New World Stages

Heathers, with book, music and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Lawrence O’Keefe, based on Daniel Waters’ film and snappily directed by Andy Fickman, is a musical that could bring hordes of young people to live theater. It’s a brash, bold, irreverent take on high school kids and has the flavor of terrible teenage conflict, sprinkled with death, that brings cheers from the audience.

Richmond Shepard
Rite of Seymour
Son of Semele Theater

In Franz Kafka's story, “Metamorphosis,” the hero Gregor wakes up to find he has been turned into a giant cockroach. In Allison Volk's new play, the hero Seymour is turned into a hapless chimpanzee. But where “Metamorphosis” is a tragedy, since Gregor remains trapped by his insect fate, Rite of Seymourgoes for absurdist comedy.

Willard Manus
Ain't Misbehavin'
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Stackner Cabaret

One of the surest ways to chase the winter blues that seem endless in Milwaukee, Ain’t Misbehavin' is a welcome addition to the theater season at Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s intimate Stackner Cabaret. The multi-level venue seems ideal for tunes associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Tables of varying sizes create a nightclub atmosphere, and the theater’s interior conveys a sense of times gone by with its original, pock-marked tiled walls. The music in Ain’t Misbehavin’ is vibrant and swingy, sometimes hilarious and sometimes quiet, sad and lonely.

Anne Siegel
Freud's Last Session
Florida Studio Theater - Keating

Is it a drama or a debate? In conflict regarding the existence of God, Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis engage in both. It’s 1939. Hitler’s planes are flying to bomb London. Freud, facing death from oral cancer and thinking Lewis will succeed him as intellectual giant and influence, invites him to change his mind.

Marie J. Kilker
All the Way
Neil Simon Theater

Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, now on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theater, tells of Lyndon Johnson’s fight, in his first year in office, to get America’s first civil rights bill through congress. The play boasts a large, excellent cast, many of them familiar on Broadway, including Michael McKean as Hoover, John McMartin as Senator Richard Russell, and Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King, and a flexible cast playing multiple roles (congresspeople, Washington officials, black activists).

Grapes of Wrath, The
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

As if sounding the Book of Revelation’s warning of the Lord’s wrath to come upon the wicked through their destruction of the earth, Asolo Rep’s version of Frank Galati’s theatrical adaptation of John Steinbeck “The Grapes of Wrath” begins with sounds of crash and destruction. Twenty-eight actors and musicians under faded opening light face us to render life as it involves their characters in 1938.

Marie J. Kilker
Ruskin Group Theater

Edward Dahlberg's aphorism, "what man's head would do is always defeated by his scrotum," pretty much sums up the theme of Talhotblond, the play by Kathrine (sic) Bates which is now running at the Ruskin Group Theater. A world premiere, the play is based on Barbara Schroder's documentary film about a man whose cyber-sex infatuation not only dominated his life but destroyed it.

Willard Manus
You Made Me Love You
Historic Asolo Theater

Before a shimmering silver curtain, sometimes changing to deep blue or purple or rose colors via lighting, Jennifer Sheehan shines in praising and vocalizing selections from The Great American Songbook. She’s backed in these by the formal, first-rate James Followell, very much at home at the Steinway.

Marie J. Kilker
Less Than Kind
Theater Three

Less Than Kind, the 1944 Terence Rattigan play, opened its American premiere on March 10, 2014 at Theater Three in Dallas, Texas. It could as easily have been titled “Hamlet Lite.” The play's title is borrowed from a line in Hamlet,and the plot is derived from that play, as well. However, the back story is actually more interesting than the play itself. While it was a hit in wartime England, the script has gotten waterlogged crossing the pond in 2014.

Rita Faye Smith
Hydrogen Jukebox
Broadway Theater Center - Cabot Theater

Milwaukee’s venerable Skylight Music Theater has taken a bold new direction under the leadership of Skylight artistic director Viswa Subbaraman. It is almost inconceivable that a theater company which broke box-office records two years ago with The Sound of Music is now staging an avant-garde work that is neither a musical nor an opera. Instead, audiences at Hydrogen Jukeboxare ushered into a strange – sometimes bizarre – environment, as conceived by the late poet Allen Ginsberg and composer Phillip Glass.

Anne Siegel
Middle of the Night
Clurman Theater

Paddy Chayefsky was a premier name in live dramas during the Golden Age of Television with "kitchen sink" stories told in urban, colloquial language about everyday New Yorkers. Some became films – “Marty,” “The Bachelor Party,” “The Catered Affair” and “Middle of the Night” and, in the 1970's, turning more satirical, Chayefsky wrote “Network” and “The Hospital.” Middle of the Night and The Tenth Man were also successful Broadway plays, and A Catered Affairbecame a Broadway musical. What made Paddy Chayefsky so popular?

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Ahmanson Theater

First produced at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, then revived last year at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, the Barry Manilow musical, Harmony has been fighting the good fight in its quest to make it to Broadway. Its latest stop on the showbiz trail is the Ahmanson Theater, whose associate artistic director Neel Keller had worked on Harmonywhen he was with La Jolla Playhouse.

Willard Manus
Geffen Playhouse - Skirball Kenis Theater

Slowgirl,Greg Pierce's quirky drama about two wounded souls confronting each other -- and their demons -- in the Costa Rican jungle, comes to the Geffen after a successful run at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. Because the director (Randall Arney) and the actors (William Peterson and Rae Gray) worked together on the play in Chicago, the L.A. production is uncommonly polished and assured.

Willard Manus
Red Dress, The
Lincoln Center - David H. Koch Theater

The Red Dress, performed by China Ningbo Performance & Arts Group in their first foray out of China, is a visual feast as the principals and the chorus of graceful, lyrical dancers present a flowing visual panorama in this tale of love found, love lost, and guess what? Surprisingly, the physical techniques performed are mostly ballet and modern-dance based, and the leading man, Zeng Ming reminds me of Baryshnikov with his great leaps and twirls.

Richmond Shepard
Finishing School
Bath House Cultural Center

One-Thirty Productions, Dallas' only all-matinee theater, opened Dallas critic/playwright Elaine Liner's comedy, Finishing School,a very funny satire/spoof on old-age. Set on a park bench in the garden of an assisted-living facility, the play depicts the relationship between Wizzer, an old codger of 92, and 71 year-old Alfred.

Rita Faye Smith
Stranded on Earth
Geva Theater - Nextstage

Probably the chief significance of Stranded on Earth is that Eric Coble says he wrote it to fill in the gap between his somewhat successful play, A Girl’s Guide to Coffee about a bright, lively girl called Alex, and his The Velocity of Autumn, about Alexandra at 80, facing the loss of her home and family and life. Autumn was much praised at its premiere at Arena Stage in D.C. in September, and it will open on Broadway next month with its prestigious original cast of Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella.

Herbert M. Simpson
Art of Acting Studio

Lebensraumis a what-if play. Written by Israel Horovitz, the drama is built on this hypothesis: what if the present German government, to make amends for that country's Nazi past, invited six million Jews to come live in Germany with a promise of citizenship and full benefits. Moral, historical and emotional upheavals follow. Some Jews are horrified and outraged by the invitation; how dare the Germans think they can make amends for the Holocaust with this obvious public-relations stunt?

Willard Manus
Carole J. Bufford
54 Below

54 Below has two stars in Speak Easy: the millennium's new-fashioned flapper, Carole J. Bufford, and Vince Giordano's red hot Nighthawks. Light their fire with some rhythm, and you've got dynamite.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

Today we have flash mobs and flash drives, but in 1983 we had “Flashdance,” a blockbuster film starring Jennifer Beals as a young welder who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. The film’s pulsing score and tight editing made it an exciting ride, and we cared about the fate of the adorable Beals. Although the storyline remains the same, the energy that dazzled us in the film is in short supply onstage. The flaws in Flashdanceare so numerable that one cannot imagine this musical transferring to Broadway, as it is supposed to do in December (as of this writing).

Anne Siegel
Character Man
Urban Stages

Give My Regards to . . . Broadway's character actors who were the solid anchors of classic musicals although their names may be just on the tip-of-your-tongue. Writer and performer Jim Brochu describes himself as a Character Man, defined as a leading or supporting cast member who also displays unusual characteristics or peculiarities. "And that’s me," says Brochu, "I’m peculiar."

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Iliad, An
Quadracci Powerhouse Theater

Swords and words clash, and armor clatters, in a vibrant retelling of a famous ancient story. An Iliad, produced by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, launches headfirst into Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad.” In the hands of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, what transpires is a severely condensed version of the epic poem.

This version is told by a 3,000-year-old storyteller. For some reason, he is instructed (perhaps by Greek gods) to re-tell the tale over and over until mankind gets the hint that war isn’t the answer – for anything.

Anne Siegel
Bridges of Madison County, The
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater

Maybe what theatergoers need now is a good love story, not a 20-somethings' romance, not a sodden metaphysical foray into the psychological twists of love, but a believable slice-of-life about grown-ups, with a romantic score that sweeps you into the story. Something like The Bridges of Madison County-- passionate, melodic and two lovers you have to root for.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Searching for David's Heart
Concordia University - Todd Wehr Auditorium

Milwaukee’s Acacia Theater, now celebrating its 30th season, does a fine job conveying the thoughts and emotions of a pre-teenage girl who must come to terms with her brother’s sudden death. In Searching for David’s Heart,accomplished playwright Cherie Bennett tells a fairly complex story that unearths a lot of hard realities pre-teens face today.

Anne Siegel
Fifty Shades!
Kirk Douglas Theater

On the day 50 Shades! The Musicalopened in L.A., news came through that E.L. James' erotic novel had just reached the 100 million worldwide sales mark.

Willard Manus
50 Shades

(see review(s) under Fifty Shades)

Riding the Midnight Express
St. Luke's Theater

Billy Hayes had a life-changing adventure many years ago: after three times successfully smuggling hashish out of Turkey to sell in the U.S., he was caught on the fourth try, spent five years in a Turkish prison, and escaped. He wrote about it in his book "Midnight Express," which was made into a hit movie.

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

The Wallis Theater continues to bring first-class productions to its Children’s Theater program. Whiteis a case in point. Devised by the Scottish-based Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, the show invites children to enter a world which is all in white and belongs to two friends, Cotton (Andy Manley) and Wrinkle (Ian Cameron). They diligently tend a grove of birdhouses where everything, including clothing, tents, brushes and combs, is ordered and white, taking care to destroy anything that shows the slightest bit of color.

Mavis Manus
October, Before I was Born
Broadway Theater Center - Studio Theater

How do people react in times of crisis? Does it bring out the best in them, or the worst? According to October, Before I Was Born, it may bring out a bit of both.

Anne Siegel
Broadway By the Year
Town Hall

How do you present 100 years of Broadway with 100 Shows, 100 Songs, and 100 Stars? Just start with a showman and end with a show-stopper.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Naked in Alaska

As a long time reviewer, every once in a while I come across a spectacular performer who has the range and versatility of a Lily Tomlin or Whoopi Goldberg. Someone who can snap from character to character with contrasting voices, physicality, age and emotions.

Richmond Shepard
Steady Rain, A
Odyssey Theater

Carl Sandburg called Chicago the "city of the Big Shoulders." In Chicago playwright Keith Huff's A Steady Rain, those shoulders are not only big but splattered with blood, rain and bile.

Willard Manus
Brief Encounter
Annenberg Center - Brian Goldsmith Theater

Brief Encounter is a lot more than just a stage adaptation of David Lean's famous film. Although it does contain several scenes from the film, it is mostly a highly original -- and devilishly clever -- takeoff on it. Combining snippets from Noel Coward's screenplay, bits and pieces of his source material (Still Life), songs, dances, vaudeville shticks and even puppetry, this is a Brief Encounteryou've never encountered before.

Willard Manus
Too Darn Hot
Florida Studio Theater

The title, “Too Darn Hot,” seems to promise songs that sizzle by way of Cole Porter’s lyrics or breakthrough musical compositions in swing and jazz. The developers, Richard Hopkins, Jim Prosser and Rebecca Hopkins, mostly keep that promise. Focusing on Porter’s accomplishments with few spoken comments, the creators attempt to mimic his sophistication via two couples, one black and one white, in designer suits and colorful gowns accented by jeweled shine.

Marie J. Kilker
How I Learned to Drive
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Cook Theater

An awful subject gets an awfully good and perceptive treatment by playwright Paula Vogel and FSU/Asolo Conservatory actors under the awe-inspiring direction of Jess Jou. They find light in the dark corners of heroine Li’l’ Bit’s memory of her driving “lessons” learned from her loved, and later almost-loathed, Uncle Peck.

Marie J. Kilker
Bridges of Madison County, The
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater

The Bridges of Madison County, book by Marsha Norman based on the novel by Robert James Waller, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, is musical theater at its best: innovative in staging by Bartlett Sher and beautiful, magical, dynamic scenic design by Michael Yeargan.

Richmond Shepard
Love, Noel
Lovelace Studio Theater

Love, Noelis a gem of a show, one that's lit from within by the radiance of Noel Coward's wit and wisdom. Devised by Barry Day, the editor of Coward's collected letters, and directed by Jeanie Hackett, the show stars the actor/singers John Glover and Judy Kuhn. These polished performers, working in a cabaret setting and backed by David O on piano, pay tribute to Coward's life, beginning with his days as a child actor and culminating seven decades later with his death in 1973.

Willard Manus
Out of Bounds
Florida Studio Theater - Bowne's Lab

FST Improv is celebrating its new campus home in Bowne’s Lab, built especially for improvisation and other creative experiments, with a program of tried-and-truly loved sketch games and techniques.

Before the show starts, audiences are asked to write famous quotations from films or TV to be possibly used in the first act. The initial improv develops a new musical based on something in a garage. Steve, Christine, and Patrick presented the show “Lawnmower,” using only one word each at a time. Nathaniel punctuated each line on the piano.

Marie J. Kilker
Sordid Lives
The Players

In his program note, the artistic director says he needs for The Players “to be the place for EVERYONE (sic)... Sometimes that means taking a chance, and Sordid Livesis it!” Nice try. Not so nice outcome. Warning: the play is a campy cult relic from a decade ago. It concerns an extended family reunion to be at wake and funeral of matriarch Mama. She died in a motel tripping over the wooden leg of her younger lover.

Marie J. Kilker
The Whipping Man
Pico Playhouse

The Whipping Man, the award-winning play by Matthew Lopez (a staff writer on HBO's “The Newsroom”), looks at the Civil War and slavery from an unexpected Jewish angle. Set in Richmond, VA, in 1865, the story focuses on three characters: Caleb DeLeon (Shawn Savage), the scion of a Jewish-Confederate family; Simon (Ricco Ross) and John (Kirk Kelleykahn), two yarmulkeh-wearing former slaves on the DeLeon plantation. Yes, that's right: yamolkehs. History does confirm that some slaves were converted to Judaism by their southern masters.

Willard Manus
Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

After a now-widely known misstep presenting Philadelphia, Here I Come!as an adaptation, Asolo Rep and director Frank Galati bring Brian Friel’s script to the stage in its true, superior form. It’s still the story of Gar O’Donnell and his conflict over emigrating to America. Things come to a head in the last 24 hours before he’s to leave family and friends in Ballybeg, Donegal. (I don’t know the reason for the attempted “streamlined” version, but it missed why he’s bound for Philadelphia and why now.

Marie J. Kilker