Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Simmering Tension: Pulitzer-Winning 'Sweat' Finds Sly Power in Its Pertinence -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Lynn Nottage
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 14

There are numerous reasons for the loss of jobs, and the decimation of entire employment sectors:

Automation, societal change, corporate greed, shareholder returns, Wall Street shenanigans, shifting realities, changing priorities, foreign competition, personal shortcomings and more can all be contributing factors.

None of these make for easy targets on which to focus one's anger, so all too often we blame and/or assail co-workers, supervisors, family, friends, minorities, immigrants and more readily identifiable scapegoats.

This is one of the points I believe playwright Lynn Nottage--the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, including one for this play--to be making, artfully, slyly and eventually, in Sweat.

It's a powerful work, all the more so because the 2-1/2 hour two-act is in no hurry to fully reveal itself.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Based in the hardscrabble town of Reading, PA, Sweat--now on the mainstage at Chicago's Goodman
Theatre under the direction of Ron OJ Parson--largely takes place within a bar near a steel mill in the year 2000.

But creating something of a mystery that lasts until the final scenes, it begins in 2008, as a parole officer (Ronald L. Connor) speaks separately to Jason (Mike Cherry) and Chris (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), both recently released from prison and somehow connected.

I'll only partially address their connection by sharing that each is, respectively, the son of longtime plant workers and friends Tracey (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), who along with Jesse (Chaon Cross) regularly visit the tavern where Stan (Keith Kupferer) tends bar.

He had also worked in the mill for decades before a leg injury forced him to quit.

It seems safe to assume that audiences who watch Sweat having taken a glance at the show program or marketing materials are initially more aware of the steel mill's impending fate than the characters who work there, but anyone who's been through a downsizing or closure should be able to relate to the emotions Nottage conjures.

The relationship among the three female co-workers becomes complicated when at least two of them vie for a promotion into a management role, which only one gets.

This puts her in the untenable position of having to share with her pals information they don't want to hear--or worse, keep it from them.

This aspect of Sweat reminded me of Dominique Morisseau's play, Skeleton Crew, which I saw last year at Northlight Theatre.

Economic downturn and its repercussions--on companies, factories, workers, friends,  communities, etc.--is fertile dramatic ground, and it is no knock on Nottage that similarities came to mind.

And while I found Sweat's first act intriguing but not phenomenal, it's to the credit of Nottage, Parson, cast and crew that the work's power and pertinence snuck up on me by the end--without simmer ever obviously turned up to boil.

The show's structure, of scenes in the Reading bar in 2000, divided up among various characters--somewhat also reminding me of the non-war parts of The Deer Hunter--intermixed with a few scenes occurring in 2008 served to pique my interest in the characters, and wonder why Nottage made the time-bouncing choices she did.

But two Pulitzer Prizes--and other plays of hers I've seen--obviously bespeak Nottage being a gifted playwright, and I suspected there was more at play than initially obvious at face value.

The writer began work on Sweat in 2011 and it premiered in 2015 before hitting Broadway in 2017, but--even without being overtly political--it's easy to see it as a piece even more reflective of Donald Trump's America than the slightly earlier times of its setting.

It doesn't provide ready answers, for there often aren't any, and leaves it to the audience to judge certain characters without clearly taking sides.

That's why I mean it as quite a compliment to dub Sweat as deceptively terrific.

It makes its points--at least as I perceived them--sharply, but slyly, not overtly.

So while all of the actors--including Steve Casillas as Oscar, an employee of the bar, and Andre Teamer as Cynthia's ex-husband Brucie--do clearly stellar work, Sweat is a play that ultimately achieves greatness through inspiration, more than perspiration. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Good If Not Quite 'Trey' Bien: Refuge Theatre Project Provides a Solid Introduction to 'Hands on a Hardbody' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hands on a Hardbody
a recent musical
Refuge Theatre Project
The Preston Bradley Center,
Chicago (theater website)
Thru April 27

Although it contains several fine songs, in full Hands on a Hardbody isn't a fantastic musical.

And though the rendition by Refuge Theatre Project in Chicago has several excellent vocal performances, as a production it feels more solid than spectacular (and was marred by audio problems on opening night).

Still, it is an enjoyable endeavor that I found endearing and worth recommending on several levels.

Though I've attended shows by dozens of theater troupes in and around Chicago, I never before had heard of Refuge, which professes to specialize in "Under-produced, under-appreciated musical theater."

As a musical that opened on Broadway in early 2013 and closed after just 28 official performances, and--to my knowledge--had yet to be seen in Chicago proper, Hands on a Hardbody would seem to qualify.

Based on S.R. Bindler's 1997 documentary about an endurance competition in Texas in which contestants aim to keep one hand on a pickup truck for the longest amount of time, the musical notably features music by Trey Anastasio, the guitarist and singer of popular jam band, Phish.

Amanda Green, who wrote the lyrics, is credited with co-writing the score with Anastasio. And the show's book writer, Doug Wright, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, I Am My Own Wife.

So particularly in just having put together a blog piece and Spotify playlist noting how rock music has been infused into original Broadway scores of late--I didn't include any of Anastasio's compositions--I was rather intrigued to see Hands on a Hardbody for multiple reasons.

Even the venue utilized by Refuge coolly counts as one of those, as the show is being staged in a grand room on the 4th floor of the Preston Bradley Center in Uptown.

In it, the only real piece of staging is a sculptural rendition of a pickup truck, along with a couple lawn chair for spectators. (There are also 5 musicians on an old stage.)

A nice group number, "Human Drama Kind of Thing" opens the show providing an overview of the contest, and is really the only song in which Anastasio's trademark guitar work stood out to me.

Which isn't to say several of the other tunes weren't good, but anyone explicitly expecting a "Phish musical" likely won't be hooked.

Essentially, each of the contestants--and in a couple cases, their spouses--sings a song outlining their reason for being in the competition, their aspirations, etc., and each tune in this production is deftly handled.

I particularly liked Judy Lea Steele--as Virginia Drew, wife of contestant J.D. Drew (Tim Kough)--belting out "Alone With Me," and Alli Atkenson (as Kelli) and Roy Samra (Greg) do a fine job on "I'm Gone."

Max Cervantes plays an ex-Marine named Chris, whose "Stronger" is quite poignant, while Cathy Reyes McNamara (as Norma) leads a gospel number called "Joy of the Lord."

Derek Fawcett is Benny Perkins, a former contest winner back for another try, while Molly Kral (Heather), Jared David Michael Grant (Ronald), Sebastian Summers (Jesus Pena), Dan Gold (Mike Ferris, a contest host) and Jenna Fawcett (Cindy, a co-host) also do impressive work.

I am not familiar with the documentary, so I don't know how closely the characters in the musical hewed to real-life contestants.

But it felt like there should have been more diversity represented beyond a few Hispanic characters or actors and one African-American man.

For as the audience gets to know each of the contestants, they get to know each other, and it seems such a tale celebrating individuality and eye-opening interaction might include a wider range of characters (Muslims, homosexuals, transgender individuals and/or those with physical impairments).

Although almost all of the songs have inherent quality and are well-delivered here, Hands on a Hardbody doesn't fully overcome the challenges of an episodic show highlighting many different people rather than centering its narrative around just a few. (A Chorus Line, The 30th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Come From Away all solve this issue with more holistic aplomb.)

I didn't come to care about any of the contestants more than any others, and was never compelled to wonder who the eventual contest winner might be.

Understanding that Refuge is probably presenting this show on a fairly limited budget, I also saw spots where director Christopher Pazdernik--who is also the company's artistic director--might have been a bit more imaginative with the staging.

Just as one example, as the somewhat older Drew couple reflects on their lives together on "Alone with Me," why not have a couple dancers representing the youth gone by?

This isn't that original a concept and I don't know what choreography may have been created for the Broadway production, but with rather little innate visual interest given the characters largely being tethered to the pickup, some inspired variance would be nice.

And hopefully it was just an opening night glitch, but several microphones couldn't be properly heard, and loud crackling was unfortunately too present.

Despite the flaws, I want to be clear that I admire the efforts of Pazdernik, cast and crew in not only presenting this musical, but in providing a rather solid sense of it.

Beyond its technical merits--and to some degree, lack thereof--I'm happy to have seen Hands on a Hardbody, and I think it should be worth your time as well.

Especially as you'll spend just 2-1/2 hours in the theater, not several days attached to a pickup truck. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

All That Chazz (by Proxy): It Isn't One of the Great Ones, but 'A Bronx Tale' Musical Well-Merits a Cheer -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Bronx Tale
the musical
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 24

Like many, I imagine, I first heard of A Bronx Tale as a movie, written by and starring Chazz Palminteri, co-starring and directed by Robert De Niro--his first directorial effort--and released in 1993.

The story was actually first created a few years earlier as a one-man play by and starring Palminteri; it played in Los Angeles and Off- Broadway, leading to the film adaptation.

Palminteri--who also enjoyed Hollywood success in Bullets Over Broadway and The Usual Suspects, among others--brought the play to Broadway as a starring vehicle in 2007, followed by a National Tour, which I saw in Chicago in 2009.

By the time A Bronx Tale was adapted into a musical and hit Broadway in late 2016, I found myself dubious about how many iterations the material needed.

And though the musical had a nice Broadway run through the end of last year, my expectations upon entering the Nederlander Theatre Tuesday night in Chicago were rather muted, even in giving the Original Cast Album a few listens.

But with a fine score by Alan Mencken--who's composed many a Disney film--lyrics by Glenn Slater, the book credited to Palminteri (who isn't on hand) and direction, somewhat interestingly, by De Niro and Broadway vet Jerry Zaks, as a musical A Bronx Tale made for an enjoyable evening of entertainment.

No, in referencing one of its better songs, the show isn't "One of the Great Ones," but it's more than solid.

Beowulf Boritt's fine set brings us to Belmont Avenue and 187th Street in the Bronx in the 1960s, where Calogero--which is Palminteri's real first name--lives with his mom and dad in the heavily Italian-American enclave.

Playing Calogero as a young adult, a fine Joey Barriero serves as the narrator, while Frankie Leoni embodies the same role as a younger kid.

Through a quick series of events, Calogero catches the favor of the community's ranking mobster, Sonny (Joe Barbara, reprising the role he originated on Broadway), which causes friction with the kid's bus-driving dad, Lorenzo (normally Richard H. Blake, also part of the original Broadway cast, but on Night 1 in Chicago, Mike Backes handled the role).

"Belmont Avenue" sets the stage as a fine opening number, while "Look to Your Heart" follows with Lorenzo imparting wisdom to young Calogero, who soon leads, "I Like It" about his newfound respect in the neighborhood.

All the singing voices are strong, particularly Barriero's and Barbara's, the latter standing out on the glib "Nicky Machiavelli" and the shrewd, "One of the Great Ones."

Interweaving with the storyline about Calogero becoming involved with Sonny's crew is one where he is smitten by an African-American classmate named Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell) at a time when even his friends are grossly intolerant.

Also meriting mention is Michelle Aravena as Calogero's mom, Rosina.

Even with an intermission, A Bronx Tale barely reaches two hours, so is one of the shorter two-act musicals you'll ever see.

With little non-sung dialogue, it is nicely paced, and the songs are strong enough to justify this material being turned into a musical.

Although this really should be true of any musical, A Bronx Tale feels like a show suited for wives bringing their husbands along, and not having them grumble.

But while it's certainly not unwelcome in moving along quite quickly, a few narrative weaknesses make this musical feel as though it's comfortable not quite being one for the ages.

Discord between Calogero and his dad over both the friendship with Sonny and the relationship with Jane feels like it never really plays out to a boiling point, and it seems like Rosina gets rather little stage time (though Aravena nicely handles the "Look to Your Heart" reprise in Act II). Other aspects also seem a tad curt.

As I tried to explain to my Uber driver on the way home--whose musical theater knowledge seemed pretty much limited to West Side Story, and even then just barely--A Bronx Tale just isn't as brilliant a show as Hamilton, nor Dear Evan Hansen, which it is following at the Nederlander (long known as the Oriental).

There really isn't anything groundbreaking or earth-shattering here.

But as a new musical included in my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, it turned out to be an unexpected pleasure.

Not every show can be the very best, but if it's robustly entertaining, that's good enough for me, especially on a random Tuesday night in March.

And even though it's not one of the great ones, as a musical--like as a play and movie--A Bronx Tale does itself more than proud. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Broadway Rocks -- Featuring a Playlist of Rocking Tunes from Musicals of Fairly Recent Vintage

The musical theater genre--colloquially known as Broadway, given its pinnacle locale--existed far before the advent of rock and roll.

And even after rock rose in the mid-1950s, for quite awhile the two idioms rarely overlapped.

1957's West Side Story focused on youth culture, and 1960's Bye Bye Birdie was acutely inspired by Elvis Presley, but neither musical could really be said to rock.

It seems that the counter-cultural phenomenon, Hair, which opened on Broadway in 1968, merits being considered the first rock musical, but it's not like a slew quickly followed.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, the early musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber--Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, all 3 with lyrics penned by Tim Rice--are quite rock-oriented, having begun as concept albums perhaps inspired by The Who's Tommy, the first rock opera on vinyl.

There was a sprinkling of other rock-infused musicals in the '70s and '80s--Godspell, Grease, The Wiz and Chess--among them, but it was a handful of prominent shows in the 1990s that really helped strengthen the connection.

Presented onstage for the first time, The Who's Tommy had a nice run on Broadway beginning in 1993, and three years later, the massively successful Rent likely became the most notable rock musical ever, especially among those with songs written specifically for the theater.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch--its lead character seeming inspired by David Bowie, who along with Alice Cooper, T-Rex, KISS, Meat Loaf and others, helped make rock concerts far more theatrical--opened Off-Broadway (a Broadway staging wouldn't take place until 2014).

And with its smash London bow in 1999, Mamma Mia--featuring the songs of ABBA--firmly established the jukebox musical, by which Broadway musicals are created and marketed around well-known songs and artists, typically from the rock canon. (The show hit Broadway in 2001 and has toured everywhere).

From the terrific Jersey Boys chronicling the Four Seasons to the kitschy fun Rock of Ages, featuring tunes by Journey, Def Leppard and more, to myriad others of varying degrees of creative merit--see a list of Jukebox Musicals on Wikipedia--these shows have made rock music fairly ubiquitous within the parlance of musical theater.

I don't mind a good jukebox musical--Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is terrific theater--and though I still predominantly love rock music, as I always have, I also unabashedly love more traditional Broadway scores, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb, Bock & Harnick, Boublil & Schönberg, Stephen Sondheim and many others.

Although I was indoctrinated to Broadway as a child, I didn't really get into it as an adult until around the year 2000. And part of the reason for that was because in terms of new music by new artists, rock and roll had left me somewhat cold.

In large part--again referencing anything new, not legends playing live--it still does.

So beyond the jukebox musicals, it has been interesting and fun to note how rock music has made its way into original musicals, particularly over the past dozen years.

To highlight this, I have put together the Spotify playlist below, featuring rock-infused songs from Dear Evan Hansen--I just saw it last week--and many other shows, essentially dating back to Spring Awakening from late 2006.

I did include one song from the the 2014 Broadway production of Hedwig starring Neil Patrick Harris, but otherwise have limited this to songs from shows of the past dozen years or so.

So no HairRent, Hairspray, etc., and I also avoided Jukebox Musicals. These are all tunes written for the shows they originated in. I think it makes for a nice listen and while some songs could fairly be described as "rock-ish," at least a few could really compete with most modern rock tunes.

Though he didn't fit into my explanation above, I think Elton John should be mentioned in terms of the merging of rock and musicals. He composed the music for several successful shows--The Lion King (initially the movie), Aida, Billy Elliot--and also Lestat.

I didn't including anything from Sir Elton in the playlist--some Billy Elliot tunes rock pretty well but are highly intertwined with show dialogue--but his success, critically and commercially, has likely helped blur the line between rock and Broadway.

Perhaps I should delve into the songs, musicals and songwriters represented in the playlist, but I think you can get the gist from listening, and noting the origins of anything you really like. It's not intended to be exhaustive, but feel free to let me know of anything it would seem I should've included. 

Enjoy the playlist. You can play it below, but if you need help finding it on Spotify, be in touch.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

A Masked Ball: If This Really is Farewell, KISS Goes Out With a Bang -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act David Garibaldi (painter)
March 2, 2019
United Center, Chicago

To my awareness, no rock act has ever so overtly delighted prepubescent boys any more than KISS.

In the mid-70s, they amplified the glam theatrics of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, T-Rex and the New York Dolls while eliminating almost any sense of subtlety, irony or androgyny.

Simplifying the riff-heavy metal of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, the New York quartet--initially comprised of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss--donned full character makeup and costumes while pumping out trashy testosterone tunes like "God of Thunder," "Love Gun" and "Rock and Roll All Nite."

Live--and I was too young to see it except on TV, but was smitten nonetheless--they employed a cacophony of flashing lights, pyrotechnics and explosions.

Though never part of the Kiss Army fan club, my little self ate it up, with KISS Double Platinum becoming a cherished part of my fledgling record collection.

But if the band's foray into disco--see "I Was Made for Loving You"--didn't completely curb my interest, it had waned by 1983 when I was in high school, KISS was out of makeup and Frehley & Criss were out of KISS.

Cut to 1996. On the Grammy Awards, as introduced by Tupac Shakur, the original foursome reappears in full makeup and classic costumes. 

A full reunion tour followed--it should be noted that, sans full regalia, Paul & Gene had kept KISS going with other musicians, including drummer Eric Carr, who would pass in 1991--and in July 1996, I saw KISS in concert for the first time, at the Rosemont Horizon. 

And candidly, I thought they largely sucked. 

I was 27 at the time, so while reliving part of my childhood held a bit of fun, I wasn't that removed from it. 

Sure, seeing the costumes and explosions was cool, but I was acutely struck by how simplistic the songs were and how terribly tinny they sounded instrumentally.

Theoretically, that could have forever cured me of my KISS curiosity, but in 2009 my pal Paolo--who I had met just the year before but who has remained my most steadfast concert and theater companion--convinced me to see them at Summerfest in Milwaukee. 

With Frehley and Criss again gone--replaced, as still, by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer--the show was better, but still would've seemed sufficient. 

But after doing a "Farewell Tour" in 2009 and seemingly frequently threatening to hang up their boots, KISS is now in the midst of their End of the Road Tour, supposedly to last another 2 years. 

And though we didn't get tickets until Saturday morning, and wound up having to sit apart, Paolo and I went to the show that evening at Chicago's United Center.

(Having seen favorites like Tom Petty, David Bowie and Prince pass on in recent years, and other such as Rush, Elton John and Bob Seger retiring from the road, we take "last chance to see" pretty seriously, whether a bit dubious about the marketing or not.)

Again quite candidly, this time around--both nostalgically and musically--I loved KISS.

My seat was in the top deck on the side of the stage, limiting my view of the video backdrop and other visuals, but I could see and hear the four band members just fine, feel the heat from numerous fire blasts and nearly have my ear drums ruptured by multiple explosions.

It was truly an audiovisual feast, and from the opening song--"Detroit Rock City"--KISS really sounded great.

Perhaps Thayer and Singer are just better musicians than Frehley and Criss, or--in donning the same outfits and makeup--at least have far better amplifiers.

Sure, Stanley's incessant, often inane stage patter seemed well in keeping with Saturday coincidentally being the 35th anniversary of the release of This is Spinal Tap, and yes, most of the lyrics are still rather silly, if not outright sexist.

But post-1980 selections--see the setlist here--like "Say Yeah," "Heaven's on Fire," "Lick It Up" (with its inclusion of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" classic scream) and "Psycho Circus"--came off considerably better than I would've imagined.

Childhood joys like "Shout It Out Loud," "Calling Dr. Love," "Do You Love Me" and "Rock and Roll All Night" had me bouncing in my seat, drummer Singer nicely handled piano and vocals on "Beth"--as did Criss back in the day--and tunes like "Deuce," "100,000 Years," "Cold Gin" and "Black Diamond" reminded that KISS had some nice chops on their self-titled debut album, released 45 years ago last month.

I can't quite give the show a full @@@@@, but with a robust 2 hours, there were few moments I didn't at least enjoy, and plenty that I loved.

Gene Simmons turns 70 this year and Stanley is 67. Even with makeup belying their age--and vocally both sounded quite good--the End of the Road is probably indeed near, even if the KISS brand could conceivably carry on with franchises and holograms.

My guess is that they'll probably come through Chicagoland at least once more, but though I won't swear to it, I doubt I'd go again.

So if this really is farewell, I'm glad a 40+ year relationship with some ups and downs has ended with a surprisingly great KISS.

Here's just a bit of "Rock and Roll All Nite," shot by me:

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

In His Own Write: 'Dear Evan Hansen' Provides a Powerful Musical Perspective on Teenage Pressures Amid Today's Technology -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dear Evan Hansen
a musical
National Tour
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 10

Dear Evan Hansen is a great musical, one that satisfies in the moment, contains several songs worth revisiting and even advances the musical theater genre.

Rent, Wicked and Billy Elliot are antecedents that come to mind as musicals that feature rock music and/or focus on youthful identity, individuality and insecurity, while Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Fun Home are even more acute parallels in terms of setting dramatic narratives to music without conventional Broadway tropes.

But Dear Evan Hansen, which was first staged publicly in 2015 and hit Broadway in late-2016--winning Best Musical and five other Tony Awards the following June--feels sleekly contemporary, given its heavy interpolation of social media and the idea of things "going viral."

Obviously, any first-rate musical has to have many moving parts congeal into an engaging and exciting whole, but this show really has pieces that could have felt quite wrong if they didn't come together just right.


Regarding Dear Evan Hansen's subject matter, what I will share seems rather commonly divulged by critics and presumably known by audiences coming in, but especially if you already have tickets or intend to get them--a Chicago return has already been booked for Summer 2020 given that this run is essentially sold out--you may prefer to know as little as possible.

If so, please return here after seeing the show.

But while still trying to be rather circumspect, here goes:

Evan Hansen (played on tour most nights by Ben Levi Ross, who I found to be terrific) is an awkward and unpopular high school senior who sports a cast on an arm he broke over the summer. He has also been seeing a therapist, at whose unseen behest he writes self-affirmation letters--e.g. "Dear Evan Hansen, it's been a good day..."--encouraged by his loving but hectic single mom, Heidi (Jessica Phillips).

As revealed in one of the letters as the show opens, he has a crush on a pretty junior named Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna), whose temperamental senior brother Connor (Marrick Smith) happens to get hold of Evan's letter before he takes his own life.

Because the letter was found on Connor, his crushed parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll), presume he had written it to Evan, who, when asked, is too flummoxed to deny this and even creates a story about him and Connor being secretive friends.

Evan continues this deception with the aid of a friend named Jared (Jared Goldsmith) and--unwittingly--another classmate, Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), which serves to endear him to Larry & Cynthia and enables him to get close to Zoe.

I won't tell you any more about the narrative nor how it unwinds in Act 2, but even in long having Spotifamilarized myself with the music, I--who managed to be unpopular high school without indulging any shameful farces--wondered how well I might stomach Evan's dishonesty.

That I remained largely empathetic is a credit not only the fine performance by Ross, but--very much in support of each other--the dexterity of Steven Levenson's script, Michael Greif's direction (he also notably helmed Rent and Next to Normal) and the score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are both credited with music & lyrics.

Pasek & Paul have had a fantastic run, responsible for the stellar A Christmas Story: The Musical and composing the films La La Land and The Greatest Showman, and Dear Evan Hansen is filled with savvy, often punchy songs including "Anybody Have a Map?" (shrewdly about the challenges of parenting), "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," "Sincerely, Me," "Disappear," "Only Us" and the empowering "You Will Be Found."

That the music is so good doesn't allow the questionable pathos of the story to ever sap the show's strong tonality, and Greif's direction ensures scenes and music segue seamlessly, without over-sentimentalizing things.

As I alluded above, the various parts really weave together well.

Including the set design by David Korins, with its superb digital representation of social media and the way it can mushroom.

All that said--and @@@@@ well-merited--the first acts feels considerably stronger than the second, both musically and narratively.

The whole thing is fresh and powerful enough to make for a terrific night of theater, but if one has qualms about Evan's character--and to what degree he ever faces the music--well, you likely wouldn't be the first to have such thoughts.

But one more thing worth championing about Dear Evan Hansen is that it's a rather rare new musical with a story written fresh for the stage. In other words, it's not based on a movie or a book and it isn't a jukebox musical wrapping around famous songs.

So especially given how the whole affair intertwines excellently, ceding some dramatic license seems fair; in large part this is a musical that really could be considered a compelling drama.

It was also great to see so many teens helping to fill the newly re-christened James M. Nederlander Theatre--formerly the Oriental--and as long as they're informed of theater ettiquette (phones all the way off, no talking, etc.), any show bring youthful vitality to the Broadway idiom feels particularly "Dear" to me. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

That'll Dü: From Past to Present, Bob Mould and Band Blister the Metro -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Mould w/ band
opening act Beach Bunny
Metro, Chicago
February 23 (also played 2/22)

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the legendary Bob Mould said:

“Somebody once tweeted something like, 'Oh, my God. I’m at a Bob Mould show, and it seems like it’s been an hour and a half of the same song. It’s incredible.' 

At first, I sort of took offense to it, and then I realized, no, that’s actually like, ‘Oh, cool.’ Yeah, so it’s all just one big thing.”

I'm fairly certain I am not the Tweeter Mould was referencing, but I can't deny thinking something similar, largely in a reverential way.

For at age 58, the singer/guitarist/songwriter initially famed for being in Hüsker Dü remains a rather singular force of nature.

Especially when playing with a band, Mould plugs in howls--vocally and instrumentally--for 80-90 minutes with hardly a breath or moment of dead air in between songs.

And whether with Hüsker Dü in the '80s, an early '90s trio called Sugar or as a solo artist, Mould's stock-in-trade has been smouldering rock songs that wrap clever melodies and incisive lyrics within guitar-fueled aggression.

Hence, both to the adoring and the adverse, there can be plenty of similarity over the course of one of Mould's concert performances.

Saturday night was the 11th time I've Bob Mould live on a stage, the first having been in 1994 with  Sugar--technically, I'm not too young to have seen him with Hüsker Dü, but I wasn't hip enough to know it at the time--and the others in a variety of incarnations (full-band, solo with acoustic guitar, solo on electric guitar and acoustic with an another such accompanist). 

He has been stellar in every guise, but over the last decade or so, when playing with Evanston's Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wuerster from the band Superchunk on drums, he has been especially mind-blowing.

To the point that a superlative show is pretty much a sure thing, as reiterated at Metro, a great Chicago venue he has blistered often.

Whenever tickets went on sale for Friday and Saturday's gigs, I did not jump on getting one.

But last week I realized it had been over two months since I'd been to a concert, and with tickets remaining--they sold out by show time--and the Metro able to accommodate my request for a seat in the balcony, I couldn't resist the chance to see Mould for the first time in 3 years, figuring it a certainty I'd be thoroughly rocked.

And I was.

If you've seen Bob Mould at full-tilt, you probably don't need to be reading this review to know how wondrous he is--especially with Wuerster and Narducy, both outstanding sidemen.

And if you haven't, this isn't going to explain something that can't be explained. It's a unique visceral experience, perhaps akin to standing amid a howling windstorm, joyously.

But you--and especially the 3 pals who accompanied me at the show--may wonder why I awarded @@@@1/2 and not a Seth Saith maximum of @@@@@.

Certainly, it's an inexact delineation, but though there were many blissful moments among the 90 or so minutes Mould & Co. were onstage, it seemed a tad less frenetic than past shows of his I've seen.

If he's slowing down just a bit as he gets older and--per the Rolling Stone interview and his latest album titled Sunshine Rock--seems to be happier, that's really only a good thing.

Mould remains truly incredible, had also played Metro the night before and actually played about 10 minutes longer than past full-band shows have typically yielded.

As I reflected on in my most recent theater review, what I'm really gauging in offering my opinion--and rating--of any show is my emotional experience.

While this was as awesome as can be during Mould's opening quartet of "The War," "A Good Idea," "I Apologize" and "Hoover Dam," seven of the subsequent 21 songs--see the setlist here--came from Sunshine Rock, which was just released on February 8.

While I've repeatedly listened to and like that album--which in its essence isn't all that different from 2016's Patch the Sky, 2014's Beauty and Ruin, 2012's Silver Age, etc., etc.--the songs have yet to fully soak in, hence a sense of sameness was exacerbated midway through the set..

I long ago realized that it doesn't matter all that much exactly which songs Bob Mould chooses to play at a given show, as the torrid soundscape is brilliant regardless.

But eschewing Sugar's "Your Favorite Thing"--which had been in all the tour setlists before Chicago--not only eliminated one of my absolute favorites, the show could have used its poppy, melodic and presumably well-known punch.

The 25 songs did include seven from Hüsker Dü--if you include their cover of the Mary Tyler Moore theme, "Love is All Around"--along with three from Sugar and more recent gems like "I Don't Know You Anymore" and "Hey Mr. Grey."

So as Mould is soon to commemorate 40 years of making music publicly with a pair of upcoming shows in St. Paul, he well demonstrated that he's long been a master at multiple crafts: songwriting, singing, playing guitar, delivering thunderous concerts, etc.

And it's certainly to his credit that brand new tunes like "Sunny Love Song" and "I Fought" can slot in seamlessly with Hüsker Dü classics like "Chartered Trips" and "Makes No Sense at All."

Though he didn't say anything about it in introduction, it was also cool that he opened the encore--alone--with "Never Talking to You Again," a Hüsker Dü song that his late, supposedly long estranged bandmate Grant Hart had written and sung. 

Clearly, Mould has set a high bar, and strictly in terms of his performance alongside Narducy and Wuerster--with a nice opening set from Beach Bunny--he cleared it.

One wonders how long he can rock at 180mph, but even if he moderates to 150mph, it seems he should still be in great stead for a few more years, at least.

But I just didn't find myself staring breathlessly with mouth agape as at some past Mould band shows, and along with ripping through "Your Favorite Thing"--as he delectably did "If I Can't Change Your Mind"--I think he'd been well served to swap out a couple new tunes for some that have had a chance to germinate a bit more. ("Stupid Now," "Underneath Days," "Egøverride," "Lucifer and God" and the Sugar B-side "Needle Hits E" being just a few possibilities among those I cherish.)

I hope these are taken as the minor quibbles that I intend them, for once again Bob Mould delighted me plenty.

And among friends, with a balcony seat, at a classic Chicago venue, what's 1/2@ mean anyway?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Dinner with a Deity: At Lookingglass, 'Act(s) of God' Works Best Beyond the Spiritual -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

Act(s) of God
a new play by Kareem Bandealy
directed by Heidi Stillman
Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 7

Over the past few days I have seen two plays I didn't love--including the one I'm reviewing here--and a concert I did love but not quite as much as the pals I attended with.

I also happened to have conversations--somewhat coincidentally, someone not--about how I approach writing reviews, particularly when I was less than enthralled with what I saw.

Especially as I am posting my reviews on a personal blog, my goal is to honestly convey what I experienced and felt. I don't believe there are absolute determinants of good and bad, or "OK" and "Oh Wow!," but rather how one's emotional embrace--along with more mental assessments--gauges a work along the spectrum.

Which, in the case here, runs from @ to @@@@@, with 1/2@ increments.

Two of the people I was talking to are among my most theater literate friends, and in being complimentary, each agreed that I am almost always deferential, even about shows I candidly didn't like.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
I hope that comes across here because although I can't say I am much enjoyed nor felt considerably enriched by Act(s) of God, there is still much to be admired.

Though I haven't attended Lookingglass Theatre as much as I have Goodman, Steppenwolf, Northlight or some others, I have found it to be among Chicagoland's--and therefore the country's--best self-producing, non-musical theater ensembles.

The last show I saw there, Mary Zimmerman's The Steadfast Tin Soldier, was one of the greatest things I have ever seen on stage.

I think it's cool that Act(s) of God was written by Kareem Bandealy--to this point more known as an actor--and regardless of what I thought, its staging bespeaks an estimable effort, including by director Heidi Stillman, the Lookingglass crew and a terrific cast.

I have enjoyed Shannon Cochran in a few shows in recent years, and as "Mother" she is stellar here, including in belting out something of an operatic aria. (This isn't a musical.)

Rom Barkhordar does a nice job as a quirky, nap-loving Father, and as their three grown children, Kristina Valada-Viars (Eldest), Anthony Adams (Middle) and Walter Briggs (Youngest) are all really good.

So too is Emjoy Gavino as Middle's fiance.

Though I am not myself religious, I didn't inherently mind that Act(s) of God presents some spiritual themes, especially as part of the point is delineating how different members of the family have differing views on religion.

Without needing to spell out much, the three-act play of 2-1/2 hours, takes place in 2029, a time when certain things have changed--nobody drives anymore--but heavy volumes of physical junk mail still exist.

A piece of such that Mother sifts through is hard to open, harder to discern and open to interpretation, but she determines that it says that God will be joining the family for dinner.

I'm not going to reveal if He (or She) ever actually does, and while this is the subject of considerable dialogue, I found that the overtly religious and seemingly absurdist aspects of Act(s) of God were the weakest.

Arguments among various pairings of kinfolk, especially Eldest, a lesbian artist, and her successful businessman Middle brother contain some really biting dialogue.

Certainly, even with its supernatural elements, Act(s) of God can be considered a family drama, but I thought this was far more engaging at face value that any of its weirder parts.

I won't brazenly dismiss whatever Bandealy is trying to say, but not only didn't I get it--and absurdist theater is something with which I admittedly struggle--I can't say I much cared.

The actors do fine work, and scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge demonstrably does as well.

As I tried to allude above, this isn't me telling you that piece is bad nor that you shouldn't see it.

Just that if your perspectives and tastes are somewhat similar to mine, be forewarned that I wasn't all that smitten by Act(s) of God.

Of Young Women and Wisconsin Nights: Rebecca Gilman's Entertaining 'Twilight Bowl' Isn't Completely Up My Alley -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Twilight Bowl
a world premiere play
by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Erica Weiss
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 10

The rise of Rebecca Gilman as a highly-regarded, often-produced playwright largely coincides with my becoming a voluminous theatergoer.

Though it doesn't precisely cover either occurrence, "the 21st century" is a roughly accurate timeframe for both, as four of Gilman's most noted plays--Boy Gets Girl, Spinning Into Butter, Blue Surge and The Glory of Living--were first produced in 2000 or 2001. This is pretty much when I went from going to a play (or musical) or two per year, to a handful each month.

So it is somewhat surprising to me that Twilight Bowl--now in a world premiere at Goodman Theatre--is only the 4th Gilman play I've seen, all at the same venue.

I didn't much care for Dollhouse--her adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play--nor A Brief History of the Johnstown Flood, but I greatly enjoyed Luna Gale in 2014.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Twilight Bowl falls somewhere in between, neither a strike nor a gutter ball, and perhaps much more appealing to its target demographic.

Typically, I feel that truly great theater should appeal to anyone regardless of any specifics in its subject matter or characterizations.

For example, Luna Gale is about a couple of rural, meth-addicted teens who have had a baby, and I found it quite compelling, in large for humanizing people I likely wouldn't much see or think about in real-life.

This too is the main strength of Twilight Bowl, which chronicles five young women in a small Wisconsin town, and another from Winnetka who happens to be there for a night.

Across 90 minutes, Gilman's dialogue--under the direction of Erica Weiss with fine performances from the six actresses--kept me sufficiently entertained.

Initially we learn that the somewhat salty Jaycee (nicely played by Heather Chrisler) will be separated from her pals for awhile.

So too, for different reasons, will her cousin Sam (Becca Savoy), an employee of Twilight Bowl and the best bowler of the bunch.

Clarice (Hayley Burgess), who also works at the alley, is seemingly Jaycee's closest friend, as enunciated by her being the most taciturn at the going away party.

And though well meant, the overt Christianity of Sharlene (Anne E. Thompson) isn't what Jaycee wants to hear at the moment.

Jaycee's small going away party is the opening scene, occurring with the four aforementioned girls seemingly high school seniors--or perhaps recently graduated--and each subsequent scene moves the timeline forward.

The second scene involves another Twilight Bowl employee, Brielle (Mary Taylor), interacting with Maddy (Angela Morris), the affluent Chicago suburbanite who--in something of a stranger-in-a-strange-land thread--stops at the alley over Thanksgiving break from the Ohio State University, where she's a freshman with Sam.

This introduces all the characters, and the play takes us forward a few more years.

Interestingly, Twilight Bowl was written by Gilman as a "commission from the Big Ten Theatre Consortium of schools whose theater departments saw a dire need for plays featuring roles for women in their 20s and so commissioned a group of female playwrights to write those plays." [From a Chicago Tribune article by Rebecca Gilman; January 7, 2019.]

I believe the play was only produced at the University of Iowa before the Goodman--which has long presented Gilman's work--opted to stage it in its smaller Owen Theatre.

It's to Gilman's credit that--along with broaching the pressure some feel to succeed in college--she makes us empathetic to the women who don't go to college at all, or not to Big 10 schools, and this piece should well serve the purposes for which it was concocted.

And why, while I think almost anyone might find suitable enjoyment and resonance at Goodman, it may more greatly enrich audiences of young women.

Or Wisconsinites.

For while I liked it, I didn't find it all that insightful nor substantive.

Certainly, there were messages about friendship and religion and people not always being what they seem--in ways both surprisingly good and bad--and Gilman's writing definitely has plenty of wit.

But a few of the characters seem under drawn, and one really not necessary.

In sum, Twilight Bowl is kind of like a pair of bowling shoes.

The time you spend with it is worthwhile--and again, perhaps more so for those who aren't 50-year-old Illinois men without children--but at the end of the night, it really ain't for keeping.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Early Blues Infusion: Writers Theatre Strikes Chord With August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
by August Wilson
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru March 17

At this point, I've seen several of August Wilson's 10 plays chronicling the African-American experience across the decades of the 20th century.

But when I first saw Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Wilson's 1920s installment--written before he planned on doing a series of 10--I didn't really want to.

I certainly don't mean to imply that anyone forced, cajoled or convinced me in a way I regret.

It's just that on a trip to New York in March 2003, I had a desire--and even tickets--to see the hot new musicals at the time: Thoroughly Modern Millie and Urinetown.

But there happened to be a musicians' strike that shuttered every Broadway musical, including those two.

So at the TKTS booth in Times Square, I got myself tickets to see a revival of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom--it had originally opened on Broadway in 1984--starring Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
It also featured Carl Gordon, who I recalled playing Dutton's dad on the sitcom Roc, and Anthony Mackie, who's become something of a film & TV star.

As Ma Rainey was a singer known as the "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey's Black Bottom features a good bit of music played live onstage--which was permissible during the strike--but it isn't officially a musical.

So though it wasn't my first choice in March 2003 on Broadway, I was happy to see it--and I enjoyed it.

I can't say that I remember it thoroughly, so was glad to see it show up on the schedule at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, where I saw it Wednesday night.

And again enjoyed it, about on par with the rating I entered in my "Shows Seen Database" back in 2003.

At Writers, the always superb Felicia P. Fields makes for a fine, feisty and well-sung Ma Rainey, whose recording session establishes  the play's setting, context and structure.

As the show opens, the studio owner, Mr. Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox)--who also seems to serve as the record company profiting from Ma's success--is waiting for her to arrive.

Getting there first are Ma's manager, Irvin (Peter Moore, who I've seen in several shows at Steep Theatre, where he serves as Artistic Director), and then the members of her band.

Playing their instruments onstage, these included pianist Toledo (David Alan Anderson), bassist Slow Drag (A.C. Smith), trombonist Cutler (Alfred H. Wilson) and trumpeter Levee (Kelvin Roston, Jr.).

Levee is a bit younger than the others, and a good bit more wanting to rock the boat, musically and otherwise.

As played by the excellent Roston, he becomes the focal point of the play, even more than Ma, one of whose songs is "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Ultimately, the play is rather charged, riveting and about much more than a pioneering blues woman.

The dichotomy between the men largely willing to respect authority--black or white--and Levee, who can be seen as ambitious, antagonistic, insubordinate and rightfully progressive all at the same time, is striking and rather allegorical.

And the character of Ma, who must battle the white power-brokers--even as she has the upper hand--but also demands strict obedience from her band members, adds to the power of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and what one might take from it.

But as a night's entertainment, I found it too slow in reaching its boiling point, with almost the entire first act devoted to bantering among the band members (who often throw the n-word at each other, in a way that adds insight to the times).

Wilson was too gifted a writer for the rehearsal room repartee and ribaldry not to have considerable charm and even depth, but Act I was more fair than fantastic.

Act II is far better, dramatically, musically--as we get some full-fledged performances--and meaningfully.

So in full, I can recommend Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and--with Cutler's sing-song count-in to each song take stoking acute recollections--fondly appreciate the memories it stirred from my past.

It's a fine history lesson about a musical pioneer--"the blues gets me out of bed in the morning," she states at one point, imparting that art is life and not mere past-time--but ultimately concerning more widespread matters, with Roston's performance particularly powerful.