REVIEW: A Guide For The Perplexed (Victory Gardens)

Brilliant acting heightens uneven script

 

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Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
A Guide for the Perplexed
       
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by
Sandy Shinner
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through August 15  |
Tickets: $20–50  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Chicago sees a lot of very good acting. Yet every once in a while an actor really socks you in the eyes with the difference between good and great. That’s Kevin Anderson in a Joel Drake Johnson’s quirky dark comedy, A Guide for the Perplexed, now in world premiere at Victory Gardens.

Weiler and Anderson, V Every movement, every line of Anderson’s body adds meaning to his brilliantly nuanced performance. Together with Francis Guinan, another highly talented Steppenwolf ensemble member, he makes such mundane acts as making a bed or feeding fish hilarious.

Anderson plays Doug, a 50-something loser who’s just left a five-year prison stretch. Exhausted mentally and physically, with nowhere else to go, he’s reluctantly staying in the den at his sister Sheila’s house on the North Shore — much to the dismay of her nerdy, stressed-out husband, Phillip (Guinan).

Already coping with his own crises, including his collapsing marriage and a deteriorating relationship with his teenage son, the neurotic Phillip’s ill-equipped to deal with his passive-aggressive brother-in-law’s uneasy return to freedom. Sheila, played by Meg Thalken in a series of brief phone calls, is away on business. Phillip, out of work and demoralized as the result of a criminal accusation that may or may not be accurate, spends his time gardening, cooking, reading romance novels and quarreling with his bright, but troubled, gay son Andrew (Bubba Weiler).

Andrew vents to his uncle, who makes caring, though clumsy efforts to help. In a sensitive performance, Bubba Weiler exudes a sometimes over-the-top teen angst.

The title of this dysfunctional-family story is taken from the esoteric text by medieval Jewish philospher Moses Maimonides aka Rambam. Andrew, a Hebrew scholar, tells his uncle that Maimonides offers a rational guide to the "problems of living." But when Doug presses for examples of what the great thinker had to say about their own specific troubles, Andrew cannot answer.

 

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The final, bizarre addition to the cast of characters is Betty, a prosperous woman from Cincinnati, one of Doug’s many prison pen pals. To his consternation, she’s driven all night, arriving at 6 a.m., to shower him with gifts and confess that she’s fallen in love with him through their mail correspondence. Cynthia Baker’s Southern-belle portrayal seems overly cheery and restrained, not nearly lovesick enough.

The action rotates indoors and out on a neat revolving set by Jeffrey Bauer that nicely evokes upper-middle-class suburbia, but its measured revolutions unnecessarily slow the pace. Meanwhile, Johnson’s script spins dizzyingly back and forth between absurd humor and bleak emotional outbursts.

Often, it works, such as in a highly evocative monologue in the second act where Guinan brilliantly describes the pleasures of grocery shopping as relief from depression. But such comic delicacy clashes with the heavy melancholia of the serious moments, and the abrupt, unsettled conclusion leaves viewers without catharsis.

In the hands of less-skilled actors, this play might not be worthwhile. This cast, however, puts A Guide for the Perplexed on the recommended list.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Note: Suitable for ages 14 and up.

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REVIEW: Dental Society Midwinter Meeting (Chicago Dramatists)

Dentists extract some painful truths

 

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Chicago Dramatists presents
   
Dental Society Midwinter Meeting
   
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by
Megan Shuchman
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

This is not this season’s most exciting title, but then the world of dentists isn’t exactly fraught with incident. Dental Society Midwinter Meeting is just that—a carefully chronicled, day-by-day depiction of a real convention, an annual conference of dentists where practitioners catch up on the profession’s latest developments, ethical challenges (insurance fraud and drug abuse), and party heart with conventioneers’ jubilation. Though the Chicago Dental Society’s conference is held at McCormick dsmm - 1 Place in February, playwright Laura Jacqmin moves the 6,000 dentists (and 12,000 vendors who prey on them) to the Skokie Marriott, if only to maintain a safe distance from any possible litigation by the C.D.S.

A true ensemble work, Megan Shuchman’s 80-minute world premiere staging presents the entire meeting through the playful testimony of six participants. We get hour by hour updates on the shenanigans and crises of doctors beset by more than just the problem of paying for central air conditioning or correctly coding their invoices to insurers. The male dentists indulge in male fantasies of wilderness adventure as they shop for hunters’ vests at Old Orchard’s L.L. Bean store. The surgeons munch Panera bread as they exchange gossip. One tries to free herself from an unscrupulous vendor whose tooth whitener is toxic. They sing karaoke (horribly) as they shake their booties on Saturday night.

This year’s conference is beset by a scandal in which the president of the North Shore Regional Dental Society has been caught in adultery with his comely dental hygienist; worse, he’s allowed her to practice advance dental procedures without a license. (Nothing really comes of this red herring.) The dentists are also supposedly caught up in late night discussions on how to clean up their leader’s act and their trade’s questionable image. Can they reform such a morally challenged pursuit?

Other problems fraught with insider details concern a gay dentist whose partner has been caught cheating on his lover’s billing practices. He in turn finds himself sexually manipulated in order to help a colleague in similar hot water.

dentists chicago dramatists castJacqmin certainly knows this medical subculture and examines it compassionately in what amounts to a keyhole-peeping expose. But she’s after more toothy substance than just a breakdown of breakout meetings and keynote speeches. By play’s end, Jacqmin implies that all their talk of self-regulation and moral uplift will, well, decay as the dentists’ bad habits undermine their best intentions. American professionals, it seems, are as trapped by short-sighted and short-term thinking as our corporate overseers.

The real payoff here is no artificially happy resolution of intractable problems but a very believable look at good folks working at cross-purposes to raise standards as much as fees.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
    

NOTE: No one under 14 years old will be admitted.

 

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Theater Thursday: Love’s Labour’s Lost (Oak Park Festival)

Theater Thursday

 

Thursday, July 22

Love’s Labour’s Lost   by William Shakespeare 

Oak Park Festival Theatre, Austin Gardens (Lake and Forest Ave.), Oak Park

loves-labours-lost Come to Oak Park Festival Theatre before the show to enjoy light refreshments and interaction with the cast. Then stay for the classic Shakespeare comedy, followed by a post-show dialogue with the cast and director.

Event begins at 6:45 p.m.  Show begins at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $25 for adults, $20 students/seniors

For reservations call 708-445-4440 and mention "Theater Thursdays," or buy tickets online at www.oakparkfestival.com.

   
   

REVIEW: Orestes (Dream Theatre)

Daddy’s Little Girl Is a Fighter, Not a Thinker

 

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Dream Theatre presents
  
Orestes
   
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street  (map)
through August 15th  |  tickets: $15-$18  |  more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Under director and playwright Jeremy Menekseoglu, Dream Theatre rounds out its radical re-visioning of The Oresteia, Aeschylus’ monumental trilogy. Menekseoglu’s Orestes is definitely not The Eumenides, the last play of Aeschylus’ trilogy. By all  indications, Menekseoglu has composed Orestes specifically to contradict everything The Eumenides affirms.

Orestes 184AeschylusThe Eumenides is an origin story about the ancient Athenian patriarchal system of law and order; most scholars see in it the societal transition from vendetta to a system of litigation. In The Eumenides, the goddess Athena invents the 12-man jury system and the god Apollo defends Orestes against the charge of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra. But Menekseoglu’s Orestes does not establish any kind of order. Instead, it reveals a dark, underworld Matrix-style order of perpetual tragedy, ruled over by the queenly mother of human misery, Pandora (Rachel Martindale). How interesting that eternal oblivion and human agony get to be maintained by strong, powerful, female figures!

Aeschylus’s The Eumenides begins in nightmare–the Furies drive Orestes mad at the urging of the restless, vengeful ghost of Clytemnestra. Nevertheless, Orestes’ agony ends in bright promise, hope and blessings for the Athenian polis. By contrast, Menekseoglu’s Orestes begins in nightmare—in a macabre tavern at the edge of Hell—and descends from there into its deepest, darkest, most bizarre center.

Dream Theatre can celebrate. Their production’s direct, simple yet fundamental set and lighting designs (Anna Weiler, Giau Truong, and Jeremy Menekseoglu) have created a vision of underworld unparalleled by small theaters in this city and would be the envy of any larger theater company, who are often surfeit in funding but lacking in imagination. Menekseoglu’s sound design perfectly complements and fixes the atmosphere of this comprehensive, multilayered vision of Hell. If the object of theater is to create an entire world on a finite stage, then Dream Theatre has done it and done it brilliantly.

What a mad, dark, lonely, and hopeless underworld it is. Despair begins long before the descent. Electra (Anna Weiler), spurned by men for the murder of her mother, Clytemnestra, prepares to enter Hell in order to redeem her brother Orestes, whom she compelled to carry out the crime. Just like Xena Warrior Princess or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Electra is ready to fight every step of the way to rescue him. She is also prepared to take on all the guilt, if only Orestes can go free.

To that end, Electra waits for Persephone (Theresa Neef), the wife of Hades, to arrive at the tavern on the edge of Hell, little knowing that Cassandra (Alicia Reese) now accompanies her as her maid. For those in need of reminder, Cassandra is the woman that Agamemnon (Menekseoglu), Electra’s father, brought back from his ten-year war against Troy as his captive and spoils, only to be murdered by Agamemnon’s treacherous wife, Clytemnestra, during his assassination. (See our review for Dream Theatre’s first installment of the trilogy, Agamemnon, here ★★★)

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Orestes is a woman’s play through and through; a play written for Electra’s trial, not her brother Orestes’. Her entire underworld journey is her trial and the dark recesses of her mind are her only jury, reflected through her encounters with the characters she meets in Hell. Dream Theatre has successfully created the perfect surreal atmosphere, wherein in the physical space of Hell itself become fused with what is happening in Electra’s mind. The two become indistinguishable.

The play leads Electra to her final, dark encounter with the origin of all human tragedy, Pandora. Depending mightily upon the strength of the actresses who play these four roles, Weiler, Neef, Reese and Martindale hold this play’s fascinating center and bring its action to exciting fruition. What a pleasure to see so much dramatic emphasis given to women’s personal agency.  Yet, Orestes both is and is not an empowering play for women.

Both Neef and Martindale display amazing capacity to maintain regal focus in any scene. Persephone’s decadent drunkenness, caused by agonized resentment over having to return once again to her rapist husband, Hades, does not diminish Neef’s casually arrogant, elegant expressions of entitlement. Martindale’s Pandora, the play’s other queenly figure, may weep with suffering humanity for the suffering she has caused, yet casts an ominous shadow in her dark function to perpetuate tragedy eternally.

Only Cassandra, as a character, begins to weary. Mostly, she childishly and repetitively harangues Electra. She is glad Agamemnon is dead and glad Electra caused Clytemnestra’s death; she would willingly watch Electra kill them both again and again. All the same, she hates Electra for her bloody lineage.

Cassandra’s hatred of Electra is childishly absurd—sadly, the positioning of her childish absurdities is also dramatically weak. Likewise, the scene between Electra and the murdered, innocent children of Medea, Mermerus (Bil Gaines) and Pheres (Giau Truong) is terribly weak. They reside in Hell while their vengeful mother has been spirited away from just retribution by Hera, the (Bitch) Queen of the Gods.

Menekseoglu may be trying to do too much with too little.

On the one hand, the playwright is trying to have powerful female characters, while implicating the unseen hand, Big Daddy Zeus, in the midst of all this injustice toward women and children.  On the other hand, he has to acknowledge the dangers of matriarchal excess—hence the references to Hera and Medea. Part of Menekseoglu’s confusion lies in the violence that happens to children under adult order, patriarchal or matriarchal. Clearly, the attitudes that 21st century Americans have towards children are not those of 5th century BCE Greeks. Children, in that age, had no identity or agency apart from their families. They, even more than women, were persons without rights or status.

In ancient Athens, man was lord, kyrios*, of his household. Everyone else in the household, wife, children, and slaves, were under his control. Furthermore, under the practice of exposure, all children, once they were born, were submitted to their father for either approval or rejection. According to one source on exposure,

The household head, the kyrios, had the right to accept the children and could reject them based on gender, size of the family, physical deformity or frailty, economic considerations, legitimacy, or because they were the offspring of slaves. Disposal was arranged through exposure, a process that involved abandoning an infant to its death to the elements. This practice, rather than simply killing the infant, may have developed because it freed the household from bloodguilt, or because parents truly believed that they were placing their exposed infants in the care of the gods . . . In Sparta, exposure of physically weak or sickly infants was demanded by law and determined by the elders of the tribes rather than the household head.

Exposure was legally and socially acceptable; in no way would a father ever be charged with murder for exposing his child. Furthermore, even though exposure is a major feature in tragedies like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, it is often forgotten when modern theatergoers come across Euripides The Medea. Medea’s act of killing her children is not simply jealous revenge against Jason—she is usurping his authority over her children’s lives; through murder, she is taking back her children and claiming them as hers to kill. Some feminist scholars in the 1980s claimed Medea as a feminist icon and some playwrights, like Janet Burroway, have cunningly responded to that kind of misplaced heroine-worship. (See our review of Medea With Child here★★★★)

It’s clear that Menekseoglu doesn’t know about exposure, has forgotten it, or has curiously left it out. When Electra encounters her father Agamemnon in Orestes 237Hell, he tells her he wishes he had thrown her off a cliff instead of letting her live. Well, that sounds curiously, unintentionally anachronistic. The ancient warrior Agamemnon had a fatherly prerogative to dispose of his infant children as he willed. Both Electra and Orestes could have been exposed on Daddy’s orders and he would have been well within his rights. It’s doubtful their mother, Clytemnestra, would ever have raised a fuss, not because Clytemnestra was an evil bitch who hated Electra and Orestes, but because exposure was an option available to every husband. Surely, the ancient Electra would be fully aware of the husband’s prerogative of exposure once she came to marriageable age. Her husband would be kyrios of the household in which she lived, after all.

So much is deeply beautiful and mythologically correct about Dream Theatre’s excellent Agon Trilogy. But the playwright still needs to revise its final installment. Parts of Orestes are gettable to Classical Greek geeks but are still inaccessible to the average theatergoer. The play’s conception of justice for children, in relation to the powerlessness of women under patriarchal dominance, needs to be tightened up and brought alive between the characters.

Finally, it’s fine that Electra is a Daddy’s Girl and it’s fine that she is fighter, not a thinker. Hers is a life of violent action against her oppressors. Heroines acting out like Xena or Buffy are honestly a lot of fun. But Orestes could really use a powerful female figure more like the real life pagan philosopher, Hypatia. She was an intellectual capable of interrogating the power structures surrounding her. She certainly wouldn’t settle for being made the guilty party when so much patriarchal justice seems capricious and stacked against women and children. No wonder an early Christian mob had to kill her. Now, she was a dangerous woman.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Orestes, by Jeremy Menekseoglu, is playing  7/15-8/15 Thurs-Sats at 8pm, Sundays  7pm at Dream Theatre Company, 556 W 18th Street. Orestes features Anna Weiler, Theresa Neef, Alicia Reese, Annelise Lawson, Bil Gaines, Giau Truong, Rachel Martindale and Jeremy Menekseoglu    Tickets: 773-552-8616 or click here.

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*The familiar Greek Christian prayer “Kyrie, eleison” or “Lord, have mercy” is derived from kyrioskyrie being the vocative case.

   
   

REVIEW: Hesperia (Right Brain Project)

An Exploration of Love and Trust

 

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The Right Brain Project presents
  
Hesperia
   
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by
Nathan Robbel
at
RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through August 14th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The Right Brain Project is staging an intriguing production called Hesperia. This show exposes how love, friendship, and trust transcend class and social mores. The playwright, Randall Colburn, takes these themes and puts them smack dab in post-modern America, offering up some interesting musings on what happens to those who buy into the American Dream and the underbelly of that dream.

Right Brain Project's "Hesperia" by Randall Colburn In the opening scene we are introduced to Claudia and Ian played by Natalie DiCristofano and Billy Fenderson respectively. Ian has shown up at Claudia’s door in the small town of Hesperia not far from where they grew up. Ms. DiCristofano is a sylph-like beauty that exudes vulnerability and a hard edge at the same time. The character of Claudia is has come to this town to shake off her past as a porn actress. She is now a born again Christian and engaged to marry the youth minister at the local church. Billy Fenderson also has a wonderful edge as a man who is trying to escape the past but perhaps got in deeper than he should have.

Claudia and Ian are childhood best friends and were partners in porn apparently working only with each other. The porn career for both of them seems to have been done on a lark or a childish dare that got out of hand. Claudia has escaped, but there are thugs on Ian’s trail. Being saved or born again is an escape for both characters – but who really takes it to heart is the lingering question for both of them.

Claudia is engaged to Trick whose real name is Trevor. The nickname is a result of youthful horsing around with language. It is an interesting choice for the character considering his fiancée’s former profession. (I wonder if the playwright was going for homage to Tennessee Williams with the double entendre.) Nick Freed plays the role of Trick with an endearing innocence and country boy energy. He keeps the energy level high, especially when drilling young Aaron for the state Bible Bee. It is a finely balanced portrait of fundamentalist America without the judgmental sneer that is evident in other works, and Nick Freed embodies the innocence and the frustration of having been anointed in the ministry. Trick tells Claudia that his gift is discernment that comes into play when Ian shows up and tries to reclaim his small town past. Trick accepts without judgment and with a trusting open heart. Claudia knows better in spite of her innocent past with Ian.

 

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Trick fixes Ian up on a date with a nice girl from church named Daisy, played by Katy Albert with a refreshing country girl sexiness, looking clean scrubbed and apple cheeked like a 50’s Ladies Home Journal girl. Daisy is instantly smitten with the new boy in town, no doubt unaware of his extensive experience. Albert and Fenderson have good chemistry; the post date with the two of them is timed perfectly and staged with a voyeuristic flair. The sex scene is done well, with an edge of discomfort and shame. Surprisingly it’s Trick that feels the shame while Daisy wants him to stay.

The one chink in the play is the character of Aaron. It’s played well by Danny Mulae, but feels like a throwaway device for shock effect. Aaron finds a DVD of Claudia and Ian’s early work. The interaction between Ian and Aaron feels somehow false. Trick’s character alludes to Aaron starting to show interest in sex and then the boy comes off like the “bad seed,” interrogating Ian about the film. Also, some of Mr. Fenderson’s lines get lost due to either odd staging or poor enunciation.

This drawback really should be remedied because Ian’s character is open for judgment and it could be made clearer regarding why he should not be judged harshly. By the time the wedding of Trick and Claudia takes place Ian has been picked up by the thugs calling for him from California. Everything falls into place for Claudia, but did she turn on her former best friend or did he willingly return to his former life:  The matter is not easily resolved in a neat package, which is more realistic than Ian settling down with Daisy and popping out the kids. It is also Hesperia Photosatisfying that Trick and Claudia don’t have an instant sexual connection on their wedding night. Claudia has more experience but doesn’t want the same feelings from before. It is honest, painful, funny, and wonderful to observe.

Throughout the production the actors are confined to a small stage with seating around the perimeter, remaining on stage during other scenes. The actors remain in character with the emotional impact from the previous scene remaining fresh. This is a contemplative work that requires that the audience focus on the actors’ subtleties. The sparseness of the stage is a good choice as is the audience seating. I don’t know if it was deliberate but the backless seats caused me to be more in tune with the play. It took effort and concentration to sit comfortably as well as watch the stage. It is an integrative approach at best, and I felt for the actors having to be still and not drown in sweat without a stage exit. Here’s my heartfelt wish for a better air conditioner-you all deserve one!

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Hesperia plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm through August 14th at RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood. The theatre is easily accessible by CTA or Metra. Call 773-750-2033 or go to www.therbp.org for tickets or more information.

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REVIEW: Hairspray (Jedlicka Performing Arts Center)

Fat is the new black

 

Cast of Hairspray - Finale

   
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center presents
   
Hairspray
 
Bood by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music/Lyrics by
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by Dante Joseph Orfei
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, Cicero (map)
Through July 31  |  
Tickets: $10-$17  |  more info 

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In the genre of cult films turned into Broadway musicals, Hairspray, currently in a beautifully voiced production at Jedlicka Performing Arts Center in Cicero, may be exceeded only by Little Shop of Horrors. Both shows take quirky approaches to 1960s culture. And both, in their way, are based on horror films.

Amanda Nianick - Tracy Little Shop of Horrors is about a terrorizing, man-eating plant. Hairspray’s subject, to some, seems even more horrifying: Obesity. The plot follows Tracy Turnblad, a plump, bouffant-haired, working-class teenager who yearns to dance on a popular Baltimore TV show, and bring her African-American friends with her. “I want every day to be ‘Negro Day,’ ” she says.

The message of the show has changed somewhat over the years. Fat had yet to become the stuff of nightmares in 1988, when John Waters created his edgy film looking back at the 1960s civil-rights movement. Waters meant it as ironic metaphor when he equated prejudice against people over skin color to bigotry against people over size — much as Randy Newman’s satirical song "Short People" had done a decade before.

During the high racial tensions of the 60’s era, the juxtaposition of fat hatred and racism ranked as high absurdity. Chubbiness was merely unfashionable, while race hatred ran so deep it was unsafe for blacks to venture into white neighborhoods. The comparison remained ridiculous in 2002, when playwrights Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman turned the Waters film into a bouncy Broadway musical.

Today, with all the bitter invective and even violence directed at fat people, it’s starting to seem not so funny.

Hairspray ran in New York for more than 2,600 performances before closing early last year, just before the inauguration of our skinny, black president, Barack Obama. While racism is still with us, equality for African Americans has definitely come a long way forward. The position of ample Americans, meanwhile, has deteriorated to the point where fat folks falsely get the blame for everything from the ills of the health-care system to global warming, with the government poised to track body-mass indices and slender First Lady Michele Obama piling on the stigma.

Today, Hairspray’s message, "You’ve got to think big to be big," has a whole new meaning. Yet it remains a wonderful, deservedly popular musical, with witty dialogue, great tunes and an inspiring story, all highlighted in JPAC’s expansive production.

Considerable technical trouble plagued opening night. A larger-than-expected audience overwhelmed the box office, leading to a start some 20 minutes late. The lights often washed out the backdrop projection screen, while some scenes were too dark, and spotlights sometimes failed to follow their targets. They’d have been much better off with a single painted set and simpler, brighter lighting design. So much haze obscured the stage, it looked as if the ventilation system had been clogged by too much hairspray.

Worst of all, audio feedback, buzzes and uneven sound distracted from the fine singers. It’s to be hoped they’ve fixed things by now, but even with all the problems, the cast’s immense talents shone through.

Amanda Nianick stars as a lively Tracy Turnblad, opening with a vastly powerful rendition of "Good Morning, Baltimore," and Micheal Kott gives a droll performance as her mother, Edna — the role played by Divine in the original film. (It rather misses the point of this show to use padded-out performers instead of casting appropriately sized actors, but we’ll let that go.)

TJ Crawford brings lithe moves and a rich voice to Tracy’s detention friend Seaweed J. Stubbs, and petite Dawn Pryor belts out some big sound as his sister, Little Inez. (Aisha) Nikki Greenlee adds potent vocal largesse as their mom, Motormouth Maybelle, with well-rounded renditions of "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" and "I Know Where I’ve Been."

Ryan Hunt and the Cast of Hairspray with Ana Beleval

Ryan Hunt makes an engaging Corny Collins, Gabby McConnell puts in some fine comic turns as Tracy’s friend, Penny Pingleton, and Nancy Kolton, playing several roles, is especially hilarious as the prison matron. The rest of the ensemble do splendidly as well.

Music Director Adam Gustafson leads a rockin’ 10-piece band — Amos Gillespie (reeds), Carlotta Mayen (reeds), Ben Scholz (percussion), Mike Brooks (percussion), Cody Siragusa (bass), Sandy Lind (keyboards) and Alex Newkirk (keyboards) — that does the high-energy, Motown-influenced score full justice.

It’s a buoyant if sometimes timid production. Christine Kerr’s often lackluster choreography exhibits few of the sexual overtones that made "colored music" so shocking to 1960s sensibilities. And, though Tracy’s zeal for teen hearthrob Link Larkin is written into the script, the passion that ought to sizzle between the couple seems lacking. Vincent Soto brings a great voice, good looks and some great moves to Link, but he makes a cold lover.

Still, the whopping vocals and hugely hopeful theme of JPAC’s Hairspray overcome its imperfections. Go see it.

Along with the hummable tunes, most of us can take away the inspiring idea that we don’t have to be afraid to throw our weight around.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Note: Additional senior discount for July 25th matinee – mention “hairdo” when reserving your tickets.

 

Original Hairspray movie trailer

REVIEW: Nothin’ But The Blues (Black Ensemble Theatre)

Lifted by the Blues

 

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The Black Ensemble Theatre presents
   
Nothin’ But the Blues
  
Written by Joe Plummer
Directed by
Jackie Taylor and Daryl Brooks
at
Black Ensemble Theatre, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $45   |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Let me take you on a journey to the not so distant past. Take a step into the dark glass brick lounges of the South and West sides of Chicago. The ladies are dressed like they are entered in a pageant and the gentlemen are exquisitely groomed in a rainbow of colors not seen on Wall Street. The Black Ensemble Theater brings this  world vividly to life in Nothin’ But the Blues. This glorious musical is a tribute to the legendary Theresa’s Lounge that operated out of a basement from 1954 until 1983.

 Lawrence Williams and Rhonda Preston in "Nothin' But the Blues" at BETThe cast parades out singing an original song by Black Ensemble founder Jackie Taylor blended in with snippets from blues classics immediately recognizable by the audience. They are stock characters familiar if you have seen ‘chitlin circuit’ comics or Oscar Micheaux revivals with all Black casts. The chitlin’ circuit was where Black comics and singers toured through the South confined to juke joints and establishments in the Colored Only areas. Some of the world’s greatest music and performers cut their teeth on the circuit and rarely received proper recognition while still living.

There is the bar room sage named Washburn played by Rick Stone. He plays the old guy sitting in the corner who sees everything and says little. Mr. Stone is a stately older gentleman who I remember from the classic 70’s movie “Cooley High”.

He sings several numbers with suave facial exaggerations distinct to the emotions of the blues. He moves his body in a fluid and comical manner while singing of covert love and shenanigans in “Back Door Man”. He raises the subject matter above the raunchy content while keeping the sly fun going.

Rhonda Preston plays Theresa Needham with sass and wit. Ms. Preston has a powerhouse voice and whip smart comic timing as Mrs. Needham, who kept the Lounge and the music going for thirty years against the odds. History tells of Theresa’s famous puppet that she kept behind the bar that hid a gun in case things got out of hand. Ms. Preston looks at home behind the bar and projects the motherly tough love that comes to be expected of lady saloonkeepers. She will pour you a stiff drink and kick your butt to the curb while singing some gutbucket blues on Blue Mondays Open Mike at the Lounge. She is hilarious to watch and will have you stomping your feet with her voice.

Trinity Murdock plays the role of the doorman Will with a perfect weariness and touch of lecherous flair when the lovely ladies enter the Lounge. There is a fine exchange between Mr. Murdock and Candace C. Edwards as the hot bar hussy Rolanda. He lusts but she pointedly tells him that he is too old for the kind of fun she is out to have. Ms. Edwards’ Rolanda is a throwback to the sirens of the 40’s. She teases but never reaches the sleaze factor that so many actresses fall into these days. The character’s goodies are a mystery even wrapped in a slinky blue dress.

 

Nothin-But-The-Blues-Rhonda-Preston Nothin-But-The-Blues-Stone-Murdock
Nothin-But-The-Blues-Lyle-Miller2 Nothin-But-The-Blues-Noreen-Starks2 Nothin-But-The-Blues-Reddrick-Murdock

The biggest laughs come from the exchanges between Lyle Miller as Lewis the Drunk and Ms. Preston. Miller brings the stumbling neighborhood drunk to comical life. He tries to wheedle a bar tab and hit on the ladies despite his sweaty disheveled visage. Theresa pours his drinks but keeps him in check with stinging barbs. He has a rather predictable storyline with Robin Beaman as Flo – another well-dressed barfly. Ms. Beaman is a fine singer and has a heart-wrenching role as the woman who lost her love and listens to the blues for a cure.

A very handsome and muscular Kelvin Rolston Jr. plays the neighborhood mailman. He drops in after work to have a drink and engage in some canoodling with Rolanda until his winsome and apparently devout wife discovers his subterfuge. Noreen Starks is a delight as Mrs. Tate, the mailman’s wife. She turns the church lady image on its head with a fiery rendition of “You Can Have My Husband But Don’t Mess With My Man”. It was a fun climactic moment when she confronts Rolanda about her wanton ways with Mr. Tate. She lets everyone know that wives are getting their share too.

The most pleasant surprise of the evening came from Lawrence Williams as “The Kid”. He projects innocence with his youthful eagerness and jangly energy but when  he steps up to the microphone, he sings with the loneliness and sadness of a man decades older. It is Mr. Williams theatrical debut and he has star quality in his voice and acting.

Nothing-But-The-Blues (Edwards-Preston-Miller)Some of the plot lines in Nothin’ But The Blues are predictable and a little too neatly tied up. That is a risk that comes with portraying a historical figure and an era when ‘chitlin circuit’ was the norm. However, that is also what is so comforting and wonderful about this show. It is authentic with the music and the vibe of Theresa’s Lounge – or any of the neighborhood places where the wet glasses “sing” when stacked on the bar mat. Black Ensemble is known for bringing the stories of the unsung to life with great flair and this is another bulls-eye for them. It needs to be said many times where the roots of rock and roll came from because time always rewrites history. The great blues lounges and taverns have given way to people with deeper pockets and a commercialized sound. It is wonderful to be reminded that Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Stevie Ray Vaughn sat in Theresa’s before they took their sounds to the world.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fabulous set design by Carl Ulaszek. It is spot on with the photo of Dr. King amidst the glasses and bottles just like he was on the walls of countless Black people back in the day. There is an appropriately greenish jar of pickled eggs for the classic ‘working man’s breakfast – a shot, a stein, and a pickled egg. The signs and the beautiful Formica bar put a little lump in my throat for times gone by. BET founder Jackie Taylor designed the gorgeous costumes. Ms. Taylor is a force of nature that has brought the Ensemble to national recognition. She scores big with the colorful and outrageous costumes. Black people dressed to the nines in the days of Theresa’s and places like the Roberts 500 Club. Everything matched down to the shoes. It brings joy to see the fedora making a return!

One piece of friendly advice – when you go to Nothin’ But the Blues, be sure to bring your toe tapping shoes!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Nothin’ But The Blues plays on Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 3:00 through August 29th at the Black Ensemble Theater 4520 N. Beacon in Chicago. Call 773-769-4451 or visit www.blackensembletheater.org

L-ro-R: Trinity Murdock, Rhonda Preston and Rick Stone

 

           

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