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: It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play (ATC)

  
  

A Christmas window to an American past

  
  

Chrisopher McLinden, MaryWinn Heider - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC Chicago

  
American Theater Company presents
  
It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play
  
Adapted by Joe Landry
Directed by
Jason W. Gerace
at
American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through Dec 26  | 
tickets: $35-$40  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is something warm and centering about American Theater Company’s perennial holiday offering, It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play. Tom Burch’s scenic design, a variety of warm wood tones set with holiday greenery, grounds the production in its vision of a solid, comforting past. Likewise, Katherine Stebbins’ late 40’s period costumes render a satisfying illusion of our parents or grandparents in their heyday—the ladies’ perfect period hair and makeup set off with bold poinsettia corsages; the men in period suits and sweaters, sporting red and white carnation buttonholers. Just sitting in the cast’s presence can feel as reassuring as Dad’s hand on your shoulder or Mom asking how your day went.

Joseph Anthony Foronda and Alan Wilder - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC ChicagoDirected by Jason W. Gerace, one can slip as easily into the performance as into an old pair of slippers and that might be part of the problem. ATC’s cast has a lot of comfort to give and their meticulous, professional execution of an American classic unquestionably impresses. However, the production also has the tendency to oversell its stabilizing comfort and forget the dramatic verve that drove Frank Capra’s original creation. Thankfully, there are some things here that are even better than Capra’s iconic movie: Christopher McLinden and Mary Winn Heider produce much stronger romantic chemistry between George Bailey and Mary Hatch than Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed did; somehow the confrontation scenes between George and Mr. Potter (Alan Wilder) more potently expose Potter’s amoral duplicity.

But for the most part, the cast could kick up the energy just a notch. Most take on multiple roles and sometimes character distinctiveness gets lost in the mishmash–Frank Capra’s direction excelled in making each character’s personality stand out uniquely. Of course, there are notable exceptions. Steppenwolf stalwart Alan Wilder practically channels the ghost of Lionel Barrymore with his dead-on imitation of Mr. Potter. Joseph Anthony Foronda backs up the production solidly with his portrayals of George’s father, Uncle Billy and Joseph.

But the production offers something more than just a nostalgic replay of Frank Capra’s iconic film; it offers a communal reminder of the way we were—and might still be—at the height of historic uncertainty over what America is or where we are going. The dialogue still delivers the best critique of capitalism in the American dramatic canon. As a humorous anachronistic touch, though, Chris Amos entertainingly plugs neighborhood businesses. Just as in the old days the advertising is interspersed throughout the story. Promoting businesses that sell vegan treats certainly brings us back to the present—it is, after all, about paying the bills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! (American Blues Theater)

  
  

Feel-good theater with a sincere conscience

  
  

Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues Theater Chicago 01

  
American Blues Theater presents
   
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
Written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Marty Higginbotham
at
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

“There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” That comment on the relativity of wealth is just one of many astonishing déjà vu moments in this old-Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues - Montage picturefashioned 1944 “live radio” broadcast of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood Christmas classic directed by the great Frank Capra. (That 1946 film, of course, went on to become, after Dickens’ parable and the Nativity, the most beloved Christmas story that America ever gave the world.)

Now it’s a worthy Chicago Christmas celebration in its own right. American Blues Theater gifts us with a pitch-perfect recreation of WABT’s Christmas Eve presentation of the story of one man’s salvation from suicide by a clumsy angel who wants to win his wings. This powerful blast from the past is performed in impeccably accurate 40s wigs and costumes by an unimprovable cast of Chicago pros at the collective peak of their careers. It’s feel-good theater with a conscience, not to mention a sing-along before and during the radio show and commercial jingles for local enterprises.

The story–about a bad bank (and slumlord/banker, Mr. Potter) that doesn’t “trust” or invest in its struggling community of Bedford Falls but is ready for a foreclosure whenever it needs a cash infusion–has never seemed so contemporary. An embattled savings and loan director, George Bailey (a bumptious and passionate Kevin R. Kelly) and his adoring and empowering Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) clearly make a difference in the world and for the folks around them–even, or especially, when times are hard. That’s when folks without health insurance or with heavy mortgages and bills need all the safety nets their neighbors can provide.

This difference that he makes, of course, George foolishly doubts and denies–until Clarence (incredibly deft John Mohrlein, who ranges from klutzy Clarence to vicious Mr. Kirby at the drop of a script page) shows him how Bedford Falls would have degenerated into Pottersville if George had never been born. The ripple effect, which means that no man is an island, has never been more gloriously depicted than in this reverse “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer/George discovers how his absence would be even more destructive to the world than his presence.

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All of this wonderful “Capra-corn” is presented in a seamless 90 minutes, with piano accompaniment by Austin Cook and ingenious Foley effects by Shawn J. Goudie. The nine-member ensemble deliver crowd noises, sound effects, songs and, above all, sincerity. The result is an authentic radio-days recreation that could pass for the real thing, but, even better, works perfectly as a play. It’s a wonderful show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

  
  

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REVIEW: It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (NobleFool)

  
  

If you love the movie, you’ll adore the play

  
  

George Keating, Emily Leahy, and Anna Hammonds

   
   
Noble Fool Theatricals presents
    
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
        

Adapted by
Joe Landry
from screenplay by
Goodrich, Hackett, Capra, Swerling
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main, St. Charles (map)
Through Dec. 26  | 
tickets: $29.50–39.50  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Frank Capra’s 1946 film, "It’s a Wonderful Life," starring James Stewart, tends to provoke extremes of reaction.

Like the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play offers upbeat, family-friendly Christmas entertainment, in which you can count on a happy ending. If you adore the original, you’ll likely feel the same about the perfectly sweet production at Noble Fool Theatricals in St. Charles. If the movie gives you the bah humbugs, nothing about this live version — which, if anything, amps up the cuteness — will change your mind.

(From left) Jessie Fisher, George Keating and Anna HammondsOf course, there’s no suspense left whatsoever. Except for his one lapse into despair, George remains saintly and forbearing; Mr. Potter remains money-grubbing and evil-minded; and Angel Second Class Clarence still twinkles.

This 1996 stage adaptation by Joe Landry frames the story of small-town do-gooder George Bailey as a 1940s radio show, replacing the movie’s dozens of characters with a cast of five. They portray radio actors performing a Christmas Eve broadcast of "It’s a Wonderful Life" before a live audience.

New fun comes in the logistics of the radio performance on Kevin Depinet’s convincing stage set and the versatility of the actors. Director Rachel Rockwell has assembled a talented cast, who sing such songs as "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "Merry American Christmas" along with performing the play within the play.

Jack Sweeney doubles as sound-effects man and actor, rushing back and forth with earnest fervor. George Keating, as the lead actor portraying George Bailey, offers a resemblance to Stewart with a less laconic style. Dev Kennedy plays the slightly irascible station manager and a variety of voice parts with verve.  Anna Hammonds and Jessie Fisher give freshness to the female roles. Tom Clear ably plays multiple roles, including Clarence, as well as accompanying beautifully on piano, a highlight of the show.

Rockwell’s production shifts the frame’s setting from Manhattan to Chicago and heightens the cuteness factor with some youthful additions, including a schoolgirl singing ensemble with their teacher (Laura Eilers). Two alternating groups of adorable little girls sing a holiday song and stand in as the Bailey children (Emily Leahy, Kelsey Pettrone, Rebecca Roy, Marie Turner and Melissa Wickland and Leikyn Bravo, Megan Graal, Amelia Kuhlman, Annamaire Schutt and Madysen Simanonis).

This production also gives the soundman a young nephew. Stirling Joyner is appealing, but the role doesn’t add much to the plot. The local adaptation also adds some straightforward commercials for Fox Valley businesses to Landry’s comic, period-style advertisements for hair tonic and soap.

 

From left) Jessie Fisher, George Keating and Anna Hammonds (From left) Jessie Fisher, Dev Kennedy, Anna Hammonds and George Keating

Based on Phillip Van Doren Stern’s short story, "The Greatest Gift," Capra’s idealistic film about how one man can make a difference and goodwill can triumph over material wealth was not a great critical or box-office success at its premiere. The New Yorker described the movie as "so mincing as to border on baby talk," and it drew only $3.3 million in ticket sales, $8 million less than "The Best Years of Our Lives," released at the same time. Only after the Capra film’s copyright lapsed in the 1970s and it began to get annual showings on television did it became a favorite holiday tradition, perhaps because, as it aged, it touched viewers’ nostalgic yearning for a period when people’s motivations seemed black and white — whereas its contemporary audiences knew no such time existed.

"It’s a Wonderful Life" is a fantasy, and not just because of the angel. If that’s your taste in Christmas entertainment, you’ll enjoy it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Anna Hammonds and George Keating 

     
     

American Blues announces 25th-Anniversary Season

american blues theatre logo 

announces its

* 25th-Anniversary Season Productions *

 

Includes the regional premiere of Rantoul & Die by Mark Roberts (“Two and a Half Men”) and the new annual Blue Ink Playwriting Contest.

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Pictures from most recent production, critically-acclaimed Tobacco Road

November 26 – December 31, 2010

   
  It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
  Directed by Marty Higganbotham
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kevin Kelly, Ed Kross, John Mohrlein and Gwendolyn Whiteside
   
  From the original director and Ensemble that brought this holiday tradition to Chicago in 2004.  Join the American Blues family as we take you back to a 1940s radio broadcast of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, with live Foley sound effects, an original score, and a stellar cast of seven that bring the entire town of Bedford Falls to life.  From the moment you walk through the doors, you will be transported back to the Golden Age of Radio, and experience the story of George Bailey like never before.  Critics called this production “perfect Christmas theater” and “first class holiday fare.”

 

March 2011

   
  American Blues – Collected One Acts
   
  by Tennessee Williams 
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Dennis Zacek, Steve Scott, Brian Russell, Damon Kiely and Heather Meyers
   
  This one-night benefit performance celebrates American playwright Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday.  These five short plays were selected by Williams’ in the rarely produced 1948 collection entitled “American Blues” to showcase his commitment to the blue-collar worker.  ABT is thrilled to work with directors who have made significant contributions to the success and livelihood of the Blues’ Ensemble theater throughout the 25 years.  ABT will announce the winner of the first annual “Blue Ink” Playwriting prize at this event.

 

April 15 – May 29, 2011

   
  Rantoul & Die
   
  Written by Mark Roberts i/a/w Stephen Eich and Don Foster
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Erin Quigley
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kate Buddeke, Cheryl Graeff, and Lindsay Jones.  With guest artists Steppenwolf Ensemble members Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder.
   
  From the writer and executive producer of “Two and a Half Men” comes a new play with four of the funniest, ugliest,  and most heartbreakingly real characters ever, all crammed together in a grimy little world that makes the local Dairy Queen and Dante’s Inferno seem one and the same.  The Hollywood reporter calls Rantoul & Die “original and devastatingly funny!” Regional premiere.

 

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   from Tobacco Road  (our review ★★★)
   

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REVIEW: American Theatre’s “Its a Wonderful Life”

its-a-wonderful-life-foley

American Theatre Company presents:

It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play

Adapted from the film by Frank Capra
Screenplay written by
Goodrich, Hackett, Swerling and Capra
Based on a short story by
Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Jason Gerace
Thru December 27th  (ticket info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

microphone “Man’s suicide thwarted on Christmas Eve” sounds like a newspaper headline, not the premise of a holiday tradition. In American Theatre’s 8th-annual production, Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the book The Greatest Gift, is re-imagined on stage as a radio play. Though most have seen the movie, the story deals with a distraught businessman George Bailey who eventually considers killing himself so his family may benefit from a life insurance policy. Clarence, angel second class, tries to earn his wings by helping George understand significance of his life. Performed in 80 minutes without an intermission, American Theatre Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is a nicely wrapped holiday gift.

It could possibly be said that Wonderful Life is the original dramedy. The plot is Hollywood’s schmaltzy tragedy with a “feel good” happy ending. Within the story of a suicide attempt, the Capra team has created strong characters delivering memorable lines. “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.”, “No gin tonight, son!”, “Get me…I’m giving out wings.”, “Excuse me! Excuse me! I burped!”, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” and the ever powerful, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The timeless lines invoke the familiar swirl of sentimental tears and chuckles.

Starting with this strong, beloved script, director Jason Gerace adds a cast of nine members to perform the Christmas classic. The stage is the broadcast room at radio station WATC. The radio announcer (Alex Goodrich) begins the show by prepping the studio audience with “on the air” protocols and the importance of the APPLAUSE sign lighting up. Alan Wilder, playing two key roles – Clarence and Mr. Potter, perfectly mimics the original performances of Henry Travers and Lionel Barrymore. As crotchety old Potter, Wilder mockingly delivers, “You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money.”  Later, as Clarence, Wilder innocently requests, “Mulled wine, light on the cinnamon heavy on the cloves. Off with ya lad and be lively!”

Another player that provides dead-on imitations of multiple characters is Jessie Fisher. As man-eater Violet, Fisher seductively says, “What? This old thing? Why I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.” Then Fisher becomes 8 year old Zu-Zu with, “Not a smidge of temperature.” Although Kareem Bandealy is no Jimmy Stewart, his George Bailey gives a complex range of emotions of a dream seeker -small town hero- suicidal- “richest man in Bedford Falls.” Under the well-paced direction of Gerace, the multi-talented cast energetically lassoes the moon.

For a radio play performed as a stage play, the foley artist (the person who creates many of the natural, everyday sound effects for a live radio show) always adds an interesting element of sound production. With this show, this doesn’t seem to be occur. The foley artist (Rick Kubes) is set up on the side of the stage with various tools and techniques to add the sounds to the radio broadcast. Plunging in the river, clattering dishes, blizzard winds – these radio elements are not completely audibly realized. Kubes needs to crank up the volume! And speaking of audio, preshow, the audience is given an opportunity to write audiograms. During radio commercial breaks, the audiograms are delivered by the cast. Holiday greetings are mixed with requests for parking money as the messages are broadcasted to and from audience members. It’s a nice personal holiday touch and cheaper than buying cards.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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