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Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson

Stratford Festival: Othello may be no match
for Iago, but these two actors go toe to toe

Aug 14, 2019 – 7:04 pm
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Review: When the full, remorseless malevolence of Shakespeare’s villain Iago spills across the stage, it can be hard to find the title character in “Othello.” But even pitted against Gordon S. Miller’s sinister nemesis in the Stratford Festival’s current production, Michael Blake brings front and center both the heroic stature and the tragic vulnerability of a great general brought down by a handkerchief. ★★★★★

Romp in the woods at American Players: A lusty, stylish go at ‘She Stoops To Conquer’

Jul 25, 2019 – 12:06 pm
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Review: Oliver Goldsmith’s broad comedy “She Stoops to Conquer” has been around for nearly 250 years, one of the few 18th-century British plays to hold the stage in this country despite the great displacement of time and place. Charming, LOL funny and warm-hearted, “She Stoops to Conquer” is a smashing success at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis. It’s an ensemble coup but also a particular triumph for Laura Rook as an aristocratic girl who sheds her fine mantle to win the heart of a hopelessly shy peer. ★★★★

Tennessee Williams’ rare gem ‘Creve Coeur’ gets a lyrical polishing at American Players

Jul 19, 2019 – 11:27 am
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Review: “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur,” an obscure play by Tennessee Williams from late in his life, serves up a touching, trenchant, typically insightful and empathic look at aging womanhood – four women in this instance – in a production at American Players Theatre that reveals a hidden gem by the incomparable singer of America’s Southern song. ★★★★★

‘True West’ at Steppenwolf: Warring brothers
go to the mat over fame, fortune and spelling

Jul 18, 2019 – 8:26 am
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Review: It’s a surreal encounter and also a never-ending story, Sam Shepard’s slugfest of a play “True West,” which sprawls across the stage at in a lusty, mad and magnetic production at Steppenwolf Theatre. The tattered remains of actors Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood, who had just endured a mutual pummeling as contentious brothers unexpectedly and most unhappily reunited, shared in bravely earned applause at the show’s opening July 16. ★★★★

Shakespeare at American Players: Some have greatness thrust on them; others, not so much

Jul 17, 2019 – 11:09 am
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Review: American Players Theatre, now in its 40th summer of primarily outdoor productions in a charming little arena in the hills of Spring Green, Wis., some 30 miles west of Madison, has always regarded Shakespeare as its badge of honor, reference point and indeed its reason for being. That tradition is manifest in a spirited and sure production of “Twelfth Night,” but a dubiously conceived and oddly cast “Macbeth” betrays this excellent company’s allegiance to the Bard. “Twelfth Night” ★★★★ “Macbeth” ★★

‘King Lear’ at Redtwist: The existential Bard, pared to the core of being – and nothingness

Jul 15, 2019 – 8:41 pm
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Review: Redtwist Theatre, the fearless vest-pocket company in Edgewater, winds up its season, the last for co-founder and artistic director Michael Colucci at the helm, with its first venture into Shakesespeare: a lean, uneven “King Lear,” but one altogether imposing in Brian Parry’s assured, fierce and affecting performance in the title role. ★★★

‘The Music Man’ at Goodman: He’s a what, he’s a what? He’s a music man. No, he ain’t.

Jul 12, 2019 – 6:10 pm
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Review: Yes, my friends, we got trouble, right here in Windy City. I’m talkin’ about a Goodman Theatre production of “The Music Man” – a musical, the last I heard – that’s about as musical as Amaryllis’ cross-hand piece at the piano. And by the way, the show also lacks an actor in the title role with a real feel for that two-bit, gol-dang, smooth-talkin’, tin-horn, two-timin’ salesman: someone, in short, who knows the territory. ★★

Kalmar, Grant Park forces take on Beethoven’s mighty Missa Solemnis and serve up a thrilla

Jun 29, 2019 – 7:44 pm
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Review: It’s hard to say which was the more remarkable, music director Carlos Kalmar’s sheer chutzpah in programming Beethoven’s monumental and indeed daunting Missa Solemnis for the Grant Park Music Festival or the thrilling success of the June 28 performance by all the vocal and instrumental forces involved.

‘If I Forget’ at Victory Gardens: The human comedy in past, present and future imperfect

Jun 27, 2019 – 7:55 am
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Review: The ingredients of Steven Levenson’s brutally honest play “If I Forget” are the stuff of human frailty: hubris, folly, hypocrisy, naïveté, denial. All compacted into one dysfunctional family, and sharply etched in a riveting production at Victory Gardens. ★★★★

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma draws a flood of enthusiasts for solo Bach marathon that ends with a romp

Jun 21, 2019 – 6:14 pm
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Review: The scene on the perimeter of Millennium Park in the early evening of June 20 looked a lot more like Lollapalooza than the turnout for a prodigious cello recital. The gathering throng was lined up for blocks, down Michigan Avenue and around the corner and up the Monroe Street hill – 20,000 enthusiasts patiently waiting to filter through security for a rare event, maybe the opportunity of a lifetime: to hear Yo-Yo Ma play J.S. Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello in a non-stop, two-and-a-half-hour immersion.

American Players Theatre, set for its 40th year, cues the Bard, Tennessee and August Wilson

Jun 14, 2019 – 9:00 am
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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.”

In glittering anniversary year, Grant Park Fest mixes Beethoven with usual unusual suspects

Jun 9, 2019 – 5:48 pm
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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.

Role Playing: Maurice Jones wasn’t shooting
for CST’s Hamlet – but it simply was to be

Jun 3, 2019 – 3:16 pm
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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.

‘Winter’s Tale’ at Goodman: Clearing the high dramatic hurdle, crashing on rustic comedy

May 28, 2019 – 8:08 am
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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. ★★★

With Orchestra Hall again open for business, Uchida and Kissin electrify capacity houses

May 12, 2019 – 10:16 pm
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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.

‘West Side Story’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago:
New love and old hatred stirred at high heat

May 9, 2019 – 9:43 am
5/2/19 2:46:06 PM -- Chicago, IL

Lyric Opera Chicago
West Side Story Dress Rehearsal



© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019

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. ★★★★★

Chicago Symphony, its fabled sound blazing, gets wild welcome in return to Orchestra Hall

May 3, 2019 – 2:15 pm
5/2/19 9:51:29 PM -- Chicago, IL 
Chicago, IL 
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, Conductor
Joyce DiDonato, Soprano


Bizet Roma
Berlioz The Death of Cleopatra, Lyric Scene for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra
Respighi Pines of Rome

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019

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.”

‘Hamlet’ at Chicago Shakespeare: In honoring Bard’s language, an actor hones ambivalence

Apr 30, 2019 – 8:14 pm
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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. ★★★★

‘A Number’ at Writers: Haunted by the past, dad seeks ideal son in future perfect of DNA

Apr 28, 2019 – 9:38 pm
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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. ★★★★

CSO strike ends with 5-year contract accord; musicians accept phased change in pensions

Apr 27, 2019 – 10:54 am
Feature image Steve Lester 4.24.2019 IMG_2712

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.

‘Hannah and Martin’ at Shattered Globe: Fireworks of mind and heart as the Reich rises

Apr 25, 2019 – 5:46 pm
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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, ★★★★★

‘The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey’: Charismatic gay boy, sundry friends, one actor

Apr 19, 2019 – 4:15 pm
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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. ★★★★

Chicago Symphony throw-down is private: musicians and trustees only; all others beat it

Apr 14, 2019 – 9:13 pm
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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.

‘For Colored Girls’ at Court: Getting through hard lives with a distant promise of rainbows

Apr 11, 2019 – 9:29 am
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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. ★★★★★

Lutenist O’Dette, Newberry Consort to revisit forgotten world of French Renaissance music

Apr 3, 2019 – 9:23 pm
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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.   

‘Sweat’ at Goodman: When the jobs go away, even best friends can lose sight of forever

Apr 1, 2019 – 6:12 pm
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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. ★★★★★

Chicago Symphony contract talks to resume; events canceled by strike extended to April 9

Mar 27, 2019 – 10:22 pm
IMG_2531r fMarch 22 2019 (NMalitz)

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.

In a grand night of singing, Lyric Opera fetes Renée Fleming – with help from starry friends

Mar 25, 2019 – 9:21 pm
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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.

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

Mar 23, 2019 – 4:47 pm
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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. ★★★

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

Mar 19, 2019 – 9:04 pm
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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.