PANIC ON CLOUD 9

At the Second City Mainstage

By Dan Zeff

CHICAGOThe new Second City revue is funny,  though I’ve seen funnier. But I don’t recall when I have seen a better acted show or one presented with better pace. This good news comes even though three of the six cast members and the director are all first-timers on the Mainstage.

         The revue, the 103rd in the cabaret theater’s golden history, is called “Panic on Cloud 9” for reasons that eluded me. The show departs a bit from the Second City norm. There is only one brief improvisation skit, a spectator pulled from the audience to sit in a barber chair and exchange unrehearsed chitchat with the barber. There are also no blackouts, those quickie comic bits that separate the longer sketches.

Otherwise, it’s business as usual, with domestic humor mingled with political satire. The satire is not really angry, and targets like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel get the show’s attention without drawing any blood. But some hot button issues do get seriously tweaked, like gun control and our society’s racial divisions.

       The ensemble is a mix of veterans Chelsea Devantez, Emily Walker, and John Hartman and newcomers Paul Jurewicz, Daniel Strauss, and Christine Tawfik. But they all work together like they have been doing Second City topical comedy for years, the chemistry just right in any combination of performers in a sketch.

           

                             Photo by Todd Rosenberg

      These sketches are all full length, sometimes self-contained playlets. The stunner of the show opens the second act, a two- hander between Walker and Jurewicz that takes place apparently in a hospital room between a husband and wife where the male character sits, initially depressed almost to the point of being catatonic. There are some good giggles in the dialogue exchange between the two, but overall the spectator witnesses a painful encounter between two people who say they love each other but can no longer connect emotionally. The effect is heartbreaking without descending into the maudlin or the manipulative and the pain of the characters is palpable. It’s the most serious sketch I can recall at Second City and it is performed with a flawless blend of sensitivity and humor.

         But for the most part the revue’s comedy trumps the serious. There is a gem of a sketch with Devantez and Strauss (who reminds me physically and stylistically of Gene Wilder) meeting with a child psychiatrist (Tawfik) seeking advice on how to handle their troublesome son. After hearing all the symptoms from the parents, the doctor issues her considered diagnosis—the boy is an a..hole. The sketch hilariously sends up both the mumbo jumbo of much child psychology and parents too permissive to provide proper guidance for their offspring.

         One of the cleverest bits of the evening features Devantez and Hartman as Robin and Batman, the caped crusader sunk in despair as a very weak superhero. Batman, in his saggy costume and despairing attitude, is a hoot as the sketch takes the audience into issues of real life violence and racial conflict while sustaining its comic underpinnings, not the least being Robin’s ostentatiously buxom  physique.

         The high risk item in the show is a one-man skit portraying Hartman delivering a Bob Newhart-like monologue into a telephone as he contacts various people he’s encountered to inform them that he’s contracted the Ebola virus and maybe the person on the other end of the phone call might want to seek medical counsel. Any revue that can get laughs out of the Ebola plague is both gutsy and very talented.

         The night’s trickiest item portrays Hartman and Jurewicz as a pair of lonesome cowboys camping under the stars and tossing oddball lines back and forth in the most solemn manner (“Did you ever want to be a 63-year old Chinese man?”). The sketch is a couple of minutes too long, yet the way the two men keep the one-joke concept buoyant for as long as they do is impressive. In another terrific two-hander, Walker and Devantez are a pair of advertising types assessing possible product campaigns aimed at women. Each one gradually gets personally and angrily involved to the point of comic hysteria.

         

                                                                            Photocredit: Todd Rosenberg

         Hartman was the star of the previous Mainstage revue and shines again, but every one of his colleagues contributes on an equally high level. The show fits their estimable comic with material that perfectly fits their performing comfort zones. Not everything works to the max, as one might expect in a show with almost two dozen skits. A scene with the three females impersonating Russian young women at a bridal gathering for one of them didn’t really go anywhere and their accents were difficult to penetrate. And the show’s finale was short and confusing when the success of all that went before it cried for a boffo finish.

         The production values are fine. Design credits belong to Kyle Anderson (lighting), Greg Mulvey (projections), and Bob Knuth (set). They combine to create a sophisticated and varied staging that is a considerable departure from the minimalist productions of earlier revues. Fortunately we still have the plain wooden chairs as links to the company’s more Spartan  visual past. Jacob Shuda is the new musical director as well as composer and sound designer. His musical accompaniment and original music are deft enhancements throughout the evening.

     Minor defects notwithstanding, triumphs dramatically as well as comically. Director Ryan Bernier has orchestrated a show that shapes nearly every sketch to its dramatic and comic strengths. Each performer contributes his or her well-defined stage personality to the mix (Jurewicz looks like the heir to such Second City stars as John Belushi and J. J. Barry as the house burly comic slob). I would have preferred more improv because this cast is verbally nimble, physically arresting, and very intelligent, and it would be a treat to watch them wing it through unscripted material.

“Panic on Cloud 9” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets began at $23. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.SecondCity.com

The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.    December 4, 2014

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Depraved New World

At the Second City Mainstage

By Dan Zeff

CHICAGOThe Second City Mainstage company has turned over two-thirds of its ensemble for its latest revue, number 102 called “Depraved New World.”  But the more the personnel changes, the more things stay the same at the improv emporium. The artistic management has gone four-for-four in its replacements with at least one player a solid bet for future stardom.

         The newcomers are individually and collectively terrific, playing with a sharp, confident, comic style that often elevates the material to a level more witty and incisive than it really is. “Depraved New World” is continuously entertaining and only upon reflection might the spectator realize that the skills of the entire cast burnish the skits and blackouts with a comic sheen that the material would lack in less creative hands.

         The current company is anchored by the two hold-overs, Tawny Newsome, who was so brilliant in the recently concluded “Let Them Eat Chaos,” and Steve Waltien, he of the rubber face and rubber body. The new names are Chelsea Devantez, John Hartman, Mike Kosinski, and Emily Walker. They all were fine on opening night, but Hartman was the performer that grabbed the spotlight.

         Hartman is a short, slender young man who could pass for a teenager. He has a riveting stage presence and his boyish appearance works for him no matter what character he portrays, from cute to abrasive. Hartman is a natural for the Second City style of skit and sketch comedy but I suspect he would be a wow in a straight play, especially a comedy. The man has all the tools.

         The new revue starts out exploring the theme of what’s really in our heads as we interact politely with the people around us. The show returns to that idea occasionally after the early scenes but there is really no narrative to the presentation. And there isn’t much political or topical satire—no Rahm Emanuel jokes, nothing about the hapless Chicago Cubs, and very little Obama referencing. There are some funny tweaks on our shaky self image as well as racial and feminist and gay attitudes. Hartman, who is white, is a hoot as a teenager who is embarrassed by looking so Caucasian while his black mother (Newsome) tries to steers him into honoring his invisible blackness in public.

         One humorous skit has Hartman and Kosinski playing a couple of gay men meeting on a first date and discovering instantly that they have nothing in common. This is a one-joke skit that rises to comic heights through the very funny interaction between the two actors.

      

  Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         The revue delivers its improvisation bits in the second act, the cast soliciting suggestions from the spectators and in one bit bringing someone up from the audience. Either the ensemble was very hot on opening night or they are enormously clever improvisers. Devantez especially flourished in bouncing comic quips off the audience invitee, who was not the most responsive of helpers, but Devantez still managed to drop one zinger after another on him, happily assisted by the droll Kosinski.

         The peak moment of the show came from Newsome. The cast asked the audience to suggest a food someone had eaten during the day and selected avocado from the shouted suggestions. Newsome then launched into a breathless tongue-twisting monologue on the healthy attributes of avocados that put one in mind of Danny Kaye firing off one of his speed-of-sound monologues. Even if Newsome’s piece was partly an all-purpose spiel that could accommodate almost any food suggestion, it was still a stunning piece of verbalization that drew the biggest ovation of the night.

         Emily Walker had the least opportunity to shine, generally restricted to emotional and very loud outbursts. She’s a large lady physically and a sketch with the diminutive Hartman is a natural comic opportunity that never happened.

         Bob Knuth’s set has a clean, modern, minimalist look. Long gone are the rear stage half doors that were a Second City signature for so many years. But the show upholds the tradition of using wooden chairs to provide the chief scenery for the sketches, occasionally augmented by Mike Tutaj’s projections. Kyle Anderson contributed some startling dramatic lighting effects. Mick Napier’s direction kept the action moving at a snappy pace and overall beautifully harnessed the cast’s abundant comic skills. Napier had the show razor sharp for opening night, no fluffs and no sags in momentum. In his first show as music director, Jesse Case was just fine at the keyboards.

        

   Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         The revamped ensemble has the potential to be one of the best Second City casts ever. All the performers have distinct personalities and they can all act. They can also sing well. This is the most musical group I can remember. The show would profit from a couple of real home run sketches, preferably on an edgy current events theme to balance out the surreal flavor of a lot of the current material. But the versatility and comic skills of the cast trump any quibbles about occasional less than A list sketches.

         “Depraved New City” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets began at $23. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.SecondCity.com

The show gets a rating of 3½  stars.

Contact Dan at    ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com        March 2014

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Let Them Eat Chaos

At the Second City Mainstage

By Dan Zeff

CHICAGOVeteran Second City patrons may notice a different look and approach to the new Mainstage revue (number 101) “Let Them Eat Chaos.” The traditional half door at the rear of the stage has been replaced by crimson drapes that mask the entrance/exit. There are elaborate projections that occasionally give the revue a New Age look, something new in the usually low tech revues. Improvisation is minimal, limited to a few suggestions solicited from the spectators to instigate an improv bit.

         More striking, the production under Matt Hovde’s seamless directing flows almost like a surrealistic dream. There is little of those customary “And now we take you to…” announcements that separate skits. The revue carries the viewer from place to place and time to time and idea to idea like it’s the most natural thing in the comic world to mock obsessive texting and then move to the Panama Canal where a dimwitted sailor is enchanted by a mythological Siren who casts droll aspersions on American foreign policy through the years. One bit starts in Vienna in 1918 where an elderly music teacher meets with his young student violinist and then segways to a black American and a white Scotsman, soldiers on a World War II battlefield.

          

                                                                                           Photo by Clayton Hauck     

         The manner may be fresh, but it’s still Second City, which means the company takes its droll satirical shots at the world around us, both from the stage and from the theater aisles. The material twits attitudes on race gender, and personal relationships (dating, marital, parental), though there isn’t much confrontation with current events and politics. This is not an angry show, but its wry humor hits one bull’s-eye after another in skewering the way we live and the way we think during the early twenty-first century.

         The spectator may feel that rap music is old hat now, but not the way Edgar Blackmon and Ross Bryant chant into their microphones. Blackmon (African American) scorches his delivery with acid comments about social injustice, racism, and the hard life in the ghetto. A few feet away, Bryant (white) complains with equal bitterness about the hassles he faces with his condominium board and his outrage at dealing with “The Hobbit” separated into three movies.

         Some of the sketches are more weird than incisive, but no less original or funny. The ensemble joins in on an extended riff on the importance of choosing a name for a newborn infant. Katie Rich exhorts singer-guitarist Tawny Newsome to give her sad songs a happier spin. Another bit puts forth the theory that the most advantaged young people are the cutest, so if you want to thrive in modern society, go for cute.

         Satirically, probably the best sketch centers on a giant futuristic computer that preserves holograms of people living in the early 2000’s. With a little help from the audience, the hologram people enunciate the points of view and thought processes that make us look pretty silly in real life. Some of the funniest lines were tossed off in passing. I don’t think I was the only spectator who missed some of these casual verbal gems because I couldn’t hear them clearly. I know it’s not part of the Second City culture, but some thought might be given to giving the performs body microphones to ensure that everyone can hear and enjoy every bon mot.

         The ensemble consists of the usual complement of three males and three females. Most are veterans of Second City (only Ross Bryant is a rookie). Each of them brings a distinct physical presence to the show and they all establish their own personalities (Holly Laurent and Steve Waltien complete the cast). Their rapport and compatibility, whether in duos or in ensemble skits, is exceptional. The show was in great shape on opening night, the tricky staging and material flowing in a natural and inevitable progression. The six performers have the potential to be one of the all-time best groups in this cabaret theater’s dazzling history.

          

                                                                                                               Photo by Clayton Hauck

         Special props go to scenic and graphic designer Bob Knuth and to projections designer Mike Tutaj for supplying the creative visual look of the show. Matt Gawryk designed the lighting and music director Julie B. Nichols is responsible for the atmospheric incidental music and also chips in with splendid and virtually continuous accompaniment on assorted musical instruments (keyboards, gong, and mandolin) from the side of the stage.

         “Let Them Eat Chaos” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $23 and $28. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.SecondCity.com.

                  The show gets a rating of 3½  stars.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.   April 2013

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