New Country, Schoolhouse Rock Live!, and eight more notable new stage shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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New Country, Schoolhouse Rock Live!, and eight more notable new stage shows

TV writer/playwright Mark Roberts brings a wild and crazy comedy to town.

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The Compass The audience is the jury in this interactive courtroom drama devised and directed by Michael Rohd for Steppenwolf for Young Adults. At issue is whether a teenager can be held responsible for calling in a bomb threat to her school when a powerful decision-making app on her phone told her to do it. As in a TV procedural, Rohd carefully parcels out information to keep us guessing, and as in a classroom exercise, the action often pauses so that facilitators can lead us in small-group discussions. The show certainly engages the audience, but the pressure to render a verdict stymies efforts to handle the issues with any nuance. Rohd criticizes technology for encouraging snap judgments, then encourages us to make a snap judgment. —Zac Thompson

If/Then - JOAN MARCUS
  • Joan Marcus
  • If/Then

If/Then Maybe in an alternate universe Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt would've followed up their Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal with another musical that finds extraordinary power in a woman's internal struggles. Instead they came up with this show about thirtysomething New Yorker Elizabeth, whose story unfolds in two alternate universes: In one, she's Beth, pursuing professional glory as a city planner; in the other, she opts for love and family as Liz. What unifies these strands is their soporific banality. No matter which world she inhabits at a given moment, Elizabeth is sure to be having a hokey crisis in it, to a score that comes across as a single, dull song played over and over again. Larry Keigwin's choreography offers nice Tharpian quirks, and, led by huge-voiced Jackie Burns as Elizabeth, the cast of this touring production is strong. But there's not much for them to save here. —Tony Adler

ETA Creative Arts' Lines in the Dust - COURTESY ETA
  • Courtesy ETA
  • ETA Creative Arts' Lines in the Dust

Lines in the Dust Set at a top-performing public high school in suburban New Jersey, Nikkole Salter's 2014 agitprop drama tackles the thorny question of how the present system prevents minority kids from getting a high-quality education. The topic is important—and interesting—but Salter stumbles as a storyteller. Her characters lack depth, and the play itself unfolds at a painfully slow pace, at least until its passionate ending. Director Phyllis Griffin's workmanlike production for ETA Creative Arts does little to fire up a cold script; in fact her three-person ensemble seems at times tentative and underrehearsed. Benjamin Todd, in the role of a white, male, conservative antagonist, never fully explores the veniality and unrecognized racism that motivate his character. —Jack Helbig

Raven Theatre's A Loss of Roses - DEAN LA PRAIRIE
  • Dean La Prairie
  • Raven Theatre's A Loss of Roses

A Loss of Roses Playwright William Inge specialized in depicting the unfulfilled dreams and repressed desires of Americans living in the heartland. In this 1959 drama he finds his favorite themes in the rural Kansas home of Helen Baird, a pious widow letting her directionless son, Kenny, and an out-of-work actress, Lila, lodge with her during the Depression. You'd think three adults cooped up with their various longings would generate some heat, but in director Cody Estle's arid staging nobody ever strikes the match. It's partly the fault of a half-formed script oscillating between Freudian mommy issues and the downward arc of Lila, a wounded people-pleaser with a reckless streak. Eliza Stoughton turns in a touching performance in that role, conveying both vulnerability and pragmatism. —Zac Thompson

Mark Roberts, Will Clinger, and Fred Nall in New Country - BRANDON DAHLQUIST
  • Brandon Dahlquist
  • Mark Roberts, Will Clinger, and Fred Nall in New Country

[Recommended] New Country This wild and crazy comedy is set inside a Nashville hotel room on the eve of famous country singer Justin's (Michael Monroe Goodman) wedding. You may know playwright Mark Roberts from his work as a TV writer and showrunner (Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly). But he's also an actor and onetime stand-up, and it's Roberts himself who appears as Justin's drunk and disorderly uncle Jim. Uncle Jim is a world-weary rascal with a shaggy foot-long beard and a rather apathetic-looking blow up doll tucked under his elbow. You don't need to love country music (much less new country, which Jim hates) to love him, or to love this play. Roberts leads a fantastic ensemble, including the heartbreaking Sarah Lemp as Sharon, an ill-used woman from Jim's past who wants revenge, and Chicago veteran Frank Nall as Paul, his manager.—Max Maller

Lyric Opera's Romeo and Juliet - TODD ROSENBERG
  • Todd Rosenberg
  • Lyric Opera's Romeo and Juliet

Romeo & Juliet There's one compelling instant in Lyric Opera's production of Charles Gounod's 1867 take on Romeo and Juliet: it's when mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, in a minor trouser role, launches into a solo that reveals a fabulous voice. Otherwise, the singing—like the score—is all good, but nothing that'll make your hair stand up. Broadway director Bartlett Sher, saddled with a dud of a French libretto (don't even bother with the supertitles), opts for something closer to Disney than to Shakespeare: soprano Susanna Phillips is a simpering Juliet in a princess gown, and the swordplay is way better than the love scenes. Eric Cutler takes over the role of Romeo from powerhouse tenor Joseph Calleja for the last three performances. —Deanna Isaacs

Schoolhouse Rock Live! - JOHNNY KNIGHT
  • Johnny Knight
  • Schoolhouse Rock Live!

[Recommended] Schoolhouse Rock Live! It's aimed at kids ages three to 13, but this Emerald City Theatre staging of the 70s Saturday-morning favorite may also appeal to nostalgic parents. Performed by four vibrant singer/dancer/actors, the show is framed by the story of Tom (Ron King), a new teacher, on the first day of the school year; the three other actors announce themselves as he prepares for his classes. More than 20 musical numbers follow, all the classics from "I'm Just a Bill" to "Conjunction Junction." I was expecting a few more contemporary updates, but there aren't many departures, though the Apollo Theater staging is modern—kids get light sticks, and the performers are framed by video images. "I wish school were this fun!," my eight-year-old companion declared.
—Suzanne Scanlon

The Agency Theater Collective's Spirit of '76
  • The Agency Theater Collective's Spirit of '76

Spirit of '76 This politically charged satire from the Agency Theater Collective feels especially timely during primary election season. Playwright Huck Poe's premise is that a "catastrophic event" has left a group of congressional representatives, staffers, and ordinary citizens trapped in the Library of Congress, where the only surviving document is the 1868 antisuffrage play The Spirit of '76; or, The Coming Woman, A Prophetic Drama. While the group's attempted performance of this absurd source material is the catalyst for the fascinating Lord of the Flies-style devolution that follows, it's almost beside the point, and a distraction from the top-shelf acting outside the play within a play. Adam Schulmerich is perfect as a perfectly tyrannical train wreck. —Marissa Oberlander

Provision Theater Company's Thursdays With Morrie - SIMON SORIN
  • Simon Sorin
  • Provision Theater Company's Thursdays With Morrie

Tuesdays With Morrie In this play adapted from the New York Times best-seller by Mitch Albom (who also coadapted), a character named Mitch Albom takes a weekly break from his sportswriting job to visit his old sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, now dying of ALS. Provision Theater's production, helmed by artistic director Timothy Gregory, features Colin Wasmund, who plays Albom with wonderful aw-shucks buoyancy, and company member Brad Armacost, who bravely cuts through Albom's sententious schmaltz with a pitch-perfect performance. Morrie's terminal illness unfolds gradually and painfully, and there's something almost indecent about watching someone decay and die onstage, but viewers who have sat watch alongside ailing friends or relatives will doubtless be moved by Armacost's realism. —Max Maller

Bluebird Arts' Zoyka's Apartment - RICK FREDERICK
  • Rick Frederick
  • Bluebird Arts' Zoyka's Apartment

Zoyka's Apartment Chicago owes Bluebird Arts for presenting this 1925 "tragic farce" by Mikhail Bulgakov. A true Russian genius, Bulgakov had the unique advantage and the vast misfortune of practicing satire in the early decades of the Soviet era. Stalinist culture made his work at once possible and unpublishable. His great novel, The Master and Margarita, is now well-known in the West, but not works like Zoyka's Apartment—a potentially wicked piece about a bordello operating out of a Moscow housing block. I say "potentially" because, while Bluebird has made a fascinating selection, the production (directed by Luda Lopatina Solomon from an English-language adaptation by Yasen Peyankov and Peter Christensen) is clumsy and approximate. The situation isn't clearly defined, layers of subtext are never reached, and something's got to be done about the way two Chinese characters are portrayed. Only Doogin Brown, playing the brothel manager, seems aware of the demands of the script and how they might be fulfilled. —Tony Adler

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