Review: The King and I (Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago)

     
     

Getting to love you

     
     

Brianna-Borger and Wayne Hu

  
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago presents
  
The King and I
  
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by L. Walter Stearns
Music Directed by Eugene Dizon
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

L. Walter Stearns’ final staging for Porchlight Music Theatre (he’s moving on to manage the Mercury Theatre) is a splendid swan song. Efficient but never merely dutiful, this tender-loving revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 treasure lets the talent on this stage honor the brilliance on the page. Despite lacking the budgets of Marriott Theatre’s 2000 revival or the most recent one at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2007, Porchlight never allows less to be lacking.

Erik Kaiko as Lun Tha and Jillian Jocson as Tuptim - King and IBesides, look at what they’re working with! It’s rewarding how much the R & H musicals amplify each other, yielding a whole much bigger than its parts. In The King and I we see a British schoolteacher who changes the children around her and shapes the future through her enlightened tutelage of the Crown Prince of Siam. Anna Leonowens anticipates Maria Von Trapp, an Austrian governess who changes the children and around and escapes the present to pursue the sound of music. Likewise, Flower Drum Song carefully chronicles the cultural changes in a community. Above all, like South Pacific, King and I delivers an action lesson in tolerance. Anna and the King learn from each pother, he forbearance and humility before the facts of life, love and death, she the discipline and tradition required to keep a nation together and, more importantly, unconquered.

The closest comparison outside the R & H canon is, interestingly, Fiddler on the Roof: Both musicals deal with central characters coping with change during convulsive historical periods, desperate to preserve tradition (and power) while wryly accepting the future, as much on their terms as possible.

The King’s transformation (and, by implication, that of Siam) is accomplished in stunning songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” that win us over from the first note. Well worth the succession from Gertrude Lawrence to Deborah Kerr to Donna Murphy, Brianna Borger’s warmly engaging Anna brings quicksilver resilience and five different kinds of love to her widow, mother, tutor, confidante and lover. Her patter songs, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” crackles with contagious indignation and hard-core spunk. The first Asian I’ve seen playing the King, burly Wayne Hu stamps the King with wizard timing, wry irascibility and bedrock dignity. The fact that he’s no infallible leader only makes his aspirations to authority more poignant and less threatening.

It’s impossible to overpraise Jillian Anne Jocson’s lovely and lyrical Tuptim, enchanting in “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in Shadow” with ardent Erik Kaiko as her doomed beloved, or Kate Garassino’s elegant Lady Thiang, wisdom wrapped in reticence. The Siamese wives and children (here reduced to six) are marvels of grace in energy and as comely as a palace frieze. Likewise Bill Morey’s elaborate Eastern costumes, their shimmering and sumptuous fabrics lit by Mac Vaughey with what must be new colors, and Ian Zywica’s unit set with its Oriental throne room, filigreed archways, and burnished floor. (Flanking the king are dualistic symbols of East and West—a chess set and a statue of the Buddha.) Brenda Didier’s choreography, faithful to Jerome Robbins, turns “‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ Ballet” into a cascade of astonishment and artful reinvention.

For purists like me there’s one cavil: This revival’s two-piano accompaniment, however beautifully played by Eugene Dizon and Allison Hendrix, is nonetheless a letdown, robbing the songs of the rich orchestrations Rodgers intended. Less crucial, the delightful scene in which the ladies of the court try to maneuver inside European crinoline ballgowns and corsets is necessarily omitted. But new to me is the royal school’s anthem sung by Anna and her princely pupils, as well as a charming reprise of “A Puzzlement” sung by the sons of the principals that extends the cultural clash to the next generation. You win some, you lose some.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Brianna Borger, Dylan Lainez, Tatum Pearlman, Lydia Hurrelbrink

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REVIEW: Sunday in the Park with George (Porchlight)

 

Porchlight’s ‘Sunday’ doesn’t quite put it together

 

Cast of Sunday in the Park With George

   
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Sunday in the Park with George
   
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
Directed by L. Walter Stearns, music direction by Eugene Dizon
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago (map)
Through Oct. 31  | 
Tickets: $38  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"His touch is too deliberate, somehow."

That lyric, from the 1984 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, might well describe Porchlight Music Theatre Director L. Walter Stearns’ uneven revival, which somehow fails to connect the dots of the Stephen Sondheim musical.

Sondheim James Lapine’s imagined backstory behind 19th-century painter Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" (now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago) has only a tangential relationship to the real biography of the groundbreaking neoimpressionist whose early death deprived the art world of what surely would have been a brilliant career. Instead it concentrates on the troublesome issues of balance between art and life, work and relationships, ambition and practicality.

The artist calls for "Order. Design. Composition. Tone. Form. Symmetry. Balance" — elements that can make or break any work of art. This imbalanced production falters under too much design and not enough tone.

Hidden behind the scenes, Music Director Eugene Dizon on piano and his orchestra — Carolyn Berger, violin; Michelle Lewis, cello; Allison Richards, viola; Patrick Rehker and Derek Weihofen, woodwinds; and Jennifer Ruggieri, harp — do a stellar job with the music. Unfortunately, many of the singers don’t measure up.

Amanda Sweger‘s massive backdrop and Liviu Pasare‘s distracting video projections overwhelm the small stage and the cast as well.

Brandon Dahlquist ably captures George’s sensitivity and absorption, with an expressive face that suggests the real Seurat’s soulful looks and a fine tenor. Yet too often he’s obscured behind the scrim or facing away from the audience. (John Francisco will take this role for the final three weekends of the run.) Seurat’s painting may be the subject of the play, but we really don’t need to see it all the time. An empty stretcher would have conveyed the idea of the work just as well and allowed us to see the actor’s face.

On the other hand, Jess Godwin’s passion is all in her face and rarely in her singing. Playing George’s lover, Dot, the animated and lovely Godwin displays an almost palpable yearning for the artist. The slender redhead bears no resemblance to the Seurat’s actual mistress, Madeleine Knobloch (the buxom subject of "Young Woman Powdering Herself"), which doesn’t matter, but her voice often sounds as thin as her figure, and that does.

Several members of the supporting cast put in excellent performances, however. Sara Stern is superb as George’s peevish, elderly mother. Her fabulous version of "Beautiful" is the highlight of Act I. Sarah Hayes and Daniel Waters do a hilarious job as the unhappy American tourists. Bil Ingraham and Heather Townsend are aptly haughty as the successful painter Jules and his wife, Yvonne, delivering tittering pronouncements on George’s work in "No Life," and Michael Pacas makes a wonderfully wry and full-voiced boatman.

The second act, which jumps forward to a modern artist, also named George — a fictional great-grandson of Seurat — seems much stronger, as if the cast and crew felt more comfortable in the 20th century. Dahlquist, now fresh-faced and beardless, is out in front here. But Godwin, now portraying George’s grandmother, sings "Children and Art" so softly she’s nearly inaudible.

Sunday is one of Sondheim’s more challenging musicals. Porchlight would have done much better to concentrate on the essentials of light and harmony instead of reaching for the heavy design elements that weigh down this production.

"Art isn’t easy, no matter how you look at it."

   
   
Rating:★★
   
  

Benefit Concert

Porchlight Music Theatre hosts a benefit concert, "By Popular Demand," at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 11, at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave., Chicago (map).

In Act I, singers Jayson Brooks, Sean Effinger-Dean, Nick Foster, Jess Godwin, Lina Kernan, Ryan Lanning, Bethany Thomas, Joseph Tokarz and others perform. At intermission, the audience votes to determine who’ll return to sing again in Act II.

Tickets are $40. Two votes are included with your admission. Each additional vote costs $1 and supports new talent, new works and new productions at Porchlight.

REVIEW: Into the Woods (Porchlight Music Theatre)

Enchanted cast serves up skewered storybook characters

 Jeny Wasilewski as Little Red Ridinghood, Henry Michael Odum as Narrator, Steve Best as The Baker

 
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
 
Into the Woods
 
Book by James Lapine
Music/Lyrics by
Stephen Sondheim 
Directed by
L. Walter Stearns
Music Direction by Eugene Dizon
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through May 30th | tickets: $38 | more info

By Katy Walsh

What happens after happily everafter? What is next after Cinderella gets married, Jack kills the giant, Rapunzel has short hair? Porchlight Music Theatre presents the Tony Award-winning musical, Into The Woods. The baker learns his witch-of-a neighbor has cursed him with infertility. To break the barren spell, the baker is instructed by the  Rachel Quinn as Cinderellawitch to produce a red cape, golden slipper, white cow and blonde hair strands. He and his wife go into the woods to secure the hex-breaking ingredients. Among the trees, they find storybook characters struggling with their own predetermined storybook ending. Into The Woods intersects multiple fairytale classics to create non-traditional ever-afters.

The set designed by Ian Zywica establishes the woods location. Although the five piece orchestra is visibly on stage, they vanish just beyond a hill and bramble. Center stage is a large full moon-shaped screen doubling as forest projections and shadowboxing scenes (designed by Liviu Pasare). The multi-media effect adds a mystical quality for dead people speaking or being regurgitated. Although simplistic, it has all the makings for a magical forest for close encounters of the fable kind.

Under the direction of Artistic Director L. Walter Stearns, the talented ensemble cast are enchanting(!). Bethany Thomas (witch) is spellbindingly marvelous belting out the punch line and song. Her rendition of “Children Will Listen” is an inspiring memorable moment. With exaggerated prince-like debonair, Cameron Brune and William Travis Taylor are hilarious leaping in and out of scenes. Their double duet of “Agony” is suave buffoonery, as Taylor quips, “I was taught to be charming not sincere.” Although sometimes overpowered by the band, Jeny Wasilewski (Red Riding Hood) sings and skips with spunky determination. Channeling Amy Adams’ “Enchanted” performance, Rachel Quinn (Cinderella) is a wistful and underwhelmed target of the prince’s affection. Steve Best and Brianna Borger (Baker/Baker’s Wife) sing an amusing duet of marital expectations. The large cast adds harmonious voice to the finale… both of them.

Cameron Brune as Rapunzel's Prince and William Travis Taylor as Cinderella's Prince Cameron Brune as The Wolf and Jeny Wasilewski as Little Red Ridinghood
Henry Michael Odum as Mysterious Man Steve Best as The Baker and Brianna Borger as The Baker's Wife Rachel Quinn as Cinderella and Jeny Wasilewski as Little Red Ridinghood

Initially, Into The Woods is a clever and witty flashback to childhood stories. In a ninety minute first act, playwright James Lapine succinctly intertwines various fairytales with additions of each character’s back story. The happily-ever-after finale is amusing, satisfying and surprising. The projected words “to be continued” initiates a program book revisit. Apparently, something does happens after ‘happily ever after.’ Act II starts where the traditional fairytale ends. The results are less than whimsical with a giant’s village domination, philandering spouses, and serial killing. It’s a harsh twist for following your dream. Sure, there are adult lessons to be learned about the consequences of pursuing your heart’s desire. It’s called reality. I prefer to keep my childhood heroes in a perpetual state of Act I make believe.

 
   
Rating: ★★★
    
    

 

Kristen Leia Freilich as Jack's Mother and Scott J. Sumerak as Jack Bethany Thomas as The Witch

 

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2009 Chicago Christmas Theater

Christmas Show Round-Up

 christmascarol7

By Barry Eitel

With all those holiday shows out in Chicago right now, it’s hard to decide what to see on top of all the shopping and avoiding extended family. And there is something for everyone out there, from Dickensian classics to ones celebrating the seedier side of December. This season has seen a fairly controversial Christmas on the Chicago theatre scene. For one, there is the on-going feud between American Theatre Company and American Blues Theatre, both of which are simultaneously visiting the village of Bedford Falls with “radio” productions of It’s a Wonderful Life. Just a bit awkward. And then there is the whole Civic Opera Christmas Carol fiasco, where producer/ex-convict Kevin Von Feldt promised a cavalcade of stars and then the whole project somehow fell through. Not to worry, though. There is plenty of goodwill towards man out there to keep you entertained until January.

Luckily for you, the elves at Chicago Theatre Blog have put together a Holiday Theatre Guide to find the perfect show for you. So bust out the coffee and pumpkin pie, and enjoy our sleigh ride through the holiday theatre season.

IF YOU’RE IN TO LONG-STANDING TRADITIONS

Go see the Goodman’s Christmas Carol (★★★½). The show has 32 years behind it and the list of actors who have played past Scrooges reads like a Hall of Fame for Chicago actors. This year’s version has a nice mix of the time-honored and the refreshing. Larry Yando does a remarkable job as Scrooge, bringing out new facets of the usually stiff character. Most of the production in terms of design has not changed over the years, but it still gets results emotionally (and financially). Even without overhauling the dusty script or design, Bill Brown’s strikingly honest production can melt even the most cynical Scrooges in the audience (our review here).

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IF YOU DON’T MIND TRAVELING TO INDIANA

Then The Christmas Schooner at Theatre at the Center (★★★★) is the show for you. Once usual fare at the now-deceased Bailiwick Arts Center, the show has moved on to its new home in Munster, Indiana. The Theatre at the Center production revels in furthering the orchestrations and design. Called the “most Midwestern” of the Christmas shows out there, the musical tells the tale of 19th Century German immigrants, Christmas trees, and a ship carrying very important holiday cargo. With the vast amount of Equity actors and Christmas cheer, The Christmas Schooner is worth the trip (our review here).

snowqueen

IF YOU’RE A FAN OF ROCK OPERAS

You should see the musical stylings in The Snow Queen  (★★★), the annual Christmas show at Victory Gardens. Adapted by Frank Galati from a Hans Christian Anderson story, this little musical tells the story of a girl battling an evil snow queen in order to rescue her friend. There’s puppets, live music, and plenty of reindeer. If you like your Christmas carols with a little more guitar and a little less pipe organ, you should head on down to Victory Gardens to catch this gem (our review here).

winterpageant_thumb

IF YOU LOVE SPECTACLE

Then check out Redmoon’s Winter Pageant (★★½). The famously choreography-and-spectacle-oriented company’s foray into holiday shows is a wonder to behold. The show boasts a breakneck pace and very little dialogue, so it is sure to delight the entire family. With their focus on magical theatrics, Redmoon have created a show that celebrates what we love about winter (our review here).

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IF YOU HATE CHRISTMAS SHOWS

You should take a look at A Red Orchid Theatre’s A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant (★★★).  Or take a look at the production going on at Next Theatre (★★½) in Evanston. Either way, you’ll enjoy these children acting out the history and theory of Scientology, as dictated by L. Ron Hubbard. And most likely, you’ll be a little frightened. Your inner cynic, however, will love the fact that children are pulling off this juicy satire about one of the world’s most lucrative religions (our reviews here and here).

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SHOW UNDER 90 MINUTES

Miracle on 34th Street (★★★½) presented by Porchlight Music Theatre could be the show for you. Taking place at the Theatre Building Chicago, this adaptation is not really a straight musical besides a select number of Christmas carols. Through condensing the most memorable section of the classic 1947 film, director L. Walter Stearns comes in at a kid-friendly 80 minutes. Even with this abridged adaptation, you’ll be reminded why you fell in love with the story in the first place (our review here).

IF YOU’RE JEWISH

There’s always the snarky Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition, the one-woman show at the Royal George featuring the sarcastic Jackie Hoffman. She plays the Grandmama in The Addams Family  (review★★★)  and rants in this show on Mondays, her off-nights. Hoffman whines about children, her current role at the Oriental, and, especially, the holidays, Chanukah or otherwise. It all makes for a pretty cathartic Monday night.

IF YOU WANT TO TAKE A TRIP TO BEDFORD FALLS

Than two routes are available to you. You could either see American Theatre Company’s It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (★★★) or American Blues Theatre (comprised of many former ATC ensemble members) present It’s A Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!  Even though one does have an exclamation point in the title, both are well-done and feature decent performances and live radio sound effects. Yet both have their subtle differences, ABT relying more heavily on music and the charm of the Biograph Theatre, while ATC sticks a bit closer to the time period. Both stage/radio adaptations capture the charm and sentimentality of Frank Capra’s original film (our review here).

IF YOU’VE HAD A CRAPPY SEASONAL JOB

Than you’ll identify with Mitchell Fain, who stars in Theater Wit’s one-man show The Santaland Diaries (★★★). A stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ delightfully subversive essay of the same name, the production follows the adventure of Fain as he works at Macy’s as the elf Crumpet. This is not a straight reading of Sedaris’ work. Fain brings his own personality to the play and inserts his own stories, making this quite a different experience than just reading the essay, like all good stage adaptations (our review here).

rudolph

IF YOU’RE NOSTLAGIC FOR STOP-MOTION ANIMATION

You might want to take a look at Annoyance Theatre’s live action version of Rankin /Bass’ 1964 television special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (★★★½). Surprisingly, Annoyance does a faithful translation for the stage, considering they’re known for their destruction of anything sentimental (the show is running alongside Cockette’s: A Christmas Spectacular). With the music and characters of the beloved original, this Rudolph is meant to enchant theatergoers from 1 to 92 (our review here).

Although there are only a few days before Santa comes around, there are still plenty of options offered by the bounteous Chicago theatre scene. Don’t be fooled into thinking this guide presents everything out there, either. For some other offerings, check the review listing on the side.

Review: Porchlight’s “Miracle on 34th Street”

A Retro Christmas Miracle

 

Porchlight Music Theatre presents:

Miracle on 34th Street

Adapted by Patricia DiBenedetto Snyder, Sill Severin and John Vreeke

Story by Valentine Davies
Screenplay by George Seaton
directed by
L. Walter Stearns
thru January 3rd, 2010 (ticket info)

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET--Santa and Susan I have to admit to a bit of “Scrooge-ism” when it comes to the holiday season in America. The commercials, the billboards, the store windows dressed in fiberglass snow and plaid carolers when I am still finishing Halloween candy stuffed in the bottom desk drawer- you get the idea. I managed to get into the spirit in spite of myself. I got a visit from a little angel in the form of my niece Alexandria. She is a very precocious seven years old who likes spiders. Porchlight Theatre’s publicity for Miracle on 34th Street stated that this was the perfect first theater experience for children and would become a holiday tradition. I am happy to say that the publicity was right.

This production of Miracle on 34th Street is from the Porchlight Music Theatre Company. They are known for classic productions as well as new interpretations of musicals. This is already a classic film and now it has been excellently translated to the stage. The moment that Kris Kringle’s sleigh appears on the stage is when the magic begins. A veritable toyland pops out of Santa’s big red sack and performs to start the play. We are then told that this Santa is a lucky replacement for the other guy who showed up drunk. The twist is that this Santa believes that he is the real thing. It is a tale that we all know from afternoons around the television or at the repertory movie house.

Christa Buck plays the cynical 1940’s career woman Doris Walker. She is all business and doesn’t have time for the fantasy that is Christmas. She also has little patience for the complications of romance that shows up in the form of Fred Gailey played by Karl Hamilton. They both seem to have stepped out of a Technicolor production. The entire cast is a step back in time and that is perfect for this production. The cynicism of Doris Walker and her daughter Susan is born out of divorce and abandonment issues. That is my modern interpretation but the portrayals are embodied with the post-war innocence of the 1940’s. Somehow everything works out in America if you only believe. It’s a beautiful idea whose time is coming around again. The part of Susan Walker is played by Laney Kraus-Taddeo. She is another talented product of the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. Ms. Kraus-Taddeo doesn’t hit any false notes or project any of the treacle that is the risk of any child actors. All of the children in this production are a delight to watch. The play makes room for a child in the audience to talk to Santa on stage. It was a funny moment with an untrained participant who asked for Christmas lipstick. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that is but Jim Sherman as Kris Kringle played right along with jolly humor.

I have to say that it was the performance of Jim Sherman that really put me in the Christmas spirit. He has the sparkle and the charm that – for me – embody Santa Claus. He wears a suit that is more in the tradition of Father Christmas or Sinter Klass from the Netherlands. Even when he was clad in layperson’s attire he looked like Santa. I also enjoyed the character of Mr. Macy played by Chuck Sisson. I’m a girl who grew up on Mr. Drysdale, Mr. Mooney, and Thurston Howell III. There is a certain carriage and technique to carrying off the bluster of such a character in my opinion and Mr. Sisson has it much to my enjoyment.

The entire cast is a joy to watch in Miracle on 34th Street. The supporting villain character of Mr. Sawyer is played with relish by Rus Rainear. Like the movie, Mr. Sawyer is a ferret-like guy who almost kills Christmas while in cahoots with the ambitious District Attorney played by Steve Tomlitz.

Suspense! Romance! Knee Slapping Laughs! It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Most importantly, it passed the “Alexandria Test”. My niece Alexandria was enchanted the moment the action began. That is saying something considering that we had been to Uncle Fun and bought a “can of salted nuts” which contained three fake snakes. Lexie was all about the snakes until Kris Kringle and the music began. She also got to take a picture with Santa on the stage after the play that was a big thrill. “Auntie Kathy! I got to see Santa Claus and be on the stage!”

You have to bring your own camera and resist the urge to want to sit on Jim Sherman’s lap yourself. I’m telling you, the guy took me back to 1965 when I really believed.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

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Think Fast: Chicago Dramatists’ fundraiser and Porchlight Theatre in Japan

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  • Chicago Dramatists’ “$30 for 30” campaign, in its first week, has gathered 111 donations and raised a total of $11,300.  Though nowhere near at the moment, the theatre’s goal of 500 donations is well within reach, even more so with my reader’s help –  PLEASE DONATE NOW!

Eugene and Walter toast their trip and feast on Japanese cuisine, their favorite!  "Pacific Overtures" can soon be experienced at the Theatre Building.

  • In preparation of Pacific Overtures, Director L. Walter Stearns and Music Director Eugene Dizon traveled to Tokyo and Shimoda, Japan. In the process they penned a three part essay that chronicled their travels, discoveries, and eye-opening experiences on the way.  You can read the third-installment after the fold. In addition, Porchlight Music Theatre has been maintaining a cool behind-the-Pacific-Overtures production blog.  “Pacific Overtures” has now completed its first-week run.

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Sunday Night Sondheim – “Ballad of Booth” from Assassins

“The Ballad of Booth” from Assassins

I have to say that one of the best productions of Assassins that I’ve ever seen was a production a few years ago by Porchlight Music Theatre.  Porchlight’s L. Walter Stearns created some brilliant staging by setting the production in a museum, with a tour guide intermittently walking through – tourists in tow – giving one the feeling that we were truly experiencing various moments in history.

This YouTube video is from “Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall”.  Who knew that Victor Garber (Legally Blonde, etc.) had such a great voice?!  Enjoy!