Akeelah and the Bee, Die Walküre, and 14 more new stage shows to see | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

Akeelah and the Bee, Die Walküre, and 14 more new stage shows to see 

An inspirational kids' show and a not-be-missed Lyric Opera production are among this week's best bets.

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click to enlarge La Shone T. Kelly in Adventure Stage's Akeelah and the Bee

La Shone T. Kelly in Adventure Stage's Akeelah and the Bee

Doug Haight

Akeelah and the Bee In Cheryl L. West's adaptation of the 2006 inspirational film of the same name, Akeelah Anderson (La Shone T. Kelly) needs the help of her entire community if she's going to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. West transports the action from Los Angeles to Chicago and cuts down the size of Akeelah's family, but otherwise the story is the same. Brandon Rivera's gleefully over-the-top performance as Akeelah's preppy friend Javier delights the children in the audience, and Aaron Quick's projections add excitement to the spelling sequences as words form around the set. Daryl Brooks directs this Adventure Stage production with the effervescent energy demanded by children's theater, but the darker elements of the plot need more definition to reinforce the high stakes of the spelling bee. —Oliver Sava

click to enlarge The Comrades' Bob: A Life in Five Acts - CODY JOLLY
  • The Comrades' Bob: A Life in Five Acts
  • Cody Jolly

Bob: A Life in Five Acts It's a bummer that the title of this 2012 one-act dramedy by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is so uninviting, because the story isn't. A young man, abandoned as an infant in a White Castle bathroom, travels the country with his working-class adoptive mother as they do their best to turn living out of their car into an educational adventure. Nachtrieb's script uses playful movement interludes, light comedy, and a fablelike heightened style to convey a hopeful, romantic vision of the American spirit despite the material hardships they suffer. For both better and worse, codirectors Derek Bertelsen and Will Quam's production for the Comrades is, like Nachtrieb's script, twee but ultimately moving. —Dan Jakes

click to enlarge Nothing Without a Company's Bobby Pin Girls - RAY GOLDBERG
  • Nothing Without a Company's Bobby Pin Girls
  • Ray Goldberg

[Recommended] Bobby Pin Girls Written by ensemble member Janey Bell, Bobby Pin Girls details a wild night shared by old friends and roommates Ana (Grace Hutchings) and Bree (Emilie Modaff). Immediately intimate by virtue of its setting (an artsy second-floor apartment), this absorbing production from Nothing Without a Company follows aspiring actress Ana's sexually confusing interactions with her female director and male castmate (Debo Balogun), while Bree deals with her hand grenade of an ex (Peter Wilde). What's most fun and surprising here is the comedy, from verbal jabs to physical, that punctuates the heavy scenes. Hutchings and Modaff in particular offer raw performances that also manage not to take themselves too seriously—as Bell writes, "Every error is an opportunity to laugh." This is sloppy, slapstick, and set to a memorable soundtrack of up-and-coming local musicians. Ben Kaye directed. —Marissa Oberlander

click to enlarge Factory Theater's Captain Steve's Caring Kingdom - KRISTOF VAN GRYSPERRE
  • Factory Theater's Captain Steve's Caring Kingdom
  • Kristof van Grysperre

[Recommended] Captain Steve's Caring Kingdom Mike Ooi sets his unlikely marvel of a play in a make-believe world where tiny animals—Ellie Elephant, Beaky Falcon, OK Bear, etc—live until it's time to appear in the titular vintage children's television show, which seems about as trippy and awful as H. R. Pufnstuf or The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. They're plagued by workaday problems (lousy jobs, marital discord, unadmitted alcoholism), all of which they believe Captain Steve can solve through wisdom, magic, and indiscriminate cheerfulness. But his failure to show up at broadcast time initiates a cheeky, hilarious existential crisis, part Lord of the Flies, part Pee-wee's Playhouse. Ooi mostly avoids facile irreverence in favor of poignant foolishness, steering a cast of Factory Theater stalwarts to disarming emotional depths. All he needs is an ending. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge Chicago Opera Theater's The Consul - KEITH IAN POLAKOFF
  • Chicago Opera Theater's The Consul
  • Keith Ian Polakoff

[Recommended] The Consul Sad to say, the displaced-person theme of this Gian Carlo Menotti opera, written in the wake of World War II, is as relevant today as it was when it was first performed in 1950. Chicago Opera Theater's production, directed by former COT general director Andreas Mitisek, features a strong cast headed by luminous soprano Patricia Racette as a woman trapped in a brutal totalitarian country with a critically ill baby and a husband (baritone Justin Ryan) who's an activist in the cause of freedom and on the run from the police. The story turns on her desperate, perpetually stymied efforts to get a visa from a surreal bureaucracy. Mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood—veteran of numerous productions of this work—is a vocal and physical powerhouse as the couple's live-in mother-in-law. Kristof van Grysperre conducts an appropriately jarring score. It's not an easy piece to see, and not meant to be. —Deanna Isaacs

click to enlarge Lyric Opera's Die Walküre - CORY WEAVER
  • Lyric Opera's Die Walküre
  • Cory Weaver

[Recommended] Die Walküre The second installment of Lyric Opera's four-season Ring Cycle continues the openly theatrical steampunk environment established in last season's Rhinegold. The giant rolling towers are back, along with equine contraptions ridden by maiden warriors to some of opera's most famous music. The effect can be (take your pick) amusingly circuslike or a little too precious, but a gorgeous performance by bass-baritone Eric Owens as the distressed god Wotan and superb work by the rest of a world-class cast—especially soprano Christine Goerke as the valkyrie of the title (and Wotan's favorite daughter)—make this a not-to-be-missed production. Composer-librettist Richard Wagner's mid-19th-century exploration of familial (and other) passions, including a defense of incest that's the logical end point of a "pure blood" obsession that made him a Hitler favorite, is still both moving and shocking. David Pountney is the director; Andrew Davis conducts. —Deanna Isaacs

click to enlarge Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace's 42nd Street - BRETT BEINER
  • Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace's 42nd Street
  • Brett Beiner

42nd Street Originally produced on Broadway in 1980, this musical takes its title and some of its plot and tunes from the iconic 1933 film, though according to the program Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble's book is based on the 1932 novel the original movie was adapted from, and many of the show's tunes (most of them written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) come from a host of other Depression-era Warner Bros. musicals (among them Gold Diggers of 1933, 1935, and 1937). The show was the big nostalgia hit of the Reagan era, but it hasn't aged well. Stewart and Bramble's intentionally cliche-filled book feels more shopworn than charming. And the ill-conceived orchestration's attempt to make the many wonderful old songs in the score sound more "contemporary" (to 1980 ears) only gives the show the feel of a bad cruise-ship revue. Michael Heitzman's ensemble is solid, though—Gene Weygandt makes a wonderful, curmudgeonly director—and Emilio Sosa's period costumes are pure eye candy. —Jack Helbig

click to enlarge Broken Nose Collective's I'll Be Seeing You - COURTESY KEVIN JANDRICKS
  • Broken Nose Collective's I'll Be Seeing You
  • Courtesy Kevin Jandricks

I'll Be Seeing You Newish Broken Nose Collective (not to be confused with oldish Broken Nose Theatre) presents cofounder Kevin Jandrists's inscrutable one-man-with-jazz-quintet cabaret piece as its inaugural stage offering. The inscrutability derives primarily from three sources: (1) a stream-of-consciousness structure built loosely around images of freedom, interpersonal connections, and magic; (2) Jandrists's concerted avoidance of consonants when he sings, making the lyrics to the show's dozen songs (which range from jazz standards to contemporary pop ballads) largely indecipherable if you don't know them already; and (3) his decision to perform nearly the entire piece blindfolded. Jandrists has an effective, supple voice, and the Derrick Tate Connection's accompaniment smokes. But without a clear trajectory through the material, Jandrists spends an hour stuck in his own trap. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge City Lit Theater's J.B. - TOM MCGRATH
  • City Lit Theater's J.B.
  • Tom McGrath

[Recommended] J.B. Archibald MacLeish's Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning 1958 modernist retelling of the Book of Job gets a passionate, sometimes furious revival from City Lit Theater. Set on the grounds outside a circus big top, two vendors named Zuss and Nickles decide to play God and Satan and walk the audience through Job's trials and tribulations. All 23 roles in the play are played masterfully by an ensemble of nine women over 55. This casting accentuates MacLeish's deft commentary on the suffering of the forgotten and slighted, and be they angels or devils, the characters all wrestle with the big questions with earnestness and wit. As Job (called J.B. here) says near the end by way of explaining why he never lost faith, "What suffers loves." Brian Pastor directed. —Dmitry Samarov

[Recommended] The Low Upside With John Sabine John Sabine is a cheeky comic. He's one of the only people I've seen who can unironically lampoon the Dave Matthews Band. As the eponymous Dave, he thanks his endless band members at the end of a show, including "a swarm of bees on the bongos." He angles toward absurd playing a macho motivational speaker defining what constitutes grounds for turning in your "man card," e.g., "If you think lizards are homeless turtles . . . turn in your man card!" And so forth. Sabine's show plays like a McSweeney's listicle, punctuated by his constantly shifting characters, from a confident Julian Assange to an anxious German teacher. He's clever, charming, and knows how to read a room: I saw him turn up the ham-o-meter when playing to a room full of 40th birthday party attendees unfamiliar with sketch. —Steve Heisler

click to enlarge Promethean Theater Ensemble's Marisol - TOM MCGRATH
  • Promethean Theater Ensemble's Marisol
  • Tom McGrath

Marisol The end times have come: constellations are wasting away, the moon hasn't been seen for months, food is salt, and coffee is extinct. What's a guardian angel to do but abandon her charge and lead an uprising to assassinate a senile God? So says Marisol's angel to her earthly charge one bitter night in the Bronx, where 26-year-old Marisol Perez, a "Puerto Rican yuppie princess" who works in publishing, lays herself to sleep in her roach-infested hovel after praying to God and the apostles and giving her pocketknife and lucky charms a rub for good measure. Little divine or human goodness arises in José Rivera's play, which follows hapless Marisol as she roams a wasted city without protection against recurrent assaults by golf club-wielding angry white men. The plot is tiresome, but everyone speaks like meteors in their last burn through the atmosphere. Juan Castañeda directed this Promethean Theater Ensemble production.
—Irene Hsiao

Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre's Newsies - LIZ LAUREN
  • Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre's Newsies
  • Liz Lauren

Newsies Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre has succeeded lately by rethinking as well as reviving classic shows. The company's Man of La Mancha was surprisingly dark, its How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying unexpectedly feminist. This mounting of Newsies looks at first like it might do something similar: I was struck by how director-choreographer Alex Sanchez and his lead, Patrick Rooney, found the quiet wistfulness in the opening song—struck enough to wonder whether Sanchez might use Marriott's in-the-round stage to bring the Disney blockbuster about an 1899 labor strike down to human size. But soon enough Sanchez falls into the trap of trying to approximate effects he can't reproduce. Though he gets strong singing, entertaining performances, and some great gymnastic dancing out of his cast, the big, beautiful Broadway version has all that and more. Lacking a new approach, the show can't help but pale by comparison. —Tony Adler

click to enlarge MadKap Productions' Rocket City, Alabam' - COURTESY MADKAP PRODUCTIONA
  • MadKap Productions' Rocket City, Alabam'
  • Courtesy MadKap Productiona

Rocket City, Alabam'In Mark Saltzman’s play set in the aftermath of WWII, the U.S. Army stations German rocket scientists—Wernher von Braun among them—in Huntsville, Alabama, in hopes of transforming it into America's "rocket capital." Despite assurances from the brass, it seems to the good townspeople that these are Nazi war criminals, especially his frosty eminence von Braun (Andrew J. Pond). When Amy (Ashley Schaeffer), the Jewish fiancee of a war hero, catches wind of all this, she marshals a surprisingly comprehensive knowledge of Holocaust studies for 1951 to voice her objections about the new neighbors to Major Pike (Michael Dalberg). Wayne Mell’s staging for MadKap Productions makes highly questionable use of an overhead projector to depict black-and-white scenery—country lanes, war photos, von Braun's looming prototype—against a humongous screen upstage: when the low spots come on, they bleed onto the bottom of the image; when it’s dark, the actor farthest downstage gets "rockettest.jpg" on his face. —Max Maller

School of Rock - MATTHEW MURPHY
  • School of Rock
  • Matthew Murphy

School of Rock If you're going to appreciate anything about this musical (presented here in an Equity touring production), start with the business model. Some brilliant soul looked at a silly 2003 Jack Black movie vehicle and realized it would make the ideal foundation for a live family entertainment, precisely because it offers kids the fantasy of rebelling against said family without actually missing any meals. Adapting the original screenplay by Mike White, Julian Fellowes's book gives us Dewey, frustrated rocker and amoral slob, who cons his way into a teaching job at an exclusive elementary school, discovers that the students there have musical skill, and trains them to win glory in a battle-of-the-bands competition. That's just the start of a nearly endless swarm of implausibilities, but making sense is hardly the point when wish fulfillment is the commodity for sale. —Tony Adler

click to enlarge James Leaming in This Wonderful Life - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • James Leaming in This Wonderful Life
  • Michael Brosilow

[Recommended] This Wonderful Life American Blues Theater founding ensemble member James Leaming is brilliant in this one-man rendition of It's a Wonderful Life, the Christmastime classic about a small-town fella who learns the meaning of his life just as he's about to throw it away. Leaming serves as both storyteller and actor, playing all the parts as he recounts the familiar story of Frank Capra's 1946 film. (Steve Murray's witty script was developed more than a decade ago at Portland Center Stage in Oregon; this is the show's long-overdue Chicago premiere.) Leaming pokes fun at the old movie's hokier aspects while celebrating its enduring emotional power, and he deftly and delightfully mimics the iconic portrayals by James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, and the rest of Capra's cast. Carmen Roman's staging supports Leaming's virtuosic performance with clever multimedia projections by Joe Huppert. —Albert Williams

click to enlarge Yasmina's Necklace, at the Goodman - LIZ LAUREN
  • Yasmina's Necklace, at the Goodman
  • Liz Lauren

[Recommended] Yasmina's Necklace Chicago playwright Rohina Malik gracefully balances the political and the personal in her intelligent, moving 2016 play, first produced and directed by Ann Filmer at Berwyn's 16th Street Theatre and now being revived at the Goodman. The story, about a talented Iraqi refugee grappling with her past, is the perfect vehicle for Susaan Jamshidi, an actor equally adept at comedy and serious drama—though Malik's gift for dialogue and storytelling practically guarantees Jamshidi won't be the last actor to shine in this role. None of the play's intimacy is lost in the Goodman's considerably larger performing space, and Filmer's crisp direction ensures that none of Malik's points get blunted. —Jack Helbig

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