REVIEW: Striking 12 (BoHo Theatre)

  
  

Good music does not a good musical make

  
  

Dustin Valenta, Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele

  
BoHo Theatre presents
  
  
Striking 12
 
Book/Music/Lyrics by Brendan Milburn,
Rachel Sheinkin and Valeria Vigoda 
Directed by
Lara Filip
at
BoHo Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Jan 8  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Striking 12 isn’t so much a musical as it is a rock concert with a dramatic flare. The self-aware holiday play is about a fake rock band that tells the tale of a lonely man on New Year’s Eve who in turn tells the tale of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”. It’s a story within a story within a story, but thanks to the lack of complexity and depth given to each plot line, it’s never particularly difficult to follow.

Dustin Valenta, Amy Steele, Mallory Nees, Eric LoughlinThe play begins with a bit of self-referential comedy and audience interaction. The actors enter and launch into a song about overtures that describes the conventions of an overture. The "band" then informs us that they are all actors before breaking the fourth wall by getting a band name from the audience. (The night I went they were Purple Nurple.)

Eventually, a story emerges about a recently single man (Eric Loughlin) who is alone on New Year’s Eve. Rather than attend the party of his wild and crazy friend (Dustin Valenta), he decides to sit like a bump on a log in the confines of his apartment. He is then visited by a door-to-door saleswoman (Mallory Nees), who is peddling full-spectrum holiday lights that fight off the winter blues. He denies her the sale, but not before having a brief conversation about “The Little Match Girl.” This inspires him to read the short story, which then becomes the dominating plot line of the play.

When there is less than 90 minutes to flesh out several concentric plots, you know the story is going to be a little light. And Striking 12 certainly is lacking when it comes to a compelling through line. But that’s not really what this play is about. Written by three successful musicians/composers (Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda), the selling point is the music and the talent of the performers. This certainly is a demanding production in that the actors must not only be able to act effectively, but they must also be able to sing and play instruments as well. And each one of the performers in BoHo Theatre Company’s production certainly is a triple threat. Valenta can drum and sing simultaneously, which is no easy task. Amy Steele is a gifted violinist and vocalist, while Nees’ ability to play guitar, bass, ukulele and the squeezebox is impressive.

Dustin Valenta, Mallory NeesBut is this good theatre? The music is catchy and reminiscent of artists like Ben Folds. The humor is bland, but it has its moments. The problem is the story. How can you have a good play without a compelling story? Striking 12‘s plot feels like an afterthought, as if the writers tried to squeeze elements of story into the piece after the music had been completed. By the play’s end, you have a few songs stuck in your head but not much else.

Additionally, the BoHo Theatre’s space doesn’t have the acoustics for a show like this. Vocals are easily overpowered by the thumps of a bass drum or even the singing of violin strings. The audio quality is akin to a basement rock show. The piece would be better served in a more spacious venue where the band doesn’t almost sit on top of the audience.

If you’re in the mood for a holiday-themed rock show, Striking 12 is a decent watch. But if you’re looking for good theatre, you’re striking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele, Dustin Valenta

  
  

  
  

REVIEW: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (Steel Beam)

        
        

No miracle in Christmas movie makeover

  
  

its beginning will nifong

  
Steel Beam Theatre presents
   
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
  
By Meredith Willson
Directed by
Donna Steele
Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main, St. Charles (map)
Through Dec. 19 |  
Tickets: $23-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Christmas, for many, is all about tradition. Familiar holiday rituals, from the Christmas dinner menu to the ornaments on the tree to time-honored Christmas carols and, yes, those old movies you watch on television every year. That’s why so many theaters play it safe with holiday shows adapted from the same old stuff.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas is another one: the plot of the 1947 Oscar-winning film "Miracle on 34th Street" re-imagined as a stage musical. Steel Beam Theatre’s earnest production offers a big cast full of cute kids and highly attractive adults, and I wish I could say this live show offered better Christmas entertainment than staying home with a bowl of popcorn and watching the movie on TV, but I can’t.

it's beginning 2The familiar Christmas story follows young Susan Walker, who is being reared by her divorced and disillusioned mother, Doris, in a no-nonsense way that doesn’t include believing in Santa Claus. Their comforting pragmatism becomes shaken by Fred Gaily, the ex-marine turned attorney next door , and a bearded fellow who calls himself Kris Kringle, who shocks New York by telling Macy’s customers to shop at Gimbel’s.

The concept, from composer and adapter Meredith Willson, the man behind The Music Man, ought to have a lot of potential. It includes, among other things, a complete Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on stage.

Alas, this is no Music Man, and little about Willson’s score adds to the movie’s story. Few of the songs will leave you humming, and a couple are downright painful. The compacting and stylization necessary to fit the music into a stage-length show robs the plot of spice and leaves it cloying. Elements like a grown man, unknown to her mother, squiring around a little girl and a chauvinistic song about how long it takes a woman to ready herself to go out seem badly dated.

Originally called Here’s Love, the musical opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran less than a year. Its latter-day title change explains why, rather than being central, the show’s namesake tune, Willson’s famous "It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," written in 1951, gets medley treatment. Blended into something called "Pinecones and Holly Berries," it’s one of the better musical numbers, especially in its first iteration with a dance sequence performed by Jamey McDunn as Kris Kringle, Amy Steele as Doris Walker and Will Nifong as Marvin Shellhammer, a Macy’s marketing assistant.

Nifong’s wonderfully comic performance, here and throughout, forms a principal highlight of the show. This number also constitutes one of the brighter spots in Cynthia Hall‘s largely lackluster choreography.

The very pretty Amy Steele sparkles as Doris, but wobbles some in the vocals. A stalwart, smooth-voiced Greg Zawada portrays Fred, while McDunn’s perfect Santa Claus appearance is marred by a curiously tentative and soft-voiced performance. Lauren Freas did a charming job as Susan the day I saw the show; she’s spelled in alternating performances by Christina Zaeske.

Kara Blasingame is sweet as a little Dutch girl, alternating with Kathleen Miulli. Dean Dranias makes a stiff R.H. Macy. Adoniss Hutcheson, alternating with Mikey Taylor; and August Anderson; Brian Burch; Terry A. Christiansen; Haleigh Hutchinson; Andrew Kepka; Katie Meyers; Amy Moczygemba; and Emily Whaley fill out the ensemble.

The centerpiece of the second act comes in a zanily inane number, "My State, My Kansas," which has so little to do with the storyline that it recalls the quirky "Hernando’s Hideaway" of The Pajama Game.  Sadly, it isn’t nearly so good a song as that, though this production points it up with a fun banjo solo by Gary Patterson, playing the judge in Kris Kringle’s insanity trial.

The cast, colorfully clad in Kim Maslo’s nice costumes, clearly has a great time and tries hard. But weak singers exacerbate the score’s dullness. A five-piece orchestra, borne up largely by trumpeter John Evans, does its best to support the vocals but sometimes overwhelms them. Overall, Director Donna Steele’s production fails to give us the pageantry and grandeur necessary to make a parade full of "Big Clown Balloons" come alive.

   
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

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REVIEW: Godspell (Provision Theatre)

 

Pop Culture Christianity

 

 The ensemble of GODSPELL rocks out on O BLESS THE LORD, MY SOUL - (front r to l) Sarah Grant, Tiffany Cox, Richelle Meiss, Amy Steele, Jennifer Oakley.  (Back r to l) Greg Walters, Frederick Harris, Kevin O'Brien.

   
Provision Theatre presents
   
Godspell
   
Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak
Music/Lyrics by
Steven Schwartz
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road (map)
through September 26  |  tickets: $15-$28   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The original Godspell (an archaic spelling of the word “gospel”) was produced in 1971, just as flower power was wilting, eventually replaced by disco fever later in the decade. At the time, many were still holding on to their all-you-need-is-love mentality despite the demise of the hippie community along with the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. As a result, many found comfort in close-nit cults and communes, while Judas betrayal: Justin Berkobien as Judas in GODSPELL, running through September 26 at 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL.others just moved on with their lives.

Still, for some, there was a Christian reawakening, a dawning of the Age of Aquarius in which it was foretold that man would achieve a greater understanding of Jesus’ message of peace and harmony. Had Godspell, a musical based on the Gospel According to Matthew, been produced at any other time, it would not have ever reached the levels of success it did. First a hit off-Broadway and then a hit on Broadway, the show saw more than 2,600 performances. Its song “Day by Day” was 13th on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1972. And in 1973, the musical was made into a major motion picture.

But these days, it appears that the portrait of the peace-loving Christian has been painted over with the image of Bible-thumping Pharisees. This begs the question: In a world populated with apocalyptic celebrities ministers, can Godspell remain relevant? In the hands of Provision Theatre’s extraordinarily talented director Tim Gregory, it can and does.

Provision’s interpretation frequently wanders off-book from the original. This is no surprise considering the show—which is really just a bunch of parables strung together—plays more like an improv review than it does a play. Characters call out to one another casually, egging each other on as they bring Jesus’ teachings of righteousness and justice to life. Gregory uses the play’s spontaneity to insert pop-culture references that serve to remove us from the musical’s dated soundtrack and transport us to the present. Be prepared for riffs on Facebook, Beyonce and the stimulus package. The jokes are utterly cornball, but then again, so is Godspell.

The costumes (created by DJ Reed) have also received a reboot to keep up with the times. Characters have traded in their bell-bottoms and denim for loud, funky garments. The end result looks like an Old Navy commercial starring Jesus and John the Baptist.

Gregory’s staging and Amber Mak’s choreography are really the highlight of this production. There’s a lot of group movement going on, but no matter how many bodies are in motion, everybody acts and reacts with one another physically, creating a larger whole out of the many parts. It is here, through the collective action, that the play’s message of connectivity and brotherhood is most apparent.

Jesus being crucified: Syler Thomas as Jesus in GODSPELL, running through September 26 at 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL.

Unfortunately, most of the ensemble’s voices are lacking, which is really a significant downside for a musical. Vocal precision is rare. Instead, notes warble, passing from flat to sharp. A cordless mic is used often to enhance lead vocalists who, I suppose, don’t have the pipes to belt it out to the back of the room. There are some standouts, however, particularly Justin Berkobien as John the Baptist and Amy Steele, who sings the lead on “Day by Day”.

Provision’s Godspell is just as slaphappy and feel-good as the original. That’s fine for those who already have Jesus in their hearts. But for the cynics or the persecuted, it might ring a little out of touch with contemporary displays of Christianity. As for those that just want to see some song and dance, don’t expect a choir of angels – but there’s certainly clever choreography!

   
   
Rating:  ★★½
   
   

Extra Credit:

Read Mark Ball’s Godspell review from his blog One Chicago Man’s Opinion:

….Provision Theater’s production of Godspell was, in two words, very energetic. The joyfulness and exhuberance I mentioned above abounded from start to finish, and the actors’ collective excitement infected the audience. They properly exaggerated their characterizations, their timing was sharp, the cabaret was amusing, and the flow of the show was kinetic. But there were two major weaknesses, the first being that of bad acoustics and the second, that of bad singing. Despite the presence of some impressive vocal talent in the cast, a few soloists were clearly unprepared, one of whom caused me to cringe from his off-pitch screeching.  Read the entire review.

     
     

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