REVIEW: Candide (Goodman Theatre)

Zimmerman fills stage with playful imagery

 

Candide at Goodman Theatre - Rebecca Finnegan, Govind Kumar, Erik Lochtefeld, Margo Seibert, Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
Candide
   
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Based on novella by Voltaire
Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through October 31  | 
tickets: $25-$85   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a  separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production.

Geoff Packard as Candide in Goodman Theatre production - Photo by Liz LaurenFortunately, Zimmerman has crafted a cohesive, entertaining and visually stunning piece of work. Thanks to her affinity for levity, Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible.

Candide begins peacefully enough, with Candide (Geoff Packard), a young lad of unremarkable lineage, studying with blue-blooded siblings Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) and Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld). They are learning metaphysics from their instructor Pangloss (Larry Yando), whose core belief is that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Although wonderfully optimistic, his mantra is also incredibly naïve, a fact that Candide soon learns.

Once the Baron (Tom Aulino) discovers his daughter, Cunegonde, passionately throwing herself at Candide, the young boy is banished (and we witness a scene transition that is surreal as it is stunning). Now Candide is on his own; caught in the middle of war-torn Europe with only Pangloss’ feeble-minded philosophy to guide him from one atrocity to another.

The play does Voltaire’s work justice. Zimmeran does a wonderful job highlighting the short-sightedness of optimism in the face of pervasive human tragedy. For example, the musical’s darkly humorous number “Auto-da-fe,” a song about a town’s eagerness to witness public executions, is instilled with a playful, cartoonish enthusiasm that makes the capital deaths that much more disturbing.

Jesse Perez and Geoff Packard in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Candide is also very funny. For instance, there’s a running gag with a flock of red sheep, which, although a little silly, provides some light-heartedness to a play that is otherwise filled with people getting maimed and mutilated. There are also some subtle gags, like the use of miniatures to convey the scene’s setting. In one scene in particular, Candide and his travel companions face a storm while at sea. Although the stage does not resemble a boat at all, an actor moves a small boat on a pole to illustrate the tossing and turning of the vessel as Candide and others rock back and forth in unison.

The acting is solid with noteworthy performances from Packard, Yando and Hollis Resnik as the charming and crass Old Lady. Although some performers may fall short of their notes here and there, the singing is still remarkable, considering the amount of energy and endurance that this play requires. Stand out numbers include the hilarious “I Am Easily Assimilated” and the show closer “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Daniel Ostling’s set design is minimal but striking. A large wood-paneled wall occupies all of stage right where secret compartments allow characters and props to easily enter and exit. Trapdoors are used generously, which extends the world of the play farther beyond the extraordinarily roomy stage.

Hollis Resnick and Lauren Molina in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Hollis Resnick in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren
Erik Lochtefeld as Maximillian in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Tom Aulina and Geoff Packard in Candide Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Larry Yand and Geoff Packard in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren

Despite all these positives, there is one flaw to Zimmerman’s work that I cannot overlook. By being so close to this production, she has blinded herself to the fact that by infusing Candide with so much comedic sentiment, she guts the characters of relatable qualities. Actors often indicate rather than act and sport affectations that comment on the work rather than serving as part of the work. In making these characters merely pawns in a farce, we aren’t really invested in them, and thus the stakes for Candide to eventually find his lost love Cunegonde are set so low that we really don’t care whether they’re reunited or not.

Still, Voltaire’s work isn’t so much about separated lovers as it is a commentary on the contemporary philosophies of his day. And Zimmerman’s work is effective at bringing Voltaire’s talent for satire to life. So this drawback does not overshadow the fact that Candide is a very good play, not necessarily the best of all possible plays, but a good play nonetheless.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren

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REVIEW: The Emperor’s New Clothes (Chicago Shakes)

A fun and exciting new family musical

 

emperor's new clothes - entire cast

   
Chicago Shakespeare Theater  presents
 
The Emperor’s New Clothes
   
Book by David Holstein
Music/Lyrics by
Alan Schmuckler
Directed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $18-$23  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

emperor's new clothesThe Emperor’s New Clothes, the classic children’s fable, has been fancifully modernized by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, who commissioned a new musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson story with music and lyrics by Alan Schmuckler and book by David Holstein

In the original tale, the Emperor is sold an outfit made out of what he believes to be invisible fabric. He is told that only intelligent people can see it, so, not wanting to be  thought foolish, he pretends that he sees clothing where there is none. All of his royal servants and most of the townspeople go along with him, not wanting to be called stupid. Finally, a child watching the Emperor walk by, calls out that the Emperor is not wearing anything at all. All of the people in the town get a real kick out of this, and the Emperor is humiliated. 

The Emperor’s New Clothes at Chicago Shakespeare begins with the same basic premise, but blends the classic fairy tale themes with modern conundrums. Sam (Megan Long), the Emperor’s idealistic, college bound daughter, wants her father to get over his materialistic obsession with clothes, and open his eyes to the plight of the peasants. Meanwhile, Kimberly (Alex Goodrich), the son of Mama Swindler (Anne Gunn) the corruptible seamstress of the infamous invisible garments sees a better solution to save their failing business: e-commerce. Debbie Baer’s costumes continue the motif of mixing old and new: Mama wears a brown skirt and bodice while Sam walks around in jeans and a hoodie.  Kevin Depinet’s set is perfectly gaudy and extravagant. Its neon green and bright fuchsia paisley patterns are a whimsical fantasy, and the beautifully conceptualized and crafted set pieces create an engaging aesthetic.

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Directed by Rachel Rockwell, whose recent production of Ragtime (our review ★★★★) was a smash hit at Drury Lane last spring, knows her way around a musical – to put it lightly – and her youthful, feminine energy infuses the entire show. One of her strong suits with family theater is pacing. She keeps the story flowing in a lyrical and fluid way. Actors enter through the aisles and from the wings, and the choreography (also by Rockwell) has the same bouncy, young and fun energy as the rest of the show.

emperor's new clothes3 Alan Schmuckler’s poppy music is up-tempo and vivacious. His music maintains a steady lively pace throughout the show, keeping the production constantly engaging.

Ultimately, the play is a new take on an old fable. Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story has a moral at the end. We learn from it that we must speak our minds and use our common sense. This new version, with its parent/child conflicts, is a more complicated story for a newer, more astute family audience. Simplistic moral punch lines won’t work for today’s children, who have been raised on a diet of television and film that allow them to explore a deeper array of human emotion without necessarily trying to teach them anything. I wouldn’t say that there is no moral to this new imagining of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but I would say that it takes its time getting there, and the moral comes out of an exploration of the character’s relationships. The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fun and exciting new family musical.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

emperor's new clothes2

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REVIEW: High School Musical (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Tweens need escapism as much as adults do

 HSM_4Ccurtain_onStage

 
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
High School Musical
 
Directed/Choreographed by Rachel Rockwell 
100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
(map)
through May 22nd | tickets: $10 | more info

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

High School Musical, currently playing at Drury Lane Oakbrook, is a kind of bubble gum Romeo and Juliet for kids. Troy and Gabriella are teenagers from different cliques, she’s a brain and he’s a jock. But they fall in love anyway, and decide to shatter expectations by auditioning for the school musical, sending queen bee drama queen Sharpay into a jealous rage. In the end, they land the parts, fall in love, and even soften Sharpay up a little, all because they refused to stay faithful to their stereotypes. It’s nice to tell kids that they’re going to be alright in high school, if they just "are themselves." Unfortunately, life is not as simple as this, especially for children. In one of the great high school dramas of all time, My So-Called Life, the main character, Angela, reveals in a voice-over, "people are always telling you to ‘be yourself’ like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster." In the super catchy, and cheerfully choreographed number "Stick to the Status Quo", which takes place in the cafeteria with all of the students present, a basketball player reveals that he actually loves to bake, and a bookish prep reveals that she loves to dance to hip hop, but are these actually feelings that children, who are emotional human beings can relate to? Does this actually mean anything to kids? Or is the simplistic message just a marketing device, to trick parents into believing that there is substance to this poppy, flirty, love story for children?

high-school-musical_2TIMP_20137 The High School Musical franchise is a commercial creation. Originally a Disney Channel T.V. movie, the brand has expanded to encompass a quadruple platinum soundtrack, two sequels, including High School Musical 3: Senior Year which received theatrical release and is the highest grossing movie musical in an opening weekend of all time, as well as the condensed 70 minute stage version playing at Drury Lane.

The cheery “EHS (East High School”) banners strewn about the great grey daunting faux stone proscenium that was created for the main stage production Ragtime give the show the creepy look of a fascist victory party run by high school students. But happily, High School Musical also shares main stage director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell, who speedily and clearly moves the show along . The choreography is poppy and fun, and was conceived with a high school mentality but a sophisticated ability. Additionally, there is some stand out talent in the cast, most notably Elana Ernst, whose super-sassy Sharpay is a magnetic pleasure to watch.

Children love High School Musical because of it’s upbeat, catchy songs and attractive cast. And besides being funny, it also and presents to kids – who are still years away from high school – a totally non-threatening fantasy about what they can expect when they enter the daunting world of the big kids. There is nothing wrong with a show like High School Musical; kids need escapism as much as adults do. But during the finale of High School Musical, when Max Quinlan as Troy pulls an amazing stunt where he lands the lead role in the musical, while concurrently winning the big basketball game and defeating bad girl Sharpay all through the magic of being himself, it makes one recall a scene at the beginning of the show, in which Sharpay auditions with an incorrectly uptempo interpretation of "What I’ve Been Looking For." Her partner is not the studly star basketball player, but her flamboyantly gay twin brother Ryan, played by the talented and funny Sean Michael Hunt. Sharpay and Ryan’s interpretation becomes the subject of vague mockery, and although it’s catchy, it’s not right, it’s not the status quo. Surely it takes a strong sense of self to face drama auditions, locked arms with your gay brother and demand that you be cast as lovers in the school play. But here, her sense of self is not rewarded, it’s punished because it conflicts with the needs of her cooler counterparts. Perhaps, High School Musical‘s message of be-true-to-yourself-and-all-will-be-well is conditional on how popular you are, which, when you think about it, is a rather bleak conclusion for those teens not on the A-list.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

The performance schedule for HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is Tuesdays through Saturdays at 10 a.m. with select performances at noon, 1 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Please call 630.530.0111 or visit www.DruryLaneOakbrook.com for the exact schedule, as some show times and dates may vary.

CAST: HSM stars Max Quinlan as Troy Bolton and Summer Smart as Gabriella Montez. The cast also includes Elana Ernst as Sharpay Evans, Sean Michael Hunt as Ryan Evans, Brandon Koller as Chad Danforth, Caitlainne Guerreri as Taylor McKessie, Jonathan Weir as Coach Bolton, Rebecca Finnegan as Ms. Darbus, Natalie Berg as Kelsi Neilson, Nina Fluke as Martha Cox, Jackson Evans as Jack Scott, Travis Turner as Zeke Baylor, and Zach Zube as Ripper.

CREATIVE TEAM: Joining Rachel Rockwell as Director and Choreographer are Jesse Klug (Lighting Designer), Erika Senase (Costume Manager), Brad Gonda (Technical Director), Kristin Ligeski (Wardrobe Supervisor), Jeff Dublinske (Sound Engineer) and Sophia Briones (Props Master). Kristi Martens is Stage Manager.

REVIEW: Ragtime (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Drury Lane scores big with epic musical “Ragtime”

RAGTIME-_The_cast

 
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
Ragtime
 
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
by
Terrance McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)
directed/choreographed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook (map)
through May 23 (more info)

By Katy Walsh

‘What can happen in a year?’ Father’s question is an expectation that life is simple and predictable.

BF1C0838 The reality is birth, death, emancipation, persecution, obsession, syncopation. In 1906, the regularity in life takes unexpected turns as Drury Lane Oakbrook presents Ragtime The Musical. The show focuses on the lives of three groups: WASPs, blacks, and immigrants. In the New York suburbs, a wealthy family breaks the monotony with wild excursions and celebrity stalking. In Harlem, a successful black piano player decides to search for his lost love. Just off the boat, an Jewish immigrant artist and his daughter arrive with nothing but optimistic anticipation. Three distinctly different rhythms unexpectedly intersect to create a new tune. Ragtime celebrates a year in American history by paralleling the adaption of ragtime music with socio-economic changes of the time period. The results are a stunning history lesson intertwined with melodies of hope and change.

Under the skillful direction and choreography of Rachel Rockwell, the tempo never misses a beat. Rockwell strikes all the right notes with this multi-talented cast. Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) is the powerhouse of emotional range in song and act. His tune changes throughout the show – regret, love, vengeance. Darrington connects the audience with his story based on heart wrenching hope. His “The Wheels of a Dream” duet with Valisia LeKae (Sarah) is flawless. LeKae is a perfect match-up and their onstage chemistry is the epic-love-story-kind. Cory Goodrich (Mother) is marvelous in an understated and nonchalant way. Goodrich’s character changes her family’s life dramatically with simple choices. Her transformation is most baffling to Father played by Larry Adams. In a pivotal song, Adams is perplexed as he sings, ‘I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play different music.’

With inspirational paternal love, Mark David Kaplan (Tateh) chases a train for a teary-eyed audience impact. Alongside the principals, smaller and famous roles engage curiosity. Emma Goldman (Catherine Lord) influences as a social reformer. Evelyn Nesbit (Summer Naomi Smart) is the Brittany Spears of the time period…whee! Harry Houdini (Stef Tovar) mystifies as a successful immigrant. Booker T. Washington (James Earl Jones II) commands integration and respect.

BF1C1085 Larry_and_Cory
BF1C0803 BF1C0945 Mark_Kaplan-Jennifer_Baker

Surprisingly, this blockbuster musical starts with a stark stage. The introduction of characters is a popped up portrait of perfection. Literally, group entrances are elevated from below stage. As the three groups multiply across the stage, the unique flair of costume distinction, designed by Santo Loquasto, is a spectacular visual. Costumes, projections, lighting, moments of tasty eye candy decorate this show. From silhouettes marching to swimmers bathing, the imagery dances to the ragtime.

And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime. Giving the nation a new syncopation.  The people called it Ragtime!’

Paralleling life’s happenstance, my performance had some twists not necessarily planned. There seemed to be an issue with lighting up the solo singers in the first few scenes. A momentary blip broke the backdrop illusion with a ‘Microsoft word computer screen’ projection. Initially, the audio seemed hollow. I was uncertain if it was a microphone or acoustic issue. It either cleared up or my engrossment made it a moot point. All in all, this production was amazing. It left me reinforced that a gesture of kindness changes life’s courses and bewildered about men’s obsessions with cars.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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