Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Review: It was quite some display of virtuosity, of sure-fire musical panache, that the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and music director Kent Nagano offered Oct. 15 at Orchestra Hall. With a sumptuous encore of Ravel’s grandly wrought “La valse,” the visitors might have been saying, “We can do this all night.” But by that point, after a sterling account of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Nagano’s splendid ensemble was beyond needing to prove anything. “La valse,” opulent and sensuous and undulating, wasn’t so much a statement as a gift.
Review: The sleeper don’t-miss show of Chicago’s autumn theater season falls under the perhaps inauspicious heading of Steppenwolf’s Young Adult series. Make no mistake, the emphasis here is on “adult,” and Steppenwolf’s superbly cast and directed – indeed, choreographed – staging of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size” is exquisite theater that will reward the most experienced drama buff. ★★★★★
Review: We shall see whether Lyric Opera of Chicago, when it comes under the musical leadership of Enrique Mazzola in 2021, pursues the plan of departing music director Andrew Davis to explore the early, less familiar operas of Giuseppe Verdi. The idea has merit, and I think Mazzola will stick with it. There are signs to support that probability in the example immediately at hand: Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” which Mazzola himself conducts with spirit, insight and evident belief in the opera’s worth. ★★★
Interview: Pianist Kirill Gerstein, who leads off a season-long excursion through Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas to be performed by a parade of virtuosos at Orchestra Hall, views the sonatas not only as the composer’s most personal medium but also as an inventive progression sometimes skewed in modern reckoning – and sometimes unduly sanctified.
Review: The 90-minute distillation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” now on display at Writers Theatre is a fast ride to a shattering finish – an emotional grinder that goes instantly and unflinchingly to the core of this still-remarkable story of a woman’s painful self-discovery, and it never lets up. ★★★★★
Review: One might describe J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo” as a historical feel-good play, the historical happy outcome of which didn’t last very long. It’s a process drama that depicts the secret (verbal) slug-out in 1993 between representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in a valiant effort to bring peace to the Middle East. The production created by TimeLine Theatre and co-produced by Broadway in Chicago is tightly wound and well acted, but it cannot escape the play’s strait-jacketed narrative or rise above the fact that none of this feels especially compelling a quarter-century on. ★★
Review: In early 1899, at the heady height of her dizzying fame, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt reopened a Paris theater she had acquired and renamed after herself. Almost immediately, this ever controversial star was upsetting norms again by playing the title role in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” That audacious gambit reimagined is the stuff of Theresa Rebeck’s plainly titled play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” now on semi-satisfying view at Goodman Theatre. ★★
Review: When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had sounded the last blazing notes of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony to end the first concert in a season-long traversal of the nine symphonies with music director Riccardo Muti, I found myself wondering: Where do we go from here? Onward, of course. But upward? In this most universally embracing and aspiring of musical forms, did Beethoven ever actually transcend the “Eroica,” mind you, his third symphony? What Muti and this virtuoso orchestra did with the monumental “Eroica,” on Sept. 26 at Orchestra Hall, was exhilarating to witness.
Review: Of the 10 plays that make up August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade by decade series of tableaux depicting the African American experience through the 20th century, “King Hedley II” may be the least familiar to theater audiences. But this grim, ultimately crushing drama is by no means the least potent. Witness Court Theatre’s knock-out production featuring a stellar cast under the wise direction of Ron OJ Parson. ★★★★★
This Just In: The following is a news release written by an arts organization, submitted to and edited by Chicago On the Aisle.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti has announced the appointment of Esteban …
Review: It’s the most improbable of buddy plays, David Seidler’s “The King’s Speech.” It just happens to be true, and its essential humanity is on captivating display in a masterful production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The most common of commoners, an obscure Australian speech therapist on an extended visit to London, is confronted by the most regal of royals: the soon to be crowned George VI of England, who suffers from a lifelong stutter and will find himself thrust into the roiling vortex of a world on the brink of war. ★★★★★
Seventh in a series of season previews: Ask Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell to sum up the company’s coming season, and he could begin with quite a list of projects, and he does – eventually. But at the top of Newell’s mind is the big, one might say really big, picture. “Artistically, financially, any way you might want to measure it,” he says, “this is the most ambitious season in Court’s history, and the riskiest.” The season opener is August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” with Kelvin Roston, Jr., in the title role.
Sixth in a series of season previews: With one world premiere looming up, only to be followed immediately by another, Northlight Theatre artistic director BJ Jones’ hands and plate and time are pretty well filled. But in the cracks he’s also planning ahead to 2021-22, when Northlight expects to relocate from Skokie to a brand-new building in Evanston. This season’s opener, Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid,” about that visionary girl Joan of Arc and her mom, runs through Oct. 20.
Fifth in a series of season previews: Sport meets dreams in multi-cultural America in a Steppenwolf Theatre season that bounces across continents and generations, sometimes in the same show. The lineup includes two world premieres. Or, as associate artistic director Leelai Demoz puts it, the Steppenwolf prospectus is dotted with “entry points” for self-discovery, self-realization and the painful embrace of hard truths.
Fourth in a series of season previews: It wasn’t exactly planned that way, says Goodman Theatre managing producer Adam Belcuore, but when all the pieces were in place for 2019-20, the company had settled on a season dominated by women and women’s issues. “Whether consciously or unconsciously, we arrived at a female-centric season,” says Belcuore. Goodman opens Sept. 16 with the world premiere of Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” essentially a one-woman play about the real-life abduction of his mother.
Report: Andrew Davis will step down as music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago at the end of the 2020-21 season, to be succeeded by Italian conductor Enrique Mazzola, the company announced on Sept. 12. Mazzola, principal guest conductor at Deutsche Oper Berlin, and until recently artistic and music director of the Orchestre National d’Île-de-France in Paris, made his Lyric debut in 2016 with Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” He returned in 2018 to lead Bellini’s “I Puritani.” He will conduct Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Lyric in October.
Review: It isn’t exactly a double-header, but it surely is a Wyn-Wyn for the Stratford Festival’s versatile star actor Geraint Wyn Davies. His delightful romps as Shakespeare’s roguish Sir John Falstaff in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and as Noel Coward’s do-over divorcee in “Private Lives” are reason enough to make the Ontario festival trek from just about any distance. ★★★★/★★★★
Third in a series of season previews: “Diversity is what makes this country unique,” says Victory Gardens Theatre artistic director Chay Yew. “As Americans, we inherit all American histories. Our coming season is about our diversity – the differences that represent our totality.” The season opens with Janet Ulrich Brooks playing a personal advice columnist in an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s book “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
Second in a series of season previews: Sandy Shinner, in her sixth season as artistic director of Shattered Globe Theatre, describes a common thread running through the company’s new season of three plays as “seeing the world in a new way.” One’s personal world, she means, of course: “You think you know where you stand, then something happens and you have to recalibrate.” Shattered Globe opens with Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Be Here Now,” an edgy comedy about a confirmed nihilist whose peculiar crisis is finding happiness.
Review: Before the scripted play begins in the Shaw Festival’s searing production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the actor who will play the trapped, desperately yearning Tom Wingfield performs magic tricks for the audience. Wearing a knitted cap, he looks like a street person. Maybe we aren’t looking at a prelude at all; perhaps this is the epilogue – the fate of an aspiring poet who ultimately flees from his dead-end life as sole provider for his domineering, erstwhile Southern belle of a mother and his crippled, withdrawn, psychologically damaged sister. ★★★★★
Review: The woods are as menacing as ever, but the production of “Into the Woods,” the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical fairy tale currently running at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, is utterly luminous. Sondheim and Lapine pulled off a miracle with their 1986 show, deftly exploring the deep philosophical and moral questions lurking below the surface of a seemingly frothy mashup of fairy tales featuring, among others, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and a wily witch. ★★★★★
First in a series of season previews: Contemplating the diverse and intriguing 2019-20 series of plays underway at Writers Theatre Artistic director Michael Halberstam sums up the challenge of programming and its progression from year to year. “I’d like to think we learn something every season,” he offers with unembroidered simplicity. “We want to be in tune with the times, to reflect the moment – to present a genuinely diverse season.”
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★
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. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★
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” ★★
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. ★★★
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. ★★
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.