Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Feature

Cheers Live, Dog Night, The Happiest Place on Earth, and nine more new theater reviews

The latest Chicago stage shows range from the rawly emotional to the enjoyably ridiculous.

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Bleacher Bums
  • Bleacher Bums

Bleacher Bums This genially rowdy made-in-Chicago comedy—created by and for the fabled Organic Theater Company in 1977 at the instigation of ensemble member Joe Mantegna (now star of TV's Criminal Minds)—focuses on a cadre of Chicago Cubs fans inhabiting the cheap seats at Wrigley Field during a game between the Cubs and the Saint Louis Cardinals. Responding to the unseen action on the ballfield below, a motley crew of day-game regulars cheer the home team, heckle the opposition, and challenge each other to increasingly high-stakes bets. The play—here presented by Open Space Theater in its revised 1998 version—is a pretty flimsy piece of storytelling, but it's an engaging collection of quirky character sketches, engagingly played by a nine-person cast under Nich Radcliffe's direction. —Albert Williams

Cheers comes to the stage at the Broadway Playhouse. - MATTHEW JOHN HALLBACH
  • Matthew John Hallbach
  • Cheers comes to the stage at the Broadway Playhouse.

[Recommended] Cheers Live on Stage If you're in the audience, you're likely already a fan of the long-running NBC sitcom. But even if you're there for mere nostalgia's sake, the standout cast may still thrill you: Paul Vogt as Norm and Sarah Sirota as Carla are especially evocative of the lovable George Wendt and Rhea Perlman, and it's a treat to see Barry Pearl as Coach. Erik Forrest Jackson's adaptation is smartly focused, limited to the first season and following the inception and development of Sam and Diane's romance. As played by Grayson Powell and Jillian Louis, the pair effectively recall originals Ted Danson and Shelley Long while transcending their influence; I especially adored Powell as the romantic lead. It's a wise tribute and extension of James Burrows's original comic gathering: a ditzy coach, a retired ballplayer, a know-it-all mailman, and a Kierkegaard-quoting blond barmaid who declares what we feel—that the quotidian life of the humble tavern can be a "potent microcosm" of the world at large. —Suzanne Scanlon

Northlight Theatre's The City of Conversation - CHARLES OSGOOD
  • Charles Osgood
  • Northlight Theatre's The City of Conversation

The City of Conversation Playwright Anthony Giardina both under- and oversells his 2014 domestic/political drama charting the disruption and demise of a liberal elite Georgetown family and the culture of cocktail diplomacy from Carter's last days to Obama's first. In act one, as Democratic socialite Hester welcomes home her errant son Colin and his young Reaganite fiancee, Anna, Giardina paints a simplistic political divide (tradition-loving neocons disdain nuance, underclass-cheering liberals condescend) that in act two—amid Robert Bork's controversial Supreme Court nomination—splits Hester's family irrevocably in two (though only because Giardina vastly overestimates Hester's influence on national politics). Still, director Marti Lyons coaxes first-rate performances from every member of her cast; Lia D. Mortensen's seductive, desperate, venomous turn as Hester is an especially thrilling ordeal. —Justin Hayford

Pulse Theatre's The Colored Museum, at ETA Creative Arts - AARON MITCHELL REESE
  • Aaron Mitchell Reese
  • Pulse Theatre's The Colored Museum, at ETA Creative Arts

The Colored Museum George C. Wolfe's 1986 send-up of black theater, structured as a series of satirical sketches, was revolutionary for its time, the late Reagan era, and on occasion this seminal show still thrills—"Git on Board," the opening piece about the continuing legacy of slavery, took my breath away. Nonetheless, the most daring thing about the play, Wolfe's refusal to write either a serious deconstruction or a flat-out comedy revue, is also one of its flaws. Parts, such as his send-up of Raisin in the Sun, "The Last Mama on the Couch Play," are laugh-out-loud funny, but other pieces such as "Lala's Opening," about an overblown diva, feel like rough drafts in need of more work. That inconsistency is mirrored in this Pulse Theatre production, directed by Aaron Mitchell Reese and Donterrio Johnson, which sometimes kills (Demetra Drayton and Ekia Thomas are particularly funny) but at other times seems at a loss as to how find either the humor or the message in Wolfe's unfocused material. Jack Helbig

The Side Project's Dead Children, at Chicago Dramatists - COURTESY THE SIDE PROJECT THEATRE COMPANY
  • Courtesy the Side Project Theatre Company
  • The Side Project's Dead Children, at Chicago Dramatists

Dead Children Playwright Robert Tenges's Dead Children, a new production from the Side Project in collaboration with Chicago Dramatists, works around memories of events too painful to discuss candidly without risking everything. Most of the time what the characters do instead is make fragile, evasive chitchat—it's how they survive. Tom (Erik Wagner) is deeply vulnerable, his mother having done unspeakable things to him as a child. It affects his posture: whether talking or listening, his twitchy bald head leans forward, eyes down, like a meek lollipop. He and his wife, Renata (Kirsten D'Aurelio), are splitting up ("We're not physical," Tom says). Renata, an underachieving daughter, is now caretaker of her mother, the same woman—grown gray and forgetful but still just as nasty—who burned her with a scalding plate of mashed potatoes as a child. It's a pretty raw play, though one with performances that, under the direction of Adam Webster, are also pretty extraordinary, especially Victoria Gilbert as Mary Jo, Tom's high school sweetheart. —Max Maller

Rabid Bat Theatricals' Dog Night, at Edgewater's North Lakeside Cultural Center - NED BAKER
  • Ned Baker
  • Rabid Bat Theatricals' Dog Night, at Edgewater's North Lakeside Cultural Center

Dog Night For Dog Night, everyone gets a mask. You mill around the wood-paneled foyer at Gunder House (aka the North Lakeside Cultural Center, a slightly spooky old mansion), thinking, "Cool place for a play—when does it start?" It already has. A certain Professor Mott (Ben Kemper) is here to give a lecture to the "Ecto-Effigical Empirical Historical Society of Chicago," to which you suddenly belong. The real estate developer who just introduced himself to you, is he an actor? These people shouting about—what were they shouting about, a dog in the attic? Are they actors? Hard to say. The lights flicker. It's an old building, these things happen . . . or do the ghosts of its gruesome history want revenge? With Dog Night, Rabid Bat Theatricals has crafted a hair-raising immersive theatrical experience of the first order. It's beautiful and dangerous; it urges—and repays—total engagement in its experiments. Catch it before it closes this weekend. —Max Maller

Philip Dawkins's The Happiest Place on Earth, at the Greenhouse Theater - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Philip Dawkins's The Happiest Place on Earth, at the Greenhouse Theater

[Recommended] The Happiest Place on Earth "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" has been the soundtrack to playwright Philip Dawkins's home life for generations. His exceptional one-man show, directed by Jonathan L. Green, chronicles his family's relationship with Disneyland, where they traveled to find elusive happiness in the wake of his sportscaster grandfather's on-air death of an aneurysm at age 35. Each stage in the family's rebuilding is set against an area of the park—Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, etc, in addition to playing himself, Dawkins deftly steps into the shoes of all the women characters, delicately creating distinct and nuanced personalities enhanced by old photos he shares on an overhead projector. Witty and heartbreaking in equal measure, he crafts vivid, emotionally charged scenes with language that feels both accessible and cinematic. —Marissa Oberlander

Genesis Theatricals' The People's Choice, at Redtwist - RONN SPARKES
  • Ronn Sparkes
  • Genesis Theatricals' The People's Choice, at Redtwist

The People's Choice Senator "Ronald Trumpet" is a suit with no scruples, a politician with no soul. And that sucks for the incumbent president, a man who can't fathom how a blustery blowhard with bad hair is beating him in the polls. So the good-natured protagonist of this political satire from Genesis Theatrical Productions hires a fast-talking spin team to turn things around—even if it costs him some dignity. Playwright Philip Pinkus's script was reworked to reflect the events of this year's election season, and though the resulting 60-minute play has its positives, subtlety isn't one of them—Mexicans are rapists, Muslims should be banned, etc, etc. Is it even possible to portray such themes satirically when they're in fact real statements spouting from the mouth of an ostensibly real person? One thing's clear: it's hard as hell to make the ridiculous look even more ridiculous. —Matt de la Peña

Baby Wants Candy's Thrones! A Musical Parody, at the Apollo - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Baby Wants Candy's Thrones! A Musical Parody, at the Apollo

[Recommended] Thrones! A Musical Parody Created by well-known Chicago improv ensemble Baby Wants Candy, this Game of Thrones musical parody makes its U.S. debut after playing at last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Full disclosure: the character I most closely relate to is Brad (played by a versatile and high-energy Nick Druzbanski), the only one who's never seen the HBO juggernaut. If you like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and you like porn, you'll love this show, the other characters confidently assure him. What follows is a genre-bending, do-it-yourself living-room musical put on by Brad's friends to catch him up on the plot. Endless inside jokes and spoilers had the audience falling out of their chairs on the day I attended—I just enjoyed the knockout vocal harmonies, particularly from Caitlyn Cerza. —Marissa Oberlander

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, at pH Theater - COURTESY PH THEATER
  • Courtesy pH Theater
  • The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, at pH Theater

[Recommended] The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Some of the actors in this revival of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's 2005 Broadway musical are less than fabulous singers, and the production itself, as evidenced by the simple set and costumes, is low-budget, but that hardly matters when the comic acting is as first-rate as it is in this production. Everybody in this sweet little show finds the funny in their quirky, neurotic characters without turning them into goofy cartoons and losing the laughs. And they do this without mocking these gifted if annoying spelling-bee kids or overplaying the comedy—by making us like their characters first, as Jason Geis does in his hilarious portrayal of the gifted if annoying William Barfee (though it seems unfair to single out Geis in an ensemble as tight and talented as this one). Erin Elisabeth Smith provides the smart musical direction. —Jack Helbig

Filament Theatre's The Van Gogh Cafe, at Portage Park's Community Tavern - DOMINICK MAINO
  • Dominick Maino
  • Filament Theatre's The Van Gogh Cafe, at Portage Park's Community Tavern

[Recommended] The Van Gogh Cafe In hindsight, children’s lunch theater seems like such a natural, visceral way for young audiences to be introduced to live art that it’s surprising more companies haven’t tackled it. Filament Theatre and its Portage Park neighbor Community Tavern set a high bar with this five-course "culinary immersion experience" delivered together with a 90-minute adaptation of Cynthia Rylant’s book about miracles cropping up in a midwestern diner. Between cartoonish vignettes, the actors in director Julie Ritchey's ensemble serve a scrumptious, mostly vegetarian-friendly (the exception is a warm crab dip) five-course prix fixe meal by chef Joey Beato. The stop-and-start dinner-theater action limits the storytelling, but the choreography of the service is low-key brilliant, as are the kid-appropriate but challenging new flavors, which progress from a delicious smoked-vegetable club to a surefire second course of lemon meringue pie to a fifth-course salad of kale and shaved vegetables with pistachios, pecarino, and fried-garlic vinaigrette. Magical! —Dan Jakes

Steppenwolf's Visiting Edna, directed by Anna D. Shapiro - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Steppenwolf's Visiting Edna, directed by Anna D. Shapiro

Visiting Edna I imagine the smoldering, borderline nihilistic spirit that drives David Rabe's new end-of-life drama is what my mother, who died of cancer in 2010, felt in solitude during her darkest moments. My God, I wish this script had a bit more of her fight against grief too. A middle-aged father spends a few days with his widowed mom when it becomes clear that palliative care could be fast-approaching reality. Cancer and television are personified as full-fledged characters, details that ring true—in those claustrophobic confines, you're damn right a TV feels like a welcome soul in the room, though the metaphysical analogy gets muddled. Anna D. Shapiro's Steppenwolf production ultimately falls victim to Roger Ebert's Human Centipede conundrum, in which something sets out to be agonizing, then succeeds. —Dan Jakes

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