Review: Meet John Doe (Porchlight Musical Theatre)

     
     

‘John Doe’ Gets the Job Half Done

     
     

MJD--Jim Sherman (Connell) and Sean Effinger-Dean (Beany)

  
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Meet John Doe
  
Music/Book by Andrew Gerle
Lyrics/Book by
Eddie Sugarman
Directed/Choreographed by
James Beaudry
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $38  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Nothing sets the tone for Porchlight Music Theatre’s Meet John Doe like its foreboding, expressionist set design (Ian Zywica). Stage right, a bold graphic sticks out from a wall of newsprint: “JOBLESS MEN KEEP MOVING–We can’t take care of our own.” Now, if that doesn’t lock and load your head for a Depression Era period piece, nothing else will. Andrew Gerle (music) and Eddie Sugarman’s (lyrics) musical follows through with ample period perfection–from driven pace, to musical style, to its tough and cocky dialogue. James Beaudry’s direction accents the production’s expressionistic edge, framing the action, whether in crowd scenes or backroom MJD--Karl Hamilton (John Doe) and Elizabeth Lanza (Ann Mitchell)conferences, so that the show’s language hits right between the eyes about our own desperate political and economic plight. Fabricated news stories, populist heroes spun out of thin air, media manipulation of the masses by cynical moguls–and a down and out populace looking for any flicker of hope to lead them. Everything old is new again.

Porchlight could not have picked a timelier musical. In some ways, it contains improvements on Frank Capra’s 1941 film. For one, the musical’s Ann Mitchell (Elizabeth Lanza) is a much tougher, moxie-er, foxier newshound than her original film version played by Barbara Stanwyck. Given the pink slip during her newspaper’s takeover and transition to the New American Times, Ann submits her final column with a fake letter from “John Doe”—a man so sickened by the current economic downturn he threatens to commit suicide in protest by jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. Lanza has the voice, the sass and the legs to pull off her role and she’s not afraid to use them—a point she more than drives home with the song “I’m Your Man.”

Once circulation jumps in response to the letter, Ann restores her job by devising a whole series of columns based on John Doe. Out of a mass of jobless men, she and her world-weary editor, Connell (Jim Sherman), pick out a former bush league ball player to be their John Doe (Karl Hamilton). Hamilton definitely brings that Everyman vibe that they—and we–go for, but it’s his rich tenor voice that awakens sympathy and warmth to John Doe’s reintegration into showered, shaved and employed life once more, with “I Feel Like a Man Again.”

Unfortunately, for all the attention it has gained at Ford’s Theatre in 2007 with seven Helen Hayes nominations and with the 2006 Jonathan Larson Award, Meet John Doe still feels half finished. The first act is a beauty. Beaudry’s direction builds its tension with consummate skill and his taut cast carves its dramatic arc in expressionist stone. From the opening moments, where the terror every newsman has for his job is quite palpable – to John Doe’s escape from his first public speech – the first act is non-stop, smart and tough entertainment. In between, Lanza and Hamilton solidly sketch the growing relationship between Ann and John, while John’s hobo friend, the Colonel (Rus Rainear), adds much needed salt to the proceedings. Finally, even with a limited voice, Mick Weber gives us a smooth MJD--Elizabeth Lanza as Ann Mitchelland seductive menace as D.B. Norton, who sits atop of his new newspaper like an American Silvio Berlusconi, ready to manipulate John Doe’s image to further his political ambitions.

It’s the second act that doesn’t know where to go with this build-up. In part, this has to do with over-reliance on Capra’s plot.  In other sections, however, Gerle and Sugarman’s book diverges from it counter-intuitively. Capra himself changed the ending to his film five times before he settled on its own muddled and unsatisfactory finish. Suffice it to say that suicide, far from being painless, is actually a downer, whether for a musical’s uplifting final moments or for a real-life social movement. Therefore, John Doe’s final self-sacrificing act might make psychological sense for the character, but not for the unity of the crowd after he does it. Act Two contains choice moments, like Connell’s gorgeous reminiscence of his WWI army service with “Lighthouses” or the verbal hits John Doe delivers against Norton’s cadre of privileged, slime-ball cronies. But on the whole, it’s rewrite time once again for this plotline. Time once again for John Doe to re-create himself—let’s hope for his sake, and ours–that that he gets it right.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

MJD--Elizabeth Lanza (Ann Mitchell) and Jim Sherman (Connell)

All photos by Johnny Knight

           
           

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REVIEW: Carousel (Light Opera Works)

Industrial Strength Nostalgia

 

Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 03

  
Light Opera Works presents
   
Carousel
  
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
Directed by Stacey Flaster
at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson, Evanston (map)
through August 29 |  tickets: $32-$77  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Some candies may melt in your mouth, but practically every song in this glorious 1945 gem of heartfelt Americana melts in your heart. Filled with what’s now post-war nostalgia for an even simpler America (a sea town in Maine in the late 19th century), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lovely and loving masterwork is an inspired reworking of Ferenc Molnari’s Liliom, a knowing drama about an abusive husband who’s given one last—posthumous—chance to redeem himself to the wife he abused and the daughter he never knew but still might save.

Maybe because it’s hard to believe in 2010 that a husband can “hit [his wife] so hard and still not have it hurt” (as Billy Bigelow supposedly does to the too trusting Julie Jordan), the seemingly tender plot of this beloved musical Carousel can also register an ugly shock of recognition. It’s nothing like the vicious menace that Jud Fry offers   Laurie and Curly in the earlier hit Oklahoma!  But this is even closer for discomfort–domestic violence Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 01nurtured by Billy’s need to strike out at anyone but at the real threat, the loser he feels he is.

The question of whether carnival-barker Billy Bigelow will find posthumous redemption–by offering a star to the daughter he never knew–seems less important than the fact that soon after this unreformed bruiser returns to earth, the abuser slaps his daughter, as he did her mother 15 years before. If he helps his daughter Louise, it doesn’t happen on stage. And this, though Billy knows that his return to the living (like Jimmy Stewart’s in a film from the same year) is his one chance to make up for the cruelty and crimes that shortened his earthly sojourn–and escape the pangs of hell.

Writing about the recent Broadway revival of Carousel, the late William A. Henry III dismissed the 1945 classic as a musical where nothing important happens when it should and in which a rotter’s reformation occurs after it’s too late to matter.

But that’s the lure that drew Oscar Hammerstein to Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom: We need to believe that, unlike letters, love is never lost.

Refusing to dispute her dependency ("What’s The Use of Wondr’rin’?"), Julie Jordan, a lovestruck Victorian millgirl, clings to her seemingly worthless Billy. In real life, Julie’s dogged devotion to a thug would gain her a worse beating. But the musical’s make-believe, plus the powerful persuasion of a deathless anthem like "You’ll Never Walk Alone," improves on fact–at least until you think of Simpson.

Sturdy and sometimes impassioned, Light Opera Works’ revival – very down to earth and up to heaven, unlike the famous and deliriously lyrical Lincoln Center revival of a decade ago – finds a strong moment at the start: The famous waltz accompanies the millgirls’ happy deliverance from work and riotous escape to the carnival, complete with the title amusement. That–and the passionate “dream” dance duo between Nicole Miller and Todd Rhodes–are superb bookends for a literally moving musical.

Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 05The casting seems made to matter. Cooper David Grodin makes a lean and menacing Billy, with a body language as confident as his tenor and more so than his acting. (He’s trying so hard to be tough that we miss the tenderness that clearly draws Julie to this “bad boy.”) Innocent until ardent, Natalie Ford gives Julie the pole-axed passion that makes this unschooled woman endure so much for her premature prince. But since they don’t connect when it counts–in the wonderful 11-minute "bench scene" that blooms into "If I Loved You"–it’s hard to wish them a second chance.

Ably inhabiting the supporting roles, Elizabeth Lanza enjoys her merry moments as conventional Carrie, a millgirl who enters into a risk-free contract with proper Yankee entrepreneur Enoch Snow (played with gawky rectitude by George Keating). As maternal Aunt Nettie, Winifred Faix Brown makes much of the unstoppable anthem "You’ll Never Walk Alone." Katherine L. Condit as Billy’s true soulmate, the randy Mrs. Mullin, and Jeremy Trager as his nemesis Jigger Craigin suggest the dark side of Billy Bigelow that Julie alone can’t tame. Happily, that doesn’t apply to the musical itself. These songs are surefire charmers and mellow a plot that almost too abruptly changes from flinty New England realism to moonspun and quicksilver wishful thinking. But then “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?”

   
   
Rating: ★★★
     
     

Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 04

Extra Credit:

   
   

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REVIEW: Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Circle Theatre)

One small BIG thrill

 The Men of BLWIT

 
Circle Theatre presents
 
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
 
Book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson
Music/Lyrics by Carol Hall
Directed and choreographed by Kevin Bellie
Music Direction and new arrangements by Josh Walker
Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Thru June 20th (more info)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Whores, hookers, ladies of the evening, oh my! – prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and perhaps the most misunderstood. Circle Theatre presents The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a musical exposing the softer side of the sex trade industry. Based on a true story, a Texas amusement institution has provided adult entertainment over the centuries. During the depression era, pleasure seekers paid for thrills with poultry which led to the nickname, “chicken ranch.” The kind-hearted Michael Gravame and the boys madam, Miss Mona, operates a clean business focused on guest satisfaction. Her well-known establishment has the endorsement and protection of the local sheriff. All that changes, when a television reporter crusades to shut it down. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas isn’t your street corner hooker production, however. It’s your high class call girl with impressive moves and a revolving wardrobe ensuring your fantasy investment reaps multiple benefits.

This show is all about the show. Twenty-five cast members with multiple costume and wig changes dress up this non-stop energetic production. Under the direction and choreography of Kevin Bellie, musical numbers are a visual spectacle. Bellie chooses to make The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas a love affair instead of a “quickie.”  Hookers to TV back-up singers to cheerleaders to reporters, Bellie uses a large number of the chorus in every scene. This choice adds dimensionality to the depth of the songs and dances. Going “Texas-style big” aids a few sound issues. For some of the solo singing moments, it’s hard to hear the lines. During “Little Bitty Pissant Country Place,” there is an awkward duet between Miss Mona and a guy in the band. Cue the chorus! When the whores chime in, the harmony is ecstasy. Whether it’s singing or dancing, the ensemble uses its size to go deeper. The synchronization of the large number of dancers on a small stage kicks it up to the “wow” factor. “The Aggie Song”, in particular, is sexy country-line dancing with an athletic vigor. It’s Dirty Dancing taken to a whole new level!

Anita Hoffman and Noah Sullivan Kirk Swenk, Gregory Payne and the ladies
Sheana Tobey, Snita Hoffman, Sydney genco and Toni Lynice Fountain Noah Sullivan, Christopher Boyd and Jen Bludgen

Along with the huge and talented chorus, principal players add to the entertainment value. Every hooker should be lucky to have a boss like Miss Mona (Anita Hoffman). Balancing maternal urges in a cheeky business, Hoffman commands the stage with a combo of sexy playfulness and compassionate wisdom. Not quite meshing into the frothy ensemble, Toni Lynice Fountain (Jewel) shines with a soulful rendition of the song “24 Hours of Lovin”.  Noah Sullivan (Sheriff Earl Dodd) delivers his irreverent lines with hilarious force. ‘If that three foot man comes back, I’m going to flatten him so he has to roll down his socks to shit.’ Michael A. Gravame (Melvin P. Thorpe) is a smarmy dolt mugging the comedic moment. The issue side-stepping politician, Kirk Swenk (Governor) makes a small part memorably funny. The entire cast whores itself out for the audience’s pleasure.

The extraordinary spectrum of costumes (Jesus Perez) and wigs (Michael Buonincontro) are a 70’s flashback of afro, peasant blouses, and Frederick’s of Hollywood fun. Costumes, cast, choreography; all the lubricated participants make this group orgy a love fest!

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Showtimes: Fridays & Saturdays @ 8:00 pm, Sundays @ 3:00 pm (buy tickets).  Group Rates for 10 or More Available.  Call 708-771-0700 for more info.

Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes includes a ten minute intermission.

 The cast of BLWIT

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Non-Equity Jeff Awards Winners

Looks like there were a few big winners at the Non-Equity Jeff Awards given out last night, including 5 total awards given to Lifeline Theatre for The Island of Dr. Moreau. Another 4 awards were given to Theo Ubique for their intimate production of Cabaret.

Special Non-Equity Jeff Awards were given out to Raven Theatre’s founders – Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro.

Congratulations to all!

 

Non-Equity Jeff Awards Winners

Production – Play
The Island of Dr. MoreauLifeline Theatre

Production – Musical
Jerry Springer – The OperaBailiwick Repertory Theatre
1776Signal Ensemble Theatre

Ensemble
MachosTeatro Luna

Director – Play
Greg KolackcolumbinusRaven Theatre

Director – Musical
Fred AnzevinoCabaretTheo Ubique Theatre Company i/a/w Beverle Bloch & Michael James

New Work
Teatro Luna & Coya PazMachos – Teatro Luna

New Adaptation
Robert KauzlaricThe Island of Dr. Moreau – Lifeline Theatre

Actress in a Principal Role – Musical
Elizabeth LanzaCan-CanCircle Theatre

Actress in a Principal Role – Play
Vanessa GreenwayThe Constant WifeGriffin Theatre Company

Actor in a Principal Role – Musical
Jeremy TragerCabaret – Theo Ubique Theatre Company i/a/w Beverle Bloch & Michael James

Actor in a Principal Role – Play
Sam WoottenGross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar WildeBohemian Theatre Ensemble

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical
Danielle BrothersCabaret – Theo Ubique Theatre Co. i/a/w Beverle Bloch & Michael James

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play
Kathleen RuhlDolly West’s KitchenTimeLine Theatre Company

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical
Jeremy RillJerry Springer – The Opera – Bailiwick Repertory Theatre

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play
Hans FleischmannIn a Dark Dark HouseProfiles Theatre
Ron WellsA Prayer for My DaughterMary-Arrchie Theatre Company

Scenic Design
Michael Menendian & Leif OlsenThe Night of the Iguana – Raven Theatre

Costume Design
Elizabeth Shaffer An Ideal Husband – Circle Theatre

Lighting Design
Kevin D. GawleyThe Island of Dr. Moreau – Lifeline Theatre

Sound Design
Stephen PtacekFaster – the side project

Choreography
Brenda DidierThe Life – Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Original Incidental Music
Victoria DeIorioThe Island of Dr. Moreau – Lifeline Theatre
Gregor Mortis & Mikhail Fiksel A Lie of the MindStrawdog Theatre Company
Kevin O’Donnell The NutcrackerThe House Theatre of Chicago

Music Direction
Joshua Stephen Kartes Cabaret – Theo Ubique Theatre Co i/a/w Beverle Bloch & Michael James

Mask Design
Kimberly G. MorrisThe Island of Dr. Moreau – Lifeline Theatre