REVIEW: Big River (Bohemian Theatre Ensemble)

 

BoHo takes a heartwarming trip down the Mississippi

 

 A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

 
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
 
Music/Lyrics: Roger Miller, Book: William Hauptman
Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by
P. Marston Sullivan
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago (map)
Through Oct. 10 |
Tickets: $25 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Widely considered the greatest American novel ever written, Mark Twain’s 1884 coming-of-age tale, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, received a lively musical treatment 100 years after its publication in Big River. The Tony Award-winning musical, which ran 1,000 performances on Broadway, captures the charm and  A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10thpoignancy of the original, as we follow Huck and the escaped slave Jim down the "Muddy Water" of the Mississippi River, "Waitin’ for the Light to Shine" — as the songs put it. Although no stage production could possibly encompass all the nuances of Twain’s masterpiece, this well-cut adaptation by William Hauptman delivers the essence, paired with a fitting, catchy score by country-music star Roger Miller that blends foot-stompin’ bluegrass, powerful spirituals, vaudevillian comedy numbers and such memorable ballads as "River in the Rain."

Bohemian Theatre Ensemble mounts a warm, intimate and beautifully sung revival in their handsome new home at Lakeview’s Theater Wit, full of bouyant humor and touching moments.

Andrew Mueller gives us a gamin-faced, thoughtful Huck with a fine tenor. As Jim, the richly voiced Brian-Alwyn Newland provides the backbone of the music, smooth and soulful, combined with a dignified stage presence that reveals the mature and feeling man behind the tattered clothes and uneducated language of the slave.

Sean Thomas makes a wicked Pap Finn, hilarious in his drunken denouncement of "Guv’ment," and a diabolical king and "Royal Nonesuch," aided by the elegant John B. Leen as the sly and histrionic duke. Courtney Crouse is boyishly mischievous as Tom Sawyer, always ready for adventure and adorable as he calls for a "Hand for the Hog."

Rashada Dawan brings a soaring voice to gospel numbers such as "How Blest We Are," and Mike Tepeli adds a comic turn as the young fool, with a zany, washboard-accompanied rendition of "Arkansas."

A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th
A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

Much of the cast supplements the orchestra at different points, picking up guitars,box, or a tambourine to effectively back Musical Director Nicholas Davio playing a variety of instruments, Hilary Holbrook on fiddle and Cam McIntyre on bass. Davio and Holbrook also act small parts. Christa Buck, Anna Hammonds and James Williams fill out the ensemble.

Director P. Marston Sullivan’s deceptively simple staging and Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s stylized set put the talented cast and Twain’s potent story foremost. You don’t need to have read "Huckleberry Finn" to enjoy this musical, although everybody ought to read it … again and again.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

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REVIEW: Jesus Christ Superstar (Theatre at the Center)

Update: Due to a misrepresentation (i.e., error) in our critique of this production, this review has been adjusted to address the inaccuracy.  To Theatre at the Center and the production’s personnel, my apologies.  Scotty Zacher, Editor.

Uneven “Superstar” finishes strong

 

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Theatre at the Center presents
   
Jesus Christ Superstar
  
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by
Tim Rice
Directed by
Stacey Flaster
at
Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge, Munster (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets: $36-$40  |  more info

reviewed by Michael L. Harris

Sitting amongst the mostly 40+ crowd, gathered for the near capacity performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Theatre at the Center, I wanted to love this show. The stage-to-movie musical is certainly a familiar one, with two of the songs – the title song and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” – making it to the Top 10 in the 70’s when it first debuted. In the end, however, the show is a mixed bag.

Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 06Musically, the range and quality of voices is quite amazing. Max Quinlan (Jesus) goes from low bass to high falsetto with amazing ease, as does Joe Tokarz as Judas Iscariot, the counter lead.  Problems arise, however, with the gigantic thrust space and the overzealous back-up orchestra that succeeds in swallowing up poor Jesus. These elements tacitly become the superstars; Jesus just a set piece. Given that the score is extremely challenging and the cast is vocally exquisite, it’s unfortunate that dynamically this disparity exists. The actors are isolated and disconnected, both from each other and from the audience. Experts say that much of acting is “reacting,” unfortunately there’s far too little of the latter in this Superstar.

This distancing of the audience is more of a directorial decision than actor disconnection. Indeed, director Stacey Flaster seems to be aiming for distance rather than intimacy.  Objectively, this works with Sanhedrin. When it comes to Jesus, however, one never gets as close as preferred. Indeed, there are moments of splendor, but overall the sheen is more matte than glossy. 

For the most part, the First Act lacks inspiration. After the introduction of the Apostles – which is staged more as a “love in” – there are signs of better performances to come. Audrey Billings‘ (Mary Magdalene) rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is warm and tender. Larry Adams’ Pontius Pilate is spot-on, giving a sense of both the character’s greatness and shortcomings. Adams’ professionalism and stage presence are quite commanding, accentuating what is missing from Quinlan, whose performance shows adroit characterization but seems better suited for film/TV than the stage. Additionally, Steve Genovese steals the show with his second act opener, “King of the Jews” and Jonathan Lee Cunningham delivers a solid rendition as Simon Peter in his credible “Denial” sequence .

 

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The best staging exists within “Could We Start Again, Please.” Both Billings (Mary) and Cunningham (Peter) are at their best in this number, and the entire cast shines as an ensemble, including Quinlan (Jesus), making this by far the apex of the play.

Barry G. Funderburg’s sound design is flawed.  The centralized speaker system – with no side speakers – creates a situation where the orchestra often overpowers the choral work.

Nikki Delhomme’s costume’s are a mishmash – at times delightful; at other times confusing. Delhomme’s concept of universality through an ancient/modern mix generally works, but what’s up with the dress-with-a-funky-hat combo that the Jesus Christ Superstar - Theatre at the Center 08Sanhedrin wear??? I couldn’t help thinking, as the Sanhedrin descended the massive centralize staircase, of the old Lucille Ball sketch where she comes down the stairs with the huge pile of fruit on her head . (Thankfully these women are much more coordinated than Lucy!)

The make-up design is equally confusing. There must be a method to the madness, but the painted kabuki masking on the Sanhedrin principals amounts to overkill.  Conversely, the quasi clown make-up donned by Herod works .

Flaster’s choreography is generally exemplary, but doesn’t always fill the stage. And in some instances – notably during Judas’ famous negotiations with the Sanhedrin – actually blocks the action.

Kudos to Ann N. Davis’ technical direction – rigging and scene changes move seamlessly.

Deficiencies aside, if you’ve never seen the show, and/or are in a retro mood, Jesus Christ Superstar is worth two hours of your time – especially the powerful resurrection of the second act.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
  
   

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