Friday, October 20, 2017

Ours Go to 11: Volume 26, My Favorite New Stage Musicals of the 21st Century

All of the following are shows I've seen as professional productions, including (mostly) at least once on Broadway, a National Tour in Chicago or in London.

Though inexact, I mean to rank my fondness for the source musicals themselves, not particular productions.

1. The Producers
2. Hamilton
3. Hairspray
4. Avenue Q
5. Wicked
6. The Book of Mormon
7. Billy Elliot
8. Spring Awakening
9. In The Heights
10. The Visit
11. Jersey Boys

Special note: Mamma Mia
(premiered in London in 1999 but not in America until after the turn of the century)

And some more
Next to Normal
Mary Poppins
Legally Blonde
Bat Boy
Kinky Boots
A Christmas Story
Come From Away
Fun Home
Sister Act
The Million Dollar Quartet
Thoroughly Modern Millie
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
On Your Feet
Ride the Cyclone
The Last Ship
Bounce/Road Show
Caroline, or Change
The Bridges of Madison County 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Go Cubs Go! Photos -- and a Video -- I Took at NLCS Game 4 vs. the Dodgers (a 3-2 Cubs Win)

Julianna Zobrist singing the National Anthem. Her husband Ben is the third Cub in line.
Ryne Sandberg throws the first pitch.
The Cubs take the field.
First pitch from Jake Arrieta, in possibly his last ever start for the Cubs.
Javier Baez launches his first of two home runs.
Baez scoring on his second home run.
Arrieta hears the Wrigley cheers. For the last time?
Hey, Hey, Cubs win!

All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2017. Please do not repost without permission and attribution.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Born to Boogie: 'Billy Elliot' Remains a Musical Delight Even With Some Moss Under Its Feet -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, Chicago
Thru November 26

I was quite fond of the 2000 British film Billy Elliot long before there was thought of turning it into a stage musical.

And when it was, premiering in London's West End in 2005--I didn't see it there until 2008--I instantly found it to be one of the best, and most natural, screen-to-stage adaptations.

Not only is it about an 11-year-old boy finding his desire to become a ballet dancer amid philistine resistance--led by his own father and brother--but the "championing of individuality" story fairly common on Broadway is well-complemented by threads pertaining to the recent passing of Billy's mother and an ongoing miner's strike in his hardscrabble hometown, which seems to have happened often under Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministership. (British films such as Brassed Off, The Full Monty and Pride cover similar historical terrain.)

The musical, like the movie, was directed (originally) by Stephen Daldry, with the show's book by the film's screenwriter, Lee Hall. So much care was taken in the transition.

Photo credit: Austin Packard
And while, for pure delight, the movie's wonderful soundtrack (heavy on T-Rex, with Clash and Jam classics) isn't topped by the show's score, no less a talent than Elton John--whose interest largely drove the musical's development--wrote all the music, to which Hall penned the lyrics.

Having run for over 10 years in London, with 3+ years on Broadway impressive given the show's heavy Anglophile themes, Billy Elliot: The Musical began its touring cycle with almost a year at Chicago's Oriental Theater in 2010 (which was actually shorter than expected).

I saw it twice then, and also as a fantastic regional production--i.e. no longer under the auspices of the original creators--at the Drury Lane Oakbrook in April 2015

Though just a tad less ravishing, the current staging by Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts--the company's new home after several years at Stage 773 on Belmont--is likewise superb.

Photo credit: Michael Courier
No one who has or hasn't seen Billy Elliot: The Musical previously should be anything but delighted by what the present cast, musicians and crew are able to achieve under the direction of Brenda Didier.

Sure, while the set design by Christopher Rhoton is mighty impressive, for both budgetary and spatial reasons it understandably doesn't match that in London, on Broadway (I didn't see it there) or the National Tour.

And although sitting next to a proud mother and grandma of one of the 17 kids in the ensemble only added to my appreciation for the effort involved, at multiple levels, some of the singing and dancing--while estimable--didn't quite wow like in the past.

But though largely unavoidable to patrons who may have seen a title such as Billy Elliot earlier in its theatrical life cycle, theater should be about enjoyment and entertainment in the present, not comparison with the past.

Photo credit: Austin Packard
And as with most Porchlight productions I've seen--including Marry Me a Little, In the Heights, Sondheim on Sondheim and Far From Heaven in recent years--the quality is quite estimable.

As Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber noted in welcoming the audience, this is the troupe's 23rd season, and its reputation should only grow as the resident company at Ruth Page, just a smidgen north of what would truly be considered downtown Chicago.

Lincoln Seymour played Billy Elliot at the performance I attended--he shares the role with Jacob Kaiser--and with strong training in dance, he was impressive in both the ballet and singing aspects of the role, as well as employing a passable English accent.

I've seen local starwart Sean Fortunato in enough shows to have expected a stellar performance as Billy's dad, even if he doesn't look akin to others I've seen play the part.

Adam Fane is strong as Billy's older brother Tony, a striking miner like their dad, while Iris Lieberman is a delight as Grandma, including on the aptly named, "Grandma's Song."

Photo credit: Michael Courier
The entire cast is excellent, including Nicole Cready, who warmly appears as Billy's deceased but eternally loving Mom, and young Peyton Owen as Billy's best friend, Michael.

Particularly wonderful is Shanésia Davis as Mrs. Wilkinson, the local ballet teacher who becomes Billy's personal mentor, champion and confidant.

After the show begins with the powerful choral number, "The Stars Look Down," Davis and her class of young girls--including Mrs. Wilkinson's cheeky daughter, Debbie (Princess Isis Z. Lang)--"Shine" nicely on the song of that name.

Even better, under Didier's direction and co-choreography (with Craig V. Miller), is "Solidarity," which--in reflecting Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling's original rendition--is one of the most brilliant production numbers ever crafted for musical theater. It quite powerfully intertwines the dancing class, now including Billy, with clashing miners and police.

Photo credit: Michael Courier
It is because of such narrative interconnectivity, and societal concerns, that I feel Billy Elliot is a superior musical--at least at this point--than the somewhat similar Trevor, which quite enjoyably world premiered at Writers Theatre recently on its way to Broadway, but could use a good bit more grit.

If you haven't seen Billy Elliot on stage or screen, I shouldn't provide many more narrative specifics about what unfolds, and if you have, I needn't.

I'll simply say that songs such as "Expressing Yourself," "The Letter," "Born to Boogie," "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," "Electricity" and "Once We Were Kings" are well-delivered by the Porchlight cast (and unseen band), while the adroit handling of a scene in which miners descend in an elevator demonstrates this production's creativity in replicating the original with considerably less space and money.

Photo credit: Michael Courier
Also deserving mention is Ivan Bruns-Trukhin, who gracefully handles ballet solos as an older embodiment of Billy.

I haven't made an updated list of my favorite 21st century musicals since the end of 2009--perhaps soon--but Billy Elliot would likely still reside in the Top 10.

And barring a revival at some point, one is unlikely to again see it with quite the production values of London, Broadway or a national tour.

So it will be dependent on local self-producing theaters to keep breathing new life into the strikingly rich tale of a boy who just wants to dance, even if it means scouring the land for terrifically talented kids (and devoted parents, happy to support such noble if time-consuming pursuits).

At its new home, Porchlight impressively achieves that feat. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Resolute Modfather: Above Nostalgia, Paul Weller Shows Great Songwriting Remains in Style -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Paul Weller
House of Blues, Chicago
October 12, 2017

To be forthright off the bat, and fair to Paul Weller and fans who felt the Modfather and his band were absolutely fantastic for the entirety of Thursday's generous 130-minute show at House of Blues, my focus was--atypically--not 100% on the music.

Sure, I watched and heard every song performed, often sang along and jotted down all 29--except a few I didn't recognize--into my mini-notebook. (Chicago setlist here.)

But on a night when my beloved Chicago Cubs were in a fight for their playoff lives, with Game 5 of the NLDS going down to the last pitch against the Washington Nationals, the combination of free HOB Wi-Fi and my Sony PlayStation Vue membership enabled me to not only check the score, but watch significant portions of the later innings on my phone.

For those who will contend this to be: A) Not the way to best enjoy or judge a concert, B) Rude to the performers onstage and fans around me, and C) Contrary to the codes of conduct at live events that I posted about back in June, I cannot strongly disagree.

But I was sitting nowhere near the stage--having been graciously been granted a seat in the Back Bar section--was able to largely cloak my phone in a recessed countertop in front of me and was repeatedly assured by those nearby that their enjoyment of the concert was not being impacted.

In fact, many others--including HOB personnel--appreciated getting score updates and even watched with me.

And it wasn't like I was ignoring Weller, just keeping an eye on the game while watching the show.

That I didn't forego attending the concert given the deciding game--and would have even if there was no way to see the Cubs while there--bespeaks how much I like his music. (Incidentally, Weller's last Chicago concert, in June 2015, would have coincided with Game 7 of the Stanley Cup had not the Blackhawks clinched in 6, and I wouldn't have missed that show either.)

But I was unable to pass up the ability to watch the Cubs while also enjoying the concert, without seemingly being too much of an overt jackass. Especially as the Cubs wound up winning in about the most nerve wracking way possible, with the Nats seriously threatening to change the outcome in every inning.

Yet while I believe the above candor requisite in writing this review, I don't feel the split focus impaired my appreciation of what Weller & Co. were doing onstage.

In truth, while trying to fairly factor in the situation and perhaps cut a bit of slack, I actually think I may have liked the show a bit less without the Cubs' diversion (and a comfortable seat).

I was certainly glad to be seeing Weller live for the 6th time in the past 14 years, and happy to be joined by my likewise avid concertgoing pal, Paolo, especially in knowing that his affinity for Paul Weller--and his original band, The Jam--has quite a lot to do with my influence.

Because it is mostly standing room only, the House of Blues is a venue I don't frequent, but I was willing to due the relative rarity of Weller playing Chicago.

So I was delighted when the venue honored my request for a seating option. (And must note, more than previously experienced, the complete coolness and kindness of all HOB personnel I encountered, from the bartender/waitress in the restaurant to the security personnel downstairs and in the music hall. If you're reading this: Thank you.)

Hence, less so that had I been laser-focused and/or standing uncomfortably for 3+ hours--including a nice if muted opening set from Lucy Rose--I didn't really mind when Weller's setlist selections were a bit esoteric for my preferences.

It was a great night regardless, including some fantastic music by the ever-stylish Englishman and the five members of his touring band, which features a pair of drummers.

And having seen Weller so many times, and paying attention to his setlists in other locales, I knew this gig would be far from Jam-packed.

This is the 40th anniversary of the release of The Jam's debut album, In The City, and I would surmise that Weller remains quite proud of the work he did with that trio through 1982.

But despite the objections of his bandmates, he broke up the Jam at the height of their popularity--though never big in the U.S., in the UK they rivaled The Clash--and formed the Style Council, which lasted until 1989.

Since 1992, Weller has released several solid, stellar or even superlative solo albums, with many wonderful songs in a variety of styles he has chosen to explore.

Thursday night, Weller and his fine band played several of his older solo gems ("Friday Street," "Out of the Sinking," "From the Floorboards Up," "Into Tomorrow," "You Do Something To Me," "Wild Wood," "Peacock Suit" and "The Changingman") along with three tunes from his latest album, A Kind Revolution and--a bit oddly--six from the one just prior, Saturns Pattern.

A bit more to Paolo's delight than mine, three Style Council chestnuts ("My Ever Changing Moods," "Have You Ever Had It Blue" and "Shout to the Top") were heard but "Start!" was the only representation of The Jam, who remain among my 10 favorite rock artists of all-time even though I didn't learn of them until years after their disbandment.

But this isn't a simplistic, "Play more Jam!" critique, although the gripe is nothing new; my 2015 Weller review is thematically rather similar.

As noted above, Weller--ever-svelte at 59 and in great voice--sounded terrific as he rotated through electric & acoustic guitars and the piano, even once playing a guitar while seated at a keyboard.

Along with those already mentioned, the opening "White Sky," "Long Time," "Going My Way" and "Woo Sé Mama"--the latter a highlight from the new album--brought considerable delight.

I won't whine about any specific songs, but after about an hour things started to bog down (though I didn't mind too much given the excitement occurring at Nationals Park).

And while a 5-song acoustic encore was ever classy--begun with the new "Hopper": "In late night bars / The ghost of Hopper / Paints such melancholy colours / With sullen neon lights"--I know I'm not the only one who felt the Jam's "That's Entertainment" would have fit in wonderfully, while amping things up a bit.

But while it's a song Weller has played at solo shows over the past decade, he eschewed not only it but a closing romp through "Town Called Malice," which has ended things on a delirious note often, including on this U.S. tour.

The argument "Why do you keep seeing him if he doesn't play what you want?" holds some water, and could have also pertained to the late, great Tom Petty, who never mined his catalog as much as I wanted, yet whom I kept paying to see with the Heartbreakers.

In both cases, I love them and the music they did play enough to always remain a fervid fan. Their shows have never merited less than @@@@ or @@@1/2 out of 5, so I'm not saying any were "bad."

And as with Petty, I admire Weller for doing what he wants to, not what I or anyone else wants him to. However wealthy he may be, he could be far more so if he wanted to reunite The Jam, so he truly believes in his vision, and I have to respect that.

But I truly believe that without expecting to turn them into Jam jukebox affairs, his shows would be far more fully pleasing--at least to me; I noted some others raving about the setlist--with just a few more well-placed relics.

And had he pulled out "Going Underground"--my favorite Jam song, seemingly never played solo--I would've thrown my phone, and the Cubs, across the room.

As it was, I clearly wasn't the only one following the game. When the Cubs won, one of the night's loudest cheers erupted. Not that Paul Weller, to his steadfast credit, seemed to notice.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Here Today: Brian Wilson and His Impressive Current Band Make 'Pet Sounds' Feel Alive -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Brian Wilson
with Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin and band
Rosemont Theatre
October 6, 2017

Brian Wilson was both the most and least important person onstage Friday night at the Rosemont Theatre.

Certainly, his was the name on the ticket and--while the venue was well short of full--undoubtedly the impetus for everyone being there.

This, of course, is due to the boatloads of magnificent songs he wrote with the Beach Boys--including the majestic Pet Sounds album, which was performed in full--and even some rather fine ones as a solo artist.

But along with his inarguable genius, Wilson is equally famed for mental and psychological difficulties that have beset him to various extents for 50+ years--since he created Pet Sounds in 1966, fought with his brothers/bandmates & overbearing dad, overindulged in psychedelic drugs and suffered several nervous breakdowns, including supposedly upon hearing the Beatles' brilliant Sgt. Peppers and the Lonely Hearts Club Band album on its 1967 release.

And while at age 75 he is thankfully well enough to maintain a near constant touring cycle, Wilson was the steadfast focal point behind a centerstage piano on Friday but--other than perhaps some sporadic tinkering--he didn't actually play it.

Lead vocals were spread around to several of the 11 other musicians onstage--including original Beach Boy Al Jardine and his golden-voiced son Matthew--and when Brian did sing, his timbre, phrasing and power clearly lagged behind his famed recordings and current cohorts.

But understandably, Wilson--whose famed ability to hear and compose music in his head and channel it through ace musicians may be historically second to none--has surrounded himself with sensational players and singers who do most of the heavy lifting.

This includes his stalwart pal, the elder Jardine, who after the 2012 Beach Boys 50th anniversary tour that included but then ousted Brian--at the hands of his seemingly cruel cousin, Mike Love--has opted to stay literally by Wilson's side.

On Wikipedia, you can find the full list of musicians accompanying Brian Wilson on the Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Tour, which has run since March 2016 with 100+ worldwide shows and is wrapping up this week, at least for now.

But not only were all those onstage highly skilled at their craft--with many playing more than one instrument, singing harmonies and taking occasional lead turns--it seemed apparent that they too were there out of reverence for the music Wilson has given the world.

So while at times the concert reminded of a tribute band, jukebox musical, Las Vegas revue, music-infused religious service (with a central point of worship) or even a museum exhibit, even with showmanship far short of his 75-year old peer, Paul McCartney, and a focus that seemed to wander, it would be inaccurate to call Brian Wilson's acute contributions inconsequential.

If the main attraction didn't earn high marks for technical merit, over the course of 2-hours (plus a set break) I heard some of the greatest songs ever written sung and played quite well.

Preceding the Pet Sounds playthrough was a solid hour that blended Beach Boys mega-hits--"California Girls," "I Get Around," "Don't Worry Baby"--with much juicy fruit beyond the low hanging variety.

There isn't yet a setlist posted for the Rosemont show, but assuming I have the titles right, Matthew Jardine delivered a beautiful "Let the Wind Blow," his ever-dapper pop delivered a Beach Boys rarity that he wrote ("Susie Cincinnati"), the heralded sideman Blondie Chaplin sang and played sizzling guitar on "Wild Honey," and "Darlin'" was among several lesser-known tunes that delighted.

I am one of those who believes Pet Sounds to be one the 10 greatest rock albums ever produced but also--if dictated by putting it behind Sgt. Peppers, Sticky Fingers, Are You Experienced, Who's Next, Led Zeppelin IV, Born to Run, London Calling and Nevermind--just a tad overrated. 

Yet it was magical to hear it delivered live with such care and meticulousness.

And while the parts where Brian sang lead--most notably on the heavenly "God Only Knows," a bit interestingly given that his brother Carl sang it on the album--were the ones short of note perfect, there was something beautifully poignant about his boldly doing the best he could on such sacred material of his creation.

Songs such as "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "I'm Waiting for the Day," "Sloop John B," "I Know There's an Answer," "Here Today" and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" brought inherent joy and/or wistfulness and--preceded by Brian unnecessarily but movingly telling us that they were instrumentals--"Let's Go Away For Awhile" and the album's title tune had me imagining the maestro hearing/conjuring the melodies in his head.

Pet Sounds was followed out the door by one blast from the past after another--"Good Vibrations," "Help Me, Rhonda," "Barbara Ann," "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Fun, Fun, Fun"--before Wilson's solo "Love and Mercy" (..."that's what we need tonight") not only reminded of Brian's amazing journey as depicted in the biopic of the same name, it punctuated a dark week in America with a musical genius' heartrending pleading.

Hence, even more than on most of my reviews, my star rating--of @@@@ out of 5--is imprecise and unnecessary.

This won't rank as one of the top concerts I've seen this year, and Brian Wilson himself, in the here and now, is well short of musically spectacular.

But even though I had to skip watching a Cubs playoff game to attend, and although this was my 4th time seeing Wilson in the past 10 years--once with the Beach Boys--it was a wonderfully entertaining night I'm glad I didn't miss.

And with whatever disclaimers and delineations, Brian Wilson earned an avid standing ovation--and my abiding affinity--both for what he once did and who he still remains.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

A Worthwhile Quest: At Writers Theatre, Henry Godinez Makes 'Quixote: On the Conquest of Self' a Rather Fun & Engaging Knight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Quixote: On the Conquest of Self
by Mónica Hoth and Claudio Valdés Kuri
English translation by Georgina Escobar
Directed by Claudio Valdés Kuri
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 17

My appreciation of great literature being admittedly more theoretical than actionable, I have never read Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, which was actually published in two early 17th century volumes.

I primarily know of the most widely read-about fictional character in history--a commoner who imagines himself a knight on a valiant quest--via the brilliant classic musical, Man of La Mancha.

As such I was intrigued by a recent, non-musicalized Quixotic stage work that originated in Mexico and is getting its Chicago area premiere a Glencoe's Writers Theater with acclaimed Mexican director Claudio Valdés Kuri at the helm.

Henry Godinez, an Resident Artistic Associate at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and an acclaimed director in his own right, stars here as Don Quixote, albeit one who is familiar with cell phones and--per one of the biggest laugh-inducing lines of a show that almost entirely breaks the fourth wall--the Writers Theatre's origins in a bookstore.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Quixote: On the Conquest of Self also relies on considerable good-natured audience participation as our would-be hero bounces around chapters Cervantes wrote about him, acts out selected scenes and speaks to patrons within the intimate Gillian Theatre--the smaller of two spaces in Writers' glorious new home--with a combination of droll self-awareness and acerbic contemporary day observation.

With Godinez truly wonderful as he pretty much speaks for 95 straight minutes, this take on Quixote is among the more imaginative pieces of theater I've ever seen.

Which doesn't mean I loved it through and through, although I do recommend it to those who appreciate literature, the themes of Don Quixote and inventive, unique, rather humorous theater that ventures into the realm of performance art.

As per my @@@@ rating (out of 5), Godinez--working from a script by the director (who originally staged it in Mexico City) and Mónica Hoth, with English translation by Georgina Escobar--clearly does yeoman's work in keeping things moving.

And at the opening night performance, those he pulled from the audience played along so well I wondered if more than one was a plant.

But I can't deny getting to a point where I wished the show would end sooner than it did.

And while I applaud the notions Quixote: On the Conquest of Self puts forth about daring to dream, failing only if one doesn't try and the imaginative power of language--at one point our license plate and bottle cap clad Quixote shares that over 16,000 different words were used to tell his tale vs. the 300 most of us use with regularity today--I can't say I came to much better know & appreciate the source novel or found myself consistently riveted in a theatrical sense.

"The limits of language are the limits of mind," states Godinez at one point, and it is the charming verbosity and wonderment of his character--blending both classic and modern embodiments--that make the show work as well as it does.

Though there are also some things that happen onstage I best not reveal which add considerably to Quixote: On the Conquest of Self being not only an engaging, but heartwarming piece of theater.

A noble quest indeed.

With even a knowing wink to Man of La Mancha's wondrous "The Impossible Dream" thrown in for good measure.

It may be a tad unwieldy and ponderous at times, but overall this highly unique show and exemplary performance make for a rather enjoyable knight.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

More Good Than Great, 'Choir Boy' a Graceful Way for Longstanding Leaders to Bid Raven Nevermore -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Choir Boy
by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Michael Menendian
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 12

I have been going to plays by the Raven Theatre since 2002, soon after the troupe renovated a former grocery store at 6157 N. Clark Street and made it one of Chicago's most comfortable theater venues.

But the Raven was founded long before that, in 1983, by husband and wife Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro, who have continued to serve as Co-Artistic Directors, until now.

I don't know exactly when the couple's retirement will take effect, but it was announced this past June that this will be their final season with Raven.

So presumably the current Choir Boy will be the last show of many Menendian has directed for the company--he isn't slated to lead any others already announced through June--and Montemurro, who has acted in several plays I've seen, serves as the costume designer.

Photo credit on all: Dean La Prairie
Though I wound up not loving the play as much as I had hoped--due to a somewhat diffuse storyline mixed with a staging that seemed a bit disjointed--it is a rather intriguing selection, and a classy way for Menendian and Montemurro to bid the Raven "Nevermore."

Choir Boy is written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, an actor & playwright who co-wrote the Oscar-winning movie, Moonlight, and shared its 2016 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. (The movie's screenplay is credited to its director, Barry Jenkins, based on McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.)

McCraney, who is black, openly gay, a DePaul Theater grad, Steppenwolf ensemble member and the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, bases Choir Boy within an all-male, African-American prep school.

The play's central character, Pharus (an excellent Christopher W. Jones) is the star and leader of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys' prestigious chorus and, while not pronouncing it to his classmates and headmaster, known to be gay.

This makes him a target of derision, most overtly from the impetuous Bobby (Patrick Agada), who happens to be the nephew of the headmaster (Robert D. Hardaway).

While I can perceive the difficulty in making the constant clashing between Bobby and Pharus feel like something we haven't seen many times before, not only doesn't it, but at the same time it never seems to get heated enough.

And yet, while my noting that Choir Boy goes far beyond being just about a gay kid getting bullied may sound quite positive, I actually found the play weakened by too many competing strains.

In just 90 minutes--which was actually made to feel a good bit longer at the Raven despite strong performances throughout and a fine set design Ray Toler--we get some rather strong choir singing and several substantive interactions between Pharus, the Headmaster, Bobby and the three other members depicted onstage, including Pharus' roommate, Anthony (Tamarus Harvell). (Darren Patin and Julian Terrell Otis also merit mention.)

Even more diffusely, the narrative brings in a former headmaster (Don Tieri) to serve as the teacher of a newly-introduced class and faculty sponsor of the chorus. Though said to have legitimate marched-with-MLK civil rights props, the white, seemingly well-meaning Mr. Pendleton comes as cluelessly racist and insensitive.

Presumably part of McCraney's point is to highlight the dichotomies within us all. But in one scene Pendleton provides sage guidance to the current headmaster--who seems more concerned with job security than doing the right thing--about the historical certainty of homosexuality within a male prep school, but when Bobby demeans Pharus with slurs tied to race and sexuality, the teacher only berates him for the former.

Yet while Choir Boy doesn't bristle with enough tension for me to call it fantastic, it is clearly an intelligent piece of work, with quality to be found in numerous aspects of this production (including the singing, and discussion, of spirituals, though this isn't a musical).

So although this isn't the best show Montemurro and Menendian have collaborated on--a 2009 rendition of Death of a Salesman, in which she played Linda under his direction, was particularly splendid--it is nonetheless a fine way for them to say farewell. ("Nevermore" being undoubtedly overused even before I employed it twice already here.)

34 straight years of doing anything is pretty impressive, and their having run a theater company--including not only staging quality works but overseeing the fundraising and transformation of a fantastic new space--certainly deserves my admiration and thanks.

And, if less acutely than all-encompassingly, quite a bit of...

Outright Raven.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

💔: A Heartbroken but Forever Appreciative Tribute to Tom Petty

"I wanna glide down over Mulholland 
I wanna write her name in the sky
I'm gonna free fall out into nothin'
Gonna leave this world for awhile"
 -- Tom Petty
    "Free Fallin'" (1989)

Even after being reported dead on Monday afternoon, Tom Petty wouldn't back down.

But by the end of one of the worst news days in American history--due to the unthinkable slaughter of music lovers at a festival in Las Vegas--the premature reports of Petty's death were replaced by official confirmation.

It made for an oddly fitting exit for one of rock's great iconoclasts.

Back in 1981, after the third Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' album--the brilliant Damn the Torpedoes--made him a superstar, his record company, MCA, wanted to price the band's follow-up LP, Hard Promises, at $9.98, raising the industry standard by $1.00 for "superstar" acts.

To his own financial detriment, a 30-year-old Petty--who had already threatened to declare bankruptcy to force a previous detente with MCA--said "No way."

He would not allow his fans to be taken advantage of, insisting Hard Promises be list priced at $8.98.

MCA capitulated.

So although there isn't great humor or solace to be found in one of my favorite musicians dying unexpectedly at 66, on a day so mind-numbingly awful as to cushion the blow, given news reports--and resultant social media posts--over a 10-hour span Monday that had Petty in critical condition, on life support, off life support, confirmed dead, erroneously confirmed dead, clinging to life and, ultimately around 11pm CST, officially declared dead, one can imagine Petty, in his bemused Floridian drawl, saying something along the lines of:

"Can you all maybe stop tweeting out condolences. I'm not even dead yet."

Of course, the grim reality seems to be that after going into full cardiac arrest in his Malibu home early Sunday morning, the rocker was brain dead by the time he arrived at UCLA Medical Center, and never to be revived.

Though the past couple of years has seen a tsunami of rock star deaths--including Petty's fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry, Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) and many others--the passing was shocking, and personally quite saddening, on many levels.

Including that it came just one week after Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wrapped up their "40th Anniversary Tour" (in their 41st year) with the third of three shows at the Hollywood Bowl. This was also just over 3 months since I saw them pack Chicago's Wrigley Field on June 29.

But also, as noted above, Tom Petty's death Monday was on the same day the world learned that the night before, at a country music festival in Las Vegas, a man whose Mandalay Bay hotel room was a virtual armory shot nearly 600 people, killing--per the latest reports--59 and injuring 527.

This was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, a record that will undoubtedly be broken, especially as nobody who can wants to do anything about gun control.

Compared to the massacre of people merely standing in a field listening to music, the passing of a rock star--even one as long & widely cherished as Petty--shouldn't bring the lion's share of tears and anguish.

Quite properly, his death isn't getting the same degree of coverage and headlines it would most days, and with that perspective, my sorrow over losing Petty--while great for reasons I will expound on below--is acutely proportionate.

But I have shared my devastation, grief and outrage about the terrorist act in Las Vegas through other forums and interactions, so will continue to focus this piece on Tom Petty and what he & his music mean to me.

I'm pretty sure I first became aware of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers around the late 1979 release of Damn the Torpedoes and its hit singles, "Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That."

I now know that their preceding albums--Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and You're Gonna Get It!--have some excellent material, but both came out before I was 10.

I was instantly and forever smitten by Damn the Torpedoes, and in 1981 when The Loop (WLUP) gave away all the tickets to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Hard Promises concert at the Rosemont Horizon on June 17 as a radio station promotion, I waited at the FlipSide in Lincoln Village and got myself a pair.

Though I technically had sat through a Pablo Cruise performance as part of a family excursion to ChicagoFest the previous August, I count the June '81 Tom Petty show as my first rock concert.

Of now well over 700.

I was just 12 at the time, and my dad--who wasn't a rock lover, but valued contemporary culture enough to add Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Bee Gees and more to our household record collection--took me to the show. He was 46, and far older than most of the crowd.

Interestingly, when I saw Petty this past June, at the age of 48 I was on the younger side.

I next saw TP&HBs in 1989 on the Full Moon Fever tour--another phenomenal album, one of three Petty would record without his erstwhile Heartbreakers--and when I moved to Los Angeles the next year, I not only lived near both Ventura Blvd. and Reseda, as mentioned in "Free Fallin'," I ventured to the Westside Pavilion strictly to stroll through the shopping mall where that song's video was largely shot.

I would see Petty & Co. a total of nine times over 36 years--obviously a longer span than for anyone else--including close up at Chicago's intimate Vic Theatre in 2003.

Quite admittedly, I didn't love Petty in concert as much as some other cherished acts--though in my 2005, 2010 and 2015 rankings of favorite musical artists I consistently have him in my Top 20--as he frequently frustrated me with rather staid setlist choices.

I'm pretty sure that in 1999, 2001, 2006 and 2008, I voiced much the same complaints that I wrote about in 2014 and this past June, mainly concerning Petty's unwillingness to dig as deep into his vaunted catalog as I would have liked.

Beloved early rockers of mine--"A Thing About You," "Change of Heart," "Straight Into Darkness" and others--were eschewed tour-after-tour, show-after-show for many of the same mid-tempo songs I didn't cherish nearly as much.

But while I don't hail Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as a live act quite as highly as some others, the shows were never less than terrific. I loved the man, his music and his band enough to keep coming back and I awarded the Wrigley show @@@@1/2 (out of 5) even with many wished-for songs again left out.

So as would befit a guy who persevered through severely breaking his hand by smashing it against a recording studio wall, having his L.A. mansion destroyed by an arsonist, seeing a band member die from drug use--plus the usual ebbs & flows across nearly 50 years of making music, initially with a band called Mudcrutch, who he more recently reformed--I give Tom Petty huge props for doing what he wanted and doing it quite well. (And I can't deny "Mary Jane's Last Dance" is actually a great song.")

He was also extremely gracious onstage, profusely bestowing thanks for the crowd's applause after nearly every song, and--in keeping with a man who steadfastly fought to ensure his fans got good value--these were the acts I saw open for him:

The Replacements, Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Pearl Jam, Steve Winwood (twice) and Chris Stapleton. (I can't recall or find who, if anyone, opened in 1981.)

Petty, whose laconic speaking voice belied a deceptively sharp wit, also features into one of my favorite rock anecdotes--and life lessons--of all time.

In 1979, at a No Nukes benefit concert at New York's Madison Square Garden, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers preceded local hero Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Petty came offstage incensed at the crowd's reaction and in an attempt to calm him, Jackson Browne told him, "Tom, they're not booing, they're yelling "Bruuuuuce!""

To which Tom purportedly retorted (perhaps without the profanity but I like it better this way):

"What's the fucking difference?"

Thank you, rest in peace and god bless, Thomas Earl Petty. You sure made a fucking difference in my life, and always will. 

The above admittedly doesn't much broach on how much I loved the music of Tom Petty, most often accompanied by the Heartbreakers, including Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair and others over the years.

So I went to Spotify to make a playlist, gathering songs I knew and liked from each album. This isn't even quite comprehensive and there are 83. I first went through the Tom Petty solo albums and then the ones credited to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, so the order is a bit random.