Monday, May 29, 2017

A Weekend in Chicago - Chicago Shakes, Lyric Opera and a little show called Hamilton

I need to start off this Chicago theater trip recap with a massive shoutout to the League of Chicago Theatres.
Dear League of Chicago Theatres: 
We recently traveled to your fair city to see a few shows, but we had not made a lot of advance plans. After a cursory online search, we had a lot of options, but was having trouble deciding. We stopped by the Hot Tix location on 72 East Randolph and had a lovely chat with the Hot Tix 'theater geniuses.' They described the various available shows, provided incredibly helpful directions (including train stops) and helped figure out if we could make it from one show to another in ample time. The next day, we stopped by the Block Thirty Seven Shops on State Hot Tix booth to decide on our final show of the trip. The charming and hilarious theatre genius helped us pick out a show that was relatively unknown to us, but turned out to be an amazing experience.
Thank you for all the awesome theater help, 
Kate McGonigle in Shakespeare in Love.
Photo by Liz Lauren
Your friends at Minnesota (and now more than a little Chicago) Theater Love
More about the League below, but now on to the shows!

Shakespeare in Love - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Luigi Sottile in Shakespeare in Love.
Photo by Liz Lauren
Despite the fact that we didn't really love the movie that this play is based on, we absolutely love Chicago Shakes and will take any opportunity to see a play there. Love their beautiful house, the gorgeous location on the lake, and the fabulous lobby bar that looks like a miniature British pub. They also do beautiful theater--we adored previous shows like Heir Apparent, Sense & Sensibility: The Musical and even way, way back to Pacific Overtures.

Directed by Rachel Rockwell, with scenic design by Scott Davis and costumes by Susan E. Mickey, Shakespeare in Love was beautifully put together. Kate McGonigle was a delightful Viola, and led a strong ensemble cast. I wish Will Shakespeare was a stronger character--he didn't have much to add to the action despite being the lead character. The action picked up immeasurably when Luigi Sottile as Ned Alleyn leapt onto the stage. His energy and enthusiasm, as well as a charming personality and mad fight skills brought the entire show up to a new level. He will be one for these Minnesota Theaterlovers to watch. A few musical interludes showcased amazingly strong voices, and made me wish the entire play was a musical. Still, Chicago Shakes rocks and we are always happy to be there.

Bonus! Check out this completely adorable interview with Luigi Sottile and his dog Dash, who also stars in the show.

Marry Me A Little - Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773
Recommended by the folks at Hot Tix, we took the train out to Lakeview to Stage 773 to check out this charming (and short!) musical created by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene and comprised primarily of songs cut from Stephen Sondheim musicals. This two-person musical directed by Jess McLeod stars Bethany Thomas and Austin Cook (who also serves as the musical director) is about two urban singles living in the same apartment building and the full arc of their romance, with the song lyrics telling their story. The two terrific actors don't need dialogue to create their characters, and it's interesting to see how the context can change the meaning of these songs. Porchlight has a great graphic on their website showing where the songs in the show originated.

Next up was the whole reason for the trip: My Fair Lady at Lyric Opera of Chicago, which had us at Richard E. Grant playing Henry Higgins. Add in Bryce Pinkham and Lisa O'Hare, so fabulous in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway, and there was no way we were missing this. This sumptuous production premiered in Paris, which may explain the fashion-forward costumes. It's nice to see a colorful Ascot scene, and Eliza's dress (see pic above) is to die for. O'Hare is a forceful and gorgeously sung Eliza, and Grant makes a rather charming Higgins, managing to seem more absent-minded than purposefully mean. And it's rather thrilling to see the show with an enormous singing and dancing chorus. Lyric Opera is knocking these musicals out of the park lately. We adored their Carousel (with Steven Pasquale and Laura Osnes). Next year's big Lyric Opera musical? Jesus Christ Superstar.

Photo by Joan Marcus. 
Do you believe in theater miracles? We do. Good timing paid off when we stopped by the Private Bank Theatre and bought two second-row tickets to Hamilton for that afternoon at face value. We'd seen Hamilton back in September 2015 and couldn't even really absorb what we were seeing. To see it again, with an amazing cast that included Daniel Breaker as Aaron Burr, Karen Olivo as Angelica Schuyler and ton of (new to us) other fabulous performers. And to see it so close? Amazing.

FYI: The show holds UP y'all. A couple of outstanding cast members that join Luigi Sottile and Bethany Thomas on our must-see list: Samantha Marie Ware as a fun-to-watch Peggy/Maria, Jin Ha as a hilarious King George, Colby Lewis as Lafayette/Jefferson (Daveed Diggs is pretty tough to compete with but Lewis made the role his own), Wallace Smith as a magnetic Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, and Jose Ramos as a heartbreaking Philip Hamilton. Really, the whole cast was fantastic. You should see it. But don't buy resale tickets. All that does is benefit evil ticketing companies and promote scalping. Boo hiss.

Photo from Lookingglass Theatre
To finish off the trip, the Hot Tix theater geniuses recommended Beyond Caring at Lookingglass Theatre. When we asked why we should see the show over another choice, we learned that it originated at the National Theatre in London and was having its US premiere, plus it was the last night, and we were sold. Set in the break room of a manufacturing plant amongst the temp, minimum wage workers and their supervisor, this immersive performance featured amazing performances and a fascinating, thought provoking script. Written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, this was the perfect, meaty, marvelously acted play to finish off our trip.

Love you, Chicago. We'll be back soon!

As promised above, here's more about The League of Chicago Theatres - "The League of Chicago Theatres is proud to serve a membership of more than 200 theaters, a rich and varied theater community ranging from storefront, non-union theaters with budgets under $10,000 to major cultural centers with multi-million dollar shows."

Looking for a show to see in Chicago? Check out ChicagoPlays, the League's comprehensive theater listings.

Hot Tix booth on Randolph.
How about a deal on tickets? Try Hot Tix, both available online and in person at the following locations (highly recommended!):
72 E. RANDOLPH, Chicago
(Between Michigan Avenue and Wabash Avenue, across the street from Chicago Cultural Center)
Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm and Sunday 11am-4pm
108 N. STATE, Chicago
(in Block Thirty Seven Shops on State, first floor Guest Services)
In the Downtown Chicago Theater DistrictOpen every day: Monday-Saturday 10am-6pm and Sunday 11am-5pm
Happy theatergoing!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Speed Dating through a Bunch of May Theater

Y'all, we've seen a LOT of plays lately. And we have fallen down on our mission to share these works with you, our loyal and devoted readership. In an attempt to win your hearts again, and to start the summer theater season with a clean slate, here is our speed dating recap of recent local theater.

Five Fifths of Jurassic Park - Minnesota Fringe benefit at Ritz Theater
How have I NEVER been to any of these shows before? I am appalled at myself and my co-blogger Jules. Here's the scoop: They pick a script, divide it into five parts and give it to five local theater companies to put their own spin on it--one night only.

This year's companies were Shanan Custer with the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society (listen to their podcast--it is MOST fun), Lounge-asaurus Rex (who I will now be following avidly, and not just for his impeccable taste in suitwear), Wayward Theatre Company (totally new to me--yay, new discoveries!), Blackout Improv (absolutely amazingly hilarious), and Erin Sheppard Presents (always fabulous and their costumes were ON point.) So fun and such a great teaser for the Fringe (August 3-13, 2017)!
Ann Michels in Sweetland
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
Sweetland: The Musical - History Theatre
Based on the lovely movie of the same name, which was based on a short story by local author Will Weaver, and with music by Dina Maccabee, and lyrics by Laurie Flanigan Hegge, and directed by Perrin Post .. With such a lovely pedigree and as it is such a labor of love, we wanted to like it more. However, our friend Cherry and Spoon loves it deeply, so please check out what she had to say!

Red Velvet - Walking Shadow Theatre Company
A really interesting premise from a well-regarded theater company, and a new play by a female playwright of color, Lolita Chakrabarti. (Fun fact: In London and New York, her husband Adrian Lester played the leading role). How can you go wrong? Although this was a very watchable play, and featured some strong performances, we ultimately found the play lacking. Single White Fringe Geek does a great job of outlining where we felt the play fell short. And although we adore JuCoby Johnson, this role didn't feel like the right fit for him.

Next on the calendar was Medea at New Epic Theater, but that show was cancelled. As we've seen great work from them in the past, we hope they sort out their issues and return to making theater.

Nate Cheeseman, Thallis Santesteban, John Catron, and
Christian Bardin in Lone Star Spirits (photo by Dan Norman)
Lone Star Spirits - Jungle Theater
Which we saw on its LAST DAY. So not helpful to anyone, particularly since the show was GENIUS. Dang it! The play, by Josh Tobiessen, was brought to life by director Sarah Rasmussen with a terrific ensemble of Terry Hempleman, John Catron, Christian Bardin, Nate Cheeseman, and Thallis Santesteban. Set and costume designer Sarah Bahr created the perfect small-town atmosphere, and the show ran a tight 80 minutes. So glad they extended a week and we were able to see it. 

Eric Sharp in Charlie, etc
(photo from Mu Performing Arts)
Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery - Mu Performing Arts
Lloyd Suh's script examines and critiques Asian American stereotypes using a play-within-the play to bring unspoken assumptions into the light. Randy Reyes directs this funny, thought-provoking, and challenging piece with a wonderful cast. And the show is in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, so tickets are just $9! Catch it before the show closes on May 28.

Broadway Songbook: Hollywood and Broadway - Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Though the show started a bit slowly, with songs best known as standards rather than theater music, the talented cast brings zing to songs from shows from 42nd Street to Grease to Legally Blonde. The Songbook series has been a wonderful addition to the local theater scene, and we hope it continues after James Rocco leaves the Ordway later this year.

Refugia - The Moving Company
This new work, playing on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium stage, aims to explore "exile, borders and the displacement of people," but we found the piece problematic, seeming to focus on white characters and stories and to underuse its few actors of color. Our friend Laura from One Girl, Two Cities wrote a wonderfully thoughtful post on this show, which has sparked an amazing amount of discussion in the local theater community.

Intimate Apparel - Ten Thousand Things Theater
Playing at Open Book through June 4, this gem of a play by Lynn Nottage is sensitively staged by Austene Van in TTT's trademark stripped-down style. The excellent cast is led by a luminous Aimee K. Bryant as a seamstress at the turn of the century who yearns for love and seems to find it by corresponding with a man working on the construction of the Panama Canal. As always, the cast is superb, and though I had seen this play when the Guthrie did it in 2005, I had forgotten what a wonderful script it is. 

Whew! Now, on to more theater-watching! Happy theater-going, friends!!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

One Man Two Guvnors - Yellow Tree Theatre

There's still one weekend to catch the terrific production of One Man Two Guvnors at Yellow Tree Theatre. This was my first experience at Yellow Tree, and it was certainly worth the drive to Osseo (which was not as long as I expected!).

Based on the Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters, One Man Two Guvnors sets its action in Brighton, England, in 1963. The story revolves around Francis Henshall, newly arrived in town with his employer. He takes on another job, making him the one man with two guvnors, trying to juggle both jobs and employers while trying to get something to eat. The plot is ridiculously convoluted, featuring an assortment of shady characters in increasingly silly situations.

Elise Langer, Elena Glass, and Marika Proctor
Photos by Yellow Tree Theatre /
Characters speak in distinctly British accents with the slang to match, which can take a bit of getting used to, but it's an important part of the atmosphere, along with the period costumes and music. The whole thing works amazingly well with the commedia dell'arte-inspired style of the Goldoni play, which includes asides to the audience and plenty of physical comedy. Richard Bean's script was originally performed at the National Theatre in London in 2011, with James Corden as Francis. The show was a huge hit that transferred to the West End and later, to Broadway.

The Yellow Tree production features an incredible cast that work together seamlessly. Besides playing their characters to perfection, the cast also perform interstitial songs that were written for the original production. In the London production, a separate band played the music, with occasional vocals by the cast. Under the lead of Brant Miller, this group does double duty, playing everything from guitar and drums to washboard and kazoo. (Note: the song lyrics cleverly relate to themes in the play and are definitely worth a listen on their own after you've seen the show. Amazon carries the original cast recording.)

Ryan Lear and Jason Ballweber

Photos by Yellow Tree Theatre /
Jason Ballweber plays Francis with exactly the right blend of guilelessness and charm, entrancing the audience while keeping them in stitches. Marika Proctor plays the first guvnor, a woman masquerading as her dead brother, with enough swagger to convince the other characters of her identity. Granted, the folks she's trying to trick are not the brightest bulbs. Sam Landman bellows as businessman Charlie Clench, who's celebrating the engagement of his dim daughter (Elise Langer) to the son of his colleague Harry Dangle (Peter Simmons). Neal Skoy revels in the ridiculousness of the fiance, whose dream is to be an actor, but whose idea of acting is melodramatic at best.

Ryan Lear shines as the second guvnor, who clearly has more looks than brains, but an excellent way of expressing his heartbreak in an unexpected instrumental solo. Elena Glass is the long-suffering bookkeeper who has an eye for Francis, Warren C. Bowles is a pub owner who can keep a secret, and Tristan Tifft is an elderly, but very spry waiter who takes a lot of physical abuse. I wanted to mention everyone, because each actor is terrific, adding up to a fantastic ensemble.

The ensemble of One Man, Two Guvnors
Photos by Yellow Tree Theatre /
Director Anne Byrd has done an amazing job of keeping the play moving on Gabriel Gomez's compact but surprisingly functional set. The technical aspects are all top-notch, including Sarah Bahr's character-defining period costumes. Special recognition is owed to dialect coach Keely Wolter. The specificity of the various English accents contributes enormously to the tone of the play, and the actors carry them off splendidly.

One Man, Two Guvnors is not a play to change the world, but it keeps the audience laughing, even howling, for the entire evening. Don't miss this opportunity to see this hilarious production, as a more masterful comedy is unlikely to come along anytime soon.

Need more convincing? Watch the video Yellow Tree put together. Doesn't that just look like fun? Now go get your tickets!