At the Riverfront Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Take a handful of world class circus acts, add a bit of cabaret and burlesque, and you have “La Soiree,” the entirely enjoyable show in town for two weeks at the Riverfront Theatre.
“La Soiree” originated at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, drew positive reviews, and took its show on the road through western Europe and onto Australia, Montreal, New York City, and now, happily, to Chicago.
The production fits nicely in the informality of the Riverfront Theatre tent, which has been converted into a theater-in-the round. The audience surrounds a tiny circular stage that accommodates most of the performances, though the action extends into the aisles and even atop a piano at the side.
The show starts with a beefy baritone vocalist named Le Gateau Chocolat singing as he strides from the entrance to the stage, outfitted like a cross between Liberace and Ru Paul. The man looks bizarre but he has a solid operatic singing voice and he sets the tone for the evening, campy but artistic.
Photo by Michael Brosilow
“La Soiree” is filled with the kind of quality specialty acts one expects from a Cirque du Soleil or a Ringing Brothers circus. Denis Lock and Hamish McCann form a team of dazzling hand balancers. They call themselves the English Gents and enter dressed in natty suits and bowler hats and carrying rolled umbrellas. The pair immediately launch into a stunning series of balancing stunts that display remarkable strength and concentration, more impressive because the Gents are each slender lightweights. They later appear separately, one doing jaw dropping balancing stunts on a lamp post and the other performing assorted hand stands on a very tall stack of chairs. For their finale, the Gents strip down to their skivvies emblazoned with the Union Jack flag. Stripping is an integral part of this production, about which more later.
Yulia Pykhtina does wondrous things with hula hoops and Bret Pfister executes all manner of graceful acrobatic stunts on a large hoop suspending from the rafters. The show’s closer is David O’Mer, who performs an aerial ballet on what look like bungee straps, frequently descending into a large tub of water and emerging to spray nearby spectators (the first row gets a sheet to protect them from a dousing). Nate Cooper adds a dash of comedy as a man uncertainly navigating on roller skates on the tiny stage surface, throwing in some juggling for embellishment.
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Most of the show is suitable for family audiences but the management recommends it for mature audiences, largely because of the performance by Susannah Martinez. This stately lady produces bright red handkerchiefs from within her dress and then proceeds to make them disappear. As the act continues Martinez disrobes until she is totally naked on the stage. And still she pulls out those red handkerchiefs and makes them vanish, leaving the audience to ponder just where those cloths come from and where they go.
Then there is Amy G, who earns the nod as the most unique specialty act of the show. She starts out as a stand up comedienne but she has a more distinctive skill beyond telling political jokes. Amy G plays the kazoo, the instrument inserted under her gown and between her legs. She then toots out the patriotic song “America,” performing a duet with herself by conventionally playing a second kazoo with her mouth. The mouth kazoo holds no mystery, but where does she find the pneumatic power to play the instrument between her legs? Like the nude Martinez and her disappearing handkerchiefs, this act invites speculation. Clearly Amy G possesses a special talent that extends the borders of show business prowess.
If there is a negative to the show, it resides with the poor acoustics and low fi sound system. Most of the show is nonverbal and is unaffected by the acoustics. But and Amy G and La Gateau Chocolat suffer. They were loud enough but difficult to understand. The act damaged the most by the acoustical difficulties was Mooky, a lady comic who brings an audience member on stage to play a scene from “Romeo and Juliet” and generally exchange banter. She must have been funny because lots of people were laughing but I had a miserable time trying to follow what she was saying.
The acts are performed to recorded music that ranges from classical baroque to pop to rhythm and blues to show tunes rock to Duke Ellington. The volume was on high and too often drowned out La Gateau Chocolat’s lyrics and spoken interludes.
Fortunately, the sound system’s defects were never a serious impediment to the show’s success. The Riverfront tent is large but the in-the-round staging gives the production an intimacy that puts the spectators at their ease and on press night stimulated much hooting and hollering of appreciation, just the way the performers want it.
“La Soiree” is an ideal attraction for people who enjoy exciting and novel circus acts and don’t mind some R rated humor and nudity to spice up the evening. It might not be appropriate for children but “La Soiree” should be a great date show.
“La Soiree” runs through August 5 at the Riverfront Theatre, 650 West Chicago River overlooking the Chicago River. 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 v2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $39 to $85. Call 888 556 9484 or visit www.Riverfront Theatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. July 2012
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At the Riverfront Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Dancing Queen” is a high energy nostalgia show that should erode the resistance of even the most resolute anti-disco snob. The revue is playing at the Riverfront Theater, a massive tent complex that is attempting to establish itself as a major venue for variety entertainment in the city.
“Dancing Queen” is an all-singing-all-dancing production that tries to churn its audience with happy memories of the songs of ABBA and other disco flag wavers of the 1970’s. There is no story and no dialogue, but the hits, as they say, just keep coming, delivered by an exuberant and attractive cast of young singers and dancers.
The nominal star of the show is David Hernandez, whose major claim to fame seems to be achieving the honor of being a finalist in “American Idol.” Hernandez may get the billing but this is an ensemble show showcasing performers with great bodies, boundless enthusiasm and stamina, and some solid voices in the front line talent.
The show gets off to a slow start. The stream of ABBA numbers replicated the 1970’s recordings and the stiff choreography doesn’t do much to illuminate the music. By the time “Voulez-Vous” and “S.O.S.” had come and gone, I pondered whether I wouldn’t have been at least as well off at home listening to a CD of the original music. Not that the show’s singers are lacking. The foursome of Amanda Kerridge, Jillian Schochet, Hernandez, and Justin Jones do very well as cover vocalists for ABBA, especially Kerridge and Schochet. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus were great ABBA songwriters but it was Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog who really sold the music with their expressive singing, and so it is with the two young ladies in “Dancing Queen”.
Photographs courtesy of Spirit Productions
About two-thirds of the way through the first act, the program switched to a 1970’s medley and everything loosed up—the choreography, the dancing, and even the audience. A heady dose of “Staying Alive,” “We Are Family,” “Celebrate,” and “YMCA” finally got the audience animated. The momentum picked up even more in the second act, topped by a rousing extended version of “Shout” led by Kerridge, with her blast furnace voice.
At my performance, the performers tried mightily to involve the audience, descending into the crowd and pairing off with patrons for brief dancing bits. The spectators were willing and responsive but I suspect that a larger crowd would have been on their feet by the end of the evening. The “Waterloo”-“Dancing Queen” finale clearly was designed to galvanize the patrons and send them jiving into the aisles, but it never happened, in spite of lots of clapping and whooping from the more boisterous customers.
show’s production values are what might be expected at a small Las Vegas hotel showroom.
The basic set consists of a flight of steps. The visuals rely on colorful
lighting effects and a countless number of flashy and sexy costumes. The back
stage must have been a maelstrom of activity as the cast changed outfits by the
Photographs courtesy of Spirit Productions
“Dancing Queen” is not a revisionist show. The oldies from the 1970’s are mostly presented in their original arrangements, but familiarity should tap into affectionate memories of the music, which may be the chief point of the enterprise. The choreography by Jillian Sellers improved as the show progressed. Possibly the songs of ABBA don’t lend themselves to dance embellishment as easily as “Mustang Sally” and “Proud Mary” and “Dancing in the Street.” The dancers certainly kept their feet on the energy pedal the entire evening (there were no ballads to slow down the pace of the production).
So, there are no surprises in “Dancing Queen,” but plenty of entertainment value for attendees who can connect with the 1970’s or just appreciate melodic and swinging songs. Any revue with stomping presentations of “Shout” and “Does Your Mother Know” gets my vote. And as a welcome embellishment, the portable bathrooms outside the tent were the cleanest and most modern I’ve seen for this kind of event.
“Dancing Queen” runs through June 24 at the Riverfront Theater, 650 West Chicago Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2, 5, and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $75. Call 888 556 9484 or visit RiverfrontTheater.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. June 2012
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At the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Peter Pan” comes to Chicago riding a wave of publicity celebrating the high concept revival of J. M. Barrie’s children’s classic. The producers point with pride to the state of the art multi media staging in a made-to-order 1,300-seat tent. The advance buzz promised an eye-popping entertainment that would bring joy to children and adults alike.
The reality is somewhat more modest. The show does provide some sensational special effects, mostly magnificent three-dimensional video projected on a giant high-resolution screen that encloses the entire theater interior. There is plenty of flying as Peter and Tinker Bell and the Darling children soar and tumble high above the stage. However, the puppetry advertised as one of the show’s most imaginative elements doesn’t amount to much, excluding a delightful ramshackle giant crocodile operated by two men inside the critter.
Basically this is a production aimed at the eight-year old set, give or take a couple of years. Most of the acting is cartoonish and the adaptation is wordy. There are long swatches of dialogue that soak up time better spent on special effects. But on opening night, the large contingent of children in the audience seemed enthralled. It’s a long evening for kiddies, ending near 9:30 p.m., but no youthful attention spans seemed stressed. The kids obviously loved this show and that’s the bottom line.
“Peter Pan” has become a literary and show business cash cow since the character of the little boy who refused to grow up first appeared in a Barrie story in 1902. In addition to Barrie’s stories, “Peter Pan” has been a Barrie play and later a stage musical and live and animated motion pictures along with an acclaimed television special (starring Mary Martin as Peter).
The current production brings the vehicle into the new millennium, sacrificing some of Barrie’s original charm, whimsy, and poignancy in the service of the high tech effects. The creators made their choices consciously, electing to cater to the family trade rather than the hard-core theatergoer, a thoroughly defensible position.
The action is concentrated on a large circular stage with openings to permit characters and scenery to pop in and out. Aisles are also utilized, along with the air space above the stage. The sets and props are basic but adequate to their purpose. The show is advertised as a play but a few songs are interpolated into the dialogue, none of them memorable.
Tanya Ronder’s adaptation broadly follows the Barrie tale of the Darling children’s fantastical flight to Neverland under the tutelage of Peter Pan, the leader of the Lost Boys in Neverland. The villain is the famous pirate Captain Hook. Peter is his adversary, seconded by the mischievous fairy Tinker Bell. Another of Peter’s associates is a very hot Indian maiden named Tiger Lily, whose main purpose in this production is to deliver a sensuous dance before an uninterested Peter. The dance contributes nothing to the narrative, but Heidi Buehler’s Tiger Lily is pure eye candy, perhaps a reward for the daddies who indulgently brought their children.
The adaptation does preserve the story’s most famous moment, when Tinker Bell lies dying and Peter Pan appeals to the audience to save her by chanting “I believe in fairies.” The kids play along, as always, and their revival of the fairy brought great cheers from the multitude in the theater.
There are about two dozen performers in the production. The only quality acting comes from Evelyn Hoskins as Wendy Darling, Steven Pacey as Captain Hook, and Ciaran Joyce as Peter. Hoskins converts Wendy into a real human being, full of pluck and warmth. Pacey’s Captain Hook is a particularly elegant, well-spoken villain, though his monologues could be trimmed in the interest of bring the show down to about two hours. The on-stage bit where Hook cuts the throat of one of his pirates is problematical, considering the youngsters in attendance. Joyce actually looks and acts like a boy, though he perversely reminded me of Justin Bieber.
Hook’s pirate band and the Lost Boys aren’t allowed opportunities for acting beyond cavorting and shouting. And the players impersonating the Lost Boys will never see 25 again. But this is adult nitpicking. The children in the audience totally bought into the casting and their opinion is the only one that counts.
Young and old spectators will marvel at the film projections, especially in the early scene that gives the audience a sensational aerial view of London as Peter and the Darling children fly in and around and above such London monuments as the Nelson Column, the Tower Bridge, and St. Paul’s cathedral. There is a super underwater scene near Neverland that includes a nice aerialist act performed with silks by two lithe mermaids played by Amanda Goble and Kasumi Kato.
The tent is erected on a delightful location along the Chicago River, with chairs and tables provided to patrons for pre theater and intermission lounging during good weather. This is a natural site for circuses and similar live entertainments. The Tribune just needs to find more attractions with the broad appeal and glitz of “Peter Pan.”
For the record, Ben Harrison is the director and William Dudley designed the sets, costumes, and 3D projections, with a hearty bravo for the latter.
“Peter Pan” runs through June 19 at the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 West Chicago Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $75. Call 1-888 PPANTIX or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars. May 2011
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