Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Don't You Forget: At Chicago Theatre, Simple Minds Survey a Stellar Career Well Beyond 'The Breakfast Club' -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Simple Minds
Chicago Theatre
October 15, 2018

I believe, like most Americans, my introduction to the Scottish band Simple Minds came with their #1 hit single, "Don't You (Forget About Me)," which was featured in John Hughes' 1985 film, The Breakfast Club.

It's a helluva catchy tune, but the band was initially reluctant to record it, as they didn't write it. Rather, it was written by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff specifically for the film and initially pitched to The Fixx, Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol.

Per Wikipedia, the band relented in part due to persuasion from Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who was married to Simple Minds' frontman Jim Kerr (after she split with the Kinks' Ray Davies).

Amid the height of the MTV era, a few other hits followed--"Alive and Kicking," "Sanctify Yourself," "All the Things She Said"--but there is no song more identified with the band, at least in the U.S.

But Simple Minds have been a working band from 1977 to the present day, with 2018 Walk Between Worlds being their 18th studio album.

I have admittedly been oblivious to most of their oeuvre, but had read and heard enough good things to be curious to see the band on their latest tour, especially as inexpensive seats were plentiful at the ornate Chicago Theatre. (I wound up paying $31 total for 2 seats in about the 25th row, center.)

As I frankly conveyed in a recent review of The The, with Simple Minds I similarly had to Spotifamilarize myself with what I expected to hear, and don't claim to have brought a diehard devotee's heartfelt, historical connection to the songs besides the few aforementioned hits.

But I was impressed--to varying degrees--with almost everything Kerr, original guitarist Charlie Burchill and four other stellar musicians performed from across Simple Minds' catalog.

With no opening act, the show began promptly at 8:07pm with "The Signal and the Noise" from the new album, and it sounded good, as did two other cuts from Walk Between Worlds sprinkled throughout the 23-song set, "Sense of Discovery" and the title track.

It says something about the quality of Simple Minds that their new tunes pleased me roughly on par with several songs that were UK hits back in the proverbial day, such as "Waterfront," "Up on the Catwalk," "Let There Be Love," "She's a River" and "See the Lights."

Though at age 59, Kerr looks more like a corporate executive than an aging rock star, his supple voice still sounds strong and if I remember correctly that once upon a time--coincidentally the name of Simple Minds' best-selling album--he was thought to be a tad prickly, here he was completely warm, affable and gracious.

He shared that on a flight from London to begin the band's first full U.S. tour in two decades, a woman wrongly identified him as the singer from Simply Red, and in eventually deducing that it was actually Simple Minds, said she remembered him being thinner and with much more hair. 

Initially she told Kerr that she only knew "Don't You (Forget About Me)," but when pushed to name
another, recalled "Promised You a Miracle," a fine rendition of which which followed Kerr's tale midway through the first of two sets.

Over 130 minutes (not counting the 20-minute break), there really wasn't anything I heard that I didn't like, but before intermission, "The American"--with a fine guitar solo by Burchill--and "Dirty Old Town" really came off well.

You can check Wikipedia if you really want to know the full roster of Minds past and present, but the current incarnation prominently features two women--vocalist Sarah Brown and Cherisse Osei--both of whom were demonstrably terrific and, along with other newer members, added a youthful freshness to the veteran band.

The musicians were backed by an LED screen whose graphics were best used on "Dolphin," something of a slower dirge that preceded the ebullience of an extended "Don't You (Forget About Me)."

Brown got to sing lead on the first encore, "Book of Brilliant Things," with a bit of the Doors' "Five to One" mashed in, before the closing twosome of "Alive and Kicking" and "Sanctify Yourself" sent us into the night alive, kicking and sanctified.

I've seen at least a handful or two of phenomenal concerts in 2018, and--perhaps given my level of fandom, pre- and post-show--I can't rate or rank this one among the very best.

But with nothing against the fine The The show a few weeks back--which makes for comparison primarily due to similarly moderate familiarity and affinity on my part--I was much more wowed by Simple Minds.

I'd always kind of known that their prowess--and renown, particularly in Europe--went well beyond their most famous song. But now I really know that, in a way I don't think I'll readily forget.

Here's a clip of "Sanctify Yourself" from Monday night that I found on YouTube. (No infringement intended.)

Monday, October 15, 2018

50 Self-Indulgent Selfies at 50

Happy Birthday to me.
Some highlights from my first 50 years.

Friday, October 12, 2018

If You Wanna: The Vaccines Prove Worthy of Being Given a Shot -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Vaccines
w/ opening act Jesse Jo Stark
Lincoln Hall, Chicago
October 11, 2018

I can't say that the Lollapalooza festival ever held that much interest for me, aside from a few great acts, and I'm past the point of actually wanting to attend it.

Standing in a muddy field all day was never much of a thrill, and it seems my favorite musical form--guitar-driven rock--has been usurped by hip-hop, EDM and various forms of pop, even at festivals. There really aren't many new rock bands I know and care about.

But that last sentence isn't something that I'm happy about, and beyond my own explorations to find something new, I'll commonly ask friends--often in the wake of Lollapalooza in Chicago or other festivals, including SXSW in Austin, TX--if they've seen any stellar bands lately. I also may check out live streams or clips on YouTube.

It was through a combination of these methods that, surrounding Lollapalooza in early August this year, I came to learn of The Vaccines, a British quintet that have released four albums since 2011.

I liked what I heard & saw enough to accept the invitation of a couple friends to see the Vaccines at Lincoln Hall Thursday night, which--in their having had all of their albums hit the Top 5 in the UK but not chart here--extended by own "Hidden in the Isles" Fest of Sorts, which I wrote about here.

Leading into the show, I had Sportifamiliarized myself pretty well with the songs showing up on recent setlists, though can't say my affinity for the Vaccines matched that of the Stereophonics, Ash or Charlatans UK, long-standing personal favorites whom I'd seen in September.

But that was kinda the point, as I think Arcade Fire and The Killers are the closest things to "new bands" I really like, and both their debuts came out in 2004.

To wit, since the beginning of 2010, I have seen over 300 rock concerts by headlining acts. Until Thursday, only one had been by an artist who hadn't released an album before this decade: Fitz and the Tantrums. (Dawes is close enough to mention in this regard, with their debut album coming in August 2009, though the concert of theirs I caught was a free show at Millennium Park.)

So it was nice just to have someone somewhat new pique my interest. And with lead singer/guitarist Justin Hayward-Young the primary point of focus, the Vaccines delivered a highly enjoyable, high-energy 75-minute set that certainly made me glad for the exposure.

This followed 45 minutes--and probably 15 too many--by Jesse Jo Stark and her band, who started strong with the spunky "Wish I Was Dead," but had too many similar-sounding somewhat ethereal songs, reminiscent of second-rate Portishead or a lesser take on Garbage's "#1 Crush."

The Vaccines' punchy, almost punky, power-pop is much more to my liking, but even they suffered a bit for lack of sonic diversity.

Beginning with the opener, "Nightclub," a number of tunes from 2018's Combat Sports sounded good, including "Your Love is My Favourite Band," "Take It Easy" and "I Can't Quit."

But these were relatively similar to the bunch from their 2011 debut, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?--"Post Breakup Sex," "Nørgaard," "If You Wanna" and the show closing "All in White"--and the only demonstrable change of pace, "Wetsuit," comes from the first album not the latest.

An unreleased song, "All My Friends Are Falling In You," fit in well with the rest, yet also without demonstrating much variety or songwriting growth.

The Vaccines would do well to broaden their soundscape a bit, perhaps adding a bit of angularity akin to Maxïmo Park--another 21st century British band I love--and more piano or other textures. (The Editors are another band that would be a fairly good comparison for how the Vaccines might evolve.)

So even within the rather limited parlance of British Isles bands I love even if most of America is oblivious, I don’t sense that the Vaccines are a historically great band. Certainly not yet.

But they’re quite good at what they do, and within the even more limited scope of rock bands arising this decade that I have seen in concert, they stand at or near the top. (The Struts are another recent find I'll be seeing next month after loving their set opening for Foo Fighters this summer.)

Lincoln Hall is a comfortable venue, especially--for me--given the upstairs seating if you get there early enough. It was nice to see it sold out for the Vaccines, with the enthusiastic crowd presumably including many who had seen them at Lollapalooza and/or the festival aftershow at Schubas.

Hayward-Young was graciously appreciative of the Chicago fans who fill the joint, just two months down the road. And while he was avowedly fighting a cold, he's a pretty dynamic frontman. 

But here too there's opportunity for further development of the Vaccines. 

For while there's much joy to be had in a good, intimate show by a rare newish rock band, alongside friends I hadn't seen for awhile, the best concerts involve more than punching out just over an hour's worth of fun songs.

If I were to see them again down the road--and Thursday's gig was good enought that I'd be open to it--I'd hope not only for a bit more stylistic variance in the music played, but stronger connection developed between the audience and band, or at least the lead singer.

With such tweaks, the Vaccines could really be administered in powerful doses, with considerable and lasting effect.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ours Go To 11: Volume 29, Artists Who Belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Yesterday, nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2019 were announced. You can find them, and search for all current inductees, at RockHall.com.

This has prompted me to update my list of favorite artists--of those eligible, at least 25 years after their debut album--not yet in the Hall:

1. The Jam
2. The Replacements
3. Warren Zevon
4. The Zombies
5. Radiohead
6. Midnight Oil
7. Depeche Mode
8. The Cure
9. Soundgarden
10. The Smashing Pumpkins
11. Hüsker Dü

Plus 5 More:
The Monkees
Roxy Music
Thin Lizzy
Dinosaur Jr.

The Candy Man Can't: Onstage, 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' Leaves a Bad Taste in My Mouth -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
the musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 21

If all stage musicals were as estimable as the pedigrees of those creating them, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be absolutely delicious.

I have fond if distant memories of the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie starring Gene Wilder, though not so much Tim Burton's 2005 version which matches the musical's title

I love the musical adaptation of another Roald Dahl novel, Matilda, and relish the work Charlie's composer & lyricist team (Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman) did on the Hairspray stage musical. That musical was likewise directed by Jack O'Brien, who has also helmed several others.

But each work is its own creation, and without ripping the cast--especially Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka and the youngsters playing Charlie Bucket (I believe I saw Rueby Wood on Tuesday night)--I found the touring musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to be none too sweet.

This isn’t completely shocking, as the musical pretty much flopped on Broadway, lasting less than a year, garnering no Tony Award nominations and receiving generally mediocre or worse reviews .

The Chicago Tribune’s theater critic, Chris Jones, was dismissive of the Broadway production and lukewarm about the show in Chicago (while praising Weisberg).

Yet even with middling expectations heading into the sumptuous Oriental Theatre, I found myself constantly wishing that the show would end.

Perhaps, never having read Dahl’s book and not having seen the Wilder film for decades, any existing affinity for the source material was steeped more in vague childhood sentimentality than acute actuality.

But judging the musical on its own merits, there was rather little I thought to be stellar, the efforts of the cast notwithstanding.

The scenery seems rather paltry.

Confoundingly, the entire first act takes place beyond the chocolate factory, as we learn of Charlie’s wish to win a “Golden Ticket” to visit it, while four other kids do.

In Act II we learn that Wonka is rather malevolent, and are seemingly supposed to find humor in watching children meet their grisly ends.

And whereas I loved nearly every song in Hairspray upon catching a pre-Broadway tryout in Seattle, almost none of Shaiman & Wittman’s musical concoctions for Charlie caught my ear. Holdover songs from the 1972 film—“The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination”—were greatly superior, with only the closing “The View From Here” notably pleasing.

The best part of the show were the Oompa Loompas, with clever choreography—by Joshua Bergasse—to portray their diminutive size.

But while first “Oompa Loompa Song” in Act II was a delight, several additional ones began to wear out their welcome. Or at least amplified how little else was truly entertaining me.

I’m not one to say all humor need be PC, but it seems odd that a show celebrating a chocolate factory would overtly mock a fat kid, while also belittling the other children on the Wonka tour (including Veruca Salt, bubble gum loving Vi and the technology addicted Mike).

Adults don’t fare much better, with only Charlie’s kindly Grandpa Joe (James Young) and overwrought mother (Amanda Rose) coming off well.

Perhaps some of the pure imagination of Dahl’s 1964 book made this oddness work better, but the darker elements don't come across well onstage, especially without any great music.

I think you get my point, and even so, I’m not trying to convince you to hate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a stage musical.

But it almost never made me crack a smile, and even came to annoy.

Who would’ve thought a show seemingly so steeped in childhood mirth would be so largely devoid of charm, joy and sweetness.


Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Upstairs at Steppenwolf, 'Downstate' Shrewdly Explores a Topic Rarely Discussed Without Disgust -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play
by Bruce Norris
directed by Pam MacKinnon
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 11

It is admittedly more difficult for me to like a play in which I find the main characters unlikable.

Of course, except in stringently non-fictional works, the characters are only saying words written for them by a playwright who may or may not personally concur with the things being expressed onstage.

Despite this truth, it is hard for me to imagine warmly embracing a play that has central figures espousing despicable opinions or undertaking violently harmful actions without any apparent justification.

Even though it is make believe, I--and presumably most audience members--innately take what I see at face value, and imagine it to represent the perspective of the writer, director, theater troupe, etc.

In Downstate--now in a world premiere at Steppenwolf, developed in conjunction with England's esteemed National Theatre--author Bruce Norris seemingly posits whether we can feel empathy for pedophiles, specifically four men who have been convicted, incarcerated, released and are now living rather spartan, still largely captive lives within a group home in downstate Illinois.

Despite the horrific things they have done, to varying degrees of acknowledgement, guilt and remorse, the sexual offenders played by Francis Guinan (Fred), K. Todd Freeman (Dee), Eddie Torres (Felix) and Glenn Davis (Gio) are, if not sympathetic, at least relatably human.

Fred is a kindly music-loving former piano teacher who was paralyzed in a prison beating.

Dee, a former cast member of a Peter Pan musical tour, cares for Fred in the most personal of ways, and is--like myself--a movie buff with a vast DVD & Blu Ray collection.

Felix longs to interact with his teenage daughter, despite having wretchedly abused her. And Gio, with ambitious plans, supposedly isn't long for the group home, for as a Statuatory Rapist, he's a Level I sex offender, unlike the others who are Level III.

Yet I--and others at Sunday's post-show discussion--found Gio to be the most unlikable character, even though his crime wasn't nearly as awful.

But whatever one may feel for the four characters, and empathy may be too strong a word for me, my point is that Downstate is a terrific play regardless.

Even if you simply observe Fred, Dee, Gio and Felix and can't conjure any emotion but disgust, that's OK. Norris isn't necessarily asking us to embrace them, just to consider them.

And he keenly offsets them through the characters of Andy (an excellent Tim Hopper), who was one of Fred's victims years ago and comes to say his peace, his wife Em (Matilda Ziegler), who is even more overtly repulsed by Fred, and Ivy (the superb Cecilia Noble, a Brit who has worked at the National Theatre), a parole officer who exudes both compassion and outrage as she makes regular visits to the home.

As always, Guinan is superb, and his "aw-shucks" nuance to Fred makes him hard to hate. And should we hate him, or simply what he did to Andy 30 years prior? After all, Fred had a sickness, served his time, was brutally beaten and is resigned to living out his life in a wheelchair in a group home, away from the rest of mankind and dependent on Dee's help with toileting functions. Seems many a paroled murderer has paid a lesser price.

Freeman, in a more complex role, is outstanding. Clearly quite intelligent, and defensive on behalf of Fred and Felix, he believes his sexual relations with a young teen were consensual and steeped in love.

I can't say I see this as an adequate defense--and Dee served a full 15-year term--but again, I think Norris is challenging us with difficult questions that have merit no matter what our answers.

Even if one's sense of empathy does have bounds that can't extend to pedophiles who have served their time yet will eternally pay for their misdeeds, Downstate should make you ponder if compassion and forgiveness should only be bestowed when it's easy.

It's a tough topic, but quite artfully handled under the direction of Pam MacKinnon. Proving that a play needn't portray the likable for me to like it. 

Monday, October 08, 2018

Rooms for Improvement: Interesting Idea Not Enough to Make 'Zürich' an Overnight Success -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Amelia Roper
directed by Brad DeFabo Akin
Steep Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 10 

I have seen--or simply know of--a number of movies that are divided into segments, with only loose thematic or narrative connections: Crash, Traffic, Babel, Holy Motors, Certain Women, Wild Tales, Paisan and more.

But while I imagine there are several similarly-structured plays, only Neil Simon's Plaza Suite and California Suite--both turned into movies--come to mind, and I haven't seen either on stage.

So unless I've forgotten something--which is certainly possible--Amelia Roper's Zürich is the first theatrical work I've seen that was divided up in this way.

And even if the conceit isn't entirely original, it is certainly innovative and rare enough that I was hoping the end result would be far more intoxicating.

Not that there isn't significant appeal besides the episodic nature. 

Photo by Gregg Gilman
I have before never attended a play in which a glass partition separates the audience from the actors, but director Brad DeFabo Abin and set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec employ one within Steep's intimate space, so as to give a sense of viewing a hotel room--in Zürich, Switzerland--through an exterior window. As if one were a bird, window cleaner, voyeur from a nearby building or perhaps God.

And with the requisite acoustics nicely assured by sound designer Thomas Dixon, the scenic conceit works well. 

As Zürich opens, we see a man standing on his bed singing the U.S. National Anthem, wearing only an unbuttoned shirt. 

This too is something I've never seen before, not even in my bedroom mirror.

I won't spell out what happens in each of the five scenes that take place in five different rooms of the same hotel--the same onstage set piece is used for all--nor who plays which character, except to say that Elizabeth Wigley is appealing as a hotel maid who appears in multiple vignettes.

Photo by Gregg Gilman
Not thinking that it ruins much, I will share that two guests (in separate scenes) are American businessmen, in Zurich for a banking conference. Three different children factor in, and a couple of the episodes involve threats of violence.

All of the acting is stellar, by Sasha Smith, Jeff Kurysz--nicely varied here from two other stellar roles I've recently seen--Debo Balogun, Maya Lou Hlava, Cole Keriazakos, Cindy Marker, Valerie Gorman, Brandon Rivera and Julia Dale & Paula Hlava, who share a role at alternating performances.

Though I feel the harsh "sturm und drang" music separating the scenes--as the audience repeatedly sees itself reflected in the glass--is a bit over the top, Akin does a nice job presenting the material Roper provides.

But while I give the playwright props for attempting something unique, I didn't find the individual scenes and characters all that beguiling.

Photo by Lee Miller
Though the last scene wasn't one I saw coming, Zürich also doesn't tie the disparate vignettes together in a way that I found satisfying.

I can readily imagine a structurally similar play unwinding with some kind of connective twist.

But while Zürich--which ran Off Broadway last year--does offer some interesting observations as it depicts those simultaneously holed up in a European business-class hotel, overall I didn't feel sufficiently more enlightened at check-out time.

While I didn't love Zürich, the production did nothing to lessen my regard for the work consistently presented at Steep Theatre Co. I hope to return and I applaud the expansion of their storefront space to include a newly-opened lounge next door, dubbed the Boxcar.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Devil May Care: Despite a Beguiling Construct, 'Witch' Doesn't Enchant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play
by Jen Silverman
directed by Marti Lyons
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 16

For playwrights, and theaters that commission, develop, program and present new plays, I have to assume the following thought routinely occurs: 

Will this be resonant with current audiences?

But current audiences can include men and women of vastly different backgrounds, beliefs, wealth, and outlook, ranging in age from 22 to 105.

Though in terms of sociopolitical matters I tend to find greater consistency among theater patrons--especially in the Chicago area--than the general populace, there can still undoubtedly be considerable polarization among any two attendees, let alone all of them. So socially commentative plays come with plenty of risk.

And while I think there is much of great consequence happening on a daily basis that warrants being explored by talented dramatists, it is certainly understandable if some people want to get away from all that during a night at the theater.

Photo Credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So I can imagine some of the challenge for writer Jen Silverman and Glencoe's erstwhile Writers Theatre in bringing her new play, Witch, to the stage.

Inspired by and at least somewhat corresponding to The Witch of Edmonton--an English Jacobean play written by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford in 1621, which I've never read or seen--at least on a surface level Witch wouldn't seem ripped from today's headlines

Yet without stretching one's imagination too far, the drama, which I saw Wednesday night, can be interpreted as broaching--sometimes fairly acutely, sometimes far less so--the subjugation of women, the haughtiness (and worse) of powerful men, concerns raised by the #MeToo movement, societal and familial reasons not to reveal one's homosexuality, inequities of life under Trump and other quite contemporary topics.

Simply in theory, I would say Silverman--whose The Roommate has been widely produced and who has also written for TV--shrewdly covered both bases, penning a classic fable with nary a mention of fake news, while fitting much modern relevance in-between the lines.

But with due respect to her, director Marti Lyons, all the actors and everyone involved at Writers, in neither regard--as simple entertainment or something profoundly deeper--did Witch, for me, cast much of a spell.

At face value, the play--and presumably the antecedent work, but I won't speak to it here--concerns a woman named Elizabeth Sawyer (Audrey Francis), who is ostracized from her village because many believe her to be a witch.

She is visited by Scratch (Ryan Hallahan), who purports to be the Devil--though he's really just an operative of such--and is offered the opportunity to sell her soul in exchange for wishes being granted.

Scratch also tries to make such a deal with Cuddy Banks (Steve Haggard), the closeted gay son of the powerfully aristocratic Sir Arthur (David Alan Anderson).

Cuddy's ire--and perhaps desire--is targeted toward Frank Thorney (Jon Hudson Odom), who likewise lives in Sir Arthur's castle and is a rival heir, despite not being actual kin.

Frank is secretly married to their maid, Winnifred (Arti Ishak), but treats her rather shabbily, as does Sir Arthur.

Although it is a relatively brief, 95-minute one-act play, Witch includes several scenes featuring just two of the characters, with dialogue that often seemed to run long. 

So although several of the relationships I've outlined hold narrative curiosity, I just wasn't pulled in to care as much as I should have. 

The cast is all quite good--most demonstrably Hallahan, Haggard and Francis--but merely as a old-yet-new soap opera, I wasn't very mesmerized. 

And while Silverman slips in many subjects of modern resonance, that they mostly felt like shallow dips rather than particularly astute dives also failed to enchant. 

Because I have a forum to write long-form theater reviews, I am trying to somewhat intelligently enunciate why Witch didn't captivate me. 

But honestly, although it is rather trite as criticism, if a friend were to ask merely "What did you think?" of this work, my answer would simply be to say, "It didn't do much for me."

I never enjoy posting negative reviews, and especially in noting some glowing ones Witch is getting elsewhere, I hope my opinion doesn't dissuade anyone from seeing it. 

In sum, I admire the effort on multiple levels, but to slip in one more pun, I just didn't find the end result all that bewitching.

Pithy Philosophies #39

Seth Saith:

Power, or merely good fortune, should be accompanied by empathy, not a sense of entitlement.