REVIEW: Ragtime (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Drury Lane scores big with epic musical “Ragtime”

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Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
Ragtime
 
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
by
Terrance McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)
directed/choreographed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook (map)
through May 23 (more info)

By Katy Walsh

‘What can happen in a year?’ Father’s question is an expectation that life is simple and predictable.

BF1C0838 The reality is birth, death, emancipation, persecution, obsession, syncopation. In 1906, the regularity in life takes unexpected turns as Drury Lane Oakbrook presents Ragtime The Musical. The show focuses on the lives of three groups: WASPs, blacks, and immigrants. In the New York suburbs, a wealthy family breaks the monotony with wild excursions and celebrity stalking. In Harlem, a successful black piano player decides to search for his lost love. Just off the boat, an Jewish immigrant artist and his daughter arrive with nothing but optimistic anticipation. Three distinctly different rhythms unexpectedly intersect to create a new tune. Ragtime celebrates a year in American history by paralleling the adaption of ragtime music with socio-economic changes of the time period. The results are a stunning history lesson intertwined with melodies of hope and change.

Under the skillful direction and choreography of Rachel Rockwell, the tempo never misses a beat. Rockwell strikes all the right notes with this multi-talented cast. Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) is the powerhouse of emotional range in song and act. His tune changes throughout the show – regret, love, vengeance. Darrington connects the audience with his story based on heart wrenching hope. His “The Wheels of a Dream” duet with Valisia LeKae (Sarah) is flawless. LeKae is a perfect match-up and their onstage chemistry is the epic-love-story-kind. Cory Goodrich (Mother) is marvelous in an understated and nonchalant way. Goodrich’s character changes her family’s life dramatically with simple choices. Her transformation is most baffling to Father played by Larry Adams. In a pivotal song, Adams is perplexed as he sings, ‘I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play different music.’

With inspirational paternal love, Mark David Kaplan (Tateh) chases a train for a teary-eyed audience impact. Alongside the principals, smaller and famous roles engage curiosity. Emma Goldman (Catherine Lord) influences as a social reformer. Evelyn Nesbit (Summer Naomi Smart) is the Brittany Spears of the time period…whee! Harry Houdini (Stef Tovar) mystifies as a successful immigrant. Booker T. Washington (James Earl Jones II) commands integration and respect.

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Surprisingly, this blockbuster musical starts with a stark stage. The introduction of characters is a popped up portrait of perfection. Literally, group entrances are elevated from below stage. As the three groups multiply across the stage, the unique flair of costume distinction, designed by Santo Loquasto, is a spectacular visual. Costumes, projections, lighting, moments of tasty eye candy decorate this show. From silhouettes marching to swimmers bathing, the imagery dances to the ragtime.

And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime. Giving the nation a new syncopation.  The people called it Ragtime!’

Paralleling life’s happenstance, my performance had some twists not necessarily planned. There seemed to be an issue with lighting up the solo singers in the first few scenes. A momentary blip broke the backdrop illusion with a ‘Microsoft word computer screen’ projection. Initially, the audio seemed hollow. I was uncertain if it was a microphone or acoustic issue. It either cleared up or my engrossment made it a moot point. All in all, this production was amazing. It left me reinforced that a gesture of kindness changes life’s courses and bewildered about men’s obsessions with cars.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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REVIEW: Ring around the Guillotine (Chemically Imbalanced)

Time travel for the jilted

 

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Chemically Imbalanced Theater presents
 
Ring Around the Guillotine
 
Written by Chris Tawfik and Anthony Ellison
Directed by Anthony Ellison
at
CI Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park (map)
through May 23rd (more info)

By Katy Walsh

The cure for being dumped? Finding love in an unexpected place and time… like a prison 600 years ago. Chemically Imbalanced Theater presents Ring Around The Guillotine, a lustful comedy about time travel. In modern day, Tyler is drinking away her break-up. Her supportive coworker gives her a gift of an antique ring and rose. Putting on the ring, Tyler is transported back in time to Magical France. The country is in duress. The queen and king are mourning the death of their daughter and lamenting the ambitions of their son, Carvier. Tyler beams into Carvier’s jail cell, who has been sentenced to the guillotine for killing his love, Princess Camille. Tyler is Camille’s splitting image. Ring Around The Guillotine is a soap operatic comedy with new age mystique against a renaissance backdrop.

This cast knows how to have a good time. They’re trying to not only crack up the audience, but also each other. Emily Harpe (Tyler) is hilarious as a messy drunk rebounder. Ashley Thornton (Beth) is the career-minded pizza manager with amusing fixations on her employees and work policies. Ross Compton (Randy) animates his scenes with chuckle-worthy delivery. Guillotine-licking Mat Labotka (Felipe) is the creepy prince playing over-the-top queen to Connor Tillman’s (Chester) straight man. Tillman’s dead pan slaps the punch line. The entire ensemble, with collective bios boasting extensive improv training, is a riot!

cic From the moment of arrival, you’re plunged into two stories. The contemporary story is relatable. Jilted girl, weirdo manager, pizza – got it. The period piece story is more challenging. It’s elegantly delivered by Jo Scott (Queen) and Martin Monahan (King), but the significance of what is occurring isn’t quickly digestible. Anthony Ellison directed and co-wrote Guillotine with Chris Tawfik The basic story is interesting and the dialogue is witty. At the same time, however, some of the initial scenes in Magical France don’t explain the set up clearly. The back and forth time travel adds to the delayed clarity. Scene changes go dark; a few of the transitions seem unnecessarily long. But this is allayed by the fact that energetic Cyndi Lauper soundbites fill the transitions, so “She Bops” provides a necessary distraction from an over-long break. Pop music, gags galore, people making out – Chemically Imbalanced Theater has invited you to party with them. Plus it’s BYOB and they’ll provide the entertainment.

 

 
Rating: ★★½
 

Running April 9-May 23. Fri & Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm. Tickets $15. Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: Abe’s in a Bad Way (Free Street Theater)

The American psyche exposed in “Abe”

 Amber Smith as Abe, and ensemble. Photo credit: Anita Evans 

 
Free Street Theater presents
 
Abe’s in a Bad Way
 
directed by Anita Evans
at
Pulaski Park Field House, 1419 W. Blackhawk (map)
through April 17th (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

In every collective conscious experience, there is a print left on the human psyche so that everyone is feeling that thing in a familiar way. Some will say that they can’t put a name to it until another experience comes to clarify what occurred. A light bulb goes on and one is left wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The very talented performers of the youth ensemble of Free Street Theater have provided a brilliant exposure of Abraham Lincoln with Abe’s in a Bad Way

abeflagThis production is called a string musical installation and stretches the boundaries of what is called theater. One is spellbound experiencing the performers’ revelation of Abraham Lincoln’s last days – done with impeccable timing and flashes of dark humor. 

The action starts with a vignette from the play Our American Cousin, which was playing at the Ford Theater on that fateful night. It is a funny enactment of what was most definitely mediocre 19th-century theater. When the shot rings out, the scene is set for the an entire country in the state of shock. The sound of the Long String instruments, a guitar, and box/block percussion provide a stirring dirge-like atmosphere. A doctor appears downstage to add a leit motif of dialogue, detailing the President’s last hours. It is factual and yet haunting to hear what is discovered to be the actual medical transcription of Lincoln’s heart rate, respiration, and pulse.

There are projections upstage that show Lincoln’s personal life as well as the history of his days in office. We see through these images not only a country dealing with grief and sadness over the assassination, but also the grief and mourning of his family. Ultimately it is shown that Lincoln dealt with through constant grief and depression all while governing a nation divided. His marriage to Mary Todd was seen as a sudden decision and their union was fraught with tragedy and division.

The show’s depiction of the stages of depression and anger is a very intense experience. A player sits in the iconic pose of the Lincoln Memorial in a rail back chair while being berated with a twisted ‘this is your life Abe’ tirade. There is a young woman sitting at the foot of the President who taunts Lincoln (Amber Smith) with the details of his sudden marriage and children’s deaths. Then there is what was perceived to be his political failures recited as a bitter litany. His failure to be elected senator and a hard fought national election of which the result was immediate secession by Southern states and the Civil War. The sepia toned daguerreotypes on the screen behind project pictures of his children, along with images from Civil War battles, piles of bodies stacked into piles, make the era seem more current than ages ago.

AbeIndexWeb Another wonderful scene involves the ghost of Lincoln’s son Willie, standing in front of his gravestone, comforting his father with talk about heaven. A haunting tune is sung in the background as Willie tells the dying president that being dead is easy. As the doctor pronounces Lincoln dead, the ensemble takes the stage and echoes the dying breath in relief and acceptance to an adaptation of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain” set to music.

The performances of these young people are professional and on a par with the most stringently trained Method actors. At a post show talk about their creative process, it suddenly occurred to me that these were teenagers. The crackling energy and excitement of being on stage was running through the room. They explained how they created Abe’s in a Bad Way. This is a product of extensive research on depression and the details that made up the life of Lincoln and his family. Also explained were some of the nuts and bolts of blocking on stage, and the stream of consciousness and improvisation that went into creating the dialogue and physical movement for the different stages of grief. Also present were Director Anita Evans and Musical Director Stone to answer questions or elaborate on the process of creating this production. Stone’s musical resume includes performance with String Theory Productions. The instruments sat on a coffin base and an antique trunk surrounded by American flag bunting. They look liked deconstructed pianos, a ghostly blend of harmonica, violin, zither, and percussion. Ms. Evans seemed to have a disciplined yet very respectful approach to working with these young actors, which definitely shines through in the finished product. This is not cute children’s theatre – the future is now with these performers and I expect that we will be hearing from them again and again. In fact, some of the company is traveling to Thailand to create a production with Makhampon Theater in Chiang Dao, Thailand.

The performers are as follows: Chance Damon, River Damon, Danielle Davis, Sophia de Oliveria, Summer Edmonds, Giovanni Gonzalez, Karina Gonzalez, Arden Harris, Linda Millan, Nemeh Morrar, Amber Smith, and Brittany Ward. The talented ensemble also wrote the play with assistance from Director Evans and excerpts from writings about Abraham Lincoln. I encourage you to see this production. Free Street Theater is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year – 40 years of nationally-acclaimed productions and some very gifted performers. I was a day camp kid on a field trip to Ravinia in 1970 when I first saw Free Street. I had seen big productions in the Loop and still I thought Free Street was the coolest thing running. I had the same feeling some 40 (what??!) years later.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Abe’s in a Bad Way runs through April 17th. Friday’s at 7:00 and Saturday’s at 2:00. Free Street is located at 1419 W. Blackhawk on the 3rd floor of the Pulaski Park Field House. Call 773-772-7248 or www.freestreet.org

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Free Street Theater penetrates the mind of one miserable man who lived to make one nation indivisible.