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

Dec 8, 2017 – 11:22 am

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. ★★★

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

Dec 5, 2017 – 11:17 am

Ebeneezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) is amazed to find his bedroom occupied by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Lisa Gaye Dixon). (Liz Lauren)

Review: Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at Goodman Theatre ★★★★
“Q Brothers Christmas Carol” at Chicago Shakespeare ★★★
Both shows run through Dec. 31.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

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. Read the full story »

‘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
11/16/17 10:44:13 PM

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
School of Rock Feature image

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 ★★★★★

‘Rigoletto’ at the Lyric Opera: Not for the eye, but it’s a triple treat vocally, and that’s no jest

Oct 10, 2017 – 8:31 pm
10/4/17 1:17:13 PM -- Lyric Opera Chicago Presents 
Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto 

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

Review: Thanks to the vocally resplendent and emotionally engaged performances by baritone Quinn Kelsey as the hateful and paranoid court jester Rigoletto, soprano Rosa Feola as his sheltered and naïve daughter Gilda and tenor Matthew Polenzani as the sexually predatory Duke of Mantua, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s take on Verdi’s “Rigoletto” pays significant rewards as psychological drama. But this bleak, objectified production created 20 years ago for the San Francisco Opera with sets by Michael Yeargan – and directed here by E. Loren Meeker – all but nullifies the work as theater. ★★★

Louis Lortie keys on the virtuosity of Liszt’s vivid, peripatetic life as a Romantic artist

Oct 10, 2017 – 4:22 pm
Louis Lortie 23 feature image (Elias)

Review: The Symphony Center piano series opened Oct. 8 with an astounding concert by the French Canadian pianist Louis Lortie devoted entirely to Liszt’s masterful “Années de pèlerinage.” This was a rare and ravishing performance evoking Liszt’s years of pilgrimage as an itinerant virtuoso. Throughout the two halves of the concert you could hear a pin drop in Orchestra Hall.

‘Taming of the Shrew’ at Chicago Shakespeare translates romp of an era into modern comedy

Oct 8, 2017 – 6:33 pm
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Review: On the surface, the idea of an all-female cast for Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” smacks of gimmickry. Framing the story within a contrivance about the women’s campaign in 1919 for the right to vote sounds downright tormented. But “The Taming of the Shrew,” for modern audiences the most problematic entry in the Shakespeare canon, surely has not been brought to the stage with greater wit, brilliance or plausibility since – oh, since women got the right to vote. ★★★★★

‘The Heavens Are Hung in Black’: In predawn of Emancipation, Lincoln suffers war and loss

Oct 2, 2017 – 4:25 pm
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Review: Chicago’s young theater season has raised the curtain on a genuine sleeper: a gem of a play, James Still’s “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” produced by a little company, Shattered Globe Theatre, on a tiny stage at Theatre Wit. At the center of a splendid ensemble effort is Lawrence Grimm’s exquisite and wholly credible portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. ★★★★

Muti and Chicago Symphony set the bar high for new season in stellar Bruckner, Schumann

Sep 30, 2017 – 9:14 am
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Review: I caught up belatedly with the Chicago Symphony’s season-opening program under music director Riccardo Muti – a spritz of modernism in Penderecki’s “The Awakening of Jacob,” soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter’s spell-binding flight through the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Muti’s revelatory account of Schumann’s Second Symphony — then two nights later heard the program that continues through Oct. 1: the world premiere of CSO resident composer Elizabeth Ogonek’s alluring “All These Lighted Things” and perhaps the greatest performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony that I’ve witnessed in 50 years as a critic.

Lyric Opera, in stylish step with Joffrey Ballet, dances into new season with Gluck’s ‘Orphée’

Sep 26, 2017 – 2:48 pm

Review: My first reaction to the sublime Elysium Fields scene in “Orphée et Eurydice,” as conceived by John Neumeier for the Chicago Lyric Opera, was that I was actually looking at Gluck’s music — that I was “seeing” the sound, so perfectly twinned were the diaphanous movements of the dancers to the serene music representing spirits in afterlife. My second reaction was that Neumeier knows his Freud. With plenty of insight and practical know-how, he has crafted a brilliant contemporary scheme for this 1774 Paris version of Gluck’s opera, which draws from the ancient myth of Orphée’s rescue attempt in the underworld. ★★★★★

‘The Rembrandt’ at Steppenwolf: Ruminating on the golden linkage of art and life and love

Sep 23, 2017 – 2:45 pm
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Review: Jessica Dickey’s play “The Rembrandt” is a thing of great spiritual beauty, but Francis Guinan’s performance – you might say in the title role – at Steppenwolf Theatre bears out the imperative of another character in the play, Homer: that poetry must be spoken aloud. Guinan takes Dickey’s eloquent and insightful text to a transcendent place. ★★★★★

Chicago Shakespeare opens versatile venue with (French) accent on timeless circus gags

Sep 21, 2017 – 5:15 pm
Feature 1 Richard Haughton

Review: One might have hoped for an imaginative Shakespeare production from, well, Chicago Shakespeare Theater to inaugurate its new $35 million venue. But CST opted for the entertainment of French circus veteran James Thierrée’s “The Toad Knew.” His superb company of physical comedians provided a delightful hour in a show that ran nearly twice that length, sans break. ★★★

‘Pericles’ at American Players: Through crazy accents, keeping the Bard’s rhyme and reason

Sep 18, 2017 – 9:19 am
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Review: To use Shakespeare and farce in the same sentence is almost certainly to think of “The Comedy of Errors,” and maybe patches of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Probably not, however, the late romantic adventure tale “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” But it is precisely a generous infusion of over-the-top silliness that makes such endearing stuff of “Pericles” at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis. ★★★★

Chicago Shakespeare set to unveil The Yard, flexible $35 million theater at Navy Pier site

Sep 15, 2017 – 3:14 pm
The Yard

This Just In: The following is a news release written by an arts organization, submitted to Chicago On the Aisle.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater opens its new, innovative third theater on Navy Pier, The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, …

Role Playing: Cristina Panfilio spreads wings she didn’t know she had as midsummer Puck

Sep 7, 2017 – 10:55 pm
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Interview: Cristina Panfilio, the disarmingly sly and funny – and athletic! – Puck in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at American Players Theatre, didn’t see it coming. The role of the mischievous fairy sprite with magical powers is normally played by a male actor.  When director John Langs phoned her and cold-pitched her the part, she was flattered, of course. The Chicago-based actress was also overwhelmed by the thought.