Review: Always, Patsy Cline (Fox Valley Repertory)

     
     

Patsy not the star of her own show

     
    

Megan Long as Patsy Cline. Photo by Trademan Photography

  
Fox Valley Repertory presents
  
Always, Patsy Cline
  
Created by Ted Swindley
Directed by John Gawlik
at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $29-$39  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Fox Valley Repertory performs Ted Swindley’s musical tribute to the late country music darling Patsy Cline through a haze, literally and figuratively. For one, generational, tertiary colored lights penetrate fog above the stage, making for a nice effect not unlike watching a “Lawrence Welk” type television show on an analog set. The edges around the singers and band are softened, and the space is filled with nostalgic ambiance.

The other haze is selective memory.

Whatever events that caused the lonely heartbreak that drives Cline’s most moving songs—listen to “Faded Love, ” for god’s sake—as well as the struggles she suffered attaining her success are left deep in the background. No, the stakes in Swindley’s play couldn’t be lower, but one gets the sense that’s where he wants them. Always, Patsy Cline is inspired by the real life letters kept between Cline (Megan Long) Megan Long as Patsy Cline in Fox Valley Rep's 'Always, Patsy Cline'. Photo by Trademan Photography.and her close friend Louise Steger (Kate Brown), and just like pouring over the letters of a departed friend, he only wants us to remember what was good. Cline’s actual biography is a tragic story of a legendary artist dying in a senseless accident at 30. Director John Gawlik’s show is the recounting of a friendship and the joy that carries on after someone passes.

We’re first introduced to Patsy in boots at the Grand Ol Oprey, with Louise miles away seated in a Lucy Chair in her kitchen. Listening to Cline sparks a bit of a love affair in Steger, and she quickly closes the gap.

As the narrator and primary means of moving the play’s light plot forward, Brown is engaging and affable. She makes a balanced duo with Megan Long, countering Long’s authoritative pettiness with broad shoulders, an admiration for cigarettes and coffee, and an unabashed willingness to wiggles, shake, and slap her tuckus. Getting the mostly older audience at Fox Valley Rep to actively engage can be a process akin to pulling dentures teeth, but Brown actually gets a few of them to their feet.

Cline, on the other hand, is written to be viewed from a distance. Long shines in the music numbers with her strong voice and well-trained little yodels and yips, but she’s given little opportunity to be the star any place else. Perhaps the playwright is trying attain some sense of mystique for the title-character. Trouble is, that choice forces Brown’s character to continually grab for exposition instead of action to tell the story about a friendship, and leaves our deep connection to their relationship out of reach.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Kate Brown as narrating friend Louise Steger and Megan Long as Patsy Cline in Fox Valey Rep's "Always, Patsy Cline". Photo by Trademan Photography. Megan Long as Patsy Cline. Photo by Tradman Photography

Always, Patsy Cline: The Sweetest Musical This Side of Heaven runs through May 15th at Pheasant Run Resort, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, with selective Thursdays either 8pm or 2pm.  Tickets are $29-$39 (dinner package: $49), and can be purchased online or by calling (630) 584-6342.  More info at www.foxvalleyrep.org.

All photos by Trademan Photography

     
     

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REVIEW: Neverwhere (Lifeline Theatre)

‘Wicked’ isn’t the only dark Oz

 

Neverwhere5

 
Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Neverwhere
 
Adapted by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Paul S. Holmquist
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through June 20  |  Tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Alice fell through the rabbit hole. Dorothy was swept up by a tornado.

For good-hearted, mild-mannered Richard Mayhew, unlikely hero of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy Neverwhere, now in a world-premiere adaptation at Rogers Park’s Neverwhere1always innovative Lifeline Theatre, it’s stumbling on and aiding an injured girl that propels him into a strange new world — London Below – a grimmer, underground  version of the city he knows, a place of sewers and magic and people who fell through cracks … and from which there can be no return. Like Wicked, the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel from which the lighter, happier Broadway musical was adapted, Neverwhere, gives us an upended and blackly humorous view of a familiar place.

Directed by Paul S. Holmquist, Kauzlaric’s adaptation, ten years in the making, sticks closely to Gaiman’s 1996 novel, which was in turn based on a teleplay Gaiman did for a BBC miniseries.  Gaiman’s storyline leaves unanswered questions, and so does this play, but his creatively imagined world overcomes the hanging threads. Kauzlaric’s trimming removes some of the most gruesome and ugly bits, retaining most of the action.

The hapless Richard (guilelessly portrayed by Robert Kauzlaric, the playwright) journeys through the bizarre and deadly London Below with the hunted girl, Lady Door (plucky Katie McLean), and her companions, the dodgy, sardonic Marquis de Carabas (a wonderfully dry and laconic Chris Hainsworth) and the enigmatic bodyguard Hunter (Kyra Morris, in fighting trim). They’re off to see the angel Islington (somewhat over-deliberately played by Phil Timberlake) in an effort to find out who ordered Door’s whole family murdered and how Richard can, like Dorothy, go home again. The wizard … er, angel … sends them on a quest to bring back a mysterious key.

 

Neverwhere3 Neverwhere6 Neverwhere4

Lifeline does its usual beautifully inventive job of bringing the written word to the stage, with just a few minor flaws. Here and there, unexplained lines leftover from the book may be puzzling to those who haven’t read it. Mikhail Fiksel‘s eerie original music fits the mood quite well, but in several places underlying music or sound-effects distract from the dialogue. A few longish monologues slow the action (and add up to a 2½-hour-long production).

Alan Donahue’s multi-level set, full of doors and tunnels and ladders, goes a long way toward evoking the forbidding London Below, aided by puppets created by Kimberly G. Morris and rich performances from Patrick Blashill, Christopher M. Walsh and Elise Kauzlaric as a series of creepy, colorful, underworld characters. Sean Sinitski is spine-chillingly funny as the loquacious and sinister Mr. Croup.

Gaiman fans should be thrilled, but you needn’t know the novel to enjoy this lively fantasy adventure on stage.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Neverwhere2

Note: Not suitable for young children. Free parking available in the lot at the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood avenues, with free shuttle-van service before and after shows.

A scene from the BBC’s Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman on Neverwhere, Naperville, Feb. 2010

  
   

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REVIEW: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Noble Fool)

 

Fun with spelling

 Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"

 
Noble Fool Theatricals presents
 
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
 
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
book by
Rachel Sheinkin and music/lyrics by William Finn
Directed by
Kevin Bellie, music direction by Peter Storms
Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main St., St. Charles (map)
Through June 13 | Tickets: $29–39, dinner-show packages $46–59 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Can you spell f-r-i-v-o-l-o-u-s? Airy as Wonder Bread, sweet as Gummi Bears, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a fun and unchallenging evening of musical comedy that will get you home well before the babysitter’s deadline and won’t stick you with inconvenient earworms or lingering deep questions. Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, Spelling Bee began with Rebecca Feldman’s sketch C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E for her New York comedy group, the Farm. It came to the Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast" attention of Falsettos composer and lyricist William Finn, who brought on Rachel Sheinkin to help him create a musical adaptation. Opened in 2004 by Barrington Stage Company in western Massachusetts, the musical ultimately became a hit on Broadway, where it played for 1,136 performances. The laughs come from juxtaposition of latter-day life problems, age-old preteen angst and the sentimental nostalgia of the old-fashioned spelling-bee competition.

Kevin Bellie and Peter Storms’ vigorous production for Noble Fool Theatricals is as cute as can be, with a bouncy, talented cast and a lively staging. Spelling Bee runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. On opening night, things stretched out a bit longer when one of the audience members participating in the bee — four volunteers are selected for each performance — proved to be an unexpectedly good speller. Having successfully navigated "catterjunes" (part of the show’s improvisational shtick — it isn’t a real word, so they can accept or reject spellings as needed), he also got through "lysergic acid diethylamide" and had to be eliminated with "xerophthalmiology."

A very strong cast of adult actors aptly plays the competing kids, bringing out their humorous quirks without turning them into cartoons. Especially notable performances come from Samantha Dubin as gawky Olive Ostrovsky, anguished over her missing mom — gone to an ashram in India — and emotionally distant dad; Jack Sweeney as the wide-eyed Leaf Coneybear, rising above his family’s expectations; Cara Rifkin as Logainne Schwartandgrubenierre, a determined grammar-school prodigy urged on by her two gay dads; and Ian Paul Custer as William Barfee, a nasally challenged nerd who spells out words with his "magic foot." Chie Isobe plays uptight overachiever Marcy Park, and Erik Kaiko is Chip Tolentino, the too-confident previous year’s champion. Wonderfully expressive Michael Weber portrays Vice Principal Douglas Panch, increasingly tortured and hilarious as the event goes on. As perky Rona Lisa Peretti, Putnam County’s #1 Realtor and the spelling-bee hostess — reliving her own triumph of the second annual Putnam Co. spelling bee — Liza Jaine solos only briefly, but her powerful backup vocals help hold the show together musically. Randolph Johnson adds a rich note as ex-con Mitch Mahoney, especially in his solo, "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor."

Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"

Though they’re mostly good-humored, some gags uncomfortably straddle the line between colorful characterizations and offensive caricatures, a blemish exacerbated by Bellie’s casting and Kimberly G. Morris’s costumes. Sheinkin wrote in the flaming gay dads and the overachieving Korean kid, but it was Bellie’s choice to cast the only African American in his show in the parolee’s part and Morris’s to drape him in gold gangsta chains. Amusing lyrics in songs such as "My Friend, the Dictionary" and "Pandemonium" make up for the banal tunes of Finn’s mostly pleasant, but typically repetitive score. Don’t look for big song-and-dance numbers. Like everything else about this show, the songs lack heft, and sometimes seem like fillers. Overall, this musical isn’t about the music. Just enjoy it as a lighthearted romp.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Note: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee contains adult language and themes that parents may consider unsuitable for young children.

Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"

    
   

Review: Babes With Blades’ “Macbeth”

Babes With Blades Macbeth a sword-rattling good time

Review by Paige Listerud

Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) and Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) face the final conflict. They dare do all that may become a man in this Babes With Blades all-female production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth–from vying for honor, to scheming unholy murder; from wavering in the face of evil, to charging recklessly into carnage; from chafing under oppressive surveillance, to engaging in out-and-out rebellion; from enduring unspeakable loss, to succumbing, as one’s life drains to nothing.

Directed by Kevin Heckman of Next Theatre for this production, Babes With Blades is an all women’s theater troupe. Their mission is to provide women with stage combat skills, to expand powerful fighting roles for women in drama, and to undermine “the preconception that strength and power are inappropriate for women.” Yet their work also helps to preserve and update the craft and discipline of stage combat for all actors, which often goes by the wayside when theaters downsize casts and drastically cut scenes. Unfortunately, removing traditional battle and fight scenes from plays like Macbeth, while understandable for the modern, minimalist, or cash-strapped production, can have the unwanted effect of diminishing the gravitas of the characters’ choices.

Throughout history, women have fought and participated in battle, often donning men’s clothing to get into military service. Theater history also has its famous women warriors, such as Esme Beringer and Ella Hattan, aka Jaguarina. Staging the traditional combat scenes places physical demands upon actors that few may be prepared for today. To speak one’s part is one thing, to speak it after a full scene of running around, swinging a sword, is quite another. “Most of these women have been with the troupe for years,” said Delia Ford (Duncan), when I asked about getting into shape for the play. “But I’ve just come out of retirement, so I really felt it.”

Murderer (Stephanie Repin) and Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) struggle to the death. The other challenge for companies like these is finding the theater space that will support battle. La Costa is a little hole-in-the-wall theater that one could walk by but for the sandwich-board sign demarking its location, but it has enough stage area plus plenty of routes for exits and entrances. The troupe rushed to find it in 48 hours after losing their previous theater space in Pilsen.

Very likely, what teamwork was needed to produce these battle scenes has strengthened the cohesiveness of this ensemble cast. In fact, their collective paranoia under Macbeth’s gory, volatile regime is performed so convincingly that, by the time we see Macbeth (Kathrynne Wolf) at Dunsinane, we feel the suffocation of tyranny as palpably as Hitler’s last days in the bunker. Here, the young girl players from The Viola Project are cast to greatest effect, as children dressed in uniforms and thrown into battle because Macbeth’s thanes have all fled to his enemies.

The most dramatic scene may be of Lady Macduff (Rachel Stubbs) taking up arms to defend her home and child from Macbeth’s assassins.

Although, in the end, the showdown between Macbeth and Macduff (Amy E. Harmon) was so anticipated and so well executed, it received its own applause.

LadyMacduffkillsm What is the theatrical impact of seeing women fight for themselves, their loved ones, their country, or their ambitions? Be prepared to see, by contrast, a still forceful yet vulnerable and human Lady Macbeth (Nika Ericson). Unlike productions that suffuse Lady Macbeth with sexual and demonic power, both Ericson and the direction show a woman as much under the influence of the Witches (Rachel Stubbs, Melanie Kibbler, and Gillian N. Humiston) as her husband. After the disastrous banquet wherein Banquo’s ghost appears, during which Macbeth freaks out enough to brandish his knife in the guests’ faces, Macbeth slices his hand and pours his blood into a cup. At that moment, Lady Macbeth realizes she has no control over the evil she has unleashed. It is a moment of pure horror.

Furthermore, the scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth potently render, in agonizing increments, their relationship’s progressive disintegration. This production does not overplay this couple’s sexuality, yet illuminates their essential, integral partnership, before, during, and after their downfall.

Kathrynne Wolf’s Macbeth is also vulnerable. While this vulnerability brings Macbeth’s character closer to Hamlet’s, especially when vacillating over murder, it differs by exposing his lack of a moral center. It is this lack of center, more than fear or astonishment, which prevents him from accosting the Witches just like Banquo does. Stephanie Repin, as Banquo, conveys the honor and judicious caution of a morally stable foil.

MacbMacdClinchsm The rub for this production remains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s most famous speeches. These are always troublesome challenges for every actor because they are, for lack of a better word, accursed by comparisons to past performances. They are operatic in nature. Like arias, the soprano and tenor are expected to step downstage and blow the audience away. That being said, the limited mastery of such critical moments makes this Macbeth an uneven, if exciting production. Particularly Lady Macbeth’s opening “invocation” speech–I question the effectiveness of the director’s choice to have the Witches take over whole lines of Lady Macbeth’s. Far more effective was having the Witches chant specific words within Macbeth’s lines, to emphasize their encroachment on his mental state.

The action and pacing never flags, however. One can be assured of a thrilling demonstration of women’s strength and ensemble unity in the delivery of this classic tale about the battles within and without the human soul.

The Viola Project introduces young girls to Shakespeare and trains them in both male and female roles. The young actors playing in this production trained in a stage combat workshop in 2006 sponsored by both Babes With Blades and The Viola Project.

Rating: ««½

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