Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Work of Genius: Mike Nussbaum's Performance as Albert Einstein in 'Relativity' is Remarkably Brilliant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Relativity
a world premiere play by Mark St. Germain
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 25
@@@@1/2

I first saw and liked Mike Nussbaum in David Mamet's excellent 1987 film, House of Games.

Since 2002, when the Chicago-based actor was just 78, I've seen him 11 times in a variety of local theater productions, including Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, two Sondheim musicals (at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater), four plays--including the current one--at Northlight Theatre (for whom he was the founding Artistic Director in 1975) and in 2012 playing the titular genius in Freud's Last Session, which, like Relativity, was written by Mark St. Germain.

As, just a bit past half of Nussbaum's 93 years, I'm hard pressed simply to stand for 30 consecutive minutes, let alone memorize lines or perform in any meaningful way, I won't apologize for being impressed merely by the esteemed actor's continued ability to grace a stage.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
According to Actors' Equity Association--per the press release for Relativity--Mike Nussbaum is the oldest actor still working on stage.

So it's amazing to appreciate just how truly outstanding he remains an actor.

I wanted to see Relativity primarily to watch Nussbaum play Albert Einstein, candidly caring more about the former than the latter. And I swear, midway through the play--just 70 minutes with 3 cast members--I felt like I was watching Albert Einstein, not an actor embodying him.

There are other reasons to see Relativity, including fine performances by Katherine Keberlein and Ann Whitney.

I think it prudent for me to avoid any specifics about the plot; best that anyone seeing it arrive unknowing, and even unguessing, where St. Germain will take things, even given considerable historic liberties.

Though there isn't tremendous biographical depth, I learned several things about Einstein I never knew, and one of the show's key questions--can you, or should you, appreciate the great accomplishments of someone you might not consider a good person--is something I seem to debate at least monthly.

Should I watch and champion the films of Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski? Should ugly insinuations about Alfred Hitchcock lessen my enjoyment of his brilliant movies? Can I love Guns 'N Roses, still, despite perceiving Axl Rose to be a wife-abusing asshole? Was it wrong for me to cheer for Aroldis Chapman with the Cubs given his domestic violence transgressions?

I fully admit to being inconsistent about matters like these, which rarely are precisely parallel.

As someone suggested the other day, what we're willing to overlook may well depend on how much a given person's art--or as in Einstein's case, other such brilliance--means and matters to us.

To wit, I can live contentedly without ever again watching reruns of The Cosby Show, but damn if I'll be giving up the Beatles no matter how damning any evidence that John Lennon wasn't always an upstanding guy.

And of course, while there are always gray areas, criminal matters can be rather different than someone being a cheating husband or emotionally abusive or absent father. But given one's own personal experiences, it's not impossible that the latter can seem more grievous. 

What Relativity alleges about Einstein, largely having to do with familial flaws, are things I'd never heard before, and in both a dramatic realm and informative one, the play is worthwhile--even if I'm not sure I really needed or wanted to know about the genius' imperfections.

Anyway, it's pretty obvious to say that with a lesser cast Relativity probably wouldn't seem as good. Great actors always elevate material in ways that lesser ones don't.

And it's not impossible to imagine other stalwart actors playing Albert Einstein well.

But at Northlight, under the direction of his longtime friend and colleague BJ Jones--they met during the troupe's nascent days--Mike Nussbaum is extraordinary, even with a script that otherwise may not quite be considered brilliant.

Which I think is my convoluted way of saying that Relativity, as written and even otherwise well-performed, would probably merit @@@@ from me.

But Nussbaum himself, in this role, at the age of 93--or even if he were 53--deserves @@@@@.

Which gets me to @@@@1/2 and a rather emphatic recommendation that you see this remarkable performer in a play that--most of all, because of its star in Skokie--is worth your time, money and attention.

His really is a work of genius. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Time Stands Still' Provides Moving Look at Life, Love, Pain and the Pursuit of War Zone Photography -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Time Stands Still
by Donald Margulies
directed by Georgette Verdin
Aston Rep Theatre Company
at the Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru June 11
@@@@

As Time Stands Still begins--per a fine local production by Aston Rep of the Tony-nominated play by Donald Margulies--considerable time has already elapsed from the events that will acutely shape its narrative.

With a man named James (Robert Tobin) helping his girlfriend of several years, Sarah (Sara Pavlak McGuire), into their New York apartment, her facial scars, damaged leg and arm-in-a-sling let us know that she has survived --with lucidity intact--and somewhat recuperated from a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq while on a photo assignment.

Within a few minutes, we also understand that he too is a war journalist--a writer to her photographer--who was compelled by the ravages and dangers of what he experienced to return home, with ever-increased guilt, just weeks before the incident that maimed her and caused nearby casualties.

These episodes are central to everything that unfolds onstage, with Margulies focusing more overtly on the characters trying to move forward, even as the past is ever-present.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Under the direction of Georgette Verdin, the play is as much observational--in depicting how the central couple strives, and struggles, to regain a sense of normalcy after such shattering events--as it is overtly dramatic and tension-filled.

In fact, the play's other two characters--Richard (Rob Frankel), a magazine editor for whom Sarah worked, and his young, attractive, new girlfriend Mandy (Kirra Silver)--seem to exist largely to provide a dramatic refuge from the hard-to-enunciate discomfiture between James and Sarah.

While Sarah's lashing out at Richard for "robbing the cradle" feels fairly routine and even a bit distracting from the primary thread, far more pointed and compelling is Mandy's challenging Sarah over her instincts to photograph victims, rather than to aid them. I actually thought this, and a couple other confrontational strains, might well have gotten even more intense.

I also found the exploration of vocations of passion that people opt to pursue--even in the face of obstacles, including possibly life-threatening ones--to be rather resonant, not just regarding the perspectives of Sarah and James within the play, but in watching actors from a small Chicago ensemble (and even as pertinent to my own life).

Despite the title, Time Stands Still--which runs about 2 hours with an intermission--is well-paced and holds one's attention throughout.

Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends--though I recall being lukewarm about a Goodman production of it several years back--is clearly a professional playwright, and especially for just $20 per ticket, this production feels like quintessential "local theater."

Aspen Rep has become one of my favorite Chicago troupes in recent years, and as usual the actors here are all demonstrably good.

Tobin, who is Aston Rep's Artistic Director, and McGuire, an ensemble member, feel quite genuine as the main couple, especially in roles necessitating considerable emotional ambiguity. (I imagine unease is hard to portray naturally without it seeming too much like "actors acting.")

Though I felt the Richard character was the least compelling--his perspectives on Sarah, James, journalistic decisions and his own relationships seem a bit middling rather than forceful--Frankel clearly plays him well as written.

And recent Northwestern grad Silver brings palpable freshness to the proceedings, not simply in her embodiment of the guileless Mandy, but in terms of intangible stage presence.

In the theater, I didn't perceive Time Stands Still to quite be a brilliant play; I never felt that tingle of wondering what might unfold.

But it prompted a nice discussion afterward, and I do appreciate that sometimes the storylines that don't dazzle with overt theatricality are the ones that hit closer to home.

For the big questions of life are rarely answered with precision, and never within a 2-hour span.

Time Stands Still had its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf in 2012, but though I see many shows there I didn't get to it. I have tremendous regard for the quality of Steppenwolf's productions--and recommend you read the typically illuminating program notes that their recently passed former Artistic Director, Martha Lavey, wrote about this play--but it's to Aston Rep's great credit that I feel they provided the full essence of Margulies' work.

You may like it a bit more than me, or perhaps a bit less; either way this should be taken as a wholehearted recommendation.

Within the comfortable confines of the Raven Theatre complex, with easy parking in an adjoining lot, for a rather value-packed price--and possibly even less through HotTix and Goldstar--Time Stands Still should at the very least provide a couple hours of low-hassle, high-quality Chicago theater.

...and may even make you think for quite a spell longer. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Read About It: Exemplifying the Power and the Passion, Midnight Oil Still Burns Bright on a Tough Night -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Midnight Oil
w/ opening act Boytoy
The Vic, Chicago
May 18, 2017
@@@@@

"Sometimes you're shaken to the core 
Sometimes the face is gonna fall 
But you don't give in"
-- "Sometimes" - Midnight Oil

For me, Midnight Oil's return to Chicago should have been a completely exhilarating affair.

I have loved the Australian band for 30 years, as 1987's great "Beds are Burning" single--and soon after, the entirely fantastic Diesel and Dust album--was my entrée, as conceivably for many American fans, although that was actually Midnight Oil's 6th album. (Their self-titled debut came out in 1978.) 

Though I loved their next two albums, Blue Sky Mine and Earth and Sun and Moon, and bought not only everything that followed them, but almost all of the earlier ones, I never noted a reasonable chance to see Midnight Oil live during their "heyday."

While stateside popularity had waned, the band continued to put out (pretty darn solid) albums until 2002's Capricornia. The year prior gave me my first chance to catch Midnight Oil in concert, at the Rave in Milwaukee with about 50 other fans.

I would also see them in 2002 at Chicago's House of Blues and on a 4th of July Taste of Chicago bill.

Then they disappeared, with the band's hulking lead singer Peter Garrett entering Australian politics. He would serve in a variety of appointed and elected positions from 2004 to 2013. (See his personal Wikipedia bio.)

I continued to love Midnight Oil's canon, which combines politics, activism and humanitarianism with hard charging rock 'n roll better than almost anyone. (They were slotted in at #22 among my favorite rock acts ever, and in my most-ever read post on the 100 Best Alternative Bands of the Past 25 Years--compiled in 2012--I placed them 8th.)

Via YouTube, I became aware that the band did some Australian benefit shows in 2009, and with Garrett's retirement from politics, suggestions of a reunion tour started to swirl last year.

Especially with 2016 having seen a plethora of passings of cherished musicians, and then the election of Donald Trump, news earlier this year that Midnight Oil was hitting the road and playing Chicago's Vic Theatre on May 18 couldn't have been any more welcome.

And with four prime reserved balcony seats at the typically General Admission venue, accompanied by three music-loving pals--Paolo, Dave and Brad--I was so looking forward to seeing Midnight Oil.

Particularly as clips and setlists from earlier tour stops seemed great; the band was changing things up every night, playing songs from throughout their entire catalog, and I enjoyed Spotifamiliarizing myself with tunes I didn't know or well-recall.

But on Thursday morning, I awoke to the terrible news that Soundgarden's Chris Cornell had died, taking his own life just hours after a concert in Detroit. I loved Soundgarden and had seen them multiple times in recent years, also with Paolo and Dave.

I had also seen Soundgarden years ago, and Cornell on his own and with Audioslave. He is probably the most gifted rock singer I've ever heard.

Thus, while still greatly looking forward to seeing Midnight Oil, my ebullience was considerably muted.

And yet they still delivered a show as good as I could have wanted.

Though now into their 60s, the band members--held over from the prime years--are still in fine form; first-rate musicians all.

And Garrett remains one of the most singular front men in rock history, a rather kinetic skyscraping dervish whose passions remain emotively honest in his powerful voice.

Despite doing my homework, I still found myself largely unfamiliar with half of the show's first 10 songs (see the setlist on Setlist.fm), not that they didn't all sound good.

It was only after the show that Brad revealed that Midnight Oil had opened by playing an album in full:

1982's 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, from which I well-knew tunes like "Read About It," "Short Memory" and "Power and the Passion," but not several of the album tracks.

I actually like that the band had surprised me despite my studying earlier setlists, and even though a subsequent 5-song acoustic grouping with a few more relatively esoteric songs--"Ships of Freedom," "Spirit of the Age"--did have me wishing for a bit more ear candy, the blitz of prime Oils that did come proved all the more righteous.

"The Dead Heart," "Beds Are Burning," "Blue Sky Mine" and "Dreamworld" sounded as good as ever to close out the main set (see video below), and after three more rockers to begin the encores, the wondrous closer "Sometimes"--partially quoted at top--perfectly capsulized a show that was majestically therapeutic, even if not quite as exhilarating as expected given the circumstances.

And as the houselights came up, so too did Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" (on the PA, not played by Midnight Oil; I was somewhat surprised Garrett hadn't mentioned Cornell, but I guess he was content to let the music do the talking).

I really wish Midnight Oil followed Thursday's Chicago show by playing tonight in Milwaukee, as I would love not only to see them again, but possibly hear things like "Warakurna," "Bullroarer," "Hercules," "King of the Mountain" and others that may have been eschewed for the rare album playthrough.

But on a night when a lesser band could have kept me wallowing in sadness for the loss of Cornell, the tragedy for his family, the steady erosion of heroes of my youth and the dearth of truly great new rock 'n roll, Midnight Oil came back to reiterate their brilliance.

And the power, and the passion, to truly enlighten and enrich lives like mine.

Even--or perhaps especially--on the not so good days.

---
Here's a clip of "Beds are Burning" from Thursday night, posted by YouTube user named Rod MacQuarrie.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Requiem for the Prince of Wails: A Fan's Farewell to Chris Cornell

When I awoke yesterday--fairly late, as tends to be my norm--I glanced at my phone and saw two text messages from close friends.

One alluded to stunning news and it being a "black day indeed," but the other left no room for mystery, simply saying "RIP Chris Cornell" with a link to a news story about the musician's death in a Detroit hotel room.

A day later it's still somewhat hard to believe...and accept.

Especially given the seeming reality that he took his own life by hanging (though his family is now asserting that his actions may have been affected by taking too much of the anti-anxiety medication, Ativan).

But even before more was revealed throughout yesterday--with coverage of Cornell's passing still ongoing--the news was certainly stunning.

My friend Dave, who had texted that, could have said "One of your musical favorites died," and my mind would probably have gone to fifty other cherished artists before I thought of Cornell.

Not that he wasn't a clear favorite of mine. I loved his primary band, Soundgarden, and saw them four times--including three truly phenomenal performances in the last six years. (In Chicago in 2011 and 2013 and at Lollapalooza Buenos Aires in 2014, where they were the best band.)

I also saw Cornell twice solo--first in 1999, when the rock god seemed almost timid standing onstage by himself, his long locks shorn.

And, to an extent, I enjoyed his work with Audioslave, formed with 3/4 of Rage Against the Machine (excluding singer Zack de la Rocha).

The Audioslave albums have some good stuff on them--particularly "Be Yourself"--though seeing the supergroup twice live also made me think they weren't as good as either RATM or Soundgarden.

For whatever reason, when Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger album was released in late 1991--around the time their Seattle brethren Nirvana (with Nevermind) and Pearl Jam (with Ten) were commencing the mainstream ascendancy of grunge--I didn't buy it or become enamored with the band.

That came in 1994 with the release of Superunknown.

I still remember my workmate Steve and I rocking out to "Let Me Drown," "My Wave" and "Spoonman," atop a parking garage near our office.

And on a trip to Los Angeles in 1996--I had lived there from 1990-92 but moved back to the Chicago area--the then just released Down on the Upside was the main thing I listened to as I tooled around in my rental car.

Bittersweet today, given Cornell's cause of death, but I fondly remember blasting "Pretty Noose" as I drove around.

Though I figured Soundgarden was poised to become football stadium huge like Pearl Jam, in November 1996 I caught them live for the first time at the Aragon Ballroom. After that tour ended, the band broke up in April 1997--and wouldn't reunite until Lollapalooza 2010 (I wasn't there).

Somewhat oddly, the tour Soundgarden was currently on did not include a Chicago date.

If it did, I undoubtedly would have bought a ticket (or at least tried), and given typical tour routings, the show could well have been this week. 

I respect this Detroit Free-Press article suggesting that something seemed off about Cornell during the concert, as I realize troubling nuances can be hard to discern via YouTube clips.

But based on several such clips I've watched yesterday and today, including "Rusty Cage," the show's second-to-last song, Soundgarden and Cornell--truly one of the most gifted rock vocalists ever--sounded routinely fantastic.

I know both too much and too little about depression, let alone the effects of Ativan in prescribed or excessive dosages, to suggest true bewilderment that someone could sing and play--Cornell was a guitarist in Soundgarden along with the lead singer--songs of considerable complexity and quality, to a raucous reception, and take his own life seemingly less than two hours after leaving the stage.

Though Cornell's demons, whether depression or substance abuse, never seemed as publicly pronounced as those of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley (of Alice in Chains) or Scott Weiland (of Stone Temple Pilots), his lyrics didn't exactly hide his inner turbulence.

"Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try"

"I can't get any lower, still I feel I'm sinking"

"I fell on black days"

"I wield a ton of rage, just like suicide"

"So kill your health and kill yourself and kill everything you love"

"Burn out any memory of me ever breathing"

"Hang my head, drown my fear, til you all just disappear"

"In dreams until my death I will wander on"

I can't say I gave acute thought to all these lyrics--and many more--until I looked them up and typed them just now.

Clearly there must have been hope, or dare I say presumption, that Cornell was purging his darknesses via alt-rock aggression that made him a star, although to my eyes he was never quite the strutting, machismo frontman people may have imagined based on his 4-octave voice and godly hair.

Certainly his death is stunning, and for me tremendously sad. He was just a few years older than I am, and leaves behind a wife and kids, who by all accounts he dearly loved.

Though the music that will no longer be made isn't the tragedy here, I will acutely miss Soundgarden, one of the truly great rock bands--and, not so incidentally, one of the most real.

When you really think about it, Chris Cornell's far-premature death may not seem all that surprising, even if there was no known reason to acutely see it coming. 

So I'll simply end this by thanking him for brightening many of my days while sorry the "Black Hole Sun" couldn't sufficiently brighten any more of his.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Pair of Dynamic Duos: Hall & Oates, Tears For Fears Prove Twice as Nice in Rosemont -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Hall & Oates
Tears for Fears
w/ opening act Allen Stone
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
@@@@1/2 (for each band)

For reasons I can't strenuously defend, I was much more parochial about my musical tastes in the 1980s than I am now.

Not that my first love isn't still hard rock with plenty of guitar crunch, but whereas in my teens I was going to concerts by Ozzy, the Scorpions, Ratt, Van Halen, The Kinks, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. and U2, it wasn't until my 30s that I caught Prince, Madonna, Depeche Mode and the Cure, and only recently--well into my 40s--the likes of New Order, Duran Duran, Johnny Marr (of the Smiths) and, coming up for the first time, Echo & the Bunnymen.

In large part, this is probably due to no longer caring as much about peer pressure or imagined perception, which I think helped prompt my wholehearted embrace of the Broadway musical idiom around the turn of the 21st century.

And once I loved musical theater songcraft, it seemed silly to abstain from poppier (and/or New Wavier) popular artists of appealing quality, especially with the dissipation of truly great hard rock acts--or at least the relative lack of new ones catching my attention.

Allen Stone
So though I've never owned any of their albums or even ever sought out much of their music, for the past few years Hall & Oates have been on a shortlist of artists I'd never seen live but wanted to. (In the past few years, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, Bryan Ferry, Judas Priest and Alice Cooper are a few I've knocked off the list.)

There seemed to be opportunities in the past couple years, especially last year at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in Tinley Park, but I'm not a big fan of the venue or effort needed to get there, and subsequently heard from my concert pal Paolo--an avowed H&O fan who did see them last year--that the performance was nothing special.

But I took note earlier this year when Hall & Oates--officially Daryl Hall and John Oates--announced a tour that would bring them to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, along with co-headliner Tears for Fears.

Back in the 1980s when the British band--centered around Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, the only originals that remain--became quite popular, I liked the ubiquitous "Shout," "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Head Over Heels" and especially "Sowing the Seeds of Love," but still would say I somewhat resisted Tears for Fears and haven't given them too much thought over the years.

And the truth is, they've recorded and toured rather infrequently since the early '90s. Monday was their first Chicago show in at least a dozen years.

But in Spotifamiliarizing myself based on recent setlists, I found they had a depth of quality akin to some of the other British acts I've looked more into of late (such as New Order and Duran Duran).

So I was actually looking forward to seeing Tears for Fears more than Hall & Oates.

And after a nice but quite brief (4 songs) set by a solo singer/guitarist named Allen Stone--I liked his version of "I Say A Little Prayer for You"--Orzabal, Smith and their touring band opened in fine form with "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

You can see their full setlist on Setlist.fm, but along with the hits from 1985's mega-platinum Songs From the Big Chair and the delightful "Sowing the Seeds of Love," I really enjoyed "Change," "Mad World" and "Pale Shelter," from their debut, The Hurting, and "Everybody Loves a Happy Ending," the title song from their last album in 2004.

Trading off lead vocals, guitarist Orzabal and bassist Smith--augmented by a demonstrably good lead
guitarist, among others--still sounded quite good well into their mid-50s.

Plus, a month removed from seeing Radiohead, for the 8th time, without ever having heard them play "Creep," of course that would be the one cover Tears for Fears would deliver, quite delectably. 

It would be great if this three month tour with Hall & Oates prompts Tears for Fears to do more recording, or at least a headlining tour of their own. (They should be able to fill the Chicago Theatre or similar venues.)

Reminding me why they were hugely popular--at least for a spell--in their heyday, and more musically formidable than I knew, they probably deserve a bit more renown, and fond recollection, than they seem to enjoy.

That said, the Allstate crowd was warmly receptive--it's hard to know how many came largely for Tears for Fears, but most seemed to be seated by the time they started just past 7:15pm--and even "Shout"ed them back onstage for an appropriate encore.

Based not only on my own level of affinity but somewhat lukewarm reviews of Hall & Oates from earlier tour stops, which suggested they overly modified their hits--jazz stylings, elongated versions--I was prepared for H&O to delight me considerably less than TFF.

Though I found Hall not only to still have an impressive head of hair at the age of 70, but a voice stronger than some clips in recent years led me to believe--and the opening quartet of "Adult Education," "Maneater," "Out of Touch" and "Say It Isn't So" was more straightforwardly satisfying than self-indulgently re-imagined--early on I was perceiving it as a @@@@ performance.

But--and you can see the setlist here--up next came a truly resplendent version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," which Daryl & John had originally covered in 1980.

"One on One" made me think it would have been a great song for a true soul legend--such as the late Luther Vandross--to have covered with a bit more grit, but I reveled in Hall & Oates then reaching back to 1973 for "She's Gone."

With Hall--who began the show playing guitar alongside Oates--moving to a grand piano, renditions of "Sara Smile," "Wait for Me" and the less-familiar "Is It a Star" were quite nicely done.

The singer spent the rest of the show at a center-stage keyboard, first on an extended--but not annoyingly re-interpretive--"I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)" followed by a buoyant "You Make My Dreams."

I loved hearing "Rich Girl" to open the encores, and though the closing "Kiss On My List" and "Private Eyes" exemplify the Hall & Oates I never really embraced, they reiterated the duo's impressive hit-making mastery--and I can't deny dancing along quite happily (and badly).

Pinpointing a grade on my @@@@@ rating scale is never an exact science, but I wound up liking Hall & Oates' performance about as much as Tears for Fears'--and every bit as much as I would have hoped, probably even more. 

So forgetting how either band compares to those I simply like more, but rather as a measurement of my enjoyment on this particular evening--in which none of the nearly 200 minutes worth of music played was less than pleasurable--I was happily surprised to find @@@@1/2 well-merited.

Twice.

(Unlike other co-headlining concerts I've seen--Billy Joel and Elton John, Chicago and Earth Wind & Fire, Peter Gabriel and Sting, Paul Simon and Sting, etc.--Hall & Oates and Tears for Fears never played together, which I thought could have been nice, perhaps in covering songs by other famed duos such as the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel.)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Inherent Wonders Enchant, but Lyric's 'My Fair Lady' Isn't the Fairest of Them All -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater / Opera Review

My Fair Lady
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru May 21
@@@@

Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady may well be the Broadway musical containing--in sum--the best Broadway music ever written.

I certainly would accept and respect arguments for West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Evita and others, but I find My Fair Lady's collection of songs hard to beat.

"Wouldn't It Be Loverly?, "With a Little Bit of Luck, "Just You Wait," "The Rain in Spain, "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "Show Me," "Get Me to the Church on Time," "Without You" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" are all rather masterful--and long ingrained in my brain.

Famously based on the play Pygmalion by the widely revered George Bernard Shaw, My Fair Lady has--if Wikipedia can fairly be believed--frequently been called "the perfect musical."

Photo credit on all: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune
But the current Lyric Opera of Chicago rendition--actually a production by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris rather than one created under Lyric auspices as with four Rodgers & Hammerstein works in preceding years--corroborates my sense from five previous stage iterations that it is a hard musical to stage perfectly.

First of all, the show's book--penned, along with the lyrics, by Alan Jay Lerner--contains more dialogue than most musicals, with Lerner wanting to incorporate Pygmalion with considerable depth.

Thus, with a long time until, and between, musical numbers, this can make the pacing a challenge.

And while there is presumably plenty of satire in Shaw's London-based storyline--in full disclosure, I've never read Pygmalion--involving Professor Henry Higgins (played at the Lyric by Richard E. Grant) teaching phonetics to Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Lisa O'Hare) in something of a wager with houseguest Colonel Pickering (Nicholas Le Prevost), the tonality can be tricky in making Higgins insufferable yet not irredeemable, and the whole thing not feel crassly and anachronistically patriarchal.

While hearing the robust Lyric orchestra under the direction of David Chase play Loewe's scintillating score, with delectable (Broadway-style, not operatic) vocals from O'Hare, Grant and the entire cast, made seeing My Fair Lady unequivocally enjoyable, the challenges above--and others--weren't conquered in a way to make it truly transcendent.

To be fair, my attention and appreciation was initially impaired by a couple of teenagers sitting in front of me, clearly not there of their own volition and disturbing me by talking and laughing amongst each other--seemingly not regarding the show--looking at cell phones, diffusing light to read the program, etc.

I was able to move seats and mostly watch the show without issue, but it was hard to achieve full immersion.

Also, as the Lyric run of My Fair Lady is closer to the end than to the beginning, I can't deny being well aware that the two foremost Chicago theater critics--Chris Jones of the Tribune and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times--were rather lukewarm about this production.

Though I was hoping and expecting to like it well more than them--and seem to have--it's not impossible that I was influenced a bit by their reviews and a relative's take that, like mine, was short of scintillation.

Grant certainly brings a depth of impressive credits and sang his part well, but I felt his Higgins was too self-amused and cruel to Eliza in a way--beyond the scripted words--that hardened the necessary softening between them.

O'Hare, who I saw play in Eliza in 2008 without any recollection, is lovely and vocally delightful--I especially enjoyed her take on "Just You Wait"--but understandably and without cause for apology, isn't Audrey Hepburn.

And along with--still--never seeing a live My Fair Lady production that I felt equaled the inherent wonders of the source material, I also haven't seen any I've loved as much as the 1964 Oscar-winning movie (starring Hepburn and Rex Harrison).

Again, there may have been mitigating factors, including a somewhat distant vantage point in a venue likely too large to best enjoy this show, but I found this version lacked any obvious chemistry between Eliza and Higgins (even though My Fair Lady isn't a traditional love story or romantic comedy).

Also, while everything was well sung and performed--including the communal Covent Garden numbers led by Eliza's dad Alfred (Donald Maxwell)--much of the whole affair just felt somewhat muted.

Believe me, I tried to supply--without actually singing, thank goodness--the necessary buoyancy on "With a Little Bit of Luck," "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Get Me to the Church on Time," and didn't not enjoy them, but unlike, say, the Lyric's resplendent Sound of Music in 2014, this My Fair Lady fell short of absolute bliss.

Flaws or not, I would still recommend it, especially for the right price. (I can't find any specific discounts at the moment, but know some had existed.)

The songs are that exquisite, and--if no one is chattering nearby--you should be smiling from note one of the overture.

Even if my mind wasn't quite blown, there was far more to like than not.

Including a rekindling of my affinity for the film, which is back in my DVD player as I type this.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Now of Legal Drinking Age, 'Rent' Retains Its Powerful Lease on Life With Due Delight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Rent
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru May 14
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Rent opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996, a few months after its Off-Broadway bow coincided with the sudden death of its 35-year-old creator Jonathan Larson, who wrote the music, lyrics and book with a storyline gleaned from Puccini's La Bohème.

Though I was in New York that November and had noted some hype about the rock musical--perhaps the most prominent since Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar decades prior, though the influence of The Who's Tommy hitting Broadway in 1993 shouldn't be overlooked--I didn't yet care enough about musical theater to try to score a ticket to the latest hottest show. (Though I did get a TKTS booth ducat for Sunset Boulevard.)

My relative lack of theatrical passion also precluded me from getting to the first national tour--which I'm surprised to now note ran in Chicago for a full five months beginning in November 1997--but not long after a Teri Hatcher-led tour of Cabaret rekindled a love of Broadway that has brought me to over 800 shows since, I first saw Rent in September 1999.

Photo credit on all: Carol Rosegg
I instantly loved it--I can't recall if I bought the cast album before or after, but soon and still know every word--and would see another tour in Chicago in 2004, catch the show on Broadway near the end of its run in 2008, attend a 2009 tour featuring original cast stars Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, and greatly enjoyed a 2011 community production in my hometown of Skokie, IL. (I also own the 2005 Rent movie and a DVD of the show's last Broadway performance.)

In this 2012 list, I ranked Rent as my 8th favorite stage musical of all-time. It might be a tad lower now but I think it holds up as the most important musical of the 1990s, and though its current weeklong run--far too brief, given the fully-packed first night--wasn't in my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, I was eager to see it with my similarly rabid pal Paolo (and another friend).

And surprised that it had been so long.

Arriving at the Oriental Theatre for the 20th Anniversary Tour of Rent--a moniker now a year outdated--I was pleased not only to encounter a full house, but many patrons who likely weren't born before the show was.

Though Rent is very much a show set in--and rather emblematic of--the late 20th century, Larson's material in strong enough in all regards for the material to still resonate quite well, even for those who didn't experience the virulence of the AIDS epidemic or don't care about the La Bohème parallels.

It's worth remembering, however, that Rent hit Broadway before Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay on her Ellen sitcom in 1997 and prior to Will & Grace bowing on NBC in the fall of 1998.

If there were openly homosexual characters on TV prior to that--Jm J. Bullock on Too Close for Comfort comes to mind--they certainly weren't commonplace. 

Featuring several LGBT characters--representing each of those letters--who are open, frank, physically intimate and, in some cases, drug-addicted and/or stricken with AIDS, Rent thankfully doesn't feel all that shocking or controversial today, but it wasn't simply the rock score that made the musical so groundbreaking and noteworthy in 1996.

But there will be always be artistically-inclined and immensely-talented young people in the world pursuing their passions despite considerable resistance, struggle and--particularly in Manhattan, where the show is set--ever-exorbitant rents, while finding strength and solace through love, communal camaraderie and fight-the-power protest.

So in the unfortunate age of Trump and what his minions represent, Rent still holds quite a rather forceful currency, even if we are no longer "living in America at the end of the millennium."

And while I am often ambivalent about non-Equity tours--mainly because I'm all for actors being substantially paid, at union rates at least, but also because more seasoned, perhaps Broadway-credited actors can theoretically deliver higher quality performances--the themes of Rent conflate rather well with a group of young performers getting their first big breaks.

Plus, this "20th Anniversary Tour"--with Evan Ensign directing based on Michael Greif originally having done so--began in September (and will run until at least June), so not only must the actors have been quite impressive to make the cast, even if some were pulled straight outta college, they've presumably honed their talents on the road.

There were certainly a few cases Tuesday night at the Oriental where I didn't find the vocal timbres to quite match my memories, whether of previous Rent productions or the Original Broadcast Cast Recording.

But there were no discernible examples of anyone not doing justice to the stellar material, and I found those in the roles of Mark (Danny Harris Kornfeld), Roger (Kaleb Wells), Mimi (Skyler Volpe) and Collins (Aaron Harrington) to be demonstrably good.

David Merino is also strong as the drag queen Angel, though perhaps a bit less so vocally than in the rest of his kinetic performance. (Mind you, I was sitting in the very last row of the cavernous--and always amazingly ornate--Oriental Theatre.)

As Mimi, Skyler Volpe handled "Light My Candle," the overtly sexy "Out Tonight" and the "Another Day" duet with Roger particularly well, while Aaron Harrington's Collins was vocally stellar and poignantly emotive, particularly on the "I'll Cover You" reprise in Act Two.

There are numerous narrative strains in Rent--including a romance between Maureen (Katie Lamark) and Joanne (Jasmine Easler), both well-played--and several other songs worthy of mention, but I don't feel the need to regurgitate all that here.

Rent is one of the best musicals ever created and an eternal touchstone of its time. And though this didn't quite strike me as the best or most electrifying rendition I've ever seen--with even a few technical glitches--it's more than good enough to provide a powerful introduction to new fans while delighting those of us who have been Renting for years.

Not surprisingly given the size of Tuesday's crowd--and there's no reason Rent shouldn't renew its Chicago lease later this year--tickets seem quite sparse on Ticketmaster and not discounted on HotTix or Goldstar.

But if you really want to go, it looks like there may be some scattered singles available at the box office, and you might see if the listing on TodayTix can save you a few bucks.

Otherwise, though there is--as frequently, forcefully and forever poignantly imparted in Larson's score--"No Day But Today," if there truly are no spaces available for Rent, take heart in knowing the 25th anniversary tour is now just 4 years down the road.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

At the Wonderful Chicago Cultural Center, 'Eugene Eda's Doors' Vibrantly Open My Eyes -- Art Exhibition Spotlight

Exhibit Overview

Eugene Eda's Doors for Malcolm X College
Chicago Cultural Center
Thru June 25
Recommended

It feels strange to call the Chicago Cultural Center one of the city's great hidden gems, as it comprises a hulking building--long the main branch of the Chicago Public Library--set rather conspicuously along Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park (between Randolph and Washington).

And anytime I've gone there, I've encountered a good number of people, whether at tables in the first floor lobby area or perusing the various exhibits, attractions and beautiful rooms--including two astonishing stained glass domes--contained within the Cultural Center.

But perhaps because the temporary exhibitions are always free of charge, the center seems to lack the kind of buzz and appreciation it deserves--even among artsy friends--and often doesn't pull me in with great urgency.

It's something of a backhanded compliment to say the Chicago Cultural Center is the best place to go if you're in the Loop with time to kill, for that shortchanges the quality of the exhibits that are regularly curated there.

But last Sunday, my mom and I found ourselves downtown more than an hour before a Goodman Theatre matinee (see my previous post), and without having planned on it beforehand, just kind of naturally gravitated to and into the Cultural Center.

And spent every minute there we could possibly spare.

Just within the foyer near the Randolph Street entrance, there is a display of banners with sayings such as "I AM SOMETIMES INSECURE ABOUT MYSELF," "I AM QUIET" and "I GIVE UP EASILY," which I imagine are meant to suggest feelings of commonality among those who utilize the common space.

In various spots within the Cultural Center, one can currently find various architectural elements that fell off other buildings, rock 'n roll concert posters, a collection of handmade cloth banners with slogans (many denouncing the president) and much more.

Painting by Candida Alvarez
Through July 30, there is a gallery featuring remnants and remembrances of The Wall of Respect, a black power mural that had adorned a south side building, and until August 6, a nice exhibition of a rather diverse selection of paintings by Candida Alvarez.

As usual, the most prominent exhibition is within the Sidney R. Yates Gallery, a sumptuous space on the building's 4th floor that--per Wikipedia--is a "replica of an assembly hall in the Doge's Palace, Venice, with heavily ornamented pilasters and coffered ceiling."

Dating back to January and running until June 25 is an exhibit titled:

Eugene Eda's Doors for Malcolm X College.

This showcases 32 mural-like paintings the college's artist-in-residence Eugene "Eda" Wade created between 1971-1973 to adorn stairwell doors--on both sides--within the West Side institution, which has moved to new buildings nearby.

As you will see below, and more so via a highly recommended in-person visit, as part of the Black Arts Movement that began in the mid-'60s, Eda depicted "African and African-American heritage, history and culture, as well as social commentary scenes"--in a wide variety of styles.

Especially in having greatly enjoyed the work of Diego Rivera on a trip to Mexico City in 2015--and also in Detroit--I appreciate muralist painting, and imagine there are great examples throughout Chicago, some within public view, some not.

Eda's doors were a great example of the latter, but now--at least for another 6 weeks; I'm not sure where they will go once the exhibition ends--the former. And I think you'll agree, they're rather eye-opening.