Critics' theater picks: 'Dance for Life' and Babes with Blades' 'The Double'

August 18, 2011

Laura Molzahn

Homegrown bharata natyam dancer Anjal Chande takes a sharp left turn out of ancient India in “Joining Hands,” a collaboration with indo-jazz music group the Aakash Mittal Quartet. Chande—who trained in Chicago’s western ‘burbs with Natya Dance Theatre’s Hema Rajagopalan, then studied in India—isn’t the first to want to give bharata natyam a broader base by combining it with American forms. But this concert Friday through Sunday at the Vittum Theatre sounds promising, especially the music/dance duel based on a classical musical form called the jugalbandi (literally:“entwined twins”).

Dance for Life is almost old enough to drink! Legally, that is. The annual benefit performance raising money for HIV/AIDS care, prevention, and education turns 20 on Saturday. And a muscular 20 it is: founder Keith Elliott’s baby—which first sold out at the Organic in 1991—has gotten so big it’s being staged at the Auditorium this year, with tickets available at the door as well as in advance. The troupes performing are the Joffrey, Ron De Jesus Dance, the Giordano company, Hubbard Street, and River North. Independent choreographers and long-time DFL associates Harrison McEldowney and Randy Duncan each contributes a world premiere. 

 

Jonathan Abarbanel

The Student Prince looks and sounds like a Viennese operetta but isn't: the 1924 show actually was written for Broadway where it became the longest-running musical of the decade. Still, the huge hit by Sigmund Romberg is pure Viennese pastry filled with luscious melodies such as "Deep in My Heart," "Drink, Drink, Drink!" and "Overhead the Moon is Beaming." Count on Light Opera Works to serve up The Student Prince mit schlag and suitable musical glory with a full orchestra. At Cahn Auditorium (Evanston) through August 28.

Barbara Lhota's new play, The Double, takes us backstage at Broadway's Belasco Theatre in the 1940's, where Minnie is appearing in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, and gets into trouble she only can get out of with sword play and unarmed combat. Hey, this show-within-a-show must be another world premiere from Babes With Blades, Chicago's unique female stage combat troupe. The Double, which merges screwball comedy with swashbuckling, continues at the Lincoln Square Theatre through Sept. 20.

 

Kelly Kleiman

Only one pick this week, but it's a doozy: Sweeney Todd at the Drury Lane Oakbrook.  Run, fly, rent an I-goor a go-cart if you have to, but get to this astonishing rendition of Stephen Sondheim's horror musical about the joys and perils of baking human beings into pies.  (I have my own list . . . )  Under the flawless direction of Rachel Rockwell, Chicagoan-manque Gregg Edelman returns from 20 years of Broadway success to play the part for which he was born.  Edelman's Sweeney suggests Alan Rickman with a bad haircut (which is to say, Alan Rickman): malevolent, terrifying and yet somehow irresistible.  Music director Roberta Duchak has cast and coached what is literally the strongest chorus I've ever heard, and any praise of individual performances turns quickly into a roll-call: Liz McCartney's Mrs. Lovett, who wrings every drop of comedy and pathos out of her role without once compromising her powerful vocal address of the part; Chicago veteran Kevin Gudahl as Judge Turpin, seeming all the more vile for being understatedly so, and harmonizing with apparent ease on "Pretty Women" while seated with head thrown back, a position nearly impossible for a singer; George Keating, another familiar face, whose mountebank Pirelli contains two parodies simultaneously--of Italian opera and Italian commedia.  And as Toby, Pirelli's boy who becomes Mrs. Lovett's acolyte and protector, Jonah Rawitz sings like a street angel and acts like a street urchin and is the furthest thing possible from the stereotyped "child performer," though he'd be hard-pressed to be older than 13.   

I've seen Sweeney Todd many times, including at its opening on Broadway (don't you hate critics who say that?) with Angela Lansbury and the horribly miscast Len Cariou.  Rockwell's production, which she also choreographed, is the best by far--original enough to revive jaded palates, while also completely true to the text for the benefit of purists and first-timers.  It doesn't miss a trick, from a set that bleeds whenever Sweeney kills someone to the inventive use of screens and shadows to suggest variously the "city on fire," the death of Sweeney's clients and the terror of being trapped in Bedlam.  (Kudos to set designer Kevin Depinet and lighting designer Jesse Klug.)  And Duchak has gotten the most out of a score whose difficulty sometimes slops over into atonality, but never fails to be interesting.

As I say, once you start itemizing outstanding contributors to this thrilling evening, it's nearly impossible to stop.  Suffice it to say that the station ovation it received could not have been better-deserved.  See. This. Show.