Review: Always, Patsy Cline (Fox Valley Repertory)

     
     

Patsy not the star of her own show

     
    

Megan Long as Patsy Cline. Photo by Trademan Photography

  
Fox Valley Repertory presents
  
Always, Patsy Cline
  
Created by Ted Swindley
Directed by John Gawlik
at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $29-$39  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Fox Valley Repertory performs Ted Swindley’s musical tribute to the late country music darling Patsy Cline through a haze, literally and figuratively. For one, generational, tertiary colored lights penetrate fog above the stage, making for a nice effect not unlike watching a “Lawrence Welk” type television show on an analog set. The edges around the singers and band are softened, and the space is filled with nostalgic ambiance.

The other haze is selective memory.

Whatever events that caused the lonely heartbreak that drives Cline’s most moving songs—listen to “Faded Love, ” for god’s sake—as well as the struggles she suffered attaining her success are left deep in the background. No, the stakes in Swindley’s play couldn’t be lower, but one gets the sense that’s where he wants them. Always, Patsy Cline is inspired by the real life letters kept between Cline (Megan Long) Megan Long as Patsy Cline in Fox Valley Rep's 'Always, Patsy Cline'. Photo by Trademan Photography.and her close friend Louise Steger (Kate Brown), and just like pouring over the letters of a departed friend, he only wants us to remember what was good. Cline’s actual biography is a tragic story of a legendary artist dying in a senseless accident at 30. Director John Gawlik’s show is the recounting of a friendship and the joy that carries on after someone passes.

We’re first introduced to Patsy in boots at the Grand Ol Oprey, with Louise miles away seated in a Lucy Chair in her kitchen. Listening to Cline sparks a bit of a love affair in Steger, and she quickly closes the gap.

As the narrator and primary means of moving the play’s light plot forward, Brown is engaging and affable. She makes a balanced duo with Megan Long, countering Long’s authoritative pettiness with broad shoulders, an admiration for cigarettes and coffee, and an unabashed willingness to wiggles, shake, and slap her tuckus. Getting the mostly older audience at Fox Valley Rep to actively engage can be a process akin to pulling dentures teeth, but Brown actually gets a few of them to their feet.

Cline, on the other hand, is written to be viewed from a distance. Long shines in the music numbers with her strong voice and well-trained little yodels and yips, but she’s given little opportunity to be the star any place else. Perhaps the playwright is trying attain some sense of mystique for the title-character. Trouble is, that choice forces Brown’s character to continually grab for exposition instead of action to tell the story about a friendship, and leaves our deep connection to their relationship out of reach.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Kate Brown as narrating friend Louise Steger and Megan Long as Patsy Cline in Fox Valey Rep's "Always, Patsy Cline". Photo by Trademan Photography. Megan Long as Patsy Cline. Photo by Tradman Photography

Always, Patsy Cline: The Sweetest Musical This Side of Heaven runs through May 15th at Pheasant Run Resort, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, with selective Thursdays either 8pm or 2pm.  Tickets are $29-$39 (dinner package: $49), and can be purchased online or by calling (630) 584-6342.  More info at www.foxvalleyrep.org.

All photos by Trademan Photography

     
     

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Review: Some Enchanted Evening (Theo Ubique Theatre)

  
  

Update: Now extended through July 3rd!

More American than apple pie!

  
  

Austin Cook, Evan Tyrone Martin, Dana Tretta - Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre - Some Enchanted Evening

  
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents
    
Some Enchanted Evening:
  The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein

          

Directed by Fred Anzevino
Music Directed by Austin Cook
at No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25-$30 (dinner: $20)  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The purest patriotism possible in this troubled land is just to love the subject of this show. The beautiful Broadway created by Rodgers and Hammerstein is broad indeed, and a way to everything that’s (still) good about America. We can enjoy the optimism of Oklahoma, dangerous ambition of Carousel, courage and tolerance of South Pacific, family values of State Fair, curiosity and growth of The King and I, assimilation of Flower Drum Song, and, well, the love of singing in The Sound of Music.  It’s there in melodies (Rodgers) you could get drunk on and lyrics (Hammerstein) that feel good because they’re just true.

Danni Smith and Austin Cook - Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre - Some Enchanted Evening, Songs of Rogers and HammersteinFramed as a rehearsal that turns into a performance, Fred Anzevino’s generous, two-hour tribute to R&H’s glorious Americana showcases five splendid singers flawlessly directed by musical director and pianist Austin Cook. The uncredited compilation offers clever to sumptuous arrangements in a program that lets the songs talk to each other almost as much as they resonate with an equally impassioned audience. We grew up with these songs until they’re now part of our emotional DNA.

At the same time, you’ve never imagined “Maria” as a possible love song about a relationship, not a complaint by nuns, but it works well here. (Less so is the unnecessarily jazzed-up backdrop to “Something Wonderful.”) A few discoveries offer less-known confirmation of the partners’ mastery, like the winsome “A Fellow Needs a Girl” and the sardonic lament “The Gentleman Is a Dope” (Rodgers’ later sequel to “The Lady Is a Tramp”?).

So many favorites are included that it’s easier to mention the ones that aren’t (the power anthems “Climb Every Mountain” and “You’ll Never Walk Along” and my favorite ballad, “What’s the Use of Won’drin’?”). What made the cut, however, is perfection enough, especially as sung by a soaring soprano and euphoric belter like Sarah Schoch, who gives “A Wonderful Guy” a fitting sweep and scope. Dana Tretta is a wicked comedienne in “I Can’t Say No” and a wistful lover in “I Have Dreamed.” Danni Smith brings star quality to the fragile “Love, Look Away” and raw nostalgia and tensile heartbreak to “Hello, Young Lovers.”

     
Danni Smith, Evan Tyrone Martin, Dana Tretta - Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre Austin Cook, Evan Tyrone Martin, Dana Tretta, Jeremy Trager - Theo-Ubique Theatre
Some Enchated Evening ensemble - Theo-Ubique Cabaret 3 Evan Tyrone Martin, Dana Tretta, Austin Cook, Jeremy Trager Danni Smith and Sara Schoch in 'Some Enchated Evening' - Theo-Ubique Cabaret

Jeremy Trager’s baritone serves him splendidly throughout, never more so than in his driven version of Billy Bigelow’s all-confessing “Soliloquy.” Finally, Evan Tyrone Martin brings a heavenly tenor to “Edelweiss,” a folk song so pure it fits every possible singer, while his tender and haunting take on the little-known “Everybody’s Got a Home But Me” shows how R&H could summon up the blues in spirit if not in note.

Fine as they are, collectively this terrific ensemble turn “Shall We Dance,” “A Grand Night,” “Grant Avenue,” and the seductive title song into harmonious musical gems of a thousand carats each.

Well, the revue’s title says it all. My one complaint is that the whole show should have been a sing-along. But I’ll leave that to “The Messiah.”

  
     
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Austin Cook, Dana Tretta, Jeremy Trager, Danni Smith, Sara Schoch and Evan Tyrone Martin in 'Some Enchanted Evening' - Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

All photos by G. Thomas Ward Photography

     
     

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Review: Baby Wants Candy (Apollo Theater Chicago)

  
  

Celebrating 14th year in Chicago, “Baby” wants a little more finesse

  
  

Nathan Jansen, Brendan Dowling, Erica Elam, Nick Semar, Christy Bonstell, Zach Thompson, Ben McFadden, Chris Ditton, Kevin Florain, Sam Super - Baby Wants Candy - Apollo Theatre Chicago - Photo: Joanna Feldman.

  
Apollo Theater presents
   
Baby Wants Candy
   
Developed by Peter Gwinn, Al Samuels,
Stuart Ranson, Bob Kulhan and Don Bardwell
Written weekly by ‘Baby’ cast
at
Apollo Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
Open Run  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Oh, to have witnessed Baby Wants Candy at its Chicago inception 14 years ago – first performing at iO Theatre before, later, moving to the present Apollo mainstage. The brain-child of Peter Gwinn, Al Samuels, Stuart Ranson, Bob Kulhan and Don Bardwell, Baby Wants Candy’s central premise is this: the troupe improvises a new musical every performance, created from a title shouted out from the audience. The tactic had its formulas, but each evening the actors spontaneously crafted and performed a new one-hour long musical, never to be seen again. Previously performed musicals include: Peace Corps: the Musical, The Day the Gingers Ruled the World: the Musical, David Hasselhoff’s Secret Children: the Musical, and The Department of Redundancy Department: the Musical.

Zach Thompson, Erica Elam, Christy Bonstell, Brendan Dowling, Sam Super, Kevin Florian, Ben McFadden, Chris Ditton, Nick Semar, Nathan Jansen - 'Baby Wants Candy'  - Photo credit: Joanna Feldman.On the evening I attended, one audience member beat everyone else to the punch by throwing out The Confessions of a Teenage Rahm Emmanuel. How something that biographical would have been handled by Baby’s original member Peter Gwinn is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, the new cast seemed to be just finding their feet with Baby Wants Candy’s drill. They seemed constrained and hesitant. They pulled back from a full out rift on Emmanuel. The team fell back on teenage high school formulas and played it fairly safe with Emmanuel’s life story. Although they generated a few laughs in spoken scenes, they floundered on producing consistently distinctive or funny musical lyrics. Relax, guys, he’s not mayor yet and, besides, making up random and absurd shit about Rahm, of all people, is the essence of improv.

There were a few bright moments, though they largely centered on the teenage Rahm’s balls. Rahm’s dream of going from high school loser to prom king felt fairly predictable, yet it yielded a bit of fun in his algebra teacher’s encouragement to join ballet–“Ballet Will Give You Balls” being the one successful tune of the evening. From then on, the jokes were pretty much about Rahm’s balls. Rahm’s balls rule the school hallways. Rahm’s balls hijacked a car once. Rahm’s rival, Troy, attempts to cut off Rahm’s balls at high school prom but only manages to get his finger. Seldom did the cast attempt to venture out from the safety of ball jokes—like one student claiming baby wants candy logohis dad was a moon-ologist or the momentary inspiration of having Christopher Walken host Rahm’s prom.

Baby Wants Candy has made it big in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and with its international touring company in Singapore and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Perhaps last weekend was just a little off with a new team. Then again, perhaps the franchise is showing quality control problems. Formulas may be necessary but an improv troupe has to have enough security with them so that it can take off to new horizons. For all the team’s struggles last weekend, the band held tight and ready under Ben McFadden’s direction. That remains the strongest element of performance—let’s hope it carries right on through to the rest of the cast every evening.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
     

Baby Wants Candy performs Fridays at 10:30pm on the Mainstage at the Apollo Theater, 2540 North Lincoln Ave. in Chicago.  Tickets are $15.  Student discounts are available with a valid student ID the day of the show only.  For tickets, call the Apollo Theater box office at 773-935-6100, Ticketmaster at 312-559-1212 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.  More info at BWC website.

  
  

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REVIEW: Tommy Gun’s Garage: A Roaring 20’s Speakeasy

  
  

Gangsters, Prohibition and Flappers – Oh my!

  
  

We're In The Money - Tommy Gun's Garage

  
Tommy Gun’s Dinner Theatre presents
  
Tommy Gun’s Garage
   
Chicago’s Only Original Roaring 20’s Speakeasy
 
at Tommy’s Speakeasy, 2114 S. Wabash (map)
Open Run  | 
tickets (includes dinner): $60  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Prohibition. Flappers. Gangsters and bootleggers. The roaring 20s were a time when speakeasies were the place to be and the people who frequented them were happy and carefree. The illegal booze ran high and the hemlines got higher.

Tommy Gun’s Garage, a dinner theatre situated in the South Loop, embodies that heart and style of the roaring 20s. The whole theatre has been transformed into Tommy Gun’s Speakeasy with flappers and gangsters milling about, both serving the food and performing on stage.

Tommy Gun's Garage and Dinner Theatre, ChicagoThe second you arrive you are greeted by Gloves, Da Boss’s right-hand-man. Once you give him the password to enter (yes, really) you are brought into the theatre where the actors are instantly in character, resembling mobsters who may have hob-knobbed with Al Capone himself. The men turn up the charm to schmooze the ladies and the girls laugh and dance around, swaying their hips to create maximum movement of their fringed flapper dresses.

The evening starts with a pre-show dinner, which offers a decent selection of entrees as well as appetizers, dessert and “hooch” (alcohol). The food is quite tasty (see menu) and comes in a timely fashion. As I said before, the actors and actresses double as the wait staff and keep in character throughout, whether on or off stage. The characterization is distinct and evident of the 1920s and it feels like the audience has been transported back in time. The setup is also conducive to social interaction and friendliness, so it’s easy to sit back, relax and make friends with all those seated around you as you share in the entertainment swirling around.

Once everyone’s been served dinner the show begins. In the form of a musical comedy review, the actor’s take the stage to entertain and sing. The show gets off to somewhat of a slow start but quickly picks up once the actor’s got in their groove. Vito “Da Boss” leads the audience through the show, introducing acts and performing as well. His characterization is as strong as his singing voice.

The energy stays high throughout the performance which, for the most part, boasts exuberant singing and dancing. (I found a few actors hard to understand – diction, people!).  However, what may lack in the performance aspect is made up for in charisma. The actors and actresses – in particular Deuce, Vito and Officer Murphy – play well off one another and the audience. They are quick with the hilarious jokes and thinking on their feet. The show is interactive and the performers do a wonderful job of including the audience in on the frivolity, even bringing people on stage.

          
Da Gangsters of Tommy Guns Garage - Chicago flappers from Tommy Guns Garage Dinner Theater - Chicago

Musical numbers include popular standards the audience can sing along to such as “We’re in the Money,” “All That Jazz,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” The music is often accompanied by dances, like the Charleston, which is performed with the entire cast and is a joy to watch. The flappers really show off their talent with a rousing tap-dance number. If you’re lucky enough to find out the password from Da Boss, Tommy Gun’s Garage will definitely serve up an evening to remember! 

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Tommy Gun’s Garage plays at 2114 S. Wabash Ave., Thursday through Sunday (schedule) with tickets for dinner and the show ranging from $60 to $70. Tickets can be purchased by calling 312-225-0273.

 

Tommy Guns Garage - the gangsters and their girls

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Review: Letters/X (Apollo Theater Chicago)

     
     

‘Anti-Valentine’s cabaret’ comes on too strong, but not without laughs

  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

    
Apollo Theater presents
  
Letters/X
  
Adapted by Anthony Roberts
Directed by
Matthew Zaradich
at
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through March 12  | 
tickets: $10-$12  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Only in the emotional vacuum of a break-up does it seem like a good idea to e-mail unsolicited diary entries to your married ex-boyfriend.

So goes one hilarious story of dejection in Letters/X, Chicago’s annual cabaret devoted to performing real-life exchanges about love gone sour. Currently in its eighth incarnation, the Shadenfreude slam is currently performing its first run in its new venue at the cozy, well-suited Apollo Studio Theater.

Dressed mostly in V-Day red, white and black, The young five-person ensemble (Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, Anthony Roberts) presents submitted texts as monologues and songs by adaptor Anthony Roberts with direction by Matthew Zaradich.

You can’t ask for better inspiration. Break-up letters are a special brew of bad ideas, written by the emotionally compromised for reasons beyond their better sensibilities. And–surely to Letters/X‘s mirth–the emergence of text messages and Facebook posts as forms of legitimate romantic communication have only grown the broken heart rant supply. After all, unlike their handwritten counterparts, those digital venting-outlets share a brand of immediacy that outperform the body’s rate of metabolizing the alcohol that usually provokes angsty letter-writing in the first place.

Sometimes the performed letters aren’t break-up notes at all, but instead love propositions that are so bad they accomplish the same task. It all makes for superb material for cathartic, cringe-worthy comedy.

When the creative team here trusts that material, it does.

Too often, though, it seems like they feel the need to heighten it. These comedians have talent, but for some reason it gets veiled behind loud, cartoonish facades–never so much so to wholly smother the risible material, but just enough to become grating (the ladies are a little less guilty than the gents). A crank-it-to-eleven style may play well in a 1,000-person proscenium, but the Apollo Studio seats about 50. When good jokes are performed at you instead of to you, they feel less funny as a result.

Fortunately, there are segments where the comics subdue their inner-Screech and relax, bringing out the sensitivity and irony of the monologues. In response, the laughs become easier and more genuine.

The songs too are hit and miss. Numbers like “Psycho Hose Beast” don’t offer much more than their title, but others like “Brokenhearted Anthem” are surprisingly sweet and catchy. The music interludes help keep the pace brisk and the action engaging.

Conceptually, Letters/X is gold, and I hope it remains a Chicago institution–albeit a better tweaked one. This year’s presentation is a satisfying if warbly song for the newly single. 

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

Ensemble: Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts.   

Production: Jessica Jane Childs (producer), Stephanie Clark (stage manager), Anthony Roberts (producer/adaptor & composer), Jessica Roberts (lighting design), Matthew Zaradich (producer/director).

  
  

REVIEW: Rain – Tribute to the Beatles (Broadway Chicago)

     
     

An Easy Day’s Night

     
     

Steve Landes, Graham Alexander, Tom Telley and Doug Cox in Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles.

  
Broadway in Chicago presents
  
Rain – A Tribute to the Beatles
   
Written by The Beatles
at
Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map)
thru Feb 13  |  ticket: $35-$75  |  more info 

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

For baby boomers wanting to share their childhood with their kids, for all the true-blue or late-blooming fans of the Fab Four whose great regret is that they never got to see the world’s greatest quartet in concert, or for folks who like to watch great songs Cast playing the Fab Four - Rain-A Tribute to the Beatlesreturn to their source, Rain should be human catnip for rockers and rollers everywhere. In two hours the ardent crowd at the Oriental Theatre get back The Beatles–from their black-and-white debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (a 1964 debut seen by 73 million viewers) to the hippie splendor of Sergeant Pepper and His Lonely Hearts Club Band to the transcendental meditation phase that mingled with anti-war ballads to, well, just a final nostalgic sing-along that gels all their acts together.

Providing context and much non-negotiable nostalgia, projections, vintage commercials, psychedelic animation, costume changes, and closed-circuit coverage (which combine the actual audience with clips from the Beatles 1965 concert at Shea Stadium) bring the 60s to life along with the music that stamped our memories.

Like the long-running Beatlemania, this life-sized simulation of the magnificent moppets spans their too-brief career. All the classics are performed live (too many to name but how wonderfully it ends with “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude”!) by the very skilled if not always perfectly matched Steve Landes, Graham Alexander, Tom Teeley and Doug Cox, as the Liverpool legends, with Chris Smallwood on percussion and keyboards. There are a fewer lesser known gems, like “That Boy,” that might even trigger some new nostalgia, if that’s possible.

Rain - A Tribute to the Beatles - at Shea Stadium

Ironically, this retrospective has been together longer than the Beatles ever were, a testament to the persistence of fame even in tribute form. No question, this is accuracy itself, except for the fact that it’s being done in 2011 for almost three generations more than could have seen the originals. But there’s nothing like making up for lost time.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

  
  

REVIEW: Skiing is Believing (Annoyance Theatre)

  
  

Small scale, big laughs, great fun

  
  

"Skiing is Believing" at the Annoyance Theatre in Uptown

  
Annoyance Theatre presents
   
Skiing Is Believing: A Speedy, Deadly Musical
  
Written by Boaz Reisman & Hans Holsen
Directed by
Dunbar Dicks
Musical Directed by
Boaz Reisman
at
Annoyance Theatre & Bar, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
through March 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Small-scale, low-budget original musicals are shockingly easy to find in Chicago, but good ones are more of a rarity. Often time, lofty ambitions and expectations beyond the theaters’ modest means lead to the undoing of these production, but Annoyance Theatre understands and embraces its limitations to create production that are both economical and gut-busting. Using only a piano, a handful of actors, and minimal set dressing and costumes, Skiing Is Believing is another success for the Uptown theater, a hilarious musical that will appeal to both skiers and non-believers.

"Skiing is Believing" at the Annoyance Theatre in UptownBrett (Scott Nelson) and Gary Wheatley (Kellen Alexander) are a superstar skating duo who return to their hometown of Ski-town to celebrate Brett’s upcoming nuptials. After a few shots of Jager with their best “brahs”, Brett and Gary takes to the slopes for a late night ski, until an avalanche buries Gary under a sheet of snow. (Literally a white sheet with holes cut into it; cheap, yet incredibly effective.) The avalanche also takes the life of a baby learning to ski, setting off a stream of dead baby jokes that start off funny with the song “A Baby Has Died,” but eventually become rather tedious. Luckily, these jokes are the only ones that fail to connect, and the baby skiing death leads to some great comic plot developments.

His guilt over the death of his brother and various babies throws Brett into a depression that lasts six months, pushing him apart from his fiancée (Mary Cait Walthall), who channels her frustration in the explosive bridge of her ballad “The Light In Your Eyes,” doing her best Jennifer Holliday impression. Eventually Brett is convinced to reenter the world, beginning with a Gnarleyfest, a wild, raunchy party that ends up taking the life of yet another person close to Brett, his friend Devin (Neil Dandade). The dead bodies piling up pushes Brett out of Ski-town, down south to Panama, where he meets a sassy local named Manuela (Chelsea Devantez) and dedicates himself to building a second Panama Canal in his brother’s memory.

The plot to Skiing Is Believing is completely nonsensical, but the actors are unflinching in their dedication to the material. Productions at The Annoyance are built with the help of the actors, and this cast of improvisers is adept at creating the types of wacky characters that would inhabit a musical as ridiculous as this one. The Panama setting in the second act is basically used to give the actors an excuse to use exaggerated Latin accents, but they are so funny that the laziness in the plot is excusable. The music is infectiously catchy (“Seeing me skiing is seeing me being happy!”), fantastically sung, and the characters are exaggerated but fully realized, making Skiing Is Believing one of the strongest small-scale musicals I’ve seen in quite a whole. If you’re brave enough to brave the treacherous slopes of Ski-town, it will make a believer out of you, too.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

"Skiing is Believing" at the Annoyance Theatre in Uptown

Extra Credit:


Skiing is Believing - show poster                 Artists

 

Featuring: Scott Nelson, Kellen Alexander, Steve Hnilicka, Neal Dandade, Chelsea Devantez, Mary Cait Walthall

Directed by Dunbar Dicks
Written by Hans Holsen and Boaz Reisman
Musical Direction by Boaz Reisman