Sunday, March 01, 2015

Isn't It Bliss: Porchlight's Take on 'Sondheim On Sondheim' is Ever the Genius' Tale to Attend -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sondheim on Sondheim
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru March 15

Not only is Stephen Sondheim--in my estimation but also many others'--the greatest composer/lyricist in musical theater history, he is also the most eloquent and insightful artist I've ever heard discuss their creative process.

Thus, over roughly the past 15 years--I often consider my embracing of Sondheim musicals as the demarcation of my adulthood, even though I was past 30 at the time--I have not only seen numerous productions of most of his shows, but I have greatly enjoyed hearing him speak.

I had this pleasure twice at Ravinia, where Sondheim spoke in the Martin Theatre before wondrous concert productions of Passion in 2003 and Anyone Can Whistle in 2005--and likely on other occasions I didn't witness--and in ticketed downtown Chicago conversations, with director Gary Griffin in 2010 and with Tribune theater critic Chris Jones in 2011.

Sondheim's artistic articulateness is also amply illustrated in HBO's excellent 2013 Six by Sondheim documentary, which I just watched again the other day.

And I also love perusing the twin compendiums, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, in which Sondheim provides detailed notes about each of his shows and song lyrics.

So while it would seem a no-brainer that I would relish Sondheim on Sondheim, a show conceived by longtime collaborator James Lapine that features several standout songs accompanied by video of Sondheim providing musical and/or biographical anecdotes, I was pleasantly surprised by how much it amplified my understanding of its subject.

Sure, I had heard many of the same stories--about how the great Oscar Hammerstein became Sondheim's mentor during childhood, about Sondheim not wanting to write only lyrics (rather than the music as well) for both West Side Story and Gypsy but being persuaded to do so, etc., etc.--through various other forums, not to mention most of the songs within their natural habitats, yet I found Porchlight Music Theatre's Chicago premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim a complete delight.

And newly and truly insightful as well.

Sondheim on Sondheim is especially poignant in portraying how the composer/lyricist's sour relationship with his mother, including a particularly grievous comment she made late in her life, worked its way into his art, most notably through Into the Woods and songs such as "Children Will Listen."

Hence, though musical revues and tribute concert performances can often be delightful simply due to the abundance of wonderful songs--and I've seen fine showcases of Sondheim, Rogers & Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber and others--as presented here under the direction of Nick Bowling, Sondheim on Sondheim is also an illuminating piece of theater.

Though the music is obviously different, it feels more akin to Jersey Boys--a first-rate musical biography of the Four Seasons--than merely a superb selection of songs well-sung.

Which isn't to imply that the songs themselves, and the excellent performances by a mostly non-Equity Chicago cast, isn't still the primary reason to see and love Sondheim by Sondheim.

At the literal center of Porchlight's superb Stage 773-housed production of a show that got mixed reviews on Broadway when it premiered in 2010 is pianist Austin Cook, who looks suitably like a mid-career Sondheim and plays beautifully.

With Cook representing Sondheim more than ever portraying him, the basic staging conceit reflects the age-old tradition of a Broadway tunesmith entertaining guests within a home setting.

As Sondheim is niftily projected onto various sections above the stage, the 8-member cast makes terrific use of the space and often loosely acts out scenes from which songs originated.

This doesn't simply add entertainment value, but reflects that Sondheim wrote almost entirely for characters and scenarios a librettist had developed, rather than creating songs out of thin air, simply for their own sake.

Each performer within the diverse and perfectly-cast ensemble--Emily Berman, Rebecca Finnegan, Amelia Hefferon, James Earl Jones II, Matthew Keffer, Yando Lopez, Stephen Rader, Adrienne Walker--has ample opportunities to embody characters from Sondheim shows and expertly sing to Cook's accompaniment, whether alone, in pairs, among larger groups or all together.

I could easily name 20+ songs that were scintillating, including the choral "Sunday," Keffer's exquisite "Finishing the Hat," Lopez & Berman alternating then dueting on the beautiful ballads "Losing My Mind"/"Not a Day Goes By" and Finnegan & Jones delivering a super "Send in the Clowns," which Sondheim noted as his only hit single, one that hit the charts via Judy Collins two years after Frank Sinatra recorded it following inclusion in A Little Night Music.

I've now learned that James Earl Jones II is not the son of the famed actor but rather a third cousin, yet he has a similarly resonant--if not quite as deep--voice and I particularly enjoyed his renditions of various roles, including imbuing Merrily We Roll Along's Franklin Shepard with haughty humor (alongside Rader) and Passion's Giorgio with a believable pathos, although Walker undoubtedly made for a much lovelier Fosca than the character Sondheim described with numerous cackle-inducing adjectives.

My guess is that this is a show that will largely be attended by Sondheim devotees, of which there are many, although not nearly as many as there should be.

Yet while almost anywhere is a good place to start with Sondheim, or to further your appreciation--including the recent Into the Woods movie, a library DVD of Sunday in the Park with George, Drury Lane Oakbrook's excellent current staging of West Side Story or the Six by Sondheim documentary, still available on HBO On-Demand--I emphatically recommend Sondheim on Sondheim for acolytes and neophytes alike.

Congruent with my common prattling on about the therapeutic importance of cultural enlightenment, Sondheim is shown speaking about how his life, career and success were largely fueled by role models (especially Hammerstein), teachers, contemporaries and creative collaborators, making--along with other verbal insights and much else--this a show I wish everyone could and would see, including those who have never heard of and/or cared about the turning-85-this-month living legend.

And though many of the same video clips, and thus stories--including a great one about a potty-mouthed Ethel Merman--can be seen/heard in Six by Sondheim, not only do the musical performances overall make Sondheim on Sondheim an utterly mirthful Porchlight delight, Sondheim-o-philes should revel in the rarities.

The show's songlist includes the first song Sondheim ever wrote in a musical theater vein, a tune from his failed first musical, Saturday Night, songs cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies and Company, and "God," a quirky new song accompanied by a cute video clip put together for his pal Lapine's tribute to him.

As I lather praise on Sondheim on Sondheim, and the genius that it's about, it isn't lost on me that I likely love this show more than perhaps anyone who might read this.

I would say that if my review inspires just a single person to see the show--currently slated to end on March 15, with discounts to some performances possible on HotTix and/or Goldstar--it would be worth the few hours I've spent writing it.

But the truth is, it's worth it already.

As Mr. Sondheim notes at one point during the show, "Everybody has troubles, nobody goes through life unscathed.

"But I do believe in the joy of life."

His work, and his wisdom, are joys that I am glad to have come to know in my life.

And Porchlight's remarkable production of Sondheim on Sondheim only adds to it.

Appreciably, in every sense of the word.

"So many people in the world
Don't know what they've missed
They'd never believe
Such joy could exist"

-- Stephen Sondheim
"So Many People," Saturday Night, 1954


Despite the length of this review, I haven't really elaborated on why I so admire Sondheim's work, and having written about him & his shows numerous times, I won't delve into it trying to explain it here.

But I thought the following remark made by host David Hyde Pierce--on behalf of actors specifically, but also just fans--during Sondheim 80th Birthday Concert in 2010 (excellent and available on DVD & Blu-ray) is a pretty good summation:

"We owe him so much for giving us roles and songs and shows that have complexity, sophistication, beauty and wit."


Below is a Spotify Playlist of some of my favorite songs written by Stephen Sondheim. That only 5 of them are included in Sondheim on Sondheim says a lot of the quality of his output. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Just Press Play: Celebrating 10 Years of YouTube with 10 Reasons I'm Glad It Exists

A couple weeks ago, on Valentine's Day in fact, I noticed a tidbit informing me that it was the 10th anniversary of YouTube.

The video-sharing website, which accounts for approx. 14% of all internet traffic--second only to Netflix, which hordes 35% of web usage--was publicly hatched on February 14, 2005.

Though I often find myself dubious about how it skirts copyright law, I can't deny that I am a frequent YouTube user.

Though I'm guessing that watching a video or two a day--almost always music-related, never cat videos or much else--hardly qualifies me as a frequent user compared to many.

Still, I'm glad YouTube exists, and feel that it has enhanced my life over the past decade by enabling me to see some rather unique and/or special performances.

So although I'm a couple weeks late of the actual 10th anniversary, I thought I'd celebrate by compiling 10 of my Favorite YouTube videos.

Though, because in reality my 10 favorites could really just be clips of Bruce Springsteen in concert, I've purposely tried to make this compilation a bit more varied, and reflective of what I like most about YouTube. 

The following 10 videos are in no particular order.

- Johnny Cash - "Hurt" - Perhaps the best music video ever made--directed by Mark Romanek--of one of the best cover versions ever. Created not long before Cash's death in September 2003, I'm glad it's something that I can always find, as with almost any other official music video I fondly remember or perhaps have never before seen.

- U2 - "North and South of the River" - A rather terrific U2 song that I don't believe has ever been officially released, and supposedly performed live just once, as captured in this clip. I like YouTube best for finding clips of songs I couldn't have found anywhere else.

- Midnight Oil - "Beds Are Burning" from 2009 - Australia's Midnight Oil was one of my favorite bands, long after their peak of popularity, and I saw them live 3 times in 2001-02. But they broke up after that, and I never knew they had reunited for some Australian shows in 2009 until I stumbled on some videos on YouTube.

- John Coltrane - "Giant Steps" Animated Sheet Music - I love the music of the late, legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, but lack the ability to explain why it is considered so groundbreaking. Perhaps to someone knowledgeable in music theory, this video might help, but really I just think it's cool. 

- The Beatles - "Please Please Me" at first U.S. Concert - Washington, DC, Feb. 11, 1964. If you look hard enough, you can probably find the full concert, which wasn't that long.

- Gale Sayers Highlights - Being a Chicagoan in my mid-40s, I've had the pleasure of watching Michael Jordan and Walter Payton, among others, in their prime. But I've long been fascinated by Sayers, "The Kansas Comet," whose brilliant but all-too-brief Bears career was before my time. I similarly enjoy highlight videos of (non-Chicago) legends like basketball's "Pistol" Pete Maravich and soccer's aptly named George Best

- "I Shook Up the World" - Despite being able to find entire fights of his--or just the amazing 8th Round vs. George Foreman--I would say that this :27 clip is my favorite Muhammad Ali video on YouTube. Except that he was still Cassius Clay at the time.

- Luna plays "Voodoo Chile" on Gayageum - One of my favorite types of YouTube videos are those that showcase people playing great songs in unique ways. Here a young Asian woman plays my favorite Jimi Hendrix song on an instrument I didn't even know existed. Similar favorites include the Louisville Leopard Percussionists (a group of kids) playing Led Zeppelin songs, the ShowHawk Duo doing a super-cool take on Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," the 2Cellos rocking out on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a guy named Obadiah Parker performing a fine acoustic cover of Outkast's "Hey Ya."

- Pearl Jam - "Let My Love Open the Door" at Soldier Field, 1995 - I've been to over 600 concerts in my life, including 16 by Pearl Jam. But some of those that have stayed with me the longest are ones I didn't attend. Like when Pearl Jam played Soldier Field on the vastly-abbreviated 1995 tour (due to their battle with Ticketmaster). I opted to see them in Milwaukee instead, but am sorry I missed this cover of a Pete Townshend classic. And happy to have found it on YouTube. 

- Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band w/ Neil Young - "All Along the Watchtower" in St. Paul, 2004 - I easily could post another 50 concert clips that I think are pretty special, including a really masterful "Fake Plastic Trees" from Radiohead, a personal favorite called "Buck Rogers" from a band called Feeder, a clip of Pearl Jam and U2 playing together, full LiveAid sets from Queen and U2, rare live gems from Warren Zevon and The Smiths, a just stupendous nearly 14-minute take on "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" by Traffic and, of course, dozens of other superlative clips by Bruce Springsteen, who I consider the best live act of all-time. (Heck, I can now find full concerts of many favorites on YouTube.)

But the video I picked to round out is pretty special on many levels. On 2004's multi-artist Vote for Change Tour--on which I saw Springsteen + R.E.M. in Detroit and Pearl Jam in Toledo, where Neil Young guested--Springsteen & the E Street Band were joined onstage in St. Paul by Young. The combination of Springsteen and Young doing a blistering version of a Bob Dylan song famously reinterpreted by Jimi Hendrix doesn't just make for my favorite YouTube video, but largely distills the meaning of my life down to a monumental 7-1/2 minutes.   

Monday, February 23, 2015

Everything Was Beautiful at the Ballet: Joffrey Articulates Its Artistry with 'Unique Voices' -- Chicago Dance Review

Dance / Ballet Review

Unique Voices
Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
February 21, 2015
(Other performance dates; Run ended)

I appreciate artistry--and especially virtuosity--in a wide variety of forms.

So beyond the rock concerts and musical & dramatic theater that comprise the bulk of my live entertainment diet, each year I try get to a combined handful or two of classical, opera, jazz and blues events.

Dance, however, has been much more sporadic as a spectator occurrence. I've averaged less than one dance performance per year--of any kind--and that includes having seen the mind-blowing tap dancer Savion Glover on five separate occasions.

Besides dance-class performances my sister has participated in, and other local troupe events she has encouraged me to attend--both predominantly in a tap vein--most other dance shows I've seen have been out of the U.S., whether a tango show in Buenos Aires, the Plataforma Samba show in Rio, a ballet (Don Quixote) within the Vienna Opera House or the famed Ballet Folklorico of Mexico City.

Other than being taken to The Nutcracker as a kid, until Saturday afternoon the only ballet I've been to domestically was Giselle, by the Kirov Ballet in 2008 at the Auditorium in Chicago, primarily because I didn't get to see a performance by the world renowned troupe when in St. Petersburg, Russia earlier that year.

Photo Credit on all: Cheryl Mann; dancers shown may not be the same
as those I saw at the Feb. 21, 2pm performance
Although I would never be dismissive of dance, and often love it within the context of musical theater--and have also seen Riverdance and the more recent Heartbeat of Home--the fact is that I haven't sought out ballet, modern dance or other performance forms with nearly the frequency or curiosity as I have other cultural events.

I tend to prefer clearly narrative entertainment to more interpretive forms--including Cirque du Soleil and similar shows--so with all the events I do go to each year (including a good number of baseball games each season), constraints of time and money have further conspired to limit my live dance intake.

So although Chicago's Joffrey Ballet is one of the most acclaimed in the world, and the Hubbard Street Dance Company is similarly esteemed in modern dance forms, I had never attended a performance of either.

On various occasions, doing so seemed like something I should do, but never to the point of taking action.

But especially as the production I did see and am ostensibly reviewing--the Joffrey's Unique Voices--has ended its string of shows at the Auditorium, I am writing this just as much to suggest that I seek out a bit more ballet and other dance performances as I am suggesting that others may enjoy doing so as well.

It's not really an excuse, but part of my problem was that I never really knew where to start.

And wasn't ever all that motivated to find out.

But in December, my mom, sister and I attended the Auditorium's 125th Anniversary Celebration, predominantly to see Broadway legend Patti LuPone.

Patti was magnificent, but so too was the entire event, which featured performances by Chicago cultural institutions that once did and/or still call the Auditorium home--including long-ago past tenants the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera.

Dance, a longtime staple of the venue, was majestically represented by Vernard J. Gilmore of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and from the Joffrey, Rory Hohenstein and Christine Rocas delectably performing a number from Romeo and Juliet.

After I wrote a rave review of the Auditorium's Living the History show and shared it--as is my norm--via Facebook and Twitter, Rocas favorited my Tweet. (I had mentioned her among several others in my article, but hadn't directed the Tweet toward her, but rather only to the Auditorium Twitter feed.)

This tickled me--or should I say, had me all a-Twitter--and I instantly imagined trying to interview her for a blog piece, but either noticed or presumed that she would soon be in rehearsal for a full Joffrey production, so I never reached out to her.

But both the Romeo and Juliet performance and Rocas' social (media) grace prompted me to eventually peruse what was upcoming from the Joffrey.

Which is a rather superfluous way of explaining what brought me to Unique Voices for a matinee on Saturday afternoon. (I was happy to score a good ticket in a box near the stage for the lowest price point--just $32--but the cavernous Auditorium surprisingly turned out to be nearly half empty.)

Before I sound like a stalker, I should explain that I really didn't research if Rocas was in Unique Voices before I bought a ticket, though was happy to find that she was (although in fewer pieces at the Saturday matinee than at other performances of this run).

But whatever the stimulation, motivation, provocation, etc., I'm really glad I went.

The program featured three dances, the first titled Maninyas, choreographed by Stanton Welch and staged by Louise Lester to music in a classical vein by Ross Edwards.

This number had 10 dancers, in male/female pairs. At risk of sounding like the neophyte that I am, Maninyas seemed to have something of a Latin (or perhaps Spanish) strain in the dance forms and costumes; see the nearby photo

I enjoyed the piece, which illustrated that ballet isn't only danced in tutus, something further proven by the next number.

All the dancers in Maninyas seemed terrific to me, but based on Saturday's matinee cast list, I believe a ballerina named Mahallia Ward was the most notably featured (apologies for any misidentification). 

Much more obvious was the prima ballerina of the next number, as there was only one woman along with three men.

At this point in my fledgling balletic--and overall dance--appreciation, I can't deny that the music is intrinsic in engaging me, more than any specific dance-step interpretation or appreciation beyond "OMG!" mental exhortations for all the beautiful bodies doing astonishing things.

So it was a delight that the second piece was called The Man in Black and featured the quartet of dancers performing to several Johnny Cash songs, under the choreography of James Kudelka and staging by Gerard Charles.

I came to love Cash in the last few years before his death and the dozen since, more than I ever really appreciated him through the bulk of his legendary career (granted much of it was "before my time").

So although I now relish "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and much of his earlier oeuvre, I fully embraced the late-career, largely cover songs of his American Recordings albums that the Joffrey principally utilized.

And beyond the wondrous dancing, I was able to even further appreciate the brilliance of Cash's cover interpretations, on the Beatles' "In My Life," "Sam Hall"--an English folk song he recorded in both 1965 and 2002--the more recent folk classic "Four Strong Winds," Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" and Bruce Springsteen's "Further on Up the Road," which also abetted my regard for my greatest musical hero, given that it's a relatively lesser-known song from The Rising that Cash imbues with an extra level of sagacity.

Far be it from me to be able to intelligently assess the finer points of ballet, but I really loved what I saw and heard.

Joanna Wozniak--cited in the program as being from Rolling Meadows and the only Chicago area native in the current troupe that includes dancers from Turkey, the Republic of Georgia, Brazil, Australia, Cuba and many other places around the world and U.S.--was accompanied by Derrick Agnoletti, Edson Barbosa and Fernando Duarte.

Though the dance interpretations to the songs weren't primarily acute, I enjoyed how the quartet replicated horse trots on "Four Strong Winds," matched the "a-swingin' I must go" lyric of "Sam Hall" with swinging steps and, most dramatically, to Cash's phenomenal take on "Hurt," portrayed the pain addiction inflicts not only on the user--as deftly embodied by Barbosa--but those who try to provide help, support and love.

It seems probable I won't ever see The Man in Black piece again, at least by a world-class ballet troupe, so I'm especially glad I did.

The third and final number of Unique Voices--titled Tulle, choreographed by Alexander Ekman and featuring numerous dancers including Rocas in a prominent role--was also fascinating and fantastic.

Staged by Marie-Louise Sid-Sylwander and Joakim Stephenson, with some rather haunting music by Mikael Karlsson, Tulle is--per the program notes--"a loving commentary on ballet where Alexander Ekman explores the coded world of classical ballet ... [and] enables the audience to rethink the way in which we perceive ballet."

There is a large cast of dancers in tutus, but also the sounds of a static-laden radio broadcast and video screens that at time show ballerinas speaking candidly about their art--and fears.

"What if they laugh at me; what if they throw tomatoes at me; I have a love/hate relationship with my point shoes," impart a pair of dancers, one of whom I'm pretty sure was Christine Rocas.

The unique A/V accoutrement to Tulle also served to enlighten that ballet began as a social dance form--not a theatrical one--done by aristocrats at official functions as proof of their stature, with King Louis XIV of France said to have been an excellent ballet dancer.

Tulle also had a segment centered around a circus couple enacted by Ogulcan Borova and Amanda Assucena, with the latter pirouetting at least 25 straight revolutions at one point in the most demonstrably impressive spectacle of the entire show.

Altogether, the 2-hour performance--inclusive of two 15-minute intermissions--was rather scintillating.

I effusively bestowed a standing ovation at the end of Tulle--in appreciation for it and the earlier pieces--but was puzzled as to why I was in the vast minority of those, aptly, given what we had witnessed, on their feet.

When opportunity allows, I certainly wouldn't mind viewing a full-work ballet such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet or, once again, Giselle or The Nutcracker.

But for what I surmise to be described as contemporary ballet, with innovative pieces fueled by the imagination of gifted choreographers, stagers and dancers, Unique Voices spoke to me in a powerful way.

So while I still doubt I will become a ballet regular, Joffrey subscriber or dance aficionado, I hope it's sooner than later that I come back to take another spin.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Completely Unnecessary Oscar Predictions 2015 (with Some Interesting Picks of Deserving Non-Nominees)

It's not just that you can find Academy Award predictions from far more expect prognosticators on roughly four million other websites (that's just a guesstimate).

Nor that, as in many years, there are overwhelming favorites in many of the categories, which serves to make the Oscars more of a fashion show than an awards presentation holding very much suspense.

But furthering rendering this post unnecessary is that less than 2 months ago I posted my picks for the Best Movies of 2014, which I find more personally relevant than whatever criteria the members of the Academy may use for casting their ballots.

Of course, my list included films officially considered 2013 releases that didn't play in Chicago, and left out some worthy pictures that didn't open here until after the New Year (or which I just didn't see in 2014). 

These include now-seen Best Picture nominees Selma and American Sniper, as well as A Most Violent Year, Pride and Love is Strange

I have only seen one of the Documentary Features, and just one of the Foreign Language Films--and nothing in the Animated or Short categories--but otherwise have seen most of the movies included in most of the major Oscar categories.

Exceptions being just Inherent Vice, The Judge, Two Days, One Night, Still Alice, The Judge and Maleficent. (I intend to see Still Alice and Two Days, One Night either today or tomorrow.)

While I'm happy to have anyone read this, and doubt anyone was planning to place bets based on my picks, if you haven't caught on, my primarily reason for writing this is simply because I enjoy doing so.

So take a look at the ballot, and underneath, take a look at my thoughts. For what they're worth.

(It's possible that some of the movies I cite as deserving nominations are ineligible due to officially being 2013 releases; also, I don't have a source for delineating Original and Adapted Screenplays among not-nominated films, so had to do my best per Wikipedia.)

Best Picture
Will and should win: Boyhood
Deserved a nomination: A Most Violent Year, Nightcrawler, The Immigrant, Love is Strange, Ida (the latter is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film)
Didn't deserve to be nominated: Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel and possibly American Sniper, which was hard to judge as just a movie given all the fuss about it.

Graphic by/from; full-size here
Best Director
Will and should win: Richard Linklater - Boyhood
Deserved a nomination: Ava DuVernay - Selma, Pawel Pawlikowski - Ida

Best Actor
Will win: Michael Keaton - Birdman
Should win: Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything
Deserved a nomination and to win: David Oyelowo - Selma
Deserved a nomination: Jake Gyllenhaal - Nightcrawler or Enemy, Philip Seymour Hoffman - A Most Wanted Man, Nicolas Cage - Joe, Timothy Spall - Mr. Turner, Chadwick Boseman - Get on Up 

(Note: I'm not advocating these five actors, or suggested nominees in any category except Best Picture, in lieu of any of the actual nominees, but rather just noting that their work merited recognition.)

Best Actress
Will win: Julianne Moore - Still Alice
Should win: Though I hope to today or tomorrow, I haven't seen either Moore's or Marion Cotillard's nominated roles, but have heard good things about both. The latter was also excellent in The Immigrant.
(Update at 6:00pm CST: I saw both movies today; both were excellent, largely due to the performances of Moore and Cotillard, both outstanding. I'd be fine with either winning, but think I'd vote for Moore.)
Deserved a nomination: Jessica Chastain - A Most Violent Year, Tilda Swinton - Only Lovers Left Alive, Essie Davis - The Babadook

Ben Mendelsohn (R) with Jack O'Connell in Starred Up
Best Supporting Actor
Will and should win: J.K. Simmons - Whiplash, even though I didn't love the movie.
Deserved a nomination: Albert Brooks - A Most Wanted Year, John Hurt - Only Lovers Left Alive, Ben Mendelsohn - Starred Up

Best Supporting Actress
Will and should win: Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
Deserved a nomination: Agata Kulesza - Ida (she played the aunt), Carrie Coon - Gone Girl

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Birdman
Should win: Nightcrawler 
Deserved a nomination: A Most Violent Year, The Immigrant, Ida

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will and should win: The Imitation Game
Deserved a nomination: Gone Girl (if only because I liked the movie more than the book), Enemy

Best Documentary Feature
Should win: Finding Vivian Maier, with the caveat that I haven't seen the other nominees
Deserved a nomination and to win: Life Itself

Best Foreign Language Film
Will and should win: Ida. It is the only nominee I've seen but was my favorite film of 2014, overall. 
Deserved a nomination: Force Majeure, which I didn't see but was on my friend Dave's Top 10 of 2014. Probably also Two Days, One Night, though I haven't seen it yet, but have loved much else from its directors, the Dardenne Brothers.

Best Animated Feature
Will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2, though I haven't seen it or any other nominees.
Deserved a nomination and to win: The Lego Movie  

Ida, cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Best Cinematography
Will win: Birdman
Should win: Ida
Deserved a nomination: Interstellar

Best Costume Design
Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: Mr. Turner 
Deserved a nomination: Belle

Best Film Editing
Will and should win: Boyhood
Deserved a nomination: Interstellar, Ida
Best Original Score
Will and should win: The Theory of Everything
Deserved a nomination: The Immigrant
The Grand Budapest Hotel- Production design by Adam Stackhausen,
Set Design by Anna Pinock, Hair & Makeup by Frances Hannon & Mark Coulier

Best Original Song
Will and should win: "Glory" from Selma
Deserved a nomination: "America for Me" from A Most Violent Year

Best Production Design
Will and should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Deserved a nomination: Guardians of the Galaxy, Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Will and should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Deserved a nomination: Only Lovers Left Alive, Into the Woods

Interstellar - Visual Effects nominees: Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley,
Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher
Best Visual Effects
Will and should win: Interstellar
Deserved a nomination: Edge of Tomorrow

Best Sound Editing
Will and should win: American Sniper
Deserved a nomination: Boyhood
Best Sound Mixing
Will and should win: American Sniper

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Blood on the Plow: John Mellencamp Infuses Old Hits, New Tunes with Grizzled Gravitas -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

John Mellencamp
w/ opening act Carlene Carter
Chicago Theatre
February 18, 2015
(Also played Feb. 17)

Even when he was in just his thirties, John Mellencamp--nowhere is Cougar still officially part of his moniker, although it forever remains in the minds of many--wrote a lot of lyrics referencing the passage of time.

"Days turn to minutes and minutes to memories"

"Where does our time go?"

"Human wheels spin round and round while the clock keeps the pace"

"Hold on to 16 as long as you can"

"But just like everything else those old crazy dreams just kinda came and went"

"And he saw his days burn up like paper in fire"

"We just laugh and say do you remember when"

At the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday night, with the husky growl of a longtime smoker now 63 years of age, exacerbated by a nasty bug he said he caught in Minneapolis, Mellencamp brought the gravitas of a man looking more back than forward as he and his band delivered satisfying versions of--respective to the lyrics above--"Minutes to Memories," "Check It Out," "Human Wheels," "Jack & Diane," "Pink Houses," "Paper in Fire" and "Cherry Bomb," among other greatest hits. (See the full setlist here, which is from Tuesday night's matching show.)

While he sounded strong enough to make the tunes of my youth a joy to hear yet again--with my own sense of nostalgia abetted by encountering (intentionally) the high school friend with whom I first saw Mellencamp 29 years ago this month on the Scarecrow tour--the way he balanced the harder-rocking anthems with more low-key stylings of late made for an especially compelling performance.

Seven of the night's 21 songs came from 2014's Plain Spoken, 2008's Life, Death, Love and Freedom and Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a current musical Mellencamp composed in collaboration with author Stephen King.

The newer songs are much more in a countryish vein--I think Country Blues would be an apt description, as much thematically as musically--yet still find the singer ruminating on time, albeit with considerably more wistfulness. 

On "Troubled Man," which opens Plain Spoken and follows just "Lawless Times" on the current setlist, Mellencamp attests, "So many things have fallen through my hands," while on 2008's lovely "Longest Days"--which musically reminds me of "Weakest Moments," a gem from 1982's blockbuster American Fool--he shares that "Life is short even in its longest days."

And amidst a run of classics that closed out the 110-minute performance--"Rain on the Scarecrow," "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin' Down," "The Authority Song," "Pink Houses," "Cherry Bomb"--Mellencamp made a point of inserting a song called "Die Sudden" from the Life, Death, Love and Freedom album.

Here he offers:

"If I die sudden 
Please don't tell anyone 
There ain't nobody that needs to know 
That I'm gone"

Not too surprisingly, much of Mellencamp's relatively sparse stage patter, when it wasn't about the current nagging illness that had him coughing often off mic, was also about the passage of time.

In introducing his bandmates, the Indiana native especially celebrated guitarist Mike Wanchic, noting that they've been playing together for 45 years, during which time they'd pretty much seen it all.

Yet despite the life-clock thread that connected much of the material, adding resonance to both the old and new songs, I don't mean to suggest that the show was overtly somber or overly sentimental.

All the aforementioned tunes were simply a pleasure to hear, and in many cases, sing along to. (Unfortunately some nearby dolts took "I fight authority" too literally as there was a sizable scrum in the balcony; fortunately at least this time, "authority always wins.")

And after a really delightful 45-minute opening set of her own, Carlene Carter--daughter of June Carter Cash--joined John to take lead vocals on "Away From This World" and duet on "Tear This Cabin Down," both fine-sounding tunes from Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

This was preceded by Mellencamp's hauntingly sparse take on "The Full Catastrophe" from 1996's Mr. Happy Go Lucky--accompanied by Troye Kinnett on piano--and was followed by "Overture" from the same record, an instrumental played by violinist Miriam Sturm and Kinnett on accordion.

Strains of the early hit, "I Need a Lover," made this interlude particularly sweet before the band launched into a rocking "Rain on the Scarecrow," albeit still with more of a low-key Americana groove than on the original.

Back in 1986 when my friend Larry and I saw him at the Rosemont Horizon--twice, as we went again that December--Mellencamp was a whirling, dancing dervish whose 3-hour, emotionally-charged performances made him the best live act this side of Bruce Springsteen.

Over the intervening years, I've seen him do some really good shows, but also some highly disappointing ones, including one in 1994 that came--unwittingly and forgivably--after a then-undiagnosed heart attack.

I didn't buy tickets for the Chicago Theatre as soon as they went on sale, unsure if I needed to see "JCM" yet again this far down the line.

But just last week, with a sense of old times' sake and appreciating what Mellencamp once meant to me, I decided to--without the loftiest of expectations yet with considerable anticipation.

With close friends Dave and Paolo in tow, both of whom I met only when I was nearing 40, it turned into an evening that was nearly as good in the present as it was a blast from the past.

John Mellencamp doesn't do much dancing anymore, he doesn't play for anywhere close to three hours and, even when not addled by malady, his voice isn't the instrument it once was.

But even if he no longer roars like a Cougar, seeing him in 2015 is well-worth it--and this extensive tour has numerous dates yet to come--thanks to the time-worn grit this grizzled professional brings to both his classic hits and appealingly contemplative new material. 

These aren't the 1980s anymore, for any of us, but at least for one not-so-lonely ol' night, John Mellencamp in concert was every bit as good as I hoped he would be. 

And as he sings in "Small Town"--also a joyful part of Wednesday's set--"that's good enough for me."


Here's a clip of the solo acoustic "Jack & Diane" from Wednesday night, posted to YouTube by lkarels:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Onstage, 'First Wives Club' is a Failed Marriage of Terrific Talents, as Well as Hollywood & Broadway -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

First Wives Club
a world premiere musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 29

I've never seen the movie The First Wives Club so I can't say if it seemed like a film likely to translate well to being a stage musical, let alone a stellar or even satisfying one.

But given the talent and pedigrees of those involved in the attempt, it's almost unfathomable how bad the result is.

And this--one of the worst new musicals in recent memory, perhaps since Ghost--comes after after an earlier iteration was developed, staged (in 2009 in San Diego), panned, gutted and resurrected with a new book writer and director.

The initial book writer of the musical, Rupert Holmes--not to be confused with the author of the book the movie was based on, Olivia Goldsmith--is a Tony winner and multiple nominee (and, yes, composer of "The Pina Colada Song"). The current book writer, Linda Bloodworth Thomason, created a highly-popular television show, Designing Women (which I've also never seen), and garnered several Emmy nominations for her script-writing skills.

Director Simon Phillips was behind turning Priscilla, Queen of the Desert into a fun phenomenon of a musical, and he took over for the much celebrated Francesca Zambello.

With its numerous producers seemingly aiming to take First Wives Club to Broadway, the world premiere cast in Chicago is first-rate, including Tony-winner Faith Prince as Brenda (the Bette Midler role in the movie).

Christine Sherrill, a fine actress/singer who I've long enjoyed on Chicago stages, is terrific as Elise, the Goldie Hawn part, and another strong vocalist, Carmen Cusack--who was great in Wicked, Sunday in the Park with George and South Pacific--makes for a fine ersatz Diane Keaton as Annie.

I also got a hoot out of seeing another Broadway veteran, Gregg Edelman--the pride of Skokie and my alma mater, Niles North High School--as Annie's husband, Aaron, while Sean Murphy Cullen is fun as Morty.

And the score of First Wives Club is by three of the greatest, most successful songwriters in music history, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland--commonly referred to as Holland-Dozier-Holland--who are responsible for many of Motown's greatest songs, including "You Can't Hurry Love," "You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Heat Wave," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and dozens more. (Here's a link to Spotify playlist of some of their greatest hits.)

The musical incorporates a few HDH classic gems, most notably "Reach Out" (a.k.a. "I'll Be There"), as well as "Stop in the Name of Love," "Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Pie)" and "My World is Empty Without You."

But Dozier and the Holland brothers were also enlisted to write new songs for First Wives Club, including many much more in a "move the story along" Broadway vein than reminiscent of their Motown classics.

None of these electrified on a first hearing like the chestnuts of old, but most seemed more than tuneful enough and Prince, Sherrill and Cusack all shined on powerful solo numbers.

Given all these terrific, proven talents, most who seem to have done the best they could with what they had to work with, it is particular vexing to report that First Wives Club is by-and-large terrible.

I have all the regard in the world for how much time, money, effort, talent, tryouts, tinkering, reworking, etc., goes into making a successful musical, and some of my favorites--The Producers, Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde--have come from movies I hadn't seen or particularly loved prior to their stage adaptation.

Even musicals of Elf and Shrek and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels were more good than bad.

But with the caveat that good, even great, musicals can originate from any source material, First Wives Club--as with Ghost, 9-to-5 and Flashdance, among others--feels like an egregious attempt to cash in on a popular movie title without creating a reason for it to exist onstage.

It should be obvious by now, but some movies just don't need to be made into stage musicals. It's a different art form and while The First Wives Club appears to be mainly regarded as a mediocre--if quite successful--film, whatever merits it may have are likely best appreciated on screen.

I assume I was watching scenes from the movie re-created in live action--and I realize that this is what fans of the movie who paid up to $100 for prime seats at the Oriental may well want--but as a musical First Wives Club is completely devoid of the kind of theatrical pacing that engages you from beginning to end. (If you're planning to go, I suggest looking on HotTix or Goldstar for discount tickets, which should be readily available.)

It starts weirdly--albeit with the best, most classic music of the night--and goes downhill once a coffin hits the stage. Everything just feels disjointed.  

Although my friend Paolo and I may not have be the target demographic--although as Broadway in Chicago subscribers for 10+ years, I would argue we appreciate and embrace quality theater of any ilk--we were rather confused by the storyline in Act I and completely befuddled in Act II.

And though nearly 3 hours is way too long for a narrative conceit this slight--middle-aged women who plot convoluted revenge after their husbands have cheated on them--it isn't like I was expecting King Lear.

Meaning that I can't simply say the plot line is the problem.

In truth, I'm hard-pressed to specify what makes First Wives Club so disappointing.

The performances are good, the music is decent and in some cases superb, the scenery and costumes are more than sufficient.

But it just doesn't work.

I didn't care about anything that was happening in First Wives Club, rarely cracked a smile and couldn't wait for it to end. I have to assume just watching the movie would be better, or at least a lot cheaper, and I know simply hearing 2 hours of glorious Holland-Dozier-Holland hits would be far more pleasurable.

So rather than prattling on about what I particularly didn't like, let's just chalk it up to irreconcilable differences and move on with our lives.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Even on a Less Raucous Note, Willie Nile Delivers Another Storied Performance -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile
w/ Johnny Pisano on bass
Opening act Jefferson Grizzard
SPACE, Evanston, IL
February 13, 2015

On Sunday, December 7, 1980, Willie Nile was recording at the Record Plant in New York City.

So was John Lennon, in a separate studio, accompanied by Yoko Ono.

They didn't interact directly but when the former Beatle conveyed to a recording engineer that he needed some guitar strings, the New York singer/songwriter supplied them, helping to enable the last song Lennon would record.

Nile considered accompanying the strings with a note of admiration to one of his musical heroes, but refrained as the two musicians were to meet each other that Tuesday.

On Monday, through a shared colleague who requested an autograph as John and Yoko were heading out into the night--under the guise that it was for the guy who had given him the strings, though the requester was really seeking it for a relative--Lennon warmly acknowledged what Nile had done.

Mere minutes later, John Lennon was murdered in the entryway of the Dakota, where he and Yoko lived.

This story was told with great poignancy by Willie Nile on Friday night within the comfortable, relatively intimate Evanston venue known as SPACE.

Dedicating it to Lennon, he then proceeded to play a song called "Lost" from his most recent album, If I Was a River, a piano-based record on which Nile was fortuitously able to use the same piano that both he and John had played at the Record Plant in 1980.

The unique combination of excellent music and enlightening storytelling that essentially reveals the history of rock 'n roll--Nile also shared that he had visited the Buddy Holly crash site just the day before arriving in Evanston, had enjoyed a previous conversation with Holly's widow Maria Elena, was recently given a private tour of Lennon's childhood home in Liverpool and wrote/recorded tunes with, for and/or about Roger McGuinn, Danny Kortchmar, Jeff Buckley and Levon Helm, among others--helps to explain why I make a point of seeing Willie Nile every time he comes to town.

Without meaning to be flippant or facetious, nor disrespectful to anyone's faith or beliefs, I often say--and more frequently feel--that "Rock is my religion."

And if the Beatles are my most exalted deity and Bruce Springsteen my high priest, Willie Nile is my favorite missionary (with great respect to other cherished troubadours such as Alejandro Escovedo, Paul Weller and Ike Reilly).

Now in his mid-'60s, Nile released his self-titled debut album in 1980, which garnered enough attention that Pete Townshend hand-picked him to open for The Who. But after 1981's Golden Down, due to  "protracted legal problems" (per Wikipedia), he released only two more studio albums--and quite spaced out at that--before 2006's wonderful Streets of New York.

Thanks to a laudatory mention on the Springsteen fanzine site,, I bought Streets of New York soon after its release, and still like it best of all of Willie's albums.

I first caught him live in 2009 after the release of House of A Thousand Guitars and found him to be absolutely phenomenal. I wasn't blogging regularly then, but would have rated the show--which like the next two had him backed locally by Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra--@@@@@ (out of 5).

That's also the rating I gave to Willie Nile gigs in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the last at Evanston's SPACE with his own backing band.

I've introduced myself to Willie after shows and have had CDs signed and photos taken; he's a great, extremely warm guy so I hope he's not too offended that I'm giving Friday night's show--accompanied only by bassist Johnny Pisano of his regular backing band--1/2@ less than the others.

The 90-minute performance was certainly terrific and I loved it; it just didn't quite blow my mind like the full-band, full-bore shows that have left me a bit more ebulliently ecstatic. Still, I'm happy to have witnessed Nile play in a slightly less feverish vein as it further amplifies what a great and prolific songwriter he is.

And--even if he's toiling in smallish clubs without great name recognition beyond roomfuls of diehard fans worldwide; it was nice to see SPACE near capacity on Friday--his place in rock history. 

You can see the full setlist that I posted to, but everything he and Pisano played sounded great, even in leaving out at least a couple dozen songs I would have loved to hear.

Illustrating my above comment about him being a rock 'n roll missionary, Nile's numerous stories, recollections and dedications only added to the evening's sense of purpose--beyond just righteous entertainment--as he shared not only amazing anecdotes, but espoused (as is close to my heart) the idea that music and culture can truly transform lives and change the world.

He dedicated "The Innocent Ones," the great title track of his 2010 album, to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, spoke about visiting John Lennon's childhood home--where with Paul McCartney "Please Please Me" and other early Beatles' hits were written--before playing his own Beatlesque "My Little Girl" and told of meeting Maria Elena at South by Southwest prior to launching into a great cover of "Not Fade Away."

And this was only halfway through the show.

(Fascinatingly, per Willie, Maria Elena shared that Buddy adored Little Richard, but when the latter came to visit him in Texas in the late '50s, the racist views of Holly's father precluded Richard from being let into the family home.)

Showing himself to be incredibly deft on the piano, Nile performed "Sunrise in New York City," "Lost"--preceded by the story at top--and "I Can't Do Crazy (Anymore)," which is a song title taken from a comment noted songwriter/sideman Danny Kortchmar made to him after a beautiful woman was pointed out on the streets of New York. (I also like how If I Was a River is a sly reference to Nile's last name.)

Jefferson Grizzard
Reaching even further back in his personal/cultural history lesson, Willie also shared that his grandfather ran a vaudeville orchestra for 30 years, through which such luminaries as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Eddie Cantor became family friends.

After a romp through "House of A Thousand Guitars," whose lyrics cite many other greats, Nile brought opening act Jefferson Grizzard--a fine singer, songwriter from Rome, GA with what sounded like a Jerseyesque growl to me--onstage for "When Levon Sings," which Willie wrote after the death of his close friend, Levon Helm of The Band.

Grizzard stayed onstage for the "One Guitar," an anthemic song of peace on which Nile has repeatedly been accompanied by his pal Bruce Springsteen, including just a few weeks ago at the Light of Day Benefit for Parkinson's Disease. (My clip of Friday's version is below.)

Even with Willie playing acoustic guitar or piano throughout, it was far from a sedate evening, but for his sole encore Nile eschewed common choices by the Ramones or Clash--both friends and inspirations--or his great cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died," which he mentioned while citing longtime friend Norm Winer of WXRT.

Instead he ended a great show with a touching take of "On the Road to Calvary," noting that he had written it for Jeff Buckley and would have loved to have heard him sing it.

I said hello to Willie by the merch stand after the show, and he warmly told me that I could reach out to him for an interview. I hope to make that happen in the coming weeks, but already feel like I know--and try to share--much about a man who has become one of my favorite performers.

And even if--sans electric guitars and drums--Friday's show at SPACE was a bit less rocking than ones past, it reiterated my belief that great rock 'n roll is about much more than just great rock 'n roll.


Here's a clip I shot of "One Guitar," with Willie Nile, Johnny Pisano and Jefferson Grizzard:

And here's a Spotify playlist for those wishing to learn more about Willie Nile (including a number of tunes he played at SPACE):