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: 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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Review: SUGAR (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

This ‘sugar’ lacks spice

 SUGAR-Ladies

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
  
Sugar
   
Book by Peter Stone
Music:
Jule Styne, Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Based on movie “
Some Like It Hot
Directed by
Jim Corti
at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook (map)
through August 1st  | 
tickets: $26-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

It’s a play about the filming of a play about a movie. Drury Lane Oakbrook presents SUGAR, a musical version of the film ‘Some Like It Hot.’ In Studio 24, they are filming a speakeasy prohibition era romp. The show starts with Sweet Sue Syncopation SUGAR (vertical)-Rod Thomas & Jennifer KnoxOrchestra in dire need of a new sax and cello player. The all-girl band is heading from Chicago to Miami. Over on Clark Street, two musicians witness a brutal killing by a  mob. To hide from the bad guys, they join Sweet Sue’s band to get out of town. They’ve got the right and wrong instruments. The ‘new girls’ are really dudes. Sugar is the singer. She has a history of falling for deadbeat sax players and wants a future with a non-musician millionaire. A sax player, Josie, is really Joe who is now also pretending to be millionaire. Daphne, aka Jerry, is also interested in Sugar but has millionaire issues of his… her own. SUGAR is a love triangle farce with extra sides of sweet amusement.

In a play about the filming of a play about a movie, there are true glimpses of Billy Wilder’s classic masterpiece. Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon haunt the stage. Jennifer Knox (Sugar) is the sexy blonde bombshell. Knox dances and sings with a sensual allure that would make Marilyn proud. Alan Schmuckler (Jerry/Daphne) is Jack Lemon incarnate. His facial expressions and manner provide pure Lemon comedy that blends perfectly with SUGAR. And he can sing too. Jack would be jealous! One of the best duets is ‘The Beauty that Drives Men Mad’ sung by Schmuckler and his buddy… gal pal, Rod Thomas (Joe/Josie/Junior). Not looking quite as pretty in a wig, Thomas’ height adds its own humor in his masculine drag performance. Tammy Mader (Sweet Sue) is the SUGAR--Jennifer Knox vibrant Charleston dancing conductor. Although her moxie presence gets limited stage time, it leaves a cue-the-band appeal. Joe D. Lauck (Osgood) is charming as a millionaire in love. The entire SUGAR cast, as musicians, gangsters, millionaires, add an extra layer of flavor with melt in your mouth goodness.

Director Jim Corti has remounted the musical SUGAR as a movie being filmed. The curtain is a makeshift studio warehouse door. A film crew is stagehands moving light fixtures. At the end of Act I, two characters meet up on break. As an ingredient, it doesn’t really add or take anything away. It’s like Splenda. I get the concept but I prefer the real thing. SUGAR tastes good. Sure, it’s not one of the major food groups and you couldn’t exist on a diet of just sugar. If life is like a box of chocolates, then SUGAR is a Whitman Sampler. You know what you’re biting into but that does not spoil the pleasure.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

SUGAR--men in hats

Running Time: Two hours includes a fifteen minute intermission

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REVIEW: The Lost Boys of Sudan (Victory Gardens Theatre)

Rhyming verse, didactic storytelling hinder production

 (from left) Leslie Ann Sheppard, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Namir Smallwood, Kenn E. Head, Ann Joseph, Adeoye, Latricia Sealy and Nambi E. Kelley.  Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens presents:
 
The Lost Boys of Sudan
 
Written by Lonnie Carter
Directed by
Jim Corti
at
Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 Lincoln (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

(from left) K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood) and T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) . Photo credit: Liz LaurenFrom the Sudanese desert to the frozen plains of Fargo, Lonnie Carter‘s The Lost Boys of Sudan is epic in scope. The story of three displaced Sudanese teenagers, the play uses the central plot of the boys’ search for a home as a stepping-stone to discussing such varied topics as religion, colonialism, and poaching – but Carter’s critiques often diminish the emotional intensity of the core relationship between the boys. The best parts of the play are when the boys are faced with the trials that come  from their circumstances: escaping crazed oil riggers, encountering twelve year old foot soldiers, boarding the plane to Fargo.  But the juxtaposition of this powerful storytelling versus generalized rants about the “Palinolithic age” only serve to derail the production.

The writing switches between prose and rhyming verse, and the shift is often jarring and unnecessary. Rhyming words become the ear’s focus and distract from the action of the play, and sometimes the rhymes feel like a stretch so that they can fit into the script (main offenders: "wet noodle" and "caboodle"; reciting "the itsy bitsy spider").

The efforts of director Jim Corti and his talented ensemble balance out the flaws of the writing, creating a final product that is technically impressive and incredibly polished. All of the actors have a great handle on the difficult African dialects, and as maligned as the verse may be, the entire ensemble approached the language with confidence. Narrator Ayoun (Nambi E. Kelley) does a great job connecting with the audience, delicately controlling the script’s wordplay and adding depth to the occasionally purple prose.

The boys, T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), have great chemistry together, firmly established in those first moments where they must band together to brave the dangers of their hostile environment. The three actors do a great job of playing roles considerably younger than their actual ages, and as the characters mature you can hear the changes in their voices and see it in their bodies.

(front, w/gun) Adeoye plays a Sudanese guerrilla fighter, who confronts three Lost Boys (rear, from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I.Josh (Namir Smallwood) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo: Liz Lauren) (from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), and K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo credit: Liz Lauren)
Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. is one of three teens who makes an extraordinary passage from Sudan, to of all places, Fargo, North Dakota, in Lonnie Carter's "The Lost Boys of Sudan" (photo: Brett Neiman) lost-boys3

Sheppard gives a stand-out performance as K-Gar, the girl whose mother dresses her up as a boy to escape rebels razing their village, proving herself this season’s go-to girl for playing younger characters (The Hundred Dresses, The Snow Queen). K-Gar finds strength in her masculine disguise, one powerful scene has her taking up arms against men looking to enlist them as child soldiers, and this power stays with her even after she reveals herself and begins her life as a woman in America. After graduating high school, she refuses to stay in the sheltered United States, instead returning to Sudan so that she can counsel children like Twelve (Latricia Kamiko Sealy), a gun-toting preteen killer.

In Carter’s high concept script, Twelve is the concept that works the best. She appears at the start of the production to kill A.I. Josh’s father, later returning as a radio operator and finally a student at the camp where the lost boys are rescued. Twelve is the voice of all the children of Sudan, and Sealy plays the character with a ferocity that transforms into vulnerability as her immature mind copes with the terrors she committed. Twelve reveals the life the main characters would have if they had not escaped the various threats they encounter, and serves as a fantastic foil for the main characters, a lost girl that is never rescued.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

 

(front, from left) Nambi E. Kelley, Leslie Ann Sheppard, LaTricia Kamiko Sealy, and (rear, from left) Adeyoye, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Kenn E. Head and Ann Joseph (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

 

      

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REVIEW: Writers’ Theatre’s “Oh Coward!”

Mad about the boy!!

 

Doug,_John,_Kate_on_piano,_Rob-H 

Writers’ Theatre presents:

OH COWARD!

A Musical Comedy Revue

Words and music by Noel Coward
Devised by
Roderick Cook
Musical direction by
Doug Peck
Directed by Jim Corti

Thru March 21st (ticket info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

“I am not a heavy drinker. I can sometimes go hours without touching a drop.”

Writers’ Theatre presents OH COWARD!, a musical revue celebrating the words and music of Noel Coward. Nicknamed “The Master,” Noel Coward (1899-1973) was a playwright, lyricist, composer, actor, singer, director and producer. The musical revue was devised by Roderick Cook, who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in 1987 for his performance in it.

“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

This memorable Coward quote reflects the philosophical basis and impetus for much of his work. The bawdy lyrics of songs like “Mrs. Worthington,” that tell a stage mother not to put her ugly daughter on stage, are shockingly hilarious. Coward is The Master in spinning tales of drinking indulgences, sexual indiscretions and people that annoy into delightfully witty tunes. A 1930’s party-goer would have been wise to cozy up to Coward for an evening’s amusement of gossip and to avoid becoming a target. Without Coward’s actual presence, OH COWARD! is the perfect party substitute.

Kate,_John,_Rob-Horiz_ActI_martini

First, any successful party requires the right ambiance. Scenic designer, Kevin Depinet , has reconfigured the theatre space into a 1930’s night club with blown-up pictures of Noel Coward on the wall. The audience sits in a U-shape, allowing for a true intimate cabaret experience. Next, the wrong music can be a party buzz kill. For this particular soiree, Coward’s songs are at the epicenter of the festivities. Under the musical direction of Doug Peck, the lively melodies add to the fast paced merriment. At pivotal moments, the soulful ballads “If Love Were All” and “Mad About The Boy”, both arranged by Peck, give the party guests a breather and a shocker at the honest glimpse into Coward’s private isolation.

The absolute key to turning any gathering into a bash is if the host knows the right people to invite. Director Jim Corti has the A-List in attendance with Kate Fry, Rob Lindley and John Sanders. With a glass of champagne or a martini, party gossip is best delivered with playful wit. OH COWARD! has a superstar tri-fecta! Under The Masters’ (both Coward and Corti) influence, Fry, Lindley and Sanders are beautifully synchronized in songs and stories. The best part of their harmonized performance is the genuine enjoyment that radiates. In true imagined Coward fashion, these three seem to have spontaneously taken over a party with their flawless entertainment skills. OH COWARD! is THE party of the year!

“I have always been very fond of (drama critics)… I think it’s so frightfully clever of them to go night after night to the theatre and know so little about it.”

Oh Noel, you are hilarious!

Rating: ★★★½

 

Doug,_Rob,_Kate,_John-Vert_formal

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REVIEW: Victory Gardens’ “The Snow Queen”

"The Snow Queen” Rocks, But Will It Endure?

snowqueen-group

Victory Gardens presents:

The Snow Queen

adapted by Frank Galati, Michael Barrow Smith and Blair Thomas
directed by Jim Corti

thru December 27th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson, best friends Kai (Andrew Keltz) and Gerda (Leslie Ann Sheppard) enjoy playing together in a garden above the city. Once winter separates them, they must stay in doors, but they still wave to each through 1640391_height370_width560 frosty windows. Brought together one night by Gerda’s grandmother, the two hear for the first time about the Snow Queen, who longs for a little boy to keep her warm. Caught up in a magic spell, Kai is abducted by the Snow Queen and Gerda must embark upon a life-changing odyssey to get Kai back.

I was startled by something that perusing reviews from past years had not prepared me for–composer and lyricist Michael Barrow Smith relies on rock opera for the most powerful numbers accompanying this children’s tale. As the Storyteller, returning Cheryl Lynn Bruce remains the undisputed mistress of ceremonies. However, Smith benefits mightily from the talents of Sue Demel, of the Sons of the Never Wrong, and Barbara Barrow, of the Old Town School of Folk Music, to rock out the arias reserved for the grandmother, the Snow Queen, the Enchantress, and Robber girl. These, by far, are the production’s most haunting and dynamic moments.

Other musical genres bring levity and fun to the proceedings—honky-tonk for Bob Goins reindeer and blues for the gang that waylays Gerda on her quest. But not every musical genre that Smith pulls out of his sleeve is as successful. In fact, the effect can be rather hodge-podge; some moments venturing into Sondheim-esque lyrics subvert direct appeal to a younger audience. Even if those moments are intended for adult consumption, they contribute to the patchwork feel of the overall production.

1640395_height370_width560 1640394_height370_width560

Visually, the show still amazes with puppetry designed by Blair Thomas and Meredith Miller. While in charge of most of the puppet performance, as Elves Jackson Evans, Genevieve Garcia, and Nicole Pellegrino bring joyful energy to their storytelling. Curiously, the production lags in demonstrating a stronger emotional connection onstage between Kai and Gerda, so that the stakes can be raised for the story’s loss and radical journey. Whether this is a result of new direction from Jim Corti or just the introduction of Sheppard as a new member to the cast is uncertain, but hopefully it will be rectified in the course of the run. Best friends can’t return if they were never best friends to begin with.

Rating: ★★★

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Review: Drury Lane Oakbrook’s “Cabaret”

Drury Lane’s “Cabaret” needs some dirt
underneath it’s green fingernails

cabaret03

Drury Lane Oakbrook (map) presents:

Cabaret
By Joe Masteroff (book), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and John Kander (music)
directed by Jim Corti
thru October 11th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

cabaret01Drury LaneOakbrook’s production of Cabaret is pretty, but afraid to get dirty. Jim Corti’s choreography  is tight and the singing is more than serviceable, but it lacks the pulse and frantic energy that have made this show a postwar classic. The desperation of post-World War I/pre-Nazi Germany is never truly captured, and the end result doesn’t quite have the political punch that the book and music deserve.

When American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Jim Weitzer) arrives in Berlin, he and the audience are greeted by the over-the-top theatrics of the post-World War I cabaret, but director/choreographer Sam Corti‘s vision of the Kit Kat Club feels tame. Yes, there is plenty of sex and booze flowing, but the atmosphere feels more Cole Porter than Kander and Ebb. The nature of the cabaret, an underground pleasure den where German citizens could escape the hardships of reality, seems to be lost as grit is replaced with glitter. The Master of Ceremonies (Patrick Andrews), takes the stage with a boyish delight, but Andrews struggles to find the darkness in the character that symbolizes the Nazi party’s rise as a legitimate political force.

cabaret02 Zarah Mahler has a similar struggle with the darker thematic elements of the show in her portrayal of Sally Bowles, the English songstress that can’t balance her love for Clifford with the frivolity of the cabaret at the same time. The chemistry between Weitzer and Mahler never quite ignites, making the relationship between the two seem forced and putting even more pressure on Mahler to show Sally’s desperate need for affection, a feat that is finally accomplished in her rendition of the musical’s title number.

cabaret02 Unlike the 1972 film, the stage version of Cabaret devotes much more time to the ascent of the Nazi party and the consequences it has on ordinary Berlin citizens. In a heartbreaking subplot involving Clifford’s landlady Fraulein Schneider (Rebecca Finnegan) and her Jewish beau Herr Schultz (David Lively), the cruel and pervasive nature of Nazism provides the motion that the production needs. When Fraulein Kost (Christine Sherrill), Schneider’s bitter prostitute tenant, leads the denizens of the cabaret in a rousing version of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” at the couple’s engagement party, the tension is nerve-rattling. The scene shows a glimmer of the Cabaret that could have been, a terrifyingly exciting examination on the appeal of true evil in a desperate world.

Rating:  ««½

 cabaret04

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