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From leading roles playing Gomez Addams to Harry Bright, two stops on the cyclone and a wonderful town to call home, Karl Hamilton has been on a wild professional ride these days.

Currently playing now through April 16th in the smash hit Mamma Mia! at the Marriott Theatre, Hamilton has been a fixture on stages for over a decade at dozens of productions at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Goodman Theatre, Drury Lane Theatre and Porchlight Music Theatre.

The versatile performer earned a Jeff nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for his role in The Addams Family at Mercury Theater in 2015 and was featured in the Chicago Shakes and Off-Broadway productions of Rachel Rockwell’s Ride the Cyclone. Last summer, Hamilton shined in a lead role in Mary Zimmerman’s Wonderful Town at the Goodman Theatre, a big stage treatment of the Bernstein classic.

Karl Hamilton joined the conversation on February 27th to talk about Mamma Mia!, the transition of Ride the Cyclone to New York and his take on the business of show.

On his experience starring in Wonderful Town

“I am still affected by it in so many ways … It was so beautiful and lush … I got to work with one of the most amazing casts I have ever been a part of. There was so much love in the room. Those are the times when it feels so profound to be an artist … to be an actor … to get to do this thing that I love and it reminds me through all the hardships why I do this.”

Being in the Mamma Mia family …

“It is pure joy … It is hilarity, hijinks, and amazing music. There is something really contagious about ABBA … this is the second time I’ve done Mamma Mia … once you are part of the Mamma Mia family it is part of your blood. It fills your heart.”

On his role as Gomez in the Addams Family ...

“I had so much fun being this passionate, love-at-all-costs, crazy man. It is one of the favorite roles of my entire life.”

On making theatre more accessible …

“There is nothing like the energy in a live theater … I would like to see the shows that we have become accessible to more audiences … the people who cannot afford higher priced tickets. It seems counterproductive to make art just for those people who can afford it.”

His suggestion …

“What I think Chicago is renowned for is its storefront theaters that are trying new and different things. I would love to see some sort of workshop in a mid-sized house where you can get a good sampling of what the effect  would be in a large house and one of the small store fronts … Some pilot program that would adapt maybe dual casting … A way to create more work for the artists without sacrificing the integrity and I think everyone would be able to benefit … I would like for Chicago which has a reputation for being dynamic and inventive to try something new … something that has not been done before.”

The importance of talent …

“I do not believe in talent … Talent is the insidious American Dream. It’s this place on high where all of your problems will be solved. I do not buy it. I think there is persistence. I think there is courage, tenacity and availability to the material … vulnerability … Those are the things I can rely on and those are things I can measure. I cannot measure this ubiquitous talent … Work well with others, be prepared, work hard and never give up. If you can do those four things you can have a career in the artistic world.”

The power of Mamma Mia …

“All of us are having a wonderful time out there. There is nothing not to love about singing ABBA and wearing spandex … except maybe the spandex part … There is something that happens when the story is over and you just get to enjoy some of the songs … you let go … you realize there are opportunities to just feel joy and dance. sing and exult … this is one of those shows. I love doing serious work … work that holds the mirror up to a very dark nature of the human condition. I feel those are absolutely necessary especially this day and age … but you also need the other side. You need the comedy to the tragedy mask. Our show does that.”

MAMMA MIA! - MARRIOTT THEATRE now through April 16th
Marriott Theater
Ten Marriott Drive
Lincolnshire, IL 60069

847-634-0200 (Box Office)



You could say that Rachel Rockwell has spent well over a decade on a tropical island where everyone sings ABBA songs and dances up a storm in spandex.

As a performer, Rockwell was a member of the Broadway company of Mamma Mia! in 2004 and Equity Dance Captain for the 2nd National Tour of the show that followed. Today, Rachel Rockwell is a multiple award-winning choreographer and director – well over a dozen and counting – and has recently completed the Off-Broadway run of Ride the Cyclone, a show that had its US premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 2015,

We caught up with Rachel Rockwell to discuss the continuing appeal of Mamma Mia! to new generations of performers and audiences.

CWET: Mamma Mia! has toured around the world for nearly two decades. Another international tour is launching in 2018 and an estimated 60 million people have seen the musical. Beyond the iconic ABBA score, which connects generations together, what is it about the story that keeps audiences engaged and coming back?

RR: At its core, it is about relationships: mother/daughter, and the deep and abiding friendships of women. That is its magic. That's what people come for, beyond the fantastic song book. I say this jokingly - husbands and boyfriends may come and go, but your girlfriends are forever!

CWET: How much of a responsibility does a director and creative team have to the audience to stay within the margins of a high-speed juggernaut like Mamma Mia! or are there areas to explore that might challenge us to look at the work in a different way?  

RR: This piece isn't broken. You really don't need to spend a lot of time reinventing it. You just have to make sure the relationships are compelling, and that it has the expected ABBA sound. Critics are always talking about how the book is thin and formulaic, but I've spent years with this material and I can tell you that it is extremely tightly constructed. You can't force something onto it that it isn't intended to be, or you will crush it. The simplest of terms, when you want a Cosmo, you want a Cosmo. You can upgrade the vodka, but you don't need to put extra things in it, or it will ultimately be disappointing. It just wants to be sweet, bright, and ultimately a lot of fun!

CWET: Is there an example you can highlight from the Marriott production?

RR: The songs are used to tell a specific story. There's a little room for interpretation, but if you're veering too far off road, you run the risk of alienating the audience that comes with high expectations. One exception is the number "Under Attack". In the original production it is a nightmare sequence in which Sophie is besieged by these funny sea creatures. It's visually fun, but it doesn't really tell a story, so we made a nightmare about her dads stalking her and abandoning her. The entire ensemble is dressed like the dads and they all have neutral masks on their faces, so she is adrift in a sea of fathers and can't find the real one. That felt more like a nightmare that our ingenue would have.

CWET: The production at the Marriott Theatre is performed in the round. What advantages does this theatre offer over a more traditional proscenium staging?

RR: I love staging in the round because it is more natural. You face the person you're talking to, the way you do in life. You see people's backs-it's interesting and human. Also, the intimacy of the Marriott space really brings these friendships right into your lap. You really want to be sitting on Donna's bed with her girlfriends because their chemistry is so real (in part, because they are wonderful friends in real life), and the cast is so close you can get up and dance with them. And people do, which I love!

CWET: Mamma Mia has been a big part of your life. What new rhythms appear when you revisit it again with the next generation of actors, singers and dancers?

RR: When I was a dance captain, my job was maintain someone else's vision of the material. Still, I had to analyze it as if the vision were mine, so I could inspire and "sell it" to the performers. Every time I dig deeply into the material, I have more respect for what Phyllida Lloyd and Catherine Johnson created, along with Anthony van Laast's choreography and Martin Koch's exquisite orchestrations and vocal arrangement. No other juke box musical has this kind of international success. They really struck gold. I feel privileged to know the history of the making of this piece first hand. I think it helped me understand what is sacred and where you can afford innovate. I'm really happy to be a part of a piece that is bringing a lot of joy to the audience. Joy is not to be underestimated.

Marriott Theatre
Ten Marriott Drive
Lincolnshire, IL 60069

847-634-0200 (Box Office)

Images and video courtesy
Marriott Theatre & Heron Agency


Midway through the conversation with John Williams, he becomes introspective. He recalls introducing musician friends of his father to a rare copy of the O’Neill collection of traditional Irish music, an out-of-print anthology that had been given to him as a gift. The men select a title they recognize and Williams sight reads the melody on the piano accordion. As the mournful wail pours out, the men wept. It was then that Williams realized the powerful connection of music. He was 12 years old.

Today, John Williams is a five-time All-Ireland Champion master accordionist and highly regarded among a select group of musicians playing tradition Irish music. He has performed in rooms, large and small throughout Chicago, the United States and Ireland. His original music and instrumentals can be heard in the 2002 Tom Hanks film, Road to Perdition and he recently performed with Prairie Home Companion to a sold-out Symphony Hall with host Chris Thile.

John Williams joined the conversation on February 26th just prior to a community session with a dozen musicians at the Celtic Knot in Evanston to talk about growing up in a musical family and how his music has served as a bridge to the past for the next generation.

There’s something about Irish music …

“Irish music is very unique in that you can have people of all ages playing alongside each other at different skill levels as well. There is something about the music that accommodates merely adequate musicians and virtuosic mastermind musicians. It is a strong and flexible type of music that can be played conversationally in many different ways.”

The relationship between Irish dance and music …

“Playing for dancers is almost at the bedrock of where this music evolved from and it is not only that the music is provided for dancing, the dancing also affects, infects and cultivates the musicians. Back in the villages on the west coast of Ireland, there might be really good dancers in the village but maybe only one, two or three good musicians. The dancers would have to bring the musicians up to snuff through the combination of body movements, footwork and how they can light up a place with energy. The musicians get the message ‘Boy we better get on the train or we’ll be left behind.’”

The importance of playing in Ireland …

“All of the feel for the music rubs off on you. You gain more repertoire …  you gain the humor in the music. There is kind of a joviality in the light side of this music and there is a depth and a darkness on the deeper side of the music that you come in touch with … You really get a feel for the fabric that weaves its way through life at the village level.  It is an honor when someone asks you to play at a marriage or a funeral because these are life passage events.”

The legendary Irish musicians John Williams and Jimmy Keane close their March 4th show -- A Mighty Squeeze -- at Chief O'Neill's Pub & Restaurant in Chicago with "The Chicago Reel" in celebration of Chicago's 180th birthday. Katie Grennan step dances.


CELTIC KNOT PUBLIC HOUSE Sunday Afternoon Session
GALWAY ARMS Sunday Evening Session
CHICAGO SYMPHONY - Siamsa na nGael - March 14th

Chief James O’Neill Collection of Irish Traditional music of the 18th and 19th centuries can be found at The University of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries

John Williams and step-dancer Katie Grennan join Chris Thile and the band (Rich Dworsky, Chris Eldridge, Brittany Haas, Sarah Jarosz, Paul Kowert, and Ted Poor) for "Within A Mile Of Dublin," "Seany Dorris' Reel," and "PJ's Pecurious Pachelbel Special" on our January 14, 2017 broadcast

John's website:

Katie's website:

(Courtesy Prairie Home Companion)


The Chicago St. Patrick's Day Parade kicks off on Saturday and there are lots of places to celebrate traditional Irish music all over town. The legendary Irish musician John Williams joined the CONVERSATION this week from the Celtic Knot Public House in Evanston before a Sunday afternoon community session. You will also enjoy fine fare and music at Chief O'Neill's Pub and Restaurant on Elston ... and be sure to check out the full schedule of events at the Irish American Heritage Center.

Elsewhere, there's film, music, theater and special events including: The Frank Lloyd Wright on Film Series at the Chicago History Museum, the Chicago European Film Festival and the Chicago premiere of Family Film, Goodman Theatre's Destiny of Desire, Spamilton at the Royal George, Rose Colella at Winter's Jazz Club and the Chi-Town Jazz Festival. Oh ... and the World Champion Chicago Cubs are in full swing! The Cubs meet the Cardinals on the road in St Louis on April 3rd and open the 2017 home season against the LA Dodgers in a night game at Wrigley on Monday, April 10, 2017 at 7:05 pm ... which is just about the time Monday Night Live at Petterino's will be kicking off!



CONVERSATIONS FTA (From the Archives) features the December 2016 conversation at the Steinway Piano Gallery and A Boy Named Max. PODCAST

CONVERSATIONS FTA (From the Archives) features the December 2016 conversation at the Steinway Piano Gallery and A Boy Named Max. PODCAST


You can be sure that if the very hip sounds of Steve Biossat's SWAY CHICAGO are in the house, be prepared to dance the night away.  At the top of everyone's date list, Biossat's band can be seen regularly at major corporate events, exclusive private parties and weddings and at monthly appearances at The Drake. And there is more to come when Speakeasy Swing returns to The Drake's famous Palm Court on Friday, March 17th.

There is something for everyone on the band's "SwayList" from Top 40, Motown and Classic Rock to R&B, Funk, Disco, Jazz, Swing, Big Band and ethnic music. At the core of SWAY CHICAGO's talented, versatile, high energy group is a quartet of Chicago's top vocalists. Their sound -- backed by a hip, hop, jump jivin' beat -- is fresh, unique, non-stop and always entertaining.

Steve Biossat joined the conversation on February 3rd to talk about the relaunch of Speakeasy Swing with vocalists Alyssa Allgood and Marcus Gress, growing up in the US and abroad, and how that effected his approach to music and working in Chicago's busy music scene.

On the Resurgence of Swing Music and Dancing …
“It has always been a passion of mine ... jazz and swing have been something I have loved since I was a child. I do see it resurfacing a bit more now. I do not think it is quite what the craze was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s … We were playing five or six nights a week ... featured on national and Chicago compilation CDs … There were 10-12 piece swing bands playing all over the country … There is still a great subculture of dancers hard core involved in the swing dance movement and because of that I am getting to be more active in that community once again.”

The Sway Chicago Allure ...
“We have a following of people from their 20’s to their 90’s. We have a couple of ladies who are consistently there every month … I think it really gives them this outlet to be social and sometimes they dance, sometimes they just listen. I think SWAY CHICAGO has that allure because we try to put on a show that people can listen, watch, be entertained and also dance.”

Developing the "SwayList" ...
“Developing a list that works is probably the most important thing a band or musician can do. We have our staples that stay with us year after year … but being that it is a top 40’s band through the decades, that also means we have to stay viable and current. January is our time to develop the new songs for the season … We do a lot of research, not to see what songs are new and cool, but songs that are new, cool and will last through the season, hopefully a couple of seasons.”

Technology’s Positive Impact on Live Performances ...
“I used to have to carry four huge racks to every gig … huge mixing consoles … a lot of weight to carry around and a lot of setup. Nowadays, we have everything controlled by computer and iPads … I personally go out with the same rig that Adele tours with … It fits in one small box.  It is short attention span theater these days. People do not want to hear five-minute version of songs. They want to hear three or two-minute versions, and if I want to change gears quickly I can. It is all due to the technology available probably in the last ten years.”

Gena's Surprise ...
“Gena is a godsend … literally, I prayed for her and she came into my life. I wanted to do something special and include our friends and loved ones in this monumental thing for me and her. The Drake hotel has always been a special place for both of us … There was not supposed to be entertainment that evening but they agreed to staff the room and bring everyone in for this special occasion. Standing room only. The whole band came in and learned a special song for Gena … I was concerned with overwhelming Gena with a public proposal, so, I did the proposal intimately in a side room … We both cried. We look over the picture to this day and revel in all the love that was in the room that night.”

1st Friday
Speakeasy Swing
3rd Friday(beginning March 17th)



March comes in like a lion at the Art Institute when everyone's favorite mother returns home. You can visit with Whistler's Mother all over again beginning March 4th. Lots of theater including The Scene at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, The Hard Problem at Court Theatre and The Columnist, American Blues Theatre's Chicago Premier at Stage 773.  Steppenwolf presents Voices from the Dust Bowl on March 5th only and KT McCammond, John Williams & Jimmy Keane, Paul MarinaroElaine Dame and Typhanie Monique are making music all over town.

Don't miss this week's CONVERSATION with Steve Biossat and hear about Speakeasy Swing coming up at The Drake on March 17th.

STEPPENWOLF Voices from the Dust Bowl One-Show Only LookOut Series March 5, 2017 INFO

STEPPENWOLF Voices from the Dust Bowl One-Show Only
LookOut Series
March 5, 2017 INFO

JEANNIE TANNER WORDS & MUSIC - CDBABY Howard Reich Tribune 2|23|2017

Howard Reich Tribune 2|23|2017

And, if you happen to be in Burlington, Iowa ...

ARTISTS LOUNGE LIVE I Got a Right to Sing the Blues INFO Burlington Capital Theater Burlington, IA Alexia J. Roston Angela Ingersoll Katie Deal

ARTISTS LOUNGE LIVE I Got a Right to Sing the Blues INFO
Burlington Capital Theater
Burlington, IA

Alexia J. Roston
Angela Ingersoll
Katie Deal


Music, art and theater are healing devices, according to James Earl Jones II, the triple-threat performer currently playing in Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys. Diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome as a child, Jones early goal was to become a doctor. That plan changed and Jones received a scholarship to study opera at the University of Illinois Urbana-Campaign. Theater and dance followed, and a decade later, the multiple Jeff nominee has been at home on dozens of stages in a wide range of roles.

The impressive list of his Chicago and regional credits includes the title role in the world premiere of Carlyle and a superb turn in a featured role in Wonderful Town both at Goodman Theatre last season. He has also appeared in Sondheim on Sondheim at Porchlight, Dreamgirls and The Full Monty at Marriott Theatre and numerous other productions at Court Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Writers Theatre, Lookinglass, Drury Lane, Northlight, Ravinia and Broadway in Chicago. His operatic credits include the Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and in a national tour of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. His television and film credits include Pokerhouse, Chicago Fire and Empire. His work has been recognized by the Black Theatre Alliance Awards and Black Excellence Awards. 

James Earl Jones II joined the Conversation on February 15th for a frank and open discussion about living with Tourette’s and how the musical of The Scottsboro Boys story helps to broaden our understanding of a very dark and tumultuous time in our history.

How his difficult birth may have changed his life …
“I had a very traumatic birth which I believe caused me to have Tourette’s Syndrome. I was a preemie and I was breached. The doctors thought that my spine would snap … there was a lot of pressure at the base of my neck … They say that Tourette’s is a hereditary disease but seemingly no one else in my family had it … So, I thought to myself ‘well certainly things have to come from somewhere’ …  and being that Tourette’s is a neurological disorder ... extreme trauma to your spine and neck could do something like that, so that was my assumption.” 

Advice for coping with Tourette’s Syndrome ...
“The arts, my career in the arts, has certainly helped me … and to know that even if you have things that are evident within your Tourette’s that other people can see … try to believe and truly understand that you are no different than anyone else. You are a regular – if there is – a regular human being that deserves the same amount of love, decency, consideration and respect as the next.”

On portraying an historical character in The Scottsboro Boys …
“Unlike other shows this is someone’s real life … and there is something about telling that story, honoring them, honoring their family … that is really significant and important … You want to be earnest and truthful and in that same vain, you want the audience to feel their highs and their lows, their joys and their pains … so it compels them to not just be moved in the moment but even to possibly leave the theater and want to learn more about that person.”

On Cynthia Clarey’s role as "The Lady" …
“She speaks volumes without speaking.  She stands for nurturing, hope, and the future.” 

On truth and justice, then and now …
“The truth … when people talk about ‘the truth will set you free’ … you hope that is the case, but it is not always the case … Pardoning all of these boys took almost a century even though they never raped those girls. I thing that speaks volumes of where people think we are versus where we really are.”



Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, now playing at Stage 773 through March 12th, is based on the true story of nine black youths accused, convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. James Earl Jones II, in the role of Haywood Patterson, leads the company in Go Back Home. The brilliant ensemble performances of the Jeff recommended Porchlight Music Theatre production, all housed in the context of a minstrel show, combine to tell a stark and tragically compelling story of the boys harrowing journey of racial injustice.

Video & Photo Credit: Porchlight Music Theatre


Music, art and theater are healing devices, according to James Earl Jones II. Diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome as a child, Jones' early goal was to become a doctor to help others. Life finds a way, as we will hear in this week’s CONVERSATIONS podcast, and Jones instead pursued an opera scholarship and an enormously successful stage career over the last decade. Jeannie Tanner debuts her new album Word & Music at the City Winery this week featuring all of the albums performers. 

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If you are looking for sweet conversation, that brings a sensation, you need look no further than our time with the extraordinary Tammy McCann. No surprise that McCann adores the Hoagy Carmichael-Ned Washington standard, Nearness of You. It happens to be her husband’s favorite.

Things might have been very different for McCann if she had pursued a classical music career. Following her heart, and the inspiration of jazz legends like Ramsey Lewis, Von Freeman and the immortal Ray Charles, all of whom she has performed with, McCann has established herself as one of our most gifted and talented jazz vocalists.

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