Review: Performing Tonight! Liza Minnelli’s Daughter (Neo-Futurists)

     
     

Art, Life, Reality, Blurred Lines, and Who’s Daddy?

     
     

Joseph Schupbach, Mary Fons and Donnell Williams in 'Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli's Daughter" at Neo-Futurists

  
The Neo-Futurists present
     
  
Performing Tonight:
   
    Liza Minnelli’s Daughter
  
  
Written by Mary Fons
Directed by Sonja Moser
at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The liner notes for Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter claim that this show is much more than an impression, dance numbers, and a revue. Playwright Mary Fons claims that this is a reckoning. I am not sure for whom the reckoning tolls. Ms. Fons is a startling likeness of Liza Minnelli circa "Cabaret". The show opens with her giving a history of her love for lace-up platform ballet slippers. From there Fons spins a dizzying tale of adoration that turns into an identity crisis whereupon she rejects all that has hurt her and reinvents herself as Mary Minnelli.

Mary Fons as Liza Minnelli's daughter Mary, from Neo-Futurists' "Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli's Daughter".Mary Minnelli wants to make us believe a fable from the cult of celebrity. She claims to be a Garland as in Judy who came from crazy Mama Gumm. There is plenty of crazy to go around as the world of Mary Minnelli is revealed. Liza Minnelli’s Daughter has a wonderful Greek Chorus holding up the mirror of truth and pain throughout the performance. Donnell Williams and Joseph Schupbach are the Fosse dancers, the wardrobe masters, the devil’s advocates holding the glaring spotlight, and the friends who talk Mary Minnelli off of the ledge.

The choreography is really quite good. Ms. Fons has the lithe synchronized moves, jazz hands, and long legs like Minnelli. Donnell Williams fits the physicality of a Fosse dancer and does a smashup Judy Garland with only a little black dress as the drag. The comedy is written with a dark and sardonic edge. Mary Minnelli sings a tribute to Liza who sang a tribute to her mother Judy Garland. Donnell brings out a tiny child’s piano to accompany the recorded soundtrack. The song is a replay of Liza singing "Mammy" to Judy Garland. It should be revealed that Donnell is Black and gamely plays along until the song ends. He utters one line-"Mammy"-accompanied by a look that says ‘seriously girlfriend…Mammy?’ I found it hysterical and indicative of the wonderful chemistry of this cast.

Joseph Schupbach plays the other half of Team Mary Minnelli. He is quite a wonderful dancer and has a brilliant comic presence as Mary’s best gay boyfriend. It is brilliant casting to have Schupbach juxtaposed to Williams. Joseph has as slight paunch and wears suspenders but has all of the moves down. His character is not only a Greek Chorus member but an alter ego to Mary Minnelli.  Joseph seems like the kid from Iowa who puts on a show in the barn with the neighborhood kids just like Judy and Mickey. He has some great comments that drip with just enough acid to etch painful memories in Mary Minnelli’s psyche.

There are actually many similarities between Mary Fons and Liza Minnelli other than the startling looks. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli made legendary bad choices in husbands. The exes were overbearing, codependent , and quite often gay. Mother and daughter struggled with health problems and addictions in mammoth proportions. Liza Minnelli had several miscarriages and is asked by Geraldo Rivera (he of the cult of celebrity news) if she wants children even after all that happens. There it is projected onto a bulb lined screen larger than life and was it just me or did everyone still flinch at Rivera’s insensitive questioning in the name of ‘journalism’? It is both good and not so good that Fons turns the microscope on her personal health crises. It is horrible to hear of her parallel suffering with her ‘mother’ Liza in that she cannot have children. She tells of extended stays at the famed Mayo Clinic where she spies upon the celebrity ward of the hospital. It is uncomfortable to hear Fons speak of the Egyptian cotton sheets and custom meals in the celebrity ward. I flinched at the comment that ‘surely Liza Minnelli would be in the celebrity ward’ at Mayo. Suffering becomes a touchstone that goes on for way too long and drags the last part of Act I.

Joseph Schupbach, Mary Fons and Donnell Williams in 'Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli's Daughter" at Neo-Futurists

It was enough to know that Ms. Fons shares an inability to have children and other medical crises with Liza Minnelli. It’s when she begins to draw the tabloid parallels wherein every detail is laid bare and devoured by a rabid public that I felt it went too far. Ms. Fons does not have a colon due to autoimmune disease. She recounts the pikes in her arms and near death experiences right out of the National Enquirer. It felt hammer handed after the third mention of the pikes in her arms and veins leading to her heart.

On the other hand Ms. Fons performs the transformation to Mary Minnelli with the same frantic and wonderfully over the top energy that Liza Minnelli seems to emanate. The drugged out days of Studio 54 are done in a wonderful dream sequence where members of the audience are invited to dance in the stage area. The wall is broken as they discuss whether or not they can really drink on stage and Fons gamely yells for the iced tea standing in for Jack Daniels and Splenda standing in for piles of cocaine. The references to Hedy Weiss’ remarks about the Neo-Futurists space being ‘a dump over a funeral home’ got to be a little tired as well. We get it. You all are kicking edgy in your face theatre butt and Weiss can suck it.

Fons’ performance is remarkable to watch just for the physicality of it. She is soaked in perspiration and it seems as if all of her nerves are exposed when she portrays Mary Minnelli trapped between realities. She manages to belt out some songs, run on a speeding treadmill, and recreate the "Cabaret" scene with updated music from the post modern icons-Madonna and Lady Gaga. It is a jaw dropping experience.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Donnell Williams, Mary Fons and Joseph Schupbach in 'Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli's Daughter" at Neo-Futurists

Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter runs Thursdays , Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm through June 4th at The Neo-Futurarium at 5153 N. Ashland Ave. in Chicago.  Tickets are $15, $10 for students/seniors with ID, or pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. (Reserve tickets online).  Yes it really is over a funeral home but the brilliant creativity that is the life blood of the company gives off light and life!

  
  

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Review: A Little Night Music (Circle Theatre)

  
  

An impressive revival of Sondheim’s sex comedy classic

  
  

A Little Night Music cast - Circle Theatre Oak Park

  
Circle Theatre presents
  
A Little Night Music
  
Music/Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Bob Knuth
at Circle Theatre, Oak Park (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Stephen Sondheim’s musicals often contain an element of nostalgic regret, focusing on characters that look back on their muddled pasts in hopes of achieving, as A Little Night Music’s Desirée Armfeldt (Anita Hoffman) says, “A coherent future.” The aging artists of Follies, the fairy tales of Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd’s titular anti-hero – these  are just a few of the composer’s characters that are faced with the consequences time brings, and A Little Night Music is one of the most chronology-focused musicals in Sondheim’s canon. Key words like “now,” “soon,” “later,” and “meanwhile” are repeated to emphasize the passage of time, unified by the inquisitive “remember” that sparks the characters’ trips down memory lane. The past, present, and future intersect in a delicate waltz, and Sondheim writes most of the show’s music in ¾ time, overlapping the melodic themes with his signature complexity and precision.

Jeremy Rill (Carl-Magnus) and Deanna Boyd (Charlotte)Bob Knuth’s staging is similar to Trevor Nunn’s recent Broadway revival, with a similarly clean, white-washed set design also from Knuth, and the production’s technical aspects have a similar level of polish. Elizabeth Powell Wislar’s costume design is particularly stunning, and these characters are dressed with the level of elegance and sophistication worthy of their status. Knuth assembles a cast that handles the difficult music especially well, layering the moving voice parts with a great sense of timing, and crisp articulation that is much appreciated during intense numbers like “Weekend in the Country” where multiple parts are being sung simultaneously. Desirée’s five actor companions serve as an observing chorus, and they begin the show with an overture that establishes the melodies that will be revisited throughout the show. In the temporal context of the show, the overture becomes more than just a collection of the show’s most memorable tunes, but rather plants seeds that will later be cultivated by the other actors in the ensemble.

This is a musical about relations – husbands and wives, parents and children, the young and the old – and despite the occasional instance of overacting, Knuth’s cast succeeds in building the character connections that are elevated by Sondheim’s rich music. Hoffman anchors the production with her captivating portrayal of Desirée, capturing the weariness that comes with the touring life and the desire to finally obtain a life of stability with her daughter Fredrika (Alicia Hurtado). When she reunites with her past lover Fredrik Egerman (Kirk Swenk), she sees an opportunity to finally have the life she dreams of, but Fredrik’s eighteen-year-old wife Anne (Stephanie Stockstill) stands in their way. Matters are further complicated by Desirée’s preexisting affair with an insanely jealous dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jeremy W. Rill), whose destitute wife Charlotte (Deanna Boyd) tells Anne about Desirée’s affairs with both their husbands.

     
Patrick Tierney as Henrik in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at Circle Theatre. Khaki Pixley as Petra in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music"
Stephanie Stockstill (Anne) and Deanna Boyd (Charlotte) in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at Circle Theatre. Anita Hoffman (Desirée) and Jeremy W. Rill (Carl-Magnus) in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at Circle Theatre in Oak Park.
   

As Desirée’s partners, Swenk and Rill both showcase strong vocals, and there’s a clear contrast in their affection for Ms. Armfeldt. Fredrick genuinely longs for her on an emotional, whereas Malcolm desires her on a solely sexual level, and Rill gives Malcolm an exaggerated arrogance that works for the character, especially with his powerful singing. As his wife Charlotte, Boyd gives the character an appropriately dreary disposition, but she becomes too much of a caricature when her character breaks out of her depression. Stockstill’s Anne is delightfully naïve at the start of the show, still a child despite having been married for eleven months. The adorable flirtation between Anne and her step-son Henrik (Patrick Tierney) shows how innocent she is in comparison to women like the Egermans’ amorous maid Petra (Khaki Pixley), depicting an Anne who is anxious to explore her sexuality but not with her own aging husband.

Stockstill has a beautiful singing voice, and her duet with Boyd, “Everyday A Little Death” is a heartbreaking revelation that underneath the sexual comedy these are people in pain. Henrik is the play’s bleakest character, and Tierney does admirable work balancing the character’s jaded opinion of the world with a desire to find the kind of the love that he so publicly renounces. Tierney, along with Alicia Hurtado (Fredrika) and Patti Roeder (Madame Armfeldt) in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music", now at Circle Theatre in Oak Park.Rill, has some of the most difficult music in the show, and while there are times that he could use some more support to stay on key, he does strong work with difficult material.

Fredrika and her grandmother Madame Armfeldt (Patti Roeder) represent the two ends of the time spectrum, as Madame lives in the past, while Fredrika is constantly looking toward the future. Roeder’s solo “Liaisons” could be considered the play’s theme, a meditation on how the affairs of her past have been grow more beautiful with age while the longing to return to them grows more painful. At the end of the play, Madame Armfeldt regrets turning away one of her lovers for giving her a wooden ring, lamenting the lost opportunity for true love. Desirée has a similar epiphany in “Send in the Clowns,” impeccably performed by Hoffman, where she finally exposes her true feelings to Fredrik before time passes them by again. After spending the play trying to recapture the past as a way to fix the present, she takes the leap into a future with Fredrik. When his responsibilities to Anne prevent him from jumping with her, Desirée ends the song with a defeated yet optimistic, “Maybe next year.” Time passes and things change. Things grow with time and they die with time. But perhaps the greatest power of time is the hope that the future brings, healing the wounds of the past and making the present an easier place to live.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Kirk Swenk as Frederik and Jeremy W. Rill as Carl-Magnus in Circle Theatre's "A Little Night Music" by Stephen Sondheim

All images by Bob Knuth.

     

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