Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Wicked" still "Popular" a decade later

Elphaba (Alison Luff, left) and Glinda (nee Galinda,
played by Jenn Gambatese), share a friendly moment in "Wicked"
Photo by Joan Marucs
Cross-posted from Broadwayworld.com

It almost seems inconceivable that it has been more than 10 years since I first caught "Wicked" in previews in New York. Since that time, the show was named best musical by Time Magazine, recouped its initial $14 million investment in 14 months and has broken numerous box-office records around the world.

The original Chicago sit-down production (at the time the first sit-down production of a major Broadway show that the city had seen in years) ran for three-and-a-half years , played over 1,500 performances and grossed a gravity-defying $200 million in box office here in Chicago alone.

This marks the sixth or seventh time I have seen the show (I've reviewed it twice -including the original Chicago sit-down production). The Oriental Theater (where the show is again playing through Dec. 21) is practically a second home to Elphaba and Glinda (also known respectively as the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good).

Luff, defying gravity eight shows a week. Photo by Joan Marcus
The current production's Elphaba, Alison Luff, appears less comfortable in the character's awkward teen years, but comes into her own when she embraces the "wickedness" of her character. I had particular trouble with Luff's choices during a scene in a ballroom. In previous productions, Elphaba dances alone while the rest of the dance hall stares and laughs. In prior productions, the moves -while strange and certainly unique-have embodied a certain grace and beauty. Luff plays the awkwardness a bit too broad, here. I suppose it makes some sense (given this is the character's first dance party), but we are never really afforded the opportunity to see the inner beauty beneath the awkwardness.

Gambatese demonstrates Glinda's preferred mode of travel.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Jenn Gambatese's transformation from bubble-head Galinda to bubble-flying witch Glinda feels a bit more real, somehow. Vocally, she's the best Glinda I've had the pleasure of hearing (Apologies to Ms. Luff, but Ana Gasteyer still holds the title of my favorite Elphaba). One gets a full sense of the moral "weight" her character is carrying in "Thank Goodness," when Gambatese sings about the price of getting everything you want.   In addition to knowing her way around the musical's score and dramatic moments, Gambatese's also a great comedian, finding some interesting and unique moments to mine laughter.

Curt Hansen (Fiyero) can melt more than just two witches' hearts.
Photo by Joan Marcus
As Fiyero (the shallow rogue who comes between the two witches) Curt Hansen's movements at the end of the second act -without spoiling too much for those who have never taken a trip down "Wicked's " yellow brick road-are more in line with the character he is revealed to be. It's a nice twist and a welcome sight to those who have seen the show more than a few times.

As Elphaba's wheelchair-bound sister (and the future Wicked Witch of the East) Jaime Rosenstein's second act transformation is also more in tune with a collective memory of just who the Wicked Witch of the East is.

Never trust a smiling Wizard (John Davidson).
Photo by Joan Marcus
The show's Wizard, John Davidson, is a bit more "used car salesman" that corn-fed huckster for my tastes. And yet, when he sings of longing to be a parent, it's with heartfelt sincerity that works particularly well.

Kim Zimmer (Reva Shayne on "Guiding Light") does as much as she can with the thankless role of Madam Morrible, given the character is the least nuanced of any of the main characters and serves as the only true villainous person in the show.

"Wicked" is starting to show its age, at least in one regard. A comment late in the second act regarding a "regime change," which caused a collective audience gasp 10 years ago in the New York preview performance, doesn't hold the power it once did. Though we are still paying for the Iraq war (and will be doing so for several years), Americans have moved on -at least politically.

"Wicked" still holds much magic, however. "For Good" -the duet between the two witches, still speaks to that special bond of sisterhood, motherhood and basically any other 'hood you can think of.

Additionally, pretty much anyone should be able to identify with one of the show's central themes: that we sometimes have to abandon our idols, lovers and friends in order to reach our own potentials and soar.

Wicked" runs through Dec. 21 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. Tickets $37 to $107. Call (800) 775-2000. broadwayinchicago.com

Reeling fest presents ex-Columbia student’s Chicago love story

Actors Kyle Wigent and Tanner Rittenhouse watch the sunrise
over Lake Michigan in "In Bloom"
 Originally posted on Chicago Sun-Times website: http://www.suntimes.com/23464629-761/reeling-fest-presents-ex-columbia-students-chicago-love-story.html

The joy and pain of first love are front and center in “In Bloom,” an ambitious and heartfelt drama to be screened during Reeling, the Chicago Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transgendered International Film Festival.

Set in Chicago, the film has won critical praise for the first-time writer and director, former Columbia film student Chris Birkmeier. Critics have likened the actors’ performances to the natural Chicago style of theater performance seen regularly at Steppenwolf, Lookingglass and others.

“I am a huge fan of realistic and honest acting and realistic and honest filmmaking,” says Birkmeier, humbled by the comparison. “The genesis of this project was an analysis of the breakdown of a relationship.”

The film follows the relationship between pot-smoking drug dealer Kurt (Kyle Wigent) and goal-oriented Paul (Tanner Rittenhouse) as it plays out over the course of a typical Chicago summer. Local stage actor Adam Fane (“Avenue Q”) plays Kevin, the man who comes between the two.
Now 23, Birkmeier began writing the script when he was 20 and studying at Columbia. It is loosely based on his own first serious relationship.

“I came out at 19. I met said person. We had a four-year, on-and-off relationship, and I started writing to try and put it all in perspective,” he says.

"In Bloom" director Chris Birkmeier (right) gives
direction to Rittenhouse on set.
Perhaps complicating things further, co-star Rittenhouse is Birkmeier’s good friend and was around as most of the real relationship flamed out.

“It was sometimes painful for us both to be on the set,” Birkmeier says. “Certainly for me to see certain scenes played out again before me, but as an actor Tanner went from being an observer to participant.”

Reeling Film Festival program director Richard Knight Jr. says it wasn’t just the Chicago setting that made him want to include the movie in this year’s festival.

“It reminded me of my 20s in Chicago,” says Knight. “It’s a very interesting look at a typical relationship that happens to be between two guys. It feels very real and truthful.”

The film was shot over a period of 23 days, in and around Chicago. Tthe shoot didn’t always go smoothly.

Kyle Wigent as Kurt (left) and Tanner Rittenhouse (as Paul)
share a quintessential Chicago moment: a conversation under
the L tracks.
“In one scene, Kurt and Paul are arguing by the L tracks. If you ever have tried to have a conversation by the L tracks, inevitably a train will come by and you both stop talking mid-sentence until the train passes,” recalls Birkmeier, who thought such an interruption would be a nice Chicago touch. “We did four takes waiting for the train and it never came by. We had a rat run into the scene. Twice.”

The final cut of the film contains the scene with the vermin, but even that wasn’t the most difficult shot.

“I wanted this long tracking shot of the sun as it comes up over Lake Michigan,” he says. “The entire crew was using various iPhone apps trying to figure out when and where the sun was going to be coming up. I wanted to use a dolly shot, but before we could figure out how to set it up, the sun started coming up and we had to settle for a static shot. I yelled cut and the entire crew and I were screaming like kids because we knew we had got the perfect shot.” 

The main cast and Birkmeier, who now calls Seattle home, will be reunited at the screening of the film that Birkmeier calls his love letter to Chicago.

“It’s a tragic love letter, but a love letter nonetheless,” he says. “Every subway, alleyway, apartment and street that was the setting for those four years is, in some ways, a part of the film.”

More Reeling highlights: a Bavarian king, ‘Victor/Victoria’ and Divine

Originally posted at the Chicago Sun-Times website: http://www.suntimes.com/23464685-761/more-reeling-highlights-a-bavarian-king-victorvictoria-and-divine.html

The opening film of this year’s Reeling is equal parts “Heathers,” “Mean Girls” and “Clueless.” Michael J. Willett (“The United States of Tara”) stars as Tanner, who, after he is outed, becomes caught in a tug-of-war between three rival cliques of popular girls, all of whom want him for this season’s must-have high school accessory, the gay best friend. The comedy is both biting and heartfelt. It features a who's who of up-and-coming young actors including Andrea Bowen ("Desperate Housewives"), Paul Iacono ("The Hard Times of R. J. Berger") and Molly Tarlov ("Awkward"). 7 p.m. Thursday, Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport. $15-$40

With an estimated budget of more than $21 million, “Ludwig II” is arguably the most expensive film to ever appear at Reeling. The 2012 Austrian film (in German with subtitles) is an epic and lavish biography of one of Bavaria’s best-known kings including his struggles with his sexuality, his patronage of composer Richard Wagner and the opulent and expensive castles he built. It drags a bit in the middle, but history buffs will find the subject matter enlightening. 9:15 p.m. Thursday, Logan Theatre, $15-$40
Jeffrey Schwarz’s 2013 documentary profiles the late actor from his early days as a shy, overweight kid from Baltimore (born Harris Glenn Milstead) to his breakthrough as the 300-pound superstar Divine who brought drag into the mainstream in such cult hits as “Hairspray” and “Pink Flamingos.” Collaborator John Waters is featured (naturally), but it’s the interview with Milstead’s mom that really tugs at your heartstrings. 4:45 p.m. Sunday, Logan Theatre, $12

Queerty.com declared this “one of the biggest lesbian films of the year.” It’s also one of the best. Miranda Otto (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) delivers an elegant performance as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop, and Brazilian TV star Gloria Pires is virtually unrecognizable as the butch gal who steals Bishop’s heart. 6:45 p.m. Nov. 14, Logan Theatre, $15-$40

Both Reeling and the film “Victor\Victoria” celebrate their 31st anniversary this year. To commemorate this, comedian and gay icon Bruce Vilanch hosts a sing-along of the gender-bending comedy. Locals will be expected to know all the words to one of the greatest songs ever written about the Windy City, “Chicago, Illinois” (sung in the film by Lesley Anne Warren, who earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her performance). 6 p.m. Monday, Sidetrack: The Video Bar, 3349 N. Halsted, $15