Grant Park Music Festival Confronts Dog Days With Creativity and Wit


By Lori Dana

The “dog days” of summer have arrived in Chicago bringing with them some unique challenges for our city’s premiere outdoor music event. The Grant Park Music Festival has garnered press and public acclaim for its annual Fourth of July extravaganza, hosted by irrepressible choirmaster Christopher Bell whose over-the-top patriotic costumes are a highly anticipated part of an otherwise traditional musical program. But what do you do to lure patrons to the Pritzker Pavilion in the evenings directly before and after that hugely popular event? Both vehicle and foot traffic can be more challenging around the 4th, and concert times must accommodate the rival Taste of Chicago (across Monroe Street to the south), whose insistent thump of rock music has to subside before the Grant Park Orchestra tunes up.

GPMF has met the challenge admirably with compelling programs designed to appeal to an audience for the more unusual. On July 1st and 2nd, music director Carlos Kalmar led the orchestra and chorus in an all-Czech program featuring Antonín Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and a haunting oratorio, The Epic of Gilgamesh, from a lesser known Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinü. The concert began with a witty introduction by maestro Kalmar, who outlined the theme for the evening with details from a Czech fairy tale (Spinning Wheel) and an ancient myth (Gilgamesh) both of which he pointed out, are much more gory than the Grimm’s Fairy Tales many of us grew up with (and now refuse to read to our kids because we think they’re too scary.) Both pieces were fascinating examples of musical storytelling: the Dvořák intimate and detailed, the Martinü sweeping and monumental.

This week the festival is bringing audiences into the modern era. The July 6th program featured a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, with the film score played live by the Grant Park Orchestra under the baton of conductor Andrés Franco. Even though images were provided for the audience this time, the music was still telling the story. For those unfamiliar with the film, (which is considered the apex of Chaplin’s career as both an actor and director) the program was a delightful learning experience. For Chaplin fans, it was a rare opportunity to experience the film as it was premiered in 1931. Amazingly, it was a huge hit, even though “talkies” had already become the industry standard. City Lights was the first film for which Chaplin (a self-taught musician with no formal training) composed the score. The orchestral arrangements for the GPMF presentation were those of composer and arranger Carl Davis, who adapted Chaplin’s original scores for the modern releases of City Lights and The Gold Rush. The screening and concert in the Pritzker Pavilion had the feel of a once in a lifetime experience, but one that hopefully the festival will be moved to repeat.

The week will conclude with two evenings of popular standards by one of America’s greatest and most beloved 20th Century composers. A quartet of Broadway greats, backed by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, will present a comprehensive program of Cole Porter on Friday and Saturday under a canopy of stars on the Great Lawn. It will be a fitting conclusion to a wild and wonderful week in Millennium Park. Tonight we’ll be toasting the imaginative ways our festival has been reaching out to engage new audiences, even as we anticipate the return of great symphonies and classical masterpieces, secure in the knowledge that we will continue to be challenged, surprised, and delighted.

(2016 Grant Park Music Festival, runs through August 20 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park  312-742-7647)


2016 Grant Park Music Festival ~ Mahler Symphony No. 6


Mahler Symphony No. 6

Grant Park Music Festival

June 24, 2016


By Lori Dana

It was a perfect evening on the lakefront, perhaps the first of the new Grant Park Music Festival season. Chicago’s premiere outdoor music festival (and the only classical venue that is free for everyone) was about to serve up a major 20th Century work, and the audience seemed quietly apprehensive. Mahler’s 6th symphony is no small challenge for most orchestras. The Grant Park Symphony is not just any orchestra, however. Comprised of a Who’s Who of classical players from around the country–and in some cases, even overseas– performing under the baton of long-time festival music director Carlos Kalmar, our “house band” shows that they have the chops to coax even Mahler’s notoriously stormy orchestrations into a concise and compelling musical narrative.

Referred to as the “Tragic” Symphony, the overall tone of the piece is not one of mourning, but of apprehension. Written during a happy period of Mahler’s life (he began the Symphony No. 6 shortly after marrying the love of his life, Alma Schindler and fathering their first daughter), this work reflects the composer’s temperament as one of fatalism. Mahler was a 19th Century man who sensed the tremendous changes that the dawn of the 20th would impress upon his life and the lives of his family. His sixth symphony reflects this prescience, with ominous military rhythms underlying, and occasionally dominating the brighter themes in the opening allegro. Deftly led by Maestro Kalmar, the orchestra makes facile transitions between marches, uplifting melodies, and cascading stormy passages, navigating Mahler’s distinct changes of mood with admirable ease. Sometimes competing, often intertwining, the music envelops listeners in the composer’s thoughts and emotions.

In the second movement we are treated to a languid and lovely andante, its slightly exotic harmonies embroidered by a captivating oboe solo. The mood of foreboding returns in the final measures, and develops into an almost joyous turbulence in the scherzo of the third movement, which sees a brief return of the opening military motif. The finale opens with a dreamy, almost aquatic feeling created by use of the harp, gong and chimes, and evolves with the dignity and solemnity of a magical spell, light and sparkle competing with the tumultuous swirling of an oncoming storm.

Mahler was criticized in his time for the structure and length of his symphonies, which sound surprisingly contemporary to audiences today (the Symphony No. 6 premiered in the spring of 1906.) There is little aural relief for audiences or musicians in the form of repeated choruses and musical motifs. When exquisitely performed with the passion, sensitivity, and endurance of our Grant Park musicians, the 79-minute piece left the audience not exhausted, but wondering how this enthralling musical journey could already have reached its end.

(2016 Grant Park Music Festival, runs through August 20 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park  312-742-7647)


Romeo and Juliet – Lyric Opera REVIEW


Romeo and Juliet

By Charles Gounod

By Lori Dana

As its final offering of the 2015-16 season Lyric Opera presents a French gem, conducted by a master of the répertoire Français and featuring superlative singers in every rôle, from the famously star-crossed lovers down to the lowliest page.  Based on the classic play by William Shakespeare, Gounod’s opera relies on a skillfully abridged libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré that eliminates many secondary characters and plot lines, distilling the bard’s tale of love and revenge to its most bittersweet essence. One must assume that the breathtaking poetry of the supertitles quotes directly from the Victor Hugo translation employed by the librettists, creating lush romantic visions that perfectly compliment Gounod’s exceptionally beautiful and sensuous music. In contrast to its rich musical landscape, all of the action in Romeo and Juliet takes place on a single, charcoal gray set. Stately facades surround an open courtyard that, through the judicious use of lighting and props, alternately serves as the Capulet’s palace ballroom, a Verona marketplace, a church, a bedchamber and a crypt. As it has in almost every production this season, the Lyric Opera chorus is a key component in telling the story and propelling the action forward. In the first artfully choreographed scene, chorus members introduce us to the members of the warring Montague and Capulet clans, as they slowly parade across the stage to take their places on chairs upholstered in blood red. There is a sense of foreboding, not only in the music of the prologue but in the dark, dusty tones of the costumes; the duns and grays of the common folk eventually giving way to the muted reds and purples of rival aristocrats. Director Bartlett Sher, a distinguished stage and opera veteran using contrast as his primary tool, presents the young lovers in the context of a society torn apart by revenge and conflict, allowing us to experience the heightened emotions created by Shakespeare’s confluence of politics and passion.


The director’s inspiration is due in no small part to musical contrasts that create the flow of the opera, from festive dances and ravishing arias to the dramatic duels that presage the lovers’ tragic deaths. The musical engine of this production is the Lyric Opera Orchestra, whose passionate playing under the awe-inspiring direction of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume gives Gounod’s music the exquisitely sensitive treatment it demands. The results are predictably swoon-worthy. So too, are the glorious voices of Lyric’s Romeo and Juliet. American soprano Susanna Phillips captivates from her very first note as the eager, innocent Juliet. Her facile mastery of Gounod’s coloratura is joyous to experience. Perfectly matched with Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja’s Romeo, this pair makes sparks fly. One of the rapidly rising stars of his generation, Calleja’s vocal prowess and emotional depth are more evident each time he performs at Lyric. The universal excellence of the production’s supporting players also cannot be understated. Christian Van Horn (Friar Lawrence), Philip Horst (Lord Capulet), Marianne Crebassa (Stephano) and Deborah Nansteel (Gertrude) are just a few of the noteworthy performers who add lustre to an exciting, seasoned cast.


Although it’s a period piece, Romeo and Juliet’s brisk pacing, streamlined set and slightly edgy costuming give the production a modern feel that is sure to appeal to the younger, contemporary audience Lyric is currently courting. The luscious music and marvelous singing should leave longtime fans of romantic opera and newbies alike more than satisfied.  Once again, Lyric Opera has succeeded in creating the truly grand, and leaves us all wishing the season weren’t coming to an end so soon.


(“Romeo and Juliet,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 19 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive 312-827-5600)


Der Rosenkavalier – Lyric Opera REVIEW


Der Rosenkavalier

By Richard Strauss

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s latest offering, romantic comedy Der Rosenkavalier, seems deftly timed, not only to coincide with that pinnacle of romantic gestures known as the Valentine Weekend Outing, but also to bring some lightheartedness to a city in the depths of its frozen winter season. Saturday evening’s performance did just that, with a cast led by the sparkling talent of soprano Amanda Majeski as the beautiful Marschallin, all wrapped up in Strauss’ gorgeous music and presented in an elaborately gilded setting as delectable as a box of Viennese chocolates.  In addition to the production itself, the lobby of the opera house was overflowing with fragrant roses (a special gift for 20 year subscribers), sweet treats, and bubbling raspberry and champagne cocktails, making more than a few opera lovers’ Valentine expectations complete.


Der Rosenkavalier is a rather typical drawing-room comedy of its time. The story opens with the Marschallin romping with her seventeen year old lover in a lush bedchamber. Her husband, the Field Marshall, is away (one assumes on some military mission) and her romantic reverie is about to be interrupted by a pesky relative who needs a favor. Her cousin, Baron Ochs of Lerchenau is a boorish sort who despite the best efforts of the Marschallin’s footmen to dissuade him, manages to push his way into the bedchamber just as the young lover Octavian disappears behind a screen. Ochs needs the Marschallin’s support in winning the hand of a nouveau riche young lady, Sophie von Faninal, whose merchant father is newly titled (and for the impoverished but royal Ochs, conveniently in poor health.)  Custom requires that a relative of the prospective groom deliver a silver rose to his intended, and the baron is seeking the Marschallin’s help in finding a “rosenkavalier”. Octavian, who happens to be a distant cousin, is presented by the Marschallin as the perfect candidate. Predictably, when Octavian and Sophie meet for the first time, they fall immediately in love. With both tied to older, wealthy aristocrats their dilemma is apparent. The road to a happy ending is bittersweet for Octavian and his ladylove, less so for Sophie and the Baron, whose piggish ways with the ladies (including Octavian disguised as the Marschallin’s chambermaid) lead him eventually to his just desserts.

It is to the great credit of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center that the most outstanding vocalists in Der Rosenkavalier are two of its talented alumna. Amanda Majeski gives a gorgeous performance as the philosophical noblewoman at the center of the action, and in the first act René Barbera shows off his stellar tenor as the court singer who entertains her. In his Lyric debut, British bass Matthew Rose is suitably oily as Baron Ochs, especially opposite delicate German soprano Christina Landshamer in her first American appearance. Ms. Landshamer’s singing seems thin at first, but opens up pleasantly as the opera progresses, and her gentle interpretations are appropriately tentative for the young, socially inexperienced Sophie. The international cast is rounded out by French mezzo Sophie Koch in the role of Octavian (one for which she has been celebrated throughout Europe) and German baritone Martin Gantner as Sophie’s hapless father. The always-excellent Lyric chorus directed by Michael Black adds vibrancy to the crowd scenes (hooray for some action in the final act!) and the 86 member Lyric Opera Orchestra, under the baton of maestro Edward Gardner, deftly gives a superlative performance of Strauss’ intricate score.


As entertaining as this production is, one cannot help but wish for a more updated version of Der Rosenkavalier. Somehow, this piece doesn’t quite have sexy energy and universal appeal of a Marriage of Figaro (to which it is often compared), and even that perennial favorite benefited greatly from an updated attitude this season, including more contemporary subtitles and racier interpretations of its broad humor. Here’s hoping that next time around, Der Rosenkavalier gets a similar refreshing makeover.


(“Der Rosenkavalier,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 13 (Please note early curtain time: 6:30 p.m.) at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. 312-827-5600)

LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO – Der Rosenkavalier

Der Rosenkavalier production photos by Cory Weaver and Andrew Cioffi. 

Nabucco – Lyric Opera REVIEW



By Giuseppe Verdi

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

In many ways, Verdi’s Nabucco defines “Grand Opera”. Sweeping in musical scope, as well as in visual scale and creative concept; Nabucco was Verdi’s first “big hit”. The young composer had the libretto virtually thrust upon him by a promoter at La Scala who believed in Verdi’s theretofore unrealized potential (and not incidentally, was looking to recoup his investment in Verdi’s two previous, unsuccessful La Scala productions.) The decision to pursue Nabucco turned out to be a game changer for Guiseppe Verdi. The success of this single opera elevated his reputation in the music world of his time, allowing him to build a career and a body of work that has now spanned more than two centuries.

The story of the invasion of Jerusalem and enslavement of the Hebrews by a Babylonian king (in English, Nebuchadnezzar), Nabucco‘s perceived religious theme may make some more politically correct audience members squirm a bit at first. It is important to remember that Verdi used the story to represent a universal concept. Verdi was a man whose work was never far removed from the politics of his day and themes of freedom vs. slavery, tyranny vs. democracy, and freedom through personal identity run strong throughout his work. Lyric’s interpretation of Nabucco has great relevance for contemporary audiences who are once again witnessing the rending of the Middle East over religious differences, a diaspora of the persecuted (to Europe) and the destruction (by ISIS) of monuments created by the same Babylonians portrayed in this Lyric production.


All of these considerations form a context for Lyric’s massive and magnificent staging of Nabucco. The musical foundation of the piece is, as always, the impeccable Lyric Opera Orchestra (here directed by Italian maestro Carlo Rizzi) and Chorus (directed by Michael Black.) In Nabucco, the chorus also has the distinction of being the star of the show. With 82 members occupying two thirds of Verdi’s score (and with the most costume changes of any characters in the Lyric production) the chorus is the entity that, with one voice, conveys and comments on the universal themes of the opera. Conversely, the smaller scenes featuring principal characters tie in a secondary tragic love story and move the plot forward. Both groups give memorable, magnificent performances. Nabucco‘s romantic sub-plot involves the king’s younger daughter Fenena (Elizabeth DeShong), who is being held hostage by the Hebrews in hopes of deterring her father from burning the temple of Solomon and the rest of Jerusalem to the ground. Fenena’s lover is Ismaele (Sergei Skorokodov), the Judean envoy to Babylon to whom she has been entrusted in her captivity by the Hebrew prophet Zaccaria (Dmitry Belosselskiy). Their love was forged during Ismaele’s previous captivity in Babylon, at a time when both of Nabucco’s daughters were vying for the handsome Hebrew’s affections.


Fenena was able to free Ismaele and returned to Jerusalem with him, leaving the spurned sister Abigaille (Tatiana Serjan), to harden her jealousy into murderous rage against Ismaele and his people. It is Abigaille, not Nabucco, who finally leads the Babylonian troops into the temple, destroying (she hopes) both her political and romantic rivals. The individual singers in this production give performances that are for the most part, beyond reproach. The cast’s trio of Russian artists (bass Belosselskiy, soprano Serjan, and tenor Skorokodov) is excellent. Nabucco represents the Lyric debuts of both men, and the triumphant return of Ms. Serjan, whose fiery interpretation of the ambitious Abigaille burns up the Lyric stage with emotional intensity and vocal perfection in much the same way that her Tosca did during her 2014-15 season debut. These are voices that move beyond technical prowess to being sensitive emotional instruments, giving genuine dramatic voice to their characters without sacrificing the glory of Verdi’s composition. There seems to be a dearth of strong bass voices in opera right now, so the stellar singing of Belosselskiy and American Stefan Szkafarowsky (as the high priest of the Babylonian god Baal) are particularly welcome. Ryan Opera Center members Laura Wilde (soprano) as Anna and Jesse Donner (tenor) as Abdallo add strong performances in the supporting roles. The one hiccup in this cast is Nabucco himself. Serbian baritone Želko Lučićs performance, though beautiful in tone, seems unnecessarily restrained, even for a character whose waning days encroach upon his kingship. Lučić does ramp up the intensity of his singing in the second half of the opera, but not to a level that fits his character’s circumstance. Surely a fading monarch whose throne has been usurped by an unqualified interloper (no spoilers here!) would respond with greater outrage and less resignation.


As has gratefully become its custom, Lyric Opera employs production values for Nabucco that are second to none. Set designer Michael Yeargan’s stripped down aesthetic will appeal to modern audiences; his set’s simple soaring pillars and sweeping staircase creating strong visual contrast using primary colors, plus black and white (a color scheme also reflected in the clean lines of Jane Greenwood’s costumes). The only ornamentations are calligraphic panels (Hebrew for Jerusalem and Cuneiform for Babylon) and a few simple, though dramatically scaled props that effectively create an environment of grandeur without diminishing the impact of Verdi’s music. Lighting designer Chris Maravich showcases his considerable skills in the creation of fluid panels, a combination of projections and lighting that effortlessly transition the audience from one scene to the next. Lyric’s Nabucco is a flight of the spirit, from the grandeur of its design to a perfectly moving performance of the iconic “Va, pensiero” chorus, it is stunning in every detail. This is a grand way to begin a new year and to celebrate a new era of Grand Opera in Chicago.


(“Nabucco,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through February 12 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)


Nabucco production photos by Cory Weaver and Andrew Cioffi. 

The Merry Widow – Lyric Opera REVIEW


The Merry Widow

By Franz Lehár

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Most of us love a holiday tradition. The movies have White Christmas, the dance world has The Nutcracker Suite, and for those of us who love opera, the holiday season wouldn’t be complete without The Merry Widow. This time around, Lyric Opera of Chicago has gifted us with the equivalent of a shiny new sports car wrapped in shimmering ribbon: a production of Franz Lehár’s beloved operetta that is at once familiar and spectacularly new, as lush and delectable in its presentation as a box of fine Viennese chocolates.

The Merry Widow has all the fairy tale elements we long for at this dark time of year; a rags to riches story, a hilarious sub-plot involving mistaken identity (along with some grown-up romantic dalliances to add a little spice), lost love regained, and that rarest of treats in opera, a happy ending when our unconventional heroine saves the day! Wealthy widow Hanna Glawari (Reneé Fleming) could save Pontevedro by marrying a citizen and committing her fortune to her tiny homeland, if only she weren’t having so much fun on the Paris social scene. Baron Mirko Zeta (Patrick Carfizzi), Pontevedro’s ambassador in Paris, and his wife Valencienne (Heidi Stober) make it their mission to set Hanna up with playboy attaché Danilo Danilovich (Thomas Hampson), unaware that Hanna and Danilo (now a committed bachelor) were once romantically involved. Romance has not escaped Valencienne, however. Unbeknownst to the baron, she is being wooed by a young Frenchman, Camille de Rosillon (Michael Spyres). And so the pursuits begin!

He, the dapper chocolate soldier and she, the sparkling spun sugar bride atop the wedding cake, Fleming and Hampson are a wonderful pair as Hanna and Danilo. Both mature singers with the ability to imbue even the most familiar aria with real emotion (and obviously enjoying them selves and the audience), these two seasoned veterans are a joy to see and hear. Fleming’s performance of Vilja is particularly sentimental and beautiful. Throughout the production, her singing was round and emotionally full, the low end of her range buttery and rich, and the high notes clearly spectacular.  Also well matched were Stober and Spyres, whose romantic duet in Act Two (I Know A Place Where We Can Go) was a performance highlight.


The beauty of The Merry Widow’s music and the charm of its drawing room comedy are taken to a whole new level in this production by over-the-top visuals and exciting choreography. Despite the Parisian setting, Julian Crouch’s multi-layered set retains an Eastern European feeling, with a deep blue sky (outside the window of the embassy in the ballroom scenes, and behind the moonlit folk celebration at Hanna’s villa) giving the environment the feeling of a Russian folk painting. With each set change, an overlapping backdrop is raised, physically bringing the audience deeper into the set as the story progresses. In the opulent opening ballroom scene, we are practically inside the set itself, with characters and dancers very close to the edge of the stage. Large windows reveal a moonlit hillside neighborhood with lighted windows and stars twinkling, a visual preview of our trip to Hanna’s country estate in Scene Two. It is in the second scene that the work of costume designer William Ivey Long and choreographer/director Susan Stroman really come to the fore. Lush colors, layered textures of tapestry and fur and elaborate trimmings make Long’s aristocratic “peasants” come into vibrant focus, while Stroman’s acrobatic folk dancers create a rustic and festive aura that is spot on for the scene. Stroman and Long really take us over the top in Scene Three, as they bring the beautifully overwrought interior of Maxim’s to life, complete with elaborate Art Nouveau scrollwork and a chorus line of saucy grisettes , their red, black and white crinolines frequently tossed to give a glimpse of black lace-trimmed knickers. The visual richness of every scene is enhanced by the unexpectedly colorful lighting design of Chris Maravich.


It is always a joy to experience the timeless music and clever wit of The Merry Widow.  Lyric has perfected that experience with premiere casting, world class orchestral performance, spectacular dancing and the creation of a beautiful world we all want to inhabit, if only for a few fleeting hours.


(“The Merry Widow,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through December 13 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)


The Merry Widow production photos by Todd Rosenberg.

Wozzeck – Lyric Opera REVIEW


by Alban Berg
Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

A common soldier, denigrated by his commander and cuckolded by the mother of his child eventually surrenders to despair, madness and ultimately, murder. Wozzeck, Viennese composer Alban Berg’s dark tale of struggle and survival in the years between the world wars is relatively contemporary by Grand Opera standards, and 21st century audiences are certainly not unfamiliar with its themes of scapegoating the ignorant and impoverished. Based on Georg Buchner’s play, Woyzeck (which premiered just one month before the political assassination that sparked World War I), Berg’s opera follows the sorry life of Wozzeck, his mistress Marie, and their young son.


This moving story, interpreted by an extraordinary cast of singing actors is really more similar in format to musical theater than bel canto opera. Drama is central to Wozzeck, rather than being just a vehicle for serving up arias and choruses. The result of that focus makes Berg’s lyrical atonality, and the magnificent performance of it by Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra, the musical stars of the piece.


There are also marvelous vocal performances to be heard, of course. But for the cast of Wozzeck, singing and acting must be equally compelling. Lyric’s cast is more than equipped to master the challenges. As Wozzeck, Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny is at once a pathetic doormat and the dogged provider for his tiny family. The butt of crude and cruel jokes in his job as servant to the Captain (Gerhard Siegel) and treated like a laboratory specimen by the doctor (Brindley Sherrat) who pays him to be the subject of questionable medical experiments, Wozzeck’s life holds little hope or happiness.


In contrast, Marie (German soprano Angela Denoke) is practical and pragmatic. She has no time for pondering her fate. She is too busy making ends meet and running the small household she has created with Wozzeck. Marie’s practical nature eventually leads to her demise, however. Dazzled by the Drum Major (Stefan Vinke) with his brass buttoned bravado and large salary, Marie allows herself to be seduced, unaware that Wozzeck is nearby, watching. With his life’s focus slipping away, and already on the edge of insanity, Wozzeck invites Marie to walk with him by a pond. There he succumbs to his own terrifying visions, killing her. A universal story of devotion and betrayal, Wozzeck is set against the complex backdrop of a corrupt and crumbling empire.


Director Sir David McVicar peels back each layer of Vickie Mortimer’s ingenious split-level set, revealing a war-ravaged landscape inhabited by a steampunk circus sideshow of fantastical machines. In the same manner, he peels away the civilized facades of the cultured elite to reveal a gallery of human grotesques who torture and taunt Wozzeck, eventually robbing him of his hope and humanity.


Subtly designed to impress upon the audience the physical and psychological desolation that foments both rebellion and surrender, Lyric Opera’s Wozzeck is a revelation. Visually powerful and musically stunning, this production could be the sleeper hit of a season that has already promised many “don’t miss” moments.




(“Wozzeck,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through November 21 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)


Wozzeck production images by Cory Weaver 

The Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls – REVIEW


By Venus Zarris

Once upon a time, there lived a vibrantly ambitious theater company that specialized in the wild, wonderful and out-of-the-ordinary. They created fantastical unrealities where eccentric characters detailed both common and peculiar aspects of the human condition with idiosyncratic interactions. Innovative artistry, uncanny wit, heartrending poignancy and brilliant humor fueled the fires of their spellbinding storytelling… Fortunately for you, that time is now and that company is Trap Door Theatre.


In their latest adventure of the imagination, Trap Door Theatre presents playwright Meg Miroshnik’s wickedly enthralling The Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls. The twists and turns of this bleakly charming adventure take place in the metaphorically dark forest of post-Soviet Russia, where we are warned that everything bad is found off of the path while simultaneously seduced with the notion that everything good can also be found there.

Annie is sent back to Russia from America to enroll in Russian language-for-business classes, but instead of a formal education she is thrust into an intoxicating exploit filled with sexual intrigue, beguiling folklore and political bureaucracy… “What can I say? Even fairytales involve bribes.”

Director Nicole Wiesner leads an enchanting ensemble of incomparable storytellers to deliver a triumphant theatrical treasure. Stories, both literal and allegorical, are woven together by a company of sassy vixens with razor sharp intellect and scandalously sensual potency. Each actor owns her characters with mesmerizing intensity and captivating presence. This production is a remarkable example of hypnotic ensemble acting. As a cast, they are a physically fluid body of animated interaction. Choreographed movements create stylized punctuations of emotion in this explosively bizarre escapade.


Each actor delivers memorably engaging performances. Emily Nichelson is endearing as Annie, blending the perfect balance of impudence and deer-caught-in-the-headlights. Halie Ecker is sultry, smart and striking as Katya, The Mistress. Maghan Lewis is childishly naïve as the Other Katya and worldly wise as The Whore. Ann Sonnevile is wonderfully funny as Olga, playfully authoritative as the Passport officer and Professor and then incredibly threatening as Valentina. Simina Contras is absolutely marvelous as Masha, The Girlfriend. Contras can play insanely outrageous with matter-of-fact intelligence and uncanny restraint.


While this is one of the most powerfully effective ensembles you will see on stage, there is one performance that manages to steal the show without detracting from the narrative or eclipsing the other performances. Marzena Bukowska is hypnotically hysterical, heartwarmingly endearing and horrifyingly evil in her multiple roles. As Bubushka, she is the humble-to-a-fault and overly accommodating old woman that you want as your eccentric grandmother. Every audience member leaves the theater feeling like she has pinched our cheeks and slipped a piece of candy in our pocket. As Auntie Yaroslava, she is the obliging martyr and quite peculiar. As Baba Yaga, she IS the quintessential witch of Slavic folklore ~ manipulative, unrelenting and deadly. Bukowska’s command and delivery of each character lulls us in and we love it. She splendidly fires on all cylinders and is, in and of herself, worth the price of admission.

Rachel M. Sypniewski’s Costume Design and Zsófia Ötvös’s Makeup Design perfectly adorn the characters in all of their curious splendors. Aaron O’Neill’s Set Design transports us into the supernatural forest of fantastical fantasies before the play even begins.


Director Nicole Wiesner takes a deceptively complex script, full of odd characters and bizarre circumstances, and creates a haunted house of hilarious horrors and super hotties. Perfect for this ‘season of the witch,’ The Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls is a dark and delightful extravaganza where “witches is crazy bitches.” “In Russian skazka (fairytales) there is no happily ever after.” … Or is there?




(“The Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls” runs through November 21, 2015, @ TRAP DOOR THEATRE, 1655 West Cortland Ave. 773-384-0494)


The Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls production images by Michal Janicki.

Scream, Queen, SCREAM! – Now Playing @ Mary’s Attic


Scream, Queen, SCREAM! by David Cerda

Join the twisted ensemble at Hell in a Handbag Productions in a twisted trio of tales featuring ravenous monsters, Ed Jones as Maggie and Agnes Marlowe, identical but deadly twins in a Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte/Strait Jacket mashup, and an evil bitch from hell known simply as ‘Betty’ in an even campier tribute to the already campy The Crate from the classic ’80s film, Creepshow.

Presented by Hell in a Handbag Productions

Thru – Oct 31, 2015

@ Mary’s Attic above Hamburger Mary’s 

5400 N Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60640

TICKETS: Scream, Queen, SCREAM! – Brown Paper Tickets

Scream, Queen, SCREAM! – Hell in a Handbag Productions

ALL GIRL DRACULA – Now Playing @ Zoo Studios



Mina Murray is caught between a Carnivorous Ancient Evil and an Uncompromising Sadistic Zealot. Both Dracula and Van Helsing yearn for violence, even if their appetites are spurned by opposing goals. How will Mina Murray survive? As she tries to protect the people she loves, will she be forced to decide which of these powerful villains is the lesser of two evils?


Presented by Chicago Mammals

Thru – Nov 14, 2015

@ Zoo Studios

4001 N. Ravenswood Ave Suite B3(On the corner of Ravenswood and Irving Park)

Show Type: Drama/Horror


ALL GIRL DRACULA – Chicago Mammals

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