Review: Peter Pan (360 Entertainment & Broadway Chicago)

     

Now extended through July 10th!!


 

A gorgeous, high-tech canvas of oohs and ahhs

     
     

Emily Yetter (Tinkerbell), Scott Weston (Michael Darling), Ciaran Joyce (Peter Pan), Evelyn Hoskins (Wendy Darling) and Tom Larkin (John Darling) fly off to Neverland in a scene from "Peter Pan". Photo by Kevin Berne

      
threesixty entertainment presents
   
Peter Pan
   
Written by Sir James Barrie
adapted by Tanya Ronder
Directed by Ben Harrison
at Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago (map)
through July 10  |  tickets: $20-$125  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

It’s a gorgeous marriage of a circus tent, whose interior functions like a thrilling Omnimax screen in-the-round, and traditional theater magic, with trap doors and soaring flights that are more than fancy. This British-born production from 2009, which has already delighted Kensington Gardens and San Francisco, should have a happy home in Chicago all summer.

Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) receives a gift from Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce). Photo by Kevin BerneIts in-the-found “panto” spectacle flourishes in a huge white tent pitched in the parking lot of the Chicago Tribune’s printing plant along the Chicago River. There the two and a half hour spectacle regales audiences with glorious 3D and 360-degree projections that, sweeping us along, let us fly above London, explore the jungles of Neverland, dive under the waters around Skull Island, soar to the riggings of Captain Hook’s ship, and tumble through the clouds, accompanied by Peter, Michael, John and Wendy as, harnessed to the apex of the big top, they fly effortlessly above us.

The story they tell, of course, is J.M. Barrie’s inexhaustible novella of the boy who never grew up and the lucky children (including the audience) who get caught up in his adventures with pirates, a crocodile, mermaids and, his greatest adversary, time itself. Peter’s saga inevitably takes us back to our childhood and, just as importantly, reminds us why we had to leave it.

Inspired by the doomed Davies brothers, Barrie wrote a Dorian Gray-like fantasy in which one of the beautiful boys would never age. Peter, a once-and-future serial abductor, recruits Wendy, his latest surrogate “mother,” along with her entranced brothers, to fly with him to Neverland and tell bedtime stories to the lost boys. But Captain Hook, a stunted adult who is just as lost, also wants a mother and will poison Peter and kill the boys to get Wendy.

At the same time playing at being grownups wears thin and Wendy, Michael, John and the orphan lads slowly feel the need to return to reality. For Peter “death would be an awfully big adventure.” For them life is challenge enough.

Faithful to every delightful word in Barrie’s source, Tanya Ronder’s adaptation, abetted by a serviceable score by Benjamin Wallfisch, employs wonderful puppets (the crocodile is every bit as big as its living relatives), highwire flying, swirling swordfights, a superb video backdrop and the audience’s own unleashed imagination to do full justice to this childhood classic.

     
Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) shows Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) how to fly in "Peter Pan". Photo by Kevin Berne Tinkerbell (Emily Yetter) and Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) fly off above London back to Neverland. Photo by Kevin Berne
Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) flies into the Darling family bedroom . Photo by Kevin Berne. Tinkerbell (Emily Yetter) flies above the audience. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Ciaran Joyce, a supple young British actor, makes Peter properly improper as he impetuously bursts from one adventure to another, as if boyhood had no expiration date (and he’s willed it so just to be sure). Just as exuberant but strategically maternal as required, Evelyn Hoskins is a very sensible Wendy, her prudence a counterweight to Peter’s other “girls,” Emily Yetter’s bratty and endearing Tinker Bell and Heidi Bueller’s curiously sensual Tiger Lily. Playing the most threatening (and thus mockable) adults, Steven Pacey is suitably silly, especially in his unseemly popularity competition for Peter. (Guess who gets voted off of this island?)

Lovely touches abound, like the Lost Boys’ indulging in a curious war dance about “killing grownups,” the mother-like puppet Neverbird (animated appropriately by Regina Leslie as Mrs. Darling), and a mermaid duo who try to kidnap Wendy for their own underwater purposes.

When the audience shouts out how much they believe In fairies, you sense the same splendid stagecraft that worked so well in 1904. But here state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology makes it even larger than life and as vibrant a fantasy as memory could make it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
      
  

The pirates of Peter Pan, with Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) in the background. Photo by Kevin Berne

Peter Pan continues at the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago Ave., through summer 2011, with performances Wednesdays @ 2:00pm & 7:00pm; Thursdays-Fridays @ 7:00pm; Saturdays @ 2:00pm & 7:00pm and Sundays @ 1:00pm & 5:00pm. Tickets range from $20-$125, Complete ticket info here.

All photos by Kevin Berne

     
     

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REVIEW: To Master the Art (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Delectable Julia Childs biography feeds the soul (if not your belly!)

 

ToMasterTheArt_198

   
TimeLine Theatre presents
   
To Master the Art
   
By William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
Through Dec. 19   |  
Tickets: $28–38  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Don’t go hungry to see To Master the Art, TimeLine Theatre Company’s sparkling, heartwarming play about culinary icon Julia Child. Director William Brown and co-author Doug Frew have created a masterful, multi-layered experience that excites all the senses. Its tasty imagery and food talk, the loads of fresh ingredients displayed and the onstage cookery that wafts the scent of sauteed onions out to the audience will leave you ravenous.

ToMasterTheArt_187This world premiere covers the decade Child wrote about in ‘My Life in France’, beginning with her first exposure to French food and cookery, when she and her husband, Paul, lived in Paris while he worked for the United States Information Service. We see Child’s sensual pleasure in her first French lunch. We learn with her how to choose vegetables and cook the perfect scrambled eggs. We see her frustrations as she works on the manuscript that would ultimately become the seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

Brown’s staging is impeccable, and his cast first-rate. Though a little young for the part — Child is 39 at the start of the play, and 50 by the time her first cookbook is published — Karen Janes Woditsch has Julia down, voice and mannerisms all exactly right. As her husband, Paul, Craig Spidle appears a bit more than 10 years his wife’s senior, but there’s plenty of sizzle between them. This is a love story, not just a food history.

It also touches on politics. Set in the 1950s, when the Red Scare was in full swing, the play chronicles the difficulties that even Americans abroad had with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Amy Dunlap expressively plays the Childs’ bohemian and possibly Communist artist friend, Jane Foster Zlatovski, persecuted by the witchhunt, and a dramatic scene shows an interrogation Paul Child underwent. We also see Paul’s increasing dissatisfaction with his government overseers. And, sometimes, his impatience with what becomes his wife’s sometimes overwhelming obsession. Spouses of food writers, chefs and other avid cooks will empathize with his heartfelt cry at yet another iteration of onion soup: "How many gallons of this stuff do I have to eat?"

 

ToMasterTheArt_246 ToMasterTheArt_014

You needn’t be a foodie to enjoy this show. But those who love to cook and to eat will find lots to delight them. Designer Keith Pitts has created a quaint and workable Parisian kitchen that forms the backdrop for much of the action, complete with antique stove and pots hanging on the wall. (A culinary friend of mine spotted a ringer in the kitchenware, but it doesn’t matter.)

Terry Hamilton doubles in a delightful performance as Child’s mentor Chef Max Bugnard and her conservative, xenophobic father. Jeannie Affelder gives French fire to Child’s collaborator Simone Beck.

Ann Wakefield portrays the stuffy Madame Brassart, who balks Child’s progress at her cooking school, and wonderfully, Child’s wildly enthusiastic penpal Avis DeVoto. (In a minor flaw, the origins of the correspondence between DeVoto and Child, who had not met when they began writing to each other, is explained only in the program: Child had written to DeVoto’s husband, Bernard, about a magazine article he’d penned about knives — and received an answer from Avis, who had inspired the piece.)  In an excellent piece of staging, Wakefield appears to act out DeVoto’s letters to Child. Juliet Hart also appears in an epistolary role as Judith Jones, the editor who ultimately shepherded Child’s work to print.

Ian Paul Custer, Joel Gross and Ethan Sacks fill out the cast, each ably playing a variety of roles.

TimeLine waited a long time before it commissioned a play — To Master the Art is the first in the 14-year-old company’s history — but it certainly started out with a flourish. Kudos also to dramaturg Maren Robinson and others who provided the excellent information about Child and her world contained in the program and lobby displays.

My only quibble: The show runs roughly two and half hours. It’s tough to sit through such a long, delectably food-centric play with nothing to eat. It ought to be dinner theater. At least, they should serve a snack at intermission!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Free post-show discussions take place on selected Thurdays and Sundays. An hour-long panel discussion will occur on Sunday, Nov. 14.

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REVIEW: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Noble Fool)

 

Fun with spelling

 Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"

 
Noble Fool Theatricals presents
 
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
 
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
book by
Rachel Sheinkin and music/lyrics by William Finn
Directed by
Kevin Bellie, music direction by Peter Storms
Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main St., St. Charles (map)
Through June 13 | Tickets: $29–39, dinner-show packages $46–59 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Can you spell f-r-i-v-o-l-o-u-s? Airy as Wonder Bread, sweet as Gummi Bears, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a fun and unchallenging evening of musical comedy that will get you home well before the babysitter’s deadline and won’t stick you with inconvenient earworms or lingering deep questions. Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, Spelling Bee began with Rebecca Feldman’s sketch C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E for her New York comedy group, the Farm. It came to the Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast" attention of Falsettos composer and lyricist William Finn, who brought on Rachel Sheinkin to help him create a musical adaptation. Opened in 2004 by Barrington Stage Company in western Massachusetts, the musical ultimately became a hit on Broadway, where it played for 1,136 performances. The laughs come from juxtaposition of latter-day life problems, age-old preteen angst and the sentimental nostalgia of the old-fashioned spelling-bee competition.

Kevin Bellie and Peter Storms’ vigorous production for Noble Fool Theatricals is as cute as can be, with a bouncy, talented cast and a lively staging. Spelling Bee runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. On opening night, things stretched out a bit longer when one of the audience members participating in the bee — four volunteers are selected for each performance — proved to be an unexpectedly good speller. Having successfully navigated "catterjunes" (part of the show’s improvisational shtick — it isn’t a real word, so they can accept or reject spellings as needed), he also got through "lysergic acid diethylamide" and had to be eliminated with "xerophthalmiology."

A very strong cast of adult actors aptly plays the competing kids, bringing out their humorous quirks without turning them into cartoons. Especially notable performances come from Samantha Dubin as gawky Olive Ostrovsky, anguished over her missing mom — gone to an ashram in India — and emotionally distant dad; Jack Sweeney as the wide-eyed Leaf Coneybear, rising above his family’s expectations; Cara Rifkin as Logainne Schwartandgrubenierre, a determined grammar-school prodigy urged on by her two gay dads; and Ian Paul Custer as William Barfee, a nasally challenged nerd who spells out words with his "magic foot." Chie Isobe plays uptight overachiever Marcy Park, and Erik Kaiko is Chip Tolentino, the too-confident previous year’s champion. Wonderfully expressive Michael Weber portrays Vice Principal Douglas Panch, increasingly tortured and hilarious as the event goes on. As perky Rona Lisa Peretti, Putnam County’s #1 Realtor and the spelling-bee hostess — reliving her own triumph of the second annual Putnam Co. spelling bee — Liza Jaine solos only briefly, but her powerful backup vocals help hold the show together musically. Randolph Johnson adds a rich note as ex-con Mitch Mahoney, especially in his solo, "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor."

Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"

Though they’re mostly good-humored, some gags uncomfortably straddle the line between colorful characterizations and offensive caricatures, a blemish exacerbated by Bellie’s casting and Kimberly G. Morris’s costumes. Sheinkin wrote in the flaming gay dads and the overachieving Korean kid, but it was Bellie’s choice to cast the only African American in his show in the parolee’s part and Morris’s to drape him in gold gangsta chains. Amusing lyrics in songs such as "My Friend, the Dictionary" and "Pandemonium" make up for the banal tunes of Finn’s mostly pleasant, but typically repetitive score. Don’t look for big song-and-dance numbers. Like everything else about this show, the songs lack heft, and sometimes seem like fillers. Overall, this musical isn’t about the music. Just enjoy it as a lighthearted romp.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Note: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee contains adult language and themes that parents may consider unsuitable for young children.

Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"

    
   

Review: Raven Theatre’s “Hedda Gabler”

Hedda Gabler does the time warp at Raven Theatre

Review by Paige Listerud

Hedda Gabler most often gets the 19th century period treatment, so that it’s eponymous role, an epic role for women, more often than not, is interpreted in stark, severe, neurotic and even sociopathic ways.  (see examples of such augmented portrayals after the fold – including Cate Blanchett and Steppenwolf’s Martha Plimpton.)

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) contemplates her limited and self-limiting options.Michael Menendian, who has waited 20 years to direct this play, has pulled Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler forward to the 1930s. A time when many 19th century restrictions of gender, race, class, and propriety, still retained their grip, and yet had been slightly loosened by the gender role breakthroughs and financial excesses of the Roaring Twenties. This is not your grandmother’s Hedda; we know this Hedda, not from history, but from personal encounters with sorority sisters and Gold Coast socialites. This draws Mackenzie Kyle’s interpretation of Hedda Gabler a little further away from 19th century virago and a little closer to “Gossip Girl.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anything, this Hedda Gabler is an expertly crafted and smooth-running timepiece, with every part so honed, tempered and balanced with the others, it clips along with deceptive grace, lightness, and ease. Menendian, the sterling cast, and adaptor Jon Robin Baitz can take pride in their exertions to update a classic without overreaching. In fact, every actor’s performance is a model of technique balanced with dynamic energy and tension.

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) whiles away the hours.Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler) is a near-perfect blend of boredom and anxiety, exhibiting flippant social grace masking a powder keg of sadism. Ian Novak (George Tesman) humanizes his character’s history-geek ineptitude by not diminishing him to an utter buffoon. Symphony Saunders (Thea Elvsted) and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg) deliver sincerity and intensity without over-the-top melodrama. Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack) portrays evil with the graceful patience of a lazy, sleek cat waiting to spring.  JoAnn Montemurro (Aunt Julia Tesman) is appropriately co-dependent, without being so cloying we do not see her razor’s edge, to be used against any who would threaten her beloved nephew, George. Claudia Garrison (Berta) shows in a few lines a woman who is obsequious, fearful, bitter, and knowing of her mistress.

The pacing is fast; the lines tossed off so consistently, one would think Noel Coward constructed this Ibsen play. Best Comedic Moment goes to Ian Novak, for his pregnant pause and clueless response right after Lovborg, his intellectual rival, has thrown down the gauntlet. The deft and light direction rests on the foundation provided by Baitz’s meticulous adaptation.

They want a piece of her:  George Tesman (Ian Novak), Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler), Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack), and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg).“To make this modern and accessible, we had to go over every line,” said Michael Menendian, “and ask why Hedda was making this choice. Was she an abused or neglected child by her military father? Is she mad? We didn’t want people to feel sorry for her and we didn’t want the audience to wait for her to just go ahead and die already. She has no real focus, no real talent, no real ambition, and no strong desires. She’s got no idea family, no idea of love. She has a crazy notion of what is Romantic. She lacks courage. She has a twisted idea of pleasure or fun.”

Hedda Gabler is indeed a scaredy-cat, but she does manage to express one clarified desire: to have total control over another human being. This well-tempered production inevitably reveals, through its internal balance, the paradoxes of sadomasochism. Hedda wishes total control but is, ultimately, totally controlled. Thea, her rival for influence in Lovborg’s life, seems almost genetically submissive. Still, she demonstrates greater courage than any other character in her willingness to sacrifice marriage, social approval, and economic security. It is, perhaps, overwrought to suggest BDSM themes regarding Hedda Gabler. Yet, while the late Victorian Age was excessively moralistic, it was never innocent. Henrik Ibsen’s crime was to say that in a crowded theater.

Hedda in black “I think that people are amused or fascinated by Hedda Gabler now,” said Menendian. “Not stunned, as they were in Ibsen’s time.” Indeed. I won’t claim that nothing is shocking, but with the breakdown of race, class, gender, and sexuality barriers, the shocks don’t come so hard or so startling. Not to mention, with the steady spectacle of bad behavior the celebrity rich, reality TV, and day and night soaps, we have come a little closer to Hedda, not she to us.

Hedda-Eilert-couch But, putting kink aside, even everyday power exchanges may be too much for a person who wants it all without having to give up anything. The closest Hedda comes to give and take is heightened by her final scene with Aunt Julia, who checks and counters her in as surely as any of the men in Hedda’s life. Their mutual antipathy lies beneath the veiled messages and banal social courtesies they share. Both are playing nice and nobody is fooled for a minute. The sacrifice of truth and authenticity maintains their little détente. If only Hedda could sacrifice something else, hazard something, do something that gives her life weight, value, and meaning—if not absolute freedom. If there is madness here it’s because something’s got to give in this meaningless, safe and conventional existence. This production shows the unbearable lightness of Hedda Gabler’s being.

Rating: «««½

Buy tickets here.  Half-priced tickets available through StyleChicago.com.

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Review – Gore Vidal’s "Weekend"

Weekend

Reviewed by Jackie Ingram

The Chicago premiere of Gore Vidal’s Weekend, directed by Damon Kiely, is pure genius. The 1968 presidential campaign is the setting for this funny, yet politically relevant play. The play introduces us to Republican Senator MacGruder on the weekend he is to announce his candidacy for president, when his son arrives with an announcement of his own.

Weekend_image The strange twists the characters present are funny, politically savvy, and surprisingly in tune with today’s political point of view. The entire ensemble shows off their comedic timing, which I found to be vivacious and fun to watch. All the characters are excellent, my favorite being the funny Janet Ulrich Brooks, a Timeline Company member, as Mrs. Andrews. Her witty words and body language were amazing. I also enjoyed Penny Slusher as Estelle MacGruder – calm, reserved, and powerful under stress. Great stage presence. The rest of the cast includes Mica Cole (Louise Hampton), Ian Paul Custer (Norris Blotner), TimeLine Associate Artist Terry Hamilton (Senator MacGruder), TimeLine Company Member Juliet Hart (Miss Wilson), Joslyn Jones (Mrs. Hampton), Thomas Edson McElroy (Senator Andrews), Sean Nix (Roger), Joe Sherman (Beany MacGruder) and André Teamer (Dr. Hampton).

Amazingly, Weekend shows off a political point of view that, forty years later, still echoes the current issues of today.

Damon Kiely did an excellent job of directing this great cast. Mr. Kiely gave the audience a great show and disappointment will not be on the map.

So come out for a treat of political banter and laughter for two hours and ten minutes of pure entertainment. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a politically fun filled show at the Timeline Theatre Company at 615 W. Wellington in Chicago.

Rating: «««