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Chicago native Janai Brugger joins ‘Turandot,’ another bright spot in Lyric Opera production

Jan 15, 2018 – 4:34 pm

Second Look: It was soprano Janai Brugger’s scheduled mid-run insertion as Liù, in Puccini’s “Turandot,” that drew me back for a second look at the Lyric Opera of Chicago production. But while Brugger’s performance rewarded my reprise, the experience also underscored some important truths about this last of Puccini’s operas – and about the real merit of the Lyric’s success with it.

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Sinfonietta unfurls evocative musical tapestry of a Langston Hughes African-American epic

Jan 14, 2018 – 3:14 pm

Preview: Composer Laura Karpman’s multi-styled setting of ‘Ask Your Mama’ spotlighted in Chicago Sinfonietta MLK concert Jan. 15.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute concert is consistently the orchestra’s best-attended event of the year, says music director Mei-Ann Chen. But this year’s MLK affair – 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 15 at Orchestra Hall — will also be Sinfonietta’s most ambitious enterprise: composer Laura Karpman’s musically multicultural setting of Langston Hughes’ epic poem about the African-American experience, “Ask Your Mama.” Read the full story »

‘The Light’ at New Colony: Lovers sparring, teasing; then the earth opens and pain erupts

Jan 11, 2018 – 10:24 am
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Review: Gen is trapped in a numbing confluence of righteousness and anger, paralyzed between the ideal of goodness and the reality of imperfection. She’s the everywoman – specifically, every black woman — of Chicago playwright Loy Webb’s stunning new work “The Light,” now in its world premiere production by The New Colony. ★★★★★

Firebrand sharpens the edgy musical ‘Lizzie’: Rough day for Mom and Dad in old Fall River

Jan 9, 2018 – 10:27 pm
Liz Chidester LIZZIE feature image, Firebrand Theatre (Marisa KM)

Review: The Firebrand Theatre’s production of “Lizzie” sides with the popular fiction that Lizzie Borden killed her dad and stepmom with axe whacks aplenty. But then this rock musical proceeds to imagine why. The answer puts Lizzie squarely in the tradition of Sweeney Todd and Hamlet and Clytemnestra and the girls of the “Cell Block Tango.” They had it comin’. ★★★★

Grant Park Festival will celebrate youth, honor composer Bolcom at 80 and roll out premiere

Jan 9, 2018 – 3:51 pm
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Report: A large-scaled world premiere for chorus and orchestra, a celebration of composer William Bolcom’s 80th birthday and a parade of stellar young soloists highlight plans for the Grant Park Music Festival’s 2018 summer, announced June 9. Centerpiece of the 10-week series of free concerts, June 13-Aug. 18 at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and other venues throughout the city, will be the premiere of an as yet untitled work for orchestra and chorus by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds.

‘Violet’ at Griffin: When a young woman’s scar cuts to her heart, bus ride to healing beckons

Jan 5, 2018 – 4:46 pm

Review: The scar on the young woman’s face cannot be seen, but it is real – as real as the invisible wound in her soul. And so she leaves her southern farm on a bus for Tulsa to see a faith healer, in hope of once more finding beauty in the mirror. What she ultimately finds is unexpected, and far more profound, in the bittersweet musical “Violet,” offered by Griffin Theatre in a production notable for both its charm and its grit. ★★★

One, two, (maybe) three: Muti again waltzes Vienna through beloved New Year’s concert

Dec 30, 2017 – 1:49 pm
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Preview: When Riccardo Muti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concert for the fifth time in his career, it will be 11:15 a.m. in the city of Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss Jr., but only 4:15 a.m. in Chicago. Worry not, there are multiple ways to enjoy this event, which epitomizes the close friendship that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director has had with the esteemed Vienna Philharmonic, dating back some 47 years.

‘Red Velvet’ at Chicago Shakespeare: A black Othello who shocked staid old Covent Garden

Dec 28, 2017 – 8:27 am
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Review: Covent Garden’s greatest tragedian has collapsed in the midst of his 1833 “Othello” run, requiring the theater to swap in a substitute for the traditional blackface role of the Moorish general who commits a crime of passion against his fair-skinned wife. Perhaps London might delight in the novelty of a 25-year-old “African” actor to save the day. Dion Johnstone stars in this emotionally charged drama – based on an actual event – by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, who likes her humor dry. ★★★★

Chamber operas tell Christmas and Hanukkah tales, with magic to capture hearts of children

Dec 20, 2017 – 3:36 pm
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Review: A joyful musical double bill by Chamber Opera Chicago was on view at the Royal George Theatre on Dec. 19 for the conclusion of a two-performance run. The traditional holiday staging of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas tale “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was paired with Victoria Bond’s modern-day Hanukkah tale, “The Miracle of Light.” ★★★

In Rachmaninoff concerto, Denis Kozhukhin embodies glittering wave of Russian pianists

Dec 19, 2017 – 4:41 pm
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Review: Pianist Denis Kozhukhin’s imposing and poetic turn through Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jaap van Zweden on Dec. 16, drove home a striking reality about today’s pianistic landscape: It is dominated by a clutch of Russians in their forties or younger.

Role Playing: Kathleen Ruhl went for laughs, but resisted harsh character that gets them

Dec 14, 2017 – 11:12 am
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Interview: Actress Kathleen Ruhl loves to hear an audience laugh. It’s always been one of the joys of her long stage career. Naturally, in her role as the flinty, straight-talking mom to two adult children in Suzanne Heathcote’s “I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn’t Even Smile” at Redtwist Theatre, she savors the laughter that rings off those close walls. But for Ruhl, the mirth came in a bitter pill.

‘Turandot’ at Lyric Opera: Recapturing mythic exoticism with theatrical flair, on a grand scale

Dec 8, 2017 – 11:22 am
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Review: A dark and mythical love story set long, long ago in an imaginary locale in China, Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, “Turandot,” has traditionally brought out the grand in grand opera. And so it does again in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s lavish production, which is dominated by a massive, eye-grabbing sculpture of a serpentine dragon that undulates across and through a steeply raked set with an array of other changing scenic touches. ★★★

Wrapped in tradition or rapped in new beats, ‘Christmas Carol’ sparkles at Goodman, CST

Dec 5, 2017 – 11:17 am
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Review: While Larry Yando’s indelible Ebeneezer Scrooge is once again delighting children and tapping into adult truths in Goodman Theatre’s indispensable staging of “A Christmas Carol” (★★★★), the Q Brothers are back at Chicago Shakespeare rapping Dickens’ parable on greed and misanthropy to a reggae beat (★★★). The Spirit of Christmas Present walks among us anew.

‘Saw My Neighbor on the Train’ at Redtwist: Amid pain and plain talk, generations collide

Dec 2, 2017 – 11:12 pm
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Review: Just when you think you’ve seen the ultimate dysfunctional family on stage, along comes Suzanne Heathcote’s gritty play “I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn’t Even Smile,” a stunner that touches a core of hope in a mesmerizing production at Redtwist Theatre. ★★★★

Role Playing: Kate Fry’s vivid Emily Dickinson sprang from poet’s fine-tuned, evocative verse

Nov 29, 2017 – 11:40 am
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Interview: Volumes have been written about Emily Dickinson, but it was through the reclusive poet’s own words that Kate Fry found her way into the heart she illuminates in William Luce’s one-woman play “The Belle of Amherst” at Court Theatre. “In the poems, and in her letters, you get these clear images of what was speaking to her intellect on any given day,” says Fry, “the things she felt compelled to put down on paper.”

‘The Minutes’ at Steppenwolf: At a small-town council meeting, comedy takes shattering turn

Nov 27, 2017 – 10:16 am
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Review: The individual agendas of the Big Cherry village council members, in Tracy Letts’ comedy-chiller of a new play “The Minutes,” are credibly various and amusingly personal. What really resonates, however, is the one thing they all hold in common — the raw, elemental conviction that safeguards and perpetuates Big Cherry as a community. ★★★★

Two Latino (or maybe it’s Hispanic) strangers discover common ground can shift in ‘Fade’

Nov 25, 2017 – 12:46 pm
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Review: Up to a point, I was quite charmed by Tanya Saracho’s play “Fade,” about two Latinos in different circumstances whose lives intersect at a television production company. I was engaged and delighted by what was spinning out as an edgy comedy in this co-production by Victory Gardens Theater and Teatro Vista – until events took a sharp turn. And then I was seriously impressed. Shaken, actually. Review: ★★★★

‘Belle of Amherst’ Emily Dickinson, pulled from pocket of a shirtdress at Court Theatre

Nov 24, 2017 – 11:14 am
Kate Fry. Belle of Amherst Feature 1a (Michael Brosilow)

Review: In an opening scene that would have made the poet chortle, Emily Dickinson walks into the room from which she barely ever leaves and catches – out of the corner of her eye – the supreme irony of hundreds of people instead of a bedroom wall. With the tiniest commiserating grin, actress Kate Fry embraces this utter incongruity; it’s just another mental puzzle to solve.★★★★★

‘The Pearl Fishers’ at Lyric Opera: Mirroring Bizet’s exotic poem of love in a distant world

Nov 21, 2017 – 5:13 pm
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Review: For a living, pulsating definition of Romanticism, look no further than the 25-year-old Georges Bizet’s opera “The Pearl Fishers.” Worlds away from the verismo terrain of “Carmen,” which would cap Bizet’s brief life just 12 years later, “Les pêcheurs de perles” is an exotic love poem set in ancient Ceylon, its soaring lyricism consummated in one man’s ultimate sacrifice offered to another in the name of both love and friendship. The whole seductive package – remote enchantment, grand singing, evocative costumes, stylized sets – comes together in a splendid production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. ★★★★

Muti leads CSO, pianist Gerstein in eloquent Brahms and chamber-scaled rarity by Strauss

Nov 19, 2017 – 12:22 pm
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Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, Conductor 
Kirill Gerstei, piano


Puccini Preludio sinfonico
R. Strauss Suite from Le bourgeois gentilhomme
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1

©Todd Rosenberg Photography

Review: Any deeply satisfying concerto performance bespeaks a close collaboration between soloist and conductor, yet even by that measure the majestic and probing Brahms First Piano Concerto delivered by Kirill Gerstein with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 17 was a rare, one might say time-stopping, experience.

Role Playing: Joel Reitsma drew moral profit from banker-captor clash of ‘Invisible Hand’

Nov 16, 2017 – 3:57 pm
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Interview: Joel Reitsma creates a convincingly distressed investment banker who parlays his expertise into a desperate, life-preserving deal with his Pakistani captors in Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand” at Steep Theatre. But Reitsma admits up front that he knows little about the trading game; and besides, he’s quick to add, the play isn’t about the stock market anyway. It’s about the corrosive power of money.

CSO, two stellar guests in music from Vienna: Some of it in C major, and all of it great

Nov 13, 2017 – 3:20 pm
11/9/17 9:13:34 PM -- Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck Conductor
Arabella Steinbacher violin

Bach, Orch. Webern Ricercar No. 2 from The Musical Offering
Berg Violin Concerto 
Schubert Symphony No. 9 (Great)

  © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Review: When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s current season is well into the books, I will remember in detail the perfect convergence of music and moment that was the Nov. 11 concert with conductor Manfred Honeck and violinist Arabella Steinbacher. The pairing of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major was ideally suited to Honeck, the 59-year-old, Austrian-born music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra, trekking across U.S., makes a power stop in Chicago

Nov 9, 2017 – 3:47 pm
11/8/17 10:06:51 PM -- Symphony Center Presents the Marinsky Orchestra. 
Valery Gergiev conductor
Denis Matsuev piano

  © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Review: Many an admiring adjective could be attached to the Mariinsky Orchestra, the St. Petersburg ensemble conducted by Valery Gergiev that lit up Orchestra Hall on Nov. 8 with a big, blazing concert of works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Strauss – not to mention two Wagner encores that measured up to everything that had gone before. But the encomium that ruled my dizzied head by the end of this ambitious and thoroughly rewarding performance was durable.This troupe is in the midst of a coast-to-coast U.S. tour that would test the strength and spirit of, well, a rock band.

Freshened, jumpin’ musical ‘School of Rock’ shakes the house as tour blows into Chicago

Nov 8, 2017 – 12:29 pm
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Review: True to the spirit of the Jack Black film comedy about an aging rock ‘n’ roll wannabe who cons his way into a substitute teaching job and shakes up his class of uptight tweens, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway hit is a hilarious slam dunk in Chicago, starring Second City alum Rob Colletti as the guru of a dozen young rockers in bloom. ★★★★

In luminous concert, Newberry Consort recalls music of Spanish Jews in Renaissance tumult

Nov 8, 2017 – 11:21 am
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Review: In 1492, while Columbus was unveiling a new world far to the west across an uncharted ocean, the Jews were being thrown out of Spain. Those who would not convert to Catholicism were ordered, on pain of death, to leave. This suddenly banished people, compelled to find new lives around the Mediterranean basin and across Europe, took with them a long and rich musical tradition nurtured in Spanish soil. The multifaceted musical legacy of the Sephardim – literally Spanish Jews – was the enchanting theme of the Newberry Consort’s first program of the season.

András Schiff, pianist and conductor, doubles the pleasure of an elegant night with the CSO

Nov 6, 2017 – 11:37 pm
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Review: The consummate musicianship of András Schiff is well known to Chicago aficionados of the piano. He’s a familiar face in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual recital series. Yet even his most ardent fans might have been surprised by Schiff’s masterly conducting – from the keyboard and in strictly orchestral fare – in a diverse and delightful program with the CSO.

‘Die Walküre’ at Lyric Opera: Heroic singing, lots of blood, and Wagner caught in a muddle

Nov 4, 2017 – 10:02 pm
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Review: There are times in opera when great singing rises above problematic production. Voices triumph over Konzept. But not even a glorious performance by bass-baritone Eric Owens – or the exemplary musical leadership of Andrew Davis – could compensate for the sum of gruesome design and muddle-headed staging heaped upon Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. ★★★

‘Quixote: On the Conquest of Self’ recasts Cervantes for the young in heart (and years)

Oct 28, 2017 – 10:34 pm
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Review: In his patched-together “battle” garb, well into his middle years but lean, bright of eye and dauntless in his self-image, Henry Godinez looks the very portrait of that most storied of knights errant, Don Quixote de La Mancha. Godinez is the appealing star and narrator of an almost-one-man show with the intriguing title of “Quixote: On the Conquest of Self” – which turns out to be a theatrical excursion more curious than any of the ventures embarked upon by Cervantes’ noble lancer, windmill jousting included. ★★

‘The Invisible Hand’ at Steep: Cash is king, and even the godly bow to its golden crown

Oct 26, 2017 – 4:34 pm
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Review: If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, what shall we say about the allure – no, the infection — of wealth? Perhaps mammon is the perverse god whom man created, not in his own image but as his highest aspiration and ideal. Money, money, money, money, money. Get a good taste of it only to crave more. That’s the object lesson, the demonstration, of Ayad Akhtar’s wrenching, fearsome play “The Invisible Hand,” which now commands the little stage at Steep Theatre in a production directed by Audrey Francis that is well worth adding to your must-see list. ★★★★

‘The Audience’ at TimeLine: Enduring queen receives her ministers with rubber stamp, wit

Oct 23, 2017 – 9:09 am
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Review: Janet Ulrich Brooks reigns supreme as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s play “The Audience” at TimeLine Theatre. The poised, circumspect, droll and ever so slightly vulnerable performance by one of Chicago’s most versatile actresses provides the constant heart in an otherwise uneven enterprise. The springboard for Morgan’s sly work is the historical Tuesday meetings between the Queen and the prime minister of the moment – a succession of politicos from Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden down through the decades to Tony Blair and David Cameron. ★★★

Role Playing: Lawrence Grimm found Lincoln first in pages of history, then within himself

Oct 20, 2017 – 1:03 pm
Lawrence Grimm

Interview: Lawrence Grimm stands 6 feet 4 inches tall – the same height as Abraham Lincoln. It wasn’t height that worried the actor when he took on his nuanced and profoundly human portrayal of Lincoln in James Still’s “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” at Shattered Globe Theatre. What concerned Grimm were the iconic dimensions of the 16th president, the towering figure whose wisdom would guide the nation through its greatest crisis.

Theater as crucible: Two Arthur Miller classics bridge high peaks of Goodman, Steppenwolf

Oct 19, 2017 – 10:16 am
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Review: If you have not yet seen both “A View from the Bridge” at Goodman Theatre and “The Crucible” at Steppenwolf Theatre – well, it’s Miller time. These are mesmerizing productions of two of Arthur Miller’s finest plays, and impressive reminders of why Goodman and Steppenwolf hold such eminent places on Chicago’s – indeed, the nation’s – theater scene. Each of these parallel runs has only a handful of performances remaining. Together, they make for a stunning one-two theatrical punch. Both ★★★★★