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.

  
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: Stage Door (Griffin Theatre)

Huge, hugely talented cast gives their all to ‘Stage Door’

 JeanineBowlwareMechellemoeStacieBarraErinMeyerSkylerSchremmpJenniferBetancourt

 
Griffin Theatre Company presents
 
Stage Door
 
By Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman
Directed by Robin Witt
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
though May 23 | tickets: $18-$28 | more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One of the most overlooked and underrated writers of the 20th century, Edna Ferber brilliantly showcased the lives of working women in her keenly stories. In the 1936 Stage Door, Ferber and George S. Kaufman crafted an impressive and charming drama about one such downtrodden group.

MechelleMoeatpaino Set in the Footlights Club, a New York boardinghouse for theatrical women, the story follows the lives of the young contenders of Broadway. Hoping for their big break, they subsist on hope and pennies … and often succumb to temptations away from the stage. For the luckiest, Hollywood lures; for others, love, or security, or pure hopelessness.

No one would write a play like this today, and Griffin deserves tremendous props for producing it all. It’s not that its themes haven’t been covered in subsequent plays — 1991’s I Hate Hamlet, for instance, takes on similar Broadway vs. Hollywood issues — but that the cast is huge. There are 32 distinct characters, played in this production by a cast of 27. Quite literally, they don’t make ’em like this anymore!

What’s more, when I say "distinct characters," I mean just that. Each is skillfully introduced, significant and a unique personality that adds to the heart and spunk of this rich play. Director Robin Witt brings out those traits to the fullest.

Mechelle Moe stars as the central character: plucky, generous Terry Randall, who’s been trying to make a go of it on Broadway for three years. Despite her lack of success, she remains stagestruck. "We live and breathe theater and that’s what I’m crazy about," she says.

Her friends tell her she’s talented, but she hasn’t managed more than a few weeks of work in all her time in New York. The play suggests that’s because she’s not beautiful and doesn’t appear well offstage. It’s perhaps a slight flaw in the script that we never see Terry acting, and can’t judge for ourselves. Moe’s own performance occasionally seems too gung-ho, like the young Judy Garland enthusing about putting on a play in the barn, but she makes the audience care about Terry.

We do get to judge the talents of Olga Brandt, a classically trained pianist who earns a living playing for dance rehearsals. "For that I studied fifteen years with Kolijinsky!" she says in disgust, and solaces herself by playing Chopin on the boardinghouse piano. Janeane Bowlware is both a skilled musician and delightfully funny in this difficult role. (In a nice theatrical in-joke, during most of the play, the piano’s music stand displays sheet music from Show Boat, the Jerome KernOscar Hammerstein musical based on Ferber’s 1926 novel.)

We also see some fine comic turns from Sara McCarthy as Bernice Niemeyer, the house busybody; Erin Meyers as the man-hating Ann Braddock; Ashley Neal and Christina Gorman as Big Mary and Little Mary, a Mutt and Jeff duo; and Kate McGroarty as Pat Devine, a leggy dancer earning her living in nightclub shows.

Other notable performances include Stacie Barra, archly dry as Terry’s cynical friend Judith Canfield, and Jeremy Fisher, strong as Keith Burgess, the earnest young playwright on whom Terry pins her hopes. Lucy Carapetyan is ardent as Jean Maitland, who urges Terry to go with her to Hollywood.

mechellemoeJamesFarruggio Maggie Cain gives us a matter-of-fact Mattie, the boardinghouse’s maid of all work, and Chuck Filipov a subtle performance as Frank, a teenage household helper, while Mary Anne Bowman alternately fawns and frowns as Mrs. Orcutt, a one-time actress turned boardinghouse manager.

Judith Lesser and Mary Poole play a compelling scene as Linda Shaw, sneaking in after a night with wealthy married man, and her unexpectedly visiting mother.

Marika Engelhardt plays Madeleine Vauclain, an actress from Seattle, trying to find a double date for visiting hometown conventioneers — Jeff Duhigg and Paul Popp, as a pair of buffoonish Pacific Northwest lumbermen. Rakisha Pollard is brave as Louise Mitchell, an unsuccessful actress sadly leaving Broadway to marry the boy back home in Wisconsin.

It feels like hair-splitting to point out the few flaws. James Farruggio seems a little stiff as David Kingsley, the moviemakers’ agent who urges Terry to stick to the stage, and Caroline Neff is a bit too detached as Kaye Hamilton, Terry’s desperate and destitute roommate.

D’wayne Taylor doubles as a Hollywood producer and as Terry’s father, a small-town Indiana doctor. He acts well in both parts, but he stands out oddly as the one African American in the company, making me wonder what led Witt to cast him. Color-blind casting works well when it’s done with consistency, but if you’re going to suspend historical accuracy for the sake of diversity, you need more than a token. When all the rest of such a large cast is white, it jars suspension of disbelief to have the sole black person in the show play the father of a white woman.

Filling out the cast, Jennifer Betancourt plays Bobby Melrose, a Southern belle; Morgan Maher is her boyfriend, Sam Hastings, an actor from Texas. Joey deBettencourt portrays Jimmy Devereaux, a confident would-be actor who hasn’t ever auditioned for a professional part; Skyler Schrempp, Susan Paige, perpetual understudy; and Erin O’Shea Kendall Adams, daughter of a family of Boston Brahmins.

Witt stages the show in three acts, with two intermissions — a 1930s convention that always makes feel as if I’ve really been to the theater — and blocks it beautifully, particularly in a wonderful Act III scene that puts nearly all the cast onstage. Marianna Csaszar‘s convincing set, built around a central staircase, helps to give the wide-ranging scenes focus.

Stage Door was the basis of the 1937 film of the same name, but the movie’s plot bears little similarity to this delicious play (which seems rather a meta-joke in itself). Don’t miss this rarely performed gem.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

MechelleStacieCaroline

Continue reading

Review: Village Players’ “You Can’t Take It With You”

You Can't Take It With You

 Village Players Theater presents

You Can’t Take It With You

by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
directed by Jack Hickey
runs through Nov. 22 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

take-it-with-you During hard times, people seek the warmth of the well-known, the solace of childhood memory and happier days. In dining, that means comfort food. The stage equivalent — comfort theater, if you will — arises in low-risk revivals.

So, this season has seen Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theatre, a revival of a 1928 Marx Brothers comedy.  Porchlight Theatre did The Fantasticks, that long-running off-Broadway favorite. Marriott Theatre revived Hairspray, a 2002 Broadway hit based on a 1988 cult film set in 1962. And so on.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart‘s quirky You Can’t Take It With You needs no economic crisis to be worth a remount. Although this 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner certainly shows its origins in the Great Depression, You Can’t Take It With You is one of the funniest and most endearing plays of the 20th century. The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson called the original production "tickling fun," and so it remains.

Everyone should know this play. If you’ve never seen it, take advantage of Village Players‘ fine production in Oak Park.

A little acquaintance with 1930s popular history will enrich your experience, but it’s by no means required. Some understanding of the times in which the play was written may be needed to surmount 21st-century sensibilities, though for its period, You Can’t Take It With You seems quite progressive.

The farce follows the eccentric Sycamore family. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Paul Tinsley), the retired patriarch, has spent 35 years going to college commencements, collecting snakes and avoiding income tax.

His daughter, Penelope (Judith Laughlin), has spent the past eight years engaged in writing never-finished plays. Penny’s husband, Paul Sycamore (Errol McLendon), manufactures fireworks in the basement with help from the family’s lodger, Mr. DePinna (Eric Cowgill). Housekeeper Rheba (Elana Elyce), serves up dinners of corn flakes, watermelon and mystery meat and entertains her unemployed boyfriend, Donald (Ronaldo Coxon), overnight.

_IGP6120

Granddaughter Essie (Zoe Palko) makes candies for sale but spends every spare moment practicing, unsuccessfully, to be a ballerina. As her boisterous Russian dance teacher, Boris Kolenkhov (Jeff McVann), puts it, "She stinks." Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael (Josh Wintersteen), prints up unlikely circulars on a hobby letterpress and plays the xylophone.

The most conventional member of the clan, granddaughter Alice (Jhenai Mootz), a secretary, is in love with her boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Bryan Wakefield), though she fears her beloved but trying family won’t pass muster with his stuffy, Wall Street father (James Turano) and snobbish socialite mother (Katherine Keberlein). Also drifting through the scenes are an irritated IRS investigator (Michael M. Jones), a couple of G-men (Jones and Anthony Collaro), a drunken actress and the Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Courtney Boxwell).

They don’t write plays like this one anymore.

Village Players’ whole cast and crew merit kudos for this nicely presented ensemble piece. Director Jack Hickey paces his actors well, keeping things moving and the comedy coming. As Grandpa, Tinsley is perhaps overly laconic, but Laughlin does an especially sweet job as Penny, and Palko is wonderfully zany as Essie. Coxon offers some rare comic turns as Donald, as well.

Ricky Lurie‘s effective period costumes deserve mention, too, particularly Essie’s absurd ballet bloomers.

It’s tickling fun!

Rating: «««

 

_IGP5952

Review: Goodman Theatre’s “Animal Crackers”

 Ludicrous yet loveable, “Animal Crackers” is rollicking good time

(clockwise from top) Ora Jones (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Ed Kross (Horatio Jamison/Zeppo), Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho), Molly Brennan (The Professor/Harpo) and Jonathan Brody (Emanuel Ravelli/Chico).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit

Goodman Theatre presents

Animal Crackers

Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Now extended thru November 1st (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

 (l to r) Mara Davi (Mrs. Whitehead) and Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit It’s pretty rare that a stage production can be described as both “brilliant” and “stupid.” Theatre quite often views itself as an intellectual pursuit (or at least it would like to), leaving the silly, ridiculous, and trivial to blockbuster movies. The Goodman’s mounting of the Marx Brother’s classic musical Animal Crackers, though, seems to be going for that idiocy much of today’s theatre is afraid to touch. It succeeds beautifully. With an intensely committed cast and under the energized direction of Henry Wishcamper, Animal Crackers is remarkably, refreshingly stupid.

A few coincidences also help make Animal Crackers oddly connected to our current world. First, the musical is premiering against Fake Steppenwolf Theatre’s current show exploring the history of the “Piltdown Man,” a hoax that claimed to be the missing link between man and ape. And both of these shows now have an interesting new relevance with last week’s announcement concerning the discovery of the oldest known human ancestor, “Ardi.” Now Animal Crackers doesn’t trouble  itself with Darwin, biology, or the scientific method; instead, it lambastes the scientific community and high society with a keen sense of farce that could only come Production_06from the Marx Brothers. There is a silent The Professor (Molly Brennan in the role created by Harpo), whose subject of study is never revealed, besides his penchant for chasing every woman in the room. Then there is the wise-cracking African explorer Captain Spaulding (Joey Slotnick with Groucho’s signature mustache and cigar), who claims that his retirement would be his greatest contribution to science. Along with the scheming musician Emanuel Ravelli (Jonathan Brody in Chico’s role), the group wrecks havoc among a group of painters, newspaper columnists, debutants, art collectors, and a few lovers. The musical wasn’t produced for over 50 years after the Marx Brothers’ Broadway original and is still a very rare sight for theatre audiences. Wishcamper’s revival proves that Animal Crackers still has spirit, even though the last Marx Brother died 30 years ago.

Production_05 Production_07 Production_09

The big question I had was if Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody would just be doing a simple imitation or inventing the characters anew. The end result is a hefty portion of both. Harpo, Groucho, and Chico are reproduced on stage, but the performers find plenty of new material within the script. At one point, Spaulding performs a Production_11sarcastic homage to last season’s O’Neill festival. At another point, The Professor whips out a rifle from his coat and shoots wildly at the orchestra and the ceiling, causing several plush ducks to fall onto the stage. Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody never miss a comic beat, and they will not hesitate to chastise the audience if there’s not enough laughter (“The Addam’s Family isn’t in town till November”). The work of clowning director Paul Kalina is very clear. There are hilarious comic bits with hats, playing cards, tables, stuff shoved into The Professor’s jacket, paintings, ladders, the list goes on and on.

  Production_03Wishcamper cast all of the parts with only nine actors, which swells the madness of the script to another level. The lovers, devious debutants, and other members of high society that are constantly insulted and/or hit on by Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody are all tightly performed. However, the play’s plot, which serves as more of a frame for the Marxs’ antics than a real storyline, becomes a bit tiring by the second act. Shaving the run time down would definitely help the show pop a bit more.

Wishcamper and his cast confirm that Animal Crackers can be much more than just a device for the original performers. With their spirited vitality, they thoroughly push the musical’s farce, ridiculousness, and, yes, even its stupidity.

Rating: «««

Production_10

 

 

Continue reading