REVIEW: Cabaret (The Hypocrites’)

Willkommen to a darker, sexier ‘Cabaret’

 

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The Hypocrites Theatre presents
 
Cabaret
 

Book by Joe Masteroff
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Directed by Matt Hawkins
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)

through May 23rd | tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The first thing you will notice about The Hypocrites’s production of Cabaret is the genderbending. The scene-stealing role of the emcee, who has been played by everyone from Joel Gray to Alan Cumming to Neil Patrick Harris, is now played by a woman (Jessie Fisher). And whereas the men always brought a certain effeminacy to the role, Fisher brings a cocky butchness without sacrificing her sensuality.

TheHypocrites_Cabaret_03 You could view this casting call as a way to pander to a more general audience, eliminating the homosexual overtones of the show’s ringmaster. But The Hypocrites’ version of the piece is still rife with in-your-face graphic gay sexuality, from the lingering kiss between the American Cliff (Michael Peters) and one of the cabaret boys to the completely unsubtle choreography, which includes a lot of mock copulation.

In fact, if anything, the choice to womanize the emcee adds an additional thematic element to the play, one that promotes the strength and courage of women and the misogyny of the Nazi state. This is most effective during the song “I Don’t Care Much.” Director Matt Hawkins places four masked Nazi soldiers around the emcee who watch her with cold, dead eyes. The emcee staggers around the stage, spitting at the men as she taunts them with the lyrics of the song, knowing full well that she is writing her own death sentence.

Fisher exudes confidence as the nightclub’s central figure She also has a clever wit, ad-libbing occasionally during some of the more light-hearted numbers such as “Willkommen.” Like her carriage on stage, her voice is vigorously energetic, proving to be one of the strongest in the cast.

Lindsay Leopold plays the manic Sally Bowles with feral-like fierceness. The character of Sally spans a spectrum of emotion, oftentimes displaying two distinct feelings at once: her external exuberance and her inner depression. Leopold straddles this spectrum well. For example, her rendition of “Cabaret” is not the joyful melody you may recall from the movie. Rather, it’s a melancholy rendition made all the more poignant when contrasted with the upbeat lyrics.

The costumes in the musical are basically a character unto themselves. Costume designer Alison Siple creates a cohesive aesthetic that combines ruffles and rags with garters and lace. The women look simply fantastic. However, the men did not get the same treatment. Whereas the women’s flamboyant costumes genuinely reflect the sexy cabaret atmosphere, the men’s costumes seem more like cartoonish afterthoughts.

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Hawkins direction is superb. The play moves along quickly, juggling various plotlines from the rise of the Nazi regime to Sally’s love affair with Cliff to the engagement of the landlady Frau Schneider. But it never feels hurried. The staging is also impressive. At the beginning of the play, the cabaret girls make grand entrances by sliding down poles, while near the end, the faceless Nazi guards stand menacingly along the catwalk above the stage.

The play is also done in a cabaret setting, providing ample intimacy for the audience and performers. Although most of the audience is relegated to risers, a few lucky patrons are able to sit at tables along the stage.

The Hypocrites Theatre’s production of Cabaret is dark, sexy and fabulous. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see the play in an intimate, cabaret-like setting, this is your chance. With great direction, singing and revealing costumes, the show will titillate and entertain before crash-landing into its inevitable, disturbing conclusion.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

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REVIEW: Moses in Egypt (Chicago Opera Theater)

Rossini’s “Moses” soars from darkness to redemption

 

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Chicago Opera Theater presents
 
Moses in Egypt
 
Composed by Gioacchino Rossini
Musical Direction by Leonardo Vordoni
Directed by Andrew Eggert
through April 25th  (more info)

Reviewed by Mark D. Ball

Tragic love is an alluring theme. It’s even more alluring when the context is something to which we can react viscerally, especially when we can blame it for the lovers’ agony. There were Romeo and Juliet, destroyed by the seething hatred between their families; Vronsky and Anna, trapped in a hypocritical and harshly unforgiving society; Abélard and Héloïse, victims of a brutal religious culture; Rodolfo and Mimì, torn apart by the petulance and perilousness of bohemian life.

Photo 6 So it is with Rossini’s Moses in Egypt, a melodramatic tale of forbidden love between Elcia, a Hebrew slave girl, and Osiride, son of Pharoah, set against the epic struggle of the Israelites to escape their bondage in Egypt. In fact, the connection between our lovers and the Exodus itself is what defines the tragedy, the outcome of a collision between arrogance and wrath on one side, and loyalty and devotion on the other.

To me, regrettably, Chicago Opera Theater’s current production of Moses fails as a love story. This is unfortunate because much of the opera focuses on the doomed couple. But with a nod to the redemption that comes at the end of the story, the production soars in nearly every other respect. It presents a fresh, lean, musically interesting opera with an exciting variety of voices, a dazzling minimalist set, costumes that create the illusion of shifting colors, and an orchestra that plays crisply and attentively. The flaws, which include some strained symbolism, were not difficult to overlook.

Taylor Stayton, who played Osiride, and Siân Davies, as Elcia, sang their roles with individual success, but left me unconvinced that their characters were in love. Of the two, though, it was Stayton whom believability eluded. And this is ironic because his performance otherwise sparkled. Stayton’s tenor voice was effulgent and powerful Photo 3 from top to bottom, yet agile enough for bel canto acrobatics. He sings with brio, and his accuracy is impressive in the musical leaping this role requires. Although his characterization was appropriately conceited (presumably) for a prince of Egypt, Stayton uncovers some unexpected depth in this tormented young man and uses his vocal skill to highlight Osiride’s emotional instability.

Davies’ voice is strong and expressive, though her vibrato sounds shaky and uncontrolled at the top of her range. Her Elcina was gentle, loving, and dutiful, so much so, in fact, that the contrast with Stayton’s volatile Osiride makes their putative love all the more puzzling. Additionally, I must admit to hoping that Davies would take Elcina in the direction of delirium, alluding to Lucia di Lammermoor, but she chose not to do so.

In the role of Moses is Andrea Concetti, whose rich basso has the stentorian resonance necessary for authoritative declamations. Tom Corbeil sings Pharoah, creating a credibly indecisive hand-wringing quasi-villain who stands in opposition to his queen, the realistic and prudent Amaltea, a role that Kathryn Leemhuis sings beautifully. Tenor Jorge Prego, who sings Aaron, has a voice that isn’t to my taste, though the audience seemed to enjoy it. Moreover, he awkwardly missed his pitch a few times.

The principals are musically gracious in their ensembles. They clearly listen to each other, blend smoothly for unity of sound, and yield for individual emphasis. The result is energetic, colorful, textured singing of breathtaking elegance.

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In Act I, the dramatic transformation from darkness to light as God restores the sun over Egypt, symbolized by the key change from minor to major, is sleek and sharply synchronized. Whether intentionally or not, the production honors the well-known similarity between this moment in the opera and Haydn’s Creation to engender a brief but genuinely stirring experience − even for a nonbeliever who appreciates the metaphor of it all. The key change and the orchestra’s swell in these few seconds even brings to mind Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

So engaging is the performance, so eloquent the singing, that by the final curtain, the production’s weak portrayal of love fades into insignificance. I wonder whether this means that Moses isn’t so much a love story superimposed on the Exodus as it is an example of how our focus can inflate the importance of any individual at any point in human history. Along that line, I’m reminded of another doomed love affair that ends with the smart little dictum that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

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REVIEW: Heaven Can Wait (Attic Playhouse)

Still earthbound in Highwood

 

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Attic Playhouse presents
 
Heaven Can Wait
 
By Harry Segall
Directed by Catherine Davis; assisted by Lauren Friedman
Attic Playhouse, 410 Sheridan Road, Highwood (map)
Through May 30 | Tickets: $20 advance, $22 door | more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

I recently wrote that there’s good theater beyond the city limits, and so there is. And there’s bad and uneven theater in the city. Yet unsuccessful urban and suburban Chicagoland productions typically show distinct differences.

attic_Ken_Gayton___Brendan_Hutt___Heaven_Can_Wait_1_ In the city, directors tend to be daring, premiering new plays and trying new treatments of old ones, and problems usually center on scripts or staging. In the suburbs, directors will more likely go for the tried-and-true. While occasionally they flub the treatment, the most severe flaws in suburban shows typically lie in the acting. Do suburban stages have trouble attracting the talent performing in urban storefronts, or are their directors just not skilled enough to make the most of it? I can’t tell.

Heaven Can Wait is a perfect example. Chicago playwright Harry Segall’s 1938 classic, the basis for four films — the Academy Award-winning “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941) and “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), and the two versions of “Down to Earth” in 1946 and 2001 – is a sweet, silly comedy, the unlikely story of Joe Pendleton, a 23-year-old New Jersey palooka "collected" by heaven 60 years before his allotted time, and therefore allowed to reanimate a recently murdered, crooked banker. His host body’s wife and secretary are still bent on finishing him off; he falls in love with a young woman whose father the financier has railroaded into jail; and, intent on resuming his boxing career, he enlists his deceased self’s incredulous agent, Max Levene, to book a fight for the millionaire.

The cast ranges from excellent to eh. Andrew J. Pond (recently seen in Out of Order (our review ★★★★) at Arlington Heights’ Metropolis Performing Arts Centre) plays Levene in keenly expressive comic style, smooth, natural and so far outshining the other actors that it makes you wonder what he’s doing in this show.

The rest do mostly OK, but they have an unfortunate tendency to lapse into that awkwardly self-conscious, artificial delivery I can only describe as, "Look, Ma, I’m acting!"

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Still, Ken Gayton is so adorable as Joe we can overlook that he chews the scenery as much as he pounds the punching bag. As the homicidal Mrs., Kimberley Hellem’s wonderfully mobile face makes up for her stiffness otherwise, and Brendan Hutt, as the heavenly guide Mr. Jordan, and Evan Voboril, as the murderous secretary, achieve subtlety more often than not. Probably, they’ll all loosen up as the production continues.

Director Catherine Davis’s effective staging makes the most of Attic’s small space. She has, however, taken Segall’s three-act play and reconfigured it into two, dividing the original second act in the middle, to the detriment of suspense. Whatever time savings she realized thereby were lost in slow pacing.

If not quite celestial, Heaven Can Wait still offers plenty of down-to-earth entertainment. The seats are cheap and the parking is free, so if you’re around the North Shore, have a look. You could pay more for worse in the city.

 
  
Rating:  ★★½
 
  
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Theater Thursday: 6 Dead Queens (Piccolo Theatre)

Thursday, April 22

 

Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry
 
Originally created by Foursight Theatre, UK
at Piccolo Theatre, 600 Main Street, Evanston (map)

sixdeadqueensCome to Piccolo Theatre for a hilarious Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry! which is packed with intrigue, rowdy good humor and duels of words. Then stay after the show for a meet-n-greet with the cast and enjoy Tudor-style snacks and desserts including Gooseberry Pie – appetizers all fit for a Queen!   (Read our review – 3 stars)

Show begins at 8 p.m.

Event begins immediately following the performance

TICKETS ONLY $27 

For reservations call 847.424.0089 and mention “Theater Thursdays” or visit www.piccolotheatre.com.

REVIEW: Cougars! The Musical

She is cougar, hear her roar!

 

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Fireworx Productions presents
 
Cougars! The Musical
 
by Gillian Bellinger and Chuck Malone
directed by
Corey Rittmaster
at
The Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 22nd  |  tickets: $15  more info   

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Gillian Bellinger and Chuck Malone both have long, august (if that is the word) careers in comedy. Their collaboration on their latest creation, Cougars! The Musical has bourn the strangest, wildest, funniest fruit. By all indications, Cougar-fever has hit the Chicago comedy scene with a vengeance. Who needs critical accolades when your second night’s performance is packed to the rafters?

aaa-cougarsposter Three elderly gal pals, Kate (Gillian Bellinger), Lana (Rebecca Montalvo), and Bette (Madeline Wager) are on the prowl for fresh young meat. They even rename their favorite young bartender Meat (Justin Schumann), even though his real name is Kevin. (Hey, it’s good for the meat to know their place.) Meanwhile, Bette’s ex-husband, Frank (Brian Finley), who she divorced 40 years ago over his trysts with a geisha in Nam, still carries a torch for Bette and wants her forgiveness. Can Frank save Bette from Michael (Paul Barrett Ford), Bette’s hot, new, young beau, who has a dark and sinister agenda?

Director Corey Rittmaster’s remarks in the program say it all about Bellinger’s book and lyrics: “ . . . never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that out of that sweet, fresh-faced Texas girl’s imagination would come this incredible homage to depravity and vulgarity.” What must also be acknowledged is the sophistication of Malone’s compositions for this raucous, in-your-face farce. While most comedy reviews content themselves with slap-dash and simple-minded arrangements for tunes, Cougars’ songs sound like they come from, well, a composer. Plus, choreography for the smaller tunes seems on the usual sloppy side of schlock comedy, while in bigger numbers the whole cast pulls together with sharper, more impressive performances.

Here’s where the picky theater reviewer comes in with her annoying critique – but Bellinger and Malone have brought it on themselves. By setting the bar higher in writing and composition, they’ve introduced greater demands upon the cast than might usually be expected from lesser fare. I have no idea how much time was taken in rehearsal, but if any remount of Cougars! The Musical is planned for the future—and why not—then greater care should be taken in more accurate, fully formed characterizations for each role. There’s still more juice to be squeezed from this juicy fruit and there’s no reason to think the current cast couldn’t take it all the way.

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Finally, the slow start to the show on its second night was noticeable—and low energy is always death to comedy review. Ford, as the swindler Michael, picked up the pace considerably with his rocked-out, rotten plans for Bette–“Off That Cougar Whore.” From there, the rest of the cast picked up and took flight. In particular, the cast brought down the house with Frank and Michael’s testosterone sparing match, “Dick to Dick.” Now top that off with acting that echoes the meticulous inflections with the script that Alaina Hoffman shows as Jennifer, Bette’s daughter, and you’ve got sex-crazed comedy that practically passes for ART. OMG! That could be a sign of the Apocalypse—a happy, joyful, cougar-y sign!

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Cougars! The Musical performs every Saturday, April 3rd-May 22nd (Saturday April 17th moved to Friday April 16th)

 

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REVIEW: The Meatlocker (The Mammals Theatre)

Taking risks, The Mammals creates visually terrifying tableau

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The Mammals presents
 
The Meatlocker
 
written/directed by Bob Fisher
at
Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
thru May 14th  | tickets: $20 suggested donation  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

The Meatlocker, the new play written and directed by The Mammals artistic director Bob Fisher is a dark and heady comedic drama set in the creepy world of 1930’s boxing. The play’s titular character, The Meatlocker (Dave Goss), is a boxer who can’t go down for the count. He’s haunted by a demon who warns him that if he stays on meatlocker 014 the floor of the ring until the ref counts to ten, he will never get up again. Tormented by demons and faced with the material world threat of tough guy bookies who want him to take a dive, Meat and his manager, Manny (David Lykins) are men without options. 

In the small black basement that is the Zoo Studio, an opaque shower curtain is all that separates the audience from the deep stage. The back wall is completely lined with news papers. As the first scene opens, Meat is lying on a workout bench, directly under a single yellow light bulb, the only source of illumination in the entire scene. Lovely little risks like this make The Meatlocker one of the most visually intriguing shows of the season. Bob Fisher lingers on visceral images; tableaus of a woman walking alone downs a dark alley; the cold looks in the crowd as a boxer enters the ring, to season the performance. The effects are haunting and engaging, and lend themselves to the overall cartoonishness of this imaginative production. Nothing about this play is subtle, from the staging to the acting to the characters, which like the tableaus they inhabit are painted with the broad strokes.

Stitch, the evil demon played by Adam Dodds (who also designed costumes) has the body of Richard III and the voice of a distorted Jimmy Stewart – which is literally amplified by bizarre and brilliant choice to dress him in a live headset microphone. 

The character of The Meatlocker is a terrified child in the body of a (literally) ice cold man. He is constantly in anguish, addled by the visions of a recurring phantom. The world he lives in, then, is a dark place filled with creatures of the night, human 0oddballs who tempt his sanity as much as the ghost does. Whether or not Stitch is real or not is irrelevant. The play is scary, and thought-provoking in it’s brutality.

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The Meatlocker drips testosterone. The one woman in the play, A.J. The Reporter (strongly played by Nicolle Van Dyke) is as tough, or tougher, than her male counterparts, to the point that she has a late night, dark alley conversation with tough guy Rudy the Rhino (the truly terrifying Gabe Garza), who initiates the conversation by jumping out of the shadows and threatening to rape her. There is not a motivation in the world that would keep a woman in that situation, and this choice may be the weakest moment in the show. The ultra-masculinity of The Meatlocker is what makes it great, but like its hero, it is also its greatest flaw.

 
Rating: ★★★
 
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The Meatlocker runs Friday & Saturday, 8pm, at Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood.  BYOB!  $20 suggested donation.  Reservations can be made by calling 866-593-4614.

Cast:  Roy Gonzalez, Adam Dodds, Fred Mowery, Nicolle Van Dyke, Vinny Lacey, David Lykins, Gene Van Dyke, Gabe Garza

           

REVIEW: Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry (Piccolo Theatre)

A royal cat fight

 

Amy Gorelow as Catherine of Aragon Denita Linnertz as Catherine Parr Brianna Sloane as Jane Seymour
 
Piccolo Theatre presents
 
Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry
 
Created by Foursight Theatre, UK
Devised by the Women of
Piccolo Theatre 
at the
Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main St. (map)
through June 5th | tickets: $15-$20 | more info
 

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Though its been more than 500 years since his rule, England’s King Henry VIII still ranks in the minds of many as one of the most boorish and misogynistic men to ever hold the title of head of state. That’s saying something considering we live in a world that brought us the likes of Attila the Hun, Ivan the Terrible and Adolph Hitler. Yet unlike these other wretched men, there’s always been a bit of a whimsical fascination with Bluff Harry from Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am” to Piccolo Theatre’s production of Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry.

Dani Bryant as Anne Boleyn Originally created by the women of Foursight Theatre in the UK, Six Dead Queens is one part cabaret, one part biography and a whole lot of comedy. It stars the six unfortunate wives of King Henry VIII all forced to spend eternity at a sleepover. Like school-age girls at an overnight, they talk about boys—or rather one particular boy—while poking each other with catty jabs—sometimes in the form of words and sometimes in the form of swords.

The opening scene sets the tone perfectly. As all the women lie concealed under the covers, the silence of the moment is broken by a well-paced series of flatulent outbursts. This dashes any worries that we’re about to be bored by a heady academic romp through history.

Next, each queen is introduced through song. There’s the spicy Spaniard Katherine of Aragon (Amy Gorelow), the beheaded Anne Boleyn (Dani Bryant), little-miss-perfect Jane Seymour (Brianna Sloane), dumb and ugly Anna of Cleves (Leeann Zahrt), the promiscuous Kathryn Howard (Nicole Keating) and the motherly Catherine Parr (Denita Linnertz). The actresses’ multi-part harmony is impressive as is their adeptness with instruments. This talent enhances the humor. What could be funnier than watching the very serious Katherine of Aragon bang out a bass line on an upright?

Characters squabble with one another in catfight fashion. Katherine of Aragon and her successor Anne Boleyn, whom the King tried to court behind Katherine’s back, row as do Boleyn and her successor Jane Seymour, whom bore the King his only son, Prince Edward.

Nicole Keating as Kathryn Howard There’s also ample ganging up. Anna of Cleves gets it the worst, bearing the reputation of being ugly and foul smelling. Her marriage with the King lasted a brief six months, which in the judgmental eyes of the other ladies, makes her inferior.

The play lacks any sort of cohesive plot. Instead, it plays as a series of monologues, musical numbers and sketches. It’s effective for about an hour. But by the end, Six Dead Queens runs out of any new ground to cover.

The actresses all deliver outstanding performances. Through vocal inflection, mannerisms and personality ticks, the women bring to life six unique individuals with completely separate personalities. In addition, the roles call for a sweeping spectrum of dispositions from slaphappy to somber. The performers are able to make the switch effortlessly.

Six Dead Queens is an entertaining intersection of academia and vaudeville. At times uproariously funny, at times remarkably sad, the piece successfully explores how competitiveness can make women their own worst enemies, how comfort can make them their own saviors and how men can be pigs.

 
Rating: ★★★
 
Amy Gorelow as Catherine of Aragon Brianna Sloane as Jane Seymour Dani Bryant as Anne Boleyn Denita Linnertz as Catherine Parr Nicole Keating as Kathryn Howard

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