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Michelle  500x72By J. Scott Hill

After long stints at the Greenhouse and the Den, Beast Women have brought their menagerie of variety acts back to their old home at PROP THTR for their 2015 Spring Series. Producer and emcee Michelle Power kept the opening night, late-night crowd pumped through the showcase of diverse and powerful female performers.

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Blonde bombshell Royal T. titillated with an old-fashioned striptease. Holly Beaudry brought the laughs with her self-effacing, autobiographical brand of comedy. Diane Hamm delivered a blues-fueled fan dance in the classic style. Comedic songstress Tiffany Streng used an acoustic guitar and her smoky singing voice to teach the audience that, when it comes to songwriting, Ke$ha isn’t a patch on Bob Dylan’s ass.

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Burlesque performer Shimmy Laroux put on her red satin dress and black feather boa, cranked up the Muddy Waters, and raised the temperature. Monologist Jillian Erickson spun a multifaceted narrative, covering subjects ranging from noisy birds to assholes to volunteering at hospice. Commedia dell’arte clown Noel Williams filled the room with joy in her search for a real hug.

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Burlesque performer Diva La Vida shimmied and shook and showed off her moves, more Fosse than Jagger, wearing a white trilby and not much more. Eileen Tull performed an original spoken-word piece entitled “A Selfie of my Lobotomy”; thick with internal rhyme and hip-hop rhythms, Tull’s stunning performance was as much Childish Gambino as it was Oscar Brown, Jr. In a sultry display of skill and elegance, Brywn Arlwyn fused elements of belly dance with modern moves in rhythmic alchemy.

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In perhaps the most stunning performance of the evening, Greta Humphrey worked the aerial hoop. Often, a hoop acrobat will be suspended ten or more feet in the air, but Humphrey worked from a free-standing rigging point — think of a hoop mounted to a small swingset frame. Hoop work seems exponentially more difficult close to the ground compared to high in the air. As Humphrey moved among tableaux with strength and agility, she came perilously close to dashing her brains out on the concrete slab below. Elegant and exciting, Greta Humphrey’s aerial act left me with my heart in my mouth, but a smile on my face.

Diverse, daring, and delightful, Beast Women 2015 Spring Series brought a return to an old stomping ground, and a continuation of excellence one has come to expect from Chicago’s premier all-female cabaret.

 

3 1/2 STARS

(“Beast Women 2015 Spring Series” runs Saturdays at 10:30 PM, through May 16th (with the new talent showcase Beast Women Rising on Sunday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m.) at PROP THTR, 3502 N. Elston Ave., Chicago, IL).

Beast Women Productions

 

Beast Women 2015 Spring Series performance images by Artistree Photography.

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.002  500x72By J. Scott Hill

The Second City e.t.c.’s new revue, Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?, has a sketch comedy dream team dominated by three women. Yes, Scott Morehead and Tim Ryder are fine utility players. Yes, Eddie Mujica believably disappears into every part he plays, even when he plays an inanimate object. The leaders of this team, however, are Lisa Beasley, Rashawn Nadine Scott, and Carisa Barreca.

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.006  500x72Lisa Beasley is a wonderful paradox: her petite, demure physicality belies her commanding stage presence. Rashawn Nadine Scott is the kind of performer who draws the audience to her whether she is the focus of the scene or filling out the background, the kind of performer that makes the most out of every moment onstage.

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.003  500x72Without doubt, the team captain here is Carisa Barreca. Barreca has been a very busy and valued contributor to The Second City universe over the past few years. Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? is Barreca’s third consecutive revue at The Second City e.t.c. During this time, she has also worked with The Second City’s well-reviewed collaborations with both Lyric Opera (The Second City’s Guide to the Opera) and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (The Art of Falling). With her platinum hair, vintage-style dresses, and welcoming smile, Barreca lulls an audience into a false sense of security, only to pounce with her panther-like comedy reflexes and her razor-sharp wit. Actor, improviser, writer, singer, dancer, and choreographer, Carisa Barreca is one to watch — in Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? and in the future.

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.007  500x72Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? runs scattershot over society’s ills, from the one of the least touchable of hot-button issues to some of the most niggling idiosyncrasies of contemporary American life. One sketch has two elderly African-American men dispensing their wisdom about the current state of racism in America. Another sketch involves how the first wave of American tourists in Cuba for over half a century will be perceived by Cubans. Another depicts a person’s relationship with their anthropomophized smartphone (this sketch is far more on point — and pathetic — than Spike Jonze’s Her).

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.005  500x72Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? is throwing some heat, but chooses not to face many really tough batters. Of course African Americans who fought through the civil rights struggle of the 1960s will have wisdom to impart regarding today’s struggles. Of course there will be mutual culture shock between Americans and Cubans, neither of whom have been allowed to take that 101-mile ferry ride between Key West and Havana since 1961. Of course nearly everybody is annoyed by everyone else’s relationship to their smartphones (but not their own).

The Second City e.t.c.’s thirty-ninth revue, Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? is terrific — well written, well performed, well directed, and funny. This cast is a team of future hall-of-famers, who, when allowed to choose their own lineup of opponents, could have taken on a few more heavy hitters.

 

3 STARS

 

(“Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?is 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 – Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?

 

Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? production photos by Todd Rosenberg.

 

* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? – Second City – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago

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Carousel

Music by Richard Rodgers, Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Lyric Opera’s re-imagined production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic has everything a knowledgeable audience looks for in a Broadway musical. The dynamic cast combines deft acting with knock-your-socks-off vocal talent; a sweeping stage provides the proper scope for big drama and big romance, and a surprisingly dark and sensual edge in both set design and stage direction transforms this comfortable old favorite into the kind of theater experience contemporary audiences can connect with on a visceral level.  Carousel‘s outstanding production design is evident everywhere: in painter Paolo Ventura’s beautifully simple tintype colored sets, in the deftly designed lighting, the dazzling choreography. Even the wistfully trailing petals of the cherry trees reflect an exquisite eye for detail.

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Considered the most operatic of the famous duo’s collaborations, Carousel is the story of Billy Bigelow, a charming ne’er do well who makes his living as the barker on Mullin’s Carousel, a carnival ride that embodies the romantic dreams of many a working girl in the textile mills along the New England coast. Julie Jordan and her friend Carrie Pipperidge are two such girls, who after spending long days at their looms, seek escape in the happy swirl of the carousel’s sparkling lights and haunting music. It is there that Billy and Julie cross paths, and in a series of events driven by mutual hard headedness and bravado, they end up spending the night together. Filling in the backstory with a series of musical interludes ranging from sweetly innocent (When I Marry Mr. Snow) to blustery (June Is Bustin’ Out All Over) to downright suggestive (Blow High, Blow Low) Rodgers & Hammerstein paint a picture of simple working folk whose lives hide difficult and complicated emotions. As we fast forward into the future, we find Billy and Julie married and Carrie preparing to walk down the aisle with stoic fisherman Enoch Snow. Both Billy and Julie have sacrificed their jobs to be together. Flat broke, they have been taken in by Julie’s cousin at her seaside inn. When Julie announces that she is pregnant, Billy decides in desperation to join itinerant sailor Jigger Craigin in robbing the owner of the mill as he walks to the pier alone with the payroll for his shipping crew. Caught in the act, Billy commits suicide rather than face prison.  The final act has Billy at the gates of Heaven, looking down on his now-grown daughter and realizing how much they both have missed.

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Carousel boasts a sterling cast led by Steven Pasquale in the role of Billy Bigelow. Fans of Pasquale’s television work (Rescue Me, Do No Harm, Six Feet Under, The Good Wife) will be bowled over by the beauty and power of his singing voice, which has gotten little to no exposure in his TV roles. It is well known on Broadway, however, where Pasquale recently starred in The Bridges of Madison County for which he received a Drama Desk nomination. Pasquale’s Billy is full of bluster and bravado but just beneath the swagger, vulnerability and uncertainty lurk. Already a veteran of successful Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals (most recently as a Drama Desk award winner for Cinderella), Laura Osnes plays Julie Jordan as a complex combination of naive small town girl and stubborn, philosophical woman. She sings this role with a kind of simple, forthright quality that suits the hard-working mill worker perfectly. On the other hand, Jenn Gambatese’s big Broadway style voice and wise-cracking delivery make sidekick Carrie Pipperidge a hilarious diversion, adding just the right amount of humor to keep Carousel from leaning toward the maudlin. Lyric audiences who loved a somewhat subdued Ms. Gambatese as Maria in last years’ Sound of Music will delight in experiencing her at full power.

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Other cast standouts include Charlotte D’Amboise in a superbly nuanced performance as carnival owner Mrs. Mullin, beloved veteran Tony Roberts as The Starkeeper, and opera star Denyce Graves, dipping her toe into musical theater as cousin Nettie Fowler. Supported by the powerful Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus (led by conductors David Chase and Michael Black, respectively) and an ensemble of fabulous dancers, Lyric presents a musical package and spectacular venue that would be hard to top, even on the Great White Way. In shifting the setting of this piece from the prosperous Golden Age at the turn of the century to the Depression Era, director and choreographer Rob Ashford has succeeded in bringing out the humanity of Oscar Hammerstein’s characters and the pathos of the untenable situations in which they find themselves. Against this backdrop, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s gorgeous expressions of longing and hope are even more relevant and bittersweet.

4 STARS

(“Carousel,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through May 3rd at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Carousel production photos by Todd Rosenberg and Robert Kusel. 

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 Tosca

By Giacomo Puccini

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Most people with even a passing interest in opera are familiar with Tosca. One of a trio of blockbusters from the height of Puccini’s career, Tosca (along with La Bohéme and Madama Butterfly) cemented the composer’s position among the greatest masters of the operatic form. Puccini chose to tell stories of passionate love entangled with political intrigue and betrayal, and the lyricism of his music both reflects the passion of the characters and creates a stark contrast with the dark days they inhabit. Over a hundred years after they were first performed, Puccini’s works retain a remarkably contemporary feel. That, and the familiarity of most opera audiences with the plot lines, makes these works particularly fertile territory for directors and production designers wishing to reimagine them in a more “modern” setting.

In the case of Lyric Opera’s latest production of Tosca, director John Caird and set/costume designer Bunny Christie have moved the opera forward from its original setting in the early 19th Century to the turn of the twentieth, about the time the work first premiered. The story of two free spirited lovers, the painter Cavaradossi and the diva Floria Tosca, takes a dark political turn when the artist’s friend, an anti-government revolutionary, seeks shelter at Cavaradossi’s villa after escaping from prison. Government henchman Baron Scarpia sees the situation as the perfect opportunity, both to capture an enemy of the state and to create a situation in which Tosca, long the object of his sexual obsession, will have to submit to him in order to save her lover from the gallows.

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From both musical and design perspectives, Lyric’s production falls just short of perfection. Two rising young stars, with major voices and even more major onstage chemistry, bring Cavaradossi and Tosca into brilliant focus. Model handsome tenor Brian Jagde inhabits his character with satisfying ease, and his delicious voice is everything we love about bel canto singing. For her part, Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan possesses both the physical and vocal fire that Tosca requires. Together these two young singers create an appealing and totally believable pair of passionate lovers. We wished for a bit more of that passion in Evgeny Nikitin’s Scarpia. Though possessed of a marvelous voice, Nikitin’s portrayal of Tosca’s nemesis seems a bit lukewarm. There are many aspects of character development in Tosca‘s libretto that adapt well to contemporary interpretation. The character of Scarpia is not one of them. Scarpia represents everything evil in Tosca’s world: greed, political corruption, sexual degradation and domination.  Caird’s decision to develop Scarpia into a more thoughtful character makes little sense. Men like Scarpia, then as now, are driven by their instincts not by their intellect.  Satisfying their desire is the sum total of the thought process which eventually leads to their demise. To make Scarpia any more reasonable is to take away a good deal of the drama from Tosca‘s story. The Baron never really bargains in good faith for Cavaradossi’s life. He will have Tosca and kill her lover too.

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Bunny Christie’s updated production design fares quite a bit better than Caird’s reimagined villain. From bloody curtains to the desolate feel of the deconstructed sets, Christie’s vision of a war-torn nation rife with religious fervor, political intrigue and death creates a compelling new backdrop for Tosca. Between acts, the curtains fall to the stage as if revealing a new work of art: the lighthearted painter exposed as a devoted insurgent, the pious Tosca’s fiery sensuality revealed, the dedicated public servant Scarpia’s mask stripped away to expose his lascivious treachery. Another effective visual device, a mysterious child dressed as the Madonna, appears and disappears throughout the production, ostensibly at points where Tosca turns to her faith for guidance. That connection is not totally clear, but the child’s presence adds an other worldly feel to the proceedings that is not at all unpleasant. One small detail, however, does steal a bit of melodrama that is always quite satisfying when experiencing Tosca. After the shocking act of stabbing her would-be rapist to death, not one drop of blood sullies Tosca’s white ball gown, and so we are robbed of what should be the culminating visual image of her very satisfying revenge. After the big tease of those transitional curtains, the only trace of blood we see is Tosca’s own, before she flings herself into oblivion in the concluding scene.

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Were it not for the perfect emotional tone and flawless technique of the singers in this production, along with the exquisite musicality of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus (under the direction of Dmitri Jurowski and Michael Black, respectively), these small production missteps would be game changers for Lyric’s Tosca. As it stands, they are minor distractions to a major display of world-class operatic talent in a thought provoking new setting.

3 ½ STARS

(“Tosca,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 14th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Tosca production photos by Todd Rosenberg and Michael Brosilow. 

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By J. Scott Hill

Few works of fiction have ever been as dear to so many for so long as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  The book was an instant classic, and almost immediately adapted for the stage by Dickens himself.  The Goodman Theatre has spent thirty-seven holiday seasons telling and re-telling the greatest ghost story ever told — the past seven with Larry Yando as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yando is among Chicago’s finest and busiest actors.  Over the last few years, he has wowed audiences and critics in a constant variety of roles at theatres all over Chicagoland, including his work at Theatre at the Center as Andrew in Sleuth, at Court Theatre as Roy Cohn is Angels in America, and at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre as Casca in Julius Caesar and (most recently) as the eponymous King Lear.

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After absolutely killing it night after night in role after role, it might be reasonable for Larry Yando to treat his standing gig in A Christmas Carol as a soft place for him to land for the holidays, but Yando keeps his Scrooge hard and sharp and thorny.  Yando’s Scrooge does not fly off into a prolonged mad panic at the appearance of a few spirits, and quickly resigns himself to the inevitability of being dragged through time and space by his preternatural guides.  He is as tough a master as any a Scrooge, but he is a man who can and does learn from his past, his present, and his probable future.  So many Scrooges are broken by their glimpses into their own cruelty and greed and their fear of repeating Marley’s fate, but Yando’s Scrooge comes across as a man who has been thoroughly convinced by what he sees into following the road less traveled.  In short, Larry Yando’s portrayal of Scrooge is broad and subtle, hateful and endearing, conniving and convivial — and brilliant.

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Of course, the Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol is not a one-person show.  Ron E. Rains gives poor, longsuffering Bob Cratchit an inescapable warmth; Rains excels when doing a bit of stage business in the background, bringing it to the foreground to take a devilishly comic turn, and then receding once again into the background like an obedient clark.  The always-engaging Joe Foust plays Marley’s Ghost as both haunting and haunted. Larry Neumann, Jr. plays four different parts and disappears into each character so completely that I had to check the Playbill more than once to be absolutely certain whom I was watching.  Neumann, Foust, and Yando are three masters of their art; knowing any one of them is appearing in a show is enough reason to buy a ticket.

But wait, there’s more.

Kim Schultz steals wonderful moments while playing several different characters. Kareem Bandealy cunningly bends the fourth wall without completely destroying it as the Narrator, and shines portraying Scrooge as a Young Man’s ruinous obliviousness to his decent into avarice. Young Ava Morse has a singing voice so pitch-perfect and so sweet that it fills the stage with joy.

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Joy.

The Goodman Theatre’s thirty-seventh annual production of A Christmas Carol is pure joy.  Whether the Goodman’s Christmas Carol is already one of your holiday traditions, or whether you hardly ever go to see live theatre, give yourself a gift: go see this production.

4 STARS

(“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 28 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. 312-443-3800)

Goodman Theatre ~ Official Site of the Tony Award® winning Goodman Theatre 

A Christmas Carol production photos by Liz Lauren.

PorgyandBess

Porgy and Bess

By George Gershwin

Lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Most American musical theater fans are familiar with Porgy and Bess. It is believed by many to be the first truly American opera (it opened on Broadway in 1935) and was certainly the first to focus on African American (then called “Negro”) culture. In fact, composer George Gershwin felt so strongly about the cultural integrity of the work that he insisted that Porgy and Bess never be presented without an African American cast. This decision was also informed in no small part by his belief that classically trained opera singers could not do justice to the opera’s jazz idiom. Though successfully revived in 1942 and again in 1952 (when revisions to the production made it more an opera and less a stage musical), Porgy and Bess remained on the fringes of American theater culture until a landmark production by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976 brought the work full circle. With the full score of the piece restored, audiences experienced Porgy and Bess as the composer envisioned it for the first time since 1935 and its full potential as a cultural narrative and as a true opera was restored. This is the story audiences are experiencing in the current Lyric Opera of Chicago production, and despite the controversy that will always surround its relevancy to African American culture, Porgy and Bess remains a compelling piece of theater and a wonder of modern composition.

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Based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 play Porgy, Gershwin’s folk opera chronicles Negro life on Catfish Row, (inspired by the Cabbage Row neighborhood in Heyward’s native Charleston, SC.) populated by crab fishermen, dockworkers, and street hustlers. The plot revolves around the hustler Crown, his lover Bess, and the crippled beggar Porgy. During a craps game, Crown kills a popular local man and abandons the drug-addicted Bess when he goes on the run from the local police. The boozy party girl, whose brazen behavior has not endeared her to the local religious ladies, takes shelter with the only person who will have her. Porgy, for his part, sees the good in Bess as he knows what it’s like to be judged on appearances. Bess cleans up, and eventually his neighbors’ respect and affection for Porgy begins to extend to his lady as well. Happy days for Porgy and Bess, as for most residents of Catfish Row, are unfortunately short-lived. Crown returns to claim his “property” in a brutal rape scene and Porgy exacts deadly revenge. Bess disappears, bound for her old life in New York, and as the final curtain falls Porgy prepares to follow her and bring her home.

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Celebrated director Francesca Zambello, whose acclaimed productions of Porgy and Bess have graced the stages of the National Opera in Washington, The Los Angeles Opera and The San Francisco Opera, brings a cast of seasoned singers to the stage for this Lyric Opera of Chicago production. The women are, without exception, marvelous singers and actresses. From the first refrain of the iconic “Summertime” (soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clara) to the gospel mourning of widow Serena (soprano Karen Slack) to the hilarious in-your-face proclamations of matriarch Maria (contralto Gwendolyn Brown), the voices in the female roles are top-notch. And of course, there is Adina Aaron’s Bess, portrayed with a powerful combination of raunchy sexuality and bruised self-image. The men’s supporting roles don’t fare quite as well. Despite solid vocal performances, the male voices as a group don’t have the confidence and power to push excellent dramatic performances from Eric Greene as Crown and Norman Garrett as Jake over the top. Jermaine Smith does a good job of channeling Cab Calloway (the original Sportin’ Life, for whom the role was written) and Ryan Center alum Will Liverman creates a highly entertaining and humorous Lawyer Frazier. In the role of Porgy however, bass-baritone Eric Owens shows complete mastery of his character. Previous portrayals of the kind-hearted beggar (most recently the 2008-09 production at San Francisco Opera) have obviously given Owens the opportunity to delve deeply into Porgy’s character, and to make it his own. Those in the audience expecting just the handsome delivery of Porgy’s famous musical numbers (I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, Bess, You Is My Woman Now) are getting much more than they bargained for. Owen’s Porgy is a simple man struggling with complex moral issues and, for the first time in his life, experiencing love. He delivers a totally engaging and masterful performance.

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Despite the entire package of top-notch production values, powerful dramatic performances, skillful and evocative choreography, excellent singing (by cast and the Lyric Opera Chorus); one must recognize that the biggest star of Porgy and Bess is its amazing score. With inspiration drawn from soaring Gospel choruses, soulful spirituals, and 1920′s roadhouse jazz, Gershwin’s music is uniquely vibrant and 100% American. Dynamic young conductor Ward Stare (a former principal trombonist with the Lyric Opera Orchestra) has a deep affinity for this music and for the players, his former colleagues. He is able to draw a phenomenal performance of Gershwin’s work from the Lyric Orchestra. It embodies a subtlety and style that many in the audience have never encountered in this music before. Who knew there was so much soul in that orchestra pit? Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current season continues to surprise and inspire us.

3 ½ STARS

(“Porgy and Bess,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through December 20th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Porgy and Bess production photos by Todd Rosenberg. 

Il-Trovatore

 Il Trovatore

By Giuseppe Verdi

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

American opera fans that are yet unaware of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center’s tremendous contributions to the art form need look no further than Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Il Trovatore for confirmation.  The Ryan Opera Center, Lyric’s professional development program, is celebrating it’s 40th year. Two distinguished alumni of this remarkable institution within the Lyric, Amber Wagner and Quinn Kelsey, are featured characters in Verdi’s classic tale of mistaken identity and revenge, and the quality of their performances leaves no doubt that the Ryan Center is an incubator for world class opera singers.

In a production brimming with laudable aspects: a subtly ominous revolving set by Charles Edwards, the insightful lighting of Jennifer Tipton, wonderfully witty choreography–with contemporary sensibilities–by director Leah Hausman, and superlative performances by the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Il Trovatore is most definitely all about the singing. The casting here is sheer perfection. From the opening strains of Andrea Silvestrelli’s glowing basso narrative to Stephanie Blythe’s final dramatic declaration of revenge, the audience is captivated by a group of thoroughly developed characters. The excellent acting extends even to the chorus in the crowd scenes. None of these roles are just the route to the next aria; marvelous singing actors who bring each personality into sharp emotional and physical focus inhabit them.

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As the story’s narrators, Silvestrelli and Blythe provide opposing perspectives on the sad story of Count di Luna (Quinn Kelsey). Silvestrelli (as Ferrando, di Luna’s captain of the guard) opens the first act with the haunting tale of an aristocrat who believes his infant brother was kidnapped and murdered by a gypsy (Blythe as Azucena) to avenge the death of her mother, who was burned as a witch by the Count’s father. For her part, Ms. Blythe who has excelled in over-the-top, menacing roles in recent years (Ulrica/Un Ballo in Maschera, Amneris/Aida), shares the story of her mother’s death with her own son, the revolutionary Manrico (Korean-born tenor, Yonghoon Lee). After throwing the baby into the funeral pyre, Azucena turned to find not her own baby, but the child she had kidnapped. Having failed to avenge her mother’s death, the gypsy took in the kidnapped child as her own.

Fast forward to the present. The dashing and handsome Manrico has fallen in love with the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, the lovely Leonora (Amber Wagner). This Ryan Opera Center alum’s enviable range and evocative delivery are a pure pleasure to hear, and voices supremely matched make Wagner’s duets with Lee achingly romantic. (Also outstanding is current Ryan Center member Janai Bridges as Leonora’s servant, Inez.)

Leonora knows nothing of Manrico. She has fallen in love with an unknown knight who has taken to serenading her, troubadour-style, outside the castle walls in the evening. She is also being pursued by the young Count di Luna and, despite her indifference to his affections, he is not taking no for an answer. The audience knows, of course, that Manrico and the Count are brothers in love with the same woman. Once the Count discovers that his romantic rival is also his political nemesis, and further that Manrico’s mother is the gypsy responsible for the “death” of his brother, Count di Luna’s tragic path is set.

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Baritone Quinn Kelsey’s portrayal of Count di Luna makes him the break out star of Lyric’s Il Trovatore. This Ryan Opera Center alum’s perfect synthesis of fine singing and acting takes what could have been a one-dimensional villain and imbues him with great humanity. Verdi’s tragedy is made deeply real to the audience by this sympathetic portrayal of a good man robbed of his family, a man who sees history about to repeat itself. Kelsey’s Count di Luna is not so much the unintentional villain, as the unintentional victim of a cruel fate. This subtlety of performance, staging and direction is indicative of the creative path our “new” Lyric Opera is taking, to realize greater levels of perfection and transformative power. Bravo.

4 STARS

(“Il Trovatore,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through November 29th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Il Trovatore production photos by Michael Brosilow and Robert Kusel. 

Capriccio

Capriccio

By Richard Strauss

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Before the music even begins, we know that Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Capriccio is going to be something out of the ordinary. The house lights dim, but do not go dark; creating a warm glow that captures the intimate scene revealed by the rising curtain. A drawing room in a grand manor house, where a string sextet (playing first in the orchestra pit and then, just offstage) plays the composer Flamand’s latest ode to his lady love and patron, Countess Madeleine. Two other houseguests are keeping company with Flamand (tenor William Burden) in the drawing room. Olivier (Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen, in his Lyric Opera debut), a writer, scribbles in his notebook while another gentleman reclines in a chair while snoring loudly. The composer and writer strike up a conversation and in doing so, discover that they are both courting the widowed Countess. This introduces the central debate on which the plot of Capriccio revolves: music or poetry, which will she choose? And in the bigger picture, which craft is the more sublime creative pursuit? The voice of reality and reason splutters awake as the sleeping man, revealed to be a renowned theater impresario, La Roche (Peter Rose), joins the conversation. Theater is the greatest of the arts in his opinion, served by both music and the written word. LaRoche is bemoaning the sorry state of material and talent for his current production when the Countess and her brother, a sometime thespian, enter the drawing room. The bombastic and self-important Count is played and sung with great gusto by baritone (and Strauss specialist) Bo Skovhus. At the confluence of so much blustering male ego, Reneé Fleming’s Countess is an island of cultured calm and self-confidence.  One of the finest interpreters of Strauss on the opera scene today, Ms. Fleming not only demonstrates that her maturing vocal range still has mastery of the material, but the music is further enhanced by her deep connection to the character. Superb acting, flawless singing and a completely natural grace on the stage combine to make her performance the dramatic lynchpin that Capriccio demands.

When Fleming sparkles, everyone else on the stage draws energy from the glow. As the members of the house party try to outdo one another to impress the Countess (in one hilarious scene, La Roche has singers and dancers audition for the Countess’ birthday celebration during dinner, and a ballerina puts some saucy moves on the handsome Count) it is decided that Flamand and Olivier will write an opera…about the house party weekend and the creative debate at its center. Enter the production’s second superb soprano, Swedish star Anne Sophie Von Otter as the actress Clairon, who happens to be starring in Olivier’s current play. She agrees to play the lead in the new opera. Appearing on the Lyric stage for the first time since 1990, this popular European diva is a marvelous dramatic foil and delightful vocal contrast to Fleming’s rich, burnished mezzo.

While the story of Capriccio is a fine balance between serious artistic debate and self-deprecating humor, Strauss’ sumptuous, romantic music never lets us forget that at its heart it is a paean to the glory of opera. Lyric’s exceptionally talented cast, skillfully directed by Peter McClintock and strongly supported in the minor roles by several talented members of the Ryan Opera Center; as well as a luscious performance by Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra, make Capriccio more than just a delightful confection. It is a richly layered and thoughtful study on the nature of creativity and a very funny look at the opera.

4 STARS

(“Capriccio,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through October 28th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Don Giovanni

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

At the recent opening of its Diamond Anniversary (60th) season, Lyric Opera of Chicago demonstrated in world-class fashion, just how far it has come under the collaborative leadership of General Director Anthony Freud, Board President Kenneth Piggott, and the entire Lyric creative team. A wonderfully reimagined production of Mozart’s take on the myth of Don Juan is kicking off the 2014-15 season and setting yet another performance benchmark for the venerable opera company.

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Directed by renowned theatrical innovator Robert Falls, Lyric’s Don Giovanni is set against contrasting backdrops of classic facades, modern signage, and dramatically oversized set pieces. The outsized props set at steep angles to the stage create a kind of surreal world where the visual scale matches the outsized libido of the story’s main character. Dashing Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien´ portrays Giovanni as a Jazz Age lothario, with Lyric favorite Kyle Ketelsen in the role of his beleaguered sidekick Leporello. Ketelson’s velvety recitative and insightful interpretation have made Leporello one of the American bass’ signature roles. Leporello’s alternately world-weary and outraged attitude is the perfect foil for Giovanni’s lascivious bravado. Kwiecien´ and Ketelson are also well matched vocally. With the addition of well-loved Italian basso Andrea Silvestrelli in the role of the Commendatore, we are provided with a veritable feast of manly singing. Not to be outdone, the female roles also feature an enviable depth of talent. With last season’s break out star Marina Rebeka as the vengeful Donna Anna and a dazzling Ana Maria Martinez in a hilarious turn as Donna Elvira, one has no trouble understanding Don Giovanni’s attraction to these two exciting ladies. Ryan Opera Center alumna and rising star Andriana Chuchman rounds out the cast of main characters as the saucy bride Zerlina, yet another of Giovanni’s tempting conquests. Tenor Antonio Poli and bass-baritone Michael Sumuel provide ample dramatic and vocal support in the roles of Don Ottavio and Masetto.

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In Mozart’s version of this classic tale, the voracious lover of the title role has finally pushed the limits of his romantic bravado too far. We get a rather more graphic glimpse of his escapades with Donna Anna behind her lace curtained balcony door than we might have in a more traditional production (as well as in a later choreographed scene with two ladies of the evening). Outraged, Anna chases Giovanni out into the street, demanding his arrest. He is then confronted by Donna Anna’s father the Commendatore, and in the course of a struggle, kills him. Thus begins Anna’s quest for revenge. Don Giovanni gets his final comeuppance as Donna Anna and her beloved Don Ottavio, jilted lover Donna Elvira, and Zerlina’s outraged in-laws all descend upon the slippery scoundrel at once.

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The sterling quality of this opening production extends far beyond its top-flight director and stars. As has been more often the case in the last couple of seasons, the production values at Lyric have been more than keeping pace with the company’s extraordinary musical standards. The wonderfully graphic sets by Walt Spangler, the witty and evocative costuming of Ana Kuzmanic and the always dynamic lighting design of Duane Schuler help elevate this production, creating new relevance for contemporary audiences. Laying the musical groundwork are the spectacular Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus, led by music director Sir Andrew Davis and chorus master Michael Black, respectively.

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Now is an exciting time to be a fan of opera in Chicago. Lyric Opera is setting new standards and breaking down barriers. We hope and expect that the new season’s offerings will be as visually compelling and musically satisfying as Don Giovanni.

4 STARS

(“Don Giovanni,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through October 29th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Don Giovanni production photos by Todd Rosenberg and Michael Brosilow.

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.

 

3 STARS

 

(“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

 

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