REVIEW: Carmilla (WildClaw Theatre)

  
  

WildClaw starts the year with fang-tastic Gothic treat

  
  

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

  
WildClaw Theatre presents
  
Carmilla
  
Written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Adapted by
Alyrenee Amidei
Directed by
Scott Cummins
at
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Purist fans of J. Sheridan LeFanu might curl their toes in horror over the liberties taken with his novella “Carmilla in WildClaw Theatre’s latest action-packed production, now onstage at the DCA Storefront Theater. But then, not knowing any LeFanu purists, just revel in this adaptation’s delightful mix of classic gothic style, self-conscious and knowing humor, insightful take on relationships, energetically executed fight scenes (Scott Cummins and David Chrzanowski) and–oh yes–lesbian vampires.

In our Buffy-Twilight-True-Blood saturated culture, you’ve seen vampires, you’ve seen lesbians, you’ve seen lesbian vampires–that’s entertainment. But WildClaw’s production, under Scott Cummins’ direction, cunningly returns audiences to the original dangers of women loving women, plus the wild danger inherent in giving oneself over to love, period.

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront TheatreYoung Laura (Brittany Burch) is on the cusp of womanhood, passing her days at her father’s (Charley Sherman) rural schloss with only her governesses Madame Perrodon (Mandy Walsh) and Mademoiselle LaFontaine (Moira Begale-Smith) for feminine company. Amusing as the older women are, Laura craves a companion for which to socialize. The visiting and slightly amorous General Spielsdorf (Brian Amidei) has a ward, Bertha (Sara Gorsky), who just might fill the bill. However, word of her sinking into a mysterious illness cancels any chance of Laura making her acquaintance and draws the General away to see to his ward’s care. Laura faces her disappointment stoically, as well as the teasing Perrodon and LaFontaine give her on being a prospective match for the General. Living where they are, few options exist from which to choose a mate who could appeal to Laura romantically. She accepts that any marriage might have to be sensibly arranged for her future security more than anything.

During a family outing in the moonlight, a carriage careens by and almost crashes—three strangers emerge from the accident, a veiled woman, a younger woman who has collapsed and a servant in an eye patch. The veiled woman (Erin Myers) seems mysteriously familiar to Laura’s father but she refuses to reveal her identity. She only discloses that she must hurry on to take care of business critical to their family’s welfare, but doesn’t dare to take her weak daughter any further on the journey. Laura’s father offers to take the girl in for the three months the woman requires to secure their future. So it is that Laura becomes friends with the strange and fascinating Carmilla (Michaela Petro), who has seen Laura’s face in a dream, just as Laura has seen hers in a similar dream.

Cummins’ direction strikes a steady and creative balance between building eerie tension and swinging into bursts of action that enliven the storyline and push the plot forward. Beyond the excitement of fight scenes, the play’s interjection of gypsies, either at play or at mourning, work to disrupt the close, fever/dream relationship between Carmilla and Laura, as well as suffuse the play’s atmosphere with foreboding, unrelenting superstition. Superstition is gospel among this play’s lower orders, but its upper class characters are never far from its infecting influence. Dr. Hesselius (Steve Herson) seems at times as helpless as any medieval physician—resorting to bloodletting as part of Laura’s “cure” when she falls under the same wasting illness that takes Bertha’s life.

But more to the point, Burch and Petro successfully capture the delicate sensuality that was an intricate part of 19th century genteel women’s relationships. Even before Carmilla begins to put the moves on Laura, their relationship wobbles along a fine line between friends and lovers. Carmilla may have seduced others, but she invests earnest passion more in the chase than in the conquest. As for Burch, she skillfully renders Laura with all the befuddlement of a young woman who, besides not knowing about the birds and the bees, simply cannot know or imagine the emotional impact overwhelming love can have. Carmilla dominates Laura from the possession of greater knowledge and experience and maintaining the mystery about her.

     
WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre
WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

Aly Amidei’s script has taken the best of LeFanu’s poetic text and interwoven it with a clearer feminist impulse. Carmilla comes across as more of an intellectual in this play than she does in LeFanu’s novella. Carmilla’s story also benefits from Amidei integrating 19th century beliefs about suicide leading to vampirism and the dead needing to be staked down so that they do not rise and prey upon the living. The men who come after Carmilla, the General and the Ranger (Josh Zagoren), strike the exact note of righteous masculinity prevailing against the disorder of a feminine fiend. Going after vampires is not without its humorous moments, though, and these are well played by Herson and Sherman.

Having so much going for it, it’s disappointing when instances of amateurism plague the show. There were times I simply loved Bertha (Sara Gorsky), Carmilla’s earlier prey-turned-vampire, prowling the countryside like a feral beast, only to watch her animality go over the top in other scenes. Carmilla’s occult powers over Henri (Scott T. Barsotti), her competition for Laura’s affections, also strained credibility and made his departure to go hang himself more laughable than convincing.

All in all, though, Wildclaw shows real dedication to intelligent horror entertainment. Audiences won’t be fed the same old vamps but something that evokes the rich subtly of women in close personal relationships. They will also find Charlie Athanas’ special effects and the sound design of Mikhail Fiksel and Scott Tallarida well paired with LeFanu’s language, rounding out Carmilla as a good, solid gothic treat.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

 

     
     

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REVIEW: The Nativity (Congo Square)

  
  

Beautiful to Behold

  
  

Congo Square - The Black Nativity - Celebrating the Birth

   
Congo Square Theatre presents
  
   
The Nativity
  
Written by McKinley Johnson
Inspired by
Langston Hughes
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have been going to the theater in Chicago for over 40 years and Black-themed productions have a special place in my heart since I first witnessed Purlie Victorious! at what was the Monroe Theater in 1969. The power of seeing and hearing the old traditions, colloquialisms, and gospel or blues tinged singing remains with me. This year, I wasn’t feeling the so-called Christmas Spirit in full. The commercials started before I could plow through my Halloween stash of candy and make the turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I got my hallelujah infusion from Congo Square’s production of The Nativity.

Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark as Mary and JosephThis musical and dance extravaganza is written by McKinley Johnson and inspired by one of my favorite writers: Langston Hughes. The plot is the traditional Nativity story of the Visitation from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the adventures that ensued in the birthing of the man known as Jesus.

The Black Nativity, which inspired this work, is one of the sacred plays written by Langston Hughes in the late 40’s and early 50’s as the Harlem Renaissance gave way to a stronger Civil Rights Movement in America. The Black theater had always been a strong presence due to segregation and discrimination. Hughes was always unabashed in his support and pride for Black traditions in music, poetry, and other art forms. Director Aaron Todd Douglas, Musical Director Jaret Williams and Choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff have built a beautiful monument on the foundations laid by Hughes and McKinley.

The combination of dance and spoken word make for a powerful and emotional tribute. Dancers Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark portray the characters of Mary and Joseph. They never speak but project power, emotion and pain with dance. Ms. Turner is a wonder to watch as she portrays the birth pains, terror and exhaustion of travel on the run. If I had not been sitting so close I would wonder if she was held up or manipulated by invisible cords. Her beautiful and expressive face shows innocence, giddy youthful love, fear, and finally a maternal glow. She and Mr. Clark play perfectly off of each other as a couple in love.

Pierre Clark is an amazing high school senior who has perfected the role of Joseph. He emotes the youthful lust and royal bearing befitting a descendant of King Solomon. His acting is wonderful and the protection and joy of fatherhood is beautifully played through his dance moves. The choreography is reminiscent of Capoeira dancing – a blend of dance and martial arts that was forbidden during the slave trade in Colonial Brazil. It is a stunning and innovative take on choreography in a sacred work.

The cast of singing actors in The Nativity is from the ranks of Chicago’s finest actors. John Steven Crowley commands the stage as the Angel Gabriel and the narrator of the story. Alexis Rogers and Jeniel Smith shine as Athaliah and Johashobah. They are best friends at the washing creek and wives the fearsome King Herod. They have some funny and contemporary lines that ring true in modern society as well as ancient times.

Pierre Clark and Kathleen Purcell Turner as Joseph and MaryBlack Ensemble Theater regular, Kelvin Roston Jr., joins Ms. Rogers and Ms. Smith. Mr. Roston brings his handsome and convivial charm to the roles of Tax Collector, Inn Keeper, and Centurion. It is always a pleasure to see him perform.

Dwelvan David is a standout as King Herod. Mr. David’s striking features and imposing projection give him a perfect balance of fierce warrior, cunning politician, and comic foil.

The singing in this play is exceptional and pure gospel. The selections by Jaret Williams are soul-rousing and seemingly tailored to the singing talents of the cast. The moment the piano played I felt that I was ‘back in the day’. A special mention of Melody Betts and Dawn Bless is warranted for their roles of Mother of Mary and Elizabeth. They each have wonderful solos and shine in the roles of mother, confidant, and protectors of the Virgin Mary. Two other highlights are the song and dance combination of ‘Her Way’s Cloudy’ and the appearance of the Three Kings. The costumes are perfection in the choice of fabric and tailoring. (I was really close to the stage). The song ‘You Ought To Try The Lord’ is rocking, as is the ‘get happy in church’ dance by Jon Pierce.

I recommend The Black Nativity as a holiday tradition for everyone no matter your race or religious tradition. It’s perfect for the whole family and as an introduction to musical theater for younger children. Kudos to all of the parents in the audience as this was one of the best intergenerational audiences I have had the pleasure to be in. Happiest of Holidays to Everyone!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ensemble

The Congo Square Theatre production of The Nativity runs through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre,170 N. Dearborn in vibrant downtown Chicago. Please call 312-443-3800 for ticket information.

      
      

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REVIEW: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Steppenwolf)

  
  

All’s fair in love and total war

  
  

Woolf-3

   
  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
   
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by
Pam MacKinnon
at
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $20-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Don’t go to Steppenwolf’s current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf expecting histrionics—at least, not at the level of scene chewing wrought by many other productions or in the famous movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Director Pam MacKinnon, who brought Edward Albee to Chicago for consultation at the beginning of the cast’s rehearsal, keeps a tight, controlled, and calculated rein on George (Tracy Letts) and Martha’s (Amy Morton) endless war. Theirs is a Cold War that begins casually enough with Martha’s little insults at George and George constantly correcting Martha’s language. Of course, their digs, jibes and strategic one-upmanship quickly escalate to a hot war—a hot war that requires an audience in Honey (Carrie Coon) and Nick (Madison Dirks), newcomers to the university George teaches at. One suspects a hot war is what they’ve wanted all along, no matter what the devastating costs to themselves or how many innocent corpses they leave in their wake.

Woolf-1Watch out, Nick and Honey. Who knew university life in a small town could be so fraught with danger? But George and Martha, bogged down in their own marriage and stifled career prospects, show the newcomers a taste of things to come at New Carthage’s institution of higher learning. George’s lack of advancement in the university’s history department gives Martha plenty of ammunition to assault his manhood; while the sexual accessibility of university wives, give Nick and George plenty of excuse to deprecate the whole notion of marital fidelity or professional advancement according to merit.

Happily, MacKinnon’s deliberate, exacting and controlled direction pays off in spades. The casual, understated and fluid way in which George and Martha debase each other or, from time to time, throw sidelong insults at their guests, practically draws the whole audience into the living room—into George and Martha’s “theater of war.” Only having a drink every time George pours a round would increase the feeling of familiarity with this situation and this couple. Once one is in, one is hooked. The cast almost seamlessly builds the tension to the point of no return. Steppenwolf’s production is within a hair’s breathe of perfection, what with Coon and Dirks freshly backing up old masters Letts and Morton at their seasoned finest.

Don’t be taken in by Steppenwolf’s advertising image for the show: Morton projects a Martha considerably more louche and tipsy on the poster than she ever gets to onstage. Onstage, her Martha, just as she boasts, really can hold her liquor; all the better to keep up controlled, savage verbal attacks as the night worsens. She and Nick clearly play “hump the hostess” for George’s cuckolded come-uppance and professional advantage, Martha’s sex appeal downplayed to a bit of cleavage. Thankfully, what Morton does not downplay, but expertly times, is Martha’s gathering, seething resentment at George. As for Letts, his performance pulls George deeply into himself, to instinctively attack from a defensive position, until his rage over Martha’s humiliation of him in front of Nick and Honey becomes too much.

To watch George’s face flush bright red just before an outburst is to know the depth of Letts’ craft and discipline. One does not–one cannot–dismiss George’s threats, no matter how soft-spoken or tossed off they seem. One takes them all the more seriously and feels all the more uneasy once they’re let loose. I’ve heard some say that this production exposes Martha as the greater monster. Not so. Letts’ George is equally monstrous to anything Martha can dish out—he simply chooses to talk softly while he’s figuring out his next move or his next lacerating remark.

As Honey, Coon does daffy drunk girl to perfection. She can go from silly to pathetic in a nano-second and signify both mindless fun and desperation in Honey’s jokes or interpretive dancing. The most vulnerable of all the characters, Honey easily reflects the damage a truly decadent environment wreaks on the naïve. Too clueless to know what is happening, she can neither oppose nor defend herself against the havoc George and Martha have drawn her and Nick into. Indeed, her abandonment by Nick, once Nick begins to try swimming with the sharks, seems almost a foregone conclusion. Coon earns that pathos and at moments steals the show from the other three.

Indeed, only Dirks reveals some blind spots in his interpretation of Nick. Laying low with Nick’s low-key participation the first act, Dirk’s performance really takes off in the second act, building clear camaraderie with George as he first gains Nick’s confidence, shifting into revenge when George betrays it. But Nick’s intentions become cloudy in the third act when, diminished to the humiliating status of “houseboy,” why Nick chooses to stay and wait out the final round between George and Martha becomes a muddled mystery. Nothing in the script explicitly indicates why. But Dirks has to form a clear motivation for that choice and play it distinctly for the audience or the credibility for Nick and Honey’s presence during the last stage of George and Martha’s total war is lost. It’s a small but critical omission in Dirks’ otherwise sterling performance.

Flaw aside, nothing stops George and Martha’s train to destruction. You’ll find few things more riveting this season than Morton’s depiction of Martha’s emotional devastation or Lett’s hint of sadistic control in the final tableau.

Revisit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and you’ll see once again how Albee’s masterpiece not only captures the disturbing dynamic by which some couples love/hate each other, but also how skillfully he grafts America’s Cold War game playing onto the portrait of a marriage. Throughout the play George and Martha’s marriage–marriage in general–is on trial. But so are America’s wars by proxy, its fallacious attempts at nation building and its imperialist misadventures. When will we ever learn that, in the end, whatever we call “victory” just doesn’t make up for the body count?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woolf-2

 

Artists

Cast

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks

 

Designers / Authors / Production

Author: Edward Albee
Directed by: Pam MacKinnon
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
Lighting Design: Allan Lee Hughes
Sound Design: Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn
Stage Manager: Malcolm Ewen
Assistant Stage Manager: Deb Styer
  
  

REVIEW: Winter Pageant 2010 (Redmoon Theater)

 

TV-inspired ‘Pageant 2010’ pales next to previous editions

 

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Redmoon Theater presents
  
Winter Pageant 2010
   
Created and directed by Seth Bockley
Redmoon Central, 1463 W Hubbard  (map)
Through Jan. 2   |  
Tickets: $10–22  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Redmoon Theater’s nearly annual, alternative take on an all-ages family holiday show, Winter Pageant, typically showcases the progression of the seasons and celebrates the return of spring, while avoiding religion, hackneyed holiday themes and Christmas commercialism. This year, alas, it also avoids innovation and runs short on pageantry.

A takeoff on the early-1970s TV sitcom "The Partridge Family," the show, just over an hour long, follows Rita and the Seasons, a family band consisting of Rita (Kasey Foster) and her four children, Summer (Eric Prather), Fall (Alex Knapp), Winter (Carly Ciarrocchi) and Spring (Matt Rudy, played on opening night by understudy Felicia IMG_7127Bertch). It’s 153 years after their ’70s success and the family are now all cotton-wigged, doddering geriatrics — depicted with a full complement of cheap, stereotypical jokes about dimwitted, disabled old people, from shaky Rita in  orthopedic oxfords and pastel print housedress to Summer in unzipped plaid pants to an unfocused Fall with a walker. Still the ruling matriarch of her clan, Rita receives an unexpected package one day, which proves to be a magical box of memories of the group’s heyday that temporarily restores them to youthful vigor.

Each band member then reenacts his or her personal hit. The original music by Mikhail Fiksel, with lyrics by Creator/Director Seth Bockley, takes us on a mini-tour through 1970s musical styles, with Rita’s funk, surf rock from Summer, folk-rock from Fall and Winter and bubblegum pop from Spring, the baby of the family. The songs are bouncy and the singers good — these are the best parts of the production — but the show’s creativity seems to have stopped there.

More intimate than Redmoon’s usual spectacles, this show is mainly set on a small stage with only a few props. It’s all done with artistry, but there’s little here we haven’t seen before. No marvelous new gadgets or impressive puppetry mark this year’s pageant. It features such typical Redmoon tropes as scrolling cantastoria, shadow  puppets, a few rod puppets and some ugly quilted soft toys, which carry out the cartoonish theme of the appliqued fabric backdrop. The glass-headed astronaut costume makes its inevitable appearance, accompanied by a cute space cow and the inexorable bubble machines.

DSC_0981"This year, we have been inspired by the sounds of classic rock and roll, and influenced by vintage cartoons and nostalgic T.V. shows," wrote Bockley in the program. "These forms of entertainment are a common language across generations."

Maybe so, but they’re a tired one. It’s disappointing to see Redmoon, which has produced such magical and creative performances in the past, turning to television for its inspiration, and such tiresome TV at that. Even its star, teen heartthrob David Cassidy, thought "The Partridge Family" was silly and saccharine.

If you’re willing to expose your kids or grandkids to TV-based comedy that mocks the elderly, they’ll likely have a good time. Nostalgic Baby Boomers who aren’t sensitive to digs about aging may enjoy it, too. I’m not sure what’s there for the generations in between, except amusement at the quaintness of the entertainments of their elders and reinforcement of youth’s smug conviction that they’ll never get old.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Choose Thine Own Adventure (Filament Theatre)

An adventure worth choosing!

 

Choose Thine Own Adventure Image 2 (CMYK)

   
Filament Theatre presents
   
Choose Thine Own Adventure
   
Adapted from William Shakespeare by Allison Powell
Directed by Julie Ritchey
at The Underground Lounge, 952 W. Newport (map)
through December 11  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

With its fifth season opener, Filament Theatre Company wanted to explore what a Shakespearean theatre setting might be like in the 21st century. They were inspired by the groundlings who stood in the “yard” of the Globe Theatre to watch Shakespeare’s production, yelling, talking and being boisterous throughout the performance. They asked, “Why not embrace that rowdy, passionate side of the human spirit and perform Shakespeare as the groundlings would have wanted it?” Filament Theatre has done away with traditional theatre elements, tearing down the fourth wall and setting the show in a bar to see what can happen with their production of Choose Thine Own Adventure.

The Underground Lounge provides the setting for Choose Thine Own Adventure. The stage is set to look like a London stage circa the Elizabethean period. There are only a few set pieces, mainly a bench center stage that offers use as it is, as a balcony and as a boat to name a few. The bar atmosphere lends itself to the interaction between the actors and the audience. Pre-show entertainment gets everyone in the mood with music rocking out of the speakers while the actors play various games like ring toss with the audience. It’s rowdy, outgoing, lively fun and festivities that foreshadow what’s to come.

Choose Thine Own Adventure Image 3 (CMYK)As soon as Choose Thine Own Adventure begins, it’s clear that hilarity will ensue. The four person ensemble of Dromio (Marco Minichiello), Antonio (Ped Naseri), Bernardo (Omen Sade) and Rosalind (Mary Spearen) is equally strong and talented as they play both their roles and themselves as characters. The show opens with each cast member reciting various lines of Shakespeare. They ham it up and play it out the audience in a stagey but entertaining manner. It’s then made known that there’s a mix up as to what show is to be performed so the actors turn the choices to the audience. Completely tearing down that fourth wall between the stage and the seats, the audience is brought right into the action as the actors deliver various choices on where the action can go. Depending on the response they receive, Choose Thine Own Adventure can end in at least 20 different ways. Choices include where the scene should take place, what action should occur or whether it should be a comedy or a tragedy.

All four cast members are clearly comfortable playing off the audience and do so confidently. They are great with comedic timing and adlibbing lines for effect. Naseri in particular delivers some hysterically improved lines. Naseri, Sade and Minichiello have each created a unique persona for their character. Naseri cleverly plays into the comedy and the laugh lines. Minichiello excels at playing off and playing to the audience while reciting Shakespeare with skill, and Sade powerful stage presence allows him to fill the space. Spearen holds her own against the men of the cast, inserting her own wit and comedic talent as she plays opposite each man.

Choose Thine Own Adventure Image 1 (CMYK)The cast is fully engaged throughout the run of Choose Thine Own Adventure, which keeps the audience glued to the action, cracking up and laughing out loud for the entire one-hour run time. They are able to adjust to whatever the audience chooses – and then jump right into the action. While it is funny and entertaining, it is still Shakespeare at its core. The cast has a clear understanding of Shakespeare’s plays and delivers quality performances of the actual material while adding the fun and twists.

Choose Thine Own Adventure is both a well-done work of Shakespeare as well as a hilarious good time that’s full of laughs and lively action.  Filament Theatre has truly created an adventure worth choosing! 

    
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Choose Thine Own Adventure Image 4 (CMYK)

Choose Thine Own Adventure plays at The Underground Lounge, 952 W. Newport Ave., through December 11, 2010. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at http://www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets/

   
   

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REVIEW: The Rocky Horror Show (NightBlue)

 

Lewd, crude ‘Rocky Horror’ an interactive event

 

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NightBlue Theater presents
    
The Rocky Horror Show
    
Written by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Chris Weise
Musical direction by
Jason Krumweide
at Stage 773*, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
Through Oct. 31  | 
Tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

I am old. How old am I? I am so old that the first time I saw “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” film, nobody threw toast. Or came in costume. Or talked back to the screen. Or did anything but sit there agape.

The next several occasions I viewed the film went just about the same. The rock opera about young Brad Majors and his fiancé Janet Weiss and their remarkable night with the degenerates "Over at the Frankenstein Place" was as yet unsullied by any of audience-participation shtick that accompanies any showing of the film today. And while the film phenomenon was in full swing by the time when, some years later, I first saw a production of the stage musical that had preceded the 1975 cult movie classic, no one in the audience did anything more than wear costumes and dance in the aisles during the closing reprise of "Time Warp."

I confess I enjoyed both film and play better that way. I don’t mind the toast tossing or the newspaper head covering, but I wish that theaters of both types would offer at least a few showings where they tell the peanut gallery to shut up so the rest of us can hear the show.

On the night I saw NightBlue Theater’s current production of The Rocky Horror Show, several audience members kept up such a running litany of interjections that it became difficult to follow the actors. That’s a pity, because many of them are strong performers, both as actors and singers. It’s difficult to do Rocky Horror without hamming it up too much, but Director Chris Weise and cast do an admirable job of keeping things in bounds.

On the other hand, Rocky Horror has two only slightly overlapping sets of fans — I’ll call them the nerds and the vulgarians. The nerds, among whom I count myself, can explain all the references in the opening "Science Fiction Double Feature" (a terrific song, but Usherettes Irene Patino and Carolyn Ewald could barely be heard over the audience in NightBlue’s production) and further can run through all of the science-fiction tropes creator Richard O’Brien so cleverly parodied throughout the musical. The vulgarians are mainly just titillated by the smut and funny underwear and enjoy being part of the show.

NightBlue, which sells $5 participation kits containing toast, confetti, newspapers and all the other accouterments, aims its production firmly toward the second group. Pre-show host Mark Stickney welcomes Rocky Horror "virgins" The%20Rocky%20Horror%20Show563_MainPicturefrom the audience on stage before the outset and engages them in a highly lewd contest as well as encouraging everyone to shout out during the show.

The production combines elements of both the stage musical and the film. The minimalist set and David E. Walters and Laura Zettergren‘s costumes put an emphasis on the prurient. Musical Director Jason Krumweide leads a fine four-piece band, playing keyboards himself with Ken Kazin on drums, Larry Sidlow on guitar and Donn De Santo on bass, although the volume sometimes overwhelms the singers — some of the women, especially, seem to be acoustically challenged, and several actors were using hand mikes, including, most oddly, Paul E. Packer as Rocky Horror, Frank N. Furter’s homemade muscle man. Packer has the right physique for but he lacks the part’s youthful innocence and sings at too deep a pitch.

Stickney goes on to play Eddie — with a great version of "Hot Patootie," including a great dance sequence with Katherine Cunningham, as Columbia — and Dr. Scott. Jennifer Reeves Wilson‘s choreography in other dance numbers, such as "Don’t Dream It Be It," sometimes seems messy.

Smooth-voiced Corey Mills plays an especially wimpy Brad Majors, which works very well against Erin O’Shea’s robust Janet Weiss. Eric Hawrysz makes a stiffer than usual Narrator. Megan Schemmel is a picture-perfect Magenta.

As mad scientist Frank N. Furter, Michael Bounincontro channels Tim Curry for all he’s worth, bringing little originality to the role, but doing a fine mimicry with a powerful voice. Kevin Buswell‘s Riff Raff has more novelty, if only because he starts out emulating Lurch.

If you’re looking for vulgarly raucous Halloween good times, NightBlue provides them, especially if you enjoy performing more than you like listening.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

*except Oct. 31, which will be at The Elbo Room

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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