Monday, October 30, 2017

At DePaul's Brand New Arena, Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples Provide Old School Delights -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Dylan
w/ opening act Mavis Staples
Wintrust Arena, Chicago
October 27, 2017

My friend Ken and I often refer to rock music as our religion, and Friday night we went to church. (Or temple.)

Where we worshiped the High Priest of literate lyricism in rock (and folk), whose blend of poetry and protest in song has earned him the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature:

Bob Dylan.

But while we were content simply to revere him for who he had been--in part due to a number of shows I had found less than enthralling, with his never-dulcet voice having sounded akin to Cookie Monster over the past decade or so--it wound up being a night much more about acute enjoyment than respectful deification.

Opening the show, which opened DePaul University's Wintrust Arena near McCormick Place, was a legend in her own right--Mavis Staples--who also clearly established she was there to delight very much so in the present tense.

At 78--two years senior to Dylan--Staples powerfully mined the rich legacy of the Staple Singers by singing “Freedom Highway” while noting that she and its writer—her dad, Pops Staples—had initially sung it alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on his Selma-to-Montgomery march.

Yet the Chicago native also proved rather contemporary with “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” written and produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for her upcoming album, If All I Was Was Black. (Tweedy wrote and produced all its songs.)

Backed by a strong band and fine backing singers, Staples ended her joyful set with the Staple Singers splendid #1 hit from 1972, “I’ll Take You There.”

Less than 20 minutes later, the legend born Robert Allen Zimmerman took the stage with his excellent band on this “Never Ending Tour.”

From the opening song, “Things Have Changed”—one of nine compositions from the past 20 years that he performed—I was impressed but how much better his voice sounded than I remembered.

It didn’t quite sound like 1965 Dylan, but also far less thick and hoarse than Sesame Street's beloved cookie craving monster.

And that one of world’s most famous singers never had the voice of a great crooner was rather impishly inverted Friday night as Bob Dylan belted out songs by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Yves Montand. (See the setlist here.)

Undoubtedly there were many Dylan disciples present who were well-acquainted with—and appreciative of—his tendencies, but I could imagine DePaul bigwigs and others largely there to break in the new arena being a bit confused, perhaps even perplexed.

For even when Dylan did perform his own “greatest hits”—“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Desolation Row”—he, as he has for years, reformulated the tempos so as to render the songs largely unrecognizable until the title lyric.

I had warned Ken about what to expect and advocated that he—heck we—just try to appreciate the show for what it was: not only the opportunity to see one of the greatest living legends at a time when all too many are passing on, but a showcase of truly first-rate musicianship from those who have long-played with the maestro.

With a nod to Greg Kot's Tribune review for reference, Bob Dylan's stellar touring band is comprised of Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitar, Donnie Herron on pedal steel, Tony Garnier on bass and George Receli on drums.

Sure, I again found it odd that Dylan—who remains quite erudite in interviews—spoke not a single word onstage. 

Nothing about the new arena, nothing about his longtime friend Mavis—with whom he had a Grammy nominated collaboration and, as she revealed in the 2015 documentary, Mavis!, who he once proposed to, unsuccessfully—nothing about his recently-fallen fellow Travelin’ Wilbury Tom Petty, not even a cursory “Thank you.”

He also was apparently uninterested in inviting Staples to sing with him onstage, which for a less inscrutable sort would've seemed to make perfect sense.

And while neither Ken nor I will ever be mistaken for fashion plates, we couldn’t help but wonder how Dylan opted for a non-stylish leather jacket, running pants and white cowboy boots.

But as I had quipped in seeing him previously: He’s Bob Fuckin’ Dylan, just go with it.

That he was in good voice and good company, and--while avoiding guitar and harmonica--played some nice piano licks, made it all the better.

I’m not above seeing cherished artists largely out of reverence; just a few weeks ago I caught Aretha Franklin for the first time, and even more recently, Brian Wilson yet again.

And in being able to check out a new arena—I can’t say it seemed particularly special with concourses too tight and rest rooms and concession stands too sparse—for $42 tickets at the door and free street parking, Mavis Staples alone would have made the night worthwhile.

But the music played by Bob Dylan and his band was never less than enjoyable, and frequently inspired. Beyond the lyrics I've long loved--e.g. those of "Tangled Up in Blue"--I picked up several other quick jabs of genius, such as...

"Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door"

...from 1997's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven." 

Even Sinatra's "Why Try to Change Me Now"--written by Cy Coleman with lyrics by Joseph Allan McCarthy--summed up the evening, and Dylan, with great acuity.

And any day that ends with you singing along to "Blowin' in the Wind" with the legend who wrote it, followed by a brilliant closing take of "Ballad of a Thin Man" is--even if grading on more of a curve than I am here--pretty damn special.

He's still Bob Fuckin' Dylan. And no one else is. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Photographic Exploration of Chicago's Elks National Memorial

For a weekend each fall, Open House Chicago offers the public the opportunity to visit historic, beautiful and/or otherwise intriguing interiors of places either not commonly available for touring or--as in this case--perhaps just beyond ready thought.

In visiting the website for the the 2017 edition of Open House Chicago, which was held October 14-15, on the home page I was instantly beguiled by photos of the Elks National Memorial, whose striking rotunda reminded of a capitol building.

I had long been aware of the round, colonnaded structure on Lakeview at Diversey; it's across the street from where an aunt long lived and close to where a couple of friends still do.

But much as I like to explore and photograph nifty places in Chicago, and far beyond, I had never considered what the inside of the memorial might look like.

Yet while the Open House would seem an ideal opportunity, it was on my birthday weekend and pre-existing plans precluded an Elks excursion.

But via the Elks Memorial website, I was able to ascertain that it is open Noon-4pm from April 15-November 15, with no admission charge.

So on a recent afternoon, I convinced my mom to join me and we went to take a look. This worked out well, as we had the place to ourselves, and learned that 3,000 had visited on Open House weekend (perhaps even each day of it).

A friendly tour guide helped show us around and told us about the building--designed by architect Egerton Swarthout to honor World War I veterans and victims with Elks ties--and a bit about the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

The Memorial, whose adjoining structures serve as the national headquarters of the Elks, was constructed between 1924-26 and features sculptures by Adolph A. Weinman, Laura Gardin Fraser, and James Earle Fraser, and murals by Eugene Savage and Edwin Blashfield.

Along with the U.S. and state capitols, it reminded of the Pantheon in Rome, and the tour guide confirmed that to be an inspiration.

Although my photos below include some of rooms & exhibits representing the Elks organization, local lodges, charitable causes, etc.--as well as a couple nearby but unrelated sculptures--I do not feel inclined to broach much upon the fraternal order itself.

I simply don't know enough about it to offer a perspective--positive, negative or neutral--and my focus here is on the beauty of the memorial building.

As one of Chicago's most sumptuous interiors, I think you'll agree it well-worth a visit, but those unable to get there might value this Virtual Tour in addition to my photographs below.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

"Take Me As I Am": William Patrick Corgan Shares a Satisfying Night of Song, For Those in the Billy Club -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Billy Corgan
Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago
October 25, 2017 (also played 10/24)

We all have people in our life who repeatedly exasperate us, yet we love them anyway.

And such is our innate fondness that no matter how many times they may show up late or drink too much or ignore our texts or whatever, we still welcome the next opportunity to see them.

Perhaps with a pang of wariness, but more so warm anticipation.

Without any suggestion that I know--nor am judging--him on a personal level, as a musical performer this is what Billy Corgan represents for me.

The suburban Chicago native--who has released a new album, Ogilala, and promoted a corresponding solo tour using his full name, William Patrick Corgan--has written, created and sung some of my favorite music ever, largely-but-not-just with the original incarnation of The Smashing Pumpkins.

Few songs have resonated with me--sonically, lyrically, spiritually--more than Pumpkins gems like "Cherub Rock," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "I Am One," "Today," "Zero," "Muzzle" and many others, and hearing them live with Corgan blistering on guitar and vocals is essentially nirvana, if not Nirvana.

Though somehow, while I was living in LA from 1990-92, the Smashing Pumpkins and their debut album, Gish, didn't hit my radar--and I well-knew International Pop Overthrow from Chicago's Material Issue--I have followed Corgan ever since 1993's Siamese Dream.

Including with the Pumpkins in various incarnations--before the 2000 breakup of the original quartet (I won't detail the lineup changes even amid the first go-round) and employing many musicians since a 2007 "reunion"--as well as with the stellar but short-lived Zwan and on his own, I have now seen Billy Corgan live onstage 28 times.

This is far more than anyone I've seen except for Bruce Springsteen (49x).

With appreciation for a prolificness that resulted in dozens of fine songs beyond those that made the official albums--"Let Me Give the World to You" being a prime example--to bringing new sounds to alternative rock, including more significant use of piano than you can cite from his contemporaries, I genuinely consider Corgan a songwriting genius.

Yet from puzzling career decisions to head-scratching interview statements, Corgan has long been enigmatic, and while this has never stopped me from attending shows, all too many have been marred by perplexing setlist choices, verbal harangues, incessant feedback loops and other distractions that have detracted from the brilliance of his best music. (Note my reviews of Smashing Pumpkins shows from 2016, 2015, 20122011 and 2008 for a familiar undercurrent; also of Corgan solo at Ravinia in 2014.)

I believe Billy has often been his own worst enemy, and that at least the second of two homecoming shows at the rather intimate Athenaeum Theatre was well short of sold out bespeaks that even in Chicago his legacy lags well behind those of Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, etc., though musically it shouldn't.

It's also not lost on me that other contemporaries--Kurt Cobain, Jim Ellison, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington and more--have passed on, either long ago or rather recently, and whatever pause he may provide, I'm grateful that Corgan is still plugging away.

So even with tickets for the Athenaeum rather pricey at $75 + fees, I eagerly bought a pair for me and my pal Paolo as soon as they went on sale.

And I'll stipulate that I knew--if not in full instantly, but well before attending--that this would be a solo acoustic show, heavy on Ogilala and typically sparse on Pumpkins greatest hits.

Setlists from a recent pair of New York shows also informed that this "Night 2" gig wouldn't repeat the non-Ogilala material of Night 1, which included "Muzzle" amd "Tonight, Tonight."

But of all the Corgan/Pumpkins shows I've seen over just the past decade, my favorite had been at Ravinia in 2014, when--largely solo and/or acoustic--Billy surveyed his vast oeuvre, famous and less so, including some beautiful takes featuring him playing grand piano.

This show--you can see the Wednesday Athenaeum setlist here--was somewhat similar, if not quite as ravishing.

Corgan began by playing the 11 songs on Ogilala straight through.

The rather low-key album--i.e. no loud electric guitars or drums--is only a couple weeks old, so still pretty new to me, but I had come to know it holds some really fine material.

That my favorite songs from it at this point are the first four--"Zowie," "Processional," "The Spaniards" and lead single "Aeronaut"--made for a nice start to the concert.

On "The Spaniards," I couldn't help note the lyric, "Take me as I am" as rather apt, and the piano-based "Aeronaut" was sublime.

Hearing the rest of the album was also pleasant enough--the closing two songs, "Shiloh" and "Archer" are also highlights--but Paolo made a good point in asking how much it would've ensnared us if Corgan wasn't famous.

i.e. Were these songs that much better than an unknown act might perform at some random club?

While I don't think Corgan's songcraft throughout the album matches his best material, I remain convinced that there are few rock artists so deft at creating glistening piano melodies, including on several of the new songs.

Corgan took a 20-minute break after following Ogilala with a cover of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," but wound up playing a generous 2 hours of music to an appreciative crowd.

If you weren't used to Billy's proclivities--or his setlists on this tour--his beginning the "classic" portion of the evening with the 9-minute "Oceania" from the 2012 Smashing Pumpkins album of the same name might have further tested your patience after the new album in full.

And while I've come to accept--and even appreciate--Billy's conviction to his own vision, I think it worth asking if those spending over $80 can fairly expect a bit more low-hanging fruit.

For as much as I enjoyed what Billy did with lesser-known Pumpkins tunes like "Try, Try, Try," "La Dolly Vita," "To Sheila," a few bigger ones like "Thirty-Three," "Disarm," "Eye," "1979" and "Today," covers of "After the Gold Rush" (Neil Young) and "Wrecking Ball" (Miley Cyrus) and some cuts so deep I didn't recognize them--including Zwan's "Friends as Lovers, Lovers as Friends"--I would still call this a satisfying, even excellent concert, but not quite a spectacular one.

And while I appreciate that Billy was on his best behavior, barely saying more than an occasional "thanks" and tolerating idiots yelling out song titles--including a silly "Do a Tom Petty tribute!"--I actually would have valued him speaking a bit more.

Just a brief comment he made about realizing, while playing "Thirty Three," that a lyrical reference to a church steeple in that song was about the one atop St. Alphonsus adjacent to the Athenaeum, prompted Paolo and I to thirst for a few more lyrical insights, local recollections or career anecdotes.

I'm not sure if it was an audible derived from the requests he was being pelted with, but late in the show Corgan pulled out a song called "Chicago" for seemingly just the second time ever in concert (first was at the Ravinia show). You can find it here on YouTube, but in his tribute to the Windy City, there's a lyric that goes:

"It's in the things that you want me to say"

But I swear, on Wednesday night, Billy sang it as:

"It's in the songs you want me to play"

I don't think it's right to yell anything at a performer; rather, listen to what he wants to play. Truth is, he delivered a show I found highly enjoyable.

Yet from a critical standpoint, I also think entertainers should give credence to the reality that any audience is comprised of hardcore fans--perhaps seeing them for the 28th time, armed with the benefit of and Spotify--and much more casual ones.

That the latter may well have only recognized about five Corgan-penned songs out of 29 total selections doesn't mean that most everything else wasn't well-performed.

But while I give Billy props for foraging his estimable past--and present--and continuing to challenge audiences at some cost to his popularity, I honestly believe a bit more accessibility would be beneficial. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Très Magnifique: Nicely Updated, Les Misérables Remains as Good as Musical Theater Gets -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Les Misérables
Cadillac Palace Theatre
Thru October 29

What can I say about Les Misérables, the musical, that I haven't said before?

With deference to others that could be in the team photo-- West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Hamilton and even my personal favorite, The Producers--I believe Les Miz is the be the greatest work of musical theater ever created.

The story, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo (I've never read it), is first-rate and the songs composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer-- based on the original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel--are truly sublime.

Seeing Les Misérables live for the 12th time the other night--I'm also a fan of the 2012 film--I was amazed anew at how well Kretzmer's lyrics work, all the more amazing given that his words had to match the meter of the French lyrics.

Although my first viewing of the musical--on Broadway in 1998--came a decade after it could have, I've been fortunate to see Les Miz in a variety of locales at a variety of levels.

This includes in London (where the original production has been running for 32 years), six times on national tours through Chicago--representing the original Broadway production and newer renditions, as is now the case--and at regional theaters across Chicagoland (Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Paramount Aurora), where the production values have remained superb.

I've even seen an excellent high school production.

So I clearly love Les Misérables, enough that it feels fresh each time I see it.

Although this touring production, drawn from the 2014 Broadway revival, lacks a few of the original touches--most notably, the famed stage turntable--it is nonetheless one of the larger-scale touring shows you'll see nowadays.

And especially due to sublime vocal performances, but also some nicely re-imagined staging--I particularly liked the way "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is now handled--it is fantastic.

The quality was so strong that annoying patrons nearby--you really needn't read the program at the start of every song, especially if it means shining light upon it or holding it up in front of your face (and mine), and if you can't stop coughing, perhaps step out for some water or a lemon drop--couldn't diminish my delight.


This appears to be a full Equity tour--see Chris Jones' Tribune story on actors' pay in the production--and while none of the cast members names were familiar to me, everyone is terrific. Particularly in the key roles.

As Jean Valjean--who begins the show as prisoner 24601--Nick Cartell seems younger and less physically robust than many I've seen, but not to any consequence. And his voice, as displayed on "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home" is splendid.

Part of makes Les Misérables so great is the combination of rousing group numbers--"At the End of the Day," "Master of the House," "ABC Cafe" (i.e. Red and Black), "The People's Song," "One Day More"--and beautiful solo songs.

Here, even way up into the balcony, the former were tremendously powerful, with nice work done by J. Anthony Crane and Allison Gunn as the Thenadiers and Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras.

And all the individual numbers came off as well as I could have wanted (and I know every note and lyric from the cast recordings, videos and previous live viewings).

So kudos to Melissa Mitchell (as Fantine) on "I Dreamed a Dream," Zoe Glick (Young Cosette) on "Castle on a Cloud," Josh Davis (a quite fine Javert) on a sublime "Stars," Phoenix Best (Eponine) on "On My Own," Cartell as Valjean on "Bring Him Home," Joshua Grosso (Marius) on "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" and also Jillian Butler as Cosette, who charms on "In My Life" and "A Heart Full of Love," though these aren't technically solo numbers.

So I really don't have much new to say about this rendition of Les Misérables other than to call it a remarkable rendering.

Given how often I've seen Les Miz, its inclusion in my Broadway in Chicago subscription season wasn't a source of intense focus.

Until last week, I worried that my scheduled performance might conflict with Game 1 of the World Series. (It did, but my beloved Cubs didn't quite make it again.)

Hence, I really wasn't much locked into seeing the show until I sat in my seat.

And Les Misérables once again just blew me away.

That's how good it is.


I don't consider it hyperbole to call it one of the greatest works of creative
artistry ever produced.

So if you can get a ticket before it closes in Chicago this Sunday--or catch it elsewhere--by all means, go hear the people sing.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Cubs Are Still Winners To Me, Even As the Dodgers or Astros Will Take Their Title

Graphic by Seth Arkin (except for Cubs logo)
Contrary to the Gospel of Gordon Gekko, I don't believe greed is good.

Sure, desire, ambition and wishing for things to go your way are laudable--if devoid of any real detriment to others as a direct correlation--whether in real life or this rather inane sports fandom analogy.

But all too often it seems, we don't contently savor getting what we want--on the occasions that we actually do--without quickly longing for more of it.

Once is Enough for
Happily Ever After
(Though winning again and again is certainly welcome.)

As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I wished that they would win a World Series for literally as long as I can remember. As soon as I knew of the Cubs' nearly-eternal lack of baseball's ultimate success--probably around 1975 or so--I hoped that one day I would see them win it all.

Clearly, I wasn't the only one with this at or near the top of my wishlist. And millions of diehards never saw it come true.

While the Cubs' consistent failure to play even .500 ball in most seasons was hard to take, even more crushing was when they teased us with the possibility that "this could be the year."

I won't count 1969 (being born in 1968) but you might. But I certainly, painfully, recall...

1984, 1989, 1998, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2015.

Some Cubs fans might now include 2017 as a rueful year that seemed promising but ended without the ultimate goal achieved.

And though I--seemingly heretically--also consider myself a Chicago White Sox fan, who cheered and celebrated when they won the World Series in 2005 and continue to attend several games each season, I couldn't help but note that some more vitriolic Sox boosters felt the need to demean these Cubs with words such as "quit," "embarrassed" and "losers."

As chronicled in this Chicago Tribune column by forthright Sox fan John Kass, a far south side bar is adorned in a "L" fan, mocking the Fly the "W" banner that has become synonymous with Cubs victories.

But while I don't mean to parallel the gravity of the situations, certain Sox fans (and even some fellow Cubs fans) assuming the North Siders badly bowing out to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS somehow ruins my world seems a bit akin to silly Conservative notions that the vile disgrace of Harvey Weinstein is somehow devastating to me because he has supported some of the same liberal and Democratic candidates & causes I have.

Understanding that I have taken this Cubs consolation piece--not so thematically dissimilar from this one from 2015 and this one from July--in strange directions, let me hopefully be a bit less obtuse.

First, briefly, about Weinstein: I have long perceived him as a smarmy, megalomaniacal creep, and while revelations about the depth of his depravity are shocking, they--sadly--aren't truly not all that surprising.

Truth is, I know wonderful conservatives, Republicans and even Trump voters, and rather wretched liberals and Democrats. And though I voted for Barack Obama (twice) and Hillary Clinton, I'm far from their biggest fans.

That Weinstein donated large amounts of money to their campaigns was nice of him, I guess, but obviously didn't make him a good person or me, ever, an admirer of his. Though clearly not alone in Hollywood or among powerful (and not so powerful) white men, he seems about as vile as they come. He deserves whatever's coming to him, and probably far worse.

Liberal hero, my ass. 

As for the Cubs, I want them to win every game.

But I obviously know that won't happen. And while I predicted at the start of this season that they would win the World Series again--I had correctly picked them in 2016--it was pretty apparent throughout that they weren't playing at the same level.

But every other team that wound up making the 2017 playoffs was positioned to do so on July 3.

That the Cubs were 41-41 and 2 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central Division, makes their ultimate 92-70 record and 6-game besting of the 2nd place Brewers all the more impressive.

Yet even in losing 22 of their last 35 regular season games, the 104-58 Dodgers clearly seemed to be the best team in baseball in 2017, and their trouncing of the Cubs in the NLCS--after the Cubs getting past the Nationals in the NLDS was far from automatic--certainly couldn't be considered shocking.

Yes, it was distressing how badly the Cubs played--they couldn't hit, their pitching (particularly out of the bullpen) was awful, they made some egregious errors and Joe Maddon was largely outmanaged by Dave Roberts--with his decision to use John Lackey late in game 2 particularly dubious--but the Dodgers were clearly the better team.

This just happens in baseball. Many teams that are expected to be dominant heading into a season fail to live up to expectations. Several World Series winners haven't even made the playoffs the following season. And no National League team has won back-to-back World Championships since the Cincinnati Reds in 1975-76.

So that the Cubs made the NLCS three straight years--for the first time ever--is pretty amazing.

Including the regular and postseason, they won 310 games from 2015-2017.

And, of course, they won the friggin' World Series in 2016!

For the first time in 108 years.

Fulfilling my lifelong dream.

And fantasy.

When really, despite being baseball's best team throughout last season, they probably shouldn't have won.

Treachery loomed in the NLDS against the Giants until a 9th inning Game 4 miracle.

The Cubs looked dead in the water against the Dodgers after 3 games of the NLCS, before coming back to life.

They trailed the Cleveland Indians 3 games to 1 in the World Series, with the Indians having home field advantage.

And in Game 7, just when it looked liked the Cubbies had overcome both the Tribe and the curse...

Rajai Fucking Davis.

At which point, I can't say I prayed to any known deity. That isn't my style, particularly about sporting matters.

But like many, I certainly wished for the Cubs to somehow pull out the game...even if it meant karmically--in some Faustian deal--dooming any future chance for success.

And they did.


The World Series.

I haven't forgotten.

And at least internally, I haven't stopped smiling.

Even now.

So while I'm disappointed that they didn't do better this year and that they won't be in a second straight World Series--congratulations and best of luck to both the Dodgers and the Houston Astros--I'm far from distraught.

There will undoubtedly be changes to be made, with pitching coach Chris Bosio already fired and pitchers Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Wade Davis among those unlikely to back next year.

I have some questions, even trepidations, about other Cubs players, and probably won't agree with everything Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Maddon will and won't do to prepare the team for 2018.

But for now, it's fine.

It's good even.

I'm content.

And even grateful.

Thanks, Cubs.

I truly can't wait 'til next year.

Win or lose.

Go Cubs Go!

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.