Chris’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2017

Chris’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2017

As 2017 comes to a close, I find myself looking back at the past few years and just how much tremendous theatre I’ve seen in Chicago. This year has been no exception. There were some really awesome shows this year. There was a difference, though, in the overall number of shows I saw. Not unlike all other “best of” lists, only those which were seen can be included. So, my apologies to those I did not see. I’m pretty sure there are some great pieces of theatre I missed. But, as I say goodbye to this year, I am glad to share what I saw as the best of Chicago theatrical productions that I personally witnessed.

#1

Show: “Marry Me A Little”

Company: Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Stage 773 Thrust

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sondheim review shows off two brilliant performers in perfect harmony.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I would give both of my pinkies to be half the musician that Austin Cook is.  Of course, that would make playing the piano more difficult, but you get the idea.  Cook and his co-star, the dynamic Bethany Thomas, brought this show to life in a way that was just perfect.  I was taken to this show as a gift by my wife.  It has long been one of my favorites.  But, only on recordings.  I’d never seen a production.  I’ve used a number of songs from it as audition pieces over the years, though.  So, I felt I had a good understanding of the piece.  But I didn’t really know it until I saw Porchlight’s production.  Now, granted, they altered the show a bit, swapping out some newer Sondheim pieces for a couple of my favorites.  I really wish they’d left “Silly People” in the program.  But, even with one of my favorite songs’ omission, I still loved being immersed in the lives of the two neighbors/lovers as we tracked their romance from beginning to end in a circularly staged hunk of possibilities.

#2

Show: Musical Therapy”

Company: Death & Pretzels

Venue: Gorilla Tango

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sock puppets and sex and singing and dancing and wow.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

This entry was an unexpected surprise when I saw it. I’ve worked with the director, Madison Smith, and I find her to be a joy to work with, but the premise of this show didn’t really sing to me upon reading the show’s description.  And yet, once the characters started to sing to me, it was a whole different thing. There is something special about a musical that leaves songs running through your head the next day. And there is something great about a show that is put up by a small, low-budget operation that manages to outshine the boys with the big bucks.  This was a tightly crafted piece that was more than laugh-out-loud funny. There were times when my sides hurt from laughing.  I imagine this show will be remounted at some point.  I know that the playwright and composer are interested in continuing to improve the script and music.  But, when it comes down to it, the show is already finishing just behind a Sondheim piece on my list this year.  I’m not sure it needs any improvements.

#3

Show: “Objects in the Mirror”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Trust in this one thing: You should see this play.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

The ten-word summary above is a reference to the mantra of one of the show’s main characters — that you should trust no one.  Playwright Charles Smith’s play was given a massively staged production by director Chuck Smith, which felt intimate and personal despite the operatic scale of the set. A tale about escaping the ravages of war torn African countries, we followed a family through trials that most people can hardly imagine. Daniel Kyri and Breon Arzell were standouts in this cast, though there wasn’t a single weak link in the show.  I always expect good-to-great work from the Goodman.  After all, they have the budget to pull off just about anything.  But this show went above and beyond what I expect from them. This show really meant something, and brought a story from far away to the hearts of everyone who saw it.

#4

Show: “Hamilton”

Company: Broadway in Chicago

Venue: CIBC Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: History will never be the same. Better than the recording.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I know that most press outlets covered “Hamilton” in 2016, but I wasn’t able to see it until after Wayne Brady had come and gone. Long before it got to Chicago, many of my friends were singing and/or rapping the songs from this show thanks to the spectacularly popular original cast recording.  It was an epic struggle on my part to remain unexposed to the work on the whole prior to seeing it in person.  Seldom do I find that a show lives up to the hype surrounding it, but generally, “Hamilton” does.  I will see this show again, and I’m sure it’s not a huge surprise to see the production in a “best of” list, but perhaps the most significant thing for me about this story of Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton, is that a number of locally produced shows finished the year higher overall in my eyes.

#5

Show: “London Assurance”

Company: City Lit Theater

Venue: City Lit Theater

TEN WORD SUMMARY: After 120 years, this show is welcome back in Chicago.

RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

This show just barely missed my top ranking.  The production was wonderful.  The casting was great.  And the performance had me laughing and enjoying myself more than almost anything else I saw this year.  There were a couple of odd things in the play’s structure, and one character that seemed extraneous.  That’s what kept it from the d20 ranking originally, but this is a show that I remember vividly, and that I will continue to do so for many years to come, I’m sure.  Kat Evans and James Sparling were each stellar in their roles, and while the entire cast was excellent, Kingsley Day appeared in a part that was clearly made especially for him over a century earlier.  Director Terry McCabe gave us a gift with this show.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Triassic Parq” (Circle Theatre); “Hir” (Steppenwolf Theatre).

Review: “Triassic Parq” (Circle Theatre)

Show: “Triassic Parq”

Company: Circle Theatre

Venue: Heartland Studio (7016 N Glenwood Ave)

If someone had walked up to me and told me there was a show out there that re-imagined “Jurassic Park” from the perspective of the dinosaurs, there is no way that I would have guessed it to have been anything like what the folks at Circle Theatre have put up at the Heartland Studio.  On the surface the play is a parody that places its footing firmly upon the “Life will find a way” statement from the 1992 movie that explains a hatched brood of dino eggs from a supposedly all-female population of prehistoric creatures.  Had the show stopped right there conceptually, added a handful of songs about eating goats and humans, and the like, and this would have been a fun, light romp.  But the script by Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz, and Steve Wargo is far more sophisticated than that, and the audience is treated to a thoroughly enjoyable romp that is still quite fun, but not always so light.

Each time I enter the tiny Heartland Studio, I instantly look to see how the producing theatre company chose to deal with the remarkably restrictive confines.  Over the last few years I’ve seen some abysmal wastes of space, and a few reasonably successful and creative ways of making the space work.  But, I have never been as impressed previously as I am with Jimmy Jagos’s set.  The design extends into the lobby, as well as up the walls into the audience.  And the mobile set pieces that first confront the audience hearken directly back to the sense of awe one feels upon the first viewing of the gates into Jurassic Park.

With the mood set, there’s a bit of time for some absurd fun prior to the more serious content of the show, as so we meet our narrator, a woman (Caitlin Boho) who claims to be Morgan Freeman.  In that character, the tone of the evening is set.  The fourth wall is broken, the cabaret nature of the show is established, and the premise of the show is explained.  Life must find a way, despite the fact that all the dinos are females.  Now, it might be noted here that not all of the actors are female.  This helps a bit with the harmonies of the songs, but it also makes for a fluid gender-scape from the get-go.  When, partway through the play, a T-Rex suddenly sprouts a penis, it naturally does so on an actress-portrayed dinosaur.  Of note, the two dinosaurs who morph into male specimens are both played by women.  The female dinosaurs played by men remain female.  Some of the humor grows out of the sexual and romantic relationships that grow out of the gender changes, and some of it is pretty low-brow, but it is skillfully offset by other bits of commentary-based comedy that takes a hard look at the battle between science and religion.

These dinosaurs aren’t just ravaging reptilian monsters.  They are members of a well defined, if somewhat naive, society with a church-like organization at its core.  And the religion seems to have grown out of the population’s circumstances in an understandable manner.  We witness crises of faith, confrontations with new information, and the struggles of leaders and followers in their dynamic relationships.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Jacob Richard Axelson) drives much of the action of the show through her struggle to maintain control of a world that she recognizes less and less of.  The Velociraptor of Innocence (Parker Guidry) is her foil and the main character for much of the rest of the show.  It is her struggle to discover herself and her meaning that leads to the conflict between the old and new realities for the dinos.

Co-Directors Tommy Bullington and Nicholas Reinhart have put together a tremendous show.  The cast takes what could be just a campy bit of fun and creates something at least two notches of quality above that.  It is an evening of song and dance, and inventive drag costumes, and while it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that, “Triassic Parq” is indeed more than what one expects, and is better for it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Blue and Yellow make Green. See the show. You’ll understand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Peter and the Starcatcher” (Metropolis Performing Arts Center)

Show:  Peter and the Starcatcher

Company: Metropolis Performing Arts Center

Venue: Metropolis Performing Arts Center

I discovered the novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson back in 2011 at a Half Price Bookstore.  It was an impulse buy.  I loved it, and I subsequently plowed through the rest of the series that serves as a set of prequels to the story of Peter Pan as we all know it.  So, when given the chance to review the musical (or, rather “play with music”) based on the novel, I was excited to say the least.  After seeing the production currently running at Metropolis Performing Arts Center, I am less excited; mostly disappointed.

For any fan of a piece of literature there is an inherent risk in attending an adaptation of that piece, whether film or play, television program or comic book.  The act of adaptation is an act of creation, and that means that there resulting piece is a completely separate work than the original.  And, yet, it is difficult to separate the parts in one’s mind, and emotional reactions to the newer work are often based upon one’s impressions from the first work.

I don’t really want to discuss the merits or techniques of adapting a work to the stage, but I mention the above thoughts because while I love the original book (and the following books in the series), I will try to evaluate this show on its own merits.  Were I to merely compare one side-by-side, I would find Rick Elice’s script lacking, and a bit of an affront to the source material.  Jokes incorporated into the script are anachronistic to the play’s Victorian Era setting. And to a large degree the show seems to be written around a list of terrible jokes rather than telling a story from whence humor emerges.  Parts of the later books were incorporated into this show, which didn’t really add anything positive to the product.  But, what’s it like without taking into account the relation to the source book?

Well, this is a clunky script that depends far too heavily on direct address of the audience as the actors often take turns in the narrator’s voice expressing their own actions in third person.  Despite having a constant tone of there being too much exposition, things often happen with little or no explanation (although, fans of the books will be able to decipher some of the goings-on).  There is a feeling of spoof or parody that runs throughout the show, that cheapens its own delivery.  And then there are some songs.  Make no mistake, this is not a musical.  One cannot call a show that has almost no songs in it a musical.  There are a couple of musical numbers incorporated into the play; and stating that they are incorporated may be a bit far to go. More to the point, they are slapped on and adhered badly.

Now, while I think the script is terrible, and the play itself a mistake, I cannot say that about the production.  Director Lili-Anne Brown puts together a well-rendered version of the show.  Her cast is uniformly strong and they pour more energy into the performance than I’ve seen done in some while.  The live Foley sound effects provided by the pit orchestra add a lot to the show, as does the cleverly realized costume design that allows for a lot of role-doubling.  The scenic design of Ashley Woods impresses upon first sight, and captures the spirit of the scenes both on-board ships and on Mollusk Island.

But, when it comes down to it, no matter how good the performances of the actors, or the beauty of the set, the show barely rises to the level of entertainment that can be had by lounging on the couch at home on standard network TV.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  An assemblage of weak, dated one-liners fails to impress.

RATING: d6  – “Has Some Merit”

Review: “Hir” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Amy Morton and Em Grosland/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Show: “Hir”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: Steppenwolf Main Stage

I have recently seen the play “Hir” by Taylor Mac twice: just this past weekend at Steppenwolf, and previously at a small storefront-sized theatre in Des Moines, Iowa.  Before I review Steppenwolf’s production of the show, I have a couple of declarations to make that should clarify the following review.

First, I contend the profundity of a profound work can suffer upon a second viewing because the significant effects of a first impression cannot be duplicated.  Additionally, the first viewing cannot help but inform the evaluation of the second.  So, the fact that I saw StageWest’s production prior to Steppenwolf’s does affect how I perceive the latter’s work.

My second point, before I sally forth into the depths of this review, is that I truly believe that “Hir” by Taylor Mac is one of the most brilliantly penned pieces of dramatic literature in recent times; its complexity and nuance, structure and pacing—everything about it makes it one of the more perfect plays of the last half century.

Francis Guinan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

When I first saw the play two months ago, it was a deeply disturbing, highly impactful, engaging and meaningful piece of work.  The title of the play leads toward thinking that this is a play about gender identity.  And it is, to some degree, but truly at its heart, this is a play about a family unit who are all survivors of an abusive relationship.  The plot really revolves around how each of the three former victims relate to each other and their former abuser.  It is true that one character, Max (Em Grosland), is transitioning from female to male, and that the gender pronoun that character has chosen for hirself is “hir”.  But, that isn’t what drives the plot forward.  And, in the act of making Max’s gender a topic of discussion, rather than the actual conflict of the show, Taylor Mac (whose own chosen pronoun is “judy”) has reached towards brilliance and genius.  If the intent is to become a society where all genders along the overall spectrum are seen as equal, then the characters that represent trans and non-binary people must be able to be perceived as just as normal as everyone else.  Because the conflict of the play revolves around something else, Max’s discussions with hir mother and hir brother are effective conversations that flesh out the characters.  We as audience members are able to listen and comprehend better the points being made because we are not taking sides in these chats.  They aren’t a point of conflict.  They are informative and mostly civil explanations.

This is a dark, dark comedy about a woman attempting to free herself from the physically and psychologically abusive relationship with her husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan).  Paige (the woman, played by Amy Morton) has taken advantage of her husband’s stroke a year prior to the play’s beginning  to medicate him heavily and alter everything about the life of the family; where once there was order there is now chaos, where once there was unrestrained masculinity there is now strictly controlled femininity.

Under the direction of Hallie Gordon, this production seems to have been treated more as a light comedy about a dark topic than a dark comedy that plumbs the nadir of human cruelty (how I perceive the intention of the script itself).  The staging seems to have been perfectly gauged to keep Steppenwolf’s specific audience laughing all the way through to the end.  Morton’s Paige is never fully realized as the revenge-seeking former beta dog who has now taken control and is doling out punishment to those who’ve done her wrong.  In this production she is more a still-afraid, still-abused woman who is lashing out.  This distinction in how Paige is played (I assume there are a number of other ways she can be approached as well) alters just about everything in the play.  And it is indicative of how the directorial choices were made so as to keep this play from going to the darker places that the script fully supports.

The concept of Chekhov’s Gun comes into play here.  The script contains a number of moments that work as necessary foreshadowing.  The concept of Chekhov’s gun is that if you show a gun on stage early in the play, it must be used/shot off by the end.  While viewing this production, I was led to ask myself, what happens if the gun never gets set on the stage when it is supposed to be there?  There is a sequence early on that hints at Paige’s capacity for cruelty: she discovers that the sound of her blender triggers her son (Ty Olwin) Isaac’s PTSD.  She then proceeds to torture him with short burst of the blender’s whirring which causes him to repeatedly toss his cookies in the sink.  Morton’s portrayal hovers around a point of curious exploration of the situation, rather than the necessary schaudenfruede that indicates where the character is ultimately headed.

Francis Guinan and Ty Olwin/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Another example is smaller, but indicative of the missed opportunities in this production: Periodically, Paige sprays Arnold with a water bottle as punishment for bad behavior.  If you think that sounds like disciplining a cat, you’ve got the idea.  One of the first times she does so, she tells him to stop touching his penis.  Unfortunately, one doesn’t notice that he’d been touching his penis prior to that moment.  However, in the script Paige tells Arnold to “grab the knob”.  Had he followed the euphemistic instructions on that line, it would have set up the pattern of behavior a few lines later.  Instead, the moment is missed and the humor of a later line (“My penis is my best friend”) loses the momentum of the effective set-up provided by the playwright.

Gordon’s direction often leads to awkward stage pictures, clunky movement, and a lot of cheating-out akin to what one instructs beginning actors to do when on a proscenium stage.  There is one time that this is used to comedic effect: Arnold sneaks across the stage in full view of everyone, mugging to the audience the entire way.  And with that one interlude the legitimacy of the play’s world is shot to Hell.  Is it funny?  Sure.  Does it suddenly take a big budget play and put it on the level of community theatre? You bet.  It’s unfortunate, and it adds nothing to the play itself.

There are a huge number of small issues throughout the production that make me wonder if a work of this magnitude was just slightly out of Gordon’s scope.  And, I hate feeling that way.  I wanted everyone in that audience to walk away as disturbed and altered as I was when I first saw the play.  I wanted people to be afraid to laugh during the descent into the horrible aspects of the second act.  That wasn’t present in this production.  The play still stands up.  The play itself is still brilliant.  It just isn’t as good as it could be.  I wasn’t enrapt.  That’s partly because I had seen it before.  But then again, I’ve seen “Hamlet” innumerable times, and when well done it is as brilliant as the first time, if not better.

With this production I found myself wondering:  Why didn’t Isaac carry himself like a Marine? Why didn’t Isaac’s duffle bag have any weight to it?  Was it filled with blocks of Styrofoam?  Why were the parents of a 21 year-old and a 16 year-old cast with actors who are significantly older? Exactly how did Arnold punch holes in the wall well above his own shoulder/head height?  Why wasn’t the house truly a garbage house, rather than an orderly version of untidy? Why wasn’t the ugliness of every character explored more fully?  With a work such as this play, I should not have been so easily and constantly distracted.

Any audience that leaves a production of “Hir” ought to be exhausted and spent.  It shouldn’t be possible for them to bounce up into a standing ovation and then laugh their way out the door.  It’s still worth seeing.  It’s still a good play.  Yet, so much potential…

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  One of my favorite plays.  I wish it were better.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “London Assurance” (City Lit Theatre)

Kraig Kelsey, Kat Evans/Photo: Ally Neutze

Show: “London Assurance”

Company: City Lit Theatre

Venue: City Lit Theatre (1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave)

If you follow the Chicago theatre market at all, you have probably noticed that the air is full of tension these days.  Even before the most recent controversy over the writings of another critic in town, theatre practitioners have been highly energized over the last few months, largely because of the political climate of the country.  There have been calls from artists to their peers that ask us all to focus exclusively on making our works political in nature.  The quote that “All art is political” can be attributed to many, many people over the years, but one of my favorite renditions of the maxim comes from Ingmar Bergman: “Today we say all art is political. But I’d say all art has to do with ethics. Which after all really comes to the same thing. It’s a matter of attitudes.”  A constant barrage of pieces of angry, politically charged theatre have come to Chicago’s stages since November (and before).  They are welcome and they are needed, but sometimes audiences and artists need reprieve from the repetition of comment on the political climate.  So, it is that a comedy of manners from 1841 is a welcome addition to the theatrical scene.  It is a beautiful bit of comedic relief from a world that grates daily upon the spirit.  And yet, any comedy of manners revolves around ethics, and so Mr. Bergman remains correct.

“London Assurance” covers familiar territory for British farces of the early 1800s.  An old man is engaged to a nubile youth of 18 years.  The geezer’s son meets the young lady and falls in love.  She, too, has feelings for the younger guy.  Additional characters get involved, muddle the plot, and everything works out in the end.  It’s fun, funny, and mostly predictable.  And, that’s okay.  In fact, it’s quite enjoyable.

Kingsley Day/Photo: Ally Neutze

Supposedly an influence on Oscar Wilde’s writing, this is witty show about the upper crust behaving badly.  At first light, Edward Kuffert takes the stage as the clever and droll butler, Cool.  His opening moments addressing the audience directly set a tone for the entire play, which does depend heavily on asides to comment on the action and provide a good deal of the humor.  A moment later, rapscallions Richard Dazzle (Richard Eisloeffel) and Charles Courtly (Kraig Kelsey) take the stage.  The latter of the two is the son, mentioned above, who will come to fall in love with his father’s betrothed.  The former is a scheming trouble-maker whose machinations don’t carry direct malice of mischievousness, but rather the overall goal of providing himself an easy life.  And yet, it is those self same plots and actions which lead to much of the show’s complications.  Eisloeffel plays the part with easy charm and a puckish grin.

The other unintentional trouble-maker of the show is Squire Max Harkaway (James Sparling).  He is charmed by Richard Dazzle, and starts the chain of invitations that leads to Charles Courtly’s wooing of Grace Harkaway (Kat Evans), who just so happens be to both Max Harkaway’s niece, and Charles’s father’s fiance.  Sparling’s confident and engaging presence allows the boisterous role of Max to take firm hold of the show and carry it upon his shoulders.  Each time he takes the stage, things get more interesting.

Director Terry McCabe has done a tremendous job of casting the show exactly as needed.  Each actor seems fits their character so well, I can’t imagine another in their part. And the staging flows naturally, in a play that has a number of far-from-natural contrivances that make the whole thing work.  I mentioned the asides earlier.  Often times, I find such theatrical conventions annoying thanks to poor staging.  They can kill an otherwise sharp production.  McCabe’s cast executes the clever side comments in a way that makes you look forward to the next one.

There was one character that I could do without, Mark Meddle (Joe Feliciano).  At the time of its writing, perhaps the self-serving, maleficent lawyer may have lampooned some specific current opinion of attorneys.  In fact, it still may.  But as scripted, the overly-litigious, money-grubbing lawyer could be edited out of the script and it would remove needless distraction from what is an otherwise tight script.  Feliciano does all he can with the role.  What is lacking here is a fault of the playwright, not the actor.

A quick call-out to the scenic designer, Ray Toler, whose  rotating walls allowed City Lit’s uniquely shaped stage to become two large British estates.  And Tom Kieffer’s costumes were exactly what it took to place this show in its time and place, the attention to detail in the dresses was marvelous.

Finally, I cannot truly review this show without mention of Kingsley Day’s performance as Sir Harcourt Courtly.  The elder lover in this play is an absurd role, and this is just the sort of thing at which Day excels.  I’ve worked with Kingsley on stage in Gilbert & Sullivan shows, and this role has a bit of the flavor of many of the characters he’s embodied over the years.  I thoroughly enjoy watching an actor shine in a role that seems to have been written for him.  Not once do you hope that Sir Harcourt will get the girl, and it is easy to revel in his self-inflicted mishaps.  And yet, the character is hard not to love.  Day gives him that little something special that wriggles the aging fop into one’s heart.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  After 120 years, this show is welcome back in Chicago

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Review: “Musical Therapy” (Death & Pretzels)

Show: “Musical Therapy”

Company: Death & Pretzels

Venue: Gorilla Tango (1919 N. Milwaukee)

Die Roll: 19

There are certain things that one looks for in a major Broadway musical or a show at the Goodman that one doesn’t expect from a small theatre in a tiny black box setting.  In fact, the storefront theatre scene creates a very different hunk of art than does the loop theatre district.  This isn’t really a headline of any sort.  Anyone who has taken in a show or two in Chicago knows how it is.  But, if you don’t take in storefront musicals often, perhaps you’ll allow me to take a moment to contemplate what makes the perfect storefront musical experience…

For me, a perfect storefront musical must begin with an admission to oneself that expectations are not high.  I see 10 to 20 new musicals a year and most of them are in tiny venues by people who are earnest, but not experienced makers of musical art.  And, because of this, I know that in most instances I’m going to leave in what amounts to a listener’s walk of shame, head slung low wondering how I’ll forget what just came to pass (and normally, once I’ve written my review of said show, it does leave my brain quickly).  However, there are a few shows that were so remarkably bad that the damage sticks with me years later.  So, when the music starts and the first number gets rolling, there has to be that moment when a singer hits a sour note, or an errant step makes the choreography look wrong.  That single moment is the set-up for the perfect storefront musical.  That flaw allows the reviewer/audience to think that they are once again in for a stinker, only to then have the whole ship righted and the production to rise well above their anticipated quality.

In “Musical Therapy”, Death & Pretzels presents an evening that isn’t perfect, but which does offer up the perfect storefront musical theatre experience.  The harmonies in composer Joey Katsiroubas’s first number are a little roughly rendered by the five actors who first grace the stage.  Dan Hass’s book staggers into the first spoken scene like a timid and gawky teen.  Awkwardness abounds.  Then, after about five minutes, the show hits its stride and its comfort zone, and it never looks back.  Hass’s script is funny, and intelligent.  Karsiroubas’s songs are memorable to the point that I’ve currently got one of them stuck in my head as I write this.  The show’s structure is familiar, but quirky in a way that both reinforces what we want in a musical, but also pokes fun at what can be a a too tired trope at times.  It is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek while simultaneously honest and true to itself.

At the heart of this production is a tale about a couples therapist, Theresa (Haley Mozer), who is unlucky in love herself.  She is in lust with the guy (Ethan Peterson) who’s just moved into the office next door to hers.  And she longs to get with him. Most of the show takes place in Theresa’s therapy sessions with two couples.  Ryder (Matt Lamson) and Liz (Emma Palizza) suffer from a lack of sexual chemistry (largely because she’s secretly a lesbian). Timothy (Sean Cameron) and Darcie (Erika Hakmiller) are addressing some control issues (hers over him). Each session contains a catchy number in which the relationship is explained, and then a time buzzes and the session is over.  Theresa discovers that Will (Peterson) has a girlfriend, and she schemes to use her practice to tear them apart, while also reshuffling the romantic deck for all of her clients.  Hilarity ensues.

Director Madison Smith guides the cast through what could be cliche situations with a deft sense of comedy, elevating the show’s potentially silly moments to something better.  Smith’s efforts are helped along by the choreography of Brian Boller.  None of the dancing is too technically demanding, but it fits the mood of the piece perfectly, and establishes that the show’s laughs will come from physical sources as well as script-based chuckles.

My one gripe with the show is that there is only a 5-minute intermission.  In this day and age of short shows with no intermission, I wouldn’t have minded if the break were outright eliminated, but if it is necessary, a slightly longer lull in the action would be good so that drinks may be procured and bathrooms visited.  I understand that Gorilla Tango runs a tight ship when it comes to scheduling multiple shows on the same stage each night, but the 5-minute interlude doesn’t serve a positive purpose for anyone.

Gorilla Tango can be a very limiting space in which to put up a production, and it’s probably the last place I would think to put up a musical, but I can safely say that “Musical Therapy” is worth casting aside any trepidation or otherwise negative expectations regarding the venue and/or storefront musicals in general.  It is a good evening well spent, a fun time, and a show that fits its environs perfectly, treating its topic both viciously and lovingly.  Death & Pretzels has created a show that succeeds at being exactly what is and what it should be.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Sock puppets and sex and singing and dancing and wow.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “Objects in the Mirror” (Goodman Theatre)

Daniel Kyri/Photo: Liz Lauren

Show: “Objects in the Mirror”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

Die Roll: 11

Let me begin by saying that this show is the best production that I’ve seen so far in 2017.  It’s scope and scale are epic, and though Charles Smith’s “Objects in the Mirror” addresses the struggles of one family unit, the story told is so much bigger than that of just a handful of people.  This production, directed by Chuck Smith (not the same guy as the aforementioned Charles, nor of any relation), only has five actors who often seem dwarfed by the massive, yet simple scenery (designed by Riccardo Hernandez).  As I continue to digest what I saw on the Goodman’s stage, I keep returning to the set and how it informed the action of the play.  The set itself was simple in that it included very few elements and there were no raised platforms or intricately built pieces, or ornate decorations.  Yet, every piece was immense.  A large and imposing ceiling/roof loom large over segments of the play that take place in the present (much of the show is in flashback).  A massive, retractable rear wall facilitates projections, as well as a border that rises up from ground level to the infinite heavens.  Often a bare stage creates a sense of vastness that is difficult to overcome because a lone actor in that gaping space seems ever so small; a tiny force against insurmountable odds.

Breon Arzell, Daniel Kyri, Allen Gilmore/Photo: Liz Lauren

Shedrick Kennedy Yarkpai (Daniel Kyri) is the individual most often confronted by the outward forces in this story.  After all, he is the tale’s protagonist.  We meet him as a survivor of a decade-long struggle to be free of the violence and oppression that has torn many western African nations apart.  He now resides in Australia.  He is on a search for meaning in his life and for who he really is.  As part of that, he revisits his life story up to that point.  In flashback we meet his crafty trickster uncle (Allen Gilmore), his mother (Lily Mojekwu), and his cousin (Breon Arzell).  These are the people who share Shedrick’s world.  And they are the ones who make it possible for him to escape the dangers of a country that kills off its young men by fighting civil wars with child armies.

Charles Smith has written a piece that makes the reality of war ever-present and imposing.  Shedrick is never sure of who he can trust, and in all likelihood, his uncle’s advice to trust no one is best applied.  And yet, one wants to trust the people nearest to them.  And the internal struggle of who to trust and how much is at the heart of this play.  The narrative struggle of the journey toward freedom is matched in intensity by the personal journey taken by Shedrick as he struggles with self-identity and conscience.  Can Shedrick trust his uncle?  Can he trust his own mother?  Can he trust himself?  For that matter, can anyone trust anyone else ever?

Chuck Smith’s powerfully simple staging gives the more dynamic and complex moments of the play a gigantic blank canvas upon which to create an overall picture that is both brilliant and dark.  The cast rises to the task of telling a gripping and meaningful tale, always surrounded by the spirit that they are just a small part of something so much larger, but never being defeated by the overall massiveness of their troubles.  This is a piece that must be seen.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Trust in this one thing: You should see this play.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Review: “We’re Gonna Die” (Haven Theatre)

Isa Arciniegas/ Photo: Austin D Oie

Show: “We’re Gonna Die”

Company: Haven Theatre Company

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 4

On the surface, I really like the idea of a show that is made up of a rock singer and a backing band.  In fact, I was really excited going into this show, especially since Haven Theatre Company has a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in its not-to-distant past.  So, if anyone can tackle what could be described quickly as a female approach to the same idea, it should be them.  And, in all regards, the production managed to do a reasonable job of putting forth a one-woman show about confronting her own mortality.  The backing band was solid (more on that shortly).  The lead singer (Isa Aciniegas) was well matched to the songs, her vocals being both impassioned and frenzied, while capturing a soulful resonance at the right times.

So, wherein is my problem with this show?  First, the execution of the basic concept.  Normally a statement like that would put the blame on the director, but the failing here is not on Josh Sobel.  It is on playwright Young Jean Lee.  While speaking at the top of the show, Singer (Aciniegas) says that she is going to share thoughts with us that she’s been having that have to do with the darker times and her intention in doing so is to give us positive things to reflect on when we hit those more difficult moments (I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s a quick summation of her opening monologue).  She then spends the first half hour relating tales and singing songs that do not work toward that stated purpose, but which seem to have been written as exposition for some play that might have a plot, and may happen in the future, but not tonight.  Luckily the second half of the piece gets on track, and not only targets the stated goal of the show, but makes it quite enjoyable.

The show itself is brief (barely over an hour and perhaps a quarter more).  And it is loud.  The company kindly provides earplugs.  The show can easily be heard through them clearly, and wearing them prevents tinnitus, so I recommend them heartily.  The band is backed up against a brick wall and no matter where you sit in the tiny Janet Bookspan Theatre (one of the ground floor spaces at The Den), you’re never more than 16 feet from an amplifier.

Sarah Giovannetti, Spencer Meeks, Jordan Harris, Isa Arciniegas/Photo by Austin D. Oie

So, the songs that make up the better part of the show are really well written.  And the band rocks them hard.  Spencer Meeks is a tremendous guitarist and has an enviable stack of effects pedals which color the moods of the world we’re visiting in this show.  Drummer Sarah Giovannetti sets the beat and drives her way through some impressive solos, and Jordan Harris and Elle Walker (both on keys and backing vocals) blend really well and create a great overall sound.  As a concert, I was both impressed by this show, and I enjoyed it.

Then there were the stories/monologues/whatevers.  None of them were badly scripted.  Young Jean Lee is a skillful writer.  But, the words didn’t necessarily ring true.  Part of that is due to the presentational structure of a concert setting.  Singer’s direct interaction with the audience at what should be moments of connection are inhibited by a microphone planted against her lips.  Touching moments feel more like stand-up comedy than instances of emotional vulnerability.  Also, there seems to be a casting issue here.  I’m not besmirching Arciniegas, nor her talent.  She’s good.  But, she’s not in her 40’s.  She’s not old enough to be the contemporary of her friend who she is talking about in one scene, a friend who was 40-something long enough ago that the two have now lost touch and she can speak about it casually as having taken place a few years ago.  Another scene talks about Singer confronting her own realization of mortality when she gets her first gray hair. As an early middle-aged individual, plucking that first gray hair could definitely cause one to realize that youth has come to a close.  Once again, though, the script puts that occurrence in Singer’s past, and in her early- to mid-20’s, it is highly unlikely that she’s sensing that her youth has now flown.

I found myself constantly struggling with a disconnected feeling from the material.  I see what Sobel and his cast are attempting to do, but never was I drawn into what could have been an empowering, or at least entertaining evening about life, death, and everything else.  So it is that I merely got to hear some well-executed music, and some sub-par storytelling.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Monologue masquerades as rock concert. Trying hard to be profound.

DICE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad.  Not Great.”

Review: “Queen” (Victory Gardens)

Stephen Spencer, Priya Mohanty, Darci Nalepa/Photo: Liz Lauren

Show: “Queen”

Company: Victory Gardens Theater

Venue: Biograph Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 3

For the last ten years or so, there has been a spotlight on the mysterious disappearance of honey bees in America, and across the planet.  So, it isn’t at all surprising that plays have now been written about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  I’ve reviewed one other play about the topic a couple of years ago.  This second go-’round with the topic is similar to my last, in that both works are less about the bees than about the relationships of the humans on the stage.  Madhuri Shekar’s “Queen” looks at the interactions between two women who are researching the issue of CCD.  Shekar doesn’t try to draw comparisons between the lives of the bees and the humans investigating them.  That’s a relief.  When it comes down to it, the social structures forced upon those who live within academia are nothing like the shared communal intellect of a beehive.  Shekar’s characters are solid representations of scientists in the high-pressure final stage of getting a study published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) and Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) are two PhD candidates at a school that is part of the University of California system (in real life, UC-Davis is one of the leading sites of research into CCD).  The ladies are good friends, in addition to being partners on a study that is set to be published in the journal “Nature”.  They are simply one batch of data away from making their careers go gangbusters.  A problem arises when the newest data doesn’t match their earlier projections, and the validity of their whole study is called into question.

The women are pressured by their advising professor (played by the dynamic Stephen Spencer) into fudging the numbers so that publication can go forward.  And, Sanam encounters a potential love interest whose opposing views on most of her beliefs shakes the foundations upon which her work rests.  Adam Poss’s turn as Arvind Patel, the suave, over-sexed, greed-driven match found for Sanam by her parents, is one of the most entertaining parts of the show.  Arvind is not a terribly redeemable character, but he is strangely likable to both the audience and Sanam.

In most moments of this play, there is an intimacy and an urgency that can draw in people who know nothing about science generally, or the bee problem specifically.  One need not know anything about science and how it is pursued in order to identify with the two women who are struggling within their own lives with the day-to-day stressors that make all of our lives complicated.  I think this is wherein Shekar’s script most succeeds.  Friends support each other, until the crucial moment when they don’t.  Fights get personal, and healing is difficult.  This is the messiness of being human told in a tale of people who are often seen as distant and clinical in their interactions with others.

Director Joanie Schultz brings out both the common preconception of scientists (socially awkward, logical rather than emotional beings) and the truly passionate side of real life scientists who truly believe in what they are doing and the people whom they are doing them with.  I struggled with the first scene of the play as it is seen at Victory Gardens because Nalepa and Mohanty stand awkwardly together and have what is essentially a very awkward presentational chat which serves as the play’s exposition.  They have this chat with beers in hand, so we’re supposed to see them as friendly to each other and having a casual chat at a conference.  It is a scene that doesn’t immediately draw you into liking the characters, nor understanding that they are close friends and have been for years.  But, as was recently explained to me by my wife (who is a scientist–a chemist, to be precise), that’s basically what socializing at a conference is like.  So, now after the fact, I give the first scene a bit of a pass, though while watching the show, I was relieved that the production improved greatly after a rough start.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Watching their dreams collapse causes friends to take a stand.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Weekly Preview: 2/8 – 2/14 (Chart and Musings)

What on Earth?!  We’re finally back with weekly previews?!  Yes.  It is true.  Finally, after a few months away, you can join us in rolling your dice on the chart to determine the show you’re going to attend this weekend.  We’ve got two shows on our docket.  Exciting stuff!  As you look over the chart to the right, you’ll notice a number of terrific pieces opening this weekend, and a few on there that are just in their second week.  Should be a lot of fun!

For Something Completely Different:

If you’re thinking you’d rather not go all random, and put your fate in the luck of a roll.  Then, perhaps you’d prefer to take in a surefire laugher… Here’s a show that isn’t listed on our charts because it doesn’t have quite enough performances to meet our minimums for inclusion, but it’s one that is close to our hearts here at Theatre By Numbers: “Hot Buns & Beefcakes: Linda Belcher’s Love Connection” is playing at The Playground Theater every Saturday in February.  For those familiar with “Bob’s Burgers”, you’ll note that the show is named for one of the TV cartoon’s characters.  For those of you not familiar, well, why aren’t you?!  C’mon!  So, we seldom get to see one of our own on the stage (we’re writers, after all)– but in the instance of this show, Theatre By Numbers regular contributor Maggie Wagner is starring in the production.  Click here for more info, and Click here for tickets.

Do You Have A Critical Eye?

We are looking for at least one critic (most likely, two) to join our ranks here at Theatre By Numbers.  We’re expanding our coverage, but in order to do so, we need another pen or two to join up and help us tell the world about the awesome theatre scene here in Chicago.  If you’re interested, please send a couple of writing samples to cokidder@theatre1234.com along with a blurb about you and why you’d make a good theatre reviewer.  We’d love to read your stuff and help to ensure that other people do, too!

Well… that’s it for this week.  More next week. And a few reviews in the meantime!