Escape to Margaritaville, 'Tis the Seasonal Depression, and nine more new stage shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

Escape to Margaritaville, 'Tis the Seasonal Depression, and nine more new stage shows 

A musical for Parrotheads and a comedy revue from GayCo are among this week's best bets.

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click to enlarge Escape to Margaritaville, at the Oriental Theatre

Escape to Margaritaville, at the Oriental Theatre

Matthew Murphy

The Book of Will The Bard's passing is prologue in this quasi-historical drama by Lauren Gunderson about the messy posthumous rush on the part of the surviving King's Men to secure Shakespeare's literary legacy. Jacobean-era book publishing and its associated roadblocks—funding, contested rights, diverging editorial visions, piecemeal scripts—aren't easy bedfellows with compelling stage drama, and Gunderson's efforts to inflate the stakes with romance and rivalries feel more perfunctory than persuasive. But even if it spends too much time in mourning (four separate characters in two short hours!), Jessica Thebus's handsome and all-around well-acted Northlight Theatre production asks some stimulating questions about the life art has long after its maker is gone. —Dan Jakes

click to enlarge Bluebird Arts' Clever Little Lies - DAVID MARKOWSKI
  • Bluebird Arts' Clever Little Lies
  • David Markowski

[Recommended] Clever Little Lies Bluebird Arts presents the midwest premiere of Joe DiPietro's sad comedy about marital infidelity among the suburban WASP set. After Billy confides to his father, Bill Sr., about his passionate affair with his 20-year-old personal trainer, both men's marriages threaten to collapse in the aftermath. Bill Sr.'s inability to keep his son's secret reveals the cracks in his own relationship with Billy's mother, Alice. Billy's wife, Jane, is so absorbed with their newborn daughter that she doesn't notice he has strayed. Both couples are too invested in their stable way of life to chance losing it all for the promise of passion elsewhere. There's some hostile sniping but no all-out emotional fireworks because none of them is capable of that. Alice remarks toward the end that in an affair we show one another only the shining jewel side of ourselves, while in relationships we inevitably see the other side sooner or later. Similarly, DiPietro's play starts in light and ends in darkness. Luda Lopatina Solomon directed.
—Dmitry Samarov

Escape to Margaritaville, at the Oriental Theatre - MATTHEW MURPHY
  • Escape to Margaritaville, at the Oriental Theatre
  • Matthew Murphy

[Recommended] Escape to Margaritaville This Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical, directed by Christopher Ashley and here in a pre-Broadway run, is what Parrotheads have been waiting for. Like Buffett's restaurant chain, it bottles the spirit of the islands as welcome escapist entertainment. It's definitely more fun if you're familiar with the singer's catalog, as nearly 30 of his songs are incorporated into the love story of Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), a musically inclined beach bum, and Rachel (Alison Luff), a hard-driving entrepreneur who just can't relax. "Cheeseburger in Paradise" was a crowd-pleaser on the night I attended, serving as a pivotal moment in the secondary (and more heartwarming) love story between best friend Tammy (Lisa Howard) and bumbling Brick (Eric Petersen). Walt Spangler's scenic design, Paul Tazewell's costumes, and a bevy of beach balls contribute to the theater's charming Caribbeanization. —Marissa Oberlander

click to enlarge Redtwist Theatre's I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn't Even Smile - JAN ELLEN GRAVES
  • Redtwist Theatre's I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn't Even Smile
  • Jan Ellen Graves

[Recommended] I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn't Even Smile This sometimes raw but ultimately upbeat 2015 comedy by U.S.-based British writer Suzanne Heathcote (executive story editor for the TV series Fear the Walking Dead) focuses on three generations of women in a fractured, fragmented family. Emotionally fragile Rebecca (Jacqueline Grandt), still grieving for a pet dog that died a year earlier, has taken in her 15-year-old niece, Sadie (Emma Maltby), because Sadie's dad, Jamie (Adam Bitterman), can't handle her (especially after she's kicked out of school when a sex video of her goes viral). Rebecca and Jamie's mother, Daphne (Kathleen Ruhl), wants to offer support, but her acerbic nature—and her daughter's lingering resentment that Daphne abandoned the family when they were kids—makes communication, well, complicated. This Chicago premiere features terrific, truthful performances under the sharp and sensitive direction of Erin Murray. —Albert Williams

click to enlarge Firebrand Theatre's Lizzie - MARISA KM
  • Firebrand Theatre's Lizzie
  • Marisa KM

Lizzie Dubiously proclaiming itself the world's first feminist musical theater company, Firebrand debuts with a show written by three men. The calculatedly edgy rockish opera imagines Lizzie Borden as a pigeon-loving, sexually abused closet lesbian who murders her ambiguously oppressive parents so that she, her sister, her maid, and her lover can wear dominatrix costumes. Or something. The show has no clear tone (camp? parody? pissing contest?) and no point of view beyond "unruly women are fierce." The effortful score sounds rather like Pat Benatar, Stephen Sondheim, and Meatloaf tossed in a blender. Director Victoria Bussert keeps her four overburdened female performers speaking and singing into handheld and headset microphones simultaneously while unconvincingly imitating Broadway belters cum rock goddesses. The design, however, is gorgeous. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge Invictus Theatre's Othello: The Moor of Venice - BRIAN MCCONKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Invictus Theatre's Othello: The Moor of Venice
  • Brian McConkey Photography

Othello: The Moor of Venice Invictus Theatre's inaugural production is hampered by the typical misfires of low-budget storefront Shakespeare: rudimentary design that can't evoke place or mood, uneven and overly emphatic acting, insistence that nearly every scene is the climax. It's further hobbled by a semi-mechanical Othello and an indiscriminately loquacious Iago (, making the play's circuitous central conflict between the two particularly unconvincing. But it's also got the graceful, deliberate, and hugely compelling Callie Johnson as Othello's doomed wife, Desdemona. She's the kind of actor whose persuasive force draws everyone onstage into her orbit, a fact director Charles Askenaizer exploits to great clarifying effect, particularly during the nearly three-hour production's final hour, which falls increasingly on her shoulders. The show's actual climax is worth the wait. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge Lyric Opera's The Pearl Fishers - TODD ROSENBERG PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Lyric Opera's The Pearl Fishers
  • Todd Rosenberg Photography

The Pearl Fishers This lavishly colored, cartoonlike production, designed by Zandra Rhodes, is a perfect fit for George Bizet's 1863 fantasy opera The Pearl Fishers, with its very pretty music and piece-of-crap—er, ridiculously contrived—libretto. Set in an exoticized Ceylon, it's the story of two young friends who fall in love with the same beautiful virgin. One wins her heart; the other ascends to power; vows of chastity and loyalty are, of course, broken, amid some klutzy dance episodes. Never mind that: Lyric Opera's terrific cast of singers includes the felicitous pairing of soprano Marina Rebeka and tenor Matthew Polenzani as the lovers and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (who sounded fine in the opening show in spite of an intermission announcement that he was performing though ill) as the jealous third wheel. Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus. —Deanna Isaacs

click to enlarge Citadel Theatre Company's Scrooge and the Ghostly Spirits - MATT KURR
  • Citadel Theatre Company's Scrooge and the Ghostly Spirits
  • Matt Kurr

Scrooge and the Ghostly Spirits This dreary, emotionally disengaged production of Douglas Post's muted musical version of Dickens oft-adapted holiday classic (book, music, and lyrics by Post), now receiving its world premiere at the Citadel Theatre, feels more like a deadly dull church service than a rousing celebration of Christmas. The fault isn't all Post's, though his songs too often fall flat. Scott Phelps's disappointing direction lacks spirit, and his low-energy ensemble often seems to be just going through the motions. Frank Farrell's Scrooge is too gentle and quirky at the beginning of the night to say "Bah Humbug!" and mean it, too subdued at the end to convince us he's now "light as a feather . . . happy as an angel . . . merry as a schoolboy." —Jack Helbig

Tick, Tick . . . Boom! A proto-Rent with less politics and more whining, Jonathan Larson's autobiographical Tick, Tick . . . Boom! is an often insufferable portrait of a composer overwhelmed by anxiety as he approaches 30. The three-person cast makes this musical especially attractive to smaller theaters, but Donald Kolakowski's basic direction for the Cuckoo's Theater Project doesn't delve deep enough into the characters to make their relationships honest and believable. Nic Eastlund has a traditional musical-theater voice that's occasionally at odds with the rock score, but he captures Jon's intensifying fear and frustration as he caves under the pressure of his career and love life. Molly LeCaptain is the bright spot of the production as Jon's irritated girlfriend. Her performance radiates a sad affection for this man who will never put her before his work, and her singing is powerful while at the same time finely modulated for the Prop Thtr's small space. —Oliver Sava

click to enlarge GayCo Productions' 'Tis the Seasonal Depression - LAUREL POSAKONY
  • GayCo Productions' 'Tis the Seasonal Depression
  • Laurel Posakony

[Recommended] 'Tis the Seasonal Depression In one of the most endearing sketches of this holiday comedy revue from GayCo Productions and director Jeff Bouthiette, Christopher Thies Lotito plays a grumbly mall Santa conducting an open call for a new Mrs. Claus. Katie Cutler steps up, states her name, and through a combination of hilarious gaffes that I won't ruin gives the worst audition of all time. Lotito, who'd make a great Orson Welles, despairs of finding the right lady when in strides Evan M. Duggan, whose charms instantly warm Santa to the idea of casting a man. There are dozens of other moments like this, livening the banality of Christmas cheer with a dollop of wholesome identity politics and a bigger dollop of rollicking, irreverent sass. The war on Christmas never felt so good. —Max Maller

click to enlarge Silk Road Rising's Wild Boar - AIRAN WRIGHT
  • Silk Road Rising's Wild Boar
  • Airan Wright

Wild Boar I'm not trying to be funny here--something really seems to have been lost in translation. Written in Chinese by Candace Chong, rendered into English by Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, and then "adapted" by no less a talent than David Henry Hwang, this 2012 work has everything it needs for political suspense: a kidnapped professor, a crusading publisher, a tormented reporter with a sexy secret, and an epically corrupt real estate deal, all set in a present-day Hong Kong, where democratic notions chafe against Chinese autocracy. But every atom of intrigue gets buried in glacial scenes full of bloated, illustrative dialogue and didactic overkill. Potentially interesting affinities with (oddly enough) Roman Polanski's Chinatown and the novels of English fantasy writer China Miéville get scattered to the winds. Helen Young's staging for Silk Road Rising is ungainly, though Anthony Churchill contributes sharp projections; worse, it lacks the erotic spark without which nothing makes sense. —Tony Adler

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Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
August 15
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Riff iO Theater, The Mission Theater
June 08

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