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.
Under the taut direction of David Schwimmer, Kevin Douglas’s new comedy PLANTATION! succeeds in making audiences both laugh out loud and cringe. In PLANTATION!, Douglas explores one wealthy white woman’s attempt to make reparations for the benefits her family reaped from slavery. Douglas does so by posing the question: Does making amends actually work? And for whom does making amends actually benefit? The twist in PLANTATION!, however, is that these serious questions are explored almost entirely through the lens of broad, dramatic, zinger-filled satire. The all-female cast succeeds in landing each and every joke in this production, which brings the broadly comic nature of Douglas’s writing to the forefront.
As I took my seat for acclaimed director Ivo Van Hove’s production of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, I could see only a rectangular box of sorts on the stage—surrounded by audience members seated on benches on either side. This stark, minimalist presentation reflects Van Hove’s stripped down, Brechtian, and utterly gripping vision for Arthur Miller’s classic play. As the production opens, the box slowly lifts to reveal a grey, open space flanked by a glass border upon which the actors can sit. Though Jan Versweyveld’s set and An D’Huys costumes are artfully simple, they provide the backdrop for an evening of intense energy and uneasy tragic foreboding.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, now in a regional premiere production at Chicago Theatre Workshop, heartily captures the quirky personality of the 2006 Academy Award winning film upon which it’s based. Writing team William Finn and James Lapine (known for their previous collaborations on FALSETTOS and A NEW BRAIN) have keenly musicalized some of the film’s most oddball moments. In that great tradition of musical theater, Finn has cleverly located all the song buttons in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and all the numbers fall neatly in service of the narrative. Under Maggie Portman’s direction (she also choreographed), this production moves along at a brisk and hilarious pace. Nick Sula provides musical direction that makes nice use of few musicians.
In putting together American Theater Company’s current production of William Inge’s classic play PICNIC, Artistic Director Will Davis said he wanted his cast “to reflect the playwright and the powerful forces in his own psyche that kept him from happiness and fulfillment.” Indeed, the actors Davis has cast certainly unlock a great deal of humanity in PICNIC’s characters. As outsider Hal, Molly Brennan delivers a particularly inspired performance and bestows an immense depth of feeling into her role. While this is the first time I’ve seen a staging of PICNIC, I imagine that Hal is often played more broadly and more stereotypically typecast as a “macho” man—aggressive and assertive. In Brennan’s Hal, however, there is a beautiful earnestness and genuine desire for acceptance and belonging. This also makes Hal’s desire for Madge (Malic White) a more powerful longing for human connection. Alongside Brennan, White’s Madge also has a similar desire for understanding—though the role could be played more desperate still. White’s self-assured take on the character does not allow Madge to emit as much desperation as she might.
Though tickets are certainly hard to come by for the Chicago engagement of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical theater juggernaut HAMILTON, the laughs come easily at its hammier (pardon the pun) parody counterpart SPAMILTON at the Royal George. The latest in the line of Broadway parodies from FORBIDDEN BROADWAY creator Gerard Alessandrini (who also directs), SPAMILTON pays loving and playful homage to Miranda’s masterwork. The resulting show is witty, endlessly entertaining, and genuinely had me in stitches.
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.
In the spirit of the many “Top 5” song lists offered up in Refuge’s HIGH FIDELITY: THE MUSICAL, I present five reasons to see this entertaining, feel-good pop musical production rife with charm and delectable harmonies. There’s much to enjoy in Refuge Artistic Director Christopher Pazdernik’s delightful production, which is a remount of a 2016 staging of this musical based upon the 2000 film with John Cusack. Here are some of the reasons why this musical is worth a visit to Wicker Park:
Over the course of Mike Bartlett’s three-hour play EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON, now in its U.S. premiere at Steep Theatre Company, he attempts to tackle themes both universal—quite literally atmospheric and cosmological—and personal. The result is a sprawling play with seismic shifts in tone ranging from the hyperrealistic to the experimental to the just plain bizarre. And because EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON attempts to pack so much into its run-time, it never landed on any compelling takeaways for me.
Now making its national touring and Chicago debut, FUN HOME is a lovely and genuinely original new musical based on the eponymous graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. It’s worth noting that the show’s name comes from the fact that the Bechdel family business, was indeed, a funeral home in the small town of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. But it also underscores that this is a show in which Alison must confront the memories of her father and “straighten” out the fun house mirrors of her past to try to make sense of it. Many readers will also know that FUN HOME won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical and was notably the first show with an all-female writing team (composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist/lyricist Lisa Kron) to win that award.