REVIEW: Jesus Christ Superstar (Theatre at the Center)

Update: Due to a misrepresentation (i.e., error) in our critique of this production, this review has been adjusted to address the inaccuracy.  To Theatre at the Center and the production’s personnel, my apologies.  Scotty Zacher, Editor.

Uneven “Superstar” finishes strong

 

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Theatre at the Center presents
   
Jesus Christ Superstar
  
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by
Tim Rice
Directed by
Stacey Flaster
at
Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge, Munster (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets: $36-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Michael L. Harris

Sitting amongst the mostly 40+ crowd, gathered for the near capacity performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Theatre at the Center, I wanted to love this show. The stage-to-movie musical is certainly a familiar one, with two of the songs – the title song and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” – making it to the Top 10 in the 70’s when it first debuted. In the end, however, the show is a mixed bag.

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 06Musically, the range and quality of voices is quite amazing. Max Quinlan (Jesus) goes from low bass to high falsetto with amazing ease, as does Joe Tokarz as Judas Iscariot, the counter lead.  Problems arise, however, with the gigantic thrust space and the overzealous back-up orchestra that succeeds in swallowing up poor Jesus. These elements tacitly become the superstars; Jesus just a set piece. Given that the score is extremely challenging and the cast is vocally exquisite, it’s unfortunate that dynamically this disparity exists. The actors are isolated and disconnected, both from each other and from the audience. Experts say that much of acting is “reacting,” unfortunately there’s far too little of the latter in this Superstar.

This distancing of the audience is more of a directorial decision than actor disconnection. Indeed, director Stacey Flaster seems to be aiming for distance rather than intimacy.  Objectively, this works with Sanhedrin. When it comes to Jesus, however, one never gets as close as preferred. Indeed, there are moments of splendor, but overall the sheen is more matte than glossy. 

For the most part, the First Act lacks inspiration. After the introduction of the Apostles – which is staged more as a “love in” – there are signs of better performances to come. Audrey Billings‘ (Mary Magdalene) rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is warm and tender. Larry Adams’ Pontius Pilate is spot-on, giving a sense of both the character’s greatness and shortcomings. Adams’ professionalism and stage presence are quite commanding, accentuating what is missing from Quinlan, whose performance shows adroit characterization but seems better suited for film/TV than the stage. Additionally, Steve Genovese steals the show with his second act opener, “King of the Jews” and Jonathan Lee Cunningham delivers a solid rendition as Simon Peter in his credible “Denial” sequence .

 

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The best staging exists within “Could We Start Again, Please.” Both Billings (Mary) and Cunningham (Peter) are at their best in this number, and the entire cast shines as an ensemble, including Quinlan (Jesus), making this by far the apex of the play.

Barry G. Funderburg’s sound design is flawed.  The centralized speaker system – with no side speakers – creates a situation where the orchestra often overpowers the choral work.

Nikki Delhomme’s costume’s are a mishmash – at times delightful; at other times confusing. Delhomme’s concept of universality through an ancient/modern mix generally works, but what’s up with the dress-with-a-funky-hat combo that the Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 08Sanhedrin wear??? I couldn’t help thinking, as the Sanhedrin descended the massive centralize staircase, of the old Lucille Ball sketch where she comes down the stairs with the huge pile of fruit on her head . (Thankfully these women are much more coordinated than Lucy!)

The make-up design is equally confusing. There must be a method to the madness, but the painted kabuki masking on the Sanhedrin principals amounts to overkill.  Conversely, the quasi clown make-up donned by Herod works .

Flaster’s choreography is generally exemplary, but doesn’t always fill the stage. And in some instances – notably during Judas’ famous negotiations with the Sanhedrin – actually blocks the action.

Kudos to Ann N. Davis’ technical direction – rigging and scene changes move seamlessly.

Deficiencies aside, if you’ve never seen the show, and/or are in a retro mood, Jesus Christ Superstar is worth two hours of your time – especially the powerful resurrection of the second act.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
   

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REVIEW: The League of Awesome (Factory Theater)

This “League of Awesome” fails to live up to its name

 

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The Factory Theater presents
   
The League of Awesome
   
Written by Corri Feuerstein and Sara Sevigny
Directed by
Matt Engle
at
Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston  (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

(Before I launch into my review of the Factory Theater’s The League of Awesome, I’d like to thank the theater staff for assisting me after I suffered heat exhaustion the first time I tried to see this play. Like a good critic, I cut out early so as to avoid passing out in the audience and stealing the show, so to speak.)


The idea of staging a comic book must have been alluring to the Factory Theater ensemble.

“We can have sound effects! And fight scenes! And super powers! And title cards!” you can imagine them saying as you watch The League of Awesome, the quirky theater company’s newest comedy about an all-female group that, after banishing their arch-nemesis, finds itself stuck with nothing to do.

DSC_0082 But although these little gimmicks are fun and inventive, they do not make a strong play. A strong play requires a sturdy backbone of a story, and unfortunately, this backbone is fractured. That’s not to say that the supplemental sound effects and superpowers—done in Kabuki fashion where assistants dawn black garb to remain invisible to the audience—don’t intermittently work to their desired effect, but without a captivating context to stick these things into, it’s just a lot of noise and flashy ribbons.

The story centers around the “League of Awesome”, a group of superhuman females that rid the city of crime and super villainy. The Beacon (Corri Feuerstein, who also co-wrote the play) has the power to redirect beams of energy. Cat Scratch (Erin Myers) uses sharp claws to scratch her enemies, while her teammate and thinly veiled lover Rumble (Melissa Tropp) uses her brute strength. Finally, there’s Sylvia (Sara Sevigny, who also co-wrote the play), who has the power to conjure anything at will by preceding it with the words “The way I see it…”

At the play’s opening, the team is combating The Sorrowmaker (Dan Granata), a villain who has the power to make people sad. (Coincidentally, the villain is also the ex-boyfriend of The Beacon.) The team defeats The Sorrowmaker after Sylvia banishes him to the pages of a lost installment of the Hardy Boys series.

One-year later, the league has eliminated all crime, thereby eliminating their usefulness. Now they are bored and drink all day. Then, Sylvia’s sister stops by—a plot point that contributes nothing to the story—and reveals her ability to make people break out into song at will. The characters spend more time drinking and being bored as we the audience are bored along with them, but unfortunately have expired our drinks.

Of course, The Sorrowmaker breaks out and seeks to exact his revenge. Meanwhile, Sylvie drunkenly conjures a new superhero named Ms. Great, whose hard-lined sense of justice and morality would make Jesus feel like a sinner.

There’s more to the story, but it quickly becomes a jumbled morass, with subplots dead-ending, floundering and being forgotten about. There’s just too much going on at once for us to become invested. Will Cat Scratch and Rumble get past their petty fighting and stake their purpose within this story? Will Sylvie’s sister come to terms with her powers and will her character become developed enough for us to care? And why is Sylvie’s proclivity to get drunk such a big part of the first half of the play but is kind of forgotten about in the second half?

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Despite all the flaws in the script, the acting is solid. Granata lays it on thick as the spurned villain. He’s got the maniacal scowl and laugh down to a T. Sevigny’s brashness as Sylvie pays off for its comedic effect. But the biggest show-stealer of all is Wm. Bullion as Gladys, a vagrant and the play’s narrator. His delivery and aloofness is laugh-out-loud funny.

With a much tighter script, The League of Awesome could be an awesome production. It has strong performances, unique effects and interesting fight choreography. But without a reason to care about all the whiz and bang on stage, it plays out like a confusing collage of comic book panels.

   
   
Rating: ★★
      
      

 

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REVIEW: Red Noses (Strawdog Theatre)

Laughing in the face nose of the Black Plague

 

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 2

   
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
RED NOSES
   
Written by Peter Barnes
Directed by Matt Hawkins
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through August 15th |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 1 ‘It’s easy to find someone to share your life with. What about someone to share your death?’  Serious contemplations about the fragility of life get a laugh with the addition of a clown prosthetic.  Strawdog Theatre presents the remount of its successful 2009 production RED NOSES.  14th Century Europe is being plagued with death.  The dying is reaching epidemic proportions.  The survivors are targets for flagellant crazed religious types and victim-hunting scavengers.  From this hopeless void, a joyful priest recruits individuals to fight death with humor.  He forms a traveling troupe of performers to ‘ripple and spread’ amusement across the grieving countryside.   Strawdog’s RED NOSES explores the humorous side of the Black Plague by adding a clown-car-filled cast, jamming it to eighties music and letting death urinate on the wall.

The show starts playfully with a game of toss.  Death arrives with a neon yellow ball. The game becomes deadly.  Victims spew out neon yellow barf.  Game over!  The dying has begun.   Death doesn’t keep anyone down for long.  Zombies rise, dance and sing “Only the Good Die Young.” 

Under the direction of Matt Hawkins, the twenty-three cast members are lively, moving from scene to scene and role to role.  They juggle balls, play instruments, and remove spittle as a tight working ensemble.   It’s all about finding the comedic moment and putting a red nose on it.  Shannon Hoag (Marguerite) is hilarious as the disappointed almost-raped nun.  She belts out a wonderful rendition of “I don’t want to lose your love tonight.”  Sarah Goeden (Bells) and Chelsea Paice (Tricycle Clown Messenger) without a word effectively amuse and communicate with ringing and expressive faces.  Michael E. Smith (Pope) delivers a humorous line and attitude with ‘I don’t have to be wise just decisive.’  It’s the small touches that change dire to funny.  Two amputees do a stub version of a high five.  A blind man calls out a color.  
Death gets his cloak caught in his suitcase.  Cause of death?  Talented cast injects shots of fatal humor.  

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‘If there is life after death, why do we have to die?’ Playwright Peter Barnes penned a tale about laughing in the face of death.  To exploit the absurd, he set it in a plague killing era and added clown noses.  The script could go “Patch Adams” cute as one man’s quest to bring joy to the infirmed.  Strawdog wisely chooses a “Monty Python” approach with comedy influenced by pushing the funny aspect of sensitive content.  Barnes’ play has a propensity to go long and tedious with some productions exceeding a three hour running time.  Even with Mike Przygoda (Music Director) orchestrating the 80’s flashback with a high-energy, live soundtrack, the second act gets a little tiresome with death-defying religious undercurrents. Still, “You gotta have faith!” Strawdog’s RED NOSES is plagued with comedy for whatever ails you! 

 

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Running Time:  Two hours and twenty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission

  
   

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REVIEW: Queertopia (About Face Youth Theatre)

No Fear in Queer

 

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About Face Youth Theatre presents
   
Queertopia
  
Written by Paula Gilovich
Directed by
Sara Kerastas
at
Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted (map)
through July 25  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

About Face Youth Theatre - Queertopia 1Only two performances remain for Queertopia, an ensemble show that belongs exactly where it plays—in darkest Lakeview. Violence against gays and lesbians is the sadly topical subject of this year’s offering from the young people of About Face Theatre. For 80 minutes the frenetic storytellers tear around a stage filled with party balloons and a rolling scaffolding as they create a kind of Queer Love Army who  manage to meet in an abandoned condo in a not so distant dystopia. Like the squatters in “Hair” and “Rent,” they’re the vanguard of a cultural tipping point, even as they testify to their diversity in a series of confessions about what they do whenever they get home. “Out of the mouths of babes” has never felt truer.

Alas, little has changed and issues of gender identity, bullying, homophobia (here the Bible actually becomes a weapon), self-hatred, and harassment of and by minorities crop up as we meet Flea, a boy (the strategically ambiguous Britney Fryer) who while changing his sex falls for a straight girl and cops a dry known as T for testosterone. His new girlfriend incurs the wrath of Teddy (the wonderful Cristian Gorostieta) who finds an improbable common cause with the newly bisexual Lexi (lovely Neomara Serges) who somehow manages to be both Serbian and Bosnian, a truly composite soul.

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Cavorting to simulations of 21st century music videos, using the audiences’ faces as mirrors for their own, or just sleeping in a communal pile, these dozen young actors are all carving out, individually and collectively, their fabulous queer space and standing up to the bashers who want to eliminate it altogether. At its best the play presents a kind of blueprint for a gay community beyond the bars of Boystown that’s as much within as without. The acting, better than in previous Youth Theatre offerings, ultimately carries the day.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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Chicago theater on YouTube (Bailiwick and Steppenwolf)

Bailiwick Chicago’s Aida the Musical: 

 

our review here★★★

 

 

Steppenwolf Theatre’s A Parallelogram

 

 our review here ★★★★

REVIEW: Arizona Lady (Chicago Folks Operetta)

A Rootin’ Tootin’ Hungarian Cowboy Opera

Arizona Lady Cast

   
Chicago Folks Operetta presents
   
Arizona Lady
  
Music by Emmerich Kálmán
Translated by
Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov
Directed by
Bill Walters
Music-Directed by
Samuel-Hilaire Duplessis
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through August 1st  |  tickets: $25-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Even though it is ridiculously sentimental, watching Chicago Folks Operetta put on Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta Arizona Lady had me thinking of Bertolt Brecht. With this work, the Hungarian composer, Kálmán, sets up a counterfeit American landscape, much like Brecht placed In the Jungle of Cities and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in the exotic (to them) United States. The inhabitants of Kálmán’s Arizona proclaim that the state is full of silver, gold, and cowboy songs, instead of water shortages and racial animosities. In a way, director Bill Walters’ production is surreal and oddly captivating, mostly overcoming its amateurish missteps.

The plot follows the classic Viennese operetta structure, revolving around two pairs of lovers, one comic and the other a bit juicier (for the record, I saw the second cast for the show and the names reflect that). Lona (Juliet Petrus) rules over a ranch and possesses the mind of businesswomen, supposedly without any room for talk of love. Despite this, she is reluctantly attracted to the wandering, singing cowpolk Roy (Gerald Frantzen), offering him a job and the task of priming her horse, Arizona Lady (Maray Gutierrez), for the local race. This storyline is crisscrossed with the courtship between young shop-owner Nelly (Kellie Cundiff) and the son of a beef magnate/cattle “intern” Chester (Matthew Dingels). Horse thieves, the Kentucky Derby, law and order, escaping to Mexico, and Prohibition all stir up the love stories, resulting in a cute, if somewhat vapid, tale of the Old West that never existed.

This fictional world is actually very intriguing. Theatre celebrates unreality, so Kálmán’s West cobbled from Hollywood, Oklahoma!, and the opera halls of Hungary makes for a wholly unique theatrical experience. There’s plenty of guitar and saloon-style piano in the score, but this is joined by waltzes and Hungarian-folk melodies. Walters completely embraces the apparent contradictions, creating a universe that’s all its own. Part of August Tye’s great choreography is ripped from line-dance halls, while some of it smacks of traditional Eastern European dances. Yet all of it works.

While the cast tears up the score, the acting could be polished. Petrus dips in confidence and seems to rely on constant towel-snapping to conjure up Nona’s sassiness instead of letting the text do that for her. On the other hand, Dingels’ goofy mannerisms and genuine squareness may not be great acting, but could possibly be ingenious for the fumbling Chester. Rounding out the leads, Cundiff and Frantzen are fine if somewhat wooden. The supporting cast is pretty hit or miss. The best moments are little bits stitched in the script, like ranch-hands using a child to smuggle liquor past the Sheriff or someone yelling in the middle of a huge dance number, “Hey! I’m dancing!” like they just realized what was going on. Unfortunately, a lot of the comedy falls flat, and the transitions between dialogue and song are downright painful at times. The pace also falls slack in a couple of scenes. (Yes, I understand this is opera, but this light fare doesn’t feel like it should last three hours.)

Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov’s translation of the 1954 operetta, which has never seen an American production until now, is obviously done with a lot of love. While usually charming, the script occasionally gets too silly and audience interest flags. There is also some Spanish dialogue very awkwardly folded in. But they keep Kálmán’s somewhat bizarre world intact.

There are too many stale moments for this Arizona Lady to be completely satisfying, a problem for Glagov, Walters, and the cast. But there’s a lot of passion on-stage over at the Theatre Building. And any indie opera outfit, attempting to do something so grandiose on the budget of a storefront, has a special little piece of my heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

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REVIEW: The Philadelphia Story (Circle Theatre)

‘The Philadelphia Story’ haunted by ghosts of movies past

 

Kevin Anderson, Laura McClain, and Josh Hambrock

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
The Philadelphia Story
   
Written by Philip Barry
Directed by Jim Schneider
at Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Through Sept. 5   |   Tickets: $20–$24 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Any production of The Philadelphia Story naturally evokes celluloid comparisons to Kathryn Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the 1940 film. Inspired by the real life Main Line heiress Hope Montgomery Scott, the class-conscious play opened in 1939 with Hepburn as spoiled, self-righteous rich girl Tracy Lord — a role she reprised in the Oscar-winning film. The Philadelphia Story also formed the basis for the 1956 musical, High Society, so there are those movie memories to contend with, too.

Katelyn Smith, Jhenai Mootz, and Josh Hambrock Yet that shouldn’t mean a theater can’t put its own spin on the show. In its one big drawback, Circle Theatre’s production too often feels like a ghostly reenactment of the film.

Laura McClain, as Tracy, channels Hepburn for all she’s worth, while Josh Hambrock, as journalist Macauley "Mike" Connor, appears possessed by Stewart, with every drawl and facial twitch down pat. It’s uncannily fascinating, but I went to the theater to see a play, not to participate in a séance.

As Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, Kevin Anderson (not to be confused with Kevin Anderson), deserves kudos for not trying to reanimate Cary Grant. Unfortunately, his coolly puckish performance sometimes comes off as more smirking than suave. Moreover, his interactions with the others seem to accentuate their derivative mannerisms.

However, if you can get over the sense that you might just as well have stayed home with Netflix, Philip Barry’s dryly witty script transcends all.

On the verge of Tracy’s second marriage, Connor, who has become reluctantly infatuated, and Haven, with some help from Tracy’s smart-aleck kid sister (spunky, smut-faced Katelyn Smith), are bent on trying to prevent Tracy from wedding her stuffy, middle-class fiancé, George Kittredge (an appropriately stiff Luke Renn). The priggish Kittredge determinedly puts her on a pedestal. Though impatient with human frailties — the philandering of her father (Tom Viskocil), for example, and her former husband’s drinking — Tracy isn’t so sure she likes being cast as an ice goddess.

Josh Hambrock and Laura McClain Luke Renn, Laura McClain, Josh Hambrock, and Kevin Anderson

Bob Knuth’s elegant drawing-room set and Elizabeth Wislar‘s smart period costumes (particularly for lovely Jhenai Mootz, who portrays a world-weary Elizabeth Imbrie, the photographer who accompanies Connor to the Lords’ home) give us a handsome look back in time. Director Jim Schneider has wisely kept the original three-act format.

Some of the sensibilities behind this farce seem dated today, but it’s still an awfully funny comedy. If you aren’t bothered by ghosts, you’ll like this production fine.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

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 Entire Cast of "Philadelphia Story”   

 

     
     

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