Thursday, October 18, 2012

No kinks here, "Kinky Boots" is a crowd-pleaser

From left: Billy Porter as Lola, Annaleigh Ashford as Lauren and Stark Sands as Charile in "Kinky Boots."
Photo by Sean Williams
“Kinky Boots,” the new musical which opened its pre-Broadway tryout last night, is a bona fide, crowd-pleasing hit.

If you've been waiting for the reviews to come in before buying your tickets, you might want to forgo the heels and put on your flats. You're going to need them to race down to the Bank of America Theater to get tickets. Like "The Producers" before it, Chicago is being treated to a first look at what should be one of the Broadway season's biggest hits, but the show is only here to Nov. 4. The show should quickly become the hottest ticket in town and quite deservedly.

Based on the 2005 sleeper film of the same name, Kinky Boots features a book by Tony winning playwright Harvey Fierstein, a score and lyrics by Grammy-winning pop icon Cyndi Lauper and energetic and well-paced direction and choreography from Tony award-winning director Jerry Mitchell. It's a rousing, heartfelt and sentimental musical that happens to have a drag queen front and center.

"Kinky Boots" tells the story of Charlie Price (Stark Sands) who, after his father's death, reluctantly leaves his more urban-minded fiancé Nicola (Celina Carvajal) in London to return home to Northhampton to run the family's shoe business. The shoe business is in decline and Charlie is faced with the possibility that he may have to soon sack several of the factory workers, including the feisty Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford).

After a chance meeting in London with a drag queen with a broken highheel boot (Billy Porter, as Lola), Charlie decides that the niche market of women's shoes for men might just be the thing to save the family business, but he'll have to convince the closed minded blue collar workforce and Lola (whom he wants to design the shoes) that it is a good idea.

As Lola, Billy Porter is mesmerizing in a performance that will surely earn him a Tony nomination. His Lola is equal parts Tina Turner and Whitney Houston, fierce in his delivery of both line and song.

Annaleigh Ashford, best known to Chicago audiences as Glinda in the sit-down production of Wicked nearly stops the show with the hilarious The History of the Wrong Guys (which also happens to be the most Lauper-sounding song in the show.  
Barring some miraculous recovery, the economic climate in the musical should resonate with theatergoers (assuming, of course, economically depressed factory workers can afford to go to live theater; hey, there's always the TKTS ticket booth). In an age of Bain-style venture capitalism, the very idea that Charlie would choose to return home and save the family business (as opposed to leveraging it to the hilt, driving it into bankruptcy and collecting his golden parachute on the way out) may seem particularly far-fetched. The fact that both musical and film are based on a true story may seem the work of fantasy in a country where CEOs like Charlie are an even smaller niche than those shopping for women's footwear in men's sizes. We could use a few more Charlie Prices, willing to strap on heels and do the right thing, though.

He doesn't do it alone, though. And that's the point. The show celebrates industry, ingenuity, dreams and hard work. It's about sticking together and, as themes explored in the finale "Raise You Up/Just Be" imply, there is more power in raising each other up instead of tearing each other down for some short-term personal gain.  

Fierstein returns to the well once again with the theme of what makes a man, but you can't fault a guy for so thouroughly humanizing Lola. Perhaps moreso than in either "Torchsong Trilogy" or "La Cage aux Folles," Fierstein succeeds in visually showing us something that Ru Paul has been saying for years: we're all born naked, everything after that is drag. The clothes we chose to wear do not define our worth and that goes for drag queens or dock workers.

Mitchell's choreography deserves a shout out particularly for the first-act closer "Everybody Say Yeah" in which factory worker and drag queen alike gyrate on moving convey belts.

Gregg Barnes costumes capture the blue collar feel of the factory workers as well as the more fantastical outfits worn by Lola and his drag queen backup singers. When the thigh length, red-sequined heels first roll off the assembly line at the end of the first act, they are more than just shoes; it is the visual equivalent of Eliza Doolittle making her debut.   

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Laupers score. Unlike other recording artists who try their hands at writing a Broadway show and never seem to understand the medium of the Broadway musical, Lauper proves she is equally adept at crafting radio-ready, hook-heavy pop and dance songs the likes weve never heard in a Broadway show as well as traditional Broadway ballads, duets and ensemble numbers. Sex is in the Heel and Raise You Up/Just Be are infectious pop songs with beats that will get you up and moving. Hold Me In Your Heart and Im Not My Fathers Son, are delivered with such honesty, they might have you reaching for the tissues.

Still, a few minor things will need to be tweaked before the April Broadway opening. Charlies quasi-materialistic fiance Nikola is a bit underwritten and the terrific actress Celina Caravajal does her best with what she is given (which is to say,  not much).
Sands Charlie shifts a bit too quickly from factory savior to boss from hell and his relationship with Ashfords Lauren needs to be further developed as well.
We're the same, you and me, Charlie boy," Lola tells Charlie at the end of the first act and with that, the show places it's well-designed heels on one of those universal truths: there is so much more that unites us rather than divides us.  "Kinky Boots" heart is in the right place and its heels are on firm ground.  

"Kinky Boots" runs through Nov. 4 at the Bank of America Theater, 18 W. Monroe. Tickets, $33-$100. Call 800-775-2000.;

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A "Kinky" tease

Stark Sands (left, as Charlie Price) and Billy Porter (as Lola) in "Kinky Boots"
photo by Sean Williams
 "Kinky Boots" officially has it's pre-Broadway opening tonight (it's been in previews for the past couple of weeks). Come back tomorrow for my review, but until then please enjoy the production shot of the charming leads in the show, Stark Sands and Billy Porter.

And if you haven't seen the show yet, buy your tickets! It's important to support live theater, especially new works. Ticket deals can be had for weekday performances. You can always say you saw it first!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It's no "1776," I'll give you that

The cast of Bailiwick's "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"
photo by Michael Brosilow
Much like the presidency that it depicts, Bailiwick’s Chicago premiere of the off-Broadway hit musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is a mixed bag.  

For those who thought “Spring Awakening,” “Urinetown” and “American Idiot” played it too safe, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” may just fit the bill as truly the first punk rock musical. The 100-minute, intermission-less show is a hipster re-envisioning of history; our seventh president is painted with the largest of brushstrokes as a guyliner-wearing, hip-swaggering, Emo rock star in tight jeans.

Loosely sketched, the show is equal parts satire, cartoonish vaudeville act and critique of our political process and dark history. It plays fast and loose with actual history, though (you would no sooner be advised to treat this as a history lesson than you would a marathon of “Hogan’s Heroes” as a lecture on World War II prisoner of war camps).

Matt Holzfeind as the charismatic President/rockstar
photo by Michael Brosilow
As the man who literally had the presidency stolen out from under him by a Congress that feared the true will of the people, Matt Holzfeind is a charismatic force of nature; a noble feat considering he is on stage singing, dancing for the major for most of the show.

As Jackson’s long-suffering wife Rachel, Samantha Dubina brings heat and longing to the proceedings. There’s often a quiet nobility to her performance as we watch her cope with a husband struggling to strike a balance between his public and private life.  

Other shout outs in the cast: Judy Lea Steele brings the laughs as the motorized scooter-bound modern narrator, Jill Sesso’s performance of “Ten Little Indians” elevates things almost to the level of Laurie Anderson’s performance art, Patrick Rooney’s guitar virtuosity and rocking vocals on several male solos and the overall band (lead by the Jeff nominated music director James Morehead) who are as much a part of the action as the actors.

Nick Sieben’s scenic design draws the starkest analogy to our current political climate. Occupy Wall Street handbills share wall space with posters that urge you to “Vote Addams, Vote often” and others advertising tickets to Cleveland Indians baseball (the smiling face of the Cleveland Indians mascot is particularly jarring given the atrocities depicted in the play). Sieben also scores extra points for the 24 paper lanterns hung above the stage which represent the 24 states that made up the union when Jackson took office (Arkansas and Michigan would be added during his tenure, but that’s perhaps more factual history than you’ll gleam from the show).

For a company that has in part a history in presenting intelligent gay theater, crass stereotypes were the go-to for cheap laughs, particularly in “The Corrupt Bargain.” Whether this was a choice made by the individual male actors or director Scott Ferguson, it’s a bit of a head scratcher.  Just what do we think is witty, sardonic or “post-modern” about the embrace of gay stereotypes, gentlemen?

It’s also likely that the play’s unconventional format and 11th hour shift to a more serious tone will bewilder some theatergoers.

Bailiwick Chicago’s production of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” runs through Nov. 11 at the National Pastime Theater, 941 W. Lawrence, 4th floor. Tickets, $25-$30. Free performance on election night (Nov. 6) with proof you voted.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Nightblue's "Avenue Q" a pleasant surprise

The cast of Nightblue Performing Arts Company's "Avenue Q"

Suburban-based Nightblue Performing Arts Company isn't exactly a known commodity in the Chicago theater community, but I suspect that will soon change on the bases of their production of the Tony award-winning musical "Avenue Q." Acting, singing, choreography, production values and orchestration elements were all high, well exceeding the $30 ticket price. The bar has been set high for their next Chicago endeavor, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The show is a loving spoof and homage to children's television programs (specifically "Sesame Street," but there are also jokes referencing "The Electric Company" and others). Naive, wide-eyed recently college graduate Princeton (Adam Fane) finds himself on the Avenue after starting at Avenue A and continuing to move down through both streets and alphabet letters until he finds a neighborhood that he can afford. Q is home to an idealistic teaching assistant Kate Monster (Casi Maggio) who dreams of opening a special school for monsters (a Monsterssori), happy-go-lucky intellectual Nicky (Jason Richards Smith), Nicky's uptight, closeted, Republican roommate Rod (Fane), a would-be therapist Christmas Eve (Kate Garassino), her unemployed, ne'er-do-well fiance Brian (Alex Heika), resident porn sexpert Trekkie Monster (Smith) and the down-on-his luck former child star and now superintendent Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman and played by David Robbins).

Adam Fane as Princton in "Avenue Q"
In the dual role of Princeton and Rod, Fane is equal parts charming, boy next door and repressed, ranging closet case. Fane is able to switch characters quickly and each has their own unique mannerisms, singing voice and speaking voice.

As Kate Monster, Casi Maggio is the heart of the show. She has a lovely voice that is powerful when it needs to be, yet she is able to capture Kate's vulnerability as well.

As Nicky and Trekkie Monster, Jason Richards Smith lands all of the comedic moments. His Trekkie is less creepy and more lovable. Despite his computer addiction, you want to just give him a hug.

As Christmas Eve, Garassino manages to be more than just a racial stereotype for laughs. Her nuanced performance of "The More You Ruv Someone" was both heartfelt and funny.

Heika has less to do as Brian (the fault of the script and not his acting or vocal talent). Double casting him as one of the Bad Idea Bears was sheer genius as it gave him more opportunity to display his comedic timing.

Several other things set things apart from usual productions of this show. The most noticeable is the company's decision to create their own puppets as opposed to renting them. With the exception of Lucy the slut, the puppet designs by Noah Ginex bare little resemblance to those used on Broadway (the same puppets people usually rent). As a result, the production is able to forge its own identity.

The second was director David E Walter's decision to forgo puppets for the Bad Idea Bears (a trio of mischievous minor characters in the show). Actors don teddy bear costumes and we can see their facial expressions (obviously far more expressive than a puppet's).

The third thing is Mike Mendiola's choreography. While the original Broadway production had some dancing, there is more of it here. Though it is the puppeteer whose feet are moving, rather than separating us from puppet, in some strange way it feels like the puppeteer's feet are an extension of the puppet.

The end result was a smaller production that almost rivaled its Broadway counterpart. No easy feat for any company, let alone one trying to establish itself in the competitive Chicago market.

Nightblue Performing Arts Company's "Avenue Q" runs through Oct. 14 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets, $27-$30. Call 773-327-5252.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Q&A with "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" star Matt Holzfeind

The cast of Bailiwick's "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"
Step aside John McCain, there’s a new maverick in town. The cast and crew of the Chicago premiere of the off-Broadway hit “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” are here to declare sexy as the fourth branch of government.
I chatted briefly with Matt Holzfeind,  the star of the rock musical. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: The show has been praised for being unorthodox. Is that justified?
Matt Holzfeind: I suppose. It takes a look at an historical figure in a more modern context. As a work of theater, it plays with style and finds a new and surprising way to tell the tale. It’s highly theatrical.
Q: Why “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”?
MF: It’s an incredible part in a show that is utterly fascinating. This role calls for me to do a lot of things that I don’t normally get to do in musical theater and I am excited to take on that challenge.
Q: Do you find it daunting to play an historic figure?
MF: It’s kind of great thing to try. I’ve been in brand new works and productions of existing plays. I’ve played fictional characters and real people. The chance to work on a thing like this was exciting. With characters based on real people, It’s a cool  to have a template to work from. As actor you draw from your own experiences, but to be able to add your experiences with someone’s real life is just awesome. I’m making an amalgam of my experiences and his.
Q: Sounds like you’ve done a lot of research, then?
MF:  More research than I usually do. Mostly because he’s a guy many Americans are familiar with.
Q: Any books that were particularly useful?
MF: Jon Meacham’s American Lion. Of course, it focused mostly on his time as president. I also read up on anything I could find on line. He’s a multifaceted political figure and most people have strong opinions either for or against him. Fortunately, he is portrayed in the show with a lot of artistic license, so I just needed to have a good, general idea about what he was about.
Q: What is it about him that you identify with?
MF: He had a very strong bond with family, friends and close advisors. He made sure they were taken care of. He had a loyalty to people that is unique in today’s landscape. I have that a bit in my life. I would fight for family and friends as much as Jackson did for those who were in his inner circle.
Q: What ways are you different?
MF: One of of his strengths (and one of his weaknesses) was his assistance on always thinking he was right. It initially kind of made him popular, because he could make decisions and get things done. It also made people feel like he didn’t listen to both sides, though. I try to take everything in. I’m not married to things one way or the other. I’m ok about experiencing things that may ultimately change my perspective or point of view.
Q: The show is giving away tickets on election night with proof that you voted, do you consider yourself political?
MF: I would say I’m political enough in that I am aware of what is going on. I try and stay informed, but I’m not political from an political activist standpoint. I have an understanding of where we are and what is at stake, depending on who gets elected president.
Q: What do you think Jackson would say about the current presidential election?
MF: He hated debt. I mean he really loathed debt and what that meant. If he saw our debt, people in federal government would lose their heads. As the founder of the Democratic party, I also think he’d probably have a problem with the current Democratic party and the political process in general. We are more divided politically than we ever have been.. If he could see today how divided we are, he wouldn’t like it. f
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” runs through Nov. 10 at the National Pastime Theater, 941 W. Lawrence. Tickets, $15-$30. Free 9 p.m. performance on Election night (Nov. 6) with proof that you voted.

Chicago Shakespeare's "Sunday" a masterful take on a masterpiece that is not to be missed

 Cross posted from
Jason Danieley (left) and Carmen Cusack
  As most Chicagoans know, Georges Seurat’s  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884 is one of the signature Impressionist pieces held in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
   Directed by Gary Griffin, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Sunday in the Park With George” is a masterpiece in its own right.  An emotional tour de force, it’s the kind of don’t miss-production that theatergoers will be talking about for years to come.
   In a nut shell: the first act concerns the relationship between an artist named George(Jason Danieley) and his model/mistress Dot (Carmen Cusack). The artistic struggle to develop ones’ own artistic style and complete a masterpiece comes with a price. As he assembles his famous portrait, we see George is so focused on his work to a fault that his personal life suffers.
  The second act concerns his great grandson (also and artist and played by Danieley). Like his great grandfather before him, the modern George also struggles with finding balance between art and relationships, but has the added challenge of having to maintain professional relationships in terms of finding funding for his art (something his great grandfather who was of independent means never had to do).  

Cusack shines as Dot

  Cusack possesses a set of pipes that just may very well rival Patti LuPone’s in turns of power and, because her approach to each song is so organic and of the moment,  her voice is an instrument that is an extension of her superb acting. Her Dot is fierce, passionate and somewhat wounded by previously relationships. As modern George’s wheelchair-bound grandmother Marie, Cusack is appropriately frail, but just as passionate.   
  Danieley plays the part of an emotionally distant artist in the first act a bit too well. I didn’t really feel connected to his character until we were well into the first act. Conversely, I immediately identified with his modern George.. Part of this is the material, of course. In the first act, George does a lot of musical muttering, whereas the second act gives Danieley much more opportunity to display his capable vocal prowess.
  Overall, the second act is perhaps the biggest surprise. It often feels as if it is the weaker of the two acts in other productions; its existence merely a vehicle for the emotional show-stopper “Move On.”

Danieley as the modern George as the ghost of Dot looks on.
Danieley perfectly nails the exasperation of the juggling act that is the life of the modern artist with the frenzied “Putting It Together” and as George’s grandmother Marie, Cusack succinctly sums up the universe truth about the fragility of life and what’s really important with “Children and Art.” It’s themes echo those of “Beautiful” in the first act and instead of stealing focus from that song (and make no mistake, as George’s mother Linda Stephens’ performance of the first act number is very moving), Cusack’s performance expands on those same themes: things change but only family and art remain behind.     
  If I have any minor quibbles, it is with Griffin’s decision to tweak the final visual tableau. Traditionally, the show starts and finishes with the artist and a blank canvas. The point being that while we see nothing, the artist recognizes it for what it truly is: a tool to explore infinite possibilities.
  In this production, Griffin assembles the whole cast for one more take on the famous painting and instead of having the characters from the painting exit the stage as they usually do(leaving us with that blank canvas), they remain on stage.
  While it may not sound like an earth-shattering alteration, it does steal some of the focus around the show’s final point and can be interpreted in several ways: The modern George is finally making peace, accepting and embracing with the family history he has been running away from, he (like his great grandfather before him) sees what isn’t there and draws inspiration from it, or (and this is the bleakest interpretation) the artist who couldn’t get past his own previous works to create something truly new is now also haunted by the legacy of art created by his great grandfather.
  With so much on stage, it is both literally and figuratively hard to see the blank canvas. Where once there were infinite possibilities, we as an audience begin to draw conclusions.    

"Sunday in the Park with George" runs through Nov. 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier (600 E. Grand). Tickets, $48-$78. Call (312) 595-5600 or

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

In praise of the Pre-Broadway preview

Billy Porter (left) and Stark Sands star as Lola and Charlie
in the new musical "Kinky Boots" Photo by Gavin Bond
No, this is not a review of "Kinky Boots," the new Broadway musical featuring a book by Tony award-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by iconic music legend Cyndi Lauper and Tony award-winning choreographer\director Jerry Mitchell.

"Kinky Boots" creative (from left) Jerry Mitchell, Harvey Fierstein
and Cyndi Lauper. Photo by Gavin Bond
Though I attended last night's preview performance in Chicago (the first public performance save for a couple of workshops and a producer's preview last Sunday night), you'll need to come back to Broadway World and on Oct. 18 to read my review. It wouldn't be fair to review a show before Oct. 17, the date when the show's producers and creators are ready to release it to the world.

So, why did I attend? In my book, the first preview performance of a Broadway-bound musical is like gay Christmas. There's an excitement, an energy and much anticipation. Sure, you've had holidays were you've been disappointed, but it's still Christmas and who doesn't get excited around holidays?

Of course, there are more than a few Scrooges running around town. Some of them even writing blogs or newspaper columns urging you to skip the holiday until the show runners get any possible kinks worked out of their "Kinky Boots."

To the scrooges of the world, I say: Bah! Humbug! I have seen everything from good previews to awful (cough, cough, "Spider-Man" turn off your lights). When shows are good, you're in on the ground floor. And when they're bad, you've got a front row seat to the train wreck.

But it goes beyond that. Previews give you a chance to watch art in process. Anyone can enter a building, for instance, and say "they built it, by gosh!" How many of us getting to see it being built brick by brick, though?

The naysayers will quip "but who would want to pay for the privilege?" Well, me for one. I've learned more about acting, directing, producing, playwriting and dancing from watching previews than I have from attending theater or by reading theater columns and reviews.

Had I not attended a preview performance of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," I would have missed this, for instance:

Granted, this was a revival, but it had enough new material that there was still a risk (Kristin Chenoweth's star-turn role of Sally Brown was not in the original). As I write this, I realize that "Kinky Boots" director Jerry Mitchell was coincidentally the choreographer for this.

"The Addams Family" is another case in point. Seen in Chicago previews, the opening number was called "Clandango." There are numerous YouTube clips of the song, but I won't link to them here as none of them were captured legally. Catching the show on its Broadway run or subsequent tour, the opening number was "When You're an Addams."

Without having seen the preview, you wouldn't have any context to contemplate why one song works and the other doesn't or even the process itself. To return to my building analogy, it's admiring the building, without respecting the framing and foundation.

What's more, when you attend previews, you will likely hear songs that --not counting the various "Unsung Broadway" and "Lost In Boston" recordings-- you're unlikely to ever hear again. Unless the composer recycles the material, of course. Even then, if you don't attend previews, you'll never know when the composer has pulled something out of his or her trunk (and trust me, they all do it; Broadway composers were into recycling long before being Green came into fashion).

With previews, you're part of the process. At the opening preview of "Kinky Boots," the entire creative team was in attendance and you can bet the cast is getting a handful of notes today which were gleamed from audience reactions from last night's performance.

So, heels up, I say. Recognize the opportunity that a "Kinky Boots" preview is affording you!

"Kinky Boots" is in previews through Oct. 16 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe. Tickets, $33-$100. The show officially opens Oct. 17 and runs through Nov. 4. It will open on Broadway Spring 2013.

Heels up! Chicago gets Kinky (boots)

My interviews with the cast of "Kinky Boots" as well footage from the press conference. Video shot by Rick Aiello.