REVIEW: Shadowlands (Provision Theater)

  
  

More isn’t more in C.S Lewis relationship drama

        
        

Susan Moniz and Brad Armacost in 'Shadowlands', now playing at Provision Theater.

  
Provision Theater presents
  
Shadowlands
  
Written by William Nicholson
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $25-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan E. Jakes

C.S Lewis had a flair for turning complex theological and philosophical ideas into digestible, entertaining narratives. He was a profoundly influential man with a distinct voice and a fascinating life. In Shadowlands, Provision Theater works with a rich subject with a compelling story. The creative team behind this bio-drama obviously has a fondness for the British author. What they could really use are some of his writing tricks.

William Nicholson’s script desperately needs editing. Heavy-handed, clunky, and overlong at two and a half hours, the text undercuts its own story with linear, tedious construction, and scattershot attention to dramatic build. Exposition is not the same as action, and Shadowlands relies mostly on characters standing around telling each other what’s happening to relate the plot.

Moments that play out theatrically are rare, but enlightening. On their tropical honeymoon, Joy teaches her husband to sit and bask in the sunlight. So far, we’d only seen the academic Lewis in authoritative formal wear in stuffy, drab English surroundings. Sprawled comfortably on a bench, Joy teaches him patiently, informing him that presence is a virtue without speaking a direct word about it. When he gets it, we see the tension release from his shoulders and the appreciative grin of realization. His wife is good to him, and without her, even a renowned intellectual like him would never have enjoyed this beautiful, divinely simple pleasure.

In that scene, Nicholson creates a thin-sliced moment of life–we understand why Lewis fell in love with Joy Gresham and what he’ll miss when she passes, all from a few sentences about the sun. Good theatrical scene work works as metaphor.

The rest, however, is so literal. Every key point of Lewis and Gresham’s relationship–letters, first meeting, introduction to friends, divorce, secret wedding, first bout with illness, public wedding, honeymoon, second bout with illness, death, grief–is played out or discussed at length. It’s one thing to be respectful with a narrative, but it’s another to champion reality over storytelling. Creative license is not a tool for the selfish, but the thoughtful. Refining a real-life story into fiction brings out a chosen element of its truth. Instead of highlighting or heightening aspects of the protagonists’ relationship, Nicholson and Director Tim Gregory jam in as much as they can, progressively devaluing the scenes as they pile more and more on the stage.

Substance needs style in order to move audiences. In Act I, while visiting Lewis abroad, after learning of her first husband’s affair, Gresham informs Lewis she is leaving back for America. He’s hurt. The curtain closes. A few moments later, it opens. She’s back and Lewis is surprised. How are we supposed to care about her return if we never had time to miss her to begin with?

Working with limited dramatic resources, the actors give remarkable performances. Brad Armacost reprises his role of the title character from Provision’s earlier C. S. Lewis Onstage. He’s lovable, thought-provoking, and a master of his language. He’s easily believable as the distinguished theologian. Susan Moniz (Gresham) is assertive, joyful, funny and extraverted.

(Some consideration: Friday night was only the second preview, after the final dress rehearsal and first performance were canceled due to the severe weather. The next few performances will likely clean up any tiny technical issues and tighten up the transitions, though again, the main culprit is textual, not performance-based)

Shadowlands’ respect for its material is admirable, but as C. S. Lewis taught us, so is imagination. Without it, no dedication to truth will ring as poignant.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

REVIEW: Sanders Family Christmas (Provision Theatre)

  
  

A down home Christmas with brains to match its heart

  
  

Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicago

   
Provision Theater presents
 
Sanders Family Christmas   
   
Written by Connie Ray
Conceived by
Alan Bailey
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
Through Dec 23  | 
tickets: $15-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A bluegrass musical set in a Baptist church at the start of World War II?  Let’s just say that I went into Sanders Family Christmas with low hopes. From the corny promotional images, I got the impression that Disney’s Country Bears are probably a more nuanced group of characters, and I feared the inevitably high cheese factor that comes with a traveling Christian family band. To my surprise and delight, Connie Ray Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicago 3and Alan Bailey’s musical defies all expectations, crafting one of the best Christmas shows that I have ever seen. Director Tim Gregory and his outstanding ensemble of actors do an exceptional job making the dire circumstances of wartime America feel real.

Despite being the direct sequel to Smoke on the Mountain, no previous knowledge of the Sanders family is required to enjoy this Christmas celebration. With the audience serving as the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church congregation, the group performs a mix of popular Christmas hymns and bluegrass inspired holiday songs. Between musical numbers, each family member is given an opportunity to witness for the congregation, and these moments are the dramatic high points of the production. As middle class Americans work extra long hours in factories and ration meals to support their troops, the Sanders family provides a source of hope and strength, and Provision Theater’s production is similarly inspiring.

With their only son Dennis (Brian Bohr) preparing to ship off to Marine basic training and twin sister Denise (Christine Barnes) joining the USO, the Sanders family is undergoing its own personal crisis.  Despite their fears, they put their trust in God in hopes that he will ultimately guide them in the direction of the greater good. The characters’ sincerity in their faith prevents them from being preachy or heavy handed, and their chemistry as a family brings a true sense of togetherness to the proceedings. The Sanders understands that they’re putting on a show, and their ever present witty banter keeps the tone light, even as the script delves into bleak areas.

Sanders patriarch Burle (Richard Martlatt) and his brother Stanley (Ron Turner) have two of the strongest moments in the show when they witness. Martlatt showcases his outstanding technique during a fast-paced, ten-minute monologue where he recalls Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicagohis days as a trench soldier in World War I. Despite the heavy material, Martlatt’s breezy delivery maintains a level of humor that work in beautiful contrast with the weight of the words. An ex-convict turned gospel recording sensation, Stanley laments his criminal background while praising the Sanders for graciously accepting him into their family. Turner takes his time with his words, deliberating over the perfect way to describe the kindness that his family has shown him. The joy on Turner’s face as he recalls the upswing his life took after he found God warms the heart, and his ultimate conclusion that “God don’t give two cents about talent, he cares about character,” is a wonderful moment of catharsis for the weathered Sanders uncle.

Playing their own instruments and singing without any amplification, the cast is exceptionally talented. Whether they’re wrapping older sister June (Amber Burgess) in Christmas lights, delivering a youth sermon to the children of the church, or singing “Joy To The World” with the audience, they manage to engage on a deeply personal level. With Sanders Family Christmas, Provision has produced an inspiring musical that is as smart as it is heartwarming.

   
 
Rating: ★★★½  
   
  

 

     
     

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REVIEW: Hot Mikado (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

 

Nanki Poo, Zoot Suits and Dancing – Oh my!

 

(L-R) Andy Lupp (Pish Tush), Todd Kryger (Pooh-Bah) and Stephen Schellhardt (Ko Ko) star in HOT MIKADO at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace through October 3.

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Hot Mikado
  
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by
David Bell
at
Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

If imitation is the highest compliment, in 1939 Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Mikado was praised to the skies: no less than two all-black, all-jazz versions from Chicago and from New York played opposite each other on Broadway. (Alas, they beat each other to a draw, ticket-wise.) It must have seemed as if America would swing its way out of the Depression, with some help from two dead Victorian males.

HOT_MIKADO--Aurelia_WilliamsA Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre revival (Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre "premiered" this version in 1993), Hot Mikado is director/choreographer David H. Bell‘s sizzling homage to those ever-young jitterbug versions. (Purists may carp but then nothing in Sullivan’s music was any more "Japanese" than are these jazz translations, while Gilbert’s satire is timeless.) This time it’s a proscenium presentation and that gives it even more depth and scope than the original arena production.

Retaining the topsy-turvy tale of how Nanki Poo, the Mikado’s son who poses as a wandering minstrel, falls in love with the aggressively demure Yum-Yum; pursued by the voracious harridan Katisha, he’s almost executed by his rival Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. The Mikado’s arrival causes instant confusion, then the requisite resolution.

Based on a successful 1986 production that Bell first mounted at Ford’s Theatre in Washington that has gone on to play London’s West End, Dublin and Prague, Hot Mikado is blessed with music director Michael Mahler‘s period-perfect musical Midas touch. It also has one of the loveliest looks of a Drury Lane show: Marcus Stephens’ set enchants illuminated Japanese footbridge, pavilion and cherry trees with leaves of fans and Japanese lanterns. Jesse Klug lights it like a rainbow in heat, though Jeremy Floyd‘s time-traveling costumes would be bright in the dark.

True to its name, Hot Mikado sizzles with David Bell‘s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-stepping dances; dolled up in Zoot suits or bodice bursters, the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force (led by Ted Levy’s inexhaustible Bojangles imitation in the title role) and hoof up a storm to "Swing a Merry Madrigal." "Three Little Maids" here becomes a hep-swinging Andrew Sisters ballad. The red-hot first act finale comes straight from Stork Club heaven, with a hint of gospel and a highly anachronistic allusion to disco.

 

HOT_MIKADO--Ted_Levy HOT_MIKADO--Devin_DeSantis_and_Summer_Smart

Bell’s troupe (which includes Susan Moniz, who was Yum-Yum 17 years ago in Lincolnshire) sing and dance into a lather. A throwback to classic vaudeville (as veteran Ross Lehman was in Lincolnshire), Stephen Schellhardt gives Ko-Ko alternate touches of Groucho and, even, in his crying fits, Stephen Colbert showing some sentiment. Surprisingly self-effacing even at his hammiest, Schellhardt shows the gentle wistfulness of Keaton and Chaplin and his double takes show stopwatch timing.

As the cavorting cuties, Devin DeSantis’ crooning Nanki-Poo and Summer Naomi Smart’s demure but designing Yum-Yum bring new life to "This Is What I’ll Never Do." Todd M. Kryger oozes pomposity out of Pooh-Bah and Moniz’ Pitti-Sing belts to beat the Big Band.

But the stand-out show-stopper is easily Aurelia Williams, a powerhouse to equal Felicia Fields in Bell’s Lincolnshire debut. Playing the awesome Katisha as a blues-wailing big mamma, she tears the heart out of "The Hour of Gladness" and wipes the set with "Alone and Yet Alive." No surprise that Williams got the biggest ovation at the curtain call: She supplies the heat in Hot Mikado.

Pizzazz-packed as it is, it’s still possible to wish that, color-blind casting aside, Hot Mikado was, like its original, all-black (instead of, as here, fitfully integrated). It’s weird to hear white performers sing what you know would be cooked to a crisp by a black cast. Soul singing, especially of blues standards, will belong culturally to some folks more than others. But then Marriott’s production was equally opportunistic, so I’m resigned to it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty (Marriott Theatre)

Centuries-old fairy tale energized with girl-power

 SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amber 2

Marriott Theatre presents:

 

Sleeping Beauty 

Adapted by Marc Robin
Directed and choreographed by
Matt Raftery
At
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through April 25th
(more info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

“Sleeping Beauty” was first published in 1697, and since then has morphed, changed, been embellished and re-interpreted in thousands of ways; both subtle and overt. Here in America, any girls born after 1959 probably know the Walt Disney version of the story the best; lovely, quiet Aurora sings and picks flowers, obeys her godmothers (without any inclination that they are, in fact, fairies  – and that she is in fact a princess), gets tricked, falls asleep, gets rescued by an equally genteel and beautiful prince and they all live happily ever after. The film is a classic, but SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amberprincesses like that don’t reign anymore. It is no longer interesting to see a heroine who goes through the story with no control over her actions, and whose main character arc is going from slumber to awake.

In Marc Robin’s new theatrical adaptation, produced by the Marriott Theater for Young Audiences, Sleeping Beauty is a tomboy: she spends her days climbing trees, dreaming of adventure and defending the bumbling dork Prince Hunter (Ryan Reilly) from fire-breathing dragons. Her dialogue is lightly peppered with girl power rhetoric: she claims that pressure for her to wear dresses is "stereotyping" and at one point accuses her Puck-like attendant (Andrew Keltz) of discrimination. These not-so-subtle aims to break down hundreds of years of gender expectations are nice to see, even if they do go over the heads of the kids in the audience and are too broad for the adults.

Sleeping Beauty has gone by many names, including Grimm’s Briar Rose and Disney’s Aurora.  Here, however, she is Princess Amber, of Colorland (played by Jessie Mueller). Colorland is a magical world where everyone has their own color that identifies them: the three fairy godmothers are Periwinkle (Heidi Kettenring), Ruby (Johanna McKenzie Miller) and Marigold (Tammy Mader), and the wicked fairy who condemns Amber to prick her finger on that fateful spinning wheel is Magenta (Susan Moniz). The three good fairies have a nice relationship, and Heidi Kettenring’s goofball performance is a standout (remarked my six year old companion, "Periwinkle was funny!"). Magenta is bad without ever being too scary. The fear factor for kids varies widely; age and sensibility are obvious factors. I brought a six year old and a nine year old who had different reactions to Magenta. The six year old was a little scared of Magenta, but managed to work through it, while the nine year old was mostly interested in her dress which was "cool." Magenta does in fact have a cool dress, designed by Nancy Missimi, but no extra baubles that would make her SLEEPING BEAUTY--Ryan Reilly as Prince Hunter, Jessie Mueller as Amberparticularly freaky to most kids – she does not sport any weird make up, wear a mask or wig, or anything out of the ordinary that would be particularly creepy.

The show is nicely paced. The whole production, including the talk back at the end, runs about 90-minutes. The top half of the show is focused on Princess Amber and her unconventional personality. The presence of Princess Amber is strongly felt, and her sleep is greatly reduced from the hundred years of most versions to an afternoon. During this time, Prince Hunter has to overcome a series of obstacles in order to save his slumbering love with a kiss. Being scared and uncoordinated, he relies both on the fairies and on the audience to help. The children in the audience are cued to shout "I’m your friend" and "You can do it!" at different times. Some kids might find this embarrassing, but it makes for a lively production. The connection between actors and audience is stronger here than in most adult theater. It comes to a quick, clean conclusion and ends on a high happy note (go figure).

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Andrew Keltz, Susan Moniz, Jessie Mueller SLEEPING BEAUTY--Tammy Mader, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Bernie Yvon, Heidi Kettenring

Sleeping Beauty ends with a question/answer talk back, introducing the audience to the actors, the stage manager, the back stage crew and the live band, which is educational and well rounded. The kids get to ask the actors questions about plot points that don’t make sense to them or special effects that seem like real magic to little eyes. The encouraging and informative nature of this talk back is the highlight of the show. Imagination and participation are strongly encouraged by the charming cast, which hosts the session.

The play, which is staged in the round, shares the lovely real wood, rustic set of Fiddler on the Roof, the evening production at the Marriott Theater for Old Audiences. The set was conceived to work with both productions, and doubles well. The natural looking set relieves some of the tension of the princess-and-fairy-run-world of Colorland and brings the production down to earth. The fire breathing dragon, who makes two appearances is constructed of three parts, operated by three different people. The three actors walk in unison, holding large wood puppets representing the three sections of the dragon’s body. The effect is nice and organic. It is also not the only shadowing of Julie Taymor-esque impressionism: a cloth mound is a mountain, a blue sheet is the sea.

The production sets its audience up to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, which proves easy for the kids.  And for adults, it’s nice to see some subtlety in children’s entertainment. Sleeping Beauty respects the intelligence of children and the sanity of adults: it’s is never over-stimulating or tacky.  The little ones in the audience don’t see the thought that went into this production, but they will enjoy it without the need for shock-value. The clarity and focus of the storytelling make Marriott Lincolnshire’s Sleeping Beauty a perfectly nice and colorful way to spend your morning with the little ones in your life.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Heidi Kettenring, Susan Moniz, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Tammy Mader

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Provision Theater announces new home and new season

It’s always great news when you hear that a theatre company has found a place of their own: a home, which in turn creates a place which better nurtures a company’s creative process.  So it’s wonderful to hear that Provision Theater Company will produce their 2009-10 season in their brand new home, located at 1001 W. Roosevelt Road.

0910-cotton-patch To celebrate the space, the theater company will host a gala reception on Saturday, September 12; a date that also marks the official opening of their season with a bigger and bolder version of one of Provision’s all time smash hit productions, Harry Chapin’s Cotton Patch Gospel, running September 10 through November 8.  Following will be a new take on William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew from January 27 through March 7, starring Tim Gregory and Susan Moniz

Rounding out the season will be a World Premiere production of The Hiding Place, based on the autobiography of Corrie ten Boom and written by Artistic Director Tim Gregory.  The show will run from April 7 through May 23.   The story tells the inspiring tale of Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom.  With the World War II invasion of Holland , the ten Boom family joined the underground resistance to help save Jewish families.  Their lives were turned upside down when they were arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps themselves.  The play tells the dramatic tale of survival and hope as the ten Boom family is left with nothing to cling to but their faith.

0910-homepage-current-seasonThe performance schedule for the season is as follows:  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ($28) and Sundays at 3 p.m. ($25).  Select Wednesday and Thursday preview performances will be held at 8 p.m. ($22).  Ticket prices include free parking.  Groups of 10 or more are 10% off.  For reservations, phone 866.811.4111. You may also visit www.provisiontheater.org.

Provision Theater Company is devoted to producing works of hope, reconciliation and redemption; works that challenge us to explore a life of meaning and purpose.