Review: Meet John Doe (Porchlight Musical Theatre)

     
     

‘John Doe’ Gets the Job Half Done

     
     

MJD--Jim Sherman (Connell) and Sean Effinger-Dean (Beany)

  
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Meet John Doe
  
Music/Book by Andrew Gerle
Lyrics/Book by
Eddie Sugarman
Directed/Choreographed by
James Beaudry
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $38  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Nothing sets the tone for Porchlight Music Theatre’s Meet John Doe like its foreboding, expressionist set design (Ian Zywica). Stage right, a bold graphic sticks out from a wall of newsprint: “JOBLESS MEN KEEP MOVING–We can’t take care of our own.” Now, if that doesn’t lock and load your head for a Depression Era period piece, nothing else will. Andrew Gerle (music) and Eddie Sugarman’s (lyrics) musical follows through with ample period perfection–from driven pace, to musical style, to its tough and cocky dialogue. James Beaudry’s direction accents the production’s expressionistic edge, framing the action, whether in crowd scenes or backroom MJD--Karl Hamilton (John Doe) and Elizabeth Lanza (Ann Mitchell)conferences, so that the show’s language hits right between the eyes about our own desperate political and economic plight. Fabricated news stories, populist heroes spun out of thin air, media manipulation of the masses by cynical moguls–and a down and out populace looking for any flicker of hope to lead them. Everything old is new again.

Porchlight could not have picked a timelier musical. In some ways, it contains improvements on Frank Capra’s 1941 film. For one, the musical’s Ann Mitchell (Elizabeth Lanza) is a much tougher, moxie-er, foxier newshound than her original film version played by Barbara Stanwyck. Given the pink slip during her newspaper’s takeover and transition to the New American Times, Ann submits her final column with a fake letter from “John Doe”—a man so sickened by the current economic downturn he threatens to commit suicide in protest by jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. Lanza has the voice, the sass and the legs to pull off her role and she’s not afraid to use them—a point she more than drives home with the song “I’m Your Man.”

Once circulation jumps in response to the letter, Ann restores her job by devising a whole series of columns based on John Doe. Out of a mass of jobless men, she and her world-weary editor, Connell (Jim Sherman), pick out a former bush league ball player to be their John Doe (Karl Hamilton). Hamilton definitely brings that Everyman vibe that they—and we–go for, but it’s his rich tenor voice that awakens sympathy and warmth to John Doe’s reintegration into showered, shaved and employed life once more, with “I Feel Like a Man Again.”

Unfortunately, for all the attention it has gained at Ford’s Theatre in 2007 with seven Helen Hayes nominations and with the 2006 Jonathan Larson Award, Meet John Doe still feels half finished. The first act is a beauty. Beaudry’s direction builds its tension with consummate skill and his taut cast carves its dramatic arc in expressionist stone. From the opening moments, where the terror every newsman has for his job is quite palpable – to John Doe’s escape from his first public speech – the first act is non-stop, smart and tough entertainment. In between, Lanza and Hamilton solidly sketch the growing relationship between Ann and John, while John’s hobo friend, the Colonel (Rus Rainear), adds much needed salt to the proceedings. Finally, even with a limited voice, Mick Weber gives us a smooth MJD--Elizabeth Lanza as Ann Mitchelland seductive menace as D.B. Norton, who sits atop of his new newspaper like an American Silvio Berlusconi, ready to manipulate John Doe’s image to further his political ambitions.

It’s the second act that doesn’t know where to go with this build-up. In part, this has to do with over-reliance on Capra’s plot.  In other sections, however, Gerle and Sugarman’s book diverges from it counter-intuitively. Capra himself changed the ending to his film five times before he settled on its own muddled and unsatisfactory finish. Suffice it to say that suicide, far from being painless, is actually a downer, whether for a musical’s uplifting final moments or for a real-life social movement. Therefore, John Doe’s final self-sacrificing act might make psychological sense for the character, but not for the unity of the crowd after he does it. Act Two contains choice moments, like Connell’s gorgeous reminiscence of his WWI army service with “Lighthouses” or the verbal hits John Doe delivers against Norton’s cadre of privileged, slime-ball cronies. But on the whole, it’s rewrite time once again for this plotline. Time once again for John Doe to re-create himself—let’s hope for his sake, and ours–that that he gets it right.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

MJD--Elizabeth Lanza (Ann Mitchell) and Jim Sherman (Connell)

All photos by Johnny Knight

           
           

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REVIEW: Madagascar (Next Theatre)

     
     

Flight and fright in a Roman hotel

     
     

Mick Weber and Carmen Roman in a scene from 'Madagascar' by JT Rogers, now at Next Theatre, Evanston

  
Next Theatre presents
  
Madagascar
  
Written by J.T. Rogers
Directed by
Kimberly Senior
at
Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $25-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Now in an absorbing but ultimately frustrating Midwest premiere, J.T. Rogers’ 2004 puzzle play employs three characters who deliver concurrent confessions in the same stripped-down hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome. They speak from different times and the subject of their unmotivated outpourings gradually becomes the strange vanishing of Gideon. A scion of wealth and privilege, this attractive young man went to Madagascar on a mission that may have ended in disappearance or death.

Nick Weber, Carmen Roman and Cora Vander Broek in a scene from "Madagascar" by J.T. Rogers - Next Theatre, EvanstonThe testimony is supplied by Lilllian (Carmen Roman), Gideon’s wealthy and detached mother; Gideon’s sister June (Cora Vander Broek), now working as a tour guide for the ancient ruins, and Lillian’s adulterous lover Nathan (Mark Weber), who is also an economist like the boy’s now-dead dad.

As they give themselves away, they provide clues about Gideon, an enigmatic beauty who seems to have been altogether too sensitive to the world’s wrongs; especially his mother’s coldness to him and warmth to Nathan.

Gideon’s discovery that his life was built on a lie (about his mother’s fidelity, his sister’s affection, Nathan’s loyalty to his father, or some schoolgirls recently raped in Africa?) seems to unhinge him and sets in motion a train of tragedies. Why is he so upset? “Because people just can’t be trusted!” and his mother is “selfish” and “grotesque.” Gideon sounds like a poor man’s Hamlet.

Sean Mallary’s lighting changes and the choreographed confessions blocked in Kimberly Senior’s staging keep the clue-mongering fluid and forceful. The play repeatedly raises the fascinating question of why some driven people all but will themselves to be missing persons. Do we have the right to disappear? Or do we owe it to others to keep our identity intact, however wrong it feels within?

Still, there’s too much deliberate or perverse mystery-mangling in this torturous witness to an escape that remains maddeningly evasive. There are too many blanks for the audience to fill in without finally feeling that the playwright hasn’t played fair with the facts.

Roman brings magisterial command to this ultimately devastated mother. Vander Broek’s questing sister, Gideon’s fraternal twin, gives us a refracted portrait of her brother. Weber’s Nathan supplies metaphors from micro-economics that shed a little light on the motivations or mentality of the missing Gideon.

If only this complex kid had appeared, we’d get some closure or at least an illusion of completion. But if you like to spend two hours not solving a missing person’s case, Madagascar is your ticket to nowhere.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  
Mick Weber and Carmen Roman in a scene from 'Madagascar' by JT Rogers, now at Next Theatre, Evanston Scene from Madagascar by JT Rogers, now at Next Theatre, Evanston 5

Scene from Madagascar by JT Rogers, now at Next Theatre, Evanston 7

 

   
   

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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 Invasion of Skokie (Chicago Dramatists)

Kibitzing with Gentiles and Nazis in Suburbia

 

(L-R) Bradford Lund, Mick Weber, and Michael Joseph Mitchell star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
The Invasion of Skokie
   
Written by Steven Peterson
Directed by
Richard Perez
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through October 10th  |  tickets:  $32  |   more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

It’s 1978. The preservation of the Jewish heritage is threatened by neo-Nazis and a Gentile boy. Chicago Dramatists presents the world premiere of The Invasion of Skokie by playwright Steven Peterson. The Nazis have won their U.S. Supreme Court case and plan to hold a march in Skokie, a Chicago suburb. Skokie has a large Jewish community that includes Holocaust survivors. On the eve of the supremacy parade, a Jewish family gathers for a typical Shabbat dinner. Or is it typical? Shabbat has been shifted to Saturday. The goy-next-door wants to marry into the Chosen People. Dad is negotiating an arms deal with terrorists. Mom made sun tea! An ordinary family debates traditional and liberal forces infiltrating the homogeneous community. The Invasion of Skokie is Fiddler on the Roof meets “Schlinder’s List” without the music or killing. For a religious culture surviving slavery, persecution and genocide, the Jewish people must now face their toughest opponent, love!

(L-R) Tracey Kaplan and Bradford Lund star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.Playwright Steven Peterson and Director Richard Perez create a relatable homeland security threat. Dinner is overlapping conversations with generous helpings of tension and a side of ranch dressing diversion. In the lead, Mick Weber (Morry) drives the action with loud declarations and Nazi hate crime hate. Weber delivers a memorable patriarch performance from bull-headed fearless to vulnerable fearful. Weber’s anguish, in an final scene, is a haunting visual.  His match is Cindy Gold (Sylvia). As a Jewish stereotypical mother, Gold is funny pushing food for whatever the ailment or disagreement. Below the surface, Gold reaches gold with poignant musings over day lilies and marrying for life. Tracey Kaplan (Debbie) is the liberal, vegetarian, lawyer daughter. Kaplan and Weber spar with perfect father-daughter opposition. Although the issues are contemporary, the angst is deep rooted in their personal histories. Representing the ‘superior race’ notion, the blond and blue-eyed Bradford R. Lund (Charlie) is charming as a goy-in-love. Despite multiple reasons to flee, Lund is earnest in his willingness to stay. With Nazis in town and family feuding, comedy relief is a necessity. Arriving a week late for dinner, Michael Joseph Mitchell (Howie) is hilarious as the clueless dinner guest.

The Invasion of Skokie is a glimpse at a not-so-familiar but important moment in history. From the picturesque backyard patio (designer Grant Sabin) of suburbia, a Jewish family deals with menacing Nazis and Gentiles rallying against the tranquility.

An important moment in history – but is it still relevant? Today, when same sex marriages are at the forefront of controversy, is inter-religious marriages that big of a deal? This seems like a simplistic question that has an easy answer. The Invasion of Skokie magnificently represents multiple sides to the attacks on the Jewish heritage in 1978. Even now, I’m certain the debate continues. How to preserve 2010+ years of customs and history? Tradition, Tradition, tradition. Even as a shiksa, I get it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

(L-R) Mick Weber and Cindy Gold star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.,  running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.

Running Time: Two hours includes a ten minute intermission

Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., runs through October 10th – Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  For information on parking, go to www.chicagodramatists.org/parking

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REVIEW: The Good Negro (Goodman Theatre)

Bringing humanity to an inconceivable time in history

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Goodman Theatre presents
 
The Good Negro
 
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson
Directed by
Chuck Smith
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $22-$71  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A despicable act by the police impassions a spontaneous response by the community. It’s really not that black and white. The Goodman Theatre presents The Good Negro, a play about the back story on the movement to end segregation. Three black leaders are looking for a publicity moment to instigate a non-violent protest against discrimination. A four year old girl and her mother are arrested for using the good-negro11 restroom for whites. Because the mother is ‘a good Negro,’ attractive and well-spoken, the incident is prime to rally the troops. This illustration of history would have been poignant enough. A Good Negro adds in other complexities like wire-tapping, marital infidelity, and the KKK – becoming a multi-dimensional story of the internal and external strife of the civil rights movement. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson tells the powerful untold story of the politics… government, hierarchical, sexual… that interfered in the quest for racial equality in the 1960’s.

Under the direction of Chuck Smith, the cast makes an unimaginable time in history relatable. Nambi E. Kelley’s portrayal of a mother (Claudette Sullivan) in anguish is heart-breaking. Billy Eugene Jones appeals as the flawed charismatic leader James Lawrence. Struggling with his own identity issues, Teagle F. Bougere (Minister Henry Evans) effectively engages the audience with his motivational sermons. In minister mode, Bougere adds a little comedy relief as he tells a late intermission returner to ‘sit down.’ Although it’s unclear whether his character is ‘a good Negro’ or not until Act II, Demetrois Troy is perfect as the socially awkward, behind the scenes guy Bill Rutherford. Tory O. Davis (Pelzie Sullivan) portrays the simplicity of his character with surprising depth. Karen Aldridge (Corinne Lawrence) elicits applause in a pivotal scene of strength. Dan Waller (Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr.) exploits the lunacy in a KKK recruitment speech based on scientific facts that ‘colored people’s blood can kill.’ The spooks are stereotypical ‘by the book’ nonsense with Mick Weber playing straight-laced and John Hoogenakker as the wise cracking sidekick.

 

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Set designer Riccardo Hernandez has gone floor to wall churchy with wooden planks covering every stage space. It effectively places the audience in a pew to watch the drama. Embedded along the back wall are strips of lighting – Robert Christen’s haunting lighting design illuminates a cross shape during congregation scenes to build the religious ambiance. Throughout the show, projected fortune cookie-like slogans prophesize a scene with ‘This is the something’ and ‘Do what you have to do.’ Mike Tutaj (projections designer) uses a biblical font to reinforce the secular foundation of the movement. Tutaj also flashes iconic imagery of photojournalist Charles Moore to set the time period. Powerful!

Realizing that, less than fifty years ago, discrimination led to unbelievable acts of cruelty to the black community – makes The Good Negro an important show to see. We can’t forget the sacrifices civil rights leaders made to forge the evolution of thought on equality. The Good Negro is an important illustration of an inconceivable time in American history.

  
 
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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

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