REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (Remy Bumppo)

  
  

A Wilde night of wit

     
  

Darlow(Bracknell)Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)

   
Remy Bumppo Theatre presents
   
The Importance of Being Earnest
   
Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by
Shawn Douglass
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Jan 9   |  tickets: $40-$50   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

I have to admit, when I entered the Greenhouse for Monday’s opening night performance of Remy Bumppo’s The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn’t quite in the mood for Oscar Wilde’s famous wit. I was coming off a redeye bus ride from a whirlwind Thanksgiving vacation, and on top of that, I could sense the first annoying tinglings of a cold. I don’t think I’m in the position to deem that the production, directed by Shawn Douglass, has any healing powers. However, after a few hours of chuckle-inducing satire, I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave the theatre feeling a tad bubbly. The powers of Wilde somehow managed to persist even with Monday’s torrential downpour.

Hoerl(RevChasuble)Armour(Prism)Hurley(Jack)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)A case could be made that The Importance of Being Earnest is some sort of sardonic allegory; Wilde continues to subvert the Victorian norms he so often took aim at. The 1895 farce expounds on love, especially the role of lying in relationships. In the age of Facebook profiles and Match.com, white lies are par for the course. Apparently fibbing was just as common a hundred years ago.

The play revolves around two friends, Jack (Paul Hurley) and the hedonistic Algernon (Greg Matthew Anderson). Both invent brothers so that they can live freely as another persona without the fear of repercussion on their very real reputation. Unfortunately, Cupid strikes and trouble starts brewing. In the city, Jack names himself Earnest (ha) and falls for the charms of Gwendolen Fairfax (Linda Gillum), who claims she could never love someone that wasn’t named Earnest. Jack decides he should re-christen himself and leaves for his country home (where they think Jack’s imaginary brother is a libertine), but Algernon, always looking for some excitement, throws a wrench in his plan. He visits Jack’s country homestead also claiming to be Earnest, where he falls for his friend’s ward, Cecily (Kelsey Brennan). Obviously, there can be only one Earnest and time is running out as everyone converges on the estate. Of course, Wilde ties everything up by revealing ridiculous family secrets and logical roller coasters.

Anderson steals the show here, painting his Algernon with plenty of lounging, raised eyebrows, and a keen sense of Wilde’s timing. Another notable performance is David Darlow’s turn as the aphorism-rich Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother. The crossdressing, thankfully, does not come off as a gimmick; rather, I could easily believe Darlow was simply the best choice for the part. Hurley, Brennan, and Gillum also do decent jobs, albeit with a lack of fire.

     
Brennan(Cecily)Armour(Prism) Darlow(Bracknell)Brennan(Cecily)
Brennan(Cecily)Hurley(Jack)Anderson(Algernon) Hurley(Jack)Gillum(Gwendolyn)Anderson(Algernon)

Overall, that’s Douglass’ biggest failing with this production. The stakes aren’t high enough, and Wilde’s delicious wit feels stodgy at times. When the writer’s infamous one-liners pop up in the script, too often the actors here glibly allow them to fall flat. Instead of an engaging scene, we watch the actors being clever. This throws the momentum off and it takes a long time for the cast to rediscover their balance. The first act, with the exception of Darlow, has a hard time finding the proper pacing. After that, though, the text and the actors are more in sync. Another unfortunate result of the cast’s woodenness is that a lot of the laughs are stifled into giggles. Don’t get me wrong, the humor here is delightful, it’s just not hilarious.

Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo still has a winner on its hands, and the cast oozes with charm. Wilde’s sharp satirical voice could be made more alive, but it definitely shines throughout. I would wager it’s impossible to leave in a bad mood, even when a late-fall deluge awaits you outside.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Gillum(Gwendolyn)Brennan(Cecily)Anderson(Algernon)Hurley(Jack)

Extra Credit:

  • Download the Being Earnest Study Guide (excellent!)
  • Don’t miss Between The Lines on December 11th
  • Consider attending the special New Year’s Eve performance on Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $75 and include post-show champagne and dessert with the cast!
     

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REVIEW: Little Women: the Musical (NightBlue Theater)

  
  

NightBlue struggles to mold staid story into musical drama

  
  

marmee_girls

  
NightBlue Performing Arts Company presents
  
Little Women: the Musical
  
Created by Allan Knee (book),
Jason Howland (music) & Mindi Dickstein (lyrics)
Directed by
Paul Packer
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

I will admit that I am no fan of the gamut of early to mid-19th century Western literature. I know it’s a sweeping generalization. But there’s something about the pre-Victorian and Victorian novelists that I just find grating. The novel was a novel concept at the time, sweeping the civilized world. Love stories mixed with polite social satire reigned supreme. But to me, it all seems like the imaginings of an overemotional teenager. There’s a reason why Jane Austen‘s “Emma” works so well in its “Clueless” incarnation.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women would easily serve as a parody of this type of literature if it didn’t take itself so seriously. It’s got all the conventions: A young woman with a big dream, strange love affairs, an expansive world that magically seems to be populated with only the work’s characters. Is it really believable that two people in Concord are going to meet up in Italy? Mind you this is without the luxury of cell phones and GPS tracking devices.

In any case, these are flaws with the story, which NightBlue Theater has no control over. Nor does the company have much say in the rather uninspiring songs in the novel’s staged musical version. Still, the decision to produce a play that’s as interesting as sandpaper does fall on NightBlue’s head.

Little Women really is a drama without much drama. Young girls grow into women, people fall in love and someone dies of scarlet fever. And the fact that it takes nearly two-and-a-half hours for NightBlue to tell this story only adds to the complete lack of dramatic tension.

The story of Little Women concerns the March sisters. The protagonist is Jo (Erin O’Shea), a precocious and peppy young woman with big New York dreams. She pens stories of swashbucklers and bloodshed in the hopes of attracting the attention of the popular magazines. Jo has three sisters: Beth (Julia Macholl), Meg (Karyn Dawidowicz) and Amy. The most notable of Jo’s sisters is Amy, played by Linda Rudy, who serves as Jo’s adversary. Jealous of Jo’s beauty and blossoming womanhood, Amy attempts to thwart Jo at every turn, particularly when she tosses one of Jo’s literary works into the fire.

The neighbor boy, Laurie (Shaun Nathan Baer), befriends the girls and quickly falls in love with Jo. When he collects the courage to propose, Jo rejects him. Although it breaks his heart, he eventually finds love elsewhere.

NightBlue is billing the production as a Christmas play. And although the holiday does serve as an occasional backdrop, it’s a bit of a stretch to say Little Women is up there with Miracle on 34th Street (which is coincidentally also up at Stage 773). I also think that their target audience of little girls (they were raffling off a chance to win an American Girl doll the night I went) is a bit of a misfire. Even with musical interludes to break up the monotony of the story, the play drags too long for a child’s attention span. Director Paul E. Packer could omit some scenes and no one would object.

All this said, accolades must be paid to two of the play’s standout performers. O’Shea is put through an endurance test, singing in nearly half of the play’s pieces. She displays her talent as both a superb vocalist and a convincing actress.

Rudy is exceptionally irritating as Amy, which I intend as a compliment given that Amy is supposed to be exceptionally irritating. Rudy adds genuineness to Amy’s huffy, pouty demeanor without crossing over into caricature. You know the antagonist does a good job when you find yourself wanting to reprimand her from your seat.

If you’re a huge Louisa May Alcott fan, you may enjoy this musical version of Little Women. Otherwise, the slow pacing and tame story may just lull you into hibernation.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

marmee_jo

  
  

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REVIEW: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (Steel Beam)

        
        

No miracle in Christmas movie makeover

  
  

its beginning will nifong

  
Steel Beam Theatre presents
   
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
  
By Meredith Willson
Directed by
Donna Steele
Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main, St. Charles (map)
Through Dec. 19 |  
Tickets: $23-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Christmas, for many, is all about tradition. Familiar holiday rituals, from the Christmas dinner menu to the ornaments on the tree to time-honored Christmas carols and, yes, those old movies you watch on television every year. That’s why so many theaters play it safe with holiday shows adapted from the same old stuff.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas is another one: the plot of the 1947 Oscar-winning film "Miracle on 34th Street" re-imagined as a stage musical. Steel Beam Theatre’s earnest production offers a big cast full of cute kids and highly attractive adults, and I wish I could say this live show offered better Christmas entertainment than staying home with a bowl of popcorn and watching the movie on TV, but I can’t.

it's beginning 2The familiar Christmas story follows young Susan Walker, who is being reared by her divorced and disillusioned mother, Doris, in a no-nonsense way that doesn’t include believing in Santa Claus. Their comforting pragmatism becomes shaken by Fred Gaily, the ex-marine turned attorney next door , and a bearded fellow who calls himself Kris Kringle, who shocks New York by telling Macy’s customers to shop at Gimbel’s.

The concept, from composer and adapter Meredith Willson, the man behind The Music Man, ought to have a lot of potential. It includes, among other things, a complete Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on stage.

Alas, this is no Music Man, and little about Willson’s score adds to the movie’s story. Few of the songs will leave you humming, and a couple are downright painful. The compacting and stylization necessary to fit the music into a stage-length show robs the plot of spice and leaves it cloying. Elements like a grown man, unknown to her mother, squiring around a little girl and a chauvinistic song about how long it takes a woman to ready herself to go out seem badly dated.

Originally called Here’s Love, the musical opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran less than a year. Its latter-day title change explains why, rather than being central, the show’s namesake tune, Willson’s famous "It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," written in 1951, gets medley treatment. Blended into something called "Pinecones and Holly Berries," it’s one of the better musical numbers, especially in its first iteration with a dance sequence performed by Jamey McDunn as Kris Kringle, Amy Steele as Doris Walker and Will Nifong as Marvin Shellhammer, a Macy’s marketing assistant.

Nifong’s wonderfully comic performance, here and throughout, forms a principal highlight of the show. This number also constitutes one of the brighter spots in Cynthia Hall‘s largely lackluster choreography.

The very pretty Amy Steele sparkles as Doris, but wobbles some in the vocals. A stalwart, smooth-voiced Greg Zawada portrays Fred, while McDunn’s perfect Santa Claus appearance is marred by a curiously tentative and soft-voiced performance. Lauren Freas did a charming job as Susan the day I saw the show; she’s spelled in alternating performances by Christina Zaeske.

Kara Blasingame is sweet as a little Dutch girl, alternating with Kathleen Miulli. Dean Dranias makes a stiff R.H. Macy. Adoniss Hutcheson, alternating with Mikey Taylor; and August Anderson; Brian Burch; Terry A. Christiansen; Haleigh Hutchinson; Andrew Kepka; Katie Meyers; Amy Moczygemba; and Emily Whaley fill out the ensemble.

The centerpiece of the second act comes in a zanily inane number, "My State, My Kansas," which has so little to do with the storyline that it recalls the quirky "Hernando’s Hideaway" of The Pajama Game.  Sadly, it isn’t nearly so good a song as that, though this production points it up with a fun banjo solo by Gary Patterson, playing the judge in Kris Kringle’s insanity trial.

The cast, colorfully clad in Kim Maslo’s nice costumes, clearly has a great time and tries hard. But weak singers exacerbate the score’s dullness. A five-piece orchestra, borne up largely by trumpeter John Evans, does its best to support the vocals but sometimes overwhelms them. Overall, Director Donna Steele’s production fails to give us the pageantry and grandeur necessary to make a parade full of "Big Clown Balloons" come alive.

   
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

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