Sunday, November 10, 2013

Groovin' with the Rascals in 'Once Upon a Dream' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Once Upon a Dream starring The Rascals
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 10 (run ended)

If you asked me a year ago to name bands I would most want to see reunite (of those with a majority of original/main members still able to do so), I could give you a healthy list--Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads, the Kinks, the Jam, the Smiths, Husker Du, Midnight Oil, the original Guns 'N Roses, the Replacements (who actually did this year!) and more--before I ever would have mentioned the Rascals.
But in the words of Steven Van Zandt, as printed in the Playbill for Once Upon a Dream:
"The opportunity to reunite the Rascals has been a lifelong dream of mine. They were the first band I ever saw, and their influence on me and my generation set standards we are still trying to meet."
Such is my regard for Van Zandt--who I'd revere just for being the guitarist in the E Street Band, but whose legacy as an activist, actor, music historian, radio programmer and much more looms just as large--that I made it a point to learn about the Rascals. Sure I knew "Good Lovin'" and a few other golden oldies from the 60s, but I'd be lying to say I didn't lump the Rascals in with the Lovin' Spoonful and Turtles and Paul Revere & the Raiders and various other American bands of the Sixties who I never considered on par with their British Invasion counterparts.

I now realize that was a bit of an oversight on my part, but though I've enjoyed my crash course in the Rascals and their reunion that resulted in Once Upon a Dream, which ran last week in Chicago--sorry I didn't have time to write this earlier, but it really shouldn't have swayed anyone one way or the other--I still can't say I like the Rascals as much as CCR or the Beach Boys, let alone the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Zombies, etc.

I now consider their legacy akin to the Four Seasons, another four-member band that--like Van Zandt--hailed from New Jersey. Their mega-successful biographical musical, Jersey Boys, must loom somewhere behind the creation of Once Upon a Dream.

But to Van Zandt's credit, this is a different show, which because it features the original Rascals--Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli and Gene Cornish--playing and singing live on stage, works better as a concert experience than Jersey Boys. Though not nearly as good a theatrical experience.

Essentially, Once Upon a Dream is like seeing a documentary--or rockumentary, as others have called it--enacted in front of your eyes.

The Rascals sounded good playing several classics--28 songs in all, according to a Van Zandt interview; the songs aren't listed in the program--but the backstory was provided entirely through filmed recollections (by Felix, Eddie, Dino and Gene) and re-enactments (by actors playing the bandmates as their younger, hotter and cooler selves).

I appreciate what Little Steven was going for in this hybrid concert/theater/film creation, and it was not only fun to hear gems such as "Good Lovin'," "Groovin'," "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," "I've Been Lonely Too Long," "A Beautiful Morning" and "People Got to Be Free," performed live, but the videotaped parts--narrated by Van Zandt's Sopranos chum Vincent Pastore--were also entertaining.

So though the Rascals have now left Chicago, if you're a fan and can catch this show somewhere
convenient, there's no reason not to.

But at 2-1/2 hours, it had about 30 minutes more Rascals music than I needed, and some of the biography presented on big video screens had me confused. I felt a bit more time could've been devoted to depicting what the Rascals were like when they were young, and what caused them to connect with Van Zandt and others.

Steven might do well to provide his recollections on camera, for his underlying fandom gives this show--and even this band--considerable resonance in 2013.

For even though this wasn't quite once upon my own dream coming true, it was enjoyable to see Van Zandt's labor of love and--even 45 years paunchier than their peak--to see and hear the original Rascals, live on stage.

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