Working for the Weekend: Critics picks

April 7, 2011

Let's try something new, shall we? Onstage/Backstage will give you our picks for weekend performances. Look for this new weekly feature every Thursday. Below are picks from all three of our writers (Kleiman, Molzahn and Abarbanel).

Kelly Kleiman

Tonight I'm going to see Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" up in Highland Park. I know nothing about The Music Theatre Company, the group doing it, but "Merrily" is one of those musicals that keeps ripening, and every re-viewing of it presents a different side. The music is excellent even for those of us who don't think every dissonant note Sondheim has ever written is an act of genius; the romance is heartbreaking; and the told-in-reverse-chronological-order structure continues to intrigue. At the Karchar Center on Green Bay Road in Highland Park, through May 1.

Closer to home (for city dwellers, at least) is Steppenwolf's remount of Lanford Wilson's 1973 play "Hot L Baltimore", about the inhabitants of a soon-to-be demolished flophouse. Sort of a reverse "Grand Hotel," where people don't come and go and yet everything happens, the play manages to be of epic proportions and yet offer masterly miniature portraits of the individuals who live, work or simply wait in the hotel's lobby. Tina Landau's production isn't quite as focused as I'd like--the sweep often overwhelms the gem-like smaller moments--but when nearly every member of the cast is perfect that's to a director's credit. That's the case here, with particular kudos to Alana Arenas as a con-woman desperate to rescue her disabled brother and Jacqueline Williams as a mother desperate to rescue her alcoholic son.

Laura Molzahn

Ballet on the cheap: And it’s good stuff. Get in on the ground floor with six-year-old Elements Contemporary Ballet, specializing in highly musical neoclassical dance in the George Balanchine line. It’s abstract, yes, but never without feeling in the hands of artistic director Mike Gosney. I can’t say the dancers are Joffrey-caliber, but they’re strong, flexible, and expressive in Gosney’s demanding choreography. All four pieces on the program are his. One night only, Saturday, at the Athenaeum Theatre; just $20-$25. 

Ever feel you’ve been self-helped to death? Atalee Judy of BONEdanse, formerly Breakbone DanceCo., channels vintage self-help records (yes, records) and instruction manuals in a text-heavy piece called “This Is a Damage Manual,” part of Chicago Moving Company’s Dance Shelter program tonight and tomorrow night only. Other artists: mercurial choreographer/dancer Ayako Kato, impish Rachel Bunting, legendary dancer Bob Eisen, Barry Bennett’s Impending Behavior Orchestra, and “world-man” band Stone.

Jonathan Abarbanel

Next week (April 12 to be precise) marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War (1861-1865), a seminal clash from which we still feel repercussions. City Lit Theatre Company in Edgewater will mark the span of the war by producing one Civil War drama each year through 2015. They begin with "The Copperhead," set during the Civil War, and 40 years later, how the conflict affected the lives of one Illinois family. The play was written in 1918 by Augustus Thomas, a major playwright of the day, now forgotten. Let's hope City Lit is discovering long-lost gold. "The Copperhead" runs April 8-May 15.

Also, this is your last weekend to squeeze into the backroom at Books-on-Vernon in Glencoe (if you can get a ticket) and see one of the most sparkling comedy events brought forth by any Chicago theater in years, "Travels with My Aunt," adapted from Graham Greene's witty and sardonic novel and presented by Writers' Theatre. All the characters are played by four men whose dazzling timing couldn't be better. At various times, each of them plays the Aunt.