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.
Firebrand Theatre’s production of 9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL makes a good deal of sense for the company to stage, especially as it’s the first show directed by Artistic Director Harmony France. This outsized, comical musical focuses on three women navigating office politics in 1979 as they plot revenge against their company’s sexist and outlandish CEO. With songs by Dolly Parton and a book by Patricia Resnick, 9 TO 5 is a fun romp of a musical with a bluegrass twinge and tons of laughs.
I was unsure exactly what to expect going into PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL, but I knew that I was excited to see Samantha Barks make her Chicago theater debut in this pre-Broadway try out. I was not disappointed. Barks’s performance as Hollywood Boulevard street walker Vivian Ward, made famous by Julia Roberts in the 1990 film, exudes radiance and effortless command. Barks has a thrillingly magnetic presence as Vivian. She nails the character’s signature charm and candor, and Barks elevates those qualities further with her winsome delivery. Of course, she is also an outstanding vocalist and milks many of PRETTY WOMAN’S mostly bland lyrics for all they are worth. If you’re a fan of the original film and are looking to see a star turn, PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL has those areas covered in spades. Barks’s performance is by far the most compelling reason to see this entertaining—though uneven—new musical.
Watching Artistic Director Robert Falls’ production of Henrik Ibsen’s play AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE is an eerily prescient experience. Though Ibsen wrote ENEMY in 1882, much of the dialogue (adapted by Falls from a translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling) feels like it is purely 2018 parlance. And, of course, the issue at the play’s heart (really, the only issue in the piece) is a bitter battle between Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who discovers the town’s water is poisonous, and his brother Mayor Peter Stockmann, who wishes to hide that truth at all costs. ENEMY’s script is undeniably pointed—among others, the phrase “fake facts” is used. Yet that seems to be precisely the argument that Falls is making: this is an on the nose production for an equally pointed moment in time.
Andrew Lloyd Webber diehards rejoice: LOVE NEVER DIES, the sequel to that opulent music theater classic THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, has arrived in Chicago. Every single element of this production is overblown and visually stimulating. Webber’s score is big, dramatic, and lush. And while the score has the kind of beauty and magnificence expected from Webber, book writer Ben Elton’s storyline is crammed full of superfluous plotlines and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are mostly full of musical theater clichés. That said, I was highly entertained throughout the entire evening. This is escapist musical theater fun at its finest.
Eric John Meyer’s world premiere play THE ANTELOPE PARTY opens on a meeting in an apartment setting notable for its vast and bright collection of MY LITTLE PONY memorabilia (kudos to set designer Joe Schermoly and properties designer Jesse Gaffney for this delightful visual). In this moment, we meet the members of the Rust Belt Brony Meet Up group. The bronies (sometimes referred to as Pegasisters when they’re female-identifying) are adult fans of the children’s show MY LITTLE PONY. The members of the Rust Belt group, in particular, identify with the show’s messages of magic and friendship and find solace among their brony counterparts.
If you like your musicals dark—tragically, unceasingly dark—with a complicated score that’s well sung, BoHO Theatre’s MARIE CHRISTINE is just the production to see as the fall days grow ever shorter. Under Lili-Anne Brown’s keen direction with spirited choreography from Breon Arzell (who is becoming an ever more deft choreographer), Michael John LaChiusa’s show charts one wronged woman’s journey as she goes to dire lengths to seek revenge when her lover abandons her. Based on the Greek tragedy MEDEA, the titular Marie Christine is a privileged New Orleans woman with a gift of voodoo. She falls in love with the ship captain Dante, who later abandons her when he decides to pursue a political career and can no longer be seen with a woman of mixed race. Thus, though MARIE CHRISTINE takes place in the 1880s, the show’s contemplation of one woman’s desire to gain power in a society and to set herself on equal footing with a lover that will not fully accept her has great resonance with the present.
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.