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

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Review of The Music Man at Goodman Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Music Man. It was by Meredith Willson based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey, and it was directed by Mary Zimmerman. Music direction was by Jermaine Hill and choreography was by Denis Jones. It was about a man named Harold Hill (Geoff Packard) who was a traveling salesman and went to a small town in Iowa called River City. He has been traveling America conning people into buying things. Here he is pretending to start a band that will never actually come to be. But he knows that he has to get the town music teacher/librarian, Marian Paroo (Monica West), on his side to make the con successful. In the process of trying to get her on his side, he ends up actually falling for her. Most of the town is on Harold's side, but the Mayor (Ron E. Rains) is still skeptical, which causes tension between Mr. Hill and the most powerful family in town. It is about finding love in strange places, truthfulness and the lack thereof, and community.

The play opens on a train car full of traveling salespeople and passengers (Matt Casey, Matt Crowle, Jeremy Peter Johnson, Jonathan Schwart, Bri Sudia, George Andrew Wolff) gossiping about Harold Hill who had become something of a legend among the salespeople because he makes a lot of money from selling musical instruments, which they didn't think could be profitable. The entire scene is set to the beat of the wheels on the train tracks. It is very rhythmic, almost like a rap. When the train slows down or speeds up, so do the speakers. Charlie Cowell (Crowle) seems to really have it out for Hill because Hill "doesn't know the territory." He kept screaming about the territory and repeating the same point as he climbs over seats and seems to be losing his mind. It was an entertaining way to set up the conflict between Cowell and Hill. Cowell does have a point, because Hill has to spend the rest of the play learning how to understand the territory of River City. Eventually he understands it so well he falls in love with part of it!

The choreography and ensemble were really strong in this show. The choreography was reminiscent of choreography from this era of musicals without being stuck in the past. There were new modern twists to the movement. I particularly liked how they incorporated rolling chairs and books in the choreography for "Marian the Librarian." That song in particular made better use of the ensemble than in the film and other productions I've seen. The ensemble was also very strong in "Iowa Stubborn." It was one of the big ensemble numbers, and I think it is great when the whole group seems like a moving, breathing force. I feel like when they walked on stage they just became the town. Actors would have individual interesting moments, but everyone was working so well together. You could feel they trusted each other. When their heads all seemed to be tracking Harold Hill as he walked across the stage, you got the impression of the whole town as a force that he had to win over. And we see him start to do this in "Ya Got Trouble." I really liked how the town started to accumulate around him. At first it was just about three people, but as he continued singing and talking about what happens in a pool hall, everyone gathered around him and started grabbing their children so they would not be tainted by pool. I feel like this Harold Hill was a lot more likable than I expected. He seemed genuine and you could see early on that he had reservations about fooling the town. This made him a lot more lovable and made Marian seem a lot more intelligent.

This show is very gendered in that most of the women characters behave in a certain manner and most of the men characters in another. Good examples of this are the women's club [Alma (Nicole Michelle Haskins), Ethel (Lillian Castillo), Eulalie (Heidi Kettenring), Maud (Bri Sudia), and Mrs. Squires (Danielle Davis)] and the school board quartet (Christoper Kale Jones, Johnson, James Konicek, Schwart). Both the women and the men get very distracted from Harold Hill's true intentions. The men get distracted by listening to themselves sing and the women get distracted by listening to each other. "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" shows how the women gossip about the town. It shows how they connect to each other and their interest in the town, even though the gossip itself can be toxic. The show portrays both how gossip can be toxic but also how it can create community. The quartet gets distracted by themselves and their own voices. It does keep them from fighting, but it also keeps them from seeing what the world around them is like. The two groups' songs could also signify how their importance is ranked in the community. The men have all these songs that are performances. The women's talk may be diminished by being called little, but their song is also very memorable and eventually incorporates Marian in the reprise when she begins to want to rejoin the community instead of isolate herself. Marian and Harold's relationship seems like it could be unhealthy because she accepts his lies even though she knows they are lies. But in the context of the town, where women are interested in others and men listen to themselves talk, their relationship doesn't seem as far-fetched.

People who would like this show are people who like stunning ensembles, distracted quartets, and rolling-chair choreography. This is an enjoyable show. It overcame many of the reservations I have about the musical itself and was a lot of fun. It is a funny, well-performed, and new take on a classic.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of Kokandy Productions' Head Over Heels

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Head Over Heels. The book was by Jeff Whitty based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and it was adapted by James Magruder. The songs were by The Go-Go's. It was directed by Elizabeth Swanson and Derek Van Barham, music directed by Kyra Leigh, and choreographed by Breon Arzell. It was about the kingdom of Arcadia which had a “beat” that kept the rhythm of the land steady and communal, but one day a prophecy was foretold by the local Oracle, Pythio (Parker Guidry), that the beat would be demolished if all four parts of the prophecy came true! So they notified King Basilius (Frankie Leo Bennett) and told him the tactics he must use to prevent this catastrophe, but this plan was not suitable for the king who thought that if he simply moved the kingdom it would no longer lose its beat. In his mind it is a bonus that the journey will also move his daughters Pamela (Bridget Adams-King) and Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza) away from the “unladylike” behavior that the prophecy foretold. However, his daughters continue to find themselves and who they love, no matter what their father says. This show is about love, identity, and overthrowing toxic power dynamics. This show is so important and beautiful because it recognizes different people's attractions and identities. It showed the intolerance that people can face, but it also showed the glee and fun of lots of different relationships. The focus wasn't on the tragedy, but on the joy. It has amazing performances and well thought-out song choices.

This is a great example of a good jukebox musical because the story is actually cohesive. Sometimes jukebox musicals can seem like a plot being thrown together around popular songs, but in this show each song seems grounded in the world and added to the plot instead of being “a break” from the plot. One of my favorite examples of this was “Beautiful.” The song explains the dynamic between the sisters and how Pamela feels superior to Philoclea. It also introduces Mopsa’s (Deanalís Resto) relationship with Pamela and how she seems to want to be more than friends but her current relationship was less than romantic. Having all of this information come through easily in one song is great storytelling and makes room for the central conflict while still giving enough exposition for that conflict to be fully understood. I feel like a lot of people who write jukebox musicals forget that many audience members don’t want to see a concert but want to see a story that intertwines the realm of musical theater with the realm of their favorite bands. I think that this is an example of someone giving us the best of both worlds: giving us the songs from The Go-Go's we love with a story that is new (despite being based on something very old) and interesting and makes sense together.

I really love this show's humor! It was clever and ridiculous--right up my alley. One moment that really cracked me up was the sheep. They seemed so clueless and adorable and the ensemble (Emily Barnash, Caitlin Dobbins, Britain Gebhardt, Connor Giles, Kaimana Neil, Roy Samra, Tiffany T. Taylor, and Marco Tzunux) really sold it, which made it 10 times better. I loved when one sheep (Gebhardt) was getting stuck in all of these places and running into walls repeatedly while all the rest of the sheep were doing a dance routine, which just added to the underdog humor element. There were a lot of blatant, and therefore hilarious, references and innuendos. One of my favorites was the prelude to the song "Vacation," sung by Mopsa, about her vacation to the isle of Lesbos, and it was funny how no one seemed to catch on that she was a lesbian, despite her choice of vacation destination. One of the funniest scenes for me was when Pamela is composing a poem about her ideal suitor and each rhyme that she can't think of has a rhyme that implies that she is attracted to girls. It was very funny and clever and I laughed a lot at it.

The characters in this show were witty and original takes on characters from The Arcadia. The shepherd Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop) was my favorite character. He was so intricate and hilarious, and the actor's voice was gorgeous. Everything about this character and this actor was just right in my opinion. He mixed adorable and awkward with being self-confident and committed. Whenever he was interacting with the oracle he was starstruck and didn't know how to behave, but I always trusted that he would be faithful to Philoclea. I liked how the relationship between Philoclea and Musidorus wasn't just a straight love story, but it showed how gender fluidities can play a role in relationships without being the most important part of them. I think gender is overrated anyway. I also really love the character of Pythio. I feel like some plays portray people who don’t conform to a certain gender as these carefree, responsibility-less people, but in this show Pythio is seen as not just "fabulous," fearless, and motivating but as a person with a family and a job and a real life. They are also not just a tragic story of someone who is discriminated against. Sure, they are an oracle, but they have a more complicated backstory than just a token. The role was performed beautifully with great personality and technique. I think this show does a great job of taking characters that have been flattened and re-humanizing them. In this play we see people who are completely comfortable with their sexuality, people who are figuring out their sexuality, and people returning to an old love with a new sexuality and identity. Having such a range of queer characters helps avoid stigmas and stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community.

People who would like this show are people who like queer representation in the foreground, joyful communal musicals, and fabulous dancing sheep. I think this is a very cohesive, funny, and electric show. I really loved it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Friday, July 5, 2019

Review of Firebrand Theatre's Queen of the Mist

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Queen of the Mist. The book, music, and lyrics were by Michael John LaChiusa and it was directed by Elizabeth Margolius. Music direction was by Charlotte Rivard-Hoster and orchestrations by Michael Starobin. It was about a woman named Anna Edson Taylor (Barbara E. Robertson) who couldn't pay her bills, so she was being run out of every town she lived in. She decided she wanted to make a name for herself, and what better way than do that than to hop on the trend of going over Niagara Falls! So she finds herself a manager, Frank Russell (Max J. Cervantes) who is skeptical at first but is won over by her charms. The show follows her master plan for surviving the falls and the aftermath of it, which is not what she expects. It is about self-motivation, how our choices effect others, and manipulation. This was a thought-provoking show. It made me think about what counts as a feminist story, how our rules for likable protagonists might be related to gender, and if relying on others is weak or necessary.

The character of Anna Edson Taylor was difficult to get behind for me. I understand a protagonist does not necessarily have to be a good person, but I felt like in this case Anna seemed to be trying to pass as a strong independent woman, but she kept having to restate to people that she was at one point married and they should call her Mrs. It seemed like she couldn't go on living without the approval of a man. Her choice to go over the falls in a barrel is in one way feminist because she is scientifically designing a barrel that can go over the falls without issue and proving a woman can do that. But she is also not being feminist because she is being coached through it by a man and she is doing it all for attention. She is also lowering her age so she can seem more appealing to the press. She is accepting how society is and catering to the ideals that society has made for women, but she still wants to be seen as feminist. She doesn't feel like she needs the help of other people, but she still takes it and doesn't acknowledge that she is taking it. Unlikable protagonists show that to be important you don't have to be a good person. It also helps you develop empathy for multiple types of people.

One of the most interesting scenes of the play to me was when we are introduced to the replacement Anna Edson Taylor (Neala Barron), who is touring with Anna's former manager Frank Russell with the original barrel. In the play Anna confronts her manager and meets this replacement. The replacement is more successful because she is willing to describe what it was like to be in the falls, whereas Anna wants to keep that to herself. It tells us that it is hard to keep any kind of private life when you are famous, and if you do, people don't take interest in you. The replacement isn't actually telling her own story, which shows us that sometimes the media and audience would rather have interesting lies than no information on a subject. I loved Neala Barron's performances in this show. Her voice is amazing and worked so well with both of her characters, the replacement Anna, and Anna's sister Jane. Jane and Anna's relationship was central to the show because Anna says that she loves Jane, but she also manipulates her into giving her help even though she says she doesn't need it and then isn't grateful for it. She also doesn't understand why her sister would be angry that Anna risked her life for a stunt. They had been very close when they were kids, so it seems like a matter of her sister being scared for her, not trying to tear her away from her dreams.

When you first walk into the theater, the atmosphere is very clear. It felt breezy and even seemed to smell of fresh water. It all contributed to the idea of the peaceful state that Anna went into when she went over the falls. That is an immersive environment for the audience to walk into. The set (by Lauren M Nichols) was also shaped like a barrel, which adds to the sense of immersion because you are in the barrel with her, like you were on the same journey through life. The actors would write important information on the back board, which added this collage of life aspect to the show and made it seem rounded out at the end.

People who would like this show are people who like barrel metaphors, complex protagonists, and sisterly love. I think this is a show with some really great performances that stretches your ideas of what a female protagonist can be.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review of Teatro Vista and Collaboraction's La Havana Madrid

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called La Havana Madrid. It was by Sandra Delgado and it was directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. Music direction was by Roberto Marin and Yendrys Cespedes. The choreographer was Wilfredo Rivera. It was about a club called La Havana Madrid (represented by Delgado) largely populated by the Latinx community. It was a place of community and reflection and safety for them where they could be themselves and find home in one another as they tell each other stories of where they came from, how they met the most important people in their lives, and finding their own passions. This show is about love, injustice, and finding hope. This is an amazing, hopeful, and truthful show that explores many sides of the Latinx experience and how the world around us has changed but also brings to light the ways it still needs to. This is a show that tells a very important story in an communal and new way.

This show is heavily fueled by music, which seems to symbolize elements of community. In each story that was told there would be some part of it that showed how music influenced their lives. I think that this is a great way to tie these stories together in a way that also relates to the setting. It also allows more audience involvement which can bring the audience closer to the stories being told. Sometimes in a show audience participation can seem forced, as if they put it in the show to make sure the audience was engaged, but it felt very natural and communal here. It also enhanced the story which oftentimes audience participation does not. One place this link between music and community was very clear was in Maria's (Ayssette Muñoz) story. She has just moved to the States and missed her parents and her home, so to get a taste of what she is missing she goes to La Havana Madrid. There she found she could express herself through dance and then she offers us her hand to dance with her.

All of the stories in this show were super important to tell and were performed beautifully. They showed varied aspects of Latinx experiences of immigration and life in the United States. One story that really stood out to me was Carlos’s (Victor Musoni). He talked about his path to activism which was very moving and well-performed. The image that really stuck with me was at the very end of his story and of the first act he is seen putting on a black beret while people chanted around him and he seemed to have found his place, the place he felt he was needed and belonged. Even though it is a moment of rebellion, it was very touching and powerful and sweet.

Even though this show is about discrimination and injustice, it shows how these people still found joy in their lives even if the world was trying to tear them down. This brings in some more joyful and bittersweet moments in the show, which make for very complex story telling. Sometimes shows that are devised from many true stories that don't fully connect to each other can seem un-thought-through and preachy, but this show finds throughlines in the story and also does not just yell at the audience about how bad the world is and was. The characters talk about what they did to cope with hard times and then showed us how. Carpacho (Marvin Quijada) does a tutorial for us on how to play the stand-up bass and how much joy jazz and salsa brings him. This contrasts with stories of having to hide from immigration officers. The character seems to say this is how I got through the hardest times in my life and possibly it could help you with people not accepting you. This approach is a lot more enjoyable and enthralling to experience and was done very well throughout the show. The actual bandleader and bass player for the show, Roberto Marin, was who this story was about, and it shows how his path in life led him to sharing music with us. It was powerful to see a person who had struggled get to do what he loved and that he is still doing it to this day.

People who would like this show are people who like stories of community, memorable themes and images, and non-oppressive audience participation. I think this is a great show and is like nothing I've seen before. I really enjoyed it while it was also an informative and immersive experience that I would recommend. I really liked it.

Photos: Joel Maisonet

Monday, June 10, 2019

Review of Six at Chicago Shakespeare

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Six. It was by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and it was directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage. It was choreographed by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille. It is about the six wives of Henry VIII, who are putting on a concert to decide which one of them suffered the most during her marriage to him and therefore who will be the lead singer. It is about feminism, taking ownership of your own life story, and overcoming differences. I think this is a vocal masterpiece of a show. All the performers were brilliant and it was clever, fun, and uplifting with several gut-punching moments of truth.

Divorced.... Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks) is the first wife of Henry VIII. She was very loyal to him which is the main point of the song. Even though he was sleeping around, she still stayed loyal to him and didn't say a word. She has been such a good wife, but even though she has been the perfect wife to him, he still wants to get rid of her. And she says, "there is no way that you are going to kick me out because I'm an amazing person and there is no reason you would want to leave me". It is Beyonce's Lemonade collapsed into one song. It is very empowering and I love that she is showing her devotion at the same time that she is showing she can do better. I thought the performance was absolutely gorgeous. I loved the tone switches between heartfelt and furious, which I think is a relatable parallel. The other divorcée, Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack), also has an amazing song that reminded me of "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea. It starts with a similar bass line and is very braggy in a badass way. It is also very empowering because she talks about not just the things she possesses as part of the divorce settlement, but things she is, like how hot she is and how powerful she is and how she can do what she wants because she is queen of her own castle. She really got the audience hyped up, which I think is important for such a braggy song. It might seem self-involved, but when she gets the audience involved, it shows that it is more of a group brag about female power. The performance was excellent, engaging, and was the perfect pick me up after a ballad.

Beheaded.... Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet) and Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauley) seem to have a leg up on the suffering competition because he literally had them killed. Anne Boleyn's song, "Don't Lose Ur Head," was less empowering because it was very clearly targeted at Catherine of Aragon, trying to show that she was overreacting and should have just accepted how obvious it was that Henry preferred Anne. It is a very very catchy song though and reminds me of a mix of The Pipettes, Marina and the Diamonds, and Spice Girls, which are some pretty brilliant artists so it is bound to be catchy. I think bratty British pop is perfect for her because you can tell by the way she acted that she thinks she is entitled to quite a bit. She is trying to seem innocent, but can't hide that she is self-obsessed and scheming. This creates some really great levels, which the actor totally nailed, throughout the song. I really liked the haunting undertone in Katherine Howard's song "All You Wanna Do." The beginning of the song is very sexual and Britney-Spears-like, but as the song continues and as she tells us about more of her past lovers, she slowly starts to realize how jaded and depressed she is. She is being used by all of these men and she has lost her own self worth. That is a lot to convey in one song, especially an upbeat pop song, but it was done so beautifully and emotionally by Pauly. She had these shifts in the song where she would realize what was happening, but then seemed to become distracted almost mid-realization by the next guy. This entire song was super effective, and I feel like it was important to show that even though she was a very sex-positive figure, some of that was a defense mechanism from all of the early sexualization in her life. The breakdown at the end of the song really got to me. You could really see her falling apart on stage and begging for help, and it was really hard to watch this super confident woman fall apart like that, but I still think it is important to show.

Died and Survived.... Jane Seymour's (Abby Mueller) song was called "Heart of Stone" and it was about how no matter how much garbage was hurled at her by Henry, she still loved him very very much and was going to stand by him even though it took a lot out of her. The most powerful section of the song for me was when she talked about her son and also about how if she hadn't had a son it might have made it so Henry wouldn't have stayed with her. It was very clear when she sang this that she had a lot of love for her son and realized how important he was to both of them, but she is devastated that she doesn't get to see him grow up. This song I would call a feat because Mueller made me cry within the first 15 seconds of this song. Her voice is so gorgeous and fits so well with this song. She made me feel the intention and the raw emotion behind the words of the song. Usually having a heart of stone means you are unfeeling, but in this song it means she is selfless and her heart can endure whatever it is hit with. Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele) had a song, "I Don't Need Your Love," that is very soulful and hopeful. The first half of the song is a letter to Thomas, the love of her life, because Henry has chosen to marry her and she has no choice but to comply. It becomes wishful because if she could she would tell Henry she didn't need him and would leave, but she can't do that without signing a suicide note. It feels gratifying to hear that she did make it out and survived Henry and got to spend the rest of her life doing what she should have been able to do years ago. I thought it was a gorgeous song and you could hear in her voice how much she loved Thomas. Her wishing her life was different was heartbreaking and beautifully done.

People who would like this show are people who like empowering queens, Renaissance references, and group brags about female power. I think this is an amazing show. Every single artist in this show is insanely talented. It is very empowering. It is a musical that looks back on the past and shows how the situations these women were in are relevant today. It shows how even if the queens are not here now, women can take back their stories, apply them to their own lives, and re-envision and revise them. It was inspirational, and it was a blast.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Review of Falsettos (Broadway in Chicago)

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Falsettos. The music and lyrics were by William Finn and the book was by Finn and James Lapine. It was choreographed by Spencer Liff and directed by Lapine. It was about a family in the 1970s and early 80s who are dealing with the effects of Marvin (Max von Essen), the father, leaving his wife, Trina (Eden Espinosa), and his son, Jason (Thatcher Jacobs when I saw it), for his boyfriend Whizzer (Nick Adams). As the family falls apart he sees a psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), who eventually falls in love with Trina. It is about family, love, and acceptance. I think this is a powerful story and an amazing musical. I already loved this musical before I saw it, and the cast in several cases even exceeded my expectations. It was great!

The relationship between Whizzer and Marvin is very complicated because you really see how much they love each other but you can also see how toxic their relationship is, especially at the start of the play. Their first song together is "Thrill of First Love," where they are yelling at each other about various things that they don't like about each other. It shows that just because you come out of the closet, it doesn't mean you are going to be happy all they time. Gay relationships aren't perfect just because people finally have the right to love each other. Later in the show, Whizzer sings a song called "The Games I Play" reflecting on his past relationships. He basically says, "I know I do all these things I know aren't good for me or the people I'm with, but I do them anyway." He realizes he is a sex object, which we knew from "Thrill of First Love," when Marvin says, "I was rich, he was horny, he fit like a glove." He is coming to terms with so many things that he may have already known, but he just accepted that was his place in the world because that is the way every man he'd ever been with had treated him. Whizzer's next solo, "You Gotta Die Sometime," after he's been hospitalized, was absolutely gorgeous. He seemed so desperate and scared, which is something you haven't seen from Whizzer before because he's been so confident and cocky. It makes it extremely alarming to see him so scared. I thought that it was an absolutely heart-wrenching song. It is one of my favorites, and I thought it was amazingly performed here. The relationship between Marvin and Whizzer does get better the second time around because they both realize what they did wrong and how they really needed each other and made each other better people. After this relationship has started becoming something really meaningful, Whizzer is hospitalized. It makes every song where they are still falling in love with each other more heartbreaking because you see that they finally found each other again and were happy and something had to go wrong. The play does a good job of showing how terrible the relationship is, getting rid of it, and then showing how what they did wrong could be done right. This makes the fear that both of them have about losing each other more heartbreaking to watch.

Thatcher Jacobs played Jason phenomenally. He brought this angst to this role which is written into the role but doesn't always come across as clearly as it did in his portrayal. He seemed like a sad 40-year-old, not like a cranky 10-year-old, which is in keeping with how weird the adults find him. He was very sad, and rationally so. He is a very complex character and you could feel every emotion he was experiencing. It was such masterful acting. We also see him turn into a teenager, although he often acts more mature than a teenager would. In "Miracle of Judaism," he talks about what girls he wants to invite to his Bar Mitzvah. He talks about all the things he likes about them and how he thinks he shouldn't like the women that he does. He sings a reprise, "Another Miracle of Judaism," where he is instead asking God to keep Whizzer from dying. Throughout the play, he has become closer to Whizzer. The play is about how family doesn't have to always be blood relatives. At the Bar Mitzvah, Mendel (who is now his stepfather) calls Jason "son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel, and godchild to the lesbians next door," Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Caldwell). That seems to me to be the real miracle, that all these different people become a family, and Jason realizes that, which shows how much he's grown. I also really loved the relationship between Mendel and Jason because there is no specific power dynamic even though he is his stepfather. They just seem to love being together. You really see this in "Everyone Hates His Parents" and "Feel Alright" which are both songs that essentially say things will be better if you act like a human instead of worrying about things. During both of these songs they are dancing around, and Jason is being flipped around, and they are jumping off things and breaking things, and it is adorable.

Trina has a song where she sings about how she is "tired of all the happy men who rule the world, all the stupid, childish men who rule the world." This is followed by "March of the Falsettos," which seems to be Trina's view of the men around her; they are acting ridiculous, like toddlers, and running around in these little outfits with high pitched voices. I think this is a very relatable song for me and I like that they include the woman's perspective even though less than half the cast is female, and in act one Trina is the only woman. This show is written by two men and directed by one of them, which makes me happy to see the woman's opinion and feelings being represented in realistic ways. This show represents so many different stories at an important time in history, and I think it means a lot to a lot of different people for many different reasons. I think that is what makes this show so important and beautiful. Some plays follow one person's journey, but this play somehow manages to follow several different people's storylines in a way that is specific enough that you grow to love each of them.

People who would like this show are people who like important musicals that make you love every character, complex child characters, and brilliantly heartbreaking and frank laments. I absolutely loved this show. It is an amazing story. It is beautifully acted, and this is a gorgeous musical.

Photos: Joan Marcus

Review of Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hamlet. It was by William Shakespeare and it was directed by Barbara Gaines. It was about a young prince named Hamlet (Maurice Jones) whose father (Derrick Lee Weeden) had recently died and his mother, Gertrude (Karen Aldridge), had remarried his father's brother, Claudius (Tim Decker). It is about justice, loss, and recklessness. I thought Maurice Jones' portrayal of Hamlet was gorgeous and he brought a sense of reason for his actions and an intelligence and self-awareness that you don't always see in the character.

Rosencrantz (Alex Goodrich) and Guildenstern (Samuel Taylor) weren't what I expected. Usually in Hamlet they act as the comic relief trying to get Hamlet to laugh his depression away. But in this version they seemed much more sincere because they seemed to really care about Hamlet. Usually they seem pretty self-interested and are only there to visit Hamlet to gain something from the King, but in this one they seemed more genuinely interested in helping him. I think we miss a lot of the humor that is in this play because they are usually a main source of it. I know both these actors are very funny performers and have played comedic roles, so I was expecting them to be the comic relief. This version has more respect for those characters, which makes Hamlet seem more cruel when he alters the order they have from the King so that it results in their execution. It makes it seem like he may actually be crazy. Usually Hamlet is a gleeful crazy person, but in this version he seemed dangerously crazy in moments like the recorder moment. Usually that is him celebrating his victory, but in this version he seemed to be threatening Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like he was implying that he was going to shove the recorder somewhere they didn't want it to be shoved. It feels like a credible and physical threat. It shows you that he doesn't have any filter anymore and even people really trying to help him seem like a threat. He is paranoid.

I really liked the scene with Hamlet and Gertrude after the play within the play. Usually that scene is heartbreaking and scary because you can see Hamlet has the bulk of the power. He is usually screaming at her and she is just sitting there crying. But in this version, she has a weapon that Hamlet doesn't know about which changes the power dynamic. In this scene it does seem like she might actually kill him because she has shown so little interest in him throughout the play because she is infatuated with her new husband whom Hamlet despises. That shows you that she has a motive to kill him besides self-preservation, and it seems like she might actually do it. I thought this scene was very powerful because it made me feel sorry for Gertrude because you think she might try to kill her son but she can't see herself because she is blinded by incestuous love. It is both heartbreaking and terrifying, but in a different way than usual, because the power dynamic has shifted and you believe a mother is capable of killing her son.

I really liked the relationship between Horatio (Sean Allan Krill) and Hamlet. Usually that seems very brotherly, but in this one Horatio was more fatherly. I liked that because the lack of a father is Hamlet's biggest loss, so it was nice to see Horatio take on that role. I think that built more of an interesting relationship between them because Horatio was not just a buddy but someone Hamlet really relied on. Hamlet seems to project a self-sufficient character, but to see him actually relying on someone and not pushing everyone away makes Horatio seem more special. That makes Horatio seem to fuel a lot more of Hamlet's actions because of their father-son bond. Hamlet seems to have parallel motivations from Horatio and the Ghost of Hamlet's father, but Horatio seems to care a lot more about Hamlet's wellbeing. Horatio and the Ghost don't want the exact same thing, but they are both motivating Hamlet. The ghost is motivating him to get revenge and Horatio is motivating him not to go crazy while doing it.

People who would like this show are people who like new takes on classic characters, distressing but interesting family dynamics, and threatening recorders. I think this production had an amazing lead and some interesting new ideas about this story. I really liked it.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review of The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 at Chicago Children's Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963. It was based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West, and directed by Wardell Julius Clark. It was about a family called the Watsons who were taking their eldest child Byron (Stephen "Blu" Allen) to stay with their grandma (Deanna Reed-Foster) in Birmingham, Alabama to teach him how to behave. On their travels they encounter more overt racism than they faced in Flint, Michigan, which causes the youngest son, Kenny (Jeremiah Ruwé/Nelson Simmons), to question what the world is really like. It is about family, injustice, and fear. The play introduces kids to the some of the darker sides of the history of the civil rights movement and reflects anxieties of parents and children when faced with racism and significant social change.

I really loved the family dynamic in this story. Some of my favorite moments were in the car with Daddy (Bear Bellinger), Mama (Sharriese Hamilton), Kenny, Byron, and their little sister Joey (Jillian Giselle/Lyric Sims). I really liked how when they put on Kenny's music, most of them couldn't stand it. It was very funny to watch the time lapse of them growing more disgusted with the song. That they kept playing his song nonetheless showed how much they loved him and how fair they were. I loved the relationship between Daddy and Mama especially. It was very playful and they worked well together. The whole family seemed very connected not only as the characters but as the actors, and they played well together throughout. I think a good example of this is the shaving scene. It was adorable on top of providing some exposition, which is hard to fit in to an adaptation for children, but I think it fit well and furthered my love for the family. Also, I think Grandma Sands might be the most lovable character ever because she was so free, caring, and wise. She loved a good joke. I loved the specificity of her relationships with each of the kids.

I think that this adaptation made a choice to make the whirlpool (which Kenny mishears as Wool Pooh) a specific and visible character (played by Ian Paul Custer), which stripped some of the actual emotion and injustice out of the story because in that moment they make it a fantasy with monsters. The Wool Pooh as a monster represents a lot of the chaos and danger of the south, but because it was a person in a costume, I didn't feel like it worked to do that. It felt like they were almost trying to convince the audience that none of the injustice was real so as not to scare the kids. In the book I found the disorientation of the church bombing that Kenny experiences, and where the Wool Pooh also appears, very effective and emotional. In the book it works because the Wool Pooh is described vaguely enough that it was more of a presence than a monster when he's trying to grab the shoe that we later learn belonged to one of the dead girls. By having him physically fight the Wool Pooh for the shoe, it makes it less realistic and seems to turn a real-life tragedy into a heroic fantasy battle. I think it is not actually that helpful to make it less realistic for kids; it actually makes them afraid of things they don’t need to fight instead of recognizing real problems in the world. I believe if kids are exposed to these topics at an early age, they can learn how to develop a new healthy humanized perspective that recognizes the reality of discrimination, danger, and death. I do understand that sometimes kids transform real dangers into imaginary monsters to make them easier to process, but when you are watching it, it was hard to still place the scene in reality.

People who would like this show are people who like realistic family relationships, detailed introductions to difficult topics, and youthful grandmothers. I think that this show has some beautiful elements and a great story.

Photos: Charles Osgood

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Review of The New Colony's Small World

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Small World. It was written by Jillian Leff and Joe Lino, and it was directed by Andrew Hobgood. It was about a group of cast members at a Disney theme park who are trapped inside of the "It's a Small World" ride after a disaster that has caused the ride to fall apart around them. They all are trying to get out of the ride and save themselves. But they don't all share the same ideas of how to go about it. It is about destruction in the face of happiness, intolerance, and forced camaraderie. I think this is a very intriguing show. It uses a lot of humorous elements to make a larger point. It was a very fun time while also being quite distressing.

I think this play was set at Disney to show how different people relate to Disney's utopia policy of making everything perfect. That kind of illusion can help some people, but it can also ruin lives. Each of the characters had a different relationship to Disney. Kim (Stephanie Shum) loved it because she felt like it helped her survive when she felt abandoned. She is invested in preserving the illusion of Disney as a magical place where nothing bad can happen and dreams really do come true. Even though she is severely injured, all she can talk about is Disney and its rules. She is a rule follower, and there doesn't seem to be an end to that. Donny (Patriac Coakley) had loved Disney as a child, but he grew to have a bad relationship with it because one of the cast members ruined the illusion for him. Becca (Jackie Seijo) has come to Disney to get away from her old life. She is surrounded by all these things at Disney that remind her that her own past behavior was less than chivalrous. There is this idea of Price Charming that has been a staple of Disney for years, but she realizes that in abandoning her own princess she has destroyed her own life. Kim embraces the illusion, Donny wants to destroy the illusion just like it was destroyed for him, and for Becca the illusion is a reminder of past mistakes.

Grotesqueness and humor have an interesting pairing in this show. For the entire show, Kim has metal rod impaled in her leg. Where some of the comedy comes from is her trying to keep her spirits up and do what she needs to do in spite of the obvious inconvenience. At one point they find the dead body of their coworker, which produced quite a bit of slapstick comedy. In some ways laughing at disgusting and frightening things is a coping mechanism. If we can laugh at such bad things, like death and pain, it makes us feel like they are not as awful or serious. Humor may not be facing the issue directly, but it can be better than just ignoring it. Humor can show a true understanding of a topic. I think it is good to find humor in scary things because it helps us cope with them and face them more head-on.

This play is very good at pulling you into the story immediately. When the lights come up at the start of the play I was like, "Oh my god. What is happening." It seems like Kim has just gotten impaled and everyone is panicked and basically the first few second while the lights are down are just people screaming. It was a very startling start because it is a mixture of two worlds that are total opposites: a ride talking about how everyone is connected and everyone should just love each other mixed with the aftermath of horror, death, and violence. It was effective because it showed how they were related, the happiness and the horror. It shows you a dark side of Disney and how in this case Disney made people feel bad, or weak, or excluded. What is magical for some can be a disaster for other. But it also reminds us that the idea of everyone coming together and not being so different can survive disaster.

People who would like this show are people who like analysis of Disney, exploring dark undertones, and startling and humorous impalements. I think this is a very strange but fun show. I haven't seen anything like it and it created a new amalgamation in my eyes: the disaster-workplace-grotesque-dark comedy. I liked it.

Photos: Evan Hanover

Monday, April 22, 2019

Review of Lottery Day at Goodman Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Lottery Day. It was written by Ike Holter, and it was directed by Lili-Anne Brown. It was about a woman named Mallory (J. Nicole Brooks) who had lost her husband and daughter five years earlier. She was hosting a party for all of her closest friends and enemies to get rid of a large amount of money that she had come into but didn't want anything to do with because of the memories it brought up for her. It is about family, loss, and community. I thought this was a moving, funny, and immersive show. It felt like I was actually at a party; all the interactions between the characters felt very recognizable, genuine, and complicated.

This is the final play in a 7-play series, all set in Rightlynd, which is an imaginary neighborhood in Chicago. Rightlynd is undergoing gentrification, and all the people living there now are dealing with the issues caused by it in different ways. I have only seen four of the seven--Lottery Day, Red Rex, Prowess, and Exit Strategy--but I would love to see them all. I feel like it would help me get even more references. It kind of reminds me of the Marvel Universe, where things that don't seem to be connected at first end up coming together. It is so exciting to see the characters from the plays you've seen over a long period of time come together, sort of like The Avengers. I love the character of Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter) from Red Rex, who also appears in this show. She is so awkward in a confident way. I feel like I've never seen someone who fits that description in a play before, but I definitely know people in real life who are like that. Lottery Day shows that she has made the connections in the community that no one else in the theater company seemed to realize were needed. Zora (Sydney Charles), from Prowess, is still such a badass, even though she's been through so much. In Prowess, she was learning the ropes and was new to everything, but now she is more experienced and seems tired. You see that she did some of what she set out to do, but maybe it's not all she thought it would be. Ricky (Pat Whalen), from Exit Strategy was mentioned in Red Rex, so it was exciting to see him after hearing about him in the later play. Here he seems more laid back, but still very eager to please. He's like, "I just want everyone to like me. Why isn't it working?" It is both irritating and lovable at the same time.

I think it was good that there were new characters in this story because even though it is everyone coming together, the new characters explain why they all came together and what has been their driving force. This play is Mallory's story, and she was a new character to me and in the saga. She's old friends with Robinson (Robert Cornelius), from Rightlynd, Nunley (Tony Santiago), from The Wolf at the End of the Block, and Avery (James Vincent Meredith), who is a new character. She raised Zora, Cassandra (McKenzie Chinn), from Sender, and the new character Ezekiel (Tommy Rivera-Vega). The new characters are just as compelling and complicated as the ones we've seen before. I'm impressed by that because it is difficult to write new characters for the world that compare to characters we already know and love. We already see Ezekiel's connection with Mallory before we know his backstory. He shows his personality very obviously in his first few seconds on stage. He is energetic and eager and very excited to launch his rap career. Avery has known Mallory for a very long time and there is a great tension between them, which you see from their first moments on stage. They both clearly care about each other and know each other very well. The seem to have a rich history, even though we haven't seen it from beginning to end.

I think that Mallory is a very interesting character because of her past and how she copes with that. She has a fear of being alone, so her coping mechanism is to filter her feelings about her loss through parties and barbecues and taking in people who need her help. Even though she has been like a mother to many people, she isn't the stereotype of the harsh but loving black matriarch. She is very clearly messed up and hurt, which gives her more layers. She is mysterious and unpredictable even though she is loving and is planning on giving a lot of money away. She uses her power sometimes in a loving and effective way and sometimes just to use it. I think this play shows how a hero can be complicated and manipulative while still having a positive effect on a lot of people. One of her more complicated choices is inviting Vivien (Michele Vazquez), her new next door neighbor who flips houses, to the party. It is hard to tell if she is trying to make a gesture to say, "even though we are different, we can still be friends," or if she is intimidating Vivien and putting her in a situation she is not very good at adapting to.

People who would like this show are people who like complicated heroines, the Marvel Universe of Chicago Theatre, and confidently awkward people. I think this is a really great show. I was so engaged in it the entire time. It has amazing actors, is beautifully written, and has an amazing director. I loved all of it.

Photos: Liz Lauren