Review: The Original Grease (American Theater Company)

  
  

Now extended through August 21st!!

 

This show %#&*ing rocks!

  
  

(L to R) Carol Rose, Tony Clarno, Jessica Diaz, Robert Colletti, Kelly Davis Wilson, Adrian Aguilar and Tyler Ravelson in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

  
American Theater Company presents
   
The Original Grease
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by PJ Paparelli
at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $45-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Foul-mouthed, raunchy, and absolutely not for children (although I’d think my parents were the coolest if they took me to this), American Theater Company’s The Original Grease is how Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s classic musical was meant to be seen. Forget the Bee Gees and the Australian accents, this Grease is northwest Chicago all the way, and ATC’s production takes pride in its urban heritage, presenting a grittier, yet still effervescently youthful Rydell High Class of 1960. What surprised me most about The Original Grease wasn’t the profanity or sexual explicitness, but how much more of an ensemble piece the stage version is than the movie. Sandy (Kelly Davis Wilson) and Danny (Adrian Aguilar) romance is the spine of the plot, but the relationships between the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies are fleshed out considerably. Minor characters like Patty Simcox (Alaina Mills) and Miss Lynch (Peggy Roeder) even get their own solos.

Adrian Aguilar and Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerThe show begins at the Class of 1960’s 50-year reunion, where a gleeful/wasted Patricia Simcox Honeywell (Susan Fay) invites the audience to take a trip down memory lane with a slide show of nostalgic Chicago locales that seques into the main action of the play in 1959. Shout outs to Palmer House, Carson’s, and Jewel root the show firmly in Chicago, and “Foster Beach” replaces “Summer Nights” as the recap of Sandy and Danny’s summer tryst. The new (old?) emphasis on the city firmly establishes the setting, but also alters the dynamic within the group of high schoolers. You get the impression that these are kids that have grown up together for most of their lives, and Sandy Dumbrowski’s transformation becomes less of a unique experience, but more of a typical teenage transformation as a way to fit in.

Above all else, The Original Grease succeeds because of the friendship cultivated among the group, a sense of camaraderie that climaxes in a spectacular a cappella arrangement of “We Go Together” at the end of Act One. As the gang pounds beer and passes cigarettes in the Cook County Forest Preserve they break into the film’s closing number, and the nonsensical lyrics have a different impact when they are the drunk ramblings of a group of teenagers. I’m a sucker for rain on stage, so the end of the number his all the right notes, and the ensemble’s unaccompanied vocals blend flawlessly. I wish that Sandy were in the number so Willis could add her brassy vocals to the song, but it’s just another way The Original Grease makes the audience encourage Sandy’s transformation.

Willis’ clean-cut appearance suggest the naïve Sandy that the audience is familiar with, but she shows her character’s fiery side well before her final metamorphosis. The moments where Sandy loses her temper make her change more believable but also make her a worthy opponent for Aguilar, who perfectly captures the lovable asshole vibe of the cocky Danny Zuko. Danny isn’t a very sympathetic character, and he never really pines after Sandy in this production, as “Alone At The Drive-In Movie” is transferred back to it’s original owner Kenickie (Tony Clarno) as a desperate ballad to the absent, potentially pregnant Rizzo (Jessica Diaz). Danny’s change is not about gaining Sandy’s acceptance, and is instead motivated by Danny’s desire to explore his potential.

(L to R) Bubba Weiler, Tyler Ravelson, Robert Colletti, Patrick De Nicola, Adrian Aguilar in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerPJ Paparelli excels at emphasizing the ways these characters leave their childhoods behind, and during Danny’s solo “How Big I’m Gonna Be,” Danny’s ambition forces him to leave the Burger Palace Boys to become the type of man that might be able to escape working in a factory with the same people’s he’s been surrounded by all his life. By the end of the show, each of the main characters has had to deal with an important teenage problem, and walks away having learned a valuable lesson. Frenchy (Jessie Fisher) finds out its hard to follow your dreams without a high school diploma and Rizzo learns the consequences of a broken condom, while Sandy and Danny show two opposite views of the same issue: changing for the one you love. These are the issues that teenagers have dealt with in the past and will continue to face in the future, an idea that is hammered home by Miss Lynch’s “In My Day,” which brings everything around full circle. Presiding over the reunion, Patricia Simcox Honeywell has become Miss Lynch, reminiscing about days gone by that seem like only yesterday.

The cast of The Original Grease is a remarkably gifted group of actors, whose singing and dancing prowess are matched by their comedic and dramatic chops. Diaz’s Rizzo has a nonchalant confidence that makes her a natural leader, and Diaz captures Rizzo’s struggle to keep up her tough appearance during the powerful “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Carol Rose’s sultry Marty is the sexy Pink Lady, and she nails “Freddy My Love,” the doo wop tribute to Marty’s Marine boyfriend during the Pink Ladies sleepover. Fisher’s clueless yet good-intentioned Frenchy is a constant source of comic relief along with the sloppy, silly Jan (Sadieh Rifal), who (L to R) Carol Rose, Jessie Fisher, Kelly Davis Wilson, Sadieh Rifai, Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beinerdevelops an adorable romance with Burger Palace Boy Roger (Rob Colletti).

Among the boys, Tony Clarno gives Kenickie a ferocity that burns through the comic playfulness of his friends, and the aggression he brings to the characters makes his drive-in breakdown an even stronger moment. Patrick De Nicola’s Sonny steals the show, though, as he constantly tries to assume an assertive role in the group but lacks the confidence and competence of alpha males Danny and Kenickie. Sonny’s attempts to be cool constantly blow up in his face, but once he brings Cha-Cha (Hannah Gomez) to the dance, Sonny goes from hilarious to gut-busting. The two have fantastic chemistry, and Gomez’s Cha-Cha is considerably different from the film version and all the better for it, and pairing her up with Sonny instead of Danny is another way that the stage version expands the world of these characters.

The Original Grease is what I’d like Grease to be all the time. These are characters that talk and act like real kids, with real problems that don’t always have easy answers. There are a few balance issues between the actors and the band that prevents the show from being perfect, but it is a must-see for all fans of the musical in all its iterations. At least for those that won’t mind the colorful language and provocative choreography, because those aren’t gear shifts the boys are grabbing at the end of “Greased Lightning.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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REVIEW: Talk Radio (State Theatre)

Small storefront ends its inaugural season with a roar

 

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Production Image 1

   
State Theatre presents
   
Talk Radio
   
Written by Eric Bogosian
Directed by Ross Matsuda
at
Heartland Studio Theater, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through August 15th   | 
tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio premiered in 1987, shock jocks and morning zoo crews dominated the air waves. You couldn’t drive to work without some knucklehead on the dial making crass jokes or belittling his audience. It was sadism and masochism at its most commercial.

Today, the market has changed, but unfortunately not for the better. Radio—now competing for attention with television and the Internet—is threatened to become a relic of the past. And so, to survive, it has tweaked its format. Many of the shock jocks and zoo crews of yesterday couldn’t adapt. But some have evolved into a new beast that is even more vile and wretched than a thousand Howard Sterns. That’s right. The talking head. The political pundit. The Glenn Beck.

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Production Image 2 The play’s antihero is of this Glenn Beck ilk minus the religious piety but with the need to belittle, fear monger and win every argument intact. His name is Barry Champlain (Nathan Randall), and he’s a Cleveland late-night DJ, who as of tomorrow will be going national.

We get a sneak peak into a charged episode of the show. Callers include a 15-year-old pregnant girl whose deadbeat boyfriend skipped town, a woman who is deathly afraid of her garbage disposal and a teenaged burnout whose girlfriend may or may not have just suffered a drug overdose.

Intermittently, between this string of callers, we get a sneak peak inside Barry’s psyche. His colleagues provide brief monologues that detail their relationship with Barry, revealing a confused and deeply disturbed individual who has turned his back on himself only to recede further into the depths of dementia.

As caller after caller chimes in with another fear, question or inane statement, Barry becomes increasingly agitated. Slowly, the radio host begins to question himself and his audience. Is he an entertainer or a public servant? Is he part of the solution or the mouthpiece for the problem?

Talk Radio is only as good as your Barry Champlain. And the State Theatre has found an amazing Champlain in Randall. His performance is unwavering in its callousness and coldness. His eyes are fiery with a flame that is at once both outwardly searing and self-engulfing. This is a character who is consumed by himself, and whose self-vitriol is projected out to millions of listeners. He is not a likeable character, and Randall doesn’t make you like him. But Randall does make you believe in him; that he is real and right in front of you and that you should hate him. And I hated him, which is why I loved Randall’s performance.

The supporting actors all do good work, and Tyler Ravelson, who plays the stoner teenager Kent, deserves to be spotlighted. Growing up in suburbia, I’ve seen my share of dopey doped up teenagers, and I can say that Ravelson’s portrayal is a carbon copy. In addition, there is such a smoothness to his performance, so much so that when Kent suddenly commandeers the in-studio mic, it feels spontaneous and unscripted.

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Nathan Randall and Tyler Ravelson

The production’s only drawback is the play’s use of a video feed during the first half. Rather than sticking with voiceovers for callers, the play’s director, Ross Matsuda, decided to go with a Webcam feed projected on a translucent screen behind Barry. The images are a distraction from the callers’ words, and as an audience member, I want to use my imagination to envision Barry’s listeners.

In a world of 24-hour news cycles that merge editorial with opinion, that live by the motto “If it bleeds, it leads,” that serve less to inform and more to threaten, Talk Radio is a highly relevant piece of drama. Who knows? You may even find some solace in the play because, although Barry Champlain might not embody the solution, his existence at least reveals that others out there know there’s a problem.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Extra Credit:

REVIEW: Girls vs Boys (The House Theatre and AMTP)

Cool atmosphere jilted by annoying show

 

GVB 1

 
The House Theatre and AMTP* presents
 
Girls vs Boys
 
Book/lyrics by Chris Matthews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell and Nathan Allen
Directed by
Nathan Allen
Music directed by
Ethan Deppe
At the
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
thru May 9th  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Break-up vs Kill. If given the consequence-free choice, would you have the uncomfortable conversation with the pending ex or just shoot him? The House Theatre, in partnership with the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University, presents Girls vs Boys. The lives of six teenagers unravel in a party world GVB 3 of drugs, alcohol, sex and guns. George wants to be cool. Casey wants to feel something. Jason wants his old girlfriend. Sam wants her brother’s respect. Kate wants Jason. Lanie wants safe sex. To get what they want, they pop Ritalin, slam beers, screw friends and fire weapons… all while singing and dancing. Girls vs Boys is “High School Musical” vs “Gossip Girl” where disputes are settled in the Wild West way.

Visual vs Audio: From the moment of arrival, the transformed Chopin Theatre is impressive. Collette Pollard has created a rock concert venue complete with mosh pit. Ticket holders are given the opportunity to join the party in the pit standing or take traditional audience seats. The band is visibly housed on the stage. The action will take place in an area extending in front of the band and encircling the pit. The ensemble will mingle with pit people during scenes. The visual is unique and the anticipation is high.

Then the music starts. The band is loud and it’s hard to hear the singing. There are two hand-held microphones shared between the six main characters. Without the hand-held ones, the entire ensemble is reliant on ear pieces that are inconsistent in volume. To compensate, some of the singing is more like screaming. The screechy tunes might not be noticeable in a rock concert but Girls vs Boys is a musical. Or is it?

GVB 8 GVB 2
GVB 7 GVB 9

Musical vs Concert: A musical is a play with songs. A concert is songs and play. Girls vs Boys is watching kids at a concert sing with the band, act impulsively and mess up their relationships. This show has a long playlist with in-between conversations that are predictable and trite. It’s similar to concert moments when the band goes  unplugged with an anecdote between songs. If Girls vs Boys was all about the music, dialogue would disrupt the concert flow. Unfortunately, the tunes GVB 5themselves are not memorable. Although the band jams rock, the singers project pop. The fusion is awkward. Even though the script dialogue is flawed, the excessive number of songs promotes a strong desire to return to discourse. “Say it! Don’t sing it!”

Singing vs Dancing: Girls vs Boys is more like a concert with great back-up dancers. Tommy Rapley has choreographed high energy numbers for the cast to dance their way into exhaustion. Climbing in and out of the pit, the ensemble has synchronized, gun-toting, dramatic vigor. Notably, whenever one of the guys takes drugs, their shirt comes off. It was oddly like a Public Service Announcement saying ‘don’t take drugs. They make you strip!’ The good news is the guys are ripped. The bad news is it feels like any Jason Statham movie where the weaker the script, the more he takes his shirt off. Shockingly, Girls vs Boys, shirts came off and I STILL didn’t love it!

 
Rating: ★½
 

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes included a fifteen minute delayed start and a ten minute intermission

Extra Credit:

  • House’s blog entries on Girls vs Boys
  • Chris Jones lists House’s 2010-2011 Season
  • Girls vs Boys production photos courtesy of John Taflan.

*AMTP = American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University 

 

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Review: Chicago Children’s Theatre’s “The Hundred Dresses”

Hilarious and touching – plus pretty dresses!

 Hundred-Dresses

 

Chicago Children’s Theatre presents:

The Hundred Dresses

by G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert
directed by Sean Graney
extended through November 22nd (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Hundred-Dresses-3 The Hundred Dresses is a pretty show: pretty music, pretty voices, pretty staging, and of course, pretty dresses. The 100 Dresses is also a children’s show. If you don’t get designated nap time or a half hour after lunch to play kickball, then you are probably not the target audience for Chicago Children’s Theatre. Luckily, however, The 100 Dresses is a great show; a musical that speaks to the hearts of anyone that has ever needed a friend.

Wanda Petronski (Lauren Patten) has just immigrated from Poland with her father, and she isn’t the same as the other girls. She speaks with a funny accent, wears the same blue dress to school everyday, and queen bee Peggy (Natalie Berg) just plain doesn’t like her. Caught in the middle is Peggy’s best friend Maddie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), who thinks Wanda is actually kind of nice. The girls start teasing Wanda, and when Wanda tells them that she actually has 100 dresses in her closet at home, the conflict escalates. When the bullying becomes too much, Jan (Kurt Ehrmann), Wanda’s father, pulls her out of the school and everyone involved learns a good lesson about the pain that bullying and teasing causes.

Hundred-Dresses-2 G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert‘s script is straightforward but filled with hilarious jokes and inspirational moments, perfect for the children in the house. Meanwhile, the cast and director Sean Graney have found the serious reality behind the bright dresses and colorful schoolhouse, giving the musical a weight that makes it more than fluff theater that kills an hour of the babysitter’s time. When Peggy talks about how easy it is to get a job or spend hundreds on a dress, the people in the audience that are laughing are the teachers and the parents, not the kids. Adult characters like Jan Petrovski and Miss Mason (Nadirah Bost) are used to ground the world in a mature reality that is probably more hundred-dresses-4 engaging to an older audience. When Miss Mason learns about Wanda’s dead mother, Bost reacts with sympathy and tenderness that travels throughout the theater, warming the viewers to the Patrovski’s plight from the very beginning of the play.

The playwright duo brings the same mix of comedy and warmth to their music and lyrics, and the songs are catchy while still carrying great emotional gravity. “The Hundred Dresses,”  Wanda’s heartbreaking solo where she reminisces about her life in Poland and how girls would dance in the dresses their mothers made, is exquisitely handled by Patten, finding the perfect balance between the joys and pains of youth that captures the tragedy of Wanda’s loss. While the script keeps a fairly light feel throughout, the music has a maturity and fullness that is captivating. When Wanda is absent for many days in a row, Maddie sings “Wanda Petrovski is Missing,” a rollercoaster of a ballad that requires a great belt, amazing diction, and razor sharp acting skills. Luckily, Sheppard is more than up for the task, and Maddie is a lovable protagonist that is easy to relate to.

 

All the actors that make up Wanda’s class of six have great chemistry with one another, and group numbers like “Penny Paddywack” are electric. The company’s voices all blend beautifully, and the melancholy “Passing of Autumn” is a wonderful showcase of their talents. Geoff Rice is adorable as class underdog Jack, whether he is stressing about winning the art contest or helping Maddie makes the right decisions, and Elana Ernst and Tyler Ravelson provide great comic relief two of Wanda’s goofy classmates; Ernst as hilariously airheaded diva Cecile and Ravelson as costumed class clown Willie. 

And the dresses? Costume designer Jacqueline Firkins‘ creations are gorgeous.

Rating: ««««

 

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