Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Sell Your Soul: 'Human Resource(s)' Offers Sharp Satire, but Isn't a "Personnel" Masterpiece -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Human Resource(s)
a world premiere play by Sara Means
directed by Jen Sloan
Theatre Evolve
at The EDGE Off-Broadway, Chicago
Thru July 6

The tyrannical boss, the overworked assistant, the neglected newbie, the misogynistic bro and the unseen "suits" with unfair expectations.

All factor into the satire of Human Resource(s)--a world premiere one-act play by Sara Means--along with sexual harassment, gender inequality, after work alcoholism and caffeine addiction.

Under the direction of Jen Sloan, an enthusiastic young cast sells it well, with the visceral intensity adding power to Means' at times quite pointed script. 

I remain delighted for the invitation to Theatre Evolve, an Edgewater troupe with which I was unfamiliar, and nothing I saw would dissuade me from checking out what they do down the road.

And for a reasonable price, Human Resource(s) can be well-worth 90 minutes of your attention. If nothing else, it will be hard to look away.

But I'm afraid this performance review won't be entirely positive, devoid of many checkmarks for "Exceeds Expectations."

Other than providing an ugly glimpse into a sales office with some unlikable people, who become more so when pushed to the brink of ultra competitiveness, the play doesn't really offer anything all that new or novel, and not just because it put Glengarry Glen Ross in my head from the word go.

Per the title, I was expecting more of an exploration of HR personnel, or the Human Resources function within a company, which can often be maligned. (I haven't always been a fan.)

But other than a gag that has the unseen HR Dept. giving new employee, Dylan (Jonathan Allsop), a foot-high stack of paperwork, this isn't the focus of Human Resource(s).

Instead, we get sales reps Matt (Trevor Strahan) and Sally (Jackie Seijo) treating the new guy badly, and the supervising sales manager, Trudy, being embodied by Andrea Uppling as a quintessential bitch. (To her credit, Uppling does a swell job of being detestable.)

Another sales manager, Laura (Anna Rachel Troy), is unseen-but-heard and is about as loathsome as Trudy.

Lest it seem that the play only portrays working women in a terrible light, Strahan's Matt--again with credit due to the actor's characterization--is a cocksure ass.

And the highest-ranking executive referenced is a man who creates a cockamamie sales contest, with the winner to get a promotion and the loser to be fired.

With or without such overt parameters, I'm sure such competitions truly exist--with Glengarry's Shelley Levene a clear fictional point of reference--but given what unfolds, all three sales reps in Human Resource(s) would seem to make themselves indispensable to the company's bottom line.

Certainly, the banality is part of Means' point, but depending on each viewer's own experiences, the
maniacal extremes to which Dylan, Matt and Sally--as well as a martyr of an assistant named Alice (Shanna Sweeney)--are pushed by the contest, their bosses and gallons of high-octane coffee will either feel gruesomely over-the-top or grimly reminiscent...with any hyperbole mocking reality by a mere matter degrees.

In many ways, I liked the intensity onstage, because it makes Human Resource(s)--being presented in the nice, new EDGE Off Broadway--eminently watchable.

And there is something at the root of what the play is theoretically aiming to convey, as it seems most people in America hate their jobs and/or bosses--often in conjunction.

But once the work's underlying point seems to be established--that employees, some nice, some not so much, can be made to suffer by tyrannical superiors and unfair demands--the only evolving depth seems to be in physical ferocity elevating the satire.

Keeping in mind this is a world premiere, I give the actors, director, writer and crew props for their efforts.

But in terms of offering thematic heft and fresh insights, Human Resource(s) still could use a good bit of work.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Sensory Overload: Too Many Threads Impair Memorability of Well-Crafted 'If I Forget' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

If I Forget
a recent play by Steven Levenson
directed by Devon de Mayo
Victory Gardens Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 7

If I Forget playwright Stephen Levinson--who just turned 35 last month--has had a rather memorable past few years.

He wrote the book (i.e. script) for the 2017 Tony Award-winning musical, Dear Evan Hansen, earning his own Tony for doing so.

He became the showrunner for the FX TV series, Fosse/Verdon, which I've enjoyed.

And he's writing screenplays for a movie version of Dear Evan Hansen as well as a biopic of Rent creator Jonathan Larson.

So I was quite intrigued to see Victory Gardens' Chicago premiere of If I Forget, which ran Off-Broadway in 2017.

I found it to be nothing less than a professional piece of theater, abetted by a fine cast under the direction of Devon de Mayo, with a rather impressive set designed by Andrew Boyce.

But over its full 2-1/2 hours, the play seemed to pursue a few too many narrative threads and ultimately felt as though a quite talented writer was trying to explore a bit too much.

With Act I set in July 2000 and the second in February 2001--internationally prior to 9/11 for reasons not readily apparent to me--the entire play takes place within the well-appointed Washington, DC home of the Fischer family patriarch, Lou (the always great David Darlow).

We soon learn that Lou's longtime wife has passed fairly recently, and his own health is on the decline.

So visiting from New York are his son, Michael (Daniel Cantor), a Jewish studies professor, and Mike's "shiksa" wife, Ellen (Heather Townsend).

Mike's sister Holly (Gail Shapiro)—a wannabe interior decorator—and her successful lawyer husband, Howard (Keith Kupferer), seemingly also live in DC and are at Lou’s home, as is a another sibling Sharon (Elizabeth Ledo), who is apparently living there.

Holly and Howard’s son—actually his step-son—Joey (Alec Boyd), is also present although their daughter is not.

Mike and Ellen also have an unseen daughter, Abby, who suffers from anorexia & anxiety and is presently in Israel on a birthright trip amid rather tumultuous times.

So even without my wanting to spell out every narrative strain, If I Forget concerns itself with Lou’s health, squabbling siblings angling for their inheritance, various complications in their lives (including money issues), the departed mother and rather acute parental matters.

Given all the familial bickering that ensues, the play reminds of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, certainly a worthy bar for Levenson to bound toward.

But most notably--and I would say compellingly--is the strain about Michael, his views about modern Israel & contemporary American Jews (keeping in mind its turn of the century setting) and the rather provocative book he is about to publish, even at risk to his tenure track.

Seemingly akin to how Levenson has drawn most of the Fischers, I am proudly Jewish but not particularly religious nor a lockstep defender of Israel's government.

As did Lou--a World War II vet--and other kin of Mike's, I disliked his proposed book title (which I won't reveal here) but I also found merit in some of his arguments, including the notion of being shocking to stimulate book sales.

Unfortunately, as this angle of If I Forget is just getting riveting, it largely gets left behind.

There's nothing wrong with a family drama, especially with good dialogue and fine actors.

Like Darlow, Kupferer is constantly stellar, one can truly feel Cantor bristle and Shapiro & Ledo are excellent at making Mike's older & younger sisters quite exasperating at times. (Or perhaps that's just how I saw it, being a middle brother myself.)

But though I thought the points Levenson--via Michael--was making about Jewish identity to be rather illuminating, I ultimately struggled to identify what the play was truly about, as it ventured in so many directions.

Even as such, If I Forget provides plenty to think about, and in liking it more than not, I considerably valued Victory Gardens' post-show discussion.

The abundant merits of play make it wrong to be wantonly dismissive, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from coming to their own conclusions.

But I'm just thinking it could've hit harder for me--in the immediate and future contemplation--if some of the interwoven strands had simply been forgotten.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Quite Beneficial: Lucinda Williams Delights at Gala for Old Town School of Folk Music -- Chicago Concert Review

Chicago Concert Review

Lucinda Williams
with backing band Buick 6
Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago
Blue Jean Gala 2019
June 14, 2019

The readership of this blog isn't all that vast, but it's not inconceivable that someone could come across this review and be like:

"I love Lucinda Williams. I didn't realize she was playing in Chicago."

To which I would somewhat sheepishly share that I ordinarily wouldn't have known either, not having been much of a fan--due to ignorance rather than distaste--of the 66-year-old singer/songwriter.

I have never owned any of Williams' albums, and until Spotifamiliarizing myself prior to this show, practically none of her songs.

Per Setlist.fm, I now see that Lucinda Williams has played at least 10 shows at Chicago area venues just since 2016, but none registered.

Speaking of registering, I haven't ever taken any classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music, though I greatly admire its mission and history, and have attended concerts in its auditorium (which one of my sisters helped design).

A close pal's family are generous supporters of OTSFM, and I was graciously invited to accompany them to the school's Blue Jean Gala, at which Williams was the featured artist. (I donated what I could.)

The gala was hosted onstage by longtime WXRT morning DJ, Lin Brehmer, who kindly chatted with me in the lobby for a bit.

Backed by three musicians she identified as being known as Buick 6, Williams' 90-minute set consisted primarily of a full play-through of her 1998 classic album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, with which I had become decently familiar by showtime.

She encored solely with "The Ghosts of Highway 20," title track of a 2016 album, which made this benefit performance a bit briefer than recent shows for the general public, but it fit perfectly into the Gala festivities.

Beyond a strong musical performance--it's easy to appreciate why Lucinda Williams is such a venerated songwriter--it was a delight to have her give VH1 Storytellers-type insights to the Car Wheels on a Gravel Road songs.

Before the title track, which is the album's second song, she spoke of her parents.

Her father was a poet, whose career as a college professor caused the family to move a lot, hence the song's memories such as:

"Cotton fields stretching miles and miles / Hank's voice on the radio"

Williams was also open about her mother's mental health issues and--leading into "Metal Firecracker"--wryly honest about her own romantic entanglements, such as a romance with a bassist on tour despite having a boyfriend, who also happened to be a bass player.

She also shared that "Drunken Angel" was written for a late Texas musician named Blaze Foley, and that "Lake Charles" was penned for another friend of hers from Texas, but who preferred to call her native Louisiana home.

With her voice strong though weathered in an evocative way, I enjoyed everything Lucinda Williams played with Buick 6, but especially noted late album tracks such as "Greenville," "Still I Long for Your Kiss" and "Joy."

Appealing video graphics accompanied everything performed, and as Lucinda noted, closer "The Ghosts of Highway 20" nicely touched upon the themes prevalent in the Car Wheels on a Gravel Road songs, from a more recent vantage point.

Being that this was a benefit show for Old Town School, and that I was kindly invited, I was only going to write a review if I really enjoyed Lucinda Williams' performance.

Hence, this stands as testament that I did.

As with Bruce Cockburn a few weeks ago, it was again a thrill to newly discover--in person--a master songwriter I should've known years ago.

And this time, it was genuinely beneficial in a multitude of ways. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Shuffling Off to Buffalo for a Fun "Wraparound" Excursion -- A Travelogue

Trip Recap / Travel Guide

Buffalo, New York
Niagara Falls, Ontario
Visited May 8-11, 2019

Although nearby Niagara Falls still seems to successfully attract travelers from near and far--and I did visit for a day and overnight--visual evidence did not suggest Buffalo to be much of a tourist mecca.

During the days and into the evenings, the city's downtown streets were eerily quiet--nearly desolate--and with apologies to many restaurants I didn't visit and some that I did, Tim Hortons was demonstrably the food emporium that most beguiled me. (We do not have any Tim Hortons "bake shop" locations near Chicago; I should also note that a lifelong allergy to poultry meant that I didn't seek out Buffalo Wings.)

Although I enjoyed my trip to Buffalo and Niagara Falls--and have long enjoyed exploring gritty, not-overtly-touristy American cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Louisville, etc.--I'd hard-pressed to tell you Buffalo makes for a beautiful visit.

But in the right context, turning oneself onto "The City of Light" can be quite satisfying.

Being there without a car--I flew in on a Wednesday and home on a Saturday--meant I didn't much explore places that public transportation (NFTA, which worked well) or an economical Uber could easily get me to and from.

Hence, I saw just the edges of the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Delaware Park, and not the
adjoining and said-to-be-beautiful Forest Lawn Cemetery or Buffalo Zoo, only briefly and externally the Richardson Olmsted Campus--featuring a rather striking former sanitarium--and never Canalside and its old Navy battleships along the Buffalo River near Lake Erie.

I also noted some glorious architecture downtown and around Buffalo, and Niagara Falls is one of the most majestic sights on Earth, so I don't mean to imply that there isn't any striking scenery, more that you need to look for it.

And while there aren't a ton of "A+" travel guide attractions, I found that Buffalo worked quite well as a "wraparound destination."

As is the case for most of my domestic travel, my impetus for going to Buffalo at the time I did was a spectator event.

One of my favorite rock bands of all-time--The Who--played the city's KeyBank Arena early on their current Moving On Tour (accompanied by an orchestra) and though I would also wind up seeing them closer to home, I thought this would make a good jumping off point for visiting Buffalo.

I'd been to--or more accurately, through--the northern New York city twice before, in 1993 and 1999, having visited Niagara Falls both times, but had never before spent any significant time exploring Buffalo.

This time, I would also wind up seeing a musician I never had--Bruce Cockburn--and the city seems to regularly draw great concert acts at venues large and small. Cockburn played Asbury Hall at Babeville, which is in a converted church whose rebirth was overseen by Buffalo native, singer Ani DiFranco.

If you're a rock music lover like me, search the Pollstar.com website to see who's playing where and when--not just in Buffalo--while the city also appears to have a rather vibrant theater scene of local & touring shows. (See BuffaloTheatreGuide.com as well as the Buffalo News' guide to what's playing.)

Sports fans should already know that Buffalo is home to the NFL's Bills--who play at New Era Field in the suburb of Orchard Park--and the NHL's Sabres, primary tenant of the KeyBank Center.

Neither of those teams will be suiting up again for a few months, but minor league baseball's Buffalo Bisons are the AAA-affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays and play in Sahlen Field downtown, which looked pretty cool from the outside. (The team's origins date back to 1877.)

Throw in the venerable Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which plays at historic Kleinhans Music Hall, and you should readily be able to find some kind of live event to stimulate you to shuffle off to Buffalo.

Many will imaginably wish to seek out Buffalo Wings--said to be invented at the still-existing Anchor Bar in 1964--while those with a sweet tooth (and a car, as I didn't get there) may want to check out Parkside Candy, which has stood since 1927.

But beyond the impetus of The Who, my reasons for wanting to visit Buffalo were essentially three-fold.

I primarily wanted to see the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Darwin D. Martin House by Frank Lloyd Wright--and also, if time allowed, which it did, Graycliff, another FLW house--and Niagara Falls.

A bit curiously, in 2015, I had learned about the existence and fine collection of the Albright-Knox Gallery--Buffalo's major art museum--during a visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Though the MAM has a fine permanent collection in its own right, it was hosting an exhibition titled Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which you can read about here.

Impressed by the strength of the traveling highlights, I was assured at the time that the Albright-Knox wasn't temporarily shuttered and maintained a strong collection beyond what it had let go for the show.

I've been to over 150 art museums worldwide and always like to take note of others I should visit, and the Albright-Knox instantly put itself on such a list.

After flying into Buffalo Wednesday morning and catching the NFTA #24 bus from Buffalo Niagara International Airport to my Hotel @ the Lafayette by Wyndham downtown--the ride along Genessee Street exposed me to some hardscrabble sections of the city, but I appreciated that--the first place I went after check-in and a brief stop at Tim Hortons was Albright-Knox (via bus #20).

Any chance to see great art is a life-enhancing joy, and I would unequivocally recommend that anyone visiting Buffalo stop by the Albright-Knox, but I can't say I was substantially more wowed by their collection than from the introduction in Milwaukee.

There were certainly some fine pieces I hadn't seen in that exhibition, but again a bit oddly, the best were paintings borrowed from the stellar Detroit Institute of the Arts, which I've visited multiple times. In Buffalo, these were part of an exhibition called Humble and Human: An Exhibition in Honor of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.

Wilson, who passed in 2014 at age 95, was the longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills, and a native of Detroit who maintained his primary residence in that area. So the exhibit, which closed on May 26, honored him with paintings from both the Albright-Knox and DIA, including a great Van Gogh portrait.

Supposedly, Wilson had a rather valuable art collection and it would make sense for him to have been a benefactor of Albright-Knox, but I didn't note any of the paintings in the exhibit having been donated by him.

Still there was some great stuff, within the exhibition and beyond, though primarily in a modern art realm. And that which I had seen before.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I got to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, enjoyed my visit and am happy to note the museum will soon undergo a major expansion.

After visiting the museum, I strolled just a short ways into Delaware Park, but noted its beauty and took some photos of a replica of Michelangelo's David, albeit from afar.

I did not have time, on Wednesday or otherwise, to visit the nearby Burchfield Penney Art Center--which features the works of Buffalo's Charles E. Burchfield, known for his watercolors.

Also in the area but beyond my purview is the Buffalo History Museum, and while my Uber driver kindly took me past the Richardson Olmsted Campus to take a few quick pix, I'm sorry I didn't have time for a stroll nor tour.

Connected to the Hotel @ the Lafayette--said to be one of the country's grandest once upon a time, but now more solid than spectacular--was the Lafayette Brewing Company.

I didn't try their beer, nor as explained above, any Buffalo wings, but enjoyed their Beef on Weck sliders.

This sandwich is also something of a Buffalo tradition, featuring roast beef on a kummelweck roll, which is topped with kosher salt and caraway seed and accompanied by horseradish and au jus.

Right up my alley, and I enjoyed it enough to eat at Lafayette Brewing again the next night, when I had a Strawberry Salad.

Although I really only knew his name, and vague plaudits, I went to see Bruce Cockburn on Wednesday evening and very much enjoyed him and the Babeville venue. (See my review of the show here.)

Besides the Albright-Knox, the main thing I wanted to see in Buffalo itself was the Darwin D. Martin House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1905. (website)
I'm a huge admirer of Wright's work, and have seen dozens of his homes from the outside, and taken tours of at least 30 houses and buildings that are (or were) open to the public.

The Martin House--created for an executive of Buffalo's Larkin Company--is said to be one of FLW's greatest creations, and my 2-hour tour included the Barton House on the same lot, a conservatory connected by a long pergola and a gardener's cottage.

Photos were not allowed within the houses, but the main home in particular is spectacular, and I very much valued my visit.

There was landscaping work going on, but I learned this was the last part of a years-long renovation project.

Fairly close to the Martin House Complex are two privately-owned Wright-designed houses, not open to the public. I saw the exterior of the Walter Davidson House but not the William R. Heath House.

Frank Lloyd Wright's first architectural employer, Louis Sullivan, is also represented in Buffalo with the striking red Guaranty Building downtown.

I'll include a photo at the bottom of this post, as well as one of the interior of Buffalo City Hall--seen at the very top of this article--which is one of most beautiful examples of Art Deco I've ever seen.

It was designed by John Wade and George Dietel and completed in 1931.

Other grand buildings in downtown Buffalo include the Erie County Clerk, St. Joseph Cathedral & Rectory, Buffalo Savings Bank (now a branch of M&T Bank) and The Electric Tower.

Thanks to the NFTA's #40 bus, running out of Buffalo's Metropolitan Transportation Center just around the corner from my hotel, getting to Niagara Falls took only $2.00 and about an hour.

The bus dropped me off at a Welcome Center on the USA side--I had booked a Howard Johnson's on the Canadian side--but though the weather was a bit cool and my backpack a tad heavier than idyllic, I valued my walk though the Niagara Falls State Park to and across the Rainbow International Bridge.

When I was there, on May 10-11, the iconic Maid of the Mist boat ride through the Falls from the U.S. side wasn't yet open for the season, but is now until early November (I've been on it previously).

But the state park offers a nice vista to see the American Falls close up, while once you cross the bridge to Canada, the view of both the American Falls and the Horseshoe Falls is majestic. (It is possible to stroll further on the U.S. side than I did.)

On the Ontario side, I did go into the Hard Rock Cafe, noted the Casino Niagara and eventually walked through the gauntlet of kitschy attractions on Clifton Hills (such as Ripley's Believe It or Not and a few wax museums).

But particularly with limited time, the best thing to do in Niagara Falls is to see--and appreciate--the waterfalls, and I took a long walk alongside the closest guardrail (from Rainbow Bridge to Table Rock Welcome Center), taking thousands of photos along the way.

For those far more intrepid than me, a Zipline seemed like it could be rather fun, and--particularly with no boats running--at Table Rock I did pay to visit the Journey Under the Falls, which provides an up-close glimpse of the Falls to really fathom their power (literally and figurative, in terms of the hydro-electricity).

After eventually making my way to my hotel, I ate at AG, one of just three restaurants in Niagara Falls that AAA rates 4-diamonds (there are no 5-diamond places).

I had an excellent 3-course meal including Charred Octopus Salad, Beef Tenderloin and a Sea Salt Toffee Crème Brûlée.

It was terrific and satisfying, if not quite as exquisite (or expensive) as past gourmet splurges.

Though I was sleepy, leg weary and somehow developed substantial pain in my right heel, I was convinced by the Howard Johnson's desk clerks that seeing the Falls lit up at night was worth the effort.

Heading down Clifton Hill, I decided to ride the SkyWheel, a giant Ferris Wheel with enclosed cars allowing for good views of the falls.

Unfortunately, once aboard, I had a scare with my digital SLR having a memory card error, but I made do with my iPhone.

The set-up wasn't that good for photography anyway, but it was still a nice ride. And the camera issue seemed to resolve itself post-trip, without losing any files.

I also walked to the edge of the falls at night, and again the next morning, which was much sunnier than the day before.

The #40 bus got me back to downtown Buffalo before Noon, with several hours before my evening flight home.

So although it wasn't cheap, I decided to take an Uber to the Graycliffe Estate, another Frank Lloyd Wright designed house about 25 minutes down the Lake Erie coast. (Buffalo doesn't have an Uber Pool option, though if it weren't the weekend, a NFTA bus could've gotten me close to Graycliff.)

Also designed for Darwin D. Martin about 25 years later, at a point when FLW was down on his luck and even wanted by the law, the 1928 house provided an intriguing contrast.

Wright trademarks like vast, sunlit interior spaces, earth-tone coloration and cantilevered overhangs were present, but there were no art glass windows and the front door was neither hidden nor ornate.

There are actually three separate structures on the property, but the main house was designed so that one could see through to the lake.

The house required a massive--and per some observers, impossible--restoration project in recent years.

So it was particularly cool that my tour happened to be led by architect Pat Mahoney, who was a principal member of the restoration team. I really enjoyed the insights he provided.

Sadly, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most notable non-residential works, the Larkin Administration Building--of the company that employed Darwin D. Martin--only survived in Buffalo from 1906 to 1950. (A couple minor wall remnants still stand, but I didn't see them.)

Nonetheless, it was wonderful to be able to tour two related yet distinct homes designed by America's greatest architect.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable few days in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

This probably isn't the best-written travelogue, as I flirted with writing it as a personal travel recap and also as a more universal travel guide, and thus the tone may be imprecise in both regards.

But other than perhaps seeing the old navy ships docked at Canalside, catching shows that weren't in town when I was or eating Buffalo Wings, I can't think of much to recommend that I didn't myself do.

Though I guess on another visit, I'd explore the local history a bit more. 

It may not be the greatest place on Earth, and certainly not the most glamorous, but I truly enjoyed my time in Buffalo--including a brief jaunt to Niagara Falls--and with a somewhat similar "wraparound" itinerary, so might you.


All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2019. Please do not repost without permission and attribution.

A Fun Partnership: Underscore Presents 'The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe' By Way of Kansas City -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe
a new musical
Underscore Theatre Co.
at the Understudy
Thru July 14

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is a fun show that merits extra kudos for being a homegrown musical.

It was actually homegrown in Kansas City, MO, at that city's Living Room Theatre, where the piece was written by Ben Auxier, Brian Hunter and Seth Maachi (the first two are credited with the music & lyrics).

Chicago's Underscore Theatre Company, in a nifty new home called The Understudy (at Clark & Wilson), created a stellar musical of its own last year with Haymarket, and is now presenting the Chicago premiere of Lefty & Crabbe.

I believe credit for creating the show remains with The Living Room, but its Artistic Director, Rusty Sneary, is directing it in Chicago, while both Auxier and Hunter are in the cast.

Photo credit on all: Evan Hanover
So to whatever extent "partnership" is officially apt, that's what The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is celebrating, in both its existence and its storyline.

At some unspecified point in the early 20th century, Lefty Childs (played here by Kyle Ryan) and Crabbe Hathaway (Shea Pender)--think Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello, with Crabbe being the thin one--come together abruptly as a vaudeville comedy act.

Accompanied by their Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe cast mates, they belt out the enjoyable "Give 'Em a Show" as their success grows. But when the dying days of vaudeville relegates them to playing empty bowling alleys, the pair strike out for Hollywood.

Spurred on by fast-talking agent, E.G. Swellington (a stellar Mike Ott), they meet--among others--a sultry singer, Evelyn Rose (Natalie Rae), a pretty starlet, Lolo Carmichael (Elizabeth Del Toro) and an elderly studio head, Mr. Rocksfeld (Stephanie Boyd, clearly having fun with the role).

In playing the pair's pal, Gene, and film director, Mac, respectively, Hunter and Auxier merit mention for their work onstage, as well as for composing several fine songs such as "Smile Your Way Through" (nicely sung by Del Toro) and Lefty's "Eat Your Heart Out."

The audience was told pre-show that many of the lines each night are improvised, so in terms of singing, acting, slapstick and ad-libbing, this is clearly a talented cast, and if short of a masterpiece, an entertaining show that should make for a fun night out.

There seem to be a few more characters than necessary, and with many of the ensemble players rotating through roles, the story--and inherent pathos--doesn't congeal quite perfectly.

I was a bit more enticed by Lefty & Crabbe as vaudeville stars and pals than the strangers in a strange Hollywood land narrative that found them losing a bit of themselves, but any show that reminds of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Singin' in the Rain can't help but bring some smiles.

Pianist Annabelle Revak does a nice job providing musical accompaniment, and all of the songs are richly delivered.

Through the Underscore website, tickets seems to top out at $25, and discounts may be available through Goldstar and elsewhere.

So even though The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe doesn't reach the qualitative heights of Hamilton, West Side Story or the very best musicals ever created, its price point doesn't beg direct comparisons.

Devoid of which, it really is a delight, a fine new musical staged in a venue you probably wouldn't even peg as a theater from the outside, making it all the more cool. (Hopefully, the HVAC system will become better calibrated, along with access to the one restroom.)

If you love new musicals, entertainment history and Chicago storefront theater, I suggest you catch this fun work by the_Underscore @ the Understudy.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Wondra on the Tundra: Paul McCartney Makes for a Perfect Knight at Lambeau Field — Green Bay Concert Review

Concert Review

Paul McCartney
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI
June 8, 2019

On June 18, Paul McCartney will turn 77.

He has finally let his hair go gray, after years of presumably using dye to keep his famed mop-top brown.

In terms of chronological measures, Sir Paul is getting old.

But seeing “Macca”—as he is also affectionately known—live in concert never does.

Or at least it hasn’t yet, with Saturday’s show in Green Bay marking the 13th time I’ve seen the ex-Beatle, the 12th since 2002 and the 9th in the past 10 years, on yet another Abbey Road trip after having—in recent years—ventured to Tulsa, Milwaukee, St. Louis and the southwest Chicago suburban wasteland of Tinley Park. (I also saw Paul in Paris in 2011, as well as multiple times in Chicago proper.)

Gratefully, my friend Brad did the driving this time, having gotten himself a prime seat on the field where the Green Bay Packers play.

Along with my most erstwhile concert pal, Paolo, I settled for a seat not nearly as choice, but also upon the famed—but on this perfect June night, not frozen—tundra.

Even for a diehard Chicago Bears fan, there was something extra special about being on Lambeau Field, and though many taller heads in the 80 or so yards between me and Sir Paul occasionally kept me from seeing his, the entire experience was awesome.

As he has at virtually every show since resuming fairly regular touring in 2002, McCartney and his band mates—all constant since then; hence with him longer than he was with the Beatles or Wings—played for just about three hours.

This show was about 5 minutes short of that mark, with perhaps the only concession to his age being the omission of “Yesterday,” making the set list 38 songs, rather than the formerly standard 39.

The basic outline of Macca’s shows has remained fairly congruent over the years—he doesn’t mix things up gig-to-gig like Bruce Springsteen or Pearl Jam, other live favorites of mine—and one can pretty much bet the house on hearing “Blackbird,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Band on the Run,” “Let It Be,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Live and Let Die” (with mass pyrotechnics), “Hey Jude” and some others, but all are among the best rock songs ever written.

Yet even with his current Freshen Up Tour hitting smaller U.S. markets this year—Ft. Wayne, Madison, Moline, Lexington, KY, Greenville, SC, etc.—he’s rotated in Beatles chestnuts such as “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “All My Loving,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “From Me to You,” none of which I heard in Tinley Park in 2017.

Proving that—as arguably rock’s greatest songwriter ever—he can still pen a catchy melody, Paul nicely included “Who Cares,” “Come On to Me” and “Fuh You” from 2018’s Egypt Station album, while the Quarrymen’s “In Spite of All the Danger” meant that a 60-year stretch of original, recorded music was represented on the night.

But while I won’t pretend to be above going to certain concerts predominantly out of reverence—Brian Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan (to some extent; sometimes he’s still superb), the now passed Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry and others—continuing to repeatedly see Paul McCartney live, at considerable cost and/or distance, isn’t primarily about worship nor even nostalgia.

Few things in life provide me as much acute joy as a Paul McCartney concert.

Sure, his voice isn't what it was at 24, but it still sounds darn good, especially with a 50,000 strong chorus singing along with every word.

On the night, Macca plays bass, acoustic & electric guitars and a couple different pianos, and fairly amazingly—at any age—there isn't a second onstage that he's isn't playing and/or singing.

Guitarist Rusty Anderson delectably covers many of the George Harrison solos, accompanied by Brian Ray (guitar), Paul "Wix" Wickens (keyboards) and Abe Laboriel, Jr. (drums), who remains a powerhouse and a hoot.

Yes, I've heard Sir Paul's stage stories many a time, whether reminiscing about Jimi Hendrix & Eric Clapton, recalling his Red Square encounters with Russian politicians or paying tribute to his late Beatles bandmates, John Lennon and George Harrison.

But only in the best of ways can Sir Paul McCartney be blamed for me and my pals venturing to see him in Green Bay—and in many a place, many a time.

While I always hope he might sprinkle in "Penny Lane" or "Getting Better" or any of dozens of other gems—even from Wings and his solo albums—more than he does, the truth is over the years I've heard him do 120 different songs...

...and, really, anything he wishes to play is fine with me. (See Paul McCartney's Green Bay setlist here.)

It's delightful that he has horn players again along on this tour—not always the case—and including from within the Lambeau stands, they made "Got to Get You Into My Life," "Lady Madonna" and more sound particularly swell.

From the opening "A Hard Day's Night" to the traditional but apt closer, "The End"—with mirthful magnificence on essentially every note in between—Sir Paul McCartney made for a truly blissful and special knight in Green Bay.

I always hope I might see him yet again, and he seems due for another show within the Chicago city limits, but if this turns out to be the last time I get to see the man who—along with John, George and Ringo—most changed the world I enjoy living in, well, speaking his words of wisdom, love me do.

Just a snippet of the "Hey Jude" singalong: