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'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for April 22nd, 2015



by Paul W. Thompson

Overheard last weekend under the showtune video screens at Sidetrack and The Call:

The big guns are out! Even as Lyric Opera's "Carousel" continues to capture the fancy of the national press and the New York superfans, it seems that all of Chicago's theaters that produce musicals on a routine basis are unveiling their spring productions. And what a crop!

Remember the sheaves of love letters that were heaped upon "Les Miserables" when it opened at Aurora's Paramount Theatre last month? Well, they are being rivaled by the new production of "Billy Elliot" at Oakbrook Terrace's Drury Lane Theatre, where the first-ever regional production of this West End and Broadway musical has been rapturously received. Nicholas Dantes and Kyle Halford share the title role in Elton John's gritty coal mine and ballet musical, seen at the Oriental Theatre in an internationally touring production in 2010. But Chicago director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell, acclaimed for her work with shows involving children, has reportedly done amazing work with this material and her selected cast. Star Susie McMonagle, a Chicago actress and a veteran of that touring production, brings her experience as ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, going toe-to-toe with Ron E. Rains' Dad. And you can't go wrong with Liam Quealy as Tony and Rhett Guter as Older Billy. And with Roberta Duchak as music director. "Electricity," anyone? Through June 7th.

Only slightly less rapturous reviews are being filed for the Marriott Theatre's north suburban production of the immortal "Anything Goes," last seen here in a touring production at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in 2013. Cole Porter as interpreted by the director-choreographer Marc Robin equals light-as-a-feather hilarity, I think. In the Marriott square through May 31st, the musical that gave the world "I Get A Kick Out Of You" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," not to mention the title tune, stars Stephanie Binetti, Jameson Cooper, Ross Lehman, Summer Naomi Smart and a full cast of tapping, singing, gown-wearing talents.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater produces musicals each year, scattered among its Shakespeare and classical theater productions. And this year, "Sense And Sensibility" fits the bill nicely, but is a rare new work to debut on the main Courtyard stage. Now entering its second week of previews, set for a press opening on Wednesday, April 29 (and running through June 7), is Paul Gordon's adaptation (book, music and lyrics) of Jane Austin's novel, commissioned by Barbara Gaines and her "miracle on the pier" of a theater. I've heard good things. Wait until you see Kevin Depinet's set designs. And welcoming actor Sean Allan Krill back to town is always nice.

"The Second City" is not just our civic moniker, it's a world-class comedy institution in Old Town, and the site of five different performance venues and an active Training Center. A new sketch comedy show has premiered at Second City e.t.c., "Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?," set for an open run. A cast of six is directed by Anthony LeBlanc, with music and music direction by Alex Kliner.


Things are always hopping at Porchlight Music Theatre, which opened to the press a rare full staging of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" just last night at Stage 773. Through May 24, zany Bill Larkin will head the cast as Pseudolus, with Miles Blim and Sarah Lynn Robinson as the young lovers. Will Klinger and Matt Crowle are the dirty old men, with Greg Zawada as the conquering hero. Michael Weber directs, with choreography by Brenda Didier and music direction by Linda Madonia. The show is, literally, comedy tonight, and includes, literally, love,...I hear.


Porchlight has also announced the cast of its upcoming staged concert production of Jerry Herman's frustrating "Mack And Mabel," frustrating because the songs are so great but the plot is a tricky one. Give the show another chance on May 12 and 13 at Stage 773, when Jason Richards stars as Mack Sennett, with Dana Tretta as Mabel Normand and Tammy Mader as Lottie Ames. (Mader also choreographs, with direction by Michael Weber and music direction by Beckie Menzie.) The ensemble will include Larry Baldachi, Zach Drane, Kim Green, Jim Heatherly, Amanda Newman, Anthony Norman, Lindsay Loretta Prerost, Ed Rutherford, Jenna Shoppe and Tommy William Thurston.


It's not ready for its close-up just yet, but the Theatre At The Center in Munster is presenting our first local Equity staging of "Big Fish," Andrew Lippa's show that had its pre-Broadway tryout here in 2013 before its New York engagement proved to be a quick dip in treacherous waters. Reportedly programmed as a vehicle for the late Bernie Yvon, this production will instead star Stef Tovar as Edward Bloom, alongside Colette Todd and Nathan Gardner as his wife and grown son. Also appearing are Callie Johnson, Bethany Thomas, John Stemberg, Norm Boucher and Nate Becker, with an ensemble including Matthias Austin, Julie Baird, Caitlin Borek, Amanda Compton, Ann Delaney, Brian Duncan, Isaac Jankowski, Reneisha Jenkins, John Koch, John Marshall, Jr., Henry McGinniss, Nathan Mittleman, Theo Moss and James Nedrud. The legendary William Pullinsi directs, with choreography by Linda Fortunato. The production, onstage from May 7 through June 7, includes the original Broadway costumes designed by William Ivey Long.


Interestingly, a show that did well for Theatre At The Center is being remounted at the Mercury Theater Chicago on Southport Avenue. "Ring Of Fire" played in Munster in February and March of 2014, and will be remounted at the Mercury for a run from April 30-June 28, 2015, directed (and re-imagined since its Broadway incarnation) by Brian Russell and starring Kent M. Lewis and Cory Goodrich as Johnny and June Carter Cash. This sort of thing doesn't happen all that often. Attention should be paid.


In west suburban Cicero, the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center at Morton College is producing, in all its kitschy glory, the rarely seen but Olivier Award-winning jukebox rock and roll musical, "Return To The Forbidden Planet." But you better act fast as it closes this Saturday night! Jedlicka is probably Chicago's bravest non-Equity theater. It has already presented "Big Fish," you know.

And in the northwest suburbs, another brave theater, the BroadwayWorld Award-winning Big Noise Theatre Company, is unveiling "Hair" from April 24-May 9 at the Prairie Lakes Community Center Theater in Des Plaines. Stacey Flaster is directing and choreographing the always controversial landmark show, with musical direction by Jeffrey Poindexter. Starring are Taylor Okey and Nic Eastland as Claude and Berger, with Haley Jane Schaefer, Darius Colquitt, Patrick Stengle, Mary Kate Young and Melanie Frewen, backed by a large tribe.


Last but not least for all you faithful Mosh Pit peeps out there, I wanted to mention the amazing announcement by the still-young Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Now in its second year, Underscore Theatre Company's signature event will feature not one, not three, not seven, but THIRTEEN world premiere musicals during its run (June 30-July 19, 2015). It all takes place at The Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. There are full-length and one-act pieces, mentored shows and independent productions, and I'm sure a variety of styles and themes to be experienced. And let's hope that the cream of this crop goes on to full productions with open runs, here and everywhere. Congratulations, Chicago. You've got a lot of new musical theater to witness!


Whew! Got all that? Got tickets to all that? Once again, I'm exhausted. But not enough to stay home! I'll see you in all these theaters, ok? And I'll see you under the video screens.....-PWT

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From This Author Paul W. Thompson

Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as (read more...)