Review: The Man Who Came to Dinner (Circle Theatre)

     
     

Circle Theatre serves up a hilariously entertaining ‘Dinner’

     
     

Jon Steinhagen, Kieran Welsh-Phillips, Jerry Bloom - Circle Theatre

  
Circle Theatre presents
  
The Man Who Came to Dinner
   
Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by
Mary Redmon
at
Madison Street Theatre, Oak Park (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $20-$24  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

When an infamously demanding radio personality slips on the ice of his dinner host’s front stoop and is forced to take up residence against his will in their home for six weeks, among their various relatives, famous friend visitors and townsfolk, only madness can ensue. Such is the story of The Man Who Came to Dinner, currently playing at Circle Theatre.

Jon Steinhagen, Noah Sullivan, Patti Paul - Circle TheatreThe Man Who Came to Dinner begins with an energetic cast (maybe a little bit too energetic). While the show is a farcical comedy and over-the-top acting is to be expected, some performers, such as Mrs. Stanley (Patti Paul), wife of Earnest Stanley who are hosting radio personality Sheridan Whiteside, teeter on excessive overacting, which can be grating at times. Whiteside (Jon Steinhagen) starts off understated, delivering dryly bitter lines and insults in a rather hilarious manner. As the show progresses, we see Steinhagen begin to talk faster and faster which – though serving as a method of condescension to others – at times become hard to understand and just a tad grating. However, when taken as a whole, Steinhagen does a great job of embodying the character and fleshing Whiteside out.

Lorraine Sheldon (Heather Townsend) is also plagued by use of quick speech, but as she is a larger than life character, a famous actress friend of Whiteside’s who he’s invited to visit, Townsend’s bombasity works here, as Townsend uses not only her voice but her facial expressions and body language to bring Lorraine Sheldon to life.

Whiteside has traveled with his secretary Maggie Cutler (Kieran Welsh-Phillips), who keeps his life in order while he’s indisposed. Welsh-Phillips offers depth to the character of Maggie. She’s a presence on stage, speaking clearly and delivering her lines with confidence and knowledge of her character’s story. Maggie also falls in love while they are stuck at the Stanley residence with Burt Jefferson (delightfully played by Danny Pancratz), a newspaper reporter who has come in search of a story on Whiteside.

Harriet Stanley (Brooke Sherrod Jaeky), an ax murderer masquerading as Mr. Stanley’s sister, Nurse Preen (Katie Kisner), Whiteside’s nurse and Beverly Carlton and Banjo (Jerry Bloom), friends of Whiteside’s who visit, round out the list of standout performances. Jaeky is understated, creating a strange yet fascinating character. Kisner is rather comical as she attempts to deal with Whiteside’s temper tantrums and antics. Bloom takes on characters based on famous character men: Jon Steinhagen, Heather Townsend - Circle TheatreBeverly on Noel Coward and Banjo on Harpo Marx. Bloom does a terrific job of paying homage to these characters as well as bringing his own take to the roles.

The set, designed by Bob Knuth, is quite ornately decorated. From the busily detailed wallpaper to the decorative window treatments to the proper-looking furniture and baby grand piano it’s clear that we’re in the home of wealthy individuals. A grand staircase leads to the home’s bedrooms and French doors lead to an (offstage) library. The attention to detail is exceptional and the set is visually interesting, a perfect backdrop for this performance.

The Man Who Came to Dinner proves to be an entertaining show and ends on a hilarious note that keeps the audience laughing as the actors take their bows.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Danny Pancratz, Kieran Welsh-Phillips, Jon Steinhagen - Circle Theatre

The Man Who Came to Dinner plays at Circle Theatre (1010 W. Madison, Oak Park) through April 3rd. Tickets are $20 to $24 and can be purchases by calling (708) 771-0700.

  
  

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REVIEW: Kiss Me, Kate (Circle Theatre)

          
     

The Taming of Cole Porter

 

 

Jonathan Altman, Jake Autizen, Rachel Quinn, Wes Drummond - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
Kiss Me, Kate
  
Written by Cole Porter and Bella Spewack
Directed by
Bob Knuth
at
Circle Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

What you want with this musical revival is to hear a giant click, the sound of everything going right in Circle Theatre’s hoped-for perfect revival of Cole Porter’s musical-within-a-musical. For director and set designer Bob Knuth what’s already perfect is a sparkling script depicting the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of temperamental thespians. Modeled on the ever-excitable thespian duo of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne (a fairy tale marriage in every way), hellion Lili and egomaniac Fred enact a Jonathan Altman, Jake Autizen, Rachel Quinn, Wes Drummond - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatrelife-imitates-art parallel to the quarreling lovers they croon in a Baltimore performance of “The Taming of the Shrew.” More than before, relocated to Oak Park, Circle Theatre now has a stage wide enough to embrace all of Kevin Bellie’s cinemascopic dance routines, which in their previous Forest Park digs five blocks west on Madison Street threatened to burst at the seams.

If a spinoff can improve on its source, this toxically witty 1948 gem, which restored Cole Porter to Broadway glory after a disappointing ten-year dry spell, betters the Bard. Both a hymn to the neuroses that nurture showbiz eccentricities and extremes, it’s also a witty sendup of the perils that follow when narcissistic Broadway stars perform in private as much as under the lights. For these stagestruck souls the sound of no one applauding during their domestic quarrels must be maddening. Never has a show, backstage and centerstage, had more reason to go on.

Crafting many moments to the max, Knuth transforms Porter’s gift into a promising assemblage of perfectly timed verbal and physical comedy, sometimes superior singing, contagious dancing, dazzling costumes, period-perfect wigs, and serviceable sets. But the hard work of the 23 eager-beaver performers is critically undermined by Carolyn Brady Riley’s heavy-handed musical direction: The culprit here is the (minimal for Cole Porter) four-person band who perversely seem to make up for their small number by playing too loud throughout (a vice that’s also afflicted past Circle Theatre shows). Accompaniment does not mean overkill. No one wants these singers to use mikes but on opening night they were more than challenged to sing and speak out these brilliant Porter lyrics and, because the orchestra wouldn’t let them, a lot of laughs died along with the words. Adding mikes would only escalate the screamfest. The solution is the taming of this band.

 

John Roeder, Andy Baldeschweiler, Tommy Bullington - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre Andy Baldeschweiler and Jenny Sophia 3 - Kiss Me Kate -

Everything hinges on the chemistry between the tamer and the shrew: Jennie Sophia’s Lili (who reminds us of the young Patti Lupone) isn’t just the spitfire diva who craves to be domesticated; she delivers the dreamer (“So in Love”), desperate for the right excuse to stop fighting love. Equally commanding as Petruchio or his hammy self, Andy Baldeschwiler’s Fred never drops a joke in his patter numbers (“Where Is The Life That Late I Led?”), except when the orchestra drowns him out. At least he gets to register the sheer joy of singing “Wunderbar” every night. But, given a hostile accompaniment, he strains more than he should to unevenly deliver songs that should sound as effortless as they were composed 62 years ago.

Rachel Quinn and Wes Drummond couldn’t be sweeter second bananas, as venal Lois Lane and trusting Bill Calhoun wonder “Why Can’t You Behave?” A crowd-pleasing, vaudevillian sensation, John Roeder and Tommy Bullington are the vaudevillian gangsters whose “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is as funny as you can get without asphyxiating an audience on their own laughs.

But the signature triumph belongs to the hard-hoofing, all-crooning chorus, whose Lindy-hopping, jitterbugging dances look totally authentic and still seem improvised on the spot. If only the orchestra could have brought out all the sensuous sounds that Porter intended for songs that can be treasured and never bettered.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Cast of Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre

 

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REVIEW: Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular (Hell-Handbag)

 

A Comic’s Comeback – Wishful Thinking on a Roll

 

 The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #8 by David as Joan

   
 Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
 
The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular
   
Written by David Cerda
Directed by
Cheryl Snodgrass
At
Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 6  |  tickets: $10-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Self-destruction, it seems, is the quickest way to create a comeback. In this case it’s as if a 747 pulls out of a talespin just about 100 feet before crashing into the runway. Author/producer David Cerda’s latest confection for his Hell in a Handbag zanies is the perfect vehicle for Ed Jones to do his wicked imitation of Paul Lynde, a basket case in free fall. Except that for legal reasons Jones’ on-the-skids comic who craves a second chance in show biz is now called Rip Nelson (R.I.P.—get it?) who’s hosting a 1970 live taping of a CBS variety show, a Halloween “spooktacular” that he desperately hopes will stop his slide into the bottle. When he gets in trouble, he Ed Jones as Rip Nelson in the The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular - Hell in a Handbag - Mary's Attic reverts to his tag line, “Wooga, wooga!,” a joke that becomes more pathetic as Rip tears himself up. But never fear—Rip is blindly hurtling toward happiness!

Unctuously neurotic (with classic Lynde-like dithering), Jones’ sad-sack Rip amounts to a one-man disaster area. Mired in a self-pity that morphs into toxic insecurity, he hits the bottle and insults his faithful dresser (Barbara Figgins channeling Thelma Ritter). We get, of course, a ton of bitchy byplay in the dressing room, catty wisecracks that feel as familiar as a funhouse mirror. Rip morosely calls his show a “celebrity cemetery where has-beens go to die.”

Somehow addled Rip manages to throw himself into this vaudevillian variety show where the guests interact like tornadoes spawned from a hurricane. These include, of course, Cerda’s patented parody of Joan Crawford who, with Rip, laments ungrateful Christine in the jaunty duet “Kids” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” By now Cerda’s Crawford has become the default drive for the celluloid monster in fetid flamboyance; she’s easily the scariest think in the Spooktacular. But Joan gets plenty of grotesque competition from Missy Aguilar’s strait-laced Kate Smith. This blowsy belter performs a clever duet with Red Genson’s geeky Bob Dylan that perfectly folds the latter’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” into the former’s “God Bless America.”

Imitations that sometimes can pass for impersonations, these usual suspects from the disco decade include Brigitte Ditmars’ hilariously peppy Ann Miller (who hoofs up a storm to “Spooky” complete with phony tap dancing), BC Kalz as an embarrassingly off-rhythm and tone deaf Brooke Shields ruining David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters,” and Michael Hampton’s no-nonsense Bea Arthur (who deadpans “Monster Mash” with an equally dour Dylan). Aaron Lawson adds spice as Donny Osmond, squeaky clean as he demurely declares himself “homosexual catnip”. (This is 40 years ago, mind you.)

Elizabeth Lesinski, as a chatty Charo, makes you realize what killed vaudeville as she launches into the conga-dancing finale “Hootchie Cootchie Halloween,” a deliberately daffy production number that features Rip as Carmen Miranda on steroids. Completing the encourage are Patricia Austin’s adequately brief cameo as Phyllis Diller, Andrew Swan as insolent Brady brat Susan Olsen, and Alex Grelle’s bittersweet Shelley Duvall, a riot as she becomes the butt of everybody’s insults because she’s ugly and offers absolutely no consolation for her father’s failure to appear.

The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #4 by David as Joan The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #6 by David as Joan
The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #10 by David as Joan The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #1 by David as Joan

When it turns out that Rip’s mad scene is the result of Quaaludes that he accidentally drank when he stole Donny Osmond’s glass of orange juice, the loser suddenly rallies and discovers he’s not washed up after all. That of course is just when he’s given a new chance, a CBS comedy with Don Knotts. (This is a show that really believes you can have your cake and eat it too—mock Rip and then care about his comeback.)

It all makes for an exhausting 60 minutes full of what will seem to younger audience members esoteric to arcane cultural references from two generations ago. Despite its brevity, Cheryl Snodgrass’ staging often feels jerky: The dressing room scenes repeatedly drop the energy. (It might be better to play this as a continuous TV show with appropriately stupid commercials inserted during the breaks.)

Kudos to Kalz’ self-caricaturing wigs and to Brian McKnight’s sound design which delivers the variety show’s essential laugh track. But it was all but drowned out by a tipsy Andersonville audience who offered their own clap-happy ovations: Their kindness to these “strangers” amounted to shining generosity. But then everybody loves a loser…

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular-Production photo #2 by David as Joan

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REVIEW: The Analytical Engine (Circle Theatre)

Steampunk gone silly

 

Patricia Austin, Denita Linnertz, Eric Lindahl and Catherine

 

Circle Theatre, Forest Park, presents:

The Analytical Engine

By Jon Steinhagen
Directed by
Bob Knuth
Through March 28 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Don’t be afraid of the scientific history implied by the title of Circle Theatre’s world premiere The Analytical Engine — little math or science actually surfaces. A frivolous, Harlequin romance of a play, The Analytical Engine takes a promising concept, a bluestocking American heroine who has actually built the steam-powered calculating machine that mathematician Charles Babbage only imagined, and utterly trivializes it.

Patricia Austin and Denita Linnertz Although he never actually created it, Babbage’s machine forms an important basis in the history of computers, due in no small part to the writings of his disciple Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who wrote extensively about how it might be put to use. That’s the only piece of scientific background you need.

Set in 1850 Connecticut, Jon Steinhagen’s play, which won first prize in the 2009 Julie Harris Playwright Awards, centers on Hippolyta Powell, a mathematically minded young lady who’s constructed the huge, clanking computer in her family barn, much to the consternation of her sardonic, novelist sister and dizzy, artistic mother. Having achieved the technological triumph of her era, Hippolyta does not set it to calculating Bernoulli numbers or composing scientific music, uses proposed by Lady Lovelace, who appears in the play as a haughty and curious visitor, but instead feeds it punched cards delineating hundreds of local bachelors with the aim of finding her perfect mate. Love does not enter into her equations.

If you can get past the utter silliness of the concept, Bob Knuth stages the story with great charm on his absolute dream of a Victorian-era drawing room set (though I’m told it’s virtually identical to the one the theater used for "Little Women"). Gorgeous period costumes by Elizabeth Wislar add still more eye candy.

Catherine Ferraro, Mary Redmon and Patricia Austin Jon Steinhagen and Eric Lindahl
Jon Steinhagen, Mary Redmon and Patricia Austin Patricia Austin and Jon Steinhagen (2)

The pacing could be zippier, but Patricia Austin bubbles as the bouncy, enthusiastic Hippolyta. Catherine Ferraro is wonderfully arch as her literary sister, Marigold, and Mary Redmon shines as their ditzy but sometimes down-to-earth mother.

Denita Linnertz adds elegance as Lady Lovelace. Eric Lindahl seems a bit miscast — too good-humored and fresh-faced — for the role of Nathaniel Swade, the somewhat shady dandy whose card the Analytical Engine chooses a Hippolyta’s top match, while the playwright, Steinhagen, does a perfect job as Eppa Morton, her bumbling teddy bear of a rejected swain.

Yet for all the heft of the never-seen Analytical Engine, this is one fluffy story.

Rating: ★★★

 

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