REVIEW: Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night (Nuns4Fun)

  
  

A fun evening of parochial flashbacks!

   
 

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Nuns4Fun Entertainment and Vicki Quade present
  
Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night
 
Written and Directed by Vicki Quade
at
Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through Dec 24  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Sunday was a true Chicago winter day. The snow and cruel wind brought back memories of the 1967 blizzard. It’s what was called ‘the big one’ for a while and we Chicagoans take pride in having survived. A little girl named Kathy Deneen trudged through the snow the day after the blizzard in spite of snow past her pull-over galoshes. Holy Name of Mary School did not have snow days. Memories!  Flash forward to 2010 and a grown up (sometimes) Kathy trudges herself over to the Royal George Theatre through a nasty winter storm. It was a real trip to walk into a perfectly Mother Superior Ho-Ho-Holy Nightreproduced Catholic classroom.

I gawked in amazement at the felt board with both Nativity and secular Christmas appliqués. Virgin Mary’s and Baby Jesus’ abounded. I looked for a scary cloakroom to put my coat and scarcely remembered that I wasn’t wearing pullover galoshes when Lisa Braatz bounded into the classroom. Ms. Braatz is one of the actresses (along with Kathleen Puls Andrade, Michelle Renee Thompson and Andrea Moser) portraying Mother Superior in Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night, produced and directed by Vicki Quade. Whether you are Catholic or not, the show is good, clean, and G-rated fun. In fact, if you are or were raised Catholic like me, it can be a little weird separating the show from real memories.

Ms. Braatz embodies a nun right after Vatican II but still bred in the old catechism. Her character has ramrod posture devoid of any sexuality in her movement. The head- gear and the rosary were in perfect placement. I almost stood up and recited The Act of Contrition for being grumpy about the weather!

Ms. Braatz takes the audience through a stroll down memory lane regarding the saints, martyrs, and of course sin – but only the venial variety. Mother Superior asks names, and if you aren’t named for a saint then you must be a Protestant. ‘What kind of name is Austin?’ she quizzed one young woman who sat with her family of –gasp- former Catholics. She asked if there were any single or widowed women in the classroom and I raised my hand. I got a holy card with Saint Ann who is the patron of single women and widows. My prayer instructions are ‘Saint Ann! Saint Ann! Send me a man as fast as you can!” Yes it’s amusing but tell that to South Siders with saint statues buried in the yard to bring forth a homebuyer.

Mother Superior has all sorts of displays and prizes for correct answers on holy days of obligation, one of which is Christmas. Her spiel on Baby Jesus’ birthday is funny because of the authenticity. I’m pretty sure that even non-Catholics would get the humor and be good sports about not being the ‘one true religion’. She is ecumenical in her references to the Hanukkah Bush and Muslim New Year but that’s where the comparison ends. The class/audience gets a lesson in St. Nicholas that culminates in some amusing pictures of the character as well as real history. The best picture is good old St. Nick and Baby Jesus. It must be a miracle since they were a few centuries apart in existence but you never question Mother Superior.

Mother Superior Lisa BraatzAct 2 of Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night consisted of putting together the Nativity and the secular Christmas to get to the finals and win a trip to Rome where the Pope lives. Our parish of St. Gabriel was sure to win by putting a Santa, a Christmas tree, an elf, and a candy cane or two around the Nativity scene to make it more contemporary. If you have ever taken a walk around some Chicago neighborhoods during the holidays, this will ring true and funny. Ms. Braatz assigns roles to audience members for a wacky time traveling Nativity play. One young woman was given the role of the Virgin and a blue feather boa because the Blessed Mother is always seen in blue. Then five Angel Gabriel’s are cast from the audience and given different readings of the Annunciation (another Holy Day of Obligation by the way). Mother Superior gave one of the few men in the audience the role of Joseph and a Beatnik wig. Everyone was happy to participate and it didn’t involve a smack in the face with a cream pie or on the knuckles with that giant candy cane. I will admit to drawing back a little when Mother Superior picked it up.

In all, I recommend this show for family outings and where to take your relatives from the old neighborhood. That is particularly if you’re from Chicago, where we ask what parish did you grow up in. This show is one of the nuns4fun productions that have been entertaining Chicagoans for years. They take donations for retired nuns who are not covered under the Social Security Act and are now living that vow of poverty without the protection or security afforded to priests.

Put on your galoshes and your sense of humor and get to the Royal George. FYI-the Baltimore Catechism is available online and it would be good to do a little brush up if you want a lovely macramé plastic cross!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

For show times on Mother Superior’s Ho-Ho-Holy Night call The Royal George Theatre at 312-988-9000 and visit www.nuns4fun.com to get more information on more Mother Superior entertainment. I will let you know how that St. Ann thing works out.

 

 

  
  

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REVIEW: Redeemers (New Leaf Theatre)

  
  

Struggling to save the corporate soul

  
  

Pat King, Joel Ewing and Marsha Harman -  Photo by Tom McGrath

   
New Leaf Theatre presents
   
Redeemers
  
Written by Bilal Dardai
Directed by
Jessica Hutchinson
at
Rocco Ranalli’s Pizzeria, 1925 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A distinctly Eighties vibe pervades New Leaf Theatre’s production, Redeemers — and it’s not just that Pat King, who plays Nick, resembles a young James Spader both in looks and acting style. Directed by Jessica Hutchinson and set in the warm, casual and seasonally festooned environs of Rocco Ranallli’s back dining room, Redeemers revisits class warfare in the same way Eighties Brat Pack films explored them—as if Redeemers_NL_6photo by Tom McGrathsome black and white lesson in morality could be drawn from the conflict.

Nick, Mercy (Marsha Harman) and Abel (Joel Ewing) all work for Charles Edwin of Edwin Financial, then meet at their favorite watering hole each evening to rehash their existence under Mr. Edwin’s rule. Playwright Bilal Dardai gives these characters a sharp, witty and convincingly incestuous rapport while King, Harman and Ewing mark their territory at Ranalli’s with their tight, responsive and slightly sinister threesome. One never questions that they have known each other for years and can map each other’s moods by the stalling tactics they engage in or from the drinks they order. Over time, one silently asks what draws these three together besides shared history or a mutual workplace.

But never mind about that now. Charles Edwin dominates all their thoughts. His role in their lives infects even happy hour, when they might truly desire a break from the boss. Fine enough that they should grouse about Mr. Edwin when he was a tyrant, but a sudden change of heart—literally a double-bypass surgery—transforms him into the noble, fair and generous employer of Charles Dicken’s dreams. All of which strikes the threesome with incredulity and is simply too much for Nick, for one, to take. He masterminds with Mercy and Abel a series of relentless pranks meant to test Mr. Edwin just to see how far his personal reformation endures.

Sadly, the play suffers from the very thing it is founded upon—storytelling style theater. The most significant events have already occurred and must be related to the audience through the obviously suspect threesome. The cast is smart, charming and play their roles to second-skin perfection but the storytelling style inevitably dampens emotional immediacy. Redeemers_NL_5photo by Tom McGrathEven Nick’s obsession with Mr. Edwin loses tension because he must always be spoken of in the past tense. Even the jokes scripted to make fun of the style cannot relieve its subtly annoying impact. The only segment that doesn’t suffer is Abel’s tragic childhood account regarding his father.

New Leaf has engaged Dardai’s script with thoroughly professional talent to make it present; its crackling dialogue alone indicates the emergence of a promising new playwright that should be watched. However Redeemer’s wrap-up is as paper thin, implausible and morally simplistic as the Eighties films mentioned above. Tyrant or reformed saint, one has the boss one has and acquiesces to that arrangement as part of the cost of accepting the hierarchy of corporate life. Or one joins a commune or a co-operatively owned business—a choice that these cynical three, no doubt, would mercilessly ridicule over a scotch and soda.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Redeemers_NL_002-1093834846-O

FEATURING

Pat King
Joel Ewing
Marsha Harman

PRODUCTION

Assistant Director: Josh Sobel
Production Manager: Marni Keenan
Stage Manager: Tara Malpass
Dramaturg: Emily Dendinger
Environment Design: Michelle Lilly
Sound & Projections Design: Nick Keenan
Costume Design: Rachel Sypniewski

  
  

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: Alien Queen (Jonny Stax @ Circuit Night Club)

     
     

Update: 3 shows added – Jan 8, 15 and 22 at 8pm!

Queer encounters of the ‘Alien’ kind

     
     

Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 002

  
Jonny Stax presents
   
Alien Queen
   
Created and Directed by Scott Bradley
at
Circuit Night Club, 3641 N. Halsted (map)
through Jan 22  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Did you ever think that the music of Queen could be perfectly paired with the “Alien” movies and re-energize the franchise with queer sensibility? That one never dawned on me, either. But Scott Bradley has spawned Alien Queen, a musical comedy review that clearly reflects the cunning and twisted mind of a creator/director unabashedly obsessed with gender transgression, sticky substances, and the ultra-queering of Sigourney Weaver. And that’s saying something, since Weaver, as lustable butch Ellen Ripley, won the hearts of every Eighties lesbian and bi woman once the first “Alien” film emerged to boffo box office reception in 1979.

Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 005Ryan Lanning, playing Ridley, could also seduce sapphists (of the fluid sexuality variety) as long as he keeps the wig on and keeps exhibiting the cool toughness of everyone’s favorite Alien hunter–“Killer Queen” introduces us to her, still in her pod in suspended sleep. There is that penis thing, which could cockblock the adoration of Kinsey 6 dykes and certainly the audience for the show at Circuit Night Club seemed fairly gay male dominated. But hopefully, after much critical acclaim, a stronger dyke contingent will join the in revelry.

For one thing, Alien Queen is terribly sophisticated in what it does. In fact, for a comedy review, the cast’s performances tend to be on the side of understatement. Deadpan delivery overrides exaggeration and over-the-top theatrics. This production displays professionalism in that it shows as much homage to Freddie Mercury’s music and to the Alien-franchise as it engages in parody or spoof. Behind the laughs is a lot of love for the material.

Bradley and partner-in-crime Executive Producer Jonny Stax seem pretty happy to let the dry movie script spoof itself. They leave Anna Glowacki’s alien and astronaut costuming – supplemented by the alien puppet designs of Jabberwocky Marionettes Productions – to boost dramatic spectacle for the audience. You haven’t seen aliens till you’ve seen them break out of a human’s stomach, in puppet form, to sing “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Anne Litchfield impresses with the first introduction of a full-grown alien costume. But few sights beat Bradley dressed as the mammoth alien queen herself, pumping out eggs for her alien subjects while singing “Get Down, Make Love.”

            
Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 004 Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 009
Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 016 Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 010
   

Music Director Nicolas Davio keeps the show rockin’ while Jyl Fehrenkamp’s choreography has to make do with the limits of the stage at Circuit. But the cast kicks it very well and then does it all over again in alien costumes. (There’s got to be a Jeff award for that, right?) T. L. Noble makes the most of Circuit’s environs, skillfully creating an otherworldly lighting design in which the crews of Ridley’s respective ships seek out and are destroyed. And destroyed they are, one by one, to the tune of “Another One Bites the Dust.” As stupid marines about to die horribly, Kieran Kredell (Valdez) and William A. Barney (Hunks) take the cake. After all the idiot humans Ridley has to deal with it’s almost a relief and a celebration to see the aliens take over.

As for why Scott Bradley would want to set himself up in a role playing Ridley’s alien nemesis, that I leave others to psycho-analyze. The result is smart, polished gender-bending fun.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Alien Queen - Jonny Stax - Scooty and JoJo 014

 

     
     

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REVIEW: The Mikado (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

     
     

Lyric creates a perfect holiday gift

     
     

01 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko center with Lyric Opera Chorus THE MIKADO DAN_4344 c Dan Rest

   
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
   
The Mikado
   
Written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Gary Griffin
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)
through Jan 21  |  tickets: $48-$217   |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I’ve found it, the perfect Christmas gift! It is Lyric Opera Chicago’s radiant, lush, sophisticated and gorgeous production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. One could even put a big red bow on it, the same color as the massive, velvety red flats that act as imperial Japanese doors to the proscenium of Lyric’s stage. They are perfect—as is the whole of Mark Thompson’s design for the production. How else to describe his set and costumes’ color palate but as a visual seduction that amplifies and fulfills Arthur Sullivan’s opulent score. Christine Binder’s lighting molds pure magic from Thompson’s rich golds, pinks, purples, reds, and sky blues, chartreuse 15 James Morris as THE MIKADO RST_9172 c Dan Restand wood tones. Updating the operetta to early 1920s Japan is also an inspired change that refreshes and illuminates good old G&S for today’s audience.

Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and stage-directed by Gary Griffin, Lyric creates the kind of sumptuous dream that brings forth incredibly powerful musical moments, offset with sprightly comedy that makes the whole enterprise deceptively light and airy. That Davis and Chorus Master Donald Nally would draw gorgeous performances from their superlative cast may already seem a fete accompli to Lyric audiences; but that Griffin tops off the whole luxurious feast with the cherry and whipped cream perfection of precisely timed comedy is the real celebration of the evening. Clearly the cast is having too much fun and their enjoyment of W. S. Gilbert’s material is infectious.

Should this whole opera thing not work out, Neal Davies has a future in comedy. His Ko-Ko, a common tailor unexpectedly raised from near-execution (for the grave offense of flirting) to an appointment as Titipu’s Lord High Executioner, captures the wry mischievousness and cheerful nervousness of the arriviste who never expected to arrive. Of course, it helps to have one fabulously tacky hairpiece (wigs by Richard Jarvie) to clearly signal hopeful insecurity. Ko-Ko temporarily thwarts the romantic chance of the charmingly jejune Nanki-Poo (Toby Spence), who has journeyed to the village of Titipu to woo Yum-Yum (Andriana Chuchman), Ko-Ko’s ward and prospective bride-to-be.

      
07 Katharine Goeldner Andriana Chuchman Andrew Shore Emily Fons THE MIKADO RST_8395 c Dan Rest 10 Stephanie Blythe as Katisha THE MIKADO DBR_4064 c Dan Rest
06 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko THE MIKADO RST_8169 c Dan Rest 12 Toby Spence as Nanki-Poo Andriana Chuchman as Yum-Yum Neal Davies as Ko-Ko THE MIKADO RST_9010 c Dan Rest
   

In fact, in true G&S style, charmingly jejune is how one could describe the young leads of the show. It’s sounds cliché but, then, G&S revels in clichés–Spence and Chuchman make a darling, lyrical couple that clearly hasn’t got a gray cell to share between them. One relishes the heartfelt silliness of their romance, while becoming unfailingly reinvigorated at the prospect of romance succeeding—even though one can hardly say that it is ever really threatened. Meanwhile Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah (Andrew Shore) and Pish-Tush (Philip Kraus) regale the audience with the absurdities of their respective posts as Titipu’s administration. Shore doesn’t miss a hilarious beat pointing up Pooh-Bah’s ridiculous attachment to his pedigree or his decidedly mercenary approach to civil service. Together they crisply whip off “I am so proud,” wherein Ko-Ko realizes that, under the orders of the Mikado (James Morris), he must find someone in Titipu to execute within a month or it could be his head, once again, on the “big black block.”

Happily, Nanki-Poo arrives to do himself in and Ko-Ko persuades him not to squander his death in wasteful suicide—rather, do your patriotic duty and let the state kill you instead. He promises a month of married happiness with Yum-Yum in return for Nanki-Poo’s timely and well-celebrated execution. Just when it seems as though our young lovers have a chance at some limited happiness, Katisha (Stephanie Blythe) arrives in full force, seeking Nanki-Poo, who is actually the son of the Mikado and her betrothed.

Let me say that Lyric brought the big guns when they picked Blythe for this role. Her mezzo-soprano dominates the stage and one couldn’t ask for a more humorous or more resplendently-voiced ruthless virago. Tell us, how does it feel to have all that power, Ms. Blythe? Because Griffin’s staging allows her glorious full play, whether she is reaching operatic heights with the chorus with “Oh fool that fleest my hallowed joys!” and “For he’s going to marry Yum-Yum” or outshining the arrival of the Mikado in “Miya Sama.”

All that can be said of James Morris’s turn as the Mikado is that it’s too bad he doesn’t have more numbers. “A More Humane Mikado” is always an anticipated delight and Morris acquits himself with privileged dignity, polish and grace, while amusingly forbearing Katisha’s constant upstaging. The Mikado’s arrival precipitates the need for an execution and Ko-Ko decides to let Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo marry while faking Nanki-Poo’s execution on the death certificate. When Katisha discovers Nanki-Poo’s name on the certificate, his true identity as the Mikado’s son is revealed to all and Ko-Ko once again finds he is headed for the big, black block unless he can seduce Katisha into forgetting all about Nanki-Poo and marry him.

16 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko Stephanie Blythe as Katisha THE MIKADO RST_9339 c Dan RestThis is not to say that Davies’ excellent rendering of the classic “Tit-Willow” depends upon a tree, but Thompson’s set design brings home the song’s comic impact by balancing it against Yum-Yum’s enchanting declaration of self-love and Katisha’s misery at losing her chance at marital bliss. Under the radiant pinks of a tree festooned with cherry blossoms, Chuchman effortlessly delivers “The Sun Whose Rays;” the same tree is theatrically brought into the scene with twisted and barren branches against a backdrop of mournful indigos and purples when Katisha sings “Alone, and Yet Alive!” Then the same barren tree remains under which Ko-Ko stands to sing a made-up account, of a birdie committing suicide over blighted love, to seduce Katisha.

It’s a moment that simply and elegantly unites all three as it gently and reassuringly spoofs the heart in its outlandishly unreasonable passionate expectations.

It is a bit of silliness that is pure genius and that is what Lyric’s Mikado pulls off so well throughout the whole production. The show will send you into the cold winter night, your ear alight with its happy tunes and a joyful heart against the cares of this world. And what could be a better Christmas gift than that?

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

17 Andriana Chuchman Toby Spence Neal Davies, James Morris Stephanie Blythe THE MIKADO RST_9395 c Dan Rest

Running Time: 2 hours, 54 minutes. In English with projected English texts

 

 

     
     

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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: Cherry Smoke (side project theatre)

   
  

Strong performances evolve from uneven play

  
  

Bug and Duffy almost kiss

  
The side project theatre presents
 
Cherry Smoke  
  
Written by James McManus
Directed
Lavina Jadhwani
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about James McManus’ play Cherry Smoke appalls the senses. The poverty, the violence, the paucity of adult care or concern about these dead-end kids who have no means, no education, and therefore no future. Playing now at the side project in Rogers Park under the direction of Lavina Jadhwani, their story seems foreign, like something out of a third-world country. But no, these are our slumdog millionaires—only there will be no millions to save these kids from their downward spiral.

Fish and Cherry - end exhaleMcManus bases his drama upon his own childhood experiences in Donora, PA. In an interview with Adam Szymkowicz, McManus recalls, “Our area was ravaged by poverty and many were not able to take advantage of even a primary education because of worsening family situations.” Donora, which also holds the dubious record of worst ecological disaster in US history, is a broken relic of the Rust Belt, so poor its only McDonald’s closed because people could no longer afford to eat there once the mill closed.

“But even in the ignorance, there was a beauty in both the language and the dreams,” says McManus. Even with little else, what the characters in Cherry Smoke have language and dreams. In their words we find a brutal kind of American primitive dialect.

At age 9, his father forces Fish (Dan Toot) into the fighting ring, thrown in to sink or swim against the punches of an older boy. His savage victory sets both his back alley fighting career and his psychology in a perpetual iron state of rage. He cannot shake his warlike disposition against any guy who looks at him or against life itself. When Fish roars, “It’s all nothing,” Dan Toot precisely captures nihilism carried out with the force of a dynamo. That Toot physically never lets up in a one hour, 40 minute performance is an achievement in sheer stamina, but he also knows how to sculpt nuances into Fish’s unending enmity against his life.

Only Cherry, who tells fortunes and sleeps in a car in the winter or down by the river in summertime, can understand, love, and tame him—but only to a degree. Incapable of controlling the rage that builds his fighting success, Fish perennially ends up in juvie, then in jail. Separation from Fish leaves Cherry to fall back into nervous depression—ending up as an invalid in the care of Bug (Jessica London-Shields) and Fish’s brother, Duffy (Peter Oyloe). While not Bonny and Clyde, McManus succeeds in crafting a legendary, impossible couple in Fish and Cherry and their almost magical relationship.

That’s not to say the play does not contain serious flaws. The plot is hampered by boxing clichés–the fighter needing to get out of the game but desperately going for one last fight. In fact, Fish’s final fight simply falls apart dramatically, with Fish going into flashbacks about his first forced encounter in the ring. Likewise, the birth of Fish and Cherry’s first born also veers into melodramatic overreach.

Cherry Smoke promoLondon-Shields gives an instinctive and delicate performance as the nervous, shy and unassuming Bug. Peter Oyloe’s performance as Duffy, though, almost washes out beside his bigger, badder brother. A scene in which Duffy is almost ready to kill Fish for breaking his hand restores stronger dramatic tension in Duffy’s psychological make-up.

Cherry Smoke jumps around and needs a serious rewrite to produce a much tighter play. I doubt you could get a clearer wake up call about the impoverishment of America’s Rust Belt youth.

  
 
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

Production Personnel

Cast

Jessica London-Shields, Peter Oyloe, Emily Shain, and Dan Toot

Creative/Production Team

Scott Butler (Dialects), Jesse Gaffney (Props), Sarah Gilmore (Sound), Meg Lindsey (Management), Michelle Milne (Movement), Rachel Sypniewski (Costumes), and Sally Weiss (Set/Lights)