Review: “bare: a pop opera” (Refuge Theatre Project)

The cast of "bare: a pop opera"/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
The cast of “bare: a pop opera”/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

Show: bare: a pop opera

Company: Refuge Theatre Project

Venue:  Epworth United Methodist Church (5253 N Kenmore)

Die Roll: 4

I’ve seen almost every show that Refuge Theatre Project has done since its inception.  I say that as a critic, not at a fan.  That is, until this newest show, which has converted me toward being the latter.  This is a relatively young group what produces theatre aimed at very young people and has historically done so with a glaring lack of experience or practiced skill.  Yet, there has been a major change.  This work, this effort, this piece of theatre is a solid one that elevates Refuge Theatre Project into the artistic neighborhood of other young and really good groups that are also making Edgewater their home. Bravo!  They’ve come into their own, and now it is time for them to shine.

Chris Ratliff, Molly Coleman, Ryan Armstrong/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
Chris Ratliff, Molly Coleman, Ryan Armstrong/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

“bare: a pop opera” is just what it claims to be: operatic in structure, but featuring music best suited for the more nasal, throttled boy-band style of singing that permeates both current popular music and more modern Broadway pieces.  It is more a musical without any talking than an opera, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks substance.  It is actually chock full of thoughtful exploration of deep issues that confront the youth of today, and any of us who interact with those youths.

Billed as an exploration of “sexuality, sexual identity, and the role of the church” in their press materials, the show is all of those things.  It also delves into issues of trust, communication, denial, parenting, leadership, drug use, popularity and ostracism.  This is a meaty evening of theatre.

Director Matt Dominguez chose wisely when he opted to present this production within the walls of an actual church.  With very little added effort, the setting is easily taken to be a private Catholic boarding school’s auditorium and dorms.  And, it is a wonderful space for singing.  The architecture allows for a wonderful mix of voices and instrumentation.  Which brings me to one of the things that always pleases me about Refuge Theatre Project’s work.  Their pit orchestra is always phenomenal.  The company’s regular music director, Mike Evans, is clearly their ace in the hole.

To sum up the plot quickly, “bare: a pop opera” is about Jason (Chris Ratliff) a popular boy who all the girls adore, but who is actually in a relationship with his male roommate, Peter (Lewis Rawlinson).  Peter is the primary driving force behind the story as he attempts to get Jason to be more public about their relationship.  The boys both get cast in the school’s production of “Romeo and Juliet”:  Jason as Romeo and Peter as Mercutio.  Ivy (Molly Coleman), a young woman who wants to jump Jason’s bones gets cast as Juliet, and an awkward love triangle develops.  Rather, a love trapezoid, for Matt (Ryan Armstrong) is not only the campus stick-in-the-mud, he’s also in love with Ivy.  The kids are advised in their times of need by a Priest (Shaun Baer) and the director of the play, Sister Chantelle (Nikki Greenlee).

Ryan Armstrong, Shaun Baer, Lewis Rawlinson/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith
Ryan Armstrong, Shaun Baer, Lewis Rawlinson/Photo: Laura Leigh Smith

As the adults in this show, Baer and Greenlee, bring a sense of calm wisdom to the stage.  Their gravitas provides an anchor to which the passions of the youths can be moored.  Things take a turn for the dark side of life, after many small dark spots have already been revealed.  Life is hard, especially for the young, passionate, and confused.  The show drives relentlessly toward an inevitable and foreseeable end.

While this could easily be a piece in which the characters are paper-thin two-dimensional representations in order to make a point, instead they are well fleshed out and the actors/singers all do a nice job of embracing the many layers that they are given to work with.  Most major characters have an aria/ballad which allows us to see inside their motivations.  My one disappointment is that the Priest did not get a solo piece of his own.  That one character’s inner story is neglected, and would likely inform much of the interaction he has with the others.

In the past, I have seen Refuge Theatre Project as a group that needed some time to mature into something better.  They’ve always had enthusiasm and dedication to their product.  I’d now have to say that they’ve made it through their artistic adolescence, and while they still produce shows about being young, they no longer seem hampered by their own early-career hurdles.  This is a solid piece of work that will serve as a foundation for many great shows to come.  I see it as their coming out party, in as many ways as you’d like to take that phrase.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Coming of age pop opera marks young group’s own maturity.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Apartment 3A” (Windy City Playhouse)

Dan Smith and Eleni Pappageorge/Photo by Michael Brosilow
Daniel Smith and Eleni Pappageorge/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Show: Apartment 3A

Company: Windy City Playhouse

Venue:  Windy City Playhouse

Die Roll: 12

My first career was in broadcasting.  My first post-college full-time job was as a development associate for a public radio station in Iowa.  So, when I see a play about a character who is in charge of the on-air fundraising effort of a Midwestern public television station, I have instant empathy for their plight.  Jeff Daniels’ play  “Apartment 3A” captures the quiet desperation and the emphatic passion of one woman who is charged with raising the funds to keep Big Bird alive while her own life falls apart around her.

Annie (Eleni Pappageorge) starts the play looking for a new home because she’s been cheated upon and summarily dumped.  After giving the titular apartment a rushed, cursory perusal, she agrees to rent what the landlord (Peter Defaria) describes as the best apartment in the building.  We don’t get to see much of that apartment.  What we do get to see is the random visits of an entertaining neighbor named Donald (Daniel Smith) who takes an interest in improving Annie’s life.  Don’t mistake his interest in Annie as romantic.  Donald is more than happily married.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t romance in Annie’s life.  Her co-worker Elliot (José “Tony” García) has held a torch for Annie for years and now that he has the opportunity, he’s making his (rather awkward) move.

This show basically comes down to being a romantic comedy with a bit of magical realism thrown in for good measure.  The script is consistently funny and just quirky enough to keep the audience guessing as to what is coming next.  Some of the scenes are cleverly written to allow for Annie to be in a scene with one character while commenting on the same scene to another character.  It is an interesting convention, and it makes for some fun banter and word play.

Eleni Pappageorge and Jose "Tony" Garcia/photo: Michael Brosilow
Eleni Pappageorge and Jose “Tony” Garcia/photo: Michael Brosilow

This show succeeds on many levels, but the most successful is director Ron OJ Parson’s casting.  Pappageorge starts out cold and difficult to warm up to.  That may sound like a criticism, but it really isn’t.  That’s the character of Annie in a nutshell.  She’s job focused and puts up walls around her personal life.  Pappageorge captures that wounded yet ambitious personal perfectly.  More impressive is the casting of the men in the piece.  One might assume that the parts were originally written for this ensemble.  Smith, Garcia, and Defaria are all spot on and create characters that are more real than reality, even when they are in unreal situations.  The final cog in this well-oiled machine is Wardell Julius Clark in the role of Tony.  Tony is a technician, most likely a board engineer at the studio where Elliott and Annie work.  Back in the mid-90s I worked with a lot of guys like Tony.  Clark doesn’t have a lot of stage time, but he perfectly captures the vibe that surrounds that person in real life.  Parson’s cast is what makes this play sing to me.  I ache for Elliot as he pursues the woman of his dreams.  I conk my head each time Annie doesn’t see what’s going on directly in front of her.  I nod as I absorb Donald’s wisdom.  And I smile knowingly as Tony attempts to keep the show going amid chaos.

I am once again impressed with the level of creative excellence that crosses the stage at Windy City Playhouse.  I’ve yet to see a show there that doesn’t come up to an elevated level of production quality.  Now, with that being said, this script isn’t a masterpiece.  It is a fun and enjoyable evening that makes it worth getting out there to see a play despite the myriad possible alternatives right now.  While the production isn’t life-altering, it did transport me for a couple of hours filled with laughter and a few tears.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Love is the reason public broadcasters do what they do.

DICE RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Naperville” (Theater Wit)

29350749946_3d1c3a7935_kShow: “Naperville”

Company: Theater Wit

Venue: Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Every major metropolitan area has a suburb where the nouveau riche congregate.  That suburb’s name is often then embraced as a code word for self-important, ostentatious, absurdly materialistic, terrible people.  Making fun of the people from such a place is a safe bet in comedy, especially within the borders of their proximate urban center. Really, it’s comedic low-hanging fruit. So, it is with great pleasure that I can tell you that I was surprised that isn’t the tack taken by Mat Smart’s “Naperville”, currently playing at Theater Wit.

This is a play about people in a Caribou Coffee shop (remarkably well rendered by Joe Schermoly).  It is a play about new beginnings in a place where one normally has to be established to fit in.  But, where one man long ago decided to try for a new beginning of his own.  For anyone who has spent any time in the Naperville area, the name of Joseph Naper is a familiar one.  After all, the town is named for him.  And his new beginning—shifting from life as a shipwright to that of a farmer, townsman—is held as an allegory for her own life by one of the show’s primary characters, Anne (Abby Pierce).

29385040455_2351eeb03c_kThe play kicks off when Anne, a recently divorced woman recording a podcast, meets TC (Andrew Jessop) who is the new manager of the Caribou.  TC is desperate to not lose this newly acquired job.  Going through his day from one nervous twitch to the next, TC encounters Candice (Laura T. Fisher) and her son Howard (Mike Tepeli) who are dealing with the fact that Candice is newly blind and stubbornly refusing her son’s assistance.  Charlie Strater plays the last of the five characters to enter the scene: an evangelical Christian named Roy whose life isn’t necessarily in a new place on his own, but who is newly a part of each of the lives of the others.

28761036724_8a71ad5a9e_kDirector Jeremy Wechsler’s approach to the script is one that makes a light slice-of-life comedy one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.  It is simple, direct, and completely truthful to the situation.  The characters talk directly to one another, so the actors do just that.  These are the people you would meet in a suburban coffee chain store.  They aren’t on epic journeys.  They are each dealing with the little troubles that life throws their way, or that they have brought upon themselves.  Wechsler’s cast is extreme adept at capturing the quiet desperation in which they are all living.

I find it intriguing and worthwhile that Smart’s characters are all likeable, but only up to a point.  His writing makes me care about Anne and Howard.  But he strategically places some of their most glaring flaws out in the open as well.  It is easily seen that they are not good people.  None of the folks in this show are.  Even Roy, who goes through most of the show as an inexplicably good version of a born-again Christian (lacking any of the hypocrisy that is often associated with those who adopt that label), eventually fails us as he is part of the force that ruins TC’s day/life with very little concern for the barista’s well being.

This is a play that creates hope in the heart of the viewer, only to dash it and then build it up into something better.  That’s the way one begins anew.  That is what this play is about.  And the audience gets to go on that journey over and over again with this crew of five on a voyage of discovery into what makes real life so inherently dramatic.  I cannot recommend this show enough.  It is well-crafted in every aspect.  The writing is really good.  The design work is amazing.  The directing and acting are the real deal.  All the way around it’s tremendous.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: If Hell is other people, then so might be Heaven.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

Review: “Sister Cities” (Chimera Ensemble)

sister3Show: “Sister Cities”

Company: Chimera Ensemble

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 1

At first glance, Colette Freedman’s play “Sister Cities” seems to be the perfect offering from a company such as Chimera Ensemble which is “dedicated to being storytellers that explore human behavior” (according to the About Chimera Ensemble section of their press kit).  This play is a close look at the interactions of five women, four of whom are sisters–the remaining woman, their mother.  Mary (the mother, played by Chimera’s artistic director Rainee Denham) is dying or is dead, depending on which part of the play is being witnessed at the time.  Her daughters have assembled in the aftermath of Mary’s death to hold a wake of sorts and to deal with the details that surround the apparent suicide of a family member.

sister2Accusations, love, hate, and grief all fly about the scene as one might expect, especially once it is made clear that Austin (Nicole Fabbri) has assisted in Mary’s suicide.  Austin is the second oldest daughter, and the one who came back home to be with her mother during her struggle with ALS.  This play is full of potentially heavy and intense topics and moments.  With the right nuances it can be very powerful.  Sadly, director Ashley Neal’s cast often missed the nuances that would have made this play a brilliant study of human behavior.  In attempting to delve deeply into the behaviors and relationships of women in a time of family crisis, the production has only succeeded in showing a surface level awkwardness that is present in most real-life interactions.  You know, the ones you would never consider putting on stage because they are just real enough to be painful to watch.

I really want to like this play.  It’s an attempt to explore some heavy issues and topics: assisted suicide, hereditary illnesses, nature v. nurture, birth order politics, the importance of chosen family, the affects of ALS on a person and their kin, the differences between legality and morality, and how we deal with grief.  The problem is that by listing them out just as I did, I came close to how effectively the play touches on each as well.  We receive a cursory glossing of the issues at hand, but never a real exploration of any of them.  Freedman’s script takes a buckshot approach to hitting as many of the targets as possible.  She doesn’t make a direct hit on any of them.  What I find missing is the answer to the question, what is at stake here?  It seems to me that what is at stake is Austin’s need to be understood and forgiven by her siblings for having guided her mother’s hands in slitting her wrists.  However, if that is the case, then the show could have been directed differently to focus on that through-line.  If that isn’t crux of the play, then it really is unclear what it could otherwise be.  Perhaps that has to be found between the lines.  If so, then the playwright has placed an unfair burden upon the producing company to improve her work to a level that it shines.

No matter wherein lies the flaw, the play suffers from a disconnect between the seriousness of its myriad topics and the intensity of focus laid upon them.  I came away from the play thinking about the issues within the play, but still somehow not having any emotional investment in what I’d just seen.  I hunger for an empathetic link to the material that brings me into closer contact with moments of intense human behavior.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Did these four sisters grow up together? Doesn’t seem so.

DICE RATING: d8– “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “The Good Person of Szechwan” (COR Theatre)

Will Von Vogt, Michael Buono/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Will Von Vogt, Michael Buono/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Show: “The Good Person of Szechwan”

Company: COR Theatre

Venue: A Red Orchid Theatre

Die Roll: 4

Some plays reflect the time in which they are written.  With translated plays, they will often reflect the original time and culture, as well as the culture of the translator and the time at which the work was translated.  So, this version of “The Good Person of Szechwan” by Bertolt Brecht and translated by Tony Kushner is a work that crosses times and cultures to address the question of what is it that makes a person good.

Director Ernie Nolan takes the act of translation a step further and crosses gender lines in his casting.  From the moment lights come up it is clear that this production is both a reflection of our world and a altered version of it.  Wang the Waterseller (Dawn Bless) takes the stage to tell us what life is like in this part of Szechwan.  Wang is a street savvy huckster with a good heart, but isn’t the titular good person.  No, that’s Shen Te (Will Von Vogt), the town’s notorious lady of the evening.  When three gods come to town, she is the only one to take them in and give them a place to stay.

Isabella Karina Coelho, Michael Buono and Dawn Bless/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Isabella Karina Coelho, Michael Buono and Dawn Bless/Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

If one watches this play looking for answers as to what makes a good person, the answers found aren’t easy.  Is it what is in your heart that makes you a good person?  Somewhat.  Are your deeds what make you good?  Somewhat.  But, throughout the story, neither option is really the end-all/be-all.

What does become apparent is how someone who is trying to be good can easily be taken advantage of.  When the gods give Shen Te some funding as compensation for their lodging, she is able to buy herself a business and also provide charity to those in need.

This production is a thinker and a feeler.  Days later I am still pondering everything I saw, and in the moments of the show I was hit with waves of empathy for Shen Te’s plight, as well as anger toward those who would disabuse her and the a sense of victory when her plans went well.  The lighting and soundscape were integral parts of an immersive experience that dragged me into the world of the show despite some very Brechtian moments that pointed out that I was watching a play.  Kudos to Claire Chrzan and Matt Reich for their respective designs.

The show has a large supporting cast, and across the board they were stellar.  Most played multiple roles and every one was well defined and contributed strongly to the overall picture created by the tale.

I was solidly impressed by this work.  It is what theatre ought to be: a piece that calls upon us to look at ourselves and the world around us; a piece that challenges us to be better; a piece that looks at the very essence of what it would mean to be better, in the first place.  Well done, COR Theatre.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Beaten down by the world, the good can rise again.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Now. Here. This.” (Brown Paper Box Co.)

NHTPosterShow: Now. Here. This.

Company: Brown Paper Box Co.

Venue: Rivendell Theatre

Die Roll: 11

No matter how objective a critic tries to be, one does have one’s favorites.  A little theatre company called Brown Paper Box Co. is one of mine.  They consistently produce shows that are sharply directed, with solid production values despite their obviously smaller budgets.  They get good people to work with them, and they are committed to putting up worthwhile theatre. I like them.  Last year, Brown Paper Box Co. was responsible for one of my top 5 shows of the year.

So, when I saw that I would be taking in their newest production, that said production would include 3 of the 4 cast members of last year’s “[title of show]”, and that it would be a show by the same creative team as that stellar work from the year before, I was excited.

Now, it seems somewhat unfair to compare one production directly to another, for they are separate pieces of art.  And, there is nowhere within the script or the publicity materials that the two plays should be seen as being directly related.  But, the four characters are the same.  They are clearly the same autobiographical representations of the four people who originated “[title of show]”.  In fact, unlike that first piece, one of the women is even credited as one of the writers of “Now. Here. This.”

I’ll do my best from here on out to write only about the show that I saw this go-’round.  But, know in advance that I will fail at that endeavor.  That is largely because this play is essentially a prequel/sequel of sorts.  This play is the answer to the unasked question of ‘How did the characters in “[title of show]” become who they are?’

The conceit of this show is that Jeff–I’m sorry… Man 1–has gathered his friends to go to the Museum of Natural History with him.  Several vignettes are seen within the confines of the hallowed halls of the museum, which then trigger flashbacks or philosophical examinations of self.  Each of these is accomplished in song.  If I break it down to its most simple, this isn’t a play (as it lacks plot).  It is a song cycle with a relatively flimsy framing device.

Had I never seen last year’s show, I would have been basically just unimpressed with the tale and wondered why I should care about these people in a situation that has nothing at stake.  Instead, because I’d met these characters before and I fell in love with them the first time, I was all the more disappointed.  Clearly, I am meant to care about these people, and I do, but only because I’ve met them in a previous work.  But I care about them in the way that a parent still cares for a child with whom they’ve recently become very disappointed.  I still love them, but I’m not terribly proud of their recent actions.

Now, I must take a moment to point out that I’m talking about the characters within the play in the paragraph above.  The actors did a phenomenal job with the material they were given.

Susan (I’m sorry… Woman 1), played by Neala Barron, has the best scenes and carries the show.  Her contributions to the work are clearly the strongest.  And Barron continues to be one of my favorite voices on the Chicago stage over the past two years.  Matt Frye (Hunter…I mean Man 2) does an admirable turn as the more random of the two men who write musicals together.  And Anna Schutz (Woman 2, who will otherwise be known as Heidi) brings a fun energy to the character of a successful NYC actress.

And director M. William Panek clearly made the most out of what was on the page.  But, the script itself gave no reason to embrace these people in this time and space.  The group putting on the show do a great deal of good work.  They are merely hampered by a script that doesn’t have a driving through line.  They are held back by songs that don’t stick in the memory once the final notes ring out, let alone after you’ve left the building.  Their wings are clipped by a concept that never fully develops.

Sometimes, after a really good story, the reader (or the audience) asks about what happens next.  And sometimes a sequel is written to tell the further tale.  And sometimes the end is left as the end, wherein the reader has to imagine the future for themselves.  Almost universally, when a good story is told, there is no one asking to be told the particulars of what had gone before.

In the final scene, a philosophic pondering results in our receiving the wisdom contained within the title, and we wonder if we had to sit through the rest in order to reach this pearl of existential thought, and if so, why?

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This is a prequel nobody ever asked for or wanted.

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”

Weekly Preview: August 10 – August 16 (Chart & Brief Thoughts)

Grab your dice and roll!  Go see a show!!!
Grab your dice and roll! Go see a show!!!

We’re still a couple of weeks away from the really big opening weekends that come with the fall theatre season.  Nevertheless, the chart is full and there are some great shows to see.  The ladies have the week off, so I’m the only one reviewing this week.  It’s clearly still summer vacation.  We’ve got big things coming up, though.

I normally avoid talking about my own projects in depth on this site, but I do want to tease something coming up in just over a month.  The Illinois Theatre Association’s Awards Gala and Membership Meeting on September 17 & 18.  I’m going to periodically post what’s going on with regards to that as it approaches.

That’s pretty much it for this week.  I’ve been (and am still) sick, so I really don’t have the energy to write more right now.

Review: “Newsies” (Broadway in Chicago)

newsies imageShow: Newsies

Company: Broadway in Chicago

Venue:  Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W Randolph St.)

Die Roll: 18

There is a certain chunk of the population that is really into the early 90s Disney movie “Newsies”.  If you were in your formative (read: tween/teen) years during the Clinton administration, you may have a fond spot for this musical.  My wife is part of that generational subset.  I am not.  Nevertheless, though nostalgia isn’t the driving force behind my view of the stage version of “Newsies”, I do find it to be a well-rendered show with high production values.

Most of this show follows the plot of the movie, but if you are unfamiliar with it, I’ll break it down for you quickly.  A greedy businessman charges kids money to sell his papers.  He then raises the amount he charges them to sell his papers.  The kids get angry, get together, and form an impromptu union and go on strike.  They get some press and then they get beat up.  They lose their faith, get it back.  Take bigger action, publish their own paper, and make friends with Teddy Roosevelt.  In the movie, all but one of the significant characters was played by a man or boy.  In the play, two significant characters aren’t male.

The tale is that of charming rapscallion and newspaper vendor, Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) who longs for a better life than being a street urchin.  He’s the leader of the lower Manhattan newsies.  That’s not any sort of official group, the other kids just look up to him.  Most of the boys are down on their luck, and so they sell papers to get survival cash.  When Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and Les (a 10 year-old character played on alternating nights by Turner Birthisel and Ethan Steiner) join the ranks of the paper sellers, the seeds are sown for a mini street rebellion.  But their noble struggle against the capitalist baddies couldn’t be anything of any regard without the interference of an ambitious young reporter (Morgan Keene playing the gender-swapped Bill Pullman role from the film).  The fact that their reporter/savior is a pretty, young woman helps move a second plot along… enter the love story.  Jack falls for Keene’s character Katherine, who just happens to also be the daughter of the man whose paper he’s striking against.  Hilarity ensues.

Well, really, it doesn’t.

The show, while an energetic musical, doesn’t pretend to be a raucous comedy.  Sure, there are points of levity, but also some major tear-jerking moments.  The cast is pretty solid, and the performances carry a serious tone that makes it clear that this is a piece with something to say.  So, what is it trying to say?

As I watched this show, I was never really sucked into it.  A really successful show will make me forget that I’m there to critique the performance.  Instead, I found my mind wandering to the elements that I was seeing on stage.  This play is about the value of unionization.  It’s “The Cradle Will Rock” for the younger set.   It is a piece that points to the ills of a broken system of business and society, that mirrors our own.  And yet, it is a show that is produced by one of the largest corporations in our country.  This is a show that flies in the face of most current theatrical trends.  The cast is huge, even with plentiful doubling of the smaller roles.  There are almost no women in the show, and (relevant to current conversations in the Chicago market) has very few minority cast members. The product is a white bread sausage-fest that still attempts to appeal to the classic liberal underdog mentality of a need for social justice.  Would I have noticed this if the show was more engaging?  Probably, but I also would’ve made a couple of snarky comments about it and addressed the thoughts more privately.  Instead, the inconsistencies within the show itself allowed me to ponder the ones that are there within the production as well.

Basically, this is a cultural anomaly that I can’t really wrap my head around.  It’s a well produced show, but not really a great show.  The dancing is generally good, although not all of the dancers have the skills to pull of the choreography.  The two black members of the cast are two of the most memorable: Aisha De Haas makes the stage her own as Medda Larkin, and every dance number in the show seems to be a showcase for Jordan Samuels’ gymnastics abilities.

I really wanted this to be a stellar show.  The movie came out during my Freshman year in college.  It never really resonated with me, but I was thrilled that someone had made a movie musical at the time.  Sadly, this isn’t the musical that I was looking for then.  It still isn’t.  In the day and age of “Hamilton”, this isn’t rising to a higher level.  And in a market currently dealing with all sorts of internal conflict over race and gender in casting, this isn’t a play for the people within the theatre community itself.  In truth it is for the suburban 30-somethings who are now raising children of their own and who would like to capture a little of the magic of their own young adulthood.  There were some teens and a few 30-somethings in what amounted to “Newsies” cosplay in the audience on opening night.

I guess, my main hope is that the audience may have gleaned a bit of the progressive (if anachronistic) message of the tale.  Sometimes disguising an important message in a remarkably safe package can plant seeds for later growth.  Perhaps this play will get some safely comfortable consumers of nostalgia to look at the issues the play brings up.  But, I doubt it will come to that.  In the meantime, the lines are really long for the CDs and souvenir ornaments in the lobby.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Perfect for its target audience. 90s kids should be pleased.

DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”

Weekly Preview: August 3 – August 9, 2016

Twenty shows that are listed in no particular order and numbered 1 - 20!
Twenty shows that are listed in no particular order and numbered 1 – 20!

You may have noticed that is has been many weeks since we have had a preview article here on “Theatre By Numbers”.  That’s largely because I (Chris) took most o the summer off.  My daughter was in town, and that prompted me to take in minor league baseball games rather than plays.  So, most of the summer’s writing has been done by Maggie and Sarah.  Anyway… you’ll see some changes happening over the next few weeks on this site.  The first few take effect today.  We’re back to doing a weekly preview article.  It will still include the week’s chart so you can roll along at home and see some wonderfully random theatre.

It will also be written by all of us.  Not all at once, mind you.  We’ll take turns shedding light on upcoming theatre projects that have captured our interest and our imaginations.  So, this week you get my thoughts, next week you’ll hear from someone else, or perhaps multiple folks.  We might tag-team.  You never know.

Also, we’ll be overhauling the site.  I noticed a while ago that all the side articles and explanations are now out of date.  So, watch to see the new look and new verbiage in the near future.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the two projects that I want to preview this week:

Zealous Whig (Pursuit Productions & Fratellanza Theater Company):  8/5 – 8/7

for_colin_unedited-100 (1)A couple of weeks ago, people sat in line for hours upon hours to get tickets to a huge Broadway production about some of our country’s founding fathers.  Here’s your chance to see an intimate production about one of the lesser known, but nevertheless important political players of the day.

You may remember that the French had their hand in the war between the Colonies and England.  You may also remember that the Hessian troops that fought on the side of the Redcoats were from Germany.  What you probably don’t remember is the name of a guy who was besties with Thomas Jefferson, and who provided much of the firepower that made the armed part of the Colonies’ armed insurrection possible.  That man was Filippo Mazzei, an Italian doctor who had a passion for gardening and politics.

Paul Manganello writes and performs the energetic one-man show that focuses on the “black-sheep founding father”.  Not unlike Jefferson’s own attempts to be a remarkably well-rounded Renaissance man, this promises to be “funny, poetic, kinetic, subversive, fictional, and completely true”.

The show can only be seen this weekend.  There are four performances at Collaboraction (1579 N Milwaukee Ave, 3rd Floor).  Check out www.pursuitchicago.com for more information.

A Fun Night of Dance (Off the Ground Dance Studio & StarKid Producitons): 8/5

funnightofdanceA few weeks ago I reviewed “Firebringer” by StarKid Productions.  That show wraps up this weekend, so if you want to catch it, you should swing by Stage 773 and try to get one of their very scarce tickets.  And, if you go on the 5th, you should then loiter about a bit and hang around to take in part of StarKid’s Summer Season Late-Nights.  Really, what could be more fun than “A Fun Night of Dance”?  I mean, it’s right there in the title of the event.  It’s going to be fun!  And… it’s one more way to see the ladies of StarKid in action again.  The show is at 10:30 p.m.  And when it comes down to it, anything produced and endorsed by the folks at StarKid gets my vote, too.  Check it out!

Review: “Firebringer” (StarKid Productions)

Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Tiffany Williams, Lauren Lopez, Rachael Soglin, Denise Donovan, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Tiffany Williams, Lauren Lopez, Rachael Soglin, Denise Donovan, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

Show: Firebringer

Company: StarKid Productions

Venue: Stage 773

Die Roll: 4

The experience of a StarKid show starts in the lobby.  The place isn’t decorated, or thematically connected to the show.  It’s not immersive in that way.  However, because of the energy that permeates the place from about an hour prior to curtain, it’s worth showing up a bit early.  My daughter and I arrived for the show 50 minutes prior to curtain and there was already a line fifteen to twenty people deep.  That line wasn’t at the theatre door.  These were folks who already had their tickets and who were now eagerly, if not aggressively waiting to purchase tank tops and other swag from the StarKid productions kiosk in the lobby of Stage 773.  Now in their 7th successful year of combining live theatre with YouTube stardom, the company has throngs of fans between the ages of 15 and 25.  When I told my daughter (who usually resides in Minnesota) which show we would be attending this week, she filled me in on the history of the company and made me watch a few segments of their first Harry Potter-themed hit online.  So, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the audience is young and excited.  And, while youth can never really be recaptured, their exuberance was easily caught.

So it was that I went into the Proscenium stage ready for something big.  And, what I expected, I received.  “Firebringer” is a rock musical about a tribe of cave people comprised largely of individuals who seem most likely to be left far behind in the race for survival.  None of them seem to be the “fittest”, to be sure.  But all that changes when one of their own discovers fire and rocks the then-known world to its core.

Meredith Stepien, Lauren Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Meredith Stepien, Lauren Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

The show is narrated by a past leader of the tribe, Molag (Lauren Walker), a staff-toting combination of Rafiki (“The Lion King”) and Slappy the Squirrel (“Animaniacs”).  It is her snarky wisecracks and blunt insults which set the tone for the show.  Walker’s energy and comedic chops help create the world of the play instantly.  Her self-aware presentation allows for a brilliant combination of story-telling and social commentary.  From her first time addressing the audience as “privileged fucks”, you know she’s not going to pull any punches.

Molag’s replacement as leader of the cave people is Jemilla (played by the charismatic Meredith Stepien, who also co-wrote the show’s music). Jemilla is known as “The Peacemaker” and rules an orderly society.  Not everyone is happy, though.  Zazzalil (Lauren Lopez) strives to do more in order to do less.  She is motivated to accomplish big things so that eventually all people can be lazy.  She somehow lucks into finding fire, and defeating a prehistoric monster, which leads to her assent to the role of chief in the tribe.

All of that happens before the intermission.  It’s a fast-moving, tightly scripted piece, and the energy is electric.  The script itself is a bit campy and far too dependent on the shock humor of hearing people say “fuck” a lot.  But, the production quality is really high.  And the dancing and singing are top notch for a storefront production.  Only one song has the familiar sound of a piece searching for the right notes like so many local (and mostly improvised) musicals do.  The rest have solid melodies, harmonies, and even clever rhyme schemes.  The set was simple, but effective.  The band was great, if a little too loud at times.  Russ Walko’s puppets are impressive works of art, and Yonit Olshan’s shadow puppets create a suspenseful sequence in the middle of the show.

Denise Donovan, Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions
Denise Donovan, Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Holden, Joseph Walker/Photo courtesy of StarKid Productions

The whole thing is greater than the sum of its parts, and it has a lot of parts.  The action flits around from scene to scene, and yet the audience follows along well.  It all seems geared for the quick edit style of those raised on modern television.  One scene takes place in the wilderness, the next at an impromptu open mic night, then it’s back to the cave for a duck-worshiping ceremony.  It’s all a bit ridiculous, which makes it all the more fun.

For a group that normally lampoons major works of pop culture, it is cool to see them do something wholly original.  The cast gets it completely right, and the audience leaves one hundred percent enamored with the show.  The high energy that entered the theater two hours earlier, leaves still energized and positive.  And still wanting more of the company’s swag.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Smart snark and pop rock sent from the stone age.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”