Wednesday, December 31, 2008


In no particular order, the following were my top 10 most outstanding trips to the theater outside of Chicago:

1. "Ivanov" (LONDON: Donmar Warehouse at the Wyndham's / West End) - Michael Grandage's production of this rarely performed Chekhov play (new translation by Tom Stoppard) was pitch perfect and was led by a voracious performance by Kenneth Branagh.

2. "Macbeth" (NYC: Brooklyn Academy of Music) - As directed by red hot director Rupert Goold, this rendition of the Scottish Play was played out as a relentless horror flick. The main draw may have been Patrick Stewart in the title role, but it was Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth that really got my skin crawling.

3. "Sunday in the Park with George" (NYC: Broadway, Studio 54) - This fine, fine revival featured the best blend of theater and computer animated projections I had yet encountered. One couldn't ask for a better ensemble, with Daniel Evans (as George) giving an emotionally resonant performance straight from the heart.

4. "South Pacific" (NYC: Broadway, Vivian Beaumont) - Perfect in every way, Bartlett Sher's full, glorious revival seethed authenticity without reverting to hokeyness. As Nellie, Kelli O'Hara gave an honest, beguiling breakthrough performance that was also gorgeously sung.

5. "Gypsy" (NYC: Broadway, St. James) - Despite its threadbare looks, this revival was a firecracker, with a trio of definitive performances: Laura Benanti was utterly believable at every step of Louise's transformative joureny; Boyd Gaines as Herbie was effectively solid as a rock until his heartbreaking departure; and Patti LuPone gave a focused, galvanic performance that will be remembered for generations.

6. "The Seagull" (NYC: Broadway, Walter Kerr) - Ian Rickman's production went down in my book as the best representative of Chekhov performance I have seen to date, with every moment balanced between comedy and tragedy. The regal Kristin Scott Thomas led a true ensemble with her fiery, volatile performance.

7. "Arias with a Twist" (NYC: Off-Broadway, HERE) - I had never seen anything like this show, which can be best described as a hallucinatory B movie sci fi adventure told through drag performance and puppet arts. Ridiculously talented master puppeteer Basil Twist framed legendary drag artist Joey Arias in some of the most provocative stage pictures of the year.

8. "Fuente Ovenjuna" (ONTARIO: Stratford Festival) - Laurence Boswell's engaging, rock solid revival of Lope de Vega's scantly done play was a true highlight of my first ever visit to the revered Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. There was an overwhelming sense of community among the cast members here that I found extremely moving.

9. "The Music Man" (ONTARIO: Stratford Festival) - Susan H. Schulman's lovely, pristine production of this Meredith Wilson classic not only basked in the joyous exuberance of early 20th century Americana, it also highlighted the piece's sophisticated writing and structure. May it have actually deserved its Best Musical Tony over the much-loved "West Side Story"?

10. "Hamlet" (STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, Royal Shakespeare Company) - Gregory Doran's crystal-clear "Hamlet" was headlined by David Tennant's Danish prince. I am happy to report that Mr. Tennant's (aka Dr. Who) interpretation was worth the hype; his performance had an accessibly modern appeal and possessed a manic charisma. He was supported step by step by an exceptional cast, with Patrick Stewart's sympathetic take on Claudius being the best I'd ever seen.

Honorable Mentions:
-"O" (LAS VEGAS: Cirque du Soleil at the Bellagio in Las Vegas) - the most spectacular thing I had ever seen; really pleasantly surprised by its dark, almost impenetrable world
-"Lipsynch" (LONDON: Barbican) - Robert Lepage's nine hour epic was not perfect, but it had moments of breathtaking stagecraft
-"Now or Later" (LONDON: Royal Court) - a timely, edge-of-your seat study on the intersection between the personal, political, and the media
-"The Merry Wives of Windsor (LONDON: Shakespeare's Globe) - a disarmingly charming production, made even more irresistible by its setting
-"Piaf" (LONDON: Donmar Warehouse) - I could care less about the uneven play, but I was very impressed by the passionately explosive performance from diminutive Elena Rogers in the title role
-"In the Heights" (NYC: Broadway, Richard Rogers) - successfully brought hip hop to Broadway, but at heart, this sentimental musical was as traditional as they come
-"Passing Strange" (NYC: Broadway, Belasco) - one of the few Broadway shows ever to truly rock; oh yeah, the show was also a successful experiment on the limits of the musical theater form and an an existential mediation on life
-"Dividing the Estate" (NYC: Broadway, Booth) - a new Horton Foote on Broadway (a cause for celebration in and of itself), and it's pretty darn good
-"The Women" (SAN DIEGO: Old Globe) - stylish and very funny, one of the few unadulteratedly enjoyable experiences this year
-"Hamlet" (ONTARIO: Stratford Festival) - Ben Carlson was even better in Adrian Noble's stylish and stark production than in his Jeff Award-winning performance at the Chicago Shakespeare last year

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


In no particular order, here are my top ten Chicago theater experiences:

1. "Our Town" (The Hypocrites) - David Cromer is the director of the hour (I've been an adamant fan since his thrilling "Angels in America" for the Journeymen a decade ago), and his searing interpretation of Thornton Wilder's American classic delved right to the heart of the text like a bolt of lightning. The production is headed to New York.

2. "A Flowering Tree" (Chicago Opera Theater) - It was a true treat to hear John Adams conduct his own fragrant fairy tale of an opera. His stage director Nicola Raab and her team of singer/actors and designers understood that the most fulfilling of fairy tales are rooted in pain and consequently took their audiences on a potent emotional journey. This production was a triumph in collaboration -- all aspects of production colluded to create an unbreakable spell.

3. "Caroline, or Change" (Court Theatre) - I found Court's production to be an improvement upon George C. Wolfe's original New York staging. It seemed much more balanced under Charles Newell's insightful direction, with E. Faye Butler sharing the spotlight with Kate Fry's invaluable supporting turn.

4. "The Brothers Karamasov" (Lookingglass Theatre) - Lookingglass at last proved its storytelling maturity, as well as confirmed its unmatched sense of the theatrical, with its sprawling, muscular, and wholly successful adaptation of Dostoevsky's epic novel.

5. "Eurydice" (Victory Gardens Theatre) - This wonderful production of Sarah Ruhl's playful, wistful deconstruction of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth was the first time I'd seen the Biograph mainstage used to its utmost effect, thanks to Jessica Thebus's simple yet expansive staging.

6. "Gatz" (Elevator Repair Service) - An epic project which understood that sometimes prose is inextricable to the essence of a novel (certainly the case for F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby) and made unforgettable theater out of it. Bravo, MCA, for giving Chicagoans a chance to experience this.

7. "Dublin Carol" (Steppenwolf Theatre) - The best Chicago McPherson production in a year which has seen some excellent, very high profile productions ("The Seafarer", also at the Steppenwolf; and "Shining City" at the Goodman) from this acclaimed Irish playwright. "Carol" was a haunting, impeccably acted production, and despite being a downer, the best holiday show of the season.

8. "Ruined" (Goodman Theatre) - Lynn Nottage's powerful world premier at the Goodman impressed with some of the most harrowing and heartbreaking performances of the season. Kudos to director Kate Whoriskey, as well, for staging a production of great authenticity and compassion. Along with Cromer's "Our Town", this one's headed to New York.

9. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, visiting company) - Tim Supple's exciting and authentic South Asian production oozed youthful energy and sexuality and was hands down the finest production of "Midsummer" I had ever seen.

10. "Don't Dress for Dinner" (British Stage Company) - The single funniest evening spent in a theater all year. This production of the famous farce did not make a false move and its execution looked downright effortless.

Honorable Mentions:
-"Shining City" (Goodman) - very fine performances of a very fine Conor McPherson play
-"As You Like It" (Writer's) - cozy, wistful production of my favorite Shakespeare comedy
-"Eugene Onegin" (Lyric Opera) - this exquisitely minimal production of the famous Tchaikovsky opera had an enormous emotional impact
-"The Trip to Bountiful" (Goodman) - Lois Smith was breathtaking in this beautiful, gentle production
-"Les Miserables" (Marriott) - (almost) erased memories of the original staging; that's a pretty big compliment
-"Sweet Charity" (Drury Lane) - Drury Lane reinstated themselves as one of the big guns with this joyous, Broadway-quality production
-"Speech and Debate" (ATC) - the most truthful play about teenage angst I have ever seen
-"Funk It Up About Nothin'" (Chicago Shakespeare) - I didn't think it was possible, but the follow-up to "Bombity" was just as fun and clever
-"Lulu" (Lyric Opera) - Lyric deserves enormous credit for staging this tough Berg classic in such pristine, uncompromising fashion
-"Picnic" (Writer's) - director David Cromer once again proves his worth with his claustrophobic, heartbreaking take on this Inge classic

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Nutcracker (Joffrey Ballet) - 12/20/08

To me, a trip to the Joffrey's "The Nutcracker" really puts me in the holiday spirit. It's a real treat from beginning to end, and the Joffrey dancers are in fine shape here. Many dismiss "The Nutcracker" as mere fluff, but I disagree; I think it works wonderfully on its own terms as a full-length ballet. As always, I find the first act a real stunner; the sense of mystery and wonder of the narrative really holds the audience. However, while the second act remains utterly enjoyable, it is basically a series of dance turns with really no sense of forward movement. This is a heartwarming holiday tradition for me and will continue to be so. Happy holidays everyone!

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A House with No Walls (TimeLine Theatre) - 12/18/08

TimeLine's production Thomas Gibbons' "A House with No Walls" is a thoughtful study of race and identity. I had missed his "Permanent Collection" at the Northlight a few years back, so I was eager to catch this one ("House" is part of the same trilogy as "Collection"). We've all seen this before: it's a play that preaches how the past informs us, and in turn, how we should work together to make a better future. The performances here are very good all-around, with the women fairing particularly well. Both Amber Starr Friendly and Leslie Ann Sheppard are giving luminous performances here.

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Marriage of Figaro (Remy Bumppo Theatre) - 12/17/08

Historically, Remy Bumppo has focused on careful, thoughtful readings of classic texts, much of the time to the detriment of the staging. Indeed, I find that many of their production veer on the (overly?) safe, conservative side. Hence, in this go-around, I applaud Remy Bumppo for taking a chance on an uber-stylish and stylized staging of Beaumarchais's (as as adapted by Ranjit Bolt) farce, "The Marriage of Figaro", the play immortalized by Mozart's opera. I also applaud the committed cast for working over-time to amuse the audience. However, unlike the concurrent production of "Don't Dress for Dinner", this one lacks the infectious giddy energy to hit this one out of the ballpark. I'd like to blame director Jonathan Barry and his stylized production (as opposed to the capable actors) for this; much of the show is I think too choreographed to set the characters free to rely on their individual comedic chops. Now only if these folks can strike the perfect balance, as these folks did years ago with their stunning production of Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood".

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Don't Dress for Dinner" (British Stage Company) - 12/16/08

Marc Camoletti's farce, "Don't Dress for Dinner", is receiving an absolutely smashing revival at the Royal George Mainstage. I think it's the funniest thing I've seen since the same playwright's "Boeing Boeing" in London last year. Both plays are remarkably similar in plot: both involve a playboy and his sidekick juggling the women in their lives. Needless to say, as I've said before, plot is secondary to how a farce is performed. The cast here is wonderful and is quite expert in gracefully and effortlessly escalating the hilarity. I have to single out, however, Spencer Kayden, as the deadpan cook at the center of it all. Hers is the single funniest performance I've seen all year.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of *****)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

America: All Better! (Second City, Mainstage) - 12/14/08

The Second City's new mainstage show, "America: All Better!" varies in quality, and I would say, it falls in the middle of the pack in terms of enjoyability. Topics covered are the usual suspects: current political and social stories/environment. I found the first half somewhat lacking on the funny scale, but the second half, I felt, was very, very funny. As always, the ensemble is the star here, and this group is as endearing a group as I have seen.

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

The Maids (Writer's Theatre) - 12/14/08

Jean Genet's impressionistic classic "The Maids" is currently being staged in stimulating fashion by the dependable Writer's Theatre in Glencoe. The play involves a pair of frustrated maids who escape through role playing. The production exudes decadence, from the luscious sets and costumes down to the text itself. The performances are very good, and once again I am extremely impressed by Helen Sadler's searing strong/vulnerable performance as the younger maid. She's one to watch and has historically taken on really tough roles (in "A Taste of Honey" and "Blasted").

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Seafarer (Steppenwolf Theatre) - 12/12/08

With "Dublin Carol" in the Upstairs Theatre and "The Seafarer" Downstairs, the Steppenwolf is not only hosting a mini Conor McPherson festival, it's also playing home to the best pair of holiday shows in the city. Granted, they're both riddled with booze and lives unsuccessfully lived. However, they both end with a powerful sense of hope, which is few other holiday shows can claim. I saw "The Seafarer" on Broadway and thought it featured one of the most tight-knit ensembles I had ever seen. Although Steppenwolf's rendition does not quite attain the same level of ensemble spark and Irish authenticity as its Broadway counterpart, it does feature an unforgettable performance by Francis Guinan as a lost character literally playing poker for his soul.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Christmas Schooner (Bailiwick Repertory) - 12/11/08

This was a truly bittersweet performance. With this edition of "The Christmas Schooner", Bailiwick Repertory closes its storied doors for good. This is a heartwarming holiday show that chronicles the treacherous annual trips Michigan sailors took to supply Christmas trees to Chicagoans, and it's performed with heart by a dedicated cast. So long Bailiwick!

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Porgy and Bess" (Lyric Opera of Chicago) - 12/9/08

Lyric Opera is putting on an emotionally open production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess". Last year in London, I caught a critically well-received musical version of "Porgy" directed by Trevor Nunn (of "Cats" and "Les Miz" fame). However, I found that production to be emotionally distant. Why? Doesn't intimacy in the theater invite a stronger connection to the performers? Not in this case; "Porgy and Bess" was written for the opera house, and only in the that setting and performance style can it be fully appreciated. Surprisingly, Lyric is putting on its first ever "Porgy", and they've done it proud. With the full orchestra and big voices, Francesca Zambello's sturdy production feels true to its material. The typically mannered sold out Lyric audience I was in recognized this, giving this one a boisterous curtain call.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Visiting Company at Chicago Shakespeare) - 12/6/08

Director Tim Supple's all-South Asian, multi-lingual "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is miraculous. Indeed, this is a radical departure from how the Shakespeare's romp has been historically performed, but I found this to be, in spirit, the most genuine and affecting of the numerous "Midsummer's" I've seen. Mr. Supple understands that manic, almost reckless sexual energy is key to the play, and his youthful and attractive players provide that in spades. It doesn't much matter that they are speaking in unintelligible South Asian dialects half the time, their intent oozes out of their every movement and the exotic, seductive music (played live) which accompanies them. Darn good theater.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of *****)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Winter Program (Hubbard Street Dance) - 12/5/08

Hubbard Street Dance continues to wow and seduce with their excellent, joyous Winter Program:

"Strokes Through the Tail" (revival) - Danced to Mozart's Symphony #40, this is a whimsical ensemble play on gender.

"One on One" (new) - Probably the weakest work of the program, this dance to the music of Vivaldi is a broodingly mysterious collection of snapshots in the lives of a diverse set of people.

"The Set" (new) - Wonderfully comic depiction of a love triangle, with yet another gender twist.

"Walking Mad" (new) - A manic, loose work set to Ravel's "Bolero", this piece reminds one of greatly played farce. And with all successful farces, it's all about the execution and less about the motivation. The folks at Hubbard understand this.

Rating: **** (out of *****)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Autumn Garden (Eclipse Theatre) - 12/4/08

Lillian Hellman's "The Autumn Garden" is getting a rare production courtesy of Eclipse Theatre Company. It's an interesting play that creates drama out of mature relationships; listening to the text, one truly gets a sense of the history behind these characters. However, Eclipse's production is wildly uneven. This is an ensemble piece, which means that the show thrives on the collective energy the actors emit (Ian Rickson's "The Seagull" hit the bulls eye). The women fare better than the men, but most of the time, these actors individually look like they are acting in a void (note: louder does not necessarily equate to better). Also, a decent-looking set turns out to be sight line-wise.

Rating: ** (out of *****)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

NYC: Arias with a Twist (HERE Arts Center) - 11/29/08

I have not seen anything like "Arias with a Twist", and that is saying something for someone who has seen enough theater to last several lifetimes. It's a compliment of the highest order. Whoever thought to combine legendary drag artist Joey Arias with legendary puppeteer Basil Twist have struck gold. Think "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" overdosing on hallucinatory drugs and you kinda get the picture. The show follows Joey Arias as he gets abducted by aliens, abandoned on a strange tropic world, gets high on strange indigenous mushrooms, and returns to New York City. Basil Twist's supremely haunting and inventive visual work here as he seamlessly animates Joey's advenures is some of the best I have seen anywhere in a theater (surpassing even the far, far more expensive "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular" and "Shrek", which I saw in the same week), and the accomplishment is compounded by the fact that theater seats less than 100. And in Joey Arias, with his determined, sensual vocals and diabolical charisma, Mr. Twist has found an unlikely partner in crime. Together with "The Seagull", a must-see.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of *****)

NYC: All My Sons (Gerald Shoenfeld Theater) - 11/29/08

Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" is being given an unorthodox staging by avant-garde British stage director Simon McBurney. Much of his ideas work well (the opening storm prologue was daringly dramatic and disorienting), but others left me scratching my head (over-use of projections). The acting style here is decidedly heightened and gives the play the same aura of a Greek tragedy. Many people thought this approach was inappropriate for the play (preferring realism), but I found it a fascinating choice. The cast is very good indeed: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and yes, Katie Holmes are all giving fully invested, distinguished performances. However, I would have preferred the bold acting itself to speak for the play, and not let the directorial touches get in the way, as it occasionally does here. Overall, a very interesting look at one of the warhorses of the American theater.

Rating: *** (out of *****)

NYC: The Seagull (Walter Kerr Theater) - 11/29/08

This is a smashing and seductive "Seagull", narrowly beating the Donmar production of "Ivanov", which I saw in London this past summer, as the finest production of Chekhov I have yet encountered. It's an organically paced production with melancholy written all over the beautifully austere designs. But it's the performances that bring this play to spectacular life. Each member of the cast gives fully committed and nuanced performances, and each beautifully walk the Chekhovian tightrope between life's absurdity, hilarity, and tragedy. Kristin Scott Thomas is giving a ferocious yet regal performance as the aging diva Arkadina. Also, special mention must go to Zoe Kazan, who almost steals the show with her comic timing as the chronically depressed Masha. As fine as Ms. Thomas and Kazan are, the ensemble is the star here, which should be the case for this play. The performers collectively are transcendent, awesomely portraying the essence of lives lived. As a huge Chekhov enthusiast, one can only imagine the bliss I was in. A must see.

Rating: ***** (out of *****)

Friday, November 28, 2008

NYC: Shrek (Broadway Theater) - 11/28/08

The stage adaptation of the Dreamworks animated hit "Shrek" has no business working, but it does, and just barely. This is mainly attributable to the rock solid quartet of performances at the helm of this very expensive looking musical. Brian d'Arcy James portrays the title character with irreverent nobility that makes one cheer for the ogre. Sutton Foster is in great voice and is an absolute knockout as Princess Fiona; this ultra talented performer oozes natural charisma that begs to be applauded. There's real chemistry between Brian and Fiona here. Additionally, Daniel Breaker and Christopher Sieber as the donkey sidekick and miniature villain, respectively, are giving rather memorable comic turns. This show comes with a reportedly $24 million price tag, and it sure looks it; the lush designs are constantly on the move, and the costumes are wittily spot on. The major flaw, and it's rather large one, is that for much of the show, our hero Shrek is a reactionary character and very rarely is he a catalyst for the plot. Given the picaresque nature of the show, this deficiency has a deflating effect on the proceedings. However, the top notch performances, eye candy, and a barrage of musical theater references cover much of the holes.

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

NYC: Dividing the Estate (Booth Theater) - 11/26/08

Interestingly, Horton Foote's plays have rarely been staged on Broadway. It's a great treat, therefore, to see his latest play, the very funny "Dividing the Estate", on the Great White Way. Foote tends to write gentle, mannered plays (e.g., "The Trip to Bountiful"), and it's great fun to see him produce a play as darkly cynical as this one is. A study on the American mentality of entitlement, the play is about the family conflicts that arise from the possibility of dividing a Southern family estate. It's potent stuff now, and the cast performs with tragic authenticity. Hallie Foote (the playwright's daughter), in particular, is giving a brave, hilarious performance as the most ambitious and aggressive the children. For Foote fans, this is an opportunity not to be missed.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

NYC: Radio City Christmas Spectacular (Radio City Music Hall) - 11/26/08

As far as spectaculars go, Radio City's annual Christmas show is tops. From the word go, this shrewdly lavish production manages to sustain a giddy, almost super-human exuberance throughout its 90 minute running time. The glamorous Rockettes, of course, are the main attraction here, and they do not disappoint. Each number involving these leggy beauties (which is a good chunk of the program) is performed with amazing precision and gusto. This show was revamped last year, to much acclaim, for the 75th anniversary edition. It's my understanding that this year's version is pretty much the same show, and it's visually breathtaking. Filling the vast, vast stage of the legendary theater is no small feat, but the designers here have done themselves proud: the design is a perfect blend of 21st century stagecraft (there is a segment featuring NYC sightseeing bus tour that must be seen to be believed) and traditional stage design.

Rating: **** (out of *****)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Winter Pageant Redux (Redmoon Theatre) - 11/23/08

Redmoon has long been known for an unfortunate trend in style over substance. That trend has not been broken with their current offering, "Winter Pageant Redux". Undoubtedly, their are moments of intense beauty and wonder. I would even go out on a limb and recommend that you go and see it for those moments. But they are fleeting; you know something is off when an hour long show feels like three.

Rating: ** (out of *****)

Ruined (Goodman Theatre) - 11/23/08

"Ruined" by Lynn Nottage, is receiving a world premier production at the Goodman Theatre. The play takes place in a brothel in war-torn Congo. Needless to say, the play is inescapably tragic. However, it is also ultimately quite life-affirming and joyous. The show is stunningly and authentically performed by a stellar cast, but I have to single out the Saidah Arrika Ekuloma as the owner of the brothel. Hers is a performance with the force of a hurricane; you cannot take your eyes off of her. The show is a co-production with the Manhattan Theatre Club, so it's headed to New York after its Chicago engagement. Don't miss it while it's here.

Rating: **** (out of *****)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dublin Carol (Steppenwolf Theatre) - 11/22/08

Conor McPherson's lovely "Dublin Carol" is being given a truly wonderful production by the Steppenwolf. I had seen this play in its premier showing at the Royal Court Theatre in London. There, I was moved by the melancholy of the play (about an undertaker dealing with a life gone wrong), but was also underwhelmed by the static staging and looming sense of preciousness. In the hands of the "heart on their sleeves" players at the Steppenwolf, the play has acquired much needed accessibility and humor that makes the heartbreak that much more heartbreaking. The trio of performances here, which include CSI's William Petersen, are top-notch.

Rating: **** (out of *****)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Six Degrees of Separation (Signal Ensemble Theatre) - 11/21/08

John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation" is being given a competent rendition by the folks at Signal. It's a tough play to mount well because of the fractured nature of the play (it's composed of short, almost stunted scenes) and the requirement for a large cast. Signal does well with these aspects by staging the show in-the-round, allowing for razor sharp transitions and keeping a focused sense of intimacy. However, this is also a play about expansive ideas and deep, complex feelings. As yet, the cast does admirably with the language, yet there is a hollowness to the the evening. The show is performed smartly, but the devastation beneath the veneer is hardly evident.

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Our Bad Magnet (Mary-Arrchie Theatre) - 11/20/08

"Our Bad Magnet" by Douglas Maxwell is a labored play chronicling the friendship of three Scottish lads. It's performed appealingly, though, by a quartet of very strong young actors. Overall, a show to miss given the plethora of excellent shows now currently running.

Rating: ** (out of *****)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Meet Me in St. Louis (Drury Lane Water Tower) - 11/19/08

This production of "Meet Me in St. Louis", which is a remount of Drury Lane's Oak Brook production, fits cozily in the (relatively) intimate Drury Lane Theater in the Water Tower Place. This being a dated piece, I fully expected to roll my eyes over the sticky sweetness on stage, and I did. However, what I did not realize is how pleasingly spunky the show is. In large part, I attribute this to director Jim Corti's breathless pacing and lean, efficient staging: one scene melds into the next with such ease and pizzazz (although some of the choreography is a bit clunky) that you don't have time to "rot your teeth". Same goes with the performers; they all seem to favor attitude over sentiment, which seems to double the effect of moments of true sentiment (notably the "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" number). All in all, a more than solid mounting of a classic show by a theater company back on the rise. The show deserves to be a holiday hit.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Grey Gardens (Northlight Theatre) - 11/19/08

"Grey Gardens" is sure to go down in history as one of the most quirky musicals to play on Broadway. The musical is based on a documentary of the same name, depicting the sadly desperate existence of the hermit-like relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy. The musical is a showcase for any musical theater actress aspiring for greatness (playing the mother in the first act, and the daughter in the second). As such, it's no surprise that Chicago diva Hollis Resnick has seized the opportunity with such aplomb; this is an expansive, nuanced performance that I think will go down as one of her crowning achievements. However, instead of rising to Ms. Resnick's level, the rest of the cast and other production elements are merely serviceable. The show here lacks the same level of focus and intensity of its Broadway counterpart. Having said that, the show, mostly on the strength of Ms. Resnick's memorable performance, remains worth seeing as an effective portrait of lives gone sour.

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Well (Next Theatre) - 11/17/08

"Well" by Lisa Kron is a self-described monologue with other characters, and centers around a woman's attempt to analyze her love/hate relationship with her mother. Although the play feels noticeably self-conscious and overly-witty, it does have a fascinating free-wheeling quality to it. And though not totally successful, I thought the play-within-a-play structure acts as an extremely interesting metaphor for the playwright's struggle to crystallize her feelings towards her mother. The performances are all very good, but Mary Ann Thebus deserves a special mention for her perfectly calibrated performance; her performance as the mother turns out to be the most authentic component (visually captured by the scenic design) to this memoir of a play, which I think is totally intended.

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gatz (Elevator Repair Service) - 11/14/08

Elevator Repair Service, an avant-garde theater company from Philadelphia, is visiting the MCA to put on their nearly 8 hour "Gatz", the group's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic Jazz Age novel, "The Great Gatsby". Set in a shabby office, this is a verbatim regurgitation of the novel in its entirety, as played out by "The Office"-type stock characters. There are drawbacks of course to this setup, given that even the most mundane sections of the great novel are read/played out. However, there are stretches of transcendence: the sequence in which Gatsby and Daisey reconnect is pure theatrical magic, and the final act seethes with profound melancholy, hauntingly revealing the beauty and meaning in Fitzgerald's achingly lyrical prose.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train (Raven Theatre) - 11/13/08

Raven Theatre has mounted a solid, if somewhat uneven production of Stephen Adly Guirgis's "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train". With the exception of Esteban Andres Cruz's spot on performance as Angel, the performances I caught were to varying degrees unfocused and uninspired. A play that attempts to capture the psyche of criminals, this is a type of play that needs explosive, no-holds-barred , almost syncopated performances (Steppenwolf's Chicago searing premier production had them). The play has interesting things to say, however, and Guirgis's dialogue crackles with raw wit and insight.

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Echoes of Russia (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) - 11/12/08

The CSO was in marvelous shape as it played Rachmaninoff's Symphony #3 and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1. It was my first time sitting in the Terrace (the section behind the orchestra), and I highly recommend it. Although the sound of the piano was overwhelmed in the Tchaikovsky piece, the power of the orchestra was almost overwhelming from that vantage. Additionally, it's fun to face the conductor as he conjures up some great music from the awesome CSO. Always a pleasure to visit the CSO at home.

Rating: **** (out of *****)

Steve Wilkos Show (NBC Studios) - 11/12/08

This afternoon, a friend and I caught a taping of the "Steve Wilkos Show" at Chicago's NBC Studios. For those of you who aren't in the know, Steve Wilkos spent 14 years as Jerry Springer's body guard and has in recent years spun himself off into his own talk show. His guests are your typical daytime train wrecks: child molesters, abusers of all sorts, you get the picture (we got a prostitute/drugee confronting her mom for "stealing" her disabled baby). Despite the dire circumstances his guests find themselves in, I find the guests secondary to Steve himself. Mr. Wilkos has a dynamic presence: he is a forceful, scenery-smashing (literally), yet ultimately charismatic host. Although after carefully watching him, one starts to notice his flaws: he is short on eloquence, and he has a tendency to revert to certain catch phrases ("get off my stage!"). Arguably though, these just add to his charm. I find that being present for the taping is a more stimulating experience versus watching the finished product on television. One thing I noticed is how much more scripted it feels in person, which is not a bad thing at all. On the contrary, it's fascinating to be part of the process, and I think it adds to the whole theatricality of the proceedings, especially when the audience is as engaged and participatory as this one. I'm not the first one to notice that trashy talk shows make great theater (hey, they made an opera out of the Jerry Springer Show), but it certainly does.

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lulu (Lyric Opera) - 11/10/08

"Lulu" is being given a rare rendition at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Adapted from Frank Wendekind's (of "Spring Awakening" fame) play, Berg's opera follows its archetypal femme fatal through a series of scenes, with each episode marking steps in her (still) shocking decline. I suspect that this will be for me one of those defining nights at the opera. It is simply sensational. The production is fully realized, stylishly designed, and breathtakingly sung/acted. Led by the stunning Marlis Peterson in the title role, the entire cast identified completely with not only the music, but the spirit of the story, as well as it's director's vision. This is one of those nights when you don't dispute that opera is the ultimate artform.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of *****)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Belle Barth: If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends (Theo Ubique) - 11/9/08

"Belle Barth: If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends" is a new musical being presented by the Theo Ubique folks at the intimate No Exit Cafe up in the Rogers Park Neighborhood. The show charts the career of Belle Barth, the revolutionarily gaudy and naughty comedienne of the 1950s. There is nothing extraordinary about this musical biography: the songs are pleasant enough and after a while, the lack of variety (how many sex jokes can you possibly fit in 90 minutes?; you'll find out with this show) wears on the the watcher. But Bethany is giving a star turn here. I've long admired her BIG voice, but here she shows a vocal subtlety and sensitive comedic touch that I'd not seen before.

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Glass Menagerie (Steppenwolf Theatre) - 11/8/08

Like all great works of art, "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams warrants repeated viewings; and the great thing about theater as an art form is a text's ability to take on different perspectives from production to production, let alone performance to performance. I've seen "Menagerie", a memory play structured as a series of snapshot scenes of a family struggling in Missouri during the Great Depression, numerous times now. What's amazing is the impact it repeatedly has: every time I see it, the play breaks my heart as if I were watching it for the first time. The current all-African American production at the Steppenwolf Theatre is a beautifully acted, simply and sensitively staged affair. Special kudos to the two women in the cast, Shanesia Davis (Amanda) and Nambi Kelley (Laura). They are giving vividly inhabited performances, and the fading images of them at the end of each act alone on the stage of Tom's mind's eye are utterly heartbreaking.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of *****)

Radio Macbeth (Court Theatre) - 11/8/08

SITI, a New York-based experimental theater company, is once again visiting Court Theatre with "Radio Macbeth", their adaptation of the the Scottish Play. A lot of things work here. I particularly enjoyed the the soundscape, which draws heavily from radio sound design techniques. Also worth mention are the moody, precise lighting design, as well as the seamlessly physical ensemble work (which the troupe exhibited so finely in "Hotel Cassiopeia", their previous project at the Court). However, some of the individual performances just pass for adequate, and I thought the play-within-a-play approach felt overly forced. Overall, a refreshing look at Macbeth.

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shadowlands (Redtwist Theatre) - 11/6/08

"Shadowlands" by William Nicholson tells the love story that develops between C.S. Lewis and American poet Joy Gresham. It's well-written tear jerker of a play that is unfortunately being given a shaky revival by Redtwist Theatre. Redtwist regulars Brian Parry (who was wonderful in the theatre company's excellent "Equus" a few seasons back) and Jacqueline Grandt as Lewis and Gresham, respectively, fail to convey the characters' inner struggles, which is the tension that the play is based on. Additionally, much of the design elements (sets, costumes, sound) need to be spruced up.

Rating: *1/2 (out of *****)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Margaret Garner (Auditorium Theater) - 11/2/08

"Margaret Garner" is the accessible yet powerful new opera with music by Richard Danielpour and libretto by Toni Morrison. Based on a true story, the opera centers on the Medea-like plight of Margaret Garner, a slave who tries to escape, is recaptured, and kills her children for fear of their fate in slavery system. Tragic stuff, which is aided by Mr. Danielpour's eclectic, Americana-esque music, and Morrison's precise, succinct (a must in opera) libretto. The opera is performed and staged beautifully by a crack team, led by Broadway director Kenny Leon and opera diva Denyce Graves (who made a splash as Carmen at the Lyric Opera a few seasons back). Although the conclusion of the opera could be refined to make a more powerful statement, this is equally great theater as it is great opera. And what a joy to hear grand opera at the acoustically peerless Auditorium Theater!

Rating: *** (out of *****)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Celebrity Row (American Theatre Company) - 11/1/08

The American Theatre Company is currently presenting the world premier of the revised version of Itmar Moses's "Celebrity Row". This is the second world premier that I've seen from the playwright, as I saw "Back Back Back" in San Diego just two weeks ago. "Celebrity Row", which is a political fantasia with some of the most "celebrated" criminals of the last few decades leading a debate on ideological differences: Latin Kings leader Luis Felipe, WTC bomber Ramzi Yousef, OK City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Some of the discourse is stimulating and much of the staging by the talented David Cromer is artfully insightful, but the play itself seems unneccessarily fussy and lacks the dramatic trajectory of (the more structurally simple yet provocative) "Back Back Back".

Rating: **1/2 (out of *****)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Broadway Theater Tour: Winter Garden Theater

Address: 1634 Broadway
Seating capacity: 1,482 (large), with one balcony
Currently playing: "Mamma Mia!"
Notable for: This famous theater was home of "Cats" for years and years; this large theater boats a wide auditorium/stage suited for staging large musicals

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Cats" with Laura Beechman (1995): **1/2

Broadway Theater Tour: Walter Kerr Theater

Address: 218 West 48th Street
Seating capacity: 947 (mid-sized), with two balconies
Currently playing: "The Seagull"
Notable for: One of my very favorite theaters - awesome sightlines and beautifully decorated; a palace for serious theater going

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Doubt" with Cherry Jones (2005): ***1/2
-"Grey Gardens" with Christine Ebersole (2006): ***
-"A Catered Affair" with Faith Prince (2008): ***

Broadway Theater Tour: Vivan Beaumont Theater

Address: 150 West 65th Street
Seating capacity: 1,080 (mid-sized), with one balcony
Currently playing: "South Pacific"
Notable for: This theater is part of the Lincoln Center complex; the theater boasts a classical thrust stage, which is surrounded on three sides by seating; the theater is steeply raked, so the auditorium has a large feel

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Carousel" with Audra McDonald (1994): ****
-"It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues" with Gretha Boston (1999): **1/2
-"Henry IV, Parts I and II" with Michael Hayden (2003): ***1/2
-"The Frogs" with Nathan Lane (2004): **1/2
-"The Coast of Utopia: Voyage" with Ethan Hawke (2006): ****
-"The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck" with Billy Crudup (2006): ****
-"The Coast of Utopia: Salvage" with Jennifer Ehle (2007): ****
-"South Pacific" with Kelli O'Hara (2008): ****

Broadway Theater Tour: Studio 54

Address: 254 West 54th Street
Seating capacity: 920 (small to mid-sized), with one balcony
Currently playing: "Pal Joey"
Notable for: A recent addition to Broadway, it is currently being operated by the Roundabout Theater Company; yes, this used to be the legendary club

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Cabaret" with John Stamos (2002): ****
-"Assassins" with Neil Patrick Harris (2004): ***1/2
-"110 in the Shade" with Audra McDonald (2007): ***
-"Sunday in the Park with George" with Daniel Evans (2008): ***1/2

Broadway Theater Tour: St. James Theater

Address: 246 West 44th Street
Seating capacity: 1,623 (large), with two balconies
Currently playing: "Gypsy"
Notable for: A very popular musical theater house

What I've seen at this theater:
-"The Secret Garden" with John Cameron Mitchell (1992): ***1/2
-"The Who's Tommy" (1993, 1995) with Michael Cerveris: ***1/2
-"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1996): **1/2
-"The Producers" with Hunter Foster (2004): ***
-"Gypsy" with Patti LuPone (2008): ****

Broadway Theater Tour: Shubert Theater

Address: 225 West 45th Street
Seating capacity: 1,521 (large), with two balconies
Currently playing: "Spamalot"
Notable for: Located in the heart of the theater district, the Shubert is the epitome of the Broadway theater

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Crazy for You" with Karen Ziemba (1995): ***1/2
-"Big" with Barbara Walsh (1996): **

Broadway Theater Tour: Samuel J. Friedman Theaer

Address: 261 West 47th Street
Seating capacity: 650 (small), with one balcony
Currently playing: "To Be or Not to Be"
Notable for: Intimacy; for the longest time, the theater was dark and was just recently impeccably restored; it is the Broadway home of the Manhattan Theater Club

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Reckless" with Mary-Louise Parker (2004): ***
-"LoveMusik" with Donna Murphy and Michael Cerveris (2007): *1/2

Broadway Theater Tour: Richard Rogers Theater

Address: 226 West 46th Street
Seating capacity: 1,368 (large), with one balcony
Currently playing: "In the Heights"
Notable for: Along with the Majestic Theater, the Richard Rogers boasts stadium seating in the orchestra level, improving sightlines

What I've seen at this theater:
-"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" with Matthew Broderick (1995): ***1/2
-"Chicago" with Bebe Neuwirth (1997): ***1/2
-"Private Lives" with Alan Rickman (2002): ***1/2
-"Movin' Out" with music by Billy Joel (2004): ***1/2
-"In the Heights" with Lin Manuel Miranda (2008): ***

Broadway Theater Tour: Palace Theater

Address: 1564 Broadway
Seating capacity: 1,784 (large), with two balconies
Currently playing: "Legally Blonde"
Notable for: This is a flagship Broadway Theater, and is well suited for large, glitzy musicals

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Aida" with music by Elton John (2004): ***
-"Legally Blonde" with Laura Bell Bundy (2007): ***

Broadway Theater Tour: New Amsterdam Theater

Address: 214 West 42nd Street
Seating capacity: 1,747 (large), with two balconies
Currently playing: "Mary Poppins"
Notable for: This is the most beautiful theater on Broadway, thanks to Disney who restored it stunningly and brought it out of obscurity

What I've seen at this theater:
-"The Lion King" with Heather Headley (1998): ***1/2

Broadway Theater Tour: New York State Theater

Address: 20 Lincoln Center Plaza
Seating capacity: 2,755 (large), with 4 rings
Currently playing: (various)
Notable for: Being the home of the NYC Ballet and the City Opera (the "other" opera company); not technically a Broadway Theater

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Daphne" (2004): **
-"La Boheme" (2004): **1/2
-"Platee" (2004): ***1/2

Broadway Theater Tour: Neil Simon Theater

Address: 250 West 52nd Street
Seating capacity: 1,297 (mid-size to large), with one balcony
Currently playing: "Hairspray"
Notable for: (typical Broadway playhouse suited for larger productions)

What I've seen at this theater:
-"The King and I" with Lou Diamond Phillips (1996): ***
-"Hairspray" with Carly Jibson (2004): ****

Broadway Theater Tour: Nederlander Theater

Address: 201 West 41st Street
Seating capacity: 1,232 (mid-sized), with one balcony
Currently playing: "Rent" (recently closed)
Notable for: Before "Rent" resurrected the Nederlander, this theater was dark for a long time (it's location below 42nd Street was once considered unattractive)

What I've seen at this theater:
-"Rent" by Jonathan Larson (1996, 1996, 1997, 2004): ****