Review: Aida (Drury Lane Theatre)

  
  

A solid production of flawed Elton John/Tim Rice musical

  
  

Jared Zirilli and Stephanie Umoh star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo by Brett Beiner.

  
Drury Lane Theatre presents
   
Aida
  
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, with R. Falls and D. H. Hwang
Directed and Choreographed by Jim Corti
at Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $35-$46  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When Egyptian captain Radames (Jared Zirilli) captures the beautiful Nubian princess Aida (Stephanie Umoh), the two fall in love despite the war between their countries, and are forced to choose between their political duties and their affections for each other. Elton John and Tim Rice adapt Verdi’s classic opera Aida through the lens of a late ‘90s Disney animated feature, candy-coating the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers with family-friendly pop-rock that occasionally detracts from the emotional life of the story. Yet despite the musical’s problems, Jim Corti directs a sharp production with a cast of strong singers and dancers that perform the material cleanly, but could use some more passion. Using the influence of ancient Egyptian art, Corti creates images on stage through the actors posing and positioning in profile, like this painting:

actient Egyptian wall painting

While it’s a nice effect, it’s also representative of the production’s largest problem: stiffness that prevents the beauty of the music from truly taking off. The actors perform the music with precision, but there are times when it feels like they’re holding back, which could partly be because of the imbalanced musical material.

The ballads have a similar emotional resonance as John/Rice’s Lion King work, but whereas that musical has a unifying musical sound, Aida’s score essentially becomes a musical journey through the different stages of Elton John’s musical career. Tim Rice pushes the plot with his lyrics, but there are times when John’s score seems mismatched with the action on stage, mostly during the first act. The show’s fist number is sung by Amneris (Erin Mosher), the daughter of the Pharoah AIDA--Grant Thomas, Monique Haley, Stephanie Umoh, Jared Zirilli(Nicholas Foster) and Radames’ arranged bride, and Mosher’s powerful voice is pitch-perfect, with her dignified presence befitting the character’s initial introduction as the story’s narrator. Then the show transitions into the Rent-lite “Fortune Favors The Brave” as Ramades belts over inspirational power chords while Nubian women are pillaged in the background. It’s great music for a lease-burning, but not so much for an act of war. It gets worse when Radames’ father Zoser (Darren Matthias) reveals his plot to usurp the Pharoah’s throne in “Another Pyramid,” a groan-inducing reggae meets Tumbleweed Connection number that turns into a goofy dance fight. Thankfully, that’s the worst number in the show and happens early, but it’s also not the best way to start a musical.

As the musical progresses, it becomes clear that Elton John’s music shows the differences between Egypt in Nubia through the styling of their songs. Egyptians have the classic rock ‘n roll of John’s early years, while the Nubians utilize the gospel-tribal fusion of The Lion King, but there’s still a strong disconnect between numbers. “My Strongest Suit,” where Amneris does her best Tina Turner impression, and “The Gods Love Nubia,” a stirring tribute by a downtrodden Nubian people – they don’t sound like they belong in the same show. This is mostly a problem in the first act, and as the two groups begin to combine in act two, the music gains a stronger focus.

     
Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. L to R-- Jarrett Kelly, Grant Thomas, Branden Springman, Jaquez Sims, Peter Vandivier, Michael Glazer, Todd Rhoades, and Stephane Duret star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA, at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
Jarrett Kelly, Peter Vandivier, Brandon Springman, Darren Matthias, Michael Glazer and Todd Rhoades in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Erin Mosher in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

The two female leads both showcase stunning vocals, but while their singing is wonderfully expressive, they suffer from that aforementioned stiffness, particularly Umoh in the title role. Aida is a free spirit that has always felt confined, and she is given the opportunity to escape through song, yet Umoh is locked in place when she sings. She relies on her voice to do the heavy lifting, and despite being a powerful instrument, the image she portrays physically doesn’t match up. This prevents the chemistry between Ramades and Aida from really exploding, as Zarilli is forced to give more without ever getting much in return. The cast proves that they’re skilled performers, but there’s a lack of freedom in their technique that translates as restraint, a dangerous flaw for a show like Aida that relies on spectacle.

Despite the production’s flaws, fans of Aida will find much to love about Drury Lane’s production. The music is well performed, with crisp staging and choreography from Corti, who incorporates tribal dance into the standard Broadway footwork. Like a lost Disney cartoon put on stage, Aida lacks the gravitas of the original opera, but the crowd-pleasing score turns the tragic story into a family-friendly rock musical sure to please fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
'Aida' group in white in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
James Earl Jones II stars in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Monique Haley, Erin Mosher and Natalie Williams in a scene from Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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Top 25 Chicago Plays of 2010

Abagail's Party - A Red Orchid Theatre Ian Westerfer as Baal at TUTA Theatre '1001' - Collaboraction Andrew Carter and Terry Hamilton - Frost-Nixon at Timeline Theatre Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre Awake and Sing at Porchlight - Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold
Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook Anton Chekhov's 'The Seagull' - Goodman Theatre streetcar named desire - tennessee williams - writers theatre To Master The Art - Timeline Theatre Chicago Brother-Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre - Tarell Alvin McCraney Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf - Steppenwolf Theatre
About Face Theatre presents 'Float' hot mikado - andy lupp, todd kryger, stephen schellhardt - Drury Lane Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union Hey Dancin - Factory Theater Liz Hoffman in Last Night of Ballyhoo The Illusion - Kushner - Court Theatre
My Brother's Keeper - Black Ensemble Theatre "Memory" by the Backstage Theatre Company Mimesophobia - Theatre Seven - by Carlos Murillo "Oleanna" by David Mamet - American Theater Company The Water Engine: An American Fable - by David Mamet.  Picture: Charles Lang and George Zerante from Theatre Seven Geoff Packard as Candide in Goodman Theatre's 'Candide', music by Leonard Bernstein, directed by Mary Zimmerman
"Scorched" by Wajdi Mouawad - Silk Road Theatre Project "Side Man" by Lauren Rawitz at Metroplis Performing Arts Centre "The Tallest Man" at Artistic Home Haff, the Man - Falling Girl - Zarko Theatre - photo by Laura Montenegro Tad in the 5th City - MPAACT Chicago Sarah Rose Graber in 'Book of Liz' - Chemically Imbalanced Comedy

 

Top 25 Chicago Productions of 2010

(in alphabetical order)

All told, Chicago Theater Blog covered an astounding 508 shows in 2010—proving without a doubt that this town is truly a non-stop theater machine! Whittling 500 shows down to the year’s top 25 productions was not an easy task, but we think this list illuminates what makes Chicago such a dynamic place to perform and create – a mix of works produced by small storefront companies all the way up to large Equity houses.

So, without further ado, here – listed alphabetically – are the top 25 productions of 2010:

 

   
Collaboraction 1001 - Chicago Theater Blog
1001


Collaboraction (Sept 2010)
Written by Jason Grote
Directed by Seth Bockley
our review 

“The Arabian Nights” are replayed in a near-futuristic setting, taking place in the belly of New York City’s underground tunnels after a nuclear blast. Says reviewer Oliver Sava, “Grote masterfully intertwines the various story threads, bleeding slapstick comedy, relationship drama, political criticism, and post-modern philosophy together to create a play that defies categorization.”. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called the play “savvy, self-aware and adroit at noting the power of myth in generations of sectarian strife . . .” and Monica Westin of New City noted, “It’s almost impossible to overstate the wit, fluidity and complexity . . .” of the production. (our review)

 

   
Abagail's Party - A Red Orchid Theatre
Abagail’s Party

A Red Orchid Theatre  (Feb 2010)
Written by
Mike Leigh
Directed by Shade Murray
our review

A Red Orchid Theatre brought out some of their best ensemble work for Mike Leigh’s class-conscious play about stifled lives in 1970s English suburbia. Director Shade Murray lovingly crafted middle class malaise out of Leigh’s caustic script, while Kirsten Fitzgerald lit the torch as Beverly–leading the tight and superb cast in a reckless, discontented charge to mutual destruction. As Susan, Natalie West “essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent . . . she becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.” (our review)

 

   
Awake and Sing at Porchlight - Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold
Awake and Sing

Northlight Theatre  (Feb 2010)
By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
our review

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.  From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why, especially considering Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama. The play stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.  As director, Steppenwolf’s Amy Morton adeptly paced the show, no doubt helped with a top-knotch cast, including seasoned performers Cindy Gold, Peter Kevoian, Mike Nussbaum and Jay Whittaker.    (our review)

 

   
Ian Westerfer as Baal at TUTA Theatre
Baal


TUTA Theatre (May 2010)
Written by
Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Zeljko Djukic
our review

TUTA Theatre will remount its very successful production of Brecht’s The Wedding this February. However, their stronger tour de force was the young Brecht’s very first play, Baal, which explored the rise and fall of the ultimate rebel artist. Assisted by a brilliantly clean and powerful translation by Peter Tegel, director Zeljko Djukic and cast executed a searing interrogation of the subversive artist as pop idol, while at the same time delivering to audiences a wildly intuitive and anarchic performance by Ian Westerfer in the title role. An exactingly cohesive ensemble cast matched Westerfer moment-to-moment, composing the perfect Petri dish for pre-Nazi cynicism, cruelty and decadence. Josh Schmidt’s original music contemporized and rounded out the mood and atmosphere for the piece. (See our review here.) Tom Williams of Chicago Critic called the production “refreshingly inventive as it swiftly blends drama with raw sensuality . . . demonstrates what the power of dedicated artists can produce once they are in creative sync.” Albert Williams of the Reader called Baal “a vivid, dreamlike work of stage poetry.”  (our review)

   
Sarah Rose Graber in Book of Liz - Chemically Imbalanced Comedy Chicago

 

The Book of Liz

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (Sept 2010)
Written by
Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
our review

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy had a huge success with The Book of Liz, so much so that it was extended numerous times, and is still running well into 2011. The show, written by Amy and David Sedaris, concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as “The Squeamish”. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. In this hilarious production, Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful when using the tight space, managing to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment. The Book of Liz stayed true to the Sedaris spirit, and fortunately did not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. (our review)

   
Brother-Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre - Tarell Alvin McCraney
Brother/Sister Plays
 

Steppenwolf Theatre (Feb 2010)
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
our review  |  photo album

McCraney’s much-anticipated Chicago debut at Steppenwolf did not disappoint. Indeed, concisely paired with Tina Landau’s sparse and enigmatic Viewpoints direction, the triptych of In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet formed a breathtaking mythic and generational through-line that consistently transcended time and space. To be a young playwright mentioned along with August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tony Kushner must be quite a heady experience. But Steppenwolf’s production—teaming with sterling performances by Jaqueline Williams, K. Todd Freeman, Philip James Brannon and Glenn Davis—shows that sometimes you can absolutely believe the hype. Barry Eitel’s review (see here) affirms Chicago’s critical consensus that “McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.”  (our review)

   
Candide - Goodman Theatre - Hollis Resnick and Lauren Molina
Candide

Goodman Theatre (Sept 2010)
Adapted from
Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler 
Music by Leonard Bernstein, et.al.
Directed by
Mary Zimmerman
our review 

Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a  separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production. “Thanks to director Zimmerman’s affinity for levity,” said our own Keith Ecker, “Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible. (our review)

 

   
float-about-face-theatre
FLOAT 

About Face Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by Patricia Kane
Directed by
Leslie Buxbum Danzig 
our review 

About Face Theatre overcame the pitfalls of preciousness that come when presenting a Christmas story about five women with Minnesota-nice written all over them. Members of a Midwest women’s society, they gather in a barn to create the annual Christmas float. What could have devolved into Hallmark card caricature actually resulted in honest emotional plumbing of their lives, conflicts and pressures. Director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig kept the pace brisk while the cast molded complex and full-figured characters out of Patricia Kane’s witty script. FLOAT became the new fresh face in a holiday theater season stuffed to the gills with the same old fruitcake. (our review)

 

 
Andrew Carter and Terry Hamilton - Frost-Nixon at Timeline Theatre
Frost/Nixon
 

Timeline Theatre (Aug 2010)
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Louis Contey
our review

A reclusive, disgraced ex-president squares off against a glib playboy talk show host in a televised battle for public approval. TimeLine’ Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon inventively captured America right on the cusp–before reality TV but shortly after the boob tube emerged as the gladiatorial arena in which public figures are tried and tested. Terry Hamilton’s portrayal of the fallen Nixon impressed everyone with its grounded, humanistic veracity. Andrew Carter’s Frost signaled a smooth operator, fitting the jet-set mold of the period, yet heralding vacuous times ahead for civic discourse. Scenic designer Keith Pitts collaborated with projectionist Mike Tutaj to manifest the perfect facile realm for Louis Contey’s subtle and tense direction. (our review)

 

   
Haff, The Man - Falling Girl - Theatre Zarko - Michael Montenegro.
Haff, the Man/Falling Girl 

Theatre Zarko (Oct 2010)
Written by
Michael Montenegro
Directed by
Montenegro and Ellen O’Keefe
our review 

Master puppeteer Michael Montenegro and long-time creative partner Ellen O’Keefe created and directed two deeply evocative stories; one about a man trying to restore himself in order to begin a new life with a new love, another about a young girl dangerously desperate for the promising adventure that could be her life. An extremely dedicated and integrated troupe of puppeteers and performers executed Montenegro’s dreamlike dramatic creations, manifesting a fully realized, vivid revival of the Symbolist Theatre tradition. Sublime musical atmosphere directed by Jude Mathews backed up their efforts. The result was pure, unadulterated poetry for the child within the adult theatergoer. (our review)

 

   
Hey Dancin - Factory Theater
Hey! Dancin’! 

Factory Theater (March 2010)
by
Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer
directed by
Sarah Rose Graber
our review 

Hey! Dancin’! isn’t just a hair-brained ‘80s-inspired comedy. It’s also an effective satire on people’s perceptions of celebrity today. K.K. and his girlfriend Tanya see themselves as the center of the universe because they are on TV.—cable access—but TV nonetheless. Halle (Melissa Nedell) and Trisha (Catherine Dughi) give this notion weight since they are star-obsessed with these no-name nudniks. Yet as Halle gets to know the real K.K. (Jacob A. Ware), who admittedly dreams of being famous without actually ever wanting to hone any real talent, the image of these backwoods celebrities begins to crumble.  Says our own Keith Ecker: “The acting is brilliant. The comedic timing of most of the players is impeccable. I’ve seen countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows, and this rivals the best of them. Simon as the recovering alcoholic station manager is a scene-stealer with his Muppet-like voice and general awkwardness.”  (our review)

 

   
hot mikado - andy lupp, todd kryger, stephen schellhardt - Drury Lane
Hot Mikado 

Drury Lane Oakbrook (Aug 2010)
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by David Bell
our review 

Drury Lane Theatre tore it up with this jazz-age revival version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic. Lawrence Bommer raved that its music director Michael Mahler had a “period-perfect Midas touch” and that the production “sizzles with (director) David Bell’s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-step dances . . . the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force . . .”  Aurelia Williams brought the power as Katisha, while Stephen Schellhardt worked his comic chops, recalling Groucho Marx, Stephen Colbert, Keaton and Chaplin. All in all, Drury Lane’s production was a unmistakably riotous success heard all around the Chicagoland area.  (our review)

 

   
The Illusion - Kushner - Court Theatre
The Illusion 

Court Theatre  (March 2010)
Written by
Pierre Corneille
Adapted by Tony Kushner 
Directed by
Charles Newell 
our review  |  photo album

But for a few dramatic speed bumps between the romantic leads, Court Theatre pulled off a dense, ornately rich and multilayered dream world with Tony Kushner’s story-within-several-stories adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 400 year-old play. Charles Newell’s direction led the dance between reality and fantasy, while Collette Pollard’s set design established an delightfully uncanny magical realm. Chris Sullivan amazed as the magician, Alcandre, and Timothy Edward Kane roiled the audience with his comic portrayal of Matamore, the cowardly warrior. Barry Eitel declared the production an “uncommon delight” and a “triumph,” a love letter to the theater. (our review)

     
Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre
Killer Joe 

Profiles Theatre (Jan 2010)
Written by
Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
our review

Profiles Theatre pushed the envelope with Tracy Lett’s early play and gave audiences a sly, close, depraved and dangerous ride. Rick Snyder’s direction never stinted on its desolate Texas trailer-trash realism or let up on the work’s unrelenting dark humor and looming tension. Darrel Cox gave a killer performance as Killer Joe Cooper, hired by Chris (Kevin Bigley) to kill his birth mother for insurance money in order to pay off his debt to a drug dealer. Keith Ecker notes Cox’s facility to go “from southern gent to cold-blooded killer . . . all that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath.” Catey Sullivan observed that Profiles’ production was not for the faint of heart, yet its “blood-drenched, innocence-murdered gallows” humor in Snyder’s hands was “a thrilling piece of theater.” (our review)

   
Liz Hoffman in Last Night of Ballyhoo
The Last Night of Ballyhoo 

Project 891 Theatre (Nov 2010)
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
our review 

Project 891 created an intimate and emotionally mature depiction of a Jewish family of the American South right on the cusp of World War II and the Holocaust. Sort of fitting in, but not quite, informed by the culture surrounding them, yet set apart, director Jason W. Rost gently unraveled this family’s issues around identity, belonging and success at the Gunther Mansion (now known as the North Lakeside Cultural Center). Darrelyn Marx dominated as the matriarch Boo and Liz Hoffman generated much sympathy as her awkward daughter Lala. Winning and balanced performances from Sarah Latin-Kasper, Jason Kellerman, Lori Grupp, Larry Garner and Austin Oie rounded out the cast. (our review)

 

   
memory-backstage-theatre-photo-by-heath-hays
Memory 

BackStage Theatre  (Nov 2010)
Written and
Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by Matthew Reeder
our review  |  photo album

Director Matthew Reeder and cast evolved rich, enmeshed and powerful emotional journeys, from rehearsal process to fully realized production, from a woman’s struggle to tell the complete story of her traumatic survival of the Holocaust to a Palestinian’s story about his embattled and complex relationship with an Israeli soldier. Says Allegra Gallian of the Backstage Theatre’s production, “The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space . . . performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating us so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.” (our review)

 

   
Mimesophobia - Theatre Seven - Carlos Murillo
Mimesophobia 

Theatre Seven (March 2010)
Written by
Carlos Murillo
Directed by
Margot Bordelon 
our review 

Theatre Seven’s production crowned a season full of excellent deconstructive theatrical storytelling. Margot Bordelon’s driven and well-paced direction expertly juggled three storylines regarding the mysterious murder of a woman. Oliver Sava noted the savvy Brechtian distancing wrought by the intelligent cast and the emotional immediacy supplied by Cassy Sander’s performance. “Sanders brings vulnerability . . . her scenes are the most visceral of the production . . . Mimesophobia is a huge success for the young company and one of the more refreshing plays to land this season.” (our review)

 

   
My Brothers Keeper - Black Ensemble Theatre
My Brother’s Keeper 

Black Ensemble Theater  (March 2010)
Written by
Rubin D. Echoles 
Directed by
Jackie Taylor  
our review  |  photo album

Though light on storytelling, Black Ensemble Theatre’s recreation of the dancing career of the uber-talented Nicholas Brothers was as close to seeing the originals as audiences are bound to get. Jackie Taylor directed an exuberant production overflowing with swinging musical finesse and huge dancing talent. Rashawn Thompson and Rubin Echoles played Fayard and Harold Nicholas to Thomas “Tom Tom 84” Washington’s musical arrangements and Echoles’ choreography. Donald Barnes and Dawn Bless warmly rounded out the tale as the boys’ vaudeville-bound parents; Michael Bartlett and Rhonda Preston added showbiz flare and power as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Big Maybelle. All in all, the cast excelled in reviving the joy of pure, solid entertainment. (our review)

 

   
Speed-the-Plow by David Mamet - American Theater Company
Oleanna / Speed-the-Plow

American Theater Company (Sept 2010)
Written by David Mamet  
Directed by
Rick Snyder  
our review

American Theater Company scored big with two searing, back-to-back productions of David Mamet. Director Rick Snyder had a field day building a war between a student and professor over a slight, but fatal, misstep versus a showdown between big commercial movie business and art. Darrell W. Cox expertly worked his range between playing a slick, cut-throat producer in one and a smug, self-compromised liberal arts professor in the other. The difference between the two Mamet works may have been Nicole Lowrance’s sympathetic portrayal of Carol in Oleanna, which rang more truthful and well timed than her turn as Karen in Speed the Plow. All the same, Lance Baker oozed fierce sleazebag perfection in his role as Charlie Fox, bringing Plow to a devastating end. (our reviews here and here)

 

   
A Parallelogram by Bruce Norris - at Steppenwolf Theatre
A Parallelogram 

Steppenwolf Theatre (July 2010)
Written by
Bruce Norris
Directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
our review 

Written by Bruce Norris—a Steppenwolf regular whose other works include We All Went Down to Amsterdam and The Pain and the Itch, among others—the play tells the tale of Bee (Kate Arrington), a woman who was the other woman to Jay (Tom Irwin) before he left his wife for her. They live in an unremarkable home with a pool and a backyard, which is cared for by JJ (Tim Bickel), the friendly Guatemalan landscaper. With this production it’s clear that Director Anna Shapiro knew this material well. She came at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieved the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play. Said our own Keith Ecker: “If you only see one play this year, see (this play).…the set design by Todd Rosenthal is amazing. …Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.”  (our review)

 

     
Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Ragtime
 

Drury Lane Theatre (April 2010)
Book by Terrance McNally
Music/Lyrics by
Flaherty and Ahrens 
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
our review  |  photo album

Other productions have lost focus and been crushed under the multiple layers and storylines of this musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel. Yet, Drury Lane, under Rachel Rockwell’s knowing direction, succeeded in taking its panoramic 19th century sweep and transforming it into a work that truly earns the word “epic.”  Brilliantly cast with Quentin Earl Darrington, Valisia LeKae, Cory Goodrich and Mark David Kaplan, Ragtime’s spare and fluid set design was offset by Santo Loquasto’s lush costuming for the strongest visual impact. John Beer of TimeOut Chicago recognized “this Ragtime yields a snapshot of a nation recognizably our own: dynamic, idealistic and terminally haunted by bigotry and fear.”  (our review)

 

   
Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad - Silk Road Theatre Project Scorched 

Silk Road Theatre Project  (Oct 2010)
Written by
Wajdi Mouawad  
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Dale Heinen   
our review 

Silk Road Theatre Project breathed life into a contemporary yet timeless tale of war, poverty, age-old gender inequities, lost family threads, and finding a restored sense of self out of the ashes. Dale Heinen’s direction brought all the suspense of a mystery thriller without sacrificing the emotional weight that gave the play the quality of a Classical Greek Tragedy or a war story out of Bible. Three actresses, Rinska M. Carrasco, Carolyn Hoerdemann and Diana Simonzadeh, convincingly played Nawal, the Middle Eastern mother who mysteriously stops speaking 5 years before her death and posthumously sends her twin children on a quest to find their father and brother. Adam Poss was riveting as Nihad—the pop music and celebrity obsessed jihadi sniper who becomes inextricably linked with their lives. The sterling production of this new work announced Wajdi Mouawad as a playwright to watch. (our review)

 

      
anton-chekhov-the-seagull-01-goodman-theatre-photo-by-liz-lauren
The Seagull

Goodman Theatre  (Oct 2010)
Written by Anton Chekhov
directed by Robert Falls
our review  photo album

Director Robert Falls wowed audiences with a simple, almost ascetic, presentation of Anton Chekhov’s sprawling tale of a dysfunctional theater family. Mary Shen Barnidge of Windy City Times noted that the production demanded much from both performers and audience but “The experience is well worth the effort . . . with intimacy generated by this Spartan approach illuminating the smallest secrets hidden beneath the surface of the most self-effacing personalities.” Our own Catey Sullivan raved, “Falls and his rock star cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and glory that makes the piece fly by . . . When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.” (our review)

 

   
Side Man at Metroplis Arts
Side Man 

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (March 2010)
Written by
Warren Leight
Directed by Lauren Rawitz  
our review  |  photo album

Warren Leight’s Tony Award-winning play was no maudlin sulkfest on the downward spiraling fortunes of jazz musicians tending to a diminishing art. If anything, director Lauren Rawitz followed the play’s emphasis on strong individual characterization and an unsentimental view of the unstable nature of artistic life. The tough, moxie and cohesive cast captured Leight’s humorous and gritty take on the lives of jazzmen and the women who love them. Michael B. Woods gave an especially stellar performance as Jonesy and Ryan Hallahan’s wry Clifford grounded the show as its narrator. Dustin Efrid’s neon set design gave the production the just the right touch of bluesy feel. (our review)

 

   
Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union
State of the Union 

Strawdog Theatre (October 2010)
Written by
Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
Directed by
Geoff Button
our review 

For a political play to matter much, it must prove its relevance beyond its genesis. These dramas must rise above the particulars of their time-sensitive plots and reveal to us a greater truth, something about the human condition or the faults of our society.State of the Union, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, is an example of this brilliant kind of evergreen political theatre, especially as its tale of political gaming and pandering is as true today as it ever was then. Infused with the talent of the Strawdog Theatre Company, this work managed to not only serve as editorial but as a charmingly funny piece of theatre.  Geoff Button’s direction was commendable, especially given the sheer number of entrances and exits he had to manage throughout the play. (our review)

     
streetcar named desire - tennessee williams - writers theatre
A Streetcar Named Desire
 

Writers’ Theatre (May 2010)
Written by
Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Cromer
our review 

David Cromer’s direction injected vitality and vivid perspective into Writers’ production of this sultry Williams classic. Barry Eitel remarked, “Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but . . . he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story . . . his Streetcar is a searing as July in the French Quarter.”  Matt Hawkins, Natasha Lowe and Stacy Stoltz carved new and original ground as Stanley, Blanche and Stella and Collette Pollard’s scenic design put the audience right in their squalid New Orleans apartment. Kerry Reid of the Chicago Reader wrote that Writers’ production “tears away at the Spanish moss of sentimentality that sometimes shrouds this play and lays bare our tragic flaws, both as individuals and as a people . . .”  (our review)

 

   
Tad in the 5th City - MPAACT Chicago
Tad in the 5th City 

MPAACT  (May 2010) 
Directed and Adapted by
Carla Stillwell  
From the poetry of
Orron Kenyatta
our review 

MPAACT gave Chicago a visceral shot in the arm with its world premiere adaptation about the aftermath of the 1968 riots that burned the West side of Chicago. Our K. D. Hopkins praises the outstanding cast that poetically depicts the community that survived in the ashes. “The magnificent Andre Teamer plays Uncle Brotha with the desperation and hope of a man watching his neighborhood swirl down the sewer . . . David Goodloe is new to America . . . His portrayal of James is like an exposed nerve . . . Destin L. Teamer . . . son of Andre Teamer . . . is an adorable and handsome young man in the 5th grade and yet he turns in a performance of a seasoned veteran . . . his portrayal is savvy and heartbreaking . . . MPAACT has produced yet another honest and powerhouse addition to the Chicago theater scene.” (our review)

 

   
The Tallest Man at Artistic Home
The Tallest Man 

The Artistic Home  (June 2010)
Written by
Jim Lynch 
Directed by
John Mossman  
our review

The Artistic Home evoked intense cultural accuracy and emotional veracity with their rendering of Jim Lynch’s turn-of-the-century Irish township, where people scramble for survival under British rule, the memory of the Potato Famine a lurking shadow of the recent past. A consummate ensemble effort by the cast brought out the best in Jim Lynch’s script. K. D. Hopkins writes, “The language is coarse and the action naturalistic. There is blood, sweat, spit and lust in every scene both implied or seen. John Mossman directs this production seamlessly . . .” (our review)

   
To Master The Art - Timeline Theatre Chicago
To Master the Art 

Timeline Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
our review

Timeline’s first commissioned play was a “masterful, multilayered experience that excites all the senses,” said Leah Zeldes. The production gently folded in Cold War obsessions about Communism with Julia Child’s discovery of French cuisine and her efforts to compose and publish her groundbreaking cookbook. (our review) Karen James Woditsch, Craig Spidle, Terry Hamilton, Jeannie Affelder and Ann Wakefield led the superbly balanced ensemble cast. William Brown’s staging was “impeccable” around scenic designer Keith Pitts’ charming Parisian kitchen.  (our review)

   
Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven
The Water Engine: An American Fable 

Theatre Seven  (Nov 2010)
Written by
David Mamet 
Directed by
Brian Golden  
our review  photo album

Theatre Seven took on a feat of virtuosity when they mounted this play-within-a-radio-play, with 10 actors taking on 40 roles, in a exploration of a Depression Era inventor’s quest to implement his creation, an engine that runs on pure water. The cast impressed with its uncommon professionalism, working together “like a well-oiled machine,” and Director Brian Golden “effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways.” Leah A. Zeldes called the production “beautifully nuanced” and while Mamet’s plot “is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful . . .” (our review)

   
Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf - Steppenwolf Theatre
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
 

Steppenwolf Theatre (Dec 2010)
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Pam McKinnon
our review

Steppenwolf rounded out their year with a tightly drawn, tensely wound portrait of America’s favorite warring couple, George and Martha. Pam McKinnon’s direction insisted on greater naturalism, with Tracy Letts’ consummate performance as George taking on subtler shades of calculation and sadism, while Amy Morton’s Martha was distinctly more understated and vulnerable. (See our review here.) Madison Dirks’ Nick charmed as a budding player who gets played and Carrie Coon’s Honey almost stole the show with her emblematic mixture of goofiness and pathos. Kris Vire of TimeOut Chicago recognizes that MacKinnon’s direction “hugs curves in a way one suspects wouldn’t be possible without the firm rapport between Morton and Letts.” A marriage made in hell for the characters–but a marriage made in heaven for Chicago audiences.  (our review)

All summaries written by Paige Listerud.

     
     

REVIEW: Spamalot (Drury Lane)

  
  

Drury Lane’s ‘Spamalot’ is a merry night of dancing and singing!

  
  

SPAMALOT--James Earl Jones II, Grant Thomas, Gary Carlson, Matthew Crowle, Brandon Springman and Richard Strimer

   
Drury Lane Theatre presents
  
Spamalot
   
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle
Music by John Du Prez
Directed by William Osetek
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oak Brook (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Monty Python began as a British comedy group that created the television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Ensemble members included Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. The success of the show led to feature films including “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which is loosely based on the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. With its witty and sometimes absurdist humor, Monty Python became a cultural phenomenon and “Holy Grail” was the basis for the musical Spamalot.

SPAMALOT--Gina Milo and David KortemeierThe set for Spamalot at Drury Lane Theatre resembles a traditional castle, with a castle gate center stage flanked by large wooden castle doors on other side, surrounded by stone bricks and gated windows. As the show progresses, scene changes are seamless and quick, never disrupting the momentum or action of the show.

Spamalot opens with an historian (Jackson Evans) explaining the history of Britain. He’s initially both relatable and charming, instantly pulling the audience into the action. The story the historian relates then comes to life as King Arthur (David Kortemeier) enters. Arthur is searching for knights for his round table and is traveling throughout England in search of them. He puts together what seems like somewhat of a motley crew consisting of Sir Lancelot (John Sanders), Sir Robin (Adam Pelty), Sir Galahad (Sean Allan Krill) and Sir Bedevere (Bradley Mott).

All of the actors are fully charismatic and bring a ton of characterization to their parts: Robin (Pelty) is sweet and funny with his fear of actual fighting. Galahad (Krill) is charming but not irritating with his pretty boy looks and demeanor. Lancelot (Sanders) is entertaining with his tough boy act to hide his hidden interests and Bedevere (Mott) works well to round out to the cast.

Not only is the acting stellar, but the singing is strong and clear and the music is just fun. Each actor’s range is suited to their character, allowing their singing talents to really shine. This is especially the case with The Lady of the Lake (Gina Milo). Milo’s voice is stunning and powerful, and her ability to hit so many runs in the music is SPAMALOT--John Sanders and Jackson Evanscaptivating. The only minor complaint is that, on occasion, vibratos in the cast are a bit too heavy.

As a show with a triple threat, the dancing is also well choreographed and shows of the dancing talents of the cast. Minus a few missed landings and mishaps, the dancing is quite spectacular, especially Patsy’s tap number (Matthew Crowle) during “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” It’s clear that Crowle has a talent for it and he shows it off spectacularly.

Once the crew is assembled, they are given a task directly from God: find the Holy Grail. With this task at hand, the group, led by Arthur, goes in search of the Grail. Encountering various other knights and obstacles, the action flows quickly with a lively energy, pulling our attention towards the stage. The actors play up the comedy, doing well with the laugh lines and the hilarity of the writing.

Spamalot is a fun-filled, hilarious show that fits for anyone who loves Monty Python and the tale of the Holy Grail. Highly recommended!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Spamalot plays at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oak Brook, IL, through March 6. Tickets are $31 to $45 with lunch/dinner packages ranging from $45.75 to $68. Student and senior prices available. Ticket can be purchased through the box office by calling 630-530-0111.

SPAMALOT--Gina Milo, now at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook

        
        

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

   
  

A heart-warming tale of transformation and joy

  
 

A CHRISTMAS CAROL- William Dick as Scrooge

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

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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

        
       

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REVIEW: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Drury Lane)

 

Dynamic choreography, rousing leading lady save flawed musical

 

 (L-R) Cara Salerno, Vanessa Panerosa, Amber Mak, Hallie Cercone, Abby Mueller, Katie Huff, and Amanda Kroiss star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

        
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
   
Book by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Music/Lyrics by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Johnny Mercer
Directed by Bill Jenkins
Musical Direction by
Roberta Duchak
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

In the 1954 movie musicalSeven Brides for Seven Brothers”, when men kidnap women and trick them into marriage, it’s not Stockholm syndrome, it’s love. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of those movie musicals that is a product of its time, when women were looked at as little more than glorified housekeepers and baby makers, born to do the will of their man. When Adam Pontipee (Steve Blanchard) deceives the sassy Milly (Abby Mueller) into marrying him, his six brothers set out to capture wives for themselves, ambushing six town girls and throwing them in the back of their wagon. It’s offensive, but the music is jovial and melodic, the dancing is energetic and plentiful, and the film’s leading man Howard Keel’s booming voice and charming smile make it difficult to despise the chauvinistic Adam.

(L-R) Richard Strimer (Benjamin) and Abby Mueller (Milly) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett BeinerMy problems with the stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers arise from its attempts to flesh out the characters, which sounds like a good thing but ends up backfiring by making them even shallower. The solos do very little to make you sympathize with the characters, with Milly’s “One Man” beginning as a condemnation of her husband’s trickery before devolving into a tribute to female subservience. Conversely, Adam’s big Act Two moment of redemption “Where Were You?” attempts to justify his sexism by giving him a daddy complex, blaming his actions on his absent father instead of taking responsibility himself. It’s not difficult to assume that Adam’s behavior is a product of his environment, but when it is put into song it just makes the already unlikable character seem pathetic. Blanchard’s vocals don’t help matters, lacking the timbre and strength expected from an 1850 frontiersman. And while the added ensemble numbers manage to evoke the musical style of the film, the solos and smaller group sequences have a contemporary feel that is out of place with the rest of the show’s classic musical theater sound.

The highlight of the production is easily Milly and her relationship with her six brothers-in-law. Mueller’s crystal clear tone and powerful belt make her musical numbers stand out, and she has great chemistry with her new relatives as she assumes a dominating mother position in the household. Watching the brothers transform under Milly’s feminine influence is a joy, from learning to dance in “Goin’ Courtin’” to finally appreciating their women in the heartfelt “Glad That You Were Born.” With the brothers, there is evidence of a struggle between the uncivilized way they’ve been brought up and the restraint that makes for successful courting. “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” is a hilarious exclamation of horny frustration, but it is followed by Daniel (William Travis-Taylor) and Frank (Brandon Springman) ruminating on the somber effects of loneliness in the beautiful “Lonesome Polecat.”

 

(L-R)  Abby Mueller (Milly) and Steve Blanchard (Adam) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner (L-R) Richard Strimer, Jarret Ditch, William Travis Taylor, Chris Yonan, Brandon Springman and (back) Zach Zube star in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Photo by Brett Beiner.

The brothers learning to dance comes in handy for Tammy Mader’s intense, dynamic choreography. Maybe the reason Adam and Milly’s romance never blossoms on stage is because they don’t have a nice dance together like the brothers and their brides. There isn’t much depth to these characters and their affection for each other, but the substance appears in their dancing, when the chemistry really ignites. The extended town dance sequence in Act I is a mesmerizing affair, albeit a little chaotic and unclear at times, while an Act II all-bride dream ballet brings some sensuality to the affair.

Like the film, this production is propelled by its dancing, but bodies in movement can’t overcome all the flaws of the writing. The changes to the film give the story a more modern context, and the attempt to psychoanalyze the characters through song removes much of the musical’s charm. Drury Lane’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a polished, well-performed production, but the questionable source material prevents it from rising to true greatness.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

(L-R) Chris Yonan, Hallie Cercone, Jarret Ditch, and Cara Salerno star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

 

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REVIEW: Hot Mikado (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

 

Nanki Poo, Zoot Suits and Dancing – Oh my!

 

(L-R) Andy Lupp (Pish Tush), Todd Kryger (Pooh-Bah) and Stephen Schellhardt (Ko Ko) star in HOT MIKADO at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace through October 3.

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Hot Mikado
  
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by
David Bell
at
Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

If imitation is the highest compliment, in 1939 Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Mikado was praised to the skies: no less than two all-black, all-jazz versions from Chicago and from New York played opposite each other on Broadway. (Alas, they beat each other to a draw, ticket-wise.) It must have seemed as if America would swing its way out of the Depression, with some help from two dead Victorian males.

HOT_MIKADO--Aurelia_WilliamsA Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre revival (Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre "premiered" this version in 1993), Hot Mikado is director/choreographer David H. Bell‘s sizzling homage to those ever-young jitterbug versions. (Purists may carp but then nothing in Sullivan’s music was any more "Japanese" than are these jazz translations, while Gilbert’s satire is timeless.) This time it’s a proscenium presentation and that gives it even more depth and scope than the original arena production.

Retaining the topsy-turvy tale of how Nanki Poo, the Mikado’s son who poses as a wandering minstrel, falls in love with the aggressively demure Yum-Yum; pursued by the voracious harridan Katisha, he’s almost executed by his rival Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. The Mikado’s arrival causes instant confusion, then the requisite resolution.

Based on a successful 1986 production that Bell first mounted at Ford’s Theatre in Washington that has gone on to play London’s West End, Dublin and Prague, Hot Mikado is blessed with music director Michael Mahler‘s period-perfect musical Midas touch. It also has one of the loveliest looks of a Drury Lane show: Marcus Stephens’ set enchants illuminated Japanese footbridge, pavilion and cherry trees with leaves of fans and Japanese lanterns. Jesse Klug lights it like a rainbow in heat, though Jeremy Floyd‘s time-traveling costumes would be bright in the dark.

True to its name, Hot Mikado sizzles with David Bell‘s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-stepping dances; dolled up in Zoot suits or bodice bursters, the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force (led by Ted Levy’s inexhaustible Bojangles imitation in the title role) and hoof up a storm to "Swing a Merry Madrigal." "Three Little Maids" here becomes a hep-swinging Andrew Sisters ballad. The red-hot first act finale comes straight from Stork Club heaven, with a hint of gospel and a highly anachronistic allusion to disco.

 

HOT_MIKADO--Ted_Levy HOT_MIKADO--Devin_DeSantis_and_Summer_Smart

Bell’s troupe (which includes Susan Moniz, who was Yum-Yum 17 years ago in Lincolnshire) sing and dance into a lather. A throwback to classic vaudeville (as veteran Ross Lehman was in Lincolnshire), Stephen Schellhardt gives Ko-Ko alternate touches of Groucho and, even, in his crying fits, Stephen Colbert showing some sentiment. Surprisingly self-effacing even at his hammiest, Schellhardt shows the gentle wistfulness of Keaton and Chaplin and his double takes show stopwatch timing.

As the cavorting cuties, Devin DeSantis’ crooning Nanki-Poo and Summer Naomi Smart’s demure but designing Yum-Yum bring new life to "This Is What I’ll Never Do." Todd M. Kryger oozes pomposity out of Pooh-Bah and Moniz’ Pitti-Sing belts to beat the Big Band.

But the stand-out show-stopper is easily Aurelia Williams, a powerhouse to equal Felicia Fields in Bell’s Lincolnshire debut. Playing the awesome Katisha as a blues-wailing big mamma, she tears the heart out of "The Hour of Gladness" and wipes the set with "Alone and Yet Alive." No surprise that Williams got the biggest ovation at the curtain call: She supplies the heat in Hot Mikado.

Pizzazz-packed as it is, it’s still possible to wish that, color-blind casting aside, Hot Mikado was, like its original, all-black (instead of, as here, fitfully integrated). It’s weird to hear white performers sing what you know would be cooked to a crisp by a black cast. Soul singing, especially of blues standards, will belong culturally to some folks more than others. But then Marriott’s production was equally opportunistic, so I’m resigned to it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

Review: SUGAR (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

This ‘sugar’ lacks spice

 SUGAR-Ladies

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
  
Sugar
   
Book by Peter Stone
Music:
Jule Styne, Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Based on movie “
Some Like It Hot
Directed by
Jim Corti
at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook (map)
through August 1st  | 
tickets: $26-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

It’s a play about the filming of a play about a movie. Drury Lane Oakbrook presents SUGAR, a musical version of the film ‘Some Like It Hot.’ In Studio 24, they are filming a speakeasy prohibition era romp. The show starts with Sweet Sue Syncopation SUGAR (vertical)-Rod Thomas & Jennifer KnoxOrchestra in dire need of a new sax and cello player. The all-girl band is heading from Chicago to Miami. Over on Clark Street, two musicians witness a brutal killing by a  mob. To hide from the bad guys, they join Sweet Sue’s band to get out of town. They’ve got the right and wrong instruments. The ‘new girls’ are really dudes. Sugar is the singer. She has a history of falling for deadbeat sax players and wants a future with a non-musician millionaire. A sax player, Josie, is really Joe who is now also pretending to be millionaire. Daphne, aka Jerry, is also interested in Sugar but has millionaire issues of his… her own. SUGAR is a love triangle farce with extra sides of sweet amusement.

In a play about the filming of a play about a movie, there are true glimpses of Billy Wilder’s classic masterpiece. Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon haunt the stage. Jennifer Knox (Sugar) is the sexy blonde bombshell. Knox dances and sings with a sensual allure that would make Marilyn proud. Alan Schmuckler (Jerry/Daphne) is Jack Lemon incarnate. His facial expressions and manner provide pure Lemon comedy that blends perfectly with SUGAR. And he can sing too. Jack would be jealous! One of the best duets is ‘The Beauty that Drives Men Mad’ sung by Schmuckler and his buddy… gal pal, Rod Thomas (Joe/Josie/Junior). Not looking quite as pretty in a wig, Thomas’ height adds its own humor in his masculine drag performance. Tammy Mader (Sweet Sue) is the SUGAR--Jennifer Knox vibrant Charleston dancing conductor. Although her moxie presence gets limited stage time, it leaves a cue-the-band appeal. Joe D. Lauck (Osgood) is charming as a millionaire in love. The entire SUGAR cast, as musicians, gangsters, millionaires, add an extra layer of flavor with melt in your mouth goodness.

Director Jim Corti has remounted the musical SUGAR as a movie being filmed. The curtain is a makeshift studio warehouse door. A film crew is stagehands moving light fixtures. At the end of Act I, two characters meet up on break. As an ingredient, it doesn’t really add or take anything away. It’s like Splenda. I get the concept but I prefer the real thing. SUGAR tastes good. Sure, it’s not one of the major food groups and you couldn’t exist on a diet of just sugar. If life is like a box of chocolates, then SUGAR is a Whitman Sampler. You know what you’re biting into but that does not spoil the pleasure.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

SUGAR--men in hats

Running Time: Two hours includes a fifteen minute intermission

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