REVIEW: Fairways (Endpoint Theatre)

     
     

A musical about golf, and not much else

     
     

"Fairways the Musical" by Mary Hutchings Reed and Curtis Powell, produced and presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre.

  
Endpoint Theatre presents
  
Fairways
  
Book and Lyrics by Mary Hutchings Reed
Composed and Directed by
Curtis Powell
at
Second Unitarian Church, 656 W. Barry (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A note in the Fairways program emphasizes that the musical is “not meant to be a serious work, just a whole lot of fun for the actors and audience.” The problem with that sentiment is that $32 is a serious price for ticket, especially for a brand new company in a competitive neighborhood. Despite the non-serious nature of the musical, there still needs to be some sort of emotional reality beneath the characters, and both the book and music of Fairways are obstacles for the actors in reaching that place of honesty. Now, I don’t play golf. I don’t have any emotional attachment to the sport, but my enjoyment of Fairways as a musical shouldn’t require me to be a golfer. If anything, it should make me want to pick up a club and hit the green myself, yet Reed’s predictable book and forgettable lyrics do nothing to make golf intriguing.

Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre.The show begins in 15th century Scotland, where the local men are looking for a way to pass the time as they tend their crops and flocks. The opening number is cute and the actors are certainly enjoying themselves, but problems already begin to appear in the beginning moments, with some actors in Scottish dialect while others are in Irish. After the ensemble shares a pint, the action shifts to the present, where Betsy O’Neill (Jeanne T. Arrigo) is trying to teach her daughter Kathy (Erin Renée Baumrucker) to golf, in hopes that it may win her the Mother-Daughter Tournament and add some spark to her daughter’s love life. The relationship between the two women feels like a mother and her preteen daughter rather than two mature adults, and the jokes in Reed’s script are painfully cheesy. “Golf will be good for you, like yoga.” “That’s a stretch.” Groan. Fairways is Reed’s first stage work, and her dialogue never quite sounds like natural human speech, with the characters shirking away from any forms of subtlety or subtext and speaking as directly as possible. The result is that the dialogue becomes a tool to move the plot forward and not much else, giving little insight into the emotional life of these golfers.

As Betsy instructs Kathy, Byron Mackay (Jay Cook) is teaching his son Sam (Jamie Watkins) the game so that he can impress his Boss (Michael Bragg). Sam is dating Joan Woods (Erin Lovelace), the daughter of Betsy’s rival Nancy (Regina Webster), and the mother-daughter duo is unanimously hated by the golf club. If the plot is beginning to sound a little busy, it is, and nothing really gets fleshed out to the point that it becomes believable. Betsy and Byron sing a duet about golf called “Do Nothing,” a song that praises “a game about life, a game about nothing at all.” That is the main flaw with Fairways: nothing has consequence. Almost all of the Act 1 musical numbers are just explanations of different elements of golf: terminology (“Talking The Talk”), lessons (“Really Very Easy”), scoring (“Gimme A Six”), things to say when someone has a bad shot (“Nice Shot”), new equipment (“New Shoe Soft Shoe”), and practice ranges (the terrible “Practice Range Rap”). The only song that offers any sort of insight into a real problem is “Why Can’t He See?”, Kathy’s solo after she scares Sam away by being too aggressive. And while the exchange before is so tame that the stakes aren’t really there when the song begins, credit to Powell for trying to tell an emotional story through song.

        
Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre. Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre. Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre.

The same problems continue through Act 2, but the plot becomes even muddier with the introduction of Anika (Lovelace), a client for Sam’s firm that played golf in college. We are already supposed to be invested in a love triangle between Sam, Kathy, and Joan (despite having not even seen Sam and Joan in a scene together), and the addition of another character just weakens the already strained story. The plots aren’t very developed, so they are easily wrapped up, and the show comes to its predictable conclusion as the audience learns that “in the game of love and fairways, the best course is honesty.” The actors really do look like they’re having a great time while they perform, and much of the music is well sung, but it’s all so insubstantial that it’s hard to care.

“Show, don’t tell” is a major problem in Fairways. The audience is told how the characters feel about each other rather than gaining these opinions through character interactions. People are constantly commenting about the relationship between Sam amd Joan, yet the only instance we see the two together is for their inevitable breakup. Or instead of showing how golf affects the characters on a personal level, the music just takes an element of the sport, and explains it through song. As an inaugural production, Fairways gives the impression that Endpoints is more concerned with getting the works of Artistic Director Curt Powell produced than creating works of strong musical theater. The script, music, and technical aspects of the show (some background images even contain huge watermarks from iStockPhoto) don’t match the quality of musicals with tickets nearly half the price, making Fairways a hard sell even for the most avid gold fan.

  
  
Rating: ★½
 
 

Scene from 'Fairways the Musical', presented by Chicago's Endpoint Theatre.

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REVIEW: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (Steel Beam)

        
        

No miracle in Christmas movie makeover

  
  

its beginning will nifong

  
Steel Beam Theatre presents
   
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
  
By Meredith Willson
Directed by
Donna Steele
Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main, St. Charles (map)
Through Dec. 19 |  
Tickets: $23-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Christmas, for many, is all about tradition. Familiar holiday rituals, from the Christmas dinner menu to the ornaments on the tree to time-honored Christmas carols and, yes, those old movies you watch on television every year. That’s why so many theaters play it safe with holiday shows adapted from the same old stuff.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas is another one: the plot of the 1947 Oscar-winning film "Miracle on 34th Street" re-imagined as a stage musical. Steel Beam Theatre’s earnest production offers a big cast full of cute kids and highly attractive adults, and I wish I could say this live show offered better Christmas entertainment than staying home with a bowl of popcorn and watching the movie on TV, but I can’t.

it's beginning 2The familiar Christmas story follows young Susan Walker, who is being reared by her divorced and disillusioned mother, Doris, in a no-nonsense way that doesn’t include believing in Santa Claus. Their comforting pragmatism becomes shaken by Fred Gaily, the ex-marine turned attorney next door , and a bearded fellow who calls himself Kris Kringle, who shocks New York by telling Macy’s customers to shop at Gimbel’s.

The concept, from composer and adapter Meredith Willson, the man behind The Music Man, ought to have a lot of potential. It includes, among other things, a complete Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on stage.

Alas, this is no Music Man, and little about Willson’s score adds to the movie’s story. Few of the songs will leave you humming, and a couple are downright painful. The compacting and stylization necessary to fit the music into a stage-length show robs the plot of spice and leaves it cloying. Elements like a grown man, unknown to her mother, squiring around a little girl and a chauvinistic song about how long it takes a woman to ready herself to go out seem badly dated.

Originally called Here’s Love, the musical opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran less than a year. Its latter-day title change explains why, rather than being central, the show’s namesake tune, Willson’s famous "It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," written in 1951, gets medley treatment. Blended into something called "Pinecones and Holly Berries," it’s one of the better musical numbers, especially in its first iteration with a dance sequence performed by Jamey McDunn as Kris Kringle, Amy Steele as Doris Walker and Will Nifong as Marvin Shellhammer, a Macy’s marketing assistant.

Nifong’s wonderfully comic performance, here and throughout, forms a principal highlight of the show. This number also constitutes one of the brighter spots in Cynthia Hall‘s largely lackluster choreography.

The very pretty Amy Steele sparkles as Doris, but wobbles some in the vocals. A stalwart, smooth-voiced Greg Zawada portrays Fred, while McDunn’s perfect Santa Claus appearance is marred by a curiously tentative and soft-voiced performance. Lauren Freas did a charming job as Susan the day I saw the show; she’s spelled in alternating performances by Christina Zaeske.

Kara Blasingame is sweet as a little Dutch girl, alternating with Kathleen Miulli. Dean Dranias makes a stiff R.H. Macy. Adoniss Hutcheson, alternating with Mikey Taylor; and August Anderson; Brian Burch; Terry A. Christiansen; Haleigh Hutchinson; Andrew Kepka; Katie Meyers; Amy Moczygemba; and Emily Whaley fill out the ensemble.

The centerpiece of the second act comes in a zanily inane number, "My State, My Kansas," which has so little to do with the storyline that it recalls the quirky "Hernando’s Hideaway" of The Pajama Game.  Sadly, it isn’t nearly so good a song as that, though this production points it up with a fun banjo solo by Gary Patterson, playing the judge in Kris Kringle’s insanity trial.

The cast, colorfully clad in Kim Maslo’s nice costumes, clearly has a great time and tries hard. But weak singers exacerbate the score’s dullness. A five-piece orchestra, borne up largely by trumpeter John Evans, does its best to support the vocals but sometimes overwhelms them. Overall, Director Donna Steele’s production fails to give us the pageantry and grandeur necessary to make a parade full of "Big Clown Balloons" come alive.

   
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

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REVIEW: Blithe Spirit (Steel Beam Theatre)

A spirited show in the suburbs

 

blithe

 
Steel Beam Theatre presents
 
Blithe Spirit
 
By Noël Coward
Directed by Terry Domschke
Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles(map)
Through May 2 tickets: $23-$25  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Theaters may be fewer and farther between than in Chicago, but such companies as Steel Beam Theatre, Writers’ Theatre and Metropolis Performing Arts Centre continue to show that there’s culture in the suburbs. As airy as an unseen specter, Steel Beam’s Blithe Spirit is a frightfully good time.

blithe%20daily%20herald%20text700_rightTerry Domschke directs a delightful production, full of deft touches. Everything from the carefully arranged period drawing-room set to the clever costumes shows a fine attention to detail. Produced in three acts with two intermissions, just as it would have been in at its 1941 London opening, it makes you understand why the original ran for 1,997 performances amid World War II. The timing could be a trifle more brisk, but that’s quibbling.

Noël Coward’s keen and cutting wit shines in this delectable play. The plot centers on novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, a flippant and debonair couple who invite the local psychic for dinner and a seance. They, and their other guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, are skeptics: The evening is merely a ruse to provide background for Condomine’s upcoming book.

But the medium, Madame Arcati, turns out to be the real thing. She accidentally conjures up Condomine’s deceased first wife, Elvira, who refuses to go away again — turning the Condomine household into an otherworldly menage a trois.

Orange-haired, behatted and draped in necklaces, Donna Steele’s marvelous Madame Arcati galumphs around the stage, jingling, in colorful costumes and comic triumph — at turns fussy old woman and majestic mystic — emanating palpable glee at each spiritual manifestation.

R. Aaron Thomann is ever so urbane as Charles, stirring up martinis and placating his live and ghostly wives with wonderful expressiveness. At first convinced he’s going mad, he selfishly comes to appreciate having his first wife’s witty shade on the premises … at least until the dead woman’s real purpose for reanimating becomes apparent.

steel-banner Elvira isn’t the kind of ghost who clanks about in chains and a sheet. She’s ethereally lovely and sharp as knives. Although only Charles can see her, the ghostly lady still manages to infuriate the priggish Ruth, who becomes bent on exorcizing her spirited rival.

Jocelyn Mills plays an effervescent Elvira, glittering with ectoplasmic makeup and always ready with a riposte. Katherine Bettinghaus provides counterpoint as a fuming, but elegant, Ruth, although her emotional scenes sometimes seem a little forced. Meredith Koch offers some fine comic turns as the inept maid Edith, hurrying and scurrying, while Thom Reed and Nancy Kolton fill out the cast as the stolid Bradmans.

Blithe Spirit may be Coward’s frothiest comedy, an ethereal confection of a play. While it’s become something of a period piece, there’s life in the old ghost yet — as Steel Beam Theatre’s hilarious production shows.

 

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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