The world premiere of Karen Zacarías’s NATIVE GARDENS at Victory Gardens Theater provides ample humor and wit—even if the playwright’s neighborly metaphor sometimes feels too on the nose.
The play introduces us to two couples living next door to one another in a wealthy D.C. suburb: Tania (Paloma Nozicka) and Pablo Del Valle (Gabriel Ruiz), a young Latino couple new to the neighborhood, and Virginia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Frank Butley (Patrick Clear), a well-off white couple who are long-time residents with a meticulously maintained backyard. When Tania and Pablo suggest replacing a decrepit chain link fence between the two yards with a new wood one, all seems well. But when a survey of the land reveals Virginia and Frank may be taking up more land than they’re legally entitled, a dispute ensues-and the conversation widens to issues much larger than just the maintenance of backyard gardens.
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Just as Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s 1999 musical RAGTIME traverses numerous locales on the East Coast and spans the years from 1906-1914, so too does director Scott Weinstein’s dynamic staging make full use of The Den Theatre’s Heath Mainstage. In Griffin Theatre Company’s production, Weinstein’s in-the-round staging often has actors dispersed among the audience (indeed, a handful of performers appeared right in front and me and even made eye contact during the performance). While this is an intimate production of a sweeping musical, this genius device lends RAGTIME the grand air it commands. The closeness of the action also lends pathos to this story of three American families—one white and privileged, one black, and one immigrant—as they navigate a changing country at the beginning of the twentieth century.
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Often we go see musicals to escape. We lose ourselves in the pleasure of song and dance, and narrative conflicts that are neatly resolved in two acts. We see musicals because they are frequently joyous and light-hearted and allow us to forget, if just for a few hours, what’s happening in the world around us.
PARADE, now in a blistering and beautifully minimalist production from director Gary Griffin, is not that musical. Though it is based off the real-life 1913 trial of Jewish pencil factory worker Leo Frank and was written by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry in 1998, this musical feels entirely of this moment. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the musical follows Leo as he is imprisoned and put on trial after being falsely accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a pre-teen girl found dead in the basement of the pencil factory. Georgia governor Hugh Dorsey wants to rapidly resolve the case and pins the blame on Leo-and coerces factory janitor Jim Conley to serve as an eye witness. The residents of Atlanta buy into Dorsey’s false narrative, as they’re distrustful of Frank and also want to see Mary’s death avenged.
Continue reading “Review: PARADE at Writers Theatre”
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.
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Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1956 classic Broadway musical MY FAIR LADY has some of the most iconic tunes in the American song catalog. And, of course, relays that tempestuous relationship (perhaps romantic, perhaps not) between the egocentric and language-obsessed Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower seller with aspirations for more. Higgins strikes up a bet with Colonel Pickering, also a language expert, that he can pass Eliza off as a lady of society within six months—and then, it’s off to the races as Higgins and Eliza spar along the way.
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True blue fans of Stephen Sondheim (this reviewer included) will be drooling over Porchlight’s latest offering MARRY ME A LITTLE. This two-hander revue showcases a number of Sondheim’s finest trunk songs—early renditions of numbers that were cut from such musicals as FOLLIES, INTO THE WOODS and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman René, MARRY ME A LITTLE (which has been revised for this production) introduces audiences to two lonely singles in New York City—known merely as “The Man” and “The Woman.” Living just an apartment floor away, these two lament their loneliness, and it becomes up to audiences to decide if the relationship that transpires in the show is real or imagined. The details are a bit foggy as MARRY ME A LITTLE has no dialogue whatsoever, but the piece is ultimately designed to showcase Sondheim’s work.
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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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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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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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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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