Review: One Flea Spare (Eclipse Theatre)

  
  

Eclipse tightly weaves sexual and cerebral dark comedy

  
  

Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) and Bunce (JP Pierson) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani.  Photo by Scott Cooper

  
Eclipse Theatre presents
   
One Flea Spare
   
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Anish Jethmalani
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Charles’ Law: confine elements together, turn up the heat, watch them expand. Prevent them from expanding, and you watch them burst.

It’s a basic principle of chemistry, and a loose outline for any drama in which characters are trapped together during a crisis. The heat, per se, in Naomi Wallace’s 1995 play is in part the Great Plague that ravaged London during the 17th Century, L-R: Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.and in part the class and sexual inadequacies of her characters: a wealthy couple quarantined inside their home, and the two poor, desperate scavengers who sneak in for shelter.

Twenty five days into a preventative lockdown with boards and a guard (Zach Bloomfield) sealing the couple’s walls and windows, a young servant disguised as a wealthy man’s daughter (Elizabeth Stenholt) and a sailor (JP Pierson) inadvertently extend the couple’s incubation stay from three more days to a full twenty eight. Tensions quickly escalate.

The plague is only the backdrop in Wallace’s story—to some of these characters, it’s more or less a nuisance than a crisis. The real threats within the estate are offenses to each others’ presumptions and social sensibilities: sexual bargaining, class warfare, homoeroticism…One Flea Spare explores these tasty ideas with a steady mix of poetry and prose, absurd comedy and claustrophobic tension.

Even with violence always looming, and several onstage nods to penetration, the experience is more intellectual than visceral. It’s always satisfying to think about, if Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.only mostly fun to watch. Underneath the play’s linear-plot exterior lies a mosaic play’s heart, mashing together styles and tones, sometimes with enlightening results; other times, the product is more convoluted.

Director Anish Jethmalani is able to help keep the show grounded in places where Wallace doesn’t, knowing not to overwhelm the tightly packed text. Her straightforward and precise staging provides clarity to themes that could easily otherwise be murky. The cast does likewise. This small ensemble is exceptional, especially Brian Parry as the proud, aging, and sometimes oafish house master. Susan Monts-Bologna achieves sympathy without victimhood as his oppressed wife, and JP Pierson conveys a sense of maturity that’s found somewhere in between a young man’s idealism and an adult’s surrender to reality.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt, center) introduces herself to William and Darcy Snelgrave (Brian Parry and Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper

 

All photos by Scott Cooper

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Review: The Butler Didn’t! (Metropolis Performing Arts)

     
     

Jewel heist hits familiar farce notes

     
     

'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

   
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents
   
The Butler Didn’t!
   
Written by Scott Woldman
Directed by Brad Dunn
at Metropolis Arts Centre, Arlington Heights (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $35-$43  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

For anyone who doesn’t look closely at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre’s promotional materials for its new comedy The Butler Didn’t!, it would be easy to miss that key little word: “new.”

It isn’t. Resident playwright Scott Woldman’s mansion-crime-caper is a venerable checklist for a theatrical form that’s seen its heyday come and go, unabashedly marking off the requisite +5 doors, spastic pace, ‘uh-oh’ twists, and ludicrous premise. Expectedly, the women are sex-obsessed, the men are idiots, and the title-butler is a combination of both. Splash in a little of Neil Simon and a bit of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, and you have a sense of the universe where con-artist and faux-Brit butler Rick resides.

'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington HeightsThat’s not necessarily a bad thing. Woldman’s play admittedly doesn’t do much to forward farcical conventions; at times, the lack of audacity is frustrating–it feels like some of the stones laid by the show’s nontraditional darker tone are left unturned–but as it stands, his comedy is fit to sit comfortably alongside more recognizable staples.

Rick (Michael B. Woods), alongside his wise-cracking, why-does-the-Hispanic-always-have-to-be-the-landscaper side-kick Ernesto (Richard Perez), is in the final phase of his Job to End All Jobs at the Podmore estate. With his billionaire boss (David Belew, capable, albeit a little young) asleep upstairs, Rick and Ernesto take a crack at the safe, before (of course) all hell breaks loose. Lies cover lies, mischief proceeds mischief, and innuendo occurs just about everywhere else.

Situational comedy is usually dependent on characters’ perception of high stakes in low-stakes circumstances, a discrepancy only seen by the audience. Suspension of disbelief is mandatory when viewing anything that aims for ‘wacky,’ and The Butler Didn’t! sacrifices some of those required stakes by asking for more than its fair share. Say, when Mr. Podmore’s lawyer, Anna (Elizabeth Dowling) goes gaga at the sight of Ernesto, it’s challenging to stay invested. One second she’s a menacing professional capable of shutting down the entire operation; the next, she’s nearly orgasming in her pant suit. In farce, tinkering too much with plausibility downgrades the humor, an offense both Woldman and director Brad Dunn commit.

     
'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights 'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

The silliness is so-so, and like most farces, it could shave off half an hour. When the Metropolis allows itself to push the envelope a bit, however, the true potential of The Butler Didn’t!’ emerges. At the performance I attended, the audience was more receptive to riskier jokes. Perhaps the Metropolis doesn’t want to offend the sensibilities of its ticket holders. Restraint is admirable; big scores require going all in.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

     
     

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Review: Dirty Blonde (Boho Theatre Ensemble)

  
  

Playing dress-up with Mae West

  
  

Anne Sheridan Smith, David Tibble and Nicholas Bailey

   
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Dirty Blonde
     
Written by Claudia Shear
Directed by Steve Genovese
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s only one bona fide cross-dressing scene in Claudia Shear’s romantic comedy, but somehow the entire Bohemian Theatre Ensemble production resembles a drag show. Maybe that’s due to the inherent campiness of its central character, film legend Mae West. Maybe it’s because nearly every other character, past and present, actor or non-actor, speaks with a larger-than-life showbiz dialect. Or maybe it’s because, like a drag show, Boho’s play is saturated in self-awareness, nudging reminders of its own innocence and desires to be bigger, glossier, and sillier than ‘the real thing.’

Anne Sheridan Smith Those aren’t bad qualities for a West send-up. When a handsome young man (Nicholas Bailey) gives a warm little speech to open the show before plucking out an upbeat ditty at his upright piano, expectations for heightened reality and playfulness are set out. But West’s jovial and frivolous journey from vaudeville troublemaker to adored movie quip-machine fills only half of Dirty Blonde. That half is fun to watch. For reasons left unclear, Shear gives equal time to a modern-day romance between two star-crossed West fanatics, and their courtship is where director Stephen M. Genovese’s play begins to tear at the seams.

Celebrating her icon’s birthday, Jo (Anne Sheridan Smith, who does double duty as Mae) visits West’s crypt, where she bumps into Charlie, a skittish loner who works at the New York Public Library Film Archives. Realizing their mutual infatuation, Charlie and Jo become friends.

Ambiguously defined friends, at least, and that’s the crux of their story. When Charlie sneaks Jo into work to get stoned and poke fun at West’s reprehensible latter work, it’s not spelled out whether they’re platonically bonding, becoming each other’s fag & hag sidekicks, or dating. Charlie’s sexuality is intentionally left up in the air (though David Tibble plays him as a raging queen afraid of his own shadow), opening the opportunity for some intriguing, provocative ideas. Pot gives way to a hand on the leg; booze encourages an attempted kiss in a cab.

If the present-day scenes were more thought out and the characters more intricately drawn, they’d have enough legs for their own play. As it stands, their purpose is mostly just to mark time between historical anecdotes and amusing fictionalizations of the eponymous doydy blonde actress. Smith’s workable impression and slick delivery of classic scandalous one-liners makes the West plot watchable, but there’s only so much she can do to salvage Jo, especially opposite Tibble’s mealy depiction of Charlie.

     
Anne Sheridan Smith David Tibble and Anne Sheridan Smith

Which brings us to the cross-dressing scene: the play’s climax, and the most indicative moment of where the production’s faults are. Dramatically, one of three things typically occur when you put a man in women’s clothing.

1) shallow hilarity: video example

2) a solidification of identity, where supposedly ‘unnatural’ acts appears more natural and appropriate: example

3) an additional layering of an already enigmatic character: example

Revealing himself to Jo in a dress, Charlie educes none of these. The moment is stilted and awkward—it’s clear Genovese was going for liberating and cathartic. A more affecting scene depicts a young Charlie donning the gown to serve as a doppelganger for the ailing West at an appearance. Facing the crowds for her, Charlie comes into his own, and favor that’s savory for its dream realized and bitter for its underlying necessity. By this point, we’ve already spent so much time with future Charlie that his character is already defined, and for the most part, unpleasant.

If only the stage and script were built big enough for both queens.

  
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

Nicholas Bailey, Anne Sheridan Smith and David Tibble

 

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Review: Always, Patsy Cline (Fox Valley Repertory)

     
     

Patsy not the star of her own show

     
    

Megan Long as Patsy Cline. Photo by Trademan Photography

  
Fox Valley Repertory presents
  
Always, Patsy Cline
  
Created by Ted Swindley
Directed by John Gawlik
at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $29-$39  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Fox Valley Repertory performs Ted Swindley’s musical tribute to the late country music darling Patsy Cline through a haze, literally and figuratively. For one, generational, tertiary colored lights penetrate fog above the stage, making for a nice effect not unlike watching a “Lawrence Welk” type television show on an analog set. The edges around the singers and band are softened, and the space is filled with nostalgic ambiance.

The other haze is selective memory.

Whatever events that caused the lonely heartbreak that drives Cline’s most moving songs—listen to “Faded Love, ” for god’s sake—as well as the struggles she suffered attaining her success are left deep in the background. No, the stakes in Swindley’s play couldn’t be lower, but one gets the sense that’s where he wants them. Always, Patsy Cline is inspired by the real life letters kept between Cline (Megan Long) Megan Long as Patsy Cline in Fox Valley Rep's 'Always, Patsy Cline'. Photo by Trademan Photography.and her close friend Louise Steger (Kate Brown), and just like pouring over the letters of a departed friend, he only wants us to remember what was good. Cline’s actual biography is a tragic story of a legendary artist dying in a senseless accident at 30. Director John Gawlik’s show is the recounting of a friendship and the joy that carries on after someone passes.

We’re first introduced to Patsy in boots at the Grand Ol Oprey, with Louise miles away seated in a Lucy Chair in her kitchen. Listening to Cline sparks a bit of a love affair in Steger, and she quickly closes the gap.

As the narrator and primary means of moving the play’s light plot forward, Brown is engaging and affable. She makes a balanced duo with Megan Long, countering Long’s authoritative pettiness with broad shoulders, an admiration for cigarettes and coffee, and an unabashed willingness to wiggles, shake, and slap her tuckus. Getting the mostly older audience at Fox Valley Rep to actively engage can be a process akin to pulling dentures teeth, but Brown actually gets a few of them to their feet.

Cline, on the other hand, is written to be viewed from a distance. Long shines in the music numbers with her strong voice and well-trained little yodels and yips, but she’s given little opportunity to be the star any place else. Perhaps the playwright is trying attain some sense of mystique for the title-character. Trouble is, that choice forces Brown’s character to continually grab for exposition instead of action to tell the story about a friendship, and leaves our deep connection to their relationship out of reach.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Kate Brown as narrating friend Louise Steger and Megan Long as Patsy Cline in Fox Valey Rep's "Always, Patsy Cline". Photo by Trademan Photography. Megan Long as Patsy Cline. Photo by Tradman Photography

Always, Patsy Cline: The Sweetest Musical This Side of Heaven runs through May 15th at Pheasant Run Resort, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, with selective Thursdays either 8pm or 2pm.  Tickets are $29-$39 (dinner package: $49), and can be purchased online or by calling (630) 584-6342.  More info at www.foxvalleyrep.org.

All photos by Trademan Photography

     
     

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Review: Sinbad, The Untold Story (Adventure Stage Chicago)

  
  

Update on a classic adventure fantasy takes off, but not high

  
  

(l to r) Edgar Sanchez, Mildred Langford, Dana Dajani. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Adventure Stage presents
   
Sinbad: The Untold Story
   
Written by Charles Way
Directed by Amanda Delheimer
at Vittum Theater , 1012 N. Noble (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $12-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

How relieving, I thought while sitting amongst the kids and pre-teens at Adventure Stage’s Saturday matinee, to hear the words “Baghdad” and “Koran” outside of a contentious context. The children who will see Sinbad: The Untold Tale are part of a generation who’ve never experienced America before its frighteningly mainstream Islamophobic discourse, before every televised use of the phrase “Muslim” was intrinsically linked to controversy and heated debate. Charles Way’s 2006 play, on the other hand, is about as amenable as it gets: a quest story promoting courage and nobility–values that are universal with characters that are relatable.

The intent, as well as the production’s partnership with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, is commendable; the execution is so-so.

Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Mike Ooi (koken) - photo Johnny KnightWay’s tale takes place in the years after Sinbad the Sailor’s epic journeys in “1001 Arabian Nights,” after the adventurer has wrapped up his seventh voyage at sea and called it quits. Retirement doesn’t end the world’s conquests, though, so when a witch plagues his city with a haze that in short-time will kill all adults (“Gas-s-s-s!,” anyone?), the tired and afflicted sailor transfers the hero role to his eager orphan porter (Edgar Miguel Sanchez, physically-grounded and affable as the young lead, alongside Dana Dajani as his travel partner Ittifaq).

From thereon, there aren’t many divergences from the tried-and-true action-for-kids plot. The porter is handed a box containing three items to use in times of peril, a girl sets out to prove herself by tagging along, saving him and becoming a love interest along the way, clever quips abound, etc. etc. It’s all very familiar and sustainable. But assuming the young audiences are not familiar with the original Sinbad stories, they’ll likely trip over a few recurring points. They may ask themselves, “who is that old man that keeps talking about adventures that sound more interesting? Who is Ittifaq’s mom, and why should I care?”

The action works from time to time. David Chrzanowski’s fight choreography infuses some video-game-type elements that, at the performance I attended, garnered lots of positive verbal reaction from the kids and least one audible “that’s cooool!” from a little girl behind me. Others fall comically short, like an attempt at a flying carpet that left two actors’ feet visible under their stuffed faux-legs. Not yet versed in polite restraint, many of the children outwardly giggled during a moment clearly aiming for a different response.

Sinbad: The Untold Tale could easily shave off 15 minutes, and its desired audience is a little ambiguous. As a journey tale, it meets the bar–but it isn’t magic.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Sinbad the Untold Story. Photo by Johnny Knight

Sinbad: The Untold Story continues through April 16th, with 10:30am performances March 22, 24 and 31; April 5, 7, 8, 12, 14 and 15.  Family matinee 2pm performances continue April 2, 9 and 16, with a special evening performance April 8th at 7pm. Tickets are not available online.  Instead, call 773.342.4141.

  
  

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Reivew: Faith Healer (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

  
 

The bleaker side of Ballybeg

  
  

Mary Michell as Grace in a scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman

  
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Faith Healer
      
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Belinda Bremner
At Madison Street Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In one of the four monologues that compose Brian Friel’s harrowing story about a religious performer’s doomed tour, an aging act-manager describes the one constant you experience in northern Europe: dampness. Not wetness per se, he explains, but an unyielding saturation in your clothes and hair and skin. As I sat and listened to the three desolate characters in the moody, reflective Faith Healer, that feeling of heavy saturation is something I identified with.

A scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman The unfulfilled desires and emotional stagnations of Frank, the titular artist (Kevin Theis), his deprived wife Grace (Mary Michell), and his manager Teddy (Oak Park Festival Theatre Artistic Director Jack Hickey) almost sink into your being. The present, as they portray it at least, is more or less a venue for romanticizing, decoding and brooding over the past. We never get to meet the true characters that live out the events leading up to an alluded-to tragedy–only the half-husks remembering the details years later and in some cases, from beyond the grave. It’s all very Irish.

Friel is more recognizable by his perennial hit Dancing at Lughnasa, a play that takes place in the same fictional village but counteracts its grim wallowing with nostalgia and a little whimsy. But this is different universe, one where God is less tangible, and balance or order look like fatalistic notions. Even self-centered, alcoholic Frank is clueless to whether or not he even harbors legitimate abilities. In practice, presenting Faith Healer creates a challenge: how do you stage this play and not have it read as maudlin?

Director Belinda Bremner accomplishes a semi-even tone by highlighting the speeches’ dank and sometimes searing humor. As Teddy, bottle after bottle in-hand, Hickey is so genial he’s heart-breakingly pitiful. Fantastical stories about his deceased dog give way to an account of death and a tear-soaked plea to keep business and personal relationships separate. Likewise, Michell (Grace) plays to the subtext of her relationship with her husband, conscious that every bitter detail is as equally self-destructive to dwell on as it is righteous to point out.

Faith Healer sways off-track in the one place it can’t afford to: the title-character. Theis gets carried away with the weathered Irish persona. His jagged, gravel-heavy dialect work pushes beyond brogue into a realm more comparable to a pirate or Michael Keaton in “Beetlejuice.” The effort for realism shows admirable dedication, but a character as layered as Frank aught to be born from instincts, not donned like a St. Patrick’s Day costume. Theis appears to have those instincts—veiled, they do no good.

 
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

A scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman

Faith Healer continues through April 16th at the Madison Street Theatre in Oak Park, with performances Thursday-Friday at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm.  Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (708) 445-4440.  For more info, go to www.oakparkfestival.com.

  
  

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Review: Hair (Broadway in Chicago – Oriental Theatre)

     
     

Competent ‘Hair’ revels in its own kitsch

       
     

The company from national tour of 'Hair', now playing at The Oriental Theatre.  Photo credit: Joan Marcus

  
Broadway in Chicago presents
  
Hair
  
Book/Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado
Music by
Galt MacDermot
Directed by
Diane Paulus
at the
Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $27-$90  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

If the pre-show announcement–which asks that you please turn on your heart and to please turn off your cell phone–isn’t a clear indication, there’s plenty of proverbial winking in director Diane PaulusHair. From the restrained band volume to the affable, mostly miles-from-the-danger-line interactions between actors and audience, we’re assured from the beginning that the night’s show is going to be professional, going to be groovy, and going to be safe.

Safety, of course, was not what made Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s rock-musical about a tribe of hippies significant. It defied modern standards of decency, blazed new theatrical territory and was written and performed in the chaotic epicenter of the same cultural revolution it advocated.

Today, young, accomplished, svelte actors teeter on some house seats, take a few trips down the aisles, dry hump for effect, and stand naked for the requisite nude The company from national tour of 'Hair', now playing at The Oriental Theatre.  Photo credit: Joan Marcusscene.

But let’s face it. Entertainment value aside, The Man acquisitioned Hair a long time ago. It’s unclear when, but the changeover presumably took place some time after religious groups stopped picketing outside of performances and some time before it began running in theaters named after multi-billion dollar car companies.

During this revival, I thought about what, if any, our contemporary equivalent to the monument Hair was in its heyday for intrepidity and relevance. It’s certainly nothing that can be described in the same genre (in the grand scheme of art and provocation, rock-musicals are now, by more honest billing, lite-rock-musicals). I won’t pretend to romanticize living in the late 1960’s–one, I would not yet exist as a fetus for another two decades and two, it was a notoriously violent era of persecution, uncertainty, hate, and abused authority–but I can appreciate the time’s profound art and its ability to have instigated change.

Yet the national conflicts Ragni and Rado wrote about are still (in some cases, eerily) recognizable. Our current generation is witness to an aggressively protested war, sex as a talking point for political candidates, old white men tossing around the word “communist” to rebuke lefties, and mainstream efforts to legalize marijuana. Then is it fair to wonder if, for all its critical acclaim, this latest resurgence of Hair missed an opportunity to be more than a technically laudable send-up to a counter-cultural artifact?

Lawrence Stallings, Steel Burkhardt and Matt DeAngelis in the 'Hair' National Tour. Photo: Joan MarcusIt’s telling that during opening night’s post-curtain-call “Be-In,” where the tribe welcomes the audience onstage to dance through a reprise, the cast really had to coax people to budge. Some inevitably jumped up, but most smiled good-naturedly while inconspicuously grabbing their coats and eying the exits.

Some rapport never got established.

And some did. As Berger, Steel Burkhardt has the most opportunity to break down the fourth-wall and create a sense of community. He doesn’t as often as I‘d have liked, but his allocated moments for addressing the audience are the most entertaining, substantive parts of the show. Taking a gentle stab at an over-zealous laugher is funny–allowing another to stuff single dollar bills down his suede fringe loincloth is funny and opens up the risk and fun of watching anything-goes action. The rest of Hair could benefit from this sense of happening and authenticity.

Vocally, the ensemble is consistent, and fits well within the folk-rock style Galt MacDermot’s compositions call for. Appropriately cast, these kids look and sound like the embodiment of young idealism and acceptance. At times, they’re sublime.

Billing a show as a revival carries a certain weight, implication and spirit. I’m not confident this latest production lives up to these. But as a fully-produced tribute, it’s at least a good trip.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Center: Paris Remillard as Claude and Steel Burkhardt as Berger, in a scene from the national tour of 'Hair'. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Steel Burkhardt, Hair the Musical, Joan Marcus Paris Remillard, Matt DeAngelis, Hair the Musical, Joan Marcus

Hair continues through March 20th, with performances Tuesday at 7:30, Wednesday 2 and 7:30pm, Thursday 7:30pm, Friday 8pm, Saturday 2 and 8pm, and Sunday 2pm.  Tickets are $27 and $90, and can be bought at www.broadwayinchicago.com.

     
     

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