REVIEW: Striking 12 (BoHo Theatre)

  
  

Good music does not a good musical make

  
  

Dustin Valenta, Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele

  
BoHo Theatre presents
  
  
Striking 12
 
Book/Music/Lyrics by Brendan Milburn,
Rachel Sheinkin and Valeria Vigoda 
Directed by
Lara Filip
at
BoHo Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Jan 8  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Striking 12 isn’t so much a musical as it is a rock concert with a dramatic flare. The self-aware holiday play is about a fake rock band that tells the tale of a lonely man on New Year’s Eve who in turn tells the tale of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”. It’s a story within a story within a story, but thanks to the lack of complexity and depth given to each plot line, it’s never particularly difficult to follow.

Dustin Valenta, Amy Steele, Mallory Nees, Eric LoughlinThe play begins with a bit of self-referential comedy and audience interaction. The actors enter and launch into a song about overtures that describes the conventions of an overture. The "band" then informs us that they are all actors before breaking the fourth wall by getting a band name from the audience. (The night I went they were Purple Nurple.)

Eventually, a story emerges about a recently single man (Eric Loughlin) who is alone on New Year’s Eve. Rather than attend the party of his wild and crazy friend (Dustin Valenta), he decides to sit like a bump on a log in the confines of his apartment. He is then visited by a door-to-door saleswoman (Mallory Nees), who is peddling full-spectrum holiday lights that fight off the winter blues. He denies her the sale, but not before having a brief conversation about “The Little Match Girl.” This inspires him to read the short story, which then becomes the dominating plot line of the play.

When there is less than 90 minutes to flesh out several concentric plots, you know the story is going to be a little light. And Striking 12 certainly is lacking when it comes to a compelling through line. But that’s not really what this play is about. Written by three successful musicians/composers (Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda), the selling point is the music and the talent of the performers. This certainly is a demanding production in that the actors must not only be able to act effectively, but they must also be able to sing and play instruments as well. And each one of the performers in BoHo Theatre Company’s production certainly is a triple threat. Valenta can drum and sing simultaneously, which is no easy task. Amy Steele is a gifted violinist and vocalist, while Nees’ ability to play guitar, bass, ukulele and the squeezebox is impressive.

Dustin Valenta, Mallory NeesBut is this good theatre? The music is catchy and reminiscent of artists like Ben Folds. The humor is bland, but it has its moments. The problem is the story. How can you have a good play without a compelling story? Striking 12‘s plot feels like an afterthought, as if the writers tried to squeeze elements of story into the piece after the music had been completed. By the play’s end, you have a few songs stuck in your head but not much else.

Additionally, the BoHo Theatre’s space doesn’t have the acoustics for a show like this. Vocals are easily overpowered by the thumps of a bass drum or even the singing of violin strings. The audio quality is akin to a basement rock show. The piece would be better served in a more spacious venue where the band doesn’t almost sit on top of the audience.

If you’re in the mood for a holiday-themed rock show, Striking 12 is a decent watch. But if you’re looking for good theatre, you’re striking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele, Dustin Valenta

  
  

  
  

REVIEW: 25th Annual Spelling Bee (Metropolis Arts)

 

Who knew spelling could be so much fun?

 

Productions - Spelling Bee - 02

   
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents
   
The 25th-Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
   
Music/Lyrics by William Finn 
Book by
Rachel Sheinkin
Directed by
Robin M. Hughes
Metropolis Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell, Arlington Heights
through November 6  | 
tickets: $35-$43   |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian 

For children who enjoy spelling, a spelling bee is to them as football or baseball is to children who enjoy sports. In Metropolis Performing Arts Center’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee, based on the original play C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by The Farm, children of various backgrounds and school districts to come together for one goal: to win the bee and move on to nationals in Washington D.C.

Productions - Spelling Bee - 29 The set, designed by Adam L. Veness, boosts clean, simple lines and looks high quality and authentic. The stage is transformed into a school gym complete with basketball court, bleachers and a climbing rope. School colors are yellow and purple, reflected in the lighting by Yousif Mohamed, which adds depth to the set.

The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee opens strong, with the entire cast exuding energy right from the start. Each character brings their own strength to the stage with a catchy and upbeat opening number. This play also calls for audience interaction, which not only bring the audience into the story, but also allows for audience members to experience what it’s like to be on the opposite end of theatre. All the audience members who participated did a good job and added some extra laughs to this already funny show.

As the Bee begins, it becomes clear that each actor worked hard to develop a unique characterization. Logainne Schwartzandgrubernierre (Justine Klein) is sweetly adorable with her lisp. As the show goes on, it becomes clear that under that demeanor is a lot of pressure and expectation to live up to. Klein does an excellent job of rounding out her character and providing multiple layers to keep her character from falling flat. Olive Ostrovsky (Kristine Burdi) has a wonderful childlike innocence and she’s so eager to participate. Burdi has a rockin’ voice that’s on full display in “The I Love You Song,” which also allows her to show the pain Olive is in beneath her cheerful front.

As the Bee goes on, the students prove to be terrific spellers, spelling a random selection of words, as they offer glimpses into their personal lives. Returning Bee champ Chip Tolentino (Ryan Hunt) gets knocked off his horse when a crush on a girl deters his mind and he misspells a word, disqualifying him from nationals. Hunt offers up strong, stellar vocals and is hilarious as he sings about the troubles of teenage boys and puberty in “Chip’s Lament.” Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Tierney) tells about his large family and where he fits in their grand scheme of things in “I’m Not That Smart.” Tierney clearly explored his character’s background and motivations, which come through in his performance. He’s fascinatingly endearing as we witness his winning spelling technique: he falls into a trance, and the letters just come. James Nedrud is spot on with know-it-all William Barfee. Nedrud plays his character acting older than he is and trying to be very serious, which is just hilarious.

 

Productions - Spelling Bee - 26 Productions - Spelling Bee - 04

Throughout The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee, the entire cast keeps up their energy level, keeping the show running smoothly along and the audience engaged. The musical numbers are high energy and feature excellent choreography by Kristen Gurbach Jacobson. What is most impressive is that the singing never suffers during the dancing. The actors are able to continue singing strongly and passionately as they dance around the stage. At a few points the singing fell out of tune, but it never took away from the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the show.

The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee is a children’s show for adults that leaves the audience laughing as they cheer on the Bee contestants.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Productions - Spelling Bee - 21

The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee plays at Metropolis Performing Arts Center, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, IL, through November 6. Tickets cost $35 to $43 can be purchased through the theatre’s Web site.

     
     

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REVIEW: Ghosts (Boho Theatre)

    

The Burdens of Shame and Seasonal Affective Disorder

 

Saren Nofs-Snyer and Cast

  
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
  
Ghosts
  
by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by
Lanford Wilson
Directed by
Peter Marston Sullivan
through July 18th  | 
tickets: $17-$20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps most of Henrik Ibsen’s work can be summed up thus: a study of driven, lusty and regretful Norwegian birds, trapped in their gilded (sometimes not so gilded) bourgeois cage. Hence, the removal of the fourth wall, which isn’t really removed, just made transparent–theatrically turned to glass in order to examine these lovely, Saren Nofs-Snyder and Steve O'Connell haunted Norwegians under glass, as if they were the subjects of scientific inquiry. Make no mistake, the fourth wall is just as imprisoning as the other three and perhaps it is crueler, since it allows for the audience’s voyeuristic attentions.

Well, since there is no escape for the birds, you might as well watch. Plus, what could be more diverting than a family’s shameful secrets? Perhaps the biggest challenge for Bohemian Theatre’s production of Ghosts is to make the burdens of shame, judgment and disgrace experienced by these characters as immediate and tangible to the audience as it is for them.

Peter Marston Sullivan’s direction is meticulous and forthright; it gives Ghosts’ excellent cast the right structure to work their naturalist chops to the max; and the new translation that they work with by Lanford Wilson is fresh and clear. Yet the overall production, while artful and technically accurate, still feels far too removed and lacking in immediacy. Make no mistake—this is a jewel of a production, a pretty jewel with interesting, exact and glimmer facets. But it also misses that special something that compels a viewer toward empathy; it feels far too removed in its period setting to involve the audience in its web of secrets and lies, judgments and shame.

If there is one thing that Boho’s particular experiment/production proves, it’s that what scandalized the general public a little more than a century ago no longer comes close to shocking us. Bohemian prodigal son Oswald Alving (Charles Riffenburg) spars with Reverend Manders (Steve O’Connell) over the naturalness and appropriateness of family life among his unmarried Parisian artistic friends. But, in spite of its power to scandalize in 19th-century terms, heterosexual cohabitation without “the benefit of clergy” no longer raises an eyebrow in these sexually amorphous times. Love the 60’s Sexual Revolution or hate it, the bohemian life isn’t bohemian anymore; it’s mainstream.

Even a boyfriend or husband enjoying pornography doesn’t hold the charge that it once did. Now, a boss cheating on his wife with his assistant, under the same roof as the wife; then marrying her pregnant ass off to someone else—that definitely still holds potent sleazy power. All the same, bosses and their mistresses are such a common alternative to heterosexual monogamy they practically deserve their own healthcare plan.

 

Sean Thomas and Florence Ann Romano Charles Riffenburg, Saren Nofs-Snyder, Steve O'Connell
Florence Ann Romano and Sean Thomas Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder 2

Finally, Ibsen’s hint of incest in this play could tantalize our modern audience, but even that scandalous element becomes diffused when our tragic heroine, Mrs. Helen Alving (Saren Nofs-Snyder) considers the potential of marriage between her son Oswald to her maid, his secret half-sister, Regina (Florence Ann Romano). For her, it would be no worse than any everyday match between first cousins in rural Norway.

So much for sexual shock and awe.  So the question needs to be asked: what remains now to draw audiences to this work again? When all else fails, try the relationships. There is a time to produce an elegant tribute to an old master and then there’s a time to present the play for what it is—melodrama. Sophisticated, psychologically adept and intellectually stimulating melodrama, but melodrama nevertheless—we have come to observe these birds in order to learn the heart’s filthy lesson.

Sadly, the central relationship in this play between Mrs. Alving and Reverend Manders just doesn’t have the chemistry to propel this play’s excessive exposition forward. O’Connell knows how to strike Manders’ stiff, controlling and judgmental pose but one finds, through the bulk of the play, not enough contrasting nuance within his performance as to self-doubt within the good reverend over the validity of his own views.

Mrs. Alving has grown in her intellectual thinking since the first day she ran, a shocked and impressionable newlywed, from her perverse husband’s side to Reverend Manders for succor and advice. But Manders’ parochial views on sexuality, family and duty seem to have frozen him in time. Any possible romance between them becomes thwarted by a horrible lack of timing. Yet in some ways this play is about a little revolution in the reverend’s perspective—brought on by Mrs. Alving’s disabuse of his man-crush on her husband. It’s a change in Manders that is too little, too late for Mrs. Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder Alving to reap anything like the hope of love in her life. I am afraid that O’Connell’s final reveal of Manders’ feelings for Mrs. Alving, in the second half of this one-act, is also too little, too late. Underneath the stiff control that the Reverend demonstrates and advocates, the audience still must see some turmoil of the uncertain man.

Likewise, Riffenburg’s performance of Oswald seems to lack the anxiety of yearning, love-deprived, and blighted youth. Even in Ibsen’s time, the stereotype of the bohemian artist dying from an unnamable, congenital disease was, unfortunately, a cliché, and now it is even more so. Riffenburg has the burden of making this cliché breathe with anxious life, but unfortunately his performance just doesn’t reach the mark. Here is a role rich in longing—longing for life, for freedom, for truth, beauty and, most of all, the sun. “The bad boy is back,” Oswald announces to Reverend Manders as he makes his first entrance. But Oswald is also the SAD boy and by that I mean Seasonal Affective Disorder. Ibsen is so psychologically correct in assigning this condition at a powerful metaphorical place in this drama—unnamed in his own time, much like Oswald’s congenital illness. Despite his youth, Ozzie is resolutely certain about his own views on life in his verbal joust with Reverend Manders. But his uncertainty lies in whether he was ever loved, either by his perverse father or his duty-bound mother, and that should visibly inform his drive for life at its premature end.

That leaves Nofs-Snyder to carry this shows dilemmas of shame, guilt and judgment—especially everyone’s judgment on her choices and behavior under exacting marital conditions. We are fortunate to have a grand actress in this role. Her portrayal of Mrs. Alving virtually writhes with adamant conviction, disgraced and humiliated position, loss of real love or understanding, and total loss of control over the essential affairs and relationships in her life. Dressed in a striking brocaded red gown (Sarah Putnam, costume design), Mrs. Alving comes across as the queen bee of this production—and a brilliant, poor, haunted queen bee she is.

As for the supporting roles, Sean Thomas as Jakkob Engstrand and Florence Ann Romano as Regina Engstrand make a great sleazy father and gold-digging daughter duo. Thomas’ Engstrand is a delightfully cunning Norwegian step-n-fetchit. Who knew that such hackneyed roles were also written for white people?

The production values for this black box theater offer highly imaginative, cunningly wrought and absolutely laudable effects. Anders Jacobson’s scenic design, Katy Peterson’s lighting, and Lewis Miller’s sound design produce an absolute feast for eye and ear. They, like the set, are a house on fire.

Boho Theatre’s production is so lovely to look at, so correct in execution—but still, how badly it needs a filthy, filthy heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Steve O'Connell and Saren Nofs-Snyder

all photos courtesy of Brandon Dahlquist

 

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REVIEW: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Noble Fool)

 

Fun with spelling

 Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"

 
Noble Fool Theatricals presents
 
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
 
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
book by
Rachel Sheinkin and music/lyrics by William Finn
Directed by
Kevin Bellie, music direction by Peter Storms
Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main St., St. Charles (map)
Through June 13 | Tickets: $29–39, dinner-show packages $46–59 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Can you spell f-r-i-v-o-l-o-u-s? Airy as Wonder Bread, sweet as Gummi Bears, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a fun and unchallenging evening of musical comedy that will get you home well before the babysitter’s deadline and won’t stick you with inconvenient earworms or lingering deep questions. Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, Spelling Bee began with Rebecca Feldman’s sketch C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E for her New York comedy group, the Farm. It came to the Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast" attention of Falsettos composer and lyricist William Finn, who brought on Rachel Sheinkin to help him create a musical adaptation. Opened in 2004 by Barrington Stage Company in western Massachusetts, the musical ultimately became a hit on Broadway, where it played for 1,136 performances. The laughs come from juxtaposition of latter-day life problems, age-old preteen angst and the sentimental nostalgia of the old-fashioned spelling-bee competition.

Kevin Bellie and Peter Storms’ vigorous production for Noble Fool Theatricals is as cute as can be, with a bouncy, talented cast and a lively staging. Spelling Bee runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. On opening night, things stretched out a bit longer when one of the audience members participating in the bee — four volunteers are selected for each performance — proved to be an unexpectedly good speller. Having successfully navigated "catterjunes" (part of the show’s improvisational shtick — it isn’t a real word, so they can accept or reject spellings as needed), he also got through "lysergic acid diethylamide" and had to be eliminated with "xerophthalmiology."

A very strong cast of adult actors aptly plays the competing kids, bringing out their humorous quirks without turning them into cartoons. Especially notable performances come from Samantha Dubin as gawky Olive Ostrovsky, anguished over her missing mom — gone to an ashram in India — and emotionally distant dad; Jack Sweeney as the wide-eyed Leaf Coneybear, rising above his family’s expectations; Cara Rifkin as Logainne Schwartandgrubenierre, a determined grammar-school prodigy urged on by her two gay dads; and Ian Paul Custer as William Barfee, a nasally challenged nerd who spells out words with his "magic foot." Chie Isobe plays uptight overachiever Marcy Park, and Erik Kaiko is Chip Tolentino, the too-confident previous year’s champion. Wonderfully expressive Michael Weber portrays Vice Principal Douglas Panch, increasingly tortured and hilarious as the event goes on. As perky Rona Lisa Peretti, Putnam County’s #1 Realtor and the spelling-bee hostess — reliving her own triumph of the second annual Putnam Co. spelling bee — Liza Jaine solos only briefly, but her powerful backup vocals help hold the show together musically. Randolph Johnson adds a rich note as ex-con Mitch Mahoney, especially in his solo, "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor."

Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"

Though they’re mostly good-humored, some gags uncomfortably straddle the line between colorful characterizations and offensive caricatures, a blemish exacerbated by Bellie’s casting and Kimberly G. Morris’s costumes. Sheinkin wrote in the flaming gay dads and the overachieving Korean kid, but it was Bellie’s choice to cast the only African American in his show in the parolee’s part and Morris’s to drape him in gold gangsta chains. Amusing lyrics in songs such as "My Friend, the Dictionary" and "Pandemonium" make up for the banal tunes of Finn’s mostly pleasant, but typically repetitive score. Don’t look for big song-and-dance numbers. Like everything else about this show, the songs lack heft, and sometimes seem like fillers. Overall, this musical isn’t about the music. Just enjoy it as a lighthearted romp.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Note: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee contains adult language and themes that parents may consider unsuitable for young children.

Noble Fool "Beauty and the Beast"