Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Educating Rita

The thirst for knowledge is universal. What sort of knowledge a person seeks is, of course, particular to themselves, but it's safe to say that everyone has a curiosity in them. Whether it's looking for more culture, for an understanding of how things work or furthered schooling, the need to grow is a strong desire. In Shattered Globe’s production of Educating Rita, Rita is the first woman in her family to attend university. She is more than eager to learn “everything,” as she explains to Frank, her tutor. Frank is a lecturer who's currently more interested in scotch than teaching. Not looking forward to the semester, Frank tries to convince Rita to seek out another tutor but she likes him and thus begins their journey of both a formal education as well as an education about each other and themselves.

The scene is set even before the action begins with the stage, designed by Chelsea Warren, transformed into a library and office combination. With books and papers strewn about over every flat surface, the room looks quite lived in. It's appears to be a formal space but is made homey and inviting with that haphazard décor and messiness.

The show opens on Frank (Brad Woodward) searching his stacks of books for hidden scotch bottles. Woodard is instantly captivating and entertaining, taking control of the space and making it his own. His easiness with the character is apparent and he settles in well, going beyond merely “acting” and truly embodies the character. From the way he speaks to his body language, it's easy to forget a performance is occurring because it feels more like getting a glimpse into a real person's daily life.

Frank is preparing to meet with Rita, who busts through his door with the exuberance and excitement of someone who can't wait for a new chapter of their life to start. Rita (Whitney White) has a presence about her and a distinct personality that's made clear from the moment she steps on stage. White really plays up Rita's eagerness to learn and become and educated woman and that translates into a connection with the audience. Rita's attitude can be both attractive and grating but as the play progresses, White’s interesting character choices show something deeper in her eyes and her way of speaking. There are a few points throughout the performance when the action feels staged, but Rita’s fierce need to receive an education goes far below the surface, and it's clear White understands this.

Woodard and White keep the pace of the show moving along and keep the energy throughout. At a couple of points, it feels like the energy dips, causing the action to become a bit sleepy, but then it's right back up and the story moves along at a comfortable pace. The pair is obviously comfortable on stage together and they have a chemistry that is engaging and keeps the audience's attention. Woodard and White have an interesting relationship that shows through the both the moments of loud, boisterous lightness as well as the quieter, deeper moments that offer dynamics throughout and keep the show from being flat.

Educating Rita proves to be a relatable, entertaining show for anyone who's ever had the yearning to learn more about the world and to better themselves through an education.

Educating Rita plays at Chicago Dramatists (1105 W. Chicago, Chicago) through August 14. Tickets are $28 and can be purchased at here.

*** 3/4 stars

(All photos by Kevin Viol)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

review: Aida

Aida tells the story of Radames, an Egyptian warrior, and Aida, the Nubian princess who’s captured and taken as a slave. Radames returns to Egypt with his conquests and presents Aida as a gift for his fiancée, the Egyptian princess Amneris. As their lives continue to intersect, Radames and Aida fall in love, having to hide their feelings or face the consequences of traitors in Egypt. This epic love story is based on the Italian opera by Giuseppe Verdi of the same name.

The set, designed by Jim Dardenne is rather unique and abstract with a transparent pyramid center stage. Throughout the performance, the pyramid separates and becomes used as various set backdrops, like the princess’s bedroom or the palace, and small set pieces are brought on and off. The majority of the set if left bare with different scenic backdrops, leaving plenty of space for the action to occur without overpowering it.

Amneris (Erin Mosher) opens the show with “Every Story is a Love Story.”Mosher is powerful and soulful, commanding the audience to focus in on the action as she controls the stage. She continues to be both elegant and fascinating, bringing substance and depth to a seemingly superficial character.

Jared Zirilli as Radames quickly finds the depth of his character and really brings him to life, especially during “Fortune Favors the Brave” when Zirilli shows off his singing talents. He's very charismatic and comfortable both on stage and in his characterization, becoming a powerful force that's a joy to watch.

After Aida and Radames meet, it's clear that there's an attraction. Stephanie Umoh and Zirilli have wonderful stage chemistry and the tension between them permeates into the audience. There's an abundance of emotion behind their actions that's displayed through every possible way: their words, body language, facial expressions and physical movements.

Aida (Umoh) herself is a strong and mesmerizing character. Umoh has a stellar, powerhouse voice that brings down the house when she belts out her big notes. She exudes confidence as the princess turned slave and Umoh never forgets her back story, allowing it to come through in her performance. It’s an absolute pleasure every time she takes the stage.

Although Aida and Radames have fallen for each other, he's promised to Amneris and Radames's father, Zoser, will do everything in his power to see the union complete. Darren Mathias as Zoser has a strong, fluid singing voice, but I wish he emoted a bit more while singing. I would have liked to see some of the strength of his voice in his body language and in his eyes. That said, Matthias does a nice job of playing the manipulative, throne-hungry father.

The singing throughout Aida is spectacular, but there are a couple of times when the key seems too high or low for the men. The dance breaks during the music are also really well done. Choreographed by Jim Corti who also directed the show, the choreography is killer and the talent displayed is really something to see.

The lighting design (Jesse Klug) additionally adds another layer of intrigue to this musical. The lighting not only adds ambiance but helps bring forth the emotions of the characters. It really helps to move the story along and tie all the action together.

Aida plays at Drury Lane Theatre (100 Drury Lane, Oak Brook) through May 29. Tickets are $25 to $45 with lunch and dinner specials from $49.75 to $68 and can be purchased by calling 630-530-0111.

3.5/4 stars

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: The Butler Didn't

 What happens when you combine jewel thieves with an aging, ailing rich man, his trophy wife, his spoiled daughter, his lovesick lawyer? Chaos and debauchery ensue, like in Metropolis Performing Arts Center's production of, The Butler Didn't, a farcical comedy by writer-in-residence, Scott Woldman.

The set, by Thad Hallstein, was very well thought out and executed. An expensive-looking living room fills the stage, complete with a prominent red couch center stage, an ornately carved grand staircase and chandelier. The set creates the perfect backdrop in which to tell the story as well as to execute physical humor with actors jumping over couches, jumping up stairs and falling over themselves.

The Butler Didn't tells the story of jewel thieves Rick and Ernesto, who pose at the butler and the landscaper for wealthy, but aging Ezekiel Podmore in order to steal $20,000 worth of jewels. Everything is going according to the plan until Ezekiel's health takes a turn for the worse and who's included in the will comes into question.

Michael B. Woods settles right into the character of Rick, easily transforming himself the moment the lights come up. He's wickedly funny with both the delivery of his lines as well as with his physical humor. Woods is well aware of comedic timing and uses that talent to his advantage, keeping the audience audibly laughing. He's also a terrific physical actor, humorously hopping up stairs with his pants at his ankles, hopping over the couch and tripping all over the stage.

Ernesto, played by Richard Perez, starts out a bit shaky but as the show moves along, he becomes more comfortable in his character and by the end he's quick with the one liners and is just hilarious to watch. Perez plays well off Woods and the two of them create quite an entertaining duo. They are clearly comfortable with each other, allowing the interactions to be easy and the humor to flow.

There are some interesting but strange casting choices, such as with Ezekiel. Ezekiel is described as an old, ailing millionaire but when David Belew takes the stage it seems a completely different character. Belew comes off more as a middle aged, healthy, vibrant man playing sick as opposed to a sickly man who could go at any moment. Belew is entertaining, but doesn't fit the character description, creating a disconnect with the writing.

As Ezekiel's wife Cassie (Jackie Trabilsy) and daughter Laura (Michelle Weissgerber), these women have a tendency to lean toward overacting. While this is a farce and that does call for some overacting with over-the-top exaggerated characters, the overacting can be a bit overbearing and lead to cheesiness rather than humor. Trabilsy starts off feeling more like she's playing the part of a trophy wife rather than owning it, but as the show progresses, she begins to embody the character more fully and becomes less showy and more genuine, allowing her to really entertain the audience. Similarly, Weissgerber also feels like she's playing at being spoiled little rich girl causing her character to come off as an imitation. She continues to lean toward excessive overacting throughout the performance, which can be a bit grating at times.

Elizabeth Dowling keeps her acting more grounded as Ezekiel's lawyer Anna. Dowling is on point with her characterization and very humorous as she's torn between keeping her professional front and letting her feelings get the best of her. This dilemma combined with her comedic skill creates wonderfully amusing scenes.

The Butler Didn't proves to be a well-written and performed show. Save for some odd casting choices and a bit of overacting, this show is fun, lively performance.

The Butler Didn't plays at the Metropolis Performing Arts Center (111 W. Campbell, Arlington Heights) through April 17. Tickets are $35 to $43 and can be purchased by calling 847-577-2121.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Faith Healer

What is a fact? A fact is an indisputable truth based on actual occurrences. Memories are recalled facts collected over a lifetime to be reviewed in fondness or nostalgia. But how trustworthy are the “facts” of memory? Memories become tainted by time and emotion. By what the person wants to believe is the truth. Memories begin as fact, but over time, transform into something partially factual and partly fiction. In Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, Francis Harding, the faith healer, his wife Grace and his manager Teddy recall their lives together, each telling the stories of their travels and the memory of the fateful night that separated them in the end.

The setting for Oak Park Theatre Festival’s production takes place in the intimate black box theatre of Madison Street Theatre. The stage is practically bare, with a single chair sitting on stage in front of a cart of chairs and a sign announcing “The fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, one night only.” Without a physical set, there’s space enough for each character to set the scene with the power of their words.

Faith Healer is performed in a series of monologues beginning and ending with Francis, or Frank as he’s known (Kevin Theis), with Grace (Mary Michell), and Teddy (Jack Hickey) in between. The moment Theis takes the stage, his presence fills it up. As he begins is monologue, he uses his whole body in the portrayal of Frank, the Irish faith healer. There isn’t one part of him that does not completely transform, from his distinct walking pattern to his hand movements, facial expressions and even his voice. Theis delivers the lines is quite a charismatic fashion, directly addressing the audience and subtly breaking that fourth wall, even catching the eyes of audience members and pulling them right into his stories. As a faith healer, Frank must sell himself as a fact and must possess the ability to persuade anybody of anything. Theis does just this. He has a way of speaking that is so convincing that you can’t not believe every word out of mouth. Theis captivates the audience, keeping them hanging on his every word.

Similarly Michell does a beautiful job of fully embodying the character is Grace, Frank’s English wife. Grace appears proper and reserved as she begins her stories but as the memories engulf her, the façade fades away and Michell doesn’t hold back the true emotions, going to a very deep and real place. You can feel her past coming to the forefront and the emotions reach right out into the audience, allowing the audience to feel along with her. Michell commands the stage, opening herself up and inviting the audience in.

Teddy, Frank’s Cockney manager, provides some comic relief in an otherwise very serious show. Hickey is delightfully funny and quick with the comedic timing, keeping the audience laughing and light-hearted. That said, he is also quite talented with dramatic timing and when those memories start to creep in, Hickey offers a raw and unhindered look at the toll his life with Frank has taken on him. Hickey is both charming and charismatic his slick, entertainment manager way but is also very likable. It’s like sitting down with an old friend to catch up on time gone by.

All three actors keep the accents solid throughout the performance and take the characters to heart. At no point does it ever feel like a performance, and often you might even forget you’re watching a play. Although the play is lengthy, clocking in around two-and-half hours, the pacing is strong and the show moves along with energy. Faith Healer proves to be a fantastic display of theatrical talent.

Faith Healer plays at Madison Street Theatre (1010 W. Madison, Oak Park) through April 16. Tickets are $20 to $25 and can be purchases here.

**** 4/4 stars

(photo credit: Michael Rothman)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Review: The Man Who Came to DInner

When an infamously demanding radio personality slips on the ice of his dinner host's front stoop and is forces to take up residence against his will in their home for six weeks, among their various relatives, famous friend visitors and townsfolk only madness can ensue. Such is the story of The Man Who Came to Dinner, currently playing at Circle Theatre.

The set, designed by Bob Knuth, is decorated quite ornately. From the busily detailed wallpaper to the decorative window treatments to the proper-looking furniture and baby grand piano it’s clear that this space is owned by wealthy individuals. A grand staircase leads to the home’s bedrooms and French doors lead to an (offstage) library. The attention to detail is exceptional and the set is both visually interesting and the perfect backdrop for this performance.

The Man Who Came to Dinner begins with an energetic cast but some actors lean toward overacting. While the show is a farcical comedy and over-the-top acting is to be expected, some such as Mrs. Stanley (Patti Paul), wife the Earnest Stanley who are hosting radio personality Sheridan Whiteside, teeter on excessive overacting, which can be grating at times. Whiteside (Jon Steinhagen) starts off understated, delivering dryly bitter lines and insults in a rather hilarious manner. As the show progresses however, Steinhagen talks too fast, pushing the action forward and making the pace feel rushed. I understand that it’s partly a character choice that Whiteside speaks quickly as a way of speaking down to others, but Steinhagen occasionally speaks too fast, blending words together or stumbling over them. Aside from that, he does a great job of embodying the character and fleshing Whiteside out.

Lorraine Sheldon (Heather Townsend) is also plagued by use of quick speech. She, like Steinhagen, occasionally speaks so fast while delivering her lines that she stumbles. Sheldon is a larger than life character, a famous actress friend of Whiteside’s who he’s invited to visit, so Townsend’s overacting works here. Townsend is particularly funny when her character is angered, though she gets a bit shrill when she yells. Shrilling aside, Townsend uses not only her voice but her facial expressions and body language to bring Lorraine Sheldon to life.

Whiteside has traveled with his secretary Maggie Cutler (Kieran Welsh-Phillips), who keeps his life in order while he’s indisposed. Welsh-Phillips offers depth to the character of Maggie. She’s a presence on stage, speaking clearly and delivering her lines with confidence and knowledge of her character’s story. Maggie also falls in love while they are stuck at the Stanley residence with Burt Jefferson (Danny Pancratz), a newspaper reporter who has come in search of a story on Whiteside. Pancratz stars off stiffly, but throughout the show he eases into his character and delivers a delightful performance.

 Harriet Stanley (Brooke Sherrod Jaeky), an ax murderer masquerading as Mr. Stanley’s sister, Nurse Preen (Katie Kisner), Whiteside’s nurse and Beverly Carlton and Banjo (Jerry Bloom), friends of Whiteside’s who visit, round out the list of standout performances. Jaeky is understated, creating a strange yet fascinating character whose story you can’t help but want to know. Kisner is rather comical as she attempts to deal with Whiteside’s temper tantrums and antics. Bloom takes on characters based on famous character men: Beverly on Noel Coward and Banjo on Harpo Marx. Bloom does a terrific job of paying homage to these characters as well as bringing his own take to the roles.

 The Man Who Came to Dinner proves to be an entertaining show and ends on a hilarious note that keeps the audience laughing as the actors take their bows.
The Man Who Came to Dinner plays at Circle Theatre (1010 W. Madison, Oak Park) through April 3. Tickets are $20 to $24 and can be purchases by calling (708) 771-0700.

*** 3/4 stars

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review: Nefarious!

Nefarious is an adjective meaning extremely wicked or villainous. In Corn Production’s of Nefarious!, written and directed by Corn Productions company member Miquela A. Cruz, the evil (or nefarious, if you will) supervillianess Lilith has something big planned for Metropalopolis on the one-year anniversary of her destruction of Miss Cosmo. It’s up the Superstar Hot Hero Club, led by Mr. Bulleit and his sidekick Dr. Watts to stop the launch of Pandora (2.0) and put an end to Lilith once and for all and save their fair Metropalopolis.

The set in the intimately-sized theatre at the Cornservatory is set in an L-shape with simple set pieces. The backdrop of a cityscape is not overly fancy or showy and there’s plenty of open space for the multiple fight scenes that take place.

Nefarious! opens with a musical number introducing all of the characters. It’s hilarious and has the audience laughing out loud at the humor. Although it’s clear that this show is going to be cheesy and over the top, there’s talent on stage. The ensemble has a strong voice and, as I said, over the top characterizations. Not that that’s a bad thing here, as the characters need to be exaggerated in order for them to work, such as Mr. Bulleit (Matthew Gall), Dr. Watts (Andrew Bolduc), Anime (Kallie Noelle Rolison) and Yami (Justin Lance). These actors as well as the rest of the cast take their parts seriously but know how to play and have fun with them at the same time.

 While the singing of the ensemble was strong, solos are where things get a little shaky. Lilith’s (Aasia Bullock) solo “One Day at Time,” seems shaky at the start, causing her to sing off key at certain points. Bullock seems unsure initially but finds her legs to stand on by the end of her song. However, I wish she had come off more devious and villainous. For a character who’s supposed to be “nefarious” she could have taken it further playing up the evil villain archetype. Brendan Stallings proves to be more wicked as Kayne, Lilith’s right hand man.

The third of four songs, “Best Friends,” sung by Yami (Lance) and Anime (Rolison) has some awkward musical transitions and seems somewhat choppy. That said, Lance and Rolison are larger than life, keeping the audience laughing.

Gall as Mr. Bulleit completely plays up the narcissistic superhero persona, which makes his performance stand out. Even though his solo “How I Love to Love Me” has some pitchy moments, his character charisma helps make up for it.

Being a superhero comedy, there is, of course, a plethora of fight scenes. The fight choreography by Orion Couling and Zach Meyer is great. It’s evident that Couling worked hard in his direction to make the fights seem as realistic as possible and make them engaging for the audience. While the fight scenes captivated the audience’s attentions, voice over scenes, at least for this audience member, did not. I found my mind wandering during these scenes, just waiting for the action to return to the stage.

 Nefarious! is billed as a musical but with only four songs, it seemed slightly off balance. It could have used more musical numbers to truly feel like a musical. Besides that, the writing was pretty good dealing out funny jokes and one-liners. I also appreciated the plot twists that made the story more interesting and were not obvious on the surface.

 In the end the actors of Nefarious! proves able to hold the show together and keep the audience entertained with their high energy and comedic timing. 

Nefarious! plays at the Cornservatory, 4210 N. Lincoln, through March 26 Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 pm. Tickets are &7 on Wednesdays, $10 on Thursdays and $15 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets can be purchased by calling 312-409-6435.

2.5/4 stars

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: The Magic Parlour

On Friday nights the basement of the Chopin Theatre is transformed into a space full of wonder, enchantment and intrigue. Beginning at 10:30 p.m. Dennis Watkins takes the stage for The Magic Parlour, a weekly, late-night magic show.

The basement space feels more like someone’s living room than a theatre venue. Around the stage are various rugs overlapping one another as well as comfy couches, chairs and tables. It’s a very intimate setting, creating a warm and inviting backdrop. As the crowd begins to fill in, the buzz runs throughout. Audience members range from children to adults and everyone is excited for the magical show they’re about to see.

The moment Watkins’ steps on the stage, it’s clear that he’s a character. He’s immediately charming and personable, warming the audience up with a clever comedic trick. It’s evident that

Watkins’s is a talented performer and magician as he makes a torn up dollar bill reappear in a most unusual fashion.

Watkins’ reveals that he comes from a family of magicians as he bonds with the audience over life stories. His specialty is sleight of hand and the tricks he performs under this category are both crowd-pleasing and simply amazing. He’s incredibly talented at his craft, and there’s never any indication of how tricks are done or how they work. Nor is there any wish to know because the magic is too wonderful to be ruined.

Many of Watkins’ tricks involve audience participation, which not only adds another layer of entertainment, but it also furthers his connection and trust level with the audience. The interactive aspect is fun for both those involved and those watching the participation. Watkins does a great job of making his volunteers feel comfortable up on stage with him, easing any tension with jokes and humor. Crowd favorites include mind reading numbers, card tricks and tricks with money.

Watkins proves to be not only a magician but a comedian as well. In between and during tricks, he keeps the crowd doubled over with laughter and he recites joke after joke. During the hour-long show, I don’t think more than five minutes went by without something hilarious occurring.

Watkins fills the entire space with his charming presence and personality. The hour flew by and I found myself wishing there was an encore performance.

Because he’s so talented, Watkins’ doesn’t need to employ a lot of fuss in order to wow the crowd. There aren’t major special effects or smoke and mirrors. It’s simply him on stage delivering his talent simply and wonderfully.  

The Magic Parlour plays at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division, through June 24 on
 Friday nights at 10:30 pm. Tickets are $25 for adults, $10 for students and can be
 purchased at the Chopin Theatre’s Web site.

**** 4/4 stars