Barney the Elf The Other Theatre Company's tentative entry into Chicago's already crowded field of campy, shlocky holiday shows suffers from fidgety staging, cluttered choreography, simplistic plotting, unnecessary musical numbers, and parody lyrics of pop and Broadway standards more workmanlike than clever. But Bryan Renaud's alternately childlike and crude romp gets the most important element right: the unaccountable love affair between Barney, an incessantly cheery elf banished from the gay-unfriendly North Pole, and Zooey, a vain, cynical Chicago drag queen. As the unlikely couple Yando Lopez and Dixie Lynn Cartwright are ridiculous, open-hearted, trashy, and touching, finding enduring emotional truth amid the foolishness. If Renaud and company can bring the rest of the show up to their level, they may have a genuine holiday classic on their hands. —Justin Hayford
- Joan Marcus
- Local Abby Mueller plays Carole King beautifully in the touring production of the award-winning musical.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical "Beautiful" isn't really the word to describe this jukebox musical covering the early career of Carole King from her precocious start, grinding out hits for pop impresario Don Kirshner to her apotheosis as the boom-generation madonna of the Tapestry album. "Sweet" seems more apt. "Fun." And most particularly, "comfortable." King has had her sorrows—her difficult marriage to writing partner Gerry Goffin constitutes the central trauma of the show. But you never worry about her here, partly because you know what triumphs are coming and partly because she's so plucky, droll, and well nurtured by supportive friends. Fellow songwriting greats Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill come across like Jerry and Millie, the neighbors on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Indeed, Douglas McGrath's book goes out of its way to avoid trouble, never exploring what's obvious onstage: the racial divide between King and the artists who sang her biggest Kirshner-era songs. That's too bad inasmuch as the period was so full of implication for artists on both sides of the divide and American musical history as a whole. The compensation is dozens of great songs by King and her peers, from "Up on the Roof" to "You've Got a Friend"—all performed, yes, beautifully. —Tony Adler
- Katie O'Shea
- Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba gets a new adaptation from Redtwist Theatre.
Bernarda Alba and Her House Federico García Lorca's family tragedy, set in rural Spain, receives the southern-gothic treatment from Poetry Is and Redtwist Theatre, based on a new adaptation by Robert Eric Shoemaker. Tyrannical widow Bernadette (Sara Stern) wields her dearly departed's phallic cane over the heads of her five daughters and two maidservants, demanding obedience and chastity. The issue with setting this adaptation in Louisiana, given the minimal furnishings and lack of a set, is dialect. I had a difficult time understanding some of the performers' accents—this play has a lot of talking to pass the time, and the New Orleans drawl (water is "wowtuh") defeats almost every member of the cast. The daughters' ambiguous class standing is nicely brought home by Heather Scholten's excellent costumes. However, seating is arranged in an awkward alley of two facing rows to accommodate the small space, so I spent much of this play admiring the backs of dresses. —Max Maller
Boom Honest Theatre's production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's apocalyptic comedy, directed by Chad Gilliland, explores the themes of life, death, survival, and evolution in the context of a surprisingly important one-night stand. After discovering ominous behavioral patterns among fish on a deserted island, bumbling marine-biology grad student Jules (Evan Cullinan) takes out an online personal ad offering "sex to change the course of the world" in the hopes of repopulating the planet after its imminent demise. While his date for the evening, journalism student Jo (a feisty Duana Menefee), brings some healthy, skeptical energy to the situation, the first half drags within Jules's claustrophobic underground lab. Later scenes show promise with increasing participation from Barbara, the mysterious mastermind behind the action (an aggressively cheerful Sharon Biermann), but her character development feels cut short. —Marissa Oberlander
Christmas Dearest Hell in a Handbag artistic director David Cerda wrote and stars in this sublimely awful musical about Joan Crawford starring in a sublimely awful musical about the life of Jesus Christ (she's the Blessed Virgin, natch). Forcing her cast to work on December 25, the diva earns visitations from two Christmas spirits—and Bette Davis—who attempt to revive her dormant humanity. Corrupting A Christmas Carol with vulgar, campy hysterics yields almost nonstop delights--and even bits of wisdom. —Justin Hayford
- Brett A. Beiner
- The Christmas Schooner has sailed into town again.
The Christmas Schooner "The heartbeat of our life is in our stories and our songs" goes a line in this musical, the true story of the Rouse Simmons, the Great Lakes schooner that first brought Christmas trees to Chicago from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The voyage was made for Chicago's 19th-century German immigrants longing for the celebrations of home; the trees quickly became a festive tradition. I sat among the descendants of these German sailors in the matinee audience; they return for the musical year after year, and it's clear why: the production is sharp and moving (however overwrought the plotting in act two becomes, act one is wholly mesmerizing), with goose-bump-inducing music. This not-secular story nonetheless offers the best of the nonsecular holiday spirit: tradition, family, memory. Let's hope that one day we can celebrate 21st-century immigrants with the same warmth and gratitude. —Suzanne Scanlon
- Johnny Knight
- Pity their husbands are so dull.
Fallen Angels Noël Coward's rarely revived 1925 farce is a giddy delight in the hands of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. Director Shannon Cochran and her excellent cast enhance Coward's cheeky repartee with unexpected physical comedy. The "fallen angels" of the title are London society wives Jane (Eliza Stoughton) and Julia (Emjoy Gavino), best friends since their schoolgirl days. Settled contentedly into comfortable though boring marriages, the ladies—whose stuffy husbands (Jesse Dornan and Fred Geyer) have conveniently left town for a golfing holiday—are jolted by news of an imminent visit from Maurice (Joshua Moaney), a dashing Frenchman with whom both women had had affairs prior to getting married. Awaiting their ex-lover's arrival, Jane and Julia experience an excitement they haven't felt in years—fueled in no small part by the copious amount of champagne served by Julia's enigmatic housekeeper with a mysterious past (Annabel Armour). Written when Coward was in his early 20s, this Jazz Age gem—daring in its day for skewering conventional attitudes about female friendship and sexuality—hilariously mixes stylish sophistication with screwball zaniness. —Albert Williams
Holiday Special A former TV sitcom star who left her series to pursue a movie career returns for a special Christmas episode in this new pH Comedy show by Jamie Jirak. As cast and crew prepare for the taping, a lot of zaniness transpires, most of it having to do with well-worn showbiz cliches—prima-donna actors, soulless executives, put-upon assistants, neurotic writers, and so on. The returning star's love-hate thing with the would-be Ross to her Rachel feels especially warmed-over and tedious. Still, an enthusiastic cast manages to wring some laughs from a few supporting roles, in particular Sharla Beaver as a sardonic hair and makeup artist and Becca Levine as a dotty director who's been working in television since Jackie Gleason's heyday. —Zac Thompson
A Kokandy Christmas A sweet, lighthearted, but utterly unexceptional evening of Christmas songs and holiday reminiscences from the musical theater company. The songs are performed with verve and gusto by an ensemble of five fine warblers backed by a three-person band (piano, bass, and percussion). But the selection of tunes is for the most part unsurprising ("Jingle Bells," "The Little Drummer Boy," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")—even the arrangements meant to jazz up these old chestnuts are unsurprising—and the little holiday reminiscences delivered between each song are a constant reminder that the holidays are a time of tightly scripted rituals, secular and religious, and mandatory bonhomie and good cheer. The show runs about 70 minutes. —Jack Helbig
- Joan Marcus
- The Lion King roars again.
The Lion King In what should be the first act's highest emotional peak, lion cub and heir apparent Simba gets caught amid stampeding wildebeests. When Simba's father, King Mufasa, leaps to the rescue, the king ends up in the clutches of his unctuous, regicidal brother, Scar. Like most scenes in Julie Taymor's 1997 Broadway blockbuster, this one's dazzlingly staged, ingeniously designed, and emotionally empty (apparently no one even bothered to tell the kid playing Simba to act, you know, scared). Unlike Disney's efficient 75-minute animated feature, Taymor's semistatic two-and-a-half-hour pageant pays scant attention to the fundamentals of storytelling. All the inventive puppetry, glorious choral singing, and eye-popping scenery serves mostly to glorify itself. And does Patrick R. Brown really have to make villainous Scar so queeny? —Justin Hayford
Maul Santa: The Musical There's something about zombies that, for better or worse, endures as an easy reference point for parodies and adaptations of all sorts across all mediums. This collaboration between We Are Productions and Public House Theatre, directed by Ricky W. Glore, stretches the title pun out to a Dawn of the Dead-inspired musical in which Santa and company fend off brain-eating ghouls. J. Sebastian Fabal's score has a handful of clever hooks and earwormy bits, but that and a charismatic cast aren't enough to sustain the joke even for the short running time. An intermission inexplicably just 35 minutes in does little to bolster a sense the show's quite finished. —Dan Jakes
Miracle on 34th Street The logic behind Miracle on 34th Street is pretty screwy when you think about it: Slumming as a department-store Santa, the real, allegedly antimaterialist Kris Kringle teaches New Yorkers the true meaning of Christmas by directing them to the best bargains on toys, then reinforces the lesson by handing a nine-year-old girl her dream house. But that's the screwed-up logic behind Christmas in America, anyway, so don't let it spoil the pleasures of this 100-minute show from Artistic Home Theatre, based on the 1947 movie. As actors performing Miracle for a Truman-era radio audience, Jack Bourgeois's large cast create a playful ensemble atmosphere. The commercial breaks are high points, with Jenna Steege offering strange, delightful characterizations of, first, a Lux detergent pitchwoman and then Betty Grable's drama coach. —Tony Adler
My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra In a season of overindulgence, here's a show for people who want to overindulge in Ol' Blue Eyes. The playbill lists 51 song titles sung with varying degrees of ability—from not bad to amazing—by a young, energetic four-person ensemble. Carl Herzog, the best singer in this Theo Ubique production, really knows how to belt 'em out, and though he's no dead ringer for Sinatra, he's got the moves down cold. Songbird Kyrie Anderson is a close second; when she and Herzog are together they sizzle. The real stars, though, are the three guys in the band: Kevin Brown, Jake Saleh, and musical director Jeremy Ramey on piano. This hot trio could carry the show if they had to. —Jack Helbig
Potted Potter Cowritten and performed by British comic actors Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, this 70-minute romp takes us through the high points of all seven Harry Potter books. The comic style is loose and glib, full of silliness and variations on classic physical comedy bits. But the show is also well grounded in Potteriana (not surprising, inasmuch as it started out as a brief entertainment for crowds queued up to buy copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Clarkson and Turner know their Potter backward and forward, a fact that left my 11-year-old daughter and many other well-versed fans giggling throughout the show. The duo have that strong comic chemistry one associates with teams like the Smothers Brothers, Martin & Lewis, and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. —Jack Helbig
- Michael Brosilow
- The Q Brothers kickin' it
A Q Brothers' Christmas Carol In this, the year of Hamilton (now coming to Chicago), Lin-Manuel Miranda's many new fans would do well to check out this holiday hit by the Q Brothers ensemble, a group of emcees that have been in the disparate-genre hip-hop-redux game since the late 90s. Four seasoned performers spit couplets and retell Charles Dickens's inescapable ghost story as a modern urban parable. An anti-immigrant miser with a wig factory (can you guess which presidential candidate gets roasted?) gets haunted by rappers and singers past, present, and future, including a Rastafarian Marley. It's an unabashedly silly and brilliantly efficient reminder that alt-Christmas shows can be just as heartwarming and family friendly as the classics; one visual trick in particular is sure to elicit a gasps from even the most curmudgeonly Scrooges. —Dan Jakes
Robin Hood and Maid Marian It's good of Forks & Hope to remind us that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote plays as well as verse, but actually performing one of them seems excessive. Titled The Foresters, Tennyson's 1892 retelling of the Robin Hood legend centers on the edenic community the Earl of Huntingdon founds after running afoul of tyrannical Prince John (he of the Magna Carta) and taking refuge in Sherwood Forest. The earl refuses all titles, respects all persons, lives pleasantly on the land, and never punches down when it comes to stealing gold from travelers. His followers are simple, honest, cheerful folk with nary a traitor among them. Imagine a sort of Teletubby As You Like It. The F&H folks seem to know there's a problem and, in this adaptation directed by Matt Pierce, try to compensate by adding lightly parodic touches. Doesn't really work. —Tony Adler
Twelfth Night Following the biological imperative that the dark nights around the solstice should be filled with as much light as possible, Midsommer Flight has brought its Shakespeare-in-the-parks act indoors with a bright and joyful rendition of Twelfth Night at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. The cast has great fun with Shakespeare's tale of love and mistaken identity (a plot summary that, yes, could apply to almost all the comedies), particularly Jared Dennis as Malvolio, Elizabeth Rentfro (who also cocomposed the original music) as Maria, and Adam Habben as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who challenges Meredith Ernst's impassioned Viola to a hilariously inept swordfight. I should make a special mention, too, of Elizabeth Shorrock's costumes, all of which I coveted. —Aimee Levitt