REVIEW: Bubble Tea Party (Stir-Friday Night)

   
   

Stir-Friday Night celebrates 15 years

 

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Stir-Friday Night presents
   
Bubble Tea Party
     
Written/Performed by the Company
Directed by Pat McKenna
Chicago Center for the Performing Arts
777 N. Green St., Chicago (map)
Through Nov. 20  | 
Tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

It’s been 15 years since the late Quincy Wong and Keith Uchima founded Stir-Friday Night. The troupe got its start after a group of Asian-American actors met through Jade Monkey King, a musical Uchima created in 1995. The duo decided that Asian-American writers, directors and actors needed a bigger showcase.

"When you saw Asians on stage, they were the doctor guy, the second-banana guy," Uchima recalled at opening night of Stir-Friday Night’s 15th-anniversary revue. So the two men worked to found a company that would feature exclusively Asian-Amerians. Ultimately, that evolved into the sketch-comedy and improv troupe that’s still going strong – Stir-Friday Night.

This current group includes artists, mostly U.S.-born, who trace their heritage to India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Their 15th-anniversary show, Bubble Tea Party, doesn’t show everything this company is capable of. Sketch-comedy revues tend to be uneven by their very nature — this one is more so than most.

The cast members all perform very well — when the show suffers, it’s in the writing. Some of the skits are lame — such as a recurring business about Olympic-style "Geisha Games" and an overlong, elaborate sketch of crude puns set in historic England; blue humor doesn’t seem to be this troupe’s strength. Other sketches start with interesting premises but never manage to come together, as in an odd piece that lampoons the Tea Partiers with an Alice in Wonderland theme and one in which a guy tries to convince his friend to eat 25 tacos in 60 seconds.

Undeniably, the company does its best work when it concentrates on the Asian-American experience. Two hilarious skits feature Amrita Dhaliwal playing an immigrant South Asian mother interacting with her American-born offspring.

The show follows up the scripted pieces with some improv, also with mixed results. The lineup isn’t set yet, but the company expects a few alumni to make guest appearances as well.

Stir-Friday Night deserves congratulations for its 15 years, and this show has enough funny moments to be worthwhile, but the troupe isn’t tapping the talent pool of Asian-American comedy writers deeply enough.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

Ensemble: Melissa Canciller, Amrita Dhaliwal, Samantha Garcia, Erica Ikeda, Jin Kim, Christine Lin, Harrison Pak, Avery Lee and Jasbir Singh Vazquez

  
    

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REVIEW: Devilish Children-Civilizing Process (Dream Thtr)

   
  

Naughty children demand gnarly punishment

 

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Dream Theatre presents
   
The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process
    
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
Based on German tales by Heinrich Hoffmann
at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street (map)
through Nov 21  |  tickets: $12-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Are children little monsters? Do they need constant discipline in order to be molded into socially acceptable beings? Is terror a useful and appropriate tool to insure obedience and good behavior? Is a certain level of cruelty always necessary when raising children? Dream Theatre has long produced disturbing archetypal works by its Artistic Director Jeremy Menekseoglu. But his new play, The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process, digs deep into the very foundations of what we like to believe is cultured order and proper education. Beneath the veneer of discipline lies violence to spontaneous playfulness, emotional well-being and childlike innocence.

Devilish Children - Dream Theatre 031All of which is just fine with the cast. Directed by the playwright, they plunge with relish into their new production’s dark savagery, based on the 19th century collection of German cautionary children’s tales by early psychologist Heinrich Hoffmann. “Der Struwwelpeter” became a European classic in its day and served as the inspiration for the breakout 1998 musical, Shockheaded Peter. Anna Menekseoglu, who plays Pauline, remembers an English version of the book from her childhood—as a little girl, its illustrations absolutely fascinated her.

Little Karl, Age 3 (Judith Lesser) has been banished by her German father, referred to only as Vati (Chad Sheveland), to a dark and foreboding place because he misbehaves. Here, Vati tells him, he will learn to become civilized, to act like a gentleman, and earn the right to associate with the rest of world. Once abandoned, he falls under the instruction of the other abandoned, macabre and threatening children in the garret. They perform one story after another on the essential lessons that will make Karl, Age 3, ready for society—never suck your thumb, don’t be a crybaby, don’t run and jump about, don’t play with matches, etc.

Each cautionary tale is a minor adventure in horror. It is not enough to instruct. Karl, Age 3, must be terrified into learning his lessons. To this end, Dream Theatre employs simple stage effects, masks and some pretty traditional, but well-timed horror sound design (Jeremy Menekseoglu). The Tall Tailor (Annelise Lawson), who comes to cut off the thumbs of little boys and girls who won’t stop sucking them, is absolutely frightening. In fact, 19th century children’s costuming (Rachel Martindale) so perfectly complements the cast’s crisp and creepy German dialect it’s difficult not to think of the Third Reich and all its mind-blowing cruelty in the pursuit of the racially pure perfect order.

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Menekseoglu and company execute their demon-child roles with sadistic vigor and gruesome enthusiasm. Mishelle Apalategui’s monstrous glee as Romping Polly and Bil Gaines’ calm and sinister delivery as Conrad are particularly memorable. Anna Menekseoglu’s little pyromaniac, Pauline, is just a delight. Humor and play always lurk right beneath the horror, yet the most horrifying lesson for Karl to learn is that he is innately bad and that this place he cannot leave is what he deserves. For him, as well as the rest of us, it’s a relief to see another, more beneficent model of adult masculinity appear near at end of this play–to bring light, generosity and joy to an otherwise hopelessly benighted existence.

    
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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Devilish Children runs Thursday, October 28 through Sunday, November 21, 2010 with two additional Monday performances on November 8 & 15 at 8:00pm and a special 9:00pm performance on October 30. Performance times are 8pm on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 7pm on Sundays. Performance location is Dream Theatre, 556 West 18th Street, Chicago.

Featuring Annelise Lawson, Chad Sheveland, Judith Lesser, Bil Gaines, Rachel Martindale, Mishelle Apalategui, Anna Menekseoglu and Jeremy Menekseoglu

Design by Anna Weiler, Giau Truong and Jeremy Menekseoglu.

Based on the German cautionary tales by Heinrich Hoffmann.

        
         

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REVIEW: The Dinner Detective (Knickerbocker Hotel)

  
  

Murder mystery lame but the food’s good

 

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The Dinner Detective presents
   
The Dinner Detective
      
Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago
163 E. Walton Place, Chicago (map)
Open run | 
Tickets: $59.95 (includes dinner)  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes 

"My partner and I have never successfully solved a crime." That’s the way Det. Teddy Hugs introduces himself at the The Dinner Detective. So I can’t say its producers have achieved their goals: The Dinner Detective was founded on three simple ideas: We wanted to create a show with NO hokey costumes, NO lame scenarios and NO campy dialogue," say promoters of the interactive murder-mystery dinner show newly opened in Chicago after playing in Los Angeles since 2004.

Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner - Chicago 001"Hokey," "lame" and "campy" are exactly the words to describe this raucous comic mystery where actors are disguised as members of the audience and you get to solve the crime. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun if you go into it with the right spirit (and enough spirits).

As you file into the dining room, you’re asked to choose your name for the evening — "something that’s not boring." Nametags at my table bore such names as Double Nickles, Coppertop, Shady and Zippy.

A host starts off the action with some introductory rules. During a meet-and-greet period, audience members are asked to interview each other in an effort to scope out who the criminal will be. The most creative question someone asked me was, "Have you ever wanted to kill a boss or an employee?" The person sitting next to you might be another theater goer, or one of the cast. (Hint: There are three public cast members and three ringers. The show doesn’t release the actors’ names or photos so as not to spoil the mystery.)

The food starts coming around next. Along with the show, your ticket buys you a full dinner starting with a couple of passed hors d’oeuvres, a tossed salad, a choice of entrees — grilled chicken breast with Dijon demiglace, grilled salmon with cucumber-dill relish or angel hair pesto primavera tossed with roasted vegetables, garlic oil, butter and pesto — with sides, dessert and coffee. The dinner, among the best food I’ve had at an event of this type, makes the package almost worth the ticket price. My plate featured perfectly cooked salmon and wonderful pureed potatoes. Drinks, at additional cost, range from $5.50 for pop to $11 for cocktails.

Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner - Chicago 015The action alternates with the courses of meal. After the appetizers, the host starts interviewing various audience members who may or may not actually be actors, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Hugs and his partner, Det. Sam Cisco, who make an exaggerated swagger around the room.

Then the murder victim bursts in, dying with extreme hamminess. During the rest of the evening, amid assorted histrionics, the detectives interview and accuse various audience members, asking about what they do for a living, their hobbies and other such details. A woman who said she was an actress was urged to present a scene. Other audience members were prompted to reenact the death scene.

Periodically, the lamebrained detectives uncover a clue, which is passed around to the audience on photocopied sheets. Ultimately, everyone gets a chance to guess the murderer and the one who guesses right wins a prize.

If you go to this show with the idea that it’s going to be less intellectually challenging than a game of Clue, bring a group of friends and indulge liberally at the cash bar, you’ll likely have a great time.

   
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

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REVIEW: Stalk (La Costa Theatre)

     
     

Grim fairy tale never lightens up

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Stalk
 
By Stephen Gawrit
Directed by James Wagoner
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston, et al. (map)
Through Nov. 28  | 
Tickets: $15–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Uncomfortable topics have been the subject of many musicals, but rarely one so agonizing as Stalk, a world premiere by Stephen Gawrit currently at La Costa Theatre. This very dark story uses the fairy tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a metaphor for child abuse.

That Stalk isn’t an ordinary musical becomes apparent right from the beginning … more than 10 minutes go past before we get to the first song. Instead, we hear young Jack’s parents engaged in a bitter off-stage argument, full of invective and foul language, and watch him sneak away with his grandmother to a strange circus where an odd, Bradburyesque barker tells the familiar story of the boy who traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 023Cleverly conceived in many ways, the show features larger-than life puppets and masks conveying the fairy-tale characters. Gawrit employs interesting characterizations and intriguing uses of fantasy to emphasize his point.

But it never, ever lightens up. Stalk is a downer from start to finish. We watch Jack grow up in fear and pain with his brutal father and drug-addled mother, two bitterly disappointed souls forced to give up their youthful goals to be a musician and actress to return to their hometown, where he works in an abattoir and she waits tables. We witness a vicious beating and worse. Poor Jack’s only solace is his fey and ineffectual grandmother, and she dies in a pretty ugly way in front of him.

Hamlet has more bright notes than this show. There’s almost no comic relief. Other musicals, The Who’s Tommy, for instance, manage to deal with such very serious themes in far more entertaining and less depressing ways.

The pop/soft-rock tunes of Gawlit’s often dirgelike score underscore the grim mood. The music’s pleasant and well-performed, but after a while it all sounds the same. There’s not an upbeat song in the bunch.

Even "I Shine for You," a love song that Lily and Gregory, Jack’s parents sing to each other, has dark edges. "Edge of My Horizon," a song the then-teenaged Jack and his friend, Greta, sing at the start of the second act is lighter and more charming than most, but it isn’t enough to provide a lift. The score needs a few sparklers.

 

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The cast sings and acts well. Helene Alter-Dyche puts in a beguiling, if not always comprehensible performance as the grandmother. Scott Danielson terrifies as Gregory, the gruesome father/giant, and Meghan Phillipp seems suitably vacant as Jack’s mother, who metamorphoses into an ugly witch. Jacob Carlson creates a barker full of sinister mystery, really a highlight of the show.

Melissa Imbrogno portrays Greta, a friend of Jack’s who isn’t very well explained, but may live in a similarly abusive household. Jordan Phelps imbues Jack with terror and confusion.

The brightest spots in the whole show, though, are Lauren Michele Lowell’s fanciful costumes, particularly those of Jack and Greta in the second act.

Only sadists enjoy watching this much relentless pain. As important as the musical’s message is, Gawlit and company need to remember that they’re creating entertainment, and take this back to the drawing board to add happiness and hope, not to mention some stand-out songs.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
   

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REVIEW: The Lion King (Broadway in Chicago)

   
   

Lion King roars into Chicago

 

Brenda Mhlongo in Circle of Life - The Lion King - Broadway in Chicago

   
Broadway in Chicago and Disney Theatricals present
   
The Lion King
   
Music/Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Book by
Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Directed by
Julie Taymor
at
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago (map)
through November 27|  tickets: $25-$148  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Not that my opinions would matter much to him, but way to go Elton John. After a storied career of penning pop music classics, he has had a major hand in crafting two of the most important musicals of the last 20 years. Lucky for us, at this moment both of the shows are currently playing in Chicago. I’ll admit, I’m still scrounging around for tickets to Billy Elliot (our review ★★★½) before the recently imposed final night (hint, hint). So I can’t really speak of its brilliance. However, due to the crates of Tonys it won, I’m going to assume it’s alright. I can speak to The Lion King, which combines John’s pop sensibilities, Disney, and the artistic madness of Julie Taymor. It is a transformative theatrical experience. As proven by the production shacking up at the Cadillac Palace, it’s a game-changing show even after the original production opened over ten years ago.

Dionne Randolph as Mufasa - Disney's Lion KingThe show has visited Chicago several times, just as it has toured pretty much everywhere in the world since the late ‘90s. If you’ve seen the show before, cut me some slack because this was my first time. I do know that if you already love the beloved musical, you’ll love this production. The cast fills the house with heart, and the puppetry, massive spectacle, and thundering music are gasp-inducing. Seeing the show as a Lion King virgin, all of my issues stem from the conceptual gears driving the production.

The dialogue is more or less completely lifted from the 1994 animated feature, so there isn’t much difference between stage and screen in terms of story. The variance, as well as the magic, comes out in the execution. The original work relied on brilliant animation, classical themes of family and power, John’s ability to carve out chart-topping songs, and our perceived regality of the natural world. Apparently, when Disney first brainstormed a stage version, they were thinking of full-body, mascot-style costumes. Then came Taymor (thank god). With a resume featuring opera, training with Jacques Lecoq, and loads of experience with non-Western theatrical stylings, Taymor figured that the feline-focused franchise needed an existential reboot for the stage. The final product was an intellectually-complex puppet show that was (and continues to be) wildly popular, still selling at nearly 100% on Broadway, even after all these years.

This Chicago cast is clearly having a lot of fun with the ensemble-based show. Dionne Randolph’s Mufasa is a memorable performance, capturing all the grandeur a king of the savannah should have. J. Anthony Crane is devilishly suave as the malevolent Scar, a great foil to Mufasa’s strict views of morality. Simba, as he grows from cub to adult, is played by two actors, as well as several puppets. The youngsters (either Jemone Stephens, Jr. or Kolton Stewart, depending on the night) playing the character in the first act do a fine job, and Adam Jacobs, who takes over for the final half, embodies the youthful honesty needed for the role. My favorite part of the show was Tony Freeman’s Zazu. Your eye switches quickly from the bird puppet to Freeman as actor; both are equally expressive.

 

J. Anthony Crane and Dionne Randolph in Disney's Lion King tour Syndee Winters as Nala and The Lionesses in Shadowland - The Lion King
J. Anthony Crane as Scar in The Lion King - Broadway in Chicago Brenda Mhlongo as Rafiki in opening number - Circle of Life - Lion King

Taymor’s epic vision seems a bit disconnected at times. The overall grandeur of the production at times doesn’t quite gel with certain aspects, like the lowbrow comedy courtesy of Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz). The huge puppetry for the three chief hyenas, another gaggle of comic relief, comes off as overblown. The show abounds with humor (Freeman, for example), but they could marry it to the concept better. There are also some jarring aspects in the score due to John’s pop sensibilities not blending well with the African drum breaks written in by Lebo M. The transitions fail to meld the two disparate parts.

However, there are a number of moments where the amazing spectacle on-stage washes over the audience. You leave the theatre with a renewed sense of wonder. Simba’s story is relatable, but unique, and the music is terrific. All those long hours the cast and crew spent cranking out puppets and learning how to walk like a cheetah bore a creation that will be known as one of the landmark shows of our generation.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Lionesses Dance - Disney's Lion King