REVIEW: Local Wonders (Full Sky Productions)

    
     

Discovering the familiar anew

  
  

Paul Amandes and Anne Hills in Local Wonders

   
Full Sky Productions presents
   
Local Wonders
  
Adapted by Virginia Smith and Paul Amandes
From the book by Ted Kooser
Directed by Virginia Smith
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
Through Jan 9  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

If the land shapes the soul as much as the soil, you sure get to know Nebraska by the last of these 90 minutes. It’s not flat at all,but tips gradually and slides inevitably into the Missouri River that defines its eastern border.  It’s “a country shaped by storms, “a prairie polished by storms,” and a “landscape of litter” left behind by countless wagon trains and other westward travelers. This—specifically Garland, Nebraska, pop. 500–LW Guitar 2 (L-R): Paul Amandes and Anne Hills star in Full Sky Productions’ Chicago premiere of LOCAL WONDERS, a play with songs, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue.  The production previews November 27, opens December 2, and runs through January 9, 2011. is territory inhabited by and emotionally appropriated by Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer winner. Here his beautifully written celebration of life amid death, “Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps,” receives a rich musical transformation in a Chicago premiere that suits the season like a snowfall.

Director Virginia Smith and performer Paul Amandes find rich opportunities for their songs and stories to further explore this memoir of a middle-aged poet in southeastern Nebraska confronting his mortality after a diagnosis of carcinoma of the mouth. That mortality consists of memories that are rooted in these rolling hills and revealed in songs like “So This is Nebraska” and “The Empty House” that take Kooser’s anecdotes and make them memories into which we can all tap.

Kooser’s medical wake-up call makes him look hard at everything around him and gauge what’s solid enough to survive this threat to everything he is and was. His daily walks, which take him back as well as forward, yield observations that serve the ten songs that Amandes and Anne Hills, as his stalwart wife Kathleen, perform with grace and passion.

Kooser describes himself as an emotional hoarder: He seems to have lost nothing in his memories of the elephant that a beloved uncle collected, the monarch butterflies that seem to disappear on their trek to Mexico, the parents who prepared him for more than they could have guessed at back then, and the way in which feelings move us far from where we started the way tectonic plates do the earth.

LW Anne and Paul Standing (L-R):  Anne Hills and Paul Amandes star in Full Sky Productions’ Chicago premiere of LOCAL WONDERS, a play with songs, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue.  The production previews November 27, opens December 2, and runs through January 9, 2011. It’s this tough-loving reappraisal that allows Amandes’ poet to move toward, not that awful word “closure,” but a kind of appreciative acceptance of the “local wonders” that include him. (It also helps that his cancer goes into remission.) As he says, “If you can awaken inside the familiar and discover it new, you need never leave home…” Nebraska can be a destination as much as an origin.

This is a show to be cherished for its specifics. The details are just what a master poet would want to share and skilled musician interpreters like Amandes and Hill (who play guitar and banjo), and, on piano and vocals, James Robinson-Parran love to deliver.

Not all of this inspired memory-mongering is equally compelling but, no question, it’s presented with all the honesty and humanity of its source.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

LW Trio 1 (L-R): Anne Hills, James Robinson Parran, and Paul Amandes of Full Sky Productions’ Chicago premiere of LOCAL WONDERS, a play with songs, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue.  The production previews November 27, opens December 2, and runs through January 9, 2011

LW Paul Amandes 1: Paul Amandes stars in Full Sky Productions’ Chicago premiere of LOCAL WONDERS, a play with songs, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue.  The production previews November 27, opens December 2, and runs through January 9, 2011. `\ LW Paul and Anne 1
  
  

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol (Drury Lane Children’s Theatre)

   
  

A heart-warming tale of transformation and joy

  
 

A CHRISTMAS CAROL- William Dick as Scrooge

   
Drury Lane Children’s Theatre presents
   
A Christmas Carol
       
Written by Charles Dickens
Directed by
Scott Calcagno
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook (map)
through Dec 18  |  tickets: $12  |   more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

The Christmas season is once again upon us, and with it is brought one of the most beloved holiday stories, A Christmas Carol, once again brought to life by Drury Lane Theatre. Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol tells the heartwarming transformational story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old man as greedy and he is unhappy, who’s offered one last chance on Christmas Eve to discover the true meaning of Christmas before he is forever fated to doom and despair.

The set focuses in on a large wooden door center stage, complete with a large, lion-head knocker. Flanking the stage is distressed wood walls and throughout the performance set pieces are brought on and off stage in quick changes to create Scrooge’s counting house, his home, the Crachet’s and other various places around town. Scene changes are done quickly and efficiently, never slowing down the performance.

imageTravelling back to the London of 1843, A Christmas Carol opens with the townspeople milling about, singing Christmas carols and enjoying each other’s company. The stage instantly comes to life with action and a charming sense of the season. That is, until Scrooge makes his entrance scowling and “bah humbug-ing” his way through the now-silenced crowd. Scrooge, played by William Dick, is a clear distinction of the bitter old man, and Dick embodies him fully, while adding a bit of jolliness to the character. Dick could have taken a bit meaner turn with Scrooge in the beginning, making the transformation more prevalent at the end, but Dick does a fine job at portraying the old Miser.

The counter to Scrooge is Bob Crachit (Andrew Weir), wonderfully full of merriment and Christmas cheer. With an understanding of how poor Crachet and his family are, Weir reaches deep down and creates a lovely sense of hope and love for not just himself but the entire Crachit family (and Scrooge as well!).

As Scrooge settles into his lonesome Christmas Eve, he is joined by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley (Christian Gray), now forced to walk the earth bearing the chains he created in life. A chilling portrayal of what Scrooge is to become should be not change his ways, Gray delivers a solid performance and is spot on with the spookiness of his character.

The ghost of Christmas Past (Cathy Lord) is regal and elegant as she takes Scrooge on a journey of his Christmas memories. She’s comforting with a protective demeanor. Christmas Present (Don Forston) is as jovial as one would hope as he shows Scrooge how his young co-worker and nephew celebrate, while Christmas Future (Andrew Redlawsk), grim and terrifying in his ways, shows Scrooge just what is to become of him and those in his life.

The lighting effects help to bring create a sense of mystery and wonder, especially surrounding the three spirits. The use of strobe lighting, colored spotlights and other lighting effects bring the fantasy to life and really aid in telling the story.

As Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning, it’s heart-warming to see the change come over him and the happiness he’s found. William Dick does a fantastic job of spreading that newly-acquired Christmas spirit around the theatre. And as Tiny Tim (Nicky Amato/Shane Franz) cries out, “God bless us, everyone” it’s clear that everyone both on and off stage is feeling a little merrier than when the play began.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

A Christmas Carol plays at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oak Brook, Ill., through December 18. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 630-530-0111.  Families are also offered the special opportunity to have breakfast or dinner with Santa Claus on select performance dates, with a festive buffet-style menu complete with seasonal favorites (more info after the fold). This all-time favorite play with music is an exhilarating opportunity to introduce children to the arts. 

        
       

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REVIEW: A Masked Ball (Lyric Opera Chicago)

   
  

Women take the lead in Lyric’s stunning Verdi production

   
  

13 Act Three A MASKED BALL DAN_4071 c Dan Rest

   
The Lyric Opera presents
  
A Masked Ball
  
By Giuseppe Verdi
Directed by
Renata Scotto
Conducted by
Asher Fisch
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)
Thru Dec 10  | 
tickets: $43-$217  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

I recently re-watched the Bugs Bunny short “What’s Opera, Doc?” and I was amazed by how well it adhered to the traditional visual aesthetic and plot structure of actual operas. The epic landscapes, the buxom blondes, the sudden tragedy in the final act – it’s obvious the director, Chuck Jones, had a deep appreciation for the medium. Renata Scotto’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s A Masked Ball similarly delights in these opera conventions, and her traditional direction captures the majestic grandeur of the lush score. Asher Fisch conducts an orchestra that performs Verdi’s music with precision and intensity, and although there are occasional balance issues with the vocalists, the orchestra is otherwise fine accompaniment for the talented singers.

06 Sondra Radvanovsky Frank Lopardo A MASKED BALL DBR_0519 c Dan RestIn Stockholm, Sweden, King Gustavus III’s (Frank Lopardo) political competitors conspire against him as his thoughts linger on the magnificent Amelia Anckarström (Sondra Radvanovsky), the wife of his private secretary Count Anckarström (Mark Delevan). When Gustavus’s page Oscar (Kathleen Kim) tells him of the fortune teller Mme. Arvidson (Stephanie Blythe), the king grabs the opportunity to learn his fate, but receives less than favorable news: he will be killed by the next hand he shakes. Upon shaking the hand of his closest friend Count Anckarström, events are set in motion that lead to the Count’s alliance with Gustavus’s opposition.

In the leading role, Lopardo’s vocals are technically astounding, but their lyrical quality lacks the dramatic intensity that would make Gustavus a more believable political leader Lopardo. There is a conscious choice to have Gustavus’s role as lover take precedence over his position as king, but the political intrigue could be enhanced by a more aggressive tenor. Delevan disappoints as the piece’s main villain, and his inconsistent vocal positioning diminishes the resonance of his sound. Opera should appear effortless, but there’s a lack of comfort in Delevan that can be both seen and heard, especially in the presence of his masterful female costars.

The weaknesses of the men in the cast are more than compensated by the women, who showcase stunning vocals that elevate the entire production. The petite Kathleen Kim finds herself surrounded by men for most of the show, and her voice glides above the males to lend an air of innocence and sweetness to the tense atmosphere of the early scenes. In her lower register, Kim is occasionally overpowered by the orchestra, but on the whole she gives an exemplary performance in her gender-crossed role.

     
09 Sondra Radvanovsky Frank Lopardo A MASKED BALL RST_7779 c Dan Rest 05 Frank Lopardo Stephanie Blythe A MASKED BALL RST_7318 c Dan Rest
07 Sondra Radvanovsky Mark Delavan A MASKED BALL RST_7499 c Dan Rest 10 Sondra Radvanovsky Frank Lopardo Kathleen Kim A MASKED BALL RST_7860 c Dan Rest 01 Frank Lopardo A MASKED BALL RST_7009 c Dan Rest

The production really begins in the first act’s second scene, when Stephanie Blythe takes the stage as the mysterious Mme. Arvidson, delivering the aria “Re dell’abiso” with astonishing force. Just like her fortunes, which exert their influence long after they’ve been told, the character makes an impression that lingers throughout the entire production, despite only appearing in one scene. Blythe has immense control of her powerful instrument, a quality she shares with Radvonovsky, who stuns as the forlorn Amelia. Amelia’s two arias, “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa” and “Morro, ma prima in grazia,” are the most powerful moments of the entire show, with Sondra Radvonovsky’s incredibly sonorous voice maintaining strength and clarity in all registers. Her singing emphasizes the expressive qualities of Verdi’s music, and the level of trust she puts in the composer translates to complete comfort on stage.

Under the direction of Renata Scotto, herself a renowned soprano, the women take charge of the production. Despite the unevenness of their male counterparts, the women ignite the drama and splendor of Verdi’s music; their dedication gives A Masked Ball the grand scale that makes opera such an exciting art form.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

12 Act Two A MASKED BALL DAN_3956 c Dan Rest

        
       

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REVIEW: Lobby Hero (Redtwist Theatre)

     
     

Redtwist’s near-perfect lesson on late-night discretion

     
     

  Andrew Jessop (Jeff), Eric Hoffmann (Bill), Maura Kidwell (Dawn)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Lobby Hero
   
Written by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by
Keira Fromm
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre’s Lobby Hero, under the direction of Keira Fromm, is so organic, natural and spot-on in its shifting moods and comic timing, you’re guaranteed to get that fly-on-the-wall feeling from start to finish. Step into this lobby’s peachy and cheerfully bland environ, complete with Christmas tchotchkes, and you might be fooled into proceeding to the elevator. Picture window exposure of the street lends even greater veritas, especially when actors playing police officers have to contend with joggers, shoppers and curious passers-by for sidewalk space.

 Maura Kidwell (Dawn), Andrew Jessop (Jeff)At least for the night shift, this is the domain of the doorman, Jeff (Andrew Jessop), a fairly sweet slacker dude with a sharp sense of the ridiculous, helplessly coupled to a real motor-mouth problem. Of course, it doesn’t help that Jeff’s easy-going nature leads others to confide in him beyond the normal boundaries of discretion–so perhaps speaking before thinking isn’t just Jeff’s shortcoming. But, much like a bartender, being the late night guy who’s there to talk to puts Jeff in the crossfire between his boss William (Michael Pogue) and two beat cops, Bill (Eric Hoffman) and Dawn (Maura Kidwell).

Jessop doesn’t hit a wrong note in his blithe portrayal of Jeff’s affable lack of boundaries or appropriateness. One hardly knows if he decided in his youth on a policy of truth or if he simply can’t help compulsively saying what he thinks. Yet, whether he’s revealing his sexual fantasies to William or telling Dawn how much he wishes he had Bill’s overweening self-assurance, so that he could get away with the asshole stuff Bill gets away with, it becomes quite clear that Jeff has no sense of where he is, who he is talking to or what the ramifications of his speech could be.

So it is that Kenneth Lonergan’s humorous, quicksilver script flows easily and smoothly from this cast, with Jeff centered directly at its funny bone. But Jeff also sits at the center of peril once William, who Pogue plays with wound-tight perfection, confides to Jeff that his brother may have been involved in a terrible crime and now wants William to provide him with an alibi.

Michael Pogue (William), Andrew Jessop (Jeff)If William’s secret were Jeff’s to bear alone, there might not be any problem. But as police partners Bill and Dawn, Hoffman and Kidwell convincingly convey a menacing police presence–even as they humorously fuck up their own relationship. Kidwell’s Dawn may be a baby on the force, but she already has the intractable bearing of a cop who can commit violence in one minute and excuse it the next. Bill, for his part, works like the Mafia, backing up William’s dubious alibi for his brother at the precinct solely as a way to implicitly gain favors. One of the other comic highlights of this production is how Hoffman delivers Bill’s bad-cop excuses with stalwart conviction.

Kidwell generates laughs simply by playing an impeccable straight woman in Dawn’s growing relationship with Jeff. But Jeff hardly knows with whom he is dealing as he flirts with Dawn or wisecracks at Bill. By the end of the play, he learns full well just how little power he has in this dynamic. Lobby Hero relies upon ever-shifting circumstances to underline the ambiguity of making moral choices. Basically it comes down to this: when can the little guy tell the truth? When it’s safe for him to tell it. It’s a hard lesson in discretion to learn. No doubt, other late-night guys have had to learn it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Maura Kidwell (Dawn), Andrew Jessop (Jeff), Eric Hoffmann (Bill)

  

Lobby Hero runs: Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat, Sun, 7:30pm through Sunday, January 2nd.
Please Note: There are no performances on 12/24, 12/25, 12/26, 12/31, 1/1. There are no matinees.   Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, includes one intermission.

  
  

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REVIEW: Holiday in the Heights Review (Second City)

  
  

Nobody’s spared in this laugh-out-loud holiday revue

  
  

Holiday in Heights cast - Second City - Metropolis Arts

   
Second City and Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents
   
Holiday in the Heights Review
  
By various Second City ensemble members
at
Metropolis Theatre , Arlington Heights (map)
through Dec 30  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Besides the usual caroling, tree-trimming and pigging-out on comfort food, ‘tis also the season for slogging through overcrowded malls, meeting new in-laws, sending out a year’s worth of cards, and driving cross-country with whiny kids.

But at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, ‘tis also the season for Holiday in the Heights, Second City’s sketch comedy and improv holiday show. The ensemble includes Edgar Blackmon, Ross Bryant, Angela Dawe, Derek Shipman and Natalie Sullivan.

SC_Holiday_05As with most Second City reviews, Holiday in the Heights opens with a musical number. Though a bit difficult to hear, it’s quite catchy and entertaining, with the ensemble assuring us that “Christmas makes everything ok.” 

Following this ditty, the ensemble moves into a variety of sketches with various ensemble members covering topics like meeting your girlfriend’s Jewish parents, rewritten Christmas stories with political twists, visiting the in-laws you dislike, et.al.

Each ensemble member brings something unique to the stage and they all work together as a group to create hilarious parodies of holiday merriment. The two stand out performances of Act 1 include an improvised, never-been-heard Christmas story and a GPS-directed car ride.

The improvised Christmas story is based off audience participation, lending a title to the yet-to-be-created story. From there each ensemble member tells a bit of the story, building on what the others have said. Watching the ensemble instantaneously create a random story and having to continue to build on it and expand the narrative is both hilarious and amazing to watch. It’s clear that the ensemble has talent for thinking on their feet.

The GPS car ride skit tells the story of a couple driving to visit her in-laws for the holidays. The couple discusses the differences in their family’s traditions – yoga and sharing time vs. watching football and not talking to each other – and through it the GPS not only directs their route, but begins to direct their lives in hilarious and insulting ways. The great thing about this skit is that it’s relevant to the world today and also very clever and witty.

SC_Holiday_04For all that is funny about the first act, I do wish it had provided a little more to the funny bone. That being said, the second act picks up the pace and funny factor. Act 2 flows smoother and also delivers a wider variety of reasons to let out a laugh.

The highlight sketch of Act 2 is a family reading their holiday newsletter Mad Lib style, allowing audience members to fill in words with whatever they can think of. Between the audience’s word choices and the family’s story, I was laughing so hard my abs started to ache. The ensemble plays off the audience participation well and cleverly incorporates their choices into the story.

Some sketches, although entertaining, do have the potential to offend when based on politics, religion and culture. But of course this is par for the course for Second City.

Note: This show contains more than enough adult content and language to make your holiday a bawdy one. Enjoy!

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

SC_Holiday_06

Holiday in the Heights plays at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, through December 31. Tickets cost $29.50 or $34.50 for stage table seats and can be purchased by calling 847-577-2121.

        
        

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