School of Rock
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

The School of Rock is making a noisy debut in Milwaukee. The musical’s first national tour arrives on the heels of a relatively brief stay in Chicago (a town where some musicals settle in literally for years). This means Milwaukee had an opportunity to see first-rate performers, many with Broadway and West End credits. Too bad the sound system went so haywire on opening night (more on this later).

Anne Siegel
Chasing Mem'ries
Gil Cates Theater

Tyne Daly stars in Chasing Mem’ries, a tear-jerking mock-musical now in a world premiere run at the Geffen, written and directed by Josh (Wishful Drinking) Ravetch. Daly plays Victoria, a salty, irreverent woman who, after 57 years of marriage, is trying to cope with her beloved husband Franklin’s death,

Willard Manus
Dream Freaks Fall from Space
Second City

Parochialism always makes for easy humor. Fixed social divisions (like those found in Shakespeare's England) permit the gentry—in the company of their peers—to jeer at commoners, who then affirm their own camaraderie by mocking the higher-ups, while in our democracy, city and country dwellers delight in ridiculing each other.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Wedding Band
The Artistic Home

The year of our story's setting is 1918, in a sleepy small town on the coast of South Carolina, where Miss Fannie Johnson serves as landlady to Mrs. Lula Green and adopted grown son Nelson, and to Miss Mattie and young daughter Teeta. The United States is at war—Nelson is enlisted in the army and Mattie's husband in the Merchant Marine; in their absence, the womenfolk are left to eke out a cottage-industry living.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Breath, Boom
Athenaeum

Once upon a time, there were four sisters — bound, not by birth, but by the sororal affiliations of York City's South Bronx.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Fade
Biograph

During the 1980s and '90s, it often seemed as if every playwright venturing west of Phoenix or south of Fresno eventually wrote a scathing diatribe of show business practices in California's motion-picture capital. Cautionary tales in this genre usually revolved around an idealistic young artist confronted by corporate philistines caring nothing for art and everything for money. Sometimes the newcomer's ethics remained steadfast, sometimes not, but never were we in doubt as to who were the good guys and who weren't.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Holmes and Watson
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Quadracci Powerhouse

Unlike those mysteries which focus on the exploits of famous detective Sherlock Holmes, Holmes and Watson switches things around a bit. In the US premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher’s new play, it is Dr. Watson who takes center stage for nearly the entire production. Holmes, you see, is presumed dead after a battle with his arch nemesis, Moriarty. Neither the loyal Watson nor the audience is aware of what happened at Reichenbach Falls. Who went over the brink? Was it Holmes, Moriarty, or both? Three years have elapsed, and neither man has been reliably identified.

Anne Siegel
Band's Visit, The
Ethel Barrymore Theater

I knew I had to attend the show. The American Theatre Critics Association’s mini-conference had splendid panels with this gorgeous musical’s creators and performers.
In my 4th row seat I saw the sold-out matinee and tried not to disturb with my fast-growing lung infection. Then I left Manhattan and flew home. The Broadway opening didn’t occur until five days later. My angry doctor didn’t let me get out of bed, but by then my writing about this haunting, heart-lifting artwork was important only to me.

Herbert M. Simpson
Evita
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

“Staging Our World”—Asolo Rep’s new project after five years of exploring the American Character—begins by focusing on Evita. Engaging a largely Latino main cast, Eva Peron’s story has a mixed emphasis on her personal and public persona, as well as her good and bad effects on Argentina and its people. Some is true; some invented. But for certain, everything narrative pales within the production’s colorful technical explosion.

Marie J. Kilker
Spamilton
Kirk Douglas Theater

Spamilton pokes more fun at Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, than it does at Hamilton itself. Leaving the politics and the American revolution out makes for somewhat toothless satire, but that’s pretty much Gerard Alessandrini’s specialty, as evidenced by his various Forbidden Broadway revues. Showbiz and personalities are his targets, his large and easy targets. That said, Spamilton is still pretty funny, though for me it wore out its welcome at about the one hour mark, owing to the sameness and shallowness of its rap lyrics.

Willard Manus
Junk
Lincoln Center - Vivian Beaumont Theater

Money, money, money, money. Junk brilliantly explores what happens when money becomes the entire focus of existence. Set in 1985, the story of the brokers who touted debt as being a source of wealth is totally relevant today. Cleverly, author Ayad Akhtar frames the piece with the journey of investigative reporter Judy Chen, played by the gorgeous Teresa Avia Lim. She’s gung ho to write a book exposing the financial crisis being perpetrated by sleazy market traders.

Michall Jeffers
Wake
City Garage

Director Frederique Michel and her husband, producer/designer Charles A. Duncombe, continue with their mission of presenting truly alternative theatre in L.A. Working out of their small space in Bergamot Station, they steadily and fearlessly mount works by 21st-century avant-garde playwrights, the latest being sci-fi specialist Gordon Dahlquist.

Willard Manus
Once
Florida Studio Theater - Gompertz

Once is a boy-meets-girl yet unusual love story set in Dublin, Ireland, to Irish and Czech music. It takes place mostly in a bar and areas not far away from it. With the exception of the Girl’s little girl, everyone in the musical replaces any usual orchestra by being a sort of self-directed band. Their rambunctious performing starts with welcoming audiences onstage to buy and enjoy a drink while they flit and play and sing before settling into theater seats for the drama.

Marie J. Kilker
Junk
Vivian Beaumont Theater

Unless you are a math whiz or a business major, you may be bewildered by the financial concepts that are the underpinnings of Junk, the new play at Lincoln Center by Pulitzer-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced). However, as the play unfolds, you will find yourself thoroughly engaged.

Elyse Trevers
Bobby Pin Girls, The
Chicago Mosaic School,

It's been said of mating customs in 21st-century North America that every emotional cripple eventually finds a crutch and vice-versa. Janey Bell's fable, The Bobby Pin Girls, recounts the pivotal night that two young women break free of exploitive symbiosis to emerge as individuals capable of making independent decisions. Oh, by the way—it's a screwball comedy.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Junk
Vivian Beaumont Theater

Junk, an electrifying and riveting epic tale about the machinations of finance, was inspired by Wall Street of 30 years ago. It has the relevancy of this morning's newsbreak.

November 2017
Band's Visit, The
Ethel Barrymore Theater

The Band’s Visit is the show I’m going to recommend to those who want to know what to see—the best production so far this season. It’s a combination of Once and Come From Away, yet it has a totally distinctive voice which is thoroughly enticing. This is a quiet show, a little show, which makes a big impact on the heart.

Michall Jeffers
Sister Act
Irving Theater

Deloris Van Cartier (Cherish Robinson) is an aspiring singer preparing to audition in her gangster boyfriend Curtis’s (Jamall Houston) Philadelphia disco when she walks in on him fatally shooting one of his gang members. She makes a hasty exit and reports it to the police. They put her in hiding prior to Curtis’s trial in the only place the police think she will never be found, a convent. With the co-operation of the Mother Superior (Susan Metzger) Deloris is introduced to the other nuns as Sister Mary Clarence.

Rita Faye Smith
Kaidan Project
Mori Stage Company

There’s good news and bad news about Kaidan Project, the site-specific extravaganza now premiering at Mori Storage Company in mid-city L.A. Built in 1927, the six-story structure has been turned into the setting for the retelling of an ancient Japanese ghost story. Two theater companies have collaborated on this unusual and highly imaginative project: the Asian-American East/West Players and the puppeteering Rogue Artists Ensemble, backed up by a slew of grants from various foundations and charities.

Willard Manus
His Greatness
Pride Arts Buena

It's true that Tennessee Williams was a writer-in-residence at Vancouver's University of British Columbia in the autumn of 1980, and that one of his plays was produced in that city at this time. It's also true that the author, whose early work is now enshrined among the classics of the 20th century, found his creative energies waning in his later years. From these facts, Canadian author Daniel MacIvor has forged a multidimensional portrait—part biographical fantasy, part homage and part contemplation—of an artist whose muse may have abandoned him.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Billy Elliot
Ruth Page Center for the Arts

Porchlight Music Theater's delight in its nifty new home at the Ruth Page Center is palpable—indeed, on view for everyone to share. For starters, it can now assemble a cast of 35 performers on the stage—at the same time, mind—for a singing-and-tapping curtain call. It can hoist its young hero on fly-wires for dream sequences. It can dazzle us with a soliloquy choreographed by both dance and fight instructors.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Billie Holiday
Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center

Sybil Harris sure knows her way around Billie Holiday’s music. The Phoenix native first portrayed Holiday in the touring musical, Sang Sista Sang. Now she is impersonating Holiday again in her solo show Billie Holiday, which just opened at Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in south-central L.A. Harris also wrote and executive-produced the show, which gives her a chance to sing some of Holiday’s greatest hits, among them “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Good Morning Heartache” and “Strange Fruit,” backed up by a terrific jazz quartet.

Willard Manus
Upstairs
Pride Arts Broadway

New Orleans tourism thrives on that city's legacy of necrophilic attractions, so why do the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the Upstairs Lounge in its antebellum French Quarter district remain a mystery nearly fifty years later? Is it because 1973 is too recent for the tale to be safely swaddled in romantic myth, or because the 32 men and women — many unidentified to this day — who perished in the arson-initiated fire were in an LGBT establishment?

Mary Shen Barnidge
Lysistrata Jones
Unity Lutheran Church

Scholarly playgoers scrambling to retrieve their SparksNotes will be relieved to learn that all that's left of Aristophanes’s much-tweaked comedy in this musical romp is the launching device of women initiating a moratorium on sex.

This adaptive conceit enables book author Douglas Carter Beane and composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn to bypass the difficulties of transposing the literary context from 411 B.C. to 2010. Protocol for making war may not have changed much over 25 centuries, but that for making love certainly has — sometimes as recently as yesterday.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Macbeth x 5
Odyssey Theater

Watching Macbeth x 5, Joel Asher’s abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s classic drama, I couldn’t help but wonder what The Bard would have made of the production. Would he have objected to the way Asher had cut his sprawling, complex story down to ninety minutes, ruthlessly shredding characters and poetry – in effect, trampling on his moral rights as author? Or, practical man of the theater that he was, would he have tipped his hat to Asher in acknowledgment that modern audiences don’t have the patience or concentration to sit through longish plays any longer?

Willard Manus
Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage
Venice Theater - Stage II

It’s a tribute to the dedication to text of director, cast, and tech crew that Venice Theater’s production of Jane Martin’s silly play isn’t vacated by audiences at intermission. In Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, guns don’t flame and nothing’s sage. It’s an overdone attempt to satirize pop Westerns, gory horror films, and the broad, barely believable characters who populate them. But it becomes itself a satirical target.

Marie J. Kilker
M. Butterfly
Cort Theater

At Broadway's Cort Theater, David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, an ambitious Tony-winner for Best Play in 1988, dramatizes life and the world by focusing on the conflicts of men versus women and the cultures of East versus West. Now in revival, text tweaks by Hwang and director Julie Taymor's unique theatricality have shifted the ambiance of the play.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Portuguese Kid, The
Manhattan Theater Club - Stage 1

Gather a cast of first-class actors, add some laughs, some romance and chances are, you have a pretty good play. Not a great play, not flawless, not wall-to-wall hilarious, but enough to send out the audience with a smile.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
M. Butterfly
Cort Theater

M. Butterfly is a chemistry lesson. There isn’t any between French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen) and Chinese Opera Star Song Liling (Jin Ha). And without it, the show just doesn’t work. Each performer involved is fine on his own; but look too closely, and it becomes obvious that Owen is too much the roughneck fellow off the docks to be sympathetic, and Ha is just plain too masculine. Though slight of stature, Ha has a strong face, projects little feminine charm, and walks like a guy. The fact that we first see him in male attire doesn’t help.

Michall Jeffers
Oedipus
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Cook Theater

Staged on a three-quarter round space, the drama of the flawed King of Thebes has the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s second-year class going mod with the greatest ancient Greek tragedy. The up-to-date wording of the translation and movie-like gates of Thebes’ palace attempt to claim the audience’s attention and make members an extension of the people of the place. It seems to work for some, but for others, it may seem like an old Dionysian Festival offering that’s required attendance.

Marie J. Kilker
Red Dress, The
Odyssey Theater

Playwright Tania Wisbar tells a personal story in The Red Dress, a play set in Germany circa 1924-1936. A visiting production at the Odyssey, the drama deals with her parents, who, as she discovered late in life, were forced into divorcing by the Nazis for ideological reasons.

Willard Manus
Imbible, The
New World Stages

How drunk to you have to get to enjoy The Imbible? Judging by the boisterous giggles coming from one particular corner of the room, whose denizens likely downed a few before even setting foot in New World Stages’s bar-cum-theater space, the answer is probably a boatload. For the rest of us, the promise of three watered-down (or, in one case, ginger-aled-down) beverages included in the ticket price of this lecture-with-music in no way compensates for the show’s amateurish and wildly unentertaining content.

David Lefkowitz
This One's for the Girls
St. Luke's Theater

Towards the end of This One’s For The Girls, Janet (Jana Robbins) gets a phone call from Jason, a guy she’s been crushing on. She hasn’t heard from him in a very long time, and when he asks to see her again, a woman in the audience yelled “Go for it, honey!” There was much laughter, and some applause. When Janet turns down his invitation with “I don’t think so,” the applause is thunderous. That audience dichotomy is a pretty good indicator of the feelings evoked by this little musical.

Michall Jeffers
This One's for the Girls
St. Luke's Theater

What songs make up the soundtrack of your life? Do the hits of the last century reflect the moods of the times and attitude towards women? That was the question writer Dorothy Marcic sought to answer in her book “Respect,” the basis for the new Off-Broadway show This One’s For The Girls. Marcic examined the Top 40 songs sung by women, determining that the music showed the change of women’s attitudes from co-dependency to independent.

Elyse Trevers
In the Heights
West Coast Black Theater Troupe

Westcoast Black Theater Troupe delves for the first time into the Afro-Carribean genre for a musical drama that hones in on a particular neighborhood in New York.  But its story is universal: group trying to keep identifying with its roots but aspiring to reach success in a new milieu and with a bigger multi-ethnic, multi-colored population.

Marie J. Kilker
Bright Star
Ahmanson Theater

On a night loud with fiddles and banjos, the bluegrass musical Bright Star dosey-doed its way into the Ahmanson Theater, charming the audience with its folksy good spirits.

First workshopped in New York in 2013, then premiered a year later at the Old Globe in San Diego, Bright Star made it to Broadway in 2016 for a brief run. Now a nifty road company is performing the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell show, with excellent results.

Willard Manus
Sex with Strangers
Studio Theater

There’s more than a few hilarious one-liners in Laura Eason’s timely play, Sex with Strangers However, like the soufflé it becomes, the play takes time to warm up. When it does, however, the heat is turned up to just the right temperature in this production by Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks. One could hardly imagine a better selection for this 25-year-old company, founded by a group of women and friends who wanted to see more women represented on both sides of the curtain.

Anne Siegel
Agitators, The
Geva Theater - Wilson Mainstage

In the 53 years since I began teaching in the Rochester, New York area I’ve seen a number of developing plays, books, TV studies, and whatnot about two local historic pioneers in American civil rights, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass; this is the best dramatic treatment thus far to deal with their achievements and close relationship.

Herbert M. Simpson
Feathers of Fire
Bram Goldsmith Theater

A worldwide hit, Feather of Fire, has made its first appearance at The Wallis in a 70-minute show that dazzles from beginning to end.

Conceived, designed and directed by the Iranian-born Hamid Rahmanian (a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow), Feathers of Fire uses shadow play, computer technology, and film techniques to animate sections of a thousand-year-old Persian text, “Shahnameh, The Epic of the Persian Kings.”

Willard Manus
Turn Me Loose
Lovelace Studio Theater

The Lovelace Studio Theater (at the Wallis) serves as a 1961 Playboy Club where the comic Dick Gregory is making one of his appearances. The actor Joe Morton channels Gregory in Turn Me Loose, a solo play which serves as a tribute to the famed performer and activist, who died only a few months ago.

Like Lenny Bruce (“the white Dick Gregory,” is one of Morton’s lines), Gregory came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, thanks to his blunt, unvarnished takes on sex, profanity and authority.

Willard Manus

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