At the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Oak Park – In 1936, a church group sponsored a motion picture aimed at warning young people about the dangers of marijuana. The film, called “Reefer Madness,” was a cheesy combination of over the top acting by Hollywood bit players and laughable production values. The film was soon forgotten until it was discovered in the Library of Congress in 1971. It went into re-release as a gag event for pot smokers and rapidly became an underground cult classic for the college midnight movie crowd.
All images are by Bob Knuth and Jerry Schulman.
In 1998, Kevin Murphy (book and lyrics) and Dan Studney (music) adapted “Reefer Madness” into a musical that has played throughout the country, in various tweaked versions. The musical is now being presented by the Circle Theatre and it is an absolute hoot.
“Reefer Madness” tells the cautionary tale of how marijuana smoking led wholesome teenager Jimmy Harper into a spiral of degradation that led to the death of his sweetheart Mary Lane and landed him in the electric chair for murder. Fortunately for him, he was saved at the last moment through the intervention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The production is the most ambitious I’ve seen at the Circle. There is a large cast of 15 mostly young people, seven principals and a chorus of four males and four females. They triumphantly deliver a plot that is pure nonsense and characters no better than cartoons. What keeps the show afloat is the Circle’s high-motor ensemble who throw themselves gleefully into one production number after another created by Brigitte Ditmars, who instantly has catapulted herself onto the A list of Chicagoland choreographers. Ditmars shares the evening’s honors with director Matthew Gunnels, who deftly balances the show’s silliness with its droll wit and sight gags. His production is wild but under control. The performers obviously recognize they are in a preposterous show but they play it straight, no patronizing and no condescension to the inanities of the story.
The narrative starts out in 1938 as a show within a show, with a grim lecturer standing at a podium in a high school gymnasium. He’s there to warn a PTA audience that marijuana smoking threatens the youth of America and steps must be taken, or our society is doomed.
The story then morphs into the tale of high schoolers Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane. Harper is lured into a marijuana den by a pusher named Jack. There he reluctantly accepts a marijuana cigarette, and after one puff he’s a goner. The rest of the story recounts his descent into a doper’s hell. Jack and his minions represent the evils of pot at their most extravagant, portrayed in phantasmagorical dance numbers and some hilarious gross out scenes that demonstrate just how low marijuana can bring a human being.
. “Reefer Madness” has some of the “what next?” weirdness of “The Rocky Horror Show,” without the raunchiness (the Circle production states there is some partial nudity but it amounts to nothing more than a few glimpses of Jimmy Harper’s backside). Much of the show is intentionally corny, but there are some inspired hip moments, notably the introduction of a very mod Jesus who jives with the characters, and the audience in comic bits that nimbly fall just short of crossing the line marked “warning: offensive to religious sensibilities.” Periodically a chorus girl enters the stage displaying moralizing placards carrying slogans that stress the pitfalls of marijuana
Most of the performers play multiple roles, none more effective than Jason Grimm, who plays the lecturer and an abundance of subsidiary characters. Why haven’t we seen him on the area’s more high profile stages?
A college student named Ryan Stajmiger plays Jimmy like a young Robert Morse. Stajmiger doesn’t have much of an acting resume, according to the playbill, but he is the real deal as lad who plummets from wide-eyed innocence to a human ruin. He’s on stage nearly the entire show and he nails his role, whether he’s acting, singing, or dancing. As Mary Lane, Landree Fleming is just right as Jimmy’s sweet young thing, and the show’s best dancer.
Eric Lindahl is a show stealer as the super cool Jesus and does convincing work as the suave Jack, the nasty drug pusher who leads Jimmy down the path to destruction. Liz Bollar has the show’s best singing voice as the pusher’s moll. Tommy Bullington is the production’s comic as the pusher’s weed-crazed sidekick and Elissa Newcorn throws herself into the role of a depraved pot smoker in the pusher’s entourage with commendable enthusiasm.
All images are by Bob Knuth and Jerry Schulman.
The chorus pops in and out the action with countless costume changes and limitless stamina. They all deserve to be named—Bobby Arnold, Julia Beck, Kyle Kuhlman, Melody Latham, Joshua Peterson, Gina Sparacino, Neil Stratman, and Stephanie Wohar.
The production values are top drawer for a theater with the limited resources of the Circle. Peter O’Neill designed the clever all-purpose two-level set. John Nasca designed the wardrobe of faux 1930’s costumes. Gary Echelmeyer designed the lighting and Matt Gajowniczek the sound. And props to Brian Powers for adding to the hilarity with his puppet design and Talon Bunn for the placard design. The off stage orchestra led by musical director John Landvick was the best I have ever heard at the Circle.
The show does end on an upbeat note featuring Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, and George Washington. The ensemble ends the evening singing
“And once the reefer has been destroyed
We’ll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud
And sex depicted on celluloid
And communists and queens!”
The lecturer closing with the right wing peroration
“When danger’s near
Exploit their fear—
The end will justify the means!”
“Reefer Madness” may be the surprise hit of the season. A show that could have been a nudge-nudge-wink-wink exercise in low comedy absurdity turns into two hours of creative, high spirited entertainment, as impressive and amusing a presentation as I’ve ever seen at this theater.
“Reefer Madness” runs through August 26 at the Circle Theatre, 1010 West Madison Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $26 and $30. Call 708 660 9540 or visit www.circle-theatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars. July 2012
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The Baker’s Wife
At the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Oak Park – “The Baker’s Wife” never made it to Broadway. The musical folded in Washington. D.C. in 1976 before reaching New York City but has since gained something of a cult status in both the United States and England. Area audiences now have the opportunity to see for themselves if the Stephen Schwartz show is an underappreciated gem of American musical theater.
The Circle Theatre is reviving “The Baker’s Wife” and on the evidence of this production, the musical can lay claim to a certain modest whimsy, but otherwise it’s mainly for the cultists and Stephen Schwartz idolaters.
“The Baker’s Wife” is based on a famous 1938 French film, one of those movies from France in the 1930’s that romanticized, and patronized, rural France and French peasants. The story is simple to a fault. The only baker in a Provencal village has died in a freak accident and the villagers are in a state of panic. They need their bread like a drug addict needs his fix. Finally, a new baker comes to town, a portly middle-aged man with a pretty young wife. The man makes superb bread and rolls and the village is once again content.
A crisis develops when a local young buck sweeps the baker’s pretty wife off her feet. Their hormones pulsating, the couple runs away to another town, leaving the baker distraught and what’s worse for the village, he stops baking. To restore normalcy to the village’s culinary life, the locals decide to bring the wife back. She does return, ashamed that she betrayed her trusting husband. But he welcomes her with no hard feelings and everyone in town is happy. The baker’s marriage is restored and the villagers once again have their delicious croissants, brioches, and loaves of crusty bread.
“The Baker’s Wife” has to charm the audience or it doesn’t work. The musical, like the motion picture, relies on a cluster of comic types—a bickering husband and wife, feuding neighbors, the mayor who keeps a stable of three toothsome “nieces.” There is much humorous bickering among the characters that the audience is supposed to find endearing. A French audience likely would appreciate the nostalgic element in the story, a flash back to a more innocent time when rural France represented the sturdy values of the country’s culture, like “The Music Man” recreated a never-never land of small town American life at the turn of the last century.
Schwartz’s score is decent but there are only a couple of first-rate numbers, the baker’s plaintive “If I Have to Live Alone” and especially the young wife’s stirring “Meadowlark,” one of the best songs Schwartz ever composed.
Even a top-of-the-line presentation would have problems stretching the thin story over a full evening and this one runs an excessive 2 hours and 20 minutes. The Circle revival is well served in key major roles but there are 18 people in the show and the supporting performers are an uneven lot. The talent pool for the production just isn’t deep enough to flesh out so many distinctive characters. Many of the male players are too young for their parts and mostly look and sound the same. As a result, the production doesn’t give Joseph Stein’s book a fair shake.
Khaki Pixley sings well as Genevieve, the baker’s wife, and her rendition of “Meadowlark” is a highlight of the production. But the character lacks depth and Genevieve’s erotic capitulation to the local young man is too abrupt.
The staging does profit from a solid performance by Chuck Sisson as the baker. Sisson is physically right for the role with his generous stomach and nice conveys the baker’s guileless personality. We feel the baker’s pain and confusion when his wife runs off and his joy and acceptance when she returns. There are nice contributions from Anita Hoffman as a cynical wife and Kirk Swenk as the droll, worldly mayor with the three “nieces.” Steve Greist does a fine comic turn as a young villager with a strong Gene Wilder streak in him.
The four-musician band under Gary Powell’s direction provides excellent accompaniment. Bob Knuth’s set functionally shifts between the outdoor village square and the interior of the baker’s two-story house. Amy Hilber designed the period costumes. Gary C. Echelmeyer designed the lighting and Matt Gajowniczek the sound. Kevin Bellie is the director and created the show’s few bits of choreography.
“The Baker’s Wife” runs through January 22 at the Circle Theatre, 1010 Madison Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $24 and $28. Call 708 660 9540 or visit www.circle-theatre.org.
The show gets a rating of 21/2 stars.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Dan on Facebook. November 2011
At the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Oak Park –“Urinetown” was the most unlikely Broadway hit of 2001. Indeed, the musical is the most improbable success of the new millennium. To begin with, the title of the show isn’t quite as inviting as “My Fair Lady,” and any score that includes a number called “It’s a Privilege to Pee” is asking much from a prospective ticket buyer.
So “Urinetown” is unconventional, but fortunately it’s also funny and hip, with a cheeky attitude that’s irresistible. It also has a very urban sensibility, which does not make it an obvious choice for suburban, and presumably conservative, audiences. The Circle Theatre is reviving the musical, a calculated risk that pays off big time with an inventive and bouncy production that should put a perpetual smile on the audience’s collective face, especially for those patrons who enjoy clever inside jokes about the musical theater.
The “Urinetown” plot isn’t exactly your standard boy-meets-girl Broadway storyline. A 20-year drought has afflicted a big city, unnamed but very New York-ish. As water supplies have diminished, private toilets have dried up. Citizens are forced to use “public amenities” to relieve themselves, those amenities being monopolized by a greedy corporation that charges a fee to allow residents in need to use their facilities (as described in the “It’s a Privilege to Pee” number). Finally, the people revolt against the brutal and avaricious corporation, the revolution led by a young idealist named Bobby Strong. Along the way, Bobby falls in love with Hope Cladwell, the daughter of corporation head Caldwell B. Cladwell, providing some delightful class conflict.
The Circle Theatre production is very much in the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weil mode, visually and musically and thematically. In the Brechtian spirit, the establishment is venal and corrupt and the proletariat is the composite hero. Not that “Urinetown” is a musical essay in left wing politics. The show is more a self-referential satire on the musical theater. The production numbers gleefully send up “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Les Miserables,” the choreography of Bob Fosse, and doubtless a bunch of other show business targets that whizzed by me.
The dialogue often steps out of character, as when the narrator at the beginning of the evening greets the audience with “Well, hello here and welcome to Urinetown. Not the place, of course. The musical.” Or at the end of the show when a waif named Little Sally predicts, “I don’t think too many people are going to come and see this musical.” To which the narrator replies, “Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?”
The marvel of “Urinetown” is what it isn’t. It isn’t a continuous exercise in bathroom humor and it isn’t a smug string of in-jokes aimed at musical theater know-it-alls. The show’s satire is witty and spot-on. Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis have created an upbeat show, even though most of the characters are dead by the final blackout.
“Urinetown” is not a foolproof vehicle. I saw a professional staging several years ago at the Mercury Theater in Chicago that was uninspiring, almost totally lacking in the buoyancy that makes this show such a treat. Kevin Bellie’s directing and especially his choreography earn very high marks for sustaining the breezy flavor of the book and score with nary a self-conscious moment to mar the fun.
The large ensemble is filled with exuberant men and women who perform in multiple roles, changing costumes in what must have been controlled chaos backstage.
Which brings me to Laura Savage.
Savage plays Hope Gladwell, the kewpie doll daughter of the venomous corporation boss. About two minutes after Savage first appears, the spectators know they are watching a special performer, a Bernadette Peters in the making. Savage can sing and dance and act and she has a terrific stage presence. I never took my eyes off her while she was on stage and I marveled at all the little touches she brought to her role, even when the action was focused elsewhere. Watch her manipulate a teddy bear while she is tied to a chair and gagged during the “Snuff That Girl” number. She couldn’t move or speak but her facial expression and eyes gave a wonderful comic performance. If Savage isn’t featured soon in a Marriott or Drury Lane musical there is no casting justice in Chicagoland theater.
Savage’s 16 colleagues in the ensemble are never less than good. Brooke Sherrod Jaeky delivers a gem of a comic performance as Little Sally, abetted by Clay Sanderson as narrator Officer Lockstock, one of the corporation’s thuggish security men. Creg Sclavi is a properly boyish and openhearted Bobby Strong and Kirk Swenk is very good as the villainous Caldwell B. Gladwell. But everyone pulls together on stage to create a droll and winning presentation.
The four-piece offstage band consisting of piano (music director Peter Storms), percussion (Dolan McMillan), reeds (Lara Regan), and brass (Travis Cook) produce some fine accompaniment, sounding fuller than their small number. Occasionally they drowned out the singers, a balance problem that shouldn’t be difficult to resolve.
Costume designer Jesus Perez is another hero of the event with his flavorful wardrobe of rag tag outfits. Bob Knuth’s all-purpose bi-level set and Gary Echelmeyer’s lighting round out a top-notch physical production.
“Urinetown” runs through October 23 at the Circle Theatre, 1010 Madison Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $22 and $26. Call 708 660 9540 or visit www.circle-theatre.org.
The show gets a rating of 3 ½ stars.
Dan at email@example.com Sept. 2011
The Man Who Came to Dinner
At the Circle Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Oak Park – “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is the funniest play in American drama. There may be a few votes for “The Odd Couple” or “The Front Page,” but the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart masterpiece stands above them all for its mix of great comic dialogue, exhilarating characters, and clever plotting.
Not many theaters attempt “Dinner” these days. The production requires a large cast anchored by a terrific performance in the lead role. Plus, the play is firmly rooted in its 1939 environment, which may be too distant for today’s playgoers, at least in the minds of modern theater producers.
“The Man Who Came to Dinner” was inspired by Alexander Woollcott, a popular American critic and lecturer in the 1930’s and 1940’s but little remembered today. Woollcott was known for his waspish wit, transferred by Kaufman and Hart to the character of Sheridan Whiteside, an overbearing, insufferable, obnoxious tyrant who is also one of America’s most beloved celebrities.
On a lecture tour that takes Whiteside to a small Ohio town, the great man slips on some ice on the doorstep of his hosts, the Stanley family, and injures his hip. From his wheelchair, Whiteside takes over the Stanley home, meddling in their lives and tossing scurrilous insults like confetti at everyone within hearing range.
For audiences who relish insult humor and razor-sharp wisecracks, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a non-stop feast. Consider this exchange between Whiteside and Miss Preen, his nurse, about Whiteside’s sweet tooth:
“Oh, my! You mustn’t eat candy, Mr. Whiteside. It’s very bad for you.”
“My great-aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be a hundred and two, and when she had been dead three days she looked better than you do now.”
Circle Theatre is reviving “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in a production that
starts slowly but builds nicely. The reliable Jon Steinhagen is cast as
Sheridan Whiteside. In the first act Steinhagen rushed his lines, at least on
opening night. Whiteside should wear his bad manners like a badge of honor,
uttering his insults with relish, not velocity. Pace is especially in the early
minutes when the audience is getting a handle on the man’s ferociously comic
But as the production moved along, Steinhagen got more comfortable in his role, abetted by a strong set of supporting performances. The Circle staging uses 16 actors, several playing multiple roles. The cast is especially rich in its female performers, which bodes well for the Circle’s summer revival of “The Women,” another American classic of bitchy comedy.
The women who adorn the production include Kieren Welsh-Phillips as Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s savvy personal secretary; Kate Kisner as Nurse Preen; Brooke Sherrod Jaeky as a weird old woman who lives upstairs in the Stanley home; and best of all, Heather Townsend as Lorraine Sheldon, a man-eating sexpot actress. Townsend may be responsible for the most extravagantly funny performance on any area stage this season.
Among the males on stage, Jerry Bloom does splendid triple duty, first as a famous expert on insects; then as Beverly Carlton, an urbane Englishman modeled on Noel Coward; and finally as the madcap Banjo, conceived by Kaufman and Hart as a send-up of Harpo Marx but transferred to Groucho Marx in the Circle production to enormous comic effect. Danny Pancratz is solid as Bert Jefferson, a local journalist whose romance with Maggie Cutler generates much of the plot and humor the second half of the play. However, the depth of the entire ensemble is impressive, with nobody less than adequate and most performers considerably better than that.
The Circle show, under Mary Redmon‘s sharp comic directing, wisely refuses to tamper with the story’s period quality. Whiteside knew everyone of note back in 1939 and the name dropping is incessant. Many of the names are still familiar, but others, like Dr. Dafoe and Samuel J. Liebowitz, will draw a blank for most spectators. No matter. The plethora of in-jokes enriches the comedy, even if many historical references are a little arcane today.
The Circle is presenting the show in its handsome new theater, a vastly upgraded facility from its old digs a few blocks west on Madison Street. The new space permits a fine detailed set designed by Bob Knuth, complemented by Gary C. Echelmeyer‘s lighting. Elizabeth Wislar designed the period wardrobe and Peter J. Storms the sound. The new theater also offers enhanced restroom accommodations for men and women, though I sort of missed the charm of the unisex facilities in the old theater.
“The Man Who Came to Dinner” runs through April 3 at the Circle Theatre, 1010 Madison Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $24. Call 708 771 0700 or visit www.circle-theatre.org.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. February 2011
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The Analytical Engine
At the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
FOREST PARK—Lady Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the English poet Lord Byron and a skilled mathematician and a pioneer in the development of the modern computer. Lady Ada died young, age 37, in 1852, but lives again as a real life character injected into in Jon Steinhagen’s quirky new fictional comedy “The Analytical Engine” at the Circle Theatre.
Steinhagen doesn’t introduce Lady Ada until the play is well underway, which is unfortunate because she provides an urbane and intelligent presence, qualities notably lacking in the comedy’s other characters. Indeed, the Englishwoman seems to have wandered into “The Analytical Engine” from another play, possibly a British comedy of manners. But then Denita Linnertz, who plays Lady Ada, was one of the chief ornaments in the Circle’s memorable revival of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” a comedy of manners if ever there was one.
Subtract Ada Lovelace from the play and we have a mildly humorous romantic comedy in which a pair of sisters pair off with a pair of local men after the customary misunderstandings and bickering.
The analytical engine of the title is a large contraption built by Hippolyta Powell, a brainy and scatterbrained young woman who lives with her feisty sister Marigold and her widowed mother Virginia in the family home in Chester, Conn. The year is 1850. Virginia Powell hovers over her two willful daughters, outwardly a dithering loose canon but really crazy like a fox.
Hippolyta built her engine specifically to identify a suitable mate, gathering information on the eligible men of the town and feeding the facts into the engine with punch cards. The results dismay Hippolyta by fingering a man she cares nothing for. But the engine’s feedback is scientific and thus must be obeyed. Lady Ada, having heard about the computer, travels from England to see this marvel for herself.
The males in the play consist of a mild mannered middle-aged lawyer named Eppa Morton and a more dashing and younger man named Nathaniel Swade. For most of the play Eppa and Nathaniel fuss with Hippolyta and Marigold until they sort out the proper pairings, concluding with a set of happy endings that the audience could have been predicted a quarter of the way through the evening.
A handful of witty lines aside, “The Analytical Engine” is a
comedy of modest accomplishments. But the Circle production does profit from a
set of agreeable performances, led by the aforementioned Denita Linnertz, who
really does belong in another classic British comedy, if not at the Circle then
somewhere in Chicagoland.
Mary Redmon is funny as the mother who’s a savvy and shrewd woman for all her flakey exterior. Catherine Ferraro is a fetching Marigold and Patricia Austin, a short stocky young woman physically untypical of a romantic heroine, is an exuberant Hippolyta.
Steinhagen takes the role of Eppa Morton and proves a more affecting comic actor than comic playwright. Eric Lindahl rounds out the cast as Nathaniel, a confusing character who may be a womanizer, a fortune hunter, and/or a proper husband for one of the Powell sisters. The playwright isn’t quite clear on the matter.
Possibly “The Analytical Engine” is intended as a spoof of modern computer dating services, a fairly small and obvious target for lampooning. In any case, the play (which won the 2009 Julie Harris Playwright Award) may not score very highly as satire, but it does allow us to rejoice in Denita Linnertz’s performance as well as the antics of a gaggle of silly but generally endearing lovebirds and a crafty, dotty mother.
Director Bob Knuth keeps this bauble appropriately light. The production profits from a historically detailed and convincing 1850 parlor set designed by Knuth (who is also the lighting designer). Elizabeth Wislar designed the costumes, including a bizarre fabric-heavy wardrobe for Marigold Powell. Peter J. Storms composed the original music and sound design.
“The Analytical Engine” runs through March 28 at the Circle Theatre, 7300 West Madison Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 708 771 0700 or visit www.circle-theater.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. February 2010
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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
At the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
FOREST PARK—Let’s announce the good news up front. The Circle Theatre revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is terrific. Fans of Tennessee Williams and his overheated world of sexual and emotional trauma must see this production.
This isn’t the first time the Circle has hit a home run with a revival of a classic. Its staging of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” still glows in the memory. Somehow this enterprising little suburban company finds performers with modest resumes on the Chicagoland theater scene and turns them into stars, at least for one production.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” takes us deep into Tennessee Williams country, geographically and psychologically. The setting is the Mississippi plantation of Big Daddy Pollitt, the millionaire owner of 28,000 acres of prime farming land and a few million dollars in stocks and bonds. He presides over a dysfunctional family that consists of his wife Big Mamma, his older son Brick, Brick’s wife Maggie, younger son Gooper, and Gooper’s perennially pregnant wife Mae.
Tensions are running high in the Pollitt household. Big Daddy is dying of cancer but doesn’t know it yet. Brick is a self-destructive alcoholic who tries to find oblivion in the liquor bottle to obliterate memories of his complicity in the death of his best friend Skipper years ago. Maggie ferociously tries to rescue her marriage from Brick’s alcoholic hostility and sexual indifference. Meanwhile, Gooper and Mae (and their hateful passel of children) circle around Big Daddy, trying to position themselves for a big chunk of the old man’s inheritance after he dies.
The first act belongs to Maggie, who performs a virtual monologue directed at her husband as he quietly tosses down one drink after another, seeking the “click” that releases him from the spiritual pain going back to Skipper’s death. She loves Brick and she loves her status as the member of a wealthy family after suffering as a poor relation all her life. She won’t give up husband or the family money without a fight. Maggie calls herself Maggie the Cat for a reason.
The second act is a dialogue between Brick and the volcanic Big Daddy. During a long and increasingly volatile exchange, Brick finally reveals the root of his search for alcoholic oblivion. Skipper had a homosexual attachment for Brick that came to a head when Skipper tried to make love to Maggie to prove his manhood and failed, later confessing his attachment to Brick in a drunken phone call. Brick hung up on him, leading to Skipper’s descent into the drugs and booze that killed him. Brick has been on a guilt trip of self loathing and disgust ever since.
Two separate third acts exist for the play. The first is Williams’ preferred final act and the other is the one inspired by input from director Elia Kazan that became the one used in the 1955 Broadway production (which won the Pulitzer Prize). The Circle staging uses the Williams original and it works wonderfully. It provides no false happy ending but there is an intensely erotic final moment that suggests better days may be ahead for Maggie and Brick.
The Circle revival heightens the play’s language with four letter words that add edge to the dialogue but were defanged with clumsy synonyms in the original script, probably out of regard for audience sensibilities in the mid 1950’s.
Five minutes into the first act, I knew something special was happening on the Circle stage. It was clear that Kimberley Logan was going to be magnificent as Maggie, exploring and exploiting the character ‘s passion, calculation, desperation, and sexual hunger. Michael Borgmann’s Brick evokes a chilling portrait of a man eager to cut himself off from all human feeling, often with nothing more than blank stares and still body language.
Jim Farrell takes over the stage in the second act as the coarse but street smart Big Daddy, relentlessly interrogating Brick for the source of the young man’s self hatred. And there is exceptional work from Deanna Norman as the comic and pathetic Big Mamma, refusing to accept that her 40-year marriage to Big Daddy has been a sham, no matter how much the man bullies and shames her.
There are fine complementary performances by Justin Cagney as Gooper, a grasping and venal man bitter over a lifetime of second-class treatment from his Brick-loving parents. K. D. O’Hair nicely plays the bitchy Mae who shares her husband’s scorn and resentment of the drunken Brick and the sexually abandoned Maggie. There are good cameos by Peter Esposito as a preacher seeking gifts from Big Daddy and Brad Davidson as the doctor who brings the family the bad news about Big Daddy’s cancer.
The hero of the production may be director Jim Schneider, who orchestrates the production for maximum emotional, psychological, and occasionally comic impact. I have never seen the key characters in this drama so sharply and insightfully etched. His choice of the original third act cements the evening’s triumph.
The show profits from Bob Knuth’s detailed bedroom and balcony set that fits snugly onto the small Circle stage. Knuth is also responsible for the atmospheric lighting. Suzanne Mann designed the period costumes and Peter J. Storms designed the sound.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a great play but it isn’t foolproof. The first two acts can bog down in talk in performances by lesser actors guided by a lesser director. But the Circle production maintains perfect dramatic pitch throughout the evening. The revival sets a very high bar for straight plays yet to come in Chicagoland this season.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” runs through October 4 at the Circle Theatre, 7300 West Madison Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., with additional Thursday performances beginning in September. Tickets are $20 and $24. Call 708 771 0700 or visit www.circle-theatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars. August 2009
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Perfect Wedding
At the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
FOREST PARK—Talk about a challenging play! Charles Mee’s “A Perfect Wedding” requires a cast of 20, all playing significant roles. A mud fight on stage concludes the first act and there is a long Bollywood dance number near the end of the second act that involves the entire ensemble. By the end of the play, Mee has sliced and diced attitudes toward love and marriage, ending up with three weddings, man-woman, man-man, and woman-woman.
Mee is one of American drama’s most personal dramatists. From time to time, one of his plays pops up in a Chicagoland production, always idiosyncratic and always theatrical. But they all make considerable demands on a theater’s resources, technically and dramatically. If the production works, the audience is treated to an evening of fresh, stimulating, often humorous verbal and visual theater.
The Circle Theatre is presenting “A Perfect Wedding,” and the production works. Does it ever!
“A Perfect Wedding” contains echoes of all sorts of literary sources, notably Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There is also an extended portion involving two gravediggers that echoes “Hamlet.”
The action takes place in a forest, the location otherwise unspecified. Family and friends gather to witness the wedding of Amadou and Meridee. But their nuptials are only a launching pad for a series of mini debates and monologues exploring the positives and negatives of marriage, with the nay sayers initially getting the upper hand, especially in the outspoken contributions by Meridee’s sister Tessa, who considers marriage an instrument of oppression and a vehicle for hypocrisy. The characters also detour into pro and con exchanges about nature versus civilization.
As the play progresses, the audience meets a Catholic priest come to attend the festivities as a guest, four gay wedding planners, the mother and father of the groom (apparently African and Caribbean respectively) and those gravediggers. The mother of the bride is living openly with a French lover named Francois while her husband Frank enjoys an openly gay relationship with Edmund, all in the same house. Multi-culturalism is the password in this show.
The second act switches gears from the lively verbal exchanges of the first act. An off stage character arrives in a coffin, the recent victim of a heart attack. She was Frank’s mother, who is prostrate with misery at the news of the woman’s death. The delivery of the deceased triggers an extended ceremony of mourning, starting with a communal recognition of death and loss, escalating into mass hysteria, and ending with Amadou’s mother quietly singing a spiritual. Then the play returns to the business of sorting out the lovers and their various gender preferences.
Mee’s dialogue has the sheen of a comedy of manners. Much of the conversation is pungent, and some of it is mostly lyrical noise that washes over the audience’s ears. Everyone has an opinion about love and marriage and many of the characters love at cross-purposes. Three couples end up happily at the altar while one disappointed lover slumps grief stricken at the side of the stage, excluded from the general good cheer.
As the play winds down, the Bollywood dance number takes over, with the characters all wearing bits of colorful Asian apparel. As choreographed by Kevin Bellie, the dance is a total joy to watch and provides about 10 of the most pleasurable minutes currently available on any Chicagoland stage.
“A Perfect Wedding” isn’t perfect. It runs on a little too long and its disquisitions on love and marriage occasionally get a little opaque, not to say pretentious. One gets the feeling that Mee sometimes falls in love with his own writing and can’t bear to take a blue pencil to a few of his more purple passages. Still, better to have too much verbal richness than too little.
The hero of the evening is director Joanie Schultz, who has done an astounding job of shaping each of the 20 characters into a distinct individual and keeping the elaborate threads of the meandering narrative clear and entertaining from the opening scene to the final blackout. Even the curtain call is affecting and creative.
I looked through the playbill to single out a handful of performers for special praise. It was futile. The Circle miraculously has found 20 actors who fit their roles to near perfection. The skill of this ensemble is just another testimony to the depth of the acting pool in area theater. So they all deserve mention: Andy Baldeschwiler (the priest), Steve Camara and Blake Williams (the gravediggers), Kate Cares (Tessa), Chris Daley and Jackson Evans and Shawn Quinlan and John Taflan (the gay wedding planners), James Fouhey (Amadou), Toni Lynice Fountain (Amadou’s mother), Brian Kilborn (Edmund), Pat King (the heartbroken lover James), Ramon Madrid (Amadou’s brother), Tom McGrath and Darci Nalepa (members of the wedding party), Brian Rabinowitz (Francois), Stephanie Sullivan (Meridee), Dan Taube (Frank), D’wayne Taylor (Amadou’s father), and Kelli Walker (Meridee’s mother).
Bob Knuth designed the gossamer hangings that symbolize the fantastical forest. Jessica Kuehnau designed the costumes, Lee Keenan the lighting, and Stephen Ptacek the sound. All their contributions are invaluable. And the creators of that mud fight at the end of the first act deserve a special gold star.
“A Perfect Wedding” runs through May 3 at the Circle Theatre, 7300 West Madison. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20. and $24. Call 708 771 0700 or visit www.circle-theatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
At the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
FOREST PARK—“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was a hit musical at the end of the 1949 Broadway season, but the show has fallen into the dustbin of American musical theater, rarely revived and chiefly remembered as the vehicle that certified Carol Channing as a Broadway star. Indeed, the 1953 movie adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is more fondly remembered than the stage original.
The Circle Theatre is making an ambitious, almost heroic,
attempt at reviving “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” The production has many good
points, especially when the dancing occupies the stage, but it’s clear why the
musical hasn’t attracted the interest of many theaters in recent years.
The plot is based on the 1925 Anita Loos novel about a pair of flappers named Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw during the Roaring Twenties. The original musical retained the flavor of the 1920’s and also the inanity of the musicals of that decade. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” opened the same year as “South Pacific” and comparisons between the two would be like comparing a dinosaur to a Mercedes Benz.
Jule Styne and Leo Robin composed a score that is always serviceable and contributes two numbers to the musical comedy pantheon—“Bye Bye Baby” and, of course, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Numbers like “A Little Girl from Little Rock” and “When Love Goes Wrong” also still hold the stage nicely.
The book by Loos and Joseph Fields will be tolerable primarily for those spectators with a large tolerance for unapologetic silliness. The action takes place variously on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, in Paris, and in New York City. The core characters, Lorelei Lee and her friend Dorothy Shaw, are on the make for rich husbands. Their beaus end up being a pair of cartoon swains named Gus Esmond (who Lorelei keeps calling Daddy) and Henry Spofford.
Esmond is associated with a button-making empire and Spofford is into a new invention called zippers. The conflict between the two passes for storyline tension, along with a hassle over a diamond tiara. There is a dithering English aristocrat, Frenchmen who speak with horrific French accents in Paris, and sundry other cornball and two-dimensional characters.
The Circle Theatre revival, under Kevin Bellie’s enterprising directing, goes to the max on energy and enthusiasm. No fewer than 20 performers make up the ensemble and most of them are on stage for the big dance numbers, an impressive logistical accomplishment achieved by Bellie as choreographer within the intimate Circle playing area.
The dancing is the production’s strength from first to last. The show isn’t very well sung, except for Jeremy Myers as the aw shucks Henry Spofford, the lad who wins the man hungry Dorothy Shaw as a bride. Whether Henry is macho enough to hold Dorothy in lawful wedlock could be the subject of another show, either a farce or a tragedy.
Fortunately, there are those all-out dance numbers, a couple of them set in Paris, that win the audience’s heart with the high spirits of the performers and Bellie’s Roaring Twenties-flavored dance steps. The production also benefits from a deep pockets costume budget, allowing costume designer Jesus Perez to outfit the cast in an enormous wardrobe of 1920’s outfits. The tiny orchestra of a trumpet, reed player, two percussionists, and a bass player manage to produce a remarkably full sound under Allison Kane’s direction. Bob Knuth designed the minimal set and witty graphics and John Horan designed the lighting.
It is difficult to assess the success of the cast because their characters are silly cardboard cutouts. Rachel Quinn certainly looks the part of Lorelei, a platinum blonde with a Betty Boop personality. Quinn also designed the makeup and hair, no mean feat in a show that wallows in flapper style wigs.
A production with better vocalizing would display the “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” merits more fully, but the Circle revival still displays the show’s positives to an impressive degree. If there are fans of the musical out there, they better hustle down to the Circle Theatre. No other company in Chicagoland appears interested.
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” runs through February 1 at the Circle Theatre,7300 West Madison Street.
Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $26. Call 708 771 0700 or visit www.circle-theater.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. November 2008
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Escanaba in Love
at the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
FOREST PARK—“Escanaba in Love” is a prequel to “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” both written by Jeff Daniels. I missed “Escanaba in da Moonlight” when it ran at the Circle Theatre in 2006. If that show was as entertaining as “Escanaba in Love,” the omission was my loss.
Both plays deal with the Soady family, a family of good old
boys who live the outdoor life in Michigan’s UP (Upper Peninsula). The 2006
play takes place in 1984. The prequel happens in November 1944, in the middle
of World War II. All the action takes place in a deer lodge, a for-men-only
cabin where the Soady males gather each year to hunt deer, bond, and bicker.
In “Escanaba in Love,” the first two men we meet are Grandpa Alphonse Soady, a grouchy old codger in the play primarily as comic relief, and his grandson Albert Soady Sr., the middle-aged patriarch of the clan. Salty Jim Nagamanee barges in as an eccentric and irritating visitor, a man careening around the cabin in physical distortion from a broken neck suffered several years early, presuming in a boating accident.
After several minutes of comic byplay, 18-year old Albert Soady Jr. enters the cabin fresh from enlisting in the army and eager to fight for his country. But Albert Jr. has one big surprise his family before he leaves in the morning for basic training.
For the first half of the opening act I thought the play was in trouble. It seemed the audience was doomed to endure an evening of the doofus antics of this cluster of rustics, a kind of Midwestern “Hee Haw.” Then young Albert’s surprise explodes into the lodge in the person of Big Betty Baloo. Big Betty is a roughhouse tornado of a woman who met and married the virginal young Albert that very evening.
The rest of the play is mostly a confrontation between Big Betty and the three older men folk, especially Albert Sr., who disapproves of any woman’s presence in the deer lodge and especially his son’s whirlwind marriage to a female who wears her coarse promiscuity without shame.
The play’s second act is a mixture of charm, humor, and drama. The characters stop acting like caricatures and become human beings with complex feelings. There is even a dark few minutes that rely on a coincidence which repeals all laws of probability. It’s a tribute to the playwright’s skill that this stark interlude doesn’t knock the play off its comic pins. The end of the play is warm, poignant, and entirely satisfactory.
Jeff Daniels tells his story in an economical 90 minutes, including one intermission. Burt he manages to touch a lot of theatrical bases during that short time, ranging from farce to heartbreak. He is assisted by a crackerjack cast at the Circle Theatre, led by Tucker Curtis as the burly Albert Soady Sr. and Simone Roos as the feisty Big Betty (her well earned nickname is explained in the play).
Supporting Curtis and Roos in fine style is Bradford R. Lund as Albert Jr., looking a little old to be a teenager but acting his role to a turn. Jason Boat is the crusty Alphonse and Timothy C. Amos deserves special commendation for sustaining his corkscrew physical gyrations as the crippled Salty Jim throughout the evening.
The deer lodge is a sixth character in the play in Bob Knuth’s marvelously detailed interior set. Chris Arnold directs with a shrewd eye for the play’s shifting moods, from low comedy to yearning and raw emotion. Chelsea Lynn designed the lighting and Shawn Quinlan the costumes.
Rebecca Bossen is credited as dialect coach. I have never been in Michigan’s UP but apparently the inhabitants up there speak with a distinct Irish lilt. If so, the brogue is neatly captured in this production, especially by Roos. Rachel Quinn choreographed the jigs and spontaneous dance steps that add energy and visual wit to the staging.
“Escanaba in Love” runs through October 26 at the Circle Theatre, 7300 West Madison Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. with Thursday performances at 8 p.m. added during October. Tickets are $20 and $26. Call 708 771 0700 or visit www.circle-theatre.org.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. Sept. 2008Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
at the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
FOREST PARK—Last year the Circle Theatre dazzled and maybe surprised area audiences with its radiant revival of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners “An Ideal Husband.” Six key performers from that production are cast in the current Circle revival of Noel Coward’s high comedy “Hay Fever.” Clearly the Circle has built a core of actors who can deliver English verbal comedy with elegance and style.
“Hay Fever” opened in 1925 and Coward called it one of his most difficult plays to perform. He had a point. The comedy has no real plot, no consistent action, and a collection of characters who are mostly over the top, self indulgent, and rude. But the play, giving the proper staging, can be a hoot, and a hoot it is at the Circle Theatre.
“Hay Fever” portrays a weekend in the disorderly suburban London household of the upper class Bliss family—mother Judith (a retired actress), father David (a successful novelist), and adult offspring Sorel and Simon. All four of them invite guests down for the weekend, each without the knowledge of the other family members. The bizarre interactions between the hapless houseguests and the unpredictable Bliss family form the substance of the play.
The Bliss family is high strung, given to extravagant highs and lows—at each other’s throats one moment and placidly reverting to normal domestic life a moment later. The four house guests are totally at sea trying to cope with the emotional roller coaster ride that is the Bliss brood at full tilt. By the end of the play the guests have been humiliated, seduced, ignored, and generally knocked for a loop.
If the Blisses are eccentric, their house guests are also a quartet of quirky individuals. Richard Greatham is a stiff upper lip British diplomat. Jackie Coryton is a skittish blonde living on her nerve ends. Sandy Tyrell is a young hunk Judith invites for what Tyrell anticipates as an erotic weekend, only to discover that Judith is married to a live-in husband.
Myra Arundel is an ultra sophisticated young lady invited by Simon who finally denounces the Blisses after a weekend of indignities: “You’re the most infuriating set of hypocrites I’ve ever seen. This house is a complete featherbed of false emotions—you’re posing, self-centered egotists, and I’m sick to death of you….You haven’t one sincere or genuine feeling among the lot of you—you’re artificial to the point of lunacy.”
That about sums it up.
Like most Noel Coward plays, “Hay Fever” can be tough going for American actors. The performers have to nail the plumy English accents and toss off the most outrageous lines with ease. Otherwise the humor and characters are stagy and arch.
Happily, the Circle Theatre ensemble speaks the Coward lines at a comfort level that makes the accents persuasive, allowing the comedy to flow unimpeded. First among equals is Judith Hoppe as a commanding Judith Bliss, a bundle of attitudes and outsized feelings, as much an actress in her family life as she was on the stage. Jonathan Nichols matches her as the befuddled diplomat trying to keep his moorings while everything around him dissolves into madcap chaos.
Catherine Ferraro is a joy as Jackie, the young woman completely out of her depth among the antics of the Blisses. She is especially hilarious when she hysterically refuses to participate in a bizarre word game the Bliss family inflicts on the intimidated house guests.
Kimberly Logan as Myra Arundel stalks about the stage for the entire evening like a fashion mannequin. Peter Esposito (David Bliss), Erin Reitz (Sorel Bliss), Eric Lindahl (Sandy Tyrell), and Bradford Lund (Simon Bliss) round out the delectable ensemble of Blisses and house guests. And Mary Redmon provides several delightful comic turns as Clara, the increasingly harried and hostile Bliss maid.
Director Jim Schneider has brilliantly orchestrated the production in the Noel Coward spirit of elegant verbal mayhem. Bob Knuth designed the effective 1920’s period upper class English interior as the show’s single set. Suzanne Mann’s costume design likewise captures the period look, especially in the ladies’ outfits, one for each of the three acts. John Horan designed the lighting and Peter J. Storms the sound.
The Circle has released its schedule through early 2010 and lamentably there will be no high style comedy revivals. The company may do excellent work with its chosen shows, including three musicals and Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But the theater has demonstrated it can create something special with Wilde and Coward and one yearns to enjoy the troupe taking its shot at “Private Lives” or “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
“Hay Fever” runs through August 24 at the Circle Theatre, 7300 West Madison Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $26. Call 708 771 0700.
The show gets a rating of four stars. July 2008
For more information, visit www.circle-theatre.org.
Contact Dan at email@example.com.
at the Circle Theatre
By Dan Zeff
FOREST PARK—After 18 years, the Circle Theatre is planning to leave its current primitive facilities for an upgraded venue in neighboring Oak Park. For patrons who have struggled for years with dubious sightlines and the unisex restroom, the move will be an exhilarating improvement.
The new theater should allow the Circle to manage large scale productions more effectively, especially traditional musicals. The Circle management might have waited to revive the Broadway musical “Can-Can” until the larger and better equipped space became available. The current Circle presentation of the Cole Porter show is ambitious, but the confining stage space, along with a limited talent pool, does the production no favors. Further damaging the cause is the melancholy fact that “Can-Can” is not very good.
“Can-Can” opened on Broadway with an impressive pedigree. Cole Porter composed the music and lyrics and Abe Burrows wrote the book. Set in the 1890’s in Paris, the show promised to be a saucy Gallic romp, topped by high-kicking renditions of the famous can-can dance. The Broadway original did run for 892 performances but reviews from the New York Critics were tepid. Porter did his part, with at least three standards in his score--C’est magnifique,” the rueful “It’s All Right with Me,” and the classic “I Love Paris.” Porter also added a couple of clever novelty tunes, notably “Never Be an Artist,” the best of the numbers in the Circle staging.
Unfortunately, the Burrows book was a blend of a clumsy romantic main plot and a silly comic subplot. The show did provide opportunities for extravagant dance numbers, and the choreography made a star out of Gwen Verdon. But there is a reason why “Can-Can” is rarely revived. A handful of hit songs and a couple of rousing production numbers can’t carry an evening lumbered by a book that lacks a credible romantic storyline and soaks up too much stage time with inane comedy.
The Circle Theatre revival relies primarily on colorful period costumes to give the staging its necessary Parisian flavor. Sets are limited because of the cramped performing space, relying on a few painted backdrops to create a vision of naughty Montmarte during the Toulouse Lautrec period.
Director-choreographer Kevin Bellie has developed some energetic chorus dances, notably a chipper can-can, but the main set piece, the “Garden of Eden” number that closes the first act, doesn’t make much of an impression because there are too many dancers trying to tell a story in too little space. A small orchestra strives mightily to provide adequate musical accompaniment, but sounds too thin to do justice to the Cole Porter score.
The Circle does not skimp on the size of the ensemble, with a full 17 performers singing and dancing and acting throughout the evening. The energy level is high but there aren’t enough high quality performances in the key roles. Jeremy Rill displays the best voice in the company in the featured role of a stuffy young judge who is the male romantic lead. But everyone around him is serviceable at best. Of course, nobody was helped by the inadequate book.
“Can-Can” runs through April 6 at the Circle Theatre, 7300 West Madison Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $26. Call 708 771 0700.
The show gets a rating of 2 ½ stars. March 2008
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