Monthly Archives: December 2011
Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker at The Auditorium Theatre
Runs December 9-27, 2011
Tickets $30-$115; Box Office (800) 982-2787; www.ticketmaster.com
Review by Darcy Rose Coussens
It may not be Joffrey’s #1 Ballet, but “America’s #1 Nutcracker” Delights All
The Joffrey Ballet’s annual production of Robert Joffrey’s The Nutcracker is well attended each year by little girls in poofy dresses and hair bows, miniature gentlemen in pressed shirts and slicked hair, and adults of all ages. Hailing theirs as “America’s #1 Nutcracker,” Joffrey provides a favorite holiday tradition for many in the Chicagoland area. This ballet is performed by many companies across the country, and yet although Joffrey’s is quite good and a grand experience overall, I’m not sure it is my #1 favorite Nutcracker. Although this theatrical ballet was extremely entertaining and at times breathtaking, there were a few flaws that surprised me from this renowned company. However, it is nonetheless an excellent performance and one I hope they will continue to offer each holiday season.
Several elements of the production were of the highest quality, as is usual for the Joffrey. The Chicago Sinfonietta accompanied the performance with Tchaikovsky’s classic score, and the larger-than-life sets and decorated costumes were extravagant. The party guests were dressed in ruffled dresses and petticoats, and brightly colored tailcoats; the mice wore shining silver masks; and Mother Ginger was an enormous walking puppet. The Nutcracker’s transition from doll to life-size soldier was very cool, and there were several exciting elements of spectacle on display throughout the show. The snow scene was absolutely beautiful with fog and snow falling, and I got chills when the Snow King and Queen made their second entrance to the sound of a children’s choir.
One reason to see the Joffrey’s Nutcracker is for the company’s high caliber dancing. The company members were outstanding overall, and Clara was absolutely darling. Her family members were cleverly weaved into the characters of her elaborate dream: her parents also performed the Snow King and Queen as well as other roles, and her brother Fritz danced other roles, as well. His dancing was some of the best in the show, and during a very impressive series of leaps and turns one little boy near me was audibly inspired. However, I questioned his casting as Fritz, Clara’s annoying brother, because his character’s youthfulness looked strange and distracting on a grown man. This ballet involves a great deal of pantomime and storytelling, and although most of the time the story was clear, there were some confusing moments. One in particular involved a child in an old-fashioned wheelchair brought to the center of the stage. Drosselmeyer, Clara’s mysterious godfather, threw magic glitter on him and I felt the audience holding their breaths; then nothing happened and the child was wheeled away, bringing the party scene from inclusive and diverse to awkward.
The choreography was elegant and exciting, but occasionally baffling. Tchaikovsky’s famous score was meant for, well, the ballet. There are several obvious musical cues that were completely ignored, and the disconnect between the music and the story was off-putting. The second act ran much more smoothly. The Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier’s pas de deux was stunning, and the Sugar Plum Fairy’s famous solo was pristine and precise. I was underwhelmed by the Cavalier’s dance, one I always look forward to for its powerful jumps, because it seemed brief and anticlimactic. Yet the Arabian dance was mesmerizing, the Spanish dancer flawless, and the Waltz of the Flowers one of the most beautiful highlights of the show. This act felt much more like a Joffrey ballet than the first.
Don’t get me wrong; overall this is an enchanting production, and the flurry of activity and focus on presents, toys, and candy is a Christmas dream for children. However, it was the children in the show I was perhaps most confused by. The children in the production did a nice job: they smiled, performed well, and looked lovely in their costumes. Five children’s choirs from the area are featured in the snow scene and perform in the lobby during intermission. Young dancers appeared as Victorian children, dolls, mice, toy soldiers, tree angels, and Polichinelles. The one thing missing was … the dancing. Of the more than one hundred children cast, only the Polichinelles in the Mother Ginger scene did any dancing. This scene was adorable, and the kids did a fantastic job. Audiences love to see children dancing, and of all productions of the Nutcracker in the area, I would expect Joffrey’s to showcase some of Chicago’s most talented children. I was extremely disappointed by the lack of choreography for the young dancers; the poor tree angels ran onstage, stood, and ran off again. I know there are many capable young dancers in the area, as is evident by the Joffrey’s claim that audition numbers for the children’s roles rose by “a double-digit percentage from last year.” The children they cast performed well, and I wish I could have seen them dance much more.
Clara and Drosselmeyer leave the land of this fairytale dream in a hot air balloon for a rather Wizard of Oz-ish but satisfying ending. As a lifelong fan of the Nutcracker, I was at times disappointed but overall content with this traditional favorite. While as a Joffrey production The Nutcracker may not be their #1 ballet, I am glad that its renown brings joy and inspiration to so many families and audiences in Chicago and beyond. I recommend this production for family entertainment, even if ballet aficionados may fixate on small flaws.
Tidings of Tap by Chicago Tap Theatre
At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Theater
Ran December 9-11, 2011
Review by Darcy Rose Coussens
Tidings of Tap celebrates the season with top-notch tapping and creative takes on holiday favorites each year
As a wonderful alternative to sentimental holiday productions, Chicago Tap Theater’s annual holiday show brings together the best carols of the season in a fun show full of truly outstanding tap dancing. Mark Yonally founded a very unique company, and his artistic direction and choreography keep each of their shows fresh and exciting. Tidings of Tap is a traditional favorite in their season, bringing back favorites such as their a cappella rendition of “Carol of the Bells” each year and appealing to Chicagoans of all ages. This family-friendly show is an energetic flurry of tap and music to get you in the holiday spirit.
This year CTT is committed to providing live music for each of their shows, something I believe adds a great deal to the performance for such a percussive art form. The band featured a keyboardist (talented composer and music director Andrew Edwards), as well as musicians playing harp, violin, bass, and clarinet. Dancers also stepped in and out of the band to sing and play guitar, and violinist Samantha O’Connell was featured tapping in some pieces, as well. It was great to have such a blend of talent, and the performance was dynamic musically as well as through the expert choreography and skilled dancers.
This show does a great job mixing up holiday carols. There are Christmas-themed pieces such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and one of my favorites, “You’re a Swingin’ One, Mr. G” which involved an interesting arrangement of “Mr. Grinch” and lots of funny expressions; Hannukah songs, including “Hannukah, Oh Hannukah” and “Kiever Dreydlekh” (Dreidels of Kiev); and just plain winter celebrations, such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Snowflake Suite.” This is a great show for all ages, and at the end everyone is welcome to join the cast on stage to perform the Shim Sham, a standard favorite for tap dancers everywhere. It was exciting for tap dancers from seniors to six-year-olds to get up and tap themselves, since the choreography was so catchy you wanted to try it yourself!
The company members are extremely personable, especially Mark, who came out to talk to the audience himself. To cover costume changes, he improvised a solo to “Christmas Time is Here,” which was as impressive as the choreographed numbers, and the two newest company members played name that tune with the audience by tapping favorite carols. Every bit of CTT’s shows are enjoyable, and they produce a varied season that includes a story-based show which will be narrated live this year by Marc Smith, creator of Poetry Slam. Their shows have a laid-back feel but the dancing is always meticulously polished and often involves unbelievably fast feet!
Tidings of Tap also featured a few outside youth performing groups on different nights. The performance I saw featured Footprints Tap Ensemble from Libertyville, and they were excellent. While the show was a bit pricey at $35 for adults, $25 for seniors, and a discounted $20 for students and dancers, I would still be willing to spend that kind of money to see some of the best tap dancing Chicago has to offer. There’s not a whole lot of it out there, and this group brings more than just good tap dancing– it brings innovative and fun themes and concepts. I appreciate the variety and spirit CTT has to offer, and considering how well its three holiday shows sold, it seems Chicago values it as well.
By Lazlo Collins
The Chicago leg of a two week tour, “A Christmas Story” – The Musical opened at the Chicago Theater last night.
Amid a late but appreciative crowd, I was holding my expectations at bay. Having seen the movie that this latest endeavor is based upon, I was not at all sure that the musical would capture the warmth and charm of the original cinematic sequences and characters.
I am happy to report that this production of “A Christmas Story” brings to life the story of Ralphie and Co. to its most full holiday splendor.
The story of one boy’s dreams of a fulfilling fire armed Christmas is brought to life in vivid staging, costumes, and characters that are now classics in the Holiday must see checklist.
The story begins with expert narration by Gene Weygandt, playing “Jean Shephard” who recollects what it was like growing up in the Parker family household. His perfect deliver of observations and sentimentality, lets the audience know they will be well cared for during their journey into the lives of the Parkers and the surrounding neighborhood characters.
The introduction of each of the Parker household is next. We meet “The Old Man” (John Bolton), “Mother” (Rachel Bay Jones), brother “Randy” (Matthew Lewis), and “Ralphie” (Clarke Hallum). To say that each plays their rolls to perfection would be an understatement. Each presents themselves and their points of view through the story with ease.
Mr. Bolton’s gives 110% every minute he is on stage, and nearly brings down the house with his “Major Awards” musings. Every leg is available and makes it into the end of this high kicking musical number. In contrast, Ms. Bay Jones’ sweet number “Just Like That” makes us yearn for our own mother’s perspective just one more time.
Mr. Lewis and Mr. Hallum show the greatest affection as brothers, and are comfortable in their fights and fits of brotherly love; but Mr. Hallum as “Ralphie” soars above the cast as he brings “Ralphie” to life. He takes us along his journey of discovery, scheming, fear, and ultimate satisfaction with a magnificent voice and expert acting chops. The moment he opens his unexpected present near the end of the show, brought a tear to my eye. His crystal clear voice and warm heart will not disappoint those diehard “Ralphie” fans from the movie. (The original Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, was in the house, and who is also one of the producers of the show)
The excellent supporting children in the show were terrific. I have not seen a show in a long time where the children were playing children, and not some idea about how children should act. Little “Grover Dill” played by John Francis Babbo made me laugh more than a few times. All their voices and harmonies were spot on. Much praise for the pint size ensemble that made me want to be a kid again.
Some supporting cast notables were Karen Mason as “Miss Shields”, Nick Gaswirth as “The Foley Artist”, and Adam Pelty as “Santa Claus”.
Ms. Mason’s evil teacher show stopping “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” is bound to be a classic and Mr. Gaswirth’s dependable, if not scene stealing, sound effects were just great; particularly, the dogs and Mrs. Schwartz. And as the motivationally challenged Santa in the number, “Up on Santa’s Lap”, Mr. Pelty delivers it message with satisfaction.
The chorus of neighbors, parents and various service people are brought to life with great vocals and exacting choreography.
The direction by John Rando, kept the show moving with performance areas to discover, and with each scene quickly unfolding for the next one.
The set design (Walt Spangler) was a pleasant and appropriate addition to the story, making sure that some key places were present for the audience. For what would “A Christmas Story” be without Higgbee’s, the flag pole or the Santa Slide, right? The lighting design (Howell Binkly) was a key component to the white snowy stage, but never detracted from the action at hand.
The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were sweet and keeping with the tone of the storytelling, and yet bringing us some memorable show stopping numbers, producing a pleasant listening experience.
With the costumes (Elizabeth Hope Clancy) just right, the characters kept us enwrapped during the performance. The show’s energy and joy kept a smile on this face, even for a few hours after the full holiday adrenaline was over.
My only complaint was much of the show was directed toward dead center, leaving some viewers on the sides “left out” of some of the scenes that appeared in the Parker house. The radio desks at stage right and left may not have been a problem in a different house.
With the inundation of holiday choices to see and relive, year after year, put “A Christmas Story” – The Musical on your nice list. I know Santa has…
By Devlyn Camp
The month of December is an incessant stream of holiday hits and Christmas carols of all shapes and sizes lasting about 24 days. Thereafter, holiday cheer is somewhat misplaced in a limbo between two major holidays. Refreshingly, BoHo Theatre has provided us with a season-friendly musical not about Santa and all the company that follows. On a lonely New Years Eve night, Matt Deitchman (on keyboard) gets a knock at the door from door-to-door light bulb salesgirl Mallory Nees (Guitar, Bass). Told by a four-piece band, the story is a somehow funny modern day depiction of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl.” Obviously, the ending is much different.
Aside from the songs based
on Anderson’s tale, there are also playful numbers about the New Years Eve parties Deitchman is avoiding. Everyone is welcome to be annoyed about the parties they’re not cool enough to get invited to, and the weird people at parties they do get to attend. Throughout the one-act, the four musicians help Matt avoid his decline into spinsterhood with great jokes, creative sound effects, and near perfect vocals. Mallory Nees is the most entertaining of them all. Quirky and outrageous, she’s got faces, voices and characters galore, all while rocking out on her accordion. They’re all a little weird and all a little more than talented, with a book, music and lyrics to match. If the lyric they boast “Screwed up people make great art” is correct, then call them crazy.
BoHo Theatre at Heartland Studio
Through January 1, 2012
Tickets $15, available at bohotheatre.com
Contact critic at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Devlyn Camp
He takes a shot, sits back on his stool and says, “I am not David Sedaris.” Mitchell Fain has returned to Theatre Wit again with The Santaland Diaries, based on the story by Sedaris. To any readers unfamiliar with the work, in the story, Sedaris explains being so hard up for cash that he once became an elf in the New York City Macy’s store. Upon joining Santaland, Sedaris learned all the ins and outs of the magical world, slave-whipping Santas, and racist mothers. In a time when most anyone understands the need for a job, we can understand the desperate measures David had to reach. Fain even points out that just down the street there’s a donut shop parking lot in which two people dressed as a donut and coffee are dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” But perhaps David had sunk even lower.
In a stand-up style form of storytelling before a red curtain, it seems to readers of the book Holidays on Ice that the original is funnier in its text form. Once Fain gets suited up for work, though, it only gets better. In a green elf suit, an unshaven beard, and a middle finger in the spotlight, Fain hits joke after joke without coming up for air. Knowing he’s at the very bottom, it’s just plain fun to criticize everyone down there with him. Explaining the disturbing behind-the-scenes world of odd department store elfin policies might sound like I’m describing some sort of Macy’s exposé, but it’s just a one-act, one-man play making fun of really dumb people. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
THE SANTALAND DIARIES
Through December 31st
Tickets $18-55, available at theaterwit.org
Contact critic at email@example.com
By Devlyn Camp
Nearly 160 years ago, a great author began telling his most famous tale aloud for live audiences every year until now. Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol, is now fed up with the annual tradition and ready to just take it easy.
This year he’s determined to just have a party with his friends. We’re all invited. He’ll greet you at the door, take your coat, offer you tea and scones and then he’ll start the party. Unfortunately for him, the Fates simply won’t allow a year to pass without his story getting dusted off. After a brief cold open-style battle with himself, he finally gives in to his classic tale and presents the title: Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Again.
Building Stage’s Artistic Director, Blake Montgomery has once again created and directed another show based on a well-known book. His previous play, Moby-Dick in its revival at Building Stage, received a Jeff Recommendation. Now Montgomery has also taken to leading his one-man show in addition to his normal duties. His Dickens character is quirky and playful, sitting with audience members and relating his novella’s spiritual horror through scary lighting and silly character voices. He pauses the reading often to provide a commentary on his words and jab at the writing with puns. For a one-man show based on an old and annual tale, Montgomery makes the story quite engaging.
Dickens clearly points out the common almost secret desire to skip dull traditions and just move on. In relating a story that originally revitalized the Christmas spirit as decorated trees and greeting cards were coming into vogue, Dickens understands that his book is now a part of those annual celebrations. Not to be forgotten, he reads through the final chapters with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come with much care and thought. On a similar journey with humbugging Scrooge, the author once again understands his meaning of tradition.
CHARLES DICKENS BEGRUDGINGLY PERFORMS…
The Building Stage
Through December 24, 2011
Tickets $22, available at buildingstage.com
Contact critic at firstname.lastname@example.org