Monday, September 18, 2017

The Future is the Past is the Future: At Aston Rep's '1984,' Big Brother Merits You Watching -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

George Orwell's 1984
adapted by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr. & William A. Miles Jr.
directed by Robert Tobin
AstonRep Theatre Company
The West Stage @ The Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru October 8

I can't precisely remember, but it would seem I read George Orwell's 1984 either within its namesake year or within 12 months of it, either way.

I recall it being a brilliant book, and--upon its 1949 publication, in 1984 itself, until the present day and well into the foreseeable future--clearly quite prescient.

Although themes, concepts and terms of the book, including the Dystopian setting, brutally dictatorial state under "Big Brother," endless war, constant surveillance, thoughtcrime, thought police, doublespeak, erasing/revising history, etc., etc. have long stuck with me--how could they not?--I have not read it since my high school years.

And before going to see a live version done by Chicago's AstonRep Theatre Company--which has become one of my favorite local troupes in recent years--I did not brush up on the novel's plot summary.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
So seeing 1984 presented in dramatic form involved a multitude of provocations beyond merely taking in a fine work of theater.

As I watched, my mind was trying to construct how the play corresponded with what (little) I remembered of the book--based on now perusing Wikipedia, I'd say it hews pretty closely--what might have been left out, updated, etc.

Informed by the show's program that the British Orwell was a lifelong anti-Stalinist, I couldn't help but think of the influences on the author when he wrote the book--England, Russia, Nazi Germany, the swelling American superpower--and also how things jibed with his visions in the book's titular year.

With slogans from the novel's dogmatic "Party" repeatedly plastered around the theater and spoken within the play (including as videorecorded by Sara Pavlak McGuire for the omnipresent telescreen)--WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH--I couldn't help conjure U2's old Zoo TV concert extravaganzas and the way they barraged with electronic "mindthink."

From Hulu's recent (and now Emmy-winning) The Handmaid's Tale--based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel from 1985--to Charlie Chaplin's 1936 impersonalization-amid-industrialization masterpiece Modern Times to Radiohead's techphobic 1997 OK Computer album (referenced repeatedly by director Robert Tobin at AstonRep) to life in the Trump Age to the Equifax breach to our personal data being marketed by Facebook, Google, etc. to the way we walk around tethered to electronic hallucinogens, my head was spinning with external, related stimuli as I tried to focus on the actors onstage. (A shout-out also to Tobin for slyly incorporating, without lyrics, Radiohead's "2+2=5," as that falsified equation factors heavily into the book and play.)

Heck, given that 1984 was published in 1949, when Winston Churchill was no longer Prime Minister of the U.K.--he would be again in 1951--I also found myself pondering how much import to give the fact that Orwell named the book's main character Winston Smith.

So in many ways, AstonRep deserves props just for presenting 1984, as what should theater do if not make one think? (A dramatic version of 1984 is currently running on Broadway, but it's a different adaptation.)

Yet while I considerably liked 1984 onstage at face value--and all that it brought to mind to compete with my focus shouldn't be seen as a negative--I can't say it consistently kept me mesmerized.

Tobin, his crew and cast do a fine job in setting up the parameters of 1984's totalitarian world, as Syme (a frenetic Tim Larsen), Parsons (the always excellent Alexandra Bennett) and Winston Smith (a nicely-nuanced Ray Kasper) are slaving away in a utilitarian workspace conceivably deep in the bowels of Oceania's Ministry of Truth.

But, especially early on, I was a bit challenged to readily take everything in, and I wondered if those without any prior familiarity with 1984 might be even more confused. (Tobin makes the right choice not to mess with Orwell's dates, but one wouldn't want the totally uninitiated to see this as a look at the past rather than as what still holds up as a prediction of the future.)

The play truly begins to take hold and move forward as the unsuspecting love story begins between the vacillant, middle-aged Winston and the confident, young and pretty Julia (Sarah Lo, who I recalled fondly from AstonRep's Eleemosynary and is strong again here).

In fact, while understanding presenting 1984 likely comes with certain limitations tied to rights clearances--even if one wanted to commission alterations to an existing script or develop a new one--I think I would have liked this play better if it were even more acutely focused on Winston & Julia as they fall in love, run from Big Brother, meet with a Party leader named O'Brien (played well here by Amy Kasper) and face the consequences, including as they pertain to each other.

As much as this does happen in the considerably-more-riveting Act II of AstonRep's production, their rendition of 1984 is still high-quality theater, especially for the quite economical prices they charge. ($20, or less with discounts, such as HotTix and Goldstar.)

But while at under 2 hours including intermission, 1984 onstage never wastes anyone's time, there's likely too much than can be clearly covered, explained or intimated in such a relatively brief dramatization.

That's why I'm hypothesizing a smaller, more humanistic, slice of 1984 might work better onstage.

Or in a bit of simplespeak:

I enjoyed 1984 by AstonRep, enough to recommend it, but I didn't quite love it. I suspect it may require viewers to arrive with a basic familiarity, and though most will, this may prompt competing ruminations. Narrowing the focus might be preferable.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Harrowing 'United Flight 232' Depicts Uplifting Side of Humanity inDarkest Moments -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

United Flight 232
a play adapted & directed by Vanessa Stalling
The House Theatre of Chicago
at the Chopin Theater, Chicago
Thru October 21
(remount of 2016 production)

On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 departed Denver's Stapleton Airport en route to Chicago and then Philadelphia.

It never arrived at either destination.

Undoubtedly, an airplane crash that killed 111 passengers must be called a horrible tragedy.

But following the "one in a billion" occurrence of the fan disk of the plane's tail-mounted engine disintegrating and puncturing the lines of the aircraft's three hydraulic systems, the flight crew's miraculous efforts prevented a catastrophic rollover and managed to land the plane in Sioux City, Iowa in a way that saved the lives of 185 people on board.

The unusually high number of survivors in a jumbo jet crash that also took many victims makes United Flight 232 one of the most distinct in aviation history.

Although I was living in the Chicago suburbs in the summer of '89 and must have heard about the crash, I cannot say I remembered it--unlike American Airlines Flight 191, which  crashed soon after takeoff at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 25, 1979, killing all 271 on board...and is forever etched in my memory.

Last year, The House Theatre of Chicago debuted a play titled United Flight 232 based on a 2014 book by Laurence Gonzales.

Although I knew the drama earned strong reviews, I did not see it in 2016, in part because I had seen a different play about an airplane catastrophe, Deborah Brevoort's The Women of Lockerbie, in a superb production by AstonRep Theatre Company.

But when House Theatre announced they would remount United Flight 232 this fall, a friend strongly suggested I see it, along with sharing the shocking factoid that his brother had been one of the flight's survivors. (He's quoted early in this New York Times story from the next day.)

Reading a prior review or two prepared me for entering the theater on a replicated jetway within the Chopin Theatre, but unlike what I somewhat imagined, it wasn't as though I was buckling in for a direct recreation of events over 80 minutes.

With nine actors shifting through multiple roles, the events aboard United Flight 232 are told in flashback, with the end results--both extremely tragic and extremely fortunate--revealed rather early on, at least in terms of numbers.

Brenda Barrie is quite prominent--and good--in embodying chief flight attendant, Jan Brown, as is Abu Ansari as Captain Alfred Haynes, who was largely credited for taking quite heroic actions.

But then, almost everyone aboard--which included a large number of children--is shown in a heroic light. As beyond hauntingly evoking an aircraft in distress, the play adapted & directed by Vanessa Stalling primarily aims to highlight the beautiful humanity of people helping and comforting strangers throughout an unbelievable  ordeal.

Fine work is done by the entire cast, and with the putrid smell of smoke pervading the auditorium, it would be hard not to be riveted by tales of fear, prayer, resolve, kindness and piloting prowess, which was abetted by DC-10 flight instructor Dennis Fitch (Carlos Olmedo, I think), a passenger enlisted to help in the cockpit.

By any measure, United Flight 232 is a fine piece of theater, though I wouldn't recommended it to anyone who might be flying within a week.

For anyone else, recollections from the pilots, flight attendants and passengers--some who perished, some who survived--should be both harrowing and uplifting.

Yet while the fast-paced play provides a powerful sense of what was taking place in the sky--including, rather surprisingly, food & beverage service even after the plane suffered damage from which it wouldn't recover--I felt it could have delved a good bit deeper into some of the personalities and why certain passengers happened to be aboard that Wednesday afternoon.

Although The Women of Lockerbie takes place several years after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 killed 270 people near Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, and the Come From Away musical--now playing on Broadway; I saw it last year in Washington, DC--chronicles Canadian townsfolk helping flyers stranded there on 9/11, I couldn't help but feel some similarity in United Flight 232, without it being as holistically compelling in a storytelling sense. 

Given the atypical circumstances of so many people surviving a plane crash while 100+ others didn't, Stalling's fine play came up a bit short in addressing my curiosity as to "Why?"

As depicted in this Wikipedia graphic--which isn't shown within the play--the preponderance of survivors were sitting in the plane's middle section. But among many fatalities in first class and past the wings were also a fair number of survivors.

United Flight 232 does mention the plane breaking up in certain parts, huge fire balls and smoke inhalation, but apart from mere luck, it left me unclear as to why there were multiple cases of minor injuries in seats right next to those who lost their lives.

So theatrically, narratively and investigatively, I didn't find the play quite perfect, or as enriching as similar works.

But as a depiction of chaos (though relatively little), heroism and humanity amid abject adversity and tragedy, United Flight 232--onstage and off--is now indelibly etched in memory.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

A Genre, A Book, A Party: Celebrating Immigrant Pride in 'Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat'

"My family's why I can fly."
-- Hudson Yang, star of ABC's Fresh off the Boat,
    in the new book, Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat

Premiering on ABC in February 2015--based on a 2013 memoir of the same name by Eddie Huang--Fresh Off the Boat existed as a TV show prior to the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump.

The sitcom, which features Hudson Yang as a teenage Huang, showcases a Taiwanese family that has moved to Orlando, Florida.

Although I have only seen a few episodes, it is clear that the show aims to erase preconceived notions about Asian-American immigrants while depicting a family not so unlike those seen on Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, The George Lopez Show, Blackish and family sitcoms dating back to the 1950s.

According to Larry Smith, who created the origins of his Six-Word Memoirs magazine, book series and website in early 2006, he and Steven Melnick--an executive with Twentieth Century Fox, which produces the ABC program--have been discussing a Six Word collection tied to Fresh Off the Boat for at least a few years.

So the book, Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat--subtitled "Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America"--hitting shelves last Tuesday, the same day President Trump announced intentions to rescind DACA protections for 800,000 young adults brought to the United States illegally as children, was obviously mere coincidence.

Hudson Yang, Larry Smith and Ikram Goldman. Photo by Seth Arkin
But to Yang, Smith and the 70+ people gathered at a book release party at the Chicago fashion boutique Ikram--whose proprietor, Ikram Goldman, is represented by both a six-word submission and a 2-page backstory about her emigration from Israel--the timing clearly adds a potency to the book and its purpose.

The 14-year-old Yang, who was at the event with his mom Heather, an immigrant from Taiwan, told me how meaningful it was for him to be included in the book--see his entry at top--because his success reflects the struggles and sacrifices of his well as those of many other Asian-Americans.

In a brief speech, Yang shared, "My mom had to work so hard just to support the family; she was the first person in her family to go to college.

My six words is basically just all of that."

Photo by Larry Smith
With his sitcom likewise working to eliminate stereotypes, Yang told me that his favorite six-word entry came from another Asian teenager, identified in the book as David L.:

"I do not know kung fu."

Essentially asking American immigrants of all ages, generations and ethnicities, "What's Your Story?" Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat includes succinct submissions "by writers famous & obscure."

Among those in the former category are Madeline Albright, Aziz Ansari, Jimmy Carter, Julianne Moore, Mila Kunis, George Takai, Jeremy Lin, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mario Batali, M. Night Shyamalan, Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan, several of the show's stars & producers and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black (from which the Netflix series is based), who happens to be Larry Smith's wife.

More obscurely, my point of entry to the Six-Word Memoirs world--and the reason an unemployed copywriter like me was welcomed to Ikram's high-end boutique where, per the New York Times, her most loyal clients might spend $40,000 in one visit--is my close friend Ken Stasiak.

Appropriately writing under the nom de plume, Hemingway1955--per Smith, the Six-Word concept derives from Ernest Hemingway's bar stool bet winning novel-in-6-words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."--Stasiak has been a regular contributor to Six-Word since 2013, after his mother's death two years prior left him seeking new forms of expression and introspection.

Ken will gladly tell you that aside from events tied to family, including his two grown children, one of his proudest moments in life came in 2015 when he was featured--along with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright--on Page 1 of Larry Smith's Six-Word Memoirs compilation titled The Best Advice in Six Words. (Click into Amazon's "Look Inside" preview to see Stasiak's entry.)

Another "life's accomplishment" for my pal came this past May when Smith named Stasiak the 6 Words Memoirist of the Month.

Inspired by Ken's enthusiasm for the Six-Word Memoirs genre, earlier this year I turned my passion for promoting cultural literacy into a daily 6word Portraits blog.

Clearly stating that "this website, and the concept of six-word phraseology, is inspired by Six-Word Memoirs from SMITH Magazine. No infringement is intended and no income is being generated."--I also told Larry Smith about it at the book party and he was cool with it--each day I concoct a 6word descriptive embodiment of a celebrity I admire who was born on that date.

I share each post on Facebook with a list of other daily birthdays, and friends seem to enjoy it.

So without suggesting I share Stasiak's Six-Word agility or evoke universal truths like the best examples in Smith's books, I have come to appreciate the challenge of trying to express something compelling in just six words.

It reminds me a bit of the majestically steadfast parameters of haiku, and one of my aims is for most anyone seeing my 6word descriptive phrase to be able to guess the subject without seeing him or her.

Today's example: Golf's "King" mixed lemonade, iced tea. (Revealed here to be:__________)

Having had past Six-Word Memoirs publications cover Advice, Love & Heartbreak, Teen Life and other specific and universal subjects, Smith was struck by the idea of devoting a book to the topic of Immigration and the experience of coming to America.

He was having trouble getting publishers interested until he connected with Steven Melnick of Twentieth Century Fox and developed the concept to tie-in with the popular Fresh Off the Boat sitcom, set to begin its fourth season on ABC on October 3. (You can see the first three seasons on Hulu.)

Melnick, who I spoke with briefly at the party, invoked some Yiddish into his Six-Word contribution for the book:

"Grandma's Sunday greeting: Gotenyu zisa boychikel!"
(Translation: Dear God, what a sweet boy!)

Ikram Goldman, who by many accounts is globally known and respected in the fashion world due to her namesake Chicago boutique (at 15 E. Huron), a passionate personality and having dressed First Lady Michelle Obama, was born and raised in Israel to Christian Arab parents.

As she relates in her backstory within Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat, she came to America at the age of 13 when her mother fell ill and needed treatment only a Chicago hospital could provide at the time.

The plan was to return to Israel but her mom passed away shortly after they arrived and Ikram realized she didn't want to leave.

"I stayed and I raised myself."

In warm remarks at the reception, Goldman stated unequivocally:

"I am truly a better American as those I surrounded myself with are also immigrants."

Ikram co-hosted the book release party with her husband, Josh Goldman, a lawyer who spoke to me quite proudly about being a Jewish-American who married an Arabic immigrant.

Effusively conveying his affinity for the Portland band Pink Martini, which performs songs in a multitude of languages to champion the notion of "the more the merrier," Josh voiced beliefs similar to mine, including that we are all human beings first, our core desires are pretty universal and different cultures are interesting. (I had recently returned from a trip to India where it was reiterated to me that people aren't really all that different anywhere; hence xenophobia is based on ignorance and fear, not reality.)

Clearly imparting that he and Ikram were raising their twin sons to understand the importance of diversity while sharing messages of love, not hate, Josh was openly concerned with the rampant anti-immigration rhetoric by and under the current administration.

As likewise a white Jewish man born in the U.S.A., I have been constantly distressed by attempted Muslim bans, the turning away of refugees, open insults of Mexicans, ridiculous wall-building schemes, white supremacy marches and the murderous aftermath, mass deportations that admittedly pre-date Trump, proposals to dismantle DACA and day-to-day examples of bigotry, intolerance and superiority that are hard to miss.

Thus, while on the surface it may seem that I spent a couple hours at a chichi party--the hors d'oeuvres were great by the way--at a swanky boutique that I would never otherwise enter, thanks to one of my best friends getting six words published in a new book, there was something resonant about the whole endeavor that reminded me of marching with a local mosque against the Muslim ban, as I did back in January.

In Morton Grove and on the Gold Coast, people of all colors and stations in life, in popular sitcoms and new books, at posh boutiques and in the streets, Americans--of all stripes, including undocumented--are fighting back against bigotry and xenophobia and malevolence and intolerance and anti-immigration policies & proposals.

Referencing "The New Colossus" poem by Emma Lazarus that adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, my pal Ken Stasiak--a first generation American son of Polish immigrants, including a father who fought Hitler, was held as a POW and chased Nazis alongside U.S. troops--is represented on page 22 of Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat by this contribution:

Tired. Poor. Huddled masses. Seeking hope.

One may not imagine much can be conveyed in six words, but in reading through many of the entries in the latest collection from Six-Word Memoirs, believe me, it can.

While I won't reveal her real name or show her picture, I was truly moved by a contributor to the book covertly calling herself Doreen, as she works for the Department of Homeland Security.

Although she candidly admitted the DHS isn't always a fun place to be these days, she noted that many of the agency's approximately 200,000 employees are working diligently to help bring people into the U.S., not keep them out.

She herself has transitioned from a job in higher education where she helped recruit international students to a someone similar one at DHS, where she works with schools to help attract students from abroad.

Also speaking at the reception was Maya Bayazid Khater, Secretary & Director of Events for the Karam Foundation, whose mission is to build a better future for Syria.

Khater championed the aim of Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat, noting how the book's messages of struggle, perseverance and hope dovetail with her non-profit's aim to provide smart aid for Syria while helping to ensure safe passage and, ultimately, innovative education for Syrian immigrants.

Although I'm not certain it's contained within the book, Khater said her six-word message would be:

"Syria to Alabama; redhead not redneck."

Along with their hospitality, Ikram and Josh Goldman purchased copies of the book to give to each reception attendee. Ken--who had participated in a book signing event the night before at Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove--had already given me a copy signed by himself and Larry Smith, which I also got autographed by Hudson Yang, Steven Melnick and Ikram.

In her inscription, Ikram borrowed a line I know well from Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterful Hamilton musical, which champions immigration & diversity and--even in a divided, partly xenophobic and hateful America--has become, in multiple locations, seemingly the most in-demand live entertainment event in U.S. history:

"Immigrants, we get the job done."

Six words, but who's counting.

I should end there, but can't help but offering up my own six words on the topic at hand:

Our differences—and similarities—unite us. 

...whether our ancestors came over on the Mayflower or we're Fresh Off the Boat.

Purchase Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat from the Ikram boutique website or wherever books are sold. 

Friday, September 08, 2017

Even If Not the Consummate Musical, 'Honeymoon in Vegas' Provides a Good Deal of Fun -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Honeymoon in Vegas
a musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru October 15

Something that makes perfect sense yet not readily considered until I read about it a few years ago is this:

Hollywood studios--and perhaps others who own film rights--actively employ people to market popular movies for musical theater adaptations.

In other words, it's no accident that those of us who pay attention to new musicals that hit the pre-Broadway, Broadway and post-Broadway circuits often find ourselves thinking, "Does every notable movie have to be turned into a musical, especially when many such examples wind up rather mediocre?"

Certainly, movies have long provided the source for Broadway musicals, and I'm sure the marriage has often been organic.

Talented composers, lyricists and script (i.e. book) writers always need fresh ideas to musicalize, and in the wake of--though also long before--The Producers, Hairspray, Billy Elliot, etc., the notion of creating musicals from movies with built-in brand recognition and (theoretically, box office) has proliferated.

Sometimes this has resulted in surprisingly swell new musicals--Legally Blonde, Sister Act, Kinky Boots, the latter based on a little-known British film--and sometimes not so much, as per Ghost, First Wives Club, Flashdance, 9 to 5 and others. 

Back in June, at Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre, I attended a screen-to-stage adaptation I was rather dubious about.

The Bridges of Madison County, derived from a schmaltzy movie and the book that begat it, had flopped on Broadway despite the considerable talents of its composer/lyricists, Jason Robert Brown.

I can't deny wondering why it had been turned into a musical or why Marriott had slated a regional production, but with tremendous performances by lead actors Nathanial Stampley and Kathy Voytko, I found Bridges truly sublime and in my @@@@@ review proffered that it was among the very best shows I'd ever seen at the erstwhile in-the-round venue.

And I applauded Marriott Theatre for taking a chance on a film adaptation that had me skeptical.

So I was certainly willing to reserve judgment when a somewhat similar situation presented itself with Marriott's very next production.

Honeymoon in Vegas was a 1992 movie starring Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan.

I think I saw it just once, and while I vaguely recall it as cute, humorous and likable--due in part to a pack of skydiving Elvis Presley impersonators--I never considered it begging to be brought to Broadway.

But with Jason Robert Brown also enlisted to write the words & lyrics to a book by Andrew Bergman--who had written & directed the movie--and direction by Gary Griffin, a longtime Chicago area director who had previously directed The Color Purple on Broadway, it was in late 2014.

Though the New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it "a real-live, old-fashioned, deeply satisfying Broadway musical in a way few new shows are anymore," Honeymoon in Vegas, like The Bridges of Madison County, survived just a few months on the Great White Way.

No national tour followed, and in Lincolnshire Griffin is again at the helm, bringing along the show's Broadway choreographer (Denis Jones) and costume designer (Brian Hemesath).

To the credit of all involved, including the deft songsmith Brown, the musical is more likable than not, and far better than it could have been.

Though, ultimately due to the inability to rise above the inanity of its source material, the Marriott production of Honeymoon in Vegas winds up being far less glorious and satisfying than The Bridges of Madison County.

Still, as a solid piece of musical theater entertainment, it deserved to have the house closer to capacity, as is typical at Marriott but not the case this past Wednesday.

The super talented Michael Mahler--who wrote the music & lyrics for the Marriott world premieres, Hero and October Sky--here plays the Nicolas Cage role of Jack Singer, a New Yorker who proclaims "I Love Betsy" in the show's first (and one of its best) songs. 

Though wedding his beautiful girlfriend of 5 years--with the winsome Samantha Pauly as schoolteacher Betsy--would represent what they call "marrying up," Jack can't pop the question due to a promise made to his mother on her death bed.

Exasperated, Betsy convinces Jack their relationship is kaput unless they elope to Las Vegas, so they head to Sin City.

There, in part because she resembles his dead wife, Betsy catches the eye of casino owner Tommy Korman (Sean Allan Krill, who I've enjoyed at Marriott Theatre going back 15 years).

This is the role James Caan played in the movie and Tony Danza originated on Broadway, and
without overtly recalling the former or having seen the latter, I presume Krill plays Tommy as just a bit less of a slimy rogue.

And at least per outward appearances, many in the crowd might perceive Betsy to be better off with Tommy than Jack, though Mahler does a nice job making the latter a (mostly) earnest everyman (i.e. without Cage's movie star swarm).

Tommy convinces Jack to play poker with him, and as a result of her boyfriend's newfound debt, Betsy winds up going off to Hawaii with the rich guy.

I'm pretty sure what happens onstage largely matches the movie, including the flying Elvi.

Steven Strafford as Tommy's aide de camp Johnny Sandwich, Cole Burden as lounge singer Cole Burden (and also head Elvis Roy Bacon), Marya Grandy as Bea Singer, and a large ensemble support the three leads in making Honeymoon in Vegas a likeable affair.

But though many of Brown's songs are quite delectable--as in not only Bridges but Parade, which Griffin recently directed at Glencoe's Writers Theatre--hummable ear candy hooks aren't his specialty.

"I Love Betsy," "Anywhere But Here," "When You Say Vegas," "Betsy's Getting Married" and other tunes bring considerable delight through Intermission, but the silly storyline--including a sexy Hawaiian named Mahi (Christine Bunuan) and more nonsense with Jack's deceased mom--bog down Act II.

Even with just scant recollection of the movie, one finds oneself longing for the arrival of the skydiving Kings, and Burden and crew have fun with the Presleyesque "Higher Love." (Basically "Burning Love," but higher.)

So there are many terrific moments in Honeymoon in Vegas, which certainly delivers an enjoyable evening of entertainment.

But with a slight, sometimes banal narrative and a score that doesn't match that of Broadway classics often seen at Marriott, this isn't a Honeymoon that's entirely blissful.

I don't think it misbegotten that the movie got turned into a musical or that Marriott chose to stage it--and no one will be worse for seeing it--but what happens in Vegas, well, needn't always be spread around.

Monday, September 04, 2017

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: At Ravinia, Aretha Franklin Provides Glittering Glimpses of Her Majestic Past -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Aretha Franklin
and her orchestra
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
September 3, 2017

I have had the pleasure of seeing several of the greatest legends in pop music history perform live.

Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, the departed Chuck Berry, David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard and many others.

Aretha Franklin clearly deserves to be in that company--her name as singular and renowned as almost anybody's--but until Sunday night at Ravinia, I had never seen the Queen of Soul.

I wouldn't say that, at 75, she was as good as she's ever been; her wondrous voice, though still a pristine instrument, doesn't pack the same punch. Slowed by time, one sees glimpses of Aretha's glory, but the full-throated enthrall isn't quite there.

No matter.

Having noted, over the past several years, the diva's health challenges, weight struggles, canceled, aborted, abrupt or half-hearted shows, I was excited simply for the chance to see Franklin, whose Ravinia date had been postponed from June.

And what I got--with a bargain pavilion seat bought just the day before--was considerably better.

Though my interest was abetted by a stellar review of Franklin's prior concert in Philadelphia--which suggested this could be her last go-round--I didn't reasonably expect to witness 1968 Aretha in Highland Park.

Nor a concert likely on par with the likewise 75-year-old McCartney, who still performs for nearly 3 hours, and dazzled again recently.

Starting just minutes after the ticketed 7:30pm start time, the singer named the greatest of all-time by Rolling Stone shared the stage with over 20 other musicians and vocalists, occasionally letting others do the heavy lifting.

She took a break after singing just six songs, and the whole performance--including parts where the star was offstage--clocked in at about 100 minutes.

There were some songs I didn't know, and a few others where the Queen of Soul blended a bit too much into the background.

But for God's sake, I heard Aretha Franklin sing--and sang along heartily with--"Chain of Fools," "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," "Freeway of Love," the closing "Respect" and even "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."

I heard her--backed by marvelous musicians all night--play piano quite delectably while belting out two songs. (A Ravinia setlist isn't posted but I think it may match this one.)

I heard Aretha speak quite forcefully about her fondness for Chicago, saw her introduce the Rev. Jesse Jackson--who was in the audience--and relished her paying gospel homage to both her doctor and Savior who saw her past a serious health scare around 2010.

I was repeatedly cajoled by her to get on my feet and, like her, shake my tailfeather. (I know, that's wasn't her Blues Brothers song.)

Somewhat metaphysically, I was also reminded about how on "Hey Nineteen," Steely Dan--one half of whom, Walter Becker, had passed Sunday morning--extolled "'Retha Franklin." 

And as she performed a cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" with snippets of Diana Ross' "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," I had it royally reiterated that while there have been remarkable divas before and after her, there remains only one...


And she was in fine form, better than I had hoped and--if not all that close an approximation of her towering legacy--compelling and even captivating from start to finish.

So although the show won't rank high among the very best concerts I'll see in 2017, it will stand tall as one I'm really glad not to have missed.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, indeed.


Here's video I took of the last song (while trying to sing & dance a bit):

And one more photo:

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Welcome to Paradise: A Green Day Night at the Friendly Confines is Quite a Blast -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Green Day
w/ opening act
Catfish and the Bottlemen
Wrigley Field, Chicago
August 24, 2017

It would be easy to be cynical about Green Day's show at Chicago's baseball shrine, Wrigley Field.

The once plucky trio who cut their teeth in bona fide Bay Area punk clubs are now middle-aged Rock 'n Roll Hall of Famers, playing perhaps the most iconic and populist of ballparks as a 6-piece touring band.

...without quite the drawing power to sell out Wrigley, even as the venerated venue summons more casual fans.

And while I have been an avid Green Day fan since Dookie exploded in 1994--it was actually their third album--and found 2004's American Idiot to be a brilliant reinvention that still stands as one of the best albums of the 21st Century, their output since has been largely hit or miss, including on 2016's Revolution Radio.

Having seen Green Day seven times prior, I consider them one of the best live bands ever, but also recognize their penchant to endlessly recycle the same old shtick.

This includes hyperkinetic singer Billie Joe Armstrong's propensity for shouting out "Chicago, Illinois!"--or whatever locale may be apt--bringing audience members onstage to sing and (separately) play guitar, and turning the mediocre "King for a Day" into a long production number complete with costumes, props and a segue into "Shout!" that also includes famed cover song singalongs (in this case "Satisfaction" and "Hey Jude").

For those who don't like the band, or even those who do, it might be easy to call: "Spinal Tap!"

I disagree with the overriding sentiment of this Consequence of Sound review of Thursday's show--that the sameness made it subpar--but think the critiques it makes are pretty fair, and actually similar to my common complaints about Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

For all his verbose topical politicism--including jabs at President Trump--I felt Armstrong, who clearly seemed jazzed at playing Wrigley Field, missed chances to pay fun homage to the Cubs, whether in spoken word or song.

The setlist was filled with songs I enjoyed--including 5 tracks from Revolution Radio--but didn't feature anything special for the occasion, hewed exactly to that at prior tour stops and, as Consequence of Sound points out, stuck to the usual suspects without digging deeper into Green Day's terrific catalog.

Yet while I feel such points are legitimate, and would agree that Green Day hasn't continued to advance their art--on record or on stage--as much as hoped since American Idiot, the concert was such fun from beginning to end that not to award @@@@@ would belie my enjoyment in the moment.

As well as the universal feelings of at least a dozen friends, who were effusive in praise.

Like playing Madison Square Garden or headlining Lollapalooza/Bonnaroo/Coachella, performing at Wrigley Field has--over the past 10 years, since concerts have been permitted--become something of a rite of passage for the biggest rock and country acts. (Save for ones like U2 or the Rolling Stones, who can readily fill Soldier Field.)

Along with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, James Taylor and other classic rockers, Green Day's alt-rock brethren like Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters have filled the Friendly Confines in recent years.

And while the upper deck was a bit undersold, Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool--along with three tour musicians--proved they were up to the task.

The sound mix was a bit problematic on the opening "Know Your Enemy," but two new songs ("Bang Bang," "Revolution Radio") sounded strong leading into an early highlight, "Holiday" off American Idiot.

It was during this song that Armstrong yelled, "No racism! No sexism! No homophobia! And no Donald J. Trump," to a roar of the crowd.

Though its guitar intro sounds an awful lot like that of Oasis' "Wonderwall," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" came off well and I was glad when "Longview" finally started digging into Dookie, from which 5 songs would be played.

One of these, "Welcome to Paradise," had actually appeared on the preceding Kerplunk!, from which Green Day also performed "2000 Light Years Away" as Armstrong recalled playing a club in Elmhurst in 1991.

Looking at the Wrigley setlist now, which matches that of all recent shows, it's easy to wonder why Green Day completely ignores the fine Insomniac, which follows Dookie, or why the "King for a Day" / "Shout" medley gets such prominence.

Yet I think it's to the band's credit that they stick to the tried and true, and still sound sensational.

And I'd be lying to say singing the "Na na nah-nah-nah na" part of "Hey Jude" with the vast crowd, a few weeks after seeing Paul McCartney do so yet again, in a storied venue where I saw Sir Paul in 2011, didn't give me goose bumps.

Especially as I have a bit of a head cold, I think I can really just end this by saying Green Day at Wrigley Field was a great concert by a--still--great band on a great night.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

An Admirable Project: 'Trevor' Impressively Engages as a World Premiere Musical, but Needs to Hit Harder -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Trevor: The Musical
World Premiere
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru September 17

Most musicals able to be seen in Chicagoland are ones that already ran on Broadway in New York, which along with London's West End, can be considered the Major Leagues of the theater world.

Certainly, this isn't entirely the case, as the Windy City has long attracted "tryouts" of shows en route to the Great White Way (or with such ambitions).

Simply in the 21st century, Broadway in Chicago has hosted world premiere runs of The Producers, Spamalot, The Pirate Queen, The Addams Family, Kinky Boots, Big Fish, The Last Ship, On Your Feet and The SpongeBob Musical, among others, some going on to huge success & acclaim, some not. 

The Goodman Theatre debuted The Visit, Bounce, The Million Dollar Quartet, The Light in the Piazza and War Paint, while musicals such as The Last Five Years, The Adding Machine, Hero, The Beverly Hillbillies, Shining Lives, October Sky, Beaches and Hazel were seen first--or early in development--at suburban venues such as Northlight Theatre, Next Theater, Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook and Theater at the Center in Munster.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
But even though this may sound like a substantial number of musicals that play Chicago before Broadway, most Broadway in Chicago offerings come after NYC runs, whether current, recent or long ago (e.g. the presently or soon slated Hamilton, Aladdin, School of Rock, Les Miserables, Wicked, Beautiful).

And works staged by Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Paramount Theater in Aurora, Music Theater Works in Evanston, Theo Ubique in Chicago, other local professional troupes and community theaters across numerous suburbs even more commonly come from the canon of classic "Broadway musicals."

As an avowed musical theater buff, I relish the opportunity to see World Premiere and/or Pre-Broadway musicals, and have enjoyed several of these more than some lowlights that ran on Broadway before hitting the touring circuit.

There is something thrilling about watching the gestation process, but while musicals can always be tinkered with--even years after highly successful Broadway runs--shows that play on Broadway tend to feel more finalized than ones trying to get there.

Which is all a long way of saying that while I found Trevor--a new musical with clear Broadway aspirations and talent getting its world premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe--to be terrific in many regards, I think it needs considerable work.

But that is par for the course, and I didn't want to begin this review by noting the issues I had with Trevor, for that would shortchange the compelling storyline--more on the origins in a moment but the book & lyrics here are by Dan Collins--a highly enjoyable score by Julianne Wick Davis, some excellent songs and superb performances led by 14-year-old Eli Tokash in the title role. 

Even in its current form, Trevor: The Musical is really good, and well-worth getting to Glencoe.

Explained in more depth in this Chicago Tribune article by Chris Jones, Trevor originated in 1994 as a monologue by actor James Lecesne, which was turned into an Oscar-winning short film the same year.

I have not seen the 12-minute movie but per Jones it chronicles "a boy with a crush on the wrong friend at school. In the film, Trevor wants nothing more than to be accepted by his friends. When they reject him, he tries to kill himself."

When the 12-minute movie was slated to air on HBO in 1998, those involved realized it might--again to quote Jones--"connect intensely with gay or questioning kids sitting at home. There might be a need for a phone number for them to call. So everyone went looking for a national service for these teenagers and found that such a service did not exist. So they had to start their own. And thus the Trevor Project--now a national nonprofit suicide prevention service for LGBTQ youths with some $6 million in revenue, more than 1,000 volunteers, some 200,000 callers a year, a 24-hour phone lifeline, new TrevorChat instant messaging, new TrevorText, new TrevorSpace and major financial support from Daniel Radcliffe, among other famous names--was born."

Until hearing about Trevor: The Musical a few months ago and reading up on it before seeing the show Wednesday night, I was not at all familiar with the movie or the Trevor Project, but unabashedly laud support being provided for gay teens, those beginning to explore and question their sexuality and anyone considering taking their own life.

Per the Trevor Project: The rate of suicide attempts is 4 times greater for LGB youth and 2 times greater for questioning youth than that of straight youth.

So although there were very few kids in the audience on Wednesday night, supposedly matinees are drawing school groups. And it's not impossible to imagine Trevor: The Musical might one day be hugely important as much more than entertainment for millions of teenagers, whether gay, different or prone to bully those who are.

But while I applaud the origins and potential benefits, and give credence to the truth that it is still a work in progress, simply as a musical that I devoted 2 hours to watching, I more liked than loved it at this point.

As Trevor Nelson, a junior high school student in 1981 who loves Diana Ross, isn't smitten like his friend Walter (Matthew Uzarraga) by a women's underwear catalog and shows a penchant for choreography, Eli Tokash--who has appeared on Broadway in Finding Neverland and Pippin--is delightful.

And so too is the character of Trevor largely delightful, showing spirited verve and surprisingly little self-consciousness as he befriends the pretty-boy jock of Lakeview Junior High, Pinky Faraday (a fine Declan Desmond).

After a stanza of Diana Ross' "Do You Know" by Salisha Thomas in her guise, an early trio of songs sung by Trevor, Walter and other students--"On With the Show," "Underneath (Turn the Page)" and Everyday (On and On)"--serve to inform that not only are there incredibly talented kids on hand, but that Trevor is a formidable musical enterprise by the largely unknown composer/lyricist tandem of Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins.

Other original songs--notably "Weird," "Can't Wait" and "What's Wrong With Me?"--are stellar, Ross gems like "It's My Turn," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Remember Me," "Endless Love" and "I'm Coming Out" can't help but bring a smile and the title character handles adolescent individuality, insecurity, peer pressure, etc., with such aplomb (mostly) as to be entirely endearing.

Everyone who ever walked a school hallway feeling out-of-place, fearful of bullies, uncertain about their hormones, etc.--which means essentially everybody--should find Trevor: The Musical quite resonant, meaningful and likable, unless entirely turned off by musical theater.

But while I highly enjoyed the production directed by Marc Bruni--who likewise helmed Beautiful: The Carole King Story on Broadway--I found it far too amiable to yet call it truly phenomenal.

For as a tale of a kid with gay tendencies who is pushed to attempt suicide, Trevor seems to have far too little edge or anxiety.

At one point, early in Act II after Trevor is terribly betrayed and humiliated, it even resorts to what feels like uneasy campiness.

I haven't yet seen current Broadway hit and Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, but simply in listening to the Cast Recording and watching some clips, that show--which also deals with teenage misfits and suicide--is clearly darker than Trevor, and seemingly appropriately so.

Another comparable musical, Billy Elliot, benefited from tying the story of a boy who wanted to dance with the labor strife of his British mining town, but there was far more complexity to that title character--and the musical numbers--but also to Billy's gay best friend, Michael.

As Chris Jones points out in his likewise positive review with similar reservations, in desiring to reach a teen audience, Trevor understandably doesn't want be too dark and difficult.

But plenty a musical has been made about young people struggling to find solid footing amid daunting surroundings--including Hairspray, Spring Awakening, Wicked, Kinky Boots, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, etc., etc.--and the best of these don't dance around difficult truths or cruel realities.

In its first public production--augmented at Writers by an outstanding set design by Donyale Werle--Trevor: The Musical is already quite admirable and enjoyable. 

Now it just needs to hit harder, dig deeper and become a good bit more daring.

Trevor's message of overcoming adversity--and embracing one's individuality--is to be universally applauded, but the show itself must toughen up.

Or to put it another way, my own memories of junior high are filled with considerably more angst than anything depicted onstage, except for Trevor's darkest moment, and even that is less harrowing than it should be. 

Treasure Trevor for what it is now, but I'm already looking forward to it becoming even better.