By Julian Frazin
Michael Best & Friedrich • Entertainment Critic
May it please the court &heelip;
When theatergoers observe that "They sure don't make musicals likethey used to," they are probably thinking of such grand old productions like "Oklahoma!," "The Sound of Music," "Funny Girl" and "Guys and Dolls," all of which had great songs, great dancing, and solid story lines.
What they neglect to mention is that before the emergence of these classics, there were musicals of an equally popular but entirely different variety. These were written with a minimal plot, a couple of Tin Pan Alley tunes, and a number of vaudeville skits, as showcases for prominent entertainers such as the zany trio known as the Marx Brothers.
Chicago audiences at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., were recently treated to director Henry Wishcamper's adapted version of "Animal Crackers," George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's uproarious Marx Brothers comedy, which originated on Broadway in 1928 with music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. This production starred Joey Slotnick in a right-on impersonation of Groucho Marx portraying Captain Spaulding, complete with a loping walk, raised eyebrows, a cigar, and ridiculous comments like, "Last night, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I'll never know!"
Jonathan Brody was equally impressive as Chico in his role as Emanuel Ravelli, with several brilliant stints at the piano. Molly Brennan needed all her clowning skills and experience for the role of Harpo in the part of the professor. Although Brennan does not play the harp, she managed to carry off Harpo's signature piece by playing on an improvised set of strings.
While the show lacks any semblance of a story, it is filled with madcap, burlesque comedy, dance, song and laughs, providing a fun evening and making one long for the days "when they made musicals like they used to."
Tucked away in the rear of the building at 1531 N. Wells St. is A Red Orchid Theatre, a gem of an intimate, 80-seat theater with productions that consistently pack a wallop. Its recent world premiere of Craig Wright's "Mistakes Were Made," a virtual one-man play starring Academy Award nominee ("Revolutionary Road") and renowned veteran actor Michael Shannon was no exception. Its title does not reference the last Iraq war, but rather is the title of a play that Broadway producer, Felix Artifex, is trying to bring to New York.
Shannon is magnificent as the beleaguered Artifex on the phone in his tiny office, trying to balance the demands of a big-name actor who insists on major script changes and the playwright who is adamant in his refusal to make any, while trying to placate his backer and assure him there is no problem. With all of the compromises he must make we witness not only the destruction of the play, but also Artifex's complete disintegration. It is a masterful performance.
"Richard III," at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, is not a one-man play, but with the dynamic title role portrayal by Wallace Acton, of what is conceivably the most fiendish character in all of English drama, it very well might have been. In his quest to become king of England, the misshapen Richard is a most cruel, vicious, conniving, despicable, but charming fellow. Every time Acton makes his entrance, even when he is off to the side, just observing the others, you can't keep your eyes off of him. The stage comes alive with his presence as he dominates each scene.
For more than 40 years, a fossil skull discovered in 1912 in Piltdown, England was considered to be the "missing link" between man and ape. That is, until 1953 when a scientific analysis determined it to be a hoax. Since that time, a controversy has swirled as to who would perpetrate the scheme.
Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Eric Simonson, as both director and writer of "Fake," has taken on the mystery and attempts to solve it in a typical Sherlock Holmes fashion. He has the famous writer (Francis Guinan) gather all "the usual suspects"- Charles Dawson (Larry Yando), Arthur Smith Woodward (Alan Wilder), and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Coburn Goss) into his massive, impressive study. He confronts all three with his suspicions, hoping to exact a confession. But all three angrily deny any culpability, and journalist Rebecca Eastman (Kate Arrington) must use her own power of deduction.
The plot gets convoluted when it moves in and out of a parallel story of romance and deception. Unfortunately, the constant changes of costumes and settings cause the production to drag unnecessarily.
I rest my case.
"Animal Crackers" — 3 Gavels
"Mistakes Were Made" — 4 Gavels
"Richard III" — 3½ Gavels
"Fake" — 3 Gavels