REVIEW: Big River (Bohemian Theatre Ensemble)

 

BoHo takes a heartwarming trip down the Mississippi

 

 A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

 
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
 
Music/Lyrics: Roger Miller, Book: William Hauptman
Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by
P. Marston Sullivan
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago (map)
Through Oct. 10 |
Tickets: $25 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Widely considered the greatest American novel ever written, Mark Twain’s 1884 coming-of-age tale, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, received a lively musical treatment 100 years after its publication in Big River. The Tony Award-winning musical, which ran 1,000 performances on Broadway, captures the charm and  A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10thpoignancy of the original, as we follow Huck and the escaped slave Jim down the "Muddy Water" of the Mississippi River, "Waitin’ for the Light to Shine" — as the songs put it. Although no stage production could possibly encompass all the nuances of Twain’s masterpiece, this well-cut adaptation by William Hauptman delivers the essence, paired with a fitting, catchy score by country-music star Roger Miller that blends foot-stompin’ bluegrass, powerful spirituals, vaudevillian comedy numbers and such memorable ballads as "River in the Rain."

Bohemian Theatre Ensemble mounts a warm, intimate and beautifully sung revival in their handsome new home at Lakeview’s Theater Wit, full of bouyant humor and touching moments.

Andrew Mueller gives us a gamin-faced, thoughtful Huck with a fine tenor. As Jim, the richly voiced Brian-Alwyn Newland provides the backbone of the music, smooth and soulful, combined with a dignified stage presence that reveals the mature and feeling man behind the tattered clothes and uneducated language of the slave.

Sean Thomas makes a wicked Pap Finn, hilarious in his drunken denouncement of "Guv’ment," and a diabolical king and "Royal Nonesuch," aided by the elegant John B. Leen as the sly and histrionic duke. Courtney Crouse is boyishly mischievous as Tom Sawyer, always ready for adventure and adorable as he calls for a "Hand for the Hog."

Rashada Dawan brings a soaring voice to gospel numbers such as "How Blest We Are," and Mike Tepeli adds a comic turn as the young fool, with a zany, washboard-accompanied rendition of "Arkansas."

A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th
A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

Much of the cast supplements the orchestra at different points, picking up guitars,box, or a tambourine to effectively back Musical Director Nicholas Davio playing a variety of instruments, Hilary Holbrook on fiddle and Cam McIntyre on bass. Davio and Holbrook also act small parts. Christa Buck, Anna Hammonds and James Williams fill out the ensemble.

Director P. Marston Sullivan’s deceptively simple staging and Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s stylized set put the talented cast and Twain’s potent story foremost. You don’t need to have read "Huckleberry Finn" to enjoy this musical, although everybody ought to read it … again and again.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

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REVIEW: The Sound of the Yellow Flower (Strangeloop)

 

Characters fail to connect in Belarus drama

 

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's "The Sound of the Yellow Flower"

   
Strangeloop Theatre presents
  
The Sound of a Yellow Flower
  
Written by Dustin Spence
Directed by
Letitia Guillaud
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 N. Cortland (map)
thorugh October 3rd |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Dustin Spence’s The Sound of a Yellow Flower revolves around four characters in post-Soviet Union Belarus looking for liberty, justice, and love in their unstable country. Years after violinist Sasha (Rich Logan) and military colonel Nikolai (Mark A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's "The Sound of the Yellow Flower"Pracht) help usher in an era of independence for Belarus, they are faced with the question of what comes next. Nikolai wants to see Sasha takes a position of political power, but Sasha wants nothing to do with it, having married Zoe (Samantha Garcia), an American activist working to expose the injustices done by the current government. Nikolai’s relationship with heroin-addicted prostitute Natalia (Meghan M. Martinez) ends up bringing the four together in an explosive, tragic climax, but Spence’s script fails to capture the setting and the scenes have an unnatural build to them that makes it difficult to connect with the action on stage.

Language becomes a hurdle in establishing the play’s foreign setting, as little is done to de-Americanize the dialogue beyond the actors adding eastern European dialects. The opening scene has musician Sasha and Nikolai speaking in semi-broken English, but thankfully it is quickly done away with as it makes no sense to have two educated characters speaking ungrammatically in their own language. The profanity-laced dialogue has an almost-Tarantino stylization that feels out of place in the European environment, but the two actors are able to make the action interesting enough to keep the focus.

Zoe speaks in a thicker accent to show her unfamiliarity with the language, but ends up sacrificing a lot of diction in the process. The playwright doesn’t provide much exposition regarding the current socio-political climate of Belarus, and losing Zoe’s expository lines due to her accent diminishes the clarity of the plot. Dialects prove a further hindrance when the characters become enraged, as the actors often lose their accents in the explosion of emotion.

Sound of the Yellow Flower 3 Sound of the Yellow Flower 1

These sudden fits of rage occur throughout The Sound of a Yellow Flower, as most of the scenes quickly and without warning turn into screaming matches between the characters. Intensity is fine, but without any proper buildup the emotions feel empty. The relationships aren’t given the time to develop completely, making the connections between characters feel artificial. When it doesn’t feel like there’s any danger in watching a hooker get choked, there’s something wrong.

When these jumps into fury are avoided, the play gains actual depth, like a scene that juxtaposes one of Nikolai’s first nights with Natalia with the first meeting of Sasha and Zoe. The actors are given the time to create intimate moments with each other, and the relationships benefit greatly from the newly established chemistry. The scenes that follow are a return to form, but the brief glimmer of love provides a bit of hope for the tragic characters before their lives fall apart.

      
      
Rating: ★★
  
   

Sound of Yellow Flower poster 2

  
  

 

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Theater Thursday: The Book of Liz

Thursday, September 16

The Book of Liz by Amy and David Sedaris

 

Chemically Imbalanced Theater 
1420 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago

bookoflizJoin the cast and crew of The Book of Liz (our review ★★★★) after the show for a discussion and wine and cheeseball reception. Amy Sedaris‘ famous cheese ball recipes will be served. Sister Elizabeth Donderstock is Squeamish, has been her whole life. She makes cheese balls (traditional and smoky) that sustain the existence of her entire religious community, Clusterhaven. However, she feels unappreciated among her Squeamish brethren, and she decides to try her luck in the outside world. New comedy from the talent family, David and Amy Sedaris.

 
Show begins at 8 p.m.
Event begins immediately following the performance.

Tickets: $25
For reservations call 800.838.3006 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

Wednesday Wordplay: Worst Headline of the Year

I think this is an easy candidate for the year’s worst newspaper headline!

worst headline of the year

REVIEW: Those Sensations Soulful 60s (Black Ensemble)

 

Heart and Sensation Soul

 

(from left): David Simmons, Byron Willis, Kenny Davis, Theo Huff, RaShawn Thompson - photo by Ken Simmons

   
Black Ensemble Theater presents
   
Those Sensational Soulful 60’s
   
Imagined and Directed by Jackie Taylor
at Kennedy King College, 740 W. 63rd (map)
through September 26th  |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Take a ride back in time with me. Sit in front of your grandmother’s television or at the kitchen table with the radio tuned to WVON circa 1966 and let the music take over. Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is a gorgeously produced time capsule of the music of many lifetimes. Whether you picked up music from the Ed Sullivan Show on Sundays or listened to the far end side of the radio dial, this show is a delightful and emotional ride.

Chic Rogers in "Those Sensational Soulful ‘60s" - Photo by Ken Simmons Black Ensemble Theater is known for great musical productions with virtuosity in the singing and a polished house orchestra. The space at Kennedy King College provided the perfect setting for this glittering tribute to the soul revues that used to travel the country in theaters like the Apollo and Chicago’s own Regal. A shimmering cyc wall of tinsel and stars hangs behind the bandstand and two simple platforms sat on either side of the stage. The nine singers for this production blasted onto the stage in beautifully tailored costumes and wigs that spoke to the times of the music. All members of the ensemble cast possess powerhouse voices that sometimes overshadow the people to which they pay tribute.

Imitation of singers is a tricky thing. It can come off as performing at your aunt’s barbeque at mother’s request. Thank goodness that is not the case in this revue. Each of the singers has an impressive resume in musicals and as professional singers. The range is from gospel to current R&B with an impressive pedigree in soul and jazz for each singer.

The show is a soul lover’s delight of superstars doing their greatest hits with just enough biographical information added. The narration never becomes preachy or indulgent but rather serves to add emotional weight to the music. From the first note of Sam Cooke’s ‘Change is Gonna Come’, I felt a swell in my heart and a wave of nostalgia. Cooke came out of the church on the West Side and his funeral was held on the South Side to a crowd of thousands of grieving fans. It was a story told around the living room while I was being seen and not heard as a child.

Most of the music comes from the Motown and Atlantic labels from which other than Stax and Mercury produced the greatest amount of Black entertainment back in the day. There are notable exceptions in the revue that raised the questions ‘what is Soul music’ and ‘who sings it?’ This made for some amusing banter and was answered by a smashing rendition of Frank Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’ sung by Rashawn Thompson. It was followed by a virtuoso ‘Mack the Knife’ by Marilyn Grimes. Ms. Grimes has played Ella Fitzgerald in another BET production. She does mighty justice to the live recording where Ms. Fitzgerald imitates her friend Lois Armstrong and banters with the band over mangling the words with perfect improvisation and scat singing.

Chick Rogers does a spot on imitation of Patti LaBelle’s over the top stage persona with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. That song can be a minefield of maudlin as witnessed on how many amateur competitions. A comic moment was made of Ms. Roger’s diminutive size as she took on Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’. It is quite possible that every cell of Chick Rogers is music. She took me back to a summer in Oakland with a cousin making up a dance to that very song.

Stephanie Crystal sang a perfect ‘Release Me’ by Esther Phillips that was not in huge rotation on regular radio and also crossed over into the more country style of music. Ms. Phillips had a very distinctive nasal timbre that is perfectly nuanced by Ms. Crystal. She also does a stellar job of Nancy Wilson’s ‘How Glad I Am’.

Theo Huff sings in BET's "Those Sensational Soulful ‘60s" - Photo by Ken Simmons Ensemble member Melanie McCullough is quite funny as she takes on the most interesting wig choices and does a darkly funny Tina Turner. Fellow cast mate David Simmons glowers in the background as Ike Turner on ‘Proud Mary’. She does the perfect wig-shaking dance in stilettos and then quavers an ‘okay Ike’ as she scampers off of the stage. Mr. Simmons along with Kevin Roston, Theo Huff, and Rashawn Thompson pay perfect tribute to the male groups of Motown. They recreate the cool choreography of The Tempations, The Four Tops, and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles as well as the smooth perfect harmonies of each group. It was like watching a grainy black and white television rerun that comes to life in color.

It was interesting to hear Ms. McCullough sing as Diana Ross. Her voice is way more soulful and powerful than Ms. Ross’ thin voice. She did a great visual imitation but would blow Miss Ross out of the water in a one-on-one. I cannot recall any live versions of ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding as he tragically died three days after recording the song. The version in this show gave me a wistful reminder of what a great talent died in that plane crash now decades ago.

You will no doubt recognize a favorite song; remember dance steps, or Saturday’s watching Soul Train or American Bandstand. A talented cast and band lovingly and respectfully recall this music. The costumes of the era are perfect and bring to mind that those ladies just sang the music. They didn’t need to gyrate in choreographed histrionics –except for Tina Turner that is her trademark. I think it was because the costumes weigh so much with all the rhinestones and glitter not to mention the weight of the wigs. This was an era of great taste and classic costumes. There were no peek-a-boo moments while climbing out of taxis.

It was an interesting ride back from 63rd and Halsted. I remember the landscape as full and vibrant with the record shops that would play a 45 for you before you purchased it. There seemed to be the sounds of soul music everywhere. Now it is a desolate and blighted landscape from seen from the windows of the Green Line El. I could still hear the music playing in my head with a new view that is haunting all on its own.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

Those Sensational Soulful 60’s runs Fridays and Saturday at 8:00PM and Sundays at 3:00PM through September 26th only. It is a short run but worth the travel. For more information check www.blackensembletheater.org  Be aware that travel directions to Kennedy King College are incorrect on Google CTA Direction. Take the Green Line to 63rd and Halsted not the Red Line to 69th and the Ryan. There is a giant gravel pit where the old college was if you follow the old directions and apparently only one cab on that long empty stretch which we were lucky enough to catch!

   
     

Reprising the talented ensemble cast of Those Sensational Soulful ‘60s will be Stephanie Crystal, Kenny Davis, Marylin Grimes, Theo Huff, Melanie McCullough, Delvin Roston, Jr., Chick Rodgers, Davis Simmons and Rashawn Thompson. The band, led by Music Director Robert Reddrick, includes Mark Moultrip on piano, Herb Walkter on guitar, Tracy Anita Baker on bass, Bill McFarland on trombone, Hank Ford on saxophone, and Paul Howard on trumpet.