REVIEW: The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (CIC)

  
  

Testing the limits of holiday schlock

  
  

Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

  
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy presents
  
The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet
  
Written by Marz Timms and Angie McMahon
Directed by Josie Dykas
Chemically Imabalanced Theater, 1422 W. Irving Park (map)
through Jan 16  |  tickets: $12   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

As an American, it may be hard to imagine Christmas without that magnanimous bearded man who is the reason for the season. No, not Jesus. Santa.

But, as surprising as this may sound, other cultures don’t have Santa Claus. Instead, they have other characters that award the good and punish the bad.

In The Netherlands, the giver of gifts is Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. This tall, regal saint places gifts of fruit in good Dutch children’s shoes on the evening of Dec. 5. Sounds pretty much like Christmas so far, right? Well, this Sinterklaas character also has a faithful African servant named Zwarte Piet, who is often depicted in popular Dutch culture as a white man dressed in black face. Not so merry anymore, is it?

This kind of nonsensical, overtly racist foreign tradition is rife with material for a wonderful satire that speaks to America’s own wacky traditions and treatment of race. What amazing source material for a hilarious and poignant holiday play, right?

Unfortunately, in the hands of Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (CIC), The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is as lame as a Christmas duck. There’s little story, the comedy is stale and the performances are weak. It’s one of those productions that probably started off as a brilliant idea but failed miserably in the execution.

The hour-long play tells the tale of Sinterklaas (Jeff Taylor) and Zwarte Piet (Chris Redd). Sinterklaas is a fairly established saint who is attempting to spread the tradition of gifting good Dutch children with fruit while punishing bad Dutch children with a trip to Spain. He goes to the local court one day and prevents the incarceration of Zwarte Piet by purchasing him. The two form a tenuous friendship.

After being harassed by a local gang of school children, Sinterklaas pays one of the kids a visit. When his parents notice him missing, they go on a hunt for the kidnapper. In the meantime, the gang of children is plotting to drive all the adults out of the city so they can rule the town. Did I mention this is an hour-long play?

Writers Angela McMahon (who is the theatre’s founder) and Marz Timms have tried to cram too much plot into this tiny production. What results is an overwrought mess void of intriguing characters or any relatable relationships. This completely obliterates the hope of any real comedy, as generally the best humor arises out of situations with characters we empathize with. Instead, we get a few bits and gags, many of which feel forced or worn. (Can we have a comedy with a black man that doesn’t force him to wear a dress?)

At no point does the audience really get to know any character. Instead, we are left to connect with cardboard cutouts who seem incapable of executing more than one trick. This is both a shortcoming of the writing as well as the acting. Rob Palmerin as the leader of the Dutch gang doesn’t shift at all from loud and angry. Taylor as Sinterklaas is flat and emotionless. He’s like a big gift-giving robot.

Finally, the entire show feels slapdash. Actors talk at one another, as if struggling to recite lines from memory. Musical numbers are weakly sung. This may improve during the run, granted the company amps up its rehearsal schedule.

CIC is capable of doing great work (see my review for The Book of Liz ★★★★). The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, however, comes across as Christmas pandering. It’s as if the company scrambled to get a holiday play on the table to cash in on the Christmastime trend. Sinterklaas would certainly be displeased – no fruit for you!

  
  
Rating: ★½
    
   

REVIEW: Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Christmas Binge (A Reasonable Facsimile Theatre)

     
    

A comedy hangover about the crappiness of Christmas

     
     

Mrs. Bob Cratchits Wild Christmas Binge - Reasonable Facsimile Theatre

  
A Reasonable Facsimile Theatre presents
   
Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Christmas Binge
   
Written by Christopher Druang
Directed by
Michael Buino
at
The Cornservatory, 4210 N. Lincoln  (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $12-$15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I love schlock comedy as much as the next two-fisted drinker; I also have as much disdain for overwrought and overplayed Christmas sentimentality as anyone. But even that much common ground simply couldn’t bring me to open up to A Reasonable Facsimile Theatre’s production of Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Christmas Binge. Christopher Durang’s musical comedy is already a messy hodge-podge of spoofed feel-good Christmas tales, thrown together and slung like hash to the masses. Too bad that messiness is unintentionally amplified by the paucity of cast cohesion and a majority of performances that settle on bland.

Mr. Scrooge (Steve Hickson) is to be taught a lesson by an attending Ghost (Samantha Garcia) about the real meaning of Christmas. However, the magic isn’t working out as planned and the couple keeps getting transported to the whereabouts of Mrs. Bob Cratchit (Tina Haglund), the wife of Scrooge’s subservient employee. It isn’t quite part of the game plan, still they witness her breakdown over Bob bringing home another homeless child while there is no money to feed the children they have on his measly salary. Not able to take it anymore, Mrs. Cratchit tears off to get drunk and throw herself into the river.

The musical’s supposed to be a messy, nonsensical train wreck but, Durang’s unwieldy composition seems to have overwhelmed the cast and that isn’t a good thing. Michael Buino’s direction seems perfunctory at best, designed to get the actors on and off stage and that’s that. Sluggish and cumbersome are the only ways to describe the show as it progresses, with the intentional jaded boredom of the techies in charge of scene changes seeming to have infected the whole production by osmosis.

Mrs. Bob Cratchits Wild Christmas Binge - Reasonable Facsimile TheatreThe cast needs to pick up its energy, as well as pick up on their lines. During the mid-run performance the show exhibited a persistent drag in the action, only alleviated when Steve Truncale bounced into the second act as George Bailey to show us Zuzu’s petals. Now, with character performances as sharp delineated and driven as that, the show would be twice as funny.

Of the notable exceptions: Karen Shimmin gives us a delightfully masochistic Tiny Tim who grows more joyful at the thought of being made even more pathetic by his mother’s absence. Tina Haglund’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit is certainly sympathetic in her mournful disdain of her goody-goody husband, Bob Cratchit (Christopher Slavik), and her 24 + starving children. Haglund’s rapport with Steve Hickson’s Scrooge is quite good, too bad the play takes so long to get them together. Samantha Garcia starts out well as the Ghost of past, present and future, but seems to get as lost in her role as the Ghost does.

Cornservatory certainly doesn’t need critical acclaim or press attention. On the evening I saw the show, the house was packed with boisterous friends and Lincoln Park neighbors who had brought their own drinks. No doubt, I could have used a few to be merrier about what I witnessed. But I also wonder if I would wake up the next morning from a bad comedy hangover about the crappiness of Christmas.

  
  
Rating: ★½
   
   

xmas postcard for Mrs. Bob Cratchits Christmas Binge

Performances continue Friday & Saturday nights at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 4:00 pm thru January 2, 2011.  All performances at  The Cornservatory, 4210 N Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $15.00, $12.00 for students and seniors.

 

Production Team

        
  Direction: Michael Buino*
  Set/Costume Design: Tina Haglund*
  Choreogrpher: Chani Buchic
  Prop Design: Susan Gaspar*
  Music Direction: Sarah Buino
  Stage Manager: Hazel Marie*
        

Ensemble 

Michael Buino*, Sipriano Cahue, Miquela A. Cruz*, Kristin Danko, Lena Dansdill, Samantha Garcia*, Susan Gaspar*, Tina Haglund*, Steve Hickson*, Bridget Rue, Karen Shimmin*, Christopher Slavik, Angela Snow*, Steve Truncale*, and Robert A. Walter    

* ARFTCo. Ensemble Member

  
  

REVIEW: The Nutcracker (Joffrey Ballet)

     
     

Sugar plums in your tutu stocking

     
     

Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet 2010

   
Joffrey Ballet presents
   
The Nutcracker
  
Written by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Directed by Robert Joffrey
at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25-$145  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Scrooge requires four ghosts to save his dark soul from excess personal savings. George Bailey gets help from an angel desperate to make good and to do it too. But Clara, the heroine of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Christmas ballet, earns her fantasy when she knocks out the Mouse King and frees her adored Nutcracker from his wooden curse. That’s the perfect excuse to dance up a storm—or a blizzard. Yes, it’s that time of year when six “Nutcrackers” hit the Chicago boards, none more splendid or popular than the Joffrey Ballet’s annual confection, a gift from the late Robert Joffrey that keeps on giving.

Miguel Angel Blanco and Victoria Jaiani in The Nutcracker - Joffrey BalletThis year’s spectacle—the 15th since its 1996 Chicago debut–was gloriously unwrapped and heartily cheered at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday night, as it definitely and annually deserves. Oliver Smith’s storybook set design is the perfect backdrop for the Victorian parlor from the 1850s, a magical battleground (against the Mice menace) and Land of Snow for the first half (choreographed by the late Gerald Arpino) and the spring-like Kingdom of Sweet for the second. (There’s enough snow by the end of the first act to satisfy a dozen Chicago blizzards, with some to spare for Minneapolis. That’s why we need the second act to sweeten the scene.)

The communal opening ball is, of course, a showcase for dancers, young and older. These depict the delighted guests at Clara’s beautiful American manse who marvel at Dr. Drosselmeyer’s cavorting automatons. Those mechanical dolls, rigidly presenting their preset terpsichorean displays, are a prelude to the real magic of the enchanted Nutcracker who, under a now-huge Christmas tree, helps Clara to free him from wooden bondage. That of course allows Drosselmeyer and the now humanly handsome Nutcracker to celebrate the victory with the Snow monarchs and their Snowflake corps de ballet, after which the Sugar Plum Fairy and her divertissements continue the fete in the hypoglycemic realm of sugary confections galore.

Anastacia Holden is the delighted Clara who serves as a lucky surrogate for all the kids in the crowd, with slim and elegant Mauro Villanueva as her dashing Nutcracker Prince. (His pas de deux with Yumelia Garcia’s ravishing Sugar Plum Fairy was perfect, precise and even passionate.) The second act’s novelty candy dances from Spain, Arabia, China, Russia and France amounted to a vaudevillian extravaganza in its own right. If the kids were any cuter, they’d explode.

      
Amber Neumann as Chocolate from Spain - Joffrey Ballet Chicago - Photo by Herbert Migdoll Fabrice Calmels and Kara Zimmerman in The Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet
Anastacia Holden in The Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet 2010

The Chicago Sinfonietta bring Tchaikovsky’s evergreen and everwhite score to generous life, a musical outpouring that ranges from 19th century quadrilles and polkas to waltzes that deserve their own perpetual motion. Hearing it makes you regret his suicide all the more. What marvels would he have composed after 53! That’s a fantasy we can’t indulge.

Speaking of homage, this year’s performance is nobly dedicated to the late Richard Ellis, who danced the role of Drosselmeyer for 27 years in Ruth Page’s Tribune Charities’ production at the Arie Crown Theater.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

Children cast in The Nutracker - Joffrey Ballet Chicago - photo by Herbert Migdoll

     
     

REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play (ATC)

  
  

A Christmas window to an American past

  
  

Chrisopher McLinden, MaryWinn Heider - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC Chicago

  
American Theater Company presents
  
It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play
  
Adapted by Joe Landry
Directed by
Jason W. Gerace
at
American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through Dec 26  | 
tickets: $35-$40  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is something warm and centering about American Theater Company’s perennial holiday offering, It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play. Tom Burch’s scenic design, a variety of warm wood tones set with holiday greenery, grounds the production in its vision of a solid, comforting past. Likewise, Katherine Stebbins’ late 40’s period costumes render a satisfying illusion of our parents or grandparents in their heyday—the ladies’ perfect period hair and makeup set off with bold poinsettia corsages; the men in period suits and sweaters, sporting red and white carnation buttonholers. Just sitting in the cast’s presence can feel as reassuring as Dad’s hand on your shoulder or Mom asking how your day went.

Joseph Anthony Foronda and Alan Wilder - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC ChicagoDirected by Jason W. Gerace, one can slip as easily into the performance as into an old pair of slippers and that might be part of the problem. ATC’s cast has a lot of comfort to give and their meticulous, professional execution of an American classic unquestionably impresses. However, the production also has the tendency to oversell its stabilizing comfort and forget the dramatic verve that drove Frank Capra’s original creation. Thankfully, there are some things here that are even better than Capra’s iconic movie: Christopher McLinden and Mary Winn Heider produce much stronger romantic chemistry between George Bailey and Mary Hatch than Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed did; somehow the confrontation scenes between George and Mr. Potter (Alan Wilder) more potently expose Potter’s amoral duplicity.

But for the most part, the cast could kick up the energy just a notch. Most take on multiple roles and sometimes character distinctiveness gets lost in the mishmash–Frank Capra’s direction excelled in making each character’s personality stand out uniquely. Of course, there are notable exceptions. Steppenwolf stalwart Alan Wilder practically channels the ghost of Lionel Barrymore with his dead-on imitation of Mr. Potter. Joseph Anthony Foronda backs up the production solidly with his portrayals of George’s father, Uncle Billy and Joseph.

But the production offers something more than just a nostalgic replay of Frank Capra’s iconic film; it offers a communal reminder of the way we were—and might still be—at the height of historic uncertainty over what America is or where we are going. The dialogue still delivers the best critique of capitalism in the American dramatic canon. As a humorous anachronistic touch, though, Chris Amos entertainingly plugs neighborhood businesses. Just as in the old days the advertising is interspersed throughout the story. Promoting businesses that sell vegan treats certainly brings us back to the present—it is, after all, about paying the bills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! (American Blues Theater)

  
  

Feel-good theater with a sincere conscience

  
  

Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues Theater Chicago 01

  
American Blues Theater presents
   
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
Written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Marty Higginbotham
at
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

“There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” That comment on the relativity of wealth is just one of many astonishing déjà vu moments in this old-Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues - Montage picturefashioned 1944 “live radio” broadcast of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood Christmas classic directed by the great Frank Capra. (That 1946 film, of course, went on to become, after Dickens’ parable and the Nativity, the most beloved Christmas story that America ever gave the world.)

Now it’s a worthy Chicago Christmas celebration in its own right. American Blues Theater gifts us with a pitch-perfect recreation of WABT’s Christmas Eve presentation of the story of one man’s salvation from suicide by a clumsy angel who wants to win his wings. This powerful blast from the past is performed in impeccably accurate 40s wigs and costumes by an unimprovable cast of Chicago pros at the collective peak of their careers. It’s feel-good theater with a conscience, not to mention a sing-along before and during the radio show and commercial jingles for local enterprises.

The story–about a bad bank (and slumlord/banker, Mr. Potter) that doesn’t “trust” or invest in its struggling community of Bedford Falls but is ready for a foreclosure whenever it needs a cash infusion–has never seemed so contemporary. An embattled savings and loan director, George Bailey (a bumptious and passionate Kevin R. Kelly) and his adoring and empowering Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) clearly make a difference in the world and for the folks around them–even, or especially, when times are hard. That’s when folks without health insurance or with heavy mortgages and bills need all the safety nets their neighbors can provide.

This difference that he makes, of course, George foolishly doubts and denies–until Clarence (incredibly deft John Mohrlein, who ranges from klutzy Clarence to vicious Mr. Kirby at the drop of a script page) shows him how Bedford Falls would have degenerated into Pottersville if George had never been born. The ripple effect, which means that no man is an island, has never been more gloriously depicted than in this reverse “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer/George discovers how his absence would be even more destructive to the world than his presence.

Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues Theater Chicago 008

All of this wonderful “Capra-corn” is presented in a seamless 90 minutes, with piano accompaniment by Austin Cook and ingenious Foley effects by Shawn J. Goudie. The nine-member ensemble deliver crowd noises, sound effects, songs and, above all, sincerity. The result is an authentic radio-days recreation that could pass for the real thing, but, even better, works perfectly as a play. It’s a wonderful show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

  
  

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REVIEW: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Provision)

     
     

The art of making miracles where you least expect them

    
     

Christmas Pageant somewhere-sometime

  
Provision Theater presents
   
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
  
Bassed on novel by Barbara Robinson
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road (map)
through Dec 22  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Mrs. Bradley (Cheryl Golemo) has bitten off more than she can chew. Mrs. Armstrong (Barbara Figgins), who usually directs the church’s yearly Christmas pageant, cannot move from her hospital bed, her leg awkwardly suspended in traction. So, Mrs. Bradley has agreed to take over her directorial duties. So far, in Provision Theater’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, everything seems quite doable until Mrs. Bradley’s son, Charlie (Ryan Cowhey), lets it slip to one of the Herdman children, toy - christmas pageant figurinesbullies and roughnecks all, that rehearsals for the pageant are followed by cookies, donuts and other refreshments. That brings the herd of Herdmans to rehearsals at the church and they proceed to hijack the production by taking over its leading roles.

Local, homespun Christmas pageants are familiar rituals that bring communities together to view comforting tableaus of the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus. Attend and you are sure to hear the same passages of familiar Scripture, see a familiar nativity scene, and go through the familiar arrivals of the shepherds and the Three Wise Men. Generally, it’s an evening without surprises but with kids there are no guarantees. Provision’s pageant drama is different from the usual, in that it relies on the unpredictable nature of kids for its humor and suspense.

Directed by Tim Gregory, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever also takes some healthy swipes at pettiness in churchgoing culture: the Herdman’s being the poorest family in the community and their children knowing little to nothing about Jesus’ birth, while the community’s church ladies are in a snit to they discover that they have taken the leading roles in the pageant instead of their own children. Mrs. Bradley can feel community support slipping away from her production, as well as her control of her young actors slipping away during the rehearsal process.

1011-homepage-bcpeMuch about Provision’s production still has rough edges. Since most of the roles are filled with untrained child actors, the production definitely has ‘community theater’ written all over it. But it’s surprising how much Gregory can evoke small miracles with his young and inexperienced cast. Imogene Herdman (Page Weaver) ultimately does make a sympathetic and convincingly loving Mary. The sacrifice that the Herdman children make to welcome the baby Jesus is honestly touching. Along the way, little touches that evoke the individual personality traits of the cast make each child special to the audience. In fact, its the small touches that entertain more than the manic comedy scenes. Mr. Bradley (Andy Luther) brings a solid strain of authenticity when centering Mrs. Bradley’s creative efforts on the real meaning of Christmas. While not a totally professional effort, families will no doubt enjoy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

     
     
Rating: ★★
  
  

Christmas Pageant anon

     
      

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