Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?

At The Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – The new revue at Second City e.t.c. follows the line that brevity is the soul of wit. The production consists of more than two dozen individual sketches and blackouts, nearly all of just a few seconds to a couple of minutes long. But that’s ample time to ruffle the feathers of touchy issues in modern life, with an agreeable percentage of the company’s material being politically incorrect.

         The 39th e.t.c. revue is called “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” It is presented by an attractive young company of three men and three women, half of them newcomers to the e.t.c. stage. They collectively have their way with paranoia and stalking, racial attitudes, peanut allergies, sex workers imported from Ukraine, feminism, male bonding, pending relations with Cuba, social media, violence in the National Football League, the comic distresses of a first date, controversy over the location of the Star Wars Museum in Chicago, and a security drill in a kindergarten class.

         The production harnesses an impressive variety of presentation modes, including mime, rap, and possible police brutality toward blacks played as a silent movie comedy. Second City revues are not known for glitzy special effects but the e.t.c. production is filled with mod film, graphic, photographic visuals. The company has come a long way from those good old days when a revue’s physical production consisted of a couple of half doors at the rear of a bare stage and some wooden chairs as props. But times change. Second City has gone hi tech, and the dialogue, typically PG in shows of the distant past, now is flavored with the F--- word, usually to legitimate comic effect.


                                                Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         Two of the ensemble members—Lisa Beasley and Rashawn Nadine Scott—are African American and they are used liberally in skits that take shots at the state of black/white relations in our society, especially from the black perspective. One of the show’s highlights is Beasley’s comic yet impassioned rap on the plight of Chicago public schools and black neighborhoods.

         Several of the ripest bits of the evening evoked today’s headlines, like the controversy over businesses who want to deny service to customers who conflict with their religious beliefs. The scene is a Christian bookstore and Beasley and Scott Morehead nail it. A poke at cell phones and their apps may be an easy target but it was still a funny sketch with Eddie Mujica playing a phone in desperation as it loses power.

The riskiest sketch of the night had all six performers somberly reflecting on where each of them was at the moment that 9/11 struck. The potential for bad taste or maudlin sentimentality is obvious, but the performers turned it into a genuinely comic piece that still ended on a thoughtful but not preachy note. Maybe the funniest sketch of the night had nothing satirical or topical about it. The playlet portrayed the awkward dilemma of an ancient Roman general who gets cold feet about leading his troops into battle.

         The production limited itself two only two improvisation bits, which was insufficient based on the hilarious results we enjoyed on opening night. Both involved cast members questioning a pair of couples sitting at ringside, with Carisa Barreca, the glamorous blonde member of the company, having a real field day with one young man who looked like he was under age for the cabaret by numerous years.

         The ensemble works smoothly together in various combinations. By the narrowest of margins my favorite performer was Tim Ryder, a lanky young man with an ingratiating smile and a delectable air of charming innocence that played well against the tartness of the material. But everyone carries his or her weight, with the females contributing some consisting professional, and humorous, vocalizing.


                                             Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         Technically this is an especially tricky show and director Anthony LeBlanc keeps the pace brisk and fluid, smoothly integrating Greg Mulvey’s video designs into the sketches with split second timing. The improve scenes even included on-the-spot photos of the ringsiders involved, with captions. Alex Kiner did nobly as music director, sound designer, and composer of the original music. Bob Knuth designed the set and Kyle Anderson the lighting plan.

         “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” may assault some touchy subjects but it is not an angry or mean spirited show. The production doesn’t take huge risks, with maybe the exception of the 9/11 bit. But the show does keep its fingers skeptically on society’s pulse up to the minute and the audience greeted the immediacy of many of the bits with gleeful recognition. Overall, there were only few home runs in the parade of sketches, like of Beasley’s racial rap, but the company hit lots of doubles and triples, and I detected no strikeouts. This is a show worth repeat visits, if only to see if the ensemble catches lightning in the bottle in their improvs like they did on opening night.

         “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” is playing an open run at Second City e.t.c. at Piper’s Alley, 230 West North Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets begin at $23. Call 312 337 3992 or visit

The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at: April 2015

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Apes of Wrath

At The Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff

Chicago –The new Second City e.t.c. revue calls itself “Apes of Wrath.” There are no references to apes in the show, wrathful or otherwise, but the curious name doesn’t interfere with the show’s lofty entertainment values. This is one of the brightest and nimblest of the e.t.c’s 38 revues, a fetching mix of fresh material and superior ensemble work.

         The e.t.c revues have traditionally been a little more edgy and free swinging than the presentations by the more experienced Mainstage company next door. The performers generally have been younger, just cutting their teeth on the inimitable Second City cabaret style. The cast of “Apes of Wrath” consists of three newcomers, all male, and three returnees, all female. It’s fair to say that this group pretty much has pulled even with the Mainstage troupe, which is no knock on the Mainstage but a recognition that the e.t.c. people have risen to their plateau of accomplishment.

         Recent  Mainstage and e.t.c. productions have drifted away from the satirical material that built the Second City empire. Gone are the days when the revues were peppered with barbs aimed at Chicago politics, the national political scene, touchy social issues, and the deplorable and unimproving state of the Cubs. Rahm Emanuel doesn’t get a mention in “Apes of Wrath” and if there was a passing mention of Barak Obama, I missed it. This is not an angry, agenda laden show but it’s one of the funniest in recent memory. The company can’t be criticized for avoiding hot button social commentary. It just seeks its material elsewhere, and with gratifying results, one or two stumbling skits notwithstanding.


         The current revue has more extensive production values than most past shows in its lighting effects and music. No longer do audiences see barebones revues with just a couple of half doors at the rear of the stage and a few wooden chairs as the scenic effects. The current results provide a more fully theatrical experience for the audience, though the performers and their material still rule.

         The show does start on a relevant note, lampooning the trivializing of news on the Internet, an easy target to be sure. But mostly the company serves up offbeat examinations of offbeat topics. There is a bit about purity balls, designed to celebrate the commitment of young people to keeping themselves virginized until marriage, a concept that drifts into incestuous waters. There is a marvelous ensemble scene in which a young woman (Carisa Barreca) enters the magical kingdom of a men’s bathroom, dancing and miming her reactions to the accompaniment of salty comments tossed out by her colleagues. Eddie Mujica and Brooke Breit deliver a hilarious two-hander about a woman trying to develop a romantic relationship with her robot servant. Breit is a hoot with a monologue by a lower middle class high school graduate philosophizing about her prep days, aided by input solicited from ringside patrons. After a slow start, a monologue by Asher Perlman gets off some funny and weird riffs on bee keeping.

         Mujica, a real star in the making, has a splendid scene as a Hispanic man studying for his citizenship test with the assistance of the audience, even engaging a spectator in Spanish that may have been unintelligible to most of the patrons but was still uproarious. Tim Ryder and Punam Patel (who shows off to much better advantage in this revue than her previous appearance) don leotards to perform an interpretive dance before an invisible audience at a Louisiana prison.


                                                                 Photo by Todd Rosenberg

         The only attempt at barbed satire comes from Tim Ryder, accompanying himself on the guitar as he sings a ballad that enumerates all the things Christianity must apologize for through its history. The song, in spite of its mellow style, goes after conservative Christianity and Roman Catholicism with razor sharp lyrics to the delight of the audience, which traditionally has leaned heavily toward appreciating anti-establishment humor.                             

         This is one of the most musical of recent e.t.c. revues, much of the material presented in song form with witty and clever lyrics. While there is no overarching theme to the evening, lots of material involves outer space and the cosmos, affirming that while we are important as individuals we remain insignificant in the big intergalactic picture, which about covers the subject.

         There was only one dud in the program, an ensemble piece about employees gathering in fear that one of them has been earmarked to be fired. The one-joke skit is overwrought to the point where a frantic Brooke Breit seemed to be losing her mind.

         Jen Ellison’s directing puts the ensemble through its paces briskly and glitch free. This is a superbly rehearsed production, moving from sketch to sketch and blackout to blackout in flawless transition. There isn’t much improvisation, but what there is succeeds handsomely, or at least it did on press night, a tribute to the cast’s versatility and quick thinking. Alex Kliner provides the musical direction, original music, and sound design, giving the show an almost symphonic aural effect at times. We have come a long way from the single piano accompaniment of Second City in its early days.

         The compatibility of the cast, half of them performing on the e.t.c. stage for the first time, is wondrous. It’s too early to predict who is marked for future stardom, but I would nominate Mujica, Barreca, and Breit as likely possibilities, but they are all top flight as comedians, comic actors, and singers (and obviously as writers, having collectively created the entire show). Being an old-time Second City fan, I would have preferred more topical humor, but audiences should be delighted to accept whatever comic pleasures this super talented company has on offer.


                                                       Photo by Todd Rosenberg

         “Apes of Wrath” is playing an open run at the Second City e.t.c. cabaret theater, 230 West North Avenue. Performances are Tuesday (August 6-13), Wednesday (July 9-August 13), and Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets begin at $23. Call 312 337 3992 or visit

The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at: June 2014

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A Clown Car Named Desire

At The Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – Much of the second act of the bright new revue at Second City e.t.c. is consumed by a sketch in which three American Apparel employees jive their way an “I’m more cool than thou” routine. Wearing wild hippy outfits, the trio mince and prance through one inside joke after another to validate their credentials as center cut members of the in crowd who populate the yuppie Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square neighborhoods in Chicago.

     Tourists and suburbanites in the audience may be mystified by most of the tribal references as the performers cavort around the stage, oozing attitude and pretentiousness. Indeed, toward the end of the bit, one actor comments that the material will make no sense to anyone born before 1980.


                            Photo by Todd Rosenberg

       I was born considerably earlier than 1980 and I wouldn’t know Bucktown from buckwheat and Wicker Park from a wicker chair. So even though much of the material might have been spoken to me in Pawnee, I thought the sketch was a hoot, a triumph of comic manner over matter. The youngish audience laughed uproariously throughout, either recognizing all the private jokes or because they wanted to be seen and heard as sharers of the arcane world of the in crowd.

     It didn’t matter. However the spectator approached the sketch, it was a nonstop gem, the pinnacle of a consistently fresh and invigorating new revue called “A Clown Car Named Desire.” The sketch ends on a perfect note with the three performers (Brooke Breit, Chris Witaske, and Mike Kosinski) ruefully observing how hard they are working to put up their hip front.

       The sketch is topical and satirical, but never mean spirited. Indeed, there rarely a snarling note struck in the nearly two hours of the revue. The evening could have gotten off to an abrasive start with a sketch about a high school lad (Kosinski) picking up his date (Michael Lehrer) for the school prom. The date’s brother (Witaske) is super straight and struggling to accept the gay pairing, but though there are lots of laughs sprung from the situation, there isn’t a raw edge to the straight brother’s feelings. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the gay matchup, but he loves his brother and sends him off to the dance with hugs all round. It’s funny and warm without being sentimental or preachy.

  The revue is heavy on extended improvisation. In one skit, using a TV game show format, a couple is pulled out of the audience and in a rapid fire battery of questions sets forth the basic facts of how they got together. The ensemble then reassembles the facts into a playlet of great humor, without ridiculing or embarrassing the couple who are sitting ducks on stage for any cheap shots from the performers.

                  Photo by Todd Rosenberg

       Another extended slice of improv is based on a typical Tennessee Williams play, with the audience solicited for assorted terms as building blocks for the action, the play ending up being titled “The Great  Condom.” The ensemble (including Carisa Barreca and Punam Patel) thrashed around a bit in this one, but never found themselves in a hole they couldn’t survive with clever and resourceful bits of dialogue.

       This isn’t a concept show. There is no connecting theme, though the element of dreams and fantasy arises from time to time and there are a couple of running gags. One brief interlude has a couple of actors dancing in day-glo costumes in the darkened theater, a weird sight until one of the two stumbles and sprains his ankle, dissolving any magical mood with a closing laugh. There are other striking lighting effects and ample use of grotesque masks, sending up the Cirque du Soleil in one sketch, and making this one of the more visual recent Second City revues.

      There is little political humor in “A Clown Car Named Desire” other than a brief injection of Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago school crisis. Otherwise, hot button social issues rarely reared their heads. But the revue remained securely in the Second City tradition—three males and three females ona basic set with a few chairs for props, and a pianist at the side of the stage (sometimes playing a bit too loudly).

       First among equals in the ensemble was Mike Kosinski, a lanky young man with an expressive range of body movements and solid acting chops. The others were all well up to the mark, though Punam Patel had the least to do and made the smallest impression, a rookie on the e.t.c. stage maybe still feeling her way in the revue.

    Ryan Bernier gets high marks for directing the show with a nice comic flow. He gets a special gold star for his shaping of the American Apparel sketch, which could have turned obvious and repetitive with less energy and pacing. Sarah Ross designed the set, Kyle Anderson the atmospheric lighting, and Alex Kliner the sound design (he also composed the original music and serves as musical director).

       Some people, including reviewers, have attempted to create a competition between the Second City Mainstage and e.t.c. theaters, usually giving the nod to e.t.c as the edgier and more risk taking venue. It’s an artificial and pointless debate. True, the e.t.c. performs in a more intimate theater and generally uses less experienced performers, but the e.t.c and the Mainstage (now doing very nicely with its “Let Them Eat Chaos”) revue both deliver the goods. I’ve seen both current reviews and I can’t split them at the finish line.

       “A Clown Car Named Desire” is playing an open run at the e.t.c. cabaret theater, 1608 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

       The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at:    July 2013

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We’re All in This Room Together

At the Second City e.t.c.

by Dan Zeff

Chicago – Four of the six performers in the new Second City e.t.c. revue “We’re All in This Room Together” never appeared on a main Second City stage before. And this is only the second show for the other two players. But youth and inexperience were not a factor on the opening night. The three males and three females were sharp, funny, and versatile, just what audiences over the last five decades have come to expect from this Chicago entertainment treasure.

         The new revue operates on familiar Second City turf. The material explores inter-personal relationships, along with excursions into social and political satire and plenty of improvisation. The stagecraft remains deceptively simple—a bare stage with a half dozen wooden chairs as the main props. Audiences don’t go to Second City for spectacle, they go for rapier comedy delivered by performers who are exceptionally fast on their feet verbally and often physically. And so it is with the current troupe.

         The show did start a little slowly, but picked up momentum near the intermission and soared in the second act as the material improved and the players seemed to grow looser and more confident. Many of the best bits were two handers, like a date gone bad between a devout Christian (Aidy Bryant) and an atheist (Chris Witaske) trying to fudge his unbelief to save the faltering relationship.


                                                                                                           PRODUCTION PHOTO BY DAVE RENTAUSKAS

         The real test of any Second City company comes in the improvisation skits. Of course, luck plays a major role in whether improv works. An uncooperative audience or a dead end topic can be ruinous. But on opening night, the improv stars were in alignment and everything succeeded. Some of the credit goes to the audience, like when a man pulled from the crowd onto the stage proved especially genial and unflustered, down to the gay wedding climax of his bit. But most of the applause goes to the performers. Bryant and Andel Sudik were a hoot as a pair of 87-year old widows preparing to watch a movie outdoors, humorously engaging front row patrons in backchat as the ladies moved from position to position round the stage with their lawn chairs.

    Political commentary threads its way through the revue. The central figures, predictably, are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (I didn’t catch a single reference to Rahm Emanuel, surprisingly). The Obama-Romney material is pointed but evenhanded and not overly hostile. This is not an angry show when it comes to examinations  of the American political and social psyche.

      Whether by selection or accident, each cast member has a strikingly defined physical presence—Tawny Newsome tall and willowy, Bryant heavyset, and Sudik pint sized among the women, and Mike Kosinski rail thin, Witaske a hunk, and Michael Lehrer very diminutive among the males. The assorted physiques give the revue a distinctive visual variety that the performers occasionally exploit. Lehrer, who reminded me of a short Steve Martin, led a clever number about the plus and minuses of being small.

     The show offered some clever bits on racial attitudes and feminism. The three ladies performed a cheery song and dance number about the second place status of women in modern society, funny but spot-on. Newsome, the lone African American in the ensemble, was in the middle of numerous bits tweaking racial points of view in America, especially among outwardly well meaning whites.


                                                                                                 PRODUCTION PHOTO BY DAVE RENTAUSKAS

There were a few dead spots during the evening. A father brings his hyper young daughter for an interview to gain admittance to the prestigious University of Chicago lab school. The kid turns out to be manic and disruptive. Sudik is impressively frenzied as the kid but the skit wore out its welcome early on.

         The rare clinker can be excused because of all the good stuff. A class reunion at St. Charles High School cuts beneath the customary glad handing at such affairs to display school alumni who basically turned into nutcases after graduation. Lehrer plays a real estate agent who leads a prospective house buyer on a most bizarre tour of a house up for sale. The opening sketch nicely skewers TV news programs that trivialize current events under the shouting mantra “Braking news!”

         The revue is directed with much energy and ingenuity by Ryan Bernier. Jesse Case is the music director who needs to take care that his electronic accompaniment doesn’t overly compete with the performers on stage. Kyle Anderson designed the lighting and Sarah Ross the minimalist set.

         “We’re All in This Room Together” is playing an open run at the Second City e.t.c. cabaret, 1608 North Wells Street. Core performances are Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. There will be additional performances on Tuesday at 8 p.m. on August 7-28, Wednesday at 8 p.m. on July 11-August 28, and Sunday at 3 p.m. July 15-August 29. Tickets are $23 and $28. Call 312 337 3992 or visit

         The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.   June 2012

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Sky’s the Limit(Weather Permitting)

At the Second City e.t.c. cabaret theater

By Dan Zeff

Chicago—The new Second City e.t.c. revue takes a while to find its stroke, but by the end of the evening connoisseurs of this cabaret theater’s work should recognize that “Sky’s the Limit (Weather Permitting)” is one of the sharpest and funniest productions in recent Second City history, e.t.c or Mainstage.

        The new revue doesn’t break any thematic or staging ground. There is lots of satire that involves the usual suspects, local and national. The show has several songs and a dab of improvisation, all delivered by a zesty ensemble of mostly new faces (three members of the ensemble are making their e.t.c. debuts and the other three are in only their second show).

        The first act had some good things in it, notably some delicious shards of politically incorrect humor. But the sketches tended to run a little long for their content. The cast is certainly talented but the six are not particularly gifted physical comedians. There was too much mugging with gestures ands funny faces and body language, and an occasional shrillness in the vocal department.

        But by the intermission the revue was firing on all cylinders and the second act was almost pure gold. The best bits were quiet exchanges among two or three characters. In one premium sketch, Tim Baltz, Brendan Jennings, and Michael Lehrer are three friends sitting around and shooting the breeze, firing off one funny and provocative gag after another as they assess the state of the world around them. In a similar spirit, Lehrer and Jessica Joy play a twenty-something burnout and his long-suffering girl friend. The two bicker, mostly about the young man’s substance abuse and life around the Cubs and Wrigley Field. But it’s beautifully written and paced.

Jessica Joy has a singing solo near the end of the about “things I didn’t know” that skewers all manner of social and political irritants. The song was funny and performed in a quizzical understated style that made the material that much funnier, and more insightful.

The three females in the cast—Joy, Aidy Bryant, and Mary Sohn—perform an in-your-face defense abortion rights and Planned Parenthood as seen from the trailer trash viewpoint. It’s the raunchiest piece in he show and very funny.

The satire is pinpoint and takes on all comers. There are jokes about Rahm Emanuel, no surprise there, and also send-ups of gays, Mormons (and religion in general), the right wing, and most pleasurably, the foibles of living in Chicago. There are some domestic skits, the best one being the there women playing the exasperated mothers coming to school to deal with their three rebellious sons.

Tim Baltz and Mary Sohn dramatizes a first time date between a young woman and a young man so shy and tongue-tied he responds to every comment and question with answers from a stack of note cards. A young married couple (Jennings and Sohn) suddenly face the daunting experience of becoming parents for the first time.


The improvisation was mostly concentrated on a couple of sketches, the best one taking an audience suggestion of a porn shop as a locale for improv action. The ensemble really ran with it. But a late bit bringing a member of the audience on stage to help shoot vampires emerging from the crowd didn’t amount to much.

Of the six performers, I liked Joy and Lehrer the most, possibly because they starred in the revue’s best material. The good news is that the ensemble wrote all the material, demonstrating that there are some sharp-as-a-tack satirical minds happily blasting away with joyous political incorrectness.

Director Matt Hovde has orchestrated the fresh cast to perform like veterans. Those conversational gems in particular reflect Hovde’s deft yet stiletto touch. The musical accompaniment by Jesse Case on keyboard, guitar, and drums (and a brief vocal contribution) enhanced the success of the evening considerably.      

“Sky’s the Limit (Weather Permitting) is playing an open run at he Second City e.t.c. cabaret theater, 1608 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday at 8 p.m. Friday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. with Tuesday performances at 8 p.m. from August 2 to 30 and Wednesday at 8 p.m. from July 6 to August 31. Tickets are $22 and $27. Call 312 337 3992 or visit

The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars.

Contact Dan at   July 2011

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The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life

At Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff


        CHICAGO—The latest Second City e.t.c. revue may not be the best in the company’s history, but it certainly can claim to be the noisiest. Seldom has there been so much screeching, screaming, and ranting on a Second City stage, further amplified by a sound track that puts severe stress on the eardrums.

        The revue is exuberantly called “The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life.” The title doesn’t suggest that the audience is going to have a super great time, which it likely will not. The name refers to a concept of taking us back a generation to the 1980’s and 1990’s, when life was better—plenty of money, plenty of employment, no wars. It’s a theme with lots of satirical and nostalgic possibilities, except that after the opening introductory number, the revue pretty much disregards the concept and just goes its own way.

        Much of the material is performed at ear-splitting decibel levels. Nuance and subtlety are not sought after in this staging. Neither is political even handedness. Right wing America takes a severe thumping throughout the revue, with the performers lambasting the Republican Tea Party contingent and generally kissing off the right wing as hysterical, empty-headed extremists. Second City has always attracted a liberal young audience and the opening night crowd reacted with loud approval to snipes at Sarah Palin, George Bush, right wing Obama haters, and man-on-the-street GOP followers—all loud, thoughtless, self righteous bigots.

        The revue’s skits fall into hit-or-miss categories. Even the more successful bits went on beyond their content shelf life, like a black comedy love song or an odd bit involving a spoken word adult education class. There was one raucous rap number called “Rubenesque” performed by the company’s three females in skintight spandex that celebrated full figured femininity for way too long for a one-joke number. Then there was one of the anti-right wing skits that showed a man awakening from a 10-year coma. During the skit, the man repeatedly spit water into the face of another character. Pretty funny the first time, but then…

        The most offbeat sketch of the night paired a white performer (Tom Flanigan) and a black performer (Christina Anthony). The setting is a hospital and the characters are a doctor and a nurse. Halfway through the sketch the audience learns that there is racial role reversal. The white man plays a black hospital supervisor and the black woman plays a hostile white underling. After a few minutes of laughs the sketch turns serious before exiting on a wisecrack. The audience didn’t know quite how to take the sketch that started out comic and then suddenly shifted into moments of intense drama.

        The only improvisation in the show came near the end when a young lady was plucked from the audience to go back in time as the prom date for Brendan Jennings (who delivered much of the howling and shrieking during the revue). The audience member wasn’t required to do much more than stand around, but she was a good sport and the company mined plenty of chuckles from her presence.

        The ensemble, other than Anthony, Flanigan, and Jennings, consisted of Tom Baltz, Mary Sohn, and Beth Melewski. The cast’s capabilities are hard to assess because of the unevenness of the material and the tendency to lapse into too much sound and fury.

Billy Bungeroth directs the production with a wide-open throttle. Donnell Williams and Brenda Didier are the choreographers and Jesse Case the musical director. Case clearly likes his music fortissimo, abetted by percussion at the pounding level of Kodo Drummers.

        The revue title uses a euphemism for a much saltier F word, which nonetheless was used abundantly during the show. Maybe the increased use of profanity in recent Second City revues is a sign of the times, but I don’t remember Alan Arkin, John Belushi, and Barbara Harris swearing so much in the old days.

        “The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life” is playing an open run at the Second City e.t.c. cabaret theater, 1608 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $22 and $27. Call 312 337 3992 or visit

        The show gets a rating of three stars.   May 2010

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Rush Limbaugh! The Musical

At Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff


        CHICAGO—“Rush Limbaugh! The Musical” is precisely what liberal audiences expect from the new Second City Theatricals revue, an all-out lampoon of the controversial and polarizing conservative radio pundit.

        But as if to show that the revue’s brain trust is an equal opportunity hatchet wielder, “Rush Limbaugh! The Musical” also takes gleeful potshots at the Democrats. But make no mistake, it’s Limbaugh and the radical right in America who are in the show’s cross hairs.

        The revue is the work of Ed Furman (book) and T. J. Shanoff (music and lyrics). They composed the recent satirical hit “Rod Blagojavich Superstar,” a show most people liked more than I did. The Limbaugh work is funnier, sharper, tighter, wittier, and more cautionary. Possibly this show is better because Limbaugh is a worthier and more stimulating subject than Blago.

       The revue runs 80 minutes without an intermission and takes the form of a documentary survey of Limbaugh’s rise from an obscure small town radio disc jockey to national eminence as seen from the perspective of the year 2014, after Limbaugh’s nemesis Barak Obama was elected to a second term as president. The show pulls no punches. Furman and Shanoff portray Limbaugh as a racist, sexist manipulator of the truth with an unswerving eye toward building his image, his influence, and his wealth.

        The documentary is narrated by a young black woman named Shasta, played with a nice sense of irony by Karla Beard, who possesses the only trained singing voice in the ensemble. The revue displays assorted characters who pass through Limbaugh’s life, like his loony tune father, Ann Coulter, an on-the-make preacher named the Reverend Rightwing, and Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove presented as an Abbott and Costello pair of clowns. But they are all mere lay figures to Limbaugh’s rise to political celebrityhood as the numero uno voice of the far right conservatives.

        Hal Sutton evokes a credible physical image of the fleshy Limbaugh and has his vocal mannerisms and has the man’s body language down pat. His Limbaugh is a smarmy opportunist who may or may not believe all the nonsense he spouts about minorities, women, immigrants, and gays. The revue also endows Limbaugh with a messianic complex that could be literary license or  it could be prophetic.

        As a counterweight, the revue injects Hilary Clinton and Barney Frank, as Limbaugh antagonists, both with satirical bull’s-eyes on their backs as symbols of a bumbling, wavering, wishy washy Democrat party. The show has fun with Frank’s sexual preferences and especially with Clinton when she was a hippie Hilary Rodham and now, when she is Hilary Clinton and singing plaintively for respect. Colleen Murray is superior as the woman, climaxed by Hilary’s “Respect” song.

        The comic portraits of the Democrats are outrageous enough, but the revue’s heart resides in the anti-Limbaugh, anti-George Bush, anti-conservative camp.

        The show delivers most of its satirical thrusts through its score, a collection of bright and knowing songs featuring Shanoff’s ingenious rhymes. The creators have done their homework and they happily turn Limbaugh’s words and ideas against him. Furman and Shanoff presume their audience knows Limbaugh and his brand of conservatism, and they milk the man’s crackpot ideas (at least to liberal ears) to the max, volleying additional comic assaults at Limbaugh’s lack of formal education, his social and political tunnel vision, and his pill popping.

        The score is a pastiche of Broadway tunes, and spectators can make a running parlor game out of identifying original sources for the numbers. I spotted borrowings from “Les Miserables,” “Wicked,” “Rent,” “A Chorus Lines,’ “Grease,” and “Cabaret” and I doubtless missed at least a half dozen other musical references.

        In addition to Sutton, Murray, and Beard, the ensemble consists of Bumper Carroll, Kevin Sciretta, and Cayne Collier (especially good as the Reverend Rightwing). This is a really funny show, performed at a brisk pace under Matt Hovde’s knowing direction. The production avoids the smugness and self-satisfaction that can afflict political satire. A few of the scene transitions are a little awkward but that can be ironed out. Shanoff also serves as musical director and leads the accompanying trio from his keyboard.  Lisa McQueen devised the bouncy and sometimes droll choreography.

        The production currently runs only three performances a week, sharing the stage space with the regular Second City e.t.c. revue. But positive word of mouth should lead to a transfer to another theater for a regular run.

        “Rush Limbaugh! The Musical” plays through March 24 at the Second City e.t.c. cabaret, 1608 North Wells Street in Piper’s Alley. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25. Call 312 337 3992 or visit

        The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars       February 2010.

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Studs Terkel’s Not Working

At Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff


        CHICAGO—The new revue at SecondCity e.t.c. is so funny that spectators may not recognize at first the audacity of the show. There are skits on race and gender and politics that really push the envelope, but the bits are wrapped around so many laughs that the material seems safer than it really is.

        The revue, number 33 in e.t.c. history, is called “Stud’s Terkel’s Not Working,” a salute to Terkel, the patriarch of Chicago culture for decades, who died last year. One of Terkel’s best-known books is called “Working” and explores how Chicagoans work and what they think about their jobs.  In the spirit of Terkel’s life and writings, the revue delves heavily into Chicago, its neighborhoods, its sex life, its politicians, and the gripes of ordinary residents trying to survive in a dire economic and social climate.

        Almost all the revue’s material is blue ribbon, and even the lesser sketches and blackouts have some comic value, thanks to a superior six-member ensemble deftly directed by Matt Hovde. At my performance an understudy named Cayne Collier substituted for regular Timothy Edward Mason and turned out to be the star of the show, delectably combining his performing skills with some razor sharp material. That Second City could plug in an understudy with such talent again validates the depth of the performing pool at this exalted cabaret institution.

        Collier showed most brightly as the leader of one of the revue’s several improvisation sketches. He impersonates the author of hard-boiled detective stories who plucks a ringside patron from the audience to play his detective hero. There is always a certain amount of luck in any improv, and Collier was fortunate in picking a young man who flowed into the sketch with good cheer and some wit. Still, Collier’s manipulation from the stage was masterful and the bit was a hoot from first line to last. Collier was also half of skit about two gay men lightly bickering at home.

        One daring sketch portrays a tour bus ride that features a severely disabled tourist in a wheelchair who speaks with the aid of a computer voice simulator.  When a show can extract belly laughs from that hugely politically incorrect premise, you know the evening is on the right track.

        In probably the most startling skit of the evening, Christina Anthony plays an African American woman from Chicago’s South Side who hawks “regular black children” for adoption by white couples. Why go all the way to Africa to adopt a black baby when there is such a plentiful supply available around 63rd street? The bit is funny (it would be grotesque otherwise) and it also explores racial notions that can churn the spectator’s mind after the laughter subsides.

        The show satirizes racial stereotypes in a sketch about how upscale white Chicagoans try to prove their hip-ness by assuming ludicrous black affectations. And Barack Obama is tweaked for the quality of his blackness in a very funny group sketch portraying six former U.S. presidents exhibited in a Hall of Presidents. George Bush gets his share of ribbing but so does William Henry Harrison, probably the least memorable president in American history.

        Collier dominates a second act bit exhorting the crowd to fight the Chicago political machine and soliciting suggestions about what outrages city residents the most. The suggestions probably are the same every performance, led by taxes and the parking meter nightmare. But what could have been a predictable exercise in civic indignation is hilarious, thanks to Collier’s high-energy sense of grievance.

        Andy St. Clair, Amanda Blake Davis  and Tom Flanigan are the senior members of the ensemble with newcomer Beth Melewski.  Along with Collier (and presumably Mason) and Anthony they all mesh perfectly.

       Second City revues have never been concerned with glitzy physical effects but the e.t.c. stage has replaced the traditional rear doors with translucent panels that allow for some nice visual effects, courtesy of Kevin Depinet and Amy Jackson (set design) and Lee Brackett’s lighting. Credit Michael Descoteaux for fine musical accompaniment. But it’s the actors and their words that hold sway in this very successful slice of edgy comedy.

        “Studs Terkel’s Not Working” is playing an open run at the Second City e.t.c. cabaret theater, 1608 North Wells Street. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $25. Call 312 337 3992 or visit

        The show gets a rating of four stars.        August 2009

        Contact Dan at



Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?

At Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff


        CHICAGO—Given the turbulent national and international headlines these days, anticipation ran high that SecondCity e.t.c. would come out with its satirical knives flashing in the company’s new revue. The targets have seldom been riper—the new president-elect, the economy, the war in Iraq.

        The revue’s title of “Brother, Can you Spare Some Change?” promised a topical look at the state of the union, and the evening began with much promise, delivering a singing hymn to Barack Obama as the super hero who will save our country and the human race. After that droll introductory number, the evening was pretty much hit or miss.

        Whether the individual sketches were bull’s-eyes or flubs, the performance level was exceptionally high from a veteran e.t.c. nucleus of Amanda Blake Davis, Timothy Edward Mason, and Andy St. Clair, supplemented by Laura Grey and Tom Flanigan and highly promising newcomer Christina Anthony.

        The best bit of the night was the first act finale in which the full cast went into opera mode to lampoon Mayor Daley and especially his plans to lure the Olympic Games to Chicago. The number particularly harvested some stiletto wit through the use of subtitles.

        The evening was also fortunate in its improv segments, all of which focused on an audience member. Anthony was funny and authentic as the leader of a Supremes-style singing trio flirting with an audience member named Andrew. St. Clair started the second act as a bumbling old Southern lawyer defending an audience member on a murder charge. The bit went on a little too long but St. Clair still milked it for plenty of laughs. And a young woman was pulled out of the audience to participate in a mimed pool game with very funny sound effects.

        Perhaps the most telling skit of the night skewered the economy bailouts dispensed from Washington. A family comes to their senator’s office to ask for a $63,000 bailout to help them through the present hard times. The family then reads off a litany of multi billion dollar bailouts already granted to major corporations, which, if divided about America’s families, would average $72,000 a household. This bit earned rueful applause as well as laughs from the audience.

        Unfortunately, there were too many concepts that didn’t work. Laura Grey, a perky young talent, got trapped in a pointless monologue about Amelia Earhart and a one-joke sketch about a magic act gone wrong. Blake dashed through a sales pitch on how to accelerate the grieving process, as odd an idea for a comic sketch as I’ve seen at Second City in a long time. Flanigan played a hardhearted boss who trotted out a Cockney waif (poor Laura Grey again) to defuse an employee’s legitimate request for time off or more money.  Very peculiar and not very funny.

        The revue touched some familiar topical bases, like a couple pondering the positives and negatives of having an interracial baby. There was a bit about facebooks, and a dialogue between a stateside young man and his military brother in Iraq that brought the dangers of the war home with disturbing realism beneath the humor. Mason got an opportunity to display his acting chops as a young man who has a nervous breakdown in a supermarket checkout line.

        The blackout quickies were mostly spot-on, like a fast bit that defuses the importance of trigonometry to the average person. And the funniest line of the evening regrettably is also unprintable, but it deals with the fragrance of incense candles.

        The revue ends on an unusual touchy-feely note as the ensemble urges the country to “Hang on” while Obama tries to fix the mess we are in. It’s an elegiac counterpoint to the opening satirical number, with its heart in the right place but not what one usually expects from an edgy Second City revue.

        Behind the scenes, Bruce Pirrie is the director and Camellia Koo designed the basic set, which abandons Second City tradition by omitting the customary rear stage doors. Performers enter and exit from the wings. Michael Descoteaux is the efficient musical director.

        “Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?” is playing an open run at the Second City e.t.c. cabaret theater, 1608 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $25. Call 312 337 3992 or visit  

        The show gets a rating of three stars.    December  2008

        Contact Dan at



Campaign Supernova

at Second City e.t.c.

By Dan Zeff

        CHICAGO—The latest SecondCity e.t.c. revue is funny, incisive, and may be introducing the institution’s next big star to local audiences.

        The name of the revue, the company’s 31st, is “Campaign Supernova, or How Many Democrats Does It Take to Lose an Election?” The title suggests we are in for an evening of satirical salvos aimed at Election Year 2008, and so we are. The revue takes shots at both parties, all three presidential candidates, the electoral process, and the voters. The tone is rueful, comical, slightly on the liberal side, with just a tinge of anger.

        But “Campaign Supernova” isn’t just about McCain and Hillary and Obama and the Democrats and Republicans. The revue saves some of its most pointed and humorous material for nonpolitical targets, especially the pretensions of those who fancy themselves hip, with it, and in.

        Now it’s time to talk about Megan Grano. Like all but one of the six-member e.t.c. ensemble, she is new to the Second City stage. Spano is a willowy young lady who can act and sing and moves with a dancer’s grace. Facially, she looks like a youthful Diane Keaton and she is terrific. Spano first gets the stage to herself as feisty Kate Martin, a woman who sets herself up as a guru for saving money. In working off the audience, Grano demonstrates a quick wit and a skill at improvising that stands high in the lofty Second City tradition.

        Grano is the eye catcher in the revue but her five colleagues are all top drawer. This may be the best e.t.c. unit in recent years and if they stay together they should provide some magical moments on Wells Street. A pixyish Laura Grey pulls off the very tricky bit of impersonating Charlie Chaplin, bringing a customer on stage for several minutes of inspired mime. Timothy Edward Mason lectures a ringside spectator on how to be popular by dumbing down. Amanda Blake Davis, Tom Flanigan, and Andy St. Clair (the only e.t.c. veteran in the cast) all have splendid moments, individually and as a group.

        The show does not hide from risk taking. One of the funniest and best-written skits comes in the second act and it deals with multiple sclerosis. One of the six people at a gather of friends has MS, a condition she has been nurturing for sympathy for years, and her friends are weary of it. Not a promising line for comedy but it works joyously, especially when Spano deadpans “This may surprise you, but some people think I’m bitchy.”

        There is a great musical duet between St. Clair and Mason that touches all the bases on politically incorrect stereotypes. Flanigan and St. Clair play a pair of inept 7th grader basketball players who ride the bench for their school team. The bit is a little long but still amusing.  A soon to be married young man confesses to his bride to be that beneath his liberal trappings he is a closet conservative. The three females in the cast sing a sprightly close harmony number with a title that cannot be mentioned in family company that surveys the sexual peccadilloes of our political leaders.

        And so it goes—original and humorous material deftly delivered. It’s been fashionable to complain that Second City isn’t breaking enough new ground and that its edge isn’t cutting enough. But how many different ways can a comedy ensemble poke fun at the national political scene, the economy, and our prejudices—the fodder that feeds the Second City comedy machine? “Campaign Supernova” doesn’t reinvent the wheel in this show, but gets highest marks for sprucing up its familiar subject matter with wit and invention. The musical finale actually says something fresh about that most abused of current political buzzwords, “change.”

        Director Matt Hovde gives the revue a fine sense of pace. His performers were really ready for opening night and the production was tight and well rehearsed, without losing its spontaneity. There is some especially creative use of slide projections and recorded sound.

        Virtually all of the sketches and blackouts have a strong finish, a deficiency in some previous productions. There isn’t improvisation in the traditional sense but all the members of the company know how to maximize interaction with the spectators to terrific comic effect, like engaging the customers in a pop quiz on voting. And there is Megan Grano. Catch her now and get in on the ground floor of what should be a sky’s the limit career.

        “Campaign Supernova” is playing an open run at Second City e.t.c., 1608 North Wells Street. Performances are Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $19 and $25. Call 312 337 3992.

        The show gets a rating of four stars.          May 2008

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