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

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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

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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

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Mary Poppins

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire – It’s surely no accident that the Marriott Theatre is presenting “Mary Poppins” over the holiday season. This is the ultimate family show, perfect for holiday visitors who want to enjoy a G-rated show in a colorful, beautifully sung revival. There are even two youngsters in the show for the kiddies in the audience to identify with.

     “Mary Poppins” has been a cottage industry for decades, starting with the series of children’s books by P. L. Travers, then the immensely popular motion picture in 1964, and finally a hit English musical which is now entering its eighth year on Broadway. That’s a lot of mileage to extract from a strong-willed nanny in Edwardian London who has delightful magical powers.

     The Marriott revival faces some daunting technical challenges, some well met and some not so well met. The strength of the show resides in its performances, no surprise considering the cast is taken from the top drawer of Chicagoland musical theater talent. Summer Naomi Smart is terrific in the title role, a petite actress who is a perfect Mary—gently domineering, charmingly arrogant, oozing no-nonsense warmth. And she sings magnificently.

     Marriott has surrounded Smart with a blue ribbon cast that features Bernie Yvon doing some of his best work as the confident Cockney master of ceremonies Bert, and Rod Thomas and Susan Moniz as George and Winifred Banks, the parents of two bumptious children, Michael and Jane.

     

                                                                             Photo credit: Peter Coombs and Marriott Theatre

     On opening night, the Banks children were played by Johnny Rabe and Madison Gloria Olszewski, who will rotate with Caroline Heffernan and Brady Tutton. I have never been a fan of children on the stage. I keep waiting for them to blow their lines in front of an intimidating adult audience. And the Banks children are central to the production, acting and singing and dancing right alongside their elders. Amateurish performances can’t be hidden. Happily, both Rabe and Olszewski operated at a superior level, whether their characters were being obnoxious or funny or, ultimately, affectionate. Their performances were a pleasure, and a relief.

     The supporting cast is well up to the mark, led by a well-padded Paula Scrofano as the sharp-tongued Banks cook, Mrs. Brill. And Rebecca Finnegan has a grand time as the bullying, nasty nanny Miss Andrew, who briefly and ferociously takes Mary’s place.

     Director Gary Griffin faces a number of technical challenges in staging the show, but Marriott has faced technical challenges before with wondrous results. Consider the theater’s productions of “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” and “Miss Saigon.” Some of the “Mary Poppins” stage effects are spot on, like Mary’s sudden entrance, umbrella in hand, early in the show, or the Greek statue in the park suddenly coming to life (earning startled gasps from the audience).

     But there are scenes that don’t quite work, mostly because the action has to be confined within the Marriott in-the-round stage. The scenes on the rooftop overlooking London are restricted to a modest model of a chimney that doesn’t evoke the sense of wonder looking down on the city. The lush London park where much of the action takes place is skimpy. A group of projection screens are mounted around and above the stage, promising some exhilarating animation but delivering not much more than a silhouette of Mary Poppins flying from screen to screen. Otherwise, the projections consist mostly of dull still photos of cartoon furniture.

           

                                                                   Photo credit: Peter Coombs and Marriott Theatre

     The show rides on its splendid score, most of the songs composed for the movie adaptation by Richard and Robert Sherman. The book is a ramshackle affair, with scene after scene plunked onto the stage with no narrative connecting tissue, giving the ensemble repeated opportunities to kick up their heels and sing lustily but forming no story. The chorus is loaded with energy, leading up to the “Step in Time” dance piece that stopped the show, though it didn’t displace my memories of the sensational performance of the number in the road production that visited Chicago a few seasons ago.

     The show runs a bit long, taking too long to wrap up the evening. And viewers of a cynical mindset might sniff at the syrupy optimistic philosophy that infects the book. But those who fancy touchy-feely sentimentality in their musicals are well served. The enemble is dressed in Nancy Missimi’s authentic looking period costumes. The cast members wheel Thomas M. Ryan’s set components on and off stage smoothly. Michael Mahler’s musical direction is outstanding.

     The Marriott production will especially entertain audiences who aren’t familiar either with the movie or the stage version and so won’t note the comparative modest creativity of the visual effects. But even by opening night audience lenient standards, the first nighters loved the show anchored in Smart’s starring performance. Perhaps the Marriott artistic brain trust should have scrapped the original high tech concept and gone for a more intimate approach that would have given the show a special Marriott stamp rather than attempting to match the whiz bang of the Hollywood and Broadway versions. But what’s on offer in Lincolnshire through the end of the year should still make lots of playgoers of assorted ages very happy.

     “Mary Poppins” runs through January 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. A revised schedule goes into effect December 26 through January 5. Tickets are $40 to $48. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

The show gets a rating of 3 stars       October 2013

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.

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9 to 5

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire – When the touring production of “9 to 5” played in downtown Chicago in early 2011, I commented that the musical was silly, not silly-funny or silly-entertaining so much as silly-inane and silly-annoying. The revival at the Marriott Theatre provokes some reconsideration. The show still has major problems with its book, but the Marriott staging definitely falls into the positive silly-funny and silly-entertaining category, thanks to some first rate casting and Matt Raftery’s splendid career-enhancing choreography.

         “9 to 5” originated as a popular 1980 movie starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin as three office workers forced to endure a sexist pig boss. The film was converted into a Broadway musical in 2009 with Parton as composer-lyricist. Much was expected of the show, but it had a disappointing run following largely dismissive reviews.

     

                                                           Photo credit: Peter Coombs and The Marriott Theatre

         The story is set circa 1980, when feminism was getting entrenched in American life, except in the headquarters of the company dominated by CEO Franklin Hart, Jr., an industrial strength male chauvinist awash in testosterone. He has limitless disrespect for his female employees, but the young lady particularly in his crosshairs is secretary Doralee Rhodes, a blonde with a cornpone accent and a pneumatic figure. Any resemblance to the real life Dolly Parton is strictly intentional.  

         Along with Doralee, the office women most brutalized by Hart’s harassment are Violet and Judy. Violet is super competent but denied deserved promotion because of her gender. Judy is a meek new employee still struggling with a divorce from her skirt-chasing husband. The three women eventually join to bring down Hart in a sequence of appallingly absurd plot twists.

         The show does perk along for most of the overlong first act, thanks to the rousing string of production numbers. Then the storyline breaks up on the rocks of the nonsensical kidnapping of Hart by the three women, which includes suspending him from the ceiling in a harness that makes him look like a floundering Peter Pan. And there is a farcical, pointless hospital scene that is insupportable.

      

                                                Photo credit: Peter Coombs and The Marriott Theatre

         The story is peppered with stereotypes, starting with Franklin Hart, Jr., a punching bag for sexist jokes, but played with commendable rascality by James Moye. Then there is Roz, Hart’s executive assistant, a dowdy middle aged woman who harbors erotic fantasies about her reprehensible boss. It’s a groaner of a role largely redeemed at Marriott by Marya Grandy’s strong singing voice and her welcome restraint in minimizing cheap laughs from this ludicrous character (she brought to mind Anne B. Davis as Schultzy in the old Bob Cummings sitcom in the 1950’s).

          The primary performing strength of the evening, of course, resides in the superior work by Kelli Cramer (Violet), Alexandra Palkovic (a physical clone of Dolly Parton as Doralee), and Susan Moniz (Judy). The threesome takes characters oozing opportunities for caricature and converts them into real people with recognizable problems, like the widowed Violet trying to raise a teen-age son as a single mother and Judy as an insecure and rudderless woman who makes a successful journey to a genuine sense of self. It’s a bit harder to swallow Doralee as the helpless victim of her blatant sexiness, not with the dresses she chooses to wear, but Palkovic gives the woman gumption and a sense of humor along with her curves.

The score isn’t memorable, though the title song is a toe tapper, but Parton knows how to compose for the human voice. Cramer, Moniz, and Palkovic all get their opportunities to belt out numbers to the glee of the opening night audience, culminating in Moniz’s anthem of personal liberation, “Get Out and Stay Out.”

         But even in the darkest moments of the ludicrous plot turns, the production is sustained by Matt Raftery’s dances, a total package of high energy and creativity delivered with wonderful zest by a chorus of young men and women who go full throttle the entire show, whether they are office workers or characters in a dream sequence. From first number to finale, this is the best work I’ve seen from Raftery, who has totally mastered the special requirements of designing choreography for an in-the-round stage.

         Director David H. Bell makes a virtue of the in-the-round playing area by changing scenes full of furniture in full view of the audience. The changes could have been intrusive and impeded the flow of the show. Instead, the breezy precision of the scene shifts becomes one of the more enjoyable elements of the evening. There are 22 performers in the cast, often most of them on stage at the same time. But the action never seems congested. What must have been rigorous rehearsals have paid off in a production that vibrates with unforced enthusiasm, flow, and pace.

         The design team shares in the staging triumph--Thomas M. Ryan (sets), Jesse Klug (lighting), Robert E. Gilmartin (sound), and Nancy Missimi (costumes). They unite to visually bring alive a show that needs all the help it can get to overcome the book woes. Patti Garwood leads the always reliable Marriott orchestra.

         In the final assessment, “9 to 5” is a two star show upgraded by a five star staging. Possibly the show profits from the intimacy of the Marriott space, where all that fine singing and dancing can connect up close and personal with the audience instead of being divided by a proscenium stage and orchestra pit. Bell has toned down the low comedy to allow the human moments to shine through. Nobody will take “9 to 5” as a meaningful exploration the plight of women in the workplace, or a guide to climbing the corporate ladder. “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is the role model for that kind of show. But the Marriott revival goes a long way to converting this musical comedy sow’s ear almost into a silk purse. For that accomplishment, much thanks.

         “9 to 5” runs through October 13 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 3½ stars.

  Contact Dan at zeffdaniel@yahoo.com.  August 2013

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South Pacific

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire – The Marriott Theatre’s splendid revival of “South Pacific” is a welcome reminder of how tall this show stands in the canon of American musical theater. “South Pacific” has everything—a flawless score, two credible love stories, comedy, drama, rollicking dance numbers, and even a musical attack on the irrational nature of ethnic and racial prejudice.

         Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II based the musical on two short stories by James Michenor. The action takes place on a couple of islands in the south Pacific during the early years of World War II. The main love story involves Emile de Becque, a middle aged French planter living on one of the islands, and Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse. A secondary romance connects a Navy officer named Joseph Cable with a local Polynesian girl named Liat who lives on the mysterious island of Bali Ha’i. The love affairs are set against a backdrop of the bustle of wartime life on the island, especially the mix of sailors and nurses.

         Every song in “South Pacific” can be admired as a stand-alone hit while playing a crucial role in the show’s plot and character development. The cream of the score includes “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Younger than Springtime,” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” Rodgers’s music is indelible and audiences who know Hammerstein’s lyricist skills largely from his sentimental work in “The Sound of Music” will be startled by his incisive and witty wordplay. The number “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” seems tame enough today in its criticism of prejudice in society, but it was hugely controversial after the show opened in 1949 and especially when it began touring the South.

         

                                    Photo credit: Peter Coombs

         Marriott director David H. Bell takes no untoward liberties with this virtually perfect vehicle but he has subtly reassessed several of the musical numbers, assisted by some pinpoint casting in major roles. Bethany Thomas is a comparatively youthful Bloody Mary, that raucous matriarch and entrepreneur of the island. Thomas brings a lighter but still expressive voice to the normally operatic “Bali Ha’i” number and her realistic acting turns a potentially one-dimensional comic (and patronizing) caricature into a real human being. In the same spirit, Stef Tovar saves Luther Billis, the main comic figure in the story, from comic purgatory as a self-indulgent farcical figure. Tovar’s Billis is a Sgt. Bilko wheeler dealer but we are spared the mugging and low humor that can afflict the actor seeking easy laughs.

         Elizabeth Lanza is a striking Nellie Forbush with her plummy Arkansas accent. Lanza is attractive but not glamorous, an audience-high young woman who finds herself in deep romantic waters with the planter on his exotic island. Her performance isn’t a star turn, happily. It meshes comfortably with the overall realism of the production and she is a spot-on match for Stephen Buntrock’s de Becque (23 years ago Buntrock played the younger Joseph Cable in a Marriott revival of the musical). Buntrock doesn’t deliver the operatic power of Ezio Pinza’s original but he sings well enough and his hunger in his loneliness for the companionship of a woman like Nellie is poignant and believable. In the only other featured role, Ben Jacoby provides the best singing voice in the production as Joseph Cable and his acting is first rate as he, like Nellie, is forced to face his society-bred prejudices.

           

                                        Photo credit: Peter Coombs

         Bell fluidly handles the large ensemble (two dozen performers) that reflects a perfect command of the limiting Marriott in-the-round stage. The sailor chorus effects most of the scene changes with unobtrusive efficiency. The only breaks in the natural rhythm of the action are the frequent interruption of audience applause after musical numbers. Matt Raftery’s choreography manages the performing space with unforced style, so that major production numbers like “Honey Bun” and “I’m Gonna’ Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” accommodate the large number of on-stage performers without a cramped feeling.

         Thomas M. Ryan’s set design artfully suggests the tropical Pacific setting without lumbering the production with excessive set pieces that would slow down the scene transitions. Nancy Missimi’s costumes authentically replicate the 1940’s look of the narrative. Diane Ferry Williams designed the lighting and Robert Gilmartin the sound. Patti Garwood conducts the fine 10-piece orchestra that serves up Rodgers’s rich melodic score with its usual professionalism.

            

                                      Photo credit: Peter Coombs

     We don’t get many quality revivals of “South Pacific” these days so spectators who haven’t seen the musical for a while should be impressed all over again by what a seamless masterpiece it is, one leg of a triumvirate with “A Chorus Line” and “My Fair Lady” at the pinnacle of American musical theater. The Marriott revival respects and honors the original, but Bell has opened up some vistas in character portrayal and musical presentation that freshens the viewing experience even for spectators of a certain age who grew up with the show. All in all, a hugely rewarding evening.

         “South Pacific” runs through June 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 $40 to $48. Dinner packages are available on Wednesday and Thursday. Call 847 634 0100 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

         The show gets a rating of four stars.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.   April 2013

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Now & Forever:

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire – Andrew Lloyd Webber may have his detractors, but nobody can challenge that he composes great melodies and writes superbly for the human voice. For verification of these virtues, music lovers are invited to check out the production of Lloyd Webber’s music at the Marriott Theatre. The show is called “Now & Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” and it is wonderful.

The first night audience entered the Marriott likely expecting a typical “and then he wrote” anthology of songs, and “Now & Forever” does present itself in that mode. There is no storyline, no dialogue, no thematic grouping of songs. Nothing new there, but the numbers flow from triumph to triumph, connected by two hours of bravura singing and scintillating dancing.

 

                                                                                 Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre

The program draws music from the megahits “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Starlight Express,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” along with samplings from such Lloyd Webber flops as “The Woman in White,” “Whistle Down the Wind,” and “Love Never Dies” (the bomb sequel to “Phantom”). There is music from a dozen shows, plus an excerpt from Lloyd Webber’s venture into classical music, “Requiem,” and several selections from his revue,  “Song & Dance.” The Lloyd Webber hits are present, notably “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and “Memory.” But it’s the lesser known numbers that lend the evening a sense of discovery for the viewer.      

         Director Marc Robin has assembled a stunning cast of big voices. The vocal selections are primarily love songs that break no new ground in the musical theater (the composer stands closer to the operetta style of Victor Herbert than the contemporary manner of Stephen Sondheim). But his music is a singer’s dream. Virtually every number ended in cheers from the audience. There was Linda Balgord’s thrilling rendition of “With One Look” from “Sunset Boulevard” and Erin Stewart in “Think of Me” from “Phantom,” and Susan Moniz making “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” sound mint fresh. Stephanie Binetti puts a saucy modern charge into “Take That Look Off Your Face” from “Song & Dance.”

         On the male side, the show is awash in blast furnace voices. Ben Jacoby, Max Quinlan, and Travis Taylor do a rip roaring Three Tenors turn on “Love Changes Everything” from “Aspects of Love.”  Jameson Cooper offers an affecting “Any Dream Will Do” from “Joseph” and Brian Bohr puts a charge into the title song from “Starlight Express.” Cooper pays solo guitar to enhance the passion of Brian Bohr’s rendition of “Close Every Door” from “Joseph.” I don’t remember when an area stage held so many major league voices in a single production.


                                                                                                    Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre

         The choreography is the work of Robin, Harrison McEldowney, and Matt Raftery. They work with a chorus of four men and four women who executive ballet, Broadway, and tap dance with grace and athleticism. Most of the dances are taken from “Song & Dance” and serve as interludes between the songs. But there are impressive ensemble production numbers, like a powerful and vibrant selection from “Superstar.”

         Robin has paced the show deftly in alternating the singing and the dancing. The opening launches us immediately into iconic Lloyd Webber territory with the pounding opening notes from “Phantom” as the lighting plays on an ornate chandelier hanging over the stage. That roused the audience to its first cheers of the night and set the tone for and the rest of the production.

         The show is performed with almost no scenery, though Thomas Ryan is credited as the set designer. The major visual impact comes from the dramatic, mood-setting lighting designed by Diane Ferry Williams. Nancy Missimi has designed a remarkably rich and diverse wardrobe for the 19 singers and dancers. The clothing changes between numbers back stage must have resembled an organized track meet.

 

                                                                                                     Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre

         A huge salute must go to the terrific off stage orchestra directed by Patti Garwood. Lloyd Webber wrote lush scores that would suffer from skimpy accompaniment. The 11-piece Marriott orchestra sounds like an ensemble twice its size, doing full justice to the composer’s opulent romantic melodies.

       Spectators surely should leave the Marriott Theatre with new respect for Andrew Lloyd Webber. His body of work demonstrates that a composer needn’t be revolutionary to be great. The stories in his musicals may not match the quality of the music, but that fortunately isn’t a consideration in “Now & Forever.”

     Most theatergoers have attended numerous anthology revues that have celebrated the music of important composers like Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser, and similar titans who have shaped our musical theater. I’ve enjoyed an abundance of this genre of musical and “Now & Forever” is the most entertaining and even the most revelatory I’ve ever seen. Lloyd Webber should stand taller as a composer in the estimation of every patron who attends the show. The man should fly in to catch a performance. He’d be proud.

     “Now & Forever” runs through March 17 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 four stars.    January 2013

                  Contact Dan at zeffdaniel@yahoo.com.

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My One and Only

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—Very little can be said in favor of the inane story presented by “My One and Only.” Fortunately, very little can be said against the glorious feast of spectacle and tap dancing that blissfully takes over the show when the characters stop trying to sell the inane plot in the chirpy revival at the Marriott Theatre.

         “My One and Only” was launched on Broadway in 1983 after a rocky prehistory in which the producers attempted a recreation of the 1927 Gershwin musical “Funny Face.” By the time the show reached Broadway, the original storyline had been discarded and a new book had been concocted and only a half dozen “Funny Face” songs were retained, augmented by a selection of hits from elsewhere in the Gershwin canon. The 1983 version properly tried to sell itself as a song and dance festival with the lame plot the merest excuse for performing such Gershwin standards as “Soon,” “Strike Up the Band,” “’S Wonderful,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and the title song.

         The plot follows the romance of a hayseed aviator named Captain Billy Buck Chandler and an English long distance swimmer named Edythe Herbert. On Broadway the roles were taken by the luminous Tommy Tune and the talent-challenged but charismatic Twiggy. Their star power, some terrific choreography by Tune, Mike Nichols, and Michael Bennett, and those terrific Gershwin songs sufficed to keep audiences coming for two years.

         The Marriott revival properly concentrates on the show’s opportunities for glorious tap dancing production numbers so whenever the characters stop talking and start singing and hoofing the evening is in great shape. The action is set in 1927 when the country was agog over the possibility of an American aviator flying nonstop from the USA to Paris. That’s the goal of Billy Chandler until he is almost derailed by a love-at-first-sight encounter with swimmer Herbert, who is under the villainous thumb of her manager, a nogoodnik passing himself off as a Russian prince. Along the way, we meet a tap dancing philosopher named Mr. Magix and a Harlem pastor named the Reverend J. D. Montgomery, who is a Bible thumbing preacher by day and a speakeasy proprietor by night. The only other character of consequence is Mickey, Billy Chandler’s hard boiled and wisecracking mechanic.

         The Marriott headliners are veteran Andrew Lupp as Billy and Summer Naomi Smart as Edythe. Lupp has been a song and dance performer of distinction in area musical theater for years. He has a serviceable singing voice and flying feet. As an actor he’s almost overqualified for the two-dimensional Billy. Lupp tries to make an actual feeling person out of this cartoon when a more airy interpretation would have suited the sappy story more. But when Lupp dances all is right with the production, especially in his show stopping duet, and duel, with Mr. Magix (the superior Ted Louis Levy).

         Smart is the show’s chief ornament. Her singing and dancing are effervescent and her acting fits the character nicely. Smart’s first act finale duet with Lupp, highlighted by playful splashing in a circular water trough on stage, had the audience whooping with pleasure, especially viewers in the front rows who were very happy to get wet from the antics on stage. Weirdly, the act ends with Chandler singing a dispirited rendition of the toe-tapping “Strike Up the Band,” a number that has no possible relevance o the story but is too good a song to omit.

                         

                                                                                                                                 Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre

         In a bit of unconventional casting, Felicia P. Fields plays the Reverend Montgomery, a role played by a man on Broadway. But give Fields a spotlight and a gospel-tinged number and you know what to expect, a blast of vocalizing that will stop any show. Fields leads the ensemble in the irresistible “Kickin’ the Clouds Away,” again a number with no burning relevance to the story but what the heck, she rocks the joint. Props also go to those old reliables, Roger Mueller and Paula Scrofano. Mueller has lots of fun with his pungent Boris Badinov Russian accent, and Scrofano is a delight as Billy’s no nonsense mechanic, who reveals a surprise identity at the end.

         Director/choreographer Tammy Mader can’t do much with injecting credibility into the story, but she unleashes her cast in the dance numbers, ranging from pull-out-all-the-stops tapping to dreamy Astaire and Rogers interludes. The chorus consists of 11 high-energy men and women, complemented by a trio of African-American swinging dancers called the New Rhythm Boys (Quinn Bass, Jarran Muse, and Clinton Roane). A young lady named Amanda Kroiss was especially eye catching. She has a solid resume in area theater but this is her first Marriott show. She looks like a keeper.

         The Marriott management opened its wallets for costume designer Nancy Missimi, and she responded, as usual, with a pageant of colorful wearing apparel, mostly black tie and tails for the men and one sexy outfit after another for the ladies. Thomas M. Ryan designed the set, Jesse Klug the lighting, and Robert E. Gilmartin the sound. Patti Garwood led the typically strong small Marriott pit orchestra.

    

                                                                                                                                     Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre

     A couple of quibbles. The opening night performance started out slowly. It picked up speed and timing as the evening progressed but it needs to get out of the gate a little quicker. And for some reason, “How Long Has This being Going On?” was omitted, even though it was listed in the playbill. The song is one of Gershwin’s greatest love songs and would have added a perfect exclamation point to the improbable Billy/Edythe love affair.

         “My One and Only” runs through January 6 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 three stars.  November 2012

                     Contact Dan at zeffdaniel@yahoo.com.

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Dreamgirls

At the Marriott Theater

by Dan Zeff

 

Lincolnshire  “Dreamgirls” is based on the rise of the Supremes, America’s premiere girl singing group of the 1960’s. The musical opened on Broadway in 1981, won six Tony awards, and ran for nearly four years.

The show has only two documented Chicagoland productions, both in suburban theaters. One of those productions was presented at the Marriott Theatre in 1995. The theater is reviving “Dreamgirls” after 17 years in a version distinguished by plenty of high voltage singing, but not enough to disguise the musical’s weaknesses, most of which reside in a lame book. A curiously stodgy staging is a further impediment to an evening that turns into a pretty long sit for the audience, even with a stage full of belting voices giving their all.

“Dreamgirls” tells the familiar show business story of young performers who struggle to get their first break, rise to the top, and then fragment through internal dissension, only to reunite in time for an emotional final number. Even though the story is inspired by real people and events, its saga of backstage betrayals and backbiting and the perils of success oozes cliché.

In “Dreamgirls,” the Supremes are a black girl trio initially called the Dreamettes. They travel, wide-eyed and innocent, from Chicago to New York City to break into show business at one of the famous Apollo Theatre talent contests in Harlem. The girls catch the eye of an ambitious, conniving manager named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (read Motown mogul Berry Gordy), who renames them the Dreams and guides them to the top of the rhythm and blues market, using a combination of payola and chutzpa.  One of the Dreams is a heavyset, powerful-voiced diva named Effie White. She becomes Taylor’s mistress until he decides she is too heavy and too loud (and by implication, too black) to fit into the glamorous image he seeks for the Dreams so they can break out of the ghetto of African American music into the more remunerative and classy world of pop. So he bounces Effie from the group and she does not go quietly.

Effie tries to start her own career ands eventually makes it as a star solo singer, a fate unfortunately that didn’t follow her real life counterpart in the Supremes, Florence Ballard. After Ballard left the trio she fell off the show business radar and died in obscurity at the age of 32.

                                    Photo credit: Peter Coombs and The Marriott Theatre

Composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Tom Eyen created a score dominated by rhythm and blues and soul, with garnishes of pop music. The music is divided between staged numbers performed by the Dreams and a James Brown-style soul singer named James Thunder Early and vocalized dialogue. The decibel count is high and so is the dramatic and emotional content. Lovers of high-octane black music will love the show. The audience certainly expressed their roaring approval throughout the opening night performance, reflecting a generous tolerance for the ponderous narrative and two-dimensional characters.

Effie White is the center of the show and rarely has a musical offered such an unsympathetic heroine. Effie is temperamental, paranoid, self centered, and mean spirited. Raena White plays the character well and sings up a storm, her rendition of “(And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going)” a predictable showstopper at the end of the first act.  That number made a star of Jennifer Holliday on Broadway and Jennifer Hudson in the 2006 movie.

The other major musical character is James Thunder Early, who occupies too much of the second act with his woman problems and fears of a declining career. Still, Eric LaJuan Summers tears up the theater with his explosive R&B singing.

Byron Glenn Willis is fine in the unflattering portrayal of the Berry Gordy figure, who is brought down at the show’s conclusion, though the real Berry Gordy is doing just fine in California. Britney Coleman plays Deena Jones, the Diana Ross figure, with an expressive voice and a strong physical resemblance to the original. Some of the most volcanic singing of the night comes from Rashida Scott, one of the Dreams, whose romantic entanglements with James Early are driving her to distraction. Darilyn Burtley satisfactorily completes the Dreams trio.

Along with Curtis Taylor and James Early, the men in the lives of the Dreams are composer C. C. White (Travis Turner) and Early’s manager Marty (Trinity P. Murdock), a character who displays a rare bit of integrity and decency amidst all the wheeling and dealing and love affairs.

“Dreamgirls” is not an ideal fit for the Marriott in-the-round stage. The absence of sets robs the show of the aura of spectacle that enhances the Dreams story, though Nancy Missimi’s extravagant costume designs for the trio are certainly colorful enough. But set designer Thomas Ryan has to settle for a mostly open stage with props carried on and off during blackouts as needed. Jesse Klug’s light does inject some sizzle into the physical production but the musical works best in a proscenium stage environment.

Director-choreographer Marc Robin gets unlimited energy from his performers but his staging seems flat. Characters gather in static groups and spectators have to deal with the backs of the performers too often. I saw nothing but Effie’s back during her climactic “I’m Not Going” number, missing all the facial expression of her howl of agony and bitterness. After the number ends in a crescendo of emotion, Raena White is left to sneak off stage during the semi blackout before the intermission, diluting the impact of the song. Note: Eleasha Gamble takes the role of Effie at Wednesday and Sunday matinees. Nobody could sing with all that intensity eight performances a week.

                                    Photo credit: Peter Coombs and The Marriott Theatre

Robin’s choreography is limited to the stylistic movements associated with the Motown sound. Music director Doug Peck and conductor Patti Garwood deliver a solid R&B sound from the theater’s small but driving pit band.

As a showcase for a stage full of talented African American singers, the Marriott “Dreamgirls” gets high marks. But there are problems built into the musical that the production has not overcome.

“Dreamgirls” runs through October 28 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 $41 to $49 plus fees. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheater.com.

The show gets a rating of three stars.   August 30, 2012

Contact Dan at zeffdaniel@yahoo.com.

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