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Depraved New WorldBy J. Scott Hill

As Chicago starts to thaw enough for the dibs chairs to go back into the basement for another year, The Second City offers up its 102nd revue, Depraved New World, now playing on the Mainstage.  Improv legend (and Founder/Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre) Mick Napier directs this  talented troupe to take up the arms of satire against a sea of first-world troubles.

Depraved New World confronts a wide range of contemporary issues.  There are sketches about expectant fathers and about gluten intolerance.  Both sides are played against the middle concerning the Affordable Care Act.  Feminist backlash in a post-feminist world is explored.  This may sound like a list of possible topics for a Ph.D. candidate’s dissertation in one of the social sciences, but Depraved New World manages to still be mostly populist while having some smarts — and laughs.

Depraved New World

One of The Second City’s greatest strengths has always been the assembling of the right ensemble, and the ensemble that wrote and perform Depraved New World work together like six fingers on a single, not-quite-normal hand. Steve Waltien, Emily Walker, Tawny Newsome, and Chelsea Devantez all face promising futures in sketch comedy.  John Hartman has the dorky boyish charm of Scotty McCreery with the frenetic physicality of a seven-year-old trying to burn off mega-doses of Hawaiian Punch and birthday cake.

Depraved New World

The brightest bright spot in Depraved New World was also the brightest bright spot in last year’s A Clown Car Named Desire (still playing at The Second City E.T.C. because it’s just that good), Mike Kosinski.  Whether he is distinguishing himself among other skinny white guys in a satire on diversity, or taking a self-congratulatory group of firefighters beyond the edge of mere celebration, Kosinski is the one all eyes gravitate toward.  Mike Kosinski has It.

Depraved New World is consistently funny.  This solid ensemble, led by the antics of John Hartman and Mike Kosinski, may not be groundbreaking or particularly edgy, but it will surely warm you up with laughter and kick the last of your seasonal affective disorder right in the polar vortex.

 

3 STARS

(“Depraved New World” is in OPEN RUN at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. 312-337-3992.)


The Second City

 

Depraved New World production photos by Todd Rosenberg.

Venus in Fur 500 x 72.DBy J. Scott Hill

For those of us who are old enough to know what we like and don’t like in the romance department, we all have our kinks.  In America, we are so secretive about this that even I — someone who considers himself a freethinking progressive person — just referred to sex as “the romance department.”  Our pent-up Puritanical roots seem to always be showing, gray and scraggly.

In the Goodman Theatre’s current production, Venus in Fur, masochism is explored.  The title Venus in Fur is borrowed from a novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for whom masochism is named.  The play begins with Thomas, the adapter/director of a new play based on Masoch’s novel, fed up with auditioning actresses for the lead, Vanda.  Then, who walks in after all other auditioners have long gone but an actress named Vanda who just happens to show up in a bondage-y outfit with a carpetbag full of appropriate costume pieces.  Thomas ends up reading with her.  Hijinx ensue.

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Director Joanie Schultz has taken her hand to masochism in Venus in Fur in much the same careful and non-judgmental way she did to morbid obesity in The Whale last year at Victory Gardens. Schultz is a brilliant young director who has proven herself many times around Chicago and elsewhere. Schultz is that rare young director whose talent is already mature enough that her directorial vision and art are not impeded by the chore of staying true to the script, in both letter and spirit.

Schultz’s labor is surely eased by her talented cast. Rufus Collins, as Thomas, has one of the more daunting tasks that an actor can face: he has to play someone who is not an actor who, at times, is attempting to act.  For any actor to appear convincing in a role in one moment and then to play that character as convincingly inept at playing a role in the next moment is a daunting and continuous chess game; Collins handles this better than many others could.

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Amanda Drinkall, who plays Vanda, is faced with a similarly Herculean labor: to play an actor who is convincing in a difficult part, then to play the same actor when not acting, eventually to play one persona splashing over into the other.  Still, Drinkall demonstrates more than just breathtaking range here. This is one of the most simultaneously subtle and grandiose performances in recent memory, and an early contender for one of the year’s best.

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Venus in Fur is funny and sexy and tame enough to titillate an American audience without scandalizing very many. David Ives’s play makes a big deal out of the difference between “ambivalence” and “ambiguity.” There is a purposeful ambiguity here, and not the ambiguity the audience is fed along the way about whether Vanda is an actor or a persistent fan or maybe even a goddess.  The purposeful, and somewhat vexing, ambiguity here is whether the scene is supposed to be read as real: is the audience watching a play about an audition, or is the audience watching a play about two lovers role-playing an audition?  No doubt most audience members will make up their minds one way or the other, but the lack of definitive resolution on this point detracts somewhat from the pleasure of it all — and pleasure is what Venus in Fur is all about.

 

3 STARS

(“Venus in Furruns through April 13 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. 312-443-3800)

Venus in Fur ~ Goodman Theatre

Venus in Fur production photos by Liz Lauren.

Ring of Fire  500 x 72.ABy J. Scott Hill

America’s love affair with Johnny Cash lasted for about the last sixty years of his life, and will no doubt continue forward into perpetuity.  While Cash was most often categorized as a country artist, he was attendant to the birth of Rock and Roll at Sun Studios in Memphis in 1955.  Cash led a complicated and interesting life, which would make great subject matter for a musical featuring his incredible music. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is not that show.

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, currently playing at Theatre at the Center, is not really a musical at all, but rather a showcase of Johnny Cash’s music — music almost exclusively from the first third of his long and successful career.  While the program notes claim that the setting of this show is “Johnny Cash’s life (1932-2003),” the dates that the included songs were released run mostly between 1955 and 1975.  This show is less appropriate at a musical theatre venue than it would be running in a theatre in Branson, at Dollywood, or at Opryland.

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The talented cast of singers and musicians in Theatre at the Center’s production Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash does a pretty good job with Cash’s early catalog.  The role of Johnny Cash himself is split between a Young Johnny played by Michael Monroe Goodman (who spent two years with Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo), and a more mature height-of-fame Johnny played by Kent M. Lewis.  Mercifully, neither performer tries to pull off a full-blown Johnny Cash impersonation; both actors instead focus on just a handful of Johnny Cash’s physical and vocal mannerisms — enough to convey the spirit of the Man in Black without resorting to caricature.

Cory Goodrich, who plays June Carter Cash, is an amazing singer, particularly of selections from musicals and the Great American Songbook.  June Carter Cash, by her own admission, was not an amazing singer; she was a so-so yet diligent singer for whom comedy came far more naturally than music.  June was the clown of the Carter Family (incidentally, she studied acting with both Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner).  Cory Goodrich does what she can with this part, but she is just too technically skilled a singer to convincingly stoop to June Carter Cash’s vocal style.

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Multi-instrumentalist and Musical Director Malcolm Ruhl adds richness to the sound of many numbers with his work on the bass fiddle and resonator guitar.  His six-string acoustic guitar work and vocal performance on “Delia’s Gone” is a highlight of the show.

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is full of solid interpretations of some of Johnny Cash’s classic songs.  The glaring absence of songs recorded after 1975 or so — most notably, “Hurt,” “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” or any of the other tracks Johnny Cash did with producer Rick Rubin in the 1990s and 2000s — leaves the audience wanting more, but not in that good way performers strive for.  The talented singer-musicians are given very little story here upon which to exercise their acting chops.  The narrative thread is ultimately threadbare, little more than a series of segues.  The performers deserve better.  Johnny Cash deserves better.

 

 

2-1/2 STARS

 

(“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash runs through March 30 at Theatre At The Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Indiana. 219-836-3255.)

Theater at the Center

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash production photos by Michael Brosilow.

* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Ring Of Fire – The Music Of Johnny Cash – Theatre At The Center – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago

 

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Rusalka

By Antonín Dvořák

By Lori Dana

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was a musical revolutionary. One of a handful of maverick European composers who ushered in the 20th Century with a distinctly modern orchestral style, Dvořák is not the first composer who comes to mind when we think of opera. Although he composed ten operas during his lifetime, only one, Rusalka, is part of the modern opera repertoire. Fairly successful in its time, Rusalka has been infrequently produced today. What notoriety it has achieved is largely due to the efforts of Lyric creative consultant Renneé Fleming, for whom Rusalka was a career watershed. Dvořák’s dark and sensuous tale was the vehicle that catapulted her to opera super stardom.

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Lyric Opera’s dazzling new production of Rusalka turns the spotlight on each fascinating aspect of the Czech master’s modern folk tale in turn: brilliant choreography, compelling production design, and visionary direction are just the beginning. Incredible depth of casting down to the smallest supporting role, and a powerful orchestral performance that brings every facet of Dvořák’s masterful instrumentation into focus, are at the heart of Lyric’s Rusalka.

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Famous for the synthesis of Czech and other Slavic idioms both musical and literary in his compositions, Dvořák chose the tale of a water nymph that falls in love with a human prince as the basis for Rusalka. The libretto, written by Czech poet Jaroslav Kvapil, matches the tone of Dvořák’s music perfectly: achingly romantic, but with a dark and brooding perspective always hovering at the perimeter of the narrative. For their part, the Lyric production team has envisioned the story’s idyllic wood as the backwater of a post-Industrial wasteland, setting the tale in the Victorian era, its Golden Age opulence concealing dark Gothic overtones. Outfitted with a distinctly contemporary steam punk aesthetic, set designer John Macfarlane and costume designer Moritz Junge connect Gothic with Goth, Industrial Age with Post-Industrial apocalypse. These are visuals that a young contemporary audience can connect with, combined with the costume drama that traditional operagoers crave.

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We know we are in for something new from Rusalka‘s very first scene, as wood nymphs in the form of soot-smeared street urchins, engage in lewd shenanigans beneath a gigantic full moon. Their cavorting awakens the water goblin Vodnik (Eric Owens) who, rising from the steaming lake at center stage, attempts to capture one of the randy creatures for himself. Owens, whom we found disappointing in Lyric’s 2010 production of Hercules, has gone on to critical successes as Sarastro in The Magic Flute and as Alberich in Das Rheingold, both at the Metropolitan Opera. Here, he shows those best colors, his rich voice lending gravity and pathos to Vodnik, who also happens to be Rusalka‘s father. When she finally appears, the lovely water nymph stands in stark contrast to the band of woodland ragamuffins. Gliding onto the scene in the palest of blue gowns, soprano Ana María Martinez shows remarkable grace and stunning physical acting skills as she bobs gently up and down in a watery choreography while singing a flawless aria. (In fact, she very rarely sings standing up in this role. It is a tribute to her tremendous vocal talent that she sings beautifully from so many different physical positions, including lying down.)

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Rusalka has fallen in love with a handsome prince (Brandon Jovanovich) who comes often to swim in the lake. Jovanovich, with his sweet, clear tenor and devastating good looks is perfectly cast as the romantic object of Rusalka‘s very human desires. The nymph decries the fact that because she is made of water, the prince is unaware of her presence and cannot feel her embrace. She begs Vodnik to help her become a human being, not only so she can experience her prince’s love, but so that she will have a human soul that lives on after death. He tells her to seek the counsel of the witch Ježibaba (Jill Grove). As Rusalka conjures the sorceress, Ježibaba is preceded by her familiars: three ravens in tailcoats and top hats who flap and flop their way down from the top of an abandoned concrete tower and onto the stage, looking oddly like the 1940′s cartoon crows Heckle and Jeckle. Ježibaba is all gypsy mystic, layered with flounces, bracelets, and beads and full of warnings of dire consequences. There is a price for Rusalka‘s transformation: she will lose her ability to speak, and if she fails to capture the prince’s heart, they will both lose their mortal souls to eternal damnation.

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As one might suspect, this tale cannot have a happy ending. Although in the beginning he woos her ardently and spirits her away to his mansion for an expedient wedding, the prince soon tires of Rusalka‘s muteness, which he interprets as reticence. He drifts back toward a former love, a glittering foreign princess (Ekaterina Gubanova) who eventually rejects him. Rusalka collapses in despair at the sight of them together, but not before Martinez deliver the wrenching aria “O marno to je.” No longer the dreamy romantic, Martinez’s Rusalka is torn apart, not a mythical being but not fully human, her heart shattered and spirit broken. As Vodnik appears to curse the prince, Rusalka tries to retreat to her watery home, but finds that she cannot.  She and the prince are inextricably bound for eternity.

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A cautionary tale on many levels, Rusalka reflects the composer’s strong Catholic perspectives on commitment and spiritual honesty, as well as modern director David McVicar’s unique take on the seedy underpinnings of material success. In addition to the countryside, wasted by industrial excess, the first glimpse we get of the prince’s environment is not the gilded ballroom with its gigantic fireplace and herd of mounted deer heads. It is the filthy underground kitchen; walls covered with greasy soot and blood from the gigantic beef carcasses that dominate the scene from their ceiling hooks.  Here the kitchen boy (cheekily portrayed by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack in a trouser role) and the gamekeeper (Philip Horst) worry about the strange creature their master is about to marry. Being true to one’s nature, personally and in terms of the environment, are strong underlying themes here.

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Framing it all is Antonín Dvořák’s beautiful music, magnificently and powerfully delivered by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, with music director Sir Andrew Davis at the helm. Rarely will you hear an opera in which the orchestra is treated to so many stunning star turns, and as always the musicians of Lyric more than meet our highest expectations. Rusalka may be the least known of Lyric Opera’s offerings this season, but it may well be its crowning creative achievement. In the past, opportunities to experience this jewel of the Slavic repertoire have been few and far between. This Rusalka could very well change that for good.

 

4 STARS PLUS

(“Rusalka,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 16 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Rusalka production photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography / Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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The Barber of Seville

By Gioachino Rossini

By Lori Dana

Of all the great Italian operas, Rossini’s romantic comedy, The Barber of Seville, is perhaps the most universally loved. The story of a devil-may-care matchmaker and meddler, even the most indifferent among us knows Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!  Lyric Opera’s brilliantly conceived new production employs a heady combination of bold aesthetic, breathtaking musicianship, and deft direction to give this old favorite just the right amount of contemporary flair.
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Led by the incomparable Nathan Gunn in the role of Figaro, the cast of stellar singer/actors includes the lovely Isabel Leonard in her Lyric debut as Rosina, along with Alek Shrader (whom Lyric audiences hailed as Tamino in 2012′s The Magic Flute) as Almaviva, and audience favorite Kyle Ketelson as Don Basilio. The plot is simple: Count Almaviva has fallen deeply in love with the beautiful Rosina, and she loves him. The problem is, she has a guardian, the crotchety old Dr. Bartolo (hilariously played by Alessandro Corbelli), who also has romantic plans for her. Enter The Fixer: the dashing barber Figaro, who has a plan to get the young lovers together. This is where the fun really begins!
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Gunn’s Figaro is overflowing with sexy joie de vivre, and his big baritone is in top form. He and the orchestra conversed with perfect ease, wowing the opening night audience, a packed house in the face of a major January snowstorm.  Under the baton of young Rossini specialist Michele Mariotti, the Lyric Opera Orchestra was more than up to the task, performing with incomparable precision and joyous passion. After an opening scene in which his voice sounded tight, Shrader really opened up in his first scene with Gunn, his vocal style imbuing Almaviva with just the right amount of youthful uncertainty, and giving the audience their first taste of the witty and facile sung dialog that gives this Barber a delightfully sly, tongue-in-cheek quality. Tall and lithe, with a dramatic, waist-length sweep of black hair, Leonard’s sweet demeanor and velvety mezzo create the compelling combination of feigned innocence and sultry temptation that makes Rosina irresistible to the young count.
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This season, Lyric casts have shown greater depth in the supporting roles, employing more experienced artists and showcasing developing talent in smaller parts. Ketelson plays Don Basilio with a kind of quirky energy, and as the overbearing guardian, Corbelli is alternately fusty and infatuated. Ryan Opera Center member Tracy Cantin makes a strong comic appearance as Berta. Improved casting, a noticeable ramp-up in production values and progressive direction choices make this season the first in which general director Anthony Freud’s world-class vision for Lyric Opera is most evident on the stage. Tony award-winning director-choreographer Rob Ashford, makes his Lyric debut with The Barber of Seville, treating his audience to a fresh interpretation and a most charming aesthetic. Characterized by the evocative use of iron scrollwork framing the stage, set designer Scott Pask informs each scene with detail: a balcony railing, a crowning dome, a background colonnade. The use of a revolving stage combined with silhouetted dancers forms a beautiful carousel that moves the audience from one scene to the next. Brought into sharp focus by the use of brilliantly colored lighting, the sets are the perfect foil for Catherine Zubers’ gorgeous, creamy colored costuming. The entire effect is one of gaiety and charm that sets just the right updated tone for Barber. This production is tip-top, a consistently clever and insightful interpretation, right down to the contemporary language of the supertitles and hilarious choreography that brings the humor full circle via the superb Lyric Opera men’s chorus. By the time we reach the happy conclusion in a flurry of rose petals, Gunn’s Figaro has us all in the palm of his hand, and the harsh weather outside the walls of the Opera House seems very far away indeed. A triumph.

 

4 STARS PLUS

(“The Barber of Seville,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through February 28 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Barber of Seville production photos by Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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Lyric Opera of Chicago

Madama Butterfly

By Giacomo Puccini

By Lori Dana

As the new year begins, Lyric Opera of Chicago revisits its “new to the city” production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, this time featuring a powerful American soprano who has of late been closely associated with the role of tragic heroine Cio-Cio-San. In fact, Patricia Racette’s performance in Madama Butterfly at The Metropolitan Opera, which reached international audiences via The Met: Live in HD broadcasts, was one of the most watched in the series’ history. In her latest Lyric role, Ms. Racette’s tender and intuitive interpretation of the geisha who enters into a doomed marriage with an American naval officer proves beyond any doubt that she has claimed this classic role as her own. Opposite her, in his Lyric debut as the cavalier American B.F. Pinkerton, Italian tenor Stefano Secco shines. These two superb singing actors have a genuine emotional chemistry that makes this production less about physical and vocal flash, and much more about the internal lives of the young entertainer and her infatuated foreign suitor. That emotional energy also fuels some spectacular vocal performances, as Secco’s full-bodied tenor and Racette’s subtly powerful soprano seamlessly entwine, the effect as heady as a lover’s kiss.

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The very strong supporting cast has been retained from the opera’s October run: an audience favorite, British baritone Christopher Purves as Sharpless (the American Consul), Mary Ann McCormick as Suzuki, David Govertson as The Bonze, and Ryan Opera Center member Laura Wilde as Kate Pinkerton, among others. With their lush and heart-rending performance of Puccini’s incomparable score, the Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus (under the direction of Marco Armiliato and Michael Black respectively), demonstrate once again their well-deserved status among the world’s best.

Although your humble reviewer still eschews the bare bones staging of the second act, which tends to drag a bit, nothing can tarnish this sterling presentation of top-notch talent in a creatively re-imagined classic. Do. Not. Miss.

 

4 STARS

(“Madama Butterfly,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through January 26, 2014 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Madama Butterfly production photos by Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Read Lori Dana’s review of the October performance of Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera HERE: MADAMA BUTTERFLY – REVIEW – Chicago Stage Review

traviata-1-TR 500 x 72Lyric Opera of Chicago

La Traviata

By Giuseppe Verdi

By Lori Dana

La Traviata is more than the first of two glittering holiday gifts in store for the patrons of Lyric Opera. It is also a fitting tribute to the man most opera lovers consider the genre’s greatest composer, on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Giuseppe Verdi based his opera on a play by Alexandre Dumas (fils), The Lady of the Camellias, which Verdi attended on a trip to Paris in 1852. Lyric’s lush new production places the opera in that era (Verdi was pressured by Venetian patrons who commissioned the piece to set it in the 17th century) and for the first time in Lyric history, the performance features Verdi’s complete, unedited score. One cannot help but imagine that this presentation is just the way the composer envisioned La Traviata…and what a beautiful vision it is!

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As the focus of the piece, Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka’s Violetta is nothing short of spectacular. A gifted actress possessed of unusual vocal clarity, Ms. Rebeka plays the celebrated courtesan less as the doomed heroine and more as a modern woman willing to live with her choices. Each time Marina Rebeka takes the stage, the audience is riveted and enraptured by her vocal perfection and her impassioned performance. Joseph Calleja, the talented Maltese tenor who delighted Lyric audiences as Rodolfo in Lyric’s 2012-13 La Bohéme, brings his considerable charm and vocal range to the role of Violetta’s suitor, Alfredo. Calleja radiates real joy from the stage, a sentiment that authenticates the rich boy who falls for a “fallen woman.” American baritone Quinn Kelsey (a Lyric favorite since his student days at the Ryan Opera Center) rounds out the lead roles as Afredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. This trio of exceptionally clear-voiced principals gives a performance that is refreshingly without artifice. Verdi’s brilliant music needs little more than the power and beauty of their singing to bring these characters to life. The fact that all three are talented actors and sensitive musical interpreters is icing on the cake. What a treat to experience this masterpiece just as Verdi expected us to hear it, rich and full in every detail. And you may never again hear such subtle and sensitive accompaniment from the Lyric Opera Orchestra. The influence of internationally celebrated conductor Massimo Zanetti’s considerable interpretive skills was definitely in evidence.

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Lyric Opera’s La Traviata is also visually rich, its aesthetic the perfect mix of traditional and unconventional. Riccardo Hernandez’s understated sets merely suggest a lace-curtained bedchamber, country cottage and rotunda-like drawing room – in a creamy palette that changes mood with Marcus Doshi’s blue and pink lighting. These create the perfect backdrop for the over-the-top costuming and propping in the Act I party scene (where wig master Sarah Hatton wickedly parodies that 17th Century La Traviata setting with sky high powdered creations adorned with jewels and feathers; where tables are laden with opulent cakes and towers of sparkling sugar plums). Here, Doshi’s clever lighting creates a ballet of silhouettes on the drawing room walls, creating the illusion of a larger crowd in a relatively small space. By contrast, Alfredo and Violetta’s country retreat needs nothing more than a curtained backdrop, settee and chair to convey its cozy parlor. In the second scene of Act II, we take a darker visual turn as Violetta attends yet another costume ball thrown by her friend Flora (J’nai Bridges). Here the theme is Spanish and red predominates, symbolizing Violetta’s decision to return to the decadent life. Again, the look of the set is rich, yet restrained. Dominated by a ceiling full of red silk lanterns, which once lit become a myriad of colors, the stage is full of gaily costumed partiers – and giant marionettes frolic ominously amongst the crowd.

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The contrasts perfectly conveyed in the visuals of this production reflect the dichotomy of Violetta’s existence, at once the center of the celebration, yet always alone. The opera opens and closes in the same empty bedchamber, softened by blue lace drapery and gently framed by Verdi’s sad and beautiful opening motif. For those new to the genre, Lyric’s La Traviata is everything you hoped Grand Opera would be. And for those experienced, it will be a reminder that powerful art needs very little embellishment.

4 STARS

(“La Traviata,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through December 20, 2013 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

La Traviata production photos by Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago.

1 500 x 72By J. Scott Hill

As much as some of us may still be imploring our jack-o-lanterns to not go gentle into that good compost heap, Thanksgiving — more commonly thought of nowadays as Black Friday Eve — is nearly upon us.  Christmas is just a snowball’s throw away.  Theatre at the Center has already decked its halls with a production of A Christmas Carol, The Musical.

A Christmas Carol, The Musical is a mostly straightforward adaptation of Dickens’s classic ghost story, with music by Oscar- and Tony-winner (and legend) Alan Menken and lyrics by Tony-winner Lynn Aherns.  Under the direction of William Pullinsi, Theatre at the Center’s production of A Christmas Carol, The Musical lives up to its auspicious pedigree.

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Choreographer Linda Fortunato does an excellent job of keeping the huddled masses of Victorian Londoners in perfectly synchronized step across the boards, with all the relish of Busby Berkeley — no where better than during the haunted number “Link by Link,” performed by the ghost of Jacob Marley and what other ghastly fiends he may conjure.  The stylized London of Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s scenic design is a dreamy sort of dingy, a suitable environment for the Spirit of Christmas to envelop the characters like a fog of good tidings.

Several of the best moments in A Christmas Carol, The Musical are created by a stalwart of the Chicagoland stage, Ronald Keaton.  Keaton has more costume changes than Lady Gaga at the VMAs, as he plays Marley’s Ghost, the Beadle, Mr. Fezziwig, and assorted other Londoners.  Always a joy to behold, and an excellent tenor into the bargain, Keaton lends terrific energy to every scene he plays.

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For the most part, however, A Christmas Carol, The Musical is, naturally, about the enlightenment of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Larry Adams is a perfect Scrooge. Adams practically sings his lines, stentorian to the point of being nearly Gregorian.  His powerful baritone rattles the theatre with humbug.

Theatre at the Center’s A Christmas Carol, The Musical is a delicious bit of treacle just in time for the holidays.  Ron Keaton and Larry Adams lead a delightful ensemble down our chimneys just in time for the holiday season.

 

 

4 STARS

 

(“A Christmas Carol, The Musicalruns through December 22 at Theatre At The Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Indiana. 219-836-3255.)

Theater at the Center

A Christmas Carol, The Musical production photos by Michael Brosilow.

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

 

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Lyric Opera of Chicago

Parsifal

By Richard Wagner

By Lori Dana

Wagner’s Parsifal is the culmination of a composer’s creative journey, his final declaration of belief in human compassion, self-awareness, and redemption. For the audience, our fascination with Parsifal is not with its conclusion, (for we know almost from the first moment how the story will end), but with the emotional and spiritual journey that provides a foolish, self-centered boy with a man’s commitment and clarity. Rife with imagery familiar to those whose history is steeped in Christian tradition, Parsifal also serves as a touchstone for those devoted to the concept of the noble quest; be it Arthurian legend, Tolkienian fantasy, or the modern adventures of Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker.

Set in a world of knights of the Holy Grail, the first act of the opera centers upon Amfortas (Thomas Hampson), a princely knight whose fall from grace has left him with physical and spiritual wounds that will not heal. Charged with the task of protecting the lance that pierced Christ’s side and the chalice that caught the blood from his wound, Amfortas has disgraced himself by losing one of the sacred relics to Klingsor, a knight whom Amfortas’ father rejected as a protector of the Grail. Now descended into a world of decadence and evil, Klingsor commands his slave, the seductive Kundry (Daveda Karanas), to bewitch Amfortas so he can seize the holy spear. We come upon the aftermath of that event, as a deeply wounded and weakened Amfortas sees his ability to lead his father’s knights slipping away, along with his redemption.Par_7 500 x 72
Into this scene wanders the hapless Parsifal (Paul Groves) who kills a swan while hunting in the wood surrounding the castle shrine at Montsalvat. A breathtaking air ballet depicts the angel/swan hurtling to the ground, and in one of the productions’ most riveting images, a single soldier appears among the trees, carrying the mortally wounded creature into the heart of the crowd that has gathered in a forest clearing. At first repudiated, then invited by the old knight Gurnemanz (Kwangchul Youn), to witness the ritual of the Grail, Parsifal is bewildered both by Amfortas’ suffering, and by the communion ritual over which he presides. Gurnemanz, disappointed that Parsifal is not the prophetic savior who will recognize and be moved by Amfortas’ suffering, sends the boy away. Thus begins Parsifal’s quest for self-realization and for the relief of Amfortas’ suffering. His journey into the underworld, his sacrifice, and ultimate redemption mirror much of Christian dogma, but Wagner’s tale also references the symbolism of Eastern religion. Wagner’s devotion to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (who had a lifelong interest in Eastern philosophy) is often credited for this influence on his work.
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Both the tender beauty of Wagner’s music, and the mixture of eastern philosophy and Christian symbolism that dominate Wagner’s libretto, are mirrored in the stage design, lighting and costuming of Lyric’s new production. Presented on a suitably Wagnerian scale, the epic proportions of set designer Johan Engels’ circular stage, with its giant columns, trap doors and pneumatic platforms is characterized by clean, massive shapes overlaid with a membranous web of black lines, that transform seamlessly from deep blue starry sky to gray castle walls to radiant blue-green forest clearing. With a few design variations, the same set becomes the fiery world of Klingsor and the glowing shrine of the Grail with equal ease. The giant golden hand that serves as the old king Titurel’s throne in the Grail scenes has the definite look of a Buddhist temple, and Engels’ costuming successfully marries the familiar chain mail of the Knights Templar with the angular formality of Samurai tunics and armor. Klingsor’s layered red and gold tunic and savage Kabuki-like makeup make this nod to the Japanese aesthetic particularly clear. Simply put, the eclectic and forward thinking design of Lyric Opera’s new production should find many fans, both among those looking for epic drama and for technical “wow factor” aficionados. Despite a few minor opening night glitches, the flying angels, spidery demons and magical transformations of this timeless tale were visually compelling and believable.
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The peerless core of principal singer/actors led by star American baritone Thomas Hampson, (whose extraordinarily sensitive interpretation of Amfortas’ suffering in act one is a personal tour de force) was matched by flawless support from the superb Lyric Opera chorus and orchestra, and a troupe of accomplished dancers. In his Lyric debut, Korean bass Kwangchul Youn’s clear, rich bass maintained its clarion tone from the deepest notes to the top of his considerable range. Ms. Karanas, also performing for the first time at Lyric, brought sympathetic interpretation to the tortured temptress Kundry, and Lyric veteran tenor Paul Groves made a buff and handsome hero. Tómas Tómasson as Klingsor and Rúni Brattaburg (Lyric debut) as Titurel rounded out the main character roles.

For those accustomed to the grand Wagner finale, Parsifal represents a marked change of pace. As the composer must surely have been taking stock of his life and career at the time of Parsifal‘s creation, so his hero completes the circle by quietly contemplating his newfound awareness and path to redemption, as the light fades from the final scene. From its electrifying dramatic moments, to its technical marvels and striking visual symbolism, all crowned with some of Wagner’s most moving music, Parsifal is the one Lyric Opera production you really must experience this season.

 

4 STARS

(“Parsifal,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through November 29, 2013 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Parsifal production photos by Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Photo-6 500 x 72Chicago Opera Theater

Orpheus and Euridice

By Ricky Ian Gordon

By Lori Dana

I’m not sure I would call the latest ground breaking effort from Chicago Opera Theater an opera…at least not in a remotely traditional sense. This relatively short (55 minute) piece, performed as part of Chicago Park District’s “Classics in the Parks” series in the West Town neighborhood’s Eckhart Park Natatorium, definitely blurs the lines between opera, musical theater and song narrative. More akin to Benjamin Britten’s opera work of the 1950′s than to the Romantic operas we now call classics, the mood of Gordon’s piece is serene, its musical style spare and often dissonant. Performed admirably by soprano Valerie Vinzant as Euridice and accompanied by a tiny chamber orchestra featuring Chicago’s Metropolis Quartet, double bassist Timothy Shaffer, and pianist/conductor Steven Hargreaves, COT’s Orpheus also featured clarinetist Todd Palmer in the title role. The concept of Orpheus communicating only through his music, with no sung or spoken lines was a clever and effective dramatic device. The ancient Greek myth on which this piece is based tells the story of a heralded young musician who meets the girl of his dreams, only to have her die tragically, immediately after their wedding. Orpheus, bereft, follows his beloved into the underworld where he bargains for her return, bewitching the denizens of that dark place with his beautiful music. She will be allowed to return with him under one condition: he cannot look back to see if she is behind him on their journey. Euridice, unaware of the plan, thinks her love has abandoned her. As she pleads piteously with Orpheus to acknowledge her, he turns back to offer comfort, and in so doing, loses his love forever.

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The Natatorium swimming pool made a more beautiful setting for Orpheus and Euridice than one might imagine. Transformed by the gorgeous lighting of designer David Lee Bradke, and flanked by a series of huge, white, Classical Greek statues, the pool became what director Andreas Mitisek aptly described as a “shimmering stage”, framed by dark blue curtains which gave way to the green and blue patchwork panels of the Natatorium dome above. The inevitable dampness and chlorine scent of the indoor pool were alleviated by the mild autumn weather, which allowed the sliding glass walls beneath the domed roof to be opened slightly, in order to regulate the temperature and humidity levels. Through out the performance, a soft breeze billowed the curtains, adding to the dreamy atmosphere. On the glassy surface of the pool, a small, white skiff became the floating stage on which the story of Orpheus and Euridice‘s love is played out. Using a many-layered approach, director Mitisek has Ms. Vivant not only act as the story’s narrator, but also has her Euridice interact with Palmer’s Orpheus in real time at the water’s edge, while in the background, actors Matt Messina, Kate Smith, and a group of contemporary young bathers create an ecstatic pantomime of the characters’ past, in and on the water. In one particularly striking scene, a long swath of white tulle, that earlier stretched across the pool like a beautiful wedding train, becomes Euridice’s shroud as she struggles and eventually sinks beneath the water’s surface. Although one might have wished for a bolder musical dynamic, and lyrics that did not occasionally wander into precious Broadway musical territory, the far-reaching creative vision and production values of COT’s Orpheus & Euridice made this unusual combination of contemporary opera and water ballet a very compelling experience.

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STARS

(“Orpheus and Euridiceruns through November 10 at The Ida Crown Natatorium at Eckhart Park, 1330 W. Chicago Ave. 312-704-8414)

Advanced ticket reservations for this production have SOLD OUT!  A limited amount of walk-up tickets will be released at 6 PM prior to each performance on a first come first serve basis. All seating is general admission

 

Orpheus and Euridice

Orpheus and Euridice production photos by Liz Lauren.

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