Depraved New World
At the Second City Mainstage
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—The Second City Mainstage company has turned over two-thirds of its ensemble for its latest revue, number 102 called “Depraved New World.” But the more the personnel changes, the more things stay the same at the improv emporium. The artistic management has gone four-for-four in its replacements with at least one player a solid bet for future stardom.
The newcomers are individually and collectively terrific, playing with a sharp, confident, comic style that often elevates the material to a level more witty and incisive than it really is. “Depraved New World” is continuously entertaining and only upon reflection might the spectator realize that the skills of the entire cast burnish the skits and blackouts with a comic sheen that the material would lack in less creative hands.
The current company is anchored by the two hold-overs, Tawny Newsome, who was so brilliant in the recently concluded “Let Them Eat Chaos,” and Steve Waltien, he of the rubber face and rubber body. The new names are Chelsea Devantez, John Hartman, Mike Kosinski, and Emily Walker. They all were fine on opening night, but Hartman was the performer that grabbed the spotlight.
Hartman is a short, slender young man who could pass for a teenager. He has a riveting stage presence and his boyish appearance works for him no matter what character he portrays, from cute to abrasive. Hartman is a natural for the Second City style of skit and sketch comedy but I suspect he would be a wow in a straight play, especially a comedy. The man has all the tools.
The new revue starts out exploring the theme of what’s really in our heads as we interact politely with the people around us. The show returns to that idea occasionally after the early scenes but there is really no narrative to the presentation. And there isn’t much political or topical satire—no Rahm Emanuel jokes, nothing about the hapless Chicago Cubs, and very little Obama referencing. There are some funny tweaks on our shaky self image as well as racial and feminist and gay attitudes. Hartman, who is white, is a hoot as a teenager who is embarrassed by looking so Caucasian while his black mother (Newsome) tries to steers him into honoring his invisible blackness in public.
One humorous skit has Hartman and Kosinski playing a couple of gay men meeting on a first date and discovering instantly that they have nothing in common. This is a one-joke skit that rises to comic heights through the very funny interaction between the two actors.
Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg
The revue delivers its improvisation bits in the second act, the cast soliciting suggestions from the spectators and in one bit bringing someone up from the audience. Either the ensemble was very hot on opening night or they are enormously clever improvisers. Devantez especially flourished in bouncing comic quips off the audience invitee, who was not the most responsive of helpers, but Devantez still managed to drop one zinger after another on him, happily assisted by the droll Kosinski.
The peak moment of the show came from Newsome. The cast asked the audience to suggest a food someone had eaten during the day and selected avocado from the shouted suggestions. Newsome then launched into a breathless tongue-twisting monologue on the healthy attributes of avocados that put one in mind of Danny Kaye firing off one of his speed-of-sound monologues. Even if Newsome’s piece was partly an all-purpose spiel that could accommodate almost any food suggestion, it was still a stunning piece of verbalization that drew the biggest ovation of the night.
Emily Walker had the least opportunity to shine, generally restricted to emotional and very loud outbursts. She’s a large lady physically and a sketch with the diminutive Hartman is a natural comic opportunity that never happened.
Bob Knuth’s set has a clean, modern, minimalist look. Long gone are the rear stage half doors that were a Second City signature for so many years. But the show upholds the tradition of using wooden chairs to provide the chief scenery for the sketches, occasionally augmented by Mike Tutaj’s projections. Kyle Anderson contributed some startling dramatic lighting effects. Mick Napier’s direction kept the action moving at a snappy pace and overall beautifully harnessed the cast’s abundant comic skills. Napier had the show razor sharp for opening night, no fluffs and no sags in momentum. In his first show as music director, Jesse Case was just fine at the keyboards.
Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg
The revamped ensemble has the potential to be one of the best Second City casts ever. All the performers have distinct personalities and they can all act. They can also sing well. This is the most musical group I can remember. The show would profit from a couple of real home run sketches, preferably on an edgy current events theme to balance out the surreal flavor of a lot of the current material. But the versatility and comic skills of the cast trump any quibbles about occasional less than A list sketches.
“Depraved New City” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets began at $23. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.SecondCity.com
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
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Let Them Eat Chaos
At the Second City Mainstage
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Veteran Second City patrons may notice a different look and approach to the new Mainstage revue (number 101) “Let Them Eat Chaos.” The traditional half door at the rear of the stage has been replaced by crimson drapes that mask the entrance/exit. There are elaborate projections that occasionally give the revue a New Age look, something new in the usually low tech revues. Improvisation is minimal, limited to a few suggestions solicited from the spectators to instigate an improv bit.
More striking, the production under Matt Hovde’s seamless directing flows almost like a surrealistic dream. There is little of those customary “And now we take you to…” announcements that separate skits. The revue carries the viewer from place to place and time to time and idea to idea like it’s the most natural thing in the comic world to mock obsessive texting and then move to the Panama Canal where a dimwitted sailor is enchanted by a mythological Siren who casts droll aspersions on American foreign policy through the years. One bit starts in Vienna in 1918 where an elderly music teacher meets with his young student violinist and then segways to a black American and a white Scotsman, soldiers on a World War II battlefield.
Photo by Clayton Hauck
The manner may be fresh, but it’s still Second City, which means the company takes its droll satirical shots at the world around us, both from the stage and from the theater aisles. The material twits attitudes on race gender, and personal relationships (dating, marital, parental), though there isn’t much confrontation with current events and politics. This is not an angry show, but its wry humor hits one bull’s-eye after another in skewering the way we live and the way we think during the early twenty-first century.
The spectator may feel that rap music is old hat now, but not the way Edgar Blackmon and Ross Bryant chant into their microphones. Blackmon (African American) scorches his delivery with acid comments about social injustice, racism, and the hard life in the ghetto. A few feet away, Bryant (white) complains with equal bitterness about the hassles he faces with his condominium board and his outrage at dealing with “The Hobbit” separated into three movies.
Some of the sketches are more weird than incisive, but no less original or funny. The ensemble joins in on an extended riff on the importance of choosing a name for a newborn infant. Katie Rich exhorts singer-guitarist Tawny Newsome to give her sad songs a happier spin. Another bit puts forth the theory that the most advantaged young people are the cutest, so if you want to thrive in modern society, go for cute.
Satirically, probably the best sketch centers on a giant futuristic computer that preserves holograms of people living in the early 2000’s. With a little help from the audience, the hologram people enunciate the points of view and thought processes that make us look pretty silly in real life. Some of the funniest lines were tossed off in passing. I don’t think I was the only spectator who missed some of these casual verbal gems because I couldn’t hear them clearly. I know it’s not part of the Second City culture, but some thought might be given to giving the performs body microphones to ensure that everyone can hear and enjoy every bon mot.
The ensemble consists of the usual complement of three males and three females. Most are veterans of Second City (only Ross Bryant is a rookie). Each of them brings a distinct physical presence to the show and they all establish their own personalities (Holly Laurent and Steve Waltien complete the cast). Their rapport and compatibility, whether in duos or in ensemble skits, is exceptional. The show was in great shape on opening night, the tricky staging and material flowing in a natural and inevitable progression. The six performers have the potential to be one of the all-time best groups in this cabaret theater’s dazzling history.
Photo by Clayton Hauck
Special props go to scenic and graphic designer Bob Knuth and to projections designer Mike Tutaj for supplying the creative visual look of the show. Matt Gawryk designed the lighting and music director Julie B. Nichols is responsible for the atmospheric incidental music and also chips in with splendid and virtually continuous accompaniment on assorted musical instruments (keyboards, gong, and mandolin) from the side of the stage.
“Let Them Eat Chaos” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $23 and $28. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.SecondCity.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. April 2013
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Who Do We Think We Are?
At the Second City Mainstage
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Second City calls its 100th mainstage revue “Who Do We Think We Are?” The question is rhetorical. For more than half a century, Second City has been the citadel of improvisation theater in the United States, with an astonishing alumni list that runs from John Belushi and Alan Arkin to Tina Fey and Bill Murray.
The six members of the current mainstage ensemble could be forgiven for feeling they carry the weight of history on their performing shoulders as they present the company’s centennial revue. To their credit, the cast blasts full speed ahead with the kind of edgy comedy that put Second City in the theatrical map. The company lobs its satirical grenades at national and Chicago politics, race, gender, and domestic and personal conflicts—the raw material that fueled the first 99 shows.
Not everything works equally efficiently in “Who Do We Think We Are?” The first act in particular could use some beefing up. But the second act hits its stride, especially in the sharp banter among all six performers in the ensemble bits.
The ensemble consists of the traditional three males and three females. The cast are all veterans of the company, either on the mainstage or as part of the developmental Second City Touring Company. They are young, animated (this is one of the most physically energetic revues I’ve seen), and versatile. The troupe has good rapport, though there are no emerging superstars of the Dan Ackroyd-John Candy-Gilda Radner-George Wendt ilk, at least not yet.
The ladies tend to dominate “Who Do We Think We Are?”, partly because they have the best material or at least do the most with it. Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, and Mary Sohn will warm the hearts of feminists with their in-your-face portraits of young women who are the match of any guy they meet. The best repartee of the night comes from a sketch with all three women, plus Edgar Blackmon in drag from the men’s side, gather at a school reunion to dish with disgust and gusto about men and relationships.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Blackmon and his male cohorts Tom Baltz and Steve Waltien get in some shots, though a potential funny running bit about Barak Obama (Blackmon) and Mitt Romney (Waltien) kept ending before it really got going. Blackmon has Obama’s super cool mannerisms and voice down pat and he should be allowed more stage time in this election season, possibly in an improve question-and-answer session with the audience. Romney gets only token stage time, but Waltien still suggests there are comic possibilities for his Mitt, given more exposure time.
The revue is generous with the number of improvisation sketches. There is a funny riff on an audience suggestion of Mike Ditka as a topic. The most startling improv moment on opening night came from audience response to the proposition that spectators could sponsor an improvisation topic for hard cash. Someone actually put up $80 to underwrite an improv sketch about lesbians. Overall the company collected maybe $200 from the crowd for the privilege of nominating a subject, all the money going to Planned Parenthood (“whether you like it or not”). Katie Rich was the quick-witted and funny hostess for the sale, one of the most bizarre concepts I’ve ever seen in a Second City improvisation. But it worked, at least for one night.
The revue’s production values consist of high decibel taped rock and rap music, live keyboard accompaniment from Julie B. Nichols (who occasionally competed too loudly with the dialogue on stage), and Matt Gawryk’s dramatic, sometimes startling lighting. The set by Sarah Ross is basically two doors at the rear of the stage on either side of an opening for entrances and exits. The dominant props are those matched wooden chairs that have been part of the Second City ambience since 1959. Director Matt Hovde keeps the show moving at an accelerated velocity, obviously encouraging the athletic, almost gymnastic physical pace of the show.
Photo Credit: Clayton Hauck
“Who Do We Think We Are?” could stand a couple of blockbuster sketches to pep up the first act but after the intermission the revue elevates itself with funnier, more incisive material seasoned with a garnish of raunchiness. At its best, the production is a quality reminder of what has made Second City such a civic treasure for so many decades.
“Who Do We Think We Are?” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $23 and $28. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.SecondCity.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 stars
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.April 2012
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South Side of Heaven
At the Second City Mainstage
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—A Second City revue commonly has one African American performer, either male or female. “South Side of Heaven,” the new Mainstage production, features two black males, which may be a Second City first. Sam Richardson and Edgar Blackmon are both extremely talented, though they have different skill sets. The new show utilizes both to inject some of the funniest and cleverest racial humor in Second City history.
Richardson and Blackmon are featured with the white Timothy Edward Mason and Tim Robinson in a sketch that is an instant Second City classic. The four men gather to watch a Cubs-White Sox game on television, exploiting the racial and cultural divide between the South Side White Sox (read black) and the Northside Cubs (read white).
This theme isn’t new to Second City but the sketch is the most humorous and incisive exploration of the Cubs-White Sox dichotomy I’ve ever seen on a Second City stage. The sketch includes a take on the N- word, now seemingly everywhere in American racial discussion and confrontation, which is both hilarious and thought provoking.
Richardson and Blackmon even take the audience into a black home, maybe for the first time in the cabaret theater’s history, to dramatize a domestic confrontation between a black parent and a schoolboy who is embarrassed because he wears Payless shoes to school. In addition, Richardson performs a spot-on Barack Obama, even when strip dancing in skimpy underwear.
The work of Richardson and Blackmon gives “South Side of Heaven” an edgy quality that had been ceded to the smaller Second City e.t.c. troupe next door in recent revues. The two complement each other, Blackmon the slender young hipster and Richardson the bulkier slightly older and steadier figure. But the pair doesn’t do it alone. The cast of six, mostly newcomers to the Mainstage, is filled with solid comedians and more important, fine actors. The new revue consists almost entirely of extended skits, with very few quickie blackouts. The evening relies on well-written playlets, virtually all of them winners. One sketch is a misfire and the finale sketch dramatic and comic momentum. Otherwise, everything works, especially for viewers ready for a dose of darker humor.
The two females in the ensemble are Holly Laurent and Katie Rich and both give as good as they get in partnership with their four male colleagues. Both are featured with Mason in a funny sketch in a gambling casino, the ladies as hard-boiled amateur gamblers with Mason as an elderly player virtually on life support, joining them at the machines. The kicker is that Mason turns out to be God. Laurent has a fine bit as a conservative trying to copy with having a black president. But overall the material tends to favor the four males.
Improvisation doesn’t figure large in “South Side of Heaven,” but there are a couple of bits that involve ringside customers selected by the performers for comic blowback. Mason, the veteran of the company, is especially funny as a Transportation Security Administration worker who gets his jollies watching fliers appear naked on the airport x-ray machines.
Robinson has a funny satirical bit as the departing Mayor Daley, a sendoff with some sharp edges. Robinson and Rich pair up in an initially innocuous commercial promoting a brand of pizza rolls that turns maniacally out of control. Mason and Robinson spiral into comic insanity performing one of those furniture outlet commercials that populate local TV.
The misfire is a sketch showing the operator of a horse-drawn carriage savagely beating his animal as the poor critter tries to pull the vehicle in the tourist area of Chicago. The bit is cruel and pointless and made the audience uncomfortable.
But overall “South Side of Heaven” scores high marks for both its content and seamless smooth staging, which points to director Billy Bungeroth as the real hero of the enterprise. His facetious biography in the playbill provides little information, but he’s clearly a shrewd man around a revue and likely could accomplish notable things with a straight play, especially one with some pointy content.
“South Side of Heaven” has some notable production values, rarely a consideration in earlier Second City days when a few wooden chairs and a couple of rear stage half doors made up the revue’s physical look. The set design by Sarah Ross and especially Amanda Sweger’s lighting give the revue a sheen that veteran patrons will find novel and welcome. Julie B. Nichols is the musical director, playing a self-effacing but essential part in the evening’s success.
“South Side of Heaven” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $22 and $27. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.secondcity.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. April 2011
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Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies
At the Second City Mainstage Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Earlier this year the Second City e.t.c. company gave its new revue the jaunty and upbeat title “The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life.” The new revue on the main stage is called “Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies.”
Clearly the mood has darkened at Second City, and perhaps in the country as a whole. Second City productions generally have never lacked for attitude, but “Spoiler Alert” raises the bar on anger, cynicism, and bitterness. Fortunately, the revue is also funny, especially the second act, but any feel-good element is long gone.
Timothy Edward Mason and Shelly Grossman set the tone for the edgy revue with a two-character assault on do-gooders. The bit starts with Wilson accusing Mason of taking seven Chicago Tribunes from a sales box but just paying for one. Mason then angrily snarls at Grossman that the papers contain the obituary of his son, a soldier killed by a roadside bomb in the Middle East. Grossman claims she was just trying to do the right thing in stopping Mason’s newspaper theft. The two then go back and forth, trying to outdo each other in describing nasty things they perpetrated in their lives. The exchange gets lots of laughs but beneath the humor lays a grim layer of resentment and belligerence.
There is a running gag located in an office about a young woman (Emily Wilson), a single mother who learns she has been laid off her urgently needed job. Management pulled her name out of a hat in their callous downsizing. Again, funny on the surface and desolate beneath.
A sketch near the end of the evening lampoons the TV show “America’s Funniest Videos.” The winning video portrayed a bride being thrown from her horse on her wedding day. The young woman makes an entrance on stage in a wheel chair, the accident making her a paraplegic. It’s a funny bit but laughing at the expense of the crippled bride is a guilty pleasure.
Most of the skits deal with personal situations. There is very little political satire and only a dab of satire on racism. Barack Obama is mentioned once in passing, the Right Wing (always a favorite Second City target) is subjected to ridicule in just a couple of quickie bits. Local politics takes the stage briefly in a funny two-character sketch set at the Taste of Chicago between a Polish vendor (Allison Bills) and a vendor from Africa (Sam Richardson).
In the best bit of the uneven first act, Mason and Tim Robinson impersonate a father and son having a heart-to-heart talk on the son’s wedding day. The son is getting cold feet, and in reassuring the lad about marrying, the father bares the miseries of his own marriage. Later, Robinson and Shelly Grossman play dysfunctional parents who are a constant embarrassment to their young daughter (Wilson).
There is even some serious gunplay, with Wilson concluding the running office gag by wiping out her colleagues with a rifle. The office gag provides the most inventive material of the evening, with the performers playing inanimate office objects, like a water cooler. The revue does not spare the animal kingdom. A bird-loving rifle-toting woman wipes out a cluster of squirrels for poaching on her bird feeder.
On opening night, the revue’s two improvisation interludes both worked beautifully. In the first, the company solicited objects from the audience. Grossman then constructed a terrific impromptu monologue using the items as inspiration. Later, Robinson comes on stage to read his original play and drafts members of the audience to play characters. It can be tricky, orchestrating four reluctant, giggling spectators to perform in a comic sketch but Robinson held it all together.
The ensemble is a mix of Second City veterans—Mason, Wilson, and Grossman—and newcomers—Richardson, Bills, and Robinson. Mason is the first among equals in the company, a fine actor rather than a comedian and someone who belongs in a featured role in a strong straight play.
“Spoiler Alert” breaks with Second City tradition in Amy Jackson’s set, which eliminates the traditional doors at the back of the stage and replaces them with a large abstract photo that resembles a giant multi-floored parking ramp. The show also continues the recent practice of loading the dialogue with four letter words, though given the in-your-face nature of the sketches, the profanity is probably justified. The reliable Matt Hovde directs and Julie B. Nichols is the musical director.
“Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage Theatre, 1616 North Wells Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $22 and $27. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.secondcity.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. July 2010
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Taming of the Flu
At the Second City Mainstage
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—There aren’t many mentions of the H1N1 virus in the new SecondCity mainstage revue “Taming of the Flu,” though the company did provide opening night spectators with small vials of sanitizer hand lotion.
But the show does touch on a great many other weighty matters, like race, photo enforced intersections, twittering, the president’s health care plan, irritable cab drivers, Canadian expatriates, gays and lesbians, and the mandatory shot at the futility of the Bears and the Cubs.
The sense of the revue is that we live in beleaguered times, personally and professionally. Technology is all around us, and not necessarily friendly. Sometimes people get along, but often they do not, and in highly belligerent ways. It would all be grim if most of “Taming of the Flu” weren’t so funny.
The newest revue is the 97th in Second City’s 50-year history. The format remains the same, a sextet of talented young comedian/actors soaring through a rapid-fire collection of skits and blackouts. This show is light on improvisation, a couple of attempts falling flat on opening night because of unresponsive spectators, though the performers salvaged the moments with some quick wit. But improvisation is always a tricky business and the next night the improv might have been the highlight of the evening.
The ensemble is mostly mainstage veterans—Emily Wilson, Shelly Grossman, and Lauren Ash on the female side and Anthony LeBlanc, Brad Morris, and Andy St. Clair representing the males, though the men spent one skit wearing wigs as mothers in drag. The star of the evening is Wilson, a versatile actress/singer who is attached to most of the top materials in the show. St. Clair and Morris also benefit from some of the revue’s best bits and make the most of their opportunities.
Still, everyone is fine, though newcomer LeBlanc is a little underused and unfortunately is stuck in a running gag about an angry jilted lover who keeps the other members of the ensemble hostage in a room because he has a package of dynamite inside his jacket. The sketch never builds beyond its one joke premise, though it does have an explosive off stage finish.
But below par items are rare in the show. The Chicago driver’s fury against photo enforcement cameras got an appreciative giggle from the audience. Ash accompanies herself on the guitar in a solo about a Canadian who moves to the United States. The tongue was firmly lodged in the cheek as the young lady serenaded the audience with the virtues of the United States over Canada and her joy at living on American soil.
Wilson portrays a straight young woman who interrogates a young lesbian seatmate on a trans continental airplane flight. Wilson started off the evening’s hilarity in a sketch about a woman infuriated that Brad Morris was more involved with his twittering than in holding an adult conversation with her. Again, the shock of recognition rolled through the audience.
Grossman is featured in a weird but funny number about a foreign woman who loses her home to foreclosure and then launches into a song and dance announcing over and over that “I am happy.” Grossman also stars in a solo item about a woman running for alderman in Chicago on the most self-effacing personal campaign in the history of politics.
St. Clair elevates a funny sketch about a Las Vegas style Mafioso trying to selling health insurance to the audience. That was one of the improv items that got no help from the patrons, but St. Clair did just fine with his own hairy-chested bravado. St. Clair joins with Morris on a funny and extended two-hander about a couple of Chicago policemen on bicycle patrol taking a break and surveying the Chicago scene with much comic cynicism.
There is anger in the satire conveyed by the cast’s three females impersonating the betrayed wives of adulterous senators. Morris solos in maybe the funniest single bit in the show, a foreign cab driver enumerating to his invisible backseat customer why taxi fares needed to be raised. This sketch belongs in the Second City Hall of Fame.
The second act tails off a bit in the middle with a sequence of brief unrelated bits that are worth a chuckle but don’t light up the stage. But that is also the act that delivers the taxi driver sketch and the two cops on their bikes, so the dead spots should be soon forgotten.
In the last major sketch, Morris and Ash impersonate French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his sex wife Carla Bruni who solicit questions from the audience about socialism in France, not exactly a topic geared to rouse the spectators to shouting out queries. Possibly a more accessible topic might bring the audience more resolutely into the material. Morris and Ash work well together and sounded able to turn any reasonable audience question into a bright humorous and satirical retort.
Mick Napier directs the show with his typically sharp comic sense. The production has pace and solid visual values from Amy Jackson’s ornate set (the traditional rear stage half doors are no more) and Lee Brackett’s lighting. In a nice touch, Ruby Streak, Second City’s stalwart musical director since 1977, is given a brief keyboard solo spot to open the second act.
“Taming of the Flu” is playing an open run at the Second City mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $25. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.secondcity.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars. December 2009Contact Dan at email@example.com
America: All Better!
At the SecondCity Mainstage
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—The latest revue on the Second City Mainstage certainly has its fingers on the national pulse. As one would expect, the show is loaded with Barack Obama material. There are also sketches on racism, the dismal economy, and politics (local, state, and national). On the non-current events front, the revue provides bits about single and marital relationships, with a heavy tilt toward sex.
Most of the material is funny and occasionally incisive, though too many of the bits need snappier endings. Still, the show rises above the decently entertaining only a few times, but those are moments to treasure.
The first golden bit of the night doesn’t appear until the first act finale. The entire ensemble re-creates a meeting between Mayor Daley and a visiting delegation from the Olympic Games to assess Chicago’s bid for the 2016 summer games. The delegation includes actor Javier Bardeen, representing Spain, and soccer star Pele, representing Brazil. On the other side is the mayor and members of his entourage.
The sketch is a riot of barely concealed insults and misunderstandings between the foot-in-the-mouth mayor and the suspicious visitors. The wisecracks and zingers came so fast and furious that I had trouble keeping up, especially when the performers muttered their lines. But it was one of the funniest slices of satire to invigorate a Mainstage revue in years.
The next magic comic moment comes in the second act. Shelly Gossman impersonates an Eastern European gymnast performing her routine on the narrow wooden rail that divides the seating area in the cabaret. Gossman’s gymnast tiptoes over customer drinks under the guidance of her coaches, who provide running comic commentary. Patrons are brought into her routine along the way. It’s all hilarious, original, and potentially dangerous for Gossman. One slip on an errant ice cube from a customer beverage could send her tumbling to the floor.
Finally, Anthony LeBlanc delivers a hilarious song about interracial love and sex, accompanying himself on the guitar. The song is funny and cuts to the bone of attitudes toward black-white erotic attitudes. The song also is pretty R rated. Overall, I don’t recall a Second City revue with as much profanity and as much explicit comment on sex. A lot of it is funny and true, but earlier Second City revues were just as funny and just as true exploring similar material with not so much as a “hell” or “damn” uttered from the stage.
There were some other good moments. One ensemble bit shifted between theater and pseudo reality as Michael Patrick O’Brien suddenly breaks character to propose to a startled Shelly Gossman. At first it seems like the real thing, but it’s really a spoof with a nice quirky spin.
The revue is light on improvisation. The main bit involved a performer wearing a polar bear head who interrogates a ringside customer about global warming among other topics. On opening night it worked well, largely because the customer said he was an opera singer, which gave the performer plenty of room for comic maneuvering.
The ensemble consists of seven performers, one more than the
traditional allotment at Second City. The group is a mix of Mainstage veterans
and newcomers. They are all quality performers, though nobody steps forward, at
least for the present, as a distinctive performing personality to follow in the
footsteps of previous Second City stars.
The complete roster includes Gossman, LeBlanc, O’Brien, Lauren Ash, Joe Canale, Brad Morris, and Emily Wilson. Canale was especially effective in the show’s comic domestic riffs about child rearing, marriage, and, of course, sex. Wilson has an agreeably abrasive edge to her work, enhanced by her flaming red hair.
Matt Hovde directs and the eternal Ruby Streak is the musical director. Camellia Koo designed the minimalist set and Lisa McQueen created the choreography.
“America: All Better!” aims for all the right targets, and it’s slightly deflating that the troupe doesn’t hit more satiric home runs. But the show overall won’t disappoint, and at its best the revue is well up to the exalted Second City mark.
“America: All Better!” is playing an open run at the Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $25. Call 312 337 3992 or visit www.secondcity.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars. Dec. 2008
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No Country for Old White Men
By Dan ZeffCHICAGO—This being a political year, the new Second City main stage revue, nimbly titled “No Country for Old White Men, “ sharpens its claws at the expense of the three candidates currently in the presidential picture. It’s funny, often razor sharp, and topical, but delivered more in exasperation than in anger, like the skilled Second City ensemble was as bemused and weary as the rest of us as surveying the current political landscape.
revue takes equal opportunity shots at Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton,
and John McCain. There is a wry “a plague on all your houses” tone to
the humor, though the show doesn’t assume quite so even handed an
attitude toward George Bush. Much of the material is performed as
rapid-fire questions aimed at the unseen candidates, underscoring the
absurdity of the campaign spinning that inundates us. There is a
spot-on bit lampooning the upcoming tax rebate and a few quick snipes
at the Iraq war.
Political humor actually takes up only about half of the evening. The other half rummages mostly in the dysfunctional family arena, with clever and incisive skits and blackouts pitting husband against wife, lover against lover, grandparent against grandchild, and parent against offspring. The domestic humor was actually a little edgier than the political material, perhaps because the political targets, through no fault of Second City, are much easier to mock.
And then there are the barbs aimed at the rifts in the national social fabric. One of the revue’s bull’s-eyes is a nifty sketch called “The Race Card,” ridiculing how minorities are quick to take offense at even the most inadvertent verbal comment, either out of hypersensitivity or for their own advantage. In another skit, a white woman demonstrates that she is blacker than her African American friend, a spot-on shot at liberal affectations toward black Americans.
Three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay exchange observations about the various forms of torture they face. At an auto repair shop, a manager and his assistant drench women car owners in comical jargon about nonsensical vehicle parts to jack up their bills. Two health care providers cynically explain why their company provides coverage for everything but illness and injury. Three oddly assorted couples accidentally meet at a Ravinia concert, with a hippie couple supplying marijuana good cheer to the two straight couples.
There isn’t much improvisation in this show. But in one improv bit, the British House of Commons comes to the United States to tell us what’s wrong with our society, guided by topic ideas solicited from the audience. Another improvisation stimulated a possibly over-served ringside customer to inject herself into the action, nimbly handled by the performers who doubtless have dealt with aggressive spectators all their Second City lives.
I have noticed that recent Second City revues, the new one included, don’t much bother with local satire anymore. I can’t remember when Mayor Daley or the governor came in for a volley of ridicule on any Second City stage. However, the revue does make room for a delightfully rueful ballad commemorating the centennial of the Chicago Cubs as the ultimate failure in the National League.
The company now is much more open in its use of four-letter words, fortunately with considerable comic effect. Indeed, the exuberant finale extracts much of its hilarity from the repeated use of the f--- word as the ensemble begs the country’s politicians to give us the truth for a change, after eight years of, well, not giving us the truth.
The ensemble is led by the three male members, all veterans of the Second City system. Ithamar Enriquez continues to grow as a comic actor and comedian and one wonders when he leaves us for the lush comic pastures of California. Brad Morris is a hoot as the auto service manager duping the three women, and Joe Canale plays a rich assortment of slimy characters.
The women are all newer to the main stage, with Amber Ruffin the only returning performer. But Emily Wilson and Shelly Grossman both do well, especially Wilson, a petite redhead with a strong stage presence.
“No Country for Old White Men” will go down as one of the funniest Second City revues of the new millennium and a show with virtually no dead spots. Every sketch and blackout worked at some satirical or comic level, a fine blend of good material and excellent ensemble playing unobtrusively but smoothly directed by Jim Carlson. Ruby Streak, as always, was the musical director.
“No Country for Old White Men” is playing an open run at the Second City main stage, 1650 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 $19 and $25. Call 312 337 3992.
The show gets a rating of four stars. April 2008
For more information: www.secondcity.com
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