Cue the jazz hands—Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s PIPPIN has arrived at Mercury Theater’s Venus Cabaret in an intimate staging that brings the actors and the audience together. Mercury Artistic Director L. Walter Stearns’s interprets this cabaret production of PIPPIN in a literal manner: the show’s visual references and presentational style are highly influenced by the 1920s Weimar cabaret in Germany. Thus, the fictional story of Charlemagne’s son Pippin does not at all take place in medieval times but rather seems to occupy a moment all its own. Given the eccentricities in the material for PIPPIN itself, this is a fitting choice.
Under Jonathan Berry’s direction, Simon Stephens’s THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME has found its emotional center at Steppenwolf. Based upon the novel by Mark Haddon, CURIOUS INCIDENT marks the first Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of this season, and this staging brings the show’s theme of human connection to the forefront. I saw this play both on Broadway and on tour when it passed through Chicago in 2016, and the more poignant parts of the narrative felt swallowed up by the cavernous venues. In Steppenwolf’s comparably smaller Downstairs Theatre, CURIOUS INCIDENT has considerably more emotional heft while also offering up a unique visual and aural landscape.
With Santino Fontana leading the way in the dual roles of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, the Broadway-bound new musical TOOTSIE sings its way to success. Based on the 1982 film of the same name, book writer Robert Horn and composer/lyricist David Yazbek have translated TOOTSIE’S setting to modern-day New York City. It’s a smart move because it enables Yazbek to give the show a lush, contemporary Broadway sound; it also makes sure that TOOTSIE’s farcical tone lends itself to ample laughs while remaining respectful. The show’s design also firmly grounds us in the glitz and glam of NYC showbiz, with David Rockwell’s opulent and modern set showcasing many flashy, stunning elements.
Victory Gardens Theater’s Chicago premiere of Paula Vogel’s Tony nominated INDECENT weaves a beautiful narrative about the transcendence of art and human resilience. Director Gary Griffin’s staging feels both grandiose and intimate at the same time; the play’s action spans a time period from 1906-1950 and travels across continents, but the vignettes contained in Vogel’s story are rife with genuine, powerful human emotion. INDECENT was inspired by the true story of the 1923 Broadway debut of Jewish playwright Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, which had an illicit lesbian romance as one of its main plot points. Vogel’s story charts God of Vengeance’s journey from the moment Asch first presents the script to his wife through to its first reading and multiple staged productions.
Firebrand Theatre’s second season opens with a poignantly fitting musical choice: composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tony Kushner’s CAROLINE, OR CHANGE. In the musical from this renowned writing team, protagonist Caroline Thibodeaux, a black woman working as a maid for a white Jewish family in 1963 Lake Charles, Louisiana goes on a powerful journey of self-discovery. Firebrand, in partnership with TimeLine Theatre Company, has made a production choice that fits the company’s feminist mission like a glove.
David Cale’s solo show WE’RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME, now in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre, tells a story of the incredible resilience of the human spirit. Though Cale is no stranger to the Goodman stage (this is his seventh work to be produced here), he’s not made an appearance since 2005 and this “musical memoir” (so called in the program) is among his most personal works. Over the course of 90 minutes, Cale’s solo play with songs allows him to recount his childhood experiences in the industrial British town of Luton.
The best way to frame Brett Schneider’s solo show COMMUNION: An Evening of Magic, now playing at The Den Theatre, is with the following scenario: Open the book you’re currently reading to a random page. Pick a word, any word on the page, and lock it into your mind’s eye. Got it? So does Schneider. At least he might if you come to COMMUNION.
TimeLine Theatre Company’s season premiere production of A SHAYNA MAIDEL is a beautiful, haunting, and necessary theater experience. Barbara Lebow’s play reunites sisters Rose (Bri Sudia) and Lusia (Emily Berman) in 1946 New York City. Though the play was written in 1984 and takes place in the middle of the last century, A SHAYNA MAIDEL’s emotional story of survival cuts deep. As a young girl, Rose was fortunate to escape from Poland to America with her father Mordechai (Charles Stransky) before the beginning of the Holocaust. Due to a an untimely and devastating bout of Scarlet Fever, however, Lusia was forced to remain in Poland with the girls’ Mama (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis) and did not escape the horrors of the concentration camps. Reunited for the first time in many years, both Rose and Lusia must contend with their own guilty feelings and to rebuild a relationship nearly from scratch.
The touring production of John Doyle’s 2016 Tony Award-winning revival THE COLOR PURPLE has landed at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, where it will make hearts both soar and ache with the blaze of emotion it delivers. Doyle, a director best known for his stripped-down productions of American musicals, has applied that minimalist treatment here as well. And it works beautifully. The set only features a few modest risers flanked by a backdrop wall featuring several wooden chairs (Doyle also designed the scenery). When the actors first make their entrances, they bring more of these simple chairs along with them as they invite the audience into the story. This simplicity, also mirrored in Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Jane Cox’s lighting design, brings a profundity to the staging. THE COLOR PURPLE’s modest production values never feel like they’re skimpy, but rather they lay the foundation for the show’s deeply human message.
In the new Elvis musical HEARTBREAK HOTEL, hearts are unfortunately not the only thing that’s breaking at the Broadway Playhouse. This show, from MILLION DOLLAR QUARTER co-creator Floyd Mutrux (who also directs), serves up slice-and-dice theater. Watching the musical gave me a feeling of theatrical whiplash, as it rotated between scenes and songs at a confusingly rapid speed. While I was much looking forward to hearing some of Elvis’s greatest hits live onstage, Mutrux’s book delivers them piecemeal. Most of Elvis’s songs are reduced to snippets of roughly 30 seconds or so, which might leave even the most hard-core fans of “the King” wishing for more.