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.
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.