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1776, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and six more new theater reviews

Two well-loved musicals are among this week's onstage highlights.

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Amour There's something beguiling about this quirky 2002 musical, in which a nobody Parisian civil servant becomes a somebody when he suddenly gains the ability to pass through walls. Maybe it's the offbeat score, by French composer Michel Legrand (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, among many others); maybe it's the literate, playful, sung-through libretto, translated from the French by Jeremy Sams (who also wrote the English book). But in this production, a Chicago premiere from Black Button Eyes, the show's charm is muted by a rough, uneven cast—some overplay the show's comic moments, while others lack the pipes to bring out the best in Legrand's ear-pleasing tunes. Only Emily Goldberg, playing the object of the hero's affection, sang with the power and confidence required to make the score soar. —Jack Helbig

AstonRep Theatre Company's The Black Slot - EMILY SCHWARTZ
  • Emily Schwartz
  • AstonRep Theatre Company's The Black Slot

The Black Slot Billed as a satire about racial politics in the American regional theater, Warren Hoffman's world premiere is a story of inequities, from microaggressions to tokenism. It's a smart focus for the typical white, liberal theatergoer; there's an attempt at metaexploration here, as the characters bemoan the predominance of white plays (which is pretty much what this is). There is one black character, Tim (Justin Wade Wilson), a promising playwright who interned with August Wilson. Unfortunately, Tim reveals himself as less honorable than the well-intentioned but ineffective white liberal dramaturg Beth (the charming Brittany Stock). This later plot point seems distracting at best; at worst, Hoffman has written himself into the trap he's endeavoring to expose. I applaud AstonRep for offering a new voice (another rejection of theater's conservativism) and hope to see more from Hoffman, but this production wasn't ready—however much the characters dismiss the endless readings and workshops required to successfully stage new plays, The Black Slot needed more time in development. —Suzanne Scanlon

Strawdog Theatre's Distance - TOM MCGRATH
  • Tom McGrath
  • Strawdog Theatre's Distance

[Recommended] Distance There's not much you could call action in the new play by Jerre Dye. And not much you won't have seen before, either. Under siege from Alzheimer's disease, an aging Memphis lady named Irene (Janice O'Neill) recedes into her personal distance, her past overwhelming her present. A scraggly little community forms around her, populated by Luvie (Anita Deely), her miserable 45-year-old daughter; Dolly (Loretta Rezos), her obsequious care provider; Dolly's aimless grown son, Dylan (the remarkable Caleb Fullen); and Leonard (Stephen Rader, also remarkable), a gay hair stylist stuck in sassy mode. We watch a birthday party, some wandering off, some bonding, a good bit of anomie—Dye leans a little too hard on his I-feel-invisible theme. So how come I had a great time watching this Strawdog Theatre premiere? Two reasons: (1) Dye's witty, empathic scenes. (2) The actors, who under Erica Weiss's direction balance considerable idiosyncrasy with a strong ensemble intimacy. Distance's mortal charm puts it just a stone's throw from Marvin's Room. —Tony Adler

(Re)discover Theatre's Farewell My Friend: The Tragic Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers - CODY JOLLY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Cody Jolly Photography
  • (Re)discover Theatre's Farewell My Friend: The Tragic Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers

[Recommended] Farewell My Friend: The Tragic Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers (Re)discover Theatre's original 2015 stab at this immersive 80-minute adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was all about traffic control. Audience members were rechristened Montague or Capulet, then followed either Romeo or Juliet through various locations in Epworth United Methodist Church, creating a carefully controlled two-track evening. This time directors Janet Howe and Matt Wills play things significantly looser; we're given leave to take any path we choose. I followed Romeo until his propensity for swallowing his lines made me jump ship to Juliet and then Lady Capulet. I got stranded in theatrical doldrums for a bit, but subsequently had a grand time watching an audience member join the Capulets for an inexplicable tea ceremony. The actors struggle with Shakespeare's text, so seek out the weird rituals. —Justin Hayford

The Cuckoo's Theater Project's The Heidi Chronicles - CANDICE LEE CONNER
  • Candice Lee Conner
  • The Cuckoo's Theater Project's The Heidi Chronicles

The Heidi Chronicles In Wendy Wasserstein's 1988 episodic drama, a network of Ivy League baby boomers explore different professional and personal avenues while riding massive cultural shifts from the 60s on. At the center is an art historian who navigates an ambitious life among the upper crust as attitudes toward women with careers evolve, devolve, and evolve again. In a play built on incremental personality changes over time, there's little character variation between the decades in this staging by the Cuckoo's Theater Project. Director Sara Carranza makes a proactive effort to broaden the sisterhood themes with color-blind casting, but with so many speeches delivered park-and-blow style, most opportunities for keen revelations get lost. One exception is Rebecca Sparks, who makes a meal out of Heidi's powerbroker friend, Susan. —Dan Jakes

Ari Butler is  J. Pierrepont Finch in Marriott Theatre's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Ari Butler is J. Pierrepont Finch in Marriott Theatre's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

[Recommended] How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying I don't know if we can call it a roll yet, but Marriott Theatre has definitely got some momentum when it comes to reviving 1960s-vintage Broadway musicals. Earlier this summer they staged a truly fierce Man of La Mancha. Now they're back with a How to Succeed that's not just fast and funny but brings out the musical's wry satirical edge in unexpected ways. A hit of the 1961 Broadway season, How to Succeed has always been known for mocking corporate culture with the tale of J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer who follows the instructions in a self-help manual all the way to the top of Worldwide Widgets. Here, director Don Stephenson also makes sure we notice its caustic—you might even say feminist—take on a woman's role in marriage. Ari Butler has that sly sweetness essential to Finch, the rest of the company is wonderfully sharp, Melissa Zaremba's choreography for this very physical production is brilliant, and Catherine Zuber gives new meaning to the word "decolletage" with her costumes for Angela Ingersoll's Hedy La Rue, the quintessential doxy. —Tony Adler

Irrational Tales Too many fake British accents and huffy turnings on the heel mar David Denman and Clock Theater's macabre revue Irrational Tales. Denman barely revises three works of spooky American short fiction, rounded up to four with something of his own, "Reflections." Most of the pieces could have used more actual adaptation, but there's one exception: "The Gorgon" by Clark Ashton Smith, which first appeared as a short story in the April 1932 edition of the pulp magazine Weird Tales. That it does beautifully as a one-act, clearly edging out midcareer works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a testament to the unbalanced calculus of theatrical adaptation. The only genuine fear I felt throughout Tales came in "Gorgon" while watching Jennifer Cheung play a witch—her vituperative cackles are excellent. —Max Maller

E.D.G.E. Theater's 1776 - ANGELA DAVIS COULING
  • Angela Davis Couling
  • E.D.G.E. Theater's 1776

[Recommended] 1776 History—so hot right now. Chicago may be on the verge of Hamilton hysteria, but that doesn't mean Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway juggernaut is the only colonial game in town. Up on the north side, E.D.G.E. Theater has revived Sherman Edwards's perennially popular musical in honor of the election season. And it's good. Real good. Mary's Attic doubles as a musky, sweltering Independence Hall in the heart of Philadelphia, where America's Continental Congress laid out plans for the colonies' declaration of independence. The best part: the setup allows you to feel like you're a part of the process, and you're welcome—nay, encouraged—to enjoy a pint or two while it's all going down. The gender-neutral cast, led by a terrific Jonathan Crabtree as John Adams, channel the pomp and fanfare that makes this a favorite among history buffs and musical-theater geeks alike. —Matt de la Peña v


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