Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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REVIEW: Travels With My Aunt (Writers’ Theatre)

     
     

‘Travels’ a fun journey if a dated theme

     
     

Jeremy Sher, Sean Fortunato, LaShawn Banks and John Hoogenakker in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Travels With My Aunt
  
Adapted by Giles Havergal
From
novel by Graham Greene
Directed by
Stuart Carden
Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon, Glencoe (map)
Through March 27  | 
tickets: $45–60 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Written at the height of the "turn on, tune in, drop out" era, Graham Greene’s 1969 novel, "Travels with My Aunt",now being staged in a whimsical, well-theatrical adaption by Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, has not aged well. And not only does its theme — a decorously straight-laced man discovering the enlightening aspects of kicking off the traces of comfortably respectable morality — come across as dated in these straitened times, when comfort, respectability and morality seem both highly desirable and all too rare. but the notoriously philandering Greene’s depiction of women is unflattering, chauvinistic and antediluvian in the extreme.

Sean Fortunato and John Hoogenakke in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.There are four female characters of any significance in Greene’s novel, and all but one of them is relentlessly pursuing a man. First and foremost, we have Aunt Augusta — who for all her vigorous unconventionality, can’t travel without a man beside her — bent on reuniting with Mr. Visconti, the war criminal who has already once relieved her of a fortune. Then, there’s the hippie girl Tooley, bound for Kathmandu in the wake of a boyfriend who walked out on her in anger because she got pregnant. And Miss Patterson, so taken with her brief encounter with a married man that she’s spent her lifetime drooping beside his grave. Only Miss Keene, a kind of wistfully idealistic figure in the novel, holds back from degrading herself for the sake of a man, and that seems mainly because she’s too timid to do otherwise.

In his clever, 1989 theatrical adaptation, Giles Havergal tries to solve this flaw by doing away with women altogether: The female characters are still there, but they’re all played by men. Four male actors, identically clad in three-piece, gray, pin-striped suits and derby hats, portray some 25 characters, male and female, minor and major, as well as alternating as the retired-banker antihero, Henry Pulling. Pulling, a mild-mannered stay-at-home, encounters his elderly and surprising Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than 50 years at his mother’s funeral, and winds up led by her on a series of unlikely adventures across England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Argentina and Paraguay, bending his mind and his morals.

While sticking rather closely to the novel, Havergal nevertheless freshens the story by decentralizing Pulling’s emotional journey and the then-shocking-now-bland aspects of Greene’s mildly salacious novel and putting an emphasis on the ridiculous. He doesn’t quite fix the problems, but watching Travels with My Aunt becomes much more entertaining than reading the book. At Writers’ Theatre, Director Stuart Carden and his fine cast give us an intimate journey with sharp staging and wonderfully nuanced comic acting.

While each of the four players — LaShawn Banks, Sean Fortunato, John Hoogenakker and Jeremy Sher — portray Henry at various times, sometimes rapidly switching off from one to another, each also portrays multiple other characters, and specializes in one of the major roles.

John Hoogenakke and Sean Fortunato iin TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.Banks gives us Wordsworth, Augusta’s often buffoonish African valet and lover, whom she cruelly dismisses for Visconti. His performance in that role sometimes seems tentative, as if he’s uncomfortable in it. He’s terrific, though, as a Cockney cabbie, a fortunetelling friend of Augusta’s and in other roles.

Fortunato stumbled over a few lines on opening night, but that scarcely impaired his wonderfully evocative performance as Augusta, a switchover he accomplishes seemingly effortlessly, just by body posture, even before he opens his mouth. Hoogenakker’s comic switches run more deadpan as he portrays Tooley with a flat Midwestern accent and her father, the CIA man, with a sort of Texan twang that contrast ideally with the British tones of the other characters.

Perhaps funniest of all, the stone-faced Sher’s mostly voiceless primary role is one of onstage sound-effects man, using everything from wine glasses to an umbrella to enhance the on-stage action. (Kudos also to sound designer Mikhail Fiksel.)

The foursome travels together brilliantly, making this a trip worth going on, even if you don’t care for the journey’s final destination.

  
  
Rating:  ★★★
  
  

John Hoogenakke, LaShawn Banks and Sean Fortunato in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

 

  
  

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REVIEW: The Hundred Dresses (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

   
  

Reducing childhood bullying one performance at a time

   
   

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 001

   
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
The Hundred Dresses
   
Written by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills
Directed by
Sean Graney
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Dec 2   |  tickets: $26-$36  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One in five students are bullied each year. 60% of students are bystanders to bullying*. Forty-five states, including Illinois, now have anti-bullying legislation. Bullying prevention programs have been shown to reduce school bullying by as much as 50%. To entertain and educate, Chicago Children’s Theatre remounts last season’s smash hit, The Hundred Dresses.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 008Peggy is rich. Wanda is poor. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. Clothing makes a fashion statement at Franklin Elementary School. Peggy is mean. Wanda is kind. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. The Hundred Dresses is a light-hearted musical dressed up to teach a powerful lesson. It’s theGlee” episode that harmonizes “Clueless” meets “Mean Girls”.

In their upbeat and high energy antics, these adult actors unleash the cute kid inside. Leslie Ann Sheppard (Maddie) is a shiny-happy sidekick to Natalie Berg’s (Peggy) self-absorbed diva. Berg balances over-the-top narcissism without becoming the villain. Berg charms in clueless oblivion. When she sings ‘you didn’t do anything wrong’ with perky sass, Sheppard’s soulful response ‘but I didn’t do anything right’ heightens in its profound simplicity. Sheppard’s subtle despair is a sweet awakening. The target of the teasing is Briana De Giulio (Wanda). De Giulio sings with hopeful pretend and a thick Polish accent. The interesting underlying story involves the overall acceptance of the other quirky playground kids. Andrew Keltz (Willie) is hysterical, arriving to school in various eccentric ensembles. Superman or robot, he doesn’t disguise his oddball ways that are just understood by the others. Elana Ernst (Cecile)is a tiara wearing, unicorn talking, ballerina wannabe. She looks and sounds like SNL alum, Cheri Oteri, with comedic timing and exasperated expressions to match. Geoff Rice (Jack) is the understated dreamer with a confident independence. The kids bond in a celebration of individuality.

Under the direction of Sean Graney and choreography of Tommy Rapley, the playful style is like a nursery rhyme game. It seems like it’s all fun and games until you really listen to the words. Jacqueline Firkins conjures up the perfect wardrobe to focus on dresses. The girls’ dresses are marvelously vibrant 50’s style. Watching the cast change it up, certainly promotes clothing envy. Is it the costumes? Is it the singing? Is it the dancing? Is it the cast? There are probably over 100 reasons to see The Hundred Dresses. The most important one is ‘because doing nothing is the worst of all.’ As grown-ups, we need to act to stop the bullying in schools. An easy and entertaining way is to take a kid or two (or a classroom!) to this production, which helps kids learn important life lessons in an entertaining way. Go see it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

The Hundred Dresses plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 10:30 a.m; Saturdays and Sundays at 1p.m.    Running time is sixy minutes with no intermission. *Statistics about bullying from Newsweek Magazine, October 10 issue.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 006 The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 002

All press photos by Michael Brosilow

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REVIEW: The Comedy of Errors (Court Theatre)

Graney’s adaptation brings the laughs, but lacks substance

 

Wilson, Ehrmann, Goodrich, Hellman - h

       
Court Theatre presents
   
The Comedy of Errors
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by
Sean Graney
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through October 17  |  tickets: $30-$60  | more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Sean Graney’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (our review ★★★★) was one of the highlights of last season, with the seamless execution of the quick-change heavy script garnering huge laughs and multiple Jeff nominations for Court Theatre. With their new adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, it’s apparent that Court is trying to see if lightning can strike twice, with six actors playing 20 characters in another quick change extravaganza, but the script lacks the sophistication that made Irma Vep so memorable. In Graney’s hands, Shakespeare’s story of two sets of separated twins is taken to new levels of Goodrich, Hellman - vabsurdity, building humor around the characters’ awareness of the plot’s implausibility. The jokes are very funny, but too much of the play’s substance is lost as the story essentially becomes a 90-minute running gag.

In the dilapidated town of Ephesus, Antipholus (Erik Hellman) and Dromio (Alex Goodrich) of Syracuse search for their missing twin brothers, separated from them in a shipwreck during infancy. Because of a feud between the two cities, they conceal their true identities, inciting mass confusion as they are mistaken for their counterparts. Hellman and Goodrich are the focal points of the production, playing both sets of twins, leading to some impressively rapid costume changes (see video example here) and backstage movement.

As the characters most bewitched by the events surrounding them, Antipholus and Dromio are also the most self-aware, often breaking the fourth wall to comment on the ridiculous nature of the plot they are in. When Antipholus calls out Dromio for interrupting him mid-soliloquy, this works. But when Goodrich constantly checks in with the audience to check if a joke landed, it gets old. These scenes are also when Graney returns to some of his Irma Vep tricks, with varying degrees of success. An audience participation segment as Dromio describes his beastly wife Luce (Elizabeth Ledo) works incredibly well to create a relationship with the viewer, but a song sung by Dromio later in the show seems out of place and odd for odds sake (Irma Vep used dulcimers, here it’s a ukulele).

 

Ledo - v Goodrich, Stoltz - v

As more time becomes devoted to meta-comedy and increasing the slapstick, less time is spent on the actual story and the characters’ relationships. The actors turn to exaggeration to differentiate their multiple roles, and in doing so the illusion becomes more important than the action. Steve Wilson is the major exception to this as Officer Jailor and Balthazar, with the Jailor’s unreturned love for Luciana (Ledo) garnering a vocal lament from the audience in the play’s closest thing to a “dramatic” moment. On the flip side, Wilson has amazing talent for slapstick, and the fate of Balthazar is of the funniest moments of the show.

As the play becomes more and more absurd, it becomes obvious that the story is just a launching pad for an endless barrage of meta-theatrical gags. By the end it feels like there are no stakes at all, and while it is fun to be along for the ride, there’s still a huge emotional connection missing. Granted, when the ride is Kurt Ehrmann in drag recounting his days at the mall getting his ears pierced, it’s worth it.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

 

 

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REVIEW: The Illusion (Court Theatre)

A Love Letter for the Theatre

the-illusion_001

 
Court Theatre presents
 
The Illusion
 
Written by Pierre Corneille
Freely adapted by Tony Kushner
Directed by Charles Newell
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. (map)
through April 11th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Essentially, Pierre Corneille /Tony Kushner’s The Illusion is a play about theatre. It dwells on theatre’s power to evoke, transform, and relate. But the medium has many limitations. There is an inherent tension—the actions seen on stage are just an illusion of real life. Kushner points out that theatre can be likened to a dream, a the-illusion_008 hallucination. Charles Newell’s enlightening production of the 1988 script now at Court Theatre freefalls through all sorts of storytelling layers, piecing together a tale that is hilarious, dreamlike, and startlingly poignant.

The posters claim that this Illusion is Kushner’s “freely adapted” translation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique, a 1636 work way ahead of it’s time in terms of theatrical theory. And Kushner is pretty liberal in his translating, slapping on a whole extra illusion. The play isn’t as vast as his magnum opus Angels in America, but the kernels of Kushner’s trademark lyrical playfulness and socio-political awareness are scattered freely throughout the text.

Although usually handled well here, sometimes Newell loses balance of all the narrative layers and the production is a bit muddled. But the ride is worth it.

In the multilayered play, Pridamant (John Reeger) comes to a creepy magician, Alcandre (Chris Sullivan), to see if the man can conjure up his estranged son (Michael Mahler). Alcandre than confronts the old man with several visions skipping through various moments of life and loves of the young man. It’s like Baroque-period television broadcast from a cave. Through the illusions, we watch the boy temper the steamy hot passions of love with the ever-present chill of poverty. We also get to enjoy the ridiculous posturing of Matamore (the hilarious Timothy Edward Kane), a warrior whose bragging ability is matched only by his cowardice. The character names change from one illusion to the next, making Pridamant and us ask if they really represent past events or spring from our own fertile imagination.

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Newell faces numerous challenges here, and he comes out successful. There’s magic, crazy scenic effects, and the fact that three characters are on-stage the whole time just watching the illusions. Collette Pollard’s intricate set packs plenty of surprises. Alcandre’s cave is enormous, spooky, and endlessly fascinating. For example, as each illusion starts, giant gears chug along underneath the floating platform that functions as Alcandre’s gigantic crystal ball. Lighting designer John Culbert also explores this magical element in his design, shaping and evolving the multiple worlds. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are rich and dig to the core of each character. Newell brings all of this together in a production that obviously loves bathing in theatricality.

Most of the performances are magnificent. Kane is simply brilliant, commanding the stage with each pompous gesture and absurd boast. Reeger and Sullivan do a good job exploring the quirkiness of their “reality,” along with Kevin Gudahl, who plays Alcandre’s much-abused, tongueless servant Amanuensis. The world of the illusions has a whole different energy, which is totally refreshing. Elizabeth Ledo does radiant work as the scheming maid Elicia/Lyse/Clarina. The young lovers of the story are probably the weakest links in the production. Mahler seems disconnected to everything else and rings false in a few moments. Hilary Clemens as the thrice-named object of his affections is more in-tune with the other elements, but she could definitely push a bit farther. The weak points aren’t glaring, but serve as a reminder that this production could go even further.

Rarely do two artistic pioneers collaborate when there is four-hundred years of distance between them. In that light, The Illusion is an uncommon delight. Under the steady hand and imaginative head of Newell, The Court has a fantastical triumph here. Although there are some bumps, this Illusion reminds and reassures us that theatre is a powerful art form when its power is harnessed by the right hands.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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View (2010-03) The Illusion - Court Theatre
         

REVIEW: Awake and Sing (Northlight Theatre)

Dynamic ‘Awake and Sing’ nothing to sling oranges at

 Nussbaum, Gold, Whittaker

Northlight Theatre presents

Awake and Sing

 

By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
At the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie
Through Feb. 28 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.

Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold v From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why — except that, if you still had the price of a theater ticket in Depression-era Chicago, you likely weren’t too sympathetic to the play’s anti-establishment attitudes. The message blurs somewhat in Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama, yet the play still stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.

Titled for the line from Isaiah, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead," the play recounts the Depression-era struggles of three generations of the Bergers, a lower middle-class, Jewish family, all crammed into a Bronx apartment. We come on them quarrelling over the dining-room table, clashing over politics and personal lives in a manner no less heated for its habitualness.

Central to nearly every dispute, Cindy Gold’s feisty, belligerent Bessie Berger dominates the play, much as her character does her family. Bossy and bitter, Mama Berger rules her clan with fiercely protective, unsentimental tough love. She pinches pennies and prods and castigates her household, doing as she believes she must, while proudly keeping her home spic and span, her children healthy and always a bowl of fruit on the table, if only apples. "Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year — this is life in America," she asserts.

In the production’s main flaw, John Musial’s overly spacious set gives us little impression of the family’s financial struggle. Bessie may be a notable balabusta, but there should be overt signs of shabbiness, patching up, making do, and the cramped confinement of the characters should be mirrored in a constrained space. Musial’s solution — an overhang above the stage — is annoyingly distracting to the audience in the theater’s higher tiers without giving us the sense of overcrowding it was meant to do.

Lazerine, Francis Francis, Whittaker

When her restless and unhappy adult daughter, Hennie, gets sick, Bessie’s first thought is for a doctor. When Hennie turns up pregnant, Bessie immediately begins conniving for a husband for her — running roughshod over Hennie’s own desires but intent on her greater good.

Likewise, she actively opposes her 21-year-old son, Ralph’s, romance with a penniless and orphaned girl — unknowingly allying with her father, Jacob. Though more sympathetic, Jacob also fears Ralph will barter away his potential for an early and indigent marriage, and tells him, "Go out and fight so that life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills."

Bessie rages at her father and bullies him, yet makes him a home and brags about his brains to an outsider, the janitor Schlosser, portrayed by Tim Gittings. Veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum plays a restrained Jacob, a feeble, old "man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea." He’s still fixed on Marxist idealism but always a talker, not a doer. He frets at his daughter’s domineering ways, but gives in to her, even as he urges Ralph to defiance.

Ralph wants to make something of himself, but in Keith Gallagher’s hands he’s a moony dreamer, like his henpecked father, Myron, prompting Jacob to tell Ralph, "Boychick, wake up!" Myron Berger, played with mousy bewilderment by Peter Kevoian, went to law school for two years but wound up spending his life as a haberdashery clerk.

Audrey Francis’ fitful Hennie is hard to fathom, giving us few clues as to what motivates her. It’s as if she gave up on life before the play began and just lives on bile. Since she doesn’t know what she wants from life, she’s a pushover for any strong personality, from her mother to Moe Axelrod, the cynical, one-legged war veteran and small-time racketeer who becomes a family boarder. Jay Whittaker’s alternately snarky and passionate Moe provides a keen counterpoint to the mulish and strident Bergers.

Gold, Gallagher Gallagher, Nussbaum at table, h

Straddling the Bergers’ inner and outer worlds is Loren Lazerine‘s smugly complacent Uncle Morty, Bessie’s brother, a well-to-do garment manufacturer, who hands out largesse to his struggling relatives as if he were giving a dog a treat. On the other hand, we have Demetrios Troy’s inchoate and inarticulate Sam Feinschreiber, the greenhorn who marries Hennie and who shows us Bessie’s innate charisma by being almost as devoted to his fierce mother-in-law as to his disdainful, unappreciative wife.

Director Amy Morton ably brings out the realistic depth of these characters, in all their clannish divisiveness, and effectively highlights Odets’ rich and street-smart language. There’s plenty to mull on in this intense production. Yet for all that Artistic Director B.J. Jones writes in the program of the 1930s economic crisis in which this play was born and the current one that inspired him to mount it, Morton’s vision focuses less on the stress and politics of the world events outside the Bergers’ apartment than on the overwrought family dynamics within it.

Perhaps she feared conservatives armed with fruit.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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Review: Chicago Children’s Theatre’s “The Hundred Dresses”

Hilarious and touching – plus pretty dresses!

 Hundred-Dresses

 

Chicago Children’s Theatre presents:

The Hundred Dresses

by G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert
directed by Sean Graney
extended through November 22nd (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Hundred-Dresses-3 The Hundred Dresses is a pretty show: pretty music, pretty voices, pretty staging, and of course, pretty dresses. The 100 Dresses is also a children’s show. If you don’t get designated nap time or a half hour after lunch to play kickball, then you are probably not the target audience for Chicago Children’s Theatre. Luckily, however, The 100 Dresses is a great show; a musical that speaks to the hearts of anyone that has ever needed a friend.

Wanda Petronski (Lauren Patten) has just immigrated from Poland with her father, and she isn’t the same as the other girls. She speaks with a funny accent, wears the same blue dress to school everyday, and queen bee Peggy (Natalie Berg) just plain doesn’t like her. Caught in the middle is Peggy’s best friend Maddie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), who thinks Wanda is actually kind of nice. The girls start teasing Wanda, and when Wanda tells them that she actually has 100 dresses in her closet at home, the conflict escalates. When the bullying becomes too much, Jan (Kurt Ehrmann), Wanda’s father, pulls her out of the school and everyone involved learns a good lesson about the pain that bullying and teasing causes.

Hundred-Dresses-2 G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert‘s script is straightforward but filled with hilarious jokes and inspirational moments, perfect for the children in the house. Meanwhile, the cast and director Sean Graney have found the serious reality behind the bright dresses and colorful schoolhouse, giving the musical a weight that makes it more than fluff theater that kills an hour of the babysitter’s time. When Peggy talks about how easy it is to get a job or spend hundreds on a dress, the people in the audience that are laughing are the teachers and the parents, not the kids. Adult characters like Jan Petrovski and Miss Mason (Nadirah Bost) are used to ground the world in a mature reality that is probably more hundred-dresses-4 engaging to an older audience. When Miss Mason learns about Wanda’s dead mother, Bost reacts with sympathy and tenderness that travels throughout the theater, warming the viewers to the Patrovski’s plight from the very beginning of the play.

The playwright duo brings the same mix of comedy and warmth to their music and lyrics, and the songs are catchy while still carrying great emotional gravity. “The Hundred Dresses,”  Wanda’s heartbreaking solo where she reminisces about her life in Poland and how girls would dance in the dresses their mothers made, is exquisitely handled by Patten, finding the perfect balance between the joys and pains of youth that captures the tragedy of Wanda’s loss. While the script keeps a fairly light feel throughout, the music has a maturity and fullness that is captivating. When Wanda is absent for many days in a row, Maddie sings “Wanda Petrovski is Missing,” a rollercoaster of a ballad that requires a great belt, amazing diction, and razor sharp acting skills. Luckily, Sheppard is more than up for the task, and Maddie is a lovable protagonist that is easy to relate to.

 

All the actors that make up Wanda’s class of six have great chemistry with one another, and group numbers like “Penny Paddywack” are electric. The company’s voices all blend beautifully, and the melancholy “Passing of Autumn” is a wonderful showcase of their talents. Geoff Rice is adorable as class underdog Jack, whether he is stressing about winning the art contest or helping Maddie makes the right decisions, and Elana Ernst and Tyler Ravelson provide great comic relief two of Wanda’s goofy classmates; Ernst as hilariously airheaded diva Cecile and Ravelson as costumed class clown Willie. 

And the dresses? Costume designer Jacqueline Firkins‘ creations are gorgeous.

Rating: ««««

 

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