Monday, May 20, 2019

Of Women Acting, Valiantly: 'Into the Breeches' Explores Efforts on the Homefront...and Centerstage -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Into the Breeches!
a recent play by George Brant
directed by Jessica Thebus
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 16

One of the abiding tenets of my life, and this blog, is that the importance of the arts goes far beyond leisure, frivolity and entertainment.

Whether through watching or participating in music, theater, film, literature, comedy, painting, dance or other art forms, individuals and society can--and should--find enlightenment, serenity, therapeutic benefit, genuine sustenance and more.

We often hear about arts education being the first to go when when schools are faced with funding challenges, but to my mind, the arts should be the first to stay.

This isn't specifically the main point being made in George Brant's likable play, Into the Breeches-- now running at Northlight--but it's part of the message that I drew.

The play, directed here by Jessica Thebus, takes place in 1942, when many American men had been enlisted to fight in World War II.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
From the famed Rosie the Riveter poster to films such as Mrs. Miniver, I've long been aware of how women supported the war effort in very tangible ways.

I hadn't considered it before--and though the play is historically-based, I'm not sure quite how widespread this was--but in Into the Breeches, Brant informs that one of those ways was by continuing to stage theatrical productions, despite the deficit of male actors.

Brant initially set the play in Providence, Rhode Island--that city's Trinity Rep commissioned him and premiered Into the Breeches--but with a bit of customization from the the Morton Grove-native and Northwestern alum, as seen in Skokie the story takes place in Evanston.

There, Maggie (the delightful Darci Nalepa) has long aided her husband, the artistic director of the fictional Oberon Theatre, following his lead to the point of being derisively dubbed, "Andrew's Parrot."

But the unseen Andrew has, like many, been called to the front, and though Maggie initially faces resistance from Oberon's main benefactor, Elsworth (Fred Zimmerman), she aims to keep the theater afloat (with her husband's blessing).

She enlists the star--but as we learn, unpaid all these years, even as less-noted male counterparts were--actress Celeste (Chicagoland treasure, Hollis Resnik).

And with the help of costumer Ida (Penelope Walker) and production assistant Stuart (Mitchell J. Fain)--a man not selected to serve--she embarks on holding auditions.

Along with Elsworth's wife, Winifred (Penny Slusher), two young women with husbands serving overseas--Grace (Annie Munch) and June (Molly Hernandez)--become involved.

I won't tell you about any more of the narrative, which does precede somewhat predictably even as it broaches--and resolves rather formulaically--matters of race, homosexuality and gender equality.

Marketed as a comedy, the two-act, two-hour Into the Breeches is more what I'd call a "nice play" than a brilliant or scintillating one.

But it's easily watchable and I give it props for original subject matter, which is far more slyly resonant today than it may seem.

And the entire cast does really fine work.

It seems somewhat boggling that as the Oberon's first female foray, Maggie opts for the troupe to stage Shakespeare's 4-hour, 3-play "Henriad." (Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V)

I guess it serves to suggest than anyone can--and should--have grand ambitions when it comes to theater, and art.

And Into the Breeches offers a heartwarming reminder that, for reasons some may not understand, even under difficult circumstances, the show must go on.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

North Side Story: Genial 'Miracle' Should Delight Cubs Fans, but Isn't a Musical Grand Slam -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A musical 108 years in the making
Royal George Theater, Chicago
Open run

As best I can tabulate, I've seen something like 800 unique theatrical works in my lifetime, most coming in the past 20 years.

And I can safely say that none has had a happier ending than Miracle, a new musical based around the Chicago Cubs winning--in 2016--their first World Series title in 108 years.

As a diehard Cubs fan, that event was one of the most joyous of my lifetime, especially as I attended three Series games (1 & 2 in Cleveland; game 5 at Wrigley).

So, adorned in a Cubs championship t-shirt, I attended Miracle's opening on Thursday night at the Royal George as undeniably part of the target audience.

But I also happened to attend as the second half a theatrical doubleheader, having seen a matinee of West Side Story at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. That show certainly doesn't have a happy ending, but as noted in my review, I believe it to be one of the greatest artistic works of all-time, and the current production is superb.

I don't imagine anyone involved in the development of Miracle--producers William Marovitz and Arny Granat, director Damon Kiely, composer/lyricist Michael Mahler, book writer Jason Brett--would suggest they were creating a musical as monumental as West Side Story, or anywhere near it.

Hence, in large part, it seems quite fair to review it for what it is: a genial musical clearly aimed at Cubs fans wanting to relive the glorious moments of 2016 (while hoping for more). 

In that regard, Miracle is fun, and those arriving at the Royal George in Cubby Blue should find a lot to like well-beyond video highlights of cherished moments. 

Marovitz, a former Illinois State Senator and Broadway investor, and Granat, a partner in JAM Productions, are clearly capable of shepherding a world premiere musical with strong production values. 

Mahler is likely the most notable local composer/lyricist of new works--I've seen his Hero, October Sky and Something in the Game--while Brett and Kiely also bring several fine credits. 

And starting with Gene Weygandt--Wicked, Working, La Cage Aux Folles and much more--as Pops, the 6-person cast includes performers I've seen and liked in several musicals around town.

Brandon Dahlquist is Charlie Delaney--the son of Pops and the deceased Maggie--who now largely runs the family-owned Wrigleyville bar named for her, after having had a promising minor league career as a pitcher. 

Allison Sill is Charlie's wife, Sofia, while Amaris Sanchez and Elise Wolf alternate in the role of their daughter, Dani. I saw Sanchez and she was really terrific. (She had been in On Your Feet on Broadway and on tour.)

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis (Larry, a close friend of Charlie's), Michael Kingston (Weslowski, a neighboring merchant and patron of Maggie's) and Veronica Garza (Babs, another patron and merchant) round out the cast. 

All do fine work, and I would have welcomed a good bit more solo singing from Weygandt, Sill and Butler-Duplessis. 

I also wouldn't have minded a few more cast members to help fill Maggie's Bar during the big games. 

To be clear, Miracle is not a show directly about the Cubs. 

Except on the video screens--so there must have been some team buy-in--you will not see anyone playing Bryant, Rizzo, Lester, Arrieta, Baez, Schwarber, Heyward, Maddon, etc. 

Not so unlike a play I recently saw--The Undeniable Sound of Right Now--Jason Brett's script largely concerns itself with a (fictional) longstanding, family-owned Chicago bar that is facing challenges to stay afloat. 

After a video reel of Cubs seasons that have ended in disappointment, the musical begins at Maggie's with "The Cubby Bear Blues," nicely handled by the whole company. 

After Dani raps "#FlyTheW," we get Charlie--amid Opening Day 2016, after a darn great 2015--declaring "I'm Out," as in refusing to believe in the Cubs anymore.

I get that it's a fairly obvious narrative conceit to loop in the pessimistic, won't-get-fooled-again Cubs fan, and you can't really start this show in, say, 2013. Or after the Cubs lost the pennant to the Mets in 2015. Or when they seemed somewhat on the ropes in Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS against the Giants.

But I don't know anybody who was bailing on the Cubs at the start of 2016, and in doing so--along with having him frequently harangue Pops, Dani, Sofia and others--Brett's script makes the likable (and quite well-sung) Dahlquist feel like a weenie. 

The show, and Charlie himself, comes to eventually realize--and somewhat rectify--this, but even within the bounds of what Miracle aims to be, the storyline feels somewhat askew. 

Believe me, I didn't believe the Cubs were going to win the World Series until the exact moment they did--and the name Rajai Davis still conjures tears & trepidations--but we're supposed to accept Charlie dismissing them as "losers" as they stood at 47-23 in late June?

Upon which he and Sofia sing a tune called "I Hate the Cold," which dreams of leaving town. 

So even in granting that this is a likeable show essentially just for Cubs fans, who will enter and leave with a smile on their faces, it's rather hackneyed. 

Weygandt nicely delivers an ode to legendary announcers--Jack Brickhouse is named, though Harry Caray oddly isn't--called "The Voice Above the Crowd," which was composed by Larry Novak, with lyrics by Julian and Rhona Frazin. 

The rest of the score is by Mahler, who while supremely talented compared to most people, doesn't yet stand with Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb or the greatest of Broadway composers/lyricists. 

Which isn't to suggest his songs aren't at least passable. 

Dahlquist shows his demonstrable talent on "What's the Pitch," considerable imagination--and fine choreography by Dina DiCostanzo--fuels "Do the Superstition," while "You Gotta Have Faith" offers a fun tip of the cap to Damn Yankees' "Heart."

But there is too much similarity in the song styles, and though "Look for a Miracle" caught my ear nicely upon its reprise, nothing was as glorious or mirthful as singing along to Steve Goodman's "Go Cubs Go" as Miracle ended. 

I didn't myself share news of the Cubs' historic victory at the gravesites of any friends & relatives, but that was a truly touching aspect of Miracle, among other fine components.

But essentially this is a minor league musical, with certain core strengths and fine efforts but no real promise beyond its diehard targets. 

Simply as a new piece of musical theater, I only somewhat liked it. Still, upon its unique playing field, I can't deny loving what it's all about.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Stay Cool: Lyric Opera Presents a Wonderful 'West Side Story' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

West Side Story
Lyric Opera of Chicago 
Thru June 2

West Side Story is one of the greatest artistic creations of all-time and--not so coincidentally--one of the most brilliant collaborations ever.

With its retelling of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the musical--which opened on Broadway in 1957--was conceived, choreographed and directed by Jerome Robbins.

The script (book) was written by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Though it didn't capture the 1957 Tony Award for Best New Musical--The Music Man did--West Side Story was presumably pretty close to perfect from the get-go, with its 1961 film adaptation winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.

I've seen stage productions in a variety of places--on Broadway for a 2009 revival, in Chicago on the national tour that followed, in three suburban self-producing theaters (Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Paramount Aurora) and even a summer stock rendition in Sullivan, IL--and have always loved the show.

I think I can confidently call West Side Story my third favorite stage musical of all-time, behind just
The Producers and Les Misérables.

And qualitatively I wouldn't quibble with anyone dubbing it second to none. 

So any solid production is going to delight me, and the one now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago--co-produced with two other opera companies--is certainly that, and often quite scintillating.

I don't believe it's the best rendition I've ever seen, but the Lyric orchestra makes Bernstein's score sound superb, while Robbins' original choreography is beautifully re-enacted and the songs are--of course--sublime.

Bringing genuine Broadway leading man credits--Newsies, Gigi, Bandstand--Corey Cott makes for an excellent Tony; his singing on "Maria" is terrific.

And though--albeit via binoculars from the upper balcony--I didn't sense him having supreme chemistry with Mikaela Bennett as Maria, she too has good stage presence a fantastic voice.

They duet nicely on "Tonight," and she shines on "Somewhere."

From my elevated vantage point, I couldn't distinguish other performers all that precisely, but Amanda Castro (dazzling on "America" as Anita), Miguel Stark Santos (Bernardo), Brett Thiele (Riff) and more all seemed well up to the task.

Though the vast cast pulls from everywhere, it was nice to note longtime Chicago area performers like Ed Kross (Glad Hand) and Bret Tuomi (Officer Schrank).

Directed by Francesca Zambello, this is a rather traditional West Side Story--sung in Broadway stylings far more than operatic--but there's nothing wrong, and much right, about that.

The orchestra is larger than at most Broadway shows, making for a striking sonic richness, while Robbins' glorious group dances--on the Prologue, "Dance at the Gym," "Cool" and more--reproduced by Julio Monge upon a great set designed by Peter J. Davidon, all dazzle.

From what I've read, Zambello's production has been done in many other places, but the Lyric Opera is to be credited for presenting a traditional Broadway musical each year, and West Side Story stands among their best.

For whatever inexact reasons, it didn't feel "OMG! This is the best ever!" but any quibbles are far secondary to my delight.

Hopefully you can find a discount or otherwise reasonably-priced ticket before this run ends on June 2. (Check Goldstar and HotTix)

For even just the quality of the live music--for which you could readily pay a decent buck to hear in a concert hall--serves to make this rendition of a magnificent show with a moving narrative, fine singing, great tunes and killer dancing an especially storied affair.

"Wish I Were Here": Directed by David Cromer, 'Next to Normal' Feels at Home at Glencoe's Writers Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Next to Normal
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru June 16

The dramatic musical Next to Normal opened on Broadway 10 years ago, in April 2009, and ran there until January 2011.

Even more that commercially, the original work--with book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt--was a critical success.

It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning three--though losing Best New Musical to Billy Elliot--and was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

I did not see Next to Normal on Broadway, but on its first national tour, which came to Chicago in 2011, Alice Ripley reprised her Tony-winning turn as Diana Goodman, a suburban mother battling mental illness. 

Prior to Wednesday night at Writers Theatre, I had also seen NTN twice more in strong local productions with lead actresses I found to be terrific.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Though certainly not the first musical to address serious themes, Next to Normal felt groundbreaking for telling a genuinely dramatic story with music, without any traditional "Broadway" song & dance numbers.

I don't think it coincidental that Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, Once and The Band's Visit--all of which won the Best New Musical Tony--followed in its wake.

As I've said in my previous reviews (1, 2, 3) of this show--each time, as now, bestowing @@@@1/2--I think Next to Normal is a great piece of theater, but, due in part to a collection of songs more strong than routinely spectacular, it's not quite on par with my very favorite musicals.

It had been four years since I'd last seen the show, so I was certainly glad to do so again at Writers Theatre, with a fine cast under the direction of David Cromer, a Chicagoan--actually from Skokie, like me--who won a 2018 Tony for directing The Band's Visit on Broadway. (That show also won Best New Musical.)

From having seen Cromer as an actor in A Long Day's Journey Into Night to appreciating his work as a director on The Adding Machine, Our Town--in which he also performed--and Sweet Bird of Youth, I have no shortage of reasons for admiring his talent.

But truth be told, I wasn't blown away by The Band's Visit.

And though I don't have much recollection for details, I can't say I noted obvious ways he made Next to Normal any better than it was before.

Certainly, Next to Normal's Broadway director, Michael Greif, is a terrific one, having directed Rent and 2017 Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, which I think is even better than NTN as a dramatic musical.

Still, it's cool that Cromer came home--he's worked at Writers in the past--to direct a musical that feels as if it could easily take place in Glencoe, whose affluent homes certainly may well contain families that are struggling--in one way or another--more than many might imagine.

Keely Vasquez does a fine job as Diana, in the throes of bipolar episodes that have long plagued her, as she, husband Dan (David Schlumpf) and behavioral health professionals--the always stellar Gabriel Ruiz plays two different doctors, one he imbues with "rock star" moves--try to find the right combination of treatment and meds to bring relative stability and comfort.

Opening song, "Just Another Day"--which also features the Goodmans' two children, Natalie (Kyrie Courter, whose fine voice I recalled from Company last year at Mercury Theatre) and Gabe (Liam Oh, who is remarkable, especially as just a Northwestern underclassman)--sets things up well, while I relish how "My Psychopharmacologist and I" references not only Rodgers & Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things," but, slyly, John Coltrane's jazz cover of it.

Alex Levy rounds out the cast as Natalie's fledgling high school boyfriend, Henry. Together they deliver a great rendition of "Perfect for You."

Well-sung by Vasquez, "I Miss the Mountains" poignantly sheds light on the repercussions of Diana's illness AND its treatment, while Schlumpf--joined by Vasquez and Oh--does a nice job in leading the powerful "I Am the One" (which I included in a "Broadway Rocks" Spotify playlist referenced in this blog post).

Yorkey, Kitt and Greif continue to deserve great credit for creating--from scratch, not as an adaptation--a different kind of musical, with difficult subject matter.

Not every song nor scene transfixes me, but Next to Normal is a show that anyone who loves theater--and not just musical theater--should be familiar with, and Writers, Cromer and co. do it fine justice in Glencoe.

There are characteristics in a couple of the actors I didn't find pristine, but nothing that warrants specifying, as the performances are all strong.

And while Diana's challenges are always front and center, the show isn't merely dour, as it depicts family, resilience, young love and more in rather realistic ways.

It may not be perfect, here or anywhere, but Next to Normal is close enough for this to be a strong recommendation, particularly if you've never seen it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Brilliant by Half: Robert Falls' Stellar Production Can't Solve Imbalance of 'The Winter's Tale' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Winter's Tale
by William Shakespeare 
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago 
Thru June 9

At The Winter's Tale on Monday night, as soon as the lights came up for intermission I turned to my friend Brad and said, "I really liked that."

Perhaps such exuberance shouldn't have been so surprising.

After all it is a play by the most venerated writer of all-time, Sir William Shakespeare, being staged by Chicago's legendary Goodman Theatre under the direction of their world-renowned artistic director, Robert Falls.

Although I generally do not embrace the Bard's work with the passion of people like Brad--a rather devout Shakespearean--I did much enjoy Falls' modernized 2013 production of Measure For Measure.

As with that rendition, as well as Julius Caesar both on Broadway in 2005 with Denzel Washington and in 2013 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and also a production of Hamlet I once saw in Dallas, I usually like when Shakespearean plays are performed in modern dress.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
No disrespect to traditionalists as I've seen a number of fine productions in Elizabethan garb, but somehow the modern dress helps me connect with the language--or perhaps not worry so much about what I'm missing--in ways I've valued.

Never before had I seen nor read The Winter's Tale, but I made a point of reading the synopsis on Wikipedia.

I find that coming in with basic familiarity with the storyline aids my ability to focus in the theater--or in the park--and typically abets my overall appreciation.

And at the Goodman, before intermission--The Winter's Tale is technically four acts, split after two--I was largely enamored.

Sure, the narrative seemed a tad dark as King Leontes of Sicily (an excellent Dan Donohue) goes from King Polixenes of Bohemia's (Nathan Hosner) BFF to mortal enemy at warp speed, as soon as Leontes' pregnant wife Queen Hermione (the always great Kate Fry) convinces Polixenes to extend his visit.

An enraged Leontes becomes certain than his pal had knocked up his gal, and calls for Camillo (the likewise routinely stellar Henry Godinez) to have him offed.

You can explore what happens from there on your own, but with the kings wearing suits, women in relatively contemporary dresses, a minimalist, mirror-laden set design by Walt Spangler, terrific acting including by Christiana Clark as Hermione's take-no-BS pal Paulina and my comprehension seemingly pretty solid, as I said to Brad:

"I really liked that."

And then after intermission, The Winter's Tale seemed to become an entirely divergent, summery affair.

As Brad relayed afterward, the play is known for this imbalance, which gets it labeled a "problem play," not readily dubbed a "tragedy" or "comedy."

He said many productions try to better fuse the tonality, and that he appreciated Falls' going gung-ho with the mirth after intermission, even if it felt far different than what came before.

But while I appreciated some nice comedy from Philip Earl Johnson--whom I recognized from Kenosha's Renaissance Faire--as Autolycus, and work by Xavier Bleuel (Florizel), Chloe Baldwin (Perdita) and others, I can't deny "WTF?" thoughts popping into my head.

More acutely than often I was very much enjoying a Shakespeare play, in part due to its darkness, and then it becomes Monty Python?

The fault, dear Bard, must be with myself, but I have no idea why Sir Will took such a detour.

And I can't say I much cared, except for wanting The Winter's Tale to come to an end.

Given his notes in the Playbill and this discussion with Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times, Falls clearly knew the challenge of taking on this difficult work.

Brad appreciated the ballsiness with which Falls approached The Winter's Tale, and particularly with the strong first half, I can still recommend it.

But in being a follower of Robert Falls on Twitter and knowing his politics to whatever degree that allows, I didn't think it coincidental that this iteration had the capricious, tyrannical King Leontes played by a guy with bright orange hair.

As great theater artists do--and Falls certainly is one--he seemed to using classic theater to comment on modern times (much as he had with his recent adaptation of Ibsen's Enemy of the People).

If anything, the metaphor seemed too obvious, but I appreciated it.

The whimsical second half didn't seemingly allow for such contemporary commentary--as least not acute enough to clue me in--and the statement Falls seemed to be making became muddled.

A tale of two halves, and for me, only the first was the best of times.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Reverential Introduction: Bruce Cockburn's Songwriting Shines Solo in a Converted Buffalo Church -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Bruce Cockburn 
Asbury Hall at Babeville
Buffalo, NY
May 8, 2019

Last week, I shuffled off to Buffalo for a few days.

Purely a leisure excursion, this was prompted by a variety of desires, as although I had technically been to Buffalo twice, I had never really spent time exploring the city.

I wanted to explore the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, tour two public Frank Lloyd Wright houses and visit nearby Niagara Falls, though I had before.

I did all these things enjoyably, and as something of the impetus for this trip at this time, saw The Who last Thursday night in KeyBank Center. Backed by an orchestra, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey delighted. I'll be seeing The Who again next week in the Chicago area, so will lump together the reviews.

This week in Buffalo I might have ponied up to see the touring musical Dear Evan Hansen once again, but last Wednesday there were no theatrical performances of note, so I went to see Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.

I bought a ticket just that afternoon, as though Cockburn's is a name I've long heard--it's pronounced Co-burn--I really didn't know any of his music (he's only been putting out albums since 1970).

He played, solo, at a venue called Asbury Hall at Babeville, which was a 5-block walk through Buffalo's rather sleepy downtown from my Hotel @ the Lafayette.

The 1,200 seat concert hall is in a converted church, built in 1876 but slated for demolition around 1995, upon which Buffalo musician Ani DiFranco and her Righteous Babe Records label bought and renovated the building, which got christened "Babeville."

Even for a Jew like me it was a pretty cool place to see a concert.

Cockburn, long legendary in Canada, filled the place, but I was able to get a good single seat at face value.

The singer, who will turn 74 on May 27, took the stage around 8:15pm, without any opening acts or accompanying musicians.

Literally my only pre-existing familiarity with any of his songs came from the few I heard via Spotify on the walk over.

So audience applause at the outset of some songs was what clued me in on what could be considered his classics, but from the opening "States I'm In"--which leads off his most recent album, 2017's Bone on Bone--I enjoyed everything I heard. 

The show was essentially a master class in songwriting and acoustic guitar playing, with Cockburn eminently gracious and affable.

Played second was "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" from 1984, a terrific song whose lyric "Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight" was familiar to me because U2 had reverentially referenced it in their own "God, Part II" a few years later.

You can see Bruce Cockburn's Buffalo setlist here, with "Cafe Society," "3 Al Purdys" and "Jesus Train" being new songs I particularly noted--again, I didn't know the dates of origin during the show--along with what I now know to be oldies:

"Last Night of the World," "Peggy's Kitchen Wall," "If a Tree Falls," "Call It Democracy," "Wondering Where the Lions Are" and "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." (The 2001 compilation album Anything Anytime Anywhere seems to be one I should explore.)

Cockburn took about a 20-minute set break but played 19 songs over 2+ full hours, and I was genuinely quite impressed.

I've long said--somewhat joking though largely not--that rock music is my religion.

And though this wasn't really a hard-rocking evening--and I can't say I loved Bruce Cockburn nearly as much as I did The Who--it certainly was an apt and special setting in which to learn about someone I should've known long ago.

Who would've known a free night in Buffalo could wind up being so spiritually fulfilling?

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Light Up, Light Up: With Occasional Drifts, Snow Patrol Reigns at the Riv -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Snow Patrol
w/ opening acts We Are Scientists, Ryan McMullan
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
May 7, 2019

I've liked Snow Patrol all the way back to their 1998 debut album, Songs for Polarbears, which based on the setlist from Tuesday's show at the Riv, the band itself seems to have forgotten about.

It's impressive that the quintet hailing from Northern Ireland (though formed in Scotland) continues to successfully exist all these years later.

I've owned most of their albums, like several songs and first saw them, at the Riv, in 2006. I also caught them opening for U2, twice, in 2009.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Gary Lightbody appears to be one of rock's most affable frontman, and I love watching--on video--massive UK festival crowds sing along lustily with syrupy anthems like "Run" and "Chasing Cars.

2018's Wildness was Snow Patrol's first studio album in seven years, and I was happy to see them again at the Riv on Tuesday night.

With a good balcony seat and two fine opening acts--Ryan McMullan and We Are Scientists--it was a solidly enjoyable evening, and a satisfying performance from a really good band.

That I can't call it astonishing or phenomenal--and am awarding @@@@ (out of 5)--doesn't represent any notable knocks, qualms or disappointments.

That's just kinda where it tops out.

From the opening, "Take Back the City," the band sounded strong, and there were some nice visual backdrops and lighting cues.

But no one except Lightbody draws much attention to themselves, and though Gary's remarks were expectedly genial and gracious, he's not exactly Mick Jagger or Freddie Mercury.

Played 4th, "Empress" is a really nice song from Wilderness, but Snow Patrol hasn't much expanded beyond or improved upon the Final Straw (2003) and Eyes Open (2006) albums.

"Run," "Chasing Cars," "You're All I Have" and some other older songs were the highlights for me, and though new ones fit in fine, few really felt special.

Especially with Lightbody being openly candid in recent years about struggles with depression, it's hard not to root for the guy, who constantly seems to wear a bemused grin.

But he and his bandmates--most from the beginning--are now in their 40s, and I haven't--still--noticed  tremendous evidence of any continuing musical growth. (Even albums prior to Wildness were just so-so.)

"Just Say Yes" made for an energetic closer after neary 2 hours, and indeed I would say, "Yes, I liked Snow Patrol at the Riv."

But the ongoing accumulation just doesn't appear to be that great.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

International Pop Overthrow: Celebrating Chicago Rock Clubs, 'The Undeniable Sound of Right Now' Strikes a Powerful Chord -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Undeniable Sound of Right Now
a play by Laura Eason
directed by BJ Jones
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 16

Even more so than "Is it good?" the most obvious question anyone might ask about a play is:

"What's it about?"

My inability to almost ever answer that question succinctly serves to explain why I like writing long-winded theater reviews on this blog.

For almost all professional plays, especially really good ones, wind up being about far more than their surface-level, sound byte subject matter.

A truly great, compelling play can be about almost anything, speak and appeal to almost anyone, regardless of demographics, proclivities, etc.

As such, I don't feel that anybody should limit their theatergoing to plays (or musicals) that acutely interest them. The same sort of reasoning applies to movies, TV shows, books, museums, etc.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Since long before I began writing reviews, and far prior to being invited to do so, I've attended plays across a vast spectrum of topics, and feel I am far richer for it. 

This said, although I didn't know too much about it before arriving Monday night at Raven Theatre, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now by Laura Eason more directly correlates to my interests than most plays I've ever seen.

And I found it to be terrific.

Based in 1992, it's set in the fictional Hank's Bar, a venerated but decidedly scruffy music venue in some non-posh section of Chicago.

After the play, I was told that Lounge Ax--a Lincoln Avenue club from 1987-2000--served as a clear point of reference, but my mind conjured other spots as well, from the before-my-time The Quiet Knight, Kinetic Playground and folky Earl of Old Town, to the extant Schuba's, Martyrs, Elbo Room and Empty Bottle.

Now in its 36th year, Metro seems to correspond with Hank's folklore for having hosted early shows by unknown bands that would become famous, though I was surprised to just find on that Nirvana's first local gig was at Club Dreamerz in Wicker Park, which I hadn't heard of.

Although I'm a huge rock fan who started attending Chicagoland shows around 1983--and have been to my share of small clubs down to 50-people rooms--I was a suburban kid who mainly went to arena shows, then was in college and Los Angeles in the late-'80s and early '90s.

So my personal nostalgia for places like Hank's bar is more appreciative than actual, but the concept of The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is one that really speaks to me, including in Hank (wonderfully played by Jeff Mills) ruing the rise of club DJs in lieu of live bands.

Written a few years ago by Chicagoan Laura Eason, who per promotional literature was once in a band called Tart, the play centers around Hank, who has built a reputation in the rock community for helping break many a new band, and though greying, still loves to do so.

But The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is somewhat about changing times and tastes, and Hank is resistant when his 22-year-old daughter Lena (the wonderful Lindsay Stock) suggests they book a DJ on a slow night.

Nash (Henry Greenberg) happens to be such a DJ, and he and Lena develop an interest in each other that isn't only professional.

Lena's actual mom isn't in the picture, but Bette (the always excellent Dana Black) serves as a beloved mother figure, while Christopher Acevedo is empathetic as Hank's employee Toby, who also has feelings for Lena.

Casey Morris rounds out the cast as Joey, who as the son of Hank's original landlord, is now largely handling things regarding occupancy.

While I definitely would recommend The Undeniable Sound of Right Now to those who love rock music and recall the early '90s Chicago scene--there are references to the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, Material Issue, Jesus Lizard and more--the family and relationship aspects also work well.

I much admire Eason's script--the kind I wish I could write--but I could palpably imagine her tinkering with choosing crisis points, deciding which of the three young men should capture Lena's heart, ironing out the ending, etc.

And while understanding that every modification has reasons for and against, I'm not convinced all the choices worked into the finished piece were the best options.

Dramatic license is certainly understandable, but aspects like Hank operating all those years with no lease, the happenstance of an unused warehouse next door in which Nash can host a rave, a death that feels rashly opportunistic, etc., are things that just kind of made me squint.

There's also fuzziness about Nash, his motives and possible drug use. And repeated mentions of Nirvana and The Clash become a tad overwrought, as though shortcuts to establishing the sanctity of Hank's Bar.

Certainly I know--and somewhat rue, just because it's not my preference--that EDM, DJ-driven dance music has become huge these days, and has been for several years. House music and the legendary Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles are rightfully referenced within the timeframe of The Undeniable Sound of Right Now.

But it still feels somewhat historically askew for a critical juncture in the existence of Hank's Bar to come in 1992, the year before the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Liz Phair all broke big out of Chicago.

Nonetheless, across 90 minutes I was completely engaged, and the adroit direction by BJ Jones--longtime artistic director of Northlight Theatre--helps render the imperfections largely inconsequential to a truly entertaining play.

I hadn't seen Jeff Mills previously--he reminds a bit of The Walking Dead's Jeffrey Dean Morgan--but he feels perfect in the role of Hank.

And while I loved Lindsay Stock in Faceless at Northlight (also under Jones' direction), she's just as fantastic here in playing a cool, yet hot, young woman who's loyal to her dad but also longing to make her own mark.

As I mentioned, Black--who I've seen in shows at Steep and Northlight theaters--is also great, and Acevedo, Greenberg and Morris all do fine jobs.

Especially in thinking that this play likely went through considerable reworkings during its development, I couldn't help wondering how switching around the parts the three young actors play could change the tonality.

But while it's easy to imagine to The Undeniable Sound of Right Now being somewhat different, and possibly a bit sharper, it really is a fine accomplishment--and lots of fun to watch--exactly as it is.

For those about to rock--anywhere, anytime, but especially in Chicago's storied past--I salute you.

And even if it's completely lost on you that Hank plays a riff of Urge Overkill's "Sister Havana"--at least I think that's what it was--you should still greatly enjoy what this play is about. 

Monday, May 06, 2019

Welcome to the Grand Illusion: Dennis DeYoung & Co. Pay Fine Tribute to Broken Styx -- Chicago Theater Review

Concert Review

Dennis DeYoung
(formerly of Styx)
The Grand Illusion 40th Anniversary Tour
Rosemont Theatre
May 4, 2019

I can suggest that it was the popular kids in my early teen years who decreed liking Styx to be unhip, much as they had with Journey and REO Speedwagon.

But I think with the release of 1983's Kilroy Was Here concept album and "Mr. Roboto" single--even though both hit #3 on the charts--the Chicago band that had risen to be one of the most popular in the world largely did themselves in.

Although almost any band would relish so successful an album, after four straight triple platinum smashes, the platinum Kilroy Was Here was seen as an overblown flop and led to the band's breakup.

And while "The Grand Illusion," "Come Sail Away," "Renegade" and "Rockin' the Paradise" have never failed to bring a smile to my ears, my acute interest in Styx was largely quelled way back when.

If you care and are unaware, refer to Wikipedia for the chronology of Styx origins, breakups, reunions, personnel changes, lawsuits, animosity, etc.

But Styx now again tours regularly, featuring two key members from their heyday: Tommy Shaw and James Young, both guitarists and singers.

But their other main--and to my mind, primary--singer and songwriter, Dennis DeYoung, has not been in the brand-name fold since 1999. (Again, refer to Wikipedia and Google for more details on the split.)

I have never seen Styx--which has long toured with a Lawrence Gowan singing & playing the DDY vocal & keyboard parts--and just once had seen DeYoung, at a free suburban festival show in 2008.

On Saturday, Dennis DeYoung--who had founded Styx in Chicago in 1972, with origins dating back to 1961--played the Rosemont Theatre under his own name, with six bandmates including his longtime wife, Suzanne.

And largely to his credit, but also making for strange parallel universes, DeYoung isn't just seeking to remind of his own essence within Styx.

On what continues to be The Grand Illusion 40th Anniversary Album Tour even though it's now 42 years on, DDY's band features rather strong replicants of Tommy Shaw and James Young.

Hence, after Dennis led "The Grand Illusion" with his 72-year-old voice in good stead--though some phrasing was slightly adjusted--guitarist August Zadra sang a strong version of Shaw's "Superstars," while Jimmy Leahey later handled JY's "Miss America."

Although DDY is seemingly legally precluded from referencing Styx in promoting his shows or selling t-shirts, somebody waking up from 1982 and attending this show without knowledge of the intervening years could--without seeing closeups of Zadra and Leahey on the video screens--reasonably believe they were watching an older but credible version of Styx.

As, I imagine, could people seeing "Styx" sans Dennis DeYoung.

In fairness to the band's history, let me note that original drummer John Panozzo passed in 1996, while his bassist brother Chuck--both grew up near DeYoung in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood--only intermittently appears with Shaw/JY's Styx.

Of course, in rock and roll, latter day duality isn't that unusual, as we've had competing ELO, Yes, CCR and Pink Floyd (i.e. David Gilmour and Roger Waters) entities. Likely others, too.

No offense to Zadra, Leahey or the rest of DDY's current band, all of whom performed quite well in Rosemont, but the whole thing unavoidably felt like "Dennis DeYoung's tribute to Styx, featuring Dennis DeYoung."

Without pretending to know what really went down, I continue to hold him in higher regard than Shaw or Young. But geez, it seems the guys should just get together one last time.

Yet that doesn't seem likely, and though it was a bit weird to hear it come early in the evening as part of The Grand Illusion playthrough--it's song #4--I relished hearing Dennis DeYoung sing "Come Sail Away."

And later, as a "greatest hits set," also "Lorelai," "Lady," "Suite Madame Blue" and more.

Not so much "Mr. Roboto," for which I would've easily substituted "Rockin' the Paradise," but many Styx diehards around me seemed to love it.

DeYoung's solo tune, "Desert Moon," came off as a nice treat, while Zadra continued to make a great ersatz Shaw on "Too Much Time on My Hands and "Renegade." (See the setlist here.)

Being back in the Chicago area, DeYoung spoke appreciatively about being able to sleep in his own bed that night, his 49-year marriage to Suzanne (who serves as a backup vocalist) and Styx's playing many Catholic high school dances in their formative years.

In drawing a loud cheer from audience members who were "seeing me for the first time," DDY cheekily asked, "Where have you been? I'm 72 years old."

As a showman, DeYoung straddles the line between theatrical, cheesy and egomaniacal, which in part--and I've been watching old clips--may be why Styx was deemed uncool by the junior high intelligentsia.

And whomever's too blame, it seems truly a shame that he can't fix his rift with Shaw & Young and resurrect Styx. Though he didn't say so on Saturday, it seems clear he would like to.

But with a long, happy marriage and an even longer musical career, no one need shed any tears for Dennis DeYoung.

He still has a strong, compelling voice, and with his Styxish bandmates, he puts on a fun show that brings one presently back to the past.

As a concert experience, I can't quite say it was "The Best of Times," but--especially for just $23 via Goldstar--it was certainly a "Grand Illusion."

Sorry for my crooning and croaking, but here's "Come Sail Away":

Saturday, May 04, 2019

The Kids are More than Alright: Drury Lane Oakbrook Stages a Likable Local 'Matilda' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace, IL
Thru June 23

I've long been a fan of Drury Lane Oakbrook, having attended over 25 shows there since the turn of the century. 

But I now live farther away than I once did, and less enjoy driving, so although it remains one of Chicagoland's best self-producing homes for musical theater, I just don't get there very often.

But I'm also a big fan of the musical Matilda, ever since I passed on an opportunity to see it in London soon after it opened in 2011 (in favor of the dreadful Ghost).
I soon became enamored of the cast album and made a point of seeing the musical when I was in London in 2013.

Although I've never read the 1988 novel by Roald Dahl--whose entire, otherwise estimable oeuvre has been somewhat soured for me by awareness of his antisemitic statements--the story of a smart, spunky girl named Matilda was a joy to witness onstage.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
And though I'd also seen the musical in 2016 on a U.S. national tour after it had hit Broadway, such was my regard for the material--including Tim Minchin's rock-infused score--that I was curious what DRO would do with Matilda as a local production.

Delectably, the cast in Oakbrook Terrace is terrific, including--on opening night--Audrey Edwards in the title role (she alternates with Natalie Galla).

As I said, I've seen Matilda in London's West End and on a Broadway tour, and Edwards genuinely impressed me as much as I could have hoped.

She--and hopefully Galla is just as good--is reason enough for anyone new to this musical to know that Drury Lane is providing a fine rendition.

There are some ways--tangible and not--in which I wasn't as beguiled by this Matilda (as a show) as I was previously, but newcomers should especially find much to like.

Beyond Edwards, there are a whole bunch of talented kids, including Joshua Zingerman as Bruce, which is also the name of one of the better songs.  

The adults are also excellent, led by Sean Fortunato as the cruel headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.

Also good at being bad are Jackson Evans as Matilda's cheeky but often unkind dad--he repeatedly calls her a boy--and Stephanie Gibson as her mom.

Much more genteel are Eben K. Logan as Matilda's teacher, Miss Honey, and Linda Bright Clay as an encouraging librarian, to whom Matilda tells stories.

I won't spell out much of the narrative, but Matilda is a great kid who loves to read, but is mistreated by her parents and--along with classmates constantly threatened to be sent to the demonic "chokey"--terrorized by Trunchbull.

Though tales of individuality, resilience and rebellion/resistance have made for many great musicals--including Annie and Billy Elliot of those chronicling children--Matilda is distinctively powered by some genuinely fine rock tunes, including "Naughty" early on.

I thought the staging of "When I Grow Up"--by director/choreographer Mitch Sebastian--could have been better handled, but the song was still quite well-delivered by the kids, as was Minchin's likewise inspired "Revolting Children."

Led by Evans and Evan C. Dolan, "Telly"--an ode to television, as opposed to reading--makes for a fun way to start Act II. 

While it might sound quite normal and reasonable for me to say I wasn't quite as smitten by a musical in a suburban Chicago production as by a London or Broadway original, I've long known DRO to do truly outstanding work.

So while I did quite enjoy Matilda once again, I was hoping to do so a bit more.

Perhaps it was the lack of newness that made some of the lesser songs feel, well, lesser, and while the scenery here didn't dazzle, I can't say I recall many specifics about the grander productions I've seen.

So for anyone who enjoys musicals enough to want to see stellar ones they haven't yet, this iteration of Matilda definitely merits your attendance.

The cast is excellent, the storyline familiar but enticing, some of the songs truly outstanding and the whole affair enjoyably entertaining.

Bring the kids or--as I did since I don't have any--just yourself. For the "revolting children" onstage at Drury Lane deserve to be hailed.