Monday, December 17, 2018

We've Got Tonight: As He Prepares to Turn the Page, Bob Seger Still Has the Fire Down Below -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Seger 
& the Silver Bullet Band
w/ opening act Larkin Poe
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
December 14, 2018
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Before embarking on his latest outing with the Silver Bullet Band--which began in August 2017 and was initially slated to run through early this year--Bob Seger dubbed it his "Final Tour."

This followed the death, in January 2016, of Seger's old musical pal from Detroit, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, which came the same week as the passing of David Bowie.

Many other music luminaries--among them Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Glenn Allman, Chris Cornell, Chuck Berry, Glen Campbell and Walter Becker (of Steely Dan)--would also soon move on to the great gig in the sky.

Just a dozen shows into the 2017 tour, Seger suffered a ruptured disc requiring emergency back surgery, prompting the postponement--for what would be over a year--of all shows after one in Pittsburgh at the end of September.

Mere days later, one of Seger's closest contemporaries--Tom Petty--died suddenly. And in August of this year, the world lost another of Detroit's greatest musical icons, Aretha Franklin.

Several other rock acts who, like Seger, rose to fame in the 1970s, have recently called it quits,
announced plans to do so or are seemingly eyeing the checkered flag, from Elton John and Paul Simon to bands like Rush, Kiss and AC/DC.

So in one sense or another, an air of finality certainly hung above Seger's rescheduled show Friday night at Allstate Arena, especially as he delivered a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" while images of Cohen, Petty, Prince, Berry, Allman, Aretha and Frey were projected on a video screen. (I found it a bit odd that Bowie wasn't included yet Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in 1990, was.)

But more predominantly--particularly given what Seger presumably had to endure to ready himself to again perform for nearly 2 hours--it was a night that celebrated pride, perseverance, passion, longevity, loyalty to & from the fans, a communal sense of what Bob's songs have meant to those of us of a certain age--at 50, I was considerably on the young side of the Allstate crowd--sincerity and ultimately, good "Old Time Rock and Roll."

I've been a Seger fan for 40 years, specifically, as I remember my dad--a bit incongruously given that he was mainly a classical and Broadway fan--adding 1978's Stranger in Town album to our family record collection (and subsequently 1980's Against the Wind).

So my love for Seger has always centered around those two albums and the 1981 live collection, Nine Tonight, rather than--presumably for fans a tad older--1976's Live Bullet and Night Moves. (I'm now aware that Seger started releasing albums in the mid-60s and had his first hit with "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" in 1969.)

Saxophonist & guitarist Alto Reed
At any point after 1978 I would have happily seen Seger & Silver Bullet live, but never did in the '80s or '90s.

For whatever reason, I really don't recall him touring in 1996, though I see on Setlist.fm that he did.

But since Bob and his erstwhile band returned to the road in 2006, I have now seen him six times
across five tours (including Friday). So I pretty much knew what to expect, including that in terms of his voice and kinetic energy, Seger isn't what he was circa 1978 (as per YouTube).

And with his white hair, trusty headband and a bit of paunch, he isn't the epitome of what hipsters would consider hip.

So be it.

This wasn't really a night for hipness, myself included.

Opening act Larkin Poe
And even though opening act Larkin Poe enjoyably demonstrated the talents of a young pair of rock 'n rollin' sisters--neither named Larkin or Poe--in 2013 I saw Joe Walsh open for Seger and in 2014 the J. Geils Band. And Grand Funk Railroad opened a couple shows just last week, so with no disrespect to Larkin Poe, I could've taken even more of the old and unhip.

Taking the stage at about a quarter after nine--I would've loved had "Nine Tonight" kicked things off--Seger and his large band, including a horn section and trio of backing singers, opened with "Long Twin Silver Line."

A somewhat obscure album track from Against the Wind, this differed from what Seger had opened at his seven prior tour stops this year ("Face the Promise" mostly; "Shakedown" once).

I certainly didn't mind the variance, or the selection, but sonically, "Long Twin Silver Line" was something of a train wreck.

The right acoustic mix for the arena had yet to be sorted out, Bob was under-miked and it would take several songs for his voice to truly warm and it's certainly possible the battalion of musicians hadn't fully acclimated to the change of pace.

So while it was a thrill just to see Seger take the stage--especially given all that I alluded to at top--at first it was a bit of a bumpy ride.

But next up was my favorite song from Seger's deep catalog--"Still the Same"--and he's largely eschewed it on recent tours, so although things were still settling in I couldn't help but savor it.

You can see the setist here, with many of the usual suspects--"The Fire Down Below," "Mainstreet," "Old Time Rock and Roll," "Come to Poppa," "Roll Me Away," "Like a Rock"--but they all came off well, and I relished 1991's somewhat under-the-radar "The Fire Inside," with some terrific piano interplay between Craig Frost and a keyboardist whose name I apologetically can't ascertain.

More classic rock staples including "We've Got Tonight," "Travelin' Man"/"Beautiful Loser" and "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man'" rounded out the main set before Bob's almost boilerplate quartet of encore tunes:

"Against the Wind," "Hollywood Nights," "Night Moves" and "Rock and Roll Never Forgets."

Say what you want about Bob Seger, but he knows what works. The Allstate Arena was packed to the rafters, and pretty much singing along with every word.

Especially on "Turn the Page," which Seger said he wrote in an Eau Claire, WI, hotel room in 1970, when he'd have been all of 24 or 25.

And here he is, on the road again, here he is up on the stage, at the age of 73, as he reminded us during "Rock and Roll Never Forgets."

For those judging only on technical merit, it was certainly an imperfect night, with not only some sound issues, but a few flubbed lyrics, Seger playing an out-of-key or out-of-tune guitar on "Night Moves" and his once powerful voice far more sufficient than spectacular.

But while he isn't, physically, still the same, Bob Seger remains a passionate performer who gives the audience his all. And from what I could tell from the appreciative fans with and around me, that was enough to make for a memorable night.

On what well may be a Midwestern rock legend's last ever gig in Chicago.

I'm glad I was there.

And as Bob Seger his bandmates--some dating back nearly 50 years with him, like the wondrous and ageless sax man Alto Reed and bassist Chris Campbell--I couldn't help but surmise that Glenn and Tom and Gregg and Prince and Aretha, et. al., were also there to accomp'ny us.

For as we all turn the page, what's been written--literally and figuratively--by the musicians we cherish will never really fade.

Thanks for a wonderful ride, Mr. Seger.

Rock and roll never forgets and neither will I.

















Monday, December 10, 2018

This is the End?: Driven by a Fantastic Performance, Wendy Schmidt's 'Maker of Worlds' Opens Doors of Self-Perception -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Maker of Worlds
by Wendy Schmidt
directed by Jeri Frederickson
Three Cat Productions
at Berger Park Coach House, Chicago
Thru December 29
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I guess I like things to make perfect sense.

Not so much in terms of entertainment and art, but in real life.

Where of course, there's a shitload of absurdity going on, and that's a kind word for it.

So it's rather logical that talented writers would choose reflect this inanity in contemporary plays, as does Wendy Schmidt--who happens to be a friend of mine--in a one-woman piece (in which she doesn't perform) called Maker of Worlds.

In the world premiere by Three Cat Productions, a truly terrific Amy Gorelow stars initially as Martha, who as I ultimately deduced, is God.

Or at least, a god.

Capable of making worlds, as conveyed by a mock cooking demonstration, she is haunted by a tempestuous affair (or at least, infatuation) with the mythological Jim Morrison, is contemptuous of a certain disgraced Illinois governor and when truly pissed off--be it by Sodom & Gomorroh or her accountant husband--seeks to wreak destruction on planet Earth.

But others get a say in the matter, including said husband, Warren, a capitalist pig also seen as something of a deity--who said reality and absurdity don't conflate?--whom Gorelow hilariously imbues with Sam Kinisonesque powder-keg cantankerousness.

Another god, Liz, attempts to quell Martha's ire with yoga instructor Zen, and--without wanting to reveal much more--let's just say the spirit of Mr. Mojo Risin' eventually breaks on through.

It's all quite creative and wonderfully enacted by Gorelow, so as to be soundly entertaining across roughly 70 minutes.

Especially as I'm somewhat familiar with Schmidt's worldview, even amid all the absurdity--a tad too much for me to truly embrace--there's enjoyable satire about uber-capitalism, male dominance, rock icons and, well, the world we've made.

The confusion Martha shares regarding the betrayal of a friend is also rather poignant.

So there's more than enough here to be worth your $20--or less through Goldstar--even if it doesn't all congeal perfectly.

Or, through my Doors of perception, completely sensibly.

After the performance we saw on Saturday, my friend Bob cited a couple of famously absurdist playwrights--Christopher Durang and Eugene Ionesco--of whose work he was reminded.

In some ways, comparisons to these paragons validated my sense that theatrical absurdity isn't my foremost cup of tea, as I didn't love Goodman Theater's 2015 production of Durang's Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

And despite high hopes, I also wasn't entirely enamored by Ionesco's Victims of Duty, seen in July at Red Orchid Theatre.

But I still loved seeing the latter show due simply to a remarkable performance by one of the world's best actors, Michael Shannon--along with a terrific cast--so although I didn't "get" all that was going on, it was still highly rewarding to absorb.

Something rather similar can be said about Maker of Worlds.

It's a bit complex, confusing and manic, but Gorelow is worth the price of admission--alone--and I assume a lack of acute understanding may well be part of the point.

So above and beyond my appreciation for a friend's creation, consider this a recommendation to get over to Berger Park before "The End" of December.

And when the music's over, turn out the lights. 

---
Performances of Maker of Worlds are Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 1:00 pm. 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Lackluster Revue: Second City's 'Algorithm Nation, or The Static Quo' Fails to Pack Much Punch -- Chicago Theater / Comedy Review

Sketch Comedy Review

Algorithm Nation or, The Static Quo
107th Mainstage Revue
The Second City, Chicago
Open Run
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It's not usually my style, but I think I'll cut right to the chase.

I didn't much like the Second City's new mainstage revue, titled--curiously--Algorithm Nation or, The Static Quo.

Failing to understand, or appreciate, the repeated motif of algorithms controlling our lives, I didn't find the show particularly funny, insightful, illuminating or inspired.

I say this with alliteration but no glee, as I have great regard for Second City's history, legacy and veneration.

I am also greatly appreciative of being invited to see & review the 107th Mainstage Revue on its opening night.

The overall experience was first-rate, and locals and tourists should keep attending Second City on a somewhat regular basis. A fun night isn't just about LOL moments or thought-provoking skits.

But I'm simply reviewing the show, and while I have great admiration for the talents and personas of the writers and performers--Ryan Asher, Tyler Davis, Jeffrey Murdoch, Emma Pope, Nate Varrone, Kimberly Michelle Vaughn--I just found much of the material presented over two hours to be rather lackluster.

Asher, Davis, Murdoch and Vaughn were in the 106th Mainstage Revue, which I found a good bit better, though not as strong as Second City e.t.c.'s most recent revue or the still-running, all-female She The People.

So I know the comedic gifts of the Algorithm Nation cast are considerable, and beyond merely appreciating their efforts, there were some genuinely nice ideas.

I don't want to give away much, especially the best routines, but Murdoch, Varrone, Asher and Pope were part of a sketch in which two longstanding local TV personalities look back on their career, only to cringe at what was once deemed acceptable (but shouldn't have been).

Davis and Williams repeatedly paired up well, once as an African-American couple visiting "woke" white liberal neighbors (Asher & Varrone), and later as a father and young daughter, as the latter experiences hardships in an otherwise all-white school.

Certainly, these two skits broached on racism, and a couple others referenced President Trump, but I don't think anything hit hard enough regarding contemporary realities.

As we walked back to the train, I said to my friend--who also was disappointed by the show--that it felt as if some Second City bigwigs had mandated to tread lightly on Trump material, for fear of offending and/or alienating those who support him.

In a way this is understandable, as both blue and red patrons equal green, but comedy without chutzpah--especially amid these times--just feels flaccid.

Or, perhaps, obvious targets are considered too obvious, and while I would perceive such a seemingly astute cast could insightfully broach the mistreatment of blacks, women, immigrants, Muslims, etc., etc., etc., maybe such hot-topicality is considered taboo.

But even when the sextet onstage--all dressed in black--did reference gun violence and children being thrown into cages, it came off somewhat rote.

And unfunny.

Truly the best part of Algorithm Nation, or The Static Quo came when an audience member named Andrew was brought onstage.

His rapport, particularly with Varrone was charming, and suggests that a bit more crowd interaction might do this revue good.

If not actually adding Andrew on a permanent basis.

As noted above, going to Second City is always a delight, even just in seeing pictures of the famous alumni. And it's probably true that people who are now considered all-time pillars of comedy were in revues that missed the mark, as this one did.

Undeniably, making people laugh isn't easy, especially when coupled with trying to provide insights into a crazy world.

In pulling its punches in regards to the latter, the 107th Mainstage Revue of Second City Chicago didn't hit hard enough in attempting the former.

Or, in other words, despite estimable work by talented comedians, something about the algorithm just wasn't right. 

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Imperfect Hilarity Ensues: 'The Play That Goes Wrong' Gets a Whole Lot Right -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Play That Goes Wrong
National Tour
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru December 16
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As insinuated by its cheeky title, essentially stated in its onstage introduction and reflected by its prevailing vibe, The Play That Goes Wrong knows--whether in London, on Broadway or on tour in Chicago--what it is:

A show to see if you can't get tickets to Hamilton (or something else more demonstrably desirous).

Or a fallback plan if some kind of ticketing snafu ensues.

Yet while it will likely only be a "first choice" to those who prefer slapstick comedy to magnificent musicals or scintillating drama, The Play That Goes Wrong gets a whole lot right.

Clearly.

For a mirthful but largely inconsequential show like this doesn't succeed in London, New York and on tour across the UK and USA unless it's really good for what it is.

And although, yes, I clearly prefer Hamilton, other first-rate musicals, top-notch plays, great rock concerts and--even within a comedy realm--superlative stand-up comedians, variety is the spice of theater, entertainment and, of course, life.

Photos not necessarily of the current tour cast. 
So as a Broadway in Chicago subscriber and voluminous theatergoer, I welcomed and relished The Play That Goes Wrong as something different.

Within it's own vernacular, it doesn't feel all that unique, as the cheeky British humor reminds of Monty Python. And in traipsing in comedy and parody, it brought to mind recent-past theatrical works like The 39 Steps, Something Rotten, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder and Murder For Two

In finding my reviews of those four shows for the hyperlinks, I was reminded that I awarded each @@@@ on my 5@ scale, as I now have The Play That Goes Wrong.

This basically connotes a show that I truly enjoyed and was happy to see, but don't feel a great need to see again. And while I imagine anyone would enjoy the humor enough to make for a fine night of entertainment, the inherent lack of depth makes my recommendation somewhat less than emphatic.

But if British humor playing up Agatha Christie-type mysteries such as The Mousetrap sounds like your cup of tea, The Play That Goes Wrong should provide considerable delight.

I am not someone who laugh out loud all that much, and this show--with truly outstanding physical humor--prompted many LOL guffaws.

The show is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields of London's Mischief Theatre Company, and the three of them starred in the West End production--which continues to run--and then on Broadway, where a nearly 2-year run ends in January.

Within The Play That Goes Wrong, the conceit is that the Comley University Drama Society is presenting a play called, The Murder at Haversham Manor.

In it, Inspector Carter (Chris Bean in the tour cast, which is excellent throughout) comes to investigate the murder of Charles Haversham (Jonathan Harris), with the latter's fiance Florence (Sandra Wilkinson), best friend Thomas (Robert Grove), brother Cecil (Max Bennett) and servant Perkins (Dennis Tyde) among the suspects.

All sorts of hijinks ensue, from scenery mishaps to mispronounced words to cast members being repeatedly injured and much other mayhem.

Most of it is funny, some of it outright hilarious.

And leaving out any other specifics, I would dub The Play That Goes Wrong a really good show that often feels terrific.

If somehow the mystery at the core of the play-within-the-play was itself brilliant, the whole affair would rise significantly--from fun-yet-fleeting to truly phenomenal.

As it stands, you will laugh, you will smile, you will appreciate inspired gags and abundant talent onstage--plus some terrific ad hoc humor, unless some heckling wasn't by "a plant"--and you will have a good time at The Play That Goes Wrong, even if you don't think too much during or after it.

And that should sound all right to just about anyone.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Holy Salacious: A Few Years Down the Road, 'The Book of Mormon' Retains Its Vulgar Charms -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Book of Mormon
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru December 2
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It wasn't that long ago--2011 to be exact--when The Book of Mormon was the hottest show on Broadway, and seemingly among the hottest in quite some time.

I paid a pretty good aftermarket buck to see it in August 2011, though considerably less than what Hamilton in New York still regularly goes for on Stubhub, let alone what Hamilton was fetching during its first year on Broadway.

Or most face value tix for Springsteen on Broadway, for that matter.

So I don't think of Book of Mormon--famously created by the brains behind South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez--as the latest, hottest thing anymore.

But the truth is, it still seems to sell out every performance on Broadway, and remains a hot ticket on yet another National Tour that brought it to Chicago's Oriental Theater (soon to be rechristened the Nederlander).

Images not entirely of the current tour cast.
I loved it on Broadway, and then again in Chicago in 2012 and 2013--it did a 10-month "sit down" run--but though it doesn't feel like all that much time has passed, I felt like seeing it again.

So, for Thursday evening, I was able to get a bargain-priced single seat in the Orchestra section, just 10 rows from the stage.

And with the caveat that it just isn't as magnificent a musical as Hamilton, and some of the other pinnacles of the genre, it remains a brilliant delight--and quite strong in the current production, even with a standby for one of the leads.

Though I didn't precisely recall every moment, I entered rather aware of--and appreciative of, rather than squeamish about--all the ribald debauchery that would unfold.

I am not Mormon, Christian nor observantly religious, but even if I were, I'd like to think I'd feel well teased, but not inordinately offended.

Adding a bit of unease as Mormon missionaries--led by the stately Elder Price (standby Robert Colvin was really good) and the disheveled Elder Cunningham (a terrific Connor Peirson)--find themselves amid a remote Ugandan tribe with murderous warlords in their midst, was the recent story of John Allen Chau, the American Christian missionary killed in trying to illegally venture onto North Sentinel Island.

Whatever I may think of individuals of any faith going to great lengths to convert those who did not invite or encourage their entreaties, I certainly don't wish them harm--although Chau was supposedly putting the remote islanders at some risk of disease--and in its sly way, The Book of Mormon suggests that it's possible for good to come from unexpected interactions.

But though I couldn't help but onsider the choices, intentions and plight of Chau--and similarities to The Book of Mormon narrative--it did in a way help me appreciate the depth of the musical beyond its often derisive and raunchy humor.

Among other aspects, it's a rather nice coming-of-age story about the nebbishy Arthur Cunningham, who finds connection with others can come from not necessarily following a prescribed path.

At least not to a T.

And with Kayla Pecchioni completely winning as the young tribeswoman, Nabulungi, her chemistry with Peirson provided much of the joy in encountering this touring production.

The current 2-week run in Chicago has now ended, but if the tour comes to your town, know that it continues to represent the original Broadway production quite well.

With ticket stub having an EXPLICIT LANGUAGE advisory, be forewarned that nothing is sacred, with body parts, secretions, rape, mutilation and more not only mentioned but sung about with crude glee.

And it's far from just Mormonism that gets mocked. If you're devoutly religious, without a sense of self-aware humor about the truth that everyone isn't, by all means stay away.

But The Book of Mormon is far from South Park on-stage.

The Playbill doesn't include a song list so I'll be sparing, but beyond the bawdiness--the hilarity was a bit diluted by having seen TBOM three prior times, but the silliness and satire are quite inspired--there are several superb musical moments, all well delivered by the talented cast.

The standby, Colvin--in for Kevin Clay--was terrific on "I Believe," as was Pecchioni in paying homage to a major Mormon city in Utah.

Whatever luster might be off The Book of Mormon simply due to time and Hamilton, etc., the Oriental was seemingly packed for the entire Chicago run, and it was reiterated to me that the show's strengths go well beyond it being a hot-buzz hoot.

It shouldn't be the best Broadway musical you'll ever see, but The Book of Mormon well-merited its original hype, remains faithful in its production quality years down the road and--for those who don't mind a bit of dirty, sacriligious humor--it really is quite terrific.

Or so I believe.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Mary Christmas: Zimmerman's Magical 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' is a Holiday Gift of Imagination -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Conceived & directed by Mary Zimmerman
from the story by Hans Christian Andersen
Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 13, 2019
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I became an avid Chicago theater aficionado around the turn of this century, so a couple years after Mary Zimmerman enjoyed considerable success and acclaim for her Lookingglass adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which would eventually move to Broadway and earn her a Tony Award for Best Direction.

But I did catch Lookingglass's reprise of Metamorphoses in 2012 and have seen several other  Zimmeman productions, including Galileo Galilei, The White Snake, new stagings of the musicals Candide and Wonderful Town and a world premiere musical adaptation of The Jungle Book, all at Goodman Theatre.

I can't say I've loved everything Zimmerman has done, but I greatly admire her talent, including a true gift for whimsy. I found The Jungle Book a particular joy, and rue that the production seemingly hasn't had much of a shelf life (e.g. Broadway) after the Goodman staging in 2013 and a short subsequent run in Boston.

And after a 3-year break from working in professional theater, Zimmerman's latest show, The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass, is nothing less than a work of genius.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
As in tickle my mind for relatively few similar examples of creations--in any genre or realm--that are so
extraordinarily imaginative as to keep me awestruck from beginning to end, with a smile plastered upon my face.

The Muppet Show. Yellow Submarine. Fantasia. The Lion King musical. Christopher Wheeldon's rendition of The Nutcracker, soon to be reprised by Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. The Wizard of Oz. And a special few holiday classics that bring merriment and mirth when they show up on your TV.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which in certain promotional materials is subtitled A Christmas Pantomime--as there are no spoken words during the show--already feels like that.

Beyond my prior awareness, the story comes from a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, and is inherently infused by abundant imagination from one of the greatest of storytellers.

But what Zimmerman and the team at Lookingglass do with it--including scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, costume designer Ana Kuzmanic, music composers Andre Pluess & Amanda Dehnert, puppet designers Blair Thomas & Tom Lee and several others--is simply astonishing in its originality, creativity and sheer glee.

The show runs little more than an hour and the scenario is relatively simple:

A toy soldier made with just one leg gets wantonly chucked around by a baby, becomes smitten with a toy ballerina dancing upon one leg, suffers--steadfastly--through a variety of misfortunes and indignities before, well, I'll leave that for you discover.

So it may well sound like light holiday fare, with its brevity not mandating a trip down to the Magnificent Mile and Chicago's old pumping station, which Lookingglass calls home.

But Chris Jones gave The Steadfast Tin Soldier 4 stars (out of 4) in the Chicago Tribune, and even in arriving with a touch of dubiousness nonetheless, I absolutely loved it.

Though I enjoy much Christmas fare, in being Jewish I am not inherently drawn to that much of it, but any and all such reservations are entirely immaterial here.

Really, no matter what your religion--or lack thereof--or age for that matter, you should simply find
yourself mesmerized by creative ingenuity and beautiful music.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier is so good--quite magical, really--that I don't want to tell you too much about it, rather just let you encounter it on your own.

As you should be able to tell from the pictures, sometimes the namesake tin soldier is a small toy--as handled by a baby, who himself is seen in various sizes--but is also played in human form by Alex Stein.

Kasey Foster plays the ballerina, and somewhat astonishingly for all that goes on onstage--including much puppetry--there are only five people in the cast, rounded out by Christopher Donahue, John Gregorio and Anthony Irons, the latter embodying a Goblin sprung from a Jack-in-the-Box.

There are also four musicians who play throughout the entire performance, and merely the music would be worth the price of admission.

Taking a look at ticket availability and prices, seeing this show shouldn't be impossible, and--depending on the specific performance--relatively reasonably priced.

There may also be discounts on HotTix, including for tonight as of this writing.

Unless you're a complete Scrooge, I really think you'll love The Steadfast Tin Soldier--on multiple levels--and suggest you don't miss it.

Though really, it should become a holiday tradition. Its gifts are that special. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Phenomenally Fun: Blistering the House of Blues, The Struts Are an Absolute Blast -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Struts
w/ opening act The Glorious Sons
House of Blues, Chicago
November 24, 2018
(also played 11/23)
@@@@@

As I've often opined, for me, rock music can be far more than merely entertaining.

It can be insightful, illuminating, inspirational, motivational, spiritual,  therapeutic, restorative, sustaining, life-affirming, soul-enhancing, even world-changing.

But at its core it should also be:

Fun.

And more than any band I know of, especially in terms of newish ones, the Struts are unabashedly fun.

I won't debate anyone who finds the British quartet too retro or overly derivative. I'm having similar issues with Greta Van Fleet, who I feel are aping Led Zeppelin without proper appreciation for all that went into Zeppelin (influences, contemporaries, etc.).

Certainly, Struts singer Luke Spiller wears his heroes on his sleeves.

Literally.

At least in the past--per Wikipedia--and I have to imagine it remains true, Spiller's stagewear was designed for him by Zandra Rhodes, who formerly dressed Freddie Mercury.

So yes, the Struts remind quite a bit of Queen, without my suggesting they're nearly as brilliant.

And they also remind of the Darkness, another retro British band that was quite a bit of over-the-top fun until they disappeared rather quickly.

But while I think it may be time the Struts develop material devoid of such obvious sonic allusions, they rise above being slagged as little more than imitators of greatness--as I perceive Greta Van Fleet--for a few reasons.

First, though their songs sound like those by classic rock forebearers, they aren't pure ripoffs and are largely inventive, really catchy and remarkably fun.

Next, though Spiller seems akin to a video game avatar of the great Mercury--with a bit of Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler mixed in--he has a self-aware stage presence and an insanely great voice.

Finally, as I get to some specifics about their sold out headlining concert Saturday at Chicago's House of Blues--which they also packed on Friday--the Struts rock ridiculously hard and aren't cheating anyone.

For $27.50, they delivered a delectable 2-hour show that seemed to delight everyone to the point of mass exertion and exhaustion, preceded by a strong opening set by the Glorious Sons.

That band, hailing from Kingston, Ontario, Canada, also pays clear homage to rock 'n roll predecessors.

Initially, singer Brett Emmons seemed to channel a mix of Ronnie Van Zant and Axl Rose a bit too overtly, verging on the cartoonish. (His shirt represented a collection of Playboy covers.)

But especially for a band opening for another that isn't that famous, by the end of their 40 minutes--including a great cover of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter"--the Glorious Sons hard-charging sound left me considerably impressed.

As for the Struts, I'm a tad chagrined that a band so right up my alley existed for about 5 years--their debut album, Everybody Wants, was released in the UK in 2014, with a U.S. reissue in 2016--as I remained oblivious, until this summer when they opened for the Foo Fighters at Wrigley Field.

As I wrote then, it was love at first Spotify, just a few days before the show.

And then Spiller, guitarist Adam Slack, bassist Jed Elliott and drummer Gethin Davies ripped up the Friendly Confines--as did the Foos--prompting me to want to see a full show.

Fortunately--given how many others already seemed to know of the Struts, despite a relative lack of U.S. chart success--I was able to not only get a ticket to House of Blues, but a seat.

Somewhat surprisingly, most of the crowd seemed to be--like me--a good bit older than the band members.

I guess the Struts' representing rock's future might be too much to ask, but they certainly do justice to its past in the present.

Even though I had a stool along a railing and attend numerous concerts alone, I didn't feel all that comfortable being boxed in by the big crowd, especially with a big dude with a broken arm right alongside me.

But any creature discomfort was rendered inconsequential, as I relished every moment of the Struts' super-charged show.

The band's second album--Young & Dangerous--was just released in late-October, and a couple of blazers from it, "Primadonna Like Me" and "Body Talks," kicked things off with a high-volume blast that never really let up.

You can see the setlist here, which probably won't mean much unless you know the Struts' oeuvre, but while a few songs are sillier than others, nothing played failed to delight.

Although it didn't acutely shock me given perusals of past setlists, a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" seemed an unsuspecting choice, but they pulled it off with aplomb.

Searching for a "Courteney Cox" from the audience--she danced with the Boss in the video long before Friends fame--Spiller pulled an enthusiastic young woman named Patti (if I heard right), who nearly upstaged him.

Though it came mid-set, the extended cover help pushed the Struts' time onstage to nearly 2 hours, covering just 16 songs plus a bit of a blues vamp.

On "One Night Only" and "Somebody New," Spiller demonstrated skill on the piano--also in a Mercuryesque sort of way--and the latter ballad (from Young & Dangerous) was perhaps the best example of the band forging some new territory of their own.

Though I abstained, the singer also frequently exhorted the crowd to dance and jump, and on main-set closer, "Where Did She Go?" the joint nearly exploded.

I also liked what Spiller had to say, from graciously thanking the crowd to conveying not to care what others may think of you to recalling Chicago as the city that--on an early tour--first convinced the Struts that a sustainable career was feasible.

I've heard such stage talk before, but from a guy who's undoubtedly been derided for playing dress-up, it sounded quite earnest.

And as the Struts closed a smoking show with their best song, "Could Have Been Me," espousing the thought of never wanting to look back with regret at what you didn't do, I was quite glad to be present.

Despite what Bohemian Rhapsody and numerous concert videos portray, I'll never really know what it was like to have seen Queen. But I'm pretty sure, that along with much else, the experience would've been really damn fun.

And to whatever extent they traipse an ersatz existence--or may be perceived as such--that aspect of seeing the Struts felt genuinely comparable.

---
To give the uninitiated a sense of the Struts, here's a clip of "Could Have Been Me" from a recent show, as found on YouTube:

Friday, November 23, 2018

Love and War: Stellar, Somewhat Downsized 'Miss Saigon' is Sumptuously Sung but Shows Its Soft Spots -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Miss Saigon
National Tour
directed by Laurence Connor
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru December 8
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Once upon a time, in the recesses of my mind, Miss Saigon was third.

Not the third best stage musical of all-time, but in terms of chronology and preeminence, the third mammoth West End (London) then Broadway (New York) blockbuster production that--for quite awhile--dominated the musical theater landscape, including on tour.

Though shows like Evita, Sweeney Todd and Cats were pretty huge in terms of size, scope, grandeur, greatness and success, Les Misérables (1985 London/1987 NYC), The Phantom of the Opera ('86/'88) and Miss Saigon ('89/'91) seemingly took things to a whole new level.

Andrew Lloyd Webber composed Evita, Cats and Phantom, while Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (music & lyrics, respectively) were the primary creators of both Les Mis and Miss Saigon.

So the types of blockbusters brought to Hollywood in the 1970s and early '80s by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were somewhat echoed on Broadway a few years later.

Or, in terms of threesomes, the Beatles, Stones and Who?--which is actually both question and answer--of musical theater were, at least commercially, Les Miz, Phantom and Miss Saigon.

But while The Phantom of the Opera continues its original West End and Broadway runs--with well over 12,000 performances in each locale--and Les Miserables has never closed in London and initially lasted 16 years in New York before closure and subsequent revivals, Miss Saigon lasted "only" 10 years and 4,000+ performances in each theatrical mecca.

It also hasn't toured nearly as much, particularly in the new millennium.

I'm glad to have seen a full-scale, full-sized-helicopter-on-stage production at Chicago's Auditorium Theater in 2000--when I was still rather newly getting into theatergoing with regularity--but until Tuesday night, had only otherwise seen a regional production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, IL.

And while a double-CD of the Original London Cast Recording has remained a notable part of my collection of Broadway albums, I perceive that intervening huge hit musicals such as Rent, The Lion King, The Producers, Mamma Mia, Hairspray, Wicked, Jersey Boys, Billy Elliot, Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Beautiful and Hamilton have rendered Miss Saigon considerably less top of mind.

And though its original production scale might really outrank almost anything--its national tours used to require 17 trucks--thinking of it as "third" feels rather anachronistic.

But in recent years, mega musical producer Cameron Macintosh enlisted director Laurence Connor to oversee somewhat more modestly-scaled yet still enormously impressive stagings of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera while retaining their magic--though I love the former show far more than the latter--so I was truly excited to the Connor-concocted take on Miss Saigon.

I obviously wasn't the only one, as in its second of just four weeks in Chicago--where it once ran for nearly a year--the Cadillac Palace was packed.

Thankfully, from the very last row of the upper balcony, I had binoculars.

And even from there my sense of hearing was well-dazzled, as the singing throughout this production is exquisite.

Before citing Miss Saigon's storyline, songs, current cast, etc., I should mention that the narrative is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, and--per Wikipedia--"similarly tells the tragic tale of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover."

Though I've seen the source opera, more than once, I don't recall its specifics enough to reference how acutely it may have influenced Miss Saigon or how the musical varied.

On a somewhat similar level, Mackintosh brought in Chicago composer/lyricist/actor Michael Mahler to freshen up some of the original lyrics--credited to Boublil and Roger Maltby Jr.--but I can't specify anything that changed.

But Miss Saigon remains an impressive, moving and largely terrific musical, focusing on an American GI named Chris (Anthony Festa) who falls in love with a young Vietnamese woman, Kim (Emily Bautista) on the cusp of the fall of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City).

They meet at a nightclub-cum-brothel called Dream Land, run by and entrepreneur-cum-pimp known as the Engineer (Red Concepcion), but as the Vietnam War comes to a combustible conclusion, let's just say it tears them apart.

So the show's setting is split between 1975 and 1978, as all three main characters--plus Chris' soldier pal, John (J. Daughtry)--have somewhat moved forward, albeit with strong ties, emotional and otherwise. 

Most demonstrably, the singing from everyone in this production is outstanding, including Festa & Bautista on several Chris/Kim duets, each of them individually--"Why God Why" notably by him; "I'd Give My Life for You" by her--and by Christine Bunuan, heading up "The Movie in My Mind" as a call girl named Gigi.

There are several other fine songs including the touching and informative "Bui Doi" led by Daughtry as John, and among much fine staging and choreography by Bob Avian, a fantastic Act II production number, "The American Dream," that Concepcion "engineers" fantastically.

But this viewing of Miss Saigon didn't consistently wow me as much as I hoped, certainly not as much as Hamilton--which I saw for the third time earlier this month--nor Boublil and Schönberg far superior Les Misérables. 

There are times when the music drags and the storyline lags, and though it isn't comparatively an excessively long musical, the first act especially feels like it keeps going and going.

Some of its "pure entertainment" shortages are understandable given the rather grave narrative, but though I was glad to see it yet again--and excited when a helicopter did appear above the stage--for me Miss Saigon didn't achieve maximum elevation, in the realm of all-time great musicals.

And while it may qualitatively compare with The Phantom of the Opera if not Les Miz, thoughts of it as third in a venerated trio mostly harken to another time and place. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Up Close in Skokie: Amid Poignant Songs and Saab Stories, Matt Talbott Invites Us to Hum Along -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Matt Talbott
solo show on "Living Room Tour"
November 17, 2018
Bird Machine, Skokie, IL
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Unlike many people from my home state, I did not attend the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

But my best friend, Jordan, has lived in the community for 30 years and his wife is an Urbana native.

So not only have I visited a good bit over the years, I've been slightly more clued into the local music scene than I might've been otherwise.

I remember the Poster Children catching some buzz in the late-'80s/early-'90s and my pals remain avid fans of a local group called Lonely Trailer.

Rising to some post-grunge alt-rock prominence was another Champaign band called Hum.

I can't recall if Jordan introduced me to them or if I first heard the superb single, "Stars," on Chicago radio--and/or possibly read about them in Rolling Stone--but I bought and liked Hum's 1995 major label debut album, You'd Prefer An Astronaut around the time of its release. 

Because of the C-U connection, Hum probably stayed with me a bit more than some other bands that come and go, but I can't say they've remained top of mind in the intervening years.

I don't own 1998's Downward is Heavenward--which I now see that AllMusic.com cites as "the group's best album [and] a lost classic of '90s rock"--and though it seems that there were a good handful of Hum shows in Chicago this millennium, they escaped my purview.

Still, Hum occasionally comes up in conversation with Jordan, and a few months ago he alerted me to the band's singer/guitarist Matt Talbott doing some "living room shows," including one in my hometown of Skokie, a near north suburb of Chicago.

It seems these shows--in this case throughout the Midwest--are organized by an entity called Undertow Music, which pairs artists with fans who wish to host intimate concerts in their homes.

Understandably, one isn't provided the exact address until you buy a ticket, and I didn't firmly decide to do so until the Friday before Saturday night's show.

I can't speak for any other locales, but in Skokie, the "living room" was actually the production space of a small print shop called Bird Machine, run by a cool guy named Jay who has long created posters for Hum after meeting Talbott when he (Jay) was a University of Illinois student.

And as much as I might have relished hearing a stripped down version of the soft-then-loud "Stars," in the promotional information Talbott made clear that he likely wouldn't play any Hum songs, preferring to "keep that music with the band."

I enticed my friend Dave to join me and after meeting Jay upon arrival--following a fine Vietnamese dinner at Pho Phu Linh across Skokie Blvd.--I introduced myself to Talbott as a mutual friend of Jordan's, and was pleased to find him amiable.

Without doing a headcount, I would guess there were about 30 people assembled, some seemingly with an Illini connection.

Just a bit past 8:00pm, Talbott sat down with an acoustic guitar and shared that the bulk of what he would play were songs written over just the past two months, after he agreed--following some prior reluctance--to Undertow's entreaties to do such an up-close tour.

As such, I don't know song titles, and as Talbott has yet to record or release most of the material, not only was video recording obviously taboo, I feel I should refrain from discussing lyrical particulars.

I'll also be respectfully discreet about a personal tragedy the singer shared with the crowd, but it and other emotional matters infused poignant songs Talbott's wife had told him could be categorized as "grief rock." 

One of these was "Thimbles," which he had originally produced within a trio called Centaur.

The honesty and vulnerability Talbott shared added power to his often somber lyrics, and his clear voice was occasionally abetted by electronic echoes and other effects.

Though his own material came off quite well, a strikingly plaintive rendition of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" was a definite highlight.

Talbott had already done some living room shows, including the night before in Chicago, and he conveyed that despite his initial hesitancy, he's come to love them.

Though off-and-on over the years, Hum continues to be an active entity, with hopes for a new album in 2019.

But the intimacy of Saturday's show clearly let Talbott not only come face-to-face with his fans, it seemingly allowed for his evocative lyrics to be better appreciated sans amplifiers.

And though some nervousness and raw emotion suggested a bit of discomfiture, Talbott's candor, graciousness and humor made for a special night.

Toward the end of the 80-minute performance, he shared an uplifting "Saab" story about a newly-bought, heavily-used car he's taken on the road.

It had broken down a few minutes outside Grand Rapids in recent days, en route to a show in Champaign-Urbana, but his 17-year-old son was able to troubleshoot it back to life over-the-phone. (Jay of Bird Machine featured the Saab in Talbott's tour poster, and the car was parked out front in Skokie.)

Dave concurred that it was a really fine show, and I imagine most in attendance would agree.

Though I go to a number of concerts in football & baseball stadiums, hockey arenas and theaters, with all kinds of lavish accouterments, it was really cool to see a gig in the back room of a print shop in my hometown.

...by a fine musician, good guy and friend of a friend.

And while I fully understand his eschewing the material he created with his primary band, I couldn't help but smile when Matt Talbott--in his only eliciting of audience participation on the evening--asked the audience to, yes, hum along with him.

And thus, I gladly did.