You will be challenged and rewarded by this incredible offering. You will be absorbed by the imaginative twists and turns of the staging. You will be haunted by the heart wrenching intensity and creative chaos of this singular Medea.


3 1/2 STARS


(“Medearuns through June 1 (Thursdays-Sundays at 7pm) @ Theatre Y, 2649 N. Francisco Ave. located in St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. 708-209-0183)

Medea production photos by Devron Enarson.

Theatre Y


By Venus Zarris

“Beware this gypsy. She flirts with lunacy!”

Babes with Blades is no stranger to theatrical risk taking. As a matter of fact, their mission statement (“Babes With Blades Theatre Company uses stage combat to place women and their stories center stage…”) is itself a unique and provocative endeavor.

In their current production of L’Imbecile, the Babes deliver deliciously decadent delusions of deviant debauchery and diabolical dilemmas. This fantastical production is as maniacally wild as it is marvelously intoxicating.


Playwright Aaron Adair brilliantly appropriates Verdi’s Rigoletto, subtracting the music and replacing it with madness. Director Wm Bullion amazingly animates Adair’s intricate hallucination with stylized vision and an unwavering ensemble. Each character completely inhabits their unreality as they convince us of this courtly tale of sex, betrayal and revenge. Bullion’s uses of percussive syncopation and Kabuki theatrics create a mesmerizing theatrical spectacle.

The staggeringly delightful cast is comprised of vixens, female and male, most enticing. Maureen Yasko is a wickedly wonderful and completely commanding queen. Amy E. Harmon is both haunting and hysterical in a tour de force performance as Priestess and Gypsy. Kathrynne Wolf grounds this otherworldly phantasm with breathtaking emotional authenticity in the midst of a stylized asylum of chaos.


Babes With Blades go BIG and go BOLD in L’Imbecile and the payoff for their audience is incredible. Do NOT miss this outrageous theatrical triumph!



 (“L’Imbecile “ runs through May 10 at Rivendell Theatre, 5775 N. Ridge Ave. 773-904-0391)

 L’Imbecile images by Steven Townshend and Johnny Knight.

Box Office: 773-904-0391

L’Imbecile ~ Babes With Blades

Brown Paper Tickets ~ L’Imbecile

0ABeast Women — Chicago’s Original All-Female Performance Variety Revue — serving as a platform to showcase the best female talent in Chicago.

A diverse assortment of genres are presented each week that highlight female strength through performance including music, poetry, dance, performance art, spoken word, burlesque, etc. This is not your typical show. The artists presented, display their passion, strength, freedom, and sensuality to reveal the very things that make them the women they are today. The only demands placed on them are to be original and be bold. The show is an invigorating and stimulating experience that operates on a concept of revolving individual performances, so every night is different offering a unique, exciting, and memorable experience for audiences.

Join the Beast Women Saturday nights at The Den Theatre.

Your Nights Belong To The Beast!

$20 Tickets at the door or online

Presented by Beast Women Productions


Beast Women
Saturdays, May 10 – June 14 at 10:30 pm

Beast Women Rising, a new talent showcase
Sunday, June 8 at 7:00 p.m

@ The Den Theatre

1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago ~ Steps from the Division Blue Line Stop

Show Type: Cabaret

The Den Theatre

Beast Women Productions

Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Sound Of Music

By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

By Lori Dana

Lyric Opera of Chicago is expert at presenting musical classics. The venerable company does this every season when their offerings include at least one or two of opera’s iconic productions. Madama Butterfly, The Barber of Seville and La Bohéme are recent examples. When Lyric launched their American Musical Theater Initiative during the 2012-13 season, the organizers of that effort wisely chose to strike a deal with the company that now represents Rodgers and Hammerstein works, to present what many consider the most classic of all Broadway musical productions. Those critics whining that Lyric is not taking enough “risks” with their current production, should know better. If you want edgy interpretations, there are plenty of companies in town whose mission it is to take old warhorses to places we never expected. Lyric’s stated intent is not only to introduce new audiences to these old favorites, but to introduce them to the enchanting experience of attending a production at the Civic Opera House, in the hopes that some will return for a taste of Lyric’s regular fare.

If last Sunday’s matineé crown was any indication, the media blitz surrounding The Sound of Music has been a rip-roaring success. In almost ten years of covering the opera scene in Chicago, we have never witnessed such a massive crowd at a Lyric production. The Lyric house staff was clearly overwhelmed, but amazingly maintained their professionalism and composure in the face of many patrons who clearly had never been in an opera house before. And once the packed house was seated, their appreciation for the production was never in doubt. Thanks to annual broadcasts of the 1965 film, The Sound of Music is familiar to almost everyone in an American theater audience. The magic of live theater occurs by experiencing that familiar story in the present moment. The added emotional power of Richard Rodgers’ gorgeous score, played by a full orchestra, makes the experience even more transcendent. This is where Lyric really shines. Subtle updates in dramatic interpretation and staging are enough to engage a new audience, while still meeting the expectations of those familiar with the work.

Lyric’s Sound of Music opens with plenty of visual and musical drama. The curtain rises on a dark and misty evening, and we hear the solemn tolling of church bells as the nuns of a mountainside abbey sing vespers, lighting the scene in a swirl of red votive candles. Maria (the wayward postulant who is missing vespers again) is shown in a flashback, singing the show’s glorious signature tune in a mountain meadow. This is our first glimpse of leading lady Jenn Gambatese, whose petite, dark-haired Maria presents a striking contrast to Julie Andrews’ tall, blonde movie character. That ceases to matter the instant Ms. Gambatese begins to sing. Possessed of a bell-clear voice and graceful dancer’s body, Ms. Gambatese’s pure vocal tone and easy, natural delivery are a perfect fit for the character of Maria. The problem comes in the next scene, as Maria is called into the office of the Abbess (Christine Brewer) for redress. Ms. Gambese’s speaking voice is high-pitched and her delivery was too rapid, creating the impression of a ditzy teenager, rather than a young woman locked in a spiritual struggle. Perhaps this was a conscious decision on the part of director Marc Bruni. Was he attempting to appeal to a young audience weaned on iCarly and Sam and Cat? As a Baby Boomer, we found the characterization somewhat disconcerting. Thankfully, as the story progresses and Maria takes the governess position in the House of Von Trapp, her character seems to mature nicely. Ms. Brewer as the Mother Abbess is perfectly cast: her rich mezzo-soprano and generous frame emanate compassion, warmth and nurturing. Her interpretation of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is one of the most moving highlights of the piece, and the supporting cast of nuns (including Cory Goodrich as Sister Margaretta, Susan Moniz as Sister Sophia, and Erin Elizabeth Smith as Sister Berthe) provides some of the most unforgettable musical moments of the production. A couple of moments we would like to forget involved Billy Zane (Captain Von Trapp), Elizabeth Futral (Elsa Schraeder) and Edward Hibbert (Max Detweiler), in two scenes designed to advance the political back story of the Nazis impending invasion of Austria. Although these three actors are wonderful in the balance of the production, the combination of clunky lyrics (one can see why these scenes were converted to dialog in the film) and wildly mismatched vocal styles (Futral is an opera singer and Hibbert doesn’t sing much at all) made these scenes fall pretty flat.

The Sound of Music bounces back instantly the minute the top-notch actors playing the seven Von Trapp children take the stage. Lyric’s production team has done an outstanding job of casting these roles with a group of experienced and talented young thespians, mostly drawn from the Chicago and St. Louis areas. Director Bruni has wisely added greater depth to the children’s roles than we have experienced in the film version of the musical. In addition to sixteen-year-old Liesl’s (Betsy Farrar) adolescent growing pains, we see more chivalry (Michael Harp as Kurt), practical joking (Julia Schweizer as Louisa) and wisdom beyond their years (Isabelle Roberts as Brigitta) among the Von Trapp children than was practical in the movie. Happily, the precocious cuteness of the youngest, Gretel (Nicole Scimeca), remains unchanged. The children in the audience are sure to connect with at least one of these characters.

Above all, there is The Sound of Music‘s glorious and unforgettable score. Even those of us who consider ourselves familiar with the piece tend to forget what a large volume of wonderful tunes reside within this show. In addition to the eponymous theme and other hummable classics like “Do-Re-Mi” and “My Favorite Things,” we are reacquainted with the youthful bravado of “I Have Confidence,” the cleverness of “So Long, Farewell” and the torchy overtones of “Something Good,” among many others as memorable. The musicians of the Lyric Opera Orchestra really get a chance to show off their chops during the charming “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and again during the expansive Viennese waltzes that form the backdrop for the party scene at the Von Trapp estate. Their subtle and evocative playing adds the final dimension to a funny, moving and ultimately glorious show.




(“The Sound Of Music,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through May 25 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Sound of Music production photos by Todd Rosenberg and Robert Kusel.

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