Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Playing a Part in the Conversation: Re-Styled for Modern Times, 'Tootsie' Rolls Along Musically -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

World Premiere Pre-Broadway Musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru October 14

(Note: Seen at the first preview performance, as a paid attendee and longtime Broadway in Chicago subscriber.)

This isn't infallible--nor are my critical instincts overall--but I can usually get a pretty good sense of the quality of a new musical in its first 15 minutes.

Certainly, my overall judgment--and rating on a @@@@@ scale--is based on a show in full, and there are some that start strong and then fade, and others that greatly supersede a so-so beginning.

But having seen over 400 different musicals, with probably 75% of them reviewed on Seth Saith over the past 15 years--including many World Premieres heading to Broadway--there is something somewhat intangible about the best ones that just feels great, from the get-go.

So while I will candidly note that I saw Tootsie's third ever public performance, officially a preview at which there was a technical snafu, and appreciate that there will be ongoing adjustments made until the official Opening Night, probably throughout the Chicago run, as the show preps for Broadway next year and in previews there, I'm comfortable in conveying that the show begins by feeling like something special--and stays that way.

Over the past year, I've attended 11 world premiere musicals, including Tony-winner The Band's Visit on Broadway--David Yazbek wrote the music and lyrics for that show and Tootsie--as well as Pretty Woman, Trevor, The Cher Show, Heartbreak Hotel and Moulin Rouge!, and I liked Tootsie more than any except Moulin Rouge!, which I happened to catch on a trip to Boston.

Again with the caveat about seeing it early in previews, I don't perceive that Tootsie will quite rank with the very best musicals ever created, but it gets pretty much everything right.

And while I don't claim to be the utmost expert, my initial instincts have repeatedly been proven rather accurate--per commercial and critical success--in loving world premiering pre-Broadway musicals such as The Producers, Hairspray, Million Dollar Quartet, Kinky Boots, A Christmas Story, On Your Feet, War Paint and Come From Away. (I also really liked The Last Ship, though it would quickly sink on Broadway despite some award nominations.)

Even my middling review of Pretty Woman, based on seeing the very first preview in Chicago earlier this year, has largely been echoed by reviews of the Broadway run (in spite of which, it is doing great box office).

Funny thing about Tootsie, which, like the 1982 movie, is very funny, its opening number--no song titles are provided in the Playbill, and as you can see, no show photos are yet available--initially seemed like nothing special, but this sense was adroitly validated, and reversed, almost instantly.

I won't spell out many revelatory details, but the most obvious deviation from the movie is that out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey (the fantastic Santino Fontana) passes himself off as Dorothy Michaels not in a daytime soap opera, but in a Broadway musical.

This change works quite well, as does basing the musical in the here and now, not the early '80s when there was considerably less sensitivity--not that it's anywhere near perfect now--about gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.

The script by Robert Horn, under the direction of Scott Ellis, makes it quite clear that Michael is a straight man who assumes a woman's identity strictly to get work...and comes to realize it's dunderheaded decision, hurtful to those he cares about (and likely insulting to non-cisgender individuals, though this isn't acutely addressed).

As befits a show that needs to balance LOL humor with a good bit of delicacy, Yazbek again shows himself to be a shrewd songwriter.

Though Yazbek's The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Band's Visit--which I didn't quite love--were all good musicals, even on a first encounter I perceive Tootsie to be his best work yet.

Still, overtly hummable melodicism isn't Yazbek's foremost strength, and just three days after seeing Tootsie, I'm hard pressed to recall specific songs (made harder without a song list, though I did jot some notes).

As Sandy, Michael's platonic actress friend (played by Teri Garr in the movie), Sarah Stiles brilliantly delivers a 200mph ode to the neuroses of a constantly auditioning performer, while Fontana, terrifically overcoming the challenge of inhabiting two of Dustin Hoffman's more iconic roles, demonstrates great pipes in a song presumably titled "All In."

Lilli Cooper (Julie, the Jessica Lange part) also clearly possesses one of those remarkable Broadway-star voices, and all of the performances and production values are truly first-rate.

Even though a song like "Unstoppable"(??) isn't the best Act I closer one can imagine, the production number surrounding it, with choreography by Denis Jones, makes it a highlight.

As befits a show already booked into Broadway's Marquis Theatre next spring, Tootsie is bursting with great talent throughout its cast.

Beyond the aforementioned, Andy Grotelueschen is wonderful as Jeff, Michael's roommate and close friend, especially as he makes the role his own, not faux Bill Murray from the movie. He sings an early Act II song I'll let you encounter with surprise, but it's a delight.

Reg Rogers (as Ron Carlisle, the director of the show within the show), John Behlmann (Max, a star of the show who becomes enamored with Dorothy and serenades her hilariously on "This Thing"), Julie Halson (Rita, the show's producer) and Michael McGrath (Michael's agent Stan) are all demonstrably good.

Fontana does an excellent job both as Michael and Dorothy, but if there is a way for him--over time, let's be fair--to make the latter feel more his own incarnation and less overtly reminiscent of Hoffman's characterization (or Dana Carvey's Church Lady), I think it would help a little.

But as it stands quite early in its public gestation, Tootsie is a winner.

Although it comes at a point when I was tiring of (often creatively tepid) movie-to-musical adaptations, this show--with updated twists on the film's humorous conceit, fine songs, singing, dancing and acting, much delightful dialogue and even a nice sense of morality--really gets it right.

From the very beginning.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Including Superb Star, 'Sweet Charity' Has Its Charms, But Doesn't Equal the Sum of Its Parts -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sweet Charity
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru October 28

Some of the greatest names in the annals of entertainment history are connected to the 1966 musical, Sweet Charity.

Federico Fellini directed the film--Nights of Cabira--on which it is based. Bob Fosse conceived, directed and choreographed the Broadway premiere. Neil Simon wrote the book (i.e. script), Cy Coleman the music, Dorothy Fields the lyrics. Gwen Verdon starred on Broadway with John McMartin, who reprised his role in the Fosse-directed film version alongside Shirley MacLaine.

And in Marriott Theatre's new production, estimable talent also abounds, with several of the cast members bringing impressive Broadway credits.

In the title role, Anne Horak--who has played Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway--is excellent, and eminently likable. Local stalwarts Alex Goodrich (Oscar), Terry Hamilton (Herman) and Alexandra Palkovic (Ursula) are terrific. Kenny Ingram (Daddy Brubeck) and Adam Jacobs (Vittorio Vidal) are Marriott vets who have enjoyed fine Broadway careers; the former notably in The Lion King for 15 years, the latter in that show, Les Misérables and the title role of Aladdin. Dani Spieler (Nickie), who has been in several Broadway shows and National Tours, is delightful, as is Natonia Monét (Helene), who I felt could have made for an intriguing Charity.

Photo credit on all: Justin Barbin
The score includes a number of great songs--"Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "I'm the Bravest Individual," "Sweet Charity," "I Love to Cry at Weddings"--and there is much fine choreography under the auspices of director Alex Sanchez.

There are also many funny lines of dialogue courtesy of the legendary--and just recently passed--playwright Neil Simon.

Goodrich, in particular is hilarious, and has great chemistry with Horak.

Yet for all that it has going for it, historically and currently, Sweet Charity is fun but well short of fantastic.

My sense is that, despite the esteemed creators and several fine songs, the source material is to blame far more than any deficiencies at Marriott.

I've only seen Sweet Charity once before, starring Christina Applegate, in Chicago on its way to a Broadway revival in 2005.

I wasn't penning full blog reviews then, but in my Shows Seen database, gave it 7/10, so the equivalent of @@@1/2 here.

And while Sweet Charity is a famed title in the canon of classic Broadway musicals, the original production won just one of the nine Tony Awards for which it was nominated (for Fosse's choreography).

So while charms are abundant at Marriott, so too are likely inherent flaws. 

In Nights of Cabiria, the central character is a Rome prostitute--named Cabiria and played by Giulietta Masina--who searches for true love in vain.

That's essentially the desire of Charity Hope Valentine in the musical, but in 1966 America, her profession was adjusted to that of dance hall hostess, also known as a taxi dancer (though still essentially a girl for hire).

While director Sanchez, star Horak and others involved at Marriott have expressly aimed to be sensitive to today's #MeToo movement, playing up Charity's strength vs. any degradation she faces, the core conceit feels dated and she too romantically desperate.

And despite considerable tunefulness by composer Cy Coleman and many cheeky lyrics from Dorothy Fields that make most of the songs individual delights, Sweet Charity really doesn't flow all that well.

Sanchez's choreography can aptly be called a strength of this production, particularly during "Big Spender," but skillful dancing can't prevent Act I's "Rich Man's Frug" from feeling unnecessarily long without adding anything to the show's narrative.

A few other numbers tend to lag as well and/or come off as too capsulized.

Adam Jacobs is great fun as Vittorio Vidal, with his rich voice resounding on "Too Many Tomorrow's," but--unless I just didn't recognize the actor in other scenes--he's woefully underutilized.

Likewise, it's a joy seeing Kenny Ingram lead a congregation of hippie followers in "The Rhythm of Life," but it too is a relatively small role in a scene that, despite Felliniesque trappings, feels a bit forced.

Dani Spieler and Natonia Monét delectably make the most of their stage time as Charity's dance hall colleagues and confidants, and Sweet Charity hits its high mark when Alex Goodrich shows up as Oscar, a nebbish who aims to win Charity's heart.

Goodrich made meet laugh out loud as Oscar meets Charity in an elevator, and his interactions with Horak are delightful, as their characters ping-pong each other's neuroses.

So as I noted above, there is much great talent at work in the round at Marriott Theatre, and a whole lot to like about Sweet Charity.

It's just that its many fine parts wind up greater than the whole.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Wales of Delight: With Terrific Career-Spanning Set, Stereophonics Show Why They're UK Superstars, Personal Favorites -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act The Ramona Flowers
The Vic Theater, Chicago 
September 11, 2018

I love many of the biggest artists in rock history, across all eras: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Prince, Nirvana, Green Day and hundreds more.

An avid concertgoer, just this year I've attended several shows by "household names" (or close to it): U2, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Billy Joel, Journey, Def Leppard, Robert Plant, Neil Young, Radiohead, ELO, Jethro Tull, Steve Winwood, Depeche Mode, David Byrne, The Killers, Arcade Fire, Smashing Pumpkins, even Taylor Swift.

But like everyone--or at least everyone who takes music somewhat seriously, as borne out by virtually every iTunes library I've ever seen--I also cherish several rock acts that can be considered more personal favorites.

Obviously, the music other people may know and appreciate varies greatly and is hard to presume or generalize, but I'm guessing there are many music lovers today who have never heard of The Zombies, The Jam, Dinosaur Jr. or Bob Mould, let alone Alejandro Escovedo, Willie Nile, Maximo Park, Ash or The Wildhearts.

Hailing from Wales, the Stereophonics are likely my #1 still active "personal favorite," a recognition they only enhanced with a fantastic concert Tuesday night at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.

Around the year 2000, with new rock seemingly in a doldrums--it still is, but that's another story--I did a bit of internet searching for bands who were popular in Britain but unknown to me and much of the U.S.

There have been many of these over the years, from the Move to the Jam to Suede, Blur, Pulp and dozens of others I once compiled into a Hidden in the Isles box set.

Presumably with the aid of Napster, I instantly fell in love with what I heard from the second Stereophonics album, 1999's Performance and Cocktails, including "Roll Up and Shine" and "The Bartender and the Thief."

I soon bought it, and then also got the band's 1997's debut, Word Gets Around, which I liked even more.

At the time, and ever since, Stereophonics have been playing arenas & stadiums at home--they've had six #1 albums in the UK--and headlining huge British festivals like Glastonbury, Reading and the Isle of Wight. 

But for whatever reason, they've never made much of a dent in the U.S.

I first saw them do an acoustic show at Chicago's Double Door in 2001, have seen them three times at Metro, attended a show at the Congress Theater that they co-headlined with Howie Day and in December 2003--within a few days of their playing a massive gig at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales--I saw them play a WXRT holiday concert at the Cubby Bear.

Thanks to my friend Josh knowing someone from WXRT Radio, after that show we were able hang out with the band upstairs, and I met singer/guitarist/songwriter Kelly Jones and bassist Richard Jones, who is not related.

A thrill for me, yes, but I've always wondered how the Stereophonics have dealt with the vast dichotomy of fame on both sides of the Atlantic.

To be honest, I haven't liked any of the Stereophonics eight subsequent studio albums as much as the first two, and though there have been some great songs over the years--"Maybe Tomorrow," "Have a Nice Day," "Dakota," "Bank Holiday Monday," "Indian Summer," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"--my fervor had waned a bit. (I ranked Stereophonics #19 among my all-time favorite rock bands in 2005, but dropped them to #41 in 2015.)

Still, in buying tickets to their Vic show as soon as it went on sale in March--it wound up being well short of sold out--I was surprised that it had been 10 years since I last saw the Stereophonics live.

My common concert pal Paolo was happy to join me, and Josh and his wife--who I credit myself for converting to a rabid fan--happened to get seats right nearby.

The show was opened by a British band I hadn't heard of called the Ramona Flowers, and Paolo and I instantly agreed that they had a nice sound that reminded of the New Romantic mid-'80's era--Spandau Ballet, OMD, Culture Club, Psychedelic Furs, etc.--without being outright derivative.

With slicked-back hair and black suit, singer Steve Bird conjured up Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley, as well as Bryan Ferry, at times alternating nicely between croon and falsetto.

I can't name any of the songs they played, but enjoyed several, and you can find The Ramona Flowers on Spotify.

At 8:30pm, the Stereophonics took the stage with a song called "C'est La Vie," and though Kelly Jones' voice has always had a bit of Rod Stewart raspiness to it, at age 44, it still sounds great.

After "Caught by the Wind," the opener of 2017's Scream Above the Sounds, came "A Thousand Trees," from Word Gets Around and still the most powerful song I've ever heard broach the topic of child molestation.

Thirty songs would be played across a robust 2-1/2 hours, with at least one from all 10 studio albums.

Quite pleasing to me, nine tunes came off the first two Stereophonics albums--including "Too Many Sandwiches," "Plastic California," "Same Size Feet," "Traffic" and "Just Looking"--and even a few more would have been welcome.

But although I started to sense a bit of sameness to some of the material midway through, in full the Stereophonics accomplished everything a great concert should.

There was a stellar opening act and the headliners played a generous but not overindulgent show, without repeating exactly what had been played the night before in Toronto.

Songs I knowingly love sounded fantastic, including "A Thousand Trees," "Have a Nice Day," the closing "Dakota" and the phenomenal "Local Boy in the Photograph," a deceptively blistering yet wistful rocker about a young man who threw himself in front of a train.

Songs I only kinda knew--"Geronimo," "I Wanna Get Lost With You," "Sunny"--came across well, and a few I had never known or long-forgotten--"Daisy Lane," "Drowning," "Live 'n' Love"--were passionately delivered in a way that had me looking them up afterward.

Kelly Jones let the crowd--including presumably numerous UK expats who knew the material well--sing along lustily to enhance "Maybe Tomorrow," while drummer Jamie Morrison (the band's third) delectably powered through a few extended codas.

And while I expected the Stereophonics to savor the set-ending applause at about the 2-hour mark, encore with "Dakota" and call it a night, they had the chutzpah to play four slower songs first and have them all sound great. (See the setlist here.)

They even then, after "Dakota," rocked through "Sweet Home Chicago" in a way so surprising it didn't feel trite or pandering.

Just in case the band reads this, I'll cite a couple of other tunes I would've relished hearing--"Roll Up and Shine" and "Billy Davey's Daughter"--but this is meant only as a wish for next time and in no way a gripe.

I wound up a wonderful night with no reason not to award @@@@@ on my 5@ scale, and although I sense this show may not be at the very top of my Best of 2018, there is something special about one of your personal favorite bands proving one's affinity well-warranted all these years down the road.

And even amplifying it anew. 

Here's "Local Boy in the Photograph," from Tuesday night, as found on YouTube:

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Guilty Consciousness: Shattered Globe Does a Nice Job Bringing 'Crime and Punishment' to the Stage -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Crime and Punishment
Adapted by Chris Hannan
Based on the novel by: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Directed by Louis Contey
Shattered Globe Theatre
at Theater Wit
Thru October 20

I have never read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but know it is regarded as a classic of world literature.

So when I saw that Chicago's Shattered Globe Theatre was doing a stage version--based on a relatively recent adaptation by Chris Hannan--I was intrigued.

And in watching it across nearly 3 hours Sunday afternoon--prior to the "Delight and Devastation" that was the Bears-Packers game (for a Bears fan)--I can share that the introduction to Crime and Punishment was well-worth my time. 

Obviously, I am unable to acutely assess the deftness with which Hannan adapted Dostoyevsky's novel. 

And yet, in wanting to get something of a Cliff Notes understanding of the book--and thinking I pretty much did--I can't perfectly gauge how well the stage rendition might work simply as theater, for anyone who may arrive with no awareness of the source material. 

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Overall, I think there was a bit too much going on for me to fully grasp or completely love this Crime and Punishment, set--per the book--in 19th century Russia, complete with appropriate garb and some light accents. 

But I very much appreciated the acting and ambition, and--to whatever degree of acuity--the story and its moral.

Although, I can't deny I had to check the book's plot summary on Wikipedia afterward to fill in some holes of my understanding, and I believe Hannan may have changed some things around.

Onstage at least, the narrative centers around a young ex-law student named Rodi Raskolnikov (an excellent Drew Schad), who in some muddled mix of poverty-stricken angst and self-aggrandizing hubris, murders a local pawnbroker (Daria Harper) rather gruesomely, then likewise her half-sister (Jazzma Pryor). 

Harper also plays Rodi's mom, and his sister Dunya (Christina Gorman) also factors in, as does a college friend (Joseph Wiens), a local drunkard (a superb Darren Jones) and the latter's daughter, Sonia (Ilse Zacharias), a hooker with a heart of gold who beguiles Rodi. 

This leaves out mentioning three other cast members (Rebecca Jordan, Patrick Thornton and Brad Woodard) and the multiple roles many of the actors embody. 

So there is whole a lot going on, and for me, the preponderance of long Russian names (perfectly apt per the novel), the same actors as various characters and a profusion of what I perceived as "human shadows"--various actors adorning the same long leather coat as Raskolnikov while moving roughly in unison--made for an occasionally confused sense of comprehension.

But the "shadows" were but one example of inspired directorial touches by Louis Contey (with deference to not knowing what exactly was in Doystoyevsky's book, Hannan's script or contributed by various crew members). 

Even before the play started, I was smitten by the set by Nick Mozak, featuring two large human faces painted on the floor. 

Though certainly not a musical, Crime and Punishment begins--in an intimate Theater Wit auditorium--with the cast chanting, and a bit more melodic singing comes later. 

In one key scene, virtually all the actors rhythmically pound their chests, symbolizing heartbeats of foreboding.

Great use is also made of portable doors, with occasionally two employed simultaneously.

And among numerous terrific lines of dialogue--apologies for not knowing if Dostoyevsky, any of his translators or Hannan should be credited--are some that feel eerily resonant today, as it is pondered if (self-proclaimed) "great men" have the right to essentially get away with murder, especially if they perceive the eventual ramifications and/or their ultimate contributions to society are for the greater good. 

I won't give away further plot details--famed as they may be--but will say that the connection between Roti and Ilse winds up being both poignant and palpable onstage. 

So while I wouldn't quite call this "must see" theater, the production is definitely quite well-done.

And whether you well-know, long-ago read, are curious about or rather oblivious to Dostoyevsky's novel, as a piece of theater you should find--perhaps to varying degrees--Crime and Punishment justly rewarding.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sing Me a Song Tonight: Billy Joel Sticks To a Familiar Gameplan, Belts Out Several Well-Placed Hits at Wrigley -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Billy Joel
Wrigley Field, Chicago 
September 7, 2018

It would be wrong, or at least an overstatement, to say that I was disappointed by Billy Joel's performance Friday night at Wrigley Field.

On a pleasant night at my favorite place on earth, a 69-year-old rock legend was in good voice and spirits in playing 25 songs--or close to that, depending on how one counts snippets--across 135 minutes.

I had a good, face value seat in the upper deck with relatively little in the way of crowd disturbances--usually there are a few--and reveled in Joel classics like "My Life," "Movin' Out," "Allentown," "Only the Good Die Young," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "Piano Man" and more. (See the setlist here.)

Opening the show with "Big Shot," Billy and his crack band sprinkled in some nice album tracks from throughout his career, including "Summer, Highland Falls," "Vienna," "Big Man on Mulberry Street," "And So It Goes," "Sometimes a Fantasy" and for the first time across 16 shows this year, "No Man's Land," which opens 1993's River of Dreams album.

Paying fine tribute to Aretha Franklin, percussionist Crystal Taliefero stepped out front to sing a spirited rendition of "Respect" that certainly earned mine.

And in occasionally seeing where his fingers might take him across his grand piano keyboard, Joel played the coda to "Layla" and as he expressed his affinity for the Derek and the Dominoes classic, the band hurriedly figured out how to blast through the song's guitar-driven opening, with Billy singing a couple verses.

Having guitarist Mike DelGuidice croon a credible rendition of Puccini's "Nessum dorma" added a nicely operatic touch before the musical narrative that is "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."

DelGuidice later showed his vocal dexterity with a bit of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" mashed into the show-closing "You May Be Right."

So along with many of his own great songs, Billy Joel paid homage to other musical heroes, and there was nothing obviously deficient about any of it.

To a simple, "How was the show?" query, I would definitely say, "Good" and not contradict anyone who said "Great."

Simply on paper, or screen as it may be, the setlist and all of the above conveys a truly superlative show. Which is why the rest of this review will largely read as a rationalization for my bestowing @@@@, and not 4-1/2@ or 5@ as I expected to heading into the Friendly Confines.

But to be clear, while I wasn't as dazzled as I hoped to be, there was nothing I disliked or that was bad.

And while I would guess that relatively few in the sold out crowd were seeing Billy Joel live for the first time--this was his fifth straight year playing at Wrigley and his seventh time overall (including a pair of 2009 shows with Elton John), making for the most of any musical artist and more than many baseball players--it is primarily in comparing this concert to past ones that my euphoria dims a bit.

Which may not be completely fair.

For Billy Joel clearly knows how to put on a crowd-pleasing show, and I think it's safe to say many--including myself--want to hear the setlist staples, even if we have before.

Singing along to "Piano Man" never gets old.

And although this was my sixth time seeing Billy Joel--including 2009 and 2014 at Wrigley--looking at his setlists from the 2014-2017 shows here reveals many songs not played on Friday that I may have enjoyed hearing: "A Matter of Trust," "Pressure," "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Down on Broadway)," "The Longest Time," "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," "Angry Young Man."

Obviously, Joel can't play all of his good songs every time out.

But of 22 non-cover songs performed on Friday, only three weren't played in centerfield in 2014. (And the same 19 songs were performed in 2017 and, predominantly, at most Billy Joel shows.)

In July 2014, Billy's mother passed away early in the week he was to play Wrigley Field, and I was a bit surprised the show wasn't postponed or canceled.

And perhaps I was reading too much into it, but despite playing all his great songs with the normal fervor, I thought he seemed--quite understandably--a bit subdued. (This was my review.)

Per past shows I've seen live or on DVD or even in just perusing setlists, Billy Joel usually does a good bit of goofing around, whether joking about this or that or playing snippets--and even full versions--of seemingly random cover songs, sometimes with special guests.

A few weeks ago, at Fenway Park in Boston--per Setlist.fm--Billy played part of the band Boston's "More Than a Feeling," welcomed J. Geils Band's Peter Wolf to do "Centerfold" with him and played two songs with Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, who would play the same ballpark the next night.

At New York's Madison Square Garden, where he does one concert every month, Bryan Adams joined him last time out.

Obviously special guests aren't always possible, and with Fall Out Boy playing Wrigley on Saturday, I'm not suggesting Billy's mature crowd would've much cared if Pete Wentz came onstage for a blast through "Sugar, We're Going Down."

The point I'm trying to make is that, strange as it may sound, Billy Joel concerts are elevated from good/great to phenomenal by moments that go beyond his own greatest hits, such as fun vamping and other surprises, or even just a particularly festive mood on his part.

The 2014 Wrigley show--for logical reasons--seemed light on these moments, and though Billy appeared amiable and fairly talkative on Friday, there also wasn't enough to avoid feeling "been there, done that."

Sure, we got snippets of "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)" and "My Kind of Town," but they're so obvious as to feel trite, and while "Layla," "Respect," the Puccini aria and a bit of "Rock and Roll" were all swell, I found myself mostly just watching and hearing the concert, without often being swept up in it.

Perhaps this had to do with my upper deck perch--a friend on the field was far more ecstatic despite agreeing that Joel could stand to shake things up a bit more--and I'm still quite glad I went.

But truly phenomenal concerts make me want to see the artist again as soon as I can--even the next night--and while I hope Billy remains in good stead and keeps coming around, I wouldn't feel compelled to revisit him for at least a few years, and even then I'd expect much of the same.

Of course, it's never bad to be able to assume--and get--a highly enjoyable show at the very least, and whenever I'm in the mood for a melody, I'm certain he'll have me feeling alright.

I love Billy Joel, and his music has meant a lot to my life. But in doing these big ballpark shows, I think he needs to loosen the setlist up a bit more and find ways to make the night unique for Chicago (beyond wishing the Cubs well, as he did).

I see that a couple years ago he played Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4," but why not invite Dennis de Young around for a blast through "Come Sail Away"? 

I know, it seems a silly way to make a great show sensational, and Billy Joel certainly needn't listen to me.

But for all you know, I may be right.

Here's a bit of the crowd singalong on "Piano Man," a song I also posted part of in 2014:

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

50 Years Down the Flute: At Ravinia, Ian Anderson Honors the Proud History of Jethro Tull -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Jethro Tull
by Ian Anderson
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
September 3, 2018

Although Ravinia always draws some casual fans due to its unique ambiance and large donor community, I have to assume the vast majority of those gathered on Monday night--particularly in the pavilion--were far more devout followers of Jethro Tull than I.

I've long heard of the British band, and have always liked their classic rock staples such as "Aqualung" and "Locomotive Breath," but never owned any Jethro Tull music or knew more than a handful of songs.

Neither had I ever seen Jethro Tull in concert, and didn't even note Monday's show until a few days ago.

Though in doing so, my interest was piqued, I wasn't sure of my attendance at Ravinia until 6pm--for a show that began sharply at 7:30pm without an opening act.

Having been checking StubHub for a decently-priced pavilion seat--this has been my wont over the past few years, rather than sit on the lawn without a view of the stage, particularly on a rainy day--I was going to pass on the best option of $76, when right around 6:00pm several single seats were posted in Row V of the right front section.

Photos are not from the 9/4/18 Jethro Tull show at Ravinia.
For $38, including StubHub fees.

For a ticket with a face value of $92 (incl. ticketing fees).

I wound up sitting next to, and chatting a good bit, with a guy who had done the same thing.

And throughout the approx. 2-hour concert with a 15-minute set break, I abided with the stern request from ushers not to take any photos.

So what you see are from other shows and unknown photographers.

I should note that the show was officially promoted as "Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson," as the band's longtime singer and flautist--who I essentially think of as Jethro Tull--was the only original or long-term member present.

Essentially this seems to mean that in having officially called an end to Jethro Tull in 2011, Anderson had stopped touring with guitarist Martin Barre, who likewise had been in the band since 1968 and remains musically active.

In celebrating Jethro Tull's history by embarking on a 50th Anniversary Tour in 2018--though he's also done JT-dominated sets in recent years--Anderson does not have Barre alongside, and is accompanied by musicians who have been part of his solo tours.

With no disrespect meant to Barre and the "36" other Jethro Tull members over the years--Anderson cited this number from the stage--I will henceforth refer to this as a Jethro Tull concert, prepositional subtitles be damned.

And I enjoyed it as much as a Jethro Tull history lesson as I did a rock concert in the here & now.

I don't know what's taken me so long, but it was certainly cool to hear a flute as a major part of a rock band's soundscape.

At 71, Anderson remains an affable and enthusiastic fellow, and though not pristinely robust, his singing voice remains singularly identifiable.

Across 18 songs, the concert felt akin to a Jethro Tull "rockumentary," opening with song #1 from album #1--Stand Up's "My Sunday Feeling"--accompanied by video imagery dating back to 1968.

Throughout the night, somewhat verbose song intros were provided not only by Anderson but--repeatedly via video--past band members.

These included Jeffrey Hammond, who aptly introduced "Song for Jeffrey," Mick Abrahams who was shown onscreen prior to the bluesy "Some Day the Sun Won't Shine Without You" and John Evan, who spoke of "Heavy Horses."

Guitar great Joe Bonamassa--who covered Tull's "A New Day Yesterday"--shared his affinity before the five band members (including Anderson) played it live, and warm wishes from Tony Iommi--who toured with Jethro Tull briefly in the late '60s before forming Black Sabbath--preceded a great flute-fueled romp through Johann Sebastian Bach's "Bourrée in E minor."

Later, other musical fans of the band--Iron Maiden's Steve Harris, Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, Guns 'n Roses' Slash--appeared onscreen.

Clearly the point was well made about Jethro Tull's longevity, import and influence, though I really didn't need somebody famous to tell me that "Aqualung" was one of rock's great songs.

Guitarist Florian Opahle dazzled on that masterpiece, but while it was one of the show's clear highlights, I was a bit puzzled by Anderson dueting with a recorded singer.

I'm not sure if the other singer was Anderson in his younger days, as the guy on video shown to be singing really didn't look like him. It was strange, and had I been on the screen-less lawn, I would have been even more confused.

Anderson also dueted with a video recording of a woman on "Heavy Horses," and if he credited who she was, I didn't catch it.

As noted at top, I can't claim to be a Jethro Tull devotee.

Though I had done some Spotifamiliarizing over the past few days, "Aqualung," "Thick as a Brick" and "Locomotive Breath" were the only songs I knew well. ("Bungle in the Jungle" was not played; see the setlist here.)

I'm glad I went, with a great seat at a great price, and would certainly dub it a "good concert."

But even compared to--just within the past month--first time live excursions into Jeff Lynne's ELO and Paul Rodgers singing songs from Bad Company and Free, the fine history lesson was lesser in terms of overt or nostalgic musical delight. 

And something did seem a tad off with Anderson's vocals, though not terribly so.

Still, a few weeks from celebrating my 50th birthday, it was a fun trip all the way back to 1968. And along with some classic songs and terrific musicianship--see the list of current band members here--I think I can safely say I've now seen the greatest flute player in rock 'n roll history.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Bean(town) There, Done That: Recapping a Fantastic Four Days in Boston - Travelogue and Photo Gallery

Old State House
Travel Recap

Boston, MA
Aug. 2-5, 2018

Why did I recently go to Boston, for a 4-day weekend?

Is it a city I'd never been to? Do I have friends, relatives or business there? Was there a concert by Bruce Springsteen or other cherished musical favorites? Is its famed baseball stadium one I haven't attended? Was there a particularly compelling theater production in town?

No, no, no, no and not one that was the impetus.

I consider Boston one of the truly great American cities, along with New York, Washington, San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and my hometown of Chicago. (There are many other cities I really enjoy, including Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Denver, Seattle, St. Louis, Atlanta, Cleveland and San Antonio, but I consider the above a cut above in terms of tourism, with Las Vegas and Miami Beach being separate cases.)

And though I'd been to Boston twice before, and seen many of its top attractions, I had really only spent a total of 4 previous days there, and none since 2000. (I've been to ALL of the aforementioned cities, even the second batch, more recently.)

Boston Public Library, McKim Building
So although my big vacation of 2018--to Peru--ended just 5-1/2 weeks prior, it seemed prudent to visit Boston for a full 4 days in early August...and the weather cooperated well. 

Having never set foot in Maine, I considered taking a bus to Portland one of the days, but ruled that out fairly early in my planning given all I wanted to do in Boston. 

And I ended up wishing I had devoted one more day, allowing me to visit the historic nearby hamlets of Lexington, Concord and Walden, but I'm happy with everything I did in Boston (and adjoining Cambridge).

So I won't make this too fancy, but rather a straightforward recap of what I saw, did and ate across the four days.

Interior of Trinity Church
● Arrival via Logan Airport from Chicago O'Hare on American Airlines

● "T" (Boston subway) from Airport to Prudential (purchased 7-day T pass)

Boston Public Garden
● Copley House (non-traditional hotel) - Booked via Booking.com - Costing roughly one-third of any other accommodations I could find in downtown Boston, I had a private room in a row house at 240 W. Newton, close to the Prudential Center. This wasn't an AirBNB, and there was a reception office across the street. I found it quite acceptable.  
● Prudential Center - A shopping center I walked through on my way elsewhere.

● NewsFeed Cafe - In the newer building of the Boston Public Library; I had an apricot croissant.

Massachusetts State House
● Boston Public Library - After entering through the newer building designed by Philip Johnson, I realized the older building next door was the one I was really supposed to check out. It was gorgeous, with many grand murals, including by John Singer Sargent, Edwin Austin Abbey and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. A reading room called Bates Hall is also astonishing.

● Trinity Church - I took a self-guided audio tour of this spectacular church at Copley Square, and was even treated to a local choir singing live from the altar.

● Newbury Street - Walked down this posh street for a stretch toward the Boston Public Garden, ducking into the Taj Boston hotel for a look, but the lobby wasn't anything particularly special.

● Boston Public Garden - A gorgeous open space on a beautiful day.

● Cheers - Formerly the Bull & Finch Pub, the exterior served as that of NBC's hit sitcom. Now there's a barroom matching that of the TV show, as well as another in original form. I've been here twice before and didn't eat or drink this time, but wanted to stop by. Nobody knew my name.

● Massachusetts State House - I couldn't help but snicker sophomorically at signs directing me to access the capitol through the General Hooker entrance (Joseph Hooker was a Union Army General), but enjoyed a nice tour of the building, including two
Red Sox vs. Yankees at Fenway, under a blood red sky.
statues by Daniel Chester French.

● Freedom Trail - Time constraints didn't allow me to arduously follow the red line on the sidewalk, as I have previously, but I got to most of the sights on either Thursday or Sunday.

● Holocaust Memorial - Six glass towers represent the 6 million Jews who were murdered.

● Union Oyster House - Open since 1826 and claiming to be the oldest operating restaurant in the United States, it's rather touristy and I've been here before. But it seemed like the place to get a Lobster Roll and a cup of "chowda." Loved the cornbread and my waitress was wonderful.

● Fenway Park - Red Sox vs. Yankees - I felt fortunate to get a reasonably-priced ticket on RedSox.com, found that it was behind a pole that blocked my view of home plate, was switched to one that did but went back to my original when it started to rain. The rain stopped and the Red Sox won 15-7. As a Chicagoan and Cubs fan, I find Wrigley Field much more endearing, but it was cool to see a game at Fenway, actually my second (after a 22-1 Yankees win in 2000).

Dance at Bougival, Pierre-August Renoir
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
One of the primary reasons for wanting to revisit Boston was to go to art museums, 2 of 3 I'd never been to. So in saying that--due to rain or the threat of it--pretty much all of Friday until the evening was spent inside museums only reflects day-to-day scheduling adjustments, not a compromise or change of plans.

From my hotel, I basically just walked southwest on Huntington Ave. Without any prior awareness, I stopped for a bite at:

Temptations Cafe - I had a Sweet Temptation brioche sandwich with banana and Nutella.

Then, because it opened at 10am, I began at the: 

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - I initially jumped on a highlights tour, but a fire alarm interrupted it as the building was evacuated. I would return afterward, and pretty thoroughly explore the MFA's wonderful multidisciplinary holdings.

But during the forced exit, I went over to the: 

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum courtyard
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - The private collection of its namesake, still organized to her exacting specifications nearly a century years after her death. Despite missing some masterpieces due to a 1990 theft, it is a very impressive collection housed in a mansion designed to resemble a Venetian palazzo. Highlights include a couple of paintings by Raphael, a Botticelli (and another by his followers), a terrific Rembrandt and many beautiful tapestries.

Before an evening concert, I stopped at:

Legal Harborside - A waterside outpost of Legal Sea Foods. Having had a lobster roll the night before, I opted for a Swordfish Gyros Sandwich, which was good. The restaurant is right next to the big white tent of the...

● Blue Hills Bank Pavilion at which I saw Ann Wilson / Jeff Beck / Paul Rodgers on their Stars Align Tour - Two great rock and roll singers--Wilson of Heart and Rodgers of both Free & Bad Company--along with one of the best guitarists ever. Although it may have been cool to see them play together, they each performed their own set with a backing band. Rather than run through Heart's greatest hits--playing only "Barracuda"--Wilson sang a selection of choice cover songs, some representing rock's recently-passed legends. Beck mixed instrumentals with some sung by Jimmy Hall. Rodgers stuck to his best-known songs from Free and Bad Company and remains a terrific vocalist. Overall I give the show @@@@ (out of 5), with Rodgers being the most enjoyable.


John Harvard by Daniel Chester French, Harvard Yard, Cambridge
The forecast again called for a full day of rain, even thunderstorms, but they hadn't quite started when I got to:

● Harvard Square (in Cambridge) - I arrived right at 10am and knew there were free student-led tours of Harvard Yard on the hour, so I jumped on the first one I saw, which I subsequently learned to be a...

"Hahvahd" Tour - ...which should have cost me $12. So I apologize and give them a plug here. The guy giving the tour did a nice job, but as the rain started to get harder, I repeatedly wandered off and eventually ditched my bootleg tour to enter the...

● Harvard Art Museums - The Fogg, Sackler and Busch-Reisinger Museums are now housed in the same building, with nicely diverse collections but still considerably more compact than the MFA. They have a wondrous Blue Period Picasso, a great Van Gogh portrait and some terrific works by Max Beckmann.
On the advice of a friend who is a Harvard Alum, I sought out:

● Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage - A Harvard/Cambridge institution since 1960, they have a bunch of big burgers (with various toppings) named for Tom Brady, Liz Warren, Kim Jong-Un, Melania Trump and more. I devised by own, with Muenster cheese, grilled red peppers and grilled onions, accompanied by sweet pepper fries and a fresh Raspberry Lime Rickey.

With hopes that my doctor isn't reading this, I followed that up with a visit to the Cambridge location--I'm told the more famous original is in the North End--of:

● Mike's Pastries - They're famed for their cannoli, and I can report for good reason.

Before getting back to Boston proper, I rode to the Kendall/MIT T stop in Cambridge and took a stroll to and into the:

● Stata Center, a collection of adjoining buildings designed by Frank Gehry, in his typical unique fashion.

I had been advised that MIT has a great collection of outdoor sculpture, but it was continuing to rain and I was ready for a respite, so I made my way back to my hotel for a brief nap, before heading to the:

● Emerson Colonial Theatre to see Moulin Rouge!: The Musical - The newly refurbished theater--the oldest continuously operating in Boston--is absolutely gorgeous. And in a pre-Broadway World Premiere run, I thought Moulin Rouge! was phenomenal. See my review here.

Tail of a whale

● Long Wharf

● Whale Watching Cruise - On Thursday morning I had bought a ticket for a 9:00am Sunday Whale Watch tour, operated by Boston Harbor Cruises in conjunction with the New England Aquarium. Fortunately, the weather cooperated beautifully.

The cruise cost $53 and across nearly 4 hours into the Atlantic Ocean and back to Long Wharf, we saw only 2 whales, who for the most part were sleeping.

Boston Light
Still, even just the boat ride was worth it, just a glimpse of the whales was a thrill and I was able to take some great photos, including of Boston Light, the first lighthouse to be built in the United States (before it was the United States). 

● Paul Revere Statue - in the North End, on the Paul Revere Mall

● St. Stephen's Catholic Church (exterior) - built in 1804 

● Old North Church - I took a brief tour, which didn't take me up to the famous "one if by land, two if by sea" lanterns in the steeple (they don't remain), but taught me about the belfry and showed me some graves in the crypt underneath.
Old North Church

● Paul Revere House - I went on a self-guided tour. It was just OK, with some exhibits in the

adjoining visitors center pointing out that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famed poem, "Paul Revere's Ride" probably wasn't factual.

Hard Rock Cafe Boston - just for a quick peek

Faneuil Hall (exterior)

● Faneuil Hall Marketplace / Quincy Market

● Durgin-Park Restaurant - Within Quincy Market, it dates back to 1742, and since 1827 under the same name. I had a Crab Cake BLT, which was tasty.

● Kilvert & Forbes Bakeshop - Also in the market; I secured a fine macaroon.

● Old State House (pictured at top of blog post) - I took a self-guided tour and listened to a couple on lectures, on about the Boston Massacre and another about the 1713 building itself.

● T to the hotel, a Lyft to the airport and a flight to Chicago

And a few more photos...

All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2018. Please do not republish without permission and attribution.