Hansol Jung’s CARDBOARD PIANO, now in its Chicago premiere at Timeline Theatre Company, centers on historical and contemporary issues in Uganda. Jung’s narrative sweeps up much of that nation’s recent history of violence, child soldiers, and homophobia into the story of just a few characters inside a church. And CARDBOARD PIANO relays all this alongside lofty themes of forgiveness, the power of religion, and the human need to fix what’s broken and right wrongs. While this may sound like a tall order for one play to tackle—and it is—it is Jung’s utterly human, multidimensional characters that allow her to find success. Jung also proves a masterful playwright because she knows that the best plays meditate on themes and add more complexity to some of life’s biggest questions, without offering up clear answers.
Acclaimed actor Brendan Coyle takes the Goodman stage in Conor McPherson’s thoroughly bizarre monologue play ST. NICHOLAS, which combines the innately unsettling and the supernatural. Coyle, known for his work as Mr. Bates in DOWNTON ABBEY (which this critic has admittedly never seen) proves a master at his craft in this production transferred from London’s Donmar Warehouse.
BoHo Theatre’s production of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’s 110 IN THE SHADE makes the central, fierce, independent female character of Lizzie Curry take center stage. This is particularly true because Neala Barron’s expert performance anchors every moment. Barron mines her character for the maximum amount of meaning and layers she can find: she makes us feel Lizzie’s strong-willed, intelligent presence while also conveying a deep sense of longing to find a husband and start a family. 110 IN THE SHADE strikes a chord precisely because these two facets of Lizzie’s character are not presented as irreconcilable: rather, Lizzie is simultaneously pragmatic and ambitious in her desires. With direction by outgoing Artistic Director Peter Marston Sullivan and music direction by Ellen Morris, Barron also thrives in each musical number backed by a 3-piece orchestra.
In Timeline Theatre Company’s MASTER CLASS, Chicago favorite Janet Ulrich Brooks schools the audience with her commanding performance as famous opera singer Maria Callas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.