Playing In the Woods with APT's "As You Like It"

In Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” onstage at American Players Theatre through October 7, a whole cast of unhappy city dwellers is forced to flee the royal court and seek refuge in the Forest of Arden. Duke Senior (an affable David Daniel) has been overthrown by his brother, Duke Frederick (a stern Brian Mani) and so the former ruler is cast out into the woods, along with a group of his followers. The deposed duke’s daughter Rosalind (a strong and determined Melisa Pereyra) is also sent packing after Frederick fears her beauty outshines that of his own daughter, Celia (a luminous Andrea San Miguel). But the cousins refuse to be separated so they head off to Arden arm in arm, with the clown Touchstone in tow for entertainment. (And as the fool, Marcus Truschinski is endlessly entertaining.) Finally the young, scrappy Orlando (a noble Chris Klopatek) must take refuge in the trees, after being misused and threatened by his older brother Oliver (Nate Burger), who has inherited his father’s fortune and refuses to give his sibling a share.

Untangling Race, Rage and Brotherhood in "Bloodknot" at APT

The sky is very low for the two brothers who share a ramshackle home, cobbled together from bits of plywood and corrugated metal in the non-white section of Korsten, South Africa. The ceiling of their shack is low. The power line that runs above it sags, almost to the roofline. Everything in these men’s environment is pushing them down, mirroring the stifling effects of Apartheid in the 1960s. This is the painfully protracted world of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, which opened on June 16th in the Touchstone at American Players Theatre. Directed by Ron OJ Parson, the production is a taut and troubling story of oppressors and the oppressed, an examination of race as a skin color, a mindset, a bond between brothers, and a curse.

Temps! The Musical! Is Only Temporary Fun

“Welcome to PeoplePower, the world’s largest temporary employment agency.”

This is one of the first lines of Temps! The Musical!, the final production of Mercury Players Theatre’s season, and it is chilling. Hearing the mechanical tone of the corporate speak, enunciated by women whose smiles are a little too forced, the audience immediately knows this corporation is up to no good.

It was easy to demonize temp agencies 1997, when Temps! was originally penned. The tough economy meant businesses were afraid to expand and there was an abundance of college grads who would take any job at all to try to make their rent. And actually, it’s easy to demonize them today in our gig economy where companies can get away with hiring a highly skilled workforce during crunch times, without having to provide benefits, health insurance, or any notice when their services are no longer needed.

The MSO Dazzles with "West Side Story"

For Broadway lovers, this has been a big week. First of all, the Tony Awards were held last night, celebrating the best performances in a diverse line-up of plays and musicals that have graced the Great White Way over the past year. For those of us far from the bright lights of NYC, it’s also a sneak peek of shows that might tour in the next couple of years, so we can start saving up now for tickets to “Mean Girls,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” and “The Band’s Visit.”

The other recent tributes to Broadway have been courtesy of the Milwaukee Symphony, which hosted six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald for a thrilling concert, and then offered audiences the extraordinary opportunity to see the 1961 movie version of “West Side Story” in Uihlein Hall, with the full orchestra performing Leonard Bernstein’s sweeping score live, underneath the movie screen.

1776 Celebrates John Adams -- And Those Who Persist

Although Lin Manuel Miranda fans may argue, it turns out Alexander Hamilton did not act alone in creating our country. There were actually quite a few other people involved, and they have their own musical to prove it. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams share the spotlight as founding fathers extraordinaire in Four Seasons Theatre’s 1776, running through June 10th in the Wisconsin Union’s Shannon Hall. In stark contrast to the frenetic, break-neck speed of Hamilton, this semi-staged concert, capably directed by Jen Uphoff Gray, gives audiences a window into the painfully slow negotiations that would eventually bring the colonies’ representatives to consensus—and revolution.

There are no records of exactly what was said in 1776 as congress met in Philadelphia to decide whether the fledgling British colonies should declare their independence from Great Britain. The meetings were secret—since they were also grounds for execution for treason. Decades later the participants published bits and pieces about their recollections, but by and large, it was up to Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone to imagine who said what as they wrote the musical 1776.

Critics are a Dying Breed -- Or at Least Out of their Jobs

I am beginning to think I should have gone to law school. 

And I wonder if Chris Vire, former senior editor at Time Out Chicago is thinking the same thing. He was laid off last week in a round of cost-cutting measures where several upper level editors got the ax. Perhaps Lyn Gardner, the much lauded theater critic from London's The Guardian is considering a career in law, now that her 23-year career has been cut short -- her paper decided not to renew her contract after two decades of extraordinary writing and commentary on the performing arts. I don't know Hedy Weiss, the former Chicago Sun Times theater reviewer who spent 33 years on her beat, producing more than 13,000 reviews. Often controversial, but also an institution on the Chicago theater scene, she parted ways with her paper in February of this year. That leaves my National Critics Institute mentor Chris Jones as a lonely voice in the Chicago wilderness -- one of the last full time theater critics in the city. And as popular as he is, as essential as he is for those wishing the navigate the Chicago theater scene, I wonder if his days are also numbered. 

Audra McDonald Shines in Concert with MSO

Soprano Audra McDonald is literally a performer without equal. She has earned a record six Tony Awards — in all four acting categories — for her roles in the musicals “Ragtime,” “Carousel,” and “Porgy and Bess” and the plays “Master Class,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and “Raisin in the Sun.” She also has two Grammys, an Emmy and the prestigious National Medal of Arts, conferred by President Barack Obama in 2016. The award recognizes McDonald “for lighting up Broadway as one of its brightest stars.... In musicals, concerts, operas, and the recording studio, her rich, soulful voice continues to take her audiences to new heights.”

Capital City Theatre's "Hunchback" is a Triumph

Perhaps The Hunchback of Notre Dame was never meant to be a Disney movie. Although the cartoon received a good reception when it came out in 1996, with box office returns comparable to studio darlings Pocahontas and Beauty and the Beast, the content didn’t square with the Mickey Mouse brand or the audience. For little ones, the story was too dark. For mainstream audiences the movie had too much religious content, some of it quite unflattering toward the clergy. And for lovers of the book, the plot had been altered too drastically.

Perhaps instead, The Hunchback was always supposed an epic musical along the lines of the other Victor Hugo smash adaptation Les Miserables, complete with ethnic prejudice and persecution, a disillusioned soldier, the ultimate underdog protagonist, a villain struggling with intense moral quandaries, and doomed love on the order of Shakespeare.

Bronzeville Arts Ensemble's "Flyin' West" Never Gets Off the Ground

Nicodemus, Kansas, was founded in 1877 as a solely black community—regarded by some freed slaves as a paradise in the post-Civil War, reconstruction era. On the edge of the frontier, the town offered land that could be claimed through the Homestead Act, and a place untouched by racial hatred and discrimination. On paper, it was what black men and women in the South dreamed of; an opportunity to live freely determine their own destiny. To own their own land, govern themselves, and reap the rewards of their own hard work, while coexisting peacefully among people who looked just like them.

In Dazzling "On Your Feet," The Rhythm is Gonna Get You

When Gloria Fajardo's parents fled Cuba to come to the United States in the 1960s, they could not imagine how hard it would be for them to succeed in this country. But they also couldn't anticipate that their eldest daughter would team up with Emilio Estefan in Miami and become an international singing sensation. Creating a blend of American pop and Latin rhythms that dominated radio stations' airwaves, as well as DJ playlists in dance clubs, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine did what few record company executives thought possible -- they appealed to both English and Spanish speaking audiences; not as a novelty act, but as a new sound. This jouney, augmented with many more biographical details, is the basis for On Your Feet, the undeniably infectious musical at Overture Center through May 20th.