REVIEW: Cats (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Update – now extended through Jan 20th!

  
  

This show’s the cat’s meow!

 
  

The Company in Jellicle Songs. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

  
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James presents
  
Cats  
 
Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber
Book/Lyrics by
T.S. Eliot
Directed and Choreographed by
Brenda Didier
at
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through January 2  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

How to take a mammoth Broadway production and shrink it without sacrificing dramatic quality or big, broad, showbiz appeal? Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre accomplishes that transformation with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, under the lively direction and choreography of Brenda Didier. Didier’s collaborations with Theo Ubique’s Artistic Director Fred Anzevino bore fruit last spring with their Jeff award-winning production of Chess (our review ★★½). Well, it looks like Cats is poised to pounce on the holiday theater season and swipe all the public’s attention.

Elliot Burton as Skimbleshanks. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward PhotographyWhittled down to two hours and only 13 actors, Theo Ubique’s production is a model of economy and stagecraft. But, rather than going along with the old “less is more” meme, it seems Didier’s modus operandi is to give the audience more with less–driving her exuberant cast to make immediate, intimate and vivid connections with the audience while precisely mixing dance elements to build excitement and evoke huge emotional response. Her gamble pays off—Broadway excitement achieved on a stage 8 feet by 22 feet. In the whirlwind of musical numbers, it’s a wonder none of the dancers bump into each other or fall off the stage.

Naturally, it helps to have a super-tight ensemble orchestra under the direction of Ethan Deppe. They are the train that drives this production. Every other layer of theatricality has been preserved as much as possible. Costumes (Matt Guthier, with Michael Buoninconto on wigs) and makeup (Izumi Inaba) maintain the big, Broadway tradition while Michael Narduli’s lighting design reinforces the magic evoked by orchestra and cast. Even the old-fashioned Christmas lights circling up above the stage imply a magical setting to the audience enjoying dinner before the show.

Opening night’s energy started a bit slow. Beginning with T.S. Eliot giving his poetry to a girl in a white dress with a blue satin sash, the initial introduction of “Jellicle Cats” came off a touch stagy until “The Rum Tum Tugger” (Tommy Rivera-Vega) gave the audience a bit of Brando-slash-Elvis for us to remember him by. “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” (Elliot Burton and Maggie Portman) boost the proceedings with a ton of delightful play and buoyant energy. The cast’s build-up to the entrance of Old Deuteronomy (Matt McNabb) really sets the element of magic and mystery; McNabb’s elegant tenor voice certainly confirms his mystical authority among the Jellicle Cats. At the introduction of Grizzabella and the first round of “Memories,” Sydney Charles delivers an unmistakable depiction of feral abandonment and alienation.

Emily Rogers as a Siamese in Growltiger. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography. Rebecca Pink as Jennyanydots in Old Gumbie Cat - Cats - Theo-Ubique-Cabaret
Roy Brown as Munkustrap in Naming of Cats. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography. Tommy Rivera-Vega as Rum Tum Tugger in The Rum Tum Tugger. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

Cats’ theatricality truly soars in the second act. Growltiger (Brian-Alwyn Newland) and Griddelbone (Hillary Patingre) nearly bring the house down with the lush gorgeousness of “The Siamese Italian Aria.” Costuming goes the extra mile by donning the enemies of Growltiger with elaborate Thai headdresses and tunics and the women of the company really get their Siamese on to take out Growltiger. Burton gets a chance to shine again as “Shimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” but his triumph is really the cast’s in their coordinated build-up to the number’s complex and colorful finale. By the time Old Deuteronomy must select the cat that will go on to live another cat life in “the Heaviside Layer,” the audience has become heavily invested in this alternate world and the logic by which it exists. In fact, so long as the music and dance keep going, we might never want to leave.

Theo Ubique has put another feather in its cap (or should I say “cat on its lap”?). Hooray for them and lucky for us to get this furry, magical and whimsical dream against the darkening winter ahead.

  
 
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The Company in Old Gumbie Cat. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

All photography by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

     
     

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REVIEW: The Wedding Singer (Circle Theatre)

 

A Sweet Wedding Confection

 

 

Wedding Singer (L-R) Kelli LaValle, Patti Roeder, Eric Lindahl, Rachel Quinn, Nathan Carroll and Shawn Quinlan. Photo by Bob Knuth.

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
The Wedding Singer
   
Book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy
Music/Lyrics by
Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
Directed by
Kevin Bellie
at
Circle Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $26   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I must make a shocking confession. I have never seen the film “The Wedding Singer”. I have however lived through the 80’s and still have the bag of removable shoulder pads to prove it. The Circle Theatre musical production of The Wedding Singer is a fun romp through the decade that was all about froth and hair looking like spun sugar. The creators – Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy wrote the book of the movie with music by Matthew Sklar and Beguelin have done a brilliant job bringing this 80’s-sounding score to life. 

Wedding Singer - Eric Lindahl and Rachel Quinn. Photo by Bob Knuth. Eric Lindahl plays our hero Robbie Hart with none of Adam Sandler’s snark. That is precisely why I liked him so much in this role. It is a tribute to the time when musicals were all about a girl and a guy up against the odds and winning. Lindahl has a good voice and sings the wedding schmaltz as well as the arena rock ballads. Rachel Quinn plays leading lady Julia Sullivan. Ms. Quinn has the moves to play the heroine but her voice is not made for pop music. She is reminiscent of the Rogers and Hammerstein era of musicals and does well as the bereft heroine.

Blowing the lid off of the power ballads are Kelli LaValle and Britni Tozzi. Ms. Tozzi plays bad girl Linda who channels Pat Benatar while giving Robbie Hart the heave ho. I absolutely adored Ms. LaValle as the slightly trampy best friend Holly. She is dressed in classic tulle layers and spun sugar hair- so unlike a virgin. It is a standout performance and LaValle has a powerhouse voice that rocks the rafters.

The storyline is not a surprise but it is still fun. Robbie Hart is the leader of a wedding band called ‘Simply Wed’ who gets his heart broken and falls for the local banquet hall waitress. The waitress is of course waiting for a dual-life jerk executive to put a ring on it and keep her in claw hair and sparkly duds. Hart lives in Grandma’s basement somewhere in Jersey and what a grandma she is. Patti Roeder plays the role of a frisky grandmother who pulls out the rapping chops to great comic effect. Roeder brings down the house with her double entendres and libidinous one- liners.

 

(L-R) Dennis Schnell, Michael Mejia, Nathan Carroll, Eric Lindahl, Shawn Quinlan, Tommy Bullington, Jimmy Lis and Tommy Thurston The Impersonators of The Wedding Singer - Photo by Bob Knuth
Wedding Singer (L-R) Toni Lynice Fountain, Michael Mejia, Rachel Quinn, Melody Latham and Patti Roeder Wedding Singer - (L-R) Nathan Carroll, Eric Lindahl and Shawn Quinlan

Making up the rest of ‘Simply Wed’ are Nathan Carroll in full ‘Flock of Seagulls’ regalia and Shawn Quinlan as a Boy George clone. They are very funny and touching in their bromance roles. Jim DeSelm rounds out the leading cast as Glen the blazingly arrogant Wall Street raider. He leads a fine song about money and greed as his character shows his true colors.

The rest of the cast is stellar. They are really good dancers, and the choreography by Director Kevin Bellie is great nostalgic fun to watch. The Las Vegas scenes are hysterically surreal with a cornucopia of classic characters as Vegas impersonators. This goes way beyond Elvis and deep into ‘Behind the Music’ territory with Patti Labelle, Michael Jackson, Billy Idol, Imelda Marcos (!) and a brilliant cameo by Dennis Schnell as Sam Kinison.

The Wedding Singer is well worth the travel to Oak Park.  Don’t miss it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

FYI: I would advise getting there early to have dinner before the curtain because the sidewalks roll up in Oak Park at 10pm.The Wedding Singer runs through October 31st at The Performance Center, 1010 W. Madison St. in Oak Park (map). Go for some great music, laughs, romance, memories, and great ideas for Halloween! The Performance Center is accessible by Metra as well as the CTA Green Line. Shoulder pads and claw hair are optional.

Wedding Singer (L-R) Sarah Conrad, Rachel Quinn, Kelli LaValle, Kendle Lester, Kristen Calvin and Britni Tozzi

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REVIEW: Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Circle Theatre)

One small BIG thrill

 The Men of BLWIT

 
Circle Theatre presents
 
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
 
Book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson
Music/Lyrics by Carol Hall
Directed and choreographed by Kevin Bellie
Music Direction and new arrangements by Josh Walker
Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Thru June 20th (more info)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Whores, hookers, ladies of the evening, oh my! – prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and perhaps the most misunderstood. Circle Theatre presents The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a musical exposing the softer side of the sex trade industry. Based on a true story, a Texas amusement institution has provided adult entertainment over the centuries. During the depression era, pleasure seekers paid for thrills with poultry which led to the nickname, “chicken ranch.” The kind-hearted Michael Gravame and the boys madam, Miss Mona, operates a clean business focused on guest satisfaction. Her well-known establishment has the endorsement and protection of the local sheriff. All that changes, when a television reporter crusades to shut it down. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas isn’t your street corner hooker production, however. It’s your high class call girl with impressive moves and a revolving wardrobe ensuring your fantasy investment reaps multiple benefits.

This show is all about the show. Twenty-five cast members with multiple costume and wig changes dress up this non-stop energetic production. Under the direction and choreography of Kevin Bellie, musical numbers are a visual spectacle. Bellie chooses to make The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas a love affair instead of a “quickie.”  Hookers to TV back-up singers to cheerleaders to reporters, Bellie uses a large number of the chorus in every scene. This choice adds dimensionality to the depth of the songs and dances. Going “Texas-style big” aids a few sound issues. For some of the solo singing moments, it’s hard to hear the lines. During “Little Bitty Pissant Country Place,” there is an awkward duet between Miss Mona and a guy in the band. Cue the chorus! When the whores chime in, the harmony is ecstasy. Whether it’s singing or dancing, the ensemble uses its size to go deeper. The synchronization of the large number of dancers on a small stage kicks it up to the “wow” factor. “The Aggie Song”, in particular, is sexy country-line dancing with an athletic vigor. It’s Dirty Dancing taken to a whole new level!

Anita Hoffman and Noah Sullivan Kirk Swenk, Gregory Payne and the ladies
Sheana Tobey, Snita Hoffman, Sydney genco and Toni Lynice Fountain Noah Sullivan, Christopher Boyd and Jen Bludgen

Along with the huge and talented chorus, principal players add to the entertainment value. Every hooker should be lucky to have a boss like Miss Mona (Anita Hoffman). Balancing maternal urges in a cheeky business, Hoffman commands the stage with a combo of sexy playfulness and compassionate wisdom. Not quite meshing into the frothy ensemble, Toni Lynice Fountain (Jewel) shines with a soulful rendition of the song “24 Hours of Lovin”.  Noah Sullivan (Sheriff Earl Dodd) delivers his irreverent lines with hilarious force. ‘If that three foot man comes back, I’m going to flatten him so he has to roll down his socks to shit.’ Michael A. Gravame (Melvin P. Thorpe) is a smarmy dolt mugging the comedic moment. The issue side-stepping politician, Kirk Swenk (Governor) makes a small part memorably funny. The entire cast whores itself out for the audience’s pleasure.

The extraordinary spectrum of costumes (Jesus Perez) and wigs (Michael Buonincontro) are a 70’s flashback of afro, peasant blouses, and Frederick’s of Hollywood fun. Costumes, cast, choreography; all the lubricated participants make this group orgy a love fest!

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Showtimes: Fridays & Saturdays @ 8:00 pm, Sundays @ 3:00 pm (buy tickets).  Group Rates for 10 or More Available.  Call 708-771-0700 for more info.

Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes includes a ten minute intermission.

 The cast of BLWIT

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