REVIEW: Musical of the Living Dead (Cowardly Scarecrow)

 

A Zombie-licious Ghoul’s Delight

 

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Cowardly Scarecrow Productions present
   
Musical of the Living Dead
   
Book/Lyrics by Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts
Music/Arrangements by Mary Spray and
Matt Mehawich
Directed by Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts
at
The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The Charnel House is certainly an apropos venue for Musical of the Living Dead: its former life was as an old-style funeral home. Gothic wood paneling and light fixtures set the right tone for Cowardly Scarecrow Productions’ ribald horror spoof depicting the dead, annoyingly, not staying dead. Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts, co-creators of book and lyrics, are the madmen behind the mayhem, aided by partners in crime Musical of Living Dead - Scarecrow 020 Mary Spray on music and Matt Mehawich on arrangements. What can be said about cast and crew? They come from Columbia College—or at least most of them. One suspects their cohesiveness depends, in part, on shared training and collegiate associations—if one may use that professional term.

Musical of the Living Dead lies just inches from being a musical comedy that could be juxtaposed with, quote, legitimate theater, unquote. There’s just a tinge of that vibe one finds with the sort of comedy reviews one ventures to Annoyance Theatre for—slap dash irreverence that often looks slapped together. But Spray and Mehawich’s musical arrangements reveal startling sophistication. Plus, acting, singing and dancing quality definitely soars above standard Annoyance fare. Something aspirational peeks out from Cowardly Scarecrow’s lampoon of stereotypical horror plot involving randomly thrown together people escaping zombie hoards. It’s as if they were genuinely striving to create a new Rocky Horror or Little Shop of Horrors.

Good for them that they’ve got some decent crazy ladies for whom to sell their spoof. Barbra Flowers (Jill Valentine), the show’s virgin good girl (sort of), loses her brother Johnny (Tim Soszko) to a zombie attack while trying to lay a wreath at Grampa’s (sic) grave. It’s one thing to watch Barbra unhinge at the prospect of fighting zombies from an abandoned house alongside the musical’s lone black man, Ben Blackman (Quinton Guyton). It’s another to see her get uncomfortably personal with the other fugitives–including the stuffed deer’s head on the wall–while relaying her zombie escape story. Once that happens, you know the girl is gone!

Gone is the only way to describe Helen Cooper (Mandy Whitenack), a dame who views life, and her blighted marriage, through an alcoholic haze. Warring, conservative husband Harry (Billy Sullivan) simply can’t keep up with her. Whitenack pulls out every bit of Betty Davis, Tallulah Bankhead and God-knows-what overripe-screen-star to execute Helen’s boozy domination.

 

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That leaves the rest of the cast to fill out all the other horror flick stereotypes–slutty hick sisters Judy (Liz McArthur) and Trudy McCoy (Mary Spray); Ted (Jonathan Hymen) as the closet gay dude; Fran Davis (Ashley Bush) as the Fox News journalist with over-whipped hair; and helicopter pilot Steve Sherbotsky (Ryan V. Brinkerhoff) as her lover. McArthur cleverly doubles as Karen, Helen and Harry’s little girl, who stays sick in the basement past the point of zombie return. Jacob Clausen opens the musical as George, poetically profound fright fest announcer.

That leaves our hero, Ben, to carry the day and save Barbra from imminent un-death. Most comic interactions between cast members keep the flow going and the musical energy high. However, what holds Musical of the Living Dead back is its over-reliance on typical plot developments, typical horror genre characters and typical schlock comedy splatter. Musical of the Living Dead succeeds most when it takes the audience to uncanny, unexpected places. Ben, being the lone voice of reason among a gang of crazy white people, isn’t allowed to get his Rambo on until the end. That’s really too bad. After all, between the living and the undead, there’s really only so much a brother can take.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors (La Costa Theatre)

My, What a Strange and Interesting Play!

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Little Shop of Horrors
 
Book/Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by
Alan Menken
directed by
Dan Sanders-Joyce
Music direction by Ryan Brewster
at
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston (map)
through July 11th  |  tickets: $25   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

I have a confession. Little Shop of Horrors is my favorite musical of all time.

I have loved the play ever since I saw the movie version as a child. I own a VHS copy of the director’s cut of the film, which features an alternate ending that falls more in line with the play, and I have the Little Shop of Horrors Broadway revival cast recording, which for three months straight was the background music for my workout DSC_0494 routine at the gym. So it was with great excitement that I sat down at the La Costa Theatre, which sits above an auto shop, to see Chicago’s most recent rendition of this contemporary classic.

Overall, I can’t say I was disappointed. I think La Costa has planted the seed for an amazing production. But it hasn’t quite blossomed just yet. And if that’s not enough plant metaphors for you, I believe after a few more shows, this production has the possibility of growing into a four-star play.

Little Shop of Horrors takes place in skid row, a dilapidated, impoverished city slum. Mr. Mushnik (Peter Verdico) is the proprietor of an eponymous flower shop that, like most businesses in the neighborhood, is failing.

Mr. Mushnik employs the fragile Audrey (Ashley Bush) and the nebbish Seymour (Jonathan Hymen). Audrey dates a sadomasochistic dentist (Tom Moore) whose pastimes include riding motorcycles and domestic abuse.

Everyone’s life is pretty miserable until Seymour comes upon a strange and mysterious plant that he dubs the Audrey II (voiced by Brian-Alwyn Newland and controlled by puppeteer Paul Glickman). The plant’s mere presence creates a boon for Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop, and Seymour becomes a highly sought after celebrity.

However, Seymour harbors a terrible secret. The plant hungers, and the only thing that can satisfy its ever-growing appetite is human blood. And it demands that Seymour feeds it.

The acting is spot on. Hymen’s Seymour is the quintessential underdog nerd. He’s slouchy, he’s disheveled and he’s meek. Still, Seymour is a very passionate character, especially when it comes to matters of the heart and of ethical decisions, and Hymen transmits this with the required restraint.

Bush’s Audrey isn’t as much of a bimbo as other incarnations that I’ve seen, which is completely acceptable as Audrey isn’t stupid so much as she is incredibly insecure and self-effacing. This is a girl who honestly believes she deserves to be abused. But despite being damaged goods, Audrey is also a hopeless romantic, dreaming of one day living in a suburban home where the furniture is wrapped in plastic. Bush captures this hopefulness and hopelessness. It also doesn’t hurt that she has one of the strongest voices in the cast.

 

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I’m sure it must be very difficult to create a giant, man-eating puppet for the stage. But Glickman, who has years of experience as a puppeteer, has created a remarkable Audrey II. I was blown away by how a small independent theatre company managed to create such an amazing special effect for the stage.

There was a technical downside to the production. The sound quality throughout the play was at best adequate and at worst terrible. The balance of the vocals and the live music was completely off. Often the thump of the bass would drown out all of the singers. Even when no music played, the volume of the actors’ mics varied widely. I had hoped this would have been fixed by the second act, but, to my surprise, it was not.

Also, director Dan Sanders-Joyce didn’t do a very good job of spreading the action throughout the theater. The space is rather large, but much of the actors’ movements are relegated to a small part of the stage. This often leads to poor views for half the audience.

La Costa desperately needs to fix Little Shop of Horrorstechnical glitches. (I suppose you could say they need to nip them in the bud.) Otherwise, the company has well-crafted and entertaining production.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
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REVIEW: Rent (NightBlue)

A “Rent” for the new century

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 NightBlue Performing Arts Theatre presents:

Rent

 

Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
co-directed by
Brian LaDuca and David E. Walters
at
Theatre Building Chicago through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Rent – the 1996 rock opera about eight friends struggling to get by in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood – find’s it’s power in its incredible music. It is the rock solid songs, packed with raw emotion and romantic tragedy that have kept Rent a musical favorite for the last fourteen years. Its success has sparked fascination with its edgy subject matter and the tragic story of its creator, who did not live to see the massive success of his magnum opus. Jonathan Larson, Rent’s author, died of an aortic aneurism the night before its first preview, giving haunting poignancy to the show, whose central message is to revel in the joy of life in the present, because no one knows what the future holds. For many of Rent’s characters, the future looks challenging: AIDS, homelessness, poverty and gender issues are all major themes in this groundbreaking musical.

The question for Rent now is, is it timeless? Will this musical endure as we trudge farther and farther away from the 1990’s? The answer remains to be seen: Rent is less than twenty years old, and it’s hot button issues of HIV/AIDS, homelessness and sexual liberty are as provocative in 2010 as they were when the musical opened. But with it’s decade specific soundtrack and aesthetic, it needs open minded theater-makers to keep it from becoming “Rent: The Totally 90’s Musical!”  It needs companies like NightBlue, whose production of the show is respectful without being tied to the famous original production.

NightBlue’s Rent  is “Rent for 2010”. From it’s paired down set consisting only of a wooden loft and a pay phone, to it’s young, amazingly natural performers, this production looks back from the other side of the millennium, without forgetting how we live now.

rent-poster It’s not common to see performances one would classify as “natural” in musical theater, but the young actors in Rent have taken NightBlue’s mission of “performing naked” to heart (not literally). Especially during Roger’s (played here by perfectly cast Chris Froseth) Act One aria in which he dreams of finding “Glory”, by writing one great song before dying of AIDS. In this version, Roger sits alone and accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, and the effect is powerful and sentimental, void of the uber-90’s power-ballad vibe that plagues the original cast recording. Jonathan Hymen has a laid back, best friend quality that makes him a great pick for Mark, the eyes through which the audience meets the cast of characters. Hymen is especially good during the first act, when Mark’s fun, youthful demeanor is nicely showcased with songs “Rent” and “Tango: Maureen,” a duet with smart actress Whitney White, who’s Joanne is driven and sassy without being overbearing. Playing her love interest, Maureen is the lovely Diane Mair, whose classy version of “Over The Moon” gives depth to a silly song. Act one closer “La Vie Boheme,” misses the mark here, unfortunately. Awkward, cluttered choreography diminishes the impact of this boisterous ode to the life of the artist.

Act Two never entirely recovers from the “La Vie Boheme” energy suck. The actors have worn themselves out by the time it begins, and the production loses energy. There are a few exceptions: the fight song between feuding lovers Maureen and Joanne “Take Me Or Leave Me” manages to be catchy yet full of tension, and Collins’ (played by the almost perfect Brian-Alwyn Newland) touching reprise of “I’ll Cover You.”

Rent has a special meaning in 2010. Healthcare worries, matched with the economic downfall make this musical about extreme poverty and AIDS intriguing. Sadly, Johnathan Larson isn’t here to create new works based upon the current crises; we have to rely on responsible theaters like NightBlue to protect the work he did create. Luckily, co-directors Brian LaDuca and David E. Walters have the sense and talent to protect Rent by making it their own, and thus, making it relevant.

 

Rating: ★★★