Review: Samuel J. and K. (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

Steppenwolf Young Adults feature plays it loose with plausibility, plot

  
  

Cliff Chamberlain and Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Samuel J. and K.
   
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through March 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s no shortage of local shout-outs in director Ron OJ Parson’s Naperville-based family drama. Its dialogue makes generous references to landmark spots and (much to the amusement of the opening morning’s audience) a neighboring rivalry. In promotional materials, playwright and suburban native Mat Smart suggests elements of the play are semi-biographical. The Young Adults presentation will play to many teens who directly relate to its characters and their circumstances. This play wants to be relevant, and wants to be real.

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.Its themes—identity, fate, racial definition, nature vs. nurture, brotherly love—are. So why do the stakes in Samuel J. and K. feel so low? And its story, lacking in authenticity?

Before adopted, black Samuel K. (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) walks to receive his college diploma, he and his older white brother Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) indulge in a family tradition down at the basketball court. Too eager to wait, reaction-snap-cam in-hand, J. halts the game and begs K. to open his gift envelope; it contains two expensive, non-refundable, unsolicited and unwanted tickets to J.’s birth city in Cameroon.

Before the first pick-up game is over, the inciting argument comes to a head.

It’s also the audience’s first cue for a small suspension of disbelief: these Sams love each other and are close enough to talk smack and hip-check each other into chain link fences, but they’ve never had the adoptive ‘where is home really’ talk before? At that age? Having not yet built an understanding of the brothers’ dynamic, we’re launched into an issues talk before the relationship study has gotten a chance to get off the ground.

No sooner than we can ponder the implications of the gift or the risk of the trip are we whisked away to a mosquito net-lined bed in Africa—on the last day of the vacation.

Points where one would expect build—the inevitable second discussion (there had to have been more than one), the anxieties leading up to the trip, the arrival—are skipped over, making room for barely conceivable twists, including a borderline absurd subplot involving a mutual romantic interest. It’s a limp, manipulative device seemingly employed for no other purpose than to conjure a requisite “you’re not my real brother!”

Chamberlain makes do with his character’s under-supported choices, lending credibility to some of the play’s more outlandish ideas. As K., Roberson, Jr. has the tendency to over act, the perception of which is compounded by the valleys and holes in Smart’s script.

Lacking enough logic to create dramatic build, Samuel J. and K. is a two-man show in which the eponymous characters remain elusive. What are audiences—young or old—supposed to glean from that?

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
  
 

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REVIEW: Pinocchio (Marriott Theatre)

A thrilling show for kids of all ages

 

PINOCCHIO Jameson Cooper and Cory Goodrich 2

   
Marriott Children’s Theatre presents
   
Pinocchio
   
Music, Lyrics and Book by Marc Robin
Directed and Choreographed by
Rachel Rockwell
Musical Direction by
Roberta Duchak
at
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Allegra Gallian

When people think of Pinnocchio, most would refer back to the Disney movie featuring the morally-conscious Jiminy Cricket and the wonderfully naïve little wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a real, live boy. Not this time. Marriott Lincolnshire’s Children’s Theatre has brought a new spin to the beloved fairy tale through their original musical production of Pinocchio, adapted for the stage by Marc Robin.

PINOCCHIO Michael Haws, Jackson Evans, Jameson Cooper 2 Minimal set pieces cover the stage, giving way for the large personalities of each character to fill the space. Just a worktable and door frame rest on the stage of the in-the-round theatre. Still, there’s a cozy feeling running through as groups of children and their parents take their seats. A fantasy-like quality is emitted and, as the lights go down and anticipation builds, the stage is dimly lit by a singular center spot on Geppetto’s work table, where the puppet Pinocchio rests.

The well-known character of Geppetto (Michael Haws) instantly brings an energy to the stage as he introduces his puppet shop through a cheerful song-and-dance number. Haws conveys the kind and gentle feel of the old wood-worker, creating an engaging presence that’s hard not to bond with. With the energy level set high from the start, Pinocchio, under the direction of Rachel Rockwell, flows smoothly along with quick scene changes and keeps an excited buzz running to the audience.

After Geppetto’s wife dies, he spends his lonely nights wishing on stars until he meets a new friend, an over-the-top grasshopper name G. Hopper. Played by Jackson Evans, Hopper is a larger-than-life character, full of energy as he bounces and flits around the stage. Evans’ Hopper provides plenty of laughs with his adept comedic timing throughout the production.

As a foil to the rest of the cast’s lively antics, the Blue Fairy (Cory Goodrich) creates a regal and calming presence. She comes to grant Geppetto’s wish of bringing the puppet Pinocchio to life because Geppetto has been such a good and honest man his whole life. Goodrich supplies a genuine characterization that truly touches the audience. Her voice fills the stage as she sings of all the positive attributes Pinocchio will need to possess if he’s ever to become a real boy.

Once Geppetto’s wish is granted, Pinocchio (Jameson Cooper) is taught to walk and talk in a catchy musical duet by his newly named conscience, Hopper. Evans and Cooper’s freshly-formed friendship feels authentic and honest. Throughout his misadventures: ditching school, hanging out at Pleasure Island and getting lost in a whale, Cooper offers up an adorable portrayal of Pinocchio with a quality endearing him immediately to audience members.

PINOCCHIO Jameson Cooper as Pinocchio

Cory Goodrich as Blue Fairy Jackson Evans as Hopper

With musicals, one generally expect the singing to be top-notch. Unfortunately, this is where Pinocchio comes up short. The singing is good-quality work, but not stellar – which may partly be caused by the fast-paced choreography. That being said, Goodrich’s Blue Fairy sings with a wonderful soprano voice that rings clear to the back of the house.

While the singing lacks, Rachel Rockwell’s choreography shines. Intricate dance numbers are a pleasure to watch, and it’s clear that these actors have natural dance talent. There’s even a crowd-pleasing scene at Pleasure Island complete with beat boxing and break dancing, spectacularly performed by Adrian Aguilar.

What really promotes the magic of this show is the exceptional lighting design by Jesse Klug. The fanciful, special effects lighting creates a fairy tale world full of color and enchantment that transports the audience to a world of wonder.  Jesse Gaffney’s minimalist set also elevates the magic.

Pinocchio proves to be a thrilling show for kids of all ages who wish to be marveled by inherently good blue fairies and hopeful wooden boys whose wishes come true by telling the truth and always letting your conscience be your guide.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Jackson Evans as Hopper, Jameson Cooper as Pinocchio

Pinocchio plays Wednesday through Sunday at 10:00 am through August 29th at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., in Lincolnshire. Single and group tickets are available. Call 847-634-0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

     

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“South Pacific” opens tonight!

The Chicago engagement of the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC will be led by internationally renowned bass-baritone David Pittsinger as Emile de Becque and Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush

The eight-time Tony Award-winning production will play the Rosemont Theatre for a limited one-week engagement Nov. 24 – 29, 2009.  For more information on the production, please visit www.SouthPacificOnTour.com or www.RosemontTheatre.com.

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