Friday, April 17, 2015

Majorly Impressive at Drury Lane Oakbrook, 'Billy Elliot' Remains a Miner/Minor Miracle -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Drury Lane Oakbrook
Thru June 7

Yes, Allison, you should see Billy Elliot at the Drury Lane Oakbrook. It's really fantastic.

Of course, so should a lot of other people, of pretty much all ages (despite a few curse words), but I felt I should first address the pressing interest of my sister, the biggest Billy Elliot fan I know.

Even more than I do, Allison absolutely loves the 2000 British movie about a boy named Billy who wants to learn ballet within a hardscrabble North Eastern England town amidst the miners' strike of 1984-85.

Music, along with dance, is crucial to that film, and the terrific soundtrack features plenty of T.Rex along with great songs from the Jam, Clash and others.

Perhaps due to its heavy Anglofication, the Billy Elliot movie wasn't a huge hit in America, but earned three Oscar nominations, including for director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall.

At some point, Elton John noted that the movie's storyline had the makings for a strong stage musical, for which he wrote a completely original score, with lyrics by Hall, who also served as the book writer.

In 2005, under the direction of Daldry, the musical opened to rave reviews in London, where separately both Allison and I saw and loved it.

Quickly becoming a huge hit, Billy Elliot: The Musical continues to run in the West End, and though I wondered if it was too British to be embraced on Broadway, it wound up having a nice 3+ year run there, starting in October 2008. (Neither I or Allison saw it in New York.)

Rather than initially embark on a true National Tour, in March 2010 Billy Elliot began a "sit-down" production in Chicago intended to run for several months, maybe years (as had Wicked and Jersey Boys).

I wound up seeing it twice at the Oriental Theatre and again loved it, and I'm pretty sure Allison saw it there, too.

Though it earned rave reviews and had production values equal to those in London (and conceivably Broadway), that run ended at the end of November 2010, a bit earlier than its producers supposedly hoped.

A couple of cross-country tours followed, but with those having now concluded, Billy Elliot is beginning to appear in freshly-generated regional productions. The just-opened run at Drury Lane Oakbrook is the first local staging in the Chicagoland area.

Like other self-producing musical theater venues/companies in the Chicago and its suburbs--including Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Paramount Theatre in Aurora, The Mercury Theater in Chicago, Theatre at the Center in Munster and Light Opera Works in Evanston--DRO has consistently shown that the quality of its productions is routinely excellent and at best even exquisite.

Especially in terms of vocal quality, I've found a number of Drury Lane productions to be as good as downtown Chicago, Broadway or London--or pretty darn close to it.

But though the production values in Oakbrook Terrace are also typically quite impressive, Billy Elliot would seem to be a particularly tough musical to get right, due in no small part to the demands of the title role.

But thanks to the terrific singing, dancing (ballet, modern and tap), acting and passable British accent of young Nicolas Dantes--one of two rotating Billys in this production, along with Kyle Halford--I'm pleased to tell Allison, and you, that on Opening Night, Billy Elliott and Billy Elliot were truly outstanding at the Drury Lane Theatre.

And, certainly, the production's merits go far beyond a really talented kid.

As I've hopefully already established, I think the musical itself is first-rate as it intertwines the story of Billy's ambitions with that of a town in turmoil. Opening song "The Stars Look Down" is one of several righteously-robust choral numbers representing the miners' struggle, while tunes like "Expressing Yourself" and "Born to Boogie" are absolute delights in pairing Billy with his best friend Michael (played by Michael Harp) and dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Susie McMonagle), respectively.

Billy Elliot's narrative, script, songs and production numbers are all quite stellar, and the fine DRO cast does the source material more than justice under noted director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell.

Besides Dantes (or presumably Halford) and Harp, it is fun to see several talented children onstage, and I liked how Rockwell stages one of the best musical theater scenes in recent memory: the song "Solidarity" which weaves battling miners and police within a dance class being taught by Mrs. Wilkinson.

Rockwell's efforts are well-abetted by an effective set design from Kevin Depinet, who resists duplicating the innovative multi-level flat (Billy's room upstairs; kitchen downstairs) central to the scenery in London/Broadway/Chicago, but convincingly so. His set pieces embodying the industrial community are especially strong.

So too are the adults in this production, including McMonagle--a local favorite of mine for 15 years now--who reprises the acerbic dance teacher role she played for a good chunk of the Chicago sit-down run.

Ron E. Rains is really good and believable as Billy's dad, who is one of the striking miners along with Tony, Billy's older brother, well-played by Liam Quealy. As Billy's Grandma, who sings the delightful, "We Go Dancing" early in Act I, Maureen Gallagher is great fun.

Even in smaller roles, I enjoyed noting old pros Terry Hamilton (a TimeLine Theater stalwart), Fred Zimmerman and Bret Tuomi, while Rhett Guter is an excellent dancer who accompanies Billy in certain scenes.

So there's a lot to this show besides just a boy who wants to dance, but despite all else that is great about it, Billy Elliot would suffer greatly if the kid(s) weren't far more than alright.

Willing to cut some slack given the multi-faceted demands of the Billy role, I was truly surprised by how good Dantes was in every facet of his performance. In both his singing and dancing, he's not just good enough, he's genuinely wonderful.

Thus I hope this answers your question, Allison, and everyone else who may be wondering.

Yes, you should see Billy Elliot, even if you're an aficionado who has seen the musical in prestigious prior incarnations, and perhaps even more so if you never have.

Despite the full house at on opening night, Billy Elliot is showing up on Goldstar with some nice discounts that should add greater affordability to its considerable appeal.

But even at a rather reasonable full-price of $40-$55, I would strongly recommend that seeing this production is well worth it.

For at this point, to see another Billy Elliot this good may well require heading to London.

And even given the slow-go 90-minute drive on Thursday, for those of us who live in Skokie (or anywhere in the Chicago area), getting to this Drury Lane is a far more minor--and miner--undertaking. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A De-lovely, If Not Quite Deliriously So, 'Anything Goes' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Anything Goes
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru May 31

There is much to like about Anything Goes--including some of Cole Porter's greatest songs, a good bit of good (if often hokey) humor and some terrific tap dancing--and my suspicion that the show would go over well at Marriott Theatre was confirmed by a standing ovation bestowed on opening night.

The self-producing Lincolnshire venue is said to boast the largest subscription base in the country, seemingly largely comprised--based on visual evidence--of seniors.

Though never a subscriber, I've enjoyed many shows there over the years, including regional premieres of recent Broadway hits and even world premiere productions the theater has commissioned and developed.

Enthusiastic audiences have largely seemed receptive to most anything, especially given the quality of the unique in-the-round productions, but spirited renditions of brand-name musicals of yore--Guys & Dolls, 42nd Street, South Pacific, The King and I, etc., etc., etc.--still seems to be the theater's bread-and-butter.

Porter's oft-revived and revised 1934 hit--featuring such fantastic songs as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "It's De-lovely," "Blow Gabriel, Blow" and the title tune--fits well into that vein, and a fine local cast delivers it enjoyably.

The progressively more farcical storyline taking place upon a cruise ship intertwines a number of significant characters, giving several performers substantive opportunity to shine.

A lounge singer named Reno Sweeney (nicely played here by Stephanie Binetti) is ostensibly Anything Goes' main character but, a bit oddly, not the emotional center nor comedic linchpin.

In this version, derived from a 1987 Broadway Revival, Reno is joined on board by a gangster in hiding
named Moonface Martin (Ross Lehman), his sassy gal pal Erma (Alexandra Palkovic), a Wall Street tycoon (Gene Weygandt) and his assistant Billy Crocker (Jameson Cooper), who is wooing Hope Harcourt (Summer Naomi Smart), despite her traveling with both her British fiancé (Patrick Lane) and her mother (Mary Ernster). John Reeger plays the ship's captain.  

Having seen these actors and actresses more than 30 times combined, I hold their talents and efforts in high regard, and under the direction of Marc Robin--who also choreographed this production--nobody is less than very good here, with many far beyond that.

Though I imagine even they would admit to over-hamming it up at times--probably as directed--old hands Lehman and Weygandt generate the bulk of laughs, while Lane also gets his share as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.

Cooper is well-sung as Billy, though he and Lane are too similar in appearance as competing love interests for Hope, buoyantly played by the always incandescent Smart. While Binetti brings suitable panache as Reno--and is joyously at the center of the show-stopping tapstravaganza of "Anything Goes" that ends Act I--Palkovic is especially fun as the overtly sexy Erma.

Marriott subscribers and other frequent patrons, especially those who have never seen Anything Goes, or at least not since goodness knows, should have a frequent smile on their face and leave tapping their toes.

Yet while I enjoyed it, I couldn't help but find this rendition considerably lesser than the Tony-winning Broadway revival I saw in New York in 2011, and the national tour based on it, which came through Chicago in 2013.

Certainly, the folks at Marriott can't much be blamed for not quite matching more grandiose productions, especially as--in this case as well--they've often quite well-compensated for their scenery-limiting stage set-up with rather inventive staging, blocking and choreography.

And I realize that not only are Broadway luminaries--such as Sutton Foster, Joel Grey, John McMartin, Kelly Bishop and Laura Osnes, who I saw on Broadway (and the latter just the other day in Carousel at the Lyric Opera), or even Rachel York, who headed the touring edition--likely not readily available to hit the boards in Lincolnshire, I predominantly enjoy seeing local shows filled from Chicagoland's own vast galaxy of great musical theater talent.

That said, and with no disrespect meant to anyone in particular, this classic show at the Marriott Lincolnshire resort feels like one where some overt star power would help.

Especially as a running joke in the show is about how there are no celebrities aboard the ship.

In watching it, I couldn't help but recall how--via the Chicago Tribune's online archives--I've noted that through the late '70s at this very venue, but also many other area theaters, most substantially-promoted shows featured a well-known star (or at least a once well-known star).

I won't suggest any names, or even the roles they may have played, but while the production values of Marriott shows are often enough to stand aloft, this was a case where a famous face (and persona) or two might have elevated--for me, at least--a stellar suburban production of an enjoyable but not quite incredible musical into something a bit more special.

But then who knows?

Anything Goes.

Monday, April 13, 2015

With Bright Stars and Dark Themes, Lyric's 'Carousel' is a Largely Delightful Ride -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater / Opera Review

by Rodgers & Hammerstein
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru May 3

Although the tradition dates back only two years, the Lyric Opera's annual staging of a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical has become one of my favorite staples of Spring in Chicago.

Presented outside the auspices of the Lyric's subscription series, Oklahoma (in 2013), The Sound of Music and now Carousel have been newly produced by the prestigious opera company, but done--predominantly meaning sung--as musical theater works, not operas.

While there's probably some overlap in the definition and delineation of "opera" and "musical," given that examples of the latter are more typically sung in English--at least in America and Britain--without the overtly sonorous intonations that characterize the "operatic form" (as best I can describe), I have far more voluminously, emphatically and emotionally embraced musicals than operas.

But I have eminent respect for the operatic form and the greatness of the Lyric--and try to get to at least one traditional opera each year. (I loved The Passenger there just last month.)

And I heartily applaud--conceptually and meritoriously--whenever the Lyric Opera has seen fit to bring Broadway to the glorious Civic Opera House. (Before the Rogers & Hammerstein series, with The King and I coming in 2016, I loved Sweeney Todd and Show Boat at the Lyric.)

Oklahoma and The Sound of Music have been absolutely phenomenal, and similarly supported by the wondrous Lyric orchestra, Carousel boasts a top tier Broadway director in Rob Ashford and a cast full of musical theater luminaries, including Steven Pasquale, Laura Osnes, Jenn Gambatese, Matthew Hydzik, Jarrod Emick and Charlotte d'Amboise.

Denyce Graves, who I saw in the title role of Carmen at the Lyric, brings genuine opera chops to the proceedings, and it was fun to see Tony Roberts--who I know from the movie Annie Hall, but also with numerous Broadway credits--in a non-singing role.

Photo credit on all: Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune
According to this article by Chicago Tribune Theater critic Chris Jones--who subsequently awarded Carousel 4 stars (out of 4)--it is certainly within the realm of possibility that this production will eventually transfer to Broadway.

So to score a good balcony seat discounted to just $22 through Goldstar was an absolute steal, and there continue to be great bargains through HotTix and the Lyric box office as well.

At such agreeable prices, this is a Carousel for which any serious musical theater fan, widely-receptive opera aficionado and/or devoted Rodgers & Hammerstein admirer should get themselves a ticket.

There are a number of great R&H classics--the luscious overture, "If I Loved You," "June is Bustin' Out All Over," "A Real Nice Clambake," "You'll Never Walk Alone"--and the singing is routinely superb. (Although in the role of Aunt Nettie, Graves' great mezzo-soprano suits the last song cited far more than her part on "June is Bustin' Out...")

Beautiful vocally and otherwise, Osnes is perfectly cast as Julie Jordan, a tender-hearted small town New Englander who falls for the roguish carousel barker, played by Pasquale.

The actor has been a regular on CBS' The Good Wife this season, and as a fan of the show, it was fun to see him on a Chicago stage, especially just two weeks after seeing his Good Wife colleague Alan Cumming starring in Cabaret on Broadway. (On my recent visit to NYC, I also happened to see The Good Wife's Mary Beth Peil in The Visit musical.)

Pasquale has a particularly strong, resonant voice--it reached the opera house balcony quite richly--and handled the largely-unlikable role of Billy Bigelow very well. His rendition of the "Soliloquy" (a.k.a. "My Boy Bill") is certainly a highlight among many.

After her starring role as Maria in The Sound of Music on the same stage last year, Broadway vet Jenn Gambatese was again a delight as Carrie, Julie's best friend, while Hydzik (as Enoch Snow), Emick (a Tony-winner playing the rather small role of Jigger Cragin) and D'Amboise (a fine singer who I've seen in Chicago, but who doesn't get any lead vocals as Mrs. Mullin here) are all excellent.

Albeit with rather limited stage time, Roberts was a pleasure as the Starkeeper--a small part of Carousel takes place in heaven--and Abigail Simon danced beautifully in Louise's ballet.

Yet while there is far more good than not about Carousel at the Lyric, and I heartily recommend it, my @@@@1/2 rating represents a bit of a disappointment after giving both Oklahoma and The Sound of Music perfect scores.

Primarily because those shows--as well as Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I and South Pacific--have more songs that I instantly recognize and forthrightly enjoy than does Carousel, I didn't sit through nearly 3 hours on Sunday with the same sense of ebullience.

Or tapping feet.

Certainly, Carousel is a darker show, and I respect that it was thematically pretty groundbreaking when it first appeared on Broadway in 1945. When I first saw it onstage in 2010 at Light Opera Works, even before I had watched the 1956 movie, I gave @@@@@ to a sensational production. (I honestly can't remember enough specifics to directly compare that rendition to this one.)

So I have no qualms with Carousel being considered a first-rate musical, even if I don't agree with TIME magazine's, "The best musical of the 20th century" plaudit.

But there aren't that many songs in it I truly love, I'm troubled by how it grapples with the issue of domestic violence but never really condemns it, the Billy Bigelow character is largely just a turd and the whole looking/coming down from heaven part seems rather obtuse.

Also, while it isn't a significant cause for detraction, I wasn't as dazzled by the set design--by Paolo Ventura, a first-time scenic designer hand-picked by director Ashford based on the quality of his artwork in a New York gallery--as I have been by other Lyric productions, both operas and musicals.

So while I got far more than my fair share of quality entertainment for $22--and respect that Chris Jones found this production of Carousel "by far the best" of the Lyric's Rodgers & Hammerstein's forays, and even that it may well be their most operatic work--I simply prefer Oklahoma and The Sound of Music.

I also found Carousel a notch less blissful than the astonishing, now-ended Broadway re-revival of Cabaret mentioned above, as well as a glorious local production of Les Misérables, now playing at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

So while Carousel may well deserve a full @@@@@ for how well it is performed at the Civic Opera House, it seems a bit askew to bestow Seth Saith's high-water mark while naming several shows I simply enjoyed more.

But even without quite being my favorite ride at the fair, Carousel has plenty of horsepower and I would be delighted to see this production make it to Broadway.

Thus, if you can catch it for under $25 (+ fees) and a fairly short commute, you'd be amiss not to get aboard this rather starry--and extremely good--merry-go-round.

Friday, April 10, 2015

'The Stranger' is a Bit Stranger than Other Harlan Coben Thrillers, but Still a Worthy Page-Turner -- Book Review

Book Review

The Stranger
by Harlan Coben
now in Hardcover and eBook

Even without the likelihood that the handful of people who visit this blog with great regularity know me well in-person, consistent Seth Saith readers have likely picked up on subjects I write about rather repeatedly.

Cherished concert performers like Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam have been reviewed here several times each, my recent glowing review of a Les Misérables production was far from my first, and I have rarely missed an opportunity to sing the praises of Stephen Sondheim or the musicals he created.

Being not such a prolific reader, Book Reviews are somewhat few and far between, and more than not have covered page turners from my two favorite thriller writers, Harlan Coben and Lee Child.

On this blog, over the past 5+ years, I've reviewed at least 3 of each writer's books, though it looks I didn't write-up either of their 2014 releases, although I read and liked them.

So while this post is about Coben's latest hardcover release (I read it on Kindle), The Stranger, which I liked, particularly for the sake of my friend Dave who prefers paperback editions, I'll note that 2014's Missing You is now out in paperback.

And I liked it even more than The Stranger

Both of the books are stand-alone mysteries, as opposed to the books Coben writes around recurring character Myron Bolitar, or now, aiming at the popular Young Adult market, Myron's nephew Mickey Bolitar.

I have not read any of his YA titles--not to be confused with Y.A. Tittle--but have otherwise read every book Harlen Coben has published.

Certainly, I've liked some better than others, but not only do they become largely indistinguishable in my memory after a year or two, but every single one has been a quick, well-within-a-week read.

I'm not confusing Coben's thrillers with great literature, or proclaiming him a purveyor of high art, but the fact that each of his books has inspired me to read it quickly--as have Lee Child's Jack Reacher stories--is no inestimable accomplishment.

For as noted above, I am not generally a rapid or vociferous reader.

So while Coben takes a somewhat new tack in his set-up for The Stranger, and winds up somewhere unusual, I can't deny turning the pages with ceaseless anticipation.

Based in New Jersey, as almost all of Coben's books are, the storyline opens with a married lawyer named Adam Price being told something troubling about his wife by a complete stranger.

This sets off a series of conversations, confrontations and events best left for anyone so inclined to uncover themselves.

While the narrative certainly kept me ensnared, and left me surprised, making this a @@@@ (out of 5) work I would recommend to anyone looking for a good, fast-paced thriller, a couple things left me less infatuated than I have been by other Coben works.

The core plot device, regarding the stranger who approaches the protagonist--and his reasons for doing so--just struck me as somewhat implausible. I have all the regard in the world for a writer like Coben having to come up with new angles in churning out a book or more per year, but something about this one just didn't feel as finely-tuned or compelling as others, which largely cover similar ground about family members or loved ones who go missing.

But also, part of why I like Coben's writing so much is that beyond penning expeditiously page-turning plots, he typically offers a number of observant and/or humorous insights along the way, about modern society, technology, cultural inconsistencies, etc.

There is definitely a bit of this in The Stranger, but again, not as much as I previously recall.

If, like me, you're a Coben devotee, there's no reason to skip The Stranger, and for the right price--including free from your local library--it's a respectable read for anyone.

Yet for Dave, and others who understandably prefer the cost and convenience of paperback, not only does the format of Missing You make it a logical next Coben read over The Stranger, qualitatively--IMO--it does as well.

Missing You revolves around a female cop named Kat Donovan who sees a long-lost ex-fiancé on an online dating site and reaches out, thereby prompting a search that drives the narrative.

If you've never read any Harlan Coben, Missing You isn't a bad place to start, nor is The Stranger for that matter. But I think I would most recommend early stand-alone thrillers, Tell No One and Gone for Good, and any of the Myron Bolitar books, perhaps starting with the first one, Deal Breaker.

As reviewed here, I also really liked 2013's Six Years, which should be even less expensive in used paperback and on Kindle, as well as more immediately available at your local library or through the OverDrive e-book library app.

Even if not quite Coben's best, The Stranger was a fast, fun reminder of how much I enjoy my favorite contemporary author, at least in a thriller vein. And his--and Child's--books often jump-start my often all-too-languid reading, which is now focused on a book named by one source as the best of this decade, so far.

So perhaps another, more unique book review won't be all that far off. Not that, when it comes to my favorite things, I really mind being repetitive.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

One More Day, in One More Place, 'Les Misérables' Amazes and Delights -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Les Misérables
Paramount Theatre, Aurora
Through April 26

Les Misérables isn't quite my all-time favorite Broadway musical.

That would be The Producers.

But not only is Les Miz my second favorite musical, I consider it the greatest musical ever created.

I have now seen it onstage 11 times, including on Broadway, in London's West End and on multiple national tours through Chicago.

The show continues to run in London as it has non-stop since 1985, and still doing boffo touring business--albeit of late with a somewhat revamped production--Les Misérables is again running on Broadway, where it originally ran from 1987 to 2003.

While original producer Cameron Mackintosh still retains the rights, and thus commercial control over the London, Broadway, touring and other "official" versions of Les Miz, since 2008 the show has been licensed for regional productions, meaning that local theaters that obtain the rights can stage Les Misérables on their own, rather than merely presenting Mackintosh's touring rendition. (There is also now a school version of Les Misérables, and I saw a stellar high school production a few years back.)

Photo Credit on all: Charles Osgood
Given that I saw official tour productions in Chicago as recently in 2011 & 2012, went to Les Miz in London in 2013 and could have seen the show in New York just over a week ago, it may seem not only unnecessary for me to see a regional version, but comparatively unsatisfying.

But not only do I love the music of Les Misérables enough to sufficiently (if not significantly) enjoy any well-sung version despite scaled-down scenery, two previous regional versions I've seen--in 2008 at the Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and just last May at Drury Lane Oakbrook--have been so well performed and staged that they compare strongly in my memory against even Broadway and London renditions.

And the latest local production, at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora--a venue of a size, age and grandeur to rival those in New York, London and downtown Chicago--is absolutely majestic, with an ingenious new stage design to accompany excellent performances throughout.

While the concept of a turntable stage, one that slyly keeps the show's many scenes moving seamlessly while visually echoing the revolutionary themes, dates back to the original production of Les Miz, scenic designer Kevin Depinet--working with director Jim Corti--has concocted a revolving cylinder with a staircase and ringed balcony connected to it.

This stage-piece, including exterior panels with archways, rotated to make for various sets on the interior of the cylinder, allows for Les Misérables to be done in Aurora in a way in which I've never seen it. It's a shame the whole run is only 5 weeks, given the obvious cost and construction that went into the unique stage.

Given the accolades for the material I shared above, I won't waste time & space summarizing nor trumpeting the qualities of Les Misérables itself, but much to the credit of the Paramount Theatre and all involved, seeing the show in Aurora does not provide any less of a "full Les Miz" experience than seeing it downtown, on Broadway or in London.

Perhaps Robert Wilde seemed a bit younger than most other Jean Valjeans I've seen, but forgetting my binoculars largely rendered this moot, and as with the entire cast, Wilde is well-sung.

Having seen them many times in other roles around Chicagoland, I especially enjoyed seeing Rod Thomas powerfully voice the policeman Javert, and George Keating make for a devilishly-enjoyable Thérnardier, the innkeeper.

And in reprising the role he also played last year at Drury Lane Oakbrook, Travis Taylor as Enjolras reiterates that he is the best male singer on the Chicago area theater scene.

Devin DeSantis makes for a fine Marius and the women are also quite good, including Hannah Corneau as Fantine, Marya Grandy (Madame Thénardier), Erica Stephan (Cosette) and Lillie Cummings (Eponine).

There really isn't anything I found lacking in this production--save perhaps for some slight lyrical & dialogue edits that weren't largely detrimental--and much that I found truly fantastic.

Whether you're a Les Misérables aficionado like me who looks forward to every worthwhile production--and so far none I've seen hasn't been--or someone who has never seen the musical on stage and wants a first-class introduction, this is a resplendent opportunity to catch it if getting to Aurora isn't too formidable a barricade.

I'll never get tired of hearing the people sing, especially this well, in such a full-fledged, full-octane production.

And since I'm not opposed to repeating myself, I'll end by gleaning a phrase--referencing the tattooed prison number of Jean Valjean--with which I also praised the Drury Lane Oakbrook production:

Les Misérables at and by the Paramount Theatre in Aurora is absolutely 24601derful!

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Picking the Nats, Not the Cubs ... and all the Rest of My Fearless Baseball Predictions for 2015

Could this, 2015, finally be the year of the Cubs?

No, I don't think so.

If some of their promising prospects--Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and especially Kris Bryant, when brought up--do what they seem capable of, along with now established veterans like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, the Cubs should be much better than in recent years.

But even though I think Joe Maddon should be a great manager, between the "ifs" about Soler and Baez, as well as pitchers Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and whoever the 5th starter winds up being, I think there are far too many uncertainties--including a ballpark in disrepair--to assume this will be a magical year on the North Side of Chicago.

I actually think the White Sox should have a better year, and might well make a run at the playoffs, though the AL Central may be the best division in baseball.

Anyway, as always, take this with a grain of salt--with the caveat that I can't find anyone who picked the Giants to win it all last year--but enjoy perusing:

Seth Saith's Fearless Baseball Predictions for 2015

American League East   

1. Toronto Blue Jays
2. Baltimore Orioles
3. Boston Red Sox
4. New York Yankees
5. Tampa Bay Rays

American League Central

1. Detroit Tigers
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Minnesota Twins

American League West

1. Seattle Mariners
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Oakland Athletics
4. Texas Rangers
5. Houston Astros

Wild Cards: Angels and Orioles
AL Pennant Winner: Blue Jays
AL MVP: Mike Trout, Angels
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, Mariners
AL Rookie of the Year: Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays
White Sox Record: 86-76

National League East  

1. Washington Nationals
2. Miami Marlins
3. Atlanta Braves
4. New York Mets
5. Philadelphia Phillies

National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
3. Chicago Cubs
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Milwaukee Brewers

National League West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. San Francisco Giants
3. San Diego Padres
4. Colorado Rockies
5. Arizona Diamondbacks

Wild Cards: Marlins and Pirates
NL Pennant Winner: Nationals
NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Nationals
NL Cy Young: Madison Bumgarner, Giants
NL Rookie of the Year: Kris Bryant, Cubs

Cubs Record: 83-79

World Series Winner: Washington Nationals

Friday, April 03, 2015

A Play Full of Éire: Shanley's 'Outside Mullingar' is Delightfully Inviting -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Outside Mullingar
a new play by John Patrick Shanley
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru April 19

In the seven days from last Friday through Thursday I saw 5 first-rate theatrical productions of shows that had opened on Broadway within the past 15 months.

In each case I was able to travel from my bed to the theater door in less than 15 minutes.

The first four works were actually on Broadway, as part of a weekend New York jaunt centered around theater (though also notable restaurants, new museums, fine jazz, considerable strolling and more).

I saw three musicals--Cabaret, The Visit, Finding Neverland--and a play called Skylight, all a brief walk or subway ride from the Hotel Pennsylvania in Midtown Manhattan.

The fifth piece, a 2014 Tony-nominated play by a highly acclaimed writer, was seen Thursday night--not in the Big Apple but just minutes from my home in Skokie, IL.

Following a brief Broadway run early last year, Outside Mullingar is currently being staged by the Northlight Theatre under the direction of BJ Jones.

And while I had found Skylight, a revival of a 1995 drama by David Hare, to be terrific on Broadway, thanks in large part to stellar work by movie stars Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, I actually found Outside Mullingar to be even more satisfying.

Certainly it didn't hurt that--with a $20 day-of-show ticket via the Northlight box office--I was in the front row in Skokie, rather than way up in the balcony of the John Golden Theatre on 45th Street, somewhat anxious about the show ending in time for me to make my flight home, but with much regard for Skylight (which just got a rave review from the New York Times), I simply enjoyed Outside Mullingar a bit more.

This isn't that shocking when you consider that the play is written by John Patrick Shanley, author of Doubt--one of the 5 best plays of the 21st century--and an Oscar winner for his screenplay of Moonstruck.

And it's not like I haven't routinely seen excellent shows at Northlight, especially ones directed by Jones, who is also the longtime artistic director.

Still, especially as Thursday night's audience was less full than it should have been, I think it's worth noting with pride that my "theater down the street" needn't take a back seat to Broadway--nor work being done by anyone anywhere.

That's a testament not only to Jones, but in this case scenic designer Kevin Depinet--who has created a fully believable interior of an Irish farmhouse on Northlight's somewhat small, rounded stage--and an excellent cast.

Certainly, Shanley has written a wonderful script, all the more impressive because the dramedy holds one's attention--with anticipation and delight--despite the story developing almost entirely as one might expect.

But it's hard to imagine Outside Mullingar being enacted any better than it was inside my hometown.

Based substantively on Shanley's relatives in central Ireland, and set in the farming village of Killucan--which is, yes, outside Mullingar--the 90-minute one-act features just four characters.

As the play opens, the Muldoon women--an elderly, unwell mother played by Annabel Armour and her spinster daughter Rosemary (Kate Fry)--have just buried their husband/father and are visiting the home of their neighbors, the similarly-matched father/son, Tony (William J. Norris) and Anthony Reilly (Mark Montgomery).

Years of sharing adjoining land have brought familial frankness, combativeness and underlying-if-begrudging affection among the Muldoons and Reillys--and even within them. 

Norris and Armour are well-paired as the elders who know their time is limited, yet are believably feisty as they carry out Shanley's sharp dialogue, which is an acutely-entertaining pleasure from the get-go.

Montgomery, who was recently stellar in Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Goodman, is excellent here as Anthony, a bachelor who is a bit addled and aloof, but not--as artfully delineated by the actor--a dimwit or dullard.

And Fry is simply fantastic as the spirited, stalwart Rosemary. Debra Messing originated the role on Broadway, but it's hard to imagine her being more perfect than or--for my money--preferable to Fry. (Brian F. O'Byrne had played Anthony in New York.)

With this setup, you might well guess where the story will head, and you wouldn't be wrong. But the glory of Outside Mullingar is in the dialogue, the characters, the warmth and the performances, not surprising plot twists.

Being single and of a forty-something age myself, I can't deny an identification with and embrace of the narrative involving Anthony and Rosemary, but scenes involving only Anthony and his father or among the two parents consume substantial stage time and are just as much a joy as those between the younger generation.

Outside Mullingar isn't the brilliant, bristling tour de force that Shanley's masterful Doubt was, and my @@@@@ rating may well represent acute delight slightly beyond artistic merits--perhaps dictated by my sense that Skylight deserved @@@@1/2--but it isn't all that often I see a play that I enjoy quite this much.


And if you call yourself a theater fan who just doesn't get to as many shows as you should, with an easy-to-reach (by car) north suburban location, free, easy parking and day-of-show tickets available for just $20--call 847.673.6300--there's no excuse not to take a decidedly lovely trek to Outside Mullingar