Monday, September 9, 2019

Review of Teatro ZinZanni's Love, Chaos & Dinner

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Love, Chaos & Dinner. It is a cabaret with circus acts, comedy and food, and it was directed by Norm Langill. It was a farcical, witty, suggestive night of exuberant spectacle. It was a really fun group experience; it felt like the whole audience was at one big dinner party hosted by slightly insane people.

Rizo (Amelia Zirin-Brown) is the songstress of Teatro ZinZanni. She has an insanely powerful voice, and she absolutely rocked one of my favorite songs, Lizzo's "Cuz I Love You." She was so extravagant as she sang the song. But then this song transitioned into a comedy act of her trying to find her soul mate, who was apparently in the audience that night. And it was absolutely hilarious. She sultrily strutted through the audience looking for her new mate and then proceeded to aggressively flirt and to transform everything an audience member said into a double entendre. She was an amazing improviser and was so hilarious I was cry-laughing in my seat. When she identifies her true love, she has him write his name on her so that she won't forget him. She is absolutely going all out and it is hilarious to see her take everything so far. She is super confident but she is also a complete weirdo. It's amazing.

I absolutely loved the aerial act, Duo Rose. They were both so strong, the movements seemed effortless and graceful. There was so much emotion in each movement and every move connected. They seemed like one person. Each move was in perfect time with their partner. The lyra act by Elena Gatilova was absolutely amazing. There was a lovely twist because the character she was playing seemed very far from the person who did the lyra. She was so graceful, in her arm movement especially. She also seemed to trust herself a lot. There was a certain fluidity that made every single move even more breathtaking. You can see even more how amazing both these acts are because of how close you are to them in the intimate Spiegeltent ZaZou. The Anastasini Brothers had an Icarian act, which is a balancing act with a juggling act (where you juggle a person with your feet), and lots of acrobatics and landing on each other's feet. It was absolutely stunning and crazy to watch. You have to be super in-tune with the other person and have the rhythm. Everything is very precise. But they also seemed to be having a lot of fun with the other person.

Chef Caesar (Frank Ferrante) was the "chef." (The delicious food was actually designed by Debbie Sharpe, which is good because Caesar did not seem like he was in his right mind.) His character is chaotic and lusty. He decided to hold a competition to see who was "man enough" to take over for him. He selected three men from the audience. One of my favorite jobs that one of them had was a pharmacist/drag queen, which I absolutely loved. Caesar also had some amazing improv skills that were showcased in this bit. There is also the brilliantly weird comedy duo of Joe De Paul and Tim Tyler. They were hilarious together, but also had great featured moments. Tyler had a moment where he started to choke on ping pong balls that seemed to materialize in his mouth. He would spit them out and catch them in his mouth, often storing several in his mouth at the same time. It is very strange but absolutely hilarious and strangely impressive. There is another hilarious bit of comedy that had a pretty amazing build up. De Paul started unloading a trashcan that had boxes, a chess piece, a barbie doll, and celery. And he got into the trashcan, stripped to his underwear, and pretended to be King Kong, eating the celery tree and capturing the half-chess-piece-half-barbie-doll. It was absolutely brilliant.

People who would like this show are people who like powerful voices paired with powerful pickup lines, intimate and gorgeous circus, and King Kong creations. This show is funny, insane, and beautiful. I think this was an amazing show. It was a really fun time, and I definitely recommend seeing it.

Photos: Alan Alabastro

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Review of The Band's Visit (Broadway in Chicago)

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Band's Visit. The music and lyrics were by David Yazbek, and the book was by Itamar Moses, based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin. It was directed by David Cromer. It was about a band from Egypt, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, who have been asked to perform at the cultural center in Petah Tikvah, Israel but they end up in the similarly named but small and uneventful town of Bet Hatikvah. When asking for directions, they meet Dina (Chilina Kennedy), Papi (Adam Gabay), and Itzik (Pomme Koch) at Dina's cafe. She decides the town will take them in until they can catch a bus in the morning, but the night is more eventful than anyone had expected. This show is about life-changing experiences, perceptions of importance, and unexpected connections. I think this is a gorgeous show. It has amazing actors and beautiful songs. This is one of my new favorite musicals.

Band members Simon (James Rana) and Camal (Ronnie Malley) stay in Itzik's house with his wife, Iris (Kendal Hartse), father-in-law, Avrum (David Studwell), and baby son. At first, the family seems abrasive, but in sharing stories, they all begin to bond. The first time you see them starting to connect is in the song "The Beat of Your Heart," in which Avrum talks about how he first met his wife and how they fell in love through music. It made them all realize that they are much less different than they had thought at first, even though Itzik's family is Jewish and the Egyptians are Arabs. They rejoice in music and their love of love: "In love and music all is fair." Eventually Simon's concerto will bring the family back together; that seems to be the development of the idea of how music provokes love and builds stronger bonds. Camal's path also leads him to the Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo), a local who had been waiting for his girlfriend to call him for a very long time and has been standing in front of the payphone waiting. He is there to show how important feeling important to someone is. This story is impactful because it shows how people change each other through their connections with one another, and the Telephone Guy is the symbol of that desire to connect.

There was also a scene at a disco roller rink where Haled (Joe Joseph) from the band tags along on a double date--with Papi and Julia (Sara Kapner) and Zelger (Or Schraiber) and Anna (Jennifer Apple)--but ends up being a wingman for Papi. He sings a song, "Haled's Song about Love," about love to convince Papi that it is not so hard a thing to talk to girls, even though Papi has just expressed, in "Papi Hears the Ocean," that he feels that it is impossible to talk to women without having major panic attacks. It was a very funny scene. I loved how they took something like a disco roller rink, which is not considered very romantic, and turned it into a place of intense romance. Haled is a ladies' man. He knows how to seduce straight women with his voice and presence. He seems to walk around in a romanticized world and he doesn't seem to think about the future. He thinks about right now and what he wants now. The play seems to value fleeting connections because they can destroy prejudice even if it is a connection that can't last for a long time.

Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and Haled have gone home with Dina. Dina is interested in Tewfiq and so she invites him to go with her on a night out. She's interested in him because he is very stoic and is exotic to her. She sings a song called "Omar Sharif" about all the old Egyptian movies she used to watch. She was transported by these movies that played on Friday nights to an intoxicating world of honey, spice, and jasmine. This is such a beautiful song and was done impeccably--the singing, acting, and movement. It showed how much these characters agreed on and how much they could trust each other, even though they hadn't known each other very long. Another moment where you really got to see the specialness of their relationship was when they were sitting on a park bench and Dina wanted to know more about conducting and why he loved it so much. Tewfiq started conducting and she started to follow along. For a little bit there was no sound, just them moving together. Throughout the play the movement is all very purposeful. It makes every moment feel significant because everything has clear purpose and meaning. The play actually begins with the projected statement "Not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn't hear about it. It wasn't very important." But the way the play is made completely contradicts that by making every connection memorable.

People who would like this show are people who like gorgeous performances, memorable movement, and romantic roller rinks. I think people should definitely, definitely go see this show. I think it is a very important show because it shows how people with a history of conflict are more similar than they may think and are capable of true connection. I loved it!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review of Trump in Space at Laugh Out Loud Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Trump in Space. The book and lyrics were by Landon Kirksey and Gillian Bellinger. The music was by Sam Johnides and Tony Gonzalez. It was directed by John Hildreth, music directed by Phil Caldwell, and choreographed by Emily Brantz. It was about two spaceships in the year 2417, the liberal Spaceship California and the Trumpian USC Arizona. The Trump ship is captained by Natasha Trump (Alaina Hoffman). The Starship California's president of the day is Obama Sanders (Scott Cupper). When the California is overtaken by the Trump ship, a romance between Natasha and Obama is rekindled, forcing Natasha to rethink her current ways and prove to the Executive (Caroline Nash and Rudy Voit) that she is more than her name and that she can make her own decisions and love whomever she wants. It is about love, stupidity, and blowing stuff up...with love. I thought that this was a really hilarious show with lots of smart political comedy and catchy songs.

I really liked the witty comedy in this show. I thought the dynamics between the characters--Trump, the Executive, Lieutenant Commander Graham (Jay Gish), Commander Haley (Niki Aquino), and Lieutenant Kushner (Ross Compton)--on the Trump ship were hilarious. There was a scene in the elevator where they kept disagreeing how many lights there were in the elevator and if there needed to be one replaced. That seems to be the answer to how many politicians it takes to change a light bulb--no one knows because they just argue about it incessantly. What I like about this show is that neither side is without flaws, which I think is why the political system is so confusing. They try to separate into two different sides, even though everyone is sometimes an idiot. There are real differences, but nobody is perfect. So any idealist will be disappointed. I think this show is so smart because everything they are saying has a purpose and a meaning behind it. That's what makes the jokes so funny; they are well-rounded and relatable.

There was a gag where Natasha and Obama were trying to resist each other, but one or the other of them kept bursting into song and the other, who was doing a better job of resisting, would stop them. It happened so many times, eventually the accompanist (Caldwell) had to remind them of the rule of threes. I think this happened because Natasha and Obama finally agreed, so someone had to come in and disagree. This show is basically people disagreeing in hilarious ways. Politicians get a lot of comedy made about them. It lets politicians see the truth of a situation is less threatening ways. It is good to take political issues seriously, but sometimes we need a break from yelling at each other.

My favorite song was "Opportunity at All Costs" which was a very robotic song with some very funny choreography to go along with it. They danced around the stage singing about how they were mindless robots just doing what they were told because they didn't know what else to do. The choreography was very 80s-backup-dancer. It seemed very out of place for how those characters usually were for them to be doing a techno-robot dance, so that was very funny.

People who would like this show are people who like witty political comedy, annoying your accompanist, and Republican robot dances. I think that people should go see this show. It is a funny, musical, political romp. It lets people take a break to laugh at some of the ridiculousness of political life.

Photos: Tyler Core

Friday, August 16, 2019

Review of True West at Steppenwolf Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called True West. It was written by Sam Shepard and directed by Randall Arney. It was about two brothers who were staying at their mother's house while she was away. The brothers had taken two very different paths in life, The oldest, Lee (Namir Smallwood), had gone on a soul searching trip to the dessert, while Austin (Jon Michael Hill), the youngest, had made a family and started a career in screenwriting, but when Austin has a meeting with a producer named Saul (Francis Guinan) at the house, Lee sees this as a good time to prove that he can be as successful in Austin’s profession as his brother. This show is about family, masculinity, and damage. This show is overpowering and beautiful and twisted, right up my alley.

This show has a lot of humor that is very messed up. This adds a lot to the dynamic of the brothers. One of the most memorable moments for me was when Lee had taken up Austin’s profession, so Austin thought he would do what Lee had been doing, stealing. So Austin went to a large number of houses and stole an abundance of toasters. He then decided to make toast in each of the toasters on 0 hours of sleep and slowly started to act crazed and more crazed as he made this toast. I should also mention that his brother was screaming at him to not make toast this whole time. This is so brilliant because it puts together two very vital parts of a play, advancing the relationship and humor. It makes the audience feel more uncomfortable over time because when the lights first come up on a room filled with toasters it is immediately humorous, but as the scenario continues you realize how unhealthy these people are and you realize how many houses he had to break into and how crazy he must be to break into all these houses. Austin also is brushing off all of his brothers cruel comments which had almost broken him before. This bit of prop comedy comes with so much beautiful baggage that adds so many layers to the situation.

The dynamic between the brothers had some beautiful parallels with the coyotes that are referenced multiple times in the play. At first I was confused as to why the coyotes were so largely referenced and why it added to the story, but by the end it all rounded itself out with out being tied up in a neat bow. The final motif showed how the brothers were like the coyotes; they fought and howled for power for no reason other then the need for dominance. Another layer of the siblings' relationship is that they are very similar. The brothers are always saying that they are so different, but they both want the same thing; they want power over the other. But what they want they both cannot have at the same time. This is where the bulk of the conflict comes in; they both want the same thing and go about getting it by both going through this elaborate game of copycat and trying to prove to the other that they can be just as successful as they are.

Obviously, by the way the brothers act, they must have not have had a healthy childhood, and in this play we get a taste of why the brothers are the way they are. When Austin and Lee’s mother comes home, she comes back to a complete disaster. There are dead plants (and the only reason she asked Austin to housesit was to water the plants). Tons of toasters and paper are tossed about the room and their mother does not freak out. She walks around the room telling her kids that it was for the better that they failed at their ONE JOB and that now she doesn’t have responsibilities, which she says she likes. She does not assert herself in any situation; even when her sons might kill each other, she brushes it off and tells them to take it outside. I think that this shows where a lot of deep-seated trauma comes from. It seems like the mother thinks that her letting them do what they want is showing her trust of them and therefore her love, but I think that this showed neglect. And given that their father is unreliable and can't even care for himself, which we learn in a heartbreaking story Austin tells, Austin and Lee may have felt that she also did not care about them. When two siblings don’t feel love/equal love from their parents, they turn against each other in a fight for superiority in their parents' eyes.

People who would like this show are people who like intriguing backstories, partly hidden comparisons, and an abundance of toasters. I think this is an amazingly done piece of work and I loved it. I'm still thinking of it weeks later.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Review of The Wizard of Oz at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Wizard of Oz. It was by L. Frank Baum, adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Music and lyrics were by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. It was directed by Brian Hill, with music direction by Kory Danielson and choreography by Kenny Ingram. It was about a young girl named Dorothy (Leryn Turlington) who lived in Kansas with her aunt and Uncle (Emily Rohm and Jared D. M. Grant) but wanted to do more with her life than just stay in the real town that she grew up in. Focused on the struggle of keeping her dog safe from her evil neighbor (Hollis Resnik) who wants to take him away, she missed her chance to get into the cellar, and is transported by tornado to Oz, a colorful world that needs her help. So with the help of some friends she meets on the way--the Scarecrow (Marya Grandy), the Tin Man (Joseph Anthony Byrd), and the Cowardly Lion (Jose Antonio Garcia)--she goes on a mission to defeat the evil witch who has been oppressing the citizens of Oz. In the end, she realizes that her home meant more to her than she may have once thought. It is about family, love, and bravery. This is a classic story that I think a lot of families will enjoy.

My favorite numbers were the ones with the highest dance intensity, which were "Jitterbug," which is a song cut from the original movie, and "Merry Old Land of Oz." I feel like the ensemble of this show was very strong. They brought energy to those songs and seemed fueled by each other. These were the moments you could see they were all totally committed and you could see them all having fun. I liked how the choreographer kept the feel of the original movie's choreography but also made it unique. I really loved the Emerald City Guard (Grant) and I thought his part was humorous, but not at all forced, which can be hard with a role that's been done so many times.

Even though there were some memorable production numbers, this production felt pared down to me. I feel like most productions of The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz have made me feel like I was being transported to this new, glorious, technicolor place. But the spectacle in this production didn't achieve the shift in tone I was expecting. The tornado effect in this show had the actors attach a dollhouse in Dorothy's room to a harness which then twirled around the stage. It felt very detached from the magic that is usually so present. The tornado is usually the bridge between ordinary Kansas and the limitlessness of Oz, and so in my opinion it has to be spectacular to watch. Here it was interesting; it just wasn't exciting. Also Glinda (Rohm) seemed to just walk in without much fanfare. It made her seem less powerful to not have much grandeur accompanying her entrance. She could have been just in Kansas in a fancy dress, especially since the dress is still from that time period. The dress was beautiful, but since the entrance is the cue that we are in a magical place, it seems very underwhelming if the first thing we see is grounded in reality and treads on the ground.

I thought the costumes were beautiful. I especially loved the tree costumes. They were so memorable and sleek. It added to the dynamic of them being the backup singers for the Tin Man because they were reminiscent of the elegant gowns worn by Motown girl groups like in Dreamgirls. I liked how the Lion's costume looked like a toy in someone's room. It looked homemade, like someone's grandma made it. I liked how the costumes for the Jitterbugs looked both like bugs and like the dance move embodied--very free and young.

People who would like this show are people who like family-friendly classics, strong ensembles, and homemade lions. I think this is good show for young children to introduce them to theater and this story because it is not very scary or intense. The little girl I took with me to see the show enjoyed it--especially the real live dog, Derby, who played Toto.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Review of Come From Away (Broadway in Chicago)

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Come From Away. The book, music, and lyrics were by Irene Sankoff and David Hein and it was directed by Christopher Ashley. Musical staging was by Kelly Devine and music supervision was by Ian Eisendrath. It was about a town called Gander in Newfoundland, who hosted 7,000 people stranded during the air space shutdown after 9/11. It is about their kindness and acceptance of people in need even though they may be different. It shows many different stories of the Newfoundlanders and the passengers and plane crews and how they fit together. I thought this was a very beautiful, moving, and surprisingly funny show. It restored my faith in humanity by showing that, if people try, they can help each other and show that even in dark times our vulnerability can connect us rather than divide us.

I really loved how the movement and music blended so well together. I feel like it heightened the sense of community and cohabitation. They used a lot of body percussion which added to the music. The very last movement in the show was a stomp featuring the whole cast simultaneously, which also emphasized the sense of community. They incorporated the band into the show by having them be the band at the pub and also present on stage throughout the show. The dance is very modern because it showcases real movements that people might do, but making them more fluid and emphasized. Like on the plane and the bus, whenever they were sitting in rows, they would do a lot of ripples of relaxation or stressed movement. It is a lot more effective than having dance numbers because they are talking about real people's experiences and the staging makes the movement seem almost everyday, and in that way it honors the stories of regular people.

Even though this is such a short play, I feel like I knew a lot about all the characters by the end because everything was so beautifully arranged that you got a well-rounded taste of every person's story. Three of my favorite characters were Bob (James Earl Jones II), Beverly (Becky Gulsvig), and Ali (Nick Duckart). They were all characters who had had experiences with discrimination. They were very interesting stories especially because each person was in a different place in their struggles with prejudice. Beverly had overcome prejudice to become the first female pilot for American Airlines. She had a song called "Me and the Sky" that talked about how she got to where she was today and how her world was shattered by the 9/11 tragedy because of something that had made her feel free and alive had killed so many people and had made others afraid of flying, the thing she loved most. I think it is a beautiful song and I love how all the women in the cast joined in the song with her, again emphasizing togetherness. Bob was another character who faced prejudice, but he noticed that the bulk of the discrimination and stereotyping he experienced as a black man in the U.S. was lifted when he got to Newfoundland. There is a moment in the show where the mayor asks him to stay in his house and he is surprised that everyone is so welcoming and inviting to him. The actor keeps those undertones of how he's lived in fear while still letting the audience find the moments of comedy in his shock at how nice these people are. Like when he was shocked when the mayor was asking him to borrow grills for a cookout and he expects people to at least yell at him and tell him to get out of their yards, but instead they invite him in for a cup of tea. It just shows how much of a genius actor he is that he can still be hilarious while maintaining dark and relevant undertones. In contrast to Bob, Ali was feeling more discrimination that ever because of the connection between Muslim extremism and the attacks. Because he was Muslim, many treated him like a threat even though he just wanted to help and get home. Before he can board a plane to get home, he has to go through a full-body search, which is against his religious beliefs, and an interview because they think he might be a terrorist simply because he is Muslim. At first I was worried that Beverly was adding to the discrimination against him, but after the search she apologizes. I don't think that fully makes it better or okay, but it shows that she is trying to make the experience less painful for him.

I also liked how there were two different stages of romantic relationships in this show. Kevin J (Duckart) and Kevin T (Andrew Samonsky) are struggling in an older relationship because they have different attitudes toward the situation they have been put in. Kevin J. feels frustrated and angry, while Kevin T wants to embrace the place they are in. Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) and Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) have just discovered a new relationship and are trying to figure out how to make it work when they live in different countries. I liked how open they were with each other and also how we got to hear their internal monologues about each other. It shows how relationships can come out of difficult situations and how terrible times can cause beautiful moments.

People who would like this show are people who like communities born out of catastrophe, everyday kindness made historical, and unexpected cups of tea. I think that this is an amazing and gorgeous show. I think it is important for people to see this show and consider how we can learn from the Newfoundlanders to become a better, more inclusive, and community-driven country.

Photos: Matthew Murphy

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Review of Cloudgate Theatre's Strange Heart Beating

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Strange Heart Beating. It was by Kristin Idaszak and it was directed by Addie Gorlin. It was about a small rural town where a woman named Lena (Leah Raidt) and her childhood friend Teeny (Jyreika Guest), who is now Sheriff, are looking for Lena's missing daughter. But as they uncover her daughter's story, more strange things about the town start to come to light. It was about friendship, loss, and suspicion. This story and its world didn't always make sense to me, and the dialogue didn't help develop the relationships for me, but it had some compelling performances.

I think the people who were making this play had some very strong ideas for a show. I like that they are telling the stories of women and have characters with diverse backgrounds. They are putting important topics into the light, like how sexism and racism can derail justice. It is a murder mystery where women are not just victims, and that is appealing. The set (Angela McIlvain) worked very well with the story and provided lots of locations. Along with the sound (Averi Paulsen) and lighting (Kaili Story), it created a distinct noir atmosphere for the play.

This play seemed like a good idea, but I don’t feel like the script was ready. The dialogue was very heightened which made all of the situations seem less serious because it didn't make the speakers seem like they were in a real situation. I liked this same kind of dialogue in Idaszak's play Fugue for Particle Accelerator, but there it seemed more in keeping with the rest of the play. The dialogue was not the only aspect that made the play feel less than believable to me; the justice system put in place in this town let a person directly affected by the crime administer punishment, but the reasons this was allowed to happen were glossed over. The disappearance is also connected to a larger conspiracy, but it feels like a conspiracy without a theory because it is not explained or even really investigated in the play. Storytelling where it is up to audience to make up how the play ends is usually very compelling to me, but I didn't feel like I had enough material to create fully-realized theories in this case.

I think the actors in this show did an amazing job with the script they were given. I have loved a lot of the actors' other work, and I think that even with the unnatural world and dialogue, the actors brought a sense of groundedness to the play, and their relationships, especially apart from what was shown in dialogue, were very genuine and interesting to watch. I felt like the Lake's (Stephanie Shum) relationships with the other characters was very strong. Looking at Shum's reactions to each scene as it was going on showed you exactly how she felt about each character. She did a great job of giving us a more rounded sense of the world and her character. The heightened language did seem to make more sense with her character because it is already a strange premise to have a lake talking. And I could see Guest working to ground her scenes in reality and tie the ups and downs in the relationship to specific reasons.

People who would like this show are people who like woman-centric mysteries, examinations of justice, and talking lakes. I think this show has some really strong performances, an intriguing premise, and therefore a lot of potential. I'm excited to see what Cloudgate does next.

Photos: Austin D Oie