Doo Wop Shoo Bop plays in repertory with Those Sensational Soulful 60s at Black Ensemble Theater. Credit: Danny Nicholas
<i>All the World's a Stage</i>, Quest Theatre's musical exploration of Shakespeare's seven ages of life
All the World’s a Stage, Quest Theatre’s musical exploration of Shakespeare’s seven ages of lifeCredit: Braxton Black

All the World’s a Stage Andrew Park’s original musical for Quest Theatre Ensemble takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s soliloquy breaking down the seven stages of life, and borrows from its cast’s real-life stories as examples. Scott Lamps’s music is too schlocky to resonate beyond pleasantness; I still left a blubbering mess—earnestly relayed life experiences about addiction, marriage, and loss cut through any of the softness. There’s a genuine feeling of compassion throughout, and any of these monologues would hold up to the best episodes of This American Life. —Dan Jakes

Doo Wop Shoo Bop The Black Ensemble celebrates the doo-wop era of African-American popular music with a slick, rousing revue of some 25 R&B hits of the 1940s and ’50s. Written by Jackie Taylor and Jimmy Tillman, the show—directed by Taylor—salutes such vocal groups as the Mills Brothers, the Chords, the Five Satins, the Shirelles, the Platters, the Chantelles, the El Dorados, the Flamingos, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. As is usually the case with Black Ensemble productions, the cast of dynamically talented singer-dancers is top-notch. Their renditions of such classic tunes as “Sh-Boom,” “Only You,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Crazy Little Mama,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” perfectly capture doo-wop’s distinctive mix of driving rhythm and cool, creamy close harmony. Tribute is also paid to solo artists such as Fats Domino (“I’m Walkin'”), Dinah Washington (“This Bitter Earth”), LaVern Baker (“Jim Dandy”), and the great Ruth Brown (“Please Send Me Someone to Love”). Taking particular care to honor artists who launched their careers in Chicago, the production also offers concise historical commentary on matters ranging from how the artists were cheated out of royalties and songwriting credits to the influence of doo-wop crossover hits on mainstream (i.e., white) pop culture. —Albert Williams

Tevion Lanier and Olivia Shine in <i>I & You</i>, coproduced by Jackalope Theatre and the Yard
Tevion Lanier and Olivia Shine in I & You, coproduced by Jackalope Theatre and the YardCredit: Courtesy the Frontier

I & You Hokey, clunky, tricksy, and contrived, Lauren Gunderson’s 2014 two-hander nevertheless possesses an (almost) saving sweetness—along with acting opportunities that are nicely exploited in this collaboration between the Yard and Jackalope Theatre Company. We find teenage Caroline in the bedroom to which, we’re told, she’s confined now due to a life-threatening liver disorder. In barges classmate Anthony, announcing that he’s been assigned to partner with her on an American lit class project: a presentation on the use of pronouns in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Naturally, they work up more than a presentation. Director Dana Murphy can’t finesse Gunderson’s sloppy progress toward a cheap, Twilight Zone-esque revelation. Still, Tevion Lanier’s ingratiating Anthony and Olivia Shine’s endearingly idiosyncratic Caroline combine with glimpses of the Good Gray Poet’s greatness to produce a gentle 90 minutes. —Tony Adler

Strawdog Theatre's <i>In a Word</i>, with Mary Winn Heider and Gabe Franken
Strawdog Theatre’s In a Word, with Mary Winn Heider and Gabe FrankenCredit: Tom McGrath

In a Word In one inattentive moment, Fiona’s seven-year-old was abducted. Now, two years later, she’s barricaded herself behind grief, guilt and denial, leaving her long-suffering husband, Guy, to wonder whether adultery might be his surest route to emotional healing. It’s a promising setup, but playwright Lauren Yee never moves beyond her premise. Instead she devotes 85 minutes of fractured, at times hallucinogenic scenes to filling in Fiona’s backstory with little dramatic purpose beyond justifying Fiona’s psychological state (as if losing a child doesn’t explain enough). In lieu of drama, Yee embellishes stasis with incessant, overwrought poetic flourishes. There’s no shortage of pathos in director Jess McLeod’s sure-footed production for Strawdog Theatre, although Mary Winn Heider’s Fiona is so tightly wound she’s often exhausting to listen to. —Justin Hayford

Rebecca Sohn as Shirley Lame (and that's la-MAY) in <i>My Solo Show of All Duets</i> at the Annoyance
Rebecca Sohn as Shirley Lame (and that’s la-MAY) in My Solo Show of All Duets at the AnnoyanceCredit: Jerry Schulman

My Solo Show of All Duets What makes this show so delightful? Not just the repertory of Broadway staples, which we hear sawed in half for these hilariously maimed solo renditions. Not just the deadpan of accompanist T.J. Shanoff, who brings the house down wordlessly from the bench many times, fingers flying. Not just the whole conceit of having a one-woman show of duets. It’s all that—but who can explain the incredible clowning of Shirley Lame (pronounced la-MAY, natch), her complete grasp of the audience, her instant shifts from showbiz glitz back into the heavyhearted pathos of a dream somewhat past its prime? It’s all so wonderful, such a trip. As Shirley reminds you between songs, she is a star. Don’t worry if you haven’t brought flowers to throw, she has extra. It’s a pity this show runs just once a week. —Max Maller

Genesis Theatricals' <i>Muse of Fire</i>
Genesis Theatricals’ Muse of FireCredit: Ron Goldman

Muse of Fire This play from Genesis Theatricals begins with a dim tableau of men sitting silently, their heads shaved. They wear pinstripes and, on the left side of their chests, a yellow star. We know exactly where we are: Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. The play attempts to be about laughter in the face of persecution, just one of many tactics artists, playwrights, and filmmakers have used in recent years to confront the enormity of Jewish suffering in the modern era. In the end, many if not most of us feel that memorializing the Holocaust is essential for our collective good. At the same time, we have a hard time laughing, or taking any pleasure at all, during these educational journeys into the depths of hell—it almost feels indecent. Young playwright Jake Rosenberg has tapped into the familiar ambiguities regarding art that chooses to take on the Shoah. I didn’t enjoy it, but perhaps I wasn’t supposed to. —Max Maller

<i>Rock Baby Rock</i>, a post-<i>Million Dollar Quartet</i> fix at the Hard Rock Cafe
Rock Baby Rock, a post-Million Dollar Quartet fix at the Hard Rock CafeCredit: Courtesy Rock Baby Rock

Rock Baby Rock This live dinner show is a groovy cure for your Million Dollar Quartet closing blues. Former cast member Lance Lipinsky—Jerry Lee Lewis in the long-running Chicago staple—takes center stage, leading a retrospective concert featuring hits from the 50s and 60s, the “golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.” Songs like “Great Balls of Fire” are crowd-pleasers, but Lipinsky offers a much more broad and nuanced performance with his band the Lovers and backup singers the Lovettes. Interstitial bits on the history of Chicago’s “record row” add some locational interest, along with nods to relevant memorabilia around the Hard Rock Cafe itself, but music is what matters here, and the cast deftly builds momentum, moving from the big-band era all the way to the British Invasion. On the night I attended several audience members even got up to dance. —Marissa Oberlander

Neil LaBute's <i>The Shape of Things</i> at Eclectic Full Contact
Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things at Eclectic Full ContactCredit: Courtesy Eclectic Full Contact Theatre

The Shape of Things In Neil LaBute’s cruel and cunning take on Pygmalion, grad student Evelyn makes over dorky Adam as an art project, all the while letting him believe she’s falling for him. Director Katherine Siegel updates LaBute’s 2001 script for the Snapchat age in her staging for Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, which prominently features projections (designed by Patrick Iven) of the characters’ social media profiles. This manages to connect the play’s point about the heartlessness of art for art’s sake with the way we habitually and sometimes recklessly exhibit ourselves online for the appraisal of others. Unfortunately, the effect is marred by one-note acting; Andy Blaustein’s Adam is unvaryingly dopey, while the lack of vulnerability in Michelle Annette’s Evelyn gives away the game from the start. —Zac Thompson

<i>Sister Act</i>
Sister ActCredit: Courtesy the Marriott Theatre

Sister Act It’s hard to hate a show like the unpretentious 2011 musical version of the high-grossing 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, packed as it is with so many sweet if forgettable tunes (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater), many of them loving imitations of disco hits. But it’s also hard to be passionate about a silly, shallow script that aims low and still, too frequently, misses. In Marriott’s loud, cartoonish version, the first act just drags. Director Don Stephenson allows his actors to indulge in the kind of over-the-top punch-line telegraphing that kills comedy. The music numbers fare better, thanks in part to Melissa Zaremba’s pleasing choreography and Nancy Missimi’s playful costuming. —Jack Helbig

<i>Those Sensational Soulful 60s</i>, playing in repertory at Black Ensemble Theater with <i>Doo Wop Shoo Bop</i>
Those Sensational Soulful 60s, playing in repertory at Black Ensemble Theater with Doo Wop Shoo BopCredit: Danny Nicholas

Those Sensational Soulful 60s Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th anniversary season is essentially a victory lap for executive producer Jackie Taylor, who’s polishing up and showcasing the company’s biggest jukebox hits from over the years. Playing in repertory with its 50s counterpart Doo Wop Shoo Bop, this compilation lacks deep biographies or side plots to get mired in, so the spotlight stays on what Taylor and company do best: rapturous, roof-burning renditions of singles that thrive in the hands of the superb house band. Performances of Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson hits in particular showcase the electricity BE exemplifies. —Dan Jakes

Ronnie Malley, who explores the world of  medieval poet-musician Ziryab at Silk Road Rising
Ronnie Malley, who explores the world of medieval poet-musician Ziryab at Silk Road RisingCredit: Airan Wright

Ziryab, the Songbird of Andalusia The poet and musician Ziryab was one of the luminaries of southern Spain’s medieval Islamic period, particularly when it came to playing the lutelike oud. In this solo show from Silk Road Rising, writer-performer Ronnie Malley argues that the flowering of Ziryab’s art came about in part due to the confluence of cultures—Islamic, Christian, and Jewish—he encountered in ninth-century Andalusia. Malley, the child of Palestinian immigrants, links that earlier example of multiculturalism to his own upbringing on the city’s southwest side. The show’s first-person accounts are stirring and Malley is a skillful musician; in addition to singing and strumming the oud, he plays percussion and the electric guitar. The production only drags in the middle, when things get too technical. —Zac Thompson