City of Angels

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—“City of Angels” was a major hit on Broadway starting in late 1989 but it’s likely that nearly all the spectators at the musical’s opening at the Marriott Theatre had never seen the show before. It’s an unorthodox departure from the standard Broadway musical, requiring a close attention to the action that may frustrate audiences expecting a traditional song and dance production. So few theaters are willing to take the risk. Indeed, the Drury Lane Theatre presented “City of Angels” in 1993 but the rejection at the box office was so potent that the theater closed the show early and inserted a revival of “Phantom of the Opera” to finish out the original four week run.

         “City of Angels” is a satire on the noir private eye stories that were so popular in American books and movies during the 1940’s and 1950’s. The characters are hard boiled, the dialogue wisecracking, and the atmosphere saturated with sexual innuendo, pessimism, betrayal, and convoluted plots. Disillusionment hangs in the air like a toxic fog as the characters flail about in a world of moral corruption and crime.

     

                      Photo Credit: Amy Boyle and the Marriott Theatre

Some of the noir plots were so complicated that nobody could figure out exactly what was going on. Raymond Chandler, the grand master of the noir detective story, admitted there were times when even he couldn‘t explain the narratives in his Philip Marlowe private eye novels. The plots might not be intelligible, but the atmosphere carried the product. When a movie has Humphrey Bogart as the noir anti-hero, the viewer will forgive much.

         The show’s title refers to Los Angeles, ground zero for the violence and cynicism that dominated the noir era. “City of Angels” is actually two parallel stories. The first scene introduces an author named Stine, sitting at a typewriter writing a screenplay adaptation of his novel about a private detective named Stone. The rest of the musical goes back and forth between the creation of “City of Angels” as a Hollywood movie and the story within the book. There are two sets of characters, the Hollywood types and the men and women who populate the novel.

To help the audience separate the characters, the Hollywood people wear bright colored costumes and the figures in the novel/movie wear muted black and grey outfits. Scenes alternate between Hollywood and the fictional goings-on, with the leading performers taking dual roles, one in the Hollywood storyline and the other in the novel. It’s easy to see how a spectator may lose the thread of who is who and what’s going on.

The parallel plots are loaded with clichés. Stine is battling the compromises he must endure, especially from the movie’s sleaze ball producer director. He’s that most familiar of literary stereotypes, the artist who sells out for money, and it’s costing him his self respect as well as his marriage to a woman who  berates him for throwing his talent away on trash, just for a measly $150,000. Then there are the clichés of noir fiction, with beautiful and accessible women who aren’t what they seem, a complex plot that defies unraveling (even when an explanation is offered at the end) and the macho private eye battling amorality and immorality all around him, as well as his own demons.

   

                   Photo Credit: Mark Campbell and Marriott Theatre

By the intermission I wasn’t liking “City of Angels” that much. The first act moved at a slow pace and I didn’t care much about either set of characters—Hollywood or fiction. Cy Coleman’s score is often tuneless, thought it did profit from David Zippel’s often snappy lyrics. For no good artistic reason, the show includes a quartet of scat singers in the Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross vein who offered some commentary on the action, but I thought just soaked up playing time, especially in the overlong first act. A Hispanic police detective named Munoz appears in the show, for no reason other than giving Stone, who once was his police officer partner, a hard time on racial grounds.

Four actresses each play two roles, one in the Hollywood segments and similar characters in the world of Stine’s novel. Keeping the female characters straight is particular tricky, Donna being the producer’s secretary and Oolie being Stone’s secretary, Carla and Alaura being a couple of manipulative sexpots married to much older but successful men, and Avril and Mallory being hot young ladies with a considerable familiarity with the bedrooms in their high society worlds. Marriott thoughtfully includes a photo character chart in the playbill of the various pairs and audiences likely will refer to it frequently.

The core performances are delivered by Rod Thomas as Stine and Kevin Earley as Stone. Thomas wows us again with his potent and expressive singing voice and his dramatic duet “You’re Nothing Without Me” with Earley is an authentic showstopper. Unfortunately, Earley doesn’t project enough of the private eye mystique the character requires. The heroine of the evening musically is Meghan Murphy as secretaries to both Stine and Stone. Murphy as a sensational voice and her I-never-have-luck- with-men” aria “You Can Always Count on Me” is a stunner. Murphy is a few years short of being a spectator Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”

Danni Smith plays Stine’s disaffected wife and Stone’s hard luck ex girl friend and Summer Naomi Smart and Erin McGrath are the sexpots. Smart’s character hires Stone to find her missing step daughter (McGrath), letting lose the tangled plot that remains impenetrable even with a long and heated confession in the show’s windup. Gene Weygandt has a ball as the movie producers in both plots, a sneering, bullying, wheedling ball of nastiness in the true craven movieland and noir traditions. Gabriel Ruiz tackles his role of Munoz with gusto, nearly masking the fact that his character contributes nothing to the story aside from piling on still more complications.

There are some interesting, often comic, scenes that take the audience into moviemaking and the creative process in general. We see the screenplay author write sometime that the characters duly act out and after the writer decides to revamp his dialogue, the characters backtrack, reciting the dialogue backwards until they reach the original starting point and then pick up the new lines. Pretty clever.

“City of Angels” is a victim of the Marriott’s in-the-round stage, which limits the scenery to a few props and denies the production much of the moody visual look so crucial to the noir style. But Thomas Ryan (set design) and Jesse Klug (lighting design) do what the can. Still, this is a show made for a large proscenium stage that can fluidly accommodate the shifting Hollywood and fictional settings. Nancy Missimi’s costumes do establish the 1940’s fashion sense, though the demarcation between the colorfully clothed Hollywood characters and the gray and black dressed fictional characters isn’t particularly pronounced.

“City of Angels” isn’t a dancing show but choreographer Tommy Rapley contributes a few nice dance moments. Director Nick Bowling does a valiant job of trying to keep the twin plot lines comprehensible for the viewers while moving the large cast on and off stage efficiently. It would be worth seeing Bowling at the helm of a revival that gives him a full stage to work with. The orchestra is outstanding, even evoking that 101-strings romantic sweep that enhanced love scenes in 1940’s movies.

“City of Angels” probably will succeed more with musical theater zealots than patrons just looking for a jolly night out, but maybe I’m selling the taste of the contemporary theatergoer short. The production certainly deserves a more respectful fate than the 1993 Drury Lane disaster. “City of Angels” dares to be different and engage the attention of the audience at a more adult level than the typical musical. The show doesn’t reach the heights of “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep” but those books and movies didn’t have the benefit of Meghan Murphy, worth the price of admission by herself.

“City of Angels” runs through August 2 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $55. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

      The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.                  June 2015

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!

http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

  Want to read more reviews go to TheaterinChicago.

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

Anything Goes

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” was a major musical success in 1934. Like all musical comedy hits of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the story is twaddle but the songs are great and there are opportunities for high stepping dancing. The show was revived, with alterations, in 1987 and 2011. Now the Marriott Theatre is staging “Anything Goes” (in the 1987 edition). The story is still twaddle, but agreeably so, and the music and dancing are a joy.

         The revival retains original Cole Porter hits like “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and “All Through the Night,” and plugs in Porter classics from elsewhere, like “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,” and “It’s De-Lovely.” The numbers are embedded in a story that takes place on a trans Atlantic ocean liner and concerns itself with assorted love affairs and comic misadventures. After the usual confusions and false starts, all the relevant characters on stage are paired off appropriately, if improbably, in time for the entire ensemble to sing and dance exuberantly into the night.

         The show’s core character is a jazz baby evangelist named Reno Sweeney, played by Ethel Merman in 1934, Patty LuPone in 1987, and Sutton Foster in 2011. At Marriott, the role belongs to Stephanie Binetti, she of the long legs and belting voice.

Capitalizing on the nonsensical book, the non-musical stage time is dominated by the comic actors, and Marriott is employing two of the best we have in Ross Lehman and Gene Weygandt. Lehman has been making local audiences chuckle seemingly since the presidency of William Henry Harrison. He’s a master of very broad comedy and he is thoroughly at home playing Moonface Martin, an ineffectual gangster ranked public enemy number #13 by the FBI and a man yearning to reach the magical public enemy #1 plateau. Lehman lays on the shtick with a prodigal hand, both physically and vocally, even leading the ensemble in a musical number like a mad orchestra conductor. I am not a huge fan of silly comedy on stage but if I have to watch it, I want Lehman to do the honors. Weygandt does the nearly impossible, making a drunk, and an impossibly nearsighted one at that, seem legitimately funny.

  

                                                 Photo credit: Johnny Knight Photography and The Marriott Theatre

         The romance comes from the quartet of Reno Sweeney, a young stockbroker named Billy Crocker (Jameson Cooper), a debutante named Hope Harcourt (Summer Naomi Smart), and a silly ass British aristocrat named Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Patrick Lane). They are all aligned improperly at the beginning but by the last scene there is carnage of weddings, not only among the four principals but also between Hope’s mother (Mary Ernster) and the rich drunk (Weygandt). A ditzy oversexed blonde named Emma (Alexandra Palkovic) apparently wins the entire ship’s crew for her romantic convenience.

         Director-choreographer Marc Robin recognizes that he is not staging “A Little Night Music.” He allows the farcical comedy to run free, and if there are a few over the top moments, that’s the price of doing business with this kind of vehicle. And with the main comedy in the hands of Lehman and Weygandt, the narrative chaos works very nicely. Plus, deft comic touches and witty lines have been inserted throughout the book, first by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton and later by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Best of all are the scintillating Cole Porter lyrics, especially the “catalogue” songs like “You’re the Top” with their endless stream of verbal invention.

         The production numbers come late at the Marriott, the first not taking over the stage until the first act finale. Until then the audience had to be content with a couple of Fred and Ginger romantic duets by Smart and Jameson. But the second act set the opening night audience whooping with glee with the exhilarating song and dance forays into “Public Enemy #1,” “Blow, Gabriel Blow,” and the all hands on deck finale.

     

                                         Photo credit: Johnny Knight Photography and The Marriott Theatre

        The ensemble runs to almost two dozen performers, including those old pros Ernster as Hope Harcourt’s fortunate hunting mother and John Reeger as the ship’s captain. Anne Gunn even gets in a few zingers as an old lady in a wheelchair. The eager young chorus is all high energy, typified by Sayiga Eugene Peabody’s back flips. The chorus is also responsible for making complicated changes on a nearly dark stage between scenes, executed deftly and mostly silently.

         Robin brings the show in at a tight 2 hours and 15 minutes. His staging is assisted heroically by the stunning 1930’s wardrobe designed by Nancy Missimi for the female characters. Missimi’s costumes never disappoint, but in this show she has outdone herself in glitz and glamour and variety. Marriott has obviously given her a blank check and she has spent every dollar imaginatively. I’m sure the ladies of the cast are dying to take those outfits home with them after the show closes. The rest of the physical production resides in the capable hands of Thomas M. Ryan (sets), Jesse Klug (lighting), Robert Gilmartin (sound), and Sally Weiss (properties design). Ryan Nelson conducts the capable offstage orchestra.

         “Anything Goes” treats the inanities of its storyline and characters with genial high spirits. The audience certainly will show tolerance for the antics on stage because the glorious songs maintain some dignity in Hope-Evelyn love affair, and Jameson Lane tosses off the stereotyped English booby with great élan. Lehman and Weygandt take care of the slapstick comic business to unanimous audience satisfaction. There are a few double entendres, none exceeding the PG-13 level. The success of reconstituted musicals like “Anything Goes,” “My One and Only,” and “Crazy for You” demonstrate the public’s ongoing love for the American songbook, with its hummable melodies and sharp lyrics in the service of a total fun evening. And so it is at the Marriott.

“Anything Goes” runs through May 31 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $55. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

      The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.                  April 2015

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!

http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

Want to read more reviews go to TheaterinChicago.

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

La Cage aux Folles

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—In 1983, “La Cage aux Folles” opened on Broadway as perhaps the first musical to deal openly with homosexuality. The show became a major hit without generating much controversy for its then unconventional theme. Audiences flocked to see “La Cage” because it was a delightful musical in the Broadway tradition of easy to take comedy, elaborate production numbers, and an ingratiating love story.

         The revival at the Marriott Theatre presents “La Cage aux Folles” as a fun show, which it is. The gay theme is treated with much humor and some charm. This isn’t “The Boys in the Band” or “The Normal Heart.” It is Broadway at its most accessible and least threatening, with a melodic and bouncy score by Jerry Herman and plenty of rousing song and dance numbers staged with sizzle and wit by director Joe Leonardo and choreographer Melissa Zaremba, gaudily costumed by the always inventive Nancy Missimi.

            

                                              Photos courtesy of Mark Campbell and The Marriott Theatre

      The departure from the norm of Broadway musicals was the love story, not the traditional boy-girl romance but an affecting relationship between two middle-aged men who had been together for more than 20 years. The men are Georges and Albin, who run a drag nightclub named “La Cage aux Folles” at some unspecified time on the French Riviera. Georges is the club’s master of ceremonies and Albin is Zaza, the drag star of the evening. Albin/Zaza performs in front of a chorus of eight men dressed gloriously and convincingly as sexy young women.

         The club’s floorshow musical numbers provide the show’s major pleasures, but there is a storyline. It seems that 20 years previously, Georges had a one night stand with a promiscuous actress that resulted in an offspring named Jean-Michel. Georges and Albin raised the child as mother and father like a typical nuclear family. Now Jean-Michel wants to marry, and the hook is that his fiancée’s father is a bigoted politician running on a puritanical morals platform.

         Jean-Michel wants to bring his young lady and her parents to meet his “mother and father,” but Albin is an embarrassment whose homosexuality would scuttle the lad’s marriage plans. So Albin has to go back into the closet, at least during the brief stay of his fiancée and her folks. Albin naturally is outraged and offended at his dismissal, venting his outrage with the show’s major emotional moment, Albin’s defiant rendition of “I Am What I Am,” which could serve as a national anthem for the gay community.

                 

               Photos courtesy of Mark Campbell and The Marriott Theatre

         The Marriott staging goes all out for the broad comic opportunities built into a musical about transvestites and drag performers. The show cheerfully thumbs its nose at political correctness about gay matters. In one scene, Georges and Albin agree to soothe Albin’s injured feelings by agreeing to pass him off as the boy’s Uncle Albert when the fiancée’s parents arrive. But Albin exudes a full range of a caricature gay man’s physical and vocal mannerisms. Georges and Jean-Michel try to instruct him to “man up” by shedding his swishy walk and way of speaking. The scene wallows in gay stereotypes but audiences of all sexual persuasions should join in laughing at what actually is a classic case of gender profiling.

         Throughout the show, the gay/straight dichotomy comes in for a stream of low comedy wisecracks that neither the ultra homophobic nor the extreme liberal spectator should take amiss. At the end of the show Jean-Michel and his bride to be are saved by an astoundingly improbable bit of chicanery that properly humiliates the bigoted politician.

         “I Am What I Am “ is the showcase song in the show, but there is a charming number called “Song on the Sand” and a poignant tune called “Look Over There,” both illuminating the Georges/Albin relationship for what it is, warm and loving and enduring, whatever their small barbed conflicts in their daily lives. My favorite song is the cheerful “The Best of Times,” sung at a restaurant by all the major characters for no narrative reason other than it’s a very listenable song.

         The cast is headed by David Hess as Georges and Gene Weygandt as Albin. Hess has a strong voice and a solid, straightforward manner that plays nicely off Weygandt’s mincing Albin. Weygandt is most effective on the nightclub stage as Zaza, bantering archly with the spectators and wearing a vast wardrobe of gowns and wigs with style and ease.

         The supporting performers are led by the eight young men in the nightclub chorus, all singing and dancing well and generally convincingly feminine. Joseph Anthony Byrd is properly over the top as Albin’s flaming queen maid/butler Jacob, a character the audience eats up. Brian Bohn is a very credible Jean-Michel, a lad who loves his parents but is inwardly ashamed of their lifestyle and the miseries he has endured from tormenting young people as he grew up. But Jean-Michel wises up by the end of the evening and recognizes that he’s really been a lucky boy.

       I commend Fred Zimmerman for taking the realistic road in his portrayal of the Edouard Dindon, the narrow-minded politician. Zimmerman’s restrained performance as the self-righteous Dindon offers a brief reminder that such men exist in our midst where they are not dealt with so easily as Dindon is in “La Cage.” Elizabeth Telford is bright and sunny as Anne, the fiancée and Anne Gunn is fine as Dindon’s intimidated wife. Susan Moniz does an excellent cameo as the proprietor of the restaurant who improvises the plan to put the politician in his place.

         Nancy Missimi’s costumes have to carry the visual splash of the show, the theater’s in-the-round stage precluding the use of much scenery. Still, Thomas Ryan does what he can with the limited opportunities for spectacle. Jesse Klug designed the lighting and Robert Gilmartin the sound, with Sally Weiss in charge of the properties that make up most of the set. Ryan Nelson directs the excellent off stage Marriott orchestra.

         In sexual matters, “La Cage aux Folles” probably isn’t much more relevant today that it was more than 30 years ago. The story exists in a fantasyland that deals in outlandish characters and the broadest of sentiments and comedy rather than explorations of a serious cultural situation. So, nobody likely will be stimulated but nobody should be offended either. But much joy remains in the show’s 2½ hours because Joe Leonardo and Melissa Zaremba have created a production that entertains from first moment to last.

“La Cage aux Folles” runs through March 22 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $55. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

      The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.   February 2015

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!

http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

Want to read more reviews go to TheaterinChicago.

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

The King and I

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—The Marriott Theatre revival of “The King and I” is one of those joyous occasions where brilliant casting, superb singing, and bull’s-eye directing unite to refresh a musical masterpiece.

The show is set in Siam during the mid 1800’s and brings an English woman named Anna Leonowens into contact with the King of Siam (now Thailand), who brings her to his country as a tutor to his many children, polygamy being an ostentatious fact of life in the Asian country. The musical was based on “Anna and the King of Siam,” Margaret Landon’s semi-accurate account of Anna’s experiences in Siam, a book many Thais feel is a slander against the king. 

     Anna is a strong-willed mid Victorian Englishwoman who bridles against the king’s blatantly sexist (in her Western eyes) attitudes toward women. Their conflicts supply most of the musical’s humor and some of its drama as the initial adversaries gradually grow to respect each other. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic boasts one if the glorious scores in modern musical theater but the book, which wasn’t a difficulty when the show opened in 1951, has become increasingly problematic. The book seems to condescend to the king who too often comes across as a vain, cartoonish figure to be chuckled at by a modern sophisticated audience.

 The Marriott has brought in Nick Bowling to direct “The King and I.” Bowling is associate director of the TimeLine Theatre, where they know a thing or two about presenting characterizations with insight and intelligence. Bowling subtly endows the king with a humanity and droll sense of humor that eliminates any patronizing taints from the book. At the same time, the king is in the grip of culture clashes that he must face alone as supreme ruler.

         

                                                          Photo credit: Amy Boyle Photography and the Marriott Theatre

Throughout, we get a credible portrait of a ruler struggling against the pressures of a volatile and threatening world, a ruler trying to make his country “scientific” in the Western sense while protecting it from countries with designs on his kingdom. Yet in the famous “March of the Siamese Children” number, when the children are introduced to Anna, the king reveals a playful quality that shows us a man with warm fatherly feelings for his dozens of offspring.

The “Puzzlement” solo, usually played as much for laughs as insight into the king’s dilemmas, becomes a stirring probe into the mindset of an all-powerful monarch who privately fears he may be getting in over his head in his fast-changing world. Even his pronunciation of the song’s title conveys the king’s confusion instead of being played as a humorous bit of pigeon English. The role will always carry the stamp of Yul Brynner, the Broadway creator of the character, but Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte is a more complete king, and I’ve seen Brynner.

The Marriott has assembled a superb cast that relies heavily on Asian performers, giving the production an authentic ethnic look. The staging is especially fortunate in its selection and use of Asian children, who are not just cute little tykes but active participants in the action. They take Bowling’s direction beautifully, especially a lad named Matthew Uzarraga as the king’s heir to the throne.

Characters who are window dressing in some productions supply gratifying heft to the narrative. Kristen Choi is magnificent as Lady Thiang, the king’s number one wife and a figure usually notable for a single song, “Something Wonderful.” Choi hits a home run with the song but her acting illuminates Lady Thiang’s nonmusical moments as a woman who realistically sees the king’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. It’s a passionate performance grounded in a reality that enriches the entire production. Just another instance of how Bowling’s directing enhances without needlessly revising.

And then there is Heidi Kettenring, whose magnificence as Anna will surprise nobody who has followed Chicagoland musical theater in recent years. Kettenring’s voice seems to improve in range and expressiveness from role to role but it’s her skill as an actress that raise the bar at the Marriott. There is a depth to her Anna, especially in her evolving relationship with the king, that makes “The King and I” a fine play when the singing and dancing stop.

          

                                                 Photo credit: Amy Boyle Photography and the Marriott Theatre

“The King and I” is noted for its Oriental pageantry, most of which is sacrificed at the Marriott because of the theater’s in-the-round stage. But what the staging must omit in exotic visuals it gains in the intimacy. And the show is still plenty colorful, thanks to Nancy Missimi’s costumes.

Marriott has employed Tommy Rapley from the House Theatre to handle the choreography. Rapley does well with the show’s two major production numbers, “The March of the Siamese Children” and “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, in spite of the limitations of the in-the-round stage. He pays his homage to the Jerome Robbins original choreography, but puts his stamp on the production with his witty and charming choreography for the “Getting to Know You” number between Anna and her young royal students. Ryan T. Nelson is the guest conductor of the small but efficient Marriott orchestra.

This is a production of big voices, led by Kettenring, Choi, and Devin Ilaw and Megan Masako Haley as the tragic young lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim. Guilarte displays a solid singing voice instead of talking his way through his songs like so many non-singing kings.

There are high quality supporting performances everywhere, notably by Chicagoland theater veteran Joseph Anthony Foronda as the Kralahome and Michael Semanic as Anna’s young son, Louis (I don’t recall ever seeing so many talented children in a single production).

The Richard Rodgers score remains a roll call of superb numbers—“I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,”
 “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Shall We Dance.” And I’ll take “March of the Siamese Children” over Ravel’s “Bolero” any day.

The show ends with one of the great tear jerking scenes in musical theater as the king quietly and bravely dies. It’s an exercise in emotionally manipulation that the viewer can see coming from its beginning, and as usual, I choked up.

Much credit goes to the Marriott artistic brain trust for going outside the box to bring in Nick Bowling and Tommy Rapley to burnish the show with their insights. “The King and I” will always be a terrific show, even with a comical king. But Marriott has achieved something special with its revival, and even viewers thoroughly familiar with the show will come away gratified by how much more this production has mined in bonus entertainment values.

“The King and I” runs through January 4 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $48. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

      The show gets a rating of 4 stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.     October 2014

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!

http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

Want to read more reviews go to TheaterinChicago.

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

On the Town

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—“On the Town” is firmly established among the major shows in American musical theater, but nobody has done it much since its premiere at the end of 1944 on Broadway. Indeed, the current Marriott Theatre revival apparently is the first professional production in Chicagoland, ever.

     After seeing the Marriott revival, it’s understandable that the musical has been largely ignored all these years. It’s terrifically entertaining but it requires a crowd of performers who can sing, dance, and act at a soaring level. And those performers better have a limitless reservoir of stamina, because “On the Town” is a nonstop high energy show.

         “On the Town” is a riff on a one-act ballet by Jerome Robbins about three sailors on liberty in New York City for 24 hours. The sailors dedicate themselves to seeing the sights of the Big Apple and looking for girls. The storyline can be called episodic, and it can also be called chaotic. Modern audiences accustomed to the smooth and credible plots of the best modern musical comedies need to adjust to a narrative that lurches from one improbability to another. There is minimal character development and almost zilch dramatic tension. Basically, it’s just one improbable thing after another for more than a dozen scenes.

         

     The show has an impeccable artistic pedigree. Leonard Bernstein composed the score, Betty Comden and Adolph Green the lyrics and book, and Jerome Robbins the choreography. The score was Bernstein’s first success on Broadway and has an edgy Gershwin-esque flavor. There are no hit tunes but the numbers are all worth hearing. The Comden/Green book is very long on broad comedy and the team didn’t seem to be overly concerned with developing a coherent plot, masking the off-he-wall zaniness with the scintillating production numbers. Virtually every scene ends with a ballet or high stepping dance.

         The show gets off to a racing start with sailors Gabey, Ozzie, and Chip loose for a day from their battleship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to immerse themselves in the pleasures of New York City. Almost immediately, Gabey falls in love with the picture of a young lady who is Miss Turnstile, a monthly subway promotion. So all three gobs set off to find the lady on behalf of Gabey’s love-at-first-sight yearning.

         Before long Chip and Ozzie pair off with a couple of New York lassies. Chip is adopted by a wisecracking female cabdriver named Hildy with an unbridled and unmotivated lust for the sailor. Ozzie falls in with a young woman named Claire DeLoone, engaged to a doofus named Pitkin Bridgework, a commitment that doesn’t impede her involvement with the sailor. Gabey finds Miss Turnstile (civilian name Ivy Smith), a wannabe actress paying for singing lesson with an alcoholic harridan named Madame Maude P. Dilly by working as a chorus girl in a sleazy NYC nightclub.

         The action churns through greater New York City, from Carnegie Hall to Coney Island, none of it making any narrative sense, satisfied with providing continuous opportunities for singing and dancing, which the Marriott ensemble seizes upon with enthusiasm and skill. The end is a wistful separation between the three females, who go back to their New York lives, and the three sailors, who rejoin their battleship and an unknown fate to continue World War II.

       

         The cast is a mix of familiar Chicagoland players and out-of-towners, the current Goodman Theatre production of “Brigadoon” siphoning off some key local dancing talent. The three sailors were all cast out of New York and they all bring the required singing and dancing skills to the Marriott stage. Max Clayton is the love-struck Gabey, Seth Danner the slightly silly Chip, and Jeff Smith the aggressive Ozzie. Their co-stars are Alison Jantzie as Ivy Smith, Marya Grandy as Hildy, and Johanna McKenzie Miller as Claire DeLoon. They are all outstanding, but perhaps the first among equals is Grandy, whose sassy Hildy is an ongoing scene stealer. She is funny without milking the role for laughs and she has a great voice. Indeed, Grandy, Jantzie, and Miller combine to deliver three of the finest singing performances I’ve heard on a local musical stage in a very long while.

         There are fine complementary performances by Alex Goodrich as Pitkin W. Bridgework, Barbara Robertson as the boozing vocal teacher, and Brandi Wooten as Hildy’s nerdy roommate with a perpetual cold and altogether a singularly bizarre figure in a show that does not lack for weird character behavior. The large chorus is exemplary both on stage and in the countless lightning-quick costume changes off stage.

         The backstage heroes are many, starting with choreographer Alex Sanchez, who devised one superior dance after another, whether it be ballet, Broadway, or boogie woogie. Director David H. Bell keeps the action pumping, bringing in the production at a tight two hours including an intermission, and not a minute wasted, at least when the singing and dancing take off. The so-broad comedy remains a matter of taste. Costume designer Nancy Missimi has outdone herself in creating a massive wardrobe of costumes, focusing on a spot-on 1940’s look. The chorus girl costumes are as colorful as they are numerous, reflecting nobly on the Marriott willingness to give the show’s budget lots of elbow room. Jesse Klug’s lighting and Robert Gilmartin’s sound plan round out an exemplary effort by the Marriott design team. And the theater orchestra never flagged in performing the Bernstein score.

         “On the Town” is a one-of-a-kind show, a blend of sophistication in its musical numbers and eye-rolling corniness in its comedy. The show works only if the performing and directing and choreography and visual design operate at the highest level, and not just in the lead roles but throughout the production (Marriott uses 23 players). Marriott rolled the dice on this demanding and eccentric musical and came up with a solid 7. It’s taken 70 years to bring the show to Chicagoland and only a local theater with the resources and confidence of the Marriott could have brought it off. Congratulations all around.

         “On the Town” runs through October 12 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $48. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

                                         Photos are courtesy of The Marriott Theatre, Peter Coombs and Mark Campbell.

The show gets a rating of 3½  stars.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com                      September 2014

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!

http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago

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

Godspell

At the Marriott Theatre 

By Dan Zeff

 

Lincolnshire—“Godspell” first exploded off Broadway in 1971, one of a cluster of rock musicals that spun a festive relationship with the Bible. In less than a ten-year span, we got “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.” The last one isn’t revived much but the first three have become staples of the musical theater scene, with ”Godspell” on view at the Marriott Theatre, performed with immense energy by an ebullient and talented cast of 10 young performers.

         “Godspell” is based on the Gospel of St. Matthew (godspell is an ancient spelling of gospel). The show is exuberant and funny, keeping the audience both entertained and off balance by the continuous injection of very mod wisecracks and name-dropping. I don’t think the original production in 1971 included references to selfies and Justin Bieber and I doubt either would be found in the New Testament gospel.

  

                                               Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre

         In its presentation, “Godspell” resembles a G-rated version of “Hair.” A group of young hippie style men and women ricochet around the stage, moving from song to song with little narrative or character delineation. The book comes from Matthew, supplemented by those 21st century interpolations. The first act and a bit of the second act are noisy and bumptious, concluding on a dramatic note with the final days of Jesus Christ (the show stops with the Crucifixion). A plot is replaced by the many parables delivered by Jesus and his disciples. The only characters from the Biblical account delineated by name are Judas and John the Baptist, along with Jesus.   

         The score by Stephen Schwartz is an Olympian showcase for the powerhouse voices distributed throughout the Marriott ensemble. Everyone on stage has at least one blistering number. The glory of their performances resides not just in their vocal technique (lots of singers can sing loudly and well), but in the passion and fervor they bring to their songs. These young people really sell Schwartz’s score with a commitment and an enthusiasm that is totally infectious. The performers belt out their pieces like true believers, and that makes for potent emotional contact with the viewer.

    Matt Raftery has already built a major league resume as a choreographer and he comes up large in “Godspell,” with one exhilarating dance moment after another, including a pair of joyous bits that have the cast going through spectacular drills with hula hoops and long ribbons attached to sticks. The stamina on stage never flags and those youngsters seem to be have fun every second of the time, until the mood grows muted with the start of Jesus’s final days. The cast is in perpetual motion but even at warp speed they never miss a step, indicating a fierce number of rehearsal hours were spent to ensure that every number looks gleefully spontaneous.

         Brian Bohr takes on the intimidating role of Jesus. Bohr has an agreeably preppy look and his Jesus is charismatic but not officious. Bohr tells the parables like they are genuine mini stories and not Biblical texts in verbal bold face. The dialogue has enough famous quotations to fill a full-length Shakespeare play but the telling throughout is natural and persuasive. Raftery and Bohr give Jesus’s final days and death a poignancy and intensity that is neither overly sentimental nor strident, no small feat.

                 

                                                             Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre

     Devin   DeSantis plays both John the Baptist and Judas with considerable dramatic strength. The other eight performers don’t have many opportunities to make individual dramatic statements but they do just fine as an animated chorus. Samantha Pauly drew well deserved cheers for her rousing “Turn Back, O Man,” as did Nate Lewellyn for “Light of the World,” and Lillie Cummings with the score’s big hit, “Day by Day.” But everyone has his or her big spotlight occasion and a mere recitation of other six names isn’t meant to minimize their vocal achievements—Elizabeth Lanza, Christine Mild, Eliza Palasz, Zachary Piser, and Tom Vendafreddo. Beyond their singing, they have bought into Raftery’s directing heart and soul and it shows.

         The physical production doesn’t overwhelm the acting and singing with visual clutter, a credit to Erin Wuoremna’s colorful hippie-ish costumes and Thomas Ryan’s breezy set design with its nursery style chests and planks and sawhorses. Jessie Klug designed the vivid lighting and Robert Gilmartin the sound. Patti Garwood conducts the accomplished five piece orchestra that does fine with Schwartz’s light rock, gospel, folkish, and Paul Simon sounding music.

         Now for the quibbles. The show begins with an incomprehensible prologue that gets the evening off to a very shaky start. It took a couple of numbers to get the production in a rhythm after the first scene misfire. And the law of averages dictates that with so many facetious and anachronistic bits thrown into the fray, some will come across as silly and lame. And so it is with the Marriott presentation. The production could have been trimmed a welcome 10 minutes by excising the uber cleverness of some of the embellishments that reach too hard for an audience giggle. And for all its upbeat cheeriness “Godspell” becomes a very religious show, especially in the second act, which could be a turnoff to some spectators.

         What finally sells “Godspell” is the verve, versatility, and dedication of the 10-member troupe. Raftery has guided his talented gang well, and if there are misfires in the modern humor interjections they are in the minority. The production turns from fun show to serious with sensitivity and poignancy. This isn’t a Sunday school lesson wrapped in a rock music cloak. It’s first rate theater presented by an energized and skilled ensemble, adding another directorial gold star on Matt Raftery’s record.

         “Godspell” runs through August 10 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $48. Call 847 634 0300 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

                      The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com                  June 2014

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!

http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago


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

Cats

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire – Marc Robin, take a bow! You’ve transformed “Cats” from a pretty good novelty musical into a dancing classic at the Marriott Theatre.

Since “Cats” closed on Broadway in 2000 after a nearly 18-year run, the show has pretty much disappeared from the area theater scene. But now a new generation of young playgoers will have the opportunity to see “Cats” for the first time and there can be no better introduction for viewers of any age than the dazzling revival under Robin’s guidance at Marriott.

         Robin laid the groundwork for his triumph by gathering together an ensemble of 26 astoundingly gifted singers and dancers, some familiar local faces and some from outside the area. Robin has tightened the show, omitting the excruciatingly tedious pirate ship scene from the start of act II so the entire production comes in at just over two hours, with one intermission and no fat. Given the Marriott in-the-round stage, replicating the famous oversized junkyard set was not feasible. But the elimination of the set just gives Robin more performing space for his glorious choreography.

   

                                                           Photo credit: Peter Coombs and Marriott Theatre

         “Cats” is mostly based on poems by T. S. Eliot set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. There is just a thread of a narrative, but the show is really a sequence of production numbers featuring various larger than life cats in action. So a director has plenty of wiggle room to inject his/her own ideas within the musical’s loose framework.

         “Cats” has always been a dancing show but Robin takes the choreography to new heights. The Jellicoe ball number goes on minute after minute with an unending display of inventive and enthusiastic dancing. The exuberance of the scene segways into the first rendition of “Memory,” the score’s one hit song sung by the bedraggled and despairing Grizabella, ending the first act on an unexpectedly but satisfying subdued note.

Which brings us to Heidi Kettenring’s Grizabella. Kettenring has the least stage time of any member of the ensemble, but while she’s on view, she creates a hugely affecting portrait of the haunted and ostracized Grizabella, a once glamorous cat reduced to seedy poverty and aching memories of younger and happier days. Her reprise of “Memory” near the end of the show was hair raising in its intensity and her ascent to the Heaviside layer, where she gets a chance at a new life, would bring tears to the eyes of a head on Mount Rushmore.

Kettenring doesn’t serve up the only star turn in the production. Sagiya Eugene Peabody stopped the show on opening night with his gymnastic solo as Mistoffelees. Sam Rogers was a splendidly sinister Macavity. Three female stalwarts of the Chicagoland musical stage did themselves proud—Johanna McKenzie Miller (Jellylorum), Tammy Mader (Jennyanydots), and Summer Naomi Smart (Bombalurina). Jake Klinkhammer was a fine bumptious Rum Tum Tugger. As Old Deuteronomy, Mathew Jones didn’t dance but he sang radiantly and endowed his character with a dignity and humanity that warmed the entire production.

    

            Photo credit: Peter Coombs and Marriott Theatre

But the collective heroes of the evening were the entire ensemble, executing Robin’s most intricate numbers with stunning precision and energy. And they could all sing, whether in solo parts, in chants, or in choral numbers. As to the dancing, it runs from tap to ballet, with whiffs of Jerome Robbins and “Chicago” as garnish. Robin weaves them all into a seamless whole that never flags and never stumbles. The hours of rehearsal it took to bring the production numbers to such a peak of excellence must have been beyond counting.

Robin takes advantage of the theater’s intimacy to bring the action directly to the audience. In one scene balloons are let loose in the crowd to be batted about gleefully by the viewers. Occasionally the performers played directly to the patrons. Early in the show, while the theater was dimly lit, performers crawled between the rows. One feline silently slithered through my row, almost giving the woman sitting next to me a heart attack

The staging may be denied the imposing junkyard set, but there is satisfying compensation in the other production values. Nancy Missimi designed a set of feline costumes that established looks and personalities for each performer. The skintight outfits also left no question as to which cats were male and which were female. The wigs and makeup were all of a piece with the costumes in establishing the individuality of each character.

Thomas M. Ryan’s set design leaves the playing area open but creates metal perches above the corners of the stage where the cats can stretch and purr and gyrate, giving the action vertical as well as horizontal impact. Jesse Klug designed what must be the most complex, atmospheric, and dramatic lighting plan in the 35-year history of the Marriott Theatre. Robert Gilmartin designed the sound, very effective even if he couldn’t include the roar of the off-stage garbage trucks periodically unloading their trash in the cat-infested junkyard.

The time is probably ripe for a reassessment of “Cats” after more than a decade away from area stages. Toward the end of its Broadway run the show was becoming a frequent butt of jokes ridiculing it as a kitschy tourist trap.  Robin has revalidated “Cats” to its place on the A list of musicals of the last 50 years. Robin’s revival is highly personal but his vision, realized through the skills and verve of the exceptional cast, sets the bar very high for future stagings (it will be interesting to see what the estimable Paramount Theatre does with its revival this autumn). Not to be missed.

“Cats” runs through May 25 at the Marriott Theatre at 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $48. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

The show gets a rating of 4 stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com        April 2014

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!

http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago

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

Cabaret

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire – Come to the “Cabaret” at the Marriott Theatre. The theater’s inspired artistic brain trust of director David H. Bell and choreographer Matt Raftery have combined with a spot-on cast to make something fresh and illuminating out of this 1966 warhorse.

         The Marriott revival is not a revisionist production. The musical still recreates the manic spirit of Berlin on the brink of the Nazi revolution. The madcap Sally Bowles still seduces the struggling American novelist Clifford Bradshaw and the Kit Kat Klub still offers unlimited sleaze with the decadent Emcee as our garish host. But it’s the manner rather than the matter that makes this version so illuminating and entertaining.

We can start with the Emcee, a role nailed at Marriott by Stephen Schellhardt. The Emcee is one of the great showcase parts in American musical theater, a flamboyant figure that tends to lapse into much scenery chewing. Schellhardt’s Emcee effectively weaves in and out of the action, shading his presence from wink wink nudge nudge prurience to a cautionary glimpse of the abyss yawning at the feet of German society. Schellhardt doesn’t simply play the Emcee as a grotesque. He’s a thinking and feeling character holding a mirror up to the dissipation and moral corruption engulfing Berlin society at the start of the 1930’s.

            

                                                   Photo Credit: Peter Coombs

         Megan Sikora resists the temptation to do a star turn on Sally Bowles and gives us what the character really is, a promiscuous, second rate cabaret singer with her eye on the main chance, a woman with some charm struggling to survive in her hard knocks life. The lovestruck Bradshaw is well rid of her by the end of the show.

         A subplot involves Herr Schultz, a gentle Jewish greengrocer, and his senior citizen lady friend Frau Schneider. The pair is usually played as an endearing and humorous couple, finding companionship and senior citizen love before the Nazism intolerance drives them apart. Annabel Armour gives Schneider a strength of personality (and a very serviceable singing voice) that elevates her from a semi cartoon into the embodiment of what the average German faced in the rise of Nazism.  As her beau, Craig Spidle nicely etches a man who cannot and will not believe that he and millions like him are about to be marginalized by the Nazi anti-Semites.

         David Bell shrewdly uses the Marriott’s limited in-the-round performing space, liberating the Kit Kat singers and dancers from their tawdry club into the wider world of Berlin where they serve as a metaphor for the catastrophe just over the horizon. The club denizens become a window to the moral breakdown that is afflicting all of Berlin, and Germany beyond.

         There is one stirring scene in which a group of German men gather around a radio to listen to a Nazi speech. They then sing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a beautiful and melodic song that delights the ear until the listeners recognize that they are hearing a Nazi party anthem. All the music at Marriott takes on a fresh dramatic thrust. The John Kander/Fred Ebb score is cut loose from its Broadway moorings and given an edgy Kurt Weill-Jacques Brel interpretation. The jagged sound insidiously emphasizes the menace that informs the show’s ambience.

         Matt Raftery’s choreography drives home the vulgarity and cheap eroticism of the cabaret, complemented by Nancy Missimi’s blatant costumes that set the visual tone for the coarseness of the time. Like the Emcee, the dancers are integrated into the storyline, further underscoring the cabaret as a metaphor for the diseased society it served.

                   

                                                                             Photo Credit: Peter Coombs      

         Even the prostitute Fraulein Kost rises from a comic character into a three dimensional woman, a hooker out of necessity who willingly joins the rising Nazi tide. Christine Sherrill converts a sniggering throw away character into a meaningful persona in the “Cabaret” world.

         Bernie Yvon is fine as Max, the ingratiating Nazi who befriends Bradshaw but shows his true colors when the writer rebels against Max’s Nazi poison. Jameson Cooper likewise is very good as the nasty club owner who has an emotional hold on Sally Bowles. Clifford Bradshaw is the least interesting of the main characters, but Patrick Sarb does well in the few scenes where he is allowed to play something more than a naïve visiting American out of his depth in the crass world of Sally Bowles and the Kit Kat Klub.

         Thomas M. Ryan’s minimalist set design frees the production from the restriction of a detailed cabaret set, enabling the director to keep the action fluid and giving the choreographer plenty of space to occupy the entire stage into the aisles. The club serves as much as a state of mind as a specific location where voyeurs can gather to snicker and smirk.

         The remaining production credit go to Diane Ferry Williams (lighting), Robert E. Gilmartin (sound design), and Patti Garwood, musical supervisor, with Ryan Nelson the music director. Props to the musicians for their incisive handling of the prickly score.

         We don’t lack for revivals of “Cabaret” in area theaters. It seems like we get another production every few months and I entered the Marriott anticipating we would get more of the same, neglecting to recall how brilliantly the theater had restaged “Cats” and “Miss Saigon” and other Broadway megahits. Lightning has struck again. This rethinking of “Cabaret” is the best staging of the show I have ever seen, both musically and dramatically. Risks were taken and they all worked. Some viewers may be uncomfortable with the Nazi element in the show, but the Marriott doesn’t shirk from limning vivid portraits of a few people snared in the obscenity and brutality of the time when civilization began to unravel.

         “Cabaret” runs through March 16 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $48. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

         The show gets a rating of 4 stars.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com                        January 2014

Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!

http://facebook.com/ZeffDaniel

              Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago

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