Review: Guys and Dolls (Marriott Theatre)

  
  

Holy Rollers, Batman!

  
  

Brian Hissong as Sky Masterson in Marriott Theatre's 'Guys and Dolls'

  
Marriott Theatre presents
  
Guys and Dolls
  
Written by Frank Loesser
Directed and choreographed by
Matt Raftery
at
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Damon Runyon knew Broadway like the beat of his heart—from its sewers to its gospel missions. Those in fact are two of the exotic locales in Guys and Dolls, the always lovable, inexhaustibly right 1950 musical that Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows concocted from Runyon’s delightful short stories. Collected by Loesser in 1932, those good-hearted, slang-filled tales of Broadway sharpies, Rod Thomas as Nathan, Jessie Mueller as Adelaide in Marriott Theatre's 'Guys and Doll's'floozies, high rollers, suckers, and the frustrated reformers who tried to clean up their act are still well worth the read.

For those who don’t know this merry musical, Guys and Dolls traces the very opposite attraction of gambler Sky Masterson for Sister Sarah Brown, a naïve Salvation Army lassie: An unlikely couple, by show’s end the two feel just right together. Another off-beat romance pairs Nathan Detroit, organizer of New York’s "oldest established, permanently floating crap game," and Miss Adelaide, a dimly-lit showgirl frustratedly engaged to Nathan for 14 years, who has her famous, constant cold to show for it.

Joined by such richly-named urban denizens as Harry the Horse, Benny Southstreet, and Rusty Charlie, they all return to full and happy life in this Marriott Theatre revival. If in songs like "Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat" and the title hummer, Frank Loesser found a savvy musical equivalent to Runyon’s wonderful oddballs. Director Matt Raftery has his gritty-rich equivalents too, notably Jessie Mueller as adenoidal Adelaide ("a person could develop a cold"), a wackily evasive Rod Thomas as her hilariously allergic-to-marriage Nathan, and leather-lunged George Andrew Wolff as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a crap shooter who improbably finds religion on a bet.

     
Rod Thomas, Bernie Yvon, George Andrew Wolff, Brian Hissong in Frank Loesser's 'Guys and Dolls' at Marriott Theatre. Rod Thomas as Nathan, Jessie Mueller as Adelaide in Frank Loesser's 'Guys and Dolls' at Marriott Theatre
Rod Thomas as Nathan, Jessie Mueller as Adelaide in Marriott Theatre's 'Guys and Dolls' Abby Mueller as Sarah, Brian Hissong as Sky in Marriott Theatre's 'Guys and Dolls'.

Abby Mueller shows why Sarah is such a rich role: In her "I’ve Never Been in Love Before" and her inebriated "If I Were a Bell" she acts her way through songs that say it all. As her gambling man with a soul to be saved, suave and handsome Brian Hissong brings to "I’ll Know" and "Luck Be A Lady" a rich, unforced baritone that’s pretty persuasive. Playing Sarah’s Samaritan/Salvation mentor, Roger Mueller makes much of his tender "More I Cannot Wish You" and John Lister brings hometown conviction to Big Julie from Chicago (apparently the only thug in New York who carries a gun).

Picturing the period perfectly, Tom Ryan’s urbane set nicely set off the fedoras and loudly colored, wide-lapeled suits that costume designer Nancy Missimi contrasts with the chorines’ pink fluffery. Combine these with this cunning cast and Raftery’s crisp and unconventional choreography and you’ve got a show to lift anyone from the winter doldrums.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Jessie Mueller as Adelaide, Abby Mueller as Sarah - Marriott Theatre

     
     

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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 

     
     

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: My Fair Lady (Marriott Theatre)

Marriott’s ‘My Fair Lady’ loverly, but risk-free

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza (with flowers)

Marriott Theatre presents:

My Fair Lady

By Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe
Directed by
Dominic Missimi
Through February 14th, 2010 (
ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The story of linguistics professor Henry Higgins and the Cockney girl he transforms into a lady may well be the most beloved and best-known musical of all time. Based upon George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion, its original Broadway production in 1956 ran for 2,717 performances and won six Tony Awards. The 1964 film based on the musical won eight Oscars. The musical has had three major Broadway revivals, and a 2001 British production toured both the United Kingdom and the U.S. and won three Olivier Awards. Columbia Pictures has announced an upcoming movie remake.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza vertical You’ve surely seen some version of this musical — if not a professional show, then a high-school or college production or the film. Just listing its popular songs — "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" "With a Little Bit of Luck," "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Get Me to the Church on Time" — will set the tunes ringing through your head. Audiences are hard pressed to keep from singing along.

If you’re one of the lovers, then all I really need to tell you is that Marriott Theatre has produced an exuberant, picture-perfect production of My Fair Lady. Nothing about this show will mar your vision of the musical — from Kevin Gudahl channeling Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins to Nancy Missimi‘s gorgeous Edwardian costumes to Matt Raftery‘s jolly choreography.

If you’re not already an ardent fan, though, nothing about Marriott’s version will challenge your perspective. Dominic Missimi‘s direction breaks no new ground whatsoever. This is "comfort theater" at its safest.

The songs are all beautifully sung, the orchestra is first-rate and the acting never misses. The in-the-round staging works surprisingly well (though I held my breath every time the cast schlepped the office furnishings on and off the stage in the dark).

The cast and ensemble — as one expects from Marriott — do everything right. Heidi Kettenring brings verve to her part as Eliza Doolittle, particularly in her "unreformed" Cockney scenes, making Gudahl’s Higgins seem especially like a stuffed fish. Don Forston makes a feisty Alfred Doolittle (our heroine’s opportunistic father) and Catherine Lord an especially expressive Mrs. Pearce (Prof. Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper); her Scottish accent is a nice touch. David Lively gives a stiff upper lip to Colonel Pickering while Ann Whitney brings dry wit to Higgins’ mother.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring and Ann Whitney

Max Quinlan, as Eliza’s yearning suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, gives full measure to "On the Street Where You Live," and George Keating, Brandon Koller, Christian Libonati and Joseph Tokarz are a cheeky Cockney quartet.

The scene at Ascot, when Eliza is first revealed to the upper crust, is particularly delightful, thanks mainly to some amazing hats and staging that gives them all the display they deserve. Apart from that, though, and the intrinsic worth of live performance over recorded media, you might just as well rent the video.

I found myself thinking of all the things a theater company might do with this brilliant but hoary old musical to shake it up. While it’s probably going too far to set the show in the Loop and give Eliza a Bridgeport accent, a production, however beautiful, that merely follows where others have gone before, forms a sadly lost opportunity. Marriott’s My Fair Lady feels as if it’s set in aspic.

Rating: ★★★½

Note: Dinner packages available.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza & Kevin Gudahl as Higgins