Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Funnyman" at Northlight Theatre

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.

* 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.

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.