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.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s summer family musical PETER PAN is chock full of dazzling moments that will delight children and adults alike. With music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and a new book by Elliot Davis (based upon the book by Willis Hall), this production captures all the magic of the classic story of the boy who refuses to grow up in just 75 minutes. Adult audience members who are fans of J.M. Barrie’s original novel or the iconic Disney animated film will find this PETER PAN a refreshing mix of the familiar and the new. And of course, young audiences seeing the story of PETER PAN for the first time will be altogether surprised and amazed by this telling.
The national tour of WAITRESS has arrived in Chicago, and it’s serving up a production that’s sweet as pie. Based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name, WAITRESS made history as the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team. With music and lyrics from Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and book by Jessie Nelson, WAITRESS deals with some heavy issues (most notably domestic abuse) at its core. The material always treats these issues with a lighter touch, though the show is never dismissive. With direction by Diane Paulus, the end result means that WAITRESS ultimately uplifts rather than downtrods, and it supplies ample laughs along the way.
Ellen Fairey’s SUPPORT GROUP FOR MEN, now in a world premiere at Goodman Theatre, finds that sweet spot between hilarious and gently critical of modern society. As might be presumed from the title, Fairey’s play concerns a gathering of four Chicago men who come together on Thursday nights in an apartment that borders on the edge of Wrigleyville and Boystown. Fairey’s exploration of gender roles and the increasing need to become more open and embracing of those outside the binary means that the play’s locale is particularly central to its narrative. And while some of the characters in SUPPORT GROUP seem rather set in their ways, Fairey is careful to never point fingers in a mean-spirited way. The play succeeds in large part because Fairey displays such a great deal of empathy for each of her characters.
Jen Silverman’s THE ROOMMATE, now playing in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, offers audiences a veritable master class in acting via Sandra Marquez and Ora Jones. Under the direction of Phylicia Rashad, Marquez and Jones have a touching and natural onstage rapport. The material of Silverman’s play itself, however, does not exactly match the high bar of the performers. In fact, THE ROOMMATE feels rather uneven; the play dangles loose threads in front of the audience, introducing some major themes but never quite bringing any of them to fruition.
The lovable and lewd puppets of AVENUE Q have returned to Mercury Theater in a remount of the company’s successful 2014 production. I have a soft spot for this musical gem—which beat out WICKED in 2004 to take home the Best Musical Tony Award—and Mercury’s production reminded me precisely why that appreciation runs so deep. With a book by Jeff Whitty and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (the latter of subsequent THE BOOK OF MORMON and FROZEN fame), AVENUE Q strikes a delectable balance between outrageously funny and unabashedly heartfelt.
The pre-Broadway engagement of THE CHER SHOW has made its way to Chicago in a blaze of colorful, over-the-top energy and replete with the artist’s chart-topping hits. Three utterly talented women share the title role: Broadway veteran Stephanie J. Block as Star, Teal Wicks as Lady, and newcomer Micaela Diamond as Babe. Together, these actors deliver a powerhouse trio of performances worthy of Cher herself. Diehard Cher fans will be pleased to know that such iconic songs as “I Got You, Babe,” “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and, of course, “Believe” are in more than capable hands.
As the old adage goes “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Rajiv Joseph’s GUARDS AT THE TAJ asks precisely how far we might go to defend that which is beautiful, even if great human suffering and violence are involved. The play centers on Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed), two low-ranking guards at the Taj Mahal in 1648. The two are so low-ranking, in fact, that their job requires them to face away from the mausoleum. Joseph’s narrative provides his interpretation of the legend that guards like Humayun and Babur were asked to do the unthinkable in order to make sure that the Taj Mahal remained the most beautiful place on earth: cut off the hands of the 20,000 laborers and the architect who constructed the monument.
Summer has finally arrived in Chicago–and with it, BoHo Theatre’s timely staging of the more lighthearted side of Stephen Sondheim in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. BoHo’s production feels tailor-made for the season, and the company’s production delightfully captures the farcical and frothy tone of this beloved Sondheim musical (with book by Hugh Wheeler). Under the direction of Linda Fortunato, BoHo has delivered a modest staging but one that capitalizes on every inch of the charm this show has to offer. Evan Frank’s set design is sparse but easily conveys a number of different spaces, and Christina Leinicke’s costume designs are period-perfect. And while A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC may be light in tone, the musical’s complicated score is no laughing matter; Tom Vendafreddo’s music direction and Malcolm Ruhl’s reorchestrations make effective use of a four-piece orchestra.