Review: The Rainmaker (The James Downing Theatre)

  
  

An uneven portrayal of Classic Americana

  
  

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The James Downing Theatre presents
   
The Rainmaker
  
Written by N. Richard Nash
Directed by Floyd A. May
at The John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $5-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s so much to both love and be disappointed in James Downing Theatre’s revival of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker. Director Floyd A. May’s set design (co-designed with Joshua Dlouhy) is crammed with authentic props that create a truthful tone for a hearty Depression Era melodrama. Unfortunately, the set is just too jumbled and cramped to accommodate the play’s scenes, from the Curry family home, to the sheriff’s office, to the barn where the visiting Rainmaker, Bill Starbuck (Michael Rashid) stays the night. May’s direction also varies over the course of the play, from flat and pedestrian to vivid, exciting, touching and inspiring. Watching this Rainmaker is like taking a journey down a bumpy country road. One is sure to hit dull and dusty pockets. But turn the bend and, suddenly, the beauty of Nash’s morality tale about retaining faith while never eschewing plain reality zooms into full view.

Rainmaker34bH.C. Curry (in a warm and gracious performance by David Kravitz) is the play’s gentle, wise, observant patriarch, seeing his farm and family through the worst drought in years. They suffer from a drought of the spirit as well as the parched land their livelihood depends on and Lizzie (Liz Hoffman), his unmarriageable daughter, stands as its quintessential symbol.

Intelligent, industrious, and truthful to a fault, Lizzie can’t get a man–if getting a man means surrendering her brain and playing a vacuous, empty-headed flirt. Hoffman has regaled Chicago audiences with her portrayal of Lala in Last Night of Ballyhoo and even put sublime silliness into her shlock comedy role as Vicki in The Well of Horniness. Here, however, her performance starts and stalls in authentically portraying a 1930s woman whose primary goal in life is to fall in love, get married and have a family; whose biggest fear is that her plain looks and plain talk with men will keep her from those goals. Nash’s writing never strays from traditional gender roles and perhaps now they seem too staid and unyielding to seem credible. But they were once fiercely imbedded in American culture. The terror of becoming an old maid once had, not just emotional consequences, but also social and economic ones. A consistent, fully embodied Lizzie still requires total investment in that old-school frame of mind.

Even though the play focuses on the Curry family’s attempts to find Lizzie a man, it’s just as much about how its men respond to the vicissitudes of love and relationship. As File, Shannon Parr brings every ounce of proud, stoic testosterone to the loner deputy that H.C. and his sons, Noah (Michael Mejia) and Jim (Micah Fortenberry), pursue for Lizzie’s prospective mate. But he’s just as much an emblem for how masculine pride can get in the way of love. Jim, on the other hand, has no problem finding love, regardless of how his brother Noah disparages his affair with Snookie, a local country hottie. Mejia has no problem pulling off Noah’s hardnosed approach to life but could use a little more nuance to prevent his character from devolving into caricature. Fortenberry, on the other hand, resiliently displays all Jim’s turns of exuberance, joy and playfulness, counterbalanced with his confusion, frustration, dismay and exasperation over Noah’s disapproval of him.

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That leaves Bill Starbuck, the wild-eyed dreamer who throws everything into temporary chaos. Much as I wanted to buy into Rashid’s presentation of Starbuck in miracle worker/con man mode, much of this aspect of his performance just didn’t read. Selling the Curry family on the notion that he can bring rain is too forced. Instead, Rashid is far more powerful in Starbuck’s toned down, intimate moments connecting with Lizzie. In fact, their barn scene together is pure tenderness. Just as tender is H.C. trying to tell Noah why Lizzie must have her moment with Starbuck. If there’s one truly transgressive moment in The Rainmaker, it’s that one.

Unevenness hampers James Downing Theatre’s production, but the show is not without intense moments of beauty, humor and humanity. It even throws in a little excitement with an excellently choreographed fight scene. Now if only it could be pulled together in one vibrant whole. Certainly the promise is there.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Review: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (James Downing Theatre)

     
    

Witty, fun show upended by uneven cast

     
     

From left to right are: Micah Fortenberry, Elissa Newcorn, Elise Morrow-Schap and David E. Wojtowicz.

  
The James Downing Theatre presents
   
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change
 
Book/Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music by
Jimmy Roberts
Directed by
Dale Hawes
at
John Waldron Arts Center, Chicago (map)
thru March 6  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian 

Love.

Whether you’re in it, searching for it, hating on it or agonizing over it, love is always a favorite topic of discussion, and never fails to spark heated discussions or wistful storytelling. Love causes people to do crazy things, and no matter how many times people have been spurned by it, most find themselves right back out there hoping that this next first date will lead to “the one.”

Elissa Newcorn is “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride” in a scene from 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change' by the Charles Downing Theatre Chicago.I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, a musical revue, explores the highs and lows of dating, relationships, marriage, children and everything in between. The show itself is clever and witty, humorously exploring the plight of single people, the highs and lows of marriage and what having children does to a married couple’s sex life.

James Downing Theatre’s production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change starts of well with the four-person cast (Micah Fortenberry, Elise Morrow-Schap, Elissa Newcorn and David Wojtowicz) singing the ensemble opening number. Each cast member shows off their personality and distinguishes their characterization right from the beginning.

As the series of vignettes and musical numbers continues, it becomes increasingly clear that the casting is uneven, causing an imbalance between the cast. The woman (Morrow-Schap and Newcorn) clearly outshine the men with both their musical talents and their strong stage presence. The woman belt out the songs with confidence and flair, showcasing their voices and offering genuinely touching or side-splitting moments with solos such as “I Will be Loved Tonight” and “Always a Bridesmaid.” Both Morrow-Schap and Newcorn are sassy and quick with the comedic timing.

Because the women are so fantastic, it makes it abundantly clear that the men are not on the same level. Fortenberry begins a little stiffly but does relax and eases into his characters as the show progresses. He becomes adorable as the “awkward guy” on dates. Yet his singing voice is not powerful enough to withstand the fullness of a musical revue. His voice isn’t bad by any means, but it lacks the power and depth to belt out number after number with force. A man’s man (David E. Wojtowicz, right) is mortified when his date (Elissa Newcorn) picks a romantic tearjerker.Wojtowicz also lacks the depth in his voice to carry through the musical numbers. Perhaps it’s the character voices he uses, but his singing voice is less than stellar and his performances are dimmed by his fellow cast mates.

The costuming for I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change borders on high school musical costumes. In some scenes it looks like the actors have just brought in clothes to wear from their own closets and in other scenes the makeshift costumes look cheap and unfortunately visually detract from the performances. Some stronger direction and detail with costuming could have amped up the show.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change finishes strong with an ensemble finale number. Though this production struggles to overcome its mismatched ensemble, the show itself proves to be witty and entertaining, finishing on a high note.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

From left to right: David E. Wojtowicz, Elissa Newcorn and Elise Morrow-Schap. James Downing Theatre Chicago

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change plays at the James Downing Theatre, 6740 N. Oliphant, through March 6. Tickets are $20 and $15 for seniors and students. They can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/153540.


Cast and Production Team: Directed by Dale Hawes with Music Director, David Richards, the wonderful comically and musically talented cast includes Micah Fortenberry, Elise Morrow-Schap, Elissa Newcorn and David E. Wojtowicz. Lighting and sound design is by Steve Kedzierski. Set design is by Joshua Dlouhy.

  
  

REVIEW: Sleepwalk (The James Downing Theatre)

   
   

Sleepwalking through life – a play for teens, by teens

 

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The James Downing Theatre presents
    
Sleepwalk
   
Written by William Mastrosimone
Directed by
Thomas Akouris
at John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (
map)
through Nov. 21  | 
tickets: $15-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is something funny, frank, and charming about The James Downing Theatre’s amateur production, Sleepwalk, a one-act play by Emmy award-winning William Mastrosimone, cast with mostly non-professional teenage actors. That’s how the playwright intended it—a drama about teen suicide performed by teens for teens. The production is part of the cultural mission of James Downing Theatre, sponsored by the Edison Park United Methodist Church, to raise awareness within the community about this dark but all-too-timely subject.

Young Dillion (Stephen Fenstermacher) faces the depressing prospect of his parents’ divorce, on top of all the other hormonal and social trials of adolescence. When his idol, Rock Star (Erik Enberg) takes his own life, Dillion spirals deeper into depression, contemplating suicide and keeping an already written suicide PB011469note with him in his pocket. The play begins with Dillion in a dream state, encountering figures that take him on a stream-of-consciousness emotional journey to the center of his pain and despair. Opposing him is Amygdala (Michael Mejia), a sly, tough, hip-hop Superfly of an Id, who overloads Dillion with negative emotions. Zen Master (Charles Wimmer) attempts to give Dillion some Buddhist balance and guidance to help him weather the psychological storms. But Dillion also has to recognize his overdependence on the figure of the Rock Star to give his life meaning and value.

Dillion’s dream is about reclaiming himself. As the protagonist, Fenstermacher has a personable Everyman quality about him. He can nail Dillion’s anhedonia with almost clinical accuracy. To the extent that Director Thomas Akouris draws natural and immediate performances from his non-professional cast, the show succeeds—and no doubt will succeed in reaching its intended audience with its most necessary message. All the same, expect rough, homespun, uneven acting from the lead and most of the cast. Mejia stands out by delivering his hip-hop verse with moxy and May Flowers (Anisa Pashaj for our showing), Dillion’s hippy girlfriend, is fresh and easy-going in her humorous, sassy and caring role.

It would be nice to see this play produced with more experienced actors and in a theater space that doesn’t flatten sight lines. The only thing that isn’t amateurish about Sleepwalk is Mastrosimone’s script. Still, I doubt that these issues are of any concern to the production or the playwright. Theater that incites discussion and gets communities to pay attention to the emotional trouble teens face in their schools and homes is the real goal here, not critical accolades. What Sleepwalk needs is not a critic but a young audience that needs to be aware of the troubled mind—and that there is help and hope at hand. 

   
  
Rating: ★★
   
   
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Artistic and Production Team

Stephen E. Fenstermacher as Dillon and Erik Enberg as Rock Star head the cast, which also includes Anisa Pashaj, Jessica Perelman, Yoni Hankin, Michael Mejia, Charles Wimmer and Eric Bruce.

Lighting and sound design is by Steve Kedzierski. Set design is by Joshua Dlouhy. The stage manager is Mary Schenk.

        
        

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REVIEW: The Sunshine Boys (James Downing Theatre)

Finding the heart behind the sun

 

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The James Downing Theatre presents
   
The Sunshine Boys
  
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Dave Downing & Ron Denham
John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through October 3rd  |  tickets: $15-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I love vaudeville. I grew up watching the old movies that featured vaudeville people like Bert Lahr, Milton Berle, and Bob Hope. There was an art to the timing and I still giggle when I hear ‘hello ladies and germs’.

As the stars of vaudeville have faded into obscurity, I developed another fascination with what were their lives like and where are they now. The James Downing Theatre production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys shines some light onto a fictional duo from vaudeville.

The main characters of Al Lewis and Willie Clark are stock Neil Simon characters. They are woven into American pop culture straight from the vaudeville tradition. Scott Minches plays the role of Willie Clark. Minches has the perfect visage of an old crotchety and bitter man, and he manages to bring humor to a man who’s beginning to suffer from dementia. The character of Clark lives for show business and still reads Variety every week – only now it’s to read obituaries. Iconic stars such as Jack Klugman and Walter Matthau who have made a career out of gruff cigar chomping slobs have played this role. Minches manages to not shadow them too much and still fit Simon’s script quite well. Slobs are broad comedy in and of themselves. Minches brings out the beautiful and sad human side to Willie Clark as a lonely old man.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Manny Schenk is quite amazing as Al Lewis. Tony Randall has done the role of persnickety straight man most famously. Mr. Schenk plays Lewis with a deceptive gentleman’s dignity. He really makes Lewis his own, which is quite a feat considering that he also follows George Burns in this role.

Minches and Schenk play well off of each other. Their timing is impeccable, and the simmering bitterness builds to a perfect boil in the comeback sketch.

Terry Maloney plays the role of Clark’s nephew Ben Silverman. He is also Clark’s very frustrated agent who takes a weekly berating when he visits his uncle. Maloney plays this role a bit too broadly. I would love to see him as the scrambling ‘ten percenter’ determined to get something out of this weekly beating. Instead he’s allowed allowed no comic nuance; he’s basically has one note-frustration.

The best part of this show is definitely Act Two. Lewis and Clark reunite to do a classic skit and it really is funny, recreating visual puns and one- liners that cry out for a rim shot from the band. This skit also features Valerie Heckman as “Nurse”. Ms. Heckman is spot on as the screwball sexy nurse being ogled by Clark. Heckman really shines in a brief role.

Also featured in the second act is Ashley Boots as the home nurse for Clark. Ms. Boots plays the classic New Yorker. She bounces the barbs right back at Clark while eating chocolates and fluffing pillows. Boots has a hilariously affected New York accent. To paraphrase Clark’s character, some words are funny. ‘Nurse’ is not funny, but ‘noyss’ is hilarious when Boots says it.

Mark Kroon is briefly seen as the stage manager for the reunion show. It’s a good moment as he portrays exhaustion and frustration with trying to keep the rehearsal running on time. Kroon has a classic face seemingly pulled right out of a Neil Simon comedy.

The production could use some tweaks in the first act with the rhythm of the dialogue and in the way Minches and Maloney play off of each other. The props are perfect and look like they came right out of an old Montgomery Ward store – the apartment setting as a character unto itself. A formerly grand hotel turned into a down on the heels SRO is harder than it looks to pull off.  It is done beautifully.

The Sunshine Boys is definitely good entertainment and worth seeing. The great Northwest Side is a hidden trove of culture. Check it out!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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The Sunshine Boys runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through October 3rd, 2010. Be forewarned that it is a long trek by public transit and bring cab fare in case you miss the last Northwest Highway bus. There are some cool pubs and restaurants to make a night of things and enjoy yet another side of Chicago!

The production, directed by Dave Downing & Ron Denham, includes cast members: Manny Schenk as Al Lewis, Scott Minches as Willie Clark and Terry Maloney as Willie’s nephew, Ben. Ashley Boots, Valerie Heckman and Mark Kroon round out the talented cast. Lighting and sound design is by Steve Kedzierski. Costume and prop design is by Ashley Boots. Set design is by Joshua Dlouhy. The stage manager is Mary Schenk.