The Pianist of Willesden Lane
At the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is a one-woman show at the Royal George Theatre based on the 2002 book “The Children of Willesden Lane.” subtitled “A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival.” That’s a spot-on description of a 90-minute story that had the substantial audience at my weeknight performance enthralled.
The play, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, tells the story of Lisa Jura, a young Jewish Viennese piano prodigy caught up in the upheaval of the Holocaust. The sole performer is Mona Golabek, Jura’s daughter and a noted concert pianist in her own right. The story begins in 1938 when Lisa is 14 years old. It describes how her father managed to secure a place for Lisa on the Kindertransport, a program that relocated about 10,000 Jewish children to the safe haven of England as the Nazis prepared to engulf the continent. The narrative follows Lisa as she endures relocations in England with remarkable perseverance and fortitude, culminating in her winning a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music.
Golabek tells her mother’s story in a straightforward, artless way. She frequently slips into impersonations of the people who touched Lisa’s life during the years from 1938 to the war’s end, but basically she speaks in her mother’s voice, without affectation. This isn’t an actor’s star turn. It’s a presentation of unforced honesty and realism. Naturally, there is emotion and passion in her performance. How could it be otherwise, given Lisa’s bravery and resilience and the uncertainties of her life before and during World War II? But there is no manipulation of the audience’s feelings, no fallback into the melodramatic or the maudlin.
There actually is another on-stage performer in the play—a concert grand piano. During the show, Golabek plays excerpts of classical music by Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and especially the Grieg piano concerto. She weaves the music into the fabric of her narration, conveying how her love of classical music sustained her during her trials as a girl and young woman, oppressed by the uncertain of her family’s fate back in Vienna. A piano recital of a very high order is embedded into the play.
The production is enhanced by film projections and movie clips that appear on four screens suspended at the rear of the stage enclosed within what resembled giant antique picture frames. The visuals vary from family portraits to chilling newsreel type films of Viennese Jews being herded together by brutal German and Austrian police. There are images of the places where Lisa lived in Austria and England, creating a vivid sense of the Vienna and England of the war years. There are also off stage recordings of voices from that world, like King George’s speech to his country at the onset of World War II and the disembodied voices of the judges at Lisa’s audition for admission to the Royal Academy of Music. Atmospheric lighting subtly enhances the narrative’s many moods.
The audience consisted primarily of senor citizens, and I suspect many of them could connect personally with Lisa’s experiences or at least the turbulence of that period. Everyone in the theater followed Golabek’s narration and music with a palpable intensity. I don’t recall when I last saw spectators so wrapped up in a show.
left the theater reflecting that Lisa Jura was one of the lucky ones to emerge
from the horrors of that period. She managed to elude the concentration camps
(her parents did not survive) and was sustained by kindnesses throughout her stay
in England. The title of the play refers to a hostel in Willesden Lane where
Lisa lived with other young refugees in London. The hostel owner provided Lisa
with a piano and practice time, freeing her from the rigors of her job as a
seamstress in a factory. The hostel residents drilled her on technique and
theory and one of the girls even made her an audition dress. The support group
that rallied around her and took pleasure in her success provides one of the
feel good qualities of her story. There was some decency that illuminated the
darkness during that time of terror.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” came to Chicago with little fanfare but it has found an audience (the show has been extended to May 25). Part of its success resides in the humanity of its story and part in the perfect pitch performance by Mona Golabek. It makes for a glowing, heartening evening in the theater.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” runs through May 25 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $44 and $49. Call 312 988 9000 or visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.The show gets a rating of 3½ stars May 2013
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An American Story
At the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Hershey Felder has brought several shows to the Royal George Theater, most of them portraits of famous composers and generally successful in their combination of words and music, especially the portrait of George Gershwin. But those presentations were a mere prologue to Felder’s spellbinding “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra” currently at the Royal George in a must-see production.
Felder plays Charles Leale, who as a young man was placed by fate as the physician attending Abraham Lincoln the night the president was shot by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C. Felder’s presentation runs an uninterrupted 75 minutes, but in that brief time he gives the audience a wonderful slice of Americana, climaxed by a stunning account of Lincoln’s assassination, from Booth firing of the gun to Lincoln’s death the following morning. The capacity opening night audience hung on every word and song. The ovation at the curtain call was a mix of appreciation and gratitude.
Photo Credit: Eighty Eight LLC
Felder impersonates Leale at the age of 92 as the old man sits in his New York City apartment in 1932. It’s the depth of the Great Depression, briefly acknowledged by Leale before he flashes back to his early life in nineteenth century America. His father was a passionate lover of the theater, which he shared with his young son. Leale delivers fascinating cameo descriptions of minstrel shows and early burlesque, the origin of the racist Jim Crow figure, and the life of composer Stephen Foster.
The biographical and historical monologue builds to the tragic evening at Ford’s Theatre, with Leale sitting five rows behind the presidential box. The story of Booth breaking into the box, shooting the president, jumping onto the stage and injuring his leg in the landing, and his escape are all well known. But Felder/Leale brings a “you are there” drama and poignancy to the event that makes the assassination a fresh horror. Felder takes the account of the assassination from a short report, called “Lincoln’s Last Hours,” that Leale wrote in 1865 and lay unforgotten until it was discovered among Lincoln’s papers last June.
Felder embellishes the story with quotations from poet Walt Whitman and from Lincoln’s own writings, including a straightforward and moving recitation of the Gettysburg Address that makes that monument of eloquence sound mint fresh.
Felder is accompanied by an 11-piece chamber orchestra conducted by Kevin Case, that provides incidental mood music (occasionally a bit too loud) as well as punctuating Felder’s monologue with renditions of the popular music of the mid-1800’s, especially Stephen Foster’s classic songs. The set is simple—an armchair, a 1930’s radio, and a small table. Mood enhancing lighting and projections flesh out the visual aspect of the staging.
Felder sings throughout
the play. He doesn’t have a powerful trained voice but it’s effective for its
purpose in “An American Story.” Indeed, a concert quality voice would have been
a distraction. Felder also does a bit of dancing, but he holds the audience
primarily through his powerful but natural stage presence and the strength of
his material. Felder wrote the book and selected the music, demonstrating flawless
theatrical instincts, not to mention prowess as a historical researcher.
Photo Credit: Eighty Eight LLC
There is drama but no melodrama in the play and much emotion but no sentimentality. Felder converts the spacious Royal George Theatre into Leale’s parlor, recounting the old man’s fascinating story with an intimacy that connects with each spectator individually. The unforced realism of the show is a tribute to Felder, of course, but also to director Trevor Hay, who shapes the performance into a seamless whole. And much praise to the design team of Hay and David Bluess (scenery), Chris Rynne (lighting), Abigail and Judith Caywood (costumes), Erik Carstensen (sound), and Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder (projections).
The support of the small classical orchestra is subtle, almost subliminal, at times. The musicians mesh with the actor without a hitch so what could have been an artsy intrusion becomes an essential component of the evening.
“An American Story” originated in southern California and is embarking on a national tour, starting with Chicago. I doubt that many patrons entered the Royal George Theatre for the opening performance expecting such an entertaining and stirring experience. Even viewers who admired Felder for his previous one-man shows had to be impressed, not to say riveted, by what they saw and heard.
“An American Story for Actor and Orchestra” runs through April 14 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $60 and $65. Visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com or call 312 988 9000.
The show gets a rating of four stars. March 2013
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Motherhood the Musical
At the Royal George Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Motherhood the Musical” doesn’t break any new ground in taking on the joys and tribulations of motherhood. The 100-minute revue may not deliver any surprises but that doesn’t lessen its entertainment value. This is one clever and witty show.
Granted, “Motherhood” is aimed at the ladies, but menfolk should find the evening a hoot (and maybe informative), no matter that the women portray husbands as lazy and insensitive. But overall men are a minor target. The show’s 20 musical numbers concentrate on problems of more immediate female concern, like leaking bladders, diminished sex drives, bratty kids, saggy bosoms, and excess poundage that remain an unshedable heritage of child bearing.
The Royal George Theatre stage has been converted into a living room where young Amy (her stomach distended like she swallowed a medicine ball) is being feted at a baby shower. Her hostesses are Tasha, Barb, and Brooke, three older women who have been there and done that when it comes to motherhood.
Amy is eager and innocent, agog over the imminent arrival of her first child and sublimely naïve about the stresses that lie ahead. Tasha, Barb, and Brooke take it upon themselves to disabuse Amy of her idealism over approaching motherhood. Fasten your seatbelt, they warn, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Photo Credit: Peter Coombs
What elevates “Motherhood” beyond a formula ladies night out show (think “Menopause the Musical”) is the clever and satiric score composed by Sue Fabisch. There are a handful of touchy feely songs in the revue but most of the numbers explore the state of existence known as motherhood with an exceedingly sharp musical scalpel. Fabisch’s lyrics are comic mini essays on the maternal condition, with excursions into such homemaking institutions as a shopping trip to the local Costco (a particularly amusing visual number) and the consumerism that accompanies the arrival of a child, especially the first one.
All the songs are Fabisch originals (with supplementary contributions by Jesse Goldberg, Bill Flowerree, Ilene Angel, and Johnny Rodgers). The hilarious exception is the appropriation of the pop hit “The Way We Were” into a lamentation about sagging breasts and the glory days when those breasts pointed upward instead of straight down.
doesn’t go in heavily for character development, but each of the four women on
stage does establish a distinct personality. Tasha (Melody Betts) is the single
mother with a blast furnace voice. Brooke (Kimberly Vanbiesbrouck) is the
working mom. Barb (Jennifer Chada) is the cynic, and Amy (Madeline Duffy-Feins)
is the perky new kid on the motherhood block. They are all good but I’d keep my
eye on Duffy-Feins as a performer with a bright future in musical theater. Duffy-Feins
is a local talent, graduating from Northwestern University and the Second City
Conservatory She is attractive, a fine dancer, a solid singer, and cute without
Photo Credit: Peter Coombs
This is not a dancing show but director/choreographer Lisa Shriver has created some amusing bits of hoofing that give the show visual energy without making excessive demands on the performers. The musical accompaniment is taped, but the live performers mesh smoothly with the recorded rock-tinged sounds. “Motherhood the Musical” doesn’t overwhelm the audience with production values, judging properly that a talented cast and Fabisch’s lyrics and dialogue will carry the day.
The revue has successfully toured throughout the United States, with local casts performing at each stop. Judging from opening night reaction from the female attendees at the Royal George, the revue was hitting one bull’s-eye after another, like when shots were being fired at husbands for their defects in the childrearing process. The satire is more in wry resignation than in anger, and let’s face it, guys, the women may have a point.
The technical credits belong to Michael Schweikardt (scenic design), Jennifer Caprio (costume design), David Fowler (sound design), and Ryan Patridge (lighting design).
“Motherhood the Musical” has a good chance of establishing itself as a long running hit at the Royal George. This is a perfect show for groups of women who want to attend a bright and funny revue that showcases their domestic experiences with humor and some insight. The revue avoids the twin pitfalls of cloying sentimentality and anything-for-a-laugh low comedy. It knows its audience and that audience, at least on opening night, responded with laughter and recognition.
“Motherhood the Musical” runs through June 17 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $48 to $65. Call 800 982 2787 or visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. April 2012
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Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
At the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Patrons are advised to arrive early for Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein at the Royal George Theatre. For several minutes before the show begins, a film projected on a large sheet at the rear of the stage shows Bernstein delivering one of his inimitable TV discussions of classical music. Although battling the audience conversation as patrons settle into their seats, the attentive viewer can absorb Bernstein’s charisma, stage presence, and his genius at analyzing the heart and soul of classical music for the layman. The film prologue sets up Hershey Felder for his impersonation of the man who may be the most vivid personality in the history of American classical music.
Maestro runs for about 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission. It takes place in what looks like a television studio in the 1960’s. Felder, as Bernstein, addresses the audience throughout the evening, announcing at the outset that this is his last concert. There is a little ambiguity about the setting. Does the performance mark Bernstein’s last gasp before his death in 1990, or is he already dead and come back from the grave to entertain the audience with a survey of his life plus his insights into the music he loves with such dedication?
Felder doesn’t look much like Bernstein and his silvery pompadour hairstyle is a bit distracting at first. But Felder’s voice and intonations sometimes sound like Bernstein and his piano skills are well up to fleshing out Bernstein’s talents as a piano soloist and composer.
Whatever the precise circumstances of the performance, the format is easy to follow. Felder starts off with an account of Bernstein’s early life, especially his difficulties with his orthodox Jewish Ukrainian immigrant father, who was not enthusiastic about his son’s decision to follow a musical career. There is a dramatic rendering of Bernstein’s big career break, when he was called on at the last minute to replace the ailing Bruno Walter in a Sunday afternoon concert by the New York Philharmonic broadcast nationally. Bernstein’s performance made him famous. At the age of 25, he became a sensation in the American classical music world.
There isn’t much narrative drive in Maestro until the last third of the show. Then we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s shabby treatment of his wife, Felicia Montealegre (the bisexual Bernstein abandoned her and his three children to run off with a male companion for a year). And the show ends with Bernstein’s outburst of indignation at his lack of acceptance as a composer. He craved a place in the pantheon of classical music composers but had to settle in the popular mind for his work for the Broadway stage, notably the score for West Side Story.
Much of the show focuses on Bernstein’s skill at explaining classical music to a non-specialist audience. There is one particularly dramatic explication of the “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde that conveys Bernstein’s passion for music, feverishly dramatized by Felder’s over-the-top piano playing in synchronization with recorded orchestral accompaniment.
Maestro includes plenty of humor. Bernstein, among his other achievements, was a great raconteur, a gift Felder captures in Bernstein’s account of his first meeting with the notoriously dour conductor Fritz Reiner. The show, written by Felder, doesn’t get into Bernstein’s politics, though there is one moment when Bernstein explodes in anger over Tom Wolfe’s ridicule of Felicia Montealegre in his controversial description of a fund raiser for the radical Black Panther Party in Bernstein’s home in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.
Maestro is Felder’s fourth one-man show about famous musical figures, beginning with George Gershwin and continuing with Frederic Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven. I prefer the Gershwin work because of the strong narrative and because of all those great Gershwin compositions scattered throughout the evening. Maestro presents a generous helping of Bernstein writings from both his Broadway and classical output but very few will be familiar to the average listener beyond the excerpts from West Side Story. Excerpts from the Jeremiah symphony and his piano sonata are interesting but they don’t catch the ear like Rhapsody in Blue and “I Got Rhythm.”
Maestro may not reveal Bernstein in all his complexity but it does hold the stage for 100 minutes, thanks to Felder’s multitasking as a pianist, actor, and occasionally singer. Older spectators will remember Bernstein as one of the great personalities in American music, an astonishingly effective communicator as a conductor, composer, and pianist. His life may have ended on notes of regret and frustration, but he was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon and Felder does well to bring him alive, even partially.
Maestro was directed by Felder’s long time association Joel Zwick. Francois-Pierre Couture designed the set and lighting and is responsible for the effective film projections in collaboration with Andrew Wilder. Erik Carstensen designed the sound.
Maestro runs through December 30 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $55. Call 312 988 900 or visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars.
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At the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –The hot-buzz rock musical “White Noise” is playing an extended eight-week run at the Royal George Theatre, doubtless allowing its artistic brain trust plenty of time to tweak the show before moving the production to New York City.
On the evidence of the opening night performance, not much tweaking needs to be done if the show is accomplishing what the producers desire in its present condition. The high-energy cast is fine, the multi-media visuals are sensory grabbers, and the songs are generally first rate. The performance came off smoothly, a considerable accomplishment for an intricate staging drenched in lighting cues, projections, costume changes, and rapid scene shifts.
If there is a problem, and I think there is, it resides in the radical mood swing from light to dark about halfway through the 105-minute intermissionless production.
“White Noise” has widely publicized the fact that it is a controversial musical. The story and score deal with racism in America and how it is exploited in the music industry. Dialogue and song lyrics are politically incorrect to the max in their insults toward blacks, Jews, gays, and immigrants. The show doesn’t endorse bigotry, Indeed, it slants the playing field toward an attitude against prejudice, which the liberal opening night audience rousingly endorsed. But the story doesn’t just set up racists as straw men (and women). They are allowed to passionately articulate their cause. Viewers needn’t agree with the bigots but they can see where they are coming from.
I had no idea that racism was an element in modern rock music, other than the criticism of gangsta rap lyrics. But for purposes of “White Noise,” racism is making serious incursions into rock. The racists are a trio of young people consisting of a skinhead named Duke (Patrick Nurney) and teen-aged sisters Eva (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Eden (Emily Padgett), supported by their mother Laurel (Luba Mason), They want to make it big in rock, but on their terms, which means preserving the racism built into their music.
The girls’ racism is rooted in the fate of their father, who lost his job to immigrants willing to take lower pay. The father subsequently committed suicide. Duke’s white supremacy roots are never revealed, but he’s a skinhead through and through.
Dion (Wallace Smith) and Tyler (Rodney Hicks) are a black duo who start their career performing upbeat material, but record producer Max (Douglas Sills) demands they change to a gangsta image, to sell records.
Max is the connecting tissue through most of the show. He’s the image of the smarmy wheel dealer who lives for the bottom line. He asks one question, Is it commercial? Morality can take a seat at the back of the music industry bus.
The first half of the show actually has a musical comedy feel. In spite of the offensive sentiments in the language, there is so much cynical humor in the characters and so much vitality in the performances that the audience needn’t take the uncomfortable material seriously. We are almost in “Springtime for Hitler” territory, insupportable sentiments in the service of solid entertainment.
The viewers are lulled into a feel-good mood until the show takes a sharp turn to the serious. Suddenly, the songs and dialogue aren’t funny. The Duke and especially Eva are brazen in their hatreds. The show builds in intensity to a concert in Central Park that pairs the black duo with Duke and the sisters, the concert being Max’s exploitive idea and the ultimate in cynical pandering to the audience’s blood lust. Violence breaks out and one major character is killed and another seriously injured.
The show then ends in a “we are all to blame” mea culpa and a suggestion that racism, after all, is really the face of American society. There is a whiff of reconciliation at the end, which rings false, and the show ends with the racist Eva leading a jack booted chorus in a hymn of bigotry called “I Am America.”
Some viewers will be put off by the racism expressed in “White Noise” (the name Max bestows on the sister act), even in the humorous first half of the evening. This show is not for such potential patrons and nobody can say they weren’t warned. But even those who accept the political incorrectness built into the narrative will have trouble adjusting to the sudden tensions that lead to the violence near the end. I may have been more engrossed by the second half of the show but I enjoyed the first half considerably more.
No reasonably informed adult will learn much from “White Noise." We all know there is racism in this country. The show may have a greater impact on young people and the production wants to engage a youthful audience, down to issuing a study guide on Teaching Tolerance. But kids don’t buy tickets. Adults will determine the commercial success of “White Noise,” notably adults who will accept a rock musical loaded with talent and sizzle that also has the capacity to offend.
Douglas Sills, who looks like a young Harrison Ford, is first rate as the manipulative Max, the Max Bialystock of the show until he unleashes the lethal mix that ends in the violence of the Central Park concert. Mauzy and Padgett are fine as the sisters who want to be rock stars and Murney is chilling as the racist who, ironically, is the only character in the show who refuses to compromise his beliefs. Smith, Hicks, and Mason are all excellent among the other principals, along with Eric William Morris as Max’s young assistant, the one character with some moral decency until he, too, is shown up at the end.
Director/choreographer Sergio Trujillo ratchets the energy level to an exhilarating high, especially in the first half. The score (by Robert and Stephen Morris and Joe Shane) is loud, rhythmic, and often catchy. A number by Dion, Tyler, and the ensemble called “Hip-Hop Country” brought the house down. Matte O’Brien wrote the book and if there revisions to be made in the show, they will reside in the book.
Raj Kapoor’s multi-media design is a feast of visual heat. Robert Brill’s bi-level set fits nicely into the intimacy of the Royal George stage. The costume design by Paul Tazewell, the lighting design by Jason Lyons, and the sound design by Garth Helm all contribute to the show’s eye-catching look. The rock band accompanies with both musicianship and the requisite high decibel level. Special props go to the driving drummer, a young lady named L. A. Colter.
“White Noise” will be a delicate show to market, especially in its current form. It will be interesting to see how it fares in the competitive commercial marketplace of New York City.
“White Noise” runs through June 5 at the Royal George Theatre. 1641 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $54.50 to $74.50. Call 312 988 9000 or visit www.whitenoisetickets.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. April 2011
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Billy Connolly Live!
At the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Comedian Billy Connolly is a major celebrity in the United Kingdom and its former colonies. But the man is less than a household name in the United States, where he got his show business exposure on television and in motion pictures.
Connolly wants to expand his fan base as a comedian in North America, so he’s on a tour of selected United States and Canadian cities. Chicago gets the man for five nights at the Royal George Theatre. What can local audiences expect from Connolly’s roughly two straight hours of stand-up comedy? Picture Lenny Bruce and George Carlin come back to life at the top of their game. Add a thick Scottish brogue and you have some idea of what you will experience.
Connolly, who will be 68 next month, has a mane of white hair and a goatee that makes him resemble Buffalo Bill. On opening night he wore what looked like a black frock coat, zebra striped pants, and thick designer sneakers. The stage was empty except for a water bottle and a glass sitting on a small table and a huge poster at the rear of the stage that portrays Connolly as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.” The empty stage gives Connolly plenty of space to roam as he rambles through his stream-of-consciousness monologue. He describes his act as a conversation with the audience, except that her does all the talking.
Connolly goes in heavily for profanity. He delivered countless repetitions of the f--- word, but somehow his language wasn’t offensive, except to those spectators automatically offended by four-letter words. But such folks don’t belong at a Connolly show so they can be discounted. The attendees on opening night treated Connolly’s ribaldry as a huge positive.
Connolly is very disarming about his use of profanity. He uses the words to add flavor to his chat and after a few introductory minutes, the audience adjusts to the language easily enough. Connolly’s Scottish burr somehow lends an almost endearing quality to his spicy way with words. A written transcript of his opening night performance might be very off-putting in its incessant swearing. But somehow the live Connolly isn’t abrasive, he’s a charmer, salty language and all.
meanders through one story after another, nearly all of them taken from his
life. But he has a corkscrew approach to comedy, suddenly dropping one anecdote
or story in the middle because something else has popped into his head that
needs narrating. Early in the show he starts a tale about his visit to Chicago
in 1976 where he hooked up with a couple of rock musicians who invited them to
their Loop hotel to get stoned. A few minutes into that story Connolly abruptly
shifts to how nose hairs grow at an accelerated pace in the nostrils of senior
citizens. He returned to the 1976 story about 30 minutes, and countless further
Connolly isn’t exactly a social critic or a political commentator, but he does have his strong opinions, which he shares without a blush with his listeners. Political correctness does not inhibit the Scotsman. He has no use for organized religion. He ridicules environmentalists and takes shots at Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. But to demonstrate he’s an abuser to all sides of the political spectrum, he takes some nasty shots at Glen Beck and the right wing in general. Beneath the joking manner there is some real anger in Connolly’s ideas about the contemporary social scene.
Connolly’s monologue has an irresistible improvisational character. He seems genuinely surprised at many of the things he says and he often breaks himself up in laughter at the more outrageous bits he tosses off to the audience. Even Connolly is startled by his zigzag mental processes. “Where the f--- did that come from” is heard frequently from the stage.
The large opening night audience was with Connolly the whole way. He breaks down any invisible wall between performer and spectator in the opening moments with his charisma and genial informality. From start to finish it’s a bizarre, wild, and intimate journey, with Connolly as the sole guide and the patrons as eager passengers.
The opening night performance ran a few minutes over two hours, with no intermission. That could profitably have been shaved to about one hour and 45 minutes. A long account of Connolly’s father’s hospital stay after suffering a stroke went on far too long for its comic content. But over all, the fertility of the man’s imagination and the pleasure he obviously enjoys in airing out his autobiographical bits and pieces are captivating. Connolly could have gone on another two hours and it’s likely he won’t repeat any of the first night material in succeeding shows. The man is a comedy force of nature.
“Billy Connolly Live!” runs through Saturday at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Streets. Nightly performances start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $45. Call 312 988 9000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars. October 2010
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*************************** Dress for Dinner
At the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Here’s a rarity for you, a French sex farce that is actually funny. That may come as a surprise to playgoers who have endured countless inane examples of this genre, mostly at dinner theaters. “Don’t Dress for Dinner” at the Royal George Theatre demonstrates that a sex farce can be done well. All it takes is an expert cast guided by an expert director.
“Don’t Dress for Dinner” is the work of Mark Camoletti, a Swiss playwright who had great European success writing this type of comedy. This show follows the well-worn grooves of the sex farce. The setting is a middle class marriage. Initially a character tells a lie to avoid embarrassment, usually connected to having a mistress unknown to his wife. That lie precipitates the need for a second lie, and then a third, until the whole plot careens into a kind of lunacy with every character enmeshed in mistaken identities and other confusions.
These plays rely on plot and accelerated pace to hold the stage. Sex farces are not known for their witty dialogue or depth of characterizations or social criticism. Timing is everything as characters scramble to cover themselves with falsehoods and flee in or out of rooms to avoid disastrous encounters with other characters who may be equally as desperate.
The plot of a sex farce typically is so complex and convoluted that it resists intelligible synopsis. And so it is with “Don’t Dress for Dinner.” Let it suffice that the mayhem begins quietly enough with Bernard sending his wife Jacqueline to visit her mother so he can have a cozy weekend with his mistress Suzanne (the entire action takes place in an upscale French farmhouse near Paris in the early 1990’s). Then Robert unexpectedly turns up. He’s a visiting American who was the best man at Bernard’s marriage to Jacqueline and, unknown to his friend, is having an affair with his wife.
Those building blocks of the story are set in place in the first minutes of the place. Complications immediately ensue, with a cook named Suzette making an appearance that disrupts everyone’s adulterous plans.
In “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” as in most sex farces, the characters talk and scheme a lot about sex but get little action, until the final curtain anyhow. The plays are naughty in a harmless way and totally inoffensive, even with a split second of partial nudity in this production. The accent is entirely on obtaining maximum laughs from the rising crescendo of ludicrous situations, and this is where the Royal George staging comes up big.
The production employs a cast with the skills to make the velocity of the storyline work beautifully. Sure there are moments of excessive dithering and over the top physical comedy, but that’s built into the farce form. Mostly the Royal George show makes the characters not only funny, but credible, a word rarely used in describing a sex farce.
Judging from the applause and squeals on opening night, the
star of the show is Jeffrey Donovan, who plays Robert and is a successful TV
and film actor. Donovan is good looking and has a real feel for broad comedy.
But the lynchpins of the production are Patricia Kalember as Jacqueline and
Spencer Kayden as the French cook.
Kalember succeeds by keeping her cool when everyone else goes off half-cocked. She is an oasis of stability, even with her own secrets and suspicions. As an anchor of stability, her performance allows the production to breathe while a lesser actress would take the role into burlesque absurdity. Kayden is a joy, a pixie young woman with an Inspector Clouseau accent, a character who finds herself in the eye of an erotic hurricane she doesn’t understand but will happily go along with, for a price.
Mark Harelik is Bernard, Jamie Morgan is Bernard’s sexpot doxie, and Chris Sullivan is the cook’s husband who makes a late appearance to roil the plot to even greater frenzy. They all happily contribute to the evening’s madcap uproar.
The real hero of the evening is John Tillinger, one of the American theater’s most successful directors and a man who knows how to make a farce work. His invisible guiding hand must be credited with elevating the production to its comic heights where a less sensitive and disciplined director would fumble the play into the lower depths of shtick and relentless wackiness.
Jim Noone designed the authentic looking farmhouse interior, Virgil John the costumes, Keith Parham the lighting, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen the sound and original music.
“Don’t Dress for Dinner” runs through January 11 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $49.50 and $59.50, Call 312 988 9000 or visit www.dontdressfordinner.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. November 2008Contact Dan at email@example.com
Gutenberg! The Musical!
at the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Gutenberg! The Musical!” received some admiring reviews when it opened in New York City late in 2006. Either the Eastern critics were wearing blindfolds and earplugs or something catastrophic happened to the show en route from the Big Apple to Chicago, because the show at the RoyalGeorgeTheatre is a disaster.
“Gutenberg! The Musical!” is playing in the Gallery at the Royal George. The Gallery is an oblong room with 60 uncomfortable wooden chairs facing a small stage area at the end of the room. To reach the Gallery spectators must climb about 30 winding stairs, inconvenient for people with bad knees.
The performing space is primitive but it does provide the intimacy for a small-scale show like “Gutenberg.” The production runs about 95 minutes, including one intermission, a brief playing time for most shows but an eternity for this one.
“Gutenberg! The Musical!” is a two-character enterprise (excluding a cameo appearance by a third actor at the end of the evening). The gimmick is that the two characters, called Doug Simon and Bud Davenport, have written a musical about Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneering German printer of the 1400’s, and they are auditioning it for the audience, which they claim includes some interested Broadway producers.
Simon and Davenport play themselves and also all the characters in the musical, each character delineated by an actor donning a baseball cap with the name of the character written on it. An on stage pianist provides the musical accompaniment.
The plot, such as it is, deals with the famous German who revolutionized history with his perfection of movable type. But the musical admittedly is not a history lesson. In fact, the story ends with Gutenberg burned alive by an angry mob and his printing press destroyed. The narrative includes a villainous monk and a bunch of other peculiar characters, including an anti Semitic little girl. Simon and Davenport announce at the outset of the show that their musical will touch on the Holocaust, because to be considered important a musical must deal with a major problem. That implies “Gutenberg” is a satire on musical theater conventions. But the bulk of the show is so relentlessly trivial and facetious that anti Semitism becomes an intrusion totally out of sync with the rest of the material, only making the audience confused and uncomfortable.
We can concede that the intent of “Gutenberg” creators Scott Brown and Anthony King is to lampoon musicals, or at least bad musicals. But one doesn’t accomplish much in the way of satire by simply writing a bad musical to send up other bad musicals.
The original score is unmemorable, though there were a few flashes of clever rhyming in the lyrics. But overall the enterprise is so witless and pointless that momentary outbursts of bright lyrics only highlight the dreariness of the rest of the show.
Breon Bliss (Bud Davenport) and Alex Goodrich (Doug Simon) try desperately to be likable throughout the show, but all that grinning and cavorting and playing to the audience wore out its welcome in the first five minutes. That left another 90 minutes (excluding the intermission) of enduring their mugging and begging for acceptance from the spectators.
The program credits not one but two directors, Alex Timbers and Ian Unterman. Surely one of them should have recognized that the acting and singing required a tighter reign instead of turning loose all that simpering and low low comedy. High marks do go to pianist T. O. Sterrett for his professionalism in accompanying the performers with no visible signs of dismay.
A fair play disclaimer. At my performance the theater was more than half full and a number of the patrons laughed a lot and seemed to be enjoying the show. So be it. Their reaction is between them and their God.
“Gutenberg! The Musical!” runs through
July 27 in the Gallery at the Royal GeorgeTheatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m. Saturday at 5 and 9 p.m., and Sunday at 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $35. Call 313 988 9000.
The show gets a rating of one star. July 2008
For more information, visit www.gutenbergthemusical.com.
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Russian on the Side
at the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Russian on the Side” may be confused in purpose but it doesn’t lack for a relentless desire to please. The Mark Nadler one-man show is filling the main stage of the Royal George Theatre with anecdotes about obscure Russian composers and little known songs by contemporary Americans. It doesn’t make much thematic sense but the 95-minute production is tied together by Nadler’s energy and his high octane piano playing.
Nadler is a much honored cabaret performer who has made a career out of celebrating the American pop songbook as created by composers and lyricists like Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Dorothy Fields, and Jule Styne. He’s played in intimate chic rooms in fancy New York City hotels and also performed with symphony orchestras and appeared in Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. “Russian on the Side” is getting a Chicago run before Nadler takes the revue to New York City in the autumn.
The hook for Nadler’s show is a patter song from the 1941 Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin musical “Lady in the Dark” called “Tschaikowsky.” That’s the number that made Danny Kaye a sensation as he rattled off the cumbersome names of 49 Russian composers in a few high velocity seconds. With that song as his basic text, Nadler plays snippets of music from the Russians (a few of whom were actually Polish) and tosses in some anecdotes about the men along with a few jokes and reminiscences of his own.
But Nadler wanders off the Russian composer path much of the evening. He plays and sings a revisionist medley of songs from “Oklahoma” and tears “I Can’t Get Started” to shreds vocally and instrumentally. Unfamiliar songs from modern American composers like Mary Rodgers and Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers’s daughter and grandson respectively) take up more space in the show than music by Rachmaninoff, Rimsky, Korsakov, and Stravinsky.
The one constant in the otherwise curate’s egg content of the show is Nadler’s buoyant approach toward his material and toward the audience. Physically, the man cavorts around the stage and bounces on and off the piano. What his singing voice lacks in beauty it makes up in passion and volume. And his piano playing is impressively loaded with technique.
Local audiences have seen this kind of show before, from presenters like Sammy Cahn and Hershy Felder. But those performances were unified by a unity of music and commentary. Nadler readily agrees that many of his Russian composers were nonentities and deservedly so. He doesn’t spend more than a few seconds on them and one wonders why he bothers at all. The show does not lack for his opinions. He values the “Romeo and Juliet” music by Prokofiev over the famous suite by Tchaikovsky.
Nadler gives audiences a brief history lesson in Russian classical music, starting with Mikhail Glinka, the founder of a Russian national music style. And he does connect a few Russian classical melodies with some tunes that became hits on Broadway, like the Alexander Borodin’s music that became “This Is My Beloved” and other songs from the musical comedy “Kismet.” But Nadler doesn’t go far enough along this track, even after indicating at the outset of the show that the evening would attend fully to Russian works that became hit Broadway songs. Lots of popular songs rooted in the melodies of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are never heard.
Nadler entertains the customers with autobiographical stories, including the stressful experience of growing up alienated and Jewish in Iowa. The mood is primarily lighthearted but he does attempt to inject some emotional muscle into the performance with his intense renditions of Mary Rodgers and Adam Guettel numbers, all of which go on too long.
In the end, “Russian on the Side” is carried by Nadler’s enthusiasm and his piano playing. Once again, one would have wished for a more extended instrumental treatment of familiar Russian pieces instead of scattering brief excerpts from Russian second-raters throughout the evening. Nadler has his talents as a raconteur and vocalist, but the big pay-off in his show flows from his skill at the keyboard.
“Russian on the Side” runs through June 15 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 9 p.m., and Sunday at 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $34.50 to $55. Call 312 988 9000.
The show gets a rating of three stars. May 2008
For more information about the Chicago run of the show, visit: www.RussianOnTheSideOnline.com.
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A Steady Rain
by Chicago Dramatists
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—No new play of 2007 created more buzz in Chicago than “A Steady Rain.” The Keith Huff drama played six sold out weeks at the small but cutting edge Chicago Dramatists and clearly deserved a longer life. Fortunately for Chicagoland theatergoers, myself included, who missed the original run, “A Steady Rain” has been restaged with the same cast and director at the upscale Royal George Theatre for a seven-week run. The next stop should be New York City.
“A Steady Rain” is a cop drama. The only onstage characters are a pair of Chicago policemen named Joey and Denny. They have been friends since childhood and they now patrol the mean streets of Chicago. Denny is the dominant half of the duo, a bully and a racist who has brutalized Joey for most of their lives, though in the name of male bonding. Denny has a family—a wife and two children—while Joey is a loner, an alcoholic who lives in a one room apartment and spends most of his free time at Denny’s house.
That’s the setup as the play begins. The two men tells their stories directly to the audience when they aren’t bickering between themselves. The first few minutes are consumed by profane humor and macho backchat. Then the narrative gradually spirals into a tale of violence and almost unbearable tension. In a concentrated and uninterrupted 90 minutes, “A Steady Rain” touches on friendship, family, loyalty and betrayal, as well as offering riveted spectators a glimpse into the life of a beat policeman, with its sordid encounters with hookers, pimps, druggies, and petty criminals.
The intensity of the story escalates until a final burst of violence that is both shocking and inevitable. By the final blackout, both the characters and the audience have been put through the emotional wringer.
Playwright Huff compresses his drama into an intimate environment that consists primarily of a table and a couple of chairs enclosed by a neutral background that might be a police squad room. But the story takes the viewer throughout the city and into Denny’s home, all through Huff’s gutsy and evocative dialogue. If a motion picture version is ever made of this play, Martin Scorsese has to be the director.
Peter DeFaria and Randy Steinmeyer repeat their roles as Joey and Denny. It’s impossible to think of any other actors as either character and it’s impossible to imagine DeFaria and Steinmeyer in any other play, they inhabit the two policemen so authentically. Steinmeyer in particular is remarkable as the foul mouthed Denny, a cop who abuses his wife and best friend, extorts money from whores on the street, wallows in racial and ethnic intolerance, yet still lives by a personal moral code that puts family above everything.As Joey, DeFaria mostly reacts to Denny’s outbursts and seems helpless to reverse his friend’s descent into the maelstrom of domestic and street violence. But late in the play DeFaria’s Joey rises to his own emotional heights, filling the vacuum left by Denny’s deterioration.
The play’s producers chose well in transferring the production to the small Royal George Studio Theatre (once called the Cabaret). The tiny stage with its simple table and chairs as sole props reinforces the claustrophobic atmosphere. The play has almost no physical action beyond the actors occasionally standing up or shifting position in their chairs. This is a language driven dramatic experience, stoked with obscenities and exposed psychological nerves, and occasional very adult humor.
Russ Tutterow repeats his taut directing, so seamless that the play just seems to happen, riding its own irreversible momentum. How much of the production’s success resides with the director, the actors, or the playwright is impossible to separate and it doesn’t matter. “A Steady Rain” is an organic whole, simultaneously a scorching family drama and a stark vision of the daily stresses of police life in the big city.
The remainder of the production credits go to Tom Burch (set design), Jeff Pines (lighting design), Kerith Wolf (costume design), and Michael Tutaj (sound design). All do their part to elevate the play to its ferocious level of uncompromising realism.
“A Steady Rain” runs through April 27 at the Royal George Studio Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $45. Call 312 988 9000.
The show gets a rating of four stars. March 2008
For more information contact: www.asteadyrain.com
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