Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Young Ladies of … (About Face Theatre) – 9/30/08

Drag / performance artist Taylor Mac is making a terrific Chicago debut with a piece entitled "The Young Ladies of ...". The show is an ode to Taylor's father, whom he has never met. Using the musical "Carousel" and letters sent by young women to his father, Taylor attempts to reconstruct the essence of his father. The show is fiercely yet lovingly performed, and the writing is always unexpected, fascinating and vastly entertaining.

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

Sunday, September 28, 2008

No Experience Necessary (MPAACT) – 9/28/08

"No Experience Necessary" is a Second City-style comic revue, highlighting the African American experience in the context of current social / economic / political conditions. Although some of the material is fresh and inventive, most of it comes of as merely sophomoric.

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

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe (House Theatre of Chicago) – 9/27/08

The House Theatre inaugurates its new space at the Chopin main stage with a remount / rethinking of one of its biggest hits, "Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe". The show has been totally redesigned to the configurations of the larger proscenium space (they previously performed in a three-quarter thrust configuration at the edgy Viaduct Theater), and not necessarily for the better. Although the show is still a fun sci fi adventure, much of its quirkiness and heart are diminished, mainly because this mounting loses the intimate "gee wiz" cartoon quality it had previously in favor of a more serious literal mindedness. The performers remain committed though, and I think it's just a matter of time before the House becomes acclimated to its new playground.

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

Kafka on the Shore (Steppenwolf Theatre) – 9/27/08

Steppenwolf opens its new season with a confounding, stimulating adaptation of Murakami's novel "Kafka on the Shore", which chronicles the adventures of a young Japanese runaway. As directed by the esteemed Frank Galati, this sensitively designed and acted show exhibits a dreamlike quality that is almost hypnotic. Although I couldn't fully grasp the logic of the unfolding plot, I was drawn in by the seductive pacing, beautiful language, and haunting images.

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

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lifeline Theatre) – 9/26/08

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" is one of the better offerings I have experienced at Lifeline, which specializes in stage adaptations of literary works. Unlike Matthew Bourne's dance adaptation which I recently caught in London, this version does not attempt any radical reinterpretation of the novel. What I appreciated about Lifeline's "Dorian" was its intense focus on the characters and their internal lives and relationships with each other. I've found that in the past Lifeline has focused its powers on how to efficiently stage plot development, to the detriment of breathing life into its characters, which is not the case here. This is a handsomely designed, perfectly paced, smartly acted production.

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

Tchaikovsky 5, etc. (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) – 9/26/08

Another great night at the symphony, highlighted by Tchaikovsky's Symphony #5.

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

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Threepenny Opera (The Hypocrites) – 9/25/08

The Hypocrites' "Threepenny Opera" is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it features a fearless cast and some really intensely inventive staging. For instance, much of the audience is seated at two large oddly shaped tables, like some warped cabaret (or classroom?). But on the other hand, not only do some cast members have limited musical theater experience, the acoustics in the cavernous Steppenwolf Garage space is horrendous. Additionally, like many Hypocrites' past shows, this one has a frustratingly random and unfocused. However, the sheer force and audacity of Sean Graney's production is undeniable and that's what sticks to mind.

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rent (Film of final Broadway cast) – 9/24/08

As the lyric goes, "I can't believe this is goodbye". "Rent" has played such an influential part in my life, and has shown me early on that theater can be much more than those kitchen sink dramas or Rogers and Hammerstein musicals the drama club puts on in high school. When I was a junior in high school, I caught a preview performance before the its official opening on Broadway and after its acclaimed sold out run at the New York Theater Workshop. What I saw on the Nederlander's stage literally rocked my world: I was exposed to these characters whose lives burned incandescently, a staging that moved the plot wittily and forcefully without the aid of huge sets, and a score that to this days stirs and surprises me. Having said all that, let me say that the film of "Rent" with the the final cast is a triumph. Not only do each and every one of them give impassioned, fully realized performance, the actual film work truly captures the excitement of being in the theater. Much of the time filmed performances lose the magic of being there. Hopefully they release this film on DVD!

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

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Candide (Porchlight Music Theatre) – 9/21/08

I commend Porchlight for the "out of the box" approach it has taken with their last two shows: "Nine", in its minimalism, was I thought a stylistic triumph for the company, and for this production of "Candide", these guys have smartly chosen the condensed, vaudevillian that Hal Prince presented on Broadway in the 1970s. This is the version that much better suits Porchlight's resources. However, despite some witty touches, the ensemble work here needs to be cleaned up a bit. And although much of the main players possess great voices, some of them have yet to mine deeper access their characters' comic and dramatic potential.

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

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dr. Egg and the Man with No Ear (Redmoon Theater) – 9/20/08

Redmoon's "Dr. Egg" boasts some of the most exciting stagecraft in the city. Lighting, props, puppets, actors all come together to weave a visual language that consistently surprises and delights with its wit and sheer craft. However, this is theater and there is a story to tell. Basically, the premise is to dramatize the consequences of cloning. There is great potential here to engage and disturb; however, all the visual dazzle masks the lack of a dramatic arc to these characters' respective journeys. Much of the production feels like it's playing connect the dots. But still, the stage pictures conjured up here are unforgettable.

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

Amadeus (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre) – 9/20/08

Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus" reached a wide audience in its incarnation as an Oscar-winning film directed by Milos Forman. However, it had its origins as a play, which I prefer. "Amadeus" is essentially a memory play, and I think these types of confessionals work better on the stage, where there is an audience to confess to. Also, I think that the more abstract designs afforded by a stage production better service the structure as opposed to the literalism of film. Chicago Shakespeare's production, expertly directed by Gary Griffith, is pristine: it's impeccably acted and gorgeously designed (this is the best lighting I've seen at the theater). You should go see this one.

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

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dracula (The Building Stage) – 9/19/08

I cannot recommend much here. The intent I think with this version of the "Dracula" is to recreate the silent cinema genre in theatrical terms. The result, however, is abysmally dull. Until the final sequence, that is, when a surprise twist is revealed and the silent movie guise is finally dropped.

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

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Caroline or Change (Court Theatre) – 9/18/08 (revisited 10/11/08)

Court Theater's production of Tony Kushner / Jeanine Tesori's "Caroline or Change" I think will eventually become one of the landmarks Chicago theater in the early 21st century. I saw the show on Broadway and thought that it was a show to be admired rather than loved; in a way, it got lost in the large theater and fancy staging. Not here. The Court Theater's intimate auditorium, expansive stage, perfect acoustics, and South Side location is the perfect setting for this musical about the internal struggles of a black maid living amidst the social upheavals during the 1960s. Kushner's script is elegantly structured and disarmingly direct, while Tesori's music creates a fabric that is at once indicative of the times yet wholly contemporary. The performances are award-worthy: E. Faye Butler gives a performance of great force and majesty that is acted first and sung secondly, and the kid actors awesomely keep up with her every step of the way. Charles Newell provides his always insightful direction, and Doug Peck once again proves why he is becoming one of the most sought-after musical directors around.

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

Mamma Mia! (Broadway in Chicago) – 9/18/08

"Mamma Mia!" is back yet again, this time at the landmark Auditorium Theater. This is my third time seeing this ABBA juke box musical (including the original London cast), and I have to say, I think this is the most fun I have had watching this show. Although the set has been downsized for the current tour, this cast, which includes Chicago star Susie McMonagle in the central role of Donna, is uncommonly and genuinely charismatic. And clearly, they are having so much up their. This touring version of "Mamma Mia!" is the perfect way to forget about the troubling realities of life.

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Buddy (Drury Lane Water Tower) – 9/17/08

Drury Lane has transferred its summer hit from its home in Oak Brook Terrace to its downtown location at Water Tower Place. Maybe it was the effect of the transfer, but this production of "Buddy" seemed oddly vacant to me. Indeed, lots of the folks up on stage, including star Justin Berkobien, seemed to be just going through the movements. However, the production has been given a slick look and is effectively and efficiently staged.

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

San Francisco Ballet (Programs A & B) – 9/16 & 9/17/08

I caught both programs of San Francisco Ballet's Chicago visit at the Harris Theater. Both programs focused on commissioned new works, some of which worked, some of which didn't. What's undeniable, though, is the skill with which these dancers executed.

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

Saturday, September 13, 2008

LONDON: Ivanov (Donmar at the Wyndham) - 9/13/08

Translated from Chekhov by Tom Stoppard, this production is one of those perfect evenings at the theater (notice my five star rating). The big draw here is Kenneth Branagh in the title role, and he does not disappoint: his is a classical performance of great clarity, nuance, and power. He plays Ivanov, a man who has fallen out of love with his dying wife and is struggling at the very logic of his existence. Michael Grandage has directed a perfectly calibrated production, which his oft-time collaborator Christopher Oram has luxuriously designed. Oh yeah, the rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. One of the very highs of my theater going this year so far.

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

LONDON: Eurobeat (Novello, West End) - 9/13/08

"Eurobeat" is a spoof of Eurovision, which itself has attained notorious kitsch status. If you are not familiar with the format, the setting is a European song contest, with each country represented by a musical act. The spoofed acts here are funny enough, but all this hardly constitutes as theater (winners are determined by the audience using their cell phones to call in their votes!). Additionally, cast in this West End musical noticeably lack the polish of a Broadway chorus, which is a bit of a distraction.

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

LONDON: Piaf (Donmar Warehouse) - 9/13/08

Donmar Warehouse's revival of Pam Gems' "Piaf" is a triumph. The success of the production is attributable solely to Elena Rogers' seductive, unstoppable performance as Piaf. I saw Ms. Rogers last year as Evita last year and was impressed, but nothing could have prepared me for the majesty and intensity of her performance here; particularly, the delivery of her musical "interludes" (this is not a musical) has a rawness and muscularity that is simply unforgettable. Despite some cliched writing, the production is efficiently directed and Rogers is provided with able support by the rest of the cast.

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

Friday, September 12, 2008

LONDON: War Horse (National Theatre) - 9/12/08

The National Theatre's stage adaptation of the young adult novel "War Horse" has made a welcome return after being a sold out hit last season. The star in this production are undoubtabley the extraordinary puppets / puppeteers who animate the various animals involved in the story of a young man who follows his beloved horse into the throws of World War I. Seems sentimental? Well, it is, and the actors seem oddly caricatured when performing with vibrant puppets. By the evening, I had no problem with this fact, and neither did the rest of the sold out house.

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

LONDON: The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare's Globe) - 9/12/08

Alongside its production of "Hamlet" way back in 2000 starring Mark Rylance, I would rank this production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" as the best production at Shakespeare's Globe I have see. It is so joyously staged and performed that by the end of the whole thing, the entire audience is walking on air. In recent years, Shakespeare's Globe has utilized its unique space in ingenious ways, and this production is no different (part of the action takes place on a cat walk that extends from the stage into the "groundlings"). Simply a lovely, entertaining production.

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

Thursday, September 11, 2008

LONDON: in-i (National Theatre) - 9/11/08

Curiosity more than anything else brought me to buy tickets for "in-i", the dance piece starring Juliet Binoche. "in-i" focuses on the complexities of love/relationships. Ms. Binoche is a fine dancer, but the dramatic stakes conjured seem hallow. A disappointment.

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

LONDON: Zorro (Garrick, West End) - 9/11/08

I suspect that this musical adaptation of "Zorro" will be the sleeper hit of the season. On paper, this oughtn't work; but it does. But with the infectious music of the Gypsy Kings (including all of their greatest hits), Matt Rawle's charismatic and powerfully sung performance as the man behind the mask, and especially the rivetingly incendiary flamenco choreography, this new musical is insanely entertaining and a genuine crowd pleaser. Granted, not everything works; some of the book scenes induce laughter. However, the cumulative effect is nothing short of sizzling.

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

LONDON: Brief Encounter (Kneehigh at Haymarket Cinema) - 9/10/08

Kneehigh's playful yet emotional stage adaptation of Noel Coward's film "Brief Encounter" is lots of fun. This show is pure Kneehigh: lots of musical interludes, inventively edgy staging, and boundless energy. However, this style clashes somewhat with the somber tone of its source material, which chronicles an extra-marital affair. All the performances are heartfelt, and in the end, Coward's spirit is captured at the Haymarket Cinema, which has been temporarily transformed into a live performance venue for this production!

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

LONDON: Now or Later (Royal Court) - 9/10/08

Just over an hour in playing time, Christopher Shinn's "Now or Later" as directed by Royal Court Artistic Director Domonic Cooke is urgent, edge-of-your seat theater, if somewhat truncated. The setting is election day, and incriminating material on the Democratic presidential candidate's son has been found on the internet. This play of debate and ideas is passionately performed by the cast, and designed smartly and sharply by Hildegard Brechtler. Electrifying.

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON: Hamlet (RSC) - 9/9/08

Gregory Doran's appealing modern dress "Hamlet" starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart is deeply satisfying. Although, overall, it does not top the production I saw at the Stratford Festival in Canada starring Ben Carlson, there are aspects to this production that are unbeatable. First off, Patrick Stewart is perhaps the finest Claudius I have ever seen; his interpretation shows us a king that, despite his flaws, is fully capable of ruling his land. Indeed, the quality of the entire cast is superb, with Doran deliberately slowing the pace so that the actors can fully explore the complexities of the play and their characters as the plot unfolds. Which brings us to David Tennant; his is a sensitive, deeply confused, and reactionary Hamlet. The interpretation works, but somehow I miss the fiery and brash take on the character.

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

Monday, September 8, 2008

LONDON: Waves (National Theatre) - 9/8/08

This adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel "The Waves" is a directorial wonder. Unlike the epic, by-the-books adaptation of "War Horse" playing next door on the vast Olivier stage, "Waves" is an intimate production that emphasizes video, sound design, and select passages from the novel to tell the story. The "production team" (i.e., cast) move about their "studio" (i.e., stage) with tremendous skill and grace. It's as much fun to observe the process as it is to marvel at the finished product. Fans of radical adaptations of literary works should not miss this.

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

Sunday, September 7, 2008

LONDON: Dorian Gray (Sadler's Wells) - 9/7/08

"Dorian", Matthew Bourne's slick dance adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is very good theater. Mr. Bourne is known primarily for his skill at creating "dance-theater": wordless choreographed works that work with the same logic as traditional theater, often just as effectively. His work here is no different. Here, he has transplanted the story of the iconic egomaniac to a contemporary model agency. This is a dark, relentless, and sensual work, and it works brilliantly, despite losing steam towards the end of the second act. His corps of dancers are talented, appealing, and wonderfully idiosyncratic.

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

Saturday, September 6, 2008

LONDON: Lypsynch (BITE at the Barbican) - 9/6/08

This 9-hour production (yep, you read right, NINE hours) is expansive, complex, messy, meandering, and often times jaw-droppingly beautiful. French Canadian director Robert Lepage has created a tour-de-force meditation on human voice, speech, and language that is surprisingly accessible, given the length of the piece and the abstractness of its subject matter. Some of the nine interlocking one-act plays work better than others (the opening segment is just gorgeous), but the overall impact is monumental. I will not soon forget this experience.

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