REVIEW: “Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night”

Nuns Take On the Holiday Funk

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Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night

by Vicki Quade
At the Royal George thru January 3rd (tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Since success in 1993, Vicki Quade has turned her Catholic school upbringing into a cottage industry. Her one-woman sister act, Late Night Catechism, first performed by Maripat Donovan, continues to regale audiences nationwide with its potent mix of pre-Vatican II nostalgia, absurdist takes on Catholic doctrine, and lovable GetAttachment.aspx authoritarianism. The format for LNC, and each of its spin-offs, provides a watershed of reliable material for its habit-attired comediennes to fall back on while allowing for roomy give and take between nun and audience. But one element never varies from show to show—the hierarchical relationship between nun and audience is sacrosanct.

It’s a device that’s returned to again and again. Many have mentioned how being in the room with Sister propels them back to 3rd grade catechism class. Certainly, walking down the hallway to the theater gave me Catholic flashbacks. It’s decked with pictures of Popes past, after-school notices, gold stars, and a strategically placed statue of the Virgin. Who knew just the smell of construction paper could bring it all back? Being relegated to childlike status, while someone else reigns with supreme certainty, no matter how nutty they get, is the core of this theatrical experience. (It’s kind of like being under the Bush/Cheney administration, but much more fun and with far less devastating consequences.)

The latest of Quade’s installments, Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night, provides yet another opportunity for nun-domination. The question is, does the rest of its material advance beyond that central core? Kathleen Puls Andrade, who alternates playing Sister with Lisa Braatz through the run, gamely pulls the audience into the task of creating a Christmas pageant that will wow even His Holiness. Here, she’s most successful when she can get a row of men into haloes and angels wings to try out variations on the angel Gabriel.

index However, the humor really flags when she tries to create forced outrageousness by mixing secular and sacred Christmas imagery—something we’ve long since lost our outrage over. Ever the season for pagan, Christian, and even Jewish syncretism, Christmas is so crammed to the gills with intermixed sacred and secular, having Santa show up in the manger is no longer a stretch—if it ever was. In point of fact, there’s a house on Addison, just west of Clark Street, that changes its front yard tableau of the Virgin Mary regularly. A display of devotion that I never bothered with at my most Catholic, and yet both Santa and the Easter Bunny are trotted out each respective season to take their place beside the Mother of God.

Quade and company may have to go back to the drawing board to dig into what is funny about Christmas, from a Catholic perspective. We are inundated with messages like, “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season,” at this time of year. But the “season” of holiday festivity existed thousand of years before Jesus was born—something that Roman Catholicism remembers and jovially lives with to this very day.

Rating: ★★½

 

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REVIEW: Writers’ Theatre’s “Oh Coward!”

Mad about the boy!!

 

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Writers’ Theatre presents:

OH COWARD!

A Musical Comedy Revue

Words and music by Noel Coward
Devised by
Roderick Cook
Musical direction by
Doug Peck
Directed by Jim Corti

Thru March 21st (ticket info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

“I am not a heavy drinker. I can sometimes go hours without touching a drop.”

Writers’ Theatre presents OH COWARD!, a musical revue celebrating the words and music of Noel Coward. Nicknamed “The Master,” Noel Coward (1899-1973) was a playwright, lyricist, composer, actor, singer, director and producer. The musical revue was devised by Roderick Cook, who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in 1987 for his performance in it.

“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

This memorable Coward quote reflects the philosophical basis and impetus for much of his work. The bawdy lyrics of songs like “Mrs. Worthington,” that tell a stage mother not to put her ugly daughter on stage, are shockingly hilarious. Coward is The Master in spinning tales of drinking indulgences, sexual indiscretions and people that annoy into delightfully witty tunes. A 1930’s party-goer would have been wise to cozy up to Coward for an evening’s amusement of gossip and to avoid becoming a target. Without Coward’s actual presence, OH COWARD! is the perfect party substitute.

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First, any successful party requires the right ambiance. Scenic designer, Kevin Depinet , has reconfigured the theatre space into a 1930’s night club with blown-up pictures of Noel Coward on the wall. The audience sits in a U-shape, allowing for a true intimate cabaret experience. Next, the wrong music can be a party buzz kill. For this particular soiree, Coward’s songs are at the epicenter of the festivities. Under the musical direction of Doug Peck, the lively melodies add to the fast paced merriment. At pivotal moments, the soulful ballads “If Love Were All” and “Mad About The Boy”, both arranged by Peck, give the party guests a breather and a shocker at the honest glimpse into Coward’s private isolation.

The absolute key to turning any gathering into a bash is if the host knows the right people to invite. Director Jim Corti has the A-List in attendance with Kate Fry, Rob Lindley and John Sanders. With a glass of champagne or a martini, party gossip is best delivered with playful wit. OH COWARD! has a superstar tri-fecta! Under The Masters’ (both Coward and Corti) influence, Fry, Lindley and Sanders are beautifully synchronized in songs and stories. The best part of their harmonized performance is the genuine enjoyment that radiates. In true imagined Coward fashion, these three seem to have spontaneously taken over a party with their flawless entertainment skills. OH COWARD! is THE party of the year!

“I have always been very fond of (drama critics)… I think it’s so frightfully clever of them to go night after night to the theatre and know so little about it.”

Oh Noel, you are hilarious!

Rating: ★★★½

 

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Sunday Night Sondheim: Bronson Pinchot gives us the rules – from “Frogs”

 

 

Sung by Bronson Pinchot, this is an "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" from Frogs.  This opening number is from the 1999 revival of Stephen Sondheim‘s revue Putting It Together.

REVIEW: Victory Gardens’ “The Snow Queen”

"The Snow Queen” Rocks, But Will It Endure?

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Victory Gardens presents:

The Snow Queen

adapted by Frank Galati, Michael Barrow Smith and Blair Thomas
directed by Jim Corti

thru December 27th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson, best friends Kai (Andrew Keltz) and Gerda (Leslie Ann Sheppard) enjoy playing together in a garden above the city. Once winter separates them, they must stay in doors, but they still wave to each through 1640391_height370_width560 frosty windows. Brought together one night by Gerda’s grandmother, the two hear for the first time about the Snow Queen, who longs for a little boy to keep her warm. Caught up in a magic spell, Kai is abducted by the Snow Queen and Gerda must embark upon a life-changing odyssey to get Kai back.

I was startled by something that perusing reviews from past years had not prepared me for–composer and lyricist Michael Barrow Smith relies on rock opera for the most powerful numbers accompanying this children’s tale. As the Storyteller, returning Cheryl Lynn Bruce remains the undisputed mistress of ceremonies. However, Smith benefits mightily from the talents of Sue Demel, of the Sons of the Never Wrong, and Barbara Barrow, of the Old Town School of Folk Music, to rock out the arias reserved for the grandmother, the Snow Queen, the Enchantress, and Robber girl. These, by far, are the production’s most haunting and dynamic moments.

Other musical genres bring levity and fun to the proceedings—honky-tonk for Bob Goins reindeer and blues for the gang that waylays Gerda on her quest. But not every musical genre that Smith pulls out of his sleeve is as successful. In fact, the effect can be rather hodge-podge; some moments venturing into Sondheim-esque lyrics subvert direct appeal to a younger audience. Even if those moments are intended for adult consumption, they contribute to the patchwork feel of the overall production.

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Visually, the show still amazes with puppetry designed by Blair Thomas and Meredith Miller. While in charge of most of the puppet performance, as Elves Jackson Evans, Genevieve Garcia, and Nicole Pellegrino bring joyful energy to their storytelling. Curiously, the production lags in demonstrating a stronger emotional connection onstage between Kai and Gerda, so that the stakes can be raised for the story’s loss and radical journey. Whether this is a result of new direction from Jim Corti or just the introduction of Sheppard as a new member to the cast is uncertain, but hopefully it will be rectified in the course of the run. Best friends can’t return if they were never best friends to begin with.

Rating: ★★★

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REVIEW: Theatre at the Center’s “The Christmas Schooner”

Chicago’s Christmas Play

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Theatre at The Center presents:

The Christmas Schooner

 

by John Reeger and Julie Shannon
Directed by Chuck Gessert
Music-directed by William A. Underwood
Thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

I now have a new favorite holiday show, and I hope it runs as a yearly tradition in the Chicagoland area. The Christmas Schooner ran for many years at the Bailiwick Theatre and this year is currently at Theatre at The Center (an Equity theatre in nearby Munster, IN.)

CHRISTMAS_SCHOONER_2 The Christmas Schooner is a based on a true local story and written by Chicago’s John Reeger (book) and Julie Shannon (music.) The story involves a German family living in Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan and working on the schooners that carry cargo to other ports along the lake. At home the Stossel family has a strong respect for the German traditions as well as generous hearts that feel compassion for those less fortunate. When a letter from Peter Stossel’s (Brandon Dahlquist) sister arrives, addressing her disappointment in not having a Tannebaum for Christmas and how many Germans in Chicago were left feeling homesick without their traditional Christmas symbol, Peter, the father and man of the family, feels a sense of duty to bring the people of Chicago Christmas trees.

Almost this entire story is told through the everlasting music. Shannon’s songs tell the whole story, including witty conversations between family members and acted as if reacting to real dialogue. It is a complex diverse score that moves with the changing tide in the play and allows the astonishing voices on stage to fill the house with the emotion of their characters.

The dialogue succeeds in bringing out the everyday humor in each situation, and Peter Kevoian plays it best as the Opa Gustav Stossel. Kevoian moved me in all direction, having me laughing throughout the play and crying at the end. Each performer created their own individual and, as a whole, the chemistry between each member of the family brings out the strongest sense of family spirit. The message of pride and sacrifice for others is brought out in action and the bonds of love and dependency in one another builds as they set out to please others less fortunate.

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As in all true stories, there are moments of disappointment and sadness, but the courage and strength of the Stossel family bring out the true meaning of Christmas. Their kindness reached people of all ethnic backgrounds and the joy they brought to others made their difficult journeys worth their sacrifice.

The Christmas Schooner is a timeless musical that should be seen by all those dwelling near the Great Lakes, and across the U.S. This is a truly American Christmas story of family relations, traditions and generosity in the melting pot of the Midwest.

Rating: ★★★★

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REVIEW: Annoyance Theatre’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”

TV Classic Transfers Smoothly to the Stage

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The Annoyance Theatre presents:

The Annoyance Christmas Pageant: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

by Rankin/Bass
directed by Megan Kelleher
thru December 20th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

poster I have a distinct memory of sitting in my pajamas as a boy on a brisk winter evening in Texas. The light of the television provided a mock warmth. The big networks had suspended their regular prime-time programming to honor the Christmas season. The usual annual cartoon fair flashed on the screen including the likes of Garfield and Charlie Brown, intermittently interrupted by messages from Campbell Soup and Coca-Cola, both of which wanted me to have a happy holiday and a stocked cupboard of their products.

Amid this Technicolor blend of holiday and commercial cheer were the unforgettable Rankin/Bass-produced featurettes. The most popular—amongst my household anyway—was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a strange telling of the history of Rudolph from birth to ostracization to, for all intensive purposes, canonization. The characters, like in all of the Rankin/Bass specials, appear as stiff, herky-jerky figures. That’s because the specials used stop-motion animation, a method where animators painstakingly pose figurines from shot to shot to give them the appearance of movement. Cheesy songs, a feel-good moral and a narrating snowman completed the show, which has now regularly played on television for the last 45 years.

That’s why it’s high time that the cartoon transitioned from the television and onto the stage. And thankfully the classic gets the top-notch treatment it deserves from the talented folks at The Annoyance Theatre.

For those expecting the usual adult-themed fodder of the Annoyance (the same theatre that brought us Co-Ed Prison Sluts), you will be sorely disappointed. The show is intended for children. However, those who have fond memories of the childhood classic will enjoy the staged retelling, recalling the whimsy of youth and the exuberant holiday spirit that seems to fade with age.

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The production stays true to the t.v. special with only slight adjustments. Sam the Snowman (Jason Geis) narrates the story, setting the stage for Rudolph’s birth and his unfortunate deformity—his bright, shiny red nose. Rudolph (Leslie Nesbit) tries to join the other reindeers in their reindeer games. These games are basically a training camp to teach the young calves to fly and one day join Santa’s sleigh team. Their coach (David Jennings) discovers Rudolph’s red nose, which had been concealed with a prosthetic, and bans him from practice. Meanwhile, in Santa’s workshop is Hermey (Alex DiGiacinto), an elf who doesn’t want to be an elf, but instead aspires to be a dentist. His boss, the head elf (Tim Soszko), sends him home for his disobedience.

Hermey and Rudolph meet and become fast friends. The two run away together and encounter Yukon (Collin Blackard), an arctic prospector. The three continue together on a journey, which takes them to the Island of Misfit Toys. Here they meet an assortment of outcast playthings including a jack-in-the-box unfortunately named Charlie (Tim Soszko).

Meanwhile, the Bumble (Steven Whitney), an abominable snow monster, is on the trail of the adventurers, in part because of Rudolph’s nose, which shines like a beacon. In an effort to protect his friends, Rudolph separates from the pack to find his reindeer family.

Nesbit does a wonderful job mimicking the voice of Rudolph from the televised special and brings a genuine childlike charm to the role that will certainly have children relating to the central character. Geis plays the snowman with absolute commitment. His awkward shuffling, which is meant to resemble the animation of the t.v. program, and detached, over-the-top facial expressions are subtly hilarious. Children probably won’t give it a second thought, but for the adults in the audience, his extreme jolliness is delightfully unsettling. Tahnee Lacey, who has a small role as Mrs. Claus, stands out for her unrelenting homage to the original text. She moves in stop motion, as if each second an unseen hand is adjusting her appendages.

There are a few musical numbers throughout, and it is obvious that the cast was not chosen for their vocal talents. Sounding much like a children’s choir, voices are slightly off key at times. This is forgivable, as the whole production has the intentional feel of an amateur pageant rather than a polished play. However, the lack of vocal projection is a distraction, causing the audience at times to strain to hear the performers over the piano.

Director Megan Kelleher does a nice job of maximizing the Annoyance’s tiny space. She occasionally spills the cast off the stage to create certain visual effects, such as when the heroes evade the monster by floating away on a tiny island of ice. However, there were times where the stage picture was cluttered with actors interrupting the view of the action from certain angles.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a nearly perfect holiday treat for children and adults alike. Don’t go in expecting a highly polished production. Rather, this is pure fun played out with a fancy that will bond you and your child through Christmas cheer and nostalgia.

Rating: ★★★½

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