REVIEW: Dog Sees God (Epic Theatre)

  
  

What happens when the Peanuts gang grows up? It’s not pretty.

  
 

Epic Theatre's "Dog Sees Dog" by Bert V. Royal - now playing at Stage 773

  
Epic Theatre presents
  
Dog Sees God: Confessions of Teenage Blockhead
   
Written by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Scott Adam Johnston & William Hasty
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 21  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A play about the “Peanuts” gang as teenagers navigating a contemporary high school setting is ripe with potential. I love seeing beloved characters thrown into unfamiliar environments; Sondheim does it with Into The Woods; Julie Taymor is currently trying with Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Unfortunately Dog Sees God: Confession of a Teenage Blockhead is more the latter than the former, a misguided mess that takes everything lovable Schultz’s characters and degrades it in a wave of sex, drugs, and utter stupidity. Leaving Epic Theatre’s production, I would have guessed the script was still a first draft, but Dog Sees God has played off-Broadway, with some pretty big names in the cast, too. Apparently the public’s morbid curiosity with seeing childhood icons disgraced is higher than I thought.

Epic Theatre's "Dog Sees Dog" by Bert V. Royal - now playing at Stage 773Dog Sees God begins with CB (Fred Geyer) writing a letter to an undisclosed pen pal, mourning the loss of his beagle after it contracted rabies and killed the little yellow bird that was always around it. Yeah, Snoopy ate Woodstock. It gets much, much worse. After holding a funeral that no one but his sister (Miriam Reuter) shows up to, he ruminates about the nature of life and death with his friend Van (Jason Nelson), a stoner version of Linus that smokes his blanket after his sister and CB burn it. Then we’re introduced to Matt (Matt Hays) the germaphobe, homophobe future version of Pig Pen who does coke before class and gets his kicks by bullying Beethoven (Greg Brew), an alienated Schroeder whose father molested him as a child. Peppermint Patty and Marcie are Tricia (Ashley Preston) and Marcy (Lauren Bourke), stereotypical high school mean girls that sip vodka out of milk cartons while discussing new ways to demean themselves and others. The gang is rounded out by Van’s sister (Nicole Carter), an institutionalized, pyromaniac Lucy who was thrown in an asylum after burning the Little Red-Haired Girl’s curly locks. There they are, the bastardized future selves of the Peanuts gang.

Royal’s script is so cliché-filled that it’s almost as if he were given a list of stereotypical characters and situations in a high school environment. Drinking and drug abuse, abortion, molestation, suicide, bullying, prejudiced jocks, bitchy blondes, the talented, tortured quiet boy…the list goes on and on. The hodgepodge of issues makes the play a disorganized mess, and things happen so quickly that nothing is given time to actually have any sort of emotional gravity. CB kisses Beethoven at a party, and he is immediately ready to accept a homosexual identity because it’s convenient to the story Royal is trying to tell. Who care if it’s completely unrealistic? The entire play is built around bizarre developments, from a completely unnecessary rap interlude by Marcy to everyone’s irrational fear of a “gay disease.” Was this written in 1972? Nope. 2004. In the end, the play’s anti-bullying message comes across as trite, a tacked on epilogue to make the play feel relevant despite the archaic views it presents.

The shameful thing is that there are good actors underneath some of these characters. Geyer, despite being a little too mousy to be one of the “cool kids,” tries to create legitimate conflict in CB although the script is constantly working against him. His first scene with Beethoven is even above average, giving their relationship some believability that will, of course, be completely compromised later. As CB’s sister, Reuter has some strong moments, surprisingly when she performs her one woman show “Cocooning Into Platypus,” which is the kind of juvenile theater piece a high school goth would write. But this isn’t a high school play, this is professional theater with paying patrons, and they shouldn’t have to sit and watch derivative scene after derivative scene.

As messy as the script is, the direction from Johnston and Hasty only serves to muddle up the production further. During the party scene, six actors are all crammed onto one platform, attempting to create the illusion of a crowded party but mostly just looking uncomfortable. One of the play’s most important moments happens during this scene, but the poor blocking takes away its resonance. The production values are minimal, from the sloppy set to the limited lighting and sound that make the show feel incomplete to a large degree.

From the script to the staging, Dog Sees God: Confession of a Teenage Blockhead is like Charlie Brown and the football. It keeps on kicking, and it keeps on missing. Glorified fan-fiction at its best, low-grade smut at its worst, this play goes against everything Schultz’s characters stand for. The play ends with an attempt to honor the “Peanuts” creator, but after 90 minutes of watching Charlie Brown and his friends humiliate themselves, it’s just offensive.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

REVIEW: The Lion King (Broadway in Chicago)

   
   

Lion King roars into Chicago

 

Brenda Mhlongo in Circle of Life - The Lion King - Broadway in Chicago

   
Broadway in Chicago and Disney Theatricals present
   
The Lion King
   
Music/Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Book by
Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Directed by
Julie Taymor
at
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago (map)
through November 27|  tickets: $25-$148  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Not that my opinions would matter much to him, but way to go Elton John. After a storied career of penning pop music classics, he has had a major hand in crafting two of the most important musicals of the last 20 years. Lucky for us, at this moment both of the shows are currently playing in Chicago. I’ll admit, I’m still scrounging around for tickets to Billy Elliot (our review ★★★½) before the recently imposed final night (hint, hint). So I can’t really speak of its brilliance. However, due to the crates of Tonys it won, I’m going to assume it’s alright. I can speak to The Lion King, which combines John’s pop sensibilities, Disney, and the artistic madness of Julie Taymor. It is a transformative theatrical experience. As proven by the production shacking up at the Cadillac Palace, it’s a game-changing show even after the original production opened over ten years ago.

Dionne Randolph as Mufasa - Disney's Lion KingThe show has visited Chicago several times, just as it has toured pretty much everywhere in the world since the late ‘90s. If you’ve seen the show before, cut me some slack because this was my first time. I do know that if you already love the beloved musical, you’ll love this production. The cast fills the house with heart, and the puppetry, massive spectacle, and thundering music are gasp-inducing. Seeing the show as a Lion King virgin, all of my issues stem from the conceptual gears driving the production.

The dialogue is more or less completely lifted from the 1994 animated feature, so there isn’t much difference between stage and screen in terms of story. The variance, as well as the magic, comes out in the execution. The original work relied on brilliant animation, classical themes of family and power, John’s ability to carve out chart-topping songs, and our perceived regality of the natural world. Apparently, when Disney first brainstormed a stage version, they were thinking of full-body, mascot-style costumes. Then came Taymor (thank god). With a resume featuring opera, training with Jacques Lecoq, and loads of experience with non-Western theatrical stylings, Taymor figured that the feline-focused franchise needed an existential reboot for the stage. The final product was an intellectually-complex puppet show that was (and continues to be) wildly popular, still selling at nearly 100% on Broadway, even after all these years.

This Chicago cast is clearly having a lot of fun with the ensemble-based show. Dionne Randolph’s Mufasa is a memorable performance, capturing all the grandeur a king of the savannah should have. J. Anthony Crane is devilishly suave as the malevolent Scar, a great foil to Mufasa’s strict views of morality. Simba, as he grows from cub to adult, is played by two actors, as well as several puppets. The youngsters (either Jemone Stephens, Jr. or Kolton Stewart, depending on the night) playing the character in the first act do a fine job, and Adam Jacobs, who takes over for the final half, embodies the youthful honesty needed for the role. My favorite part of the show was Tony Freeman’s Zazu. Your eye switches quickly from the bird puppet to Freeman as actor; both are equally expressive.

 

J. Anthony Crane and Dionne Randolph in Disney's Lion King tour Syndee Winters as Nala and The Lionesses in Shadowland - The Lion King
J. Anthony Crane as Scar in The Lion King - Broadway in Chicago Brenda Mhlongo as Rafiki in opening number - Circle of Life - Lion King

Taymor’s epic vision seems a bit disconnected at times. The overall grandeur of the production at times doesn’t quite gel with certain aspects, like the lowbrow comedy courtesy of Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz). The huge puppetry for the three chief hyenas, another gaggle of comic relief, comes off as overblown. The show abounds with humor (Freeman, for example), but they could marry it to the concept better. There are also some jarring aspects in the score due to John’s pop sensibilities not blending well with the African drum breaks written in by Lebo M. The transitions fail to meld the two disparate parts.

However, there are a number of moments where the amazing spectacle on-stage washes over the audience. You leave the theatre with a renewed sense of wonder. Simba’s story is relatable, but unique, and the music is terrific. All those long hours the cast and crew spent cranking out puppets and learning how to walk like a cheetah bore a creation that will be known as one of the landmark shows of our generation.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Lionesses Dance - Disney's Lion King

     
     

REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty (Marriott Theatre)

Centuries-old fairy tale energized with girl-power

 SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amber 2

Marriott Theatre presents:

 

Sleeping Beauty 

Adapted by Marc Robin
Directed and choreographed by
Matt Raftery
At
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through April 25th
(more info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

“Sleeping Beauty” was first published in 1697, and since then has morphed, changed, been embellished and re-interpreted in thousands of ways; both subtle and overt. Here in America, any girls born after 1959 probably know the Walt Disney version of the story the best; lovely, quiet Aurora sings and picks flowers, obeys her godmothers (without any inclination that they are, in fact, fairies  – and that she is in fact a princess), gets tricked, falls asleep, gets rescued by an equally genteel and beautiful prince and they all live happily ever after. The film is a classic, but SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amberprincesses like that don’t reign anymore. It is no longer interesting to see a heroine who goes through the story with no control over her actions, and whose main character arc is going from slumber to awake.

In Marc Robin’s new theatrical adaptation, produced by the Marriott Theater for Young Audiences, Sleeping Beauty is a tomboy: she spends her days climbing trees, dreaming of adventure and defending the bumbling dork Prince Hunter (Ryan Reilly) from fire-breathing dragons. Her dialogue is lightly peppered with girl power rhetoric: she claims that pressure for her to wear dresses is "stereotyping" and at one point accuses her Puck-like attendant (Andrew Keltz) of discrimination. These not-so-subtle aims to break down hundreds of years of gender expectations are nice to see, even if they do go over the heads of the kids in the audience and are too broad for the adults.

Sleeping Beauty has gone by many names, including Grimm’s Briar Rose and Disney’s Aurora.  Here, however, she is Princess Amber, of Colorland (played by Jessie Mueller). Colorland is a magical world where everyone has their own color that identifies them: the three fairy godmothers are Periwinkle (Heidi Kettenring), Ruby (Johanna McKenzie Miller) and Marigold (Tammy Mader), and the wicked fairy who condemns Amber to prick her finger on that fateful spinning wheel is Magenta (Susan Moniz). The three good fairies have a nice relationship, and Heidi Kettenring’s goofball performance is a standout (remarked my six year old companion, "Periwinkle was funny!"). Magenta is bad without ever being too scary. The fear factor for kids varies widely; age and sensibility are obvious factors. I brought a six year old and a nine year old who had different reactions to Magenta. The six year old was a little scared of Magenta, but managed to work through it, while the nine year old was mostly interested in her dress which was "cool." Magenta does in fact have a cool dress, designed by Nancy Missimi, but no extra baubles that would make her SLEEPING BEAUTY--Ryan Reilly as Prince Hunter, Jessie Mueller as Amberparticularly freaky to most kids – she does not sport any weird make up, wear a mask or wig, or anything out of the ordinary that would be particularly creepy.

The show is nicely paced. The whole production, including the talk back at the end, runs about 90-minutes. The top half of the show is focused on Princess Amber and her unconventional personality. The presence of Princess Amber is strongly felt, and her sleep is greatly reduced from the hundred years of most versions to an afternoon. During this time, Prince Hunter has to overcome a series of obstacles in order to save his slumbering love with a kiss. Being scared and uncoordinated, he relies both on the fairies and on the audience to help. The children in the audience are cued to shout "I’m your friend" and "You can do it!" at different times. Some kids might find this embarrassing, but it makes for a lively production. The connection between actors and audience is stronger here than in most adult theater. It comes to a quick, clean conclusion and ends on a high happy note (go figure).

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Andrew Keltz, Susan Moniz, Jessie Mueller SLEEPING BEAUTY--Tammy Mader, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Bernie Yvon, Heidi Kettenring

Sleeping Beauty ends with a question/answer talk back, introducing the audience to the actors, the stage manager, the back stage crew and the live band, which is educational and well rounded. The kids get to ask the actors questions about plot points that don’t make sense to them or special effects that seem like real magic to little eyes. The encouraging and informative nature of this talk back is the highlight of the show. Imagination and participation are strongly encouraged by the charming cast, which hosts the session.

The play, which is staged in the round, shares the lovely real wood, rustic set of Fiddler on the Roof, the evening production at the Marriott Theater for Old Audiences. The set was conceived to work with both productions, and doubles well. The natural looking set relieves some of the tension of the princess-and-fairy-run-world of Colorland and brings the production down to earth. The fire breathing dragon, who makes two appearances is constructed of three parts, operated by three different people. The three actors walk in unison, holding large wood puppets representing the three sections of the dragon’s body. The effect is nice and organic. It is also not the only shadowing of Julie Taymor-esque impressionism: a cloth mound is a mountain, a blue sheet is the sea.

The production sets its audience up to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, which proves easy for the kids.  And for adults, it’s nice to see some subtlety in children’s entertainment. Sleeping Beauty respects the intelligence of children and the sanity of adults: it’s is never over-stimulating or tacky.  The little ones in the audience don’t see the thought that went into this production, but they will enjoy it without the need for shock-value. The clarity and focus of the storytelling make Marriott Lincolnshire’s Sleeping Beauty a perfectly nice and colorful way to spend your morning with the little ones in your life.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Heidi Kettenring, Susan Moniz, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Tammy Mader

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