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 *****)