Friday, September 8, 2017

“Pericles” - American Players Theatre

Pericles by William Shakespeare, directed by Eric Tucker.  If you are fond of gentle, reasonable productions, displayed with grace and a great show of camouflaging its theatricality… stay the hell away from Pericles. I’ve never seen any other production so determined to shout in your face, “Hey! This is theatre!!! How about that?!”

And I loved it.

Eric Tucker is obviously a student of Douglas Adams, who wrote about improbability in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “If you have a problem… such as for instance a nineteen stone [cultural slur edited] in pyjamas trying to beat you into a pulp, the trick is to use this problem to solve itself. If you can trip or throw or deflect [cultural slur edited] as he hurtles towards you, then the fact that he weighs nineteen stone quickly becomes his worry instead of yours.”

So how to present Pericles with some sort of decorum while dealing with its constantly changing locales, cast of thousands and joyous implausibilities? You don’t. Embrace the madness, and it will become your friend.  Flaunt it like the boobs of a drunk woman trying to collect Mardi Gras beads.

You have a cast list of dozens. You’ll never be able to pay that many actors. Fuck it – we’ll do it with ten people playing all the roles. Women playing men? Men playing women? Who cares? Just get on the goddamn stage.



Pericles exists in a Neverland where Pericles and his court are costumed and set in your standard Shakespeare production. But to differentiate between all the places Pericles visits, we find American southern sharecroppers, Russian spies, a New York brothel and a British kingdom with fishermen bearing the heaviest Scottish accents this side of Tim the Enchanter. The narrator’s part is split among all ten actors, as if they are doing children’s theater… if part of a children’s show is set in a whorehouse.

Oh god… how do we age Pericles (Juan Rivera Lebron) for the final third of the show? Slap some lines on his face? Large gray wig? Nope. Split the part in two and have James Ridge play the older Pericles – after he’s through playing a woman in a housecoat (the Bawd).


There is so much theatre magic happening here that I don’t want to spoil it for you; so I’ll limit it to two examples.

1. How to show Marina aging from Baby to Fourteen? The narrator cradles a rolled-up comforter (playing the role of Baby Marina), describing Marina’s childhood. As the actress playing Marina steps forward, the narrator flips open the comforter and places it on Marina’s shoulders. Voila. Here’s Marina.

2. The jousting tournament. This was amazing, as the cast played not only the jousters but the audience watching them from the royal box. Kudos to Cristina Panfilia (later to play Marina), whose hypermacho display got applause from the audience.

And with all that goofiness, the final reconciliation was heart-wrenching.

The cast was versatile and amazing. Out of all the plays we saw that weekend, this truly was an ensemble, so I’m not going to single them out. Cher Desiree Alvarez, Tracy Michelle Arnold, David Daniel, Gavin Lawrence, Juan Rivera Lebron, Cristina Panfilio, Cage Sebastian Pierre, James Ridge, Andrea San Miguel and Marcus Truschinski were all brilliant.


Truth in advertising – due entirely to my own stupidity, we missed the first two scenes in the show. The punishment: the Antiochus scene is my favorite scene in the script and I missed it. I really wanted to see what they did with that, since I always envision Antiochus being played with the venomous yet patient exasperation of Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

“But we’re going back again in a couple of weeks!” – Groucho Marx (Animal Crackers)

Margie wants to see The Three Sisters, and we’re seeing Pericles again that night. Because that’s how good it was.

(I'm ending all three current reviews with this, as it is an important point.)

One thing that aids APT in presenting 2½-to-3 hour shows is the effort involved in getting there. From DuPage County, Illinois, it’s a long drive, followed by a half mile uphill walk to get to the theatre. (Shuttles are available.) After all that work, you really don’t want to turn right around and go home after 1½ hours. You go there expecting to be grandly entertained for an entire evening. And your expectations are grandly fulfilled.

If you love classical theater, you need to go to American Players Theatre.

If you want to love full out classical theater, but have only seen abridgements or bad productions, you need to give APT a shot, because you will be converted.

If you hate classical theater… go away.


***********************************

“Pericles” by William Shakespeare. Directed by Eric Tucker.

When: Through September 29

Where: American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin, 53588

Tickets & Informationwww.AmericanPlayers.org




“Cyrano de Bergerac” - American Players Theatre

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, adapted and directed by James DeVita.  A wildly romantic tragicomedy, Cyrano de Bergerac is a swashbuckling epic, brought to vivid life by American Players Theatre.

Here’s the problem.  I love Cyrano de Bergerac.  For mixing comedy, tragedy, romance and some more comedy, you can’t beat this script.  So I’m going to be pickier than I am normally.  When my wife and I saw Moon Over Buffalo on Broadway, there was a line about how brilliant a director the lead character is – “He staged Cyrano de Bergerac with five people.”  I was the only one in the house who laughed.  Really loud.  (And more on this type of staging when I review Pericles.)

Cyrano de Bergerac is the story of a gallant, eloquent but homely French soldier, deeply in love with his cousin Roxanne.  She, in turn, falls for a handsome but empty headed soldier and Cyrano is determined that she shall live happily ever after, no matter what the cost to himself.



James Ridge is a fabulous Cyrano.  Charming, verbose, gallant and lonely, Cyrano is an actor’s dream role and Ridge justifies the dream.

David Daniel, who was in all three shows we saw that weekend, was excellent as Cyrano’s Comedy Relief buddy, Ragueneau, seemingly an obtuse boob, whose obtuseness is actually conscious and kind.

As Christian (Roxanne’s heartthrob), Danny Martinez is terrific as a young man, not the brightest bulb in the marquee, who eventually tires of not being able to speak for himself.

Laura Rook is great as Roxanne, a beautiful girl who is also quick-witted and spunky.

John Taylor Phillips ruled as the treacherous, pompous DeGuiche -- who might 

A large cast, terrific set & costumes, a fast but reasonable pace from the director, all go to provide (typically for APT) an entrancing evening of theater.



Now… what didn’t I like?  Three things.

1. Cyrano de Bergerac is a swashbuckler with only one real swordfight; and it was adequate.  No great shakes.  But I get it.  With actors who are memorizing two or three incredibly verbose shows per year, there’s no time to go all The Princess Bride on its ass.  Still… eh. 

2. The Orange Girl scene.  Played rather more prosaically than usual.  Cyrano has given away all his money in a Grand Gesture, and an Orange Girl (think Popcorn Vendor at a movie theater) offers him some food.  He makes yet another Grand Gesture, and the girl goes away with stars in her eyes.  But not here.  Not much was made of the moment, and the lines were cut that indicated that Cyrano could indeed win any girl he chose, if he only believed in himself.  Again, I get why this happened.  The idea is to increase the odds against Cyrano’s chances of success by adopting his own viewpoint about those odds.  I just like it when the audience thinks better of Cyrano than he does of himself. 

3. This one I don’t get.  American Players Theatre, in a bowl at the top of a hill, has excellent acoustics.  The actors aren’t usually miked, and you can hear every word.  Usually.  For some reason, after being clear as a bell for most of the night, the actors in the final act became Very Quiet and I had to strain to hear them.  Especially the nuns who are there to bring us up to speed on what’s been happening since all hell broke loose 15 years earlier.  It’s important exposition and I heard very little of it.

BUT… Cyrano de Bergerac is a remarkable epic achievement.  Required viewing.  Go see it.



(I'm ending all three current reviews with this, as it is an important point.)
One thing that aids APT in presenting 2½-to-3 hour shows is the effort involved in getting there.  From DuPage County, Illinois, it’s a long drive, followed by a half mile uphill walk to get to the theatre.  (Shuttles are available.)  After all that work, you really don’t want to turn right around and go home after 1½ hours.  You go there expecting to be grandly entertained for an entire evening.  And your expectations are grandly fulfilled.

If you love classical theater, you need to go to American Players Theatre.
If you want to love full out classical theater, but have only seen abridgements or bad productions, you need to give APT a shot, because you will be converted.
If you hate classical theater… go away.

***********************************

“Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand.  Adapated and directed by James DiVita.

When: Through October 6

Where: American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin, 53588

Tickets & Information: www.AmericanPlayers.org

“A Flea in Her Ear” - American Players Theatre

A Flea in Her Ear by Georges Feydeau, adapted and directed by David Frank.  A wild sex farce with nebbish husbands, neurotic wives, sensible friends given wrong information, a befuddled look-alike, a jealous husband with a gun and a young man with a hilarious speech impediment.  And if the theater doesn’t apologize for that, why should I?  At least they didn’t use the phrase “harelip” in this adaptation.

In the best farces – the ones that resonate – the audience has somebody to root for.  Lend Me a Tenor: Max and Tito are both extremely sympathetic.  Max (A) wants to be an opera singer and (B) is in semi-unrequited love.  Tito (A) just needs a rest and (B) is very generous in encouraging Max.  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Pseudolus, a Sgt. Bilko-like con man, is a slave who will do anything to be free.  Even if the characters have some less than sterling qualities, we want them to achieve their goals.

As a director, I much prefer these farces to anything by Ray Cooney, who writes about assholes and dimwits who fully deserve whatever they get.  If you get the audience to like your characters, you don’t have to work as hard to get the laughs.  It’s still mind-bendingly hard work, but you’re no longer adding to your burden.

The “YesThank you!” moment in David Frank’s production of A Flea in Her Ear at American Players Theatre comes when stuffy insurance executive Chandebise, recipient of an Anonymous Love Letter (sent as a trap by his neurotic wife), comes to the conclusion that a mistake has been made and that the letter was really intended for his handsome best friend.  Until now amazed and entranced, the actor, David Daniel, suddenly deflates with logic and self-deprecation – (paraphrased) “It must be for you.  How could I possibly think a woman would be interested in me?” – with so forlorn a face that a wave of “Oooooooooooh!” emanated*** from the women in the audience.

And Daniel put the audience in his pocket and went on his merry way.


One of the many lovable qualities about the American Players Theatre is their assumption that the audience has not only intelligence but an attention span.  A Flea in Her Ear is a three hour farce (with two intermissions.)  It dragged a teeny bit in Act Three, but that’s on Feydeau’s shoulders, not the production’s.

The action was brilliantly inventive, and the characters were sincere, which is crucial.  Good farce isn’t just a series of goofy things happening to silly people.  The characters all want something desperately, and they’re dead serious about it.




I’ll be here all night if I try to single out any performer.  They are uniformly excellent, which is the sign of a good director – the aforementioned David Frank.  And I already talked about David Daniel, brilliant as both the repressed Chandebise and Poche, the drunken doorman.  So I won’t mention the fireworks performance of Kelsey Brennan as the histrionically neurotic Raymonde, Marcus Truschinki’s handsome idiot Tournel, Andrea San Miguel’s radiantly sane BFF Lucienne, Juan Rivera Lebron’s ferocious Don Homenides or, in a smaller role, Tracy Michelle Arnold as a befuddled hostess with a flat, Alice Kramden delivery… if Alice was an ex-prostitute.

There was a deserved standing ovation at curtain call.  The cast and crew worked their asses off and were hilarious doing it.



(I'm ending all three current reviews with this, as it is an important point.)
One thing that aids APT in presenting 2½-to-3 hour shows is the effort involved in getting there.  From DuPage County, Illinois, it’s a long drive, followed by a half mile uphill walk to get to the theatre.  (Shuttles are available.)  After all that work, you really don’t want to turn right around and go home after 1½ hours.  You go there expecting to be grandly entertained for an entire evening.  And your expectations are grandly fulfilled.

If you love classical theater, you need to go to American Players Theatre.
If you want to love full out classical theater, but have only seen abridgements or bad productions, you need to give APT a shot, because you will be converted.
If you hate classical theater… go away.



*** I was going to say “fauceted,” but when I checked to see if that really was a verb, I found that it was included in the Urban Dictionary with a meaning not quite what I wanted to convey.

***********************************

“A Flea in Her Ear” by Georges Feydeau.  Adapted and directed by David Frank.

When: Through October 7

Where: American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin, 53588

Tickets & Information: www.AmericanPlayers.org

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jerry's Girls... As It Were

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)




In 1998, Jerry Lewis, in what was apparently an attempt at controversy to draw attention to himself, stated that women aren't funny.  And he recently doubled down on the opinion.  He needs to drag his 90 year old ass out to Steel Beam and see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield.

This rapid-fire pastiche of All Things Bardish was originally performed by three men.  Director Jesse Hicks has cast three of the funniest women in the area to take their places.  (It's actually four, but you only see three at each performance.  Two of the performers trade off.)  The director does an expert job at keeping things moving and funny.  

But I can't say enough about the cast.  As a director, I sometimes find it difficult getting actors to perform at stage-size instead of TV size.  Enormous is the amount of energy necessary to propel an audience through an evening of fast paced comedy.  The energy level here goes through the roof.  The goal is never to make the audience feel as they got their money's worth; it's to make them feel as if they owe you more.  That is accomplished here in spades.

Julie Bayer, Jennifer Reeves-Wilson and Heidi Swarthout are not Good Actresses.  Julie Bayer, Jennifer Reeves-Wilson and Heidi Swarthout are absolutely top-notch professional-level CLOWNS.  There is no higher praise that I can give.  They are not "funny - for women."  They are funny.  Period.  Actually, I don't know if their periods are funny, but I'm willing to bet that they are.



If you are interested in spending your entertainment money wisely, this is a great bet for you.

If you are an actor interested in studying comedic performance in order to better your own - this is MUST see.

You may eventually see performers equal to Julie, Heidi and Jennifer (and probably Lori Holm, whom I didn't see).  You won't see better.


********************
"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)"
When: Sept. 16-Oct. 9
Where: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles
Tickets: $28 adult; $25 seniors (62 and over); $23 students
Information: 630-587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.com

Monday, September 5, 2016

How to Mainly Succeed

Should you go see How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Marriott Theatre?  My answer is a qualified “yes.” 

How to Succeed is very close to my heart for reasons I won’t bother with here.  They’ll be in the next post, or as a comment on this one.  So, unfortunately, I’m a picky know-it-all about the show.  Let’s go through the good stuff first, then deal with the four gremlins.

This Pulitzer Prize winning musical deals with corporate America in the early 1960s.  J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious window washer, uses a How To book to angle his way to the top.  For fans of classic musicals, the score includes such Frank Loesser hits as I Believe in You and Brotherhood of Man.  If played correctly, it is one of the four or five funniest musicals ever written.  If played correctly.  Meaning, give up any ideas of political correctness.  It takes place in the sixties.  Men were executives, women were secretaries or wives.  Sexual behavior was not so much regulated as it was glorified.  A) That’s the way it was; accept it and realize it’s a period piece.  B) The authors are making fun of greed and sex.  That’s a farce’s JOB.  So if you dampen the venality, there’s no point in doing the show.

Even with the best of Finches, the show is usually stolen by Hedy LaRue and Bud Frump.  Angela Ingersoll is the best Hedy LaRue I’ve ever seen. Playing a cartoon sex bomb, Ingersoll nails the three most important aspects of the character.  One of these is comic timing.

Instead of going for the usual high pitched Marilyn-Monroe-from-Brooklyn imitation (or Carol Channing, as Maureen Arthur played it in the movie version), Ingersoll goes for a low, occasionally raspy cigarette voice that is perfect for the character.  Polite society decrees that I must not mention the actress’s breasts in a review.  But Angela Ingersoll is brilliant at making her tits funny; which is what the part calls for.  I was not fond of Terry Hamilton’s J.B. Biggley.  He kept throwing in a lot of childish shtick into a part that epitomizes Dignity.  His dignity can’t be overthrown if Biggley isn’t dignified.  Hamilton was solely a cartoon… whereas, when Hedy says, “Don't start getting sincereThat's not fair,” Ingersoll looked truly wounded and seemed about to cry.  That’s how you give humanity to a cartoon character.  I can’t say enough about Ingersoll’s performance, so I’ll move on.

As Bud Frump, Alex Goodrich had an interesting approach, which I’m still not sure if I liked or not.  Frump, the villain, is usually the audience favorite because he’s so damned ineffective at villainy.  He’s the Wile E. Coyote of musical comedy.  But Goodrich, who is amazingly talented and nails all the jokes he is permitted to nail (more on that in the Gremlin section), gives Bud a snarling, roaring, venomous rage that is a bit off-key with the breeziness of the script.  I didn’t hate it; but still… Anyway, Goodrich is mostly hilarious.

Choreographer Melissa Zaremba did some brilliant things.  Cinderella, Darling worked for the first time since 1961 because A) nobody was going through the motions on a song they regarded as dated; they bought into it and B) the choreographer made it work by turning it into a pseudo-tap number instead of a static stand-there-and-sing comedy number.  And I won’t spoil the moment in Brotherhood of Man when the executives realize they have to join in.  Very funny (and subtle) stuff.

Jessica Naimy was a wonderful Rosemary, with the perfect angle on the character.  Instead of a sweet (if pushy) doormat, Naimy’s Rosemary looked unflinchingly at her options – secretary or wife – and was just as hungry and conniving about her goal as Finch was about his.

Derek Hasenstab was great in the dual roles of Twimble and Womper, as were Jason Grimm as Bratt and Marya Grandy as Smitty.  The ensemble was expert at their jobs.  Felicia P. Fields as Miss Jones seemed to be very ill the night I saw it, so I’m going to cut her some slack.

The Gremlins:

1. Mentioned a bit earlier.  How to Succeed is a period piece.  If you can go along with the idea that sex and greed are funny, you’ll have a good time.

2. Pacing.  Sigh.  Just sigh.  The first half of Act One is unbearable.  There is a rehearsal technique called “speed through.”  You just spit out the lines as fast as you can, no emotion, no communicating, no periods, no spaces between words.  Don Stephenson directed the majority of Act One as a speed through.  When Rosemary meets Finch, you can’t understand a word she says because she’s been directed to spitoutallthewordsasfastaspossible.  And it’s not just her.  Everybody does it.  The message, I guess, is that we’re on a rocket ride!  What it actually says is that the director has no confidence in the material and wants to get it over with.  If he doesn’t care, why should we?  Punchlines?  What punchlines?

3. The Matthew Broderick revival has a lot to answer for.  First – Miss Jones, who is now nearly always cast as a large black lady.  Sigh.  A black Finch… great.  Or Rosemary.  Or Hedy.  Or Bud.  Or Womper.  But Miss Jones is the one character in How to Succeed who needs to be played by a middle-aged, starchy, repressed white woman, because anything else kills the joke in Brotherhood of Man – that the most unexpected person in the room suddenly decides that she is Mahalia Jackson.  It’s not prejudice; it’s getting the joke right.  It's like casting Sean Connery as Maxwell Smart.  He's great at what he does, but he's wrong for the part.

Then, in this production, not only is the wrong person singing the song, but it is turned from gospel into scat.  Bad scat, at that.  It kills the double meaning of “Oh, brother!” if you don’t actually sing those words.  Brotherhood is not just an eleven o’clock number – it’s a stinging satire of redemption, being sung by irredeemable people.

4. The second Matthew Broderick effect: miscasting Finch.  Ari Martin is a wonderful leading man.  But you don’t need a handsome, romantic leading man for Finch.  He isn’t a cuddly puppy dog; he’s a slinky, sneaky cat pretending to be a cuddly puppy dog.  This is one of those parts, like Harold Hill in The Music Man, where Comedy Comes First.  If Finch can dance and carry a tune, great.  But the primary factor of the triple threat is comedy.  Not Matthew Broderick.  Not Daniel Radcliffe.  Ideally, you need a young Nathan Lane, who can take over the stage and defend it against all comers.  It’s why Young Frankenstein is never going to work onstage – Frederick requires an equally triple-threat man when the comedy should lead.  Ari Martin is a tremendous singer and dancer, and can play comedy.   But he’s not an aggressive clown; and that’s a minus.

Bottom line: if you aren’t as picky as I am about How to Succeed, you’ll have a great time.  When the amphetamines wear off enough to let the jokes land, there are a lot of laughs.  The singing and dancing are expert.  It’s a decent evening in the theatre.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING

Mostly recommended
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Tickets: $50 – $55
Info: (847) 634-0200

Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Funnyman" at Northlight Theatre






WORLD PREMIERE
New York City, 1959. Fading vaudeville comic Chick Sherman, along with his long-suffering agent, tries to revive his career with a role in an avant-garde off-Broadway play. While his grown daughter searches for answers from her absentee showbiz father, a lifetime of private and professional struggles rise to the surface, cracking the polished public persona of the world's favorite former "funny man."

Funnyman marks Northlight's fourth world premiere with playwright Bruce Graham, author of The Outgoing Tide, Stella & Lou and White Guy on the Bus.

Running Time: approximately 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission.

Buy tickets.  Now.  One of my favorite playwrights, Bruce Graham, has a new show starring the terrific George Wendt & Tim Kazurinsky, as well as Amanda Drinkall (Venus in Fur, Goodman).  This is one of Graham's best plays, despite a horrible (but correctable) misstep at the beginning that nearly sinks the show.  More on that later.

When you see the show, as you really should, be sure to read the program notes and examine informational displays in the lobby (except for the one about Bert Lahr's wife Mercedes, which gives away too much information.)  The premise here is that Chick Sherman (Wendt), three parts Bert Lahr to one part Buster Keaton, is prodded by his long-time agent (Kazurinsky) to accept a role in an off-Broadway production of an avant-garde play.  It is based on both Lahr's and Keaton's experiences with Samuel Beckett projects directed by Alan Schneider, a condescending pompous ass who directed pivotal productions of Beckett and Albee in the fifties and early sixties.

The subplot involves Sherman's daughter (Drinkall) trying to discover something, anything about her mother from her secretive father.

Now -- the play itself is not a Wacky, Slapstick Comedy.  It's a typical Graham mix of comedy and drama; what used to be called a "play," before people demanded narrow specification.  It is very funny, but rendered many audience members damp-eyed near the end.  Not me, of course.  Tower of strength, here.  Really.

Graham is a playwright who knows how to construct a script for maximum entertainment value.  He wants people to get sucked into the world of his play, and he succeeds beautifully.  Chick Sherman is a complex man - uneducated, but fascinated by a script he doesn't understand; a working actor, but tyrannical to the people who hire him; and supposedly a cold, aloof fellow, unemotional about anything but theater.  Supposedly.

George Wendt is wonderful as the grumpy hypochondriac Chick, a man who flat-out knows comedy and suffers fools less than gladly.  Sharp comic timing and powerful dramatic work.  It's one of the more magnificent performances you'll see this year.

Tim Kazurinsky is lovable as Chick's agent, Milt "Junior" Karp, who wants to help his old-school client bridge the gap in new theatrical tastes and revitalize his career.  Kazurinsky is able to play lovable, but with bite.




As Chick's spunky daughter Katharine, Amanda Drinkall goes toe-to-toe with Wendt in what seems to be a last ditch attempt to establish some sort of relationship with him.  Her performance is winning and real.

The rest of the cast is terrific as well - Steve Haggard as Katharine's boyfriend Matthew, Rob Lindley as playwright Victor LaPlant (based more on Tennessee Williams than Samuel Beckett) and Michael Perez as Alan Schneider-esque Nathan Wise all do brilliant work.  Lindley is hilarious and the Comedy Student in my soul loved the skewering of Alan Schneider.

B.J. Jones' direction was crisp and smooth.  The play flowed well through the various playing areas of Jeffrey D. Kmiec's great set.

ISSUES:
* The preshow music contains Catch Our Act at the Met by Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray, from Two on the Aisle.  There was no need to speed it up so that they sounded like the Chipmunks.  It made singing along difficult.

* The lobby display about Bert Lahr's wife Mercedes gives away too much information.  Don't read it, because you'll be able to figure out where the climax of the play is going.  Read all the other background material, however.

* Nearly killed the show: both acts open with filmed segments of Chick Sherman doing commercials, as did Lahr and Keaton.  Fine.  However... it was decided that Chick should be a deadpan comic like Keaton, while retaining Lahr's goofiness.

A. I'm not the first writer to state that "deadpan" doesn't really apply to Keaton.  His face was greatly expressive.  He just didn't smile.  Closeups of Wendt in the commercials show an unsmiling face and completely dead eyes.  Dead eyes are not funny ones; they're actually kind of frightening.

B. A director of a revue once asked me and another actor to perform Who's on First, imitating not Abbott and Costello, but Laurel and Hardy.  I said, "But it won't work; it's an entirely different rhythm.  Laurel and Hardy doing Who's on First would take days."  And that's the issue with these commercials:

Commercials with Buster Keaton were usually silent and had him calmly reacting to strange situations or causing the situations himself, such as drawing a hat/coat rack in chalk and then hanging his hat and coat on it.  They were strictly Situational commercials.  Lahr's commercials depended completely on his persona; confused, panicked, surly, amazed, distrustful.  Vastly expressive facially.  Lahr's commercials were Personality commercials.  So here's the issue - Wendt has been directed to perform Bert Lahr Personality commercials as Buster Keaton Situational commericals.  And it isn't a bit funny.  So right from the get-go, we're told that this is a legendary comic, but what we're shown of him isn't funny, due entirely to the way it was directed.

And this is highly fixable.  Wendt doesn't have to smile, just let his face come alive without smiling.  Catch phrases don't land from inanimate delivery.  The play recovers nicely, but it shouldn't need to recover at all.  I wouldn't bother so much about it, but it comes right at the beginning and sets a wrong tone.

That picky complaint aside, Wendt, Kazurinsky and company, with Graham's script, provide one of the most entertaining nights you'll spend in a theater.  So, go spend.

****************************

Funnyman runs through October 11.  Reservations and information available here: Northlight Theatre


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"The Sound of Music" at BrightSide Theatre


by Craig Gustafson


For the final weekend of The Sound of Music at BrightSide Theatre, you'll need to go Friday or Saturday because Sunday is sold out.

The famous book by Lindsay and Crouse, eclipsed by the even more famous music by Rodgers and Hammerstein, concerns Maria, a novice nun booted from an Austrian convent to be governess for seven unruly children of a cold, strict, widowed naval captain.  She brings her guitar.  Music ensues. Just when you think everything will end Happily Ever After, Nazis take charge.

Songs include the title tune, Climb Every Mountain, No Way to Stop It, My Favorite Things, How Can Love Survive?, Do Re Mi, The Lonely Goatherd, Edelweiss and many others.

Jeffrey Cass' staging of a big musical on a small stage is pretty nifty.  Flats on platforms are rolled in and out in multiple configurations. It's extremely well done and looks terrific.

Standing: Skylar McClure, Tessa Newman,  Hope Elizabeth Schafer,
Max McNeal Martin, and DJ EmmaSeated: Sophie LoGalbo, Meg McGarry, Ella Schuler. 

Meg McGarry is magnificent as Maria, as she was at Wheaton Drama a couple of years ago.  She has a gorgeous voice, put to good use by this score.  McGarry also works to make Maria something other than a chipper song machine who has occasional panic attacks.  She is a real human being, due to McGarry's dead-on acting instincts.  She has great chemistry with the children and with the Mother Abbess, speaking of which:

Michelle Hackman and Meg McGarry

Michelle Hackman as the Mother Abbess is a likable actress with an incredible voice.  Yes, I know, "That's what you need for this role."  That doesn't mean you'll always get one.  Hackman gives a terrific performance.

Tony Lage and Meg McGarry

The children do a great job.  Meaning: Hope Elizabeth Schafer (Liesel - beautiful voice), Max McNeal Martin (Friedrich), Tessa Newman (Louisa), DJ Emma (Kurt), Skylar McClure (Brigitta)Sophie LoGalbo (Marta) and Ella Schuler (Gretl).  In the group numbers, LoGalbo was the Show Biz one -- and I mean that in a good way.  She was totally committed and enthused to a noticeable extent, but without being obnoxious about it.

John B. Boss is excellent as Max, the Dr. Zachary Smith (Lost in Space, third season) of The Sound of Music.  Benignly manipulative, gracious and charming as long as he gets his own way, Boss is very convincing in Max's efforts to get Captain Von Trapp to go along with the Nazis - not because of any political conviction, but to save the family's life.  Boss knows when to let the twinkle in his eye go dim.

Tony Lage as Captain Von Trapp has a beautiful voice.

Lori Klose, Elizabeth Morgan and Christina Ronna are charming as the nuns who sing How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, an un-Conventional (sorry) song that just avoids being soft shoe number, even though that would be wrong but cool.  Jane Brewer is snappy as Frau Schmidt, the Von Trapp's housekeeper, Christie Coran is classy as Elsa and Frank Zabilica does well with the combination of youthful earnestness and Third Reich rigidity that is Rolf.

The music is well done by music director Michael Kaish and band.

Issues
The initial confrontation scene between Maria and Elsa didn't play.  It's been done where it was instant dislike for both of them, with Maria struggling to remain nunlike.  Here, Elsa is marking her territory and Maria is kind of clueless.

At the music festival, Max has some snide comments for the contest runners-up.  It was more like a 2015 night club MC than a 1938 minster of arts.  The comments are funny.  They're also anachronistic.  Since Max is the one who recruited them, he would hardly denigrate them or hurt their feelings.  Speaking of anachronistic:

Ian Scarlato as Herr Zeller.  Decent actor.  But if you're being paid to make like it's 1938, shave off the 2015 style two-week's growth of beard.  When the show is over, it grows back in two weeks.  That type of unwillingness to commit is really annoying.

The band habitually overpowered the actors.  The actors are wearing body mikes, so this should be adjustable.

**************************

BrightSide Theatre did a great job with this.  If you are a huge Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, order your tickets now.  You're going to love it.  Especially if you like well done musicals or even just Meg McGarry.

The Sound of Music at BrightSide Theatre in Naperville.  Playing through June 28. For tickets and information, go here: http://brightsidetheatre.com/?page_id=1572

Monday, June 22, 2015

"City of Angels" - Bringing Out the Big Guns

by Craig Gustafson

City of Angels, though flawed, is the best Broadway musical of the 1980s.  The book by Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, TV's Caesar's Hour and M*A*S*H) is witty and hilarious.  The 1940s style jazz music by Cy Coleman (Little Me, Sweet Charity) is vocally complex and a joy to listen to.  David Zippel's lyrics are spot on.

Rod Thomas as Stine, Kevin Earley as Stone

The story concerns Stine, a writer of Raymond Chandleresque novels about a hard-boiled detective named Stone, and his efforts to write a screenplay based on his latest novel.  A movie-struck Stine is initially oblivious to the Hollywood machinations and backstabbing that rival anything he could put in a book, and his willingness to compromise irritates his level-headed wife, Gabby.  Hard-nosed producer/director/editor/make-up expert/popcorn butterer Buddy Fidler hides his ruthlessness behind lavishly lathered smarm.  His secretary Donna, seemingly content to Know Her Place, has her own agenda.  Stine's story is presented in color.  But there's another story:

In black and white, we see a screenplay-within-a-play; scenes from Stine's screenplay, City of Angels, as he writes and rewrites it.  Private eye Stone embarks on a two-fisted, multiple-bed case of finding missing heiress Mallory Kingsley.  His uncompromising sense of morality sees him through the seedy alleys and corrupt mansions of Los Angeles.

Erin McGrath as Mallory, Kevin Earley as Stone

Stone and Stine are played by separate actors (I suspect a movie version would have one actor play both parts), but everyone else in Stine's Hollywood life doubles as a character in his screenplay.  Sometimes he uses people as inspiration.  Other times, he revenges himself on people who have hurt him by having rotten things happen to their corresponding characters.

The Marriott Theatre and director Nick Bowling have done an amazing job of staging this complex, very busy show in the round.  It flows smoothly and is vastly entertaining.  The biggest job, distinguishing between Color Hollywood and Black & White Screenplay, is handled beautifully.  Everybody in the screenplay wears black, white and gray -- the only colors not found anywhere in the Hollywood scenes, which are gaudy and garish.  The furniture, props and lighting all mesh with the concept.

Here's the best and most subtle thing about Bowling's direction: when actors are playing characters in the black & white screenplay, they are utterly sharp, ruthless and convincing.  When it comes time to shoot the film and the same actors are playing Hollywood people interpreting the screenplay, they're not as good reading lines that they just said ten minutes earlier.  That's brilliant.

Rod Thomas as Stine is terrific.  Get used to that word; I'll be using it a lot.  Sharp timing and a killer voice.  Kevin Earley as Stone is also terrific.  Completely nails the unflinching detective with a strong moral code and a broken heart.

Gene Weygandt as Buddy

Gene Weygandt is wonderfully horrible as two Hollywood producers: Buddy Fidler in color, Irwin S. Irving in black & white.  Irving is a sniveling coward; Fidler is anything but - his smiling but brusque exterior attempts to camouflage a ruthless dictator.



Kevin Earley as Stone, Danni Smith as Bobbi

Danni Smith as Stine's wife Gabby and Stone's love Bobbi is - yes - terrific.  Gabby is on the ball, successful and a straight arrow who is on to her husband's every move.  So in Stine's screenplay, Bobby is a pathetic, self-centered, cheating tramp (albeit with a great voice) who Isn't Worthy of Stone.  Smith nails both characterizations.  Her voice is a smoldering fuse of dynamite.

And speaking of dynamite...

Meghan Murphy as Donna

Oolie is Stone's secretary, a Right Broad and the hero's faithful sidekick.  Think Joan Blondell with Bette Midler's vocal power.  Donna is Buddy's secretary, and pretty much like Oolie.  Or is she?  If you need some kind of really a special reason to see City of Angels, feel free to use mine: I love this show, but the extra spur I needed was Meghan Murphy as Donna and Oolie.  After watching her mop the floor with everyone else onstage as the Acid Queen in The Who's Tommy, I had to see this production.  I need a new paragraph for this:

I've been an actor/director/audience member for all of my moderately long adult life.  Meghan Murphy gets the Pushmi-Pullyu Award for making me sing I've Never Seen Anything Like It(Doctor Dolittle [1967] reference.)  A problem with Oolie's (and Donna's) second act show-stopper, You Can Always Count on Me, is that it's a funny song, but it's interspersed with scenes, which breaks up the flow.  You keep going back to square one each time you start.  How do you build to a finish with a song like that?  For the final chorus, after dialogue, Murphy did something I literally have never seen before in my life.  Using only body language, Murphy wheeled herself around in a way that said, "Watch out, suckers, I'm about to blow!"  It was like watching a battleship spinning its guns around to fire.  And Murphy has the biggest guns around.  It was one of the most amazing moments of theatre I've ever experienced.  This one number was worth the price of the ticket.  The fact that the rest of the show was fabulous is icing on the cake.  To say that Murphy is a force of nature is to minimize her abilities.

Kevin Early as Stone, Summer Naomi Smart as Alaura


Summer Naomi Smart as Carla and Alaura; Erine McGrath as Mallory/Avril; Devin DeSantis as Jimmy Powers; Patrick Lane, Elizabeth Lanza, Michael Mahler and Cassie Slater as the scat-singing Angel City Four - all are (you guessed it) terrific.  Ryan T. Nelson's music direction was flawless.

Can I stop gushing long enough to talk about things I didn't like?  Of course I can.
            
There is an opening announcement, notification in the playbill and a frickin' scorecard shoved into the playbill, all making sure we know the premise of the show and that actors will be playing two or more parts in color and black & white.  In other words, "Hello, idiots."  The onstage delineation between the two worlds was completely clear without the idiot cards.  Of course, on the way out I was listening for audience reactions and I heard a couple of older patrons saying, "Could you follow it?" "No.  But it was good."  So - the majority of us can follow along without having it drummed into us, and the announcements did nothing for the ones who couldn't follow it anyway.

The ending blows; but that's Gelbart's fault, not the production's.  That's five minutes out of two and a half hours of musical heaven.  And it was really interesting that the director acknowledged that the ending blows, by virtue of an added line.

A number of lines and snippets of song were cut; I hope Bowling got permission for that.  A couple of bawdier gags had to be cut because there was no way to do them in the round; as it was, there was a moment when one character flashes another and had to get so close to the other actor that it seemed like imminent rape was to be added to minor sexual harassment.  But Carla has a line about dining that was needlessly censored.  That sucks.  If you're going to do the show, just do it.

Meghan Murphy as Oolie, Danni Smith as Gabby

Aside from those things, City of Angels is one of the best shows you'll see this year; if you see it; which you should.  Immediately.

City of Angels runs through August 2 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.  For tickets and information, go here: http://www.marriotttheatre.com/show/city-of-angels

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Foreigner" Review From Steadstylechicago.com


by Joe Stead (Feb. 2009)

The Foreigner

One of the most delightful situation comedies of the 1980's was "The Foreigner," which promised great things to come from its author Larry Shue. Sadly, Shue only completed three full-length plays before his tragic death in an airplane crash. The clever scenario is still rib-ticklingly funny even if the latest production by the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre plays the laughs so broadly they inadvertently loose many. It's the age-old secret of comedy. When you try to be funny you usually aren't. When you play it honestly and sincerely the laughs come naturally.


There's a bit of a subversive undercurrent threaded through Shue's best work. Most of the characters we should ultimately come to care for start off as total losers and the well-respected, suave and successful young man turns out to be one of the biggest creeps of all. The setting is a fishing lodge in rural Georgia where two Brits have arrived for some relief from the hostile elements of a storm. Charlie Baker is a timid little proofreader for a science fiction magazine whose unfaithful wife now lies on her death bed. Charlie is so fearful of conversation that his buddy Froggy concocts a brilliant ruse. He introduces Charlie as a foreigner who doesn't speak a word of English so that his pal can be left alone in peace and quiet.


Simple you ask? Not quite. The colorful "outsider" soon becomes something of a celebrity with the locals, a trusted confessor, friend and eventual hero. Since Charlie supposedly can't understand what the others are saying, they feel completely free to confide in him all of their secret thoughts. Once he's gained the trust and devotion of the lodge proprietor and residents, he unwittingly uncovers and overturns a nefarious plot by the Ku Klux Klan to have the valuable property condemned and re-opened as a prosperous "Christian" hunting club.


The Metropolis production looks splendid. Ian Zywica's handsome lodge setting would be right at home on the stage of any of Chicago's finest regional theatres. The sound design, lighting and costumes are right on target. And a couple of the performers manage to shine, even if Director David Belew cheapens the humorous potential by resorting to obvious stereotypes. Craig Gustafson, who plays Charlie, looks like a living cartoon figure with his droopy appearance and sad eyes. His timing and impromptu storytelling are delightful. Michael B. Woods' bug-eyed redneck Owen Musser must surely be a first cousin to Howard Morris' Ernest T. Bass. The scenes between Charlie and Owen are the most hilarious to watch, over the top though they may be.


Mickey Crocker's Betty Meeks is a real disappointment. She reads far too young for the elderly widow for one thing, and has an annoying habit of shouting and telegraphing every line. Betty should be lovable, but Crocker is shrill and annoying. Jes Bedwinek and Eric Martin are attractive but shallow as the pregnant debutante and her righteous reverend fiancée. Dennis Brown brings a dash of authenticity to British Marine Froggy, although he seems all too happy to rid himself of Charlie, hardly the well-meaning friend and conspirator he should be. Dominic Furry offers plenty of hayseed charm as the gawky, dim-wit Ellard. With lavish production values and genuinely funny, well-written scripts, the Metropolis has the potential of being among the top theatres in the Chicago burbs. A little tighter direction and more restrained performances could definitely get them there.

"The Foreigner" plays through February 21, 2009 at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 West Campbell Street in downtown Arlington Heights. The play runs 2 hours 20 minutes with intermission. Tickets range from $26 to $42 and can be purchased online at www.metropolisarts.com or by calling (847) 577-2121.

Friday, July 20, 2012

"Reefer Madness" is Highly Successful.

Reefer Madness is one of my four favorite musicals of the 2000s.  (The others are The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers and Avenue Q.)  So I wanted to like Circle Theatre’s productions, but as a hypercritical fan of the show, I was prepared to hate it.  Well, I didn’t like it.

I loved it.  It’s one of the best productions I’ve seen in a long time.  Much of the credit has to go to director Matthew Gunnels and Jason Grimm as the Lecturer (evil twin of The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair), who guides us through the show with a righteous fury that is ¾ Stephen Colbert to ¼ Tasmanian Devil.  Unlike Gregg Edelman’s breezy Lecturer in the original off-Broadway production, Grimm doesn’t so much stroll us through the proceedings as he does grab us by the collar and ass, giving us the bum’s rush while screaming, “Get it?  Got it?  Good!”  His is a brilliantly psychotic performance.

The pace enforced throughout by Gunnels never dwells lovingly over a joke (which would be easy to do).  It slams the joke home and kicks it aside to make room for the next joke.


But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Reefer Madness is a satiric take on the original unintentionally camp classic 1936 film warning about the Evils of Marijuana.  More info here: http://www.rnh.com/show/87/Reefer-Madness.  Book by Kevin Murphy (Mystery Science Theatre 3000) & Dan Studney, lyrics by Murphy, music by Studney.  Purporting to be an expose of the Demon Weed, Reefer Madness is not a reverse psychology show encouraging marijuana smoking.  It’s a wonderfully vicious lampoon of the whole concept of government induced hysteria.  The song styles range from 1930s swing (Down at the Old Five & Dime) to Cab Calloway (Little Mary Sunshine) to Frank Zappa (Listen to Jesus, Jimmy), all done beautifully by Jon Landvick's band.  It’s one of the funniest, most ruthless (“least ruthful”?) musicals you’re ever going to see.  Back to Circle’s production:

Landree Fleming is luminous as the sweet, plucky, virginal Mary Lane.  She also has the strongest voice in the cast.  Elissa Newcorn is hysterical as Sally the Reefer Slut. 

Ryan Stajmiger is spot-on as stalwart young Jimmy Harper, who goes bat-shit crazy after one puff of Lucifer’s Lawn.  Tommy Bullington is incredibly Anthony Berg-like (an actor I know; they could be brothers) as Ralph, the typical movie college kid (aged 30 or so) and not afraid to go over the top, and keep going.  With this show, that’s a compliment.  Loved him.  Liz Bollar is great as Mae, with a beautiful, clarion voice.  Eric Lindahl is terrific as Jack.  And Jesus.  I don’t think he counted on having a fan of the show in the front row who was ready for “You can touch!”  Yes, that would be my wife, Margie, who checked out the Savior’s bicep.

I was also quite fond of the Placard Girl, Stephanie Wohar, whose brief appearances are always funny, due as much to her silent reactions as to the signs she carries.  And when not doing that, she sang and danced her ass off, along with the other members of the ensemble: Bobby Arnold, Julia Beck, Kyle Kuhman, Melody Latham, Joshua A. Peterson, Gina Sparacino and Neil Stratman.  Reefer Madness is an ensemble effort.  It has to be, or it doesn’t work.  Every person onstage behaves simultaneously as if (A) it’s a total team effort and (B) each one is the star.  And each of them could be the star and pull it off.

Anything I didn’t like?  Of course there was.  Two things.
1.     The Dames at Sea effect is when characters are simultaneously dumb as a rock and enormously lovable.  If you hear Bernadette Peters on the recording of Dames at Sea, she’s funny, but achingly sincere.  If you see Ann-Margret in the same role, she’s standing outside the part and working strenuously to be FUNNY.  She’s above the role, not in it.  There’s a teeny-tiny bit of that here, where Fleming has occasional subtle moves indicating that she wouldn’t mind jumping Jimmy.  No.  If Mary has even the slightest idea what sex is before the Act Two showstopper, it damages the number. Absolute sincere innocence is the key.  There’s a moment in Act Two of Reefer Madness where you should be absolutely aware that the words of the song are inane, but you still have tears in your eyes for the characters.  Since what Fleming does is 95% brilliant, the other 5% becomes jarring.  And I’m guessing this is a director thing, since he let her do it.
2.     The production is occasionally squeamish about some of the more R rated aspects of the show, dealing with partial nudity (except for the brave and plucky Stajmiger) and violence.  I’m thinking this is not so much a director thing as a budget thing: “If you think I’m washing a gallon of fake blood out of Mae’s costume every night, you’re crazy!” and “We don’t have money for marijuana-leaf-bedecked nude body suits – how does black leather strike you?”  Since the performers showed a willingness to Go All the Way, I’m thinking it was an unavoidable budget thing – which didn’t make it less disappointing.  Also, there was a weird rewrite on one of Ralph’s lines.  “Taking liberties?”  Wuss.

But this is quibbling.  If you like musicals, especially ones that you haven’t seen ten or eleven times, GO SEE REEFER MADNESS.  It’s a wonderful production and you get more than your money’s worth.  Info here: http://circle-theatre.org

(Director Craig Gustafson has just started his Year of Sondheim. Assassins closes July 22.  Promo here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TZ8ey_BGD0. A Little Night Music auditions August 27 & 28 at Village Theatre Guild, Glen Ellyn.  Into the Woods will audition at Wheaton Drama next March.)