REVIEW: Over The Tavern (Noble Fool Theatricals)

Noble Fool’s “Over the Tavern” recalls a bland 1950s


Noble Fool Theatricals presents:

Over the Tavern

By Tom Dudzick
Directed by John Gawlik
Pheasant Run Resort Mainstage Theater, St. Charles
Through March 28
(more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Noble Fool Theatricals, whose last production played to the Ed Sullivan generation with the holiday revue “Plaid Tidings,” gives the over-60 set another nostalgia fest with their latest, Over the Tavern. Unfortunately, this bland production offers little for the rest of us.

TheDance Playwright Tom Dudzick’s semi-autobiographical look back at life in a working-class Catholic family, ca. 1959, has a strong nostalgic appeal for seniors who recall their childhood in that era, particularly those brought up on the Baltimore Catechism by stern-faced, black-draped nuns with clickers in one hand and punishing rulers in the other. The Pazinski clan — Chet, Ellen and their four kids — live over the family tavern, here denoted by a large lighted Hamm’s Beer sign at stage right. Designer Ian Zywica’s 1950s apartment set has an authentic, if too-affluent feel.

The irascible Chet runs the not overly-successful bar, with unreliable help from his never-seen Pop, and takes his frustrations out verbally on his family. He’s better than his own father because he doesn’t have a drinking problem and he doesn’t hit his kids, but — as his wife offends by reminding him — he also doesn’t hold them first in his thoughts. By paying their tuition to Catholic school, he considers he’s done his duty, and it’s the nuns’ job to shape their character.

He’s so short-tempered that his youngest son, 12-year-old Rudy, literally prays to Jesus for Dad to be in a good mood. Rudy, a bright young wiseacre, isn’t content to follow along placidly where his older siblings and parents have gone before him. In between doing Ed Sullivan impersonations, he takes a literal look at what the nuns are teaching, and questions not only their word, but the religion itself.

If you’re under 60 and didn’t go to Catholic school, what does “Over the Tavern” have to offer you? While there’s a certain universalism to Rudy’s religious rebellion, ordinarily the charm of this play lies in fast and furious repartee and engaging performances from cute kids. Yet there’s little furor in John Gawlik‘s version, which seems slow-paced and cleaned up.

RudywithNun One point of this play is to showcase a high-pitched, rough-and-tumble 1950s that wasn’t like its TV depictions — Rudy’s prayer includes a request to turn his father into Robert Young, the mild-mannered star of the sitcom “Father Knows Best.” Yet Scott Cummins’ reserved Chet makes us wonder what Rudy’s afraid of.

Stacy Stoltz plays his wife as a kind of understated Mary Tyler Moore, resigned, rather than fiery. Most disappointingly, Renee Matthews, normally a vibrant performer, seems listless and stiff as Sister Clarissa, the termagant nun determined to school Rudy in his catechism at all costs.

Picking on a 13-year-old makes me feel meaner than Sister Clarissa, but while Gabriel Harder makes no missteps in the central role, neither is he so engaging as to keep us captivated with Rudy’s prankishness. Rudy needs more piss and vinegar.

As Rudy’s less-bright older brother, 16-year-old Alex Adams is also restrained, though he does give us some convincing moments of teenage angst. Katrina Syrriss seems colorless as the boys’ sister.

The only stirring performance is that of Daniel Velisek, who does a credible and compelling job with the rather limited role of Georgie, their mentally challenged brother.

Rating: ★★½


REVIEW: The 101 Dalmatians (Broadway in Chicago)

Children’s classic turned stage tragedy

 James Ludwig & The Company

Broadway in Chicago presents:

The 101 Dalmatians Musical

Based on “101 Dalmatioas” by Dodie Smith
Book adapted by BT McNicholl
Music by Dennis DeYoung
Lyrics by DeYoung and McNicholl
Directed by Jerry Zaks

Through February 28th (more info, tickets)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Lest you confuse it with the classic Disney animated movie “101 Dalmatians,” the marquee in front of the Cadillac Palace proclaims that The 101 Dalmatians Musical  is within. Although to be sure, 1961’s more simply titled version also had music.  But that nearly 50-year-old gem is to the new Broadway in Chicago touring production what a real dog is to a pet rock. There is more suspense, heart and humor in the opening credits of 101 Dalmatians the movie than there is in the whole of The 101 Dalmatians the musical. 

Kristen Beth Williams - ect To be fair, my 8-year-old consultant on the project liked the stage show. But he wasn’t thrilled, as he was with Lookingglass Alice at Lookingglass, swept wholly away as he was with the Goodman’s A Christmas Carol or completely delighted as he was with Mary Poppins. Kids are smart – they can intuit when something’s being dumbed down for their supposed benefit. And make no mistake: Novelist Dodie Smith’s tale of noble canines and evil dognappers has been dumbed down horrendously. The original (both book and movie) were clever, cute and genuinely heart-warming. The touring show is shrill, condescending and precious. It is also a crass, obvious and cheaply produced attempt to make money. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with shows whose raison d’être is to make money. But when the fiscal concerns are more apparent than the artistic concerns, you’ve got a dog that don’t hunt. 

The cheapness of The101 Dalmatians Musical is apparent in both the cast and the production values. Led by a screechy Sara Gettelfinger as fur fetishist Cruella (replacing the originally announced Rachel York in the role), the ensemble performs at the level one might expect from a middle school variety show. It’s an Equity show, but you’d never guess that based on Warren Carlyle’s charmless choreography, Dennis DeYoung’s forgettable score and the mugging acting style favored by director Jerry Zaks.

The brief moments when the canine caper transcends the abrasive mediocrity that dominates the production arrive with the real Dalmatians. There’s a tease at the end of the first act, as the pooches pose in a tableau that sends the audience out to intermission on a high note. The dogs also get the spotlight (no pun intended) in an epilogue of clever animal tricks. Opening night, however, that final scene only highlighted the sloppiness of the humans involved with the show. This happened when a Dalmatian bounded out, got up on her hind legs and seemed to unfurl a window awning by turning a wheel of some sort. The illusion would have been pleasantly diverting if the person actually manipulating the window treatment had stayed out of sight. She didn’t, cruelly stealing the dog’s sunshine.

Catia Ojeda, Jeff Scott Carey & James Ludwig Madeleine Doherty, Mike Masters, Kristen Beth Williams, Erin Maguire & James Ludwig
The Company 3 The Company

As for the rest of the two-legged ensemble, director Zaks has the cast collectively subscribing to the louder-is-better school of acting. Every character is underwritten and broadly (over)played. Book writer BT McNicholl seems oblivious to the fact that character counts and simplicity doesn’t mean stupid, not even in the most fundamental children’s picture books. (Look at Where the Wild Things Are – a scant paragraph of prose, and a world entirely of unforgettable characters)  McNicoll reduces Smith’s story to a parade of flashy costumes and obvious punchlines.  Curiously, he doesn’t skimp on the sado-masochistic elements of the tale. One expects some frank talk about skinning puppies and turning them into gloves. But what’s with stressing Cruella’s violent death and having her cackle with unbridled glee as she discovers that she loves the sensation of flames devouring her flesh? Joel Blum & Emma ZaksFor a kid’s show, that’s just weird. And unless your name is Lemony Snicket, not entirely appropriate.

As for the corps of children playing the puppies, they’re burdened both with that drearily dumb book and choreography that will provide audience members of a certain age a flashback to Zoom, that ‘70s show that captivated Junior High School Nation back in the day with its Up-With-People-Lite dance routines and cereal box brand of relentless perkiness. The Dalmatian Musical kids are capable, but at Broadway in Chicago prices, one expects an ensemble that transcends your basic middle school aesthetic.

On the plus side, The 101 Dalmatians Musical does have a clever design concept. The actors playing humans are all on stilts, which provides the audience with a dogs’-eye-perspective on matters. Robert Morgan’s costumes and Heidi Ettinger’s oversize sets are original. And distracting. After the initial laugh was over, we found we spent an inordinate amount of time pondering where the actors’ real legs ended and where their stilt legs began. Also, how those gigantic shoes worked. Moreover, choreographer Carlyle can only do so much with performers on stilts, so the dancing never gets much more elaborate than a JV squad pom-pom routine.

Finally, there’s the puppies not played by kids. As newborns, the Dalmatians look like dead mops. Which, as descriptions go, might not make sense to those who haven’t seen The 101 Dalmatians Musical. But look like dead mops they do. And it is oh so very difficult to invest in a story that begins with the premise that one should care about a basket of fugly cleaning equipment.  


The 101 Dalmatians Musical continues through Feb. 28 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 154 W. Randolph. Tickets are $18 $85, more if you want the Broadway in Chicago Concierge experience. For more information click here or go to or or by calling 800/775-2000.   

James Ludwig & The Company 2

View (2010-02) The 101 Dalmations Musical

Sunday Night Sondheim: Bring Me My Bride

Something Happened on the Way to the Forum

“Bring Me My Bride”

Roman Captain Miles Gloriosos portrayed as comically under-tall by actor Ed Huether. Directed by Bob Butterley.

REVIEW: The Damnation of Faust (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

This damnation is visually stunning

 25. Part Four, DAMNATION OF FAUST _CLK6664

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents

The Damnation of Faust

Composed by Hector Berlioz 
Libretto by Berlioz and
Almire Gandonniere
Adapted from
Gerard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust
Stage directed by
Stephen Langridge
Conducted by
Sir Andrew Davis
through March 17th
(more info, tickets)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Multi-colored saber lights, pole dancing and life-size shadowboxes, Lyric Opera of Chicago puts a modern twist on a legendary tale in The Damnation of Faust. Composed by Hector Berlioz, The Damnation of Faust was first conceived as an “opera concert” but later termed a “legend dramatique.” Sung in French with projected English titles, the show is nineteen scenes presented in four parts with an epilogue.

21. Paul Groves, DAMNATION OF FAUST  _BLK4499 In Goethe’s epic, Faust is seduced by Mephistopheles and falls for the woman of his dreams, Marguerite. Mephistopheles plays matchmaker and arranges the meeting. Faust seduces Marguerite. After the loving, Faust leaves her. Obsessed with passionate memories, Marguerite goes crazy waiting for Faust to return. In her fervor, she accidentally kills her mother and is condemned to die. To save Marguerite, Faust signs over his soul to Mephistopheles. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Damnation of Faust is a familiar story dressed up with a dazzling light show.

Not quite operatic, this legend dramatique has several long musical melodies without any singing. Susan Graham (Marguerite) sings for the first time in part three, scene ten. Along with Paul Groves (Faust), Graham sings a passionate duet “Ange adore.” Clad in a purple shiny suit, (Mephistopheles) John Relyea’s booming voice commands the stage dominion. Christian Van Horn (Brander) also establishes a strong presence with his sporadic moments of song. Singing, however, takes a secondary role in this current production of The Damnation of Faust. Hell, it’s all about the visual!

The production set debuting in The Damnation of Faust is fantastic. George Souglides (set and costume designer), Wolfgang Gobbel (lighting designer) and John Boesche (projection designer) have teamed up to add contemporary layers to the traditional 1800’s backdrop for this story. The fresh approach is immediately apparent as the show opens. Surrounded in dramatic black, the set is a life-size shadowbox. Ten feet above stage level, it houses Faust in an office cubicle with projections of his computer typing. This amazing shadowbox technique is utilized in different scenes, decreasing and increasing depending on the action. Setting the tone with illumination are these magnificent overhead lights suspended on wires. Moving up and down and tilted sideways, these fun techno-color changing lights are surreal in an almost cartoonish way. The renovation of the classic continues with peasants being re-imagined as office drones. The orchestration of a dream sequence using duplicate characters and repetitive motion in a perfectly synchronized fashion is fascinating.

07. Part Two, DAMNATIONO OF FAUST _BLK4313 13. Susan Graham, John Relyea, DAMNATION OF FAUST _BLK4404
01. Paul Groves, DAMNATION OF FAUST  _LHK5284 20. Part Three, DAMNATION OF FAUST _CLK6536

Onstage, the pacing and choreography of The Damnation of Faust appears flawlessly in sync (choreography by Philippe Giraudeau). Offstage, they may have been dealing with some issues. For opening night, there were some distractive pauses between scenes… sometimes even when there wasn’t an apparent set change. The curtains closed, and the audience awkwardly waited in the dark. Most notably, the pause stretched five minutes before the final scene. When the curtain finally rose, a herd of children are shepherded on to the stage. Although the kids add a dimension to the celestial chorus, their presence may be causing a diversion from the movement. Or maybe the kids weren’t the issue. The clunkiness could be the bi-product of a nineteen scene show. Regardless, The Damnation of Faust is a hell-of-a stunning visual. To calm the devil inside, be patient with scene transitions and read the story synopsis in the program. 

Rating: ★★★½

Performed in French with English Titles

Running Time: Two hours and fifty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission and several scene transition pauses


View (2010-02) The Damnation of Faust - Lyric Opera


Continue reading

REVIEW: The Island (Remy Bumppo)

Friendship comes first in revival of Fugard prison drama


Remy Bumppo presents:

The Island

by Athol Fugard
directed by James Bohnen
through March 7th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Athol Fugard’s The Island begins with prisoners Winston (Kamal Angelo Bolden) and John (La Shawn Banks) shoveling sand into wheelbarrows on opposite sides of the stage. When each prisoner’s wheelbarrow is full, he empties it into the other man’s freshly dug pit, returns to his original position, and then repeats the entire process. their only redemption the foreman’s whistle. This opening sequence is monotonous and continues for nearly ten minues, but is extremely effective in showing how South Africa’s Robben Island prison exhausted its population into complacency. When not being mentally and physically tortured, the two cell mates rehearse a stripped-down Antigone for the prison’s talent show, with Winston as Antigone, much to his disdain, and John as her dominating uncle Creon.

The relationship between these two men is the anchor of the production, directed by James Bohnen, and Banks brings a mature, caring energy to the stage that nurtures Bolden’s more brutish Winston. What this season’s FugardChicago mini-festival – which includes Timeline Theatre‘s Master Harold…and the Boys  (currently playing) and Court Theatre‘s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (this past May) – has shown thus far is the playwright’s ability to develop beautiful friendships from the dreary circumstances of apartheid South Africa, and the two actors of The Island capture the complicated dynamics of their characters’ friendship.

The Island, like most of Fugard’s work, is heavy on political commentary, and while the writing is intelligent and thought-provoking, the language often becomes very formal, too much like a reading of an essay rather than real human dialogue. During the performance of Antigone this feels appropriate, but feels out of place when it appears in the scenes of the two men speaking casually, and Fugard’s intellectual perception of prison ends up sacrificing much of the visceral pain seen in the opening in favor of bookish monologues that veer into heady territory.


Athol Fugard is able to probe into the emotional damage inflicted by the prison system when John learns that his sentence has been reduced, joyous news that means an end to the bond that Winston and he have formed over the past two years. Bolden’s reaction is pitch-perfect, and the overwhelming sense of hope and relief shared by the two actors in the initial moments following the announcement is one of the show’s highlights. But as the painful reality of Winston’s life sentence begins to sink in, envious feelings become hostility, putting the duo’s production of Antigone at risk. As the men overcome their anguish and shame together, they reveal how friendship can heal the broken spirit, a theme so prevalent in the playwright’s work that it must be true.


Rating: ★★½


Creative Team: Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, John Kami (playwrights), James Bohnen (Director), JR Lederie (Light Design), Tim Morrison (Set Design), Rachel Laritz (Costume Design), Victoria Delorio (Sound Design)

Cast: La Shawn Banks, Austin Talley, Kamal Angelo Bolden

 Recommended production links: