REVIEW: In the Heights

Latin flavored, hip-hop musical speaks to any community

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Broadway in Chicago presents:

In The Heights

Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Music and Lyrics by
Lin Manuel-Miranda
Choreography by
Andy Blankenbuehler
thru January 3rd (ticket info)

Review by Oliver Sava

intheheights01 Lin Manuel-Miranda‘s Tony-award winning music and lyrics for In The Heights are filled with so much passion and life that it would be difficult for any company to turn in low energy performances. The national tour of the 2008 Tony award winner for Best Musical finally arrives in Chicago for a limited two week run, and while the setting may be New York City’s Washington Heights, the show tells a story that will resonate with denizens of any neighborhood. The Latin influence of Miranda’s score, combined with hip-hop beats and raps, creates a beautifully layered musical mosaic with wonderful versatility. Miranda also has a great talent for taking classical musical theater techniques and giving them a fresh, modern flair. The opening number seamlessly introduced characters and their relationship without becoming too expository, a feat accomplished by shifting musical themes.

Usnavi (Kyle Beltran), the musical’s protagonist, primarily resides musically in the world of hip hop and rap. The play’s older characters, Abuela (Claudia Santora) and Kevin (Daniel Bolero) and Camila Rosario (Natalie Toro), in Latin folk, and the women of the Unisex Salon, Daniela (Isabel Santiago) and Carla (Genny Lis Padilla), in Salsa. Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.), the only non-Hispanic character of the show, is accompanied by Reggaeton beats, and the female love interests Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) and Nina (Arielle Jacobs) bring the flavors of Latin pop. The music brings definition to the characters, making the actors’ jobs much easier. The tightness of the entire team, including the rich book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, brings so many layers to the world of the play.

Nobody soars more than Jacobs as the conflicted, guilt-filled Nina, back home with 20the news that Washington Heights’ sure-fire success is now a college dropout. Her vocals are phenomenal and they blend beautifully with Douglas Jr.’s for their numerous duets. Andy Blankenbuehler‘s choreography finds the perfect balance of dance styles to match the variety of the musical score, combining the hard hitting pops and locks of hip-hop with the smoothness of Latin ballroom choreography. The visual images are stunning, and the unique rhythm of the movement makes the dance sequences unpredictable and completely enthralling.

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In The Heights was a labor of love for the original Broadway cast, performing that rare feat of transferring an original musical from Off-Broadway to Great White Way success, but how can someone step into a role that is so defined by the actor that originated it? The main character in particular has become so associated with Miranda that it is difficult to imagine anyone that could step in the composer-actor’s shoes, yet Beltran does a more than serviceable job.  The best thing that can be said about the actors is that they have found their homes in this world, and that is what lies at the heart of In The Heights: home. The connection between the characters and their neighborhood is what creates the most dramatic, emotional events of the play, and the actors have fallen into a world of rusty fire escapes and melting Piragua on their fingertips completely.

In The Heights may be a crowd-pleasing combination of musical theater, big dance numbers and hip music and belted ballads, but it’s also very good musical theater. It’s not perfection, and sometimes the energy on stage could be even more explosive, but it has a big heart that shows a love for its musical predecessors. The musical is a love letter to community and to the hundreds of stories the past holds, whether on a street corner or Puerta Plata, and the touring company successfully makes their home our home.

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: My Fair Lady (Marriott Theatre)

Marriott’s ‘My Fair Lady’ loverly, but risk-free

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza (with flowers)

Marriott Theatre presents:

My Fair Lady

By Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe
Directed by
Dominic Missimi
Through February 14th, 2010 (
ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The story of linguistics professor Henry Higgins and the Cockney girl he transforms into a lady may well be the most beloved and best-known musical of all time. Based upon George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion, its original Broadway production in 1956 ran for 2,717 performances and won six Tony Awards. The 1964 film based on the musical won eight Oscars. The musical has had three major Broadway revivals, and a 2001 British production toured both the United Kingdom and the U.S. and won three Olivier Awards. Columbia Pictures has announced an upcoming movie remake.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza vertical You’ve surely seen some version of this musical — if not a professional show, then a high-school or college production or the film. Just listing its popular songs — "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" "With a Little Bit of Luck," "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Get Me to the Church on Time" — will set the tunes ringing through your head. Audiences are hard pressed to keep from singing along.

If you’re one of the lovers, then all I really need to tell you is that Marriott Theatre has produced an exuberant, picture-perfect production of My Fair Lady. Nothing about this show will mar your vision of the musical — from Kevin Gudahl channeling Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins to Nancy Missimi‘s gorgeous Edwardian costumes to Matt Raftery‘s jolly choreography.

If you’re not already an ardent fan, though, nothing about Marriott’s version will challenge your perspective. Dominic Missimi‘s direction breaks no new ground whatsoever. This is "comfort theater" at its safest.

The songs are all beautifully sung, the orchestra is first-rate and the acting never misses. The in-the-round staging works surprisingly well (though I held my breath every time the cast schlepped the office furnishings on and off the stage in the dark).

The cast and ensemble — as one expects from Marriott — do everything right. Heidi Kettenring brings verve to her part as Eliza Doolittle, particularly in her "unreformed" Cockney scenes, making Gudahl’s Higgins seem especially like a stuffed fish. Don Forston makes a feisty Alfred Doolittle (our heroine’s opportunistic father) and Catherine Lord an especially expressive Mrs. Pearce (Prof. Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper); her Scottish accent is a nice touch. David Lively gives a stiff upper lip to Colonel Pickering while Ann Whitney brings dry wit to Higgins’ mother.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring and Ann Whitney

Max Quinlan, as Eliza’s yearning suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, gives full measure to "On the Street Where You Live," and George Keating, Brandon Koller, Christian Libonati and Joseph Tokarz are a cheeky Cockney quartet.

The scene at Ascot, when Eliza is first revealed to the upper crust, is particularly delightful, thanks mainly to some amazing hats and staging that gives them all the display they deserve. Apart from that, though, and the intrinsic worth of live performance over recorded media, you might just as well rent the video.

I found myself thinking of all the things a theater company might do with this brilliant but hoary old musical to shake it up. While it’s probably going too far to set the show in the Loop and give Eliza a Bridgeport accent, a production, however beautiful, that merely follows where others have gone before, forms a sadly lost opportunity. Marriott’s My Fair Lady feels as if it’s set in aspic.

Rating: ★★★½

Note: Dinner packages available.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza & Kevin Gudahl as Higgins

Five last-minute gifts for your Chicago theater-loving friends

Five last-minute gifts for your Chicago theater-loving friends

By Leah A. Zeldes

Still wracking your brain for the perfect gift? Here are a few last minute ideas for the local theater fans on your list.

Theater tour tickets

Take your friends on a tour of a treasure of Chicago’s Theatre District. Modestly priced backstage tours highlight the beautiful architecture and rich performance history of the Loop’s gorgeous historic theaters. Check out the Chicago Theatre Marquee Tour, $12; Auditorium Theatre Tour, $10; and the Broadway in Chicago Venue Tours (each BIC tour covers two theaters from among the Oriental Theatre, the Cadillac Palace and the Bank of America Theatre), $10. If you want to be lavish, throw in a gift card for a post-tour meal at Petterino’s in the Theatre District.

Theater passes

The League of Chicago Theatres’ Play Money is the perfect one- size-fits-all gift. These $25 certificates are redeemable at more than 75 Chicagoland theaters for up to a year, so recipients can choose the play and performance that suits them best. A copy of the Chicagoplays Theater Guide is included. Or, for a versatile gift to a family or a theater-loving friend, a $95 Theatre Building Chicago Pass offers five tickets to any shows at the Lakeview theater complex in the coming year: five admissions at once, one at a time, or in any combination the recipient prefers.

Playwriting classes

Sign the budding dramatist on your list up for instruction from seasoned playwrights at the award-winning Chicago Dramatists or a musical workshop at Theatre Building Chicago. Of course, you’ll have to promise to attend any resulting performances.

Chicago theater books

With express shipping, there’s still time to get copies of these books on the fascinating history of Chicago’s theater scene: A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago by longtime Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen; Steppenwolf: Steppenwolf Theatre Company : Twenty-Five Years of an Actor’s Theater, famed photographer Victor Skrebneski‘s book featuring production highlights and portraits of Steppenwolf’s ensemble; and The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater — one of the early directors at the Second City, Sheldon Patinkin traces the origins of Second City back to 1955 in this book with two audio CDs.

Theater toys

For the theater buff who has everything, how about a Shakespeare action figure, complete with removable book and quill pen? Or a set of playing cards each featuring an insulting remark from The Bard? Chicago Shakespeare has it covered.

Billy Elliot announces entire Chicago cast, including 4th Billy

“Billy Elliot” announced Chicago cast

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Including J.P. Viernes as Chicago’s 4th Billy

 

Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Working Title Films and Old Vic Productions in association with Weinstein Live Entertainment, has announced, with Broadway In Chicago, casting for the Chicago production of Billy Elliot the Musical, previews beginning March 18th at the Oriental Theatre; opening night being Sunday, April 11th. The cast includes John Peter (J.P.) Viernes who joins the previously announced actors Tommy Batchelor, Giuseppe Bausilio and Cesar Corrales in the role of ‘Billy’.

Below: 3 of the 4 Billy’s

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Starring in Billy Elliot are Armand Schultz (Dad); Cynthia Darlow (Grandma); Patrick Mulvey (Tony); Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush (Michael); Chicagoan Samuel Pergande (Billy’s Older Self); Jim Ortlieb (George); Chicagoan Susie McMonagle (Mum); Chicagoan Blake Hammond (Mr. Braithwaite); and Maria Connelly (Debbie).

Also featured are Matt Allen; Jason Babinsky; Chicagoan Elijah Barker; Madison Barnes; Cindy Benson; Sara Brians; Chicagoan Tony Clarno; Abby Church; Christine DeFillipo; Alexandra Dell’Edera; Faith Fetscher; Susan Haefner; Ryan Kasprzak; Chicagoan Kayla King; Kent Lewis; Will Mann; Kate Marilley; Spencer Milford; Brittany Nicholas; Chicagoan Mark Page; Mitch Poulos; Emily Richardson; Annelise Ritacca; Michaeljon Slinger; Jaclyn Taylor Ruggiero; Jamie Torcellini; Nicholas Torres; Brionna Trilling; and Kayla Vanderbilt. Additional casting will be announced at a later date.


About “Billy Elliot”

Stage DoorBilly Elliot is the funny, heartwarming tale of a young boy with a dream, and a celebration of his triumph against the odds. Set against the historic British miners’ strike of the 1980s, the story follows Billy’s journey as a boy in a small mining town who, after stumbling across a ballet class while on his way to a boxing lesson, realizes that his future lay not in the boxing ring but on stage as a dancer.

Featuring music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall, choreographed by Peter Darling and directed by Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on November 13, 2008 and was the winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

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The Addams Family: Lawry’s Spooky-themed dinner special

The perfect Chicago-themed holiday stocking stuffer?

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Acclaimed Chicago restaurant Lawry’s Prime Rib, located in the historic McCormick Mansion, has created, just for Addams Family the Musical, a Creepy and Kooky, Mysterious and Spooky themed dinner.

What does this Addams Family Dinner/Theatre package include?

  • Starters: Eye of Newt Shooter, Green Pimento Olive Suspended in Citrus Jello, Served with a small wedge of Munsters’ Cheese; The Aristotle Salad, Hearts of Romaine Salad, Cucumbers, Green Onions, Lemon Vinaigrette topped with Grilled Octopus; Mon Cherie, Cara Mia Intermezzo, Cherry Sorbetto.
  • The entrée includes Lawry’s Prime Ribs of Beef (8 oz. cut), Au Jus, Yorkshire Pudding, Creamed Spinach a la “Cleopatra,” Mashed Potatoes. Optional entrees include Fresh Grilled Salmon, Vegetarian Pasta.
  • Finish with Thing’s Dessert, Lady Finger Trifle.

A perfect holiday stocking stuffer, the dinner-theatre package includes a “snappy” 2 p.m. matinee performance at the theatre, followed by a 5 p.m. dinner at Lawry’s and is priced at $165 for adults, $140 for children ages 11 and under (plus tax and gratuity). 

 

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For more information, and to order the Addams Family Dinner-Theatre Package, call Lawry’s at  (312) 787-5000 ext. 25.

Chicago Theatre Building hires new Executive Director: Sean Cercone

Sean Cercone named new Exec Director at Theatre Building

 

Sean_000 Following a 5-month search, Theatre Building Chicago has hired Sean Cercone as new executive director of the building and the theatre’s educational and creative programs. A little about Cercone: from 2003 through 2009 Cercone served as Producing Artistic Director of The Carousel in Akron, Ohio, an 800-seat Equity theatre. During the first three years of his tenure Sean achieved an attendance increase by nearly 10%.  Of great interest to Theatre Building Chicago, Cercone also established a New Works program, which developed four shows that moved on to presentations in the National Alliance of Musical Theatre New Works Festival and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Two of these new works (Meet John Doe and The Gypsy King) moved on to full productions at regional theatres, Ford’s Theatre and Village Theatre respectively. Cercone has also served as a four-time committee member and two-time co-chair for the NAMT Festival of New Musicals in New York.

We are extremely pleased that Sean Cercone has accepted the position as Executive Director,” said Sally Ruecking, Theatre Building president. “Sean has a highly visible and recognizable name in the theatre community on both a local and national level. He has the passion, vision and drive to lead us toward a full subscription season of new theater, as well as a strong sense of the rich history and mission of this well established mainstay of Chicago theatre.”

“I am very excited to join the fantastic team at TBC,” said Cercone. “The organization’s rich history and strong leadership over 30 years built a solid foundation and opportunity for growth. We look forward to continuing to provide an important resource for the Chicago Theatre community, while also developing our ability to have a greater impact on the landscape of the American Theatre.”