Friday, August 17, 2018

When I Was A Boy: Even Without a Spaceship, Jeff Lynne's ELO Blissfully Blasts Me Back to the '70s -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Jeff Lynne's ELO
w/ opening act Dawes
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
August 15, 2018

Truth be told, there are certain specifics about last week I would be hard pressed to remember. So my apologies if the first rock band I truly cared about--while they were still intact, thus ruling out the Beatles--was, circa 1977 or so, actually Queen or KISS, Aerosmith or Cheap Trick.

But I really think it was Electric Light Orchestra.

As I say, my memory is far from photographic, but I acutely recall buying ELO's 1977 double-LP, Out of the Blue, with its cover featuring a rather striking looking spaceship. And I'm pretty sure it came with a poster inside.

Though I was too young to be going to concerts, I had heard that ELO featured some sort of spaceship as part of its concert stage, and while I don't think I was specifically aware of their shows at the old Chicago Stadium in 1976, 1978 and 1981, I doubt there was any rock act I more wanted to see in my pre-teen days.

But I didn't, and the band would soon call it quits, at least in terms of featuring chief architect, songwriter and singer, Jeff Lynne.

And across all these years, and 762 other rock concerts, I would never have the chance to see Electric Light Orchestra.

Until Wednesday night.

Although Lynne, now 70 and looking roughly the same as he always did, recorded with the Traveling Wilburys and has produced albums for his Wilbury pals--the late Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Tom Petty (Bob Dylan was also in the supergroup), as well as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson and Joe Walsh--he remained largely out of sight in terms of ELO or other live appearances until 2014.

Under the moniker Jeff Lynne's ELO--I won't get into trying to understand and explain the legal issues, but there are no other original members currently playing alongside him, though other "ELO" entities still seem to exist--Lynne and his orchestra played London in Sept. 2014, with a European tour and New York & L.A. shows following over the past few years.

But only this month are they doing a relatively brief run of U.S. dates before another trek through Europe.

And though there is no longer a spaceship, Jeff Lynne's ELO played the Allstate Arena in Rosemont (just outside Chicago) for a single, sold-out show.

I had bought tickets with my pal Paolo as soon as they went onsale last November, and with nearly 2,000 concerts attended between us, each can now say "I've seen ELO" for the first time.

Sure, purists would be right to point out that even in having seen Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their tours together in the 1990s, I can't claim to have seen Led Zeppelin.

Although I've seen "Queen with Paul Rodgers" and "Queen with Adam Lambert," without the immortal Freddie Mercury I don't feel as though I've really seen Queen.

And though they were just as integral to their respective bands as Jeff Lynne, having seen David Byrne, Paul Weller, John Fogerty, Roger McGuinn, Bob Mould and Steve Winwood doesn't equate to seeing Talking Heads, The Jam, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Byrds, Husker Du or Traffic.

But on Wednesday at Allstate (nĂ©e the Rosemont Horizon), Lynne was front and center sounding vocally fantastic, a dozen accompanying musicians including a 3-piece string section richly replicated the "orchestrations," there was an impressive light and video show with images of ELO spaceships, my ticket said "Jeff Lynne's ELO" and--excepting a Traveling Wilburys track and one recent tune--all the songs played had been recorded by Electric Light Orchestra during the 1970s. 

So with no disrespect to Bev Bevan, Richard Tandy, the late Kelly Groucutt and other members of ELO back then, this felt like the real thing--or close enough--as far as I could tell.

And the whole evening was really fantastic.

The opening act was an L.A. band called Dawes, who I'd come to know and like a bit--musically, not personally--a few years back.

They have a nice enough low-key sound, and tunes such as "Things Happen," "From a Window Seat" and "All Your Favorite Bands" were pleasant to hear.

But 8 songs and 45 minutes were more than enough, and I was further reminded just how much better--and deeper--rock music was in the 1970s than it is today, when earnest blandness passes for "pretty decent."

Around 9:15pm, ELO opened with "Standing in the Rain," from Out of the Blue, and proceeded to play 19 songs as well as I could want.

The setlist matched that at all recent tour stops and other than some pleasantries from Lynne, there wasn't much overt emotional engagement beyond the music itself.

Those who read my concert reviews with regularity know I often detract for such things, and did in fact about Monday's otherwise stellar 3+ hour Smashing Pumpkins concert at the United Center.

But not only did the ELO material sound wonderfully fresh for me in a live setting--including resplendent renditions of "Evil Woman," "Showdown," "Do Ya," "Livin' Thing," "Rockaria," "10538 Overture," "Sweet Talkin' Woman," "Telephone Line," "Don't Bring Me Down," "Turn to Stone" and "Mr. Blue Sky"--the 90-minute set felt perfectly paced, never risking overindulgence as did the Pumpkins.

I admittedly don't know every song on every ELO album, but the only MIA tune I might've wanted to hear was "Strange Magic."

That could well have accompanied the only encore, a rollicking "Roll Over Beethoven" (a remarkably badass Chuck Berry song ELO recorded on their second album, after the Beatles also famously covered it).

But "When I Was a Boy" from Jeff Lynne's ELO's 2014 Alone in the Universe album sounded lovely among all the classics, two cellists and a violinist made the exquisite "Can't Get It Out of My Head" especially gorgeous and even a song I'd long forgotten--"Wild Wild West," the closer on Out of the Blue--was sublime. Throughout the night, the sonic depth created by all the musicians onstage was truly quite powerful and impressive.

And while Paolo and I may well have been among few in the older, suburban crowd to also have seen the dance-poppy Erasure three weeks ago, ELO's blast through the disco-ish "Shine a Little Love" from 1979's Discovery prompted me to comment that it was likely a song that duo's Vince Clarke was well aware of in fusing dance and rock music with his first band, Depeche Mode (per songs like "Just Can't Get Enough" and "Dreaming of Me").

Though Lynne was quite gracious about being back in Chicago and thanking the adoring crowd, he was mostly rather taciturn, leaving introductions of his bandmates up to a sideman (Mike Stevens, I believe).

But even this worked rather movingly, as during the Traveling Wilburys "Handle With Care" an otherwise abstract video backdrop briefly showed the other legendary members.

Just a glimpse of Lynne's close friend Tom Petty--who died last October--brought a lump to my throat while eliciting a roar from the crowd, repeated for George Harrison. (Roy Orbison was also shown, as was the surviving Bob Dylan.)

No spoken words were needed for the most poignant moment of a truly great show, classily handled with care.

And kindling more flashbacks to when I was a boy.

For although I didn't see ELO back in 1981, that was the year of the first concert I attended of my own volition, albeit with my dad, at the same venue in rather similar seats:

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

...who I would see 9 more times over the years, including last summer just two months before Tom passed suddenly on October 2.

"Moving in line then you look back in time," it's a "Livin' Thing," indeed.

And like "Mr. Blue Sky" of whom he sings, I really don't know why Jeff Lynne had to "hide away for so long."

But for reasons both sentimental and sensational in the here and now, it was certainly nice to have him--and his ELO--back.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Despite All My Rage: A Long, Strong Night as the Mostly Reunited, Musically Smashing Pumpkins "Bullet" Back to "Zero" -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Smashing Pumpkins
w/ opening act Metric
August 13, 2018 (also played 8/14)
United Center, Chicago

On 20 different evenings dating back to 1994--I now wish I had gone in 1993 when I had the chance--I have seen and heard a rock band calling themselves the Smashing Pumpkins.

I put it that way because the only real constant across all those shows has been head Pumpkin, Billy Corgan, the band's singer, songwriter, lead guitarist and visionary. 

I have heard some, including Corgan, suggest that he really is the Smashing Pumpkins, and in terms of "the band" essentially representing his creative vision in a way analogous to Nine Inch Nails representing that of Trent Reznor, I can't really disagree. 

But whereas NIN beyond Reznor was always more anonymous and/or rotating, during the Pumpkins' rise to fame around roughly the same time (1991-96), Corgan's bandmates were fairly well known to be bassist D'arcy Wretzky, guitaritst James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain.

Opening act, Metric
Stories surrounding Smashing Pumpkins' blockbuster second album, 1993's Siamese Dream, suggested Corgan played all the parts except Chamberlain's, but amid almost-exclusively white and male alt-rock contemporaries like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Green Day, the band's diversity was a unique and important part of its identity. 

The blonde, ethereally attractive Wretzky may not have been the world's greatest bass player, but she definitely made the Pumpkins seem a good bit cooler, especially as alternative rock overtook MTV. 

But having passed on the chance to see the Pumpkins in 1993 at the Aragon, I and presumably many who didn't much know or care about 1991's Gish--I was living in L.A. at the time of its release, and although into Nirvana and Pearl Jam almost from the get-go, as well as Chicago's Material Issue, I was oblivious to the Smashing Pumpkins until Siamese Dream, when I was back in Chicago--Lollapalooza 1994 was really my only opportunity to see the original quartet. (The Pumpkins headlined the traveling tour after the demise of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana; I really only went because a friend's brother-in-law had an extra ticket.)

Original Pumpkins bassist D'arcy Wretzky wasn't on hand,
but near doppelgangers featured prominently in backdrop imagery
Upon the late 1995 release of the fantastic double-album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I was a huge Pumpkins fan--and they arguably had become the "biggest band in the world"--but by the time that tour reached Chicago the following October, Chamberlain had been booted due to a drug incident in New York in which touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died. 

1998's Adore tour saw Corgan, Iha and Wretzky accompanied by numerous touring musicians.

But the shopping mall crowd who identified with Corgan's tales of suburban ennui can be a fickle bunch, and the Smashing Pumpkins' moment in history had already begun to ebb. 

A jaunt up to Detroit in April 1999 enabled me to see a club show once again featuring the original quartet, but Wretzky was soon ousted and replaced by Melissa Auf der Maur, who I would see across seven shows before the Smashing Pumpkins' initial run ended in December 2000.

Truly appreciating Corgan as a songwriting genius, I would follow him (and Chamberlain) through Zwan, and both before and after he resurrected the Smashing Pumpkins moniker in 2007, have also seen a handful of solo shows. Plus eight additional latter-day "Pumpkins" shows--with various lineups, some including Chamberlain--prior to Monday's Shiny and Oh So Bright "reunion tour" show at the United Center. 

Chamberlain is one of the best drummers I've ever seen, and I've always appreciated what Iha's guitar brought to the band's live sound, so I'm glad they're back in what currently constitutes the Smashing Pumpkins. 

While after years away from music, with a drug arrest several years ago, Wretzky likely made Corgan dubious about her ability to play and tour, I really wish she too was back in the fold. 

If she's healthy and well enough to play bass, or even just appear onstage, it theoretically would have been cooler and more compelling if she was again alongside Corgan, Iha and Chamberlain. 

The back-and-forth D'arcy and Billy had in the press and over social media earlier this year, regarding her claims of never really being asked to rejoin the band, were rather ugly. 

I won't recap this--or other instances of Corgan exasperating me onstage and off over the years--in any length here, but while my love of the Smashing Pumpkins music overrides my frequent frustration with Billy, the situation with D'arcy not being part of the tour seems odd at the very least.

But with this being my 20th Smashing Pumpkins concert (and 29th time seeing Billy Corgan onstage), that only two have been with D'arcy Wretzky means I can't really be too nostalgic about "the original foursome." 

So having said all this, I won't be. 

Instead, from here on out, I will simply review the show that was performed, by "Smashing Pumpkins," consisting of Billy Corgan, James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlain, guitarist Jeff Schroeder (who's played in all the post-2007 incarnations), bassist Jack Bates and keyboardist Katie Cole. 

Even from my perch in the very last row of the top level of the UC, the band sounded fantastic. 

Corgan's voice was strong, and all the songs I love--"Zero," "Mayonnaise," "Tonight, Tonight," "Today," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Siva," "Muzzle" and more--were played as well as I could have wanted. (See the setlist here.)

There was a decent opening set from Metric, and the Smashing Pumpkins played for over 3 hours, so for a $29 ticket, I certainly got my money--and my memories--worth.

With a seemingly self-imposed gag order, Corgan--who at the end noted, "It's better when I don't talk"--let his songs do the talking, with some stage patter and band introductions left up to the much more reserved Iha. 

While this kept Billy from going on any long harangues as at shows past, his lack of even a perfunctory "It's nice to be home," lessened the sense of connection or occasion. 

The music was great, the setlist was stacked--Corgan has been begrudging in this regard in the past--and there was really no outright ridiculousness as has marred several prior Smashing Pumpkins concerts. 

But there was some weirdness. 

This is supposed to be the Smashing Pumpkins' big reunion tour, so it seemed odd when Corgan took the stage by himself. While his rendition of "Disarm" gave me goosebumps, the backdrop featuring photos from his own childhood, sans any pix of the band or other members' youth, didn't seem right.

The show should've started by blasting through "Zero," which came a few songs in. 

Wretzky not being onstage lessened some of the band's visual panache--with Bates, the son of Joy Division/New Order's Peter Hook, blending into the background--and her visage was even edited out of all nostalgic band videos shown onscreen. 

This would have been strange enough, but many of the videos and images featured a blonde woman who at the very least reminded of D'arcy. 

So her absence hung over the whole affair, even as the music delighted (with Cole filling in when female harmonies were needed).

But even in terms of the music, while I didn't hear anything I didn't like and don't mind long concerts, 45 minutes fewer would probably have made for a better show. 

Adore's "For Martha" and "To Sheila," with Corgan on a piano hovering above the band, were each beautiful, but one would have sufficed, especially coming back-to-back. 

In the show's home stretch, past the 2-1/2 hour mark, Machina album cut "Try, Try, Try" added little but time--though it's not a bad song--and a laborious "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" wasn't needed either. 

After a blitz through "Hummer," "Today" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," it was nice to see Corgan joshing with Iha prior to "Muzzle"--there hadn't been much obvious interaction to that point--and I liked how Billy chided fans leaving early by referencing the chagrin of those who had done so at the Cubs walkoff win the night before (at which the Smashing Pumpkins sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"). 

The band's only new song released to date, "Solara," sounded swell as an encore, but instead of following their newest song with a blast through "I Am One"--the first song on their first album--an odd cover called "Baby Mine" ended the show. 

It could be seen as a nifty nod to Corgan's sense of theatricality, but also bespoke a show that seemed far too scripted, with no room for variance from prior tour stop sets, even in the band's hometown.

At any concert, nothing truly matters to me more than the music, and--with the Smashing Pumpkins' catalog one of my most cherished--I heard much that I loved.

I'm not sure if covers of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" or
Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" added greatly to the festivities, but all are great songs, rendered nicely here.

I would've liked to have heard the instrumental "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" lead into "Tonight, Tonight" as on the landmark album, but musically speaking, my complaints are minimal.

But the best concerts also include a healthy dose of warmth, connection, fun and surprise, and in these regards the Shiny and Oh So Bright tour didn't delight on par with the Foo Fighters' recent show at Wrigley--though I like the Pumpkins' songbook considerably more--or my hopes for Pearl Jam this weekend.

Even compared to a similarly pre-planned Depeche Mode concert featuring many video accoutrements--which I likewise saw from the UC nosebleeds--the Pumpkins circa 2018 weren't quite as Smashing.

Still, it's nice to have them back.

At least, mostly.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Classic French Sculpture, American Style: Spotlighting the Work of Daniel Chester French (1850-1931)

Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC. Photo by Seth Arkin
I feel fairly certain that realistic, figural sculpting isn't a completely lost art.

Presuming that when work progresses on the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago's Jackson Park, a sculpture of the 44th President of the United States is commissioned, there will undoubtedly be many talented artists bidding for the opportunity to carve it. 

A few years ago, at a friend's holiday party, I met a couple responsible for creating some pretty notable sculptures in Chicago, though I can't recall their names.

Yet I consider myself an art lover, who will notice and photograph sculptures--including abstract and interpretive ones, though here am referencing likenesses of military heroes, famed citizens, etc.--across Chicago and around the world, and I really can name but a few sculptors in this regard.

And most of these--Michelangelo, Auguste Rodin, Antonio Canova, Bertel Thorvaldsen--are more noted for artistic sculptures, rather than straightforward honorary ones.

Which basically leaves Gutzon Borglum--most known for carving four presidential heads into Mount Rushmore--Lorado Taft and the subject of this post, Daniel Chester French, as the only sculptors of this ilk I can cite.

The Chicago Public Art Guide is a nice resource, and informs that Augustus Saint-Gaudens merits inclusion among the names above. The guide is oddly quite light about statues in Lincoln Park, and though the Giants in the Park website shows many of these sculptures, it seems I need to buy a book to learn the sculptors names.

Photo by Seth Arkin
All of the sculptors I've named above--including Daniel Chester French--are long-deceased, but Google reveals that the Michael Jordan statue at the United Center, plus several other notable works, were created by Julie Rotblatt-Amrany and Omni Amrany, a married couple with a shared studio. (This is not the couple I met, but the work seems similar.)

While I obviously cannot claim to be an expert on fine art sculptors of the past or present, over the years I've repeatedly heard the name Daniel Chester French and come across several of his works.

French (1850-1931)--who grew up in Concord, Massachusetts as friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Louisa May Alcott family--is probably most famed for his sculpture of President Abraham Lincoln that sits at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

Throughout his long career, he also created several other sculptures that I've seen (and in many cases photographed), as well as many more I haven't personally encountered.

But there were at least three French statues I came across on a recent trip to Boston, and so I decided to put together this blog post, depicting primarily--but not only--my photos of his sculptures.

Memory, the Marshall Field Memorial, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. Photo by Seth Arkin
General Joseph Hooker, Massachusetts State House, Boston. Edward Potter sculpted the horse.
Photo by Seth Arkin
DuPont Circle Fountain, Washington, DC. Photo by Seth Arkin
Alma Mater, Columbia University, New York, NY
John Harvard, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Photo by Seth Arkin.
French sculpted this with no point of reference to what John Harvard actually looked like.
The Minuteman, Concord, MA
(Subject unknown by blog author), Massachusetts State House, Boston. Photo by Seth Arkin
Wendell Phillips, Boston Public Garden
Lady Wisconsin, Wisconsin State Capitol Dome, Madison, WI
Progress of the State, Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul. Photo by Seth Arkin
Richard Morris Hunt Memorial, Central Park at 70th St., New York, NY
Roger Wolcott, Massachusetts State House, Boston. Photo by Seth Arkin
John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial, Boston
Statue of the Republic (reduced size from original at Columbian Exposition),
Jackson Park, Chicago. Photo by Seth Arkin

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love: As a Stage Musical, Dazzling 'Moulin Rouge' Quite Audaciously Can-Can -- Boston Theater Review

Theater Review

Moulin Rouge!: The Musical
World Premiere
Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston
Thru August 19

Mashing up pop songs and showtunes--including many snippets--such as Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," Elton John's "Your Song," Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to anachronistically accompany a plot set in Paris in 1900, director Baz Luhrmann's 2001 movie musical Moulin Rouge! could well have had the makings of a complete mess.

Certainly, its central storyline--of doomed-yet-eternal love between a penniless Bohemian dreamer and a beauty seemingly beyond his reach, repeatedly thwarted by a scurrilous jackass with the help of a malevolent henchman--was not only ridiculously melodramatic, but pretty much familiar to everyone in the world who had seen Titanic just a few years earlier. (And roughly the tale of many other fictional works.)

But I largely loved Moulin Rouge!, in part because Luhrmann predominantly pulled off his audacious ambitions, and--with a cast of delectably odd characters like famed painter Toulouse-Lautrec (played by John Leguizamo)--forged a film that felt brashly fresh, with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles.

The year 2001 also marked the arrival on Broadway of two hugely successful musicals: The Producers and Mamma Mia.

While the former was certainly not the first stage adaptation of a popular movie and the latter not the premiere instance of a "jukebox musical" using famed pop songs, they were watershed examples, and the years that have followed have seen a vast proliferation of shows in one vein or the other, occasionally intertwined.

So although Wikipedia notes the possibility of a Moulin Rouge! musical--derived from the Luhrmann film, as other movies with the same title have existed for nearly as long as the famed Parisian cabaret it celebrates--dating back to 2002, who knows why it's taken this long for such a show to be developed?

I would imagine a big challenge was in securing the rights to incorporate so many well-known songs, even for merely a few seconds--as I'll explain, the new musical carries some over from the movie, but also smartly uses far more modern pop hits--and to configure the narrative to work on stage.

Photo credit on this and all subsequent pictures: Matthew Murphy
Until a couple months ago when I began to plan a trip to Boston this past weekend, I didn't know Moulin Rouge!: The Musical was in the works.  

But I instantly knew I wanted to see the World Premiere, not just because of the movie, but due to the stellar cast and crew involved.

Tony-winner Karen Olivo--who I've seen on Broadway in In the Heights and West Side Story, and as Angelica in the original Chicago cast of Hamilton--plays the Kidman role of Satine, star attraction at the Moulin Rouge and also a courtesan.

Aaron Tveit, a Broadway, TV and film star who was in the Les Miserables movie--as Enjolras--is Christian, now an American composer rather than McGregor's British poet.

And bringing impressive Broadway credits--I've seen him in The Drowsy Chaperone, Follies and Cabaret--Danny Burstein makes for a terrific Harold Zidler, proprietor of the Moulin Rouge.

Perhaps even more importantly, in terms of making Moulin Rouge! a coherent stage piece, the book is by John Logan, a noted playwright (Red, Never the Sinner) and screenwriter (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo).

Though he wrote the script for the Sweeney Todd movie, this seems to be just his second stage musical, but I really liked his work on The Last Ship, even if it crashed on Broadway.

Director Alex Timbers also brings a strong pedigree--Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher, Here Lies Love, Rocky: The Musical--and in his brief and classy Playbill credit, he dedicates his work on Moulin Rouge! to "his late collaborator and friend Michael Friedman (1975-2017) whose work exhibited truth, beauty, freedom ad love." (The pair co-wrote Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; Friedman passed last year from complications related to HIV/AIDS.)

So in entering the gloriously refurbished Emerson Colonial Theatre--the oldest continuously operating theater in Boston (since 1900)--and noticing the resplendent set by Derek McLane, I had fairly high hopes for Moulin Rouge! well entertaining me.

But as a Chicagoan who attended this show as a paying customer while on vacation--and having recently read that it may be about a year or more before it hits Broadway--I am really only writing this review because of just how great I found Moulin Rouge! to be.

Giving the show's producers the type of quote that would adorn marketing materials and marquees if only I were a more-noted critic, I can honestly say that:

Moulin Rouge! is the best new musical I've seen since Hamilton.

In full disclosure, I've yet to see the highly-acclaimed Dear Evan Hansen, but have seen several notable recent musicals, including The Band's Visit, Come From Away, Waitress, On Your Feet, War Paint, Pretty Woman, The Cher Show, Heartbreak Hotel and numerous others on, heading to or coming from Broadway--and I truly liked Moulin Rouge! more than any of them.

And while it isn't Hamilton, I would dare suggest that in its own way, Moulin Rouge! does kinda reinvent the musical theater form.

As noted above, the use of pop songs is nothing new, and many a jukebox musical has eschewed focus on a single artist's catalog to employ a multitude of known tunes likely to delight.

Rock of Ages, Million Dollar Quartet, Priscilla: Queen of the Dessert and Motown: The Musical come to mind in this regard.

But like the movie--and I actually found the musical to be even better--Moulin Rouge thrills with its smorgasbord of songs seemingly at odds with turn of the 20th century Paris, but which work quite well within the context of the story and the walls of the Moulin Rouge, which continues to operate to this day.

Much of the delight--beyond the thrilling stage design and wonderful performances by Olivo, Tveit, Burstein, Sahr Ngaujah (as Toulouse-Lautrec) and many others--comes in being surprised by where, when and how songs will be incorporated.

There is no song list in the program, and even in assuming most reading this won't be seeing Moulin Rouge anytime soon, I'm going to be rather circumspect in spelling out the musical selections and their specific use. (Wikipedia can fill you in far more fully, if you really wanna know.)

As in the movie, "Lady Marmalade" is used rather prominently, as is "Your Song" and The Police's "Roxanne."

So too is "Come What May," which was actually written for Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet film, but rather than being used there, became the rare original song central to the Moulin Rouge! movie.

Tveit and Olivo do a better job singing it than did McGregor and Kidman.

But adding considerable contemporary freshness to Moulin Rouge!--and clearly delighting many of the millennials seated near me in the balcony--key moments incorporate hit songs from the current decade, including by the likes of Lorde, Rihanna, Fun, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Sia and Adele.

And for those of us more steeped in classic rock, there is also a Rolling Stones medley featuring three of their most famous songs.

As with Olivo--who sparkles as Satine--Tveit has great pipes and makes for a dashingly likable Christian.

Ngaujah's Toulouse-Lautrec isn't quite as distinctive as Leguizamo's, but probably in a good way due to leaving out the latter's lispy vocal affect.

And Tam Mutu's characterization of The Duke as a cocksure jerk, rather than the squirrelly weasel Richard Roxburgh made him in the movie, feels like a well-merited modification. 

After a largely euphoric first act that left the audience nearly gasping, the melodrama tends to drag a bit in Act II, though the opening number--as Christian, Satine, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vidler and more work on a new musical for the Moulin Rouge--is Spectacular, Spectacular (even as the show within the show isn't named as such, as in the movie).

But Logan's script is strong enough to sustain the songs, which often surprise and largely delight.

It's quite possible that some musical choices were based in part upon obtaining permission or rights clearances, but while I found myself wishing for "When Doves Cry" and/or "Let's Dance" to appear late in the show, the number of hits employed--across many genres and eras--is rather impressive.

Rarely did I feel the creative team had to settle, and some songs--particularly Florence & the Machine's "Shake It Out"--felt truly amplified by their inclusion and delivery, beyond my existing appreciation.

So while I imagine the creative team will continue to tinker as Moulin Rouge! is prepped to hit Broadway seemingly sometime in the middle of next year if not later, I really think it's ready now.

Sure, it could get smoothed out a bit, but as it stands, the musical is one of the best--and most logical--screen-to-stage transfers I've ever seen...and an absolute delight.

Bring some new vibrancy and audiences to Broadway? Win a few Tony Awards including Best New Musical? Run for years on the Great White Way with subsequent mountings in London, Paris, Las Vegas, Chicago and more?

Yes, I truly believe Moulin Rouge: The Musical most assuredly can-can.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Seeds of Youthful Discontent: Despite Bountiful Crop of Strong Performances, 'The Harvest' Doesn't Entirely Flourish -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Harvest
a recent play by Samuel D. Hunter
directed by Jonathan Berry
Griffin Theatre Company
at the Den Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 26

With reasonably-priced tickets--through the box office and even cheaper on Goldstar and TodayTix--The Harvest is the type of play that warrants the attention of those who love intimate Chicago theater.

My rating above and review below reflect my honest appraisal, one not entirely glowing.

But I feel compelled to note that my friend Bob, who joined me at the opening performance, was considerably more wowed, instantly emoting that Samuel D. Hunter's play "took my breath away."

Bob is an avid theatergoer, arts lover and occasional actor, and his opinion that The Harvest is the best work he's seen in some time merits credence. His opinion, and yours, is every bit as valid as mine.

But while I agree with Bob that the seven character piece--in its Chicago premiere by Griffin Theatre--features fantastic acting throughout and kept me engaged for its 105-minute entirety (without an intermission), a number of narrative concerns temper my enthusiasm.

Taking place within a church basement somewhere in Idaho--Sotirios Livaditis' set design feels entirely realistic with a second-floor space at the Den Theatre--The Harvest concerns itself with five young missionaries finishing preparations for a trip to the Middle East.

As Charles Isherwood pointed out in his 2016 New York Times review of the play's Off-Broadway run, exactly (or even rather vaguely) where in the Middle East is never enunciated.

This was problematic for me mainly in conjunction with no one in the play wondering--even for argument's sake--if a mission to convert Muslims to Christianity might seem a tad impudent, insulting or even worse.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter--whose The Few I enjoyed two years ago--demonstrates a deft sensibility to people questioning their purpose, motivation and faith, so it feels amiss that he never posits that such an expedition could be misguided, despite the beliefs of the missionaries.

Seemingly coordinating the trip, in conjunction with Pastor Chuck (Patrick Blashill), is the headstrong and somewhat haughty Ada (well-embodied by Kiayla Ryann).

Intending to accompany her for four months are Tom (Collin Quinn Rice), Marcus (Taylor Del Vecchio) and Denise (Kathryn Acosta)--the latter two a married couple--while Josh (Raphael Diaz) plans to embark on a more solitary mission of indefinite length.

Josh's plans--coming on the heels of the passing of his father, with whom he was living--bring his sister Michaela (an excellent Paloma Nozicka) back to town after 9 years away. They've remained in touch, but "Mickey" hadn't even come home for their dad's funeral.

Having faced struggles of her own, Mickey is empathetic to her brother's turmoil, but insists that Josh not overturn his life in such a dramatic, long-term and perhaps even dangerous way.

Ada constantly seems to just happen to interrupt Mickey's pleadings, while the sensitive Tom--long Josh's best friend--appears to have romantic feelings for his pal, and repeatedly speaks of conflicts with his own father.

Apart from some group praying--in tongues, for reasons I didn't quite get--most scenes in The Harvest pair off two characters, including Denise and Marcus often bickering over differing perspectives about what the mission will entail for them.

Though the interactions between Josh and Mickey are the best developed and most compelling--I do wish a little more discussion was devoted to her reappearance out of the blue--all the characters are nicely drawn and the performances quite stellar.

Director Jonathan Berry well-renders the varying emotions--including an abundance of doubt--as the new missionaries (seemingly in their 20s) spend their last few days in Idaho.

I like how we come to learn the reasons each individual has for undertaking the mission, which go well beyond matters of faith and wanting to spread the gospel. (This dissection of varying personal motivations is even more a strength of Rohina Malik's The Mecca Tales, a play The Harvest reminded me of.)

Other than occasionally worrying about a parking meter box I forgot to extend on Milwaukee Ave., The Harvest held my interest throughout.

Along with Bob's praise and the really fine acting, this bespeaks why I would recommend this play, even as I didn't quite love it.

I accept that dramatic license sometimes needs to be taken, but as The Harvest largely revolves around Josh's (perhaps wavering) resolve to head off on an open-ended mission, I found it odd that neither Mickey, Tom or Ada ever suggest he consider starting with a 4-month stint like everyone else.

I don't pretend to know the first thing about real-life missions--and have respect but not much personal reverence for any organized religion--but for a small-town church to be sending a young person to spread the word while "living alone in the hills" of a potentially dangerous Middle Eastern country, well, just the insurance and liability concerns would strike me as hindrances.

Also, I realize that one's faith is often deeply ingrained and perhaps more personal than can be overtly explained, but I can't say I got a real sense as to what Christianity meant to each of the characters and why--besides other aspects of their lives, which Hunter's script nicely explores--they are compelled to go to such lengths to promote it. people who presumably hold a different set of religious beliefs, not none at all.

With due respect to Hunter, Berry, everyone in and involved with Griffin's production, and my pal Bob, while I found The Harvest to be estimable and worthwhile, I just didn't reap 'sow' much from it.

But I offer no reason for you not to see what you think.

And heck, The Harvest may even grow on me.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Best of Foo: A Wrock 'n Wroll Delight at Wrigley, as Foo Fighters and The Struts Bounce Me Off the Walls -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Foo Fighters
w/ opening acts The Struts, Melkbelly
Wrigley Field, Chicago
July 29, 2018 (Foo also 7/30)

Foo Fighters are a fantastic live band, as they've been since I first saw them in 1996.

They invariably deliver a thunderous, generous and crowd-pleasing show, so I would assume that fans who have seen the current Concrete and Gold tour in, say, Casper, Wyoming or Hamburg, Germany or Perth, Australia, etc., were abundantly pleased--and that I would likewise be in any locale.

But there is something extra special about seeing them in Wrigley Field, due not just to what the old ballpark means to me--as the home of my beloved Chicago Cubs--but what the Wrigleyville neighborhood has meant to the Chief Foo Fighter, Dave Grohl.

Unlike that of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder--a Chicago-area native and lifelong Cubs fan who similarly moved to Seattle in the early '90s to find grunge superstardom--Grohl's connection has nothing to do with baseball.

As well-documented, including in Episode 1 of the Sonic Highways HBO series--which chronicled the band's ties to and/or influences from various cities--the first rock concert Grohl ever attended was at The Cubby Bear bar across from Wrigley.

While the Virginia native was staying with family in Evanston, IL in the summer of 1982, his cousin
Tracy--herself in a teenage band called Verboten--took him to see Chicago punk pioneers Naked Raygun.

In Grohl's own words, that night would forever change his musical direction.

"I want to do that," he recalled thinking.

After playing in a Washington, DC punk band called Scream, in 1990 Grohl would become the drummer for the already-existing Nirvana.

In October 1991, just a few weeks after the release of the world-changing Nevermind album, Nirvana played the Metro, just up Clark Street from Wrigley Field. That show is notable, as it was where Kurt Cobain's romance with Courtney Love supposedly began.

Foo Fighters' first two Chicago shows were at Metro--in May and October of 1995--and though I didn't attend those, I would see them four times in 1996-97, including at the Riviera and Aragon, about a mile away from Wrigleyville.

Even as their popularity well-outgrew the Metro, the Foos would return to play intimate shows at the storied club, and in 2014 they accompanied the premiere of Sonic Highways with a gig at The Cubby Bear.

In August 2015, Foo Fighters would play Wrigley Field for the first time, with Naked Raygun among the opening acts, along with Cheap Trick and Urge Overkill.

That sold out show was awesome, even though--due a broken leg from a stage mishap earlier that year--Grohl was forced to play sitting in a specially-made throne.

Now definitively one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Foo Fighters easily sold out two concerts at Wrigley Field this past Sunday and Monday.

I went on Sunday and pretty much loved everything about it.

As I was a huge fan of Nirvana--I saw them at the Aragon in 1993, six months before Kurt took his
life--I've paid attention to the Foo Fighters since they were little more than a rumor.

The self-titled 1995 debut album--which Grohl wrote and recorded by himself--remains my favorite of theirs.

I also relished the 1997 follow-up, The Colour and the Shape, but several Foo albums since have largely been hit or miss, with their latest, Concrete and Gold, mostly the latter.

So qualitatively, in terms of their recorded catalog, I consider Foo Fighters considerably lesser than Nirvana, and not quite on par with Pearl Jam, their superstar rock brethren who will also pack Wrigley twice this summer.

But led by the hyper-kinetic Grohl--out front as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist--Foo Fighters have long been one of my favorite live bands.

Sunday was my 14th time seeing them, and even from the upper deck at Wrigley, they sounded as good as ever.

Opening act The Struts
It was a truly "epic" show, in the way that word should be used, or at least, mammoth.

Including, to my pleasant surprise, even before the Foo Fighters took the stage. 

Unlike 2015, there wasn't a stack of opening acts well-known to me, and with The Breeders opening Monday but not Sunday, it would seen I got the short end of the stick.

But along with the Chicago outfit Melkbelly--who I only heard for a few minutes as they played before the 7:00pm ticketed showtime--a British quartet called The Struts "warmed up" the crowd.

As far as I can recall, I had never heard of the Struts until just last week noting their slot on Sunday's show. (They've been opening for Foo Fighters for months, but Sunday was the last time.)

But even with just a day or two of Spotifamiliarization, I really liked what I heard from The Struts, and their opening set only amplified this, substantially.

With hair and stagewear quite reminiscent of Queen's Freddie Mercury, and some moves like Jagger, lead singer Luke Spiller clearly wears his influences on his sleeve (perhaps literally, as Wikipedia notes he's had outfits made by Mercury's former costumer, Zandra Rhodes).

But while also reminding a bit of Stevie Wright from the Easybeats--it's possible only my pal Dave, alongside on Sunday, will get this reference, but that's OK--Spiller is armed with an energetic and amiable stage demeanor, a truly powerful voice and several delightful Struts songs.

With only one full album to their credit--Everybody Wants, from 2014 but not released stateside until 2016--plus a few singles as they prep a new release, the Struts remind not only of classic rock legends, but The Darkness, another retro band that had some success in the '00s.

I liked the Darkness' debut album, but they were ultimately too derivative, and I'm hoping the Struts will soon forge more of their own sound.

But with very few new rock bands exciting me these days, for the Struts to clearly win over fans down on the Wrigley outfield while having me tell Dave I also sensed a bit of a Faces groove along with T-Rex glam, at the very least they're quite damn fun.

It won't mean much for me to cite song titles, but I enjoyed everything they played (check out the setlist here).

There are many bands who shouldn't want to follow the kind of raucous and rollicking opening set delivered by the Struts, but from the first notes of "All My Life" it was clear the headliners were there to decimate any foo that needed fighting within the Friendly Confines. (BTW, fuck the asshole who assaulted a woman in a porta-potty at the show. I certainly hope he gets caught, convicted--if the facts hold--and incarcerated for quite some time.)

I had read some suggestions that all the years of screaming had taken their toll on Grohl's voice, but it sounded strong as the Foos rolled through "Learn to Fly," "The Pretender," "The Sky is a Neighborhood" and "Rope."

Nothing has ever clued me into Grohl being a noted baseball fan, so as he led into a singalong of "My Hero" by speaking of his Wrigleyville history, there was no need for him to don a Cubs jersey nor explicitly speak of Cobain or even Tom Petty, who I believe was one of his heroes (and who'd I'd seen rocking Wrigley just 13 months prior).

But as I belted into the beautiful night sky, I certainly thought of them.

Some musical heroes were more overtly worshiped during a band introduction segment, as bassist
Nate Mendel gave a taste of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," guitarist Pat Smear (something of a punk legend himself) led a blast through the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" and keyboardist Rami Jaffee played John Lennon's "Imagine" as Grohl sang the lyrics of Van Halen's "Jump" over it. (I probably could have done without this mashup.)

Foo Fighters' drummer Taylor Hawkins--one of the best in the world but second best in his own band--came out front to sing Queen/David Bowie's "Under Pressure," accompanied by the Struts' Spiller as Grohl thundered on drums, ending with a tease of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"'s iconic opening drum salvo.

Then, with Hawkins happily sporting a Cheap Trick t-shirt, that band's Rick Nielsen showed up for a romp through "Ain't That a Shame," with Grohl still on drums.

I wouldn't have minded it being followed by "Surrender," but with an absolutely thunderous "Monkey Wrench" the Foos reminded that this was their show, and they do have some pretty damn great songs of their own.

You can see everything they played on; I actually had to add "Ain't That a Shame" to the otherwise fully-posted setlist, which is funny only because I had said to Dave that many in the crowd might not have known that At Budokan tune. 

"Best of You" ended the main set before the encores--"Big Me," "Times Like These," "This is a Call" and "Everlong"--took the 160-minute performance right up to what I believe is an 11pm curfew for concerts at Wrigley.

The setlist wound up being pretty similar to what Foo Fighters have played at most recent tour stops, and even on Monday night.

I had a theater performance to go to then, but probably wouldn't have returned, in part because--unlike Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and some other favorites--Foo Fighters don't mix things up greatly from show-to-show.

But while I rue that "I'll Stick Around" off the debut album is no longer a staple, the band clearly still knows how to put together an amazing concert.

Like me, Dave Grohl is now almost 50.

Though some may always think of him first as Nirvana's drummer, for years he's been playing to  50,000+ people a night all around the world with the Foo Fighters.

I think the band needs some better new material, but that's true of nearly everyone I see.

And as long as he and the Foo Fighters keep coming around, I'll keep showing up.

This really was a perfect concert for a glorious summer night, all the more so because it was at Wrigley Field.

I wish I saw more teenagers and twenty-somethings in the crowd that roughly seemed twice that in terms of average age.

Ideally, bands like the Struts will resurrect rock 'n roll, but at least it continues to survive.

And on a night like this, there was truly nowhere else in the world I would rather have been.