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‘Herland’ at Redtwist: Three senior ladies give new meaning to garage band’s sacred domain

Mar 23, 2019 – 4:47 pm

Review: As shaggy dog stories go, Grace McLeod’s “Herland,” now rollicking about in the very small space of Redtwist Theatre, is funny from start almost to finish. The show derives its nearly nonstop energy and substantial appeal from three middle-aged actresses and a convincingly vulnerable young actress playing in a you-are-there garage set. Right at the finish line, however, “Herland” makes a sudden shift from high comedy to self-conscious morality tale and concludes in an awkward effort to make its point. ★★★

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Starry cast will honor soprano Renée Fleming
as Lyric notes 25th anniversary of her debut

Mar 19, 2019 – 9:04 pm

Renée Fleming, who starred in Lyric Opera’s 2015 production of “The Merry Widow,” will be feted once more for the 25th anniversary of her company debut. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Preview: Sondra Radvanovsky and Eric Owens head lineup for tribute concert with Lyric Opera Orchestra on March 23.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Megastar soprano Renée Fleming, affectionately known in the opera world as “the diva next door,” remembers very well her debut 25 years ago at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the title role of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.” But that event is only the touchstone of Lyric’s glittering 25th anniversary concert March 23, which really celebrates a quarter-century of close partnership between the opera company and Fleming as singer, consultant and mentor. Read the full story »

Striking CSO musicians to give free concerts; Barenboim, Pelosi send messages of support

Mar 11, 2019 – 8:50 pm
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Updated March 20: The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will give two free performances they have dubbed “From the Heart of the Orchestra – Free Concerts for Chicago.” The two programs, announced as the first events in a projected series of free presentations, will feature a small ensemble playing chamber music March 22 and the full orchestra in works by Beethoven and Mozart on March 25. The musicians also made public letters of support from former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Steppenwolf to create new theater building, centerpiece of $73 million renewal project

Mar 5, 2019 – 12:12 pm
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Report: Steppenwolf Theatre unveiled plans March 5 for a new state-of-the-art theater building, the heart of a $73 million renovation project that ultimately will include remodeling of the company’s current main-stage theater. The new building is expected to open in summer 2021. “This is a monumental moment for us that is more than two decades in the making,” said artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, adding that the expansion plan is “built on the shoulders of the former leaders, the ensemble, the board, and the staff who have touched this project and together have made this vision a reality.”

Handel’s ‘Ariodante’ at Lyric Opera: Another star felled by illness; enter heroine (as hero)

Mar 4, 2019 – 11:00 pm
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Review: Spring – and the warmer, more healthful weather it augurs – can’t come too soon for Lyric Opera of Chicago. As of this writing, two title-role singers are indisposed. At least one of them, soprano Albina Shagimuratova, made it through opening night as Violetta in Verdi’s “La traviata.” But the second star to withdraw, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, wasn’t even up for the March 2 opening of Handel’s “Ariodante.” Julie Anne Miller was pressed into service on opening night as Ariodante, a huge “trouser” role aglitter with coloratura fireworks but also touched by music of profound reflection. Miller proved to be more and more impressive as the night wore on. ★★★★

‘How I Learned to Drive’ at Raven: Pretty girl, adoring uncle and secrets of the automobile

Mar 1, 2019 – 9:32 am
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Review: Li’l Bit was just 11 years old when she got her first driving lesson from her Uncle Peck. He pulled her onto his lap and showed her how to place her hands on the steering wheel.at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Then Uncle Peck placed his hands in roughly the same positions on L’il Bit. In Paula Vogel’s bruised-memory play “How I Learned to Drive,” the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama now on cringe-inducing display at Raven Theatre, Li’l Bit grows to young womanhood in the caring, caressing hands of her devoted Uncle Peck, a pedophile. ★★★

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ at Writers: Flashy shoes, flashing weapons and some ’20s blues

Feb 27, 2019 – 9:36 am
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Review: It’s 1927, and the veteran blues singer Ma Rainey – or Madame Rainey, as she prefers – is the imperious queen of her realm. The black songstress has been around, and she doesn’t take any grief from anybody, including white folks. Brash trumpeter Levee, who’s playing a Chicago recording session with Rainey, is still finding his way. He’s young, gifted and black. And deeply angry. These two are the fire and ice of August Wilson’s towering tragedy “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” now in the sure hands of director Ron OJ Parson and a stellar cast at Writers Theatre. ★★★★★

Pianist Beatrice Rana makes impressive debut with display of technical prowess, fluent style

Feb 25, 2019 – 6:11 pm
Featured image Marie Staggat

Review: I confess I knew nothing about the 26-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana before she made a phenomenal Symphony Center debut on Feb. 24. What initially lured me to her program was her choice of repertoire, including Chopin’s Etudes, Op. 25, and Ravel’s “Mirroirs.” In both her technical and interpretive skill, Rana proved to be extraordinary artist – one who held the audience at rapt attention.

‘An Inspector Calls’ at Chicago Shakespeare: High above earthy folk, fine hems betray mud

Feb 24, 2019 – 9:16 pm
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Review: JB Priestley’s classic “An Inspector Calls,” a noir thriller as morality tale, has been around for seven decades, and was made into a film in 1954. But director Stephen Daldry’s laser-focused staging with the National Theatre of Britain, now on view at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a masterpiece of ensemble acting wrapped in a brilliant concept that makes the play feel deliciously fresh, newly and wickedly biting. ★★★★★

In remembrance of Italian massacre in WWII, Muti and CSO turn to an American’s lament

Feb 24, 2019 – 11:51 am
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Review: The Ninth Symphony of American composer William Schuman, which Chicago Symphony music director Riccardo Muti conducted for the first time, commemorates a painful moment in modern Italian history – the systematic murder of 335 Italian civilians, with one shot each to the back of the head, by German soldiers in the last weeks of World War II.

‘The Scarlet Ibis’ at Chicago Opera Theater: Conflict of brotherly love, honed to lyric pitch

Feb 23, 2019 – 11:29 am
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Review: Brotherly conflict is at the heart of composer Stefan Weisman’s extraordinary operatic adaptation of “The Scarlet Ibis,” a celebrated short story by James Hurst. The 95-minute opera reveals layers of meaning and symbolism and blurs intense naturalism with a kind of dreamy magical realism. The staging by Chicago Opera Theater manages to be at once touching and tender, tough and unflinching: a revelation of the work’s power and depth. ★★★★★

‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ at Steppenwolf:
Sharp knock at the door, but is anyone there?

Feb 21, 2019 – 3:13 pm
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Review: Fifteen years after Nora Helmer famously – or perhaps infamously – walks out on husband and children at the end of Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House,” what do you know but she’s back, knocking on that same door, and not exactly bonnet in hand. Indeed, Nora has found great success as a writer. What an intriguing conceit for the sequel Lucas Hnath has ventured in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” now at Steppenwolf. Except that I came away with the distinct sense that Nora, the woman of the hour, was missing. ★★

‘La traviata’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago: Beneath layers of familiarity, a pristine jewel

Feb 18, 2019 – 9:15 pm
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Review: Every opera that gains such enduring popularity as to acquire the epithet warhorse was once, well, a colt – exhilarating in its spunky freshness, its beauty undimmed by long familiarity and habitual service. The real marvel of Lyric Opera’s current staging of Verdi’s “La traviata” lies not just in its lustrous surfaces but rather in its surprising depth, in its true and affecting recovery of a splendor beyond – or, more to the point, before – habit. ★★★★★

‘Anna Karenina’ at Joffrey Ballet: Epic tragedy, elegantly translated into masterpiece of dance

Feb 18, 2019 – 9:58 am
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Review: The Joffrey Ballet’s world premiere production of “Anna Karenina” is astonishing and thrilling on so many levels, from its concise distillation of Tolstoy’s prodigious novel, choreography that captures the story’s tragic essence and inspired multimedia effects to a superlative musical score. But this remarkable achievement is first and foremost tremendous theater. ★★★★★

In Chicago visit, Royal Concertgebouw unfurls colors, legacy in a grand tour of ‘Heldenleben’

Feb 14, 2019 – 1:50 pm
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Review: One of the world’s preeminent orchestras, the Amsterdam-based Concertgebouw is accustomed to touring, tallying 40 concerts away from home each year. But the brief U.S. tour included Chicago among only four cities treated to its renowned specialities. Richard Strauss’ highly personal 1897 fantasy for enormous orchestral forces “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) exploded with sound reverberating from the depths, gloried in woodwind sparkle and boasted the awesome grandeur of the Concertgebouw’s brass and battery.

‘On Clover Road’ at American Blues: Missing girl, frantic mom; only this stranger can help

Feb 13, 2019 – 9:54 pm
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Review: Kate Hunter is terrified, desperate, hanging on by her fingernails. Her adolescent daughter ran away three years ago, and finally Kate has a lead to the girl’s seclusion in a cult – even a glimmer of hope that on this day, all may end well. That’s why, in Steven Dietz’s thriller “On Clover Road,” we find Kate holed up in a dilapidated motel room with a brusque, imperious de-programmer who claims he’s experienced at reeling kids back from the abyss. It’s a heart-stopping encounter at American Blues Theater. ★★★★

‘Pipeline’ at Victory Gardens: As a black teen drifts, mother strives to find meeting ground

Feb 11, 2019 – 9:55 pm
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Review: Omari is 16, maybe 17 years old and he’s in serious trouble. He’s black, a bright kid, from good people. They send O – everybody calls him O – to a private school. But the boy is deeply angry, and now he’s facing expulsion from school, and maybe much worse, for assaulting a teacher. This the perilous crux of Dominique Morisseau’s play “Pipeline,” on gripping display at Victory Gardens Theater. ★★★★

‘Cardboard Piano’ at TimeLine:  Kids in love, and the long, life-altering echo of homophobia

Feb 11, 2019 – 9:39 am
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Review: There is one great scene and another that’s at least charming in Hansol Jung’s play “Cardboard Piano,” now occupying the stage at TimeLine Theatre. But all told, this dramatic parable about the intolerance of homosexuality in Uganda limps from adolescent fantasy to a second act that is more contrived than compelling. ★★

Nina Stemme, Lyric’s high-powered Elektra, recalls her cosmic trek from the world of Mimi

Feb 8, 2019 – 3:19 pm
NinaStemme_ELEKTRA_Lyric OpChicago 2019 (Cory Weaver)

Interview: By this point in soprano Nina Stemme’s operatic journey, the high-intensity role of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” has emerged as a signature piece. Indeed, the Swedish singer and reigning Wagnerian soprano, who currently performs the distraught and vengeful Elektra in her debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, all but owns the part. She is the foremost Elektra in the world today, and she embraces the staggeringly difficult role as “the greatest joy” to sing.

Chicago theater mid-season preview, Part 3: Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, Chicago Shakes

Feb 7, 2019 – 2:34 pm
Feature 1 Part 3 Joel Moorman

Preview: The mid-winter is far from bleak under Chicago’s theater marquees. Steppenwolf offers Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a sort of what-if sequel to Ibsen’s play. Lookingglass runs out the premiere of Kareem Bandealy’s ‘Act(s) of God,” a cosmic guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner. And Chicago Shakespeare revisits the Bard’s melancholy prince – ever perched on the existential fence between being and nothingness.

Strauss’ ‘Elektra’ at Lyric Opera: Nina Stemme triumphs as vengeful princess with a ready ax

Feb 6, 2019 – 9:30 am
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Review: The great power of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” lies in the transmogrification of a timeless tragedy through harrowing vocal music reinforced by an orchestral score so vivid, so nearly verbal, that it might stand alone as a symphonic drama. The magnificence of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current production resides in the depth of its humanity – that depth sounded by tremendous vocal performances and orchestral playing, under Donald Runnicles, that is absolutely graphic. ★★★★

‘Nina Simone: Four Women’ at Northlight: Stripes of suffering, stained in shades of black

Feb 4, 2019 – 10:37 pm
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Review: If you’re a serious theater buff, go directly to the Northlight schedule of performances for Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women,” and find a night that works for you. This disarming play-with-song about the great jazz and blues singer’s conversion to black activist – but more than that, about black women in their skin – is simply not to be missed. ★★★★★

‘How to Catch Creation’ at Goodman: Babies and art and other hints that mankind was here

Feb 3, 2019 – 9:57 am
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Review: Griffin wants to have a baby. Problem is, he doesn’t even have a girlfriend. He would adopt, but that raises another problem: his criminal record. Well, not strictly a criminal record, but he did a good stretch of time. Griffin’s conundrum is the core, the tease, the red herring of Christina Anderson’s delightful and touching new play “How to Catch Creation,” now in its world premiere run at Goodman Theatre. ★★★★

‘Photograph 51’ at Court: Isolated among men, one visionary woman fixes her focus on DNA

Jan 31, 2019 – 9:47 pm
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Review: Anna Ziegler’s play “Photograph 51,” now precisely imaged on stage at Court Theatre, is a high-intensity portrait of Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist who played a key role in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA – but was omitted from the picture when the men around her received the Nobel Prize for that landmark breakthrough. It is, alas, a preachy play, narrow and agenda-driven. ★★★

In CSO’s new season, Muti and galaxy of stars offer a prodigious tribute to Beethoven at 250

Jan 29, 2019 – 11:55 pm
1/26/12 8:30:51 PM -- Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti Music Director. Schubert  Symphony No. 3 in D Major  . © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

Report: A monumental tribute to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth highlights the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, its 10th under the stewardship of music director Riccardo Muti. In a season-long Beethoven immersion, Muti will conduct all nine symphonies and six different pianists will make their way collectively through the 32 sonatas. Muti will also preside over four world and U.S. premieres.

‘Red Rex’ at Steep: When theater stages local story, fantasy lifts curtain on one man’s pain

Jan 28, 2019 – 3:42 pm
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Review: The latest installment in Ike Holter’s now six-play saga of the fictional Chicago neighborhood of Rightlynd is part social commentary, part inside-theater sendup. From all angles, it is smartly written – provocative, witty and taut. “Red Rex” takes its title from a Rightlynd storefront theater, a struggling enterprise that finally may get over the hump with a compelling new play devised by the company’s resident playwright Lana. Devised, as in borrowed and adapted. There’s the rub. ★★★

Theater writ small at Chicago Shakespeare: Airborne bag ballet and children under siege

Jan 25, 2019 – 6:16 pm
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Review: No small part of what makes any season at Chicago Shakespeare Theater distinctive and intriguing is its annual bundle of imported shows. The visiting productions are often diminutive and typically off-beat, not just novel but beguilingly imaginative. Two such instances of theater writ small now occupy spaces at CST: “L’après-midi d’un foehn,” literally an air ballet of plastic shopping bags set to Debussy’s music, and “Us/Them,” the perspective of two children on a terrorist invasion of their school. ★★★/★★★

Lyric announces plans to crown ‘Ring’ cycle, begin Verdi series and tap into ‘42nd Street’

Jan 24, 2019 – 6:53 pm
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Preview: The consummation of a four-year project to produce Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the beginning of a “five- or six-year” exploration of early Verdi highlight plans for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2019-20 season, which also marks the 20th anniversary of Andrew Davis’ tenure as music director. After annual creations of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried,” the Lyric will cap the “Ring” cycle with “Götterdämmerung” in April 2020, then pull the whole enterprise together with three turns through the complete tetralogy.

‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at Redtwist:
Ex-cop, brash cop and a gritty deal on the line

Jan 22, 2019 – 9:57 am
Feature 1 Tom McGrathTCMcG Photography

Review: Pops is a retired black New York cop – retired because he got thoroughly shot up by a fellow cop (white) while Pops was off-duty at an unsavory watering hole. But he gets along well enough in his rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment, which he shares with a son who’s into some shady business and a slow-witted, adoring young ex-con. That’s the frame, the border around the stress points, of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulizer Prize-winning play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which enjoys a detailed, charged and mesmerizing go-round in the tiny arena that is Redtwist Theatre. ★★★★

Chicago theater mid-season preview, Part 2: Ahead at Porchlight, American Blues, Raven

Jan 19, 2019 – 11:05 am
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Preview: Chicago’s turn into real winter comes with the consolation of intriguing theater just ahead. Think of it as warming countermeasures. Porchlight offers the musical farce “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” while Raven plots Paula Vogel’s now-classic memory play “How I Learned to Drive.” American Blues jumps into the season’s second half with Steven Dietz’s “On Clover Road.” If a play synopsis that begins “At an abandoned motel on a desolate road” sounds more like a chiller, at least it will unfold in a snug place.

‘St. Nicholas’ at Goodman: Drama critic meets vampires. Seriously. He’s bloody amazed, too.

Jan 17, 2019 – 11:32 pm
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Review: It turns out vampires are real. Who knew? Anyway, the veracity of vampires is the central proposition of Conor McPherson’s one-man play “St. Nicholas,” now meandering across the boards at Goodman Theatre. I suspect the greatest allure of this dubious enterprise, brought to Chicago by London’s Donmar Warehouse, is the presence of Brendan Coyle – yes, the same Mr. Bates of “Downton Abbey” – as the nameless monologist. ★★

Chicago theater mid-season preview, Part 1: What’s in store at Goodman, Northlight, Steep

Jan 16, 2019 – 11:48 pm
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Preview: The Chicago theater scene enters its snow-to-blossoms segment with a flurry of highlights that we’ll glimpse in a three-part series of winter-spring previews. In early prospect are Goodman Theatre’s world premiere of Christina Anderson’s “How to Catch Creation,” Ike Holter’s “Red Rex” at Steep and Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women” at Northlight.