Review: The Man Who Came to Dinner (Circle Theatre)

     
     

Circle Theatre serves up a hilariously entertaining ‘Dinner’

     
     

Jon Steinhagen, Kieran Welsh-Phillips, Jerry Bloom - Circle Theatre

  
Circle Theatre presents
  
The Man Who Came to Dinner
   
Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by
Mary Redmon
at
Madison Street Theatre, Oak Park (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $20-$24  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

When an infamously demanding radio personality slips on the ice of his dinner host’s front stoop and is forced to take up residence against his will in their home for six weeks, among their various relatives, famous friend visitors and townsfolk, only madness can ensue. Such is the story of The Man Who Came to Dinner, currently playing at Circle Theatre.

Jon Steinhagen, Noah Sullivan, Patti Paul - Circle TheatreThe Man Who Came to Dinner begins with an energetic cast (maybe a little bit too energetic). While the show is a farcical comedy and over-the-top acting is to be expected, some performers, such as Mrs. Stanley (Patti Paul), wife of Earnest Stanley who are hosting radio personality Sheridan Whiteside, teeter on excessive overacting, which can be grating at times. Whiteside (Jon Steinhagen) starts off understated, delivering dryly bitter lines and insults in a rather hilarious manner. As the show progresses, we see Steinhagen begin to talk faster and faster which – though serving as a method of condescension to others – at times become hard to understand and just a tad grating. However, when taken as a whole, Steinhagen does a great job of embodying the character and fleshing Whiteside out.

Lorraine Sheldon (Heather Townsend) is also plagued by use of quick speech, but as she is a larger than life character, a famous actress friend of Whiteside’s who he’s invited to visit, Townsend’s bombasity works here, as Townsend uses not only her voice but her facial expressions and body language to bring Lorraine Sheldon to life.

Whiteside has traveled with his secretary Maggie Cutler (Kieran Welsh-Phillips), who keeps his life in order while he’s indisposed. Welsh-Phillips offers depth to the character of Maggie. She’s a presence on stage, speaking clearly and delivering her lines with confidence and knowledge of her character’s story. Maggie also falls in love while they are stuck at the Stanley residence with Burt Jefferson (delightfully played by Danny Pancratz), a newspaper reporter who has come in search of a story on Whiteside.

Harriet Stanley (Brooke Sherrod Jaeky), an ax murderer masquerading as Mr. Stanley’s sister, Nurse Preen (Katie Kisner), Whiteside’s nurse and Beverly Carlton and Banjo (Jerry Bloom), friends of Whiteside’s who visit, round out the list of standout performances. Jaeky is understated, creating a strange yet fascinating character. Kisner is rather comical as she attempts to deal with Whiteside’s temper tantrums and antics. Bloom takes on characters based on famous character men: Jon Steinhagen, Heather Townsend - Circle TheatreBeverly on Noel Coward and Banjo on Harpo Marx. Bloom does a terrific job of paying homage to these characters as well as bringing his own take to the roles.

The set, designed by Bob Knuth, is quite ornately decorated. From the busily detailed wallpaper to the decorative window treatments to the proper-looking furniture and baby grand piano it’s clear that we’re in the home of wealthy individuals. A grand staircase leads to the home’s bedrooms and French doors lead to an (offstage) library. The attention to detail is exceptional and the set is visually interesting, a perfect backdrop for this performance.

The Man Who Came to Dinner proves to be an entertaining show and ends on a hilarious note that keeps the audience laughing as the actors take their bows.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Danny Pancratz, Kieran Welsh-Phillips, Jon Steinhagen - Circle Theatre

The Man Who Came to Dinner plays at Circle Theatre (1010 W. Madison, Oak Park) through April 3rd. Tickets are $20 to $24 and can be purchases by calling (708) 771-0700.

  
  

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REVIEW: Side Man (Metropolis Performing Arts Centre)

Haunting "Side Man" plays ‘Taps’ over jazz heyday

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Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents

 

Side Man
 
By Warren Leight
Directed by Lauren Rawitz
Metropolis Arts Centre, Arlington Heights (map)
Through April 18 (more info)
 
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Poignant and darkly comic, Warren Leight’s Side Man, deftly bridges the parallels between the downward spiraling personal life of a jazz musician and the diminishing popularity of his genre. Lauren Rawitz’s enthralling production for Metropolis Performing Arts Centre brings the colorful characters of the big band era to vivid life.

SideMan6The autobiographical story, inspired by the life of the playwright’s father, jazz trumpeter Donald Leight, covers 1953 to 1985. Clifford, the narrator, recounts the incidents in his parents’ lives, sliding backwards and forward in time through their tumultuous relationship and declining fortunes.

In jazz parlance, a side man is a freelance musician. Able to solo, play backup parts and blend in with a band as needed, side men play with various groups, taking gigs with whomever needs an extra player. Although often talented and hailed by other musicians, they rarely achieve the public acclaim or income given to the star bandleaders and their regular players.

Even during the heyday of the big bands, it was an unstable life. With the rise of rock ’n’ roll, jazz side men moved from busy professionals to peripatetic performers who struggled to work 20 weeks a year so they could collect unemployment the rest of the time — "jazzonomics" as Clifford calls it. In a moment of foresight, one player, Jonesy, reacts to the appearance of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show: "That kid will do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton."

SideMan5 Side man "Clean" Gene, a trumpeter, lives for his horn. He played with Frank Sinatra and many of the big names of the 1940s and ’50s. When he plays, he’s totally aware of his environment, timed to an instant; offstage, he has to write down everything or he forgets it. He steers clear of the habits that sideline other musicians, the drugs that derail his trombonist pal Jonesy and the womanizing that absorbs his friend Al, another trumpeter. But when "Crazy Terry" throws herself at him, he allows himself to be drawn first into housekeeping with her, and then, when she becomes pregnant, a marriage for which he is ill-equipped.

At first, Gene and Terry seem a good match: "The rocks in her head fit the holes in his," as another trumpeter, Ziggy, puts it. Foul-mouthed but essentially naive, Terry starts out unaware of the realities of Gene’s syncopated life. The talented but unworldly side man remains unambitious, lost in his music, his wife and son rarely foremost in his mind. As the play goes on, she comes to deeply resent this, dropping into a raging depression and alcoholism that he scarcely notices. Young Clifford is forced to parent his parents.

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Beautifully executed, the Metropolis production shines with a neon-lit set by Dustin Efrid and outstanding performances. Ryan Hallahan is a wry Clifford, recounting his haphazard upbringing without self-pity. Michelle Weissgerber plays his mother, ably seguing between the dizzy young Terry and the bitter old woman she becomes. Steve O’Connell’s Gene drifts amiably and bewilderedly through the show, rarely alive except in his music.

Their performances are matched by a talented supporting cast, with the vivacious Debbie DiVerde as Patsy, a round-heeled, jazz groupie waitress; Matt McNabbin a solid performance as the lisping Ziggy; David Vogel as Al, the Romeo of trumpeters; and Michael B. Woods, last seen in Metropolis’ Out of Order (our review ★★★★), in another stellar performance as Jonesy, the junkie trombone player who wavers from urbane sensitivity to crude humor. Jonesy, despite — or perhaps because of — his addiction, seems the one character really in tune with his world. When Terry wonders if Gene will ever "make it" at as a jazz musician, Jonesy, gesturing at the gritty jazz club around them, replies, "Honey, he’s made it. This is it."

Winner of the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play, Side Man ran more than 500 performances on Broadway. Despite its fraught dysfunctional-family scenes and paeans to a vanished world, this is an essentially good-hearted play, never maudlin or sentimental, but full of offhand humor. You need not be a jazz fan to relate to it.

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Little actual music features in this bittersweet play about musicians, though one moving scene, in Act II, sums up the jazzmen’s lives. Gene, Ziggy and Al have — to their disgust — been reduced to playing with Lester Lanin’s orchestra, a society band whose audiences "couldn’t’ swing if you hung them." As they’re packing up after their performance, Al brings out a rare recording, the final trumpet solo of the great Clifford Brown, for whom Clifford was named, and the three stop everything to listen, rapt, to the soulful notes.

 
 
Rating: ★★★★

Side Man contains adult language and themes. Metropolis Performing Arts Centre is two blocks from the Arlington Heights Metra station and free parking is available in the municipal garage behind the theater. Google map of location here.