REVIEW: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (Steel Beam)

        
        

No miracle in Christmas movie makeover

  
  

its beginning will nifong

  
Steel Beam Theatre presents
   
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
  
By Meredith Willson
Directed by
Donna Steele
Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main, St. Charles (map)
Through Dec. 19 |  
Tickets: $23-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Christmas, for many, is all about tradition. Familiar holiday rituals, from the Christmas dinner menu to the ornaments on the tree to time-honored Christmas carols and, yes, those old movies you watch on television every year. That’s why so many theaters play it safe with holiday shows adapted from the same old stuff.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas is another one: the plot of the 1947 Oscar-winning film "Miracle on 34th Street" re-imagined as a stage musical. Steel Beam Theatre’s earnest production offers a big cast full of cute kids and highly attractive adults, and I wish I could say this live show offered better Christmas entertainment than staying home with a bowl of popcorn and watching the movie on TV, but I can’t.

it's beginning 2The familiar Christmas story follows young Susan Walker, who is being reared by her divorced and disillusioned mother, Doris, in a no-nonsense way that doesn’t include believing in Santa Claus. Their comforting pragmatism becomes shaken by Fred Gaily, the ex-marine turned attorney next door , and a bearded fellow who calls himself Kris Kringle, who shocks New York by telling Macy’s customers to shop at Gimbel’s.

The concept, from composer and adapter Meredith Willson, the man behind The Music Man, ought to have a lot of potential. It includes, among other things, a complete Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on stage.

Alas, this is no Music Man, and little about Willson’s score adds to the movie’s story. Few of the songs will leave you humming, and a couple are downright painful. The compacting and stylization necessary to fit the music into a stage-length show robs the plot of spice and leaves it cloying. Elements like a grown man, unknown to her mother, squiring around a little girl and a chauvinistic song about how long it takes a woman to ready herself to go out seem badly dated.

Originally called Here’s Love, the musical opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran less than a year. Its latter-day title change explains why, rather than being central, the show’s namesake tune, Willson’s famous "It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," written in 1951, gets medley treatment. Blended into something called "Pinecones and Holly Berries," it’s one of the better musical numbers, especially in its first iteration with a dance sequence performed by Jamey McDunn as Kris Kringle, Amy Steele as Doris Walker and Will Nifong as Marvin Shellhammer, a Macy’s marketing assistant.

Nifong’s wonderfully comic performance, here and throughout, forms a principal highlight of the show. This number also constitutes one of the brighter spots in Cynthia Hall‘s largely lackluster choreography.

The very pretty Amy Steele sparkles as Doris, but wobbles some in the vocals. A stalwart, smooth-voiced Greg Zawada portrays Fred, while McDunn’s perfect Santa Claus appearance is marred by a curiously tentative and soft-voiced performance. Lauren Freas did a charming job as Susan the day I saw the show; she’s spelled in alternating performances by Christina Zaeske.

Kara Blasingame is sweet as a little Dutch girl, alternating with Kathleen Miulli. Dean Dranias makes a stiff R.H. Macy. Adoniss Hutcheson, alternating with Mikey Taylor; and August Anderson; Brian Burch; Terry A. Christiansen; Haleigh Hutchinson; Andrew Kepka; Katie Meyers; Amy Moczygemba; and Emily Whaley fill out the ensemble.

The centerpiece of the second act comes in a zanily inane number, "My State, My Kansas," which has so little to do with the storyline that it recalls the quirky "Hernando’s Hideaway" of The Pajama Game.  Sadly, it isn’t nearly so good a song as that, though this production points it up with a fun banjo solo by Gary Patterson, playing the judge in Kris Kringle’s insanity trial.

The cast, colorfully clad in Kim Maslo’s nice costumes, clearly has a great time and tries hard. But weak singers exacerbate the score’s dullness. A five-piece orchestra, borne up largely by trumpeter John Evans, does its best to support the vocals but sometimes overwhelms them. Overall, Director Donna Steele’s production fails to give us the pageantry and grandeur necessary to make a parade full of "Big Clown Balloons" come alive.

   
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: What’s to Fear? (Time of Your Life Players)

Music to soothe the tough realities of aging

 

time of your life players

   
The Time of Your Life Players present
   
What’s To Fear?
   
Written and Directed by Avrum Krause
Music/Lyrics by Bryan Dunn
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through November 6  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The Time of Your Life Players, who have just opened What’s To Fear? at the Greenhouse Theater Center, were founded to create musical comedies that speak to the experience and perspective of the elderly, as well as utilize the musical talents of performers ranging 50 to 70 years of age. As any afternoon at their latest production will reveal, these seniors are no slouches at generating fun, communal feeling while delicately addressing the challenges of growing older.

First of all, the band is tight. Music makes the show and Musical Director Julie B. Nichols has honed a cohesive ensemble that could give some paid professionals a run for their money. After-show discussion revealed the collaborative process that the players go through in the creation of each musical. The result is an obvious atmosphere of conviviality and gentle fun, as well as top-notch performances.

whats to fear Written and directed by Artistic Director Avrum Krause, with Bryan Dunn handling music and lyrics, What’s To Fear? explores the personal journey of a man who enters the golden years of his retirement only to have them rudely interrupted. Joe (Larry Hazard) is asked what he will do with his retirement time–“Clean the shed . . . read the Great Books in bed . . . pursue photography, study oceanography.” A world of choices, many that he has put off for years, seem to open before him. Unfortunately, prostate cancer has other ideas, and soon Joe must contend with his fears, the loss of control in his life, and the indignities of his new medical reality.

The production handles its heavy themes with a consciously light touch. Krause and Dunn never forget to bring humor into the scenario, balancing bad news with clever lyrics, whether its facing a ready-to-cut doctor, a male nurse who will show you how to clean your catheter, or contending with those romance and incontinent issues after the operation. In a creative dream depiction of Joe’s fears, Cancer (Mary Gault, also playing Joe’s wife, Ann) comes to Joe dressed as a woman in a black veil. It’s death as both danger and seduction set to a Latin beat.

The average Chicago theatergoer might find Krause and Dunn’s handling of prostate cancer just a little too light. But Krause has gone through this experience himself and knows the value of leavening harsh experience with equal parts philosophy and good humor. Besides, The Time of Your Life Players not only perform in general theater venues, but also take the show on the road to retirement communities, senior living facilities, religious institutions—anywhere they can find their senior audience. Their lead song says it all: “Growing Old is Not for Wimps” and don’t they all know it deeply, one player having survived cancer three times.

What’s To Fear? is that bit of sugar to make the hard times go by easier. What is beautiful about Krause and company is that they establish, through their music, an experience of community against what can be the lonely journey of facing chronic illness and mortality. Music binds their show from beginning to end. If Joe comes out of his ordeal with a deeper appreciation for life, that same music may help us to appreciate the trials and tribulations of growing old. We will be there too, someday.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
    

footer

Continue reading

REVIEW: Blithe Spirit (Steel Beam Theatre)

A spirited show in the suburbs

 

blithe

 
Steel Beam Theatre presents
 
Blithe Spirit
 
By Noël Coward
Directed by Terry Domschke
Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles(map)
Through May 2 tickets: $23-$25  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Theaters may be fewer and farther between than in Chicago, but such companies as Steel Beam Theatre, Writers’ Theatre and Metropolis Performing Arts Centre continue to show that there’s culture in the suburbs. As airy as an unseen specter, Steel Beam’s Blithe Spirit is a frightfully good time.

blithe%20daily%20herald%20text700_rightTerry Domschke directs a delightful production, full of deft touches. Everything from the carefully arranged period drawing-room set to the clever costumes shows a fine attention to detail. Produced in three acts with two intermissions, just as it would have been in at its 1941 London opening, it makes you understand why the original ran for 1,997 performances amid World War II. The timing could be a trifle more brisk, but that’s quibbling.

Noël Coward’s keen and cutting wit shines in this delectable play. The plot centers on novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, a flippant and debonair couple who invite the local psychic for dinner and a seance. They, and their other guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, are skeptics: The evening is merely a ruse to provide background for Condomine’s upcoming book.

But the medium, Madame Arcati, turns out to be the real thing. She accidentally conjures up Condomine’s deceased first wife, Elvira, who refuses to go away again — turning the Condomine household into an otherworldly menage a trois.

Orange-haired, behatted and draped in necklaces, Donna Steele’s marvelous Madame Arcati galumphs around the stage, jingling, in colorful costumes and comic triumph — at turns fussy old woman and majestic mystic — emanating palpable glee at each spiritual manifestation.

R. Aaron Thomann is ever so urbane as Charles, stirring up martinis and placating his live and ghostly wives with wonderful expressiveness. At first convinced he’s going mad, he selfishly comes to appreciate having his first wife’s witty shade on the premises … at least until the dead woman’s real purpose for reanimating becomes apparent.

steel-banner Elvira isn’t the kind of ghost who clanks about in chains and a sheet. She’s ethereally lovely and sharp as knives. Although only Charles can see her, the ghostly lady still manages to infuriate the priggish Ruth, who becomes bent on exorcizing her spirited rival.

Jocelyn Mills plays an effervescent Elvira, glittering with ectoplasmic makeup and always ready with a riposte. Katherine Bettinghaus provides counterpoint as a fuming, but elegant, Ruth, although her emotional scenes sometimes seem a little forced. Meredith Koch offers some fine comic turns as the inept maid Edith, hurrying and scurrying, while Thom Reed and Nancy Kolton fill out the cast as the stolid Bradmans.

Blithe Spirit may be Coward’s frothiest comedy, an ethereal confection of a play. While it’s become something of a period piece, there’s life in the old ghost yet — as Steel Beam Theatre’s hilarious production shows.

 

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

blithe-letting