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”

Review: “Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams” (MCL Chicago)

Doowop1Show: Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams

Company: MCL Chicago

Venue: MCL Chicago (3110 N Sheffield Ave)

Die Roll: 17

In a city where improvisational comedy can be seen in myriad venues on any given night, it’s difficult to rise above the rest.  That is especially true given the long shadows cast by iO and Second City, which are recognized giants in the field.  Yet, with each production I see as MCL Chicago, I truly believe that this little musical improv theatre is a step above what others are doing in a similar vein.

The latest offering that I was able to take in there was called “Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams”.  The show is partly scripted and partly improvised, both the script and the music… well, at least the lyrics.  The framework upon which this story is stretched is that of a 1960s a cappella quartet.  Sadly, that quartet recently lost a member, so it is now a trio searching for a new lead singer.  In the meantime, the group is called “The Three Skins”.  Well, you can guess what they’ll be called once they find a new high tenor, right?  Not necessarily.  The group’s new name is left up to the audience.  On the night that I took in the show, the audience took the bait and we witnessed the rise and fall of “The Four Skins”, but on other nights the show isn’t quite as replete with as many dick jokes (… a comment I get to make more often than I’d like about MCL shows).

Doowop2Anyway… The quartet with the unfortunate name is actually quite good.  More than quite good, really.  They blend really well, and their renditions of Doo-Wop classics such as “Run Around Sue” and “Calendar Girl” are beautifully done.  But, more notably, even many days after seeing the show, one of the original songs is still stuck in my head.  Now, I’m going to make an assumption that the song “I Love You More Than You Love Me” was written by the show’s director/musical director, Stephanie McCullough, although the show’s program and press materials don’t make that exactly clear.  Nevertheless, it’s a catchy number, a well-penned song.  And, I can’t get it out of my head!

Within the play, Nicky Sage (John Wesley Hughes) writes the song at the spur of the moment, when challenged by his new band mates to create something original.  Jimmy O’Connor (Jake Meyer) lays down a bass line, and the others (Jean Bonavita and Mark Rudy) fill in the harmonies.  A new song is created, as is the career path for this likable crew.  They break onto the scene with their single, they go on tour, Nicky goes solo, life falls apart, and they eventually com together again for an emotional reunion.

Doowop3If you swap out names and genders, you have the plot of “Dreamgirls“.  And that’s part of the charm here.  The tale is familiar and reliable. The characters are ones who we know.  The one difference here is that some of the songs are being made up on the spot, and some of the dialogue wasn’t memorized beforehand.  The beautiful thing is that one generally can’t tell which parts of the show are being made up at the time of performance.  There’s a lot of improv skill on display here.

That isn’t to say that all of the improvisational work is hidden from the crowd.  One specific chunk of the show is very obviously presented as being made up on the spot.  There’s an air of excitement and risk that heightens the experience.  But, it is clear the audience is in safe hands because the show continues on an obvious trajectory without a hiccup.

In essence, “Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams” is a fun evening of musical theatre.  It is a feel-good event that leaves you smiling with a song stuck in your head… forever!

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I’m still singing the main song to myself days later.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The Beginning: 5/18 – 5/24 (A Chart with Opera and Extensions)

A chart of theatrical performances!  Whoever came up with this had their thinking caps on!
A chart of theatrical performances! Whoever came up with this had their thinking caps on!

It is Wednesday.  Here at Theatre By Numbers (or TBN, as some of our staff call it) we start our week on Wednesday.  We do that so we have time to reserve the tickets in time to review the shows that we’re going to cover any given week.  We actually roll the dice on our chart on the preceding Sunday evening.  So, when we put the chart out on our site here, we already know what shows we’re going to see. If you roll on Wednesday, you are in essence a few days behind us in the process, but catching up quite rapidly.  Why does this matter?  It doesn’t.  I’m basically just rambling to put some text up at the top of the page next to the chart.  If you keep reading, however, you’ll learn about some cool stuff going on this weekend and in the near future.

Opera in Rogers Park

kor productions' "Le Nozze di Figaro"
kor productions’ “Le Nozze di Figaro”

The run of “Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)” as produced by kor productions is only two weeks long.  This past weekend the show was at Berger Park.  This weekend it will be at The Growling Rabbit.  It’s a novelty to see an opera presented in promenade style.  It’s even more novel to see the machinations of Mozart’s farcical piece moving about in the Rogers Park cafe at 6981 North Sheridan Road.

I took in the show last weekend, and it was the best promenade production I’ve seen in some time, and I’ve seen a few.  In fact, this isn’t the first opera I’ve seen while walking around in the Berger Park Coach House.  It is, however, the first that has provided surtitles via my own cellphone!  I was amazed by the quality of the singing, the acting, and the staging.  Director Kristin Davis puts the varied locations to work for the piece.

The Countess (Johanna Moffitt) charmingly starts the show in a silent scene which fleshes out the opera’s famously familiar overture.  Sally Olson brings life to Susanna with a natural flair for building a character that is both believable and funny.  And Peter Morgan’s Figaro has a fun bit of swagger that goes nicely with his rich voice.

The setting of the production is updated to the modern day.  Cellphones and selfies come into play, as to office managers and human resources executives. The show is a lot of fun, and a great way to experience one of Mozart’s most famous works.

The show only runs one more weekend (this upcoming one):  Here’s the link you’ll need to get tickets!

Strawdog Extends “Once in a Lifetime”

Well, we just reviewed this show, and it isn’t a huge surprise that Strawdog’s last stand has grown legs and will be standing a bit longer.  Actually, through June 11th.  In a move that not only extends the show, but celebrates the end of the run in gala-like fashion (perhaps with a little classic Hollywood flair) the June 10th performance will have a party both beforehand and afterward.  That performance will also cost $100 to attend.  The June 11th performance is only accessible to a select few.  In fact, for those who would like to attend the absolute final performance at the Broadway location, a lottery is being held.  To make my own life easier, I’m just going to directly quote the blurb I got from their press agent:  “Those interested in attending the final performance Sunday, June 11 at 8 p.m., must email boxoffice@strawdog.org and include name, email, phone number and mailing address to be placed into the lottery. Names will be drawn Thursday, June 9 at 12 p.m. with Strawdog notifying winners immediately.  There is one entry per person with a limit of two tickets per entry. Tickets are $30 each for this final performance. Deadline to enter lottery is Wednesday, June 8 at 11:59 p.m.

Previewing what we’re viewing:

Maggie is getting our week started tonight at the Boho stage.  She’s taking in “Eurydice”.  Sarah is seeing “The Seagull”.  And I’m going to “Chicago Doo-Wop Dreams”.  Each of us has only one show this weekend, but that’s still three new reviews.  Right?  Plus I have two more to release over the next couple of days from this past weekend.  Exciting stuff, truly.  So… grab dice and roll for yourself on the chart at the top right. You will see some fresh theatre!  That’s always a good thing!

Review: “Once in a Lifetime” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Michael Dailey, Scott Danielson, and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath
Michael Dailey, Scott Danielson, and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath

Show: Once in a Lifetime

Company: Strawdog Theatre

Venue: Strawdog Theatre

Die Roll: 8

Generally, I am a bit saddened by the fact that Strawdog Theatre will no longer be a mainstay of the Northeast corner of Lakeview anymore.  When their current show closes, that will be that.  They will return to the ranks of itinerant companies here in Chicago.  Granted, unlike most itinerant groups that often struggle to find places for their shows, Strawdog landed on their feet as a temporary resident company of the new Factory stage in Rogers Park next to the Howard Red Line stop.  That’s where they’ll be doing their good works starting next season.

In the meantime, they are offering a comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  “Once in a Lifetime” is not the classic that Kaufman & Hart’s collaboration brought us with “You Can’t Take It With You”, but it is a solid comedic play about the birth of Hollywood and the rise of the studio system in the days of the talkies (read: late 1920s/early 1930s).  The play was written in 1930, just three years after Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer” made its debut.  So, at the time it was a very topical lampooning of the show business industry.  Now, it amounts to a bit of dated nostalgia that is fun to revisit, but isn’t really pushing any boundaries.

Perhaps that is the point in doing the show at this time in Strawdog’s trajectory.  It is fun to look nostalgically at something that has a relevant past, which may not be currently pushing any boundaries, but will also endure for many years to come.

Scott Danielson, Kat McDonnell, and Michael Dailey/Photo: Tom McGrath
Scott Danielson, Kat McDonnell, and Michael Dailey/Photo: Tom McGrath

Damon Kiely puts together a show that is very sharp in its presentation.  Every bit of every moment is precisely choreographed, not only the scenes, but the scene changes, too.  While the action of the play takes place in the 1920s, the soundtrack for this production is anachronistically lodged firmly in the years between 2009 through 2011 (although one of the songs, “When I’m Gone”, is actually originally from 1930 despite being recently popularized by Anna Kendrick’s recording).

All of the music is performed by the acting ensemble to cover the transitions between the scenes.  They become a vaudevillian olio which ia just as much of the action of the production as the real scenes themselves.  And, in a fun/snarky way, they often comment on the action of the show.  The aforementioned “When I’m Gone” comes as one major character, May (Kathleen McDonnell), moves on to the next part of her life.

STC_OnceInALifetime_1
Scott Danielson and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath

Mike Dailey and Scott Danielson round out the play’s primary roles as Jerry and George, respectively.  Along with May, Jerry and George go from being two-bit Vaudevillians at the tail end of a not-too-promising career, to running an elocution school for actors in California. A ridiculously large set of characters cross their paths and the stage, and they are played by a creatively capable cast that embraces the variety with gusto.  Every member of this cast was perfectly suited for their roles, but the two who I feel I must hold up to celebrate are Anderson Lawfer and Michaela Petro.  One of the best things about this play was to see what these two actors would come onstage as next.  Sure, they played a couple of has-been starlets who couldn’t effectively make it in the new days of films with sound, but they also made a gaggle of other oddball characters come alive, often for just one cross lasting 20 seconds or less.  It is a cool thing to watch actors who can create characters for quickly and fully.

As the play comes to an end, there is a rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” which seems to be staged to represent the impending destruction of the building wherein this production takes place.  It’s one bit of contemporary comment sneaked into a show that otherwise is an intriguing hodgepodge of old and not-so-old nostalgic performances that pay homage to what has been a solid run on Chicago’s own Broadway.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Fitting end for old venue.  Well executed.  Fluffy, inane fun.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “The Lion in Winter” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble)

LionInWinter_16-206Show: The Lion in Winter

Company: Promethean Theatre Ensemble

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

Die Roll: 4

A classic play is a classic play for a reason.  The script is solid and it still speaks to us across the ages.  So it is with “Lion in Winter”.  Director Brian Pastor’s take on James Goldman’s venerable script is filled with seething passion that boils just below the surface of the very regal and hoping-to-be-regal characters’ faces.

The cast, headed by Brian Parry as King Henry and Elaine Carlson in the role of Eleanor, is made up of a group of actors whom I have come to respect through their other work around town.  So, it was a joy to see them all working together in concert to create a show so fully developed.  Parry and Carlson banter back and forth with barbs worthy of Benedick and Beatrice.  Really they surpass the Shakespearean and go to a level beyond.  These are a king and queen who are battling for control of the country, for the future of their sons, and for each others’ love.  And when it comes down to it, they’ve been at this battle long before the play started.  This is epic political warfare being waged.  There are subtleties and nuances at play here that only a skilled hand can bring to the fore, and Parry and Carlson do just that.

LionInWinter_16-085Jared Dennis as the somber Richard and Nick Lane in the role of Geoffrey are perfectly cast in their roles.  I now have an imprint in my mind as to what those two princes must have been like thanks to these two portrayals.  Only Tom Murphy’s turn as Prince John rubbed me the wrong way.  He was far more presentational than his compatriots, which made his character stick out.  I suppose that might have been an intentional choice, but whether it was or not, he distracted from the content of the scenes he was in.  I’ve enjoyed Murphy in past roles (most notably in last year’s “With Love and a Major Organ” at Strawdog), so I was disappointed that this wasn’t his strongest work.

Nevertheless, the pacing and the action of this play was perfect for the cerebrally challenging work that it is.  Politics and scheming are difficult to make engaging and personal, but the Promethean crew make the mechanations of governance and control into riveting theatre.  In addition to the acting, one thing that I’ve always found important in creating an environment for the positive reception of a difficult work is the soundscape that informs the audience’s reaction. Ben Sutherland’s sound design and original score set a perfect tone for what is happening on stage.

This is not a short show, as many scripts are these days.  It comes from a time when we would sit for longer and listen more carefully.  Because of that, I was thoroughly impressed that Pastor’s cast kept me engaged the entire time, never letting their energy fade for a moment.  This is a refreshing take on a script that many have come to know as a favorite.  Well done!

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Classic play about politics and family shines with fresh energy.

RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”