Man of La Mancha

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire – Guest director Nick Bowling has accomplished wondrous things with the revival of “Man of La Mancha” at the Marriott Theatre. Without disrespecting the many glories of this classic of the American musical theater, Bowling has rethought the show, illuminating characters and themes to give his production a new immediacy and an enhanced dramatic sensibility.

          “Man of La Mancha” is a play within a play set in Spain, time not specified. The basic location is a prison common room, where a ragtag collection of lowlifes waits for their dreaded interview with the Spanish Inquisition. Into the room enter two men, soon identified as the great Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes and his companion, Sancho. Cervantes has been arrested because he foreclosed on a church for the failure to pay its taxes, a ticket to trouble in church-dominated Spain. The inmates, under the authority of a prisoner known as the Governor, put Cervantes on trial with the intent of confiscating all his goods.

Cervantes demands the right to defend himself, his defense being a play about the elderly Alonso Quijana, who takes the more glorified name of Don Quixote de la Mancha. As Don Quixote, Quijana, under the influence of stories of chivalry and knighthood, sets out to right the wrongs of the world, taking a battering along the way. The inmates in the prison morph into characters in the novel. Bowling follows the blueprint of the musical as written by Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music), and Joe Darion (lyrics). The characters are all in modern dress rather than in the clothing of Don Quixote’s 16th century Spain. A cigarette lighter is flashed and Cervantes owns a laptop computer. The prison room itself could be in any modern country with an oppressive judicial system.

                                                           Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

The musical is tightened (no choreography) and the elimination of an intermission reduces the total playing time to a fast-paced 1 hour and 50 minutes. Most important, the characters have been reexamined and the results are a revelation. Don Quixote isn’t an old man addled by delusions of knighthood and chivalry. Nathaniel Stampley (in a brilliant and assured performance) is a Quixote of dignity and authority, a man who makes a strong case for rejecting reality as a falsity, instead living in his imagination where real truth resides.

The “Man of La Mancha” productions I’ve seen tend to patronize Quixote for his idealism. The character is played as a comic and often pathetic figure not entirely in his right mind. But at the Marriott, Stampley is a vigorous and clear-sighted Quixote. His ideas are not the fanciful ravings of a deluded old man. who makes a powerful case for imagination as the true path to reality. Quixote elevates them into a debate that makes a persuasive case for the imagination, or at least a conviction that truth resides in the eye of the beholder.

The fresh reading of two other characters further ornaments this production. The prisoner who takes the role of the padre is normally a background figure who sides with Quijana’s family in their attempt to get Quijana committed as a lunatic for their own selfish motives. The estimable James Harms converts the padre into an intelligent, sensitive figure in sympathy with Quixote’s belief in the life of the imagination. Harms’s rendition of “To Each His Dulcinea” is the most moving and eloquent interpretation of that lovely song I have ever heard and gives the padre a moral dimension that enriches the narrative.


                               Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

Then there is Aldonza, the bitter scullery maid Quixote meets in a country inn and immediately anoints as a highborn lady who Quixote wants to serve with loyalty and dedication. Quixote gives her the more stylish name of Dulcinea and treats her with the consideration the woman had never known in her hard life in the lowest depths of Spanish life.

Aldonza/Dulcinea is typically portrayed by an attractive leading lady style actress. At the Marriott, the character is played by Danni Smith. I don’t know what Smith looks like off stage but in “Man of La Mancha” her thick figure and butch haircut portray a hard-as-nails woman who is built physically and mentally to survive the violence of her surroundings, until her gender catches up with her and she pays the sexual price for living in a brutish man’s world. Smith really convinces the viewer that her character can rise from her sordid life because one man cares enough to convince her she is made of finer stuff. Corny, maybe. Stirring and convincing, absolutely.

Several fresh performances add to the richness of the production. Craig Spidle is a commanding Governor who doubles as the innkeeper (all the supporting performers play multiple roles). Matt Mueller is outstanding as the character who is Quixote’s most implacable adversary, the Realist who ridicules the Don’s dreams. There is also fine work from Richard Ruiz as the cheerful and pragmatic Sancho and Bobby Daye as a traveling barber. But everyone on stage deserves to be listed on the ensemble honor role—Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Andrew Mueller, Cassie Slater, Lillian Castillo, and Brandon Springman.

The physical production credibly converts the Marriott in- the-round playing area into a bleak prison space. Jeffrey Kmiec designed the set, Jesse Klug the atmospheric and dramatic lighting, Nancy Missimi the grungy modern costumes, and Robert Gilmartin the sound. Patti Garwood conducts the fine small accompanying orchestra and there is excellent solo acoustic guitar work from Dave Saenger. Although there are no choreography credits Ryan Bourque gets a salute for staging two complicated fight scenes with impressive intensity, occasionally mixed with slapstick humor.

This magnificent revival would not have been possible without the glories of the original show to build upon. “Man of La Mancha” has given audiences one of the great emotional and dramatic experiences in modern music theater. It’s hard to figure why we get so few revivals of the show when we are inundated with revivals of “Cabaret” and “Chicago” and “42nd Street” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Veteran admirers of the show need not worry that the Marriott staging has overemphasized the intellectual material at the expense of tugs at the heartstrings. In particular, Quixote’s death scene at the end produced a vast amount of eye wiping and nose blowing from the emotionally nailed audience, present company included.

 Man of La Mancha” runs through August 14 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

            The show gets a rating of 4 stars.

Contact Dan at:        July 2016

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At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire–-In reviving “Evita, ” it’s essential that the musical be staged within the framework established by director Harold Prince in the original London production in 1978. The Prince concept drives the show. The Marriott Theatre is presenting “Evita” with Alex Sanchez as both director and choreographer. Sanchez retains Prince’s classic model but adds enough tweaks to burnish the Marriott version with fresh theatrical and dramatic impact.

         “Evita,” as every musical lover knows, is the biography of Eva Peron, the power behind Argentine dictator Juan Peron during the 1940’s. We first meet her as the ragamuffin 15-year old Eva Duarte, living in obscurity and poverty in a backwater Argentine town. But Eva wants to become a star, and she has a plan, a plan built on sleeping her way to the top level of power in Buenos Aires. She eventually connects with General Juan Peron and orchestrates Peron’s ascent to his country’s presidency. It was then just a short and brutal step to dictatorship.


                                                                             Photo credit: Liz Lauren and the Marriott Theatre              

         “Evita” started out as a record album in England with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Prince shaped the music into a remarkable stage vehicle, blending the score with choreography to trace Eva’s rise and fall. Prince created a narrator named Che to guide the audience through Eva’s career. Che and Eva and Juan are the only major continuing individual characters in the musical, complemented by a large chorus of singer/dancers representing the Argentine underclass who formed the backbone of Eva’s popularity.

         The Sanchez production drains any sentimentality from the story. Eva is a hard-edged opportunist worshiped by the Argentine poor until she comes to believe in her own myth. The role makes huge vocal demands on the performer, so Hannah Corneau sings five of the week’s eight performances, replaced in the other three by Samantha Pauly. On opening night Corneau’s voice was loud and powerful but often shrill. Her voice may have been strained or perhaps she deliberately avoided “beautiful” singing to buttress her Evita as a lady on the make and not an opera diva. In any case, the strident effect worked to underscore the character’s ferocious ambition and ultimately her desperation.

         Austin Lesch makes a particularly youthful Che, singing and acting the role with a cynicism that reinforces the calculating and manipulative drive of Eva’s rise to power. Viewers won’t find a heroine in Eva at the Marriott, yet a woman too complex to be a black and white villain. All the productions of “Evita” I’ve seen have portrayed this complexity in some manner, but Sanchez has give it his personal edge.


                                                              Photo credit: Liz Lauren and the Marriott Theatre

         Larry Adams plays Juan Peron with a big voice and a strong outward presence. Juan is ready to abandon Argentina for a life of leisurely exile when the political going gets rough, but Eva is strong-minded enough to keep him in Buenos Aires and leadership over one of the most corrupt governments in Latin American history. Adams may have been attracted to Eva for erotic reasons, but in her final days he has the humanity to show, if not outright love, then admiration for his driven wife, along with dependency.

         The only other characters who separate themselves from the ensemble are big-voiced David Schlumpf, Eva’s first lover during her ascent to power, and Eliza Palasz, Peron’s young mistress callously displaced by Eva. Palasz has only one song as the evicted mistress, a plaintive lament called “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” and she nails it.

         The large chorus comprises perhaps the most exciting character in the production, the impoverished men and women who fell under Eva’s spell and sobbed at her death, refusing to recognize her betrayal of their trust as she grew increasingly wealthy and powerful. Sanchez brilliantly choreographs the chorus, using them as an essential element in the narrative.  Sanchez has also revised the staging in small ways. The competition among the generals for the political leadership of the country is usually portrayed by a game of musical chairs. Sanchez changes it to a series of brief wrestling matches. The musical chairs were amusing, but the wrestling reflects the underlying violence of the power struggle, a nasty contest of the survival of the fittest to control Argentina.

         The production is a good fit for Marriott’s intimate in-the-round stage. There is little to Thomas M. Ryan’s set except open space, with different locations signified by shifting properties designed by Sally Weiss. The company employs the theater aisles as well as the stage, allowing the action to flow smoothly from short scene to short scene. Robert Gilmartin designed the sound, Jesse Klug the lighting, and Nancy Missimi the costumes.

The Marriott orchestra directed by Patti Garwood likewise is an integral character in delineating the play’s narrative and mood. The orchestra makes splendid use of Argentine tango rhythms, with fine guitar solos by Dave Saenger. There are only 10 musicians in the band but their sound filled the theater like a first-class Broadway pit orchestra.

“Evita” has always been one of my favorite musicals. The Harold Prince staging never fails to dazzle. He took what is basically a tawdry story of a tinhorn dictator and his round-heeled consort and turns it into a theatrical feast. The Lloyd Webber-Rice score is the best of their collaborations. The show is almost entirely sung through, highlighted by the signature song “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and the even better, if less known, “High Flying, Adored.”

My only quibble is the excessive length of the second act, especially Evita’s drawn out decline leading to her death from cancer at the age of 33. Ten minutes could be blue penciled from Evita’s downward spiral with no loss. Sanchez omits the film projections that normally flavor the show visually, trusting the score, the original theatrical imagination of Harold Prince, and his own creativity to sustain the evening. His production is intelligent and revealing. He has earned an encore assignment.

“Evita” runs through June 5 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 some additional Thursday performances at 1 p.m.. Tickets are $50 to $55. Call 847 634 0200 or visit

            The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at:        March 2016

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Sister Act

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire–The spectacle of nuns kicking up their heels in disco and rock ‘n’ roll glee must have a limitless attraction for a certain segment of the playgoing public. How else to account for the success of the “Nunsense” franchise?

         The “Nunsense” syndrome strongly permeates the Marriott Theatre production of “Sister Act.” We again get a stage full of nuns jiving and joking to music that belongs more in “Soul Train” than the church, sassing their superiors, and exchanging high fives. But unlike the typical inane “Nunsense” frolic, “Sister Act” is a hoot. Indeed, after about 20 minutes of tedious narrative setup, the show is a romping stomping delight.

         “Sister Act” originated as a motion picture in 1992 and eventually matriculated into a stage musical in 2011. The show has undergone many permutations since its birth 25 years ago. Songs from the movie were displaced by a new score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. I never saw the film original but I can’t imagine that score was as felicitous as the bundle of joy shouting out at the Marriott.

         The basic storyline remains the same as the movie version. A black nightclub singer inadvertently witnesses her gangster boyfriend murdering a stool pigeon. As the only eyewitness, she is a marked woman so the police sequester her disguised as a nun in a local convent.

The movie version was set in Los Angeles. The current stage version takes place in Philadelphia in the late 1970’s, a period that allows the production to outfit itself in 1970’s clothes and reference points (there are plenty of afro hair styles) along with the music of the period. The singer, named Deloris, shakes up the staid convent nuns with her breezy and highly secular attitude. Gradually the nuns fall under her influence, to the dismay of the starchy mother superior. So we have the tumult created by Deloris’s residence in the convent and on the outside the killer boyfriend tracking her down before she testifies against him.


                                  All photos courtesy of Liz Lauren and The Marriott Theatre

The plot is silly and the Marriott production wisely brushes it aside for long stretches, devoting pride of place to a terrific set of song and dance numbers. Enter choreographer Melissa Zaremba, one of those seriously talented new choreographers who have emerged from the chorus lines of area musical theaters in recent years.

Zaremba has gathered a superior group of young female singer-dancers (with a few males occasionally joining in) and put them through some exuberant dance numbers peppered with delightful creative touches. In “I Could Be That Guy,” a young policeman played by Jonathan Butler-Duplessis belts out a rhythm and blues number while changing in and out of uniform three times. The numbers are enhanced by Nancy Missimi’s dazzling costumes. Who would have believed so many sumptuous outfits could be inspired by a nun’s basic black wearing apparel?

The chorus of nuns is mostly fun and games, led by a five-by-five dynamo named Lillian Castillo, who distinguished herself locally as the leading young lady in “Hairspray” at the Drury Lane Theatre. But the scene-stealer is Tiffany Tatreau, the young lady who made such an impression in the surprise hit “Riding the Cyclone” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Tatreau plays a young novice who has doubts about her calling, powerfully expressed in “The Life I Never Led.” She has an ear grabbing expressive voice and a youthful presence that added just the right amount of serious seasoning to what otherwise was a total lark at the Marriot.

The veteran Hollis Resnik has the unenviable task of playing the hard-nosed mother superior, the spoilsport supervising the high-spirited nuns. It’s a role oozing clichés but Resnik gives it a deft sense of dignity along with some tart wit, plus she can knock out a powerhouse song with the best of her charges.


                                                     All photos courtesy of Liz Lauren and The Marriott Theatre

Don Fortson seemed to be having a great time as the diocese monsignor. Forston gets off some hilarious one-liners during the evening and morphs into a rock ‘n’ roll master of ceremonies with a strong tinge of John Travolta. And the gangster’s three henchmen do a knockout number called “”Lady in the Long Black Dress” that deliciously sends up macho men on the make. The number has nothing to do with the rest if the show but who could deny burley Todd Horman (the chief soloist) and Jason Slattery and Mark Hood their moment of well-earned stardom.

The nominal star of the show is Stephanie Umoh, who plays Deloris. She is shackled by the stereotype of the good bad girl early on, but once the music takes over, she dispenses one tingling vocal solo after another, often at the head of the rafter-raising nun chorus.

Glenn Slater’s lyrics are funny and pointed, weaving liturgical references into his words, yet there is never a descent into vulgarity or sacrilege. This isn’t “Book of Mormon” for a Roman Catholic audience. The show even includes a cameo visit by Pope Paul VI.

Guest director Don Stephenson gives Zaremba her head with the dance numbers, correctly identifying that’s where the show works best. Stephenson is a man who knows his business, rightly placing his confidence in the music and dancing.

Along with Missimi’s flavorful costumes, the first rate design credits go to Thomas M. Ryan’s set, Jesse Klug’s lighting, and Robert E. Gilmartin’s sound. Patti Garwood conducts the full-sounding accompanying orchestra with her usual professionalism.

I entered the Marriott with gloomy thoughts of sitting through still another “Nunsense”-type farrago of sappy low comedy. What the Marriott delivered was one of the best entertainments of the season and a breakout showcase Melissa Zaremba’s choreography. What raised the enjoyment level of the evening even higher was the obvious pleasure the performers were taking in the show. Talent plus high energy can produce wonderful things on a stage.

       The show gets a rating of 3½  stars.

“Sister Act” runs through April 3 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

Contact Dan at:        February 2016

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Want to read more reviews go to TheaterinChicago


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

Contact Dan at:        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

                The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

Contact Dan at:       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

      The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

Contact Dan at:                  June 2015

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