Chicago, Lady X: The Musical, and seven more new theater reviews | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Chicago, Lady X: The Musical, and seven more new theater reviews

The hometown return of an iconic show and the tuneful reboot of a camp classic are among this week's best bets.

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Cabaret Any production of Kander and Ebb's 1966 Broadway hit would benefit from losing half its score (most of the nonfamous songs stop the action dead while belaboring the obvious), but No Stakes Theater Project's scrappy staging would do well to ax them all. The collective efforts of director Erin Shea Brady, choreographer Mollyanne Nunn, musical directors Emilie Modaff and Erick Rivera, and a loose four-piece band never successfully put a song across or bring the seedy Kit Kat Klub credibly to the stage. Fortunately, the cast skillfully plumb most of the depths of Joe Masteroff's well-crafted book, making the story of doomed romance—and doomed progressive sexual politics—in the Weimar Republic's final days disarmingly poignant. In the thankless central role of struggling novelist Cliff Bradshaw, Cory Hardin captivates. —Justin Hayford

Aléna Watters and ensemble in Chicago - BRETT BEINER
  • Brett Beiner
  • Aléna Watters and ensemble in Chicago

[Recommended] Chicago It's all about celebrity. An imprisoned starlet, Roxy Hart (Kelly Felthous), fights to become a celebrity fast enough to be able to save her life. Sequins, blaring headlines, and fierce stockings ensue. It's hard to believe that it's been 34 years since Kander and Ebb's iconic musical last played in its namesake town, where audiences will laugh nervously when they hear that "The Cell Block Tango" is set inside Cook County Jail. But it's finally back, and everything works in this razzle-dazzling production directed by William Osetek. Comparisons with the film adaptation are inevitable, but for my money Drury Lane's version puts the corrupt social order of the play in a much more sober light than the movie does. Felthous, alongside Aléna Watters as Velma Kelly, heads up a superb cast predominantly of out-of-towners. —Max Maller

Rivendell Theatre's The Firebirds Take the Field - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • MIchael Brosilow
  • Rivendell Theatre's The Firebirds Take the Field

[Recommended] The Firebirds Take the Field After 25 years away, a neurosurgeon returns to her crumbling, postindustrial hometown when 18 girls, most of them cheerleaders, all come down with the same mysterious ailment. Rivendell Theatre's world-premiere production of Lynn Rosen's play works both as a biting critique of how our society treats women and as an insightful rumination on the ways unfulfilled hopes and desires can haunt or even poison one's life. Though based on an actual case in upstate New York, this story works much better as a metaphorical tale than a medical mystery—the emotions ring true even if the science seems iffy. Directed by Jessica Fisch. —Dmitry Samarov

City Lit Theatre's Forty-Two Stories - AUSTIN OIE
  • Austin Oie
  • City Lit Theatre's Forty-Two Stories

Forty-Two Stories In Douglas Post's new comedy, a career philosophy student procrastinates on his dissertation for an eighth year by accepting a maintenance job in the "real world," namely a Lake Shore Drive high-rise condo. Unsurprisingly, his blue-collar tourism doesn't sit well with the committed lifers on staff, whose expertise has long been undervalued by the higher-ups. Scott Westerman's City Lit Theatre production is at its most fun when it gives insight into the inner workings of the business, particularly its awkward positioning between office and residential life. Alongside a broad B story about a building manager prepared to go full-blown Gloria (more literally than is comfortable in an otherwise light whodunit yarn), a more perfunctory romance narrative pumps the brakes on the comedy throughout. —Dan Jakes

David Cerda and Chazie Bly in Hell in a Handbag's Lady X: The Musical - RICK AGUILAR
  • Rick Aguilar
  • David Cerda and Chazie Bly in Hell in a Handbag's Lady X: The Musical

[Recommended] Lady X: The Musical Hell in a Handbag's prolific David Cerda reworks his 2010 play into an insightfully terrible, noiresque backstage musical. A gaggle of chorus-girl hookers (dumb, sauced, jaded, or all three) sing and dance their way into and out of gangland trouble under the murderous eye of their nightclub boss, underground queenpin Scarlet Fontanelli. The first half hour is so craftily written, ingeniously tuneful (music by Cerda and Scott Lamberty), wickedly vulgar, and crisply performed that the remaining 90 minutes—which in any other context would be mostly terrific—often seem merely good. This artful cloaking of progressive gender politics under cross-dressing absurdity and big dance numbers deserves judicious trimming and tightening. As the fire-haired, overstuffed Fontanelli, Cerda is an utter horror. —Justin Hayford

The Liar - COURTESY OF PROMETHEAN THEATRE ENSEMBLE
  • Courtesy of Promethean Theatre Ensemble
  • The Liar

[Recommended] The Liar There's something so unusual, like quintuplets, about doing a play in only rhyming couplets; Promethean Theatre Ensemble somehow pulls this off, which is assuredly nothing at which to scoff. In Pierre Corneille's 1644 farce, Dorante (Josh Hambrock) captivates the Paris scene with his elegant, dubious fibs, so much so that even he loses all sense of what's real and what's a lie: as he says at one point, "The unimagined life is not worth living." As adapted by David Ives, the repartee comes fast and furious, with plenty of bounce and verve. Ed Rutherford directs. —Max Maller

Underscore Theatre's My Name Is Annie King - EVAN HANOVER
  • Evan Hanover
  • Underscore Theatre's My Name Is Annie King

My Name Is Annie King Underscore Theatre focuses entirely on nurturing and presenting new musicals—a noble mission, but risky, as this multiflawed premiere production proves. Krista Pioppi's book starts with infantile twentysomething Lucas fleeing the funeral of the father who never loved him right; drunk and armed with a car, he hits a pedestrian who turns out to be Cash, the alpha-male leader of an end-of-days cult. In an interesting twist, Lucas and Cash form an intense bond. But that's the last interesting twist in this 150-minute show. The rest is either predictable, undeveloped (what, exactly, is the story with Cash's health?), or telegraphed by Alex Higgin-Houser's clunky staging. A dramaturg might've helped, but there's none listed in the credits. And the "bluegrass" score by Aaron Albert and Katy Rea? Running from vague to trite, it's not even bluegrass. —Tony Adler

Raven Theatre's Not About Nightingales - DEAN LA PRAIRIE
  • Dean La Prairie
  • Raven Theatre's Not About Nightingales

[Recommended] Not About Nightingales Tennessee Williams's flawed but historically significant 1938 drama was written when he was 27—six years before he broke through with his stunning The Glass Menagerie—but not produced until 60 years later, when it came to Broadway at the urging of Vanessa Redgrave. It's the story of a group of penitentiary inmates who stage a hunger strike to protest their inhumane treatment by the corrupt warden and his brutal guards (including the ultimate punishment—internment in a 150-degree boiler room known as "Klondike"). Recalling such 30s films as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Each Dawn I Die, it's a sometimes awkwardly preachy but still potent protest against a callous, abusive incarceration system that has long since abandoned any pretense of social rehabilitation. Raven Theatre's well-acted production, directed by Michael Menendian, effectively juggles the play's elements of harsh realism and dreamlike expressionism, using stylized movement choreographed by Breon Arzell and eerily atmospheric lighting designed by Diane D. Fairchild. The cast—including Chuck Spencer as the warden, Brandon Greenhouse as a conscience-stricken "canary" (jailhouse informant), and Sophia Menendian as the warden's secretary, an outsider who finds herself trapped in a hellish underworld—is excellent. —Albert Williams

Kelly Anchors and Beau O'Reilly in Curious Theatre Branch's Tattered and Wincing - JEFFREY BIVENS
  • Jeffrey Bivens
  • Kelly Anchors and Beau O'Reilly in Curious Theatre Branch's Tattered and Wincing

Tattered and Wincing An uncredited note in the program warns, "If this play goes on longer than 42 minutes, I am walking off the stage." Curious Theatre Branch's ensemble keeps that promise, curtain call be damned, by way of an alarm clock in this dedication to company collaborator Ryan Wright, who died unexpectedly at the age of 29 in March. Playwright and performer Beau O'Reilly loosely ties together Dylan Thomas recitations, quirky movement pieces, absurdist fragments pulled out of a chest, and metatheatrics with audience plants to create a sober, impressionistic montage of artists feeling lost in the wilderness. The specifics are largely inscrutable, but as a postmortem among friends, this is one of those rare projects that has value over and above what it communicates to audiences. —Dan Jakes

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