Sunday, November 23, 2014

Shuler Hensley steals "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!: The Musical"

Shuler Hensley as The Grinch in the 2014 Equity Touring Company of Dr. Seuss' HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! The Musical, running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre.
© BlueMoon Studios
While being short on appeal for adults, "HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS!: THE MUSICAL," playing the Chicago Theatre through Nov. 29, is a decidedly kid-friendly holiday show is the perfect vehicle to introduce children to the wondrous magic of live musical theater.
And that is, perhaps, how things should be.
This still makes no bleeping sense to me.
Those of us old enough to remember a time before cable, video on demand or Blue-Ray, might recall how the holiday season didn't officially begin until the three network stations began airing their roster of holiday classics. "The Year Without a Santa Claus," "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and, yes, even "Rudolph's Shiny New Year" all had fans in my household (there's always one person who finds the holiday-melding "Shiny New Year" to be his/her cup of tea, though I confess I don't know why).
And while we still argue over our favorites as children, there is one holiday classic for which there is little debate: Chuck Jones' 1966 "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!," narrated by none other than horror movie icon Boris Karloff, is holiday perfection.
Horror movie legend Boris Karloff
Both book and cartoon are still ahead of their time in some respects. Seuss began warning us about the dangers of over-commercializing holidays some 48 years ago. The fact that so many retail employees now have to give up a family holiday (Thanksgiving) to feed our nation's insatiable consumer appetite for "Black Friday" deals would no doubt sicken both Seuss and The Grinch. But I digress.
It's hard to see a classic 22 minute piece of animation bloated to either a feature length film (as it was in 2000) or a 90-minute, intermissionless children's musical. And yet, in the case of the musical, it's length --though still two sizes bigger than it should be-- still managed to keep the addition of the kiddies for nearly its entire length.
Much of the credit for keeping things engaging for the younger set surely goes to Shuler Hensley, whose Grinch is less menacing and more mischievous. Hensley knows when to improvise a bit and play to the audience for full comic effect.
Aleksa Kurbalija as Max and Ken Land as Old Max
© BlueMoon Studios
He's helped along by Ken Lund, who plays the older version of the green one's faithful dog Max and serves as the piece's narrator (and heart and soul, really). "This Time of Year" (a song in which he sings nostolgically with his younger self, played by Aleksa Kurbalija) perfectly captures that moment when an older, wiser self longs to go back to the days when the world was just a little bit more magical.
The plot doesn't stray too far from its original path. The Grinch is a loner who hates Christmas. The Whos of Whoville do not. And yet, the older Whos are as guilty as the Grinch for losing the true meaning of Christmas as demonstrated in "It's the Thought That Counts." Despite its title, it is very much about running yourself ragged as you shop for things that your kids probably don't really need.
The Grinch hatches a plot to literally steal Christmas, thinking without all the gifts, decorations, lights and bows that make up the trappings of the holiday that there will be no holiday.
In the original, the holiday still comes and the Grinch has a change of heart when he hears all of Whoville singing (the iconic songs from the animated show "Welcome, Christmas" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" are included alongside new songs here). It's really one child's act of unselfish, unwavering kindness (Cindy-Lou Who, played by Lilyana Cornell and Presley Ryan alternately), who really melt's this musical Grinch's heart. Composer Mel Marvin and lyricist Timothy Mason have written Cindy-Lou a touching ballad "Santa For a Day." Yes, it is perhaps overly-sweet, but sung with such conviction that it can't help but melt the most fridge of hearts.
The ensemble. © BlueMoon Studios
The sets by John Lee Beattyand costumes by Robert Morgan pay stricter homage to the drawings of Seuss than did the cartoon. Fans of the book will really marvel at how the book seems to come to life in set pieces, props and costumes.
Ultimately, Hensley's devilishly playful take on the iconic role that makes these a holiday special the younger set won't want to miss.
"Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical" runs through Nov. 29 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State Street. Tickets $35-$125. Call (800) 745-3000.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sneak Peek at 32th Annual Reeling LGBT International Film Festival Feature Films

The Reeling Film Festival has announced their feature film selections for this year's fest, to be held earlier than in prior years. New dates for the fest are Sept. 18-Sept. 25.

 "Being in November, Reeling was late in the programming year and we found that many of the films that were appearing in LGBT film festivals over the summer (when some of the other major LBGT film festivals take place) were being released (theatrically or via DVD or VOD) in Chicago prior to our festival," said Reeling founder Brenda Webb." By moving to September, our intention was to keep ahead of the fall releases of some films."

Webb also noted that given the traditionally more hospitable September weather in Chicago, festival folks are currently exploring potential outdoor screenings for future festivals. So, it sounds like the September date for the fest is a permanent move.

Specific showtimes and have not been announced, but here are some early standouts (sight unseen; screeners will be available at a later date):

Robby (Michael Welch) and Ricky (Michelle Hendley)
navigate friendship and relationships in "Boy Meets Girl."
Opening Night Feature 
"Boy Meets Girl" 
The fest opens with this romantic, coming of age comedy by writer/director Eric Schaeffer ("If Lucy Fell") about Robby (Michael Welch, best known as Mike Newton from the "Twilight" saga), his transgendered best friend Ricky (Michelle Hendley, who was discovered in a nationwide search to cast the role) and the debutant (Alexandra Turshen) who comes between the best friends.

Julian Walker (left) and Academy Award-winner Mo'Nique in "Blackbird"
Closing Night Feature
Academy Award-winner Mo'Nique's first film since nabbing an Oscar for "Precious,""Blackbird" stars newcomer Julian Walker as choirboy Randy who has a crisis of faith when he begins to have feelings for a boy in drama club. Mo'Nique plays his mom and Isaiah Washington (infamously dismissed from "Gray's Anatomy" for an alleged homophobic slur on set against out co-star T.R. Knight) plays his dad.

Zoe (Sharon Hinnendael) and Mal (Jill Evyn)  in "Anatomy of a Love Seen"

Lesbian Centerpiece
"Anatomy of a Love Seen"
Sharon Hinnendael and Jill Evyn star as a pair of actresses who meet and fall in love on a movie set in this film-within-a-film from writer/director Marina Rice Bader (producer of "Elena Undone). praised the relationship study for it's "raw and spontaneous feel."

Cheng Pei-pei (left) and Ben Whishaw star in "Lilting"

Gay Centerpiece
An official selection of Sundance, Berlin and London Film Festivals, "Lilting" stars Cheng Pei-pei as June, a motherstruggling to come to grips wither her son's untimely death.  Ben Whishaw (Q" in the current "Bond" films) plays the deceased son's roommate and lover. Variety called the film "intimate and sensitive almost to a fault." The British drama capture the Cinematography Award: World Cinema Dramatic at Sundance.

Xavier Dolan directs and stars in "Tom at the Farm"

International Centerpiece
"Tom at the Farm" 
The film adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard's  play "Lillies" was a crowd favorite at Reeling several years ago and since "Tom at the Farm" is based on the Quebecois playwright's play"Tom à la ferme" and is directed by Xavier Dolan (who was the toast of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival with "I Killed My Mother) who also stars. as the title character, an ad executive who crashes his dead lover's country funeral only to be caught in the family's twisted, secret-filled melodrama.     .

Michael Welch, Twilight)trans actress Michelle Hendley who was cast in the role after a nationwide search. Hendley plays "Ricky"
Max Adler (left) and Danny Mooney star in "Saugatuck Cures"
  Of Local Interest
"Saugatuck Cures"
Matthew Ladensack's comedy was shot in the west Michigan vacation city of Saugatuck (popular with gay and straight Chicagoans alike) and stars Max Adler ("Glee) as a con-artist posing as an ex-gay preacher in order to bulk churchgoers out of money so he can pay for his mom's cancer treatment.

Dates, times and a full Fest list should be updated sometime this month at

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Get to know her name: "Carrie: The Musical" electrifies

Callie Johnson (center) and the cast of Bailiwick Chicago’s Chicago premiere of CARRIE: The Musical with music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, book by Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King, directed by Michael Driscoll and music direction by Aaron Benham. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Cross-posted from

Forget for a moment that “Carrie: The Musical” is based on Stephen King’s terrifying debut novel and the subsequent iconic 1976 Brian De Palma film. And I know it will be exceptionally hard, but also forget that the show is a much-revised version of the cult-classic, infamous 1988 Broadway flop (thankfully, the book has exorcised most –if not all-of the demons that initially made the show a campy, miserable failure).

“Carrie: The Musical,” enjoying its Chicago premiere at Bailiwick Chicago at Victory Gardens through July 12, soars like a phoenix on the strength of the performances of its leading ladies and a terrific ensemble cast. If you’re looking for camp, look elsewhere. This is a serious and somber tragedy t electrifies. As seen with the Bailiwick production, “Carrie” deserves to be rescued from the pile of shows whose Broadway dreams did not pan out.  

Aside from merely being entertaining, any revival (even revivals of failed musicals) needs to have some cultural, political or social relevance to the era in which it is being produced. “Carrie” is no different and she comes bearing quite a message. 

In 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” it was teens rebelling against society. In the musical “Carrie” (book by Lawrence D. Cohen who also wrote the film script; lyrics and music by Academy Award winners Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore, respectively) teens have become society and now battle each other with tragic results.

 Henry McGinniss, Rochelle Therrien as Tommy and Sue (background, left to right) and Callie Johnson as Carrie (front) Photo by Michael Brosilow.
As the sounds of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances are heard, the lone witness and survivor to the carnage from teleknetic rage, Sue (Rochelle Therrien in a delicate, but emotionally powerful performance) sets the tone with the first line of dialogue: “You have to understand: we were just kids.”  

Sadly, school massacres have almost become commonplace in America. 

Yes, crosses, books and other things get thrown in fits of telekinetic rage, but nowadays, it’s more likely to be a gun than supernatural powers that leads to a high school tragedy. Kids, just being kids, and, as Sue notes at the end, “once you see, you can’t unsee.“  

Carrie White, it would seem, is not the only one who views themselves as an outsider. In the energetic opening number “In,” a group of high schoolers lament “Life just doesn’t begin/until you fit in.”

It’s hardly earth-shattering news, but, yes, teenagers, in their effort for peer acceptance, will often turn on anyone and everyone who is different quicker than you can grab your copy of Lord of the Flies.

As the tortured Cinderella of the piece, Callie Johnson initially sings of bringing her fellow classmates down to their knees in the title song, and yet Johnson manages to illicit our sympathies. The song (and Johnson’s performance of it) shows us the seed of rage that will be the source of her powers later on. For the most part, she just wants to fit in like everyone else and dreams of dancing, laughing more than she does.

 Katherine L. Condit (left) and Callie Johnson. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
As Carrie’s mother (and chief antagonist) Margaret, Katherine L. Condit still physically, mentally and spiritually abuses her daughter, but the results here are less over-the-top villainy and more the signs of an over-protective parent. Condit sings such hymns such as “Open Your Heart” and “When There’s No One” with such sweet conviction 

If there is one cartoonish portrayal, it is that of Carrie’s chief tormentor, Chris (Samantha Dubina). Though, to be perfectly fair, it’s not Dubina’s fault. She has to deliver the line“There’s a runt in every litter and our runt is Carrie White.” and in the song “The World According to Chris” sings “better to strike then get struck\better to screw than get screwed.”   

Michael Driscoll’s direction keeps things moving along with an energy that pulses from the first number to the last. Brigitte Ditmars’ choreography has the required youthful vitality, particularly in the group numbers. 

Stephen H. Carmody’s sterile and industrial set, with suspended metal lockers and chain link fencing evokes a sense of imprisonment more than it does high learning. To some teens, that’s the point, though. 

The second act opens with an ensemble song about the prom that is both hopeful and energetic; it includes the lyrics “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet\it’s gonna be a night we’ll never forget.” Given what we know is in store for these kids, it’s the musical foreshadowing of the horror film standard of “don’t go in there.”
If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know how things must end. To Johnson’s credit, you heart still breaks for Carrie as those events play out, though. I found myself wishing Carrie could have her happy ending this time.

"Carrie: The Musical" runs through July 12 at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln. Tickets, $40. (773) 871-3000. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Wizard of Blehs

Cross-posted from

It’s hard to think of anything more “Midwestern” than “The Wizard of Oz.” Chicagoans have an affinity for the work and rightfully so. L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz while living here. The original 1902 stage production made its debut on a Chicago stage. We even have a park named Oz which features sculptures from the book series. 

So, what to say about the latest revamp of the film-turned-stage musical “The Wizard of Oz” –a production in which the lone American in the cast is the dog playing Toto and Canadian accents are as thick as the air in a Kansas during the dust bowl? A show that features five mostly forgettable new songs written by a pair of Englishmen (music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by Tim Rice) that fails to emulate the music stylings of the great Harold Arlen who wrote the film’s iconic score or the tone of E.Y. Harburg’s inspiring lyrics to the extent the new material sticks out like a pair of ruby red slippers on a sepia-toned Kansas farm?

Dorothy, you’re right. You’re not in Kansas. You’re in Toronto after a layover in London’s West End.

That’s not to say they don’t have farms in Canada (or, for that matter, England). And yes, there is something universal that many journeys end with the realization that everything you are looking for can be found at home. I’m certainly not a flag waving American. My dad’s family hails from the Great White North. 

The production which opened on Thursday at the Cadillac Palace Theater felt to me more like a traditional English Panto than it did with live theater. There was far too much slapstick, buffoonery and sexual innuendo. 

The show’s Dorothy, Danielle Wade, is likeable enough. Her portrayal is unique enough that you don’t feel she is every impersonating the film’s original star, Judy Garland. She belts the heck out of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and her longing for something beyond the world she knows feels earnest.   

It’s perhaps no surprise that she feels very at home in the role, seeing as she won the lead after appearing on the CBC reality show “Over the Rainbow” that had Canadian gals competing for the role in an “American Idol” style show.
The witches (Robin Evan Willis as Glinda and Jacqueleyn Piro Donovan as the Wicked Witch of the West) are painted with too broad a comedic stroke. Gone are the nuturing, motherly Glinda and the frightening Wicked Witch from the film.

Gone too is the noble Scarecrow. Poor Jamie McKnight has to play the strawman as an imbecile who can’t even remember why he has embarked on a quest to see the Wizard.

Worst of the night is Lee MacDougall’s swishy lion that would make the likes of Paul Lynde look butch. A joke about the lion being “a friend of Dorothy” –a dated euphemism for “gay” that references either Judy Garland’s character or, as some scholars have argued,the late humorist Dorothy Parker—fell flat on Thursday night. The portrayal is neither witty nor camp. What were they thinking?

Simply put, the brains, heart and courage seem to be missing from this tale from America’s heartland and not even the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (a regal Jay Brazeau as both the all-powerful Wizard and sideshow huckster Professor Marvel) can seem to fix it.   

“The Wizard of Oz” runs through May 11 at the Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph. Tickets $18-$105. 800.775-2000 or

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Stroll down Mercury's home-grown, Broadway-calibur "Avenue Q."

The cast of "Avenue Q." Photo by Brett Bener.
Cross-posted from

A lot has happened since “Avenue Q” defied the odds to beat out a certain heavily-favored, green skinned witch for the Tony award for best musical 10 years ago. Technology and social media sites have come and gone (compact disks have yielded to mp3 players; MySpace and Ask Jeeves are about as relevant as an AOL email account these days). Stock markets have crashed, rebounded, crashed again and rebounded.

With his Oscar earlier this year for “Frozen,” “Avenue Q” co-composer Robert Lopez even claimed his EGOT crown (so named as Mr. Lopez has successfully won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony). It might “suck to be you” as a certain lyric from “Avenue Q” goes, but it certainly does not suck to be Mr. Lopez at this moment in time.  

Is the puppet nudity and adult humor of this homage to “Sesame Street” still culturally relevant? You bet your felt covered butt it is!

You can thank our anemic economy.  While “Sesame Street” gently prepared several generations of preschoolers to navigate the playground, Mercury Theater’s home-grown, Equity  production of “Avenue Q,” remains current as it tackles the difficulties of job hunting, unemployment and the dating pool for twenty, thirty and forty-somethings. 

The emotional heart of the show (book by Jeff Whitty and music and lyrics by Lopez and Jeff Marx) has always been with Kate Monster, who dreams of both the perfect boyfriend and opening a “Monster-sorri” school . Under the direction of L. Walter Stearns, Mercury’s production still thankfully wears its sweet heart on its sleeve. Much like “Sesame Street,” Stearns has succeeded in mounting a Brodway-caliber production that manages to feel somewhat irreverent and good-natured at the same time. 

Leah Morrow as Kate Monster. Photo by Brett Bener.
The original puppets by Russ Walko bear an uncanny resemblance to most of their actor counterparts and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell puppet from puppeteer.
As Kate Monster, Leah Morrow is appropriately sweet and vulnerable. You can almost feel her furry heart break as she sings about the fine line between being lovers and friends.

Jackson Evans as Princeton. Photo by Brett Bener.
As Princeton, Jackson Evans is charming as he stumbles in both love and finding his life’s purpose. 

Adam Fane finds some great comedic moments as the highly-strung, closeted Republican Rod. Daniel Smeriglio is the perfect foil to Rod as Rod’s roommate (and unrequited love) Nicky. Smeriglio, along with Stephanie Herman, has some fine comedic moments as The Bad Idea Bears.

As Christmas Eve, the Japanese therapist with no “cry-ents,” Christine Bunuan deserves a Jeff. Her Christmas Eve is easily my favorite (and I’ve seen both the Original Broadway cast, the replacement cast and the touring company productions of the show). Her rendition of “The More you Ruv Someone” is side-splitting and worth the price of your ticket alone. 

Thom Van Ermen draws some of the other biggest laughs of the night as Trekkie Monster. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise; if there is one thing about the show that is still current, it’s that the Internet is still for porn.

“Avenue Q” is a must-see for teens and adults.

Mercury Theater's production of "Avenue Q" runs through June 29 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport. Tickets $20-$59. or 773.325.1700