Review: Leaving Iowa (Fox Valley Repertory)

     
     

‘Leaving Iowa’ backs its rustic corniness with heartfelt characters

     
     

Diane Dorsey (Mom), Don Forston (Dad), Katherine Banks (Sis), Alex Goodrich (Don) in 'Leaving Iowa' by Tim Clue and Spike Manton - directed by Rachel Rockwell

   
Fox Valley Repertory presents
  
Leaving Iowa
       
Written by Tim Clue and Spike Manton
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles (map)
thru March 13  |  tickets: $29-$39  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

As a boy, I endured my share of 6-hour road trips to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a pint-sized rural town where my sister attended college. I can’t say the experience left me with playwrights Tim Clue and Spike Manton’s fondness for the Hawkeye State, but I can appreciate the sentiment behind this charming family comedy.

Leaving Iowa is straight-up Americana, full of the diner waitresses, Civil War re-enactors, helpful motel clerks and hyped-up mechanics we like to believe still pepper the Midwestern landscape. The narrative is familiar but sturdy: Don, a city boy (Alex Goodrich), returns home to take care of family business and finds himself reconnecting with his roots in the process.

'Leaving Iowa' by Tim Clue and Spike Manton - directed by Rachel Rockwell, playing at Pheasant Run Resort by the Fox Valley Repertory.

On a mission to scatter his father’s ashes, he is hit with a wave of nostalgia for his family car trips. The action leaps back and forth between Don’s narration (richly performed, which is no easy task with light-hearted material), his present day quest, and flashbacks to his vacation adventures with Mom (Diane Dorsey), Dad (Don Forston), and Sis (Katherine Banks). The childhood scenes are largely dominated by broad comedy—the kind you’d expect in a self-rated PG play about nostalgia and making things right. At times, jokes about incessant backseat wailing just become incessant wailing, but mostly the gentle humor earns at least a smile.

The real heart of the show lies in Don’s relationship with his father. For a play that ends its first act with an ensemble chorus of “This Land is Your Land” set against a waving flag, director Rachel Rockwell touches on some unexpectedly honest, complicated ideas about growing up. When adult Don tries to have a long-distance phone call with his father, boredom and guilt fill the pauses in between banal sports chatter and monosyllabic responses. Dad, planted in front of a television, silently hurts. The son lacks the will to make the connection his old man needs.

The same goes for a later lament about opportunities passed.

This father-son duo has convincing chemistry. Forston is loveable, and Goodrich fills the All American Boy bill with a sense of earnestness and relatable imperfection. Wacky bits about navigating in the bygone collapsible-map era are swell, but Rockwell never lets us forget there are real humans in that car. The show contains substance underneath its silliness—themes that are affecting and brave.

In other words, Leaving Iowa gives us the apple pie without making us stomach too much gooey, fluorescent cheese on top.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Stop Fighting!  Diane Dorsey (Mom), Don Forston (Dad), Katherine Banks (Sis), Alex Goodrich (Don) encounter a vacation car fight in 'Leaving Iowa' by Tim Clue and Spike Manton - directed by Rachel Rockwell

Artists

Cast: Diane Dorsey (Mom), Don Forston (Dad), Katherine Banks (Sis), Alex Goodrich (Don), Sean Patrick Fawcett (Character Man), Anna Carini (Character Woman), Torey Adkins (Male Understudy), Géraldine Dulex (Sis Understudy), Valerie Glowinski (Mom & Character Woman Understudy)

Production: Rachel Rockwell (Director), Tim Clue & Spike Manton (Playwrights), Mike Tutaj (Video Designer), Yousif Mohamed (Lighting Design), Elizabeth Flauto (Costume Design), Kevin Depinet (Scenic Design), Miles Polaski (Sound Design), Kristi J. Martens (Stage Manager), Laura Eilers (Performance Assistant Stage Manager), Mark Johnson (Replacement Stage Manager), Jesse Gaffney (Properties Master)

***NOTE: Valerie Glowinski has taken over role of The Character Woman***

Leaving Iowa, Rachel Rockwell, Tim Clue, Spike Manton, Fox Valley Rep

Review: Mary (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Unflinching comedy makes you flinch

     
     

(l to r) James (Scott Jaeck), David (Alex Weisman), Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) and Dolores (Barbara Garrick) sit down to a family dinner while Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) tends to them in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
  
Mary
  
Written by Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by May Adrales
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $15-$32  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

In his short time as a professional playwright, Thomas Bradshaw has developed a reputation as one of the foremost provocateurs in the theatre. And after having seen the Goodman Theatre’s production of Mary, it’s a title that is well deserved.

Bradshaw obviously is not one to shy away from such controversial topics as homosexuality, race relations, religion and AIDS, all of which he tackles in the exceedingly dark comedy. But he also is able to deal with these subjects in a way that isn’t sensational. His handling may be over-the-top, taking notions of racism, for example, to absurd heights in order to comically portray the realities of racial inequality. But he never loses sight of the point he is trying to make. In other words, the material isn’t shocking merely to be shocking.

College sweethearts (l to r) Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) and David (Alex Weisman) embrace as they get ready to leave school for winter break in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren.Mary begins in the year 1983. A collegiate gay couple, David (Alex Weisman) and Jonathan (Eddie Bennett), are preparing for the holidays. When David asks if Jonathan would like to spend the Christmas season with his family, Jonathan apprehensively agrees. The two decide to hide their sexuality from the parents, insisting instead they are just really good buddies.

To say David’s family is unusual is an understatement. His extraordinarily over-the-top WASPy parents (played by Barbara Garrick and Scott Jaeck) keep a black maid on hand who they endearingly refer to as Nigger Mary. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) embodies the mammy caricature, that portly maternal good-natured but simple black woman that has permeated white representations of blacks for decades. She is subservient with a smile and treated as a member of the family.

Jonathan is our fish-out-of-water in this scenario, and so we view David’s bizarre family dynamic through his eyes. Of course, seeing a black woman who is affectionately referred to as a nigger and who lives in a cabin on the property doesn’t sit well with Jonathan. And so he urges David to convince his parents to make some changes. David eventually confronts his mother, pleading with her to send Mary to community college so that she may learn to read.

Meanwhile, Mary and her husband Elroy are uncomfortable with David’s obvious homosexuality. The notion of two men engaging in a sexual relationship goes against their strong Christian roots. And so Mary vows to do God’s work and instructs Elroy to shoot Jonathan in the crotch with a BB gun.

     
Dolores (Barbara Garrick) surprises her husband James (Scott Jaeck) with an early Christmas present in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary.  Photo by Liz Lauren. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) recites the Biblical story of Lot to her husband Elroy (Cedric Young) in Thomas Bradshaw’s 'Mary'.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

It certainly sounds like we’re venturing into sitcom territory here. And that seems to be Bradshaw’s intention. But I can assure you that the play does not end on a hearty laugh and a freeze frame. In fact, the ending is quite possibly one of the most unsettling endings to any play I have ever seen. Without giving too much away, Bradshaw in essence pulls the rug out from under the audience, delivering a big "Fuck you!" It’s both ingenious and sadistic.

My problem is that, although I think the ending is a brilliant concept, it feels like the punch line to a very long sketch. It’s a little glib; a little out of left field. It doesn’t entirely make sense when you really sit and think about the characters and the journey they have undergone. And so as much as I really do appreciate the ending as a conceit, I can’t say it was necessarily good playwriting. Myra Lucretia Taylor, as Nigger Mary, struggles with her relationship with the Jennings family in Thomas Bradshaw's 'Mary'. Photo by Liz Lauren.It just makes too big of a leap in logic in order to express how religion and good intentions can send people on misguided missions.

Kudos to the actors, all of whom hold their own in this topsy-turvy play. Weisman and Bennett are good at playing up the puppy love of their relationship, while Bennett scores big laughs with his nimble prancing and shocked facial expressions. Meanwhile, Taylor is incredibly likeable as Mary, even when her character is scheming to shoot a man in the testicles. This likeability makes the play’s conclusion that much more revolting.

May Adrales‘ direction is adept. She keeps the play in motion constantly, giving little time for pause between scenes. It’s exceptional pacing that makes this 90-minute one act breeze by.

The accolades that Bradshaw has received have been earned. Mary really is a thought-provoking and important piece of theatre. I just wish Bradshaw could have found a way to draft his ending so that it wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the characters. Still, the point is made. Just don’t expect to leave the Goodman feeling uplifted.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

(l to r) David (Alex Weisman) plays his new violin for his mother Dolores (Barbara Garrick), his father James (Scott Jaeck), Elroy (Cedric Young) and Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren

All photos by Liz Lauren

         
           

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Review: Do the Hustle (Writers’ Theatre)

     
     

Creating despicable characters we could care less about

     
     

Patrick Andrews and Francis Guinan in Brett Neveu's  'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Do the Hustle
  
Written by Brett Neveu
Directed by William Brown 
at
Writers’ Theatre, Glencoe (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A father and son scuffle over a cup of hot chocolate. The boy walks out in a rage. The cashier bonds with the dad over tough parenting. In response, the father pulls a fast one and steals $10. Writers’ Theatre presents the world premiere of Do The Hustle. Eddie is teaching Sam the family business. The mark, the build-up, the take, father teaches his son the important elements of the perfect con. The duo executes a progression of swindles to get to the big pay off. The scamming hits close to home when the rip-offs get personal. Who is zooming who? Do The Hustle is a series of dark, biting stings that swell into a big ouch.

Patrick Andrews, Karen Janes Woditsch and Francis Guinan - Brett Neveu's 'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.Playwright Brett Neveu penned a chain of seedy intrigues. Playing the audience, the con within the con within the con surprises and baffles. How did they do that? The repeated dialogue is authentically redundant and natural family-speak. The dysfunctional relationship between father and son is well-established. The missing nut in this shell game is the connection. Neveu has created truly flawed characters. They are distinct and despicable. But Neveu comes up short on the big score by cheating the audience of a person to care about. It is no “catch me if you can’ – “the dirty rotten scoundrels” run “the sting” under a “paper moon.” The con artist can be an endearing good bad guy! The double-dealing father, the scheming son, the bitchy grandma, the addict mom: whether they are the confidence men, shills or victims, no one bamboozles empathy.

Under the direction of William Brown, the long con is paced dynamically. Set-ups transition into the next with movable doors (scenic designer Kevin Depinet) that illustrate the location. Andrew Hansen (sound designer) aids in the placement with doors opening to street noises. With minimal furnishings and props, the door generated sounds set the scene. The focal point is the action. And Brown directs it to loathsome heights. Francis Guinan (Eddie) is perfect as a fast-talking louse. Patrick Andrews (Sam) acts out cons of cons with masterful earnest but malicious intent. Joe Minoso and Karen Janes Woditsch excel in multiple roles. Minoso goes from invalid to pawn to rifleman with extensive versatility. Woditsch plays shrew from every angle. The cast is wonderful! I just don’t like any of them. In the end, Do The Hustle had a great beat but I couldn’t dance to it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Patrick Andrews, Francis Guinan, Joe Miñoso and Karen Janes Woditsch - 'Do the Hustle' by Brett Neveu at Writers' Theatre.

Do the Hustle continues Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 6pm, with performances occurring at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe.  For more info, visit www.writerstheatre.org.

Running Time: One hundred and five minutes with no intermission

  
  

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REVIEW: As You Like It (Chicago Shakespeare)

  
  

An ardent Arden blooms beautifully

  
  

Orlando (Matt Schwader) surprises Rosalind (Kate Fry) with a kiss after she and Celia (Chaon Cross) praise his wrestling victory at Court, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'As You Like It'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

   
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre 
 
As You Like It
   
Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Gary Griffin
at CST’s
Courtyard Theatre, Navy Pier (map)
thru March 6  |  tickets: $44-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Through disguise or intrigue, Shakespeare’s driven lovers test each other until they finally earn their fifth-act wedding. In As You Like It, an unconquered forest is the neutral playground for the romantic reconnoiters that will bind the exiled lovers Rosalind and Orlando. In this shelter for simple innocence, artificial privilege defers to natural merit.

The shepherdess Phoebe (Elizabeth Ledo) falls in love with Ganymede (Kate Fry), unaware "he" is actually Rosalind in disguise, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's As You Like It. Photo by Liz Lauren.If love, joy or melancholy were to vanish from the world, you could reconstruct them from Shakespeare’s merriest and wisest comedy. The play’s genius is its artful dispersion of the good and, later, bad characters from the corrupt court to the enchanting trees of Arden. There the Bard imagines the perfect play–and proving ground for Rosalind, strategically disguised as the bisexual cupbearer Ganymede, to test her Orlando by teaching him how to woo the woman he takes for a man.

Sensing how Rosalind’s high spirits and good humor could overwhelm even this teeming forest, Shakespeare balances her natural worth against the snobbish clown Touchstone, the darkly cynical Jaques and the sluttish goatherd Audrey. By play’s end every kind of attachment–romantic, earthy, impetuous and exploitive–is embodied by the four (mis)matched couples who join in a monumental mating.

All any revival needs to do is trust the text and here it triumphs. Vaguely set in the Empire era, Gary Griffin’s perfectly tuned three-hour staging moves effortlessly from the artificial wood façade of the bad Duke’s cold palace to Arden’s blossom-rich, Pandora-like arboreal refuge. Over both the city and country hangs a mysterious pendulum, tolling out the seconds without revealing the time.

Disguised as the young man Ganymede, Rosalind (Kate Fry, center) listens to Orlando (Matt Schwader) unwittingly proclaim his love for her as Celia (Chaon Cross) looks on in amusement, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'As You Like It'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

But then time stands still here: The refugees in these woods have been displaced by the pursuit of power. Very good, then: It gives them all the more leisure for four very different couples to reinvent love from the inside out with all the unmatched and dynamically diverse eloquence that the Bard could give them,

Griffin is an actors’ director and he’s assembled an unexceptionable ensemble as true to their tale as their wonderful writer could wish. Though a tad older than Orlando is usually depicted, Matt Schwader delivers the non-negotiable spontaneity of a late-blooming first love. Above all, he’s a good listener and here he must be: Kate Fry’s electric Rosalind fascinates with every quicksilver, gender-shifting mood swing, capricious whim, resourceful quip or lyrical rhapsody. Fry also plays her as postmaturely young, a woman who was happy enough to be a maiden but won’t become a wife without a complete guarantee of reciprocal adoration. All her testing of Orlando as “Ganymede” is both flirtatious fun and deadly earnest. It would be all too easy to watch only her throughout and see this again for the other performances.

Kate Fry as Rosalind (Ganymede) and Matt Schwader as Orlando in William Shakespeare's 'As You Like It', directed by Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Peter Bosy.The contrasting characters are a litany of excellence, with even the supporting actors attractive despite any lack of lines. Kevin Gudahl’s noble exile of a banished duke, Matt DeCaro’s elaborately evil one, Phillip James Brannon’s flippant and almost anachronistic clown Touchstone, Chaon Cross’ pert and well-grounded Celia, Patrick Clear’s dignified bumpkin, Steve Haggard’s infatuated Silvius and Hillary Clemens as his less than adorable Audrey, Dennis Kelly’s venerable Adam—these are masterful portrayals drawn from life as much as literature.

Shakespeare’s most brilliant creation is the anti-social Jaques, who darkly balances the springtime frolic of Shakespeare’s unstoppable love plots. Oddly social as he waxes with misanthropic melancholy, Jaques is cursed to see the sad end of every story: He can never enjoy the happy ignorance beginning and middle. Ross Lehman gives him the right enthusiastic isolation. He’s dour but never dire.

Arden is a forest well worth escaping to and never leaving. The most regretful part of the play is happily never seen, when this enchanted company must return from these miracle-making groves to the workaday world. But that’s just how the audience feels leaving the Courtyard Theatre, reluctantly relinquishing so much romance.

   
  
Rating: ★★★★
     
   

Celia (Chaon Cross), Touchstone (Phillip James Brannon) and Rosalind (Kate Fry), disguised as the young man Ganymede, celebrate their arrival in the Forest of Arden, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'As You Like It'. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Chaon Cross as Celia, Kate Fry as Rosalind, and Matt Schwader as Orlando in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, directed by Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Peter Bosy

     
     

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REVIEW: It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (NobleFool)

  
  

If you love the movie, you’ll adore the play

  
  

George Keating, Emily Leahy, and Anna Hammonds

   
   
Noble Fool Theatricals presents
    
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
        

Adapted by
Joe Landry
from screenplay by
Goodrich, Hackett, Capra, Swerling
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main, St. Charles (map)
Through Dec. 26  | 
tickets: $29.50–39.50  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Frank Capra’s 1946 film, "It’s a Wonderful Life," starring James Stewart, tends to provoke extremes of reaction.

Like the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play offers upbeat, family-friendly Christmas entertainment, in which you can count on a happy ending. If you adore the original, you’ll likely feel the same about the perfectly sweet production at Noble Fool Theatricals in St. Charles. If the movie gives you the bah humbugs, nothing about this live version — which, if anything, amps up the cuteness — will change your mind.

(From left) Jessie Fisher, George Keating and Anna HammondsOf course, there’s no suspense left whatsoever. Except for his one lapse into despair, George remains saintly and forbearing; Mr. Potter remains money-grubbing and evil-minded; and Angel Second Class Clarence still twinkles.

This 1996 stage adaptation by Joe Landry frames the story of small-town do-gooder George Bailey as a 1940s radio show, replacing the movie’s dozens of characters with a cast of five. They portray radio actors performing a Christmas Eve broadcast of "It’s a Wonderful Life" before a live audience.

New fun comes in the logistics of the radio performance on Kevin Depinet’s convincing stage set and the versatility of the actors. Director Rachel Rockwell has assembled a talented cast, who sing such songs as "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "Merry American Christmas" along with performing the play within the play.

Jack Sweeney doubles as sound-effects man and actor, rushing back and forth with earnest fervor. George Keating, as the lead actor portraying George Bailey, offers a resemblance to Stewart with a less laconic style. Dev Kennedy plays the slightly irascible station manager and a variety of voice parts with verve.  Anna Hammonds and Jessie Fisher give freshness to the female roles. Tom Clear ably plays multiple roles, including Clarence, as well as accompanying beautifully on piano, a highlight of the show.

Rockwell’s production shifts the frame’s setting from Manhattan to Chicago and heightens the cuteness factor with some youthful additions, including a schoolgirl singing ensemble with their teacher (Laura Eilers). Two alternating groups of adorable little girls sing a holiday song and stand in as the Bailey children (Emily Leahy, Kelsey Pettrone, Rebecca Roy, Marie Turner and Melissa Wickland and Leikyn Bravo, Megan Graal, Amelia Kuhlman, Annamaire Schutt and Madysen Simanonis).

This production also gives the soundman a young nephew. Stirling Joyner is appealing, but the role doesn’t add much to the plot. The local adaptation also adds some straightforward commercials for Fox Valley businesses to Landry’s comic, period-style advertisements for hair tonic and soap.

 

From left) Jessie Fisher, George Keating and Anna Hammonds (From left) Jessie Fisher, Dev Kennedy, Anna Hammonds and George Keating

Based on Phillip Van Doren Stern’s short story, "The Greatest Gift," Capra’s idealistic film about how one man can make a difference and goodwill can triumph over material wealth was not a great critical or box-office success at its premiere. The New Yorker described the movie as "so mincing as to border on baby talk," and it drew only $3.3 million in ticket sales, $8 million less than "The Best Years of Our Lives," released at the same time. Only after the Capra film’s copyright lapsed in the 1970s and it began to get annual showings on television did it became a favorite holiday tradition, perhaps because, as it aged, it touched viewers’ nostalgic yearning for a period when people’s motivations seemed black and white — whereas its contemporary audiences knew no such time existed.

"It’s a Wonderful Life" is a fantasy, and not just because of the angel. If that’s your taste in Christmas entertainment, you’ll enjoy it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Anna Hammonds and George Keating 

     
     

REVIEW: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Drury Lane)

 

Dynamic choreography, rousing leading lady save flawed musical

 

 (L-R) Cara Salerno, Vanessa Panerosa, Amber Mak, Hallie Cercone, Abby Mueller, Katie Huff, and Amanda Kroiss star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

        
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
   
Book by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Music/Lyrics by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Johnny Mercer
Directed by Bill Jenkins
Musical Direction by
Roberta Duchak
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

In the 1954 movie musicalSeven Brides for Seven Brothers”, when men kidnap women and trick them into marriage, it’s not Stockholm syndrome, it’s love. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of those movie musicals that is a product of its time, when women were looked at as little more than glorified housekeepers and baby makers, born to do the will of their man. When Adam Pontipee (Steve Blanchard) deceives the sassy Milly (Abby Mueller) into marrying him, his six brothers set out to capture wives for themselves, ambushing six town girls and throwing them in the back of their wagon. It’s offensive, but the music is jovial and melodic, the dancing is energetic and plentiful, and the film’s leading man Howard Keel’s booming voice and charming smile make it difficult to despise the chauvinistic Adam.

(L-R) Richard Strimer (Benjamin) and Abby Mueller (Milly) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett BeinerMy problems with the stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers arise from its attempts to flesh out the characters, which sounds like a good thing but ends up backfiring by making them even shallower. The solos do very little to make you sympathize with the characters, with Milly’s “One Man” beginning as a condemnation of her husband’s trickery before devolving into a tribute to female subservience. Conversely, Adam’s big Act Two moment of redemption “Where Were You?” attempts to justify his sexism by giving him a daddy complex, blaming his actions on his absent father instead of taking responsibility himself. It’s not difficult to assume that Adam’s behavior is a product of his environment, but when it is put into song it just makes the already unlikable character seem pathetic. Blanchard’s vocals don’t help matters, lacking the timbre and strength expected from an 1850 frontiersman. And while the added ensemble numbers manage to evoke the musical style of the film, the solos and smaller group sequences have a contemporary feel that is out of place with the rest of the show’s classic musical theater sound.

The highlight of the production is easily Milly and her relationship with her six brothers-in-law. Mueller’s crystal clear tone and powerful belt make her musical numbers stand out, and she has great chemistry with her new relatives as she assumes a dominating mother position in the household. Watching the brothers transform under Milly’s feminine influence is a joy, from learning to dance in “Goin’ Courtin’” to finally appreciating their women in the heartfelt “Glad That You Were Born.” With the brothers, there is evidence of a struggle between the uncivilized way they’ve been brought up and the restraint that makes for successful courting. “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” is a hilarious exclamation of horny frustration, but it is followed by Daniel (William Travis-Taylor) and Frank (Brandon Springman) ruminating on the somber effects of loneliness in the beautiful “Lonesome Polecat.”

 

(L-R)  Abby Mueller (Milly) and Steve Blanchard (Adam) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner (L-R) Richard Strimer, Jarret Ditch, William Travis Taylor, Chris Yonan, Brandon Springman and (back) Zach Zube star in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Photo by Brett Beiner.

The brothers learning to dance comes in handy for Tammy Mader’s intense, dynamic choreography. Maybe the reason Adam and Milly’s romance never blossoms on stage is because they don’t have a nice dance together like the brothers and their brides. There isn’t much depth to these characters and their affection for each other, but the substance appears in their dancing, when the chemistry really ignites. The extended town dance sequence in Act I is a mesmerizing affair, albeit a little chaotic and unclear at times, while an Act II all-bride dream ballet brings some sensuality to the affair.

Like the film, this production is propelled by its dancing, but bodies in movement can’t overcome all the flaws of the writing. The changes to the film give the story a more modern context, and the attempt to psychoanalyze the characters through song removes much of the musical’s charm. Drury Lane’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a polished, well-performed production, but the questionable source material prevents it from rising to true greatness.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

(L-R) Chris Yonan, Hallie Cercone, Jarret Ditch, and Cara Salerno star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

 

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REVIEW: Detroit (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Great characters and a plot that fails to ignite

 

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
Detroit
     
Written by Lisa D’Amour
Directed by Austin Pendleton

at Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 7   |   tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Detroit is an example of a production with great direction and  top-drawer performances. It is also, unfortunately, a play defined by four characters in search of a plot. The less said about the fifth member of the cast – whose rambling, tacked-on epilogue is one sorry excuse for an ending – the better.

(left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kate Arrington and Kevin Anderson in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s tale of a subdivision in decline is all mood and little matter, which is to say there’s no story here, just a series of vignettes that provide character sketches of four dysfunctional suburbanites, none of whom changes during the 100-minute production. Yes, there’s major materialistic loss for half of the foursome on stage. Despite that, the characters of Detroit end up pretty much in the same place where they started. Were it not for director Austin Pendleton‘s killer cast – Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington and Ian BarfordDetroit would be a complete non-starter.

The titular city is never mentioned. Life-size tract houses (literally within spitting distance of each other) fill the stage in Kevin Depinet’s meticulously detailed set (right down to leaves decaying in long-neglected gutters). They could be just outside any city in the U.S. – which may be the point. Josh Schmidt’s sound design – chirping birds, drowned out by the drone of distant traffic zooming by on some anonymous highway – indicate a suburban locale with a decidedly urban emphasis. Urban – in this case – doesn’t mean gleaming skyscrapers or city-dwelling sophisticates.  Detroit unfolds in a place of borderline shabbiness and barely-concealed desperation. Nothing quite works as it should here, not the malfunctioning patio umbrella that turns a backyard barbeque into a small disaster, and not grill master Ben (Barford), struggling to create an online business after being laid off from his job in a bank.

At curtain up, Ben and his wife Mary (Metcalf) are acting with enthusiastic good will, grilling steaks in a welcome-to-the-neighborhood cookout for newly moved in Sharon (Arrington) and Roger (Anderson).  On the surface, it’s a scene of All-American normalcy. But D’Amour’s dialogue keeps things on edge. People keep saying things that aren’t quite right, things that are in fact – the more you think on them – profoundly messed up. Mary, for all her smiling welcome, seems to be living on Planet Angry. Her words have an ugly sharpness that doesn’t jive with the graciously elaborate appetizers. Ben is living the American dream, an entrepreneur filled with ambition and smarts – except for the nagging question of how it is that somebody living on the margins of the nation’s economic pie can possibly succeed as a one-man financial planning enterprise.

 (counterclockwise from upper left) – Ensemble members Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Kevin Anderson and Laurie Metcalf in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson and Kate Arrington in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Sharon and Rob aren’t exactly Laura and Rob Petrie either. Sharon confides that she and Roger met in rehab, which is absolutely fine and dandy because they’re both obviously well on recovery’s road – employed, clear-eyed and  functional. It’s just a teensy bit odd that  they seem to own neither furniture nor a change of clothes. And  they do have intense, fond memories of a lost weekend in “Hotlanta”  that may or may not have involved free-basing meth. And Sharon cries a lot. And just one beer won’t hurt, not when your main problem has always been heroin, right? And that’s just the start of the kinks and quirks that pepper D’Amour’s  wonderful dialogue.

The problem with Detroit is that for all the marvelously rendered conversation, there’s no arc.  We get memorable scenes of memorable people talking – and eventually yelling and dirty dancing and recklessly playing with matches -  but there’s never anything much at stake. In the end, half of the foursome on stage simply vanishes. You certainly don’t need closure to create a successful drama, but you do need some sort of structure. Detroit, in the end, feels both static and incomplete.

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. What makes it worth seeing are the performances of four Steppenwolf ensemble members, each one at the top of their game. Metcalf, especially, brings a wild-eyed, dangerously suppressed rage to Mary. There’s something feral about her, and when that something boils over during a backyard barbeque-turned-Bacchanal, Metcalf puts on the crazy pants and turns them up to stun. Barford is equally effective in a quieter way, capturing the sad-sack weariness of a stay-at-home non-starter who has been out of the work force long enough to lose his spirit, maybe for good.  Arrington nails the E-Z Cheez ethos of a white-trash crackhead whacktress with a heart of gold while Anderson channels his inner eighth grade caveman as a good guy  who is a profoundly bad influence.

As for Robert Brueler‘s late-in-the-game appearance, it’s only tolerable because it’s relatively brief. I spent the first half of his expository  monologue trying to figure out what he was saying – enunciation isn’t Brueler’s strong suit – and the last half wishing he’d just wrap it up already.  There’s one reason to see Detroit, and that’s for the fearsome foursome of Arrington, Barford, Anderson and Metcalf. It’s just too bad they don’t have more to do.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

        
        

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