Friday, June 24, 2016

Pithy Philosophies #29

Seth Saith:

Those with nothing are forever susceptible to the delusion that those with everything will enrich them, and that those who share their struggle will deprive them. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Awfully Strange Fruit: 'A Small Oak Tree Runs Red' Presents Powerful Look at a Heinous Past -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Small Oak Tree Runs Red
a World Premiere play by Lekethia Dalcoe
directed by Harry Lennix
Congo Square Theatre
at Athenaeum Theatre Building, Chicago
Thru July 3

One obviously needn't see a play based in the 19th century to encounter abundant, distressing glimpses of man’s depravity to man (and woman).

Or absolutely abhorrent examples of racism.

But if it hadn’t been so horribly true, it would seem nearly unfathomable that it was once rather commonplace for white folks to lynch blacks in the American south.

And as Lakethia Dalcoe’s fine new play, A Small Oak Tree Runs Red, brutally chronicles, victims were often hung from a noose tied to a tree branch and also—while still alive—stripped, shot, burned, castrated and/or otherwise mutilated.

Which makes for a rather challenging, although rewarding, piece of theater.

Presented by Congo Square Theatre—which identifies itself as presenting "Black theater in Chicago"—and directed by noted TV and film actor Harry Lennix in a small 3rd floor studio in the Athenaeum Theatre building at Southport & Wellington, A Small Oak Tree Runs Red isn’t easy to watch.

Or for me, at least in part, follow.

Dalcoe, a clearly gifted young writer commissioned to pen this World Premiere, creates a scenario involving husband and wife Hayes and Mary Turner (Ronald L. Conner, Tiffany Addison) and their friend Sidney Johnson (Gregory Fenner).

The story takes place after the abolition of slavery, but all three African-Americans remain indentured to the white, unseen Hampton Smith, who we learn regularly beat the men, raped Mary and got his comeuppance.

The play alternates between flashbacks of the trio interacting following their brief freedom with Mar and scenes that take place with them in purgatory, after having been lynched and—almost incomprehensibly—worse.

Quite understandably, much of the dialogue is rather aggrieved or otherwise highly-charged, making for an intensity that made lines occasionally hard to catch and/or digest, and the narrative sometimes difficult to comprehend.

This is exacerbated by the frequent flipping between real-life and the afterlife.

Which doesn't mean the play isn't quite affectingly staged by Lennix, nor that it is lacking in deft dialogue.

A scene where foot-stomping accompanies the characters' shouts truly burns with fury, while the iniquity in their situation is adroitly reflected in lines like:
"I'd rather hope than fight any day."
"The world has turned its back on us a long time ago; I'm just trying to get whatever joy I can."
So whatever I may have missed in terms of specificity, the overall gist was all too devastatingly clear.

The horrors of what I was hearing about--and to some extent seeing  re-enacted quite eerily--were more gripping in their reality than pristine was the play's theatricality, but seeing A Small Oak Tree Runs Red was undeniably a valuable experience.

However dreadfully.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Vibrant, Imaginative Efforts Can’t Make 'The SpongeBob Musical' Must Sea - Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The SpongeBob Musical
a World Premiere
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 10

Although I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, all a good while ago, I’m aware of the abundant charms of Nickelodeon’s rabidly popular animated series SpongeBob SquarePants.

My best friend had quite an affinity for the show—at least during its initial three seasons; he’s largely soured on its quality since—and thus acquainted me with the endlessly upbeat title character who “lives in a pineapple under the sea” along with an array of anthropomorphized creatures.

So while I arrived at the Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night somewhat dubious about how an animated TV series might be translated to a stage musical—featuring original songs by a variety of pop acts—my mindset was, as Spongebob might say, “I’m ready!” to be entirely enchanted. 

Especially as my subscription mates were the night before (I had to postpone due to car troubles). And because The Lion King musical certain proved that animation could be theatrically re-imagined rather brilliantly.

But entirely enchanted I wasn’t.

Which isn't to suggest the show failed to bring a smile to my lips, as even before it began the vibrancy of the sets spreading far beyond the Oriental's stage bespoke considerable imagination and ebullience.

Directed somewhat unexpectedly by longtime Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member, Tina Landau, under the auspices of Nickelodeon, the production has opted not to put its SpongeBob, Patrick Star, Squidward, Plankton and others in full body costumes, but rather interpretive get-ups that allow their faces to be seen.

As this is an attempt to be legitimate Broadway-bound entertainment, rather than just a brazen attempt to cash in on the kiddies, it makes sense that we can see the performers' faces and bodies.

Yet while Ethan Slater as SpongeBob tackles this challenge about as well as one could imagine--and Gavin Lee, who was great as Bert in Mary Poppins, is super here as Squidward, complete with an extra set of legs--nothing here tickled me as much as simply seeing an effervescent animated sponge in a pair of short pants.

In other words, the musical loses something for not having SpongeBob truly look like SpongeBob.

And though there really is some terrific costuming, wonderful scenery--including two ingenious "pinball" type chutes to left and right of the stage--inspired performances (including by Danny Skinner as Patrick, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks and Nick Blaemire as Sheldon Plankton), some fine songs and an apocalyptic volcano threatening to destroy Bikini Bottom storyline that feels akin to an episode, I can't say that watching the musical felt better than catching an inventive 30 minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants on TV.

Contrary to my fears, The SpongeBob Musical never felt tawdry, tacky or crass; the effort in shaping the material is clear, and although the stylistic variances of songs by various artists doesn't abet overall cohesion, I can't say it ruined the show.

The opening song, "Bikini Bottom Day" by a songwriter named Jonathan Coulton comes off well, and there is something inherently compelling about hearing "No Control," written by David Bowie and Brian Eno--and easily imagining it being sung by Bowie.

"Hero is My Middle Name" further proves the showtune composition chops of Cyndi Lauper, who won a Tony Award for writing the music & lyrics for Kinky Boots, and Gavin Lee heads the show's best production number as Squidward leads a tap dancing crew on "I'm Not a Loser," written by They Might Be Giants.

Christopher Gattelli is the show's choreographer, and like Scenic & Costume Designer David Zinn, deserves considerable credit for making The SpongeBob Musical as good as it is.

But while it is fairly entertaining, and occasionally delightful, it is not a great musical. That it's nowhere near as good as The Sound of Music, which was playing just down Randolph Street at the Cadillac Palace, is probably a petty criticism as few shows can compare, but also within the previous 8 days, I found a local production of Bat Boy: The Musical far more pleasing, substantive and cohesive.

I realize that nobody going to see The SpongeBob Musical will be expecting West Side Story, and there's no reason both can't exist.

I also never mean for even my lukewarm reviews to dissuade those so inclined from attending a show, and in addition to two friends liking it far more than I, a standing ovation on Wednesday night also seems to offer a considerably higher opinion.

Of course, the balcony was half-empty, so perhaps the SpongeBob franchise isn't beguiling the theater crowd as much as was hoped. And that the show neither rivals any first-rate musical--including, by a great distance, The Lion King--nor equals the animated series on which it is based, would seem to suggest that, despite some nice efforts, this world premiere musical just isn't sponge worthy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Even on a Tragic Day, Griffin Theatre’s Bat Boy Demonstrates Delectable Bite — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bat Boy: The Musical
Griffin Theatre at The Den Theatre
Thru July 25

Like a great friend, great art—or even just great entertainment—can make both the good times and bad times better.

This past Sunday morning, I woke up to hear the devastating news about the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Although sad news is a daily occurrence, and mass shootings all too common, the slaughter of 49 people out for a night of dancing—with 53 more injured—is something no one with a heart & soul could easily shrug off.

I can’t say I felt much in the mood for a Sunday matinee, but had been quite anticipating the professional Chicago premiere of Bat Boy: The Musical, a show I saw and loved, somewhat unsuspectingly, on a trip to London in 2004. (I had also seen an Oak Park Village Players production in 2009.)

So, glad to have been granted an invitation for the Press Opening, I arrived at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Ave. with a good deal of melancholy mixed into my mindset, but smiled as soon as I saw the show curtain.

It essentially recreated the Weekly World News tabloid front page from 1992, with a headline and story about a BAT BOY FOUND IN WEST VIRGINIA CAVE.

This served to not only inform the uninitiated that this Bat Boy show had nothing to do with baseball or Batman, but to set the occasionally (but not overly) campy tone employed by the performers under the direction of Scott Weinstein.

From the opening number, “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” the show with music & lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe—who was later responsible for Legally Blonde: The Musical—has enough solid songs to be a legitimately likable musical.

So while calling it campy may foster connotations that don’t do it qualitative justice, I like how the show, and particularly this rendition, never takes itself too seriously.

Henry McGinniss seems just about perfect in embodying the titular Bat Boy, who is christened Edgar after being taken in, then educated and gentrified, by a local family consisting of the local veterinarian Dr. Taylor (Matt Miles), his wife Meredith (Anne Sheridan Smith) and their teenage daughter, Shelley (Tiffany Tatreau).

I found Smith to be quite vocally strong on “Mrs. Taylor’s Lullaby,” while Tatreau is terrific, as she has been in a succession of shows I’ve seen lately (Ride the Cyclone, Spring Awakening, Sister Act). 

Perhaps prompted by budgetary and cast-size constraints—I don’t recall if it was previously done this way—I like how director Weinstein has a few of the actors (Jeff Meyer, Jordan Dell Harris, Ron King) occasionally donning wigs to play female townsfolk, while alternately embodying male characters.

King especially steals every scene he’s in, while the rest of the cast is also quite appealing, including Michael Kingston as the local Sheriff and Erin Daly as the Mayor and assorted others.

Abetted by some quirky, inspired choreography by Rhett Guter and Amanda Kroiss, several of the numbers are positively delightful, including “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” “Christian Charity,” “Another Dead Cow” and “Show You a Thing or Two,” whereupon Edgar cites a litany of cultural references to illustrate the depth of his newfound literacy.

I can’t say I ever forgot what had happened in Orlando as I was watching the show, but it’s a testament to caliber the material, performers and production that I was able to thoroughly enjoy it, nonetheless.

And while such a distressing real-life prism would likely have reflected on anything I may have seen that afternoon, I couldn’t help but appreciate considerable relevance and resonance in the Bat Boy’s initial ostracization for being different, and his touching struggle for acceptance amid a close-minded community.

After originally seeing Bat Boy: The Musical in London in 2004—it world premiered in 1997 and ran Off-Broadway in 2001, but never On-—I imagined that some hip North Side theater could have quite a hit, and perhaps a long run, with it, particularly around the period when the similar themed Wicked was packing them in during a sit-down run in the Loop. While there was a good-sized, highly enthusiastic, often LOLing crowd at the Den Theatre on Sunday afternoon, I doubt this production is primed to capture such caché.

But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. For even amid great darkness, Bat Boy: The Musical showed that it's quite something to be seen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Cure "Just Like Heaven?" Not Quite, but Relatively "Close to Me" -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Cure
w/ opening act The Twilight Sad
June 10, 2016 (also June 11)
UIC Pavilion, Chicago

The Cure are not in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

And to my awareness, they’ve only ever been nominated for consideration once, in 2012, despite seemingly being eligible since 2004, 25 years after their debut album (which was Three Imaginary Boys, not Boys Don’t Cry).

Although the Rock Hall is a dubious arbiter—and has thus far omitted favorites like the Zombies, Jam, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Warren Zevon and Midnight Oil—other genre-defining bands germinating in the ‘80s such as U2, R.E.M. and Metallica have been inducted.

To me, in terms of their popularity at the time and their staying power, The Cure are of that ilk.

And especially in terms of the Goth subset of British New Wave—the former and/or latter from which contemporaries like Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, XTC, Joy Division, New Order, Duran Duran, Bauhaus, the Psychedelic Furs, Jesus & Mary Chain and others have also been entirely ignored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voters—the band led by Robert Smith seems iconically influential and qualitatively distinctive enough to warrant inclusion.

As, for my money, they demonstrated once again Friday night at the UIC Pavilion, with Smith’s trademark vocals—hopefully doleful or dolefully hopeful, depending on the song—sounding as strong as ever at age 57.

But it was also a show that could have corroborated the opinions of those not completely sold on the Cure’s illustrious merits.

Because it informs my take, let me note that I was not a Cure fanatic in real-time at the height of their popularity. Unlike presumably many in the audience Friday (and Saturday), they did not dominate the soundtrack, ameliorate the angst nor dictate the fashion sense of my high school and college years, although I was of a conducive age.

Certain songs were inescapable, but it wasn't until 1993’s twin live albums—Show and Paris—that my music collection became, well, Curated, though I would subsequently acquire 1989’s Disintegration and much that came after, as well as multiple hits sets.

My familiarity and regard have grown considerably over the years, and in preparing to see the Cure live in 2000, 2008 and now, another 8 years later, I came to appreciate how far their quality extends far beyond the sizable trove of hits.

Yet I can’t deny that my overt affinity runs mostly to the more popular songs, and even in (re-)acquainting myself with several of their albums and Spotifamiliarizing myself based on recent, somewhat rotating setlists for nearly a month, I found myself unfamiliar with a good number of tunes they ran through on Friday night, especially in their 18-song main set. (See the setlist here.)

With the caveat that I recognize a number of Cure songs I couldn't readily name, "Kyoto Song," "All I Want," "Primary," "Like Cockatoos," "The Perfect Girl," "Screw," "The Walk," "Charlotte Sometimes" and "Jupiter Crash" are among those played that I would consider a bit esoteric.

This doesn't mean I didn't like what I heard; everything in itself actually sounded pretty swell, with Smith's vocals and guitar accompanied by longtime bassist, Simon Gallup, former David Bowie collaborator Reeves Gabrels on guitar, Roger O'Donnell on keyboards and demonstrably-terrific drummer Jason Cooper. (Note: These names are per Wikipedia, as they weren't introduced onstage. I think only Gallup goes way back with Smith.)

Even when I didn't know what was being played, it was unfailingly well-delivered, usually with an entrancing mix of lights and video.

So it's not like I only wanted easy ear-candy Cure, which when it came in abundance late in the 2 hour, 40 minute show--"Never Enough," "Fascination Street," "In Between Days," "Friday I'm In Love," "Close to Me," "Boys Don't Cry" and more--was delightful, but almost too sticky sweet all run together.

But about 90 minutes into the show, with only "A Night Like This," "Pictures of You," "Lovesong" and "Just Like Heaven" having truly served the low-hanging fruit contingent, The Cure were at risk of overstaying their stay in laborious, self-indulgent territory.

While the terrific A Head on the Door album cut, "Push," "One Hundred Years," the propulsive main-set closer "Give Me It" and other songs I can't specifically cite kept things from ever getting too dull, I think Smith may have best squeezed just a bit more bubblegum into the early proceedings.

And maybe a couple more dense, challenging songs could well have broken up the late-show hit parade.

As my companion said as we were leaving--and he was much more smitten by the deep cuts than the hits--"it felt like two different shows."

Each of which had plenty of moments that, to me, aptly demonstrate why The Cure deserves to be in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

So even if I probably could have been just as happy with a half-hour less, other than tight-squeeze arena seats seemingly designed for slim college students, it was a comfortable evening, so I can't really complain--or deduct @'s--for getting a bit more of a Cure than I needed.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Among My Favorite Things: A Wonderful 'Sound of Music' With All the Von Trappings of Grandeur -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Sound of Music
National Tour
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru June 19

Somewhat akin to the Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret--of which I also saw a sensational touring edition this year in Chicago--Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music is all the more brilliant for the way it intertwines a remarkably tuneful score with the inhumane rise of Nazism.

That its rash of hummable songs--"The Sound of Music," "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "So Long, Farewell" and more--are accompanied by foreboding undercurrents makes for a musical masterpiece while reminding that the delightful and the despicable aren't always mountains apart.

To which today's political landscape--and newfound specter of fascism--only enhances the eerie resonance.

So while one might imagine mercenary producers trotting out a legendary title simply for the sake of a National Tour with built-in box office, esteemed director Jack O'Brien's new production of The Sound of Music feels entirely vital for anyone who embraces not only musical theater but all of mankind.

Photo credit on all: Matthew Murphy
And though reading that the winsome Kerstin Anderson was a college sophomore before being selected to star as Maria had me assuming that this is a Non-Equity tour, a bit of online research affirms that this is indeed an Equity production. (I couldn't find any such indication in the Playbill.)

Which isn't a huge deal, as I would have called it the best Non-Equity production in memory, but this does corroborate my sense that those who get down to Cadillac Palace in the next two weeks will see a Broadway-caliber rendition, actors' union performers and all.

Anderson--who even from the upper balcony seemed to have major stardom written all over her--is accompanied by a stellar cast through and through, including Ben Davis as Captain Georg von Trapp, Paige Silvester as Liesl, the kids playing the six other von Trapp children (Jeremy Michael Lanuti, Ashley Brooke, Austin Levine, Iris Davies, Kyla Carter and Audrey Bennett in the characters' descending age order) and Melody Betts, who delivers a sublime "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" as the Mother Abbess.

Also quite fine are Dan Tracy as Liesl's love interest Rolf, Teri Hansen as Elsa (a love interest of Captain von Trapp before he met a girl named Maria--sorry, wrong classic musical) and Merwin Foard as Max, a Minister of Culture in the show's pre-war Austrian setting who encourages the musically-talented family to perform publicly.

Under the musical direction of conductor Jay Alger, the orchestra aptly reiterates the mirthful magnificence of Rodgers and Hammerstein overtures and entr'actes, and the vocalists quite favorably render all of the sensational songs.

While the aforementioned classics consistently brought a smile to my brain, I was even more struck by how good the lesser-known tunes are, and came off here.

The family singalong of "The Lonely Goatherd" was blissfully abetted by Anderson's youthful exuberance, songs like "How Can Love Survive?," "No Way to Stop It" and "Something Good" further showcased R&H's deft musical/lyrical mastery and Davis' delivery of "Edelweiss" was truly touching.

Just a few weeks ago, I enjoyed the Lyric Opera of Chicago's fine staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, but noted in my @@@@ (out of 5) review that there just weren't enough songs I found truly sublime.

This was my fourth time seeing, and loving, The Sound of Music in the past 5 years--including at the Lyric in 2014--and I've long been smitten by the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, so I wasn't exactly surprised by the majesty of the score, yet was reminded just how rare it is for a musical to have all of its songs be magnificent.

And while this might well be chauvinistic of me, despite having taken some issue with the Lyric's pairing of a rather young King (Paolo Montalbano) and Kate Baldwin's clearly older Anna in The King and I, here I felt O'Brien's choice of Anderson to play a youthful, more sisterly governess to the von Trapp children worked well and didn't pose a creepy disconnect when Davis' more mature Captain started to make googly-eyes at her. (i.e. She doesn't seem that young.)

Despite having seen The Sound of Music repeatedly in recent years--after it long stood as the most famous musical I'd never seen onstage--I can't really say I discerned the "radical new approach" said to have been taken by Jack O'Brien, a three-time Tony Award winner.

But I don't recall such prevalent use of Nazi symbolism as employed by set designer Douglas W. Schmidt, with five large banners backing the Von Trapps during their festival performance towards the end.

Though it will always be disturbing for me to see swastikas, their bold use served to further the poignant messaging of The Sound of Music and amplify how close to home the ascendancy to power through scapegoating, hate and exclusion threatens to hit.

In a year when Broadway in Chicago is bringing hot new musicals like Hamilton, Fun Home, Finding Neverland and the already come-and-gone Matilda to town for the first time, as well as currently presenting the world premiere of The SpongeBob Musical--I see it next Tuesday--it might seem like The Sound of Music is just a golden oldie to placate more traditional theatergoers.

Yet not only was it good to see the Cadillac Palace balcony near capacity on Tuesday night, including a good number of families, through a truly outstanding production of one of the greatest musicals ever created, The Sound of Music served to remind that--although first bowing on Broadway in 1959--it remains very much a musical for our times.

Happily and unfortunately.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 10, The Greatest Living Sports Legends Over 70

In the wake of the passing of Muhammad Ali--who would have topped such a list--I've been thinking about the truly legendary athletes who are still with us.

I'll focus strictly on those over the age of 70, so will not include Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi and others of current or not so distant vintage. (Those close to this age barrier include Bobby Orr, Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nolan Ryan and Terry Bradshaw, among others.) 

I'm also keeping this to athletes with whom I'm familiar, and while you should put whomever you want on your list, I think having played a major sport in the United States at some point will be a criteria for me. Thus, no Sadaharu Oh or some legendary cricket player I don't know. And apologies for not being able to come up with more than one woman.

Happy to hear your arguments and own submissions, but for me these are...

The 11 Most Legendary Living Athletes Past the Age of 70
As of June 6, 2016

1. Willie Mays 
2. Hank Aaron 
3. Jim Brown
4. Pele
5. Gordie Howe
6. Jack Nicklaus
7. Bill Russell
8. Joe Namath
9. Sandy Koufax
10. Arnold Palmer 
11. Dick Butkus

Honorable Mention 

Bob Gibson
Richard Petty
Frank Robinson
Tom Seaver
Steve Carlton
Jim Palmer
Reggie Jackson
Billie Jean King 
Oscar Robertson
Fran Tarkenton
Pete Rose
Gale Sayers
Carl Yaztrzemski
Bob Cousy 

Bobby Hull 
Whitey Ford
Rod Laver