Review: Aida (Drury Lane Theatre)

  
  

A solid production of flawed Elton John/Tim Rice musical

  
  

Jared Zirilli and Stephanie Umoh star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo by Brett Beiner.

  
Drury Lane Theatre presents
   
Aida
  
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, with R. Falls and D. H. Hwang
Directed and Choreographed by Jim Corti
at Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $35-$46  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When Egyptian captain Radames (Jared Zirilli) captures the beautiful Nubian princess Aida (Stephanie Umoh), the two fall in love despite the war between their countries, and are forced to choose between their political duties and their affections for each other. Elton John and Tim Rice adapt Verdi’s classic opera Aida through the lens of a late ‘90s Disney animated feature, candy-coating the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers with family-friendly pop-rock that occasionally detracts from the emotional life of the story. Yet despite the musical’s problems, Jim Corti directs a sharp production with a cast of strong singers and dancers that perform the material cleanly, but could use some more passion. Using the influence of ancient Egyptian art, Corti creates images on stage through the actors posing and positioning in profile, like this painting:

actient Egyptian wall painting

While it’s a nice effect, it’s also representative of the production’s largest problem: stiffness that prevents the beauty of the music from truly taking off. The actors perform the music with precision, but there are times when it feels like they’re holding back, which could partly be because of the imbalanced musical material.

The ballads have a similar emotional resonance as John/Rice’s Lion King work, but whereas that musical has a unifying musical sound, Aida’s score essentially becomes a musical journey through the different stages of Elton John’s musical career. Tim Rice pushes the plot with his lyrics, but there are times when John’s score seems mismatched with the action on stage, mostly during the first act. The show’s fist number is sung by Amneris (Erin Mosher), the daughter of the Pharoah AIDA--Grant Thomas, Monique Haley, Stephanie Umoh, Jared Zirilli(Nicholas Foster) and Radames’ arranged bride, and Mosher’s powerful voice is pitch-perfect, with her dignified presence befitting the character’s initial introduction as the story’s narrator. Then the show transitions into the Rent-lite “Fortune Favors The Brave” as Ramades belts over inspirational power chords while Nubian women are pillaged in the background. It’s great music for a lease-burning, but not so much for an act of war. It gets worse when Radames’ father Zoser (Darren Matthias) reveals his plot to usurp the Pharoah’s throne in “Another Pyramid,” a groan-inducing reggae meets Tumbleweed Connection number that turns into a goofy dance fight. Thankfully, that’s the worst number in the show and happens early, but it’s also not the best way to start a musical.

As the musical progresses, it becomes clear that Elton John’s music shows the differences between Egypt in Nubia through the styling of their songs. Egyptians have the classic rock ‘n roll of John’s early years, while the Nubians utilize the gospel-tribal fusion of The Lion King, but there’s still a strong disconnect between numbers. “My Strongest Suit,” where Amneris does her best Tina Turner impression, and “The Gods Love Nubia,” a stirring tribute by a downtrodden Nubian people – they don’t sound like they belong in the same show. This is mostly a problem in the first act, and as the two groups begin to combine in act two, the music gains a stronger focus.

     
Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. L to R-- Jarrett Kelly, Grant Thomas, Branden Springman, Jaquez Sims, Peter Vandivier, Michael Glazer, Todd Rhoades, and Stephane Duret star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA, at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
Jarrett Kelly, Peter Vandivier, Brandon Springman, Darren Matthias, Michael Glazer and Todd Rhoades in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Erin Mosher in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

The two female leads both showcase stunning vocals, but while their singing is wonderfully expressive, they suffer from that aforementioned stiffness, particularly Umoh in the title role. Aida is a free spirit that has always felt confined, and she is given the opportunity to escape through song, yet Umoh is locked in place when she sings. She relies on her voice to do the heavy lifting, and despite being a powerful instrument, the image she portrays physically doesn’t match up. This prevents the chemistry between Ramades and Aida from really exploding, as Zarilli is forced to give more without ever getting much in return. The cast proves that they’re skilled performers, but there’s a lack of freedom in their technique that translates as restraint, a dangerous flaw for a show like Aida that relies on spectacle.

Despite the production’s flaws, fans of Aida will find much to love about Drury Lane’s production. The music is well performed, with crisp staging and choreography from Corti, who incorporates tribal dance into the standard Broadway footwork. Like a lost Disney cartoon put on stage, Aida lacks the gravitas of the original opera, but the crowd-pleasing score turns the tragic story into a family-friendly rock musical sure to please fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
'Aida' group in white in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
James Earl Jones II stars in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Monique Haley, Erin Mosher and Natalie Williams in a scene from Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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Review: SUGAR (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

This ‘sugar’ lacks spice

 SUGAR-Ladies

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
  
Sugar
   
Book by Peter Stone
Music:
Jule Styne, Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Based on movie “
Some Like It Hot
Directed by
Jim Corti
at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook (map)
through August 1st  | 
tickets: $26-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

It’s a play about the filming of a play about a movie. Drury Lane Oakbrook presents SUGAR, a musical version of the film ‘Some Like It Hot.’ In Studio 24, they are filming a speakeasy prohibition era romp. The show starts with Sweet Sue Syncopation SUGAR (vertical)-Rod Thomas & Jennifer KnoxOrchestra in dire need of a new sax and cello player. The all-girl band is heading from Chicago to Miami. Over on Clark Street, two musicians witness a brutal killing by a  mob. To hide from the bad guys, they join Sweet Sue’s band to get out of town. They’ve got the right and wrong instruments. The ‘new girls’ are really dudes. Sugar is the singer. She has a history of falling for deadbeat sax players and wants a future with a non-musician millionaire. A sax player, Josie, is really Joe who is now also pretending to be millionaire. Daphne, aka Jerry, is also interested in Sugar but has millionaire issues of his… her own. SUGAR is a love triangle farce with extra sides of sweet amusement.

In a play about the filming of a play about a movie, there are true glimpses of Billy Wilder’s classic masterpiece. Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon haunt the stage. Jennifer Knox (Sugar) is the sexy blonde bombshell. Knox dances and sings with a sensual allure that would make Marilyn proud. Alan Schmuckler (Jerry/Daphne) is Jack Lemon incarnate. His facial expressions and manner provide pure Lemon comedy that blends perfectly with SUGAR. And he can sing too. Jack would be jealous! One of the best duets is ‘The Beauty that Drives Men Mad’ sung by Schmuckler and his buddy… gal pal, Rod Thomas (Joe/Josie/Junior). Not looking quite as pretty in a wig, Thomas’ height adds its own humor in his masculine drag performance. Tammy Mader (Sweet Sue) is the SUGAR--Jennifer Knox vibrant Charleston dancing conductor. Although her moxie presence gets limited stage time, it leaves a cue-the-band appeal. Joe D. Lauck (Osgood) is charming as a millionaire in love. The entire SUGAR cast, as musicians, gangsters, millionaires, add an extra layer of flavor with melt in your mouth goodness.

Director Jim Corti has remounted the musical SUGAR as a movie being filmed. The curtain is a makeshift studio warehouse door. A film crew is stagehands moving light fixtures. At the end of Act I, two characters meet up on break. As an ingredient, it doesn’t really add or take anything away. It’s like Splenda. I get the concept but I prefer the real thing. SUGAR tastes good. Sure, it’s not one of the major food groups and you couldn’t exist on a diet of just sugar. If life is like a box of chocolates, then SUGAR is a Whitman Sampler. You know what you’re biting into but that does not spoil the pleasure.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

SUGAR--men in hats

Running Time: Two hours includes a fifteen minute intermission

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REVIEW: Theatre at the Center’s “The Christmas Schooner”

Chicago’s Christmas Play

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Theatre at The Center presents:

The Christmas Schooner

 

by John Reeger and Julie Shannon
Directed by Chuck Gessert
Music-directed by William A. Underwood
Thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

I now have a new favorite holiday show, and I hope it runs as a yearly tradition in the Chicagoland area. The Christmas Schooner ran for many years at the Bailiwick Theatre and this year is currently at Theatre at The Center (an Equity theatre in nearby Munster, IN.)

CHRISTMAS_SCHOONER_2 The Christmas Schooner is a based on a true local story and written by Chicago’s John Reeger (book) and Julie Shannon (music.) The story involves a German family living in Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan and working on the schooners that carry cargo to other ports along the lake. At home the Stossel family has a strong respect for the German traditions as well as generous hearts that feel compassion for those less fortunate. When a letter from Peter Stossel’s (Brandon Dahlquist) sister arrives, addressing her disappointment in not having a Tannebaum for Christmas and how many Germans in Chicago were left feeling homesick without their traditional Christmas symbol, Peter, the father and man of the family, feels a sense of duty to bring the people of Chicago Christmas trees.

Almost this entire story is told through the everlasting music. Shannon’s songs tell the whole story, including witty conversations between family members and acted as if reacting to real dialogue. It is a complex diverse score that moves with the changing tide in the play and allows the astonishing voices on stage to fill the house with the emotion of their characters.

The dialogue succeeds in bringing out the everyday humor in each situation, and Peter Kevoian plays it best as the Opa Gustav Stossel. Kevoian moved me in all direction, having me laughing throughout the play and crying at the end. Each performer created their own individual and, as a whole, the chemistry between each member of the family brings out the strongest sense of family spirit. The message of pride and sacrifice for others is brought out in action and the bonds of love and dependency in one another builds as they set out to please others less fortunate.

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As in all true stories, there are moments of disappointment and sadness, but the courage and strength of the Stossel family bring out the true meaning of Christmas. Their kindness reached people of all ethnic backgrounds and the joy they brought to others made their difficult journeys worth their sacrifice.

The Christmas Schooner is a timeless musical that should be seen by all those dwelling near the Great Lakes, and across the U.S. This is a truly American Christmas story of family relations, traditions and generosity in the melting pot of the Midwest.

Rating: ★★★★

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