Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best of 2011: The Best New Movies I Saw in 2011

Due to working a good bit more and other such complications, I saw nowhere near the number of movies in 2011 that I did in 2010. Probably well less than one-third.

I saw a comparable number of new release movies in theaters--plus some 2011 films on DVD--but didn't take in nearly the number of foreign films, documentaries or classic older movies.

So unlike 2010, when I was able to cobble together separate Best Of lists for English-language feature films, foreign films, documentaries and the best of everything I saw from any era, this year I'm really only prepared to give you a list of the best new movies I saw in 2011.

This does include a foreign film or two, and I watched a few documentaries, but primarily covers mainstream movies that were newly shown at a screen near me within the past 12 months.

For Academy Award purposes, some of the films on my 2011 list were actually 2010 releases. But I didn't see them until this year--they weren't released in the Chicago area until then, or perhaps very late in 2010--so for my purposes, they count.

Admittedly, I may not all that vividly remember some of the ones I saw earlier in the year, so take my rankings with a grain of salt. Especially as there are several critically-acclaimed movies I have yet to see, which I have listed underneath (feel free to weigh in with the best of these).

But for what it's worth, here is Seth Saith's list of:

The Best New Movies I Saw in 2011

* = officially a 2010 release; ** = a foreign film (non-U.S., England, Canada)

1. The Artist

2. Hugo

3. Poetry**

4. Trust

5. Rabbit Hole*

6. Barney’s Version*

7. Moneyball

8. The Descendants

9. Beginners

10. Young Adult

11. Super 8

12. Another Year*

13. Blue Valentine*

14. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

15. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

16. My Week With Marilyn

17. Midnight in Paris

18. Margin Call

19. Warrior

20. The Company Men

Honorable Mention
Source Code
Unknown
Life, Above All**
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Bridesmaids
X-Men First Class
Melancholia
Hanna
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Adjustment Bureau

Notable 2011 Films Not Yet Seen
The Ides of March
A Dangerous Method
Take Shelter
Drive
Martha Marcy May Marlene
J. Edgar
A Separation**
Shame
Kinyarwanda**
The Tree of Life
Le Havre**
Terri
Margaret
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Certified Copy**
The Help
War Horse
The Iron Lady
Albert Nobbs
Pariah
The Adventures of Tintin
50/50
The Muppets
The Guard
Coriolanus
The Skin I Live In**
In A Better World**
Incendies**
Like Crazy
Crazy, Stupid, Love

My Friend Dave's Top 15

Incendies**
Another Year
The Artist
The Illusionist**
Poetry**
The Housemaid
Bridesmaids
Le Havre**
Rapt**
The Trip
The Descendants
Margin Call
Tabloid
The Skin I Live In**
The Guard

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best of 2011: The Best Musicals I Saw (i.e. the musical theater productions I enjoyed most)

Over the past 12 months, I have seen 34 musical theater productions, of 31 different titles.

These have been across a full spectrum of levels and venues, including high school, college, community theater, local non-Equity, local full Equity (actors union) and national tour productions in the Chicago area, plus shows on Broadway and in London's West End.

I found the vast majority of these shows to be quite enjoyable, with some at the supposed "lower levels" more so than ones at the most prestigious levels.

For instance, the high school version of Les Miserables I saw at New Trier  and a community theater rendition of Rent at Skokie's Devonshire Playhouse were more tangibly enjoyable than some musicals I recently saw in London.

Of course, that's largely because the source material is superior--Les Miz and Rent are among my top 10 all-time favorite musicals--but in both cases cited above, the productions and performances were surprisingly robust.

Also, while I enjoyed the reworked touring version of Les Miserables I saw at the Cadillac Palace in February, it wasn't as good as on past tours, and thus won't make my top 10 for 2011 below.

So although source material and production quality obviously blend together in providing an enjoyable evening of entertainment--or not--in ranking the best musicals I saw in 2011, I am more heavily considering the productions, rather than just the works themselves.

Sometimes the distillation isn't so clear, but I guess basically I'm ranking how much I enjoyed each performance, with whatever factors go into that.

Thus, rather than being a list of:

The Best Musicals I Saw in 2011

this should more be considered

The Musical Theater Productions I Enjoyed Most in 2011

1. West Side Story - Cadillac Palace, Chicago (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

2. The Book of Mormon - Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York (my review in longer post)

3. Follies - Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (my review)

4. The Sound of Music - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review) 

5. Brigadoon - Light Opera Works, Evanston (my review) 

6. Anything Goes - Steven Sondheim Theatre, New York (my review in longer post) 

7. Sweeney Todd - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)

8. Next To Normal - Bank of America Theatre (Broadway in Chicago) (my review) 

9. A Christmas Story: The Musical - Chicago Theatre (my review)

10. Working - Broadway Playhouse, Chicago (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)


Honorable Mention (in order of preference)

Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark - Foxwoods Theatre, New York (my review in longer post)

Mary Poppins - Cadillac Palace, Chicago (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

The Sound of Music - Chamber Opera Chicago (my review)

Les Miserables - Cadillac Palace, Chicago (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

Snapshots - Northlight Theatre, Skokie (my review)

Follies - Marquis Theatre, New York (my review in longer post)
 

Merrily We Roll Along - The Music Theatre Company, Highland Park (my review)

Rent - Devonshire Playhouse, Skokie (my review)

La Cage Aux Folles
- Bank of America Theatre (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

42nd Street - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)

Spring Awakening - Oriental Theatre, Chicago (my review)

The Doyle & Debbie Show - Royal George Theatre, Chicago

Priscilla Queen of the Desert - Palace Theatre, London 

Memphis - Cadillac Palace, Chicago (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Best of 2011: The Best Albums I Heard

As I recently posted, I attended many tremendous concerts in 2011. Coming soon, I'll also post about the best musicals I saw, several of which were similarly outstanding.

So I can't say that this was truly a bad year for music, at least on a personal level. But in the realm of recorded music, especially in the rock genre, 2011 was far from a watershed year. 

This is in stark contrast to 1991. As commemorated by several anniversary re-releases, 20 years ago there was an avalanche of great, even groundbreaking albums.

Many have become such classics that it's unnecessary to cite the artist when mentioning works like Nevermind, Ten, Achtung Baby, Out of Time, Badmotorfinger, Use Your Illusion and Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

1991 also brought Metallica's biggest (and possibly best) album, debuts from The Smashing Pumpkins and Blur, swan songs from Queen and the Pixies, personal favorites from Dinosaur Jr. and Material Issue and key era and/or career-defining works by My Bloody Valentine, Matthew Sweet, Spin Doctors, Primal Scream, Jesus Jones, Fishbone and Teenage Fanclub. I won't pretend that rap has ever done much for me, but should recognize Ice-T, P.M. Dawn and Public Enemy as also having important releases in 1991. Even Michael Jackson and Prince put out albums that some consider their last true vestiges of greatness. And though I avoided it, Garth Brooks' Ropin the Wind was the year's top seller.

2011 has Adele.

Sure, I'll manage--after much exploration in recent weeks--to give you a Top 10 list plus several other albums I've liked from this year. But right now, the only one I'm perceiving as a classic is Adele's 21. Though not exactly in my wheelhouse--and as a consequence, I came to the Adele party way late--it is clearly the best album I've heard this year.

You might find it hard to believe--I do, as 21 is the best selling album in many a year and spawned two giant hits--but I hadn't knowingly heard an Adele song until this month. But now that I "get it," even well beyond chanteuses who have had breakthrough success in recent years--Dido, Duffy, Norah Jones, the late Amy Winehouse--I perceive Adele as a transcendent vocal talent, possibly along such exalted lines as Billie Holiday and Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. And she's still only 23, so hopefully her voice can fully recover from recent throat surgery, enabling her career to further evolve & flourish.

With all due respect to still-great rock bands like Wilco, Foo Fighters and the now retired R.E.M., no rock artist put out an album in 2011 that showcased comparable greatness. Sure, it's a different world now, ruled not only by Adele but women like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce and Rihanna, but if guitar-driven rock wants to remain a relevant musical form, somebody soon is gonna have to blow my mind like it's 1991 again.

But just because 2011 seemingly wasn't a classic year for rock albums--and admittedly, this list represents my tastes, which is why you won't find the Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration or some other highly regarded releases in various realms--doesn't mean there wasn't some good stuff. I very much enjoy & recommend the albums below and hopefully some will continue to grow on me. Though after the top slot, the order in which these are ranked is largely inconsequential.

The Best Albums of 2011 

1. Adele – 21

2. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light

3. The Nightwatchman – World Wide Rebel Songs

4. Wild Flag - Wild Flag

5. Wilco – The Whole Love

6. Willie Nile – The Innocent Ones

7. The Black Keys – El Camino

8. The Decemberists – The King is Dead

9. Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You

10.  Florence & the Machine - Ceremonials


Honorable Mention 

Lindsey Buckingham – Seeds We Sow

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Smoking Popes – This Is Only A Test

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde

The Cars – Move Like This

Yuck - Yuck

My Morning Jacket – Circuital 

The Bangles – Sweetheart of the Sun 

Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best of 2011: The TV Shows I--and My Friend Dave--Enjoyed Most Over the Past Year

I don't watch nearly enough television.

I mean, it seems like I do--especially if you count movies watched on TV--but despite having a handful of series I watch regularly and other shows I catch sporadically, I somehow seem to avoid everything that friends, critics and the general public seem to love.

I don't watch any reality TV or talent shows, despite my fondness for musicals I haven't liked what I've seen of Glee and I've yet to get into most cable dramas, such as Breaking Bad, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men.

And even though I enjoy sitcoms, between whatever else I do, I just don't seem to ever see
Modern Family, 30 Rock or How I Met Your Mother, to name some that I have enjoyed but not often or of late. And though Parks & Recreation and Community are getting a lot of love on "Best of" lists, such as this one by Paste Magazine, I think I've only seen one or the other once, years ago.

So now that I've told you why you really shouldn't much care what I think--for another more expert opinion, see this list by Maureen Ryan, the former Chicago Tribune critic who now writes online--here are my picks for:

The Best TV of 2011

1. The Good Wife - CBS

2. Friday Night Lights - NBC

3. Person of Interest - CBS

4. World Series Game 6 - Fox - One of the best baseball games I've ever seen. The last day of the regular season was also high drama, but I didn't see that much of it. For me, sports remains the best reality television. 

5. Homeland - Showtime

6. Ringer - The CW

7. Beavis & Butthead - MTV

8. Burn Notice - USA

9. Castle - ABC

10. Royal Pains - USA

I also wanted to give a shout out to the HD cable channel, Palladia. It shows all kinds of concerts and pop music movies and is my favorite "time waster" channel. If you have digital cable, you probably have it, so look for it.

In the months ahead, I'm planning to watch all the back episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the latter of which is returning with new episodes in March. But given my relative lack of breadth in viewership, I've enlisted the choices of my friend Dave.

Dave's Picks (not ranked)

Breaking Bad - AMC

Justified - FX

The Killing - AMC

Curb Your Enthusiasm - HBO

American Horror Story - FX

Modern Family - ABC

Downton Abbey - PBS

Dexter - Showtime

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - FX

Baseball - 9/28/11 - The last day of the regular season

These are in addition to some of the shows I cited, like Homeland, The Good Wife, Friday Night Lights, Ringer and Beavis & Butthead.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Even for the Uninitiated, A Christmas Story Makes a Delightful Musical -- Theater Review

Theater Review

A Christmas Story: The Musical!
Chicago Theatre
Thru December 30
@@@@1/2

The other day, I saw David Fincher's movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I thought it was quite good, but having read the book and seen the Swedish film adaptation, I knew the key plot points and actively wondered how Fincher's film would play to anyone coming to it cold. At the very least, the experience of seeing it with fresh eyes would be quite different.

I mention this here because undoubtedly unlike many of those seeing A Christmas Story: The Musical!, I have never seen the seemingly much beloved 1983 movie on which it is based.

I suppose I should, but am glad I went into the musical--recently created, but not a world premiere, now in a high profile run at the Chicago Theatre--unknowing. For though I recognize the challenge of adapting a popular work from one art form to another without either seeming too obvious & redundant, disappointing the faithful or confusing the newbies, ideally each work should stand--and sparkle--on its own.

Though I was drawn to A Christmas Story by strong reviews in both the Tribune and Sun-Times, not only did I not know the film, I didn't bring any kids with me (and am a bit removed from being one myself), I don't celebrate Christmas (being Jewish), I didn't know any of the music going in (unlike with most musicals I see, even new ones with original scores) and I've never heard of the composer/lyricists (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul).

Yet even with all those reasons to possibly not love it, I still did. With a show full of songs that sparkled even on a first hearing, a charming story, a strong cast and impressive scenery, A Christmas Story was thoroughly delightful.

In fact, or at least opinion, other then The Book of Mormon, this was probably the best new musical I've seen in 2011 (and that includes the most expensive musical ever created, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark).

By virtue of his being the understudy for the central role of young, bespectacled Ralphie, I'm guessing Carl Kimbrough isn't quite as polished a performer as Clarke Hallum, the regular Ralphie. At times, Kimbrough's singing was hard to hear over the orchestra and I never took note of his dancing, for which rave reviews have praised Hallum.

But an "underdog" Ralphie seemed rather apropos for the role, and Kimbrough was quite likable along with many other winning child actors. And several Broadway caliber adults were excellent, including Rachel Bay Jones and John Bolton as Ralphie's Mom and Dad, longtime Chicago vocalist Karen Mason as his teacher and Gene Weygandt as the narrator, Jean Shepherd. This was the third show in which I've seen Weygandt this year--Working and Snapshots being the others--and it's a shame his role didn't call for him to do any singing.

For while the quirky story--which I imagine closely matched the movie--was certainly enjoyable, the quality of the music was surprising. As I said, I don't see many musicals without having heard a cast recording, and when I do, only the very best scores capture me instantly. Yet, that was the case here. In fact, I bought a cast recording at intermission (after checking that that the one available at the theater isn't yet carried on Amazon).

The song "Ralphie to the Rescue!" lent itself to the best production number, but almost all the others were quite catchy and tuneful. From what I've read, A Christmas Story: The Musical! has Broadway aspirations, and it's almost a shame that its title will likely make it a seasonal affair. It's also a shame that it's not extending past December 30 in Chicago. But if you can get to A Christmas Story before it wraps, you'll be giving yourself quite a present.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Best of 2011: The Best Concerts I Attended

2011 was a really good concertgoing year. Aside from years in which I've seen Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band multiple times--hopefully 2012 will be another such year, despite the sad passing of Clarence Clemons--I can't readily recall a year in which I've enjoyed as many shows to such an extent.

As I've pretty much come to expect, my favorite shows are almost exclusively drawn from old favorites, for there aren't many acts I've yet to see that I knowingly want to.

But Arcade Fire, who I saw for the first time in April, was truly a revelation in terms of just how good they were live. Although I had seen a number of live streaming concerts of theirs previously, catching them in person was a far transcendent experience.

Which is why, although I saw a number of full concerts within the comfort of my condo in 2011-- streaming live over the internet, via Blu-ray/DVD and on the Palladia cable channel--and enjoyed several of these, they are not eligible for inclusion below. Though I was often able to get a sense of an artist's abilities as a live performer, there is much that just can't be replicated without actually "being there." And I'm not speaking simply of the smell of pot or the jerk in front of me arguing with his girlfriend all night.

As you'll see, the top two spots on my list are taken by acts I saw multiple times. Each of their shows could easily have earned its own berth--although the Chicago U2 show seemed slightly better than the Denver one, and McCartney's Wrigley shows felt even cooler than the one I caught in Paris--but I decided not to clog the list with redundancies. And even if you don't bother to click to see my reviews of each show--a few I didn't bother reviewing--I thought I'd mention that the first nine listed all got @@@@@ ratings from me, while the Foo Fighters got @@@@1/2. A good year for live music, indeed.

The Best Concerts of 2011

1. Paul McCartney - July 31, August 1, Wrigley Field (my review); November 30, Bercy, Paris

2. U2 - July 5, Soldier Field (my review); May 21, Invesco Field, Denver (my review)

3. Arcade Fire - April 25, UIC Pavilion (my review)

4. Soundgarden - July 16, UIC Pavilion (my review)

5. Pearl Jam - September 4, Alpine Valley, East Troy, WI (my review)

6. Willie Nile - September 23, Fitzgerald's, Berwyn (my review)

7. Wilco - December 13, Riviera Theatre (my review)

8. Roger McGuinn - June 3, Beverly Arts Center (my review)

9. Ray Davies - November 11, Chicago Theatre (my review)

10. Foo Fighters - September 17, Scottrade Center, St. Louis (my review)

Honorable Mention

Fastball/Smoking Popes - August 27, Backlot Bash, Skokie (my review)

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band - April 2, Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, MI (my review)

Rush - April 12, United Center

Jerry Lee Lewis - December 3, Congress Theatre (my review)

Ike Reilly/Alejandro Escovedo - July 3, Summerfest, Milwaukee  

Steve Miller Band - August 4, Chicago Theatre

The Smashing Pumpkins - October 14 - Riviera Theatre (my review)

The Best of 2011: The Best Plays I Saw

New York and London are generally regarded as the world's two greatest theater cities. I visited both in 2011 but went to no plays. Only musicals, as is my wont.

But I'm convinced that several of the plays I saw on Chicago stages were every bit as good as what I could have seen on Broadway or in the West End. In fact, some of the productions on my Best of 2011 list have played in or will transfer to one of the meccas, or are the world's first regional stagings.

And my top choice for Best Play of 2011 had its world premiere in my hometown of Skokie. But it starred two Tony winners who would be in demand anywhere.

Two quick notes to keep in mind before I give you my list. Though sometimes the distinction isn't all that clear, even to me, I am ranking the productions I saw, not necessarily the play (i.e. the script) itself. Hence, a classic by Shakespeare is in the middle of the pack, and though many of those listed are new works, not all are. Also, beyond the 15 shows I'll cite below, I only saw 3 additional plays (or non-musical stage works). So omissions may very well be about what I didn't see rather than what I didn't like.

The Best Plays I Saw in 2011 (all in the Chicago area)

1. The Outgoing Tide - Northlight Theatre
(my review)
written by Bruce Graham; directed by BJ Jones

2. Clybourne Park - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Bruce Norris; directed by Amy Morton

3. Chinglish - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by David Henry Hwang; directed by Leigh Silverman

4. Red - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by John Logan; directed by Robert Falls

5. East of Berlin - Signal Ensemble Theatre (my review)
written by Hannah Moscovitch; directed by Ronan Marra 

6. The Merchant of Venice - Broadway in Chicago; Bank of America Theatre (my review)
written by William Shakespeare; directed by Darko Tresnjak

7. The Beauty Queen of Leenane - Shattered Globe Theatre (my review)
written by Martin McDonagh; directed by Steve Scott 

8. The Trinity River Plays - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Regina Taylor; directed by Ethan McSweeny

9. Ann - Broadway in Chicago; Bank of America Theatre (my review)
written by Holland Taylor; directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein

10.  The Hot L Baltimore - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Lanford Wilson; directed by Tina Landau

Special Mention
(I couldn't count these one-person shows as "plays," but both were very good)

Colin Quinn - Long Story Short (my review)
written by Colin Quinn; directed by Jerry Seinfeld

Carrie Fisher - Wishful Drinking (my review)
written by Carrie Fisher

Honorable Mention

Stage Kiss - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Sarah Ruhl; directed by Jessica Thebus

God of Carnage - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Yasmina Reza; directed by Rick Snyder

Night and Her Stars - The Gift Theatre (my review)
written by Richard Greenberg; directed by Michael Patrick Thornton

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It Is What It Is: Very Enjoyable If Not Quite Perfect -- Theater Review: La Cage Aux Folles

Theater Review

La Cage Aux Folles
presented by Broadway in Chicago
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 1, 2012
@@@@

With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman--who also wrote Hello, Dolly and Mame--and a book by Harvey Fierstein, La Cage Aux Folles won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1983 and has been revived on Broadway twice within the past 8 years.

It is what I consider a first-rate musical, but not quite among the very best of what I consider to be first-rate musicals.

Last night, the first in Chicago for the current Broadway tour--derived from a 2008 London production that transferred to Broadway--the show that spawned the gay anthem "I Am What I Am" was what it was: very enjoyable with some wonderful songs, but not the best show I've ever seen.

A few years ago, I caught a fine local production of La Cage, but hadn't seen a Broadway, London or touring rendition before this one. Supposedly, the London version that ultimately generated the current tour was intended as a scaled-down affair, so I imagine that's why the drag-queen production numbers (at La Cage Aux Folles, a nightclub in St. Tropez) weren't as over-the-top as I expected.

On this tour, the perpetually tan George Hamilton stars as Georges, the owner of La Cage, where his lover Albin (played by Christopher Sieber) is the star attraction, known by his/her stage name, Za Za.

It was fun to see Hamilton onstage and although not a Broadway-caliber singer, he didn't embarrass himself. And Sieber is a Broadway veteran with an excellent voice, which enabled him to dazzle on "I Am What I Am."

But while it may be trifling, the 72-year-old Hamilton and the heavyset 42-year-old Sieber seemed somewhat mismatched. Not that Georges/Albin's romance would be a real-life impossibility, but with references to their being together for 20+ years, Sieber just seemed too young for his role, which had been played by a considerably older man in the prior version I'd seen. I won't delve into the casting history, which would likely prove my perceptions wrong, but I thought Albin is supposed to be more seasoned, with Za Za getting close to retirement age.

Which isn't to say that Sieber's casting, or the pairing, ruined the show. If a bit implausible, he was certainly solid, but I can perceive that a different performer--or even two--might have elevated things a bit.

Although it's also true that while quite good, La Cage isn't a perfect show. Some of the laughs are cheap and lessen the poignancy, too many songs utilize the same musical refrains and the story--centering around Georges' son wanting to hide his father's and Albin's relationship from his fianc├ę’s family, despite Albin having served as his mother--comes off as a bit familiar and even silly (though I realize the whole thing would've been more daring in 1983).

But with some great Herman songs, including the rousing "The Best of Times," La Cage--based on a 1973 French play and 1978 French-Italian film--is certainly a show with a lot to like. Yes, better musicals exist and this may not quite be the ultimate rendition, but offering a lot of fun, some wonderful showtunes and quite a bit bit of heart, La Cage Aux Folles is far from a drag.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Inventive Take on Grim Tale Doesn't Fully Satisfy -- Theater Review: Burning Bluebeard

Theater Review

Burning Bluebeard
written by Jay Torrence, directed by Halena Kays
Performed by the Neo-Futurists
Neofuturarium, Chicago
Thru December 30, 2011
@@@

December 30, 1903 stands as one of the darkest days in Chicago history. Near the start of Act 2 at a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard, a play at the grand new Iroquois Theatre--on Randolph Street where the Oriental Theatre now stands--a fire broke out above the stage.

With many theatrical fire codes that would be prompted by the catastrophe therefore not yet in place, the fire failed to be harnessed and many of the 2,000 patrons were trapped as the balcony was instantly consumed by a huge fireball, and many others trampled.

More than 600 audience members--mostly women & children--died, as did a single performer.

Burning Bluebeard, the new short-run evening show by the Neo-Futurists--as opposed to their late-night standby Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind--could probably be best categorized as a play, although per the troupe's trademark, not a straightforward one.

Ostensibly about the Iroquois Theatre fire, as seen through the eyes of a handful of Mr. Bluebeard's cast of hundreds, the show includes trained clowns, various low-grade acrobatics and a pre-recorded choral rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." A version of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" is also performed, as a mashup with the music of "Imagine." This should provide a sense of what I mean by "not straightforward."

While the production prompted historical curiosity about this tragic event in a rather inventive fashion as written by ensemble member Jay Torrence, who also performs in the show, in sum it was a bit too obtuse for me to really like it.

Toward the end, when the actual moments of the fire were described, the show was tremendously gripping. But what came prior, although well-performed, different from much else I see and at times quite funny, didn't quite enthrall me. And I felt the show ran at least 15 minutes too long, with the post-fire unwinding seeming unnecessary.

Burning Bluebeard has been well-reviewed elsewhere and well-attended, so particularly if you're well-acclimated with the Neo-Futurists, you may find it tremendously rewarding. To be honest, I really disliked Too Much Light... the one time I saw it, so perhaps I'm just missing something when it comes to this venerable local troupe.

Given my interest in the subject matter, the quality of the performances, the effort to do something new and the $10 ticket through HotTix, I would say that Burning Bluebeard technically qualifies as worthwhile. But unless your tastes are a good bit more avant garde than mine, you do just as well by reading about the actual fire on Wikipedia and exploring further from there.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Express Trip to Wonderland

Attraction Review

Wonderland Express
Chicago Botanic Garden
Glencoe, IL
Thru January 1, 2011
@@@@1/2

The other day, I went on a nice afternoon excursion to the Botanic Garden with my mom, who is a member. That saved me the admission fee, which is charged per car, but there is a cost for the special Wonderland Express exhibit.

Individuals with a Discover card can get a 2-for-1 discount, but we didn't know this until we arrived, and I didn't have my card with me.

The general, outdoor gardens are always enjoyable to walk around, though most exquisitely so when the flowers are in full bloom in late-Spring/early-Summer. But it was rather chilly when we were there, so it was a good thing that our primary focus was the indoor Wonderland Express exhibit, which my mom had already seen but was willing to take in again for my benefit.

Created by an amazingly talented craftsman named Paul Busse and his associates, "Wonderland" is an indoor garden featuring replicas of Chicago's most famous buildings made out of various, mostly natural, materials. There are also model trains running through the exhibit, which likely goes over quite big with the little ones, but for me were secondary to the building models.





























As a fan of Chicago architecture and history, as well as artwork and flora, I really enjoyed seeing the imagination with which the various models were put together. For example, though it's not all that easy to see, the Aon Building at left above is made from columns of bamboo, while Marina City's famed ring of balconies are replicated by hardened leaves.

Fittingly, the Art Institute was represented, as were most of Chicago's most notable museums, including the Field Museum and Planetarium, shown in the photo just below.

Underneath, other landmarks include the Bahai Temple (located in the special suburban wing), "Cloudgate" (aka The Bean, represented by a gourd), the Picasso sculpture and a Lake Michigan lighthouse (though it isn't meant to be the Grosse Point Lighthouse in Evanston).




My mom and I both liked the way the trellis over the lawn in front of the Pritzker Pavilion bandshell was replicated by curved branches.




Soldier Field was represented as it looked before the spaceship landed in it...



...while old Chicago Stadium was featured rather than the United Center, but still had a Michael Jordan statue, as chronologically incorrect as it may be.

A brief, interesting movie about the exhibit explained what the MJ Statue was made out of, but I don't remember. The Stanley Cup is shown next to it.

In addition to the instantly recognizable landmarks, also represented were Gold Coast brownstones, Chicago bungalows (including the one where Michelle Obama grew up) and the Obamas' house in Kenwood.





In the same pavilion where the exhibit takes place, there is also a nice display of wreaths--all available for purchase--made of various materials, as well as some enjoyable exhibits in the Garden's library including floral illustrated books commissioned by Prince Charles and miniature felt characters representing Alice in Wonderland & other books. Of course, in the greenhouses, there are myriad indoor plants, some--as shown at bottom--that would fit well in "Little Shop of Horrors."

With Winter Vacation now underway, those families not heading out of town, or those heading in, would do worse than to spend a day exploring Chicago in "Express" fashion.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

'The Sound of Music' is Pitch Perfect at Drury Lane Oakbrook -- Theater Review

Theater Review

The Sound of Music
Drury Lane Oakbrook
Thru January 8, 2012
@@@@@

I realize it would be apples & oranges to say that the production of The Sound of Music at Drury Lane Oakbrook is far superior to any of the three West End musicals I recently saw in London.

For the Rogers & Hammerstein masterpiece is one of the greatest musicals ever created and it's likely that a strong high school rendition would be more satisfying than Ghost: the Musical. And while the other two London shows I caught, Thriller Live and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, featured some fantastic performances, the former was simply a revue with no story and the latter likewise consisted solely of pre-existing music. Both were enjoyable but far from historic.

Mind you, there are many superior musicals playing in London which I have seen previously, there or elsewhere, and my point is not to minimize the quality of the shows and performers working in one of the world's two most prestigious theater districts.

Rather, I mean to herald the heights to which the Drury Lane--and other Chicago area production houses--are now regularly jumping. In a few days I will post my list of the 10 Best Musicals I Saw In 2011 and although my pool includes 18 shows seen in the West End, on Broadway or as a Broadway tour, I am certain that this version of Sound of Music will make the cut, along with a number of other local productions (including Drury Lane's last show, Sweeney Todd).

This is actually the second fantastic production of the fictionalized tale of the real-life von Trapp family I've seen this year. Back in June, I caught one of a 2-show run by Chamber Opera Chicago at the Athanaeum Theater (and wrote about it here). That was the first time I'd ever seen TSOM on-stage and the production was remarkable for how good it was despite the sparsity of performances, highlighted by the efforts of a 30-piece orchestra.

While that rendition was certainly a treat, this one's even better, in terms of overall production values and the performance in the lead role of Maria. Beyond a lovely singing voice, Jennifer Blood imbues the role with a playful exuberance and just the right balance of trepidation and fearlessness as Maria tackles insta-mothering a brood not all that much younger than she is.

Longtime Chicago musical star Larry Adams similarly does a great job of capturing Captain von Trapp's tough and tender sides. While old enough to be Blood's father, he allowed for their romance to come off as believable, and though the Captain doesn't often get to sing, Adams clearly showcased his fine voice on "Edelweiss."

Also demonstrating superlative vocal talents--on a goosebump-raising "Climb Ev'ry Mountain"--was Patti Cohenhour as the Mother Abbess, a role she played in the 1998 Broadway revival. It's obvious the DRO is attracting top notch talent, as as with Sweeney Todd, smaller roles here are filled by local stalwarts with many leading role credits, such as Paula Scrofano, John Reeger, Catherine Lord, David Girolmo and Natalie Ford. I was sorry to miss Peter Kevoian as Max, but on the matinee performance I caught, Craig Spidle quite ably handled the role.

And quite importantly, all of the children were excellent. Although the two boys and some of the younger girls didn't come off as all that individualistic here, Katie Huff did a very nice job as Liesl, Marieclair Popernik made for an adorable Gretl and either Arielle Dayan or Ingrid Lowery was slyly knowing as Brigitta (sorry, I'm not sure which girl performed).

I have now seen four shows directed by Rachel Rockwell and all have been excellent...or even better. Though she may not quite be a household name, as one of Chicago's best musical theater directors, she seems to be elevating herself to a well-deserved "brand name" level, a la Gary Griffin. I wouldn't be shocked if she soon finds herself in demand on Broadway, so all the more reason to take in this terrific production if you can.

Getting a ticket may not be easy as the Drury Lane is rightfully packing them in for this family-friendly show. And without any discount availability on Hottix or Goldstar, you might pay a bit more than at some other area theaters also doing fine work. But the $35-45 you'll spend is not only going to give you all the value of a downtown Chicago show for a fraction of the price, it will also save you from flying to London (or New York) to see musical theatre of the highest quality.

And when it comes to looking back at "My Favorite Things" of 2011, The Sound of Music will long resonate.

(Call the Drury Lane box office at 630-530-0111 to avoid Ticketmaster fees; another reason to love this theater.)

Outtasite! Wilco Rocks Riv With Rollicking Show -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Wilco
with Eleventh Dream Day
December 13, 2011
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
@@@@@

This was the Wilco of my dreams.

You see, I've liked virtually everything the Chicago-based band has done over the last decade, beginning with 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album of great beauty, experimentation and introspection that many consider among the very best of the 21st Century.

But my favorite Wilco album remains 1996's guitar-driven, somewhat Replacementsesque Being There, followed by 1999's Summer Teeth. Although the band, whose personnel beyond singer Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt has completely changed since the '90s, has rightfully earned worldwide acclaim and swelling popularity, they've more infrequently "rocked"--in the bar chord, pounding drums sense of the word--since the turn of the century.

That's not to say they haven't been good, even excellent, at many of the six Wilco shows I've attended since 2002--plus a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Tweedy perform in a living room--prior to the one on Tuesday night.

The concert was the second of the band's mini-tour of Chicago that saw them play the Civic Opera House on Monday, with shows at The Vic, Metro and Lincoln Hall still to come. I would've liked to go to the Opera House show, but when new tickets were released for the Riv on Friday, I was able to grab a pair. And no matter how good the first show was, or the subsequent ones might be, I'm perfectly satisfied with the one I saw.

For with Tweedy playing an electric guitar most of the show, rather than an acoustic, the band rocked in a way I'd never before witnessed. And kudos to all their sound engineers, because even from the top of the Riv, the sound was phenomenal.

This isn't to imply that Wilco became the Ramones or aforementioned Replacements. A multitude of weird sounds and obtuse textures from the six skilled players were still in ready abundance, such as on the new "Art of Almost" and "Via Chicago," with its breathtakingly thunderous bursts by drummer Glenn Kotche.

Take a look at Wilco's setlist from Tuesday and you won't see that it's full of hits, or even weighted to the early albums.

In fact, there are many songs I would have loved to hear that weren't played. But what was played was performed with such a sonic blast that it didn't matter. And true thumpers like "I Got You (At the End of the Century)," "I Must Be High," "I'm Always In Love," "Can't Stand It," "Just A Kid," "Monday" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" ravaged the paint-peeling walls of the 94-year-old, 2,500 capacity venue.

The band played for 2 hours and 20 minutes--the epic "Spiders" in Encore 2 wasn't even the finale, as "I'm A Wheel" followed to end the night--and proved to me like never before that if they aren't America's best rock band, they sure can sound like it when they want to.

Here's just a snippet I shot of "Outtasite (Outta Mind)"

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities -- My Week In London & Paris (Part I)


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Actually, except for waiting in a line--er, queue--for 3 hours to see the Da Vinci exhibit at the National Gallery in London and then being turned away, it really wasn't ever the worst of times, and even that's being rather hyperbolic. But though I wore myself down to the point of pain, as I typically do in exploring foreign locales--even those in America--I had a rather splendid time in two of the world's greatest cities on a quick sojourn a couple weeks ago.

Having just completed a contract work assignment without another having one lined up--always a double-edged sword--the chance to go to London sans airfare (due to having a reservoir of frequent flier miles) or lodging costs (thanks to my friend Paolo being put up in a corporate apartment with a couch calling my name) was too opportune to pass up.

Of course, I tacked on a couple days in Paris and a number of spectator events, but the trip was still rather inexpensive for what it was. And although it was very exciting and while I almost exclusively did "touristy" things, because it came with little advance planning and took me to cities I've previously visited, it was, relatively speaking, a rather low key European vacation.

This was my 7th time in London, where I've often stopped at the end of other trips in recent years, so I certainly didn't deem it vital to get to everything I wrote about in this travel guide. And though it had been 11 years since I'd  last been in Paris, two prior visits made this one more quick & focused than all-encompassing.

But here's what I did.

Saturday

After flying into Heathrow and taking the tube (officially known as the London Underground), switching lines and getting off at Borough station, then shlepping my (luckily, rolling) suitcase down a street called Long Lane, I arrived at Paolo's building. Fortunately, he was there.

After a bit of a nap since I didn't really sleep on the plane, we went out to attend the Chelsea football (soccer) game against Wolverhampton at Stamford Bridge Stadium.

We didn't have tickets, but upon exiting the tube station, we found a somewhat shady "tout" with tickets, and even more to be had from his friend with the souvenir stand.

Tickets weren't cheap, even in the nosebleed seats, but only a few quid more than we would have paid for them had we been able to buy them through the Chelsea website.

I'm admittedly somewhat of a world soccer dilettante; appreciating the sport's legacy, lore and cultural impact almost everywhere but the U.S., but often being bored with the game itself. I've been to a handful (and maybe a footful) of games in Chicago, including when Real Madrid, Chelsea and most recently this summer, Manchester United, have come to town for exhibition matches. But I had never been to an English Premier League (the "major leagues" of British soccer) game, so I was glad to have the opportunity to do so.

Though all three of their goals seemed be scored in quick, almost fluke fashion, Chelsea pretty much dominated the whole game. It was fun to see, as well as to get a bit of a flavor of an English soccer crowd. There was one drunk guy who caused a bit of a ruckus, but otherwise the crowd was rather low-key, with a number of fathers and sons reminiscent of a baseball game back home.

Although Stamford Bridge is an old stadium, it was--according to Wikipedia--renovated in the '90s, so I was surprised that it seats "just" 42,000 people and seemingly lacks corporate skyboxes.

Leaving the stadium and returning to the tube station was not so unlike what I've encountered at Cubs, Sox and major events everywhere--I was reminded of my trip to Yankee Stadium in August--but that made it fun in theory, not in sardine can reality.

Also in theory, I should have wanted to catch a West End theatrical performance on Saturday evening. But having flown in that morning, I was pretty much running on fumes after the football game. Even if we had been able to get to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square and snag a seat for something worthwhile that evening, I likely would have been asleep early in Act I. So with Paolo passionate about getting duck with noodles in Chinatown, that's where we went.

And wound up at a place quite originally called London Chinatown. Paolo was like a duck in water over his duck with noodles, but thinking I should get something more original than my typical sweet & sour pork, I ordered pork with noodles. It was fine, but I should've got the sweet & sour. 

Sunday

The couch in the flat Paolo had was a 2-seater, not 3. So sleeping on it meant that my feet overhung the end. Though I wouldn't have cared too much regardless, given the dramatic cost savings, I was worried about how I would sleep. I envisioned being up at 6am, so I was somewhat surprised when I woke (as Paolo left the flat for a workout nearby) at 9:14am on Sunday.

The night before I was imagining we might try getting in line for the Da Vinci exhibit early Sunday morning, but based on what would happen on Monday, I'm glad we didn't bother.

After getting out of the flat in mid-morning, we headed to the TKTS booth. Not much plays on Sunday in London, but one of the shows that does is Thriller Live, a tribute to Michael and the Jacksons that was created prior to MJ's death. Paolo had seen it before and praised it, and though I'm not the world's biggest Jackson fan, I appreciated Michael's talent. So we grabbed a pair of half-price tickets for the 3pm show.

Also at Paolo's recommendation, we then went to have a Pub Roast lunch, winding up at a place called the Porcupine. I had lamb with potatoes and Yorkshire pudding; it was quite good. I believe Paolo went with the chicken selection and enjoyed it as well.

We then did a good bit of walking, in one of the world's great cities to do so. Through Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, then across the Thames to the London Eye (which we didn't board), and back across the Thames via the Millennium bridge, then through Leicester Square up to the theater on Shaftsbury Avenue.

This might just sound like killing some time before a matinee, but to me, simply meandering is one of the best things one can do in London. The city--as most European cities are--is akin to an outdoor museum, with so much much of beauty to see and photograph. With the rapid-fire setting on my point 'n shoot, I took literally thousands of snapshots.

Here's one down the Thames; Big Ben and Parliament are the other way, but the sun was too bright.























Theater Review:
Thriller Live
Lyric Theatre, London
@@@1/2

I knew going in that this was just a revue, just musical numbers without a storyline or even much in the way of biography. There were many excellent performers onstage, with at least 4 men, one woman and one male child taking turns singing the lead on songs by the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson.

I enjoyed it for what it was, and have no problem recommending it to those with a hankering to relive some of the most exciting pop songs ever created. But as theater I can't say that it was phenomenal, nor even enriched my regard for Michael.

Not that I really wanted it to have a storyline, but it felt more like something one should see in a Las Vegas showroom than in a prestigious West End theater. Parts of it--as one might expect, Billie Jean, late in the show--really were thrilling, but as a whole it was quite good, but not quite fantastic.

Though I had had a good night's sleep, by 6pm on Sunday--when it was already long dark in London--I was still rather weary. I knew the Bears were playing at 3:15pm in Chicago, but any thoughts of trying to find somewhere showing the game at 9:15pm in London soon became unimportant.

After doing some damage at a souvenir shop near Picadilly Circus called Cool Britannia, where I got this mini-Union Jack guitar, Paolo and I went back to Borough and wound up in a pub called the Trinity, where I got what passes for a good British cheeseburger and a pint of a beer I do not recall.

Monday

Paolo works (mostly in Chicago) for a London-based company, which is why he was in London and availed of a flat, which I was graciously able to share. So during business hours on Monday and Tuesday, I was on my own.

Which, having been in London and elsewhere numerous times by myself, was no problem. Except that he hopefully would have talked me out of waiting in line for the da Vinci exhibit, which would prove to be an exhausting and infuriating waste of time.

Now, I love great art, of which the few extant works of Leonardo certainly qualify, but when I first noticed that the National Gallery was hosting an exhibition, it already too late to buy advance tickets for timed entry (even if I were to be in London through February). But as attested to by this post, the National Gallery has one of my favorite collections in the world, and with free entry, I figured another non-exhibition visit there would quite suffice.

But then I read somewhere, I though in TIME, but I can't find it, something calling the da Vinci the "best art exhibit ever." So per this statement on the exhibit website--A limited number of tickets will be available to purchase in person on each day of the exhibition. However these are subject to availability and likely to sell out quickly--I figured I should get in line prior to the museum opening at 10am on Monday morning and see if I couldn't get a ticket.

When I got to the back of the queue at 9:45am, unaware of just how far it snaked around, a member of the museum's security staff forthrightly told me, "You're not assured of getting in, and if you do, it will be for entry at 4:30pm." She also suggested the wait just to reach the ticket desk was at least 2 hours.

Admittedly, I was stupid for not walking away just then and finding something else to do in London. But though I wasn't expecting to walk right into the exhibit, I had planned to give some time to it, so I asked the guard, "Will you let us know when it's definite that we won't get tickets?" (meaning me and those near me). To which I was told, "Yes."

Soon thereafter, they stopped letting people join the back of the line, so I thought I might have a good chance. Two hours went by with nary a word, so again, I assumed the best, even venturing to turn on my iPhone--with international roaming rates--to try calling Paolo to ask if he'd be able to join me at 4:30. Fortunately, he didn't answer.

Two hours in, the security lady told a woman about 10 people ahead of me that she would likely be the last to get in. Word of this just grapevined through the line, but nothing was said to the rest of us. So I asked another guard if I was out of luck and should just leave. He said, "You're that close, I'd stick it out."

So I did--and not to kvetch too much, but standing for prolonged periods gets rather painful for my legs and back--for what amounted to another hour. At which point, I was two people from being let into the museum. But that would've only been to be a bit warmer while waiting for the ticket desk. That was when we were told we wouldn't get in.

I was rather upset about the time I wasted, my physical discomfort and a sense that the security guards could have been more candid. I mentioned that the one guard had told me to invest the third hour of waiting and he went off about how "he could never win."

Now certainly, there are infinite worse things in the world. But what still pisses me off is that 1) The woman who was told she would be the last to get tickets wound up not being able to. That's goofy. 2) Supposedly they had 500 tickets to sell for the day; likely 50 or so slotted for each half hour. What the heck took 3 hours? Print the tickets, take people's cash, hand out the tickets. Not so hard. Two days later I got into an even longer line to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower; I reached the cashier windows in a half-hour. 3) What would be the harm in letting the last people in line--the ones allowed to queue up, but ultimately shut out--purchase tickets for the next day? Call me crazy, but that would just seem fair.

So while I blame myself for the fiasco, I don't think I'm wrong for feeling something was badly mishandled.

Anyway, after all this, I did go into the National Gallery and saw some of my favorite paintings, such as this one by Raphael and this one by Seurat, but my heart wasn't into it.

Which still only brings us to about 1pm on Monday, but with a book I want to read, I think I'll pause here and bring you Part II (and Part III) as soon as I can.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Donny & Marie Provide Pleasant Presence for Christmas -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Donny & Marie: Christmas in Chicago
Oriental Theatre
Thru December 24
@@@

Although I recall the Donny & Marie variety show from the 1970s a little more fondly than it may be couth to admit, the only reason I was at the Oriental Theater on Tuesday night is because the Osmond siblings' holiday showcase was included in my Broadway in Chicago subscription.

That said, I sufficiently enjoyed myself and found Donny & Marie, now in their 50s, to be attractive performers. Although, in Marie's case, it looked like more than NutriSystem has been at work.

Neither is a fantastic singer, but as show business veterans for--as Donny attested--49 years, both are affable professionals who aim to please.

If you are so inclined to take in their Christmas show, there is no reason I will suggest not to, though neither am I recommending that anyone else rush down and catch the act.

As one might expect, Donny & Marie do a bunch of Christmas songs. These are pleasant enough, though fairly predictable and straightforward (far be it for the Osmonds to include a bit of irreverence or subversion in their repertoire). They also perform their respective pop hits and a nice selection of Broadway songs from shows they've been in.

On opening night in Chicago, the balance between scripted and off-the-cuff seemed to be off-kilter, as Donny & Marie would be engaged in some fun sibling banter, but then far too quickly rush into a song off their latest album. Though they've been playing Vegas, their show here needs some better pacing and direction. And while I can't deny smiling upon hearing "I'm a Little Bit Country, I'm a Little Bit Rock 'n Roll" from their old TV show, a few too many of their numbers were rather blah.

Oddly, one of the best parts of the night occurred when Marie brought an audience member onstage. It was Ronnie "Woo-Woo" Wickers, the longtime Cubs fan dressed in full uniform. She had no idea who he was, but still interacted rather charmingly. Not to be outdone, Donny later brought Woo-Woo back for an encore.

Later, Marie rather bravely spoke of her late son, who committed suicide last year, before doing an Andrew Lloyd Webber operatic song I didn't recognize. Though obvious, "Memory" would've been a better choice.

But it was nice to see Donny & Marie come across more human and self-deprecating than one might expect, and for a night of entertainment one could do worse. It was also far from the best show I've ever seen, but not bad for a family affair.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A 'Killer' Blast from the Past -- Concert Review: Jerry Lee Lewis

Concert Review

Jerry Lee Lewis
with Ken Lovelace & the Memphis Beats (backing)
and The Modern Sounds (opening)
Congress Theater, Chicago
December 3, 2011
@@@@

Once upon a time, in the late '50s, with due respect to Elvis and Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis was the most exciting musical performer in the nascent rock 'n' roll world.

At least among those I'm aware of, as it was still a decade before I made my appearance.

But take a look at this video on YouTube and I don't think there's much room for disagreement. More than 50 years later, I don't know anybody else who's ever played the piano quite like Jerry Lee and when he was a young man, his kinetic energy must have been as revolutionary as anything the punk era would beget.

Now play the video below. I didn't shoot it and it's too dark to see much, but as such, the differences between 76-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis--who appeared at the even older Congress Theater on Saturday night--and the 22-year-old phenom aren't all that easily discerned.


No, he doesn't look the same and he's not nearly as manic. His voice isn't quite as rich and his playing isn't consistently as thunderous. But it's all still, surprisingly, close enough to have made for an enjoyable show, a thriller by the Killer, as it were.

Although he had an enjoyable Chicago-based warmup band, The Modern Sounds--ironically named as they specialized in throwback jazz and pop--and his own backing band preceded his appearance onstage with a couple songs, Jerry Lee was only onstage for about an hour. But heck, the $12.50 I paid for admission--to a show originally booked for July 9 but postponed due to a Lewis illness--wouldn't have gotten me into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. And to see one of the charter members, live on stage and surprisingly robust--unlike, sadly, Chuck Berry's abbreviated show at the same venue back on New Year's night--was tremendously enjoyable and enriching.

I have a Lewis greatest hits collection, but there are really only 3 songs that I was truly hoping to hear. He skipped "Breathless" and for the bulk of the show played several songs I couldn't name, though they all sounded good. He did "Drinking Win Spo-Dee-O-Dee," which I recognized, Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and to close the show, the great 1-2 punch of "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shaking Going On," which ended with Jerry Lee kicking over his piano bench. A nod to the past that to a satisfying degree was still present.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

'Memphis' Pleases the Crowd, If Not Quite the Soul -- Theatre Review

Theatre Review

Memphis
a new musical
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 4
@@@1/2

Taking its initial bow in Chicago as part of its first national tour, Memphis is a bit of an anomaly these days, as it is a new musical not based on brand-name source material or utilizing pre-existing songs.

Having won the 2010 Tony for Best Musical and still enjoying a strong Broadway run, it has clearly garnered a fair amount of popular acclaim. And as evidenced by the standing ovation from the full house at the Cadillac Palace, many found it quite satisfying.

I found it to be a decent musical though far short of fantastic; well-intentioned but somewhat hackneyed and artistically shallow. There were some nice highlights and I'm glad I saw it; it does what it does well and may seem excellent to those with less discerning tastes, but there are literally hundreds of shows I've liked better.

I haven't re-read it all, but I think I wrote pretty much the same about a July 2010 concert by Bon Jovi, whose longtime keyboardist, David Bryan, wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics for Memphis.

Which isn't to imply that the show has obvious sonic similarities with the New Jersey band. Bryan does a good job applying his talents to the musical stage and has composed songs that work within the context of the race-relations story of Memphis (not so unlike that of Hairspray, a much better musical).

Though Joe DiPietro, who wrote the musical's book and co-wrote the lyrics, also has a track of record of popular, but often critically-suspect plays and musicals, this is more than the work of two hacks. Memphis is a credible musical that might have deserved its Tony, but wouldn't have against stronger competition. Its original story isn't all that original, and its original music seemed only occasionally inspired (I had listened to the cast recording, but it too didn't grab me). 

If you're a musical theater buff, Memphis is well worth your time, but won't be the best show you'll ever see. And if you only rarely go to musicals, it may well be a show you like even better.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Taylor-Made 'Ann' Is Quite Impressive But Not That Interesting -- Theatre Review

Theatre Review

Ann
Written & Performed by Holland Taylor
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 4
@@@1/2

I have seen many wonderful performances on theatrical stages this year, but I doubt I will witness one any better than that which Holland Taylor gives as ex-Texas Governor Ann Richards in the biographical show Taylor also authored.

But while 'Ann' is a tour de force for Taylor--a longtime TV star now on Two and a Half Men--and provides a decent briefer on its subject, as a piece of theater well over 2 hours, it falls short of superlative.

Which isn't to say that the late Richards isn't worthy of a bio-play or that Taylor doesn't showcase plenty of her own strong writing. And Taylor's embodiment of Richards makes this a work worth recommending, simply for the acting. But the show is more a superb characterization than a fully captivating and compelling drama.

'Ann' opens with Richards making a commencement speech at a fictional Texas college well after her term as governor ended in 1995 (she was defeated for re-election by George W Bush; imagine how history may have changed if she wasn't). Taylor does a phenomenal job of looking and sounding like Richards, providing biographical background and anecdotes.

But though Richards herself was a gifted speaker--as she famously showcased in her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention--the "speech portion" of the show starts to feel a bit long. Wisely, after about 40 minutes, Taylor--directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein--enacts Richards' time as governor by sitting behind a desk, barking out orders and berating subordinates (other voices were occasionally heard, but no other actors were onstage).

But the show fails to provide much closure on the scenarios it depicted, whether in terms of Richards' trying to stop the execution of a death row inmate or track down her children for a family gathering. It also didn't leave me with as much sense of Richards' accomplishments as I would have liked, and though its theoretically fine that the affair is more a documentary-type depiction than a dramatic narrative, the various threads got a bit long and unwieldy in the second act.

I think 'Ann' would work much better if what Taylor showcases about Richards becomes a good deal more concentrated. Like its subject matter, who passed away from cancer in 2006, the show is rather impressive. (Prior to becoming governor, Richards had overcome a battle with alcoholism and had been divorced.) But at this point, there are considerable portions that just aren't all that interesting.

Monday, November 14, 2011

'East of Berlin' Poses Interesting Questions -- Theater Review

Theater Review

East of Berlin
and
The Russian Play
by Hannah Moscovitch
Signal Ensemble Theater
Thru December 18
@@@@ - East of Berlin
@@1/2 - The Russian Play

"What's the right thing to do?"

Though I don't know that there was really much gray area in the case of Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary or others involved in the Penn State cover-up, you can see how the answer isn't always so cut & dried.

Say you learned that your father, who in your lifetime has always been upstanding, was once a very bad man. Are you morally obliged to report his whereabouts to the authorities so that he could be held accountable for past indiscretions?

And even if you know you should, could you? And would you? Especially if doing so would essentially ruin your own life?

Hannah Moscovitch's gripping play, East of Berlin, takes awhile to its central dilemma, but once it does, it's thoroughly riveting.

Without giving too much away, Rudi has grown up in Paraguay. In his teens, he learns that his dad was a Nazi SS doctor, a war criminal. He doesn't feel compelled to do anything about it until long after he himself has moved to Germany and falls in love with a Jewish girl, Sarah, who takes him to visit Aushwitz, where her mom had been held as a concentration camp prisoner.

Even then, Rudi isn't completely forthright with Sarah nor sure of what actions he will take. And I'm not sure I agree with the action Moscovitch has him take, but that doesn't make the play any less powerful or thought-provoking. It didn't quite captivate me all the way through, but by the end it was certainly one of the better new works I've seen this year.

Which made the Signal Ensemble's choice to follow it with The Russian Play, a shorter, more frivolous and not nearly as good play by Moscovitch, a bit puzzling. East of Berlin was so intense that leaving the theater to think and/or talk about it would have been preferable to spending another 30 minutes taking in The Russian Play. It was a bit of fun seeing the excellent trio of actors from the first play, Billy Fenderson, Melanie Keller and Tom McGrath, take on something quite different. But my head wasn't ready to give it much attention and it actually diminished the experience of having been so engaged in East of Berlin.

Friday, November 11, 2011

With Concertful of Kinks Klassics, Ray Davies Puts on a Clinic

Concert Review
Ray Davies
with The 88 (opening & backing)
November 11, 2011
Chicago Theatre, Chicago
@@@@@

Though still rather spry at age 67, Ray Davies isn't doing a lot he hasn't already done. At least in concert. But that's OK.

In terms of recorded output, in recent years Davies has been "re-doing" many of his classic Kinks tunes, first with a choral collection and then a compilation duets. He's also put out, in 2006 & 2007, a pair of respectable solo albums.

But on his current tour, which brought him to the Chicago Theatre on Friday night, there was no chorus, no famous guests and just one song from his solo work.

Which left his bread & butter: a boatload of great old Kinks songs, some performed acoustically with a second guitarist named Bill Shanley and the rest backed by a rock band from L.A. called The 88, who also performed a show opening set of their own material.

There are few rock canons that I love any more than that of the Kinks, so while Davies isn't doing anything particularly novel in coming through town every year or two--I've now seen him five times in the last 5 years--and rifling through a bunch of his chestnuts, I'll gladly come out to hear him. And while each of his shows has been stellar, this one was as rewarding as any, as without a new album to promote, Ray not only played more Kinks klassics, he also mined his old band's discography a bit deeper.

After an enjoyable set by the 88, Davies came onstage accompanied only by Shanley, and played "I Need You," "I'm Not Like Everybod├┐ Else," "Sunny Afternoon," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," "Waterloo Sunset," "See My Friends" and "Apeman." Not a bad way to start.

In referencing his collection of duets, called See My Friends, he mentioned a collaboration he had done with Lucinda Williams on a lesser-known Kinks song called "A Long Way From Home," which he then played. The 88 came onstage to back him on a rollicking version of 20th Century Man, and they--along with Shanley--rolled through more Kinks treasures, like "This Is Where I Belong," "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," "Till The End of the Day" and "All Day And All of the Night."

But what I appreciated just as much was when Ray reached beyond his 60s output and into the 70s, for "Misfits," "Celluloid Heroes" and "Full Moon," a song from 1977''s Sleepwalker album that I didn't know, but still sounded great. Of course, a buzz-saw rendition of "You Really Got Me" was also wonderful, but in opening his encores with 1979's "Low Budget," Ray again re-itereated the timelessness of his best material, whatever its original time. And though at some shows on the tour, it seems he's been skipping "Lola," I was certainly glad he came out for a second encore and played that one. (Full setlist on Setlist.fm)

I realize I don't have much to say about this show beyond what was played. But when one of your favorite singer/songwriters plays 2 hours of entirely wonderful music, there isn't a whole lot to complain about. Sure, I could always name 10 other songs that would have been "nice to hear". And though I don't think the public is truly demanding it, a Kinks reunion could be nice to see. But sometimes you needn't worry about Something Else and just enjoy being Face to Face with a living legend doing what he does.