Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cooler Near the Lake: A Fun, Free Night with Aimee, Ted and the Both, Together at the Remarkably Communal Millennium Park -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Both (Aimee Mann & Ted Leo)
w/ opening act Pillars & Tongues
Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park, Chicago
July 21, 2014

The Chicago Tribune recently ran a series of articles commemorating--and largely saluting--the 10th anniversary of Millennium Park. 

The overall gist, which I agree with, is that despite being completed more than 4 years late, with accompanying cost overruns, the park instantly became--and certainly remains--one of Chicago's crown jewels, with its architecture, sculpture, greenery, communal spaces and entertainment programming making a great city even greater.

I have been to the park a good number of times over its first decade, whether simply strolling through to look at the Bean (a.k.a. Cloud Gate), observing tourists and locals splashing around among the electronic face pillars (a.k.a. the Crown Fountain), walking the bridge to the Art Institute or catching shows of various types at the Pritzker Pavilion, as well as at the Harris Theater along Millennium Park's northern border.

While I relish Cloud Gate, the Crown Fountain, the Lurie Garden, the two bridges, the colonnade in the NW corner and temporary art installations--a current one of large face sculptures by Jaume Plensa, designer of Crown Fountain, is particularly engaging--Pritzker Pavilion is by far my favorite feature of Millennium Park, both because of the architectural flair of Frank Gehry's design and the numerous fine performances I've seen there, for free (excepting a paid-entry Wilco show in 2007, and one by Tori Amos in 2005).

I've caught Grant Park Symphony Concerts with famed piano soloists, a Stephen Sondheim tribute with Broadway luminaries, jazz legend Sonny Rollins and, last summer, a fine concert by folk-rock band Dawes.

But if the City of Chicago's Downtown Sound series has ever been as strong as it has in 2014, it's to my detriment that I never noticed.

Already this summer I've seen phenomenal shows by Richard Thompson and Bob Mould, not just for free but with up-close pavilion seats (by virtue of arriving early).

I've also heard good things from others about Robbie Fulks, Omar Souleyman and Joe Pug, and it was on a friend's recommendation--complementing my high regard for the amazing venue, superb series and beautiful weather--that on Monday night I was compelled to check out The Both, after having familiarized myself with their stellar debut album.

Once again I was rewarded with a superlative show on a lovely night in the company of friends, without having to spend a dime for performers who easily could charge $40+ at other venues.

Seems Millennium Park may be a keeper.

Especially as, although I've long known of Aimee Mann--dubbed the ultimate indie rock chick by my friend Paolo--and had heard of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, prior to preparing myself for Monday's show I could have named just one song by either Mann or Leo, who have joined forces as The Both.

And that song, "Voices Carry," was one Mann wrote and sang in 1985 as part of the band 'Til Tuesday.

So not only has Millennium Park supplied me with three terrific rock concerts thus far this year, it spurred my familiarity with The Both's excellent self-titled debut album--I downloaded it from Amazon; it doesn't appear to be on Spotify--as well as some of Mann and Leo's extensive back catalogs. (I also didn't know all that much of Richard Thompson before seeing him there in mid-June.)

On Monday night, backed by drummer Matt Mayhall, Mann and Leo played all the songs from their album, reiterating how strong an effort it is.

Every song was notably good, with opener "The Gambler," "Volunteers of America," "The Inevitable Shove," "Bedtime Stories" and "Milwaukee"--which chronicles seeing this Fonz statue--cited as highlights only in lieu of naming all 11 tracks from the album. (See the full setlist on Setlist.fm)

From song to song, but also within many of them, Mann and Leo traded vocals and also harmonized rather nicely.

Leo, who comes from a harder rock vein, impressed on guitar, while Mann, who still looks terrific at 53, played a strong bass most of the night, switching to acoustic guitar for a few songs sans the drummer.

One of these was a song from her long solo career, "Save Me," which she noted she had played at a non-partisan political event last year, to the seeming delight of both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Leo amiably contradicted Mann's recollection, saying that Bush had only exchanged niceties with them due to a delay in accessing a rest room.

Steady banter between Mann and Leo added to the fun of the evening, with the South Bend-born, Notre Dame grad Leo citing that it was "cooler by the lake" seemingly befuddling the Boston-bred Mann, and making for several subsequent "it's ____ by the lake" references.

Leo also noted that the Both was born last year in a Chicago hotel room, where the two first discussed a collaboration, leading to the "first song we wrote," the then-played, "You Can't Help Me Now."

Drawing attention--and video screen cameras--to a beetle that had parked on his pant leg, Leo made an arcane U2 Rattle and Hum reference that I appreciated, and later imitated KISS' Paul Stanley addressing the crowd.

Having earlier played a new song of his own called "Lonsdale Avenue," Leo followed Mann's "Goodbye Caroline" by closing the main set with "Bottled in Cork," from Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' 2010 album, The Brutalist Bricks.

With "Both" harmonizing on each other's pre-tandem songs, all fit well within the concert's flow, and the duo's fledgling canon.

Though it seems clear that there is a 9:00pm curfew on the Downtown Sound shows, the Both's nearly 90-minute, 16-song set matched their club shows at earlier tour stops.

Fortunately, time allowed them to fit in two encore songs, a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Honesty is No Excuse," which appears on The Both album, and a crowd-pleasing rendition of "Voices Carry," of which I've included a clip below.

Lately, I've been having some discussion about how I do, or perhaps should, determine ratings on my @@@@@ scale. How much is acute enjoyment reflected vs. artistic merit, should I rate shows in comparison to each other or based on how well my expectations are met for any given performance, should I rate coming down from @@@@@ or going up from @@@, should how much I paid or others might weigh into the ardor of my raves, critiques and recommendations?

Certainly it is not an exact science, and as I am not a professional critic who wields much influence, I take my best guess.

On a perfect night at the perfect price, preceded by a solid if a bit hypnotic opening act named Pillars & Tongues, The Both were every bit as good as I could have imagined them being.

Their show was not as blistering as Bob Mould, nor as eye-opening as Richard Thompson at the same venue--Leo himself paid homage to the two legends his picture appeared among on the Downtown Sound schedule--nor in terms of personal meaning and musical stature can I really compare a new act (albeit comprised of long-respected professionals) to recent concerts by Billy Joel and Paul McCartney.

So who knows if @@@@1/2 is right, or why?

All I know is that I applaud the Both for a delightful performance, highly recommend their album, look forward to more music from them and salute the folks behind Downtown Sound for allowing me to "check them out" for nada, nothing, zilch.

For if I were simply rating it in terms of value, the free Both concert at Millennium Park could easily merit @@@@@@.

Though not really representative of the excellent new music The Both are making, here is the show-closing "Voices Carry" from Monday night at Millennium Park in Chicago:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Tasty Tunes Make 'The Beverly Hillbillies' Musical Worth Tuning Into -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Beverly Hillbillies: The Musical
by David Rogers & Amanda Rogers
Music & lyrics by Gregg Opelka
Directed by David Perkovich
World Premiere
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN
Thru August 10

Given how much I prattle on--as in this article--about the enjoyment and benefits to be found in exploring culture and entertainment beyond (and especially, before) what is readily put within your purview, I must rather sheepishly admit this:

I have never, to my recollection, seen an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

This despite almost always knowing of the famed sitcom--which originally ran on CBS from 1962-71, then regularly in reruns during my youth and even until this day on Me-TV--including its rags-to-riches, fish-out-of-water premise and the names of its primary characters.

But unlike Gilligan's Island, The Honeymooners, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch, Partridge Family and other classic television shows that essentially ordained the UHF dial--back in the proverbial day--not only did I not follow the Clampett clan with regularity, I really don't recall ever actually seeing the show.

So while I was drawn by my longstanding regard for the Theater at the Center in Munster, my admiration/curiosity about their staging the world premiere musical based on The Beverly Hillbillies and--to some extent--the title's TV immortality, it's not like I arrived with much point of reference, comparison or acute affinity.

Photo by Bridget Earnshaw and Theatre at the Center
Though I'm not sure how much that really matters. For in this day of new musicals often being based on well-known movies, franchises or other brand-name sources, the level of my fondness and/or familiarity with the source material (or lack thereof) has usually factored into my enjoyment far less than the quality of the score and songs written for the stage.

Cases in point, Young Frankenstein was a mediocre, even tedious musical despite my love for the movie, but though I--also somewhat sheepishly--never saw A Christmas Story on screen before seeing it on stage just a few years ago, I found the musical really terrific because so many of the songs were clever and catchy.

Such was largely the case with The Beverly Hillbillies: The Musical.

That's not to say it's a masterpiece, as devoid of any sharp edges it veers between being light, and slight, entertainment. This didn't detract all that much in Munster--where I was far younger than most of the crowd--but if this musical is destined for Broadway, a bit more acerbic bite may be necessary.

As it stands, the Ozark-bred Clampetts, their new neighbors in Beverly Hills and particularly the engaging, tuneful delivery of many endearing songs from Gregg Opelka's delightful original score make The Beverly Hillbillies a rather pleasant and enjoyable musical.

I'm not sure what prompted Theater at the Center to develop this piece, but it seems the story is that over 40 years ago a writer named David Rogers crafted a play based on the TV show. With that script initially envisioned as "the book," Gregg Opelka--who also created a musical I liked called La Vie Ennui--was hired to write music and lyrics.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
In learning of the project, Rogers was compelled to collaborate on a new script, and worked with Opelka for 3 years before passing away last summer. His daughter, Amanda Rogers, helped to finish what he started and shares writing credit.

I'm sure it couldn't have been easy to decide how to distill 274 television episodes into 2 hours of stage time, and the musical's early narrative following the hillbillies from their old home to their new one works more cleanly than the second act shenanigans involving a conniving pair of grifters and the multiple love interests of Jethro (John Stemberg), the nephew of Jed Clampett (James Harms).

But, from what I've garnered, The Beverly Hillbillies was never high drama, and it's not like the book here is laughable--in a bad way; there actually are a number of funny jokes. It's just that the characters, performances, songs and choreography (by Nicole Miller) are what make the musical directed by David Perkovich most enjoyable, and well-justify its existence.

Hence, even with 18 musical numbers, the show lagged at times between them. And it seemed like too many secondary characters got their own centerstage songs to sing.

But every one of Opelka's tunes was really good, many terrific--and this was on a first time hearing, in a way verifying what I've felt was wrong with several higher-profile world premiere musicals, including Big Fish last year.

Arriving at the theater to learn that one of the stars I was most looking forward to seeing--Summer Naomi Smart, who has been ravishing in several regional productions--had hurt her foot at a recent performance and the role of Elly May would be handled by an understudy named Julie Baird, I was delighted when the latter proved to be immensely appealing herself in belting out the show's first number, "What About Me?"

Having been introduced to Jed (wonderfully-played by the always great Harms), his daughter Elly May, his mother-in-law Granny (a terrific Kelly Anne Clark) and nephew Jethro as hillbillies who hit the gold mine--er, oil well--we are treated to buoyantly charming group numbers like "Millyun Air" and "We're Movin' West."

As the stage trades its Missouri swamp for a lavish Beverly Hills mansion--Ann N. Davis is the set designer--we are introduced to characters like banker Milburn Drysdale (Norm Boucher, who I remembered from The Producers at the same venue), his wife Margaret (Holly Stauder), his secretary Jane Hathaway (Tina Gluschenko), various other BH denizens and multiple suitors of Jethro's, including Emaline Fetty (the very well-sung Colette Todd, recently seen in Passion at Theo Ubique), supposedly a friend of the family from back home.

After the mirthful "Stamp It Like a Clampett" ends Act I, another substantive new character comes aboard after intermission: Colonel Gaylord Foxhall, dressed like Colonel Sanders and imbued with charm and smarm by another local stage stalwart, Bernie Yvon.

It's to all the actors' credit--and Opelka's--that six of nine second act songs feature someone other than (or along with) the four main Clampetts, and none comes close to being a dud.

Tunes like "Girl Friday" and "Just A Couple of Kids in Love" rise above being show-filling showtunes and stand well on their own, though I did feel Jed and Elly May got a little lost in the shuffle of visitors to the Clampett estate.

If this show does eventually get to Broadway--perhaps after pleasing audiences in regional productions nationwide--it's not hard to imagine the stars who sign on as Jed, Elly May and Granny demanding more vocalizing stage time and Cast Recording solo numbers.

But at this point, the creators, cast and crew of this fun, fine show are to be applauded--a standing ovation was deservedly bestowed on Sunday--as is the Theatre at the Center. I've seen several shows there, and have found it often does work on par with Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and Drury Lane Oakbrook (though both these venues, particularly the latter, have stepped up their game in recent years).

I can't speak much to TATC's recent quality, as I haven't caught anything else there for awhile, but I admire that they seem to be getting away from trotting out the tried-and-true in favor of brand new and recent musicals. In 2008, I had seen their world premiere of Knute Rockne: All American, and their 2014 slate has no signs of Gypsy or Fiddler on the Roof, but rather four shows I have never seen elsewhere.

Next up is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a musical adaptation of the Pedro Almodóvar film. Unlike The Beverly Hillbillies, this is not a world premiere as the show had a brief Broadway run in late 2010 (starring Patti Lupone), but to my awareness it has never toured or otherwise been produced on Chicago area stages.

With ample regard for the large number of seniors who comprised the audience at Sunday's matinee--and likely, TATC's subscriber base--it's to their credit as well that the Munster theater is able to program, and even commission, such unique fare.

Can I dare to be obvious and suggest that a musical version of The Munsters be forthcoming at Theater at the Center?

Anyway, before I started writing this I set my DVR to record a couple episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies off Me-TV, and I look forward to checking them out. But I'd like to think that whether one is highly nostalgic for the old show or--believe it or not--largely ignorant of it, this new musical should make for a rather satisfying, and perhaps even enriching, encounter.

If tolerance-espousing hillbillies can relocate happily to Beverly Hills, why can't Broadway-caliber new musicals arise from Northwest Indiana?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

In a Week of Personal Loss, Billy Joel Lets His Music Do the Talking at Wrigley -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Billy Joel 
w/ opening act Gavin DeGraw
Wrigley Field, Chicago
July 18, 2014

This past Sunday, Billy Joel's mother Rosalind passed away at the age of 92.

I saw the news on Tuesday and instantly figured there was a strong possibility of Billy's sold-out show Friday at Wrigley Field being postponed or canceled.

While about 45,000 or so fans, myself included, would have undoubtedly been disappointed not to be able to see the living legend--and a makeup date at the Cubs' ballpark potentially hard to schedule--I certainly would have understood and respected Joel had the circumstances prompted him not to come to Chicago and perform.

But he did.

With no further news that I saw about the timing of funeral services or options that may have been weighed, Billy Joel's concert went on as planned.

After a solid 40-minute opening set by Gavin DeGraw, who claimed to be the world's biggest fan of the headliner, the Piano Man opened his show on electric guitar in belting out "A Matter of Trust."

Moving to a piano that rotated on a turntable, Joel's renditions of "Pressure" and "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" sounded superb.

And to prove that, at 65, his voice is still in good shape, Billy hit the high notes in crooning "An Innocent Man" even after warning that he might not. ("At least you'll know it's not taped," he quipped.)

Appreciating his surroundings in the historic ballpark, Joel recalled his last visit on a 2009 Face-to-Face tour with Elton John by singing a bit of "Your Song"--poking fun at the now outdated "I don't have much money" lyric--and tinkled the ivories for a short sing-along rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

He also threw a jibe at Ted Nugent in sharing an anecdote about vocal spray.

A bit surprisingly, Billy made no mention of his mom's passing, and paid no obvious tribute. In introducing an "album track" from 1978's 52nd Street, I thought he might play "Rosalinda's Eyes"--written for his mother--but instead performed "Zanzibar," which has appeared regularly in recent set lists.

The rest of the two-hour show was musically stellar--I appreciated the inclusion of deeper catalog cuts like "Vienna" and "Sometimes a Fantasy"--and anyone at the show unaware of his personal tragedy or seeing Billy Joel for the first time would likely not have noted anything deficient in the delivery of myriad great songs.

"My Life," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "Piano Man," "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me," "You May Be Right" and several other classics were a pleasure to sing along to, and all should sound superb if you look them up on YouTube. (See the full Billy Joel at Wrigley Field setlist on Setlist.fm)

My friend Dave was quite impressed with his initial Billy Joel concert, suggesting it merited a @@@@1/2 or even @@@@@ rating, so I think my bestowing the former is certainly fair--if perhaps a 1/2@ above my acute sense of comparative enjoyment--especially as it would be moronic to blame Billy for being a bit taciturn and by-the-book in performing his first show ever without his mother alive. (She had largely raised him on her own.)

Aside from his music, though, what has made past Billy Joel concerts so much fun is his great, sardonic gift of gab, and a playfulness that will have him pound out a cheeky cover or two. 

A perusal of recent setlists shows him pulling out Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," at Fenway Park (where it is a Red Sox staple), Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love" in Las Vegas, The Eagles' "Take It Easy" in Phoenix (same state as Winslow) Arizona and various Beatles songs, as Joel has long asserted that his musical aspirations began in earnest on February 9, 1964.

Certainly, it was great fun when Joel had a Chicago-bred roadie named Chainsaw belt out AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," although he's done so at other shows this year, and I can't help think Billy has gleaned something his buddy Bruce had done first.

A bit of the unofficial Chicago anthem, "My Kind of Town," was mixed into the middle of "River of Dreams," but like much of the show it felt more business-like and obligatory than inspired and joyful.

It's to Billy Joel's great credit that at a time of obvious grief, he's enough of an exemplary professional to give his profusely adoring fans plenty of fantastic musical flashbacks--it's a bit sad that Billy hasn't felt the muse to write new pop songs since 1993, but has such the catalogue that it doesn't really matter--and send us all home happy, if not as buoyant as after other shows. (In his pairings with the also fantastic Elton John, Joel's sets have always been a bit more fun largely due to his gifts as a raconteur.)

It's clearly understandable if Billy emotions were still too raw to say anything about Rosalind, or perhaps he just didn't feel it right to open up and risk any gestures being seen as maudlin.

But a brief, "this was my mom's favorite song" leading into an old standard or one of his own may have corroborated my sense that this week--not only in terms of Billy's loss, but terrible and troubling world events--and night were ones for all of us to get through, gracefully, cathartically, rather than ebulliently revel in.

Had he been able to be his more jocular, jovial self, I might have wanted Billy to wax more whimsical, vamp through a Chicago blues classic or pay tribute to his New York City brethren The Ramones--whose last surviving original member, Tommy, died last week--by rocking his outstanding 8-member band through "Blitzkrieg Bop" or "I Wanna Be Sedated."

As it was, the music that was performed with plenty of precision and enough panache served to still make Billy Joel's return visit to Wrigley (he is the first artist to play the park on separate occasions) both superlative and--sans some entirely forgiving quibbles--satisfying.

Yet I'm sure Billy himself didn't miss the sad irony of "Only the Good Die Young" ending the first gig he was giving after the loss of his beloved 92-year-old mother.

So if something seemed missing on a night when his onstage patter consisted primarily of citing the albums and years of songs he would then play, and the introduction of his band members, it's certainly within reason that this was due to the unfortunate reality that for Billy Joel, someone was.

Here's a bit of "Piano Man" that I shot from my upper deck perch:

Friday, July 18, 2014

London Beyond the Werewolves, Again: An Updated Travel Guide

All photos by Seth Arkin, except as noted.
Please do not re-post without attribution.
London is my favorite international destination, and I've had the pleasure of visiting the British capital 8 times, all except one in the 21st Century. (Several London stays have been brief ones on the end of other European travels.)

Back in 2011, a friend of mine was heading to London for the first time, which I used as a springboard to write something of a travel guide. (I've done likewise for San Francisco, Washington, DC, Detroit and New York theater.)

Upon hearing that another friend is soon going to London, I decided to reprise and--as needed--revise my recommendations and hopefully helpful links, having been there twice more since I initially wrote this.

But said friend has been to London before, and as my foremost travel tip is to "do what you want to do, or happily get lost on the way and do something completely different," I am aiming for this piece to be more universal than personally targeted.

Of course, my suggestions largely reflect my own proclivities--and those of many friends and relatives--and therefore represent a penchant for art, theater, music, sports and architecture more than, say, museums pertaining to science or natural history. (This also factors in attractions more unique to London than Chicago--where I live--or other major American cities.)

On my various visits, I've enjoyed nearly 30 full days in London and haven't even gotten to all the things I mention below. Plus, like New York, and even Chicago, London is a city where you could just pick any direction to walk--or a random Tube (subway) stop to exit--and discover untold pleasures, from the truly historic to the more modern and mundane, but no less enticing.

So take this for what it's worth (probably about what you paid;-), and blend it with your own inclinations, tastes, timetable and priorities. But I think my guide was valuable to the friend who inspired it, and perhaps anyone going to London--or considering it--may find something of value.

Before I get to a list of 20 things to see and do in London--and then some other options--here are a few websites that can be particularly valuable, before and even during the trip:
London Theatre Guide - londontheatre.co.uk
Official London Theatre Guide - www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk
TKTS Discount Listings (booth in Leicester Square) - http://www.tkts.co.uk/whats-on-sale/
London Walks (Great guided tours on various topics) - www.walks.com
London Underground (Tube) subway system - www.tfl.gov.uk
London Eating - www.london-eating.co.uk
(concert listings; great for any city anywhere) - www.pollstar.com
National Rail - www.nationalrail.co.uk
Cheap Continental Flights from London - EasyJet.com and RyanAir.com
Rick Steves - My favorite travel writer, on London
Top 10 London - A great travel guide; new version only $2.99 for Kindle; older version can be perused on Amazon
Currency Converter - www.xe.com/ucc/
And as for other other tips that can prove quite helpful? Realize that the Tube can easily get you anywhere, is safe at all times (though wariness never hurts) and can easily save you over $100 getting to and from the airport. For tourists, I recommend the Oyster Card (multi-ride card), which allows you to add value online or at machines at Tube stations, and even refunds unused credit. Note that in terms of Tube "zones" only the airport will be in Zone 6; most other places tourists are likely to go will be in Zones 1 & 2.

Also, though they are ubiquitous to the point of being largely ignored by locals and repeat visitors, "Mind the Gap" and "Look Right" are two phrases that demand your attention and conscious thought. Anyone who's ridden a subway anywhere shouldn't have much difficulty minding the gap between the train and platform, but for American pedestrians, "Look Right" always seems perfectly quaint until the first time they're flattened by a bus coming from the right, not left, as they step into traffic. That's why it's written on the ground at every crosswalk; pay attention to it. And note that occasionally you're told to "Look Left."

OK, so here is a list of 20 things that I think anyone might enjoy seeing and doing in London. Some of these things could take all day; others probably just call for a few photos. A few are really just areas to walk around, which as I referenced above, could be the bulk of a great trip to London. (Hyperlinks below are to the most helpful point of reference I could find.)

1. Big Ben / Houses of Parliament - Probably the quintessential London sight; I find Big Ben to be one of the most attractive man-made structures in the world. Non-UK residents are restricted from climbing the Clock Tower, but can attend parliamentary debates. I've never timed it right to do so.

2. Buckingham Palace / Changing of the Guard - Completely touristy and probably only essential once, but fun and interesting to see. The Changing of the Guard takes place at 11:30am, on alternate days outside May-July, when it occurs daily. Check here for the Guard schedule and here for information on visiting the Buckingham Palace state rooms.

3. Tower of London - It's not really a tower, but an old fortress and castle dating back to the 11th century. I find it rather fascinating.

4. Tower Bridge - The most beautiful bridge in the world--and likely what the guy in Arizona thought he was buying in 1968. I've never gone to the exhibition inside, though I have walked across it.

5. National Gallery - I don't know that it's touted like the Louvre, Uffizi, Prado, Hermitage or Met, but the depth and breadth of its collection is as good as any I've any seen. And it's free. There's tons to see, but don't miss the roomful of Raphaels, Seurat's "Bathers at Asnieres" or some of many the great Reubens. Here's the museum's own guide to 30 of its highlights.

6. Westminster Abbey - Even if you don't care about royal weddings or funerals, the abbey is a must see for its design and all the famous souls who are buried within.

7. Theater - London's West End is the world's only rival to Broadway in New York. The two theater guides linked above, plus the TKTS listings for day-of-show discounts from a booth in Leicester Square, should help you pick a show (or five) you'll enjoy. I really enjoyed Matilda the Musical and seeing Les Miserables, still running in the city where it first did. Shakespeare's Globe theater is also a great option if there during the open-air season from April to October, though the facility now has an indoor venue as well. And in its 52nd year, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap is always fun.

8. St. Paul's Cathedral - A bit separated from most other tourist sites, Christopher Wren's masterpiece is worth the effort to get to it, and even the walk to the top of the dome.

9. Piccadilly Circus / Leicester Square / Covent Garden - As I've mentioned, London has lots of great areas to just stroll around, but this is where I'd start. You'll be at the heart of the theater district (and not coincidentally, something of London's Times Square). Begin at the Statue of Eros and head west on Coventry Street to Leicester Square, and be sure to walk to and through Covent Garden.

10. Abbey Road - It's not all that easy to get to (St. John's Wood tube stop, not one called Abbey Road which is nowhere near the studio), the famed crosswalk has long been re-painted, the intersection is often busy and treacherous, and the studio is never open to the public. But for Beatles fanatics, a trek here is essential. You might consider taking a Beatles tour, which takes you to Abbey Road, and/or other London rock tours. Or perhaps even a day trip to Liverpool, less than a 3-hour train ride away. 

11. Imperial War Museum/ Churchill War Rooms - I found this museum to offer tremendously interesting insight to the great Prime Minister and Britain's actions during World War II. (For Americans not heading to London anytime soon, you may be interested to note that a fabulous Churchill Museum exists--within a Christopher Wren-designed church--in Fulton, Missouri, not far from St. Louis.)

12. Trafalgar Square / The Mall - Highlighted by Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square is one of London's great public spaces. It is essentially the "front yard" to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Heading southwest from the square is "The Mall" which is actually a road that leads to Buckingham Palace. 

13. Tate Modern - London is filled with wonderful museums and the Tate Modern is one of the best collections of modern art in the world. Its location in a former power station is rather distinctive in its own right. Convenient to combine with a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral and...

14. Shakespeare/Dickens Walk / Globe Theater Tour - Even if you can't get to see a performance at the Globe, you can take a tour. And the guided London Walks tour on Shakespeare/Dickens is "not to be" missed, as it offers the best of times. It seems to operate on Wednesday and Sunday. Even if you don't go on a tour, try to get to The George, a medieval pub supposedly patronized by the Bard.

15. Hyde Park / Kensington Gardens / Marble Arch - Great cities have great parks and Hyde Park is one of the most famous anywhere. Look for Speakers' Corner near the northeast corner, the Serpentine lake and other sites of interest, including Kensington Gardens. Marble Arch is a monument, located near Speakers Corner, that will remind you of its Roman inspiration (and possibly the Washington Square Arch). 

16. British Museum - I haven't been here since my first London visit in 1993, but it is one of the world's great museums. Home to the Rosetta Stone and much else.

17. Courtauld Gallery - A fabulous and relatively intimate art museum, highlighted by some sensational Van Goghs and this notable Manet.

18. Madame Tussauds - Kitschy as hell, but this is the original wax museum, dates back nearly 200 years old and can be not only fun, but somewhat informative as well.

19. Chinatown / Soho - Sadly, Lee Ho Fook's, sung about by Warren Zevon in "Werewolves of London" is no longer--I really did once get a big dish of beef chow mein--but Chinatown is worth a walkthrough and perhaps a meal. Soho is a larger district, still a bit tawdry, but not too risque. I'd basically stroll up Shaftsbury Avenue from Piccadilly Circus; Soho is to the north; Gerrard St., which intersects with Wardour St. just south of Shaftsbury, is the main stretch of Chinatown.

20. Baker Street - Although Sherlock Holmes no longer lives a 221B Baker Street, there is a plaque above the door, the above statue nearby and even a museum at his supposed residence. The Baker Street tube station is one of London's oldest and decorated with Sherlock. The area is quite charming even beyond the Holmes' connection and Madame Tussauds is right around the corner. I imagine it also inspired this song.

Other Museums

National Portrait Gallery

Wallace Collection - Another outstanding art museum, in an old mansion. Great pre-Impressionism French and Spanish.

Victoria & Albert Museum - World's largest museum of decorative arts and design

Tate Britain - Turner, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable, Bacon, etc.

Royal Academy of the Arts

British Library - The main location is St. Pancras. Used to be part of the British Museum, so current library building is much newer than you'd expect.

Natural History Museum - Admission is free, as it is for the...

Science Museum

Saatchi Gallery - A contemporary art gallery, with free admission

Jewel Tower - There are no jewels, but an exhibition on the history of Parliament (no word on Funkadelic) 

Charles Dickens Museum - Arrive with great expectations; some may find Chuck's one-time home to offer a fine Twist.

The London Dungeon - A total tourist haunt, but may be fun in the spirit of Halloween. Offers discount tickets in combination with Madame Tussauds.

Snap Galleries - A rock 'n' roll photo gallery in the Piccadilly Arcade; basically a store but worth a look if nearby. (Map location)

Photo of Windsor Castle, not taken by me
Royal Residences (besides Buckingham Palace)

Kensington Palace - This one is within London, near the west end of Hyde Park; Wikipedia

Hampton Court Palace - Famed for its shrubbery "maze" this palace is southwest of London and requires taking a train from Waterloo Station; Wikipedia

Windsor Castle - To get here, take a train from Waterloo Station to Windsor. I've never visited the castle, but imagine it's pretty impressive if you're impressed by that kind of thing. Wikipedia

10 Downing Street - OK, this isn't really a royal residence, as it's the home of the Prime Minister. Although I've read that David Cameron actually lives at Number 11. But you can get a glimpse of if you walk south on Whitehall from Trafalgar Square. 

Quick Overviews

Double Decker Bus Tour - A bit pricey, but not a bad way to get to many of the sights in one fell swoop. Plus, I believe the regular double decker buses are largely obsolete, so a hop-on/hop-off tour bus may suffice in that regard.

London Eye - I've yet to go on this, as it's never really appealed to me, but I've heard it's rather enjoyable.

Spectator Events besides Theater

Soccer Game - Chelsea, Arsenal, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur are all London-based English Premier League teams. Find a league schedule here. In 2011, I saw Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge stadium, having bought tickets from a "tout" outside. It was a lot of fun. 

Rock Concerts - Given England's great musical legacy, it could be fun to see a band in the capital, with something at Royal Albert Hall a real treat. Pollstar.com is the best way to check who might be in town. 

Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club - Located in Soho, London premier jazz club has operated since 1959.

Other "London Walks" of Note (see full schedule here)

The London of Oscar Wilde
Jack The Ripper Haunts
The Literary London Pub Walk
The Blitz
Rock & Roll London
The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour
Secret London

Modern Buildings

The Shard - Designed by Renzo Piano, it is the tallest building in the European Union and has an observation deck.

The Gherkin - Designed by Norman Foster and so nicknamed due to its pickle-like shape, it kind of looms over the Tower of London

City Hall - Designed by noted architect Norman Foster and opened in 2002.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park -
Site of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Wembley Stadium - Opened in 2007 on the site of the old Wembley, dating back to 1923. Primarily used for football (soccer), rugby and concerts.

Neighborhoods not yet mentioned

Chelsea - Once was bohemian and later swinging, now seems largely upscale. Kings Road was the epicenter of its fashion district and the Sex Pistols were formed at Malcolm McLaren's SEX shop at 430 Kings Rd., but it's long gone.

Notting Hill - I've never been here, but I did see the movie. The area is said to be affluent & fashionable, but where in London isn't?

Butler's Wharf - The area at the south end of Tower Bridge, just to the east has abundant dining options and is a pleasant place to stroll.

Oxford St. / Carnaby St. - Oxford is one of London's major streets and Carnaby, a 3-block pedestrianed stretch in Soho, was once the center of Swinging London. Both have been fun to stroll along and do a little...


Harrods - Probably the most famous department store in London, with origins dating back to 1824

Liberty - A really beautiful building near Oxford Street.

Savile Row - Famous for all its tailor shops. The Beatles' Let It Be rooftop concert took place atop 3 Savile Row.

Fortnum & Mason - Old and swanky. On Piccadilly Street, close to...

Hatchards - The oldest bookstore in London, dating back to 1797.

HMV - The closest thing to Tower Records and the Virgin Megastore, which no longer exist.

Eating & Drinking

Pubs - There are supposedly over 7,000 pubs in London, offering a culture far different than typical American bars. Hanging out and chatting with locals in a pub should be part of any London visit. Here's a list of six notable pubs. I don't have a favorite, but like The George Inn for its history and have had a fine Pub Roast Lunch at the Porcupine, near Leicester Square.

Afternoon Tea at the Cavendish - Many other "high tea" options abound, but I've only been here and it seems rather quintessential.

Hard Rock Cafe - This was the chain's first location.

Indian Food - I don't remember too many thrilling meals in London, but know I got some great Indian food, and purveyors are easy to find. Sitar on the Strand near the Somerset House (the Courtauld Gallery is located within) was pretty good. 

Gordon Ramsey - I've yet to splurge on a high-end meal in London, but hopefully will one day try one of the establishments of this popular TV chef


See Red - They may still seem somewhat ubiquitous and obvious, but be sure to acutely note the red double decker buses, phone booths and mail boxes, as these are things largely evaporating from London, and in basic essence, everywhere. Also enjoy the old style taxis.

Wimbledon Grounds - I tried to get here on my last trip to London, but was precluded by rain and some Tube closures. There is a museum and tours are conducted.

Stroll Along the Thames - There is no shortage of wonderful places to walk in London, but walking west along the Thames River, from the Tate Modern to the Houses of Parliament was one of most enjoyable things I've done there.

Where The Kinks Began - Ray and Dave Davies grew up at 6 Denmark Terrace (along Fortis Green) in North London. I don't think there's any commemoration of the home itself, but a pub across the street--The Clissold Arms--is where The Kinks played their first show, and their last. The pub has a Kinks Room with band memorabilia.

Tube Randomly - I've never really done this, but it seems it could be cool to randomly select a Tube stop, get off and explore.

Ideally, this guide will provide any visitor to London with abundant options of intriguing things to do, see and experience, though I imagine one could really do very little of this and still have a great time.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Magic in the Night, 30 Years Burning Down the Road: Remembering My First Springsteen Concert

It was the summer of 1984.

I was 15 and heading into my junior year of high school. Although I had a close circle of good friends--some of whom I still maintain--I was never part of the in-crowd, a jock, popular with girls or even involved in any school groups, such as student government, theater, Mathletes or chess club.

I wasn't an unhappy kid, but back then--as now--I frequently filled in the blanks with rock 'n roll.

I had already become a pretty heavy fan of The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, but also around that time relished several (quasi-)heavy metal acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, The Scorpions, Def Leppard, Rush, Triumph, Sammy Hagar and AC/DC. (My tastes haven't changed all that much, though I've long since embraced artists like R.E.M., The Ramones, Husker Dü and Metallica, who I wasn't hip or adventurous enough to care about at the time. In fairness, none were played on radio stations I listened to.)

Other than babysitting a couple times, I hadn't ever worked prior to that summer, but my Aunt Mickey, who was a longtime secretary in a large downtown law firm, helped me get a job in the firm's mailroom. This largely entailed serving as an on-foot messenger, delivering packages throughout the downtown Chicago area from the office at 208 S. LaSalle.

Along with indoctrinating me to the Loop's streets--from a geography perspective; I was only 15--the job was fantastic for expanding my experiences well-beyond white, Jewish, teenage suburbia.

I worked with men, not boys; mostly African-Americans who made skin color, age, social strata and much more forever immaterial in terms of comfort, camaraderie and assumption.

That summer was wonderful for Cubs fans, many whom had never before witnessed a winning team. I was taken by my boss--Wallace Winburn was his name, if I remember correctly--to a couple games, with some lawyer-donated seats in the first row behind the Cubs' dugout. I especially recall being at a game where the Cubs beat the Mets and Dwight Gooden (which I mentioned in this Wrigley Field 100th Anniversary post).

But in terms of singular events that summer, one stands out above all others.

On the first leg of his Born in the U.S.A. tour, Bruce Springsteen came to the Rosemont Horizon on July 15, 17 and 18, 1984.

I was already a big Boss fan--since The River album in 1980, from which I scoured backwards and forwards, buying Born in the U.S.A. (on cassette) upon its release in early June '84--but had been too young to attend any previous concerts of his.

And though I had already gone to some concerts the year before with friends, and even Rush at the same venue just a few weeks prior, no one else I knew was into the Boss and I, of course, was too young to drive, let alone own a car.

Tickets had long since gone on sale and sold out, but I really wanted to see Bruce.  

I can't recall why the Sunday night show on July 15 wasn't the one I targeted--now I would attend all three--but for whatever reason I focused on the second of Springsteen's 3-night stand, on Tuesday, July 17.

(I still vaguely recall this Chicago Tribune article from July 15 previewing the shows, as well as a review of the first concert, but can now see them anew due to the paper's graphical online archives, released just this week.)

So one day at lunch--it may have even been the Monday before the Tuesday night show--I walked to a hotel on north Wabash Avenue called the Oxford House, which had a ticket broker office inside.

I paid $35 for a single ticket that had a face value of $15. My folks weren't thrilled about this, but I was spending money I had earned.

On the 17th, I worked downtown, but upon getting home that evening my mom and dad drove me to Rosemont. (Then called the Rosemont Horizon, the venue is now dubbed Allstate Arena.)

And after the show--which lasted nearly 4 hours, past midnight or close to it--they picked me up. I think they even took me to the nearby McDonald's afterwards.

Touring with the E Street Band--with Nils Lofgren having taken over for Steven Van Zandt--Bruce was every bit as good as I could have hoped.

And more.

You can see the setlist from that night here, but the only songs I explicitly remember being played are "Born in the U.S.A." (which opened the show), "Jungleland" (which I knew but didn't instantly recognize, hence why it's stuck in my memory) and a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."

But however much my memory may have eroded, I instantly knew that I was seeing someone absolutely incredible and unique.

And, to me, a hero.

Perhaps even a god. 

I've now seen over 600 concerts in my life--by at least 300 different artists--many of which I've found fantastic.

Yet since July 17, 1984--and reiterated 43 more times, including the following summer but mostly within these past 15 years--there has been one truth:
In terms of live rock 'n roll performers--or really, those of any ilk, IMHO--there is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and then there is everyone else.
This isn't my jersey, as I don't know what became of it,
but I had one just like it.
Who knows how much that night changed my life?

Perhaps I still would've become as much of a Springsteen fanatic, and seen him just as often once the internet made tickets easier to buy, tours easier to track (leading to numerous Thunder Road trips) and concerts easier to get to. (See this post for my Springsteen show stats and cities.)

It's possible that my tendency to turn to art--including not only rock music but eventually a much broader spectrum of entertainment and culture--rather than alcohol, drugs, self-pity or depression during times of loneliness and adversity was already begotten by the time I got to the Horizon, or more holistically, developed long thereafter.

And perhaps it wasn't just that evening that made me comfortable going to concerts, many other events and even around the world all by myself, although it helped that the adults next to me were nothing but nice.

Likely it was as much the mailroom job itself that helped me acclimate to people and surroundings different from what I was accustomed, or perhaps not always perceived as "perfectly safe."

But for numerous reasons, I'm obviously glad I went to that Springsteen show on July 17, 1984, and happy that my parents helped get me there.

For whatever sentimentality, nostalgia, rite of passage pathos or pseudo psychology this recollection is dripping with, the truth is it was Springsteen's performance itself--quite possibly, with Michael Jordan's Bulls debut still months away, the best I had ever seen anyone do anything--that mattered most.

Let's hope I never forget I was there, but even if I should, my initial Springsteen concert experience and what it's meant to my life, will remain part of me.

To paraphase a famous lyric from "Thunder Road":

Show a little faith, there's still magic in that night.

Thanks, Bruce. Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks, Aunt Mickey, who like my father is no longer with us. Thanks, mailroom colleagues at Altheimer & Gray in the summer of 1984. Thanks, ticket broker long since gone from a hotel that no longer exists. Thanks, fellow Springsteen fans, who treated a kid with kindness and made a solo concertgoer feel forever part of a "tramps like us" community.

Thanks for that night and the 30 years since.

Thank you for reading this; I hope you have a similar story. 

And wherever you may be, Rosie come out tonight:

(This video is from a show a week after the one I attended, at which "Rosalita" was also played)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Revised Book Works Well, but 'Brigadoon' Still Rises on Its Score -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 17

"I saw the rain dirty valley,
you saw Brigadoon 
I saw the crescent,
you saw the whole of the moon"
-- The Waterboys, "The Whole Of The Moon" (1985)

I can't see the musical Brigadoon without thinking of the lyrics above, which come from one of my favorite songs, by a band originally hailing from Scotland.  

But it also seems apt to cite them here because I saw Brigadoon Sunday, on the night of a big, bright, full moon.

And it's also true that the Goodman Theatre only stages classic musicals only once in a blue moon.

Though Candide, Ain't Misbehavin' and Purlie count in this regard, the venerable theater that mostly stages straight plays has developed--just since the year 2000--several stellar new musicals including The Visit, Bounce, The Light in the Piazza, The Million Dollar Quartet, Floyd & Clea Under the Western Sky, Turn of the Century and The Jungle Book.

Hence it was a rare treat to hear the 13-piece orchestra play Brigadoon's lush score written by Frederick Loewe, with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner--almost always referenced as Lerner & Loewe--which first ran on Broadway in 1947.

How the show came to Dearborn Street is somewhat noteworthy and well-chronicled in this piece by Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones (who, incidentally, was somewhat lukewarm in his review of the production itself, finding more flaws with it than I did).

Essentially, Liza Lerner, the daughter of Alan, felt that the musical's book (i.e. script)--which her father wrote along with the lyrics--needed some revising to better connect with 21st century audiences.

As Jones notes, part of Liza's motivation was likely commercial, as new professional stagings of Brigadoon--which hasn't been produced nearly as often as Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady and Camelot--would also rejuvenate financial returns for the creators' estates.

As the back story goes, Liza Lerner reached out to Rachel Rockwell, a director who has received numerous rave reviews for Chicago-area musicals she has helmed.

Lerner was able to entice the Goodman--which had been looking for the right project to enlist Rockwell--to support her vision by booking Brigadoon as the final show of their 2013-2014 subscription season. 

With the songs and their lyrics remaining untouched, and Rockwell handling the choreography as well as directing, a writer named Brian Hill came aboard to rehabilitate the book. 

In the Goodman production, which if widely embraced--the run has already been extended--could have a considerable shelf life, whether on Broadway or as the new "standard Brigadoon" that theaters license, set designer Kevin Depinet adds some nifty touches to differentiate this depiction of the Scottish Highlands. 

I have no problem with any of the above, either in theory or as the changes served the show I saw on Sunday night. 

Though I had recently watched the 1954 movie version of Brigadoon starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and noted some onstage dialogue that wasn't in the movie--and presumably differs from the original stage incarnation, which I last saw in 2011--if I hadn't ingested Jones' article and other press in advance, I can't say I would have identified Rockwell's piece as revisionist. 

Not only are the songs all the same, but so is the basic premise, which involves a pair of American men on a trip to Scotland before one of them--Tommy Albright, well-sung at Goodman by Kevin Earley--is to be married, somewhat begrudgingly.

Tommy and Jeff (Rod Thomas, who I've seen in multiple fine roles recently) stumble upon an not-on-the-map village called Brigadoon. As it's explained, still, Brigadoon rises out of the mist once every 100 years, which to its villagers represents just a single day. 

As far as I could tell, Hill's new verbiage serves to reference brutal war and strife as precipitating Brigadoon's fairy-tale disappearing act, which--per Goodman artistic director Robert Falls' program notes--dovetails well with a rough period of Scottish history.

That Brigadoon, the musical, is set as always, in 1946, allows Hill to parallel what had happened in Scotland with World War II experiences and barbarism. 

Along with abetting the production's efforts to better portray the true character--rather than caricature--of 18th century Scotland, I felt the updated text added some nice resonance, especially as the Scottish are soon to vote on gaining independence from the United Kingdom. 

But at its core, Brigadoon is still a fanciful--yet poignant--love story between Tommy and Fiona, a villager well embodied by the lovely Jennie Sophia, and a celebration of a close-knit community that contrasts with New York of the 1940s and big city life today. 

The Brigadoon score remains terrific--if a notch below My Fair Lady--with great songs like "Down in MacConnachy Square," "Waitin' for My Dearie," "I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean," "Heather on the Hill," "Almost Like Being in Love" and "There But For You Go I" being terrifically delivered at the Goodman. 

The cast was strong throughout, and it was fun to watch so many longtime Chicago musical theater performers I've often seen get the chance to demonstrate their gifts on the Goodman stage. 

These included Sophia, Thomas, Larry Adams, Joseph Anthony Foronda, George Keating, Michael Aaron Lindner, Maggie Portman, Emily Rohm, Craig Spidle, Richard Strimer and Roger Mueller, the latter whom I hadn't previously seen but who, in addition to being a longtime Chicago actor, is the father of Jessie Mueller, now a Broadway star and Tony winner for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

I think almost anyone who sees this rendition of Brigadoon will sufficiently enjoy it, and perhaps even love it. The standing ovation on Sunday night not only justly saluted the actors and musicians, but the work of Rockwell, Depinet--whose scenery slyly added modernity while retaining classicism--and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, whose concoctions are a joy (and not as dominated by kilts as one may imagine). 

Yet while this review should be seen as a rave and a recommendation--albeit not an insistent one to those who aren't naturally drawn to musical theater--for whatever reason, I wasn't as buoyant throughout or after this visit to Brigadoon as I was at a splendid Light Opera Works production employing the original material. 

I also can't claim to have liked the Goodman's foray into classic musicals nearly as much as Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's Gypsy, Lyric Opera's The Sound of Music or Drury Lane Oakbrook's Les Misérables earlier this year. 

Other than some awkward pacing, I cannot denote any flaws in Rockwell's direction here, but perhaps due to the source material itself, her takes on Les Miz, The Sound of Music, Sweeney Todd and Ragtime (all at Drury Lane Oakbrook) just excited me more. 

And while I can appreciate how Brigadoon fits into the history of musical theater, by--in the wake of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma and Carousel, and preceding South Pacific by two years--better bridging strong narratives and great, storytelling songs, Lerner & Loewe's first highly successful musical doesn't seem to match the thematic verve of their rivals' (or even their own) best works. 

Nonetheless, whether you discovered Brigadoon long ago or will newly arrive upon it, Goodman's production provides nothing less than a warm welcome with plenty of hearty song and dance. 

And if you decide that this is a staging that can be mist, the good news is that you shouldn't have to wait 100 years for this nicely updated gem to rise again. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Pithy Philosophies #17

Seth Saith:

It is not until one embraces, and even espouses,  viewpoints against our natural tendencies that our opinions gain real validity.