REVIEW: Kiss Me, Kate (Circle Theatre)

          
     

The Taming of Cole Porter

 

 

Jonathan Altman, Jake Autizen, Rachel Quinn, Wes Drummond - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
Kiss Me, Kate
  
Written by Cole Porter and Bella Spewack
Directed by
Bob Knuth
at
Circle Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

What you want with this musical revival is to hear a giant click, the sound of everything going right in Circle Theatre’s hoped-for perfect revival of Cole Porter’s musical-within-a-musical. For director and set designer Bob Knuth what’s already perfect is a sparkling script depicting the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of temperamental thespians. Modeled on the ever-excitable thespian duo of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne (a fairy tale marriage in every way), hellion Lili and egomaniac Fred enact a Jonathan Altman, Jake Autizen, Rachel Quinn, Wes Drummond - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatrelife-imitates-art parallel to the quarreling lovers they croon in a Baltimore performance of “The Taming of the Shrew.” More than before, relocated to Oak Park, Circle Theatre now has a stage wide enough to embrace all of Kevin Bellie’s cinemascopic dance routines, which in their previous Forest Park digs five blocks west on Madison Street threatened to burst at the seams.

If a spinoff can improve on its source, this toxically witty 1948 gem, which restored Cole Porter to Broadway glory after a disappointing ten-year dry spell, betters the Bard. Both a hymn to the neuroses that nurture showbiz eccentricities and extremes, it’s also a witty sendup of the perils that follow when narcissistic Broadway stars perform in private as much as under the lights. For these stagestruck souls the sound of no one applauding during their domestic quarrels must be maddening. Never has a show, backstage and centerstage, had more reason to go on.

Crafting many moments to the max, Knuth transforms Porter’s gift into a promising assemblage of perfectly timed verbal and physical comedy, sometimes superior singing, contagious dancing, dazzling costumes, period-perfect wigs, and serviceable sets. But the hard work of the 23 eager-beaver performers is critically undermined by Carolyn Brady Riley’s heavy-handed musical direction: The culprit here is the (minimal for Cole Porter) four-person band who perversely seem to make up for their small number by playing too loud throughout (a vice that’s also afflicted past Circle Theatre shows). Accompaniment does not mean overkill. No one wants these singers to use mikes but on opening night they were more than challenged to sing and speak out these brilliant Porter lyrics and, because the orchestra wouldn’t let them, a lot of laughs died along with the words. Adding mikes would only escalate the screamfest. The solution is the taming of this band.

 

John Roeder, Andy Baldeschweiler, Tommy Bullington - Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre Andy Baldeschweiler and Jenny Sophia 3 - Kiss Me Kate -

Everything hinges on the chemistry between the tamer and the shrew: Jennie Sophia’s Lili (who reminds us of the young Patti Lupone) isn’t just the spitfire diva who craves to be domesticated; she delivers the dreamer (“So in Love”), desperate for the right excuse to stop fighting love. Equally commanding as Petruchio or his hammy self, Andy Baldeschwiler’s Fred never drops a joke in his patter numbers (“Where Is The Life That Late I Led?”), except when the orchestra drowns him out. At least he gets to register the sheer joy of singing “Wunderbar” every night. But, given a hostile accompaniment, he strains more than he should to unevenly deliver songs that should sound as effortless as they were composed 62 years ago.

Rachel Quinn and Wes Drummond couldn’t be sweeter second bananas, as venal Lois Lane and trusting Bill Calhoun wonder “Why Can’t You Behave?” A crowd-pleasing, vaudevillian sensation, John Roeder and Tommy Bullington are the vaudevillian gangsters whose “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is as funny as you can get without asphyxiating an audience on their own laughs.

But the signature triumph belongs to the hard-hoofing, all-crooning chorus, whose Lindy-hopping, jitterbugging dances look totally authentic and still seem improvised on the spot. If only the orchestra could have brought out all the sensuous sounds that Porter intended for songs that can be treasured and never bettered.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Cast of Kiss Me Kate - Circle Theatre

 

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REVIEW: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Drury Lane)

 

Dynamic choreography, rousing leading lady save flawed musical

 

 (L-R) Cara Salerno, Vanessa Panerosa, Amber Mak, Hallie Cercone, Abby Mueller, Katie Huff, and Amanda Kroiss star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

        
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
   
Book by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Music/Lyrics by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Johnny Mercer
Directed by Bill Jenkins
Musical Direction by
Roberta Duchak
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

In the 1954 movie musicalSeven Brides for Seven Brothers”, when men kidnap women and trick them into marriage, it’s not Stockholm syndrome, it’s love. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of those movie musicals that is a product of its time, when women were looked at as little more than glorified housekeepers and baby makers, born to do the will of their man. When Adam Pontipee (Steve Blanchard) deceives the sassy Milly (Abby Mueller) into marrying him, his six brothers set out to capture wives for themselves, ambushing six town girls and throwing them in the back of their wagon. It’s offensive, but the music is jovial and melodic, the dancing is energetic and plentiful, and the film’s leading man Howard Keel’s booming voice and charming smile make it difficult to despise the chauvinistic Adam.

(L-R) Richard Strimer (Benjamin) and Abby Mueller (Milly) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett BeinerMy problems with the stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers arise from its attempts to flesh out the characters, which sounds like a good thing but ends up backfiring by making them even shallower. The solos do very little to make you sympathize with the characters, with Milly’s “One Man” beginning as a condemnation of her husband’s trickery before devolving into a tribute to female subservience. Conversely, Adam’s big Act Two moment of redemption “Where Were You?” attempts to justify his sexism by giving him a daddy complex, blaming his actions on his absent father instead of taking responsibility himself. It’s not difficult to assume that Adam’s behavior is a product of his environment, but when it is put into song it just makes the already unlikable character seem pathetic. Blanchard’s vocals don’t help matters, lacking the timbre and strength expected from an 1850 frontiersman. And while the added ensemble numbers manage to evoke the musical style of the film, the solos and smaller group sequences have a contemporary feel that is out of place with the rest of the show’s classic musical theater sound.

The highlight of the production is easily Milly and her relationship with her six brothers-in-law. Mueller’s crystal clear tone and powerful belt make her musical numbers stand out, and she has great chemistry with her new relatives as she assumes a dominating mother position in the household. Watching the brothers transform under Milly’s feminine influence is a joy, from learning to dance in “Goin’ Courtin’” to finally appreciating their women in the heartfelt “Glad That You Were Born.” With the brothers, there is evidence of a struggle between the uncivilized way they’ve been brought up and the restraint that makes for successful courting. “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” is a hilarious exclamation of horny frustration, but it is followed by Daniel (William Travis-Taylor) and Frank (Brandon Springman) ruminating on the somber effects of loneliness in the beautiful “Lonesome Polecat.”

 

(L-R)  Abby Mueller (Milly) and Steve Blanchard (Adam) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner (L-R) Richard Strimer, Jarret Ditch, William Travis Taylor, Chris Yonan, Brandon Springman and (back) Zach Zube star in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Photo by Brett Beiner.

The brothers learning to dance comes in handy for Tammy Mader’s intense, dynamic choreography. Maybe the reason Adam and Milly’s romance never blossoms on stage is because they don’t have a nice dance together like the brothers and their brides. There isn’t much depth to these characters and their affection for each other, but the substance appears in their dancing, when the chemistry really ignites. The extended town dance sequence in Act I is a mesmerizing affair, albeit a little chaotic and unclear at times, while an Act II all-bride dream ballet brings some sensuality to the affair.

Like the film, this production is propelled by its dancing, but bodies in movement can’t overcome all the flaws of the writing. The changes to the film give the story a more modern context, and the attempt to psychoanalyze the characters through song removes much of the musical’s charm. Drury Lane’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a polished, well-performed production, but the questionable source material prevents it from rising to true greatness.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

(L-R) Chris Yonan, Hallie Cercone, Jarret Ditch, and Cara Salerno star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

 

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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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