REVIEW: The Wind in the Willows (City Lit Theater)

 
 

Another triumph in Toad Hall

 
 

Wind in the Willows - City Lit Theater

  
City Lit Theater presents
   
  
The Wind in the Willows
  
Written by Kenneth Grahame
Adapted and Composed by
Douglas Post
Directed by
Terry McCabe
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Jan 9  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

You can never weary of a good old friend. This is the latest of many times that The Wind in the WillowsDouglas Post‘s delightful musical play based on Kenneth Grahame’s beloved animal fantasy – has trod the boards (its first, 1983 version was called “Toad of Toad Hall”). City Lit’s last revival was only last year.

With each mounting, it’s increasingly obvious how faithful Post’s supple score and rollicking "story theater" script remain to the strengths of Grahame’s beloved tale, particularly the author’s delight in the English countryside and its evergreen changes of season. The animals are perfect British stereotypes, especially Toad’s upper-class twit, as is the class consciousness that pits the underclass of the Wild Wood (weasels, stoats, and ferrets) against the more civilized creatures of the riverbank and underground.

The story, you might recall, concerns the much tested friendship of the plucky Water Rat, gentle Mole, and gruff Badger for Grahame’s most whimsical creation, the self-inflated Mr. Toad (a very spoiled animal who grew up scarcely changed). A creature of unbridled appetite and nettled by a boundless ego, Toad is always hot after some new obsession, particularly motorcars, which he loves to steal and wreck. His loyal if frustrated friends break their brains trying to save him from himself, even when it means an intervention right out of A&E. They must rescue his elegant Toad Hall from the weasels, stoats, and ferrets who infest it when Toadie is incarcerated. Only after his friends’ concerted effort does Mr. Toad learn some late humility. (But how long until the next obsession?)

Ranging from honest Sondheim ”homage” (the Wildwooders’ "Down with the Toad") to the tenderness of the "My Home" ballad sung by a homesick Rat and Mole, Post’s score (nicely sung against a recorded accompaniment) supports its story splendidly. Terry McCabe

 serves it equally well as director of a revival that spins its tale with inexhaustible grace and charm (though the scene containing the mystical "Song of the Piper," however rich with Grahame’s love of nature, doesn’t fit the story). But the lovely “Christmas Carol, sung by the field mice, hedgehogs, mole, rat and otter, is a perfect holiday touch.

Alan Donahue’s set is redolent of giant cattails sewn together with patches of an earth-colored quilt, and with the British accents accurately in place, Post’s recipe loses none of its flavor. Tom Weber delivers sturdy work as the water-loving Rat who’s plucky, resourceful and the ultimate friend in need. An enchanting portrayal, Catherine Gillespie‘s Mole is full of wonderment at the great world above ground. Though lacking the critter’s usual Scottish accent, Edward Kuffert‘s Badger well conveys the elder animal’s irascible dignity, tough love and no-nonsense common sense, and Sean Knight is a funny and spirited duffer as good old Otter.

But the ongoing pleasure remains Mr. Toad, and in this revival Ed Rutherford , his rubber face conveying all the devious intensity of this paragon of pomposity, has made the role all his own. Children love his hammy selfishness and adults will see in Toad no small amount of human

”déjà vu”. Mr. Toad is forever.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Citi-Lit Theater logo

Production Artists

 

Ensemble

Kate Andrulis, Sarah Bright, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Catherine Gillespie, Sean Knight, Edward Kuffert, Aaron Lawson, Brian LeTraunik, Lauren Noelle Morgan, Shawn Quinlan, Lauren Romano, Ed Rutherford, and Tom Weber

Wild In The Willows logoProduction Team

The musical arrangements are by Kevin O’Donnell with additional vocal arrangements by Andra Veils Simon, musical direction by Nick Sula, and choreography by Andrew Waters

The designers are Matthew Cummings (props), Alan Donahue (set), Sarah Hughey (lighting), and Ricky Lurie (costumes).

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: 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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REVIEW: Right as Rain (InnateVolution)

A tepid “Rain”

right-as-rain

 
InnateVolution Theater presents:
 
Right as Rain
 
by April Smallwood
directed by Toma Tavares Langston
North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
through April 24th (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The publicity material for Right as Rain contains a quote from director Toma Tavares Langston declaring that this work by writer April Smallwood did not have a definitive answer or resolution. What actually commences is a predictable and stereotypical depiction of the angst of gay youth. This story has been told before, to better resolution, and there is nothing fresh or revealing in this tale of identity struggle and religious fundamentalism.

Right as Rain takes place at the home of Paul and Sara Stevens in present time rural Kentucky. The Stevens are a fundamentalist Christian couple with a teenaged son named Luke (Ethan Itzkow). Their son’s new friend Chance (Pavel Tabutov) has come by on a Sunday morning and witnesses the Stevens family’s living room church stained-glass-rainbow-cross service. Eileen Tull, as Sara Stevens, has a charming Middle America quality to her that fits the role of a compliant minister’s wife. She plays well opposite husband Paul (Arne Saupe), who does his best to interject life into the rigid Evangelical minister.  We soon learn that the Stevens family was run out of their last church because of a secret that resulted in shame – a shame of which no one is allowed to speak.

Itzkow plays the role of son Luke with puppy-like energy and naiveté. He is funny and heart rending as an innocent country boy who strictly obeys his parents and believes in his father’s sermons. In his acting debut, Pavel Tabutov is clearly challenged at every turn with his portrayal of Luke’s friend Chance. Stiff gesticulating and an inability to catch the beats of the dialogue hampers him from the start. At first, one might think Tabutov has difficulty with dialogue that’s florid and clumsily akin to old radio soap opera. And it soon becomes clear that the actor has an indiscernible accent and not of the southern type. If the role had been written for a foreign boy as a fish out of water in Kentucky it might have worked – just as it worked for James Baldwin in “Another Country” and “Giovanni’s Room” – two such examples of a naïve ultra-religious boy tormented and confused by his burgeoning sexuality.

In an attempt to shock or inject originality, playwright Smallwood transposed Baldwin’s themes into a Kentucky idyll. The unfortunate result is trite and predictable. The father keeps repeating “there is something about that boy” with narrowed eyes – killing any suspense of why the Stevens family had to leave Rushing Waters church in their last town. There is no shock that Paul had incited a hate crime that led to family disgrace and eventually Luke’s self- loathing and shame about his sexual identity.

The dynamic between the characters of Chance and Luke falls flat and unintentionally hilarious. For example: the parents go out of town and bad boy Chance shows up with vodka and porn. Luke gets hammered from slugging vodka like Sunny D, his defenses are down and Chance pounces as porn flickers on the television. It is already obvious that his life will be somehow ruined like the boy in “Reefer Madness” when he tokes on that fateful doobie.

There are other clumsy attempts to push the action to a fever pitch:

  • the eye-rolling dark-night-of-the-soul portrayal of Luke’s overwrought break-up scene
  • a seemingly campy take on Luke, as he cries at having forgotten the Lord’s Prayer – on his knees struggling to remember the familiar words
  • the odd hallucinagenic sequence where Luke’s friend Chance becomes a go-go dancer: the strobe-light flickers while Luke’s mother, wearing a jolly polka-dot dress, lilts around the disco club, dust mop in tow, all while father looms over the scene, bible in hand. (I realize that hallucinations are supposed to be absurd, but the staging of this scene is way over the top and the production is ill-equipped to handle it. The light and sound effects are badly-executed and should have been altered to fit the budget.)

Right as Rain is staged at North Lakeside Cultural Center, an early 20th-century mansion, a prohibitive space where care needs to be taken when staging a  production. northlakesideThe parlor is the main stage for the first 2 acts of Right as Rain, used as the setting for the Stevens kitchen and Luke’s bedroom. The seating arrangement in the parlor makes for poor sight lines, as audience members crane their necks to see the interaction between characters (not that it ultimately makes any difference).

The mansion’s front area is then used for the 3rd (and final) act, where the play’s climax occurs in the church being built by Paul in their home’s back yard. This scene is the best and most mercifully short of the production. Luke has taken a break from Chance and is helping his father. He breaks down and confesses to his father his homosexual encounters. The dialogue between Paul and Luke is fevered and skillfully delivered, the most honest and raw of the play. It also sets the stage for the rather stereotyped portrayal of gay self-loathing. The violent ending is meant to be shocking, but instead one feels hit over the head by the overplayed theme that one cannot run away from their sins.

Right as Rain is a world premiere that comes from InnateVolution’s previous “New Play Circle Series of Staged Readings”. There is much work to be done to take it from the present staged-reading feel into a professional production indicative of quality Chicago theatre. Though a more minimalistic production might possess some redeeming factors, the turgid writing makes minimalism impossible.

Rating: ★½

 

Right as Rain runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm. There are no performances March 27th or April 10th. Tickets can be purchased by calling 312-513-1415 or by visiting www.innatevolution.org.  Note: If attending, sit in the front row lest you miss any attempts at subtlety or reactionary glances.

      

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