REVIEW: Steel Magnolias (Hubris Productions)

Hubris production could use a touch-up

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Hubris Productions present
  
Steel Magnolias
   
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by
Lavina Jadhwani
At
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through July 31  | 
tickets: $25  | more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

steel magnolias_005The 1989 film version of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias is one of the definitive chick flicks of all time: empowering, hilarious, emotionally devastating, and featuring one of the best female ensembles ever assembled on screen. Harling’s characters are southern women bursting at the seams with charisma, and they require the  larger-than-life personalities of a Dolly Parton or Shirley Maclaine to make their struggles spectacular. Directed by Lavina Jadhwani, the actors of Hubris’s Steel Magnolias lack the energy that makes these characters enthralling, resulting in a plodding production that never makes it to the emotional heights that the script has become known for.

Harling’s play depicts the key moments of diabetic Shelby’s (Sara Pavlak) adulthood – her wedding, pregnancy, motherhood, etc. – and how these events affect her mother M’Lynn (Stephanie Wooten-Austin) and other women of Chinquapin, Louisiana: salon owner Truvy (Calidonia Olivares), sardonic widow Clairee (Sharon Roseri), eccentric curmudgeon Ouiser (Lorraine Freund), and new girl Annelle (Jessica Maynard). In Truvy’s salon, these six women argue about wedding colors, gossip about local ladies, and experience the occasional breakdown in an environment free of testosterone. On paper, the generations-spanning assortment of personalities should be quite entertaining, but the potential of the characters isn’t reached by the ensemble.

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From the very opening scene it is obvious that Steel Magnolias needs a lot of fine-tuning: the actors stumble over lines, the comedy revolves too heavily on gags (Annelle drops things! A lot!), and Truvy’s hair is way too flat. That last one is just mind-boggling, as big hair should be at the top of any designer’s checklist for this show. As the production continues, the lack of chemistry between the actors makes it apparent that there is still much character work to be done, starting with a much needed jolt of electricity to the dull performances.

   
   
Rating:★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Mami, Where’d My O Go? (at Lifeline Theatre)

Pull Your Sexuality Out of the Swamp in One Easy Spell

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t & t Productions presents
   
Mami, Where’d My O Go?
   
Written and Performed by Tosha Fowler
Directed by
Victoria (toy) Delorio
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through July 21st  | 
tickets: $13-$18  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Tosha Fowler’s autobiographical one-woman show, Mami, Where’d My O Go?, is billed as a saucy, heaping helping of Southern decadence—sexy and supernatural, as in the mode of “True Blood” and touchingly, inoffensively feminist, just like “Steel Mami-4-DeIorio Magnolias.” But one wonders if this style of advertising might just do t & t Productions’ offering at Lifeline Theatre a tremendous disservice.

Yes, it’s a comedy about a young, modern Southern woman trying to get back life’s zest, lost with her inability to orgasm for four years. Now, after failed attempts in therapy, getting her O back requires invoking the African Goddess Mami Wata back at her family home in the swamp where she grew up. Nevertheless, Fowler roots her comedy in pains that run deeper than anything “True Blood” or “Steel Magnolias” ever touches. More than sexiness or spells, this is what defines Fowler’s work and makes it a far gutsier emotional sojourn for the proper Southern lady.

Directed by Victoria (toy) Delorio, Mami, Where’d My O Go? is about loss–and we’re not just talking the pleasures of the bedroom here. Caroline, a successful young Southerner, has pulled herself out of poverty and ignorance and moved on, at least physically, from her fractured family past. However, the loss of Grandma, who raised her, unanswered questions about her father, the crucifying sadness of her mother’s unloved existence—as well as Mom’s drug-induced death–pulls Caroline back to the pain she thought she could leave behind. Fowler diffuses the heaviness of Caroline’s losses by generously buffeting them with jokes about the old Piggly Wiggly, describing her former O’s as “bustin’ can o’ bisquits orgasms,” and sagely timed humor like, “Orgasms and daddies have nothing to do with each other—or, that’s been illegal in Georgia for quite some time now.”

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The psychological bones of Fowler’s work are solid and her emotional depth in performance simply goes balls to the wall. Her invocation of Mami Wata as part of Caroline’s emotional/sexual healing is nothing less than inspired. Fowler morphs quickly and easily between Caroline, her mother, and Irma DeVoe, the neighborhood priestess who guides the proceedings, giving a variety of voices to Southern women’s experience.

Mami 2 Pub Pic- photo credit- toy DeIorio All this charmingly funny, fantastically trippy one-act needs now is a strong editorial hand. Moving from character to character, from past shame to present day emotional need, still gets a little rambling and out of control. Also, at her mother’s funeral, Caroline tries to pour her cremated ashes into the swamp, managing only to get the ash all over her and the other family mourners. While this moment may indeed be autobiographical it is also, unfortunately, one that has been beaten to death in movies and late night comedy sketches. It should either be revamped for greater originality or discarded altogether.

Fowler’s play is like many from a new generation of Southern writers: crawling tooth and nail out of dire straits, cleaning oneself up to look like the rest of us shiny, happy Americans, yet still feeling tied to the old folks at home—the old folks with all their homey, backward, cherished and toxically shameful ways. Unfortunately one really can’t go home again, especially Caroline. But hopefully some pulled chicken, greens, creamed corn, and peach ambrosia will bring on the Goddess who can both hurt and heal you.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Mami 1 Pub Pic-photo credit- nk Mooneyham

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REVIEW: Cherrywood (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

Party on, Dude!

 

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Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
  
Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable
   
Written by Kirk Lynn
Directed by
David Cromer
at
Angel Island Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $13-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Fliers announce ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable.  A foursome decides to host a party. They have three kinds of chips, an array of music, bottles of booze and a shots of… milk? In response to their fliers, the guests arrive and fill up the house. The usual party suspects are all present. Free loading crashers. Whiny girl. Depressed divorced guy. Unwanted neighbor. Gaggle of gals in bathroom line. P.D.A. couple on the dance floor. Hot shirtless guy. Person continually announcing ‘I’m wasted.’ Sporadic drunken wrestling. It feels, looks and sounds familiar except with a couple of twists: Somebody brought a gun. Everybody has been drinking wild wolves’ milk. People are opening boxes of their secret desires. Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is a virtual reality party experience without the pressure to mingle or the aid of a cocktail.

In a large living-room-like space, the audience seats encircle the action. Closely matched in numbers, the 50+ wallflowers watch the 49 performers party. It’s such a tight fit that I needed to move my purse before a guy sat on it. Director David Cromer has gone fire-code-capacity to create an authentic party.

The proximity blurs the fourth wall completely in deciphering between the party gawkers versus goers. I consciously refrain from shouting out an answer to ‘name a good band that starts with the letter ‘A’.’ It seems like a jumbling of improv mixed in with scripted lines. Crediting playwright Kirk Lynn with some of the best lines, it’s existentialism goes rave with the ongoing philosophy ‘if you want something different, ask for it.’ Lynn writes dialogue describing cocktail banter as ‘question-answer-it-doesn’t-always-happen-like-that’ mockery. One character describes herself with ‘everything I do is a form of nodding. I want to break my neck to stop nodding.’ In a heated exchange, the neighbor jabs, ‘you remember the world? It’s the room outside the door.’ It’s genuine party chatter. Some conversations are playful. Some are deep. Some just don’t make any sense. Clusters of people are sharing philosophical drunken babble throughout the room. A gunshot brings the house of strangers together in a communal bonding alliance.

For the theatre goer looking for a break from classic plot driven shows, Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is performance art. It is a ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ For those who wonder what Chicago actors and designers do off-season, this is an opportunity to fly-on-the-wall it. If you’ve anticipated they hang out together and party, this would be your imagined drunken haze. The who’s who of storefront theater is boozing it up. It’s a Steep, Lifeline, Dog & Pony, House, Griffin, etc. reunion bash, and man do they know how to party!

  
   
Rating: ★★★
       
    

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: Million Dollar Quartet – yeah, it still rocks!

Yeah, it still rocks

 

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Apollo Theater Chicago presents
   
Million Dollar Quartet
   
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Musical Arrangements by
Chuck Mead
Directed by
Floyd Mutrux & Eric Schaeffer
at
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through September 5th  |  tickets: $59-$80  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

I know two people that have seen Million Dollar Quartet over 30 times. A retired married couple, they are the target audience of the musical: seniors with a nostalgic appreciation for the pioneers of rock n’ roll. I have a nostalgic appreciation for No Doubt. My knowledge of Johnny Cash’s music is the “Walk the Line” soundtrack, my Elvis I.Q. is limited to my mother’s cassettes on road trips, and I recognize the songs mdq-03 of Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, but know next to nothing about the men themselves. That being said, Million Dollar Quartet is currently playing on Broadway with a national tour in the works and Tony nominations in its pocket, so it’s got to be good, right?

It is.

I expected dynamic musical numbers from skilled performers, but Million Dollar Quartet is more than just a glorified cover band. Escott and Mutrux’s book is edutainment at its finest, a spirited history lesson on the early days of rock n’ roll centered on legendary music producer Sam Phillips (Tim Decker), the man responsible for the superstar jam session. Decker understands the emotional journey of his character, from Phillips’ pride in the humble Sun Records, his anger at losing his major talent, and his hope in the future of rock n’ roll. Phillips’ devotion to the music is clear in Decker’s confidence on stage, portraying a man whose home is the studio.

Flashbacks to Phillips’ first encounters with Perkins (Gabe Bowling), Cash (Sean Sullivan), and Presley (David Lago) establish the relationship between the musicians and their producer, and reveal how paramount Phillips was to the evolution of these men as artists. These three men are the already established Sun Records family, three brothers that don’t always get along but respect each other, with Lewis (Lance Lipinsky) as the cocky new kid with the potential to be a star. When the four of them play together, the results are electric, and Phillips is that tie that binds them.

The thrill of Million Dollar Quartet is seeing four legends playing together for the first and only time. The actors have to sell the illusion for maximum impact, and the new cast does so admirably. Lipinsky has big shoes to fill – Levi Kreis is nominated for a Tony and has won the Outer Critics Circle for Best Featured Actor – but he backs up Lewis’s ego with boundless energy and fevered fingers that showcase his technical mastery. Lipinsky’s mischievous smile and carefree demeanor contrast with his more professional comrades, providing comic relief and adding tension to the script, particularly in his interactions with Bowling’s hotheaded Perkins. With his hit song “Blue Suede Shoes” usurped by Presley and his record sales dwindling, Perkins stands to lose the most, and Bowling finds the desperation that lies beneath the temper.

mdq01Sullivan has Cash’s bass vocals down pat, and his gentle conduct serves to make the character’s conflict – telling Phillips he will not be renewing his Sun contract – all the more believable. As the most imitated of the group, Lago does all the hip shaking and lip curling you expect, but is careful not to become a caricature. At this point in his career Elvis is still a young upstart, and Lago plays him with an understated sexuality that suggests a man not yet in control of the power he has over people, especially women. Kelly Lamont brings some estrogen to the studio as Dyanne, Presley’s sassy girlfriend with a powerhouse belt, and her rendition of “Fever” smolders, starting softly and building in intensity until the last note. Watching the quartet take turns flirting with her is consistently amusing, and the a cappella fan in me swooned as she vocalized the fiddle part in “Riders in the Sky.”

When the quartet plays, they forget about contracts and television appearances and just live in the music. That release is rock n’ roll, and Million Dollar Quartet is a fitting tribute to its early years that shouldn’t be missed.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½