Tuesday, August 13, 2019

On Point: With Excellent 'Black Ballerina,' Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre Explores World of Classical Dance, Discrimination -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Black Ballerina
a world premiere play with music & dance
by Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze
directed by Tim Rhoze
Black Ensemble Theatre, Evanston, IL
Thru August 25
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The unfortunate thing about Black Ballerina--a genuinely terrific original work being staged by Evanston's erstwhile Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre--is that its underlying themes feel, regrettably, all too familar.

The scourge of racism, whether heinously direct or horridly veiled, remains a terrible stain on the USA and beyond.

Certainly, FJT--which focuses on works about the African-American experience--needs to keep bringing audiences shows that reflect the disturbing realities in hopes of furthering enlightenment and facilitating change.

And Black Ballerina--in which the gifted dancer Kara Roseborough plays women who face racial resistance across three generations--may well be the best production I've yet seen at the theater.

Reminiscent of how adroitly they handled the multi-generational narrative of last year's Home on the Lake--which was also a co-production with the Piven Theatre--Fedo & Rhoze cover essentially the 1950s to the present day.

In doing so, they're able to touch upon the strides made by Misty Copeland--who in 2015 became the first African-American woman to become principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre--and long before her, Raven Wilkinson, credited with having been the first African-American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company, in 1955. 

Black Ballerina begins in 1956 with Roseborough as Olivia, dancing up a storm but being told by a ballet administrator (Jen Gorman) that while she loves her athleticism--à la rising track star Wilma Rudolph--the world of ballet is one of "tradition" and "purity."

The setting will then shift, rather abruptly--but Rhoze's direction minimizes confusion--to the present, with Roseborough as Adrienne, the granddaughter of Olivia. She is about to go on an audition and speaks with her mom, Marie (a strong Shariba Rivers), who was also a dancer.

In other scenes, Marie is represented as a child--of Olivia's--by Bijou Carmichael.

Also figuring in are Adrienne's brother Saiku (Eldridge Shannon) and friend Harvey (Brennan Roche), a friend of the adult Marie named Reuben (Zach Finch), a school administrator (Julie Mitre) and a white ballerina named Taylor (Mikey Gray), who attends the same audition as Adrienne.

Daniela Rukin does a fine job as the onstage pianist, dubbed Miss Molly, while the unseen Béa Rashid serves as co-choreographer with Roseborough.

I won't spell out more specifics of the narrative, but as you might guess, across the generations progress is made but not enough.

Though Copeland's success represents achievement--and, to a degree, acceptance--of African-Americans into the rarefied world of elite ballet that Adrienne so wishes, and seemingly deserves, to enter, ugly perceptions, presumptions, insults and quotas remain.

The injustice is abhorrent; the rationalizations archaic.

It's quite moving and with Roseborough's wondrous dancing and fine acting--among all in the cast--the world premiere is remarkably entertaining and insightful as a well-paced one-act.

And that it feels familiar is much more a knock on our society than FJT's undertaking or Fedo & Rhoze's script.

Showcasing the narrow-mindedness within the classical dance arena is fresh yet will remind of many artistic creations chronicling racism and those with the guts to fight it--films Selma, 42 and Hidden Figures readily came to mind for me--and the narrative arc of Black Ballerina is somewhat predictable.

Sadly.

But it excellently adds insight to the challenges many egregiously must face, very much so still today.

Only four performances of Black Ballerina remain; I strongly suggest you see it.

For even if it sounds like a story you've heard before, in various contexts, the battle against bigotry is one that merits much reiteration. 

And always keeping you on your toes.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Guest Post by Ken: Chance the Snapper. Not a Croc.

So, Chicago has a herpetological reputation, i.e. snakepit of corruption.

But this summer, for a week, Chicago's reptilian reputation was redeemed by an errant alligator.

Someone secretly released a five foot alligator into a city park lagoon.

Public reaction was at first, shock and disbelief. After a few days it morphed into amusement, then finally enthusiastic support as the critter evaded capture.

As the farce continued, quintessential Chicago behavior was put on display.

First authorities obtained a volunteer alligator catcher nicknamed Alligator Bob. (The guy didn't want his last name used for reasons which will soon become apparent.)

News pictures of Alligator Bob showed him endlessly paddling the lagoon in circles while peering into the watery depths with laser-like concentration. After six days this made Alligator Bob look like a befuddled buffoon.

The alligator was now gaining renown and became an underdog (or, I guess, undergator?) for his valiant efforts to remain free.

Remember, this is Chicago, the place that rooted for a guy named John Dillinger for eluding the cops, too.

An online metropolitan contest was conducted and the wily reptile was named "Chance the Snapper".

Even the governor submitted an entry.

Note the name resemblance to the homegrown rapper. He even got into the act via Twitter, lending his support to the little guy's escape attempts.

Then a week long circus commenced.

People, families with children, joggers, fishermen and even tourists came to the lagoon for a chance to see Chance. Food vendors did particularly well. Tee shirt and balloon vendors sold out while stuffed alligator toys were snapped up.

True to form, Chicago always is the "City on the make..."

The lagoon may even have outdrawn the local zoo, especially when Chance became a national news figure. Not as big as Trump but definitely more than Pelosi. (Meanwhile, Alligator Bob was still paddling in circles looking for... something.)

The Saturday night salsa party at the park's boathouse was particularly well attended but Chance didn't feel like busting a move.

I'm not sure if Alligator Bob attended. There were rumors that he went across the border to obtain fireworks in Indiana so he could come back and fish with dynamite.

After a week city officials realized that Alligator Bob had bitten off more than he could chew and did what Chicago pols always do: they brought in a ringer.

An alligator specialist from Florida, Crocodile Frank, was flown in.

Taking a chance at night he snagged Chance with a fishing rod.

Crocodile Frank became an instant hero and even threw out the first pitch at the next day's Cubs game.

And Chance? He won an all expenses paid trip to a 5-star alligator resort, I mean preserve, in Florida.

Crocodile Frank says Chance has it made in the shade for the rest of his life.

Chance happily acknowledged his good fortune by jauntily showing up to his press conference looking dapper in his red bow tie.

The above are just the facts. But those of us who been around Chicago awhile know the real inside story.

Chance might be an alligator but he's no dummy.

After getting stuck with hundreds of dollars in parking tickets and getting shafted by yet another horrendous property tax increase, Chance got fed up. He got into the lagoon, ran everybody around in circles, put on a helluva show... and got the hell out of Dodge by convincing the taxpayers to pay for an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida followed up with a lifetime pension.

Chance learned from the many Chicago politicians who preceded him.

Can't beat 'em... Join 'em.

That's not a crock.

See ya later.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sly and Superfreaky: Black Ensemble Theater Aptly Proves 'You Can't Fake the Funk' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

You Can't Fake the Funk
A Journey Through Funk Music
written & directed by Daryl D. Brooks
Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago
Thru Sept. 22
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Funk

It's a great word and a fantastic form of music.

But particularly in the latter parlance, it's hard to define.

Per Wikipedia:

Funk is a music genre that originated in African-American communities in the mid-1960s when African-American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). 

Funk de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions and focuses on a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer, often at slower tempos than other popular music. Like much of African-inspired music, funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments playing interlocking grooves that created a "hypnotic" and "danceable feel". Funk uses the same richly colored extended chords found in bebop jazz, such as minor chords with added sevenths and elevenths, or dominant seventh chords with altered ninths and thirteenths.

OK, but what does that really mean?

Principally because of their name, I can confidently say that Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk--led by George Clinton and long featuring the great bassist, Bootsy Collins--primarily plays funk.

And sure, I can cite James Brown--often referenced as the progenitor of funk--as well as Sly & the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire and many other great African-American artists, but some of their songs were funk, and others weren't.

So in attending You Can't Fake the Funk at Black Ensemble Theater and pretty much knowing it would be terrifically enjoyable--I've seen several BET shows and the entertainment value is consistently stellar--I wondered how much Daryl D. Brooks' script might enlighten me. 

Brooks also directs the show, and in the program notes he writes:

"While writing and directing this show, I wanted it to just be a big party."

In that regard, he certainly succeeds. 

Clearly inspired by George Clinton, as well as others, Dwight Neal's "Dr. Funk" character serves as a groovy Master of Ceremonies who introduces the many funk luminaries represented onstage. 

And as you can't have funk without fun, the whole affair most definitely is.

Accompanied by BET's funky band--backed by musical director Robert Reddrick on drums--every song performed is pretty much a joy. 

I won't name every tune, as some surprise adds to the element of glee, but we get James Brown's "Cold Sweat," Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," the Ohio Players "Love Rollercoaster," Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" and much more, and that's just in Act I. 

Yes, there's also some P-Funk, but acts such as Rufus & Chaka Khan, GAP Band, Dazz Band and Cameo are also represented, with many songs I did know and some I didn't. 

The show's talented ensemble of nine singers & dancers besides Neal nicely rotate the through the various funk icons--including a properly coiffed Rick James--so I'll just list everyone.
 
First the men: Michael Adkins, Blake Hawthorne, Lemond Hayes, Vincent Jordan--who I believe was the one who wowed as Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire--Brandon Lavell, Stewart Romeo and David Simmons. 

Jayla Williams Craig and Thera Wright were both delightful as well, including in representing the Mary Jane Girls, whom Rick James produced. 

If you're looking for a good time, you'll assuredly get it at You Can't Fake the Funk.

But while I loved the 2 hours spent in the BET's lovely auditorium, I didn't get much more clarity as to what defines funk. 

It's possible some of the song selections and omissions have to do with rights clearances, but I would've expected something by Stevie Wonder--"Higher Ground" perhaps--and while I know a song like "Good Times" by Chic gets automatically categorized as disco, it seems it could have correlated nicely with some of the second act numbers. 

Also, whither Prince. 

Obviously, not everything can or should be included, but I was left without much more awareness as to what constitutes "funk"--and why--and what doesn't. 

BET shows are usually heavier on music and paying tribute than on biography or theatricality, and I don't say that as a great detriment.

Particularly in this case, Neal's Dr. Funk kept the pacing strong and did provide decent capsulized introductions to the artists being showcased. 

So by all means, this is a recommendation if you know you love funk, or the acts I mentioned as being celebrated here.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with loosening up and shaking your ass to some great music, well-performed. 

I was just hoping to learn a bit more while having my mind--rather delightfully--kept in a funk.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The Way She Was: Barbra Streisand Sings Superbly, Kibbitzes Warmly, Welcomes Ariana and Trashes Trump -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Barbra Streisand
United Center, Chicago
August 6, 2019
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In terms of pure vocal quality, is Barbra Streisand the greatest singer I’ve ever heard live?

I don’t know, especially as at her concert Tuesday night at Chicago’s United Center—the first time I’ve ever seen “Babs”—her famed voice seemed a tad huskier than it likely was years ago.

And I’ve been fortunate to have seen not only hundreds of rock ‘n roll luminaries, but most of the top Broadway vocalists of recent decades, numerous top-flight opera singers and star crooners like Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow. Though late in her life, I’m glad I saw Aretha Franklin a few years ago, and just last month caught Diana Ross for the first time. Among many others, I was also truly wowed by Adele.

So who knows? But that at age 77, Streisand still begs the above question, means that she was pretty damn impressive on my initial foray.

Though her whole performance was enjoyable, and she always sounded terrific, the truly “OMG!” vocal moments were somewhat sporadic.

But when they came—on “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “The Way We Were,” “Send in the Clowns,” “People,” “My Man” and in other spots—they were really, truly special.

So while it may strike some as surprising that I would see Barbra Streisand—especially now, for the first time—it really shouldn’t.

I love the art of live performance, relish seeing gifted, noteworthy artists across many genres and am now happy to catch almost anyone I haven’t (or may one day wish I had).

Though there are still some genres I don’t much embrace—modern country (particularly by men), boy bands, hip hop—I have seen pretty much every style represented on theatrical stages, so I tend not to be too parochial (within time, budgetary and other logical limits). 

While it’s been 5-1/2 decades since Streisand was an actual Broadway star—in Funny Girl—we both clearly share a love of show tunes, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach and finely-wrought standards.

Not to mention a disdain for the current occupant of the White House.

Coming after a tragic weekend of massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Streisand strongly advocated for gun control laws and, yes, engaged in some Trump-bashing.

Clearly not the entire crowd—close to full at the UC, but with some noticeable gaps—concurred with her sentiments, but Babs got plentiful applause when she knocked the president, particularly in reprising “Send in the Clowns” with lyrics mocking the orange one.

Perhaps it's because I agree with her, but I don’t mind artists making political statements, and it’s not like Streisand has ever been coy about her liberal leanings. So anyone who was offended by her remarks pretty assuredly had paid their money knowing where Babs stood.

But lest anyone think this was a political rally, it wasn't.

A sizable band (though not quite an orchestra) preceded Streisand’s entrance with an overture—which the singer revealed was composed for her 1967 concert in Central Park—and Barbra, adorned in black dress by Chicago fashion designer Azeeza, took the stage singing “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard musical.

She altered the song’s lyrics to slip in Chicago references: deep-dish pizza, Lake Shore Drive, Rush Street, though notably to me, not Barack Obama (whose name wasn’t dropped all night).

Later she would speak of early performances in the city, at Mister Kelly’s nightclub (where she initially played on June 11, 1963 at the age of 20).

Streisand nicely culled songs from throughout her long, esteemed and diverse career and occasionally showed age-old photos or video clips—most overtly from her role in the 1976 version of A Star is Born with Kris Kristofferson, who had joined her onstage at the huge recent London gig in Hyde Park—but Babs’ charming repartee kept things from feeling overly soaked in nostalgia.

After "Evergreen," the love theme from that film, midway through her first set Streisand performed a medley—I would’ve preferred full versions—of some pop hits, including “Guilty” and “A Woman in Love,” both written for her by Barry Gibb.

Then came the evening’s social media buzzworthy moment as on “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” a duet Streisand did with Donna Summer in 1979, current pop sensation Ariana Grande appeared to handle the Summer parts. (Grande was in town headlining Lollapalooza over the weekend.)

I appreciate that Grande has a great voice and believe she’s handled tragedy—including deadly terrorism at her Manchester, UK concert and the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller—with graceful aplomb. I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of her music—the livestream of her Lollapalooza set literally put me to sleep—but it was fun to see the intersection of gifted songstresses.

Sans Ariana, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from Funny Girl delectably closed out the first set.

After intermission, wearing an off-white dress by Donna Karan, Barbra delivered a fantastic rendition
of "The Way We Were," perhaps quite slyly leading into the more socially commentative portion of the evening.

Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You've Got to Be Taught" coupled well with Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" as songs that speak shrewdly to how kids glean proclivities for both love and hate from  adults.

Then came "Send in the Clowns," first as Sondheim beautifully wrote it for A Little Night Music, then with Trump parodying lyrics such as:

He says he’s rich / Maybe he’s poor / ‘Til he reveals his returns / Who can be sure / Who is this clown? 

Obviously, Streisand is a veteran star who's worth a fortune, so it's not like she's exactly risking much by stating her contempt for Trump. Still, I applaud her for standing by her beliefs and even telling some hecklers to "Shut up."

Yet while I loathe the president, the hate he spews and the tenor he's set for the country--not that racism, bigotry and murderous lunatics didn't exist before--I actually liked it more when Barbra's attacks were artfully implied, rather than direct.

"Walls" from her 2018 album clearly denounced racial divides while being a nice song, while beautiful deliveries of "People," "Sing," (from Sesame Street), "Happy Days are Here Again" and "What The World Needs Now Is Love" strongly championed tolerance, togetherness, love, hope, etc. even in the face of treacherous times.

From the looks of it, Streisand made a last-second choice--via a brief pow-wow with her musical director, who's name I didn't catch and can't find--to end the show with “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”

Honestly, it's a question I can't answer, but I imagine I'll keep appreciating the arts and hope to attend many more shows by great performers. (Hopefully again in the company of my good pal Paolo, who joined me for this one but will soon be sojourning for awhile.)

I don't know if I'll ever see Barbra Streisand in concert again--I wouldn't mind, but even this "tour"  had only 3 shows, and while seemingly healthy and well, she is 77--but I'm genuinely glad I did.

It wasn't quite my favorite concert, and maybe not even Babs at her best, but it clearly bespoke why she has been such a revered and legendary star for so long.

And that voice, oh that voice, at least in spurts, truly...like buttah.   

Monday, August 05, 2019

And They're Still Together: Years Down the Road, REO Speedwagon Remains a Fun Ride -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

REO Speedwagon 
w/ opening act Charlie Farren
Rosemont Theatre
August 3, 2019
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As if the world needed further proof of my lack of hipness, Saturday night I was not out at Lollapalooza catching Twenty One Pilots, J Balvin, AJR or anyone else those under 30 might know well.

I also wasn't at any Lolla aftershows, nor seeing genuine rock legend Ringo Starr at Ravinia.

Rather, with a decidedly mature, somewhat paunchy white crowd at the rather vanilla Rosemont Theatre, I saw...

REO Speedwagon

...who weren't even cool when they were the most popular rock band in the world.

I still recall, back when I was in junior high, buying REO’s double-album hits collection, A Decade of Rock and Roll 1970 to 1980, because some kids at school opened my ears to “Roll With the Changes,” “Time for Me to Fly” and “Ridin’ the Storm Out.”

Then in November 1980, the band released Hi Infidelity, which I bought almost instantly, and thanks in part to lead single “Keep on Loving You” hitting to #1—as did the album—REO Speedwagon became huge. Hi Infidelity would be the biggest-selling album of 1981.

And it was cool, because along with Styx and Cheap Trick—who had peaked a bit earlier but was my favorite of the trio—three of the biggest bands of the day hailed from Illinois.

But almost as soon as REO exploded, the 7th Grade intelligentsia decreed them uncool, seemingly due to the saccharin stylings of “Keep on Loving You” and “Take It on the Run,” and the effeminate nature of lead singer Kevin Cronin (who happens to be long married to the same woman).

I was too young to attend REO’s 4-night stand at the International Amphitheatre in February 1981, or see them at Poplar Creek the next summer, and with 1984’s #1 single, “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” being particularly schmaltzy, any acute Speedwagon fandom—aside from an enduring affinity for a few favorites—had largely stalled.

At some point, I did see REO Speedwagon at a free 4th of July show at Great Lakes Naval Base—Cronin’s long curly brown hair was then short and blond—but was somewhat shocked to recently discover that that was back in 1999.

In recent years, I’ve been acutely trying to fill in some gaps in my “Seen Live” roster, seeing several acts for a first time or, even if not, better appreciating some enduring bands I once avoided.

In part, I stopped giving a shit about what might be considered unhip.

Last year, I saw Journey for the first time—albeit without Steve Perry—on a bill with Def Leppard, and this past May, caught Dennis de Young, the former mainstay in Styx, at the Rosemont Theatre.

That show in particular made me think, “I really should see REO again.”

I knew that Gary Richrath, the lead guitarist from REO’s heyday, had left in 1989 and passed away in 2015. But a check of Wikipedia informed that otherwise, the band has remained relatively intact. 

Keyboardist Neal Doughty, who helped form the band in Champaign in 1967, continues to tour, as does Cronin—now sporting white hair--and Bruce Hall, a bassist since 1977.

And “new” members, guitarist Dave Amato and aptly-named drummer Bryan Hitt, have been around for 30 years.

I was also somewhat surprised at how well sold the essentially packed 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre was, but was able to get myself a single balcony seat for a reasonable price a few weeks ago.

After a solo set by a singer/guitarist named Charlie Farren, who did a lot of talking I couldn’t make out, REO Speedwagon took the stage around 8:50pm with Hi Infidelity’s “Don’t Let Him Go.”

It was the first of seven songs—of 18 total—to come from the landmark album, including the record’s last two tracks, "Someone Tonight" (sung by Hall) and "I Wish You Were There."

The amiable Cronin, who hails from Oak Lawn, noted on multiple occasions that it was great to be home, and even spoke of his mom still living in the house where he grew up.

Especially in having Spotifamiliarized myself with recent setlists, it was nice that along with other Hi Infidelity album cuts like “In Your Letter” and “Tough Guys,” and, understandably, “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” REO reached quite a ways back for “Music Man,” “Son of a Poor Man”—with Cronin’s intro having paid warm tribute to Richrath—and “Golden Country,” which Cronin performed acoustically by himself.

Following that song, he also did a solo “Building a Bridge,” after having told a warm story of playing
it in Israel for both Jews and Palestinians, albeit separately.

“Take It on the Run” made for a great singalong, and “Time for Me to Fly” an even better one.

Hall nicely took center stage again for “Back on the Road Again” before “Ridin’ the Storm Out” closed the main set.

I can’t call it the most dynamic performance I’ve ever seen, but with Cronin in good voice, the show was pretty much all I could’ve hoped for.

Though I imagine it’s been the case for decades, “Keep on Loving You” and “Roll With the Changes”—both with Cronin on piano—made for a perfect encore pairing.

And as many in the balcony were shuffling out, REO gave Chicago/Rosemont a somewhat rare “157 Riverside Avenue,” the band’s first single from 1971, before Cronin had even joined the band.

I don’t mean any great disrespect or disparagement to the popular American duo Twenty One Pilots.

That they can regularly sell out the United Center and fill a field at Lollapalooza is impressive, and they supposedly put on a fun show on Saturday.

More power to them, and their fans.

But on several occasions I’ve tried to listen to them on Spotify or watch concert clips on YouTube, and there is nothing I’ve found particularly enjoyable or memorable.

So call me uncool, unhip, an old dorky dweeb, etc..

That’s fine.

But even though I still wouldn’t call REO Speedwagon one of my very favorite rock bands, I know that singing along to “Time for Me to Fly” and “Roll With the Changes” and even “Keep on Loving You,” I had more fun than I would’ve with the hipsters at Lollapalooza.

Say what you want but REO Speedwagon remains a fun ride.

---
Here's just a brief snippet of "Time for Me to Fly":