REVIEW: Miracle on 34th Street (Porchlight Music Theatre)

   
  

A charming Santa works his magic

  
  

MIRACLE 2010--David Heimann as Fred Gailey and Nicole Karkazis as Susan Walker

   
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Miracle on 34th Street
   
By Patricia DiBenedetto, Will Snyder & John Vreeke
Directed by Christopher Pazdernik
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $38  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Christmas has become so commercialized that we now have genuine shopping holidays that serve as a preamble to one of the most sacred days of the Christian faith. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. I’m Jewish, and even I wince when I see the words "Doorbuster Deals" printed on the same flier as an angel trumpeting the arrival of Jesus.

Miracle on 34th Street - Porchlight Music TheatreValentine Davies, the novelist behind Miracle on 34th Street, saw this commercialization when it was in its infancy. His story is intelligent and effective at satirizing the season. The classic movie adaptation, directed by George Seaton, lives on in the American zeitgeist, in part because of just how strongly the story appeals to our sense of love and compassion over commodities and materialism.  

Porchlight’s somewhat musical version of Miracle on 34th Street isn’t going to go own in history as influencing the minds of the American public, but it’s an entertaining ticket that has some truly charming elements.

And the most charming element of all is the plays’ Santa (Jim Sherman). Sherman’s got the humble magnanimity down. He plays Kris Kringle with both an endearing aloofness and a fiery passion for good and righteousness. Plus, he knows how to pander to the kids in the audience, which doesn’t hurt a bit.

For those that have never seen Miracle on 34th Street, the story centers on Macy’s, in a time before the department store grew to swallow al competition. The store has a new Santa Claus for the holiday season because the last one liked hitting the sauce a little too much. However, this new Santa is quite peculiar. In fact, he takes the whole thing way too seriously, referring to himself as Kris Kringle and claiming his next of kin as Prancer and Blixen.

Still, he’s a damn good Santa, and the customers sure do love him, which makes Mr. Macy happy. Yet, some aren’t so pleased with his success and seek to take him down. When the store’s counselor Mr. Sawyer (Michael Pacas) claims Kris attacked him, Santa is locked away and put on trial.

But it’s not just Santa whose fate is in the air. The fate of little Susan Walker (Nicole Karkazis) and her mother Doris (Christa Buck) also hinges on whether Santa really is Santa. That’s because both have been confronted with a crisis of faith, and if Kris is not who he says he is, then cynicism may just ice over their hearts forever.

   
MIRACLE 2010--Matthew Miles as Mr. Shelhammer and Michael Pacas as Sawyer Miracle on 34th Street - Jim Sherman and Nicole Karkazis
MIRACLE 2010--Christa Buck as Doris Walker and Nicole Karkazis as Susan Walker MIRACLE 2010--Jim Sherman as Kris Kringle horizontal

Director Christopher Pazdernik does a good job keeping the story moving along swiftly. There’s no reason for slow drama to create tension. We know the story, and children only have so much attention to devote to a courtroom drama. The little holiday song interludes between scenes are cute, but don’t do much to really enhance the show. And the big holiday opening number is a high-energy beginning, but it feels too over-the-top for the rather subdued play.

Audience interaction in certain parts is encouraged. In fact, a couple children were pulled out of the audience and got to sit on Santa’s lap in the middle of the play. Afterward, kids are encouraged to participate in a meet-and-greet with the jolly man in red.

Jana Anderson deserves special recognition for designing one of the classiest Santa costumes I have ever seen. This isn’t your usual red felt with cotton fuzz. This is old-world Santa, with a quality coat decorated in a multi-toned print.

Miracle on 34th Street is definitely a kid pleaser, though adult chaperones are sure to enjoy themselves as well. It’s a fairly barebones production. But with such a convincing Santa, the ornamental takes a backseat to holiday spirit and heart.  

  
 
Rating: ★★★  
   
  

MIRACLE 2010--cast

     
     

     
     

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REVIEW: Cats (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Update – now extended through Jan 20th!

  
  

This show’s the cat’s meow!

 
  

The Company in Jellicle Songs. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

  
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James presents
  
Cats  
 
Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber
Book/Lyrics by
T.S. Eliot
Directed and Choreographed by
Brenda Didier
at
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through January 2  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

How to take a mammoth Broadway production and shrink it without sacrificing dramatic quality or big, broad, showbiz appeal? Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre accomplishes that transformation with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, under the lively direction and choreography of Brenda Didier. Didier’s collaborations with Theo Ubique’s Artistic Director Fred Anzevino bore fruit last spring with their Jeff award-winning production of Chess (our review ★★½). Well, it looks like Cats is poised to pounce on the holiday theater season and swipe all the public’s attention.

Elliot Burton as Skimbleshanks. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward PhotographyWhittled down to two hours and only 13 actors, Theo Ubique’s production is a model of economy and stagecraft. But, rather than going along with the old “less is more” meme, it seems Didier’s modus operandi is to give the audience more with less–driving her exuberant cast to make immediate, intimate and vivid connections with the audience while precisely mixing dance elements to build excitement and evoke huge emotional response. Her gamble pays off—Broadway excitement achieved on a stage 8 feet by 22 feet. In the whirlwind of musical numbers, it’s a wonder none of the dancers bump into each other or fall off the stage.

Naturally, it helps to have a super-tight ensemble orchestra under the direction of Ethan Deppe. They are the train that drives this production. Every other layer of theatricality has been preserved as much as possible. Costumes (Matt Guthier, with Michael Buoninconto on wigs) and makeup (Izumi Inaba) maintain the big, Broadway tradition while Michael Narduli’s lighting design reinforces the magic evoked by orchestra and cast. Even the old-fashioned Christmas lights circling up above the stage imply a magical setting to the audience enjoying dinner before the show.

Opening night’s energy started a bit slow. Beginning with T.S. Eliot giving his poetry to a girl in a white dress with a blue satin sash, the initial introduction of “Jellicle Cats” came off a touch stagy until “The Rum Tum Tugger” (Tommy Rivera-Vega) gave the audience a bit of Brando-slash-Elvis for us to remember him by. “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” (Elliot Burton and Maggie Portman) boost the proceedings with a ton of delightful play and buoyant energy. The cast’s build-up to the entrance of Old Deuteronomy (Matt McNabb) really sets the element of magic and mystery; McNabb’s elegant tenor voice certainly confirms his mystical authority among the Jellicle Cats. At the introduction of Grizzabella and the first round of “Memories,” Sydney Charles delivers an unmistakable depiction of feral abandonment and alienation.

Emily Rogers as a Siamese in Growltiger. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography. Rebecca Pink as Jennyanydots in Old Gumbie Cat - Cats - Theo-Ubique-Cabaret
Roy Brown as Munkustrap in Naming of Cats. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography. Tommy Rivera-Vega as Rum Tum Tugger in The Rum Tum Tugger. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

Cats’ theatricality truly soars in the second act. Growltiger (Brian-Alwyn Newland) and Griddelbone (Hillary Patingre) nearly bring the house down with the lush gorgeousness of “The Siamese Italian Aria.” Costuming goes the extra mile by donning the enemies of Growltiger with elaborate Thai headdresses and tunics and the women of the company really get their Siamese on to take out Growltiger. Burton gets a chance to shine again as “Shimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” but his triumph is really the cast’s in their coordinated build-up to the number’s complex and colorful finale. By the time Old Deuteronomy must select the cat that will go on to live another cat life in “the Heaviside Layer,” the audience has become heavily invested in this alternate world and the logic by which it exists. In fact, so long as the music and dance keep going, we might never want to leave.

Theo Ubique has put another feather in its cap (or should I say “cat on its lap”?). Hooray for them and lucky for us to get this furry, magical and whimsical dream against the darkening winter ahead.

  
 
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The Company in Old Gumbie Cat. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

All photography by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

     
     

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REVIEW: The Lady’s Not For Burning (Theo-Ubique)

Eloquent Period Piece Is an Endurance Test

 

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Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents
  
The Lady’s Not For Burning
   
Written by Christopher Fry
Directed by
Fred Anzevino
at
No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Watching Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s production of The Lady’s Not for Burning is like a marathon for your mind. For a comedy, the play is incredibly dense. Written in Shakespearean-style prose, the language is beautifully ornate at times while confusingly verbose at others. The whole thing in the end feels like a riddle, a riddle that goes on and on for two-and-a-half hours.

Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 9 It is this length that serves as the production’s greatest hindrance. The cast is confident and spot on with their comedic timing. The staging is economic given the awkwardly shaped theater space. You would think that such skillful acting and direction would be able to sustain a play. And although The Lady’s Not for Burning charges out of the gate, it eventually loses steam and limps its way to its conclusion.

Written by Christopher Fry in 1948, the play takes place in the Middle Ages, incorporating period style dress and speech. As Arthur Miller would later do with The Crucible, Fry touches on themes relevant to post-World War II society, including the Red Scare. However, unlike The Crucible, The Lady’s Not for Burning is a comedy, and so it uses satire to address these heavy social issues. Unfortunately, the language and plot are so heavy themselves that these social commentaries get lost within the thick of the play.

To simplify it as much as possible, the play is about a soldier (Layne Manzer) who encourages the mayor (J. Preddie Predmore) to execute him by hanging. Conversely, there is an alleged witch (Jenny Lamb) who wants to live. The two have long conversations about their predicaments, which leads to a blossoming love.

There is of course much more to the story than this. Why else would it stretch on for so long? The problem is the other elements of the story are inconsequential. In fact, it’s unclear as to what purpose the other characters serve other than to occupy space and battle wits with one another for humor’s sake.

And humor is the highlight of the play. Even if the piece becomes crushed under its own weight, the humor adds some much-needed levity.

As mentioned, the acting is superb. Predmore plays the mayor with a wonderful mix of overconfidence and idiocy. Manzer embodies the soldier’s sardonic personality, and Drew Longo, as both the depressed chaplain and the town drunk, proves himself to be a dynamic actor and effective clown.

 

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Director Fred Anzevino, who is also the artistic director of Theo Ubique, characterizes The Lady’s Not for Burning as a musical without song or music. While I can understand the sentiment behind the statement, the play is more akin to an epic poem, emphasis on the epic. There is no denying that there is some fine writing here. The descriptions are clever and unique. The imagery painted through Fry’s words is vibrant. But unfortunately, it is this same diction that serves to disconnect the audience from the play. While interesting sentence structure, word choice and figurative language may be pleasant, coherency should be the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, the writing at times impedes understanding.

I’m not sure what instrument from the director’s toolbox could have been employed to help this play. There is little to no downtime between scenes, so there isn’t much that can be whittled away to shorten the piece. In the end, there’s a lot of talent at work here, and there is a lot of potential in the commentary, especially in the play’s first half. But as we stretch into the third act, our patience is tested, and we begin watching our watches rather than the stage.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Ladys Not For Burning - Theo Ubique 4

 

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REVIEW: Sweet and Hot (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Sweet, Hot, and Effective

 

sweet-and-hot-01

    
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents
  
Sweet and Hot: Songs of Harold Arlen
   
Adapted by Julianne Boyd
Directed by
Fred Anzevino
at
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through August 8th  | 
tickets: $25- $45  | more info 

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Director Fred Anzevino and his Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre work best when they keep things simple. Evita and Chess succeeded so well because they masterfully pared down these sprawling musicals to fit in their beloved No Exit Café. Sweet and Hot is driven by a much more minimal concept—the revue involves a sextet of crooners belting out the greatest hits collection of songsmith Harold Arlen. While  Anzevino’s production lacks depth, the tunes are beautifully sung and concisely delivered. Even in a room full of theatre critics on a hot June evening, the romance in the candlelit Rogers Park storefront was palpable.

sweet-and-hot-03Sweet and Hot is Theo Ubique’s most recent addition to a long line of revues focusing on a single composer (past honorees include Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel). Instead of piecing together his own collage of songs, Anzevino relies on a prefabricated set-list gathered by Julianne Boyd. It sounds like an opened time capsule revealing some of the best compositions of the first half of the 20th Century. The talented cast pipes out numbers like “Blues in the Night” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” with a refreshing amount of energy, blowing off any dust these famous melodies have gathered.

To ratchet up the intimacy, Anzevino tosses out most of the band, saving only the piano. Musical director Steve Carson rearranges the pieces to accommodate. The result is delightfully straightforward, imparting the cozy, informal feeling of a couple of friends singing around an upright.

Decked in ‘40s attire, the cast of six all have distinguishable takes on their pieces. The highlight here is Bethany Thomas, who crams the tiny space with passion and bravado during the slow-burning “Stormy Weather” and “The Man That Got Away.” She is joined by the glamorously blonde Stephanie Herman and the adorable Sarah Hayes. The Gentleman Trio comprises of (usually) gloomy Kristofer Simmons, dashing Eric Martin, and the boyish Eric Lindahl. One of the most interesting aspects of the production is that the over-the-top optimistic numbers (“Happy As the Day is Long,” “Get Happy”) all have a tinge of delusion here, giving them a heftier dramatic weight. It isn’t completely nailed down, but it gives them a little subtext. However, the portrayals overall are pretty shallow and mostly rely on jazz club-ish charisma and emotional stakes. There isn’t really any through-line or character in the piece; the cast sort of musters up whatever mood the songs require. A little more dramatic cohesion would make the show feel less like a recital and more like poignant, vibrant theatre.

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Along with lyricists such as E.Y. Harburg, Johnny Mercer, and Ira Gershwin, Arlen (best known for penning the melodies of “The Wizard of Oz”) created a songbook with pieces ranging from the bizarrely comic to the downright tragic. The cast can reach into both reservoirs. For example, Simmons’ rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (a Groucho Marx stand-by) is droll and goofy, while his “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)” is heartrending. Carson even gets his own moment to shine with the charming “This Time the Dream’s On Me.”

Anzevino’s staging occasionally comes off as having actors move just to have actors move, and “Over the Rainbow,” which receives a mention on the poster, could have received a lot more attention. Fortunately, David Heimann’s choreography always infuses energy into the songs. I’m not usually a fan of musical revues. Most of the time, they seem to me like live compilation albums meant to score a few more dollars from deceased songwriters. But with Theo Ubique’s focus on intimacy and simply presenting songs the whole team obviously loves, they come up with a show that has a tangible effect on the audience. This Sweet and Hot is a living experience.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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Review: Theo Ubique’s “Man of La Mancha”

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Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents:

Man of La Mancha

Book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by David Heimann
Music Directed by Ethan Deppe
Thru November 22nd (buy tickets)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

lamancha21 With a plunger for a sword and a bowl for a helmet, Cervantes proclaims he is the knight, Don Quixote. Sounds crazy? Set in a mental institution, the asylum’s newest inmate, Cervantes, must convince a jury of his peers that he is not crazy. Man of La Mancha, then, is a play within a play. Don Quixote tells his tale of slaying dragons (windmills), storming castles (the local inn) and rescuing a lady in distress (the local whore) to prove his identity. From the playwright  (Dale Wasserman), who penned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the man (and No Exit Café owner Michael James), whose father first produced the 1965 Broadway version, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents this musical featuring a woman as the Man of La Mancha.

Instead of going in a Victor/Victoria direction – a  woman believing she is a man believing she’s a different man – this production of Man of La Mancha introduces Danielle Brothers (Cervantes/Don Quixote) as simply a man. Brothers does an excellent job of sustaining that illusion. With a formal elocution, she portrays a man of chivalry and honor from days gone by. There are only sporadic moments of …oh right, Brothers is a woman… during some of the songs. Singing in a range not her norm, Brothers hits the notes but loses a little power on the projection. This is most apparent when she is singing with her sidekick Sancho (Anthony John Lawrence Apodaca). Accompanied by a live orchestra, the cast’s amazing singing leads to involuntary shoulder dancing and humming. “To Dream the Impossible Dream” prompts hope and empowerment within a crazy world. This light hearted musical energy is briefly interrupted with “The Abduction” song. More precise, “The Rape” song is a little startlingly dramatic to the overall enjoyment of crazy people’s antics.

lamancha1 Bringing back dinner theatre, Theo Ubique provides a dinner option for an additional $23. But don’t go for the food! Salad, frittata, and banana bread isn’t a bad three course meal. It’s just not a great one. Go for the opportunity to experience the actors already in character on stage and serving the meal. Apodaca is our repeat server (also served us in the company’s Jeff Award-winning Evita). Apodaca warns us to keep an eye on our silverware around the inmates. During the dinner hour, it’s fascinating to observe the interpretations of insanity. Daniel Waters (Padre) was particularly intriguing (I want to say creepy but that doesn’t sound politically correct) as he sat on the stage rocking. Go crazy and over tip! Chicago actors as servers is one of my favorite charities to support.

 

Rating: «««

 

Aside: The man who is perfectly at home in any asylum, Dick describes the show as crazy, romantic and cool.

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