Will Davis Casts An Imaginative, Modern Lens on William Inge’s PICNIC

Will Davis Casts An Imaginative, Modern Lens on William Inge’s PICNIC

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.

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10 OUT OF 12 Takes Audiences Into Technical Rehearsal with Raw, Exacting Detail

10 OUT OF 12 Takes Audiences Into Technical Rehearsal with Raw, Exacting Detail

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.

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At SPAMILTON, The Laughs Are Non-Stop

At SPAMILTON, The Laughs Are Non-Stop

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.

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Ease On Down to Kokandy’s Joyous THE WIZ

Ease On Down to Kokandy’s Joyous THE WIZ

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.

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Porchlight’s LITTLE ME Leaves a Big Impression

Porchlight’s LITTLE ME Leaves a Big Impression

Porchlight Music Theatre’s three-night-only concert staging of the 1962 Broadway musical LITTLE ME as part of its Porchlight Revisits series is every bit as effervescent as a glass of champagne—and it’s certainly an evening of theater worth toasting. With a classic Broadway score by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and a charmingly nonsensical book by Neil Simon, LITTLE ME provides ample laughs and Porchlight’s talented ensemble embraces every single moment of this improbable and exaggerated musical. And while the acting may be comically heightened as befits the show, the ensemble takes the vocals quite seriously and they nail every note. With direction from Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber, this is a night of pure Broadway showtune pleasure, and I could not have asked for a better way to spend a rainy Tuesday night. Craig V. Miller’s choreography (with Jane Lanier’s guest choreography for “Rich Kids Rag” delightfully performed by students from Roosevelt University) is icing on this delicious confection of a staged concert.

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Victory Gardens’ World Premiere A WONDER IN MY SOUL Pays Loving Homage to Chicago’s South Side and Female Friendship

Victory Gardens’ World Premiere A WONDER IN MY SOUL Pays Loving Homage to Chicago’s South Side and Female Friendship

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.

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Steppenwolf’s STRAIGHT WHITE MEN Explores Well-Crafted Themes of Privilege and The Human Experience

Steppenwolf’s STRAIGHT WHITE MEN Explores Well-Crafted Themes of Privilege and The Human Experience

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.

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Porchlight’s Haunting THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS Has Timely Resonance

Porchlight’s Haunting THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS Has Timely Resonance

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.

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I LEFT MY HEART Has A Relaxed Charm As It Pays Homage to Tony Bennett

I LEFT MY HEART Has A Relaxed Charm As It Pays Homage to Tony Bennett

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.

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THE BODYGUARD Provides A Glitzy and Lively Evening of Whitney Houston Classics

THE BODYGUARD Provides A Glitzy and Lively Evening of Whitney Houston Classics

THE BODYGUARD, based on the eponymous film starring Whitney Houston as pop star Rachel Marron and Kevin Costner as her bodyguard Frank Farmer, has plenty of glitz and glamour to go around in its current engagement at Broadway In Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. Throughout the night, lead Deborah Cox shines as Rachel in a never-ending array of glittery costumes from Tim Hatley (who also designed the set). And when Cox tears into one of Houston’s classic numbers, it’s also a joy.

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