Review: Nunset Boulevard (Theatre at the Center)

     
     

Newest nun revue is less than holy

     
     

Lauren Creel, Felicia Fields, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

   

Theatre at the Center presents

  

Nunset Boulevard

  

Written By Dan Goggin
Directed and choreographed by Stacey Flaster
at Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN (map)
through May 29   |   tickets: $20- $40  |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

They say, “When you find something that works for you, stick to it.” Dan Goggin has made a living off of his troop of fictional nuns from Hoboken, New Jersey since the debut of his smash hit musical Nunsense in 1985. After seven spin-offs Goggin has penned the latest nun adventure, Nunset Boulevard. The musical nuns from Jersey travel to California for a gig at the Hollywood Bowl….-A-Rama. It makes some sense that the Chicago area premiere of this new show is being produced at Theater at the Center in Munster, Indiana, since, after all, Northwest Indiana is seemingly Chicago’s Jersey. It’s where we send our landfill, refining and casino gamblers. In this case, it’s where we send somewhat tired musical comedy such as this production directed rather flatly by Stacey Flaster. While there is some huge talent (namely Tony award nominee Felicia Fields) and occasional chuckles, it’s not quite worth the trip down I-90/94 for what is ultimately a cabaret show with too much space to fill.

Mary Robin Roth (Sister Robert Anne) and Nicole Miller (Sister Leo) in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.In their latest outing, our showbiz sisters arrive in Hollywood for what they think is a booking at the famous Hollywood Bowl. Instead, they are scheduled to appear at the Hollywood Bowl-A-Rama, a bowling alley somewhere in Hollywood. While generally Goggin’s nun shows are largely a cabaret style, Sister Hubert (Fields) suggests in this production that they include a plot (in one of the more fun musical numbers of the night). The show is still primarily though a cabaret style performance of comedic bits, musical numbers, improv and interacting with the audience (probably the highlight of the evening). However, there is a through line revolving around Sister Leo (Nicole Miller) and her quest to get “discovered” in Hollywood. It turns out a movie musical about nuns is auditioning across the street. Sister Robert Anne (Mary Robin Roth) is skeptical. She is especially conflicted when Sister Leo asks permission to appear before the casting director without wearing her habit. There is also Sister Amnesia (Lauren Creel), whose schitck is that she lost her memory due to a giant crucifix falling on her head.

The raunchier bits play the best, however there are not many of them. During the improv segment with the audience, there is a game made of naming famous nuns from the movies which rewards certain audience members with very funny religious keepsakes. The fact that the nuns sing and dance isn’t novel enough anymore to carry the interest of the audience over two hours. The Hollywood they are visiting is decidedly a Hollywood of old with songs like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and a parade of classic Hollywood blonde bombshells.

Fields provides some wonderful vocals and dry humor to the evening. Creel and Miller are also standouts with their energy. But, Flaster’s direction, along with certain Mary Robin Roth as Sister Robert Anne in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.performances, hamper the pacing. There’s a comedy-killing pause between nearly every line dragging the show down. The cast overall plays too small to fill this space. Also, there were numerous instances where several actors were restarting lines which took the wind out of any possibility for consistent laughs.

Stephen Carmody’s set is a “Vegas meets Magic Kingdom” take on Hollywood. The expansive facade could hold a big band and 20 chorus girls. Instead, we get 3 keyboardists, a drum kit and five nuns. The one-liners and corny, yet sometimes delightful, tunes come across as though they would fit better in a nightclub setting. The formality of this large theatre complex drowns out most of the charm.

Overall, the production elements are too polished and gaudy in contrast with what’s essentially comedic sketches and light songs. The vastness of the theater demands too much non-stop entertainment. I feel the same show could be placed in a setting such as Mary’s Attic (an upstairs bar lounge in Andersonville) and achieve a much better effect on its audience. There is definitely something here for diehard fans of Goggin’s nun series, but not enough to spark any excitement as these Jersey girls’ take on Tinsel Town.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Felicia Fields, Lauren Creel, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

Theatre at the Center presents the Chicago Area premiere of Dan Goggin’s Nunset Boulevard, directed by Stacey Flaster, April 28- May 29 at 1040 Ridge Rd, Munster, IN. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $36 on Wednesdays-Thursdays, and $20-$40 Fridays- Sundays. Tickets may be purchased by phone (219-836-3255) or online at theatreatthecenter.com.

  
  

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Review: Sleuth (Theatre at the Center)

     
     

A delightfully cunning mystery in Munster

     
     

SLEUTH Lance Baker playing game & Larry Yando

   
Theatre at the Center presents
   
Sleuth
     
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by
William Pullinsi
at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster (map)
thru March 20  | 
tickets: $36-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Let the games begin. They’re rarely more intriguing and diabolically delicious than they are as played in Anthony Shaffer’s cork-screw twisting crime caper Sleuth. The suspensor has the intelligence of an international chess match and the tension of a frayed high wire poised to snap under the weight of a two-man aerial team, sending those who would traverse plummeting it to their deaths. With director William Pullinsi helming the master-class cast of Larry Yando and Lance S. Baker, Theatre at the Lance Baker as clown breaking in - a scene from Theatre at the Center's 'Sleuth'.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Center‘s production of Sleuth is a first-rate cut-throat thriller.

Actually, forget the corkscrews. This is a murder mystery with more twists than a switchback trail up a Finlandian Matterhorn. Sleuth isn’t merely a whodunit; it’s also a who-has-been-done, meaning that you’re never quite certain which of several apparent victims has been slain until the final curtain. Is it the Nordic mistress, strangled with the silk stocking? The cuckolding travel agent, executed with the revolver? Shaffer builds illusion upon reality until the two mirror each other in a whacked-out, fun-house reflection, toying with the audience much as the story’s dueling gamesmen toy with each other.

And oh, such gamesmen are at play in Munster. Larry Yando plays Andrew Wyke, a mystery writer whose disdain for the plodding numbskull police is inversely proportional to his love of a good, old-fashioned match of wits. Watch him as he sits contemplating his chess board: The man’s eyes veritably gleam. Listen as he reads a passage from his latest detective novel: This is a fellow enraptured with both the sound of his own voice and the romance of role-playing, a man who is never so happy as he is when he’s putting on a charade.

Lance Baker plays Milo Tindle, a rather condescending travel agent who has been called to Andrew’s aptly Gothic old mansion (an elaborately spooky two-storey set by Rick and Jackie Penrod) for reasons that become clear only gradually. It wouldn’t do to reveal much more about the connection between Andrew and Milo, so suffice to say, the snare that binds them creates an elaborate labyrinth of a live-action brain-teaser. And every time you think you have it all figured out? You haven’t.

Baker and Yando are at the top of their craft; watching them turn and turn back the tables on each other is sheer delight. Milo has quite a journey, going from contained, arch smugness to quivering desperation to scary, dead-eyed psycho to gloating triumph, and Baker carries it off with dizzying grace. Yando cackles like a gleefully demented child as he manipulates his quarry, moving around the stage like a spider hopped up on amphetamines. When predator becomes prey, Yando morphs from elegantly controlled, slightly sadistic alpha male to clawing underdog, wild-eyed with fear and yet somehow also secretly joyous because he’s finally met a worthy opponent.

     
SLEUTH Lance Baker, Jack & Larry Yando, Theatre at the Center Munster SLEUTH Larry Yando with gun & Lance Baker in clown

Director Pullinsi keeps the pace crackling along like a brushfire. In between its trio of Big Reveals, Sleuth is an inherently talky play. Its rich, almost Stoppardian dialogue doubles back on itself as schemes, counter-schemes, crosses and double-crosses volley across the stage. Yando and Baker parry with the ease of fencers, making the intricate wording sound as spontaneous as an unexpected gunshot.

Our one criticism of the production is that Pullinsi downplays the narrative’s essential homosexual subtext (and regular text, for that matter) substantially. That means the end-game lines about diminished manhood and blackmail don’t make quite the sense they should. Still, Pullinsi has constructed a house of games that’s totally worth the drive to Munster.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

SLEUTH Larry Yando & Lance Baker - smoking jacketSleuth continues at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana, running February 17 through March 20. To purchase individual or group tickets call the Box Office at 219.836.3255 or Tickets.com at800.511.1552.  For more information on Theater at the Center, visit www.TheatreatTheCenter.com.  All photo by Michael Brosilow.

     
     

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REVIEW: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Theatre at the Center)

Bad People, Great Musical

 

 DRS- Dara Cameron and ensemble

   
Theatre at the Center presents
   
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
   
Book by Jeffrey Lane
Music/Lyrics by
David Yazbek
Directed by
William Pullinsi
Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge, Munster, IN (map)
through October 10  |  tickets: $36-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I really didn’t know what to expect walking into the regional premier of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. First, because the musical is based on the 1988 comedy, I wondered whether it would be another repackaged Hollywood film set to music and fed back to us. Second, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a production of Theatre at the Center (TATC), located in Munster, Indiana. It truly is a rare occasion when I get to venture out of the city proper, and so I was eager, as well as a little skeptical, to see if TATC would rival Chicago-quality theatre. By the end of the play, I was certainly reassured that, yes, Hollywood films can be transformed into worthwhile musicals, and, yes, good theatre exists beyond the city limits.

DRS- Larry Adams and Paula Scrofano Dirty Rotten Scoundrels focuses on two European-based professional swindlers. Lawrence Jameson (Larry Wyatt) is the refined cad who fabricates a princely back story for himself, which he uses to pray upon the dreams and sympathies of naïve, wealthy women. His rival, who he encounters by chance, is Freddy Benson (Michael Mahler). Freddy is an amateur thief who, after discovering Lawrence’s true identity, encourages Lawrence to teach him the ways of the rogue.

Eventually, the teacher-student relationship transforms into a competition, where Lawrence and Freddy wager on who is the more skillful scoundrel. At the center of this bet is Christine Colgate (Dara Cameron), a wealthy American heiress. The two hatch elaborate schemes to win her over, and a comedy of errors ensues.

The musical (book by Jeffrey Lane with music and lyrics by David Yazbek) is genuinely funny. The writing is sharp, so sharp that I enjoyed the non-musical portions of the show just as much as the singing and dancing. Witty word play and even some risqué off-color jokes appear throughout, as do the occasional pop-culture references. There’s also plenty of meta-humor, too, with characters toying with the art form’s conventions.

The caliber of singing and acting talent rivals that of any big-time, downtown Chicago production. Wyatt, Mahler and Cameron all give standing-ovation-worthy performances. Harmonies are pitch perfect, and timing is impeccable. What more could you want out of a cast?

 

DRS- Michael Mahler and ensemble Great Big Stuff DRS- Dara Cameron, Michael Mahler and Larry Wyatt

Speaking of rivaling downtown productions, TATC definitely has the firepower to produce a large-scale spectacle. The lighting system alone looks like something out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. All actors are outfitted with mics, making it very easy to hear every word and note throughout the spacious auditorium.

The only element stopping me from giving this production four stars is its pace. The play, with intermission, runs about two-and-a-half hours. Although William Pullinsi’s direction is otherwise commendable, he relies too heavily on blackouts to transition from scene to scene. This bogs down the musical, draining some of its momentum.

TATC’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels goes to show that being out of the Loop isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re in the mood for a hilarious musical with a good story and excellent performances, go see this play.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

DRS- Michael Mahler, Larry Wyatt and Lauren CreelPerformances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:30pm; select Thursdays at 7:30 or 8pm. and Saturdays at 2:30pm. Ticket prices range from $36 – $40.  For ticket info, call the Box Office (219.836.3255), Tickets.com (800.511.1552) or visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.

      
     

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REVIEW: Jesus Christ Superstar (Theatre at the Center)

Update: Due to a misrepresentation (i.e., error) in our critique of this production, this review has been adjusted to address the inaccuracy.  To Theatre at the Center and the production’s personnel, my apologies.  Scotty Zacher, Editor.

Uneven “Superstar” finishes strong

 

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 02

   
Theatre at the Center presents
   
Jesus Christ Superstar
  
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by
Tim Rice
Directed by
Stacey Flaster
at
Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge, Munster (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets: $36-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Michael L. Harris

Sitting amongst the mostly 40+ crowd, gathered for the near capacity performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Theatre at the Center, I wanted to love this show. The stage-to-movie musical is certainly a familiar one, with two of the songs – the title song and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” – making it to the Top 10 in the 70’s when it first debuted. In the end, however, the show is a mixed bag.

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 06Musically, the range and quality of voices is quite amazing. Max Quinlan (Jesus) goes from low bass to high falsetto with amazing ease, as does Joe Tokarz as Judas Iscariot, the counter lead.  Problems arise, however, with the gigantic thrust space and the overzealous back-up orchestra that succeeds in swallowing up poor Jesus. These elements tacitly become the superstars; Jesus just a set piece. Given that the score is extremely challenging and the cast is vocally exquisite, it’s unfortunate that dynamically this disparity exists. The actors are isolated and disconnected, both from each other and from the audience. Experts say that much of acting is “reacting,” unfortunately there’s far too little of the latter in this Superstar.

This distancing of the audience is more of a directorial decision than actor disconnection. Indeed, director Stacey Flaster seems to be aiming for distance rather than intimacy.  Objectively, this works with Sanhedrin. When it comes to Jesus, however, one never gets as close as preferred. Indeed, there are moments of splendor, but overall the sheen is more matte than glossy. 

For the most part, the First Act lacks inspiration. After the introduction of the Apostles – which is staged more as a “love in” – there are signs of better performances to come. Audrey Billings‘ (Mary Magdalene) rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is warm and tender. Larry Adams’ Pontius Pilate is spot-on, giving a sense of both the character’s greatness and shortcomings. Adams’ professionalism and stage presence are quite commanding, accentuating what is missing from Quinlan, whose performance shows adroit characterization but seems better suited for film/TV than the stage. Additionally, Steve Genovese steals the show with his second act opener, “King of the Jews” and Jonathan Lee Cunningham delivers a solid rendition as Simon Peter in his credible “Denial” sequence .

 

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 04 Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 03

The best staging exists within “Could We Start Again, Please.” Both Billings (Mary) and Cunningham (Peter) are at their best in this number, and the entire cast shines as an ensemble, including Quinlan (Jesus), making this by far the apex of the play.

Barry G. Funderburg’s sound design is flawed.  The centralized speaker system – with no side speakers – creates a situation where the orchestra often overpowers the choral work.

Nikki Delhomme’s costume’s are a mishmash – at times delightful; at other times confusing. Delhomme’s concept of universality through an ancient/modern mix generally works, but what’s up with the dress-with-a-funky-hat combo that the Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 08Sanhedrin wear??? I couldn’t help thinking, as the Sanhedrin descended the massive centralize staircase, of the old Lucille Ball sketch where she comes down the stairs with the huge pile of fruit on her head . (Thankfully these women are much more coordinated than Lucy!)

The make-up design is equally confusing. There must be a method to the madness, but the painted kabuki masking on the Sanhedrin principals amounts to overkill.  Conversely, the quasi clown make-up donned by Herod works .

Flaster’s choreography is generally exemplary, but doesn’t always fill the stage. And in some instances – notably during Judas’ famous negotiations with the Sanhedrin – actually blocks the action.

Kudos to Ann N. Davis’ technical direction – rigging and scene changes move seamlessly.

Deficiencies aside, if you’ve never seen the show, and/or are in a retro mood, Jesus Christ Superstar is worth two hours of your time – especially the powerful resurrection of the second act.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
   

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 05

    
    

 

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REVIEW: Theatre at the Center’s “The Christmas Schooner”

Chicago’s Christmas Play

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Theatre at The Center presents:

The Christmas Schooner

 

by John Reeger and Julie Shannon
Directed by Chuck Gessert
Music-directed by William A. Underwood
Thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

I now have a new favorite holiday show, and I hope it runs as a yearly tradition in the Chicagoland area. The Christmas Schooner ran for many years at the Bailiwick Theatre and this year is currently at Theatre at The Center (an Equity theatre in nearby Munster, IN.)

CHRISTMAS_SCHOONER_2 The Christmas Schooner is a based on a true local story and written by Chicago’s John Reeger (book) and Julie Shannon (music.) The story involves a German family living in Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan and working on the schooners that carry cargo to other ports along the lake. At home the Stossel family has a strong respect for the German traditions as well as generous hearts that feel compassion for those less fortunate. When a letter from Peter Stossel’s (Brandon Dahlquist) sister arrives, addressing her disappointment in not having a Tannebaum for Christmas and how many Germans in Chicago were left feeling homesick without their traditional Christmas symbol, Peter, the father and man of the family, feels a sense of duty to bring the people of Chicago Christmas trees.

Almost this entire story is told through the everlasting music. Shannon’s songs tell the whole story, including witty conversations between family members and acted as if reacting to real dialogue. It is a complex diverse score that moves with the changing tide in the play and allows the astonishing voices on stage to fill the house with the emotion of their characters.

The dialogue succeeds in bringing out the everyday humor in each situation, and Peter Kevoian plays it best as the Opa Gustav Stossel. Kevoian moved me in all direction, having me laughing throughout the play and crying at the end. Each performer created their own individual and, as a whole, the chemistry between each member of the family brings out the strongest sense of family spirit. The message of pride and sacrifice for others is brought out in action and the bonds of love and dependency in one another builds as they set out to please others less fortunate.

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As in all true stories, there are moments of disappointment and sadness, but the courage and strength of the Stossel family bring out the true meaning of Christmas. Their kindness reached people of all ethnic backgrounds and the joy they brought to others made their difficult journeys worth their sacrifice.

The Christmas Schooner is a timeless musical that should be seen by all those dwelling near the Great Lakes, and across the U.S. This is a truly American Christmas story of family relations, traditions and generosity in the melting pot of the Midwest.

Rating: ★★★★

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