Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Preview: American Players Theatre, nestled in the woodland hills near Spring Green, Wis., about 30 miles west of Madison, rolls out its 40th summer June 15 with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Shaw’s “The Man of Destiny,” to be followed by seven more productions during a season that runs into early November. Says artistic director Brenda DeVita, now in her sixth year: “Our job is not to preserve, but to create. We are always changing.”
Preview: It’s a big-numbered year for the Grant Park Music Festival, which opens June 12 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Not only does 2019 mark the free festival’s 85th anniversary, but it’s also the 15th summer for the Pritzker Pavilion and the 20th season at the festival helm for conductor Carlos Kalmar. Not surprisingly, Kalmar wanted to do grand things. The result measures up. The word for this celebratory season is Big.
Interview: Maurice Jones, who plays the title role in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s current production of “Hamlet,” apparently made quite an impression at his audition. Actually, he overshot just a bit. He was trying out for the supporting part of Laertes. Jones had never played Hamlet, but when the actor who originally won the job had to back out, CST artistic director Barbara Gaines, who also directs this show, asked Jones if he’d be game to step up – and take on one of the greatest and most challenging roles in theater.
Review: Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” which begins with an outrageous and apparently unprovoked display of jealousy by a king toward his beloved wife and their best friend, works in its most problematic moments with rare plausibility and conviction thanks to director Robert Falls and an impeccably gauged performance by Dan Donohue. Yet the Goodman Theatre production also goes off the rails where the going seems easiest – in broad comedy. ★★★
Review: The piano was at center stage, and all seemed right with the world in the happy, normal – actually, quite thrilling – aftermath of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s protracted strike. Many an anticipated concert got wiped out by the strike, but the timing favored two pianists who happen to be favorites at Orchestra Hall: Mitsuko Uchida, who gave a memorable performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with the CSO under Riccardo Muti (May 9-11), and Evgeny Kissin, who offered a typically thoughtful, brilliant and roaringly received recital May 12.
Review: By now, Lyric Opera of Chicago can claim an impressive string of spring musicals, hugely popular explorations of classic Americana that appear like shining exclamation marks at the end of regular opera seasons. The latest, “West Side Story,” well may be the finest. Indeed, you might be hard pressed ever to find a more profoundly satisfying account of this exquisite music-drama, which shares with its model, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” both its bittersweet hope and its timeless tragedy. ★★★★★
Review: O say, can you see – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is back, its seven-week strike over, music on the stands and music director Riccardo Muti once more presiding from the podium. To a whooping, standing-O reception, the CSO roared back into action at Orchestra Hall on May 2 with a performance that made clear the orchestra, in a twinkling, was all the way back: a full-fledged do-over. And lest anyone miss the point that, even at the three-quarter mark of the season, this was in spirit a restart, Muti began with a flick of his baton for a drumroll and struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Review: The much that is good about Chicago Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is very good indeed, starting with Maurice Jones’ rigorously thought-through and yet convincingly spontaneous performance as the melancholy Prince of Denmark. But unevenness among the rest of the principal roles takes a toll on this enterprise under company artistic director Barbara Gaines. ★★★★
Review: Salter’s little boy was perfect. Beautiful. In his father’s eyes, the child Bernard was everything a man could wish for. Then, something happened. What, exactly, is the conundrum at the core of Caryl Churchill’s intriguing futuristic play “A Number,” in which William Brown and Nate Burger now occupy the stage at Writers Theatre. ★★★★
Report: The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra voted April 27 to approve a new five-year contract that compromises on pensions and projects wage increases totaling 13.25 percent. The agreement was reached April 26, the day Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped into a contentious dispute between the musicians and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association that had led to the strike March 11. Under the new agreement, the pension plan will be frozen after the 2022-23 season and transition thereafter to a model that shifts the future investment burden to the musicians themselves. Unanimous approval by the musicians came hours before the Association board of trustees also voted to approve the contract.
Review: In a Chicago theater season that has produced a generous share of first-rate work, there’s been little that might top the brilliance and torment generated by Christina Gorman and Lawrence Grimm in Kate Fodor’s “Hannah and Martin” at Shattered Globe Theatre. It’s a story as mesmerizing as it is heated and exotic, this historical – and historically sound – romantic affair and intellectual tussle between two of the most influential philosophers of the last century: Martin Heidegger, a Nazi sympathizer, and the Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt, ★★★★★
Review: What’s so seductively marvelous about Joe Foust’s one-man turn through James Lecesne’s bittersweet play “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” currently in production at American Blues Theater, is not simply the actor’s ability to sustain a complicated narrative alone on the stage. What’s absolutely magical is Foust’s blink-of-an-eye transformations from one fully formed character into another, each new persona as distinctive, empathic and credible as the last. ★★★★
Commentary: The strike by musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now entering its second month, has brought into focus some realities about high-level orchestras in our time, the nature of work stoppages such as this one and the framework of negotiations between musicians and management. Perhaps the first point to be made is the inappropriateness of outsiders to presume to judge how an impasse in negotiations should be resolved.
Review: You have half a dozen more chances to see Ntozake Shange’s stunning play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” before it closes April 14 at Court Theatre. That is, assuming a seat opens up; the remainder of the run is sold out. No surprise there. “For Colored Girls” is a theatrical experience of authentic soul and rare beauty. ★★★★★
Review: Musically, the French Renaissance was a bountiful era that surely would never be forgotten. Yet curiously and regrettably, says the celebrated lute virtuoso and Renaissance expert Paul O’Dette, the music of 16th-century France has pretty much tumbled into oblivion. Which only makes the more alluring O’Dette’s appearance April 5-7 with the Newberry Consort for a program devoted to – what else? — la musique française à l’époque de la Renaissance.
Review: The tragic grandeur of Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” now indispensably on display at Goodman Theatre, resides in its complex truths. All in one remarkable tumble, it is a play about the vulnerability of the labor class, the crassness of their overlords, the fragility of friendships, the partitions of tribalism and the volatile bond between mothers and sons. ★★★★★
April 3 Update: The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra had expected to play Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony on March 26 at Orchestra Hall. Instead, with the Chicago Symphony on strike, the visiting musicians took to the streets — one could almost say the barricades — in solidarity with their Chicago colleagues. Brass players from the two orchestras played briefly on the sidewalk in front of Orchestra Hall amid signs proclaiming their unity.
Review: Her colleagues sang tributes, the next generation of opera stars chipped in with the exuberance of youth and the audience rocked the house on soprano Renée Fleming’s night – a very vocal celebration of that superstar’s multifaceted 25-year association with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The concert March 23 at the Lyric Opera House acknowledged the many ways the singer has contributed to the company as vocal star, consultant and mentor over the last quarter-century.
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. ★★★
Preview: 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.
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.
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.”
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. ★★★★
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. ★★★
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★