Review: The King and I (Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago)

     
     

Getting to love you

     
     

Brianna-Borger and Wayne Hu

  
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago presents
  
The King and I
  
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by L. Walter Stearns
Music Directed by Eugene Dizon
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

L. Walter Stearns’ final staging for Porchlight Music Theatre (he’s moving on to manage the Mercury Theatre) is a splendid swan song. Efficient but never merely dutiful, this tender-loving revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 treasure lets the talent on this stage honor the brilliance on the page. Despite lacking the budgets of Marriott Theatre’s 2000 revival or the most recent one at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2007, Porchlight never allows less to be lacking.

Erik Kaiko as Lun Tha and Jillian Jocson as Tuptim - King and IBesides, look at what they’re working with! It’s rewarding how much the R & H musicals amplify each other, yielding a whole much bigger than its parts. In The King and I we see a British schoolteacher who changes the children around her and shapes the future through her enlightened tutelage of the Crown Prince of Siam. Anna Leonowens anticipates Maria Von Trapp, an Austrian governess who changes the children and around and escapes the present to pursue the sound of music. Likewise, Flower Drum Song carefully chronicles the cultural changes in a community. Above all, like South Pacific, King and I delivers an action lesson in tolerance. Anna and the King learn from each pother, he forbearance and humility before the facts of life, love and death, she the discipline and tradition required to keep a nation together and, more importantly, unconquered.

The closest comparison outside the R & H canon is, interestingly, Fiddler on the Roof: Both musicals deal with central characters coping with change during convulsive historical periods, desperate to preserve tradition (and power) while wryly accepting the future, as much on their terms as possible.

The King’s transformation (and, by implication, that of Siam) is accomplished in stunning songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” that win us over from the first note. Well worth the succession from Gertrude Lawrence to Deborah Kerr to Donna Murphy, Brianna Borger’s warmly engaging Anna brings quicksilver resilience and five different kinds of love to her widow, mother, tutor, confidante and lover. Her patter songs, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” crackles with contagious indignation and hard-core spunk. The first Asian I’ve seen playing the King, burly Wayne Hu stamps the King with wizard timing, wry irascibility and bedrock dignity. The fact that he’s no infallible leader only makes his aspirations to authority more poignant and less threatening.

It’s impossible to overpraise Jillian Anne Jocson’s lovely and lyrical Tuptim, enchanting in “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in Shadow” with ardent Erik Kaiko as her doomed beloved, or Kate Garassino’s elegant Lady Thiang, wisdom wrapped in reticence. The Siamese wives and children (here reduced to six) are marvels of grace in energy and as comely as a palace frieze. Likewise Bill Morey’s elaborate Eastern costumes, their shimmering and sumptuous fabrics lit by Mac Vaughey with what must be new colors, and Ian Zywica’s unit set with its Oriental throne room, filigreed archways, and burnished floor. (Flanking the king are dualistic symbols of East and West—a chess set and a statue of the Buddha.) Brenda Didier’s choreography, faithful to Jerome Robbins, turns “‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ Ballet” into a cascade of astonishment and artful reinvention.

For purists like me there’s one cavil: This revival’s two-piano accompaniment, however beautifully played by Eugene Dizon and Allison Hendrix, is nonetheless a letdown, robbing the songs of the rich orchestrations Rodgers intended. Less crucial, the delightful scene in which the ladies of the court try to maneuver inside European crinoline ballgowns and corsets is necessarily omitted. But new to me is the royal school’s anthem sung by Anna and her princely pupils, as well as a charming reprise of “A Puzzlement” sung by the sons of the principals that extends the cultural clash to the next generation. You win some, you lose some.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Brianna Borger, Dylan Lainez, Tatum Pearlman, Lydia Hurrelbrink

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Review: Aida (Drury Lane Theatre)

  
  

A solid production of flawed Elton John/Tim Rice musical

  
  

Jared Zirilli and Stephanie Umoh star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo by Brett Beiner.

  
Drury Lane Theatre presents
   
Aida
  
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, with R. Falls and D. H. Hwang
Directed and Choreographed by Jim Corti
at Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $35-$46  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When Egyptian captain Radames (Jared Zirilli) captures the beautiful Nubian princess Aida (Stephanie Umoh), the two fall in love despite the war between their countries, and are forced to choose between their political duties and their affections for each other. Elton John and Tim Rice adapt Verdi’s classic opera Aida through the lens of a late ‘90s Disney animated feature, candy-coating the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers with family-friendly pop-rock that occasionally detracts from the emotional life of the story. Yet despite the musical’s problems, Jim Corti directs a sharp production with a cast of strong singers and dancers that perform the material cleanly, but could use some more passion. Using the influence of ancient Egyptian art, Corti creates images on stage through the actors posing and positioning in profile, like this painting:

actient Egyptian wall painting

While it’s a nice effect, it’s also representative of the production’s largest problem: stiffness that prevents the beauty of the music from truly taking off. The actors perform the music with precision, but there are times when it feels like they’re holding back, which could partly be because of the imbalanced musical material.

The ballads have a similar emotional resonance as John/Rice’s Lion King work, but whereas that musical has a unifying musical sound, Aida’s score essentially becomes a musical journey through the different stages of Elton John’s musical career. Tim Rice pushes the plot with his lyrics, but there are times when John’s score seems mismatched with the action on stage, mostly during the first act. The show’s fist number is sung by Amneris (Erin Mosher), the daughter of the Pharoah AIDA--Grant Thomas, Monique Haley, Stephanie Umoh, Jared Zirilli(Nicholas Foster) and Radames’ arranged bride, and Mosher’s powerful voice is pitch-perfect, with her dignified presence befitting the character’s initial introduction as the story’s narrator. Then the show transitions into the Rent-lite “Fortune Favors The Brave” as Ramades belts over inspirational power chords while Nubian women are pillaged in the background. It’s great music for a lease-burning, but not so much for an act of war. It gets worse when Radames’ father Zoser (Darren Matthias) reveals his plot to usurp the Pharoah’s throne in “Another Pyramid,” a groan-inducing reggae meets Tumbleweed Connection number that turns into a goofy dance fight. Thankfully, that’s the worst number in the show and happens early, but it’s also not the best way to start a musical.

As the musical progresses, it becomes clear that Elton John’s music shows the differences between Egypt in Nubia through the styling of their songs. Egyptians have the classic rock ‘n roll of John’s early years, while the Nubians utilize the gospel-tribal fusion of The Lion King, but there’s still a strong disconnect between numbers. “My Strongest Suit,” where Amneris does her best Tina Turner impression, and “The Gods Love Nubia,” a stirring tribute by a downtrodden Nubian people – they don’t sound like they belong in the same show. This is mostly a problem in the first act, and as the two groups begin to combine in act two, the music gains a stronger focus.

     
Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. L to R-- Jarrett Kelly, Grant Thomas, Branden Springman, Jaquez Sims, Peter Vandivier, Michael Glazer, Todd Rhoades, and Stephane Duret star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA, at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
Jarrett Kelly, Peter Vandivier, Brandon Springman, Darren Matthias, Michael Glazer and Todd Rhoades in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Erin Mosher in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

The two female leads both showcase stunning vocals, but while their singing is wonderfully expressive, they suffer from that aforementioned stiffness, particularly Umoh in the title role. Aida is a free spirit that has always felt confined, and she is given the opportunity to escape through song, yet Umoh is locked in place when she sings. She relies on her voice to do the heavy lifting, and despite being a powerful instrument, the image she portrays physically doesn’t match up. This prevents the chemistry between Ramades and Aida from really exploding, as Zarilli is forced to give more without ever getting much in return. The cast proves that they’re skilled performers, but there’s a lack of freedom in their technique that translates as restraint, a dangerous flaw for a show like Aida that relies on spectacle.

Despite the production’s flaws, fans of Aida will find much to love about Drury Lane’s production. The music is well performed, with crisp staging and choreography from Corti, who incorporates tribal dance into the standard Broadway footwork. Like a lost Disney cartoon put on stage, Aida lacks the gravitas of the original opera, but the crowd-pleasing score turns the tragic story into a family-friendly rock musical sure to please fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
'Aida' group in white in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
James Earl Jones II stars in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Monique Haley, Erin Mosher and Natalie Williams in a scene from Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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REVIEW: Pancake Breakfast (The New Colony)

      
     

Family dysfunction stacked high and covered with syrup

     
     

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre

   
The New Colony presents
   
Pancake Breakfast
   
Written by Tara Sissom
Directed by
Sean Kelly
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Independence Day is an annual celebration of liberation. For Beatrice, this year is D-Day for the release of a captive, her brother. The New Colony presents the world premiere of Pancake Breakfast. Beatrice resurrects the 4th of July family tradition. Her plan is to get the estranged family together to intervene in her mother’s unhealthy relationship with her brother. But before the clan can instigate the interference, they need to re-enact the holiday family rituals from pancake breakfast to fireworks. ‘Going home again’ is a craving never quite satisfied. Do pancakes ever taste as good as the childhood memory of them? Pancake Breakfast is family dysfunction stacked high and served with fruits and nuts.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 4Playwright Tara Sissom devised the Pancake Breakfast script in collaboration with the actors. Sissom laid out the premise and the ensemble developed individual characters. The result is an IHOP menu of tasty options that don’t quite go together for one well-balanced meal. Some of the characters are a bounty of flavor. Arlene Malinowski (Lillian) is a delicious loud-mouthed, mean-spirited, mother flapjack. Evan Linder (Randy) is a delectably hilarious, Asperger’s son-of-a-bitch. Jack McCabe (Arlie) stirs the pot for laughs as an eccentric nut. Megan Johns (Darcy)smokes the pot as the amusing, carefree 2nd wife. It’s these tangy portrayals that overshadow the other milder ingredients. What are the other tastes? Gary Tiedemann is definitely sweet, but how does he blend with his bitter partner, Andrew Hobgood (Bobby)? And Steve Ratcliff (Bud) seems a little bland for marrying zesty… both times.

The script can be confusing. In the first scenes, it’s unclear who Eleanor (Susan Veronika Adler) is. Adler brings some spice but is more seasoned for the grandmother’s role than the grown-up version of a youthful single parent. Thea Lux (Beatrice) goes to a lot of trouble to serve pancakes but seems more like a waffle eater. Lux is a quandary. What does she want? And where is she going? Her last line at the show’s end adds to the mystery.

Director Sean Kelly stages the show on a long linear stage. It’s an interesting floor plan representing a variety of rooms (scenic design by Nick Sieben). But in the cavernous Viaduct Theatre, this layout muffles some pertinent dialogue because of the obstructive angles. Sometimes the audio barrier is actually another actor standing directly in front of the speaker. From the southeast corner, a tub conversation is muffled between the submerged and the percher.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 3

Simultaneous staged activity occurs for a horizontal visual feast, tasty or otherwise. In an initial scene, the march to the breakfast table is a light-hearted patriotic salute. Often when family gets together for a holiday, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Relative cooking can get confusing. No need to start from scratch, Playwright Sissom just needs to clarify the recipe’s direction and whisk the lumps until smooth. Pancake Breakfast is a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity combo platter in the making. Order up!

  
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 2

Pancake Breakfast continues thru December 19th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

   
  

 

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Review: Porchlight’s “The Fantasticks”

The Fantasticks disappoints more than it thrills

Fantasticks-8

Porchlight Theatre presents:

The Fantasticks

by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
directed by Sean Kelly
through November 15th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

 Fantasticks-7 The 1960 musical The Fantasticks, the longest running performance in American theatre history (almost 50 years!), was built-up to be spectacular production. Every musical theatre actor I know wanted to be a part of Porchlight Theatre’s production and long time musical fans praised The Fantasticks as a must see musical in Chicago. However, this production, now playing at Theatre Building Chicago, is a disappointment.

The story is about two innocent kids: Matt (Sean Effinger-Dean) and Luisa (Emma Rosenthal,) who naively fall in love due to the manipulation of their fathers. Knowing that all kids will do the exact opposite of what their father wants them to do, the fathers: Hucklebee (Dan Ferretti) and Bellomy (Ryan Lanning). pretend to despise each other and forbid Matt and Luisa from interacting. They insult one another in front of their children and build a tall fence to separate the two young neighbors. Of course, now that their interaction is forbidden, the two seek out each other’s company and there is a new passion that fills their shared moments. The fathers then plan their ultimate bizarre plan to bond the two lovers in marriage, but it all blows up in their faces when the kids realize that they have been manipulated. But don’t fear, all seems to work out in the end.

The set is cold and bare (maybe this is a  common element for the show), leaving the backyards of Matt and Luisa up to our imagination. The blue lighting softens the set a little bit, and being able to watch the pianist and Harpist play in the back of the stage provided the only magical romantic feeling to the scenery.

Fantasticks-5

Fantasticks-9

Fantasticks--6

 

The story is filled with catchy songs with fun satirical lyrics and beautiful accompaniment by the pianist and harpist. The vocal talent on stage is top-notch. The song “Try To Remember” is absolutely one of my favorites from any musical I have seen. I am still singing it in my head and, lucky for me, I can still hear Jeff Parker’s (El Gallo) soothing voice singing it. Unfortunately, the quality of songs is lost in the randomness of the choreography. The characters flit around in dance moves that have nothing to do with what the songs are about, adding nothing to the words or the feeling of the songs. At one point it looks as if jumping-jacks are substituted for actual dance. The bare stage offers the opportunity for the choreography to add to the play’s atmosphere and provide the emotion behind the music, but this opportunity is missed, coming off as childish fun.

Additionally, individual character development is lacking. There is no chemistry on stage – so there is a lack of believability to the emotional moments between Matt and Luisa. Many times Luisa appears to be pretending to have feeling for Matt, rather than truly falling in love with the boy in front of her. Luisa’s character is oddly cast. Emma Rosenthal’s voice, although beautiful, was too powerful and makes Luisa sound too womanly and older than her character. Ms. Rosenthal’s movements project a resolute maturity that surely would be lacking in a teenage girl – her strength then does not match up with the shy boy she is supposed to be fantasizing about.

Fantasticks-3 Sean Effinger-Dean’s character, however, is thoroughly enjoyable. Matt is not the typical “pretty boy” that may be found in a commercial love story. A 22-year old biologist, Matt sings and acts with the insecurity and social awkwardness that a 22 year old who is in love with a teenage girl would have. His role might not be as charming as it could have been, but the portrayal of the immaturity in a 22 year old boy is thoroughly convincing.

Jeff Parker’s El Gallo brings the only inspiring dramatic moments and sense of continuity to the play , but my favorite character in the play is the elegant mute (Tanya McBride).  Her subtle additions to the staging help create the feelings that surround the play, and it is incredible to witness her expressive face and fluid balletic movements, providing more magic to the stage than the interaction between characters.

This production makes one question the relationship between the two fathers. Do they have a fondness for each other beyond friendship? Do they want their offspring to marry just so that they can share a sense of a domesticated relationship they could not achieve in their current situations, or did their characters just lack the masculinity that I expected from a play written in the 1950’s?

I am skeptic when it comes to musicals (I don’t enjoy the fluff,) but I have seen good musical theatre and this is not it. This play has been successfully performed well for over 40 years, so the book would seem strong, so don’t turn your back on The Fantasticks as a whole, just this production.

Rating: ««½

Playing at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Chicago, IL, Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through November 15, 2009.

 

View The Fantasticks

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