Spring Awakening

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire – The media has made much of the risk the Marriott is taking by presenting “Spring Awakening” as a special work aside from the musical subscription season. The worry was that the Frank Wedekind German drama is so sexually explicit and so serious that it would alienate the many older conservative subscribers who expect Broadway musicals from the theater.

         “Spring Awakening” was written in 1891 but it was so controversial that it didn’t receive its premiere production until 1906. In the original version,  the conflict between teenage and adult generations in a German town blended expressionistic fantasy and realism. The teenagers, their hormones pumping, are awash in curiosity and hunger over sex. They are thwarted by the adults, comprising stereotyped parents and teachers who are variously self righteous, narrow minded, authoritarian, and hypocritical. The clash leads to tragedy among the teenagers, ending with one young man committing suicide and a girl dying from a botched back street abortion.

         The 1891 play, with its grotesque images and overheated language, would be unplayable today. The Wedekind script was revised and modernized for a Broadway musical production in 2007 that won much commercial success and many awards. The triumph of the Marriott production resides in its brilliant staging and flawless casting combined with a fine book by Steven Sater, who also composed the lyrics.

Sater stays fairly close to the Wedekind original in its plot and characters, but smooths out the bumps in the 1891 script to make it work for modern audiences. Sater is complemented by Duncan Sheik’s effective light rock score, a collection of musical numbers that admirably flesh out the show’s emotions as well as its narrative. Characters often sing directly to the audience, uses stand-up and hand-held microphones to deliver their passionate messages. The device may seem artificial but it works beautifully, blending seamlessly with the realism of the dialogue and the dramatic situations.


                                                                         All photos courtesy of The Marriott Theatre and Liz Lauren

 The Marriott staging is a personal triumph for director Aaron Thielen. First, he has cast his ensemble with a collection of young people who actually look like teenagers. They sing terrifically and act the often melodramatic moments with conviction and passion. All the adult roles are played by two performers and Thielen has gone to the top shelf of the area acting pool in employing Kevin Gudahl and Hollis Resnik. They take on cameos of all the town elders, with their intolerance and smugness and confusion and sometimes their pain. The townspeople are almost entirely caricatures but Gudahl and Resnik bring them alive, adding essential credibility to Wedekind’s simplistic plot.

 Thielen also gets choreographer credit, but this isn’t a dancing show. Instead, Thielen masterfully moves his crowds of young people in vividly stageworthy choreographed movement. Set designer Thomas M. Ryan has slightly reconfigured the Marriott in-the-round stage, adding an architectural element that serves as a backdrop for a large horizontal blackboard (for the schoolroom action) and a screen for Anthony Churchill’s atmospheric projections. Ryan’s consists mostly of an arrangement of pipes and medal doors that enclose the stage to symbolize the psychological cage that traps the young people.

The production’s splendid visual values have been enriched by the lighting design by Lee Fiskness and the historically evocative costumes designed by Susan Hilferty and Nancy Missimi. Robert Gilmartin is the sound designer. Thielen has placed the small string orchestra, conducted by  Patti Garwood, discreetly on stage where their accompaniment provides subtle but strong emotional underpinning to the story.

The younger generation is collectively played by six young men and five young women, all of them perfect for their roles. On the female side, Eliza Palasz gives young Wendla a fragile vulnerability mixed with a steely resolve. Wendla is sacrificed on the altar of adult intolerance with an absence of manipulating sentimentality that makes the character’s unjust fate heartbreaking. The only other females with vocal solos are Adhana Cemone Reid as one of Wendla’s girlfriends and Betsy Stewart as a young prostitute, another victim of adult intransigence. The remaining females, both excellent, in the coterie of schoolgirls are Tiffany Tatreau and Elizabeth Stenholt.


                                                             All photos courtesy of The Marriott Theatre and Liz Lauren

The young men are led by Patrick Rooney as Melchior, a bright student and the one character who chooses to resist adult intolerance, a losing fight. His singing voice magnificently sells Melchior’s emotional turbulence. Ben Barker is a scene stealer as Moritz, the young man overwhelmed by the unreasonable and unsympathetic demands of the adult world. The other lads are played by Nate Lewellyn, Brian Bohr, Nick Graffagna, and Liam Quealy Like their female counterparts, they are a joy to watch and hear.

Compared to most modern musicals, “Spring Awakening” (sometimes called “Spring’s Awakening”) has moments that might invite the equivalent of an R rating. The topic of teenage sexuality is still sensitive today, though not as sensitive as it was back in Wedekind’s day. The dialogue and song lyrics are peppered with profanity, and there is the abortion (off stage), sexual congress (on stage but tasteful), and homosexual activity in one scene (also tasteful). But there is no nudity and no violence. In other words, there is nothing in this show that could offend an intelligent viewer, and the show, with its accessible rock score, should appeal especially to young viewers, an audience Marriott is anxious to tap, giving the demographics of its present subscribers.

I would like to think that concerns over the frank nature of “Spring Awakening” as a turn-off for the average Marriott patron are unwarranted. Great theater is great theater, and the Marriott staging ranks among the finest accomplishments in the theater’s illustrious history. The Marriott management has scheduled the show for only a three-week run and booked it as a non-subscription attraction. Subscribers must buy tickets separately, though they receive a discount. This show clearly deserves a longer life than three weeks. Possibly there could be a transfer to a similarly intimate Chicago theater where a young audience is more easily reached than in the northern suburbs. Marriott deserves to be rewarded for the superiority of this production. And spectators will be amply rewarded in return by experiencing one of the theater events of the season.

The show gets a rating of 4 stars.

“Spring Awakening” runs through January 31 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Thursday at 2 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $50. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.        January 2016

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At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—“Elf” is a recent entry in the Christmas holiday entertainment sweepstakes. The musical, adapted from the 2003 movie, made its holiday debut in New York City in 2010 and has been playing seasonally around the country and in Canada ever since.

The Marriott Theatre is presenting “Elf” through the end of the year in a production that can be called cute and likeable, about as much praise as the show can be expected to receive. “Elf” is not a huge hit but there is still much to enjoy.

The story runs something like this. Thirty years before the start of the narrative, a baby crawled into Santa Claus’s bag of gifts while the man was visiting a home on Christmas Eve. The toddler was transported by the unaware Santa back to the North Pole. Santa and his wife decided to keep the baby, named him Buddy, and raised him as an elf along with the other elves in Santa’s workshop. Buddy was an unusually tall elf, which the other elves didn’t seem to notice, or at least didn’t mind.

Buddy grew up blissfully unaware that he was a human. Then a casual comment by another elf let the cat out of the bag. The shaken Buddy further learns from Santa Claus that the lad has a human father in New York City. The mother was a girlfriend of the father and died shortly after giving birth. Walter Hobbs, the father, is aware of his paternity. Hobbs, now married with a 12-year-old son, is on the “naughty” list because he doesn’t believe in the spirit of Christmas. Buddy leaves the North Pole and reaches New York City to claim his father.


                                                                 Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

 All that improbable backstory is delivered in the first few scenes. Much of the musical is devoted to Buddy trying to build a relationship with his father. Along the way Buddy meets a disillusioned young lady named Jovie and the odd couple fall in love, which requires a considerable suspension of disbelief from the audience.

This being a Christmas show, “Elf” is awash in happy endings, with Buddy finally being accepted into the Hobbs family and eventually wedding Jovie and producing a baby. The implication in the final scene is that they all move to the North Pole and live happily ever after.

“Elf” tries to strike a balance between a show that will entertain children but still provide pleasure to adults. At the Marriott, it’s basically a children’s show, though there are numerous droll adult embellishments. The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin has some witty lines that will tickle adult ears. There are jokes and one-liners tweaking New York City and the tri-state area, which likely will bypass the understanding of youngsters and even older viewers who never visited the Big Apple. Just the mention of New Jersey automatically draws a laugh from New York City-familiar spectators.

The book is a little clunky and there are arid patches between musical numbers. The score by Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics) is filled with delights, especially when it gets cynical about the modern loss of belief in the Christmas spirit. A group of department store Santa Clauses gathers in a Chinese restaurant to humorously lament “Nobody Cares About Santa.” Buddy and the supporting characters turn his improbable biography into a children’s book in “The Story of Buddy,” also very clever.


                                                                    Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

The Marriott staging must deal with the limitations of the theater’s confining in-the-round stage. I suspect that New York and touring versions of the show were heavy on spectacle and special effects. The Marriott version has to rely on a few props and a vast wardrobe of candy cane colorful costumes for visual whiz-bang. Director-choreographer Marc Robin does what he can in accommodating lively production numbers to the available performing space, but a large proscenium stage would have made his job a lot easier.

Marriott doesn’t stint on the ensemble, employing a large powerhouse cast of 25 area performers. The principals are all of A list caliber. Leading the cast is Alex Goodrich as Buddy, a role that calls for an inexhaustible flow of high spirits and good will from the actor. Goodrich fills his performance with nonstop exuberance and brash innocence, reminding me of the late John Ritter at the top of his charismatic game.

The juiciest supporting role belongs to Santa Claus, played with delectable droll wit by Roger Mueller. His Santa Claus narrates the story but the character disappears from the middle of the production, robbing the show of its hippest presence for a long stretch. Kevin Gudahl plays the curmudgeonly Walter Hobbs as well as the two-dimensional role allows, but Gudahl’s frequent slow burns are a comic hoot.

Dara Cameron plays Jovie, at her best in conveying her character’s disillusion with her life in NYC. She gets a deserved ovation for her big solo, “Never Fall in Love.” Susie McMonigle is terrific as Mrs. Walter Hobbs, and she even manages to give credibility to the wife’s conversion at the end of the show to believing in Santa Claus. Susan Moniz has some good comic moments as a member of Walter Hobbs’s staff and Neil Friedman injected welcome comic energy into the production as Walter’s blustery boss.

In the “A star is born” category, hats off to Cam Ezell, who plays Walter’s young son. Ezell is another in the seemingly bottomless pool of outstanding adolescent performers in the area. He looks 12 and sings and acts like a seasoned professional. He’s as authentic a pre teen as I’ve seen on an area stage since the halcyon days of “Billy Elliot” at the Drury Lane Theatre.

Nancy Missimi, as always, triumphs with her costume designs, dressing all the elves in delightful gaudy primary color outfits. Thomas M. Ryan (set), Jesse Klug (lighting), and Robert Gilmartin (sound) all do well in their design areas. And a special shout out to Sally Weiss for her property design, which includes a motorized Santa sleigh and a fleet of bicycles ridden by the elves. The small orchestra, under Ryan Nelson’s direction and conducted by Patti Garwood, accompanies with its usual proficiency.

“Elf” runs 21/2 hours including one intermission, a bit long, especially when trying to occupy the attention of children at an evening performance. As a holiday show, it can compete with “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker,” though it won’t match those annual events in spectacle. “Elf” does wear its charm and good will proudly. It’s a family show tilted toward young viewers but the sly wit, especially from Roger Mueller’s Santa Claus, should help sustain adult spectators.

 “Elf” runs through December 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., with select Thursday performances at 1 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.       October 2015

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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

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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

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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

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