Review: Murder for Two (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

     
     

Giddy, lighthearted show makes for perfect night at Navy Pier

     
     

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s "Murder for Two—A Killer Musical", directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Chicago Shakespeare presents
  
  
Murder for Two – A Killer Musical
   
Music and Book by Joe Kinosian 
Lyrics and Book by Kellen Blair
Directed by David Bell 
at
Chicago Shakespeare, 800 E. Grand, Navy Pier (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

For all those who have ever wanted to just let loose on those entitled, staggeringly clueless cretins who let their cell phones ring in the theater – I mean really school them with an unsparing, five alarm verbal evisceration – there is a mighty catharsis that comes not once, not twice but three times within the confines of Murder for Two. Listening to Joe Kinosian go off after the loathsome twarbles (Who the fuck do you think you are?) invade the world of the play is not as deeply satisfying as hearing a skillfully delivered Shakespearian monologue. But it comes close. Such are the times we live in.

Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)As for the rest of Murder for Two, think The Mystery of Irma Vep infused with the world’s most gleefully wackadoodle piano recital. The two-person musical , which stars Alan Schmuckler as aspiring detective Marcus Moscowicz and Kinosian as nine murder suspects – is about as giddy and lighthearted as you can get short of climbing into a hermetically sealed, helium-filled bubble.

Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) take the familiar elements of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” and set them drunkenly careening through a music-filled spoof wherein homicide is hilarious and the climactic capture of the criminal isn’t nearly as important as the four-handed piano jam that follows it.

Directed by David Bell, Murder for Two is about as campy, over the top and self-consciously silly as theater gets. The piece is a showcase for the seemingly effortless madcap comic talents and fleet-fingered piano virtuosity of Schmuckler and Kinosian, whose musical repartee is just as important as their verbal repartee. The two manhandle and finesse the baby grand onstage with an athleticism you don’t usually associate with piano performance and a synergy that evokes Siamese twins – no mean feat, given that Kinosian is as lanky as a bean pole and limber as taffy while Schmuckler is significantly more compact both in personal architecture and in gesture.

The production’s highlight isn’t the solving of the murder, it’s the joyful, rollicking duet the pair unleash as an encore.

If that implies the balance of the show isn’t perfect, well, it isn’t. The primary problem here is that Murder for Two is a whodunit in which the “who” doesn’t really matter . It’s a genuine laff riot to be sure, and one in which the comedy is spectacularly well executed – but there’s never much momentum. Was it the self-absorbed ballerina, the looney tunes wife or the needy psychiatrist? Eh, who cares. The show doesn’t seem to care about creating a serviceable mystery as much as creating a comedy. If Murder for Two had both, it’d be killer. As it is, the show remains a marvelous romp.

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Although be warned: If you’re not a fan of the meta-exaggerated mugging school of comedy, Kinosian’s camptacular overdrive will grow grating in a hurry. His mugging is so relentless you’d be forgiven for checking to ensure you still had your wallet post-show. He’s a shameless maelstrom of energy, playing a dizzying, high-energy whirl of suspects that include a daffy grad student in criminal justice, an ice maiden prima ballerina diva, a needy psychiatrist, an utterly insane party hostess (arguably Kinosian’s best work of the night) and a the trio of scamps (Skid, Yonkers and Timmy – think Our Gang crossed with a bunch of circus freaks) that comprise the 12-member all-boys choir brought in to entertain the guest of honor.

And then there’s Schmuckler. Having single-handedly saved Drury Lane’s tedious Sugar from being a total loss, he returns in fine form here. Moscowicz may not get to swan about the stage ronde de jambing or performing all-jazz-hands-on-deck disco showstoppers. He doesn’t need to. Wide-eyed and utterly sincere even as the lunacy reaches size XXL Crazypants, he makes you care and makes you laugh with equal force. He’s not showy, but he’s dazzling nonetheless.

Between them, Kinosian and Schmuckler almost makes you forgive the nagging fact that the murder mystery in Murder for Two seems irrelevant by the end.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Alan Schmuckler performs the role of the investigator and Joe Kinosian performs the roles of 13 murder suspects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's premiere of Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, created by Kinosian (music/book) and Kellen Blair (lyrics/book) and directed by David H. Bell. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Liz Lauren and Michael Brosilow 

        
        

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Review: Murder for Two (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

     
     

Giddy, lighthearted show makes for perfect night at Navy Pier

     
     

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s "Murder for Two—A Killer Musical", directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Chicago Shakespeare presents
  
  
Murder for Two – A Killer Musical
   
Music and Book by Joe Kinosian 
Lyrics and Book by Kellen Blair
Directed by David Bell 
at
Chicago Shakespeare, 800 E. Grand, Navy Pier (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

For all those who have ever wanted to just let loose on those entitled, staggeringly clueless cretins who let their cell phones ring in the theater – I mean really school them with an unsparing, five alarm verbal evisceration – there is a mighty catharsis that comes not once, not twice but three times within the confines of Murder for Two. Listening to Joe Kinosian go off after the loathsome twarbles (Who the fuck do you think you are?) invade the world of the play is not as deeply satisfying as hearing a skillfully delivered Shakespearian monologue. But it comes close. Such are the times we live in.

Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)As for the rest of Murder for Two, think The Mystery of Irma Vep infused with the world’s most gleefully wackadoodle piano recital. The two-person musical , which stars Alan Schmuckler as aspiring detective Marcus Moscowicz and Kinosian as nine murder suspects – is about as giddy and lighthearted as you can get short of climbing into a hermetically sealed, helium-filled bubble.

Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) take the familiar elements of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” and set them drunkenly careening through a music-filled spoof wherein homicide is hilarious and the climactic capture of the criminal isn’t nearly as important as the four-handed piano jam that follows it.

Directed by David Bell, Murder for Two is about as campy, over the top and self-consciously silly as theater gets. The piece is a showcase for the seemingly effortless madcap comic talents and fleet-fingered piano virtuosity of Schmuckler and Kinosian, whose musical repartee is just as important as their verbal repartee. The two manhandle and finesse the baby grand onstage with an athleticism you don’t usually associate with piano performance and a synergy that evokes Siamese twins – no mean feat, given that Kinosian is as lanky as a bean pole and limber as taffy while Schmuckler is significantly more compact both in personal architecture and in gesture.

The production’s highlight isn’t the solving of the murder, it’s the joyful, rollicking duet the pair unleash as an encore.

If that implies the balance of the show isn’t perfect, well, it isn’t. The primary problem here is that Murder for Two is a whodunit in which the “who” doesn’t really matter . It’s a genuine laff riot to be sure, and one in which the comedy is spectacularly well executed – but there’s never much momentum. Was it the self-absorbed ballerina, the looney tunes wife or the needy psychiatrist? Eh, who cares. The show doesn’t seem to care about creating a serviceable mystery as much as creating a comedy. If Murder for Two had both, it’d be killer. As it is, the show remains a marvelous romp.

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Although be warned: If you’re not a fan of the meta-exaggerated mugging school of comedy, Kinosian’s camptacular overdrive will grow grating in a hurry. His mugging is so relentless you’d be forgiven for checking to ensure you still had your wallet post-show. He’s a shameless maelstrom of energy, playing a dizzying, high-energy whirl of suspects that include a daffy grad student in criminal justice, an ice maiden prima ballerina diva, a needy psychiatrist, an utterly insane party hostess (arguably Kinosian’s best work of the night) and a the trio of scamps (Skid, Yonkers and Timmy – think Our Gang crossed with a bunch of circus freaks) that comprise the 12-member all-boys choir brought in to entertain the guest of honor.

And then there’s Schmuckler. Having single-handedly saved Drury Lane’s tedious Sugar from being a total loss, he returns in fine form here. Moscowicz may not get to swan about the stage ronde de jambing or performing all-jazz-hands-on-deck disco showstoppers. He doesn’t need to. Wide-eyed and utterly sincere even as the lunacy reaches size XXL Crazypants, he makes you care and makes you laugh with equal force. He’s not showy, but he’s dazzling nonetheless.

Between them, Kinosian and Schmuckler almost makes you forgive the nagging fact that the murder mystery in Murder for Two seems irrelevant by the end.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Alan Schmuckler performs the role of the investigator and Joe Kinosian performs the roles of 13 murder suspects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's premiere of Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, created by Kinosian (music/book) and Kellen Blair (lyrics/book) and directed by David H. Bell. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Liz Lauren and Michael Brosilow 

        
        

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Review: Heartbreak House (Writers’ Theatre)

        
        

Writers’ Theatre unpacks Shaw’s layered comedy-drama

        
        

A scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House", now playing at Writers Theatre.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Heartbreak House
   
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by William Brown
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $65  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Staging George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 satire with the expectation that it will carry relevance requires overcoming some steep hurdles. Without an encyclopedic understanding of period social structure, the play can lack gravity. It’s an uneven mix of broad hysterics and droll musings. It’s literary. It’s long.

Martin Yurek and Tiffany Scott in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".Director William Brown clears or at least side-steps those obstacles through his focus on character accessibility and audience immersion, narrowing the gap between what resonates on the page and what functions in presentation. Great care is taken to ease the entrance to the world of the play–literally, at first. Keith Pitts’ scenic and Jesse Klug’s lighting design sprawls from the performance space to the house, stretching the Shotover manor garden as far they can cultivate it. It’s a hypnotic oasis featuring little touches like a delightfully audible pebble walkway, ethereal floating lanterns, and the general comforts of a privileged family. Think a 20th Century Midsummer garden.

But unlike the tightly-wound lovers who dwell in Shakespeare’s forest, Shaw’s well-to-do find no contentment under each others’ spell–only unrequited desires and disillusion. When young Ellie Dunn (Atra Asdou, romanticism embodied, well-cast as the wide-eyed guide) accepts an invitation to her friend’s (Karen Janes Woditsch) home, she discovers and is ultimately overcome by a web of self-consumed entitlements and entangled loves. If there’s any enchantment to be found, it’s in the thought of total liberation from the mythical heartbreak house and its emotionally-deteriorating inhabitants. Here, sleep is just paralysis.

     
Kevin Christopher Fox and Martin Yurek in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw". John Lister, Kareem Bandealy and Karen Janes Woditsch in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

Writers’ production speaks to what can be unearthed amidst the anguish of love gone awry and the catharsis of reckless abandon. As social commentary, not even a slight update–pushing the story up to WWII–makes the class predicaments entirely identifiable. Well-acted as the performances may be (John Reeger, Janes Woditsch and Tiffany Scott leading the strong ensemble), tedium undercuts several stretches within early scenes. Sex, too, is lacking. Improper seduction perpetuates some of the comedy, and jealousy and wanting perpetuate most of the story–both are dependent on clear sensuality. This Heartbreak could benefit from more. It’s a slow simmer, but by Act III, those shortcomings are easy to forget. Shaw’s skepticism on marriage and relationships progress from era-dependency to something more universal with each act. For all its long-windedness, Heartbreak’s takeaway is the final wordless tableau: a group unified by disappointment, knowing to move on, and looking to the sky for its own destruction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Karen Janes Woditsch, Martin Yurek and John Reeger in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets for all shows are $65, and can be purchased through Writers’ website. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, which includes two intermissions. 

     
     

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Review: The Original Grease (American Theater Company)

  
  

Now extended through August 21st!!

 

This show %#&*ing rocks!

  
  

(L to R) Carol Rose, Tony Clarno, Jessica Diaz, Robert Colletti, Kelly Davis Wilson, Adrian Aguilar and Tyler Ravelson in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

  
American Theater Company presents
   
The Original Grease
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by PJ Paparelli
at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $45-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Foul-mouthed, raunchy, and absolutely not for children (although I’d think my parents were the coolest if they took me to this), American Theater Company’s The Original Grease is how Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s classic musical was meant to be seen. Forget the Bee Gees and the Australian accents, this Grease is northwest Chicago all the way, and ATC’s production takes pride in its urban heritage, presenting a grittier, yet still effervescently youthful Rydell High Class of 1960. What surprised me most about The Original Grease wasn’t the profanity or sexual explicitness, but how much more of an ensemble piece the stage version is than the movie. Sandy (Kelly Davis Wilson) and Danny (Adrian Aguilar) romance is the spine of the plot, but the relationships between the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies are fleshed out considerably. Minor characters like Patty Simcox (Alaina Mills) and Miss Lynch (Peggy Roeder) even get their own solos.

Adrian Aguilar and Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerThe show begins at the Class of 1960’s 50-year reunion, where a gleeful/wasted Patricia Simcox Honeywell (Susan Fay) invites the audience to take a trip down memory lane with a slide show of nostalgic Chicago locales that seques into the main action of the play in 1959. Shout outs to Palmer House, Carson’s, and Jewel root the show firmly in Chicago, and “Foster Beach” replaces “Summer Nights” as the recap of Sandy and Danny’s summer tryst. The new (old?) emphasis on the city firmly establishes the setting, but also alters the dynamic within the group of high schoolers. You get the impression that these are kids that have grown up together for most of their lives, and Sandy Dumbrowski’s transformation becomes less of a unique experience, but more of a typical teenage transformation as a way to fit in.

Above all else, The Original Grease succeeds because of the friendship cultivated among the group, a sense of camaraderie that climaxes in a spectacular a cappella arrangement of “We Go Together” at the end of Act One. As the gang pounds beer and passes cigarettes in the Cook County Forest Preserve they break into the film’s closing number, and the nonsensical lyrics have a different impact when they are the drunk ramblings of a group of teenagers. I’m a sucker for rain on stage, so the end of the number his all the right notes, and the ensemble’s unaccompanied vocals blend flawlessly. I wish that Sandy were in the number so Willis could add her brassy vocals to the song, but it’s just another way The Original Grease makes the audience encourage Sandy’s transformation.

Willis’ clean-cut appearance suggest the naïve Sandy that the audience is familiar with, but she shows her character’s fiery side well before her final metamorphosis. The moments where Sandy loses her temper make her change more believable but also make her a worthy opponent for Aguilar, who perfectly captures the lovable asshole vibe of the cocky Danny Zuko. Danny isn’t a very sympathetic character, and he never really pines after Sandy in this production, as “Alone At The Drive-In Movie” is transferred back to it’s original owner Kenickie (Tony Clarno) as a desperate ballad to the absent, potentially pregnant Rizzo (Jessica Diaz). Danny’s change is not about gaining Sandy’s acceptance, and is instead motivated by Danny’s desire to explore his potential.

(L to R) Bubba Weiler, Tyler Ravelson, Robert Colletti, Patrick De Nicola, Adrian Aguilar in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerPJ Paparelli excels at emphasizing the ways these characters leave their childhoods behind, and during Danny’s solo “How Big I’m Gonna Be,” Danny’s ambition forces him to leave the Burger Palace Boys to become the type of man that might be able to escape working in a factory with the same people’s he’s been surrounded by all his life. By the end of the show, each of the main characters has had to deal with an important teenage problem, and walks away having learned a valuable lesson. Frenchy (Jessie Fisher) finds out its hard to follow your dreams without a high school diploma and Rizzo learns the consequences of a broken condom, while Sandy and Danny show two opposite views of the same issue: changing for the one you love. These are the issues that teenagers have dealt with in the past and will continue to face in the future, an idea that is hammered home by Miss Lynch’s “In My Day,” which brings everything around full circle. Presiding over the reunion, Patricia Simcox Honeywell has become Miss Lynch, reminiscing about days gone by that seem like only yesterday.

The cast of The Original Grease is a remarkably gifted group of actors, whose singing and dancing prowess are matched by their comedic and dramatic chops. Diaz’s Rizzo has a nonchalant confidence that makes her a natural leader, and Diaz captures Rizzo’s struggle to keep up her tough appearance during the powerful “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Carol Rose’s sultry Marty is the sexy Pink Lady, and she nails “Freddy My Love,” the doo wop tribute to Marty’s Marine boyfriend during the Pink Ladies sleepover. Fisher’s clueless yet good-intentioned Frenchy is a constant source of comic relief along with the sloppy, silly Jan (Sadieh Rifal), who (L to R) Carol Rose, Jessie Fisher, Kelly Davis Wilson, Sadieh Rifai, Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beinerdevelops an adorable romance with Burger Palace Boy Roger (Rob Colletti).

Among the boys, Tony Clarno gives Kenickie a ferocity that burns through the comic playfulness of his friends, and the aggression he brings to the characters makes his drive-in breakdown an even stronger moment. Patrick De Nicola’s Sonny steals the show, though, as he constantly tries to assume an assertive role in the group but lacks the confidence and competence of alpha males Danny and Kenickie. Sonny’s attempts to be cool constantly blow up in his face, but once he brings Cha-Cha (Hannah Gomez) to the dance, Sonny goes from hilarious to gut-busting. The two have fantastic chemistry, and Gomez’s Cha-Cha is considerably different from the film version and all the better for it, and pairing her up with Sonny instead of Danny is another way that the stage version expands the world of these characters.

The Original Grease is what I’d like Grease to be all the time. These are characters that talk and act like real kids, with real problems that don’t always have easy answers. There are a few balance issues between the actors and the band that prevents the show from being perfect, but it is a must-see for all fans of the musical in all its iterations. At least for those that won’t mind the colorful language and provocative choreography, because those aren’t gear shifts the boys are grabbing at the end of “Greased Lightning.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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Review: 42nd Street (Marriott Theatre)

  
  

Shuffle off to Buffalo Lincolnshire

  
  

Drew Humphrey as Billy Lawlor with Ensemble

  
Marriott Theatre presents
  
42nd Street
     
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Music by Harry Warren; Lyrics by Al Dubin 
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
at Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

We can’t, it seems, get enough of The Understudy Who Becomes A Star, especially when the hokey, sappy and satisfying story is stuffed with thrills like "Lullaby of Broadway" and "Young and Healthy." Some clichés justify themselves, if only because nothing less than hokey can fill the sentiment completely.

Kaitlyn Davidson as Peggy SawyerWhen Busby Berkeley‘s 1933 film classic "42nd Street" (with its superb score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) became in 1980 a successful, Tony-winning musical, the last offering from the great Gower Champion, it proved you don’t need a Depression to justify a good time (though the number "We’re in the Money" sounds more like wishful thinking than ever).

Almost 80 years later, Peggy Sawyer, the tap-dancing chorus girl from Allentown who makes it big on the Great White Way, replays her all-American success story in Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre’s electric revival. Rachel Rockwell’s staging provides, as if needed, more proof that an arena staging can hold its own with a proscenium one for sheer moxie, showbiz savvy and pure pizzazz. (It helps to have a revolving stage to imitate the motions of Busby Berkeley’s overhead cameras.)

Peppy, perky, breezy and campy in the cutest way, the musical also preserves the film’s hungry edge and desperate-to-please energy. The big change is to downplay the chirpy Ruby Keeler-William Powell romance between plucky chorus girl and smiling juvenile and to play up (to please original producer David Merrick) Peggy’s fixation on her hard-boiled, devilishly driven director Julian Marsh. It gets in the way of the show’s chief interest–how Peggy can overcome her shyness, discover her undeniable talent and sell it–and the show ”Pretty Lady”–to the world.

The tribute to the "glittering gulch" of Times Square is as fine a hymn to showbiz solidarity and team spirit as A Chorus Line, 42nd Street glows with solid showmanship in Rockwell’s knowing, loving revival. If the arena production lacks Robin Wagner’s showy sets from the Broadway production (most notably in the mirrored "Shadow Waltz," here clumsily done with silhouettes on a screen, and the awesome Broad Street terminal where "Lullaby" gets hoofed out), Tammy Mader’s pulse-pounding choreography supplies its own heart-stopping spectacle.

     
Tom Galantich as Julian Marsh Drew Humphrey as Billy, Kaitlyn Davidson as Peggy
Drew Humphrey as Billy Lawlor with Ensemble 2 Roger Mueller as Abner, Catherine Lord as Dorothy

The opening tap dance rouser is enough to bring down the house but the house continued to tumble with the Ziegfeld spectacle of "Dames," the chaotic precision of "Getting Out of Town," the marquee-bright splendor of the title song and the vaudeville hijinks of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" (complete with tiny sleeping cars that revealed chorus girls in salacious lingerie). The chorus boys and girls are worth their weight in Kruggerands.

Carrying the show as no understudy ever could is Kaitlyn Davidson, a platinum-blond Peggy Sawyer whose inexhaustible tap dancing and lyrical assurance can only improve on Ruby Keeler’s wooden original. Drew Humphrey, as her adoring but muted Billy, smilingly exploits what’s left of a role that was virtually handed over to Julian. Tom Galantich plays him with the right mix of messianic rigor and paternal regard, but Julian remains a character who seems warmer on the page than he ever is in life.

Making up for Thomas Ryan’s clever but minimal set pieces (some perhaps dating back to Marriott’s first production in 1993) are Nancy Missimi‘s time-travelling costumes, Depression elegant in their flouncy escapism.

  
      
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

Cast of 42nd Street - Marriott Theatre

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Review: El Nogalar (Teatro Vista at Goodman Theatre)

  
  

A fresh, visceral update of Chekhov classic

  
  

Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves - El Nogalar

  
Teatro Vista i/a/w Goodman Theatre presents
  
El Nogalar
  
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Cecilie D. Kennan
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $15-$32  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

‘”They’ve taken our Mexico. They’ve taken our days, our nights.”   –Valeria

Breakout Chicago playwright Tanya Saracho has taken Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and planted it in contemporary Northern Mexico. Change the cherries to pecans, keep the once-wealthy family and the rigid class divisions, hang on to willful blindness to a way of life changing and you have the Silver Age of Russia all over again. One notable exception: Madame Ranevsky and her household never had to contend with the violence spawned by drug cartels vying for control of their territory. Bracingly directed by Cecilie D. Keenan, Saracho’s adept variation takes Chekhov’s premise from the frying pan and throws it directly into the fire. The result is an exciting new work that speaks with immediacy and passion to our times.

Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and Yunuen Pardo - El NogalarDunia (Yunuen Pardo) and Guillermo Lòpez (Carlo Lorenzo Garcia) maintain the house and land belonging to the once-prosperous Galvan family. Only the older daughter of the clan, distraught, anxious and overworked Valeria (Sandra Delgado), has stayed on to manage the property. Her mother Maité (Charin Alvarez) and sister Anita (Christina Nieves) have long lived up north in America, Anita attending various schools and Maité absorbed in an abusive affair with an American intellectual—a man who says “Mexican” like it’s a dirty thing. “You know he means other kinds of Mexicans,” says Valeria to her returning sister, hanging on to those little shreds of the past and class distinction that once defined her family. The past hangs on like a ghost they can’t shake and, in the past, their home played host to governors and senators. An upstairs bedroom contains a bed rumored to have held a former president of Mexico. Now, Valeria fights Dunia to keep the lights off during the day to save electricity and she desperately relies on Guillermo for physical protection and financial solutions.

Maité and Anita return to the shell of their family’s former ease and grandeur—a condition symbolically reinforced by the oversized, intricately detailed dollhouse that centers Brian Bembridge’s set design. Their friends, the old rich and influential families of Mexico, have fled. Only those too poor to leave, like Dunia and Guillermo, have stayed to endure the ravishment of their lives and futures by ongoing drug wars. Drug lords have grabbed surrounding lands and now set their claws on the Galvan’s land, which sports a once-glorious pecan orchard that Guillermo Lòpez worked in barefoot as a child.

     
Charín Alvarez and Christina Nieves - El Nogalar Sandra Delgado and Yunuen Pardo - El Nogalar
Charín Alvarez, Christina Nieves and Sandra Delgado Christina Nieves - El Nogalar

Pardo and Garcia do a brilliant job setting up the brutal and dangerous reality that informs their every action and choice. “Who would believe the news?” says Dunia about the kidnappings and slayings that are a constant occurrence, “It seems like a movie.” Lòpez tells her she talks too much and will no doubt end up dead in a ditch for it, but he himself seems ambivalent about his own tough pose. “Words are for idle people, people who don’t have to work for a living,” he mutters as he strokes a book that he longs to have the security and leisure to read and absorb, like his wealthy employer before him.

Yet, nothing heightens the dangers facing the Galvan family like mother Maité’s entrance. Here is a woman on the edge, who still dresses and acts like a jet-setter from a lost era of affluence. Alvarez subtly captures Maité’s mania and pushes it over that edge at precise moments, but never overplays it. Here is a woman with her head in the sand, with a manic faith in the belief that just acting the part of a jaded millionaire will pay her way and protect her from the losses to come. “Look at this place. It’s breaking my heart in two,” she says of the house and her dried out, untended pecan trees, yet we know she will never take responsibility for its neglect. Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves in El NogalarStill absorbed in a vision of herself from 20 years ago, she jogs the hills in tight mini-shorts heedless of the risk she’s putting herself in.

Young Anita also returns sorely unprepared for the world she’s come home to. An adolescence spent shifting from boarding school to boarding school has left her as ungrounded and as unconnected to her culture as can be. “I’m a half person,” she complains to Valeria, having only a little grasp of Spanish and a debutante’s understanding of the world. Of the three Galvan women, only Valeria seems to have developed the capacity to survive the loss of the orchard. Delgado deftly runs the gamut of overtaxed emotions that are Valeria’s lot, whether trying to contain her mother’s excesses or get her to accept the reality of their situation. Her crowning moment comes once the place is no longer theirs and she throws the keys that she’s worn as a chatelaine at her mother’s feet.

Saracho’s reworking of Chekhov is vivid in its dialogue and visceral in the chances that it takes. Teatro Vista’s cast renders earthier performances than one will find in a delicately balanced Cherry Orchard, but nothing that isn’t absolutely appropriate to time and place. Not only does the production never veer into overwrought territory, it instead awakens us to a version of ourselves under similar conditions. What could be a more enlightening evening in the theater than that?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and Bert Matias - El Nogalar.

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Review: Aida (Drury Lane Theatre)

  
  

A solid production of flawed Elton John/Tim Rice musical

  
  

Jared Zirilli and Stephanie Umoh star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo by Brett Beiner.

  
Drury Lane Theatre presents
   
Aida
  
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, with R. Falls and D. H. Hwang
Directed and Choreographed by Jim Corti
at Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $35-$46  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When Egyptian captain Radames (Jared Zirilli) captures the beautiful Nubian princess Aida (Stephanie Umoh), the two fall in love despite the war between their countries, and are forced to choose between their political duties and their affections for each other. Elton John and Tim Rice adapt Verdi’s classic opera Aida through the lens of a late ‘90s Disney animated feature, candy-coating the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers with family-friendly pop-rock that occasionally detracts from the emotional life of the story. Yet despite the musical’s problems, Jim Corti directs a sharp production with a cast of strong singers and dancers that perform the material cleanly, but could use some more passion. Using the influence of ancient Egyptian art, Corti creates images on stage through the actors posing and positioning in profile, like this painting:

actient Egyptian wall painting

While it’s a nice effect, it’s also representative of the production’s largest problem: stiffness that prevents the beauty of the music from truly taking off. The actors perform the music with precision, but there are times when it feels like they’re holding back, which could partly be because of the imbalanced musical material.

The ballads have a similar emotional resonance as John/Rice’s Lion King work, but whereas that musical has a unifying musical sound, Aida’s score essentially becomes a musical journey through the different stages of Elton John’s musical career. Tim Rice pushes the plot with his lyrics, but there are times when John’s score seems mismatched with the action on stage, mostly during the first act. The show’s fist number is sung by Amneris (Erin Mosher), the daughter of the Pharoah AIDA--Grant Thomas, Monique Haley, Stephanie Umoh, Jared Zirilli(Nicholas Foster) and Radames’ arranged bride, and Mosher’s powerful voice is pitch-perfect, with her dignified presence befitting the character’s initial introduction as the story’s narrator. Then the show transitions into the Rent-lite “Fortune Favors The Brave” as Ramades belts over inspirational power chords while Nubian women are pillaged in the background. It’s great music for a lease-burning, but not so much for an act of war. It gets worse when Radames’ father Zoser (Darren Matthias) reveals his plot to usurp the Pharoah’s throne in “Another Pyramid,” a groan-inducing reggae meets Tumbleweed Connection number that turns into a goofy dance fight. Thankfully, that’s the worst number in the show and happens early, but it’s also not the best way to start a musical.

As the musical progresses, it becomes clear that Elton John’s music shows the differences between Egypt in Nubia through the styling of their songs. Egyptians have the classic rock ‘n roll of John’s early years, while the Nubians utilize the gospel-tribal fusion of The Lion King, but there’s still a strong disconnect between numbers. “My Strongest Suit,” where Amneris does her best Tina Turner impression, and “The Gods Love Nubia,” a stirring tribute by a downtrodden Nubian people – they don’t sound like they belong in the same show. This is mostly a problem in the first act, and as the two groups begin to combine in act two, the music gains a stronger focus.

     
Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. L to R-- Jarrett Kelly, Grant Thomas, Branden Springman, Jaquez Sims, Peter Vandivier, Michael Glazer, Todd Rhoades, and Stephane Duret star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA, at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
Jarrett Kelly, Peter Vandivier, Brandon Springman, Darren Matthias, Michael Glazer and Todd Rhoades in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Erin Mosher in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

The two female leads both showcase stunning vocals, but while their singing is wonderfully expressive, they suffer from that aforementioned stiffness, particularly Umoh in the title role. Aida is a free spirit that has always felt confined, and she is given the opportunity to escape through song, yet Umoh is locked in place when she sings. She relies on her voice to do the heavy lifting, and despite being a powerful instrument, the image she portrays physically doesn’t match up. This prevents the chemistry between Ramades and Aida from really exploding, as Zarilli is forced to give more without ever getting much in return. The cast proves that they’re skilled performers, but there’s a lack of freedom in their technique that translates as restraint, a dangerous flaw for a show like Aida that relies on spectacle.

Despite the production’s flaws, fans of Aida will find much to love about Drury Lane’s production. The music is well performed, with crisp staging and choreography from Corti, who incorporates tribal dance into the standard Broadway footwork. Like a lost Disney cartoon put on stage, Aida lacks the gravitas of the original opera, but the crowd-pleasing score turns the tragic story into a family-friendly rock musical sure to please fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
'Aida' group in white in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
James Earl Jones II stars in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Monique Haley, Erin Mosher and Natalie Williams in a scene from Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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