Christopher Wheeldon’s visually stunning production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS has come dancing into Broadway In Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. Wheeldon’s complex and extensive choreography is the most striking and entertaining element of this new musical, based upon the classic Gene Kelly film and with a new book by Craig Lucas that weaves together George and Ira Gershwin’s lush song catalog. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS enjoyed a successful Broadway run in 2015, and this touring company can certainly keep up with Wheeldon’s moves as well as the original ensemble.
“This music is magical. My writing is stilted.” So proclaims Erik Jensen as famed rock critic Lester Bangs in HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC, now playing as part of Steppenwolf’s Lookout Series. This thought has likely crossed the mind of all art critics out there (certainly it has crossed mine), and it embodies the spirit of this 80-minute solo play as it charts Bangs’s career. Jensen and co-playwright Jessica Blank (the pair are also married) give us a portrait of Bangs—who died of a drug overdose at age 33—that demonstrates the passion, creativity, and self-destructive nature that defined him. This solo play provides an overview of Bangs’s trajectory and allows audiences to learn about the rock music he loved, aided by David Robbins’s sound design.
Following a successful 2015 run, that great white whale MOBY DICK has returned to Lookingglass in a highly physical, inventive, and visually compelling production that’s fully in keeping with the company’s aesthetic. David Catlin’s adaptation of Herman Meville’s sprawling novel surrounds audiences in the universe of those whalers on board the Pequod in search of that elusive creature. With Courtney O’Neill’s artful and hand-crafted set design, the stage and audience reside in a whale “skeleton,” which cleverly also becomes the structure of the ship. As is common with Lookingglass productions, MOBY DICK also makes use of some talented, athletic performers who take on stunning acrobatic feats (choreography by The Actors Gymnasium’s Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi). But like any voyage, Catlin’s script has a number of slower, narration-heavy moments that lack much action. MOBY DICK vacillates between moments of captivating artistry combined with heightened physicality and lengthy stretches of pure narration.
The world premiere of Karen Zacarías’s NATIVE GARDENS at Victory Gardens Theater provides ample humor and wit—even if the playwright’s neighborly metaphor sometimes feels too on the nose.
The play introduces us to two couples living next door to one another in a wealthy D.C. suburb: Tania (Paloma Nozicka) and Pablo Del Valle (Gabriel Ruiz), a young Latino couple new to the neighborhood, and Virginia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Frank Butley (Patrick Clear), a well-off white couple who are long-time residents with a meticulously maintained backyard. When Tania and Pablo suggest replacing a decrepit chain link fence between the two yards with a new wood one, all seems well. But when a survey of the land reveals Virginia and Frank may be taking up more land than they’re legally entitled, a dispute ensues-and the conversation widens to issues much larger than just the maintenance of backyard gardens.
Theater Wit’s Chicago premiere production of Anne Washburn’s 10 OUT OF 12 presents a novel concept: audience members don headsets as they dive into tech rehearsal for a fictional theatrical production. As the play unfolds, so does tech—warts and all. Under the guidance of the Stage Manager (Dado), we are invited to observe a 10-hour day (though the actual run-time is 2 hours and 40 minutes) in the theater as the company painstakingly works to integrate the design elements into the final staged production. Because this involves some pre-recorded bits literally in the audience’s ears, director Jeremy Wechsler has incorporated some fun cameos for Chicago audiences: Martha Lavey as Lights, John Mahoney as Electrics, and Peter Sagal as Sound, among others.
Under the direction of Lili-Anne Brown, Kokandy Productions’ staging of THE WIZ radiates joy, and at the performance I saw Saturday night, the audience was soaking up every single joyful moment. From my vantage point, I can say that the audience reaction comes from the satisfaction of watching a solid musical theater production that leans into the musical numbers and embraces this all-black version of the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ to milk it for every possible ounce of delight and vibrancy. All of the ensemble members onstage seem to be truly enjoying themselves, and that energy is undeniably infectious.
In Kurtis Boetcher’s set design for Marcus Gardley’s world premiere A WONDER IN MY SOUL, the backdrop for the South Side beauty shop where the play is set prominently displays the photographs of black female icons ranging from Diana Ross to Beyonce—and all of course have fabulous hair in the photos. And as we learn in the play, Aberdeen “Birdie” Calumet (Greta Oglesby) and Bell Grand Lake’s (Jacqueline Williams) fictional beauty shop has played host to a number of these famous black women over the years. But what Gardley’s play does so beautifully is take the story of these specific, everyday characters and lend a universality to them. The play takes place primarily in 2008 but shows us flashbacks of young Birdie (Camille Robinson) and young Bell (Donica Lynn) as they make their way from Mississippi to settle in Chicago and start their business. Along the way, Gardley weaves a narrative that is warm and sometimes funny but also ultimately serious and touching. And as one would expect, Johnny Jamison’s hair and wig design is just superb.
Though Young Jean Lee’s play STRAIGHT WHITE MEN—now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company—primarily concerns itself with characters befitting its title, the piece opens with two gender non-conforming performers (Elliott Jenetopulos and Will Wilhelm) holding a pre-show dance party to loud, expletive-ridden music. Once the show begins, Elliott and Will inform us that the music was made to make audiences feel uncomfortable, and for those who were less bothered by the experience, that’s privilege. Of course, the notion of privilege—and particularly the privilege bestowed upon straight white men in American society—is one of the major themes in the play, and that moment creates a microcosm of that exploration. Elliott and Will continue to tell audiences about the “rules” of the play, creating a rather Brechtian frame for what unfolds as a realistic family drama about a father and his three sons who reunite at Christmas. And thus, even as Lee (who is a Korean American woman) probes the notion of privilege and the responsibilities that come along with it, she does so with a sympathetic eye towards her multi-dimensional characters.
Now in its Chicago premiere at Porchlight Music Theatre, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS could not be a more timely musical to produce. This musical recounting of the 1931 imprisonment and trial of the titular Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men ranging in age from 13-19 who were pulled from an Alabama train and wrongfully accused of the rape of two young white women, certainly has plenty of echoes to the present moment.
Mercury Theater’s I LEFT MY HEART: A SALUTE TO THE MUSIC OF TONY BENNETT incorporates an astounding number of songs into its 80-minute run time. These tuneful numbers will be recognized both by fans of Tony Bennett but also by those who enjoy the work of such accomplished composers as Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and more. Under the direction of Kevin Bellie and music direction of Linda Madonia, a four-piece band accompanies the music-filled evening (Madonia on piano, Ryan Hobbs on trumpet, Dan Kristin on bass, and Lindsay Williams on percussion). These musicians set the backdrop for a lovely, relaxing night of music at Mercury Theater.