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: The Wedding Singer (Circle Theatre)

 

A Sweet Wedding Confection

 

 

Wedding Singer (L-R) Kelli LaValle, Patti Roeder, Eric Lindahl, Rachel Quinn, Nathan Carroll and Shawn Quinlan. Photo by Bob Knuth.

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
The Wedding Singer
   
Book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy
Music/Lyrics by
Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
Directed by
Kevin Bellie
at
Circle Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $26   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I must make a shocking confession. I have never seen the film “The Wedding Singer”. I have however lived through the 80’s and still have the bag of removable shoulder pads to prove it. The Circle Theatre musical production of The Wedding Singer is a fun romp through the decade that was all about froth and hair looking like spun sugar. The creators – Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy wrote the book of the movie with music by Matthew Sklar and Beguelin have done a brilliant job bringing this 80’s-sounding score to life. 

Wedding Singer - Eric Lindahl and Rachel Quinn. Photo by Bob Knuth. Eric Lindahl plays our hero Robbie Hart with none of Adam Sandler’s snark. That is precisely why I liked him so much in this role. It is a tribute to the time when musicals were all about a girl and a guy up against the odds and winning. Lindahl has a good voice and sings the wedding schmaltz as well as the arena rock ballads. Rachel Quinn plays leading lady Julia Sullivan. Ms. Quinn has the moves to play the heroine but her voice is not made for pop music. She is reminiscent of the Rogers and Hammerstein era of musicals and does well as the bereft heroine.

Blowing the lid off of the power ballads are Kelli LaValle and Britni Tozzi. Ms. Tozzi plays bad girl Linda who channels Pat Benatar while giving Robbie Hart the heave ho. I absolutely adored Ms. LaValle as the slightly trampy best friend Holly. She is dressed in classic tulle layers and spun sugar hair- so unlike a virgin. It is a standout performance and LaValle has a powerhouse voice that rocks the rafters.

The storyline is not a surprise but it is still fun. Robbie Hart is the leader of a wedding band called ‘Simply Wed’ who gets his heart broken and falls for the local banquet hall waitress. The waitress is of course waiting for a dual-life jerk executive to put a ring on it and keep her in claw hair and sparkly duds. Hart lives in Grandma’s basement somewhere in Jersey and what a grandma she is. Patti Roeder plays the role of a frisky grandmother who pulls out the rapping chops to great comic effect. Roeder brings down the house with her double entendres and libidinous one- liners.

 

(L-R) Dennis Schnell, Michael Mejia, Nathan Carroll, Eric Lindahl, Shawn Quinlan, Tommy Bullington, Jimmy Lis and Tommy Thurston The Impersonators of The Wedding Singer - Photo by Bob Knuth
Wedding Singer (L-R) Toni Lynice Fountain, Michael Mejia, Rachel Quinn, Melody Latham and Patti Roeder Wedding Singer - (L-R) Nathan Carroll, Eric Lindahl and Shawn Quinlan

Making up the rest of ‘Simply Wed’ are Nathan Carroll in full ‘Flock of Seagulls’ regalia and Shawn Quinlan as a Boy George clone. They are very funny and touching in their bromance roles. Jim DeSelm rounds out the leading cast as Glen the blazingly arrogant Wall Street raider. He leads a fine song about money and greed as his character shows his true colors.

The rest of the cast is stellar. They are really good dancers, and the choreography by Director Kevin Bellie is great nostalgic fun to watch. The Las Vegas scenes are hysterically surreal with a cornucopia of classic characters as Vegas impersonators. This goes way beyond Elvis and deep into ‘Behind the Music’ territory with Patti Labelle, Michael Jackson, Billy Idol, Imelda Marcos (!) and a brilliant cameo by Dennis Schnell as Sam Kinison.

The Wedding Singer is well worth the travel to Oak Park.  Don’t miss it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

FYI: I would advise getting there early to have dinner before the curtain because the sidewalks roll up in Oak Park at 10pm.The Wedding Singer runs through October 31st at The Performance Center, 1010 W. Madison St. in Oak Park (map). Go for some great music, laughs, romance, memories, and great ideas for Halloween! The Performance Center is accessible by Metra as well as the CTA Green Line. Shoulder pads and claw hair are optional.

Wedding Singer (L-R) Sarah Conrad, Rachel Quinn, Kelli LaValle, Kendle Lester, Kristen Calvin and Britni Tozzi

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REVIEW: The Philadelphia Story (Circle Theatre)

‘The Philadelphia Story’ haunted by ghosts of movies past

 

Kevin Anderson, Laura McClain, and Josh Hambrock

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
The Philadelphia Story
   
Written by Philip Barry
Directed by Jim Schneider
at Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Through Sept. 5   |   Tickets: $20–$24 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Any production of The Philadelphia Story naturally evokes celluloid comparisons to Kathryn Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the 1940 film. Inspired by the real life Main Line heiress Hope Montgomery Scott, the class-conscious play opened in 1939 with Hepburn as spoiled, self-righteous rich girl Tracy Lord — a role she reprised in the Oscar-winning film. The Philadelphia Story also formed the basis for the 1956 musical, High Society, so there are those movie memories to contend with, too.

Katelyn Smith, Jhenai Mootz, and Josh Hambrock Yet that shouldn’t mean a theater can’t put its own spin on the show. In its one big drawback, Circle Theatre’s production too often feels like a ghostly reenactment of the film.

Laura McClain, as Tracy, channels Hepburn for all she’s worth, while Josh Hambrock, as journalist Macauley "Mike" Connor, appears possessed by Stewart, with every drawl and facial twitch down pat. It’s uncannily fascinating, but I went to the theater to see a play, not to participate in a séance.

As Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, Kevin Anderson (not to be confused with Kevin Anderson), deserves kudos for not trying to reanimate Cary Grant. Unfortunately, his coolly puckish performance sometimes comes off as more smirking than suave. Moreover, his interactions with the others seem to accentuate their derivative mannerisms.

However, if you can get over the sense that you might just as well have stayed home with Netflix, Philip Barry’s dryly witty script transcends all.

On the verge of Tracy’s second marriage, Connor, who has become reluctantly infatuated, and Haven, with some help from Tracy’s smart-aleck kid sister (spunky, smut-faced Katelyn Smith), are bent on trying to prevent Tracy from wedding her stuffy, middle-class fiancé, George Kittredge (an appropriately stiff Luke Renn). The priggish Kittredge determinedly puts her on a pedestal. Though impatient with human frailties — the philandering of her father (Tom Viskocil), for example, and her former husband’s drinking — Tracy isn’t so sure she likes being cast as an ice goddess.

Josh Hambrock and Laura McClain Luke Renn, Laura McClain, Josh Hambrock, and Kevin Anderson

Bob Knuth’s elegant drawing-room set and Elizabeth Wislar‘s smart period costumes (particularly for lovely Jhenai Mootz, who portrays a world-weary Elizabeth Imbrie, the photographer who accompanies Connor to the Lords’ home) give us a handsome look back in time. Director Jim Schneider has wisely kept the original three-act format.

Some of the sensibilities behind this farce seem dated today, but it’s still an awfully funny comedy. If you aren’t bothered by ghosts, you’ll like this production fine.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Entire cast of Philadelphia Story - Circle Theatre - 006

 Entire Cast of "Philadelphia Story”   

 

     
     

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REVIEW: Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Circle Theatre)

One small BIG thrill

 The Men of BLWIT

 
Circle Theatre presents
 
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
 
Book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson
Music/Lyrics by Carol Hall
Directed and choreographed by Kevin Bellie
Music Direction and new arrangements by Josh Walker
Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Thru June 20th (more info)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Whores, hookers, ladies of the evening, oh my! – prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and perhaps the most misunderstood. Circle Theatre presents The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a musical exposing the softer side of the sex trade industry. Based on a true story, a Texas amusement institution has provided adult entertainment over the centuries. During the depression era, pleasure seekers paid for thrills with poultry which led to the nickname, “chicken ranch.” The kind-hearted Michael Gravame and the boys madam, Miss Mona, operates a clean business focused on guest satisfaction. Her well-known establishment has the endorsement and protection of the local sheriff. All that changes, when a television reporter crusades to shut it down. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas isn’t your street corner hooker production, however. It’s your high class call girl with impressive moves and a revolving wardrobe ensuring your fantasy investment reaps multiple benefits.

This show is all about the show. Twenty-five cast members with multiple costume and wig changes dress up this non-stop energetic production. Under the direction and choreography of Kevin Bellie, musical numbers are a visual spectacle. Bellie chooses to make The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas a love affair instead of a “quickie.”  Hookers to TV back-up singers to cheerleaders to reporters, Bellie uses a large number of the chorus in every scene. This choice adds dimensionality to the depth of the songs and dances. Going “Texas-style big” aids a few sound issues. For some of the solo singing moments, it’s hard to hear the lines. During “Little Bitty Pissant Country Place,” there is an awkward duet between Miss Mona and a guy in the band. Cue the chorus! When the whores chime in, the harmony is ecstasy. Whether it’s singing or dancing, the ensemble uses its size to go deeper. The synchronization of the large number of dancers on a small stage kicks it up to the “wow” factor. “The Aggie Song”, in particular, is sexy country-line dancing with an athletic vigor. It’s Dirty Dancing taken to a whole new level!

Anita Hoffman and Noah Sullivan Kirk Swenk, Gregory Payne and the ladies
Sheana Tobey, Snita Hoffman, Sydney genco and Toni Lynice Fountain Noah Sullivan, Christopher Boyd and Jen Bludgen

Along with the huge and talented chorus, principal players add to the entertainment value. Every hooker should be lucky to have a boss like Miss Mona (Anita Hoffman). Balancing maternal urges in a cheeky business, Hoffman commands the stage with a combo of sexy playfulness and compassionate wisdom. Not quite meshing into the frothy ensemble, Toni Lynice Fountain (Jewel) shines with a soulful rendition of the song “24 Hours of Lovin”.  Noah Sullivan (Sheriff Earl Dodd) delivers his irreverent lines with hilarious force. ‘If that three foot man comes back, I’m going to flatten him so he has to roll down his socks to shit.’ Michael A. Gravame (Melvin P. Thorpe) is a smarmy dolt mugging the comedic moment. The issue side-stepping politician, Kirk Swenk (Governor) makes a small part memorably funny. The entire cast whores itself out for the audience’s pleasure.

The extraordinary spectrum of costumes (Jesus Perez) and wigs (Michael Buonincontro) are a 70’s flashback of afro, peasant blouses, and Frederick’s of Hollywood fun. Costumes, cast, choreography; all the lubricated participants make this group orgy a love fest!

 
Rating: ★★★
 

Showtimes: Fridays & Saturdays @ 8:00 pm, Sundays @ 3:00 pm (buy tickets).  Group Rates for 10 or More Available.  Call 708-771-0700 for more info.

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

 The cast of BLWIT

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