Review: The Original Grease (American Theater Company)

  
  

Now extended through August 21st!!

 

This show %#&*ing rocks!

  
  

(L to R) Carol Rose, Tony Clarno, Jessica Diaz, Robert Colletti, Kelly Davis Wilson, Adrian Aguilar and Tyler Ravelson in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

  
American Theater Company presents
   
The Original Grease
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by PJ Paparelli
at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $45-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Foul-mouthed, raunchy, and absolutely not for children (although I’d think my parents were the coolest if they took me to this), American Theater Company’s The Original Grease is how Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s classic musical was meant to be seen. Forget the Bee Gees and the Australian accents, this Grease is northwest Chicago all the way, and ATC’s production takes pride in its urban heritage, presenting a grittier, yet still effervescently youthful Rydell High Class of 1960. What surprised me most about The Original Grease wasn’t the profanity or sexual explicitness, but how much more of an ensemble piece the stage version is than the movie. Sandy (Kelly Davis Wilson) and Danny (Adrian Aguilar) romance is the spine of the plot, but the relationships between the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies are fleshed out considerably. Minor characters like Patty Simcox (Alaina Mills) and Miss Lynch (Peggy Roeder) even get their own solos.

Adrian Aguilar and Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerThe show begins at the Class of 1960’s 50-year reunion, where a gleeful/wasted Patricia Simcox Honeywell (Susan Fay) invites the audience to take a trip down memory lane with a slide show of nostalgic Chicago locales that seques into the main action of the play in 1959. Shout outs to Palmer House, Carson’s, and Jewel root the show firmly in Chicago, and “Foster Beach” replaces “Summer Nights” as the recap of Sandy and Danny’s summer tryst. The new (old?) emphasis on the city firmly establishes the setting, but also alters the dynamic within the group of high schoolers. You get the impression that these are kids that have grown up together for most of their lives, and Sandy Dumbrowski’s transformation becomes less of a unique experience, but more of a typical teenage transformation as a way to fit in.

Above all else, The Original Grease succeeds because of the friendship cultivated among the group, a sense of camaraderie that climaxes in a spectacular a cappella arrangement of “We Go Together” at the end of Act One. As the gang pounds beer and passes cigarettes in the Cook County Forest Preserve they break into the film’s closing number, and the nonsensical lyrics have a different impact when they are the drunk ramblings of a group of teenagers. I’m a sucker for rain on stage, so the end of the number his all the right notes, and the ensemble’s unaccompanied vocals blend flawlessly. I wish that Sandy were in the number so Willis could add her brassy vocals to the song, but it’s just another way The Original Grease makes the audience encourage Sandy’s transformation.

Willis’ clean-cut appearance suggest the naïve Sandy that the audience is familiar with, but she shows her character’s fiery side well before her final metamorphosis. The moments where Sandy loses her temper make her change more believable but also make her a worthy opponent for Aguilar, who perfectly captures the lovable asshole vibe of the cocky Danny Zuko. Danny isn’t a very sympathetic character, and he never really pines after Sandy in this production, as “Alone At The Drive-In Movie” is transferred back to it’s original owner Kenickie (Tony Clarno) as a desperate ballad to the absent, potentially pregnant Rizzo (Jessica Diaz). Danny’s change is not about gaining Sandy’s acceptance, and is instead motivated by Danny’s desire to explore his potential.

(L to R) Bubba Weiler, Tyler Ravelson, Robert Colletti, Patrick De Nicola, Adrian Aguilar in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerPJ Paparelli excels at emphasizing the ways these characters leave their childhoods behind, and during Danny’s solo “How Big I’m Gonna Be,” Danny’s ambition forces him to leave the Burger Palace Boys to become the type of man that might be able to escape working in a factory with the same people’s he’s been surrounded by all his life. By the end of the show, each of the main characters has had to deal with an important teenage problem, and walks away having learned a valuable lesson. Frenchy (Jessie Fisher) finds out its hard to follow your dreams without a high school diploma and Rizzo learns the consequences of a broken condom, while Sandy and Danny show two opposite views of the same issue: changing for the one you love. These are the issues that teenagers have dealt with in the past and will continue to face in the future, an idea that is hammered home by Miss Lynch’s “In My Day,” which brings everything around full circle. Presiding over the reunion, Patricia Simcox Honeywell has become Miss Lynch, reminiscing about days gone by that seem like only yesterday.

The cast of The Original Grease is a remarkably gifted group of actors, whose singing and dancing prowess are matched by their comedic and dramatic chops. Diaz’s Rizzo has a nonchalant confidence that makes her a natural leader, and Diaz captures Rizzo’s struggle to keep up her tough appearance during the powerful “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Carol Rose’s sultry Marty is the sexy Pink Lady, and she nails “Freddy My Love,” the doo wop tribute to Marty’s Marine boyfriend during the Pink Ladies sleepover. Fisher’s clueless yet good-intentioned Frenchy is a constant source of comic relief along with the sloppy, silly Jan (Sadieh Rifal), who (L to R) Carol Rose, Jessie Fisher, Kelly Davis Wilson, Sadieh Rifai, Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beinerdevelops an adorable romance with Burger Palace Boy Roger (Rob Colletti).

Among the boys, Tony Clarno gives Kenickie a ferocity that burns through the comic playfulness of his friends, and the aggression he brings to the characters makes his drive-in breakdown an even stronger moment. Patrick De Nicola’s Sonny steals the show, though, as he constantly tries to assume an assertive role in the group but lacks the confidence and competence of alpha males Danny and Kenickie. Sonny’s attempts to be cool constantly blow up in his face, but once he brings Cha-Cha (Hannah Gomez) to the dance, Sonny goes from hilarious to gut-busting. The two have fantastic chemistry, and Gomez’s Cha-Cha is considerably different from the film version and all the better for it, and pairing her up with Sonny instead of Danny is another way that the stage version expands the world of these characters.

The Original Grease is what I’d like Grease to be all the time. These are characters that talk and act like real kids, with real problems that don’t always have easy answers. There are a few balance issues between the actors and the band that prevents the show from being perfect, but it is a must-see for all fans of the musical in all its iterations. At least for those that won’t mind the colorful language and provocative choreography, because those aren’t gear shifts the boys are grabbing at the end of “Greased Lightning.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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Review: Jackie and Me (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

     
     

Jackie Robinson honored with fun and dynamic storytelling

 

  
     

Pictured (far left) Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, (seated, with baby) Tracey Bonner as Rachel Robinson, and (far right) Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow

  
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
  
Jackie and Me
      
Written by Steven Dietz
Based on book by Dan Gutman
Directed by Derrick Sanders
at  Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N. Dearborn Avenue (map)
through March 27  | 
tickets: $25-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Chicago Children’s Theatre has a triumph on their hands. Their world premiere production of Jackie and Me has nothing less than heart—miles and miles of heart. Based on the children’s book by Dan Gutman, frankness and joyful simplicity dominate Steven Dietz’s script. Derrick Sanders’ fresh and focused direction energizes the story of Jackie Robinson, the black athlete who broke the color barrier in baseball. Jackie and Me doesn’t just relate Robinson’s story accessibly to young Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilowaudiences, but also makes it lively, passionate and dynamic. The play teaches young people the degrading and often dangerous racism Robinson had to overcome just to play in the white major leagues. But equally threaded throughout the story is an unquenchable enthusiasm for baseball, its history and power to connect generations.

Young Joey Stoshack (Tyler Ross) has an undying love for baseball. Joey also has a peculiar gift—by simply holding an old baseball card in his hand he can travel back in time to meet the baseball player pictured on the card. When his teacher gives his class the assignment of writing biographical reports of great African Americans, Joey is relieved to learn that Jackie Robinson is on the list. An old friend Flip (Sean Cooper) lends him a Bond Bread card with Jackie Robinson’s picture on it and he travels back to learn history as it happened.

The characters of Jackie and Me are drawn bold and big—and they don’t get much bigger or bolder than Branch Rickey (Charles Stransky) signing Jackie Robinson (Kamal Angelo Bolden) to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Sanders’ direction allows his cast to project their characters with directness and clarity while exuberantly moving the story forward–and the production goes beyond idealizing the larger-than-life characters of Rickey and Robinson, simply and potently enshrined by Stransky and Bolden. Just when one thinks the time travel bit won’t convince, it convinces. Just when one thinks the story’s unabashed optimism might come off too hokey or old-fashioned, it convinces. Sanders and his excellent cast bring across the nobility and hopefulness of Robinson’s achievement with masterful assurance.

     
Pictured (from left)  Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, Sean Cooper as Jackie’s Dodger teammate Pee Wee Rees, and Patrick De Nicola as Phildelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Charles Stransky as Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers,  who signed the first African-American to play major league baseball, Jackie Robinson, played by Kamal Angelo Bolden. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow

Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun. Ross’s open and straightforward emotion allows audiences, both young and old, to connect with Joey’s journey. Patrick de Nicola provides infinite comic relief in a number of other roles in which he plays Joey’s rival. As Joey’s Mom and Dad, Vanessa Greenway and Ron Rains make warm, human and realistic parents. Chicago Children’s Theatre goes to the very heart of storytelling and reveals the diamonds that are there. Jackie and Me has the stuff to uplift and rejuvenate audiences of all ages and remind them of the glory of baseball at the center of the American Dream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
      
  

Performances of Jackie and Me continue through March 27, 2011 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25 for children (ages 17 and under) and $35 for adults, available through CCT’s website, chicagochildrenstheatre.org, or the ticket hotline, (866) 811-4111.

Jackie and Me is recommended for children ages 8 and older as it deals with historical racism in an honest manner.

(from left) Sean Cooper as Flip, owner of the baseball card shop frequented by time traveler Joey Shostack, played by Tyler Ross. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson Jackie Robinson - Jackie and Me - Chicago Children's Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 

Artists

Cast: Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, with Tracey N. Bonner (Rachel), Patrick De Nicola (Ant), Ron Rains (Dad), Vanessa Greenway (Mom), Sean Cooper (Flip) and Charles Stransky (Branch Rickey).

Production: Steven Dietz (playwright), Derrick Sanders (director), Ian Zywica (set), Seth Reinick (lights), Christine Pascual (costumes), Michael Griggs (sound) and Kimberly Morris (props), Michael Brosilow (photography).

     
     

REVIEW: Memory (Backstage Theatre Company)

  
  

Captivating ensemble fills space with raw energy

 

 

Memory - Backstage Theatre 4 - photo by Heath Hays

   
Backstage Theatre presents
   
Memory
   
Written by Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through December 18  |  tickets: $22-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

War is hell. Especially when you’re talking about the Holocaust, an event so horrific in nature that it still rocks people to this day. Or, more recently, this hostility and violence has manifested itself in the Israeli and Palestinian War. Views on these two wars are brought together in the Backstage Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of Memory by Jonathan Lichtenstein.

Memory - Backstage Theatre 5 - photo by Heath HaysThe set, designed by Heath Hays, starts out as an essentially bare stage: an open space, with some propped-up backward-facing set wall pieces, a piano and a couch. This arrangement leaves plenty of room for the actor’s to move around the space, both physically and emotionally. As the show progresses, the wall pieces are turned around one-by-one to reveal large-scale black-and-white photos that create background scenery that adds to the story.

Memory – featuring Brenda Barrie, Tony Bozzuto, Samuel Buti, Bilal Dardai, Josh Hambrock, Shane Michael Murphy and Patrick De Nicola is a show about actors rehearsing a play that turns into an actual performance of the play. The show opens on a rehearsal, with the actors all playing themselves, entering and preparing themselves for work. There is no official start to the show in the traditional sense where lights dim and actors take their places. Instead the action just begins, which is slightly confusing, causing one to question what exactly we are watching. Once it becomes clear that the show has in fact started, the action is (intentionally) a bit stressed and scattered. The actors begin to rehearse a scene with their director (Josh Hambrock), moving the scene forward and then stopping it, causing a disconnect between the actors and their characters.

Eventually the rehearsal format falls away and a steady performance begins. Each actor morphs from performing a role and reciting lines to becoming the character and fully bringing them to life.

The show is split between two stories: the story of Eva and the story of Bashar.

Eva’s (Brenda Barrie) story revolves around her long-lost grandson (Shane Michael Murphy) questioning the validity of a long-standing family legend about the Holocaust. It’s told through flashbacks of Eva’s life with her friends Felix (Patrick De Nicola) and Aron (Tony Bozzuto), who later becomes her husband. Bashar’s (Bilal Dardai) story tells of his experience as a Palastinian fighting against an Israeli soldier (Samuel Buti).

Memory proves to be a true ensemble piece, with each actor working in sync with one another. It’s apparent that this cast has come together and bonded, with each member as strong as the next, growing as the show progresses and developing honest portrayals of the characters. The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space.

 

Brenda Barrie in Backstage Theatre Memory - photo by Heath Hays Josh Hambrock & Samuel Buti - Backstage Theatre - Heath Hays photographer
Memory - Backstage Theatre - photo by Heath Hays Brenda Barrie & Tony Bozzuto - Backstage Theatre - photo by Heath Hays

Barrie plays the role of Eva as both as an older and younger version. Her portrayal of an older Eva is a fascinating one as she embodies the character through her actions, her voice and the emotions that play over her face. Barrie creates a quietly strong persona that seems as though it could snap in an instant, knowing that she’s been carrying around secrets and guilt for years. When it does snap the emotion that’s let loose is so raw and unfiltered that it fills up the entire space.

Murphy’s performance as Peter is lively and full of energy. He’s hungry with a curiosity to know about his family’s past and it drives him to push Eva to open up and reveal the truth.

Eva flashes back to her earlier years where Barrie, Bozzuto and De Nicola are believable as a trio of old friends, discovering who they are and what they’re meant to be. What starts as fun and frivolity quickly turns to fear and anger, causing them to choose sides (or have sides chosen for them) during the Holocaust. All three offer up captivating performances of friendships torn about by lines drawn between the Nazis and the Jews.

The transitions between Eva’s story and Bashar’s story are smooth.  Dardai plays Bashar also with a quiet strength as he stands up for not only his home but his family, his beliefs and his life. An unusual relationship is formed between him and Isaac (played by Samuel Buti). Isaac is torn between trying to help and simply carrying out orders. Buti’s performance shows this struggle through the formation of a relationship that could only happen under these specific circumstances. He’s clear in his devotion to the Israeli army but he’s humanized in his attempts at trying to ease some amount of suffering for Bashar.

At certain times throughout the performance, whether it is from the intensity or excitement of the action, the accents slip out of German/Israeli/Palestinian into something less distinguishable. That being said, the performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating them so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

Memory plays at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western Ave., through December 18 Thursday through Saturday at 7:00 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $25 and $22 for seniors.

Patrick De Nicola & Tony Bozzuto in Memory at Backstage Theatre

 

 

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