Thursday, May 23, 2019

Who by Symphony: Pete & Roger, Masterful Songs Remain Eternally -- and Blissfully -- Joined Together ... Chicago Concert Review

All photos by Seth Arkin
Concert Review

The Who
w/ opening act Reignwolf
Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, Tinley Park, IL
May 21, 2019
also seen May 9 at KeyBank Center, Buffalo
w/ opening act The Arkells
@@@@@

On the Who's 1965 single, "My Generation," singer Roger Daltrey famously exhorts, as written by the band's guitarist, Pete Townshend:

"Hope I die before I get old."

Daltrey is now 75.

Townshend just turned 74 on Sunday.

On a chilly Tuesday night, The Who's Moving On Tour--coming 37 years after the band commenced their initial "Farewell Tour"--rolled into the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in Tinley Park.

With an orchestra.

Daltrey and Townshend are the only surviving original members of The Who, with bandmates Keith Moon (in 1978) and John Entwistle (in 2002) having died before they got old.

Of 25 songs performed--I count "See Me, Feel Me" as its own tune even if it's officially lumped into "We're Not Gonna Take It"--only two were from fewer than 40 years ago. (See the setlist here)

Already on this tour, as on recent ones, The Who are getting social media attention--and some guffaws--due to Daltrey complaining onstage about audience members smoking pot (he's allergic), and not without good reason, he repeatedly whined about it being quite cold out on Tuesday, even donning a heavy coat at one point.

So for those prone to snark--and that seems to be what powers the internet--it would be relatively easy to snicker at the notion of a Who tour in 2019, especially as the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater was far undersold and pavilion seats could be had on StubHub for less than the price of a movie admission.

Or to believe that the show was OK at best.

Obviously, anyone can perceive what they want, but here are a few things I believe to be true:

- The Who's body of work is among the Top 5 in rock history, perhaps higher; I will never tire of hearing their songs.

- Pete Townshend is a songwriting genius and brilliant guitarist, and Roger Daltrey is among the best singers and frontmen of all-time.

- There will almost certainly never again arise a rock band as good as The Who.

- The Who would've been more amazing to see live in say, 1970 or 1975, when the original quartet was the loudest rock band ever recorded. But I was too young then--I first saw the Who in 1989; this was show #12--and to this day, Pete & Roger don't step onstage without taking it seriously. On Tuesday in Tinley, despite the cold, Townshend was energized and Daltrey's voice sounded strong.

- Including Townshend's brother Simon on guitar, Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey on drums, Loren Gold on keyboards and others, the two Who legends have long surrounded themselves with quality musicians, including on this tour.

From the May 9 show in Buffalo
- It was truly glorious to hear classics from Tommy and Quadrophenia--plus "Who Are You," "Eminence Front," Who by Numbers track "Imagine a Man," "Join Together" and "Baba O'Riley"--backed by a 50-piece or so orchestra

- Even with the uncomfortable cold, Tuesday's show was fantastic enough that I would happily go again, although it actually already represented going again, as I had seen The Who on May 9--indoors at KeyBank Center--on a brief trip to Buffalo.

Certainly I can give you a few more specifics, such as how I got chills in hearing the Townshend brothers play the complementary guitar parts on "Pinball Wizard," how "The Kids Are Alright"--coming during a 5-song set sans orchestra, which seems to vary a bit from city to city--reminded me how the early Who singles remain as transcendent as any besides the Beatles,' how powerful and poignant "Won't Get Fooled Again" came off as an acoustic rendition with just Pete & Roger on stage, how amazing Pete sounded on "The Rock" instrumental from Quadrophenia, how Roger's vocals still dazzle on "Love Reign O'er Me," how violinist and concertmaster Katie Jacoby sounded brilliant at the end of the closing "Baba O'Riley," etc., etc., etc.

But either you already get it or you presumably won't.

So I'll simply thank Pete & Roger for continuing to give their all onstage, even as they have gotten old, doing service to The Who's incredible catalog with promise of a new album before year's end.

Daltrey's idea of an orchestral tour--prompted in part by his touring Tommy with a symphony last year, sans Townshend--works well, in part because the music has brilliant depth to begin with.

Say whatever you want, but it just sounds swell.

I believe most of the orchestra members are local in each town, supported by concertmaster Jacoby, conductor Keith Levenson and the arrangements by David Campbell (who happens to be Beck's dad).

I'm sorry that I can't provide more specifics on who played with the Who in Tinley Park--their Chicago stop, though they also play Alpine Valley on Sept. 8--or in Buffalo for that matter, but as did Townshend from the stage, I give effusive kudos.

To learn the material, rehearse all day and--particularly in the cold--keep instruments in tune and
fingers from slipping, well, that's quite impressive.

Hence, although this review is about The Who and how great they are--in the present tense--having an ad hoc orchestra "join together with the band" is pretty incredible in its own right.

I've long shared how I don't much care for the oft-renamed outdoor venue in Tinley Park.

It's far from home, coldly utilitarian, $30 for a bad burger and beer, often acoustically subpar and a pain to get out of.

But on a night that was silly chilly for late May, in the company of three close friends the evening made for--per a Tommy tune--an "Amazing Journey" in pretty much every way.

And for Pete's sake, The Who still rock.

Roger that.

---
This is a clip of "Baba O'Riley" from the show I saw in Buffalo:

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Hey Ho, Let's Go: 'Four Chords and a Gun' Doesn't Fully Capture the Ramones, but Can't Help but Beguile -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

Four Chords and a Gun
a play about the Ramones
with live music afterwards 
written by John Ross Bowie
directed by Richard Ouzounian
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Open run
@@@@


There are few bands I revere more than The Ramones, but any myth of punk rock purity is just that, a myth.

Johnny was a hard core Republican and seemingly had no compunction over stealing Joey's girlfriend, which prompted years of minimal communication.

Dee Dee wrote many of the band's best songs--"53rd & 3rd," "Commando," "Rockaway Beach"--yet often was a barely-functioning heroin addict, and supposedly supported his habit through gay prostitution.

And Joey was never content to be a hugely influential cult hero; he longed to be a rich rock star.

So after releasing four terrific and--in many ways, groundbreaking--studio albums, none of which charted higher than #49 in America, in an overt attempt to amp up their popularity, the New York bred and based Ramones went to Los Angeles to work with Phil Spector in May 1979.

One of the most famous record producers ever, Spector is heralded as a genius for developing the "Wall of Sound" and working with the Ronettes, Righteous Brothers, Beatles and many others in the 1960s.

He's also known for being something of a nutjob, and is currently in prison for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

His work with the Ramones, on an album called End of the Century came amid these periods and the new play, Four Chords and a Gun--written by TV star John Ross Bowie--expects one to arrive with some degree of awareness of both the band and producer.

For while the well-researched play provides some backstory and biography, its focus is on the dichotomy of the quintessential punk band collaborating with a quirky--and worse--egomaniac famed for creating pop sheen.

Legal limitations presumably prevent any actual songs being heard during the play, so what we really get to see are arguments among the Ramones and between Spector and the band members, principally guitarist Johnny, who at one point is made to record a single chord ad nauseam.

Though it's never been definitively corroborated--as even writer Bowie concurs--legend has it that Spector pulled a gun on Johnny during the recording sessions.

So what occurs in Four Chords and a Gun is a combination of speculation and imagination, along with caricature-like characterizations of Spector and the four Ramones.

I can't say that it ever really, fully "works," but also can't deny that I enjoyed watching it.

Perhaps it's wrong to celebrate how gleefully smarmy Ron Pederson makes Phil Spector--because not only am I convinced that he's a terrible human being, the play depicts him as being rather cruel to Justin Goodhand's (perhaps too) simple Joey--but it's in making Spector an acerbic little weirdo that Bowie's writing most shines, and humor abides.

Cyrus Lane's Johnny struck me as seeming the most like the real person, and James Smith does a nice job as Marky (the only surviving Ramone).

For those who may not know, Ramone was a fictitious surname; none of the members were actually related.

Paolo Santalucia does a stellar acting job as Dee Dee and makes me envision him as more sweet and sardonic than I had formerly, but we don't get much sense of his musical importance to the band (though I don't know how active he actually was in the End of the Century songwriting).

I believe Bowie takes some creative liberties in weaving the Joey-Linda-Johnny love triangle into the timeframe of Four Chords and a Gun, but the likable Vanessa Smythe adds a nice element to the otherwise testosterone-heavy show.

Some may undoubtedly find it odd that after four actors are costumed and coiffed to suitably resemble the Ramones, four different dudes--looking nothing like the band--play a post-show concert, but renditions of "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Pinhead," "I Wanna Be Sedated" and more rock righteously and contribute to my settling on @@@@ (out of 5).

Other than the post-play music itself, little in Four Chords and a Gun will much help non-fans come to know and love the Ramones, and even given the show's narrow focus, any real insights on End of the Century's music are scant.

But few things have ever lent themselves to being blissful without being overthought more than The Ramones.

And though it's not perfect, this is a play--again, not a musical--about them, and I liked it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Your Position and Your Place: Strong Acting Fuels AstonRep's 'The Crowd You're In With' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

The Crowd You're In With
by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Derek Bertelsen
AstonRep Theatre Co.
at Raven Theatre Complex
Through June 16
@@@@

Clocking in at just 75 minutes, The Crowd You're In With feels more like a series of arguments than a fully developed play.

And though the fine writing of Rebecca Gilman--abetted by strong acting in this AstonRep production--keeps things engrossing, the set-up feels somewhat contrived.

Taking place at a backyard barbecue, the show involves two thirty-something couples who have been friends since college.

Windsong (Maggie Antonijevic) is married to Dan (Nick Freed) and is pregnant with their first child, while Melinda (Sara Pavlak McGuire) and Jasper (Martin Diaz-Valdes) have been trying to conceive, but haven't yet.

Photo credit on all: Paul Goyette
The BBQ is taking place at Melinda & Jasper's, whose neighbors and landlords, Karen (Lynne Baker) and Tom (Javier Carmona), drop by, as does Darcy (Erin O'Brien), another friend of the couples.

Karen and Tom are about 60, on their second marriage each, and intentionally childless.

Karen, especially, is rather opinionated about not having kids, and much else.

Her outspokenness not only sparks fevered debate with Melinda and Jasper, but among them, as well as with Dan and Windsong.

Other than some comedic input from Darcy, a waitress, about how parents handle young kids in restaurants, this is The Crowd You're In With in a nutshell.

I don't think the play is a masterpiece, and though many of the arguments from all the characters feel real enough, it seems the conversations--especially those among Jasper and Melinda--would've been had many times over, without their pals and landlords present.

But I've long liked the work of AstonRep, director Derek Bertelsen and--to varying extents--Gilman, and strong work by McGuire, Baker, Antonijevic and the three men makes The Crowd You're In With rather entertaining.

Abetted by a program note from Bertelsen, I can see how the play isn't merely a debate on whether or not to have kids, but a look at how seemingly cordial relationships--among both friends and lovers--can be undermined by both bluntness and reticence.

As a longtime bachelor, I wasn't all that drawn into any suggestions that having children is essential to life having meaning, but found comments about Dan dressing like a teenager and a knock on Bob Dylan--the play's title comes from a "Positively 4th Street" lyric--to be quite untoward.

And perhaps more interesting than anything within the rather brief play, is wondering what happens to Melinda and Jasper from here.

Or whether their desire to have a kid was really born from some sort of desperation, bespeaking something far deeper at play between Gilman's lines.

So particularly with inexpensive tickets--under $20 including fees--available through HotTix, Goldstar or TodayTix, this can certainly be construed as a recommendation.

You'll be in and out of the theater pretty quickly, but during the show--and maybe even more so afterwards--The Crowd You're In With should make for good company.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Of Women Acting, Valiantly: 'Into the Breeches' Explores Efforts on the Homefront...and Centerstage -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Into the Breeches!
a recent play by George Brant
directed by Jessica Thebus
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 16
@@@@

One of the abiding tenets of my life, and this blog, is that the importance of the arts goes far beyond leisure, frivolity and entertainment.

Whether through watching or participating in music, theater, film, literature, comedy, painting, dance or other art forms, individuals and society can--and should--find enlightenment, serenity, therapeutic benefit, genuine sustenance and more.

We often hear about arts education being the first to go when when schools are faced with funding challenges, but to my mind, the arts should be the first to stay.

This isn't specifically the main point being made in George Brant's likable play, Into the Breeches-- now running at Northlight--but it's part of the message that I drew.

The play, directed here by Jessica Thebus, takes place in 1942, when many American men had been enlisted to fight in World War II.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
From the famed Rosie the Riveter poster to films such as Mrs. Miniver, I've long been aware of how women supported the war effort in very tangible ways.

I hadn't considered it before--and though the play is historically-based, I'm not sure quite how widespread this was--but in Into the Breeches, Brant informs that one of those ways was by continuing to stage theatrical productions, despite the deficit of male actors.

Brant initially set the play in Providence, Rhode Island--that city's Trinity Rep commissioned him and premiered Into the Breeches--but with a bit of customization from the the Morton Grove-native and Northwestern alum, as seen in Skokie the story takes place in Evanston.

There, Maggie (the delightful Darci Nalepa) has long aided her husband, the artistic director of the fictional Oberon Theatre, following his lead to the point of being derisively dubbed, "Andrew's Parrot."

But the unseen Andrew has, like many, been called to the front, and though Maggie initially faces resistance from Oberon's main benefactor, Elsworth (Fred Zimmerman), she aims to keep the theater afloat (with her husband's blessing).

She enlists the star--but as we learn, unpaid all these years, even as less-noted male counterparts were--actress Celeste (Chicagoland treasure, Hollis Resnik).

And with the help of costumer Ida (Penelope Walker) and production assistant Stuart (Mitchell J. Fain)--a man not selected to serve--she embarks on holding auditions.

Along with Elsworth's wife, Winifred (Penny Slusher), two young women with husbands serving overseas--Grace (Annie Munch) and June (Molly Hernandez)--become involved.

I won't tell you about any more of the narrative, which does precede somewhat predictably even as it broaches--and resolves rather formulaically--matters of race, homosexuality and gender equality.

Marketed as a comedy, the two-act, two-hour Into the Breeches is more what I'd call a "nice play" than a brilliant or scintillating one.

But it's easily watchable and I give it props for original subject matter, which is far more slyly resonant today than it may seem.

And the entire cast does really fine work.

It seems somewhat boggling that as the Oberon's first female foray, Maggie opts for the troupe to stage Shakespeare's 4-hour, 3-play "Henriad." (Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V)

I guess it serves to suggest than anyone can--and should--have grand ambitions when it comes to theater, and art.

And Into the Breeches offers a heartwarming reminder that, for reasons some may not understand, even under difficult circumstances, the show must go on.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

North Side Story: Genial 'Miracle' Should Delight Cubs Fans, but Isn't a Musical Grand Slam -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Miracle
A musical 108 years in the making
Royal George Theater, Chicago
Open run
@@@1/2

As best I can tabulate, I've seen something like 800 unique theatrical works in my lifetime, most coming in the past 20 years.

And I can safely say that none has had a happier ending than Miracle, a new musical based around the Chicago Cubs winning--in 2016--their first World Series title in 108 years.

As a diehard Cubs fan, that event was one of the most joyous of my lifetime, especially as I attended three Series games (1 & 2 in Cleveland; game 5 at Wrigley).

So, adorned in a Cubs championship t-shirt, I attended Miracle's opening on Thursday night at the Royal George as undeniably part of the target audience.

But I also happened to attend as the second half a theatrical doubleheader, having seen a matinee of West Side Story at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. That show certainly doesn't have a happy ending, but as noted in my review, I believe it to be one of the greatest artistic works of all-time, and the current production is superb.

I don't imagine anyone involved in the development of Miracle--producers William Marovitz and Arny Granat, director Damon Kiely, composer/lyricist Michael Mahler, book writer Jason Brett--would suggest they were creating a musical as monumental as West Side Story, or anywhere near it.

Hence, in large part, it seems quite fair to review it for what it is: a genial musical clearly aimed at Cubs fans wanting to relive the glorious moments of 2016 (while hoping for more). 

In that regard, Miracle is fun, and those arriving at the Royal George in Cubby Blue should find a lot to like well-beyond video highlights of cherished moments. 

Marovitz, a former Illinois State Senator and Broadway investor, and Granat, a partner in JAM Productions, are clearly capable of shepherding a world premiere musical with strong production values. 

Mahler is likely the most notable local composer/lyricist of new works--I've seen his Hero, October Sky and Something in the Game--while Brett and Kiely also bring several fine credits. 

And starting with Gene Weygandt--Wicked, Working, La Cage Aux Folles and much more--as Pops, the 6-person cast includes performers I've seen and liked in several musicals around town.

Brandon Dahlquist is Charlie Delaney--the son of Pops and the deceased Maggie--who now largely runs the family-owned Wrigleyville bar named for her, after having had a promising minor league career as a pitcher. 

Allison Sill is Charlie's wife, Sofia, while Amaris Sanchez and Elise Wolf alternate in the role of their daughter, Dani. I saw Sanchez and she was really terrific. (She had been in On Your Feet on Broadway and on tour.)

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis (Larry, a close friend of Charlie's), Michael Kingston (Weslowski, a neighboring merchant and patron of Maggie's) and Veronica Garza (Babs, another patron and merchant) round out the cast. 

All do fine work, and I would have welcomed a good bit more solo singing from Weygandt, Sill and Butler-Duplessis. 

I also wouldn't have minded a few more cast members to help fill Maggie's Bar during the big games. 


To be clear, Miracle is not a show directly about the Cubs. 

Except on the video screens--so there must have been some team buy-in--you will not see anyone playing Bryant, Rizzo, Lester, Arrieta, Baez, Schwarber, Heyward, Maddon, etc. 

Not so unlike a play I recently saw--The Undeniable Sound of Right Now--Jason Brett's script largely concerns itself with a (fictional) longstanding, family-owned Chicago bar that is facing challenges to stay afloat. 

After a video reel of Cubs seasons that have ended in disappointment, the musical begins at Maggie's with "The Cubby Bear Blues," nicely handled by the whole company. 

After Dani raps "#FlyTheW," we get Charlie--amid Opening Day 2016, after a darn great 2015--declaring "I'm Out," as in refusing to believe in the Cubs anymore.

I get that it's a fairly obvious narrative conceit to loop in the pessimistic, won't-get-fooled-again Cubs fan, and you can't really start this show in, say, 2013. Or after the Cubs lost the pennant to the Mets in 2015. Or when they seemed somewhat on the ropes in Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS against the Giants.


But I don't know anybody who was bailing on the Cubs at the start of 2016, and in doing so--along with having him frequently harangue Pops, Dani, Sofia and others--Brett's script makes the likable (and quite well-sung) Dahlquist feel like a weenie. 

The show, and Charlie himself, comes to eventually realize--and somewhat rectify--this, but even within the bounds of what Miracle aims to be, the storyline feels somewhat askew. 

Believe me, I didn't believe the Cubs were going to win the World Series until the exact moment they did--and the name Rajai Davis still conjures tears & trepidations--but we're supposed to accept Charlie dismissing them as "losers" as they stood at 47-23 in late June?

Upon which he and Sofia sing a tune called "I Hate the Cold," which dreams of leaving town. 

So even in granting that this is a likeable show essentially just for Cubs fans, who will enter and leave with a smile on their faces, it's rather hackneyed. 


Weygandt nicely delivers an ode to legendary announcers--Jack Brickhouse is named, though Harry Caray oddly isn't--called "The Voice Above the Crowd," which was composed by Larry Novak, with lyrics by Julian and Rhona Frazin. 

The rest of the score is by Mahler, who while supremely talented compared to most people, doesn't yet stand with Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb or the greatest of Broadway composers/lyricists. 


Which isn't to suggest his songs aren't at least passable. 

Dahlquist shows his demonstrable talent on "What's the Pitch," considerable imagination--and fine choreography by Dina DiCostanzo--fuels "Do the Superstition," while "You Gotta Have Faith" offers a fun tip of the cap to Damn Yankees' "Heart."

But there is too much similarity in the song styles, and though "Look for a Miracle" caught my ear nicely upon its reprise, nothing was as glorious or mirthful as singing along to Steve Goodman's "Go Cubs Go" as Miracle ended. 

I didn't myself share news of the Cubs' historic victory at the gravesites of any friends & relatives, but that was a truly touching aspect of Miracle, among other fine components.

But essentially this is a minor league musical, with certain core strengths and fine efforts but no real promise beyond its diehard targets. 

Simply as a new piece of musical theater, I only somewhat liked it. Still, upon its unique playing field, I can't deny loving what it's all about.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Stay Cool: Lyric Opera Presents a Wonderful 'West Side Story' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

West Side Story
Lyric Opera of Chicago 
Thru June 2
@@@@@

West Side Story is one of the greatest artistic creations of all-time and--not so coincidentally--one of the most brilliant collaborations ever.

With its retelling of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the musical--which opened on Broadway in 1957--was conceived, choreographed and directed by Jerome Robbins.

The script (book) was written by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Though it didn't capture the 1957 Tony Award for Best New Musical--The Music Man did--West Side Story was presumably pretty close to perfect from the get-go, with its 1961 film adaptation winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.

I've seen stage productions in a variety of places--on Broadway for a 2009 revival, in Chicago on the national tour that followed, in three suburban self-producing theaters (Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Paramount Aurora) and even a summer stock rendition in Sullivan, IL--and have always loved the show.

I think I can confidently call West Side Story my third favorite stage musical of all-time, behind just
The Producers and Les Misérables.

And qualitatively I wouldn't quibble with anyone dubbing it second to none. 

So any solid production is going to delight me, and the one now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago--co-produced with two other opera companies--is certainly that, and often quite scintillating.

I don't believe it's the best rendition I've ever seen, but the Lyric orchestra makes Bernstein's score sound superb, while Robbins' original choreography is beautifully re-enacted and the songs are--of course--sublime.

Bringing genuine Broadway leading man credits--Newsies, Gigi, Bandstand--Corey Cott makes for an excellent Tony; his singing on "Maria" is terrific.

And though--albeit via binoculars from the upper balcony--I didn't sense him having supreme chemistry with Mikaela Bennett as Maria, she too has good stage presence a fantastic voice.

They duet nicely on "Tonight," and she shines on "Somewhere."

From my elevated vantage point, I couldn't distinguish other performers all that precisely, but Amanda Castro (dazzling on "America" as Anita), Miguel Stark Santos (Bernardo), Brett Thiele (Riff) and more all seemed well up to the task.

Though the vast cast pulls from everywhere, it was nice to note longtime Chicago area performers like Ed Kross (Glad Hand) and Bret Tuomi (Officer Schrank).

Directed by Francesca Zambello, this is a rather traditional West Side Story--sung in Broadway stylings far more than operatic--but there's nothing wrong, and much right, about that.

The orchestra is larger than at most Broadway shows, making for a striking sonic richness, while Robbins' glorious group dances--on the Prologue, "Dance at the Gym," "Cool" and more--reproduced by Julio Monge upon a great set designed by Peter J. Davidon, all dazzle.

From what I've read, Zambello's production has been done in many other places, but the Lyric Opera is to be credited for presenting a traditional Broadway musical each year, and West Side Story stands among their best.

For whatever inexact reasons, it didn't feel "OMG! This is the best ever!" but any quibbles are far secondary to my delight.

Hopefully you can find a discount or otherwise reasonably-priced ticket before this run ends on June 2. (Check Goldstar and HotTix)

For even just the quality of the live music--for which you could readily pay a decent buck to hear in a concert hall--serves to make this rendition of a magnificent show with a moving narrative, fine singing, great tunes and killer dancing an especially storied affair.


"Wish I Were Here": Directed by David Cromer, 'Next to Normal' Feels at Home at Glencoe's Writers Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Next to Normal
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru June 16
@@@@1/2

The dramatic musical Next to Normal opened on Broadway 10 years ago, in April 2009, and ran there until January 2011.

Even more that commercially, the original work--with book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt--was a critical success.

It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning three--though losing Best New Musical to Billy Elliot--and was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

I did not see Next to Normal on Broadway, but on its first national tour, which came to Chicago in 2011, Alice Ripley reprised her Tony-winning turn as Diana Goodman, a suburban mother battling mental illness. 

Prior to Wednesday night at Writers Theatre, I had also seen NTN twice more in strong local productions with lead actresses I found to be terrific.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Though certainly not the first musical to address serious themes, Next to Normal felt groundbreaking for telling a genuinely dramatic story with music, without any traditional "Broadway" song & dance numbers.

I don't think it coincidental that Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, Once and The Band's Visit--all of which won the Best New Musical Tony--followed in its wake.

As I've said in my previous reviews (1, 2, 3) of this show--each time, as now, bestowing @@@@1/2--I think Next to Normal is a great piece of theater, but, due in part to a collection of songs more strong than routinely spectacular, it's not quite on par with my very favorite musicals.

It had been four years since I'd last seen the show, so I was certainly glad to do so again at Writers Theatre, with a fine cast under the direction of David Cromer, a Chicagoan--actually from Skokie, like me--who won a 2018 Tony for directing The Band's Visit on Broadway. (That show also won Best New Musical.)

From having seen Cromer as an actor in A Long Day's Journey Into Night to appreciating his work as a director on The Adding Machine, Our Town--in which he also performed--and Sweet Bird of Youth, I have no shortage of reasons for admiring his talent.

But truth be told, I wasn't blown away by The Band's Visit.

And though I don't have much recollection for details, I can't say I noted obvious ways he made Next to Normal any better than it was before.

Certainly, Next to Normal's Broadway director, Michael Greif, is a terrific one, having directed Rent and 2017 Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, which I think is even better than NTN as a dramatic musical.

Still, it's cool that Cromer came home--he's worked at Writers in the past--to direct a musical that feels as if it could easily take place in Glencoe, whose affluent homes certainly may well contain families that are struggling--in one way or another--more than many might imagine.

Keely Vasquez does a fine job as Diana, in the throes of bipolar episodes that have long plagued her, as she, husband Dan (David Schlumpf) and behavioral health professionals--the always stellar Gabriel Ruiz plays two different doctors, one he imbues with "rock star" moves--try to find the right combination of treatment and meds to bring relative stability and comfort.

Opening song, "Just Another Day"--which also features the Goodmans' two children, Natalie (Kyrie Courter, whose fine voice I recalled from Company last year at Mercury Theatre) and Gabe (Liam Oh, who is remarkable, especially as just a Northwestern underclassman)--sets things up well, while I relish how "My Psychopharmacologist and I" references not only Rodgers & Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things," but, slyly, John Coltrane's jazz cover of it.

Alex Levy rounds out the cast as Natalie's fledgling high school boyfriend, Henry. Together they deliver a great rendition of "Perfect for You."

Well-sung by Vasquez, "I Miss the Mountains" poignantly sheds light on the repercussions of Diana's illness AND its treatment, while Schlumpf--joined by Vasquez and Oh--does a nice job in leading the powerful "I Am the One" (which I included in a "Broadway Rocks" Spotify playlist referenced in this blog post).

Yorkey, Kitt and Greif continue to deserve great credit for creating--from scratch, not as an adaptation--a different kind of musical, with difficult subject matter.

Not every song nor scene transfixes me, but Next to Normal is a show that anyone who loves theater--and not just musical theater--should be familiar with, and Writers, Cromer and co. do it fine justice in Glencoe.

There are characteristics in a couple of the actors I didn't find pristine, but nothing that warrants specifying, as the performances are all strong.

And while Diana's challenges are always front and center, the show isn't merely dour, as it depicts family, resilience, young love and more in rather realistic ways.

It may not be perfect, here or anywhere, but Next to Normal is close enough for this to be a strong recommendation, particularly if you've never seen it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Brilliant by Half: Robert Falls' Stellar Production Can't Solve Imbalance of 'The Winter's Tale' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Winter's Tale
by William Shakespeare 
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago 
Thru June 9
@@@@

At The Winter's Tale on Monday night, as soon as the lights came up for intermission I turned to my friend Brad and said, "I really liked that."

Perhaps such exuberance shouldn't have been so surprising.

After all it is a play by the most venerated writer of all-time, Sir William Shakespeare, being staged by Chicago's legendary Goodman Theatre under the direction of their world-renowned artistic director, Robert Falls.

Although I generally do not embrace the Bard's work with the passion of people like Brad--a rather devout Shakespearean--I did much enjoy Falls' modernized 2013 production of Measure For Measure.

As with that rendition, as well as Julius Caesar both on Broadway in 2005 with Denzel Washington and in 2013 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and also a production of Hamlet I once saw in Dallas, I usually like when Shakespearean plays are performed in modern dress.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
No disrespect to traditionalists as I've seen a number of fine productions in Elizabethan garb, but somehow the modern dress helps me connect with the language--or perhaps not worry so much about what I'm missing--in ways I've valued.

Never before had I seen nor read The Winter's Tale, but I made a point of reading the synopsis on Wikipedia.

I find that coming in with basic familiarity with the storyline aids my ability to focus in the theater--or in the park--and typically abets my overall appreciation.

And at the Goodman, before intermission--The Winter's Tale is technically four acts, split after two--I was largely enamored.

Sure, the narrative seemed a tad dark as King Leontes of Sicily (an excellent Dan Donohue) goes from King Polixenes of Bohemia's (Nathan Hosner) BFF to mortal enemy at warp speed, as soon as Leontes' pregnant wife Queen Hermione (the always great Kate Fry) convinces Polixenes to extend his visit.

An enraged Leontes becomes certain than his pal had knocked up his gal, and calls for Camillo (the likewise routinely stellar Henry Godinez) to have him offed.

You can explore what happens from there on your own, but with the kings wearing suits, women in relatively contemporary dresses, a minimalist, mirror-laden set design by Walt Spangler, terrific acting including by Christiana Clark as Hermione's take-no-BS pal Paulina and my comprehension seemingly pretty solid, as I said to Brad:

"I really liked that."

And then after intermission, The Winter's Tale seemed to become an entirely divergent, summery affair.

As Brad relayed afterward, the play is known for this imbalance, which gets it labeled a "problem play," not readily dubbed a "tragedy" or "comedy."

He said many productions try to better fuse the tonality, and that he appreciated Falls' going gung-ho with the mirth after intermission, even if it felt far different than what came before.

But while I appreciated some nice comedy from Philip Earl Johnson--whom I recognized from Kenosha's Renaissance Faire--as Autolycus, and work by Xavier Bleuel (Florizel), Chloe Baldwin (Perdita) and others, I can't deny "WTF?" thoughts popping into my head.

More acutely than often I was very much enjoying a Shakespeare play, in part due to its darkness, and then it becomes Monty Python?

The fault, dear Bard, must be with myself, but I have no idea why Sir Will took such a detour.

And I can't say I much cared, except for wanting The Winter's Tale to come to an end.

Given his notes in the Playbill and this discussion with Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times, Falls clearly knew the challenge of taking on this difficult work.

Brad appreciated the ballsiness with which Falls approached The Winter's Tale, and particularly with the strong first half, I can still recommend it.

But in being a follower of Robert Falls on Twitter and knowing his politics to whatever degree that allows, I didn't think it coincidental that this iteration had the capricious, tyrannical King Leontes played by a guy with bright orange hair.

As great theater artists do--and Falls certainly is one--he seemed to using classic theater to comment on modern times (much as he had with his recent adaptation of Ibsen's Enemy of the People).

If anything, the metaphor seemed too obvious, but I appreciated it.

The whimsical second half didn't seemingly allow for such contemporary commentary--as least not acute enough to clue me in--and the statement Falls seemed to be making became muddled.

A tale of two halves, and for me, only the first was the best of times.