REVIEW: The Hundred Dresses (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

   
  

Reducing childhood bullying one performance at a time

   
   

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Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
The Hundred Dresses
   
Written by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills
Directed by
Sean Graney
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Dec 2   |  tickets: $26-$36  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One in five students are bullied each year. 60% of students are bystanders to bullying*. Forty-five states, including Illinois, now have anti-bullying legislation. Bullying prevention programs have been shown to reduce school bullying by as much as 50%. To entertain and educate, Chicago Children’s Theatre remounts last season’s smash hit, The Hundred Dresses.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 008Peggy is rich. Wanda is poor. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. Clothing makes a fashion statement at Franklin Elementary School. Peggy is mean. Wanda is kind. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. The Hundred Dresses is a light-hearted musical dressed up to teach a powerful lesson. It’s theGlee” episode that harmonizes “Clueless” meets “Mean Girls”.

In their upbeat and high energy antics, these adult actors unleash the cute kid inside. Leslie Ann Sheppard (Maddie) is a shiny-happy sidekick to Natalie Berg’s (Peggy) self-absorbed diva. Berg balances over-the-top narcissism without becoming the villain. Berg charms in clueless oblivion. When she sings ‘you didn’t do anything wrong’ with perky sass, Sheppard’s soulful response ‘but I didn’t do anything right’ heightens in its profound simplicity. Sheppard’s subtle despair is a sweet awakening. The target of the teasing is Briana De Giulio (Wanda). De Giulio sings with hopeful pretend and a thick Polish accent. The interesting underlying story involves the overall acceptance of the other quirky playground kids. Andrew Keltz (Willie) is hysterical, arriving to school in various eccentric ensembles. Superman or robot, he doesn’t disguise his oddball ways that are just understood by the others. Elana Ernst (Cecile)is a tiara wearing, unicorn talking, ballerina wannabe. She looks and sounds like SNL alum, Cheri Oteri, with comedic timing and exasperated expressions to match. Geoff Rice (Jack) is the understated dreamer with a confident independence. The kids bond in a celebration of individuality.

Under the direction of Sean Graney and choreography of Tommy Rapley, the playful style is like a nursery rhyme game. It seems like it’s all fun and games until you really listen to the words. Jacqueline Firkins conjures up the perfect wardrobe to focus on dresses. The girls’ dresses are marvelously vibrant 50’s style. Watching the cast change it up, certainly promotes clothing envy. Is it the costumes? Is it the singing? Is it the dancing? Is it the cast? There are probably over 100 reasons to see The Hundred Dresses. The most important one is ‘because doing nothing is the worst of all.’ As grown-ups, we need to act to stop the bullying in schools. An easy and entertaining way is to take a kid or two (or a classroom!) to this production, which helps kids learn important life lessons in an entertaining way. Go see it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

The Hundred Dresses plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 10:30 a.m; Saturdays and Sundays at 1p.m.    Running time is sixy minutes with no intermission. *Statistics about bullying from Newsweek Magazine, October 10 issue.

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All press photos by Michael Brosilow

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REVIEW: Jacob and Jack (Victory Gardens)

Fun and witty, with a shmeer of the absurd

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Victory Gardens presents
 
Jacob and Jack
 
Written by James Sherman
Directed by
Dennis Zacek
at
Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$48   |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Jacob-and-Jack06‘You must be a good actor. You’re not good-looking enough to make it in L.A. unless you were a good actor.’ Victory Gardens presents the world premiere of Jacob and Jack.  A successful commercial actor returns to Chicago for a Yiddish theatre tribute to his grandfather. Thinking it’s only a staged reading for his mother’s ladies club, Jack has not rehearsed. Complications arise as he pisses off his wife, flirts with the  ingénue and the theatre sells out.  In a parallel dimension set in 1935, Jacob is preparing for his theatrical moment.  Complications arise as he pisses off his wife, flirts with the ingénue and the theatre does not sell out. Seventy-five years apart, Jacob and Jack are challenged with a stage actor’s pay, ego and libido. Jacob and Jack is a comedy transcending time. The humor is beautifully showcased in the similarities and differences between past and present theatre. It’s witty with a shmeer of the absurd.

The stage at Victory Gardens has been transformed into three connecting dressing rooms. Mary Griswold (Scenic Designer) has created a backstage peek at the actors’ preparation quarters. They are sparse and dingy and sadly imaginable as exactly the same in 1935 or 2010. Griswold also gives flashes of theatre excitement with partial views of the recognizable marquees for Chicago, Palace and Merle Reskin hovering over the non-glamorous backstage onstage. There are five doors that are used to transition the scene from past to present. Since three of the actors change character but not costume, the doors help the conversion. Director Dennis Zacek uses the opening and shutting doors to add a slapstick element to the amusing chaos.

Photo by Liz Lauren Photo by Liz Lauren
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Zacek assembled six phenomenal actors to play twelve different parts. The actor’s duality is recognized in physical and vocal distinctions. In the title role, Craig Spidle (Jack/Jacob) plays up the schmuck as Jack and chutzpah as Jacob. ‘I work in television so I don’t have to rehearse,’ versus ‘I am upstage and you are down, down downstage.’ Either role, he is hilarious, whether cowering under the table or beating his breast in arrogance. His wife in both worlds, Janet Ulrich Brooks (Lisa/Leah) reacts to the philandering with sarcastic jabs of vulnerable disgust as Lisa and solid resignation as Leah. Her funniest moments are perfectly timed bursts of surprising reaction. Laura Scheinbaum (Robin/Rachel) is delightful as both the contemporary confident MFA actor and the anxious deli discovery destined for the stage. Roslyn Alexander (Esther/Hannah) charms as the no-nonsense mother of Jack and the suspicious, protective mother of Rachel. When she breaks out into song, she is everybody’s bubeleh. With the broadest ranges between Jewish immigrant and American stereotype, Daniel Cantor (Ted/Abe) and Andrew Keltz (Don/Moishe) deliver rich versions of both their roles.

Oy, a mecheieh, chochemas! Playwright James Sherman and Director Dennis Zacek have devised a comedic shtick with hilarious results. Sherman has delivered a farce honoring not only the Yiddish theatre but also highlighting the struggles of contemporary theatre. It’s a wonderful reminder that an actor struggles to deliver his ‘gift to you!’ Mazel tov! May you enjoy success from your kishkes! Ahf mir gezogt!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

Photo by Liz Lauren

 

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REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty (Marriott Theatre)

Centuries-old fairy tale energized with girl-power

 SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amber 2

Marriott Theatre presents:

 

Sleeping Beauty 

Adapted by Marc Robin
Directed and choreographed by
Matt Raftery
At
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through April 25th
(more info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

“Sleeping Beauty” was first published in 1697, and since then has morphed, changed, been embellished and re-interpreted in thousands of ways; both subtle and overt. Here in America, any girls born after 1959 probably know the Walt Disney version of the story the best; lovely, quiet Aurora sings and picks flowers, obeys her godmothers (without any inclination that they are, in fact, fairies  – and that she is in fact a princess), gets tricked, falls asleep, gets rescued by an equally genteel and beautiful prince and they all live happily ever after. The film is a classic, but SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amberprincesses like that don’t reign anymore. It is no longer interesting to see a heroine who goes through the story with no control over her actions, and whose main character arc is going from slumber to awake.

In Marc Robin’s new theatrical adaptation, produced by the Marriott Theater for Young Audiences, Sleeping Beauty is a tomboy: she spends her days climbing trees, dreaming of adventure and defending the bumbling dork Prince Hunter (Ryan Reilly) from fire-breathing dragons. Her dialogue is lightly peppered with girl power rhetoric: she claims that pressure for her to wear dresses is "stereotyping" and at one point accuses her Puck-like attendant (Andrew Keltz) of discrimination. These not-so-subtle aims to break down hundreds of years of gender expectations are nice to see, even if they do go over the heads of the kids in the audience and are too broad for the adults.

Sleeping Beauty has gone by many names, including Grimm’s Briar Rose and Disney’s Aurora.  Here, however, she is Princess Amber, of Colorland (played by Jessie Mueller). Colorland is a magical world where everyone has their own color that identifies them: the three fairy godmothers are Periwinkle (Heidi Kettenring), Ruby (Johanna McKenzie Miller) and Marigold (Tammy Mader), and the wicked fairy who condemns Amber to prick her finger on that fateful spinning wheel is Magenta (Susan Moniz). The three good fairies have a nice relationship, and Heidi Kettenring’s goofball performance is a standout (remarked my six year old companion, "Periwinkle was funny!"). Magenta is bad without ever being too scary. The fear factor for kids varies widely; age and sensibility are obvious factors. I brought a six year old and a nine year old who had different reactions to Magenta. The six year old was a little scared of Magenta, but managed to work through it, while the nine year old was mostly interested in her dress which was "cool." Magenta does in fact have a cool dress, designed by Nancy Missimi, but no extra baubles that would make her SLEEPING BEAUTY--Ryan Reilly as Prince Hunter, Jessie Mueller as Amberparticularly freaky to most kids – she does not sport any weird make up, wear a mask or wig, or anything out of the ordinary that would be particularly creepy.

The show is nicely paced. The whole production, including the talk back at the end, runs about 90-minutes. The top half of the show is focused on Princess Amber and her unconventional personality. The presence of Princess Amber is strongly felt, and her sleep is greatly reduced from the hundred years of most versions to an afternoon. During this time, Prince Hunter has to overcome a series of obstacles in order to save his slumbering love with a kiss. Being scared and uncoordinated, he relies both on the fairies and on the audience to help. The children in the audience are cued to shout "I’m your friend" and "You can do it!" at different times. Some kids might find this embarrassing, but it makes for a lively production. The connection between actors and audience is stronger here than in most adult theater. It comes to a quick, clean conclusion and ends on a high happy note (go figure).

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Andrew Keltz, Susan Moniz, Jessie Mueller SLEEPING BEAUTY--Tammy Mader, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Bernie Yvon, Heidi Kettenring

Sleeping Beauty ends with a question/answer talk back, introducing the audience to the actors, the stage manager, the back stage crew and the live band, which is educational and well rounded. The kids get to ask the actors questions about plot points that don’t make sense to them or special effects that seem like real magic to little eyes. The encouraging and informative nature of this talk back is the highlight of the show. Imagination and participation are strongly encouraged by the charming cast, which hosts the session.

The play, which is staged in the round, shares the lovely real wood, rustic set of Fiddler on the Roof, the evening production at the Marriott Theater for Old Audiences. The set was conceived to work with both productions, and doubles well. The natural looking set relieves some of the tension of the princess-and-fairy-run-world of Colorland and brings the production down to earth. The fire breathing dragon, who makes two appearances is constructed of three parts, operated by three different people. The three actors walk in unison, holding large wood puppets representing the three sections of the dragon’s body. The effect is nice and organic. It is also not the only shadowing of Julie Taymor-esque impressionism: a cloth mound is a mountain, a blue sheet is the sea.

The production sets its audience up to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, which proves easy for the kids.  And for adults, it’s nice to see some subtlety in children’s entertainment. Sleeping Beauty respects the intelligence of children and the sanity of adults: it’s is never over-stimulating or tacky.  The little ones in the audience don’t see the thought that went into this production, but they will enjoy it without the need for shock-value. The clarity and focus of the storytelling make Marriott Lincolnshire’s Sleeping Beauty a perfectly nice and colorful way to spend your morning with the little ones in your life.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Heidi Kettenring, Susan Moniz, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Tammy Mader

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REVIEW: Fiddler on the Roof (Marriott Theatre)

Marriott takes the Jewish out of Fiddler

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Marriott Theatre presents

Fiddler on the Roof

Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem
Directed and choreographed by David H. Bell,
musical direction by Doug Peck
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

With its haunting melodies, endearing characters and poignant, historic story, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the greatest musicals of all time. Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick crafted a musical so beautiful, so compelling, that — from Broadway theater to high-school auditorium — it’s a tough show to screw up. As with any production of this engaging show, Marriott Theatre’s "Fiddler" offers much to enjoy, but it’s a long way from a great version.

fiddler03 The story of Tevye, a Jewish dairyman, and his family and friends in the Russian shtetl Anatevka, ca. 1905, is a multi-layered tale both personal and sweeping. In its conflicts between progress and tradition, between generations, between duty and desire and between different faiths and cultures, "Fiddler on the Roof" offers many universal truths. Tevye is a father coming to grips with his children’s coming of age. Anatevka stands for a lost way of life, as exotic and vanished a culture as Brigadoon.

Yet despite the looming presence of the disruptive outsiders, Anatevka represents not just any lost society, but a Jewish homeland, a tight community whose people spoke their own Jewish tongue (Yiddish, the language in which Sholom Aleichem wrote the original stories that inspired this musical) and where they brought up their children according to age-old Jewish customs. Tevye, above anything else, is a deeply religious Jew. Further, his people’s traditions were not just left behind by the passing of time, they were murderously stolen by bitter bigotry.

Fiddler on the Roof, first and foremost, is a Jewish story. Director David H. Bell, in his perception of Tevye as a bland "Everyman," seems to have missed that point.

You’ll rarely hear any Yiddish or Hebraic accent in his version of "Fiddler." When the script or score compels it, as in the "bidi-bidi-bums" of the klezmer-style song, "If I Were a Rich Man," Ross Lehman, as Tevye, seems ill at ease, almost swallowing the fiddler04syllables. James Harms, meanwhile, plays the village rabbi like an Irish priest, complete with rolled R’s. The whole rhythm of the show seems off, in part because it lacks the cantorial cadence normally imbuing the lead.

Lehman may be the least patriarchal Tevye ever — not discounting those high-school productions. It’s not that he’s a tenor in a role typically cast for a baritone and a physically smaller man than the actors famous for this part; it’s mostly his tone. Tevye, a devout and spiritual man, expresses his deep, personal relationship with God and with his family conversationally and often sardonically throughout the play, but he isn’t snide. Lehman’s Tevye is snarky where he ought to be good-humoredly ironic, arch when he should be aggravated. His performance evokes Paul Lynde or Edna Turnblad (his most recent role at Marriott, a brilliant turn) more than Zero Mostel or Topol.

Beyond casting flaws, Bell’s direction and choreography frequently disappoint. Although he’s no newcomer to Marriott’s theater-in-the-round stage, this show seems to have challenged his ingenuity. From my seat in Section 4, far too many scenes had me looking at actors’ backs. Faces were often obscured by vertical posts or the back of another player’s head. This particularly marred the scenes where Tevye and the butcher Lazar Wolf (an oddly low key David Girolmo) talk at cross purposes and in which Tevye recounts his nightmare to his wife, Golde. Bell redeems these scenes somewhat by well-executed dance numbers, but there, too, I often seemed to be viewing them edge on.

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Marriott Theatre typically stages musicals with large casts beautifully, yet the "Fiddler" stage often seemed cramped and overcrowded, particularly in ensemble numbers such as the "Sabbath Prayer" sequence. Thomas M. Ryan’s set is lightly furnished (except for those unfortunate posts) and he’s used hanging lanterns and other tricks to expand the stage beyond its physical space, so that fault can’t be laid at his feet.

The ensemble as a whole perform very well, and nothing can rob the power from "To Life" or "Sunrise, Sunset." Andrew Keltz, as Motel, does a sweet version of "Miracle of Miracles," but there are no strong individual voices. Again, beyond Nancy Missimi’s traditional costumes, the characters, even in otherwise excellent performances such as Jessie Mueller’s anguished Tzeitel, Rebecca Finnegan’s brisk Yente and Paula Scrofano’s forthright Golde, rarely convey any sense of Jewish or Old World identity.

The residents of Bell’s Anatevka don’t need to go to America at the end of the play. They’re already there.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

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REVIEW: Victory Gardens’ “The Snow Queen”

"The Snow Queen” Rocks, But Will It Endure?

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Victory Gardens presents:

The Snow Queen

adapted by Frank Galati, Michael Barrow Smith and Blair Thomas
directed by Jim Corti

thru December 27th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson, best friends Kai (Andrew Keltz) and Gerda (Leslie Ann Sheppard) enjoy playing together in a garden above the city. Once winter separates them, they must stay in doors, but they still wave to each through 1640391_height370_width560 frosty windows. Brought together one night by Gerda’s grandmother, the two hear for the first time about the Snow Queen, who longs for a little boy to keep her warm. Caught up in a magic spell, Kai is abducted by the Snow Queen and Gerda must embark upon a life-changing odyssey to get Kai back.

I was startled by something that perusing reviews from past years had not prepared me for–composer and lyricist Michael Barrow Smith relies on rock opera for the most powerful numbers accompanying this children’s tale. As the Storyteller, returning Cheryl Lynn Bruce remains the undisputed mistress of ceremonies. However, Smith benefits mightily from the talents of Sue Demel, of the Sons of the Never Wrong, and Barbara Barrow, of the Old Town School of Folk Music, to rock out the arias reserved for the grandmother, the Snow Queen, the Enchantress, and Robber girl. These, by far, are the production’s most haunting and dynamic moments.

Other musical genres bring levity and fun to the proceedings—honky-tonk for Bob Goins reindeer and blues for the gang that waylays Gerda on her quest. But not every musical genre that Smith pulls out of his sleeve is as successful. In fact, the effect can be rather hodge-podge; some moments venturing into Sondheim-esque lyrics subvert direct appeal to a younger audience. Even if those moments are intended for adult consumption, they contribute to the patchwork feel of the overall production.

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Visually, the show still amazes with puppetry designed by Blair Thomas and Meredith Miller. While in charge of most of the puppet performance, as Elves Jackson Evans, Genevieve Garcia, and Nicole Pellegrino bring joyful energy to their storytelling. Curiously, the production lags in demonstrating a stronger emotional connection onstage between Kai and Gerda, so that the stakes can be raised for the story’s loss and radical journey. Whether this is a result of new direction from Jim Corti or just the introduction of Sheppard as a new member to the cast is uncertain, but hopefully it will be rectified in the course of the run. Best friends can’t return if they were never best friends to begin with.

Rating: ★★★

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Review: American Theatre Company’s “Yeast Nation”

 A Mucking Good Time

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American Theatre Company presents:

Yeast Nation

by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann
directed by PJ Paparelli
runs through October 18th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Yeast Nation is an innovative musical production unlike anything I have ever seen before. Greg Kotis (a veteran of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists) and Mark Hollmann (a veteran of Chicago Theatre Building’s Musical Theatre Workshop), the same creators of the Tony-winning musical Urinetown, tell a provocative story about the creation of life based on an absurd premise of single celled yeasts living in a primordial soup. There are no  stories of life before these yeasts; these yeasts are the beginning of time.

yeast-nation-3These vocally gifted yeasts are living under the dictatorial rule of the Elder (Joseph Anthony Foronda), he being the yeast that produced all other yeasts. They are starving yet the Elder forbids them to rise to the top where plenty of nourishing food is available. The Elder believes that his oppression is for the good of all yeasts and life as a whole. He even kills a yeast (Sweet yeast’s father) for disobeying him and eating from the top of the liquid surroundings. The Elder’s son Second (Andrew Keltz), the second in command, sees no sense in his fathers orders. He ventures off to discover and take advantage of all the wonderful things available near the top, such as delicious fulfilling muck. He promises Sweet (the name of the sweet yeast) a new world, not knowing what lies ahead. Second’s engulfment of muck results in the birth of a fantastic pink creature (Stephanie Kim), sparking the beginning of the progress to a new multi-celled organism.

Do not be alarmed if none of this makes any sense – the creators were aware of their own craziness in the foundation of their story and the even more incredible plot. In the beginning I was getting a little nervous as I had no idea what was going on, and then the scary-eyed grey-haired yeast (Barbara Robertson) poked fun at how weird it is to believe in a story about yeasts. Throughout the play the creators slide in small little jokes recognizing the lack of believability and completely insane premise of a society of single-celled yeasts. This is theatre, not school. Have some fun with it.

Each scene is filled with graphic sexual innuendos hidden in Kotis and Hollmann’s brilliant writing. Though tempted to share with you some of these tastefully shocking lines, I would not want to ruin the experience of the live delivery. Considering the depth of this unordinary script and lyrics, I am looking forward to discovering the jokes that were intelligently hidden beyond my comprehension the first time seeing the performance.

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There is no distinct set on stage. The scenery is composed of purple lights hanging from the ceiling and rafters creating Disney-like prehistoric stars. The stage is cluttered with scaffolds and equipment displaying the result of a Broadway-style performance being compressed into the small storefront space of American Theatre Co. This design allows for the yeasts to utilize a variety of heights and abstract placements on the stage, providing the sense of a large production cramming itself into the small set.

The lighting and special effects add the change in atmosphere to each various style of song. The musical variety in this bizarre tale includes a little bit of everything. The style of each song had its own vibe from a tune sang at a church choir, downtown disco, a rock concert, Christian rock, Gospel, rock video and more. I am pretty sure they did a parody of Meatloaf’s music video for “I Would Do Anything for Love.”

Before I even had an idea of what was going on in the plot, I already felt I was watching the beginning of a spectacular new musical. The confusion is part of the fun. The costumes were a little hokey, but the quality of talent on stage combined with the unique incomparable writing by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann is a combination for success. Go see the birth of the next hit musical that you cannot believe someone could imagine to produce.

Rating: «««½ 

Playing at American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago, IL, Thursdays & Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays, through October 18, 2009.

 

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