A Taste of Things to Come

ATasteofThingstoComeActI_SetUps_Selects_HiRes_BD2I0355 (1)

“In theory and practice, the production’s goals are laudable. American women in the 1950s were asked to (pleasantly) accept fairly schizophrenic gender roles and norms. After serving their country during the 1940s in the military, factories and other labor and commercial enterprises, the very same ladies were asked to make do with a return to home and hearth management. For many, a “taste” of economic contribution and participation made reverting to more limited ambitions a disquieting experience. These stories are not told often enough.

At the same time, there are still far too few women at the helm of major theatrical endeavors. During the 2016–2017 Broadway season for example, of more than 30 announced productions, only four musicals and two plays are were directed by women. This iteration of A Taste of Things to Come is directed and choreographed by Lorin Latarro, who worked on the Broadway and National Tours of Waitress, among other projects.

The performers who comprise the cast, in particular, Marissa Rosen who plays doting domestic and frequent breeder Dottie O’Farrell, deserve to be household names. In addition to Rosen’s commanding vocals and sharp comedic skills, Cortney Wolfson (Joan Smith), Libby Servais (Connie Olsen) and Linedy Genao (Agnes), take the material they’re given and try to make it crackle. All are proven musical theater veterans that are fun to watch.

Yet I wanted so much more from A Taste of Things to Come. I came away from Sunday’s opening night feeling disappointed by the production’s fluffy overall experience. And it’s clear that the fault lies with the source material, rather than the work of the fine musical, technical and performance talent.”

Read the full post at The Broadway Blog.

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The Phantom of the Opera

phantom

Cameron Mackintosh’s stunning new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway smash “The Phantom of the Opera” is almost perversely difficult to describe with words alone. Performed by a cast and orchestra of 52, this reinvention of a timeless classic is large in more ways than one.

Directed by Laurence Connor, a studied veteran of many of Webber’s most famous shows, this “Phantom” offers the expected beautiful music, glowing performances and well-loved story. But it’s also a true feat of engineering. Toward the end of the first act, I had to stop myself from folding the program into a makeshift award to hand over to Set Designer Paul Brown. I’ve never been very skilled at origami anyway.

Although the Cadillac Palace is one of Chicago’s largest (2,300 seats), most historic (opened in 1926 as a vaudevillian showcase) and ostentatious theater venues, I never would have believed it large enough to contain the world that Brown unfolds over the course of an evening. I stopped counting after about a dozen distinctive, elaborate sets opened, closed, dropped and unrolled across the stage. I have no idea the ultimate cost or man hours invested in this production, but from all appearances, no expense or detail was spared.

With the look and atmosphere of a French palace even when the theater is dark (rose-marbled walls, crystal chandeliers, gold plaster ornamentation, large mirrors) the Cadillac is a natural fit for Webber’s iconic 1980s musical. Set in the Paris Opera House of the 19th Century, this sumptuous tale of love and bitter loss among the arts has found a perfect Chicago home for its limited run.

Nearly every theater lover knows the story: deformed since infancy, a bitter and intimidating man known as “the Phantom” (Derrick Davis) dwells in the Paris Opera House sewers. A gifted but frustrated inventor, composer and musician, the Phantom befriends a languishing chorus girl named Christine Daae (Katie Travis). The ethereal Svengali falls in love with Christine while training her to be an opera diva. He then sets about terrorizing the rest of the cast, demanding lead roles for his beloved protégé.

Though the Phantom bears a ghastly disfigurement and demonstrates his devotion in ways rather frightening to everyone involved, including Christine, it’s difficult not be touched by his misguided fervor. And of course, by the final curtain drop, the anti-hero’s innate goodness is evident.

The journey to redemption is a breathtaking one. Webber’s original score is just as haunting and mesmerizing as ever, complementing Brown’s audacious new set design. And as fully expected, the performances are developed and compelling.

Derrick Davis is a physically and vocally powerful Phantom. In speech he recalls a young James Earl Jones (especially fitting considering his time on Broadway as Mufasa/Scar in “The Lion King). And might I add that if you Google the performer’s headshot, you’ll find a visage decidedly unbeastly? Derrick Davis is one sexy ghost.

The diminutive Travis is a perfect complement to the sturdy Davis, but her Christine is no victim. Forced to choose between the life of her lover Raoul (Jordan Craig) and duty to her operatic master, Christine selects a third option of her own design that ultimately penetrates the Phantom’s embittered heart. It is she, rather than any man, who saves the day. And Travis makes the audience believe every gorgeous note.

I was first dazzled by “Phantom of the Opera” as a 15-year-old theater novice. New Year’s Eve 1994: I wore a green velvet dress as I entered Chicago’s Auditorium Theater feeling very mature indeed. With the first swing of the iconic chandelier, my eyes wider than saucers, the Andrew Lloyd Webber experience was seared into memory. As I left home last Friday evening, I wondered how the impression would hold up for a now 38-year-old, wizened critic. Would the magic have the same effect?

A thousand times yes. Just as it was when I was a teen, I’ll spend months humming the soundtrack, and perhaps longer trying to figure out how Paul Brown accomplished those intricate, otherworldly set pieces. Truly an amazing feat.

“The Phantom of the Opera” runs through January 8, 2017 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

Fun Home

fun-home

“Fun Home,” the 2015 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, kicks off a limited Broadway in Chicago engagement this week, and in so many ways, it smashes the musical theater mold. The morning after, I’m still trying to synthesize it all. As Martha Stewart is famous for saying, “That’s a good thing.”

For starters, the work is an adaptation of Allison Bechdel’s 2006 best-selling graphic memoir of the same name. Visuals are therefore a huge feature of the print work as well as the complex stage iteration. Dialogue and song are just two-thirds of the equation more profoundly than the typical Broadway production. Bechdel’s drawings are brought to life in a very conscious way that invites the audience to assume the role of voyeur. It’s an intimate experience that immediately creates a bond between the artist, source material and audience.

We’ve all consumed variations of the tried and true coming of age story, but in this regard, “Fun Home” is also quite different. We very much take the journey with Bechdel, as she views herself and her small-town Pennsylvania family through the eyes of memory at three different life stages: as an idealistic child who worships her creative, but distant father, a college freshman dealing with all the complexity of coming out of the closet in the late 20th Century, and a 40-something adult woman with a hindsight perspective.

Except it’s very clear that mature Allison still wrestles with demons and questions from the past. She presents no omniscient authority. Everything is up for examination and discussion. Considering the work’s genesis as a graphic novel and its tangled subject matter, it would have been easy for the musical component of the stage version to feel forced or arbitrarily shoe-horned. However like Bechdel’s haunting, beautiful drawings, Jeanine Tesori’s score is both gentle and thoughtful, while packing serious emotional punches. And catchy too.

A personal favorite is “Come to the Fun Home,” a peppy, dancey number performed by the young Bechdel children, Rachel and her two little brothers, John and Christian. The song is part of a make-believe commercial devised by the kids to promote the funeral parlor their father operates when he’s not teaching high school English, restoring antique homes and grappling with his own closeted homosexuality. Exuberant and lively, it still cannot escape the observer that the number occurs in a place of constant, revolving death. Alessandra Baldacchino, who plays the part of young Allison, is a real talent. Beautiful singing voice, genuine dramatic gifts.

In fact without exception, the cast of Broadway in Chicago’s “Fun Home” is well chosen. With quality dialogue and song handed to them, the performers embrace tragicomedy without stereotype. My companion for the evening was particularly impressed with Kate Shindle, who portrays adult Allison with the deft complexity required of serving as the dramatic fulcrum on top of which the narrative finds balance.

When the work won the Tony for Best Score in 2015, another mold was broken. Book author Lisa Kron and Tesori made history as the first female writing team to take home the trophy. That’s fitting because while “Fun Home” contains male characters — Allison’s father Bruce (the terrific Robert Petkoff) and his revolving cast of furtive lovers — this is a decidedly female story. Bechdel matriarch Helen (the diminutive but powerful Susan Moniz) is a complex portrait of devotion and conflict, a gifted artist in her own right who grapples with a lifetime of betrayal and secrets. And Allison’s first lover Joan (Karen Eilbacher) is the confident, empowering ideal of an LGBTQ community gaining 20th Century strength.

The musical, with raw, poetic language, sexual situations and honest engagement with death, is decidedly adult. Even then it may present a challenge to sensitive audiences. “My Fair Lady” this is not. As I said, multiple Broadway stereotypes are tested and shattered. But wow. It’s worth it. Fresh, haunting and full of sensory experience, “Fun Home” is one to see.

“Fun Home” runs through Nov. 13 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

Kinky Boots

Kinky Boots

Because I have apparently spent the last four years living in a musical theater trunk, I knew shockingly little about six-time 2013 Tony Award-winner “Kinky Boots.” With keen interest I was aware that the show is scored by 1980s pop music legend Cyndi Lauper and that the plot has something to do with shoes. Touring productions have passed through Chicago several times but somehow I always missed them.

I am pleased to report that this bit of Broadway ignorance has been rectified. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, with a book by Harvey Fierstein, “Kinky Boots” is back in town at the Oriental Theatre for a limited one-week engagement. Fierstein, who recently disappointed me with the one-dimensional Disney musical “Newsies,” returns to fine narrative form with the story of Charlie Price and Lola. The plot summary per press materials is as follows:

“Charlie Price is struggling to live up to his father’s expectations and continue the family business of Price & Son. With the factory’s future hanging in the balance, help arrives in the unlikely but spectacular form of Lola, a fabulous performer in need of some sturdy new stilettos.”

This is accurate and yet, as opposed to the oversimplified “Newsies,” “Kinky Boots” is full of loaded, complicated questions. Can legacy craftsman stay alive in the modern commercial world of outsourcing? How are the relationships between fathers and sons shaped by expectation and ambition? And what exactly does it mean to “be a man?”

Not all of these queries are given clear answers and that’s as it should be. What the source material and strong performances do assert however is that manhood is actually a wide variety of profiles in courage, personalized for every individual. And Lola, a trained prize fighter, loving human and drag queen extraordinaire defies all stereotype to present an engrossing, complex, emotional portrait of maleness.

While Billy Porter originated the role on Broadway, Lord have mercy J. Harrison Ghee. The actor, best known for a regional production of “The Color Purple” is a force of nature. Stunningly good looking, powerful of movement and with a soaring, gorgeous voice reminiscent of a young Luther Vandross, this is Ghee’s stage and he knows how to command it. The artist is no slouch in the dramatic department either. Just try not to weep at the conclusion of “Hold Me in Your Heart” toward the end of the second act.

The cast is not as uniformly and uniquely gifted as Ghee. Adam Kaplan’s Charlie is cute and likeable, but the performance is a quick, pleasant consumption, unlikely to stay with the audience longer than it takes to process the sugar rush. And it’s kind of hard to understand why stage and television screen icon Jim J. Bullock would undertake the largely throwaway role of George, the Price family accountant. He has a couple of good moments but his larger-than-life “Too Close for Comfort” personality is buried under a frumpy costume and rote dialogue.

Tiffany Engen, as dedicated Price employee and Charlie-smitten Lauren fares much better. She is a talented physical comedienne who uses every millimeter of her short stature to project an endearing, quirky foil to Charlie’s social-climbing, materialistic fiancée Nicola (Ellen Marlow).

As for Lola’s parade of “Angels,” a chorus of drag amazingness embodied by Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes and Sam Rohloff, there’s almost literally no words. Their physiques, costumes, acrobatics, sass, and strut are both an extension of Lola and a magnificent entertainment standalone. The musical numbers that conclude both acts — “Everybody Say Yeah” and “Raise You Up/Just Be” — would have much less punch without this group of rhythmic, sexy performances.

Cyndi Lauper earned every piece of metal that went into creating her Tony Award for Best Score. Each carefully crafted tune is a catchy, touching story, seamlessly serving plot movement while working just as well as party playlist addition. The soundtrack will be on my holiday gift list this year.

There are some minor details with which a critic could quibble. The second act argument between Charlie and Lola feels a bit contrived and some of the rural England factory characters are shallowly drawn. But really, who cares? “Kinky Boots” is one hell of a show. Chicagoans are encouraged to catch it before it sashays back out of town.

“Kinky Boots” runs through September 4 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

Newsies

Newsies

My college roommate Theresa is the world’s biggest fan of the 1992 Disney film, “Newsies.” The well-loved VHS copy she owns provided the backdrop to many a study-deferring undergrad evening. Motivated by fond reminiscence, as well as a general affinity for Broadway entertainment, I eagerly signed on to review the 2012 Tony Award-winner for Best Score and Choreography.

Those trophies are well-deserved. As my companion for the evening observed, “The dancing alone made it worthwhile. The cast was clearly not hired for acting, but that was some of the best dancing and choreography I have ever seen.” Slipped between the compliments about the fleet-footed crew of the Chicago production lies the problem.

The book, which I was surprised to read was written by four-time Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein, is plodding. And although the performers have physical grace and big voices — without exception — thespian skills appear to be a secondary requirement for this show. That’s a shame.

Because as the production’s promotional materials highlight, “Newsies” is “inspired by the real-life ‘Newsboy Strike of 1899,’ when newsboy Kid Blink led a band of orphan and runaway newsies on a two-week-long action against Pulitzer, Hearst and other powerful newspaper publishers.” With important history underpinning the source material — urban poverty, child labor abuses, and robber barons squeezing the already impoverished — the dialogue should feel a little less superficial than it ultimately does.

The film, which introduced much of the world to actor Christian Bale, is of course guilty of this as well (sorry Theresa). But I had hoped the transition to Tony Award-winning stage musical would result in greater heft all around. As already suggested, the original movie score, composed by legends Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, receives a turbo boost with seven new songs including the heartbreaking “Letter from the Refuge.” These new tunes supplement stage-ready barn burners such as “King of New York.”

The choreography from Christopher Gattelli is nothing short of amazing. There’s a scene before intermission where the newsies are each dancing gently atop torn newspaper sheets in faultless chorus. It’s hard not to wonder how many rehearsal injuries were produced to yield the perfect execution of this scene. The agility and acrobatics of the ensemble gives any Cirque du Soleil cast a run for its money. The children in the audience on the evening of the press premiere were enthralled.

I suppose at the end of the day, that’s the usual Disney target audience and “Newsies” is certainly family-friendly entertainment. Adults and devoted theater fans however, may find themselves in need of a little more grit. Particularly given the ripe opportunities offered by a true story of underdog triumph.

Joey Barreiro, who plays newsie hero Jack Kelly in this production, is adorable and exhibits a solid awareness of comedic timing. There’s also dependable, if one-dimensional, performances from Steve Blanchard and Kevin Carolan as historical figures Joseph Pulitzer and Teddy Roosevelt, respectively. And Aisha de Haas’s portray of Medda Larkin almost made me forget festering anger about the hooker with a heart of gold trope foisted upon the cast’s one and only woman of color. Almost. Her vocal chops are that cutting.

These observations aside, there’s nothing memorable about the acting. Morgan Keene as Katherine is ironically soft and non-threatening for a modern 20th Century woman ready to challenge the male-dominated field of journalism. Stephen Michael Langton, making his national tour debut as nervous union co-founder Davey, shows dramatic promise. I’d like to watch him perform again with more substantive material.

As I’ve already said, I’m aware of “Newsies” family-oriented target audience. However I would argue that “The SpongeBob Musical,” another Summer 2016 Broadway in Chicago offering, pleases the children without forgetting that adults actually buy the tickets. So many layers to that production. I would like to see a couple more added here.

“Newsies” runs through August 7 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

The SpongeBob Musical

SpongeBob the Musical
Lilli Cooper and Ethan Slater

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!

Sorry. I’ll try to be less childishly enthusiastic about “The SpongeBob Musical” for the sake of a literate review of the latest Broadway in Chicago production. But it’s going to be a challenge. The Pre-Broadway World Premiere of this take on the wildly popular cartoon series that began in 1999 is exuberant perfection. It’s nigh-impossible not to sacrifice one’s reserve (willingly) to the overwhelming joy that is every creative, technical and performance element of this show.

The plot, though it would hardly seem to matter given the source material’s colorful, loud reputation, is surprisingly and disarmingly approachable for all ages and cynicism levels. Press materials describe it as follows:

“SpongeBob and all of Bikini Bottom face the total annihilation of their undersea world… And just when all hope seems lost, a most unexpected hero rises up and takes center stage.”

A difficult narrative terrain is successfully traversed by Book writer Kyle Jarrow. The trick is to make the show feel like episodus interruptus for die hard “SpongeBob Squarepants” fans (such as ahem, myself — at least during the late undergrad years). At the same time, the production must be welcoming for newcomers to the 16-year cultural staple. My companion for the evening, a complete stranger to the Squarepants, watched a whole six minutes of the cartoon prior to last weekend’s press opening. By the performance’s regrettable curtain fall, we were equally besotted.

How can this be avoided? The music itself is terrific — diverse, radio-friendly and energetic. And with songwriters on the team such as The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper and T.I., this makes total sense. And yet it should not be taken for granted. I know “Hamilton” tickets went on sale this week in Chicago and the city has lost its relative theatrical mind over it. But “The SpongeBob Musical” deserves to be widely heard and seen. Such quality shall not be lost in the shuffle.

The production also comes with amazing audio/visual work, a set that literally has to be seen to be believed, costumes of which childhood (and adult) dreams are made and goodness me, the performances.

It almost seems unfair to single any one talent out for praise. These people are all-stars and coordinated with magnetic dexterity by show Co-Conceiver/Director Tina Landau. Landau, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company legend, is more than ready for Broadway. Perhaps it is she more than anyone who deserves the raucous and roaring applause the show will continue generating.

But despite what I just said, it’s incumbent upon my role as critic to heap kudos upon key performers. All are without exception terrific, yet Gavin Lee, as submerged Eeyore figure Squidward Tentacles, nearly walks off with the production. That man can dance like an angel with four feet. It’s hard enough for mortals with just two. I won’t say more because a continuous stream of delightful surprises is part of the magic. Just one more tease: Squidward’s big number is a show stopper.

And Ethan Slater, as the cartoon’s titular, kind-hearted and earnest if dizzy character, is everything. I mean literally everything: an acrobat, a man of a thousand voices, a break dancer, an amazing vocal talent and deft comedian. This 2014 Vassar graduate is about to break big — and deserves every bit of what promises to be a long career on the Great White Way.

“The SpongeBob Musical” is all superlatives and offers a genuinely inspirational message along with top-tier entertainment. The weary of spirit are especially recommended to buy their tickets before this refreshing, unexpected jolt of fabulousness departs the Windy City.

“The SpongeBob Musical” runs through July 10 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

Gotta Dance

Earlier this month, I attended the press premiere of the delightful “Potted Potter” with my boyfriend’s mother. As we walked down a hallway to take our seats for the show, we passed a promotional poster for “Gotta Dance,” the latest production from Broadway in Chicago. The faces of Andre De Shields (“The Jungle Book”), Georgia Engel (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and Stefanie Powers (“Hart to Hart”) jumped out at us immediately.

One stage icon and two small screen legends would have been more than enough to pull me in, but then I read the production’s synopsis: a “new Broadway-bound musical comedy about professional basketball’s first ever aged 60-and-older dance team.” Beloved performers from my childhood, dancing and the prospect of meaty roles for people over 40? A thousand times yes.

I was fortunate enough to secure reviewer duties for this week’s press opening, featuring a book by Tony Award-nominee Chad Beguelin and Tony Award-winner Bob Martin. The show’s music is the product of Matthew Sklar, Nell Benjamin and a young, upcoming kid by the name of Marvin Hamlisch(!). And “Gotta Dance” choreography is furnished by “Kinky Boots” Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell, in partnership with Nick Kenkel.

From writers to technical work and performers, “Gotta Dance” boasts an impressive pedigree of talent. Yet as we know, the presence of a chorus line of theater legends does not always result in success. I entered the Bank of America Theatre excited yet philosophical.

A resolve to remain impartial dissolved in mere seconds as the tremendously winning ensemble took the stage for “Just Look at Me Now.” The sassy song emphatically and proudly announces a unique and thrilling musical theater experience. I could write thousands of words about my love for this show. Like a fine wine, the production’s experienced artists and technicians have only improved with age.

Imagine an episode of “The Golden Girls,” packed with the same emotion, wit and acting talent, washed down with an energizing song and dance chaser. The press night opening crowd for “Gotta Dance” quite literally went wild. The momentum never slows. In yet another unconventional Broadway musical turn, the second act is actually stronger than the first. Take that “Dirty Dancing.”

Though the fairly straightforward plot can be described in a sentence, there is so much nuance in this semi-biographical story. The stilted estrangement of dance team member Bea (Lillias White) from her granddaughter Kendra (Joanna A. Jones) is a touching commentary on intergenerational misunderstanding. The two women meet three times on “Princess,” a lovely song which traces the evolution of their relationship as the geriatric team prepares for its debut. White and Jones have the vocal chops to convey the lightest wistfulness before belting a powerhouse finish that reaches the farthest recesses of the theater. They have marvelous chemistry.

Camilla (Nancy Ticotin) and Joanne (Powers) bring the sexy to the stage as two members of the “First Wives Club” with something to prove — namely that they still have all of “it.” In the sultry musical number “Como No,?” the 58-year-old Ticotin had me staring at my junior legs with disappointment. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe Camilla with a much younger, satisfied lover. Yowza.

I could scarcely contain my glee with a subplot involving blossoming love between Ron (De Shields) and Dottie (Engel). The two veteran performers are a delightful match. De Shields brings moves of the swing era and tragic comic nuance to his role as a grieving widower resolved to give up hiding. And Engel, well what can I say? She simply steals the show. As Dottie, adorable professional schoolteacher and devoted fan of ’80s and ’90s hip-hop, she is the glue that holds the production together.

The vibrant and wonderful “Gotta Dance” is more than a tasty trifle. The suffering of Alzheimer’s disease, the pain of dreams deferred, the cold sting of rejection from a starter husband — the production is not laughing at the elderly. Instead it giggles and hurts with them, never for a second allowing doubt that older, wiser and sweeter makes for a satisfying product.

By the time the beautiful cast takes the stage for “Get Up,” the rousing finale to this multi-dimensional creation, audiences will wish for a third act. I have spent an embarrassing part of the morning scouring YouTube for unauthorized versions of the track — to no avail. I leave you with two urgent recommendations: see this production as soon and often as possible, and if an original cast soundtrack is released, could you let me know? Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and I just “Gotta Dance.”

“Gotta Dance” runs through Jan. 17, 2016 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.