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: Miracle on 34th Street (Porchlight Music Theatre)

   
  

A charming Santa works his magic

  
  

MIRACLE 2010--David Heimann as Fred Gailey and Nicole Karkazis as Susan Walker

   
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Miracle on 34th Street
   
By Patricia DiBenedetto, Will Snyder & John Vreeke
Directed by Christopher Pazdernik
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $38  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Christmas has become so commercialized that we now have genuine shopping holidays that serve as a preamble to one of the most sacred days of the Christian faith. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. I’m Jewish, and even I wince when I see the words "Doorbuster Deals" printed on the same flier as an angel trumpeting the arrival of Jesus.

Miracle on 34th Street - Porchlight Music TheatreValentine Davies, the novelist behind Miracle on 34th Street, saw this commercialization when it was in its infancy. His story is intelligent and effective at satirizing the season. The classic movie adaptation, directed by George Seaton, lives on in the American zeitgeist, in part because of just how strongly the story appeals to our sense of love and compassion over commodities and materialism.  

Porchlight’s somewhat musical version of Miracle on 34th Street isn’t going to go own in history as influencing the minds of the American public, but it’s an entertaining ticket that has some truly charming elements.

And the most charming element of all is the plays’ Santa (Jim Sherman). Sherman’s got the humble magnanimity down. He plays Kris Kringle with both an endearing aloofness and a fiery passion for good and righteousness. Plus, he knows how to pander to the kids in the audience, which doesn’t hurt a bit.

For those that have never seen Miracle on 34th Street, the story centers on Macy’s, in a time before the department store grew to swallow al competition. The store has a new Santa Claus for the holiday season because the last one liked hitting the sauce a little too much. However, this new Santa is quite peculiar. In fact, he takes the whole thing way too seriously, referring to himself as Kris Kringle and claiming his next of kin as Prancer and Blixen.

Still, he’s a damn good Santa, and the customers sure do love him, which makes Mr. Macy happy. Yet, some aren’t so pleased with his success and seek to take him down. When the store’s counselor Mr. Sawyer (Michael Pacas) claims Kris attacked him, Santa is locked away and put on trial.

But it’s not just Santa whose fate is in the air. The fate of little Susan Walker (Nicole Karkazis) and her mother Doris (Christa Buck) also hinges on whether Santa really is Santa. That’s because both have been confronted with a crisis of faith, and if Kris is not who he says he is, then cynicism may just ice over their hearts forever.

   
MIRACLE 2010--Matthew Miles as Mr. Shelhammer and Michael Pacas as Sawyer Miracle on 34th Street - Jim Sherman and Nicole Karkazis
MIRACLE 2010--Christa Buck as Doris Walker and Nicole Karkazis as Susan Walker MIRACLE 2010--Jim Sherman as Kris Kringle horizontal

Director Christopher Pazdernik does a good job keeping the story moving along swiftly. There’s no reason for slow drama to create tension. We know the story, and children only have so much attention to devote to a courtroom drama. The little holiday song interludes between scenes are cute, but don’t do much to really enhance the show. And the big holiday opening number is a high-energy beginning, but it feels too over-the-top for the rather subdued play.

Audience interaction in certain parts is encouraged. In fact, a couple children were pulled out of the audience and got to sit on Santa’s lap in the middle of the play. Afterward, kids are encouraged to participate in a meet-and-greet with the jolly man in red.

Jana Anderson deserves special recognition for designing one of the classiest Santa costumes I have ever seen. This isn’t your usual red felt with cotton fuzz. This is old-world Santa, with a quality coat decorated in a multi-toned print.

Miracle on 34th Street is definitely a kid pleaser, though adult chaperones are sure to enjoy themselves as well. It’s a fairly barebones production. But with such a convincing Santa, the ornamental takes a backseat to holiday spirit and heart.  

  
 
Rating: ★★★  
   
  

MIRACLE 2010--cast

     
     

     
     

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REVIEW: The Water Engine: An American Fable (Theatre 7)

  
  

Suspenseful Mamet play recalls 1930s Chicago

 
 

Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven

   
Theatre Seven presents
 
The Water Engine: An American Fable
   
By David Mamet
Directed by Brian Golden
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through Dec. 19  | 
Tickets: $12–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Set in Chicago in 1934, David Mamet’s rarely mounted 1977 drama, The Water Engine: An American Fable, currently in a beautifully nuanced production by Theatre Seven, takes us back in time to the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Charles Lang, a punch-press operator in a factory by day, dreamy inventor by night, has created an engine that runs on pure water. He dreams it will put an end to factories and bring him a peaceful life in the country with his unworldly sister.

Brett Lee in Water Engine - Theatre SevenChicago history buffs, alternate-history fans and anyone who enjoys great, intimate theater should take this show in. While it’s set too late to be steampunk, this arguably science-fictional play has a similar feel. Brenda Windstead’s 1930s costumes and John Wilson’s sound-stage set transport us to another time, one that almost-but-not-quite existed.

But "autres temps, autres moeurs" does not apply here. In fact, it’s business very much as usual. In his effort to patent his invention, Lang runs afoul of a scheming shyster who tries to sell him and his creation into nefarious corporate hands. I don’t doubt that many would-be world-shaking discoveries meet similar fates today.

Although the plot is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, and Mamet brings in all sorts of fascinating sidelines, such as a recurring theme about a chain letter, period-style advertising and the world’s fair itself. The action cris-crosses Chicago, from the fairgrounds to still-extant spots such as the Aragon Ballroom and Bughouse Square.

Mamet originally wrote this short script, which runs about 80 minutes without intermission, as a radio play, and Director Brian Golden’s exciting staging effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways. His cast includes Theatre Seven company members Dan McArdle, Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and George Zerante, as well as Brett Lee, Lindsey Pearlman, Cody Proctor, Alina Tabor, Jessica Thigpen and Travis Williams.

Charles Lang in Water Engine - Theatre SevenEach cast member plays multiple roles in this play within a radio play. In fact, the 10 cast members portray over 40 parts, skillfully depicting radio actors, principals in the radio play and random Chicagoans in wonderful character sketches.

In the longest role, Proctor plays Lang with well-executed, nervous nerdiness. Zerante smarms as the crooked lawyer, and Williams menaces as the corporation muscle. Pearlman delightfully segues from refined actress to ranging street-corner orator to gruff storekeeper. Newcomer Tabor adds wide-eyed youthful charm.

The whole ensemble works together like a well-oiled machine.

 
   
Rating: ★★★★   
   
   

Cassy Sanders, Travis Williams, Jessica Thigpen, Brian Stojak, Lindsey Pearlman

All photos by Heather Stumpf

 

 

   
   

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REVIEW: Cherrywood (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

Party on, Dude!

 

cherrywood

  
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
  
Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable
   
Written by Kirk Lynn
Directed by
David Cromer
at
Angel Island Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $13-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Fliers announce ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable.  A foursome decides to host a party. They have three kinds of chips, an array of music, bottles of booze and a shots of… milk? In response to their fliers, the guests arrive and fill up the house. The usual party suspects are all present. Free loading crashers. Whiny girl. Depressed divorced guy. Unwanted neighbor. Gaggle of gals in bathroom line. P.D.A. couple on the dance floor. Hot shirtless guy. Person continually announcing ‘I’m wasted.’ Sporadic drunken wrestling. It feels, looks and sounds familiar except with a couple of twists: Somebody brought a gun. Everybody has been drinking wild wolves’ milk. People are opening boxes of their secret desires. Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is a virtual reality party experience without the pressure to mingle or the aid of a cocktail.

In a large living-room-like space, the audience seats encircle the action. Closely matched in numbers, the 50+ wallflowers watch the 49 performers party. It’s such a tight fit that I needed to move my purse before a guy sat on it. Director David Cromer has gone fire-code-capacity to create an authentic party.

The proximity blurs the fourth wall completely in deciphering between the party gawkers versus goers. I consciously refrain from shouting out an answer to ‘name a good band that starts with the letter ‘A’.’ It seems like a jumbling of improv mixed in with scripted lines. Crediting playwright Kirk Lynn with some of the best lines, it’s existentialism goes rave with the ongoing philosophy ‘if you want something different, ask for it.’ Lynn writes dialogue describing cocktail banter as ‘question-answer-it-doesn’t-always-happen-like-that’ mockery. One character describes herself with ‘everything I do is a form of nodding. I want to break my neck to stop nodding.’ In a heated exchange, the neighbor jabs, ‘you remember the world? It’s the room outside the door.’ It’s genuine party chatter. Some conversations are playful. Some are deep. Some just don’t make any sense. Clusters of people are sharing philosophical drunken babble throughout the room. A gunshot brings the house of strangers together in a communal bonding alliance.

For the theatre goer looking for a break from classic plot driven shows, Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is performance art. It is a ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ For those who wonder what Chicago actors and designers do off-season, this is an opportunity to fly-on-the-wall it. If you’ve anticipated they hang out together and party, this would be your imagined drunken haze. The who’s who of storefront theater is boozing it up. It’s a Steep, Lifeline, Dog & Pony, House, Griffin, etc. reunion bash, and man do they know how to party!

  
   
Rating: ★★★
       
    

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission

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