Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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REVIEW: High School Musical (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Tweens need escapism as much as adults do

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Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
High School Musical
 
Directed/Choreographed by Rachel Rockwell 
100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
(map)
through May 22nd | tickets: $10 | more info

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

High School Musical, currently playing at Drury Lane Oakbrook, is a kind of bubble gum Romeo and Juliet for kids. Troy and Gabriella are teenagers from different cliques, she’s a brain and he’s a jock. But they fall in love anyway, and decide to shatter expectations by auditioning for the school musical, sending queen bee drama queen Sharpay into a jealous rage. In the end, they land the parts, fall in love, and even soften Sharpay up a little, all because they refused to stay faithful to their stereotypes. It’s nice to tell kids that they’re going to be alright in high school, if they just "are themselves." Unfortunately, life is not as simple as this, especially for children. In one of the great high school dramas of all time, My So-Called Life, the main character, Angela, reveals in a voice-over, "people are always telling you to ‘be yourself’ like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster." In the super catchy, and cheerfully choreographed number "Stick to the Status Quo", which takes place in the cafeteria with all of the students present, a basketball player reveals that he actually loves to bake, and a bookish prep reveals that she loves to dance to hip hop, but are these actually feelings that children, who are emotional human beings can relate to? Does this actually mean anything to kids? Or is the simplistic message just a marketing device, to trick parents into believing that there is substance to this poppy, flirty, love story for children?

high-school-musical_2TIMP_20137 The High School Musical franchise is a commercial creation. Originally a Disney Channel T.V. movie, the brand has expanded to encompass a quadruple platinum soundtrack, two sequels, including High School Musical 3: Senior Year which received theatrical release and is the highest grossing movie musical in an opening weekend of all time, as well as the condensed 70 minute stage version playing at Drury Lane.

The cheery “EHS (East High School”) banners strewn about the great grey daunting faux stone proscenium that was created for the main stage production Ragtime give the show the creepy look of a fascist victory party run by high school students. But happily, High School Musical also shares main stage director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell, who speedily and clearly moves the show along . The choreography is poppy and fun, and was conceived with a high school mentality but a sophisticated ability. Additionally, there is some stand out talent in the cast, most notably Elana Ernst, whose super-sassy Sharpay is a magnetic pleasure to watch.

Children love High School Musical because of it’s upbeat, catchy songs and attractive cast. And besides being funny, it also and presents to kids – who are still years away from high school – a totally non-threatening fantasy about what they can expect when they enter the daunting world of the big kids. There is nothing wrong with a show like High School Musical; kids need escapism as much as adults do. But during the finale of High School Musical, when Max Quinlan as Troy pulls an amazing stunt where he lands the lead role in the musical, while concurrently winning the big basketball game and defeating bad girl Sharpay all through the magic of being himself, it makes one recall a scene at the beginning of the show, in which Sharpay auditions with an incorrectly uptempo interpretation of "What I’ve Been Looking For." Her partner is not the studly star basketball player, but her flamboyantly gay twin brother Ryan, played by the talented and funny Sean Michael Hunt. Sharpay and Ryan’s interpretation becomes the subject of vague mockery, and although it’s catchy, it’s not right, it’s not the status quo. Surely it takes a strong sense of self to face drama auditions, locked arms with your gay brother and demand that you be cast as lovers in the school play. But here, her sense of self is not rewarded, it’s punished because it conflicts with the needs of her cooler counterparts. Perhaps, High School Musical‘s message of be-true-to-yourself-and-all-will-be-well is conditional on how popular you are, which, when you think about it, is a rather bleak conclusion for those teens not on the A-list.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

The performance schedule for HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is Tuesdays through Saturdays at 10 a.m. with select performances at noon, 1 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Please call 630.530.0111 or visit www.DruryLaneOakbrook.com for the exact schedule, as some show times and dates may vary.

CAST: HSM stars Max Quinlan as Troy Bolton and Summer Smart as Gabriella Montez. The cast also includes Elana Ernst as Sharpay Evans, Sean Michael Hunt as Ryan Evans, Brandon Koller as Chad Danforth, Caitlainne Guerreri as Taylor McKessie, Jonathan Weir as Coach Bolton, Rebecca Finnegan as Ms. Darbus, Natalie Berg as Kelsi Neilson, Nina Fluke as Martha Cox, Jackson Evans as Jack Scott, Travis Turner as Zeke Baylor, and Zach Zube as Ripper.

CREATIVE TEAM: Joining Rachel Rockwell as Director and Choreographer are Jesse Klug (Lighting Designer), Erika Senase (Costume Manager), Brad Gonda (Technical Director), Kristin Ligeski (Wardrobe Supervisor), Jeff Dublinske (Sound Engineer) and Sophia Briones (Props Master). Kristi Martens is Stage Manager.

REVIEW: Ragtime (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Drury Lane scores big with epic musical “Ragtime”

RAGTIME-_The_cast

 
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
Ragtime
 
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
by
Terrance McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)
directed/choreographed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook (map)
through May 23 (more info)

By Katy Walsh

‘What can happen in a year?’ Father’s question is an expectation that life is simple and predictable.

BF1C0838 The reality is birth, death, emancipation, persecution, obsession, syncopation. In 1906, the regularity in life takes unexpected turns as Drury Lane Oakbrook presents Ragtime The Musical. The show focuses on the lives of three groups: WASPs, blacks, and immigrants. In the New York suburbs, a wealthy family breaks the monotony with wild excursions and celebrity stalking. In Harlem, a successful black piano player decides to search for his lost love. Just off the boat, an Jewish immigrant artist and his daughter arrive with nothing but optimistic anticipation. Three distinctly different rhythms unexpectedly intersect to create a new tune. Ragtime celebrates a year in American history by paralleling the adaption of ragtime music with socio-economic changes of the time period. The results are a stunning history lesson intertwined with melodies of hope and change.

Under the skillful direction and choreography of Rachel Rockwell, the tempo never misses a beat. Rockwell strikes all the right notes with this multi-talented cast. Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) is the powerhouse of emotional range in song and act. His tune changes throughout the show – regret, love, vengeance. Darrington connects the audience with his story based on heart wrenching hope. His “The Wheels of a Dream” duet with Valisia LeKae (Sarah) is flawless. LeKae is a perfect match-up and their onstage chemistry is the epic-love-story-kind. Cory Goodrich (Mother) is marvelous in an understated and nonchalant way. Goodrich’s character changes her family’s life dramatically with simple choices. Her transformation is most baffling to Father played by Larry Adams. In a pivotal song, Adams is perplexed as he sings, ‘I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play different music.’

With inspirational paternal love, Mark David Kaplan (Tateh) chases a train for a teary-eyed audience impact. Alongside the principals, smaller and famous roles engage curiosity. Emma Goldman (Catherine Lord) influences as a social reformer. Evelyn Nesbit (Summer Naomi Smart) is the Brittany Spears of the time period…whee! Harry Houdini (Stef Tovar) mystifies as a successful immigrant. Booker T. Washington (James Earl Jones II) commands integration and respect.

BF1C1085 Larry_and_Cory
BF1C0803 BF1C0945 Mark_Kaplan-Jennifer_Baker

Surprisingly, this blockbuster musical starts with a stark stage. The introduction of characters is a popped up portrait of perfection. Literally, group entrances are elevated from below stage. As the three groups multiply across the stage, the unique flair of costume distinction, designed by Santo Loquasto, is a spectacular visual. Costumes, projections, lighting, moments of tasty eye candy decorate this show. From silhouettes marching to swimmers bathing, the imagery dances to the ragtime.

And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime. Giving the nation a new syncopation.  The people called it Ragtime!’

Paralleling life’s happenstance, my performance had some twists not necessarily planned. There seemed to be an issue with lighting up the solo singers in the first few scenes. A momentary blip broke the backdrop illusion with a ‘Microsoft word computer screen’ projection. Initially, the audio seemed hollow. I was uncertain if it was a microphone or acoustic issue. It either cleared up or my engrossment made it a moot point. All in all, this production was amazing. It left me reinforced that a gesture of kindness changes life’s courses and bewildered about men’s obsessions with cars.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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Review: Marriott Theatre’s “Hairspray”

Marriott Lincolnshire brings the beat and never stops

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Marriott Theatre presents:

Hairspray

by Marc Shaiman, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
directed/choreographed by Marc Robin
thru December 6th (but tickets)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Hairspray4 The genius of Hairspray is its pulse; when the show starts moving it never slows down, a feat accomplished by the retro rock n’ roll stylings of Marc Shaiman’s music and a hilarious but socially conscious book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Exquisitely directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, Marriott Lincolnshire’s Hairspray captures the limitless energy of the early 60’s with the kind of finesse that makes it all look so easy.

Not enough can be said about Robin’s creative prowess, seamlessly maneuvering his actors around the tricky stage of Marriott’s in-the-round theater. When all 29 actors in the cast perform the show’s final number to all four sides of the house, the rush is exhilarating. Of course, it helps that Robin is assisted by a cast of the city’s top musical theater talent and Chicago newcomer Marissa Perry, who comes straight from Broadway where she played the fifth and final Tracy Turnblad.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, Hairspray tells the story of spunky teenager Tracy’s mission to become a star on “The Corny Collins Show” and date hunky Link Larkin (Billy Harrigan Tighe) while overcoming her overprotective mother Edna (Ross Lehman) and the bitchy Barbie mother-daughter duo of Velma and Amber Von Tussle (Hollis Resnick, Johanna McKenzie Miller). When the dance moves Tracy learns from black classmate Seaweed J. Stubbs (Joshua Breckenridge) in detention make her Baltimore’s hottest sensation, she sets out to integrate her favorite television show with the help of best friend Penny Pingleton (Heidi Kettenring) and Seaweed’s brassy mother Motormouth Maybelle (E. Faye Butler).

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Perry is pitch-perfect as the show’s protagonist, and she brings an infectious energy to the stage that not only spreads to her costars, but the audience as well. When she squeaks out the first notes of the show’s opening number “Good Morning Baltimore” there is no doubt that this is a role that fits her like a glove. The powerhouse vocals and amazing comedic timing of Butler and Kettenring make their scenes with Perry crackle with energy, and watching Lehman’s Edna burst out of her shell and embrace her buxom beauty is heartwarming. Breckenridge gives Seaweed an unbridled sensuality that adds a layer of grit to his dirty dancing, (but there were moments when his vocals paled in comparison to his costars). Marriott’s Hairspray is musical theater at its finest, and should not be missed.

Rating: ««««

 

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