Monday, September 16, 2019

Be Well-Advised: Nicely Staged 'Tiny Beautiful Things' Offers Perceptivity and Poignancy-- Chicago Theater Reviews

Theater Review

Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Directed by Vanessa Stalling
Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago
Thru October 13 @@@@

Dear Sugar: (which is the name author Cheryl Strayed used in anonymously serving as an advice columnist for the literary website The Rumpus from 2010-12, with columns compiled into Tiny Beautiful Things and then turned into a play by Nia Vardalos, who starred at NYC's Public Theater in late 2017. A Chicago production by the Victory Gardens Theater has just opened.)

How might I fairly assess a play that is well-intentioned, well-written, well-acted and well-staged, which I liked far more than I didn't--and can readily perceive others loving far more than me--but which I just didn't quite find phenomenal?

Signed, Seth Saith

Presumably, given the perceptive and poignant responses enacted onstage under the direction of Vanessa Stalling, the reply from Sugar/Strayed would be more sage than my supposition, but perhaps she might offer:
Dear Seth Saith:  
You answered your own question. Review the show “fairly,” reflecting how you engaged with it, not how you think others might. 
Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Fair enough, especially as I did like the show.

And while I don’t have much familiarity with Strayed beyond seeing the movie Wild based on her memoir of embarking on a long, therapeutic hike, I highly respect her talents and accomplishments. I think a friend of mine even knew her personally back in the day.

Like probably everyone, I loved Vardalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which she wrote as well as starred in, and she was really sweet a few years ago when I met her at the Skokie Public Library. 

She was encouraged to adapt Strayed’s advice columns into a play by Thomas Kail, who directed it at the Public. He also happens to be the director of a show called Hamilton.

So the pedigrees behind the creation of Tiny Beautiful Things are obviously strong, and Stalling has become one of Chicago’s top directors while Victory Gardens regularly does fine work.

Per what I’ve read, in New York the play was set in Sugar’s apartment, but I like how Stalling decided to base it in a homey diner, complete with a blueish hue and faded Edward Hopper reprints on the wall.

Starring as Sugar at Victory Gardens is Janet Ulrich Brooks, and she is terrific. This isn’t a surprise, as I’ve seen her before—notably in 33 Variations at TimeLine—but she’s really well cast. 

Accompanying her are three actors/actresses—August Forman, Eric Slater and Jessica Dean Turner—who each serve as a variety of letter writers seeking Sugar’s advice.

As selected by Vardalos—who to be clear, does not appear in the show in Chicago; Strayed doesn’t
either but was on-hand Friday night—many of the included queries are rather weighty, including from individuals trying to understand love, deal with a miscarriage, facing the challenges of being transgender and cope with the death of a child.

I won’t reveal any of Sugar’s specific responses, but several rather incisively extend beyond the question at hand, as Strayed reflects on her own personal tragedies, as well as experiences from a job in which she counseled abused teen girls.

So Tiny Beautiful Things is certainly a show that pulls at your heartstrings. And I surmise this might be enough for many to love it.

But without suggesting that its brevity and unique structure are automatically imperfections, as an 80-minute show without a true narrative arc and a few moments that lag, it’s very good without feeling theatrically transcendent.

Undoubtedly, acutely to some letter writers and more widely to many readers, Sugar’s advice—and truly intuitive words—actually changed people’s lives.

But with great respect and regard, I can’t say that Tiny Beautiful Things, as a stage work, affected me to such a degree.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Strangers in the Wrong Town: 'The Band's Visit' is Brief, Reserved but Rather Pleasant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Band's Visit
a recent musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru September 15

The Band’s Visit is a lovely musical.

It’s not a musical I absolutely love, but its merits are many, and I found myself a bit more smitten in seeing it for the second time, on its first national tour, than I had in catching it on Broadway in late 2017. 

Though only a 90-minute, one-act affair, the musical is a tad too slow for me, and while I appreciate—especially post Once, Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, etc.—that first-rate musicals can have considerable dramatic heft and a lack of chorus lines, high-energy production numbers, lavish choreography, etc., The Band’s Visit is really rather low-key.

This kept me from buoyantly embracing it on Broadway—where I had seen an up-against-flying-home matinee after attending Springsteen on Broadway the night before—and makes the upper balcony of Chicago’s spacious Cadillac Palace not the idyllic perch from which to appreciate all the tenderness, especially as Israeli and Egyptian accents are employed.

As they should be, given that the musical--based on a 2007 film of the same name--tells the story of an Egyptian Ceremonial Police Orchestra, invited to play at an Arab community center in Petah Tikvah, Israel, that instead winds up in the sleepy desert town of Bet Hatikva.

Somewhat similar in storyline and underlying themes to another fine musical of recent vintage, Come From Away, The Band's Visit likewise chronicles how villagers treat their unexpected guests.

Nicely directed by David Cromer--who, like me, hails from Skokie, IL--the musical is humane and heartwarming, quite welcome at this time...or anytime.

On tour, Sasson Gabay stars at the leader and conductor of the Egyptian band, Tewfiq Zakaria, as he did in the movie. The great Tony Shalhoub played the role on Broadway and won a Tony Award, but Gabai is likewise terrific.

So too is Chilina Kennedy as Dina, a single woman who runs a small cafe in Bet Hatikva. Also earning a Tony, Katrina Lenk was brilliant on Broadway but this tour clearly has been skillfully cast with quality talent.

With the bus needed to move the band along not due until the next day, Dina and other locals let the musicians stay with them overnight, making for some nice scenes of interaction and adjustment from both parties.

Reference Wikipedia if you want a full plot summary and run-down of characters. I'll share simply that there is a nice scene with a couple of the Egyptians interacting with the Israeli Itzik (Pomme Koch), his wife and father-in-law, and another that involves the visiting Haled (Joe Joseph) helping Papi (Adam Gabay) address his bashfulness around women.

The score, with music & lyrics by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) features some excellent instrumental pieces by the band members, as well as some quite nice songs, including "Waiting," "Welcome to Nowhere," "It Is What It Is," "Beat of Your Heart" and "Omar Sharif."

Several cast members have fine vocal moments, but Kennedy--who played Carole King as a replacement in Beautiful--shines brightest in this regard.

While several of the songs here are beautiful, many are more touching than vibrant or soaring.

It's great that Broadway musicals, including the most highly decorated ones--this show won 10 Tony Awards out of 11 nominations--come in many varieties, and The Band's Visit should strike a nerve, particularly among those who don't love over-the-top, big boisterous "tuners."

Yet while there is much to appreciate, especially in this richly enacted touring rendition--pushing it to a @@@@1/2, up 1/2@ from my perception on Broadway--I still would have liked a tad more oom-pa-pa in The Band's Visit.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Rare Candor: Ed Asner Shares His Innermost, um, Feelings in 'A Man and His Prostate' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Man and His Prostate
a one-man show starring Ed Asner
written by Ed. Weinberger
presented by Piven Theatre Workshop
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, IL
2-Performance Run Ended

I could tell you that A Man and His Prostate is rather funny, informative and even potentially life-saving.

Yet while none of this is untrue, the reason I saw it—and theoretically why you may want to, though the current two-performance opportunity in Evanston has passed—is because it offered the chance to see an actor I’ve long enjoyed, Ed Asner, in a small theater for a reasonable price. 

Asner, who in playing Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, then on a drama bearing the character’s name, won more performance-based primetime Emmy Awards than anyone: 7.

And two months from turning 90 on November 15, he remains a unique and engaging performer.

It’s understandable why writer Ed. Weinberger—who wrote for the Mary Tyler Moore Show and created Taxi, The Cosby Show and more—penned a pained-but-humorous recollection of a personal true-life episode specifically for Asner to perform as those the medical circumstance had happened to him.

Essentially, Weinberger—as Asner enacts—was off-ship in Florence while on an Italian cruise when, having previously experienced some urinary distress, he collapsed right in front of one the world’s most famous works of art (and one noted for its exposed male genitalia).

This leads to being taken to an Italian hospital, having tests run, getting in touch with his primary care physician and re-connecting with his wife, who had stayed aboard the ship.

I’ll refrain from revealing any more details about the medical condition, test, findings, treatment, etc., but beware that the famously irascible Asner is entirely graphic—including utilizing on-screen graphics—in speaking about masculine body parts.

For those who aren’t too squeamish, A Man and His Prostate is enjoyable in its frankness.

And as a life-lesson, let’s just say that the basic prostate check of having one’s doctor still a finger up your rear end shouldn’t be avoided—as seemingly it was for Weinberger—due to embarrassment, momentary discomfort, etc.

So this wasn’t a bad use of 80 minutes at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, particularly as I can now say I’ve seen Ed Asner onstage, as I previously had—among many others—his late MTM co-stars Valerie Harper and Georgia Engel, as well as noted TV performers such as John Mahoney, Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Rhea Perlman, George Wendt, Bebe Neuwirth, Marilu Henner, Jason Alexander, Richard Kind, Linda Lavin, Linda Evans, Joan Collins, Holland Taylor, Alan Thicke, David Soul, Christina Applegate, Carol Kane, Michael McKean, Stacy Keach, John Lithgow, William Petersen and more.

Unlike most of the theater I attend and review, this wasn’t based on a press invite. I bought my own ticket, for $40, which seemed reasonable to sit 5 rows from an actor I’ve long admired.

Though this is a show Asner has been touring for a couple years, in Evanston it was presented by the Piven Theatre Workshop, which has long been housed in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

As something of a nifty twist, the Piven was founded by Joyce and Byrne Piven, the latter now deceased. They are the parents of Jeremy Piven, whom they trained along with John and Joan Cusack and many others.

But back in the 1950s, the Pivens were two of the founding members of the Playwrights Theatre Club, along with Paul Sills and David Shepard. Also part of Playwrights were such budding stars as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris and, yes, Ed Asner. (They later formed the Compass Players, a forerunner to The Second City.)

If Joyce Piven was present on Sunday afternoon, I didn’t notice or recognize her, and from the stage Asner made no ad hoc comments about her, Chicago, the recently passed Valerie Harper, Mary Tyler Moore, his time on television or anything else.

He stuck to the script, of A Man and His Prostate, which he actually read (rather than recited from memory).

Again, I was there to see Ed Asner, and I did.

And I don’t mean to imply that it wasn’t a performance or enjoyable for what it was. There are reasons to attend theater beyond acute artistic greatness; such was the case here.

But as a one-man performance, this was OK, not fantastic.

And even the gist of Weinberger’s script—beyond the smart suggestion to get prostate exams with some regularity—didn’t seem all that consequential.

So really, just in the realm of wanting to see Ed Asner, there could’ve been far preferable things to hear him talk about.

As it was, I’ve now seen Ed Asner.

Monday, September 09, 2019

I Want You To Gimme All Your Lovin': ZZ Top and Cheap Trick Pair for a Fun Evening -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

ZZ Top
w/ opening acts
Cheap Trick
Marquise Knox
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre
Tinley Park, IL
September 7, 2019
@@@@ (ZZ Top/Cheap Trick composite)

Cheap Trick has been one of my favorite bands for about as long as I've had favorite bands.

The Rockford, IL native's 1979 live album, Cheap Trick at Budokan, was either the first LP I bought with my own money or close to it. (This remembrance recently re-arose in fun fashion when I visited Tokyo and saw the Budokan's exterior.)

I've seen Cheap Trick numerous times over the years--first in 1983--and especially with singer Robin Zander still in fine voice and guitarist Rick Nielsen an exuberantly kooky stage presence, every few years I look for and relish another opportunity.

This one was provided by a tour supporting ZZ Top, a band celebrating its 50th anniversary--with the same three longtime members--that deserves being seen more that the one time I did, in 1986.

So while I really don't like the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre--its dull utilitarian design, poor acoustics, bland ambiance and especially the time it takes to get to & from its Tinley Park location--when Live Nation offered $20 pavilion seats, I couldn't resist buying the last row of the pavilion.

After aptly, in my mind, preceding Cheap Trick with sushi at a nearby strip mall, I arrived at my seat as the evening's first performer--blues singer/guitarist Marquise Knox--was about half-way through his half-hour set. He sounded good as he teased a couple cover song riffs, including "Layla," that I wish he actually played in full. 

Cheap Trick played for about an hour, opening--as they did at Budokan--with "Hello There."

Despite wearing a police cap at the start that made me wonder if--at age 66--his trademark long blond hair was a thing of the past, Zander soon revealed that it isn't.

And more importantly, his voice sounded great, perhaps most demonstrably on Cheap Trick's #1--if somewhat saccharin--hit, "The Flame."

Drummer Bun E. Carlos is the only original Trickster no longer part of the band, replaced by Nielsen's son Dax, who well-powered the intro of "Ain't That a Shame," a highlight of the night and the Budokan set.

Actually, of the 10 songs that were on the original Cheap Trick at Budokan LP--which wasn't the full Tokyo concert, more of which came out on later editions--seven were performed Saturday night.

These included “Clock Strikes Ten,” “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender,” all rather delectably, the last one accompanied by Scott Lucas of Local H.

It’s never not fun to hear Cheap Trick play these songs plus "Dream Police" and some others—
including a cover of Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for My Man” led by bassist Tom Petersson on guitar and vocals—and the hour-long, 14-song set was generous for an opening act (not co-headliner).

But as such, Cheap Trick didn’t have much in the way of visual accoutrements—beyond Nielsen’s plethora of cool guitars, including one that looks like him and another with five necks—and though there was nothing wrong with what the band delivered, I can’t say this was Cheap Trick at their most exciting.

And I would basically say the same about ZZ Top, who I recalled being particularly phenomenal back in 1986, but largely felt like nostalgic fun here.

Certainly it’s cool that with the “tres hombres” now at or near 70, guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill have truly aged into their navel-length beards—and the ironically-named drummer Frank Beard still hasn’t grown one—but while undoubtedly enjoyable, their performance felt a bit too by the book.

For a band celebrating 50 years together, the 90-minute set principally found me loving the three MTV-era gems, “Gimme All Your Lovin’, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs”—though the nostalgic videos of yore actually detracted—and two wonderful earlier classics, “La Grange” and “Tush.”

This doesn’t mean that other songs weren’t enjoyable; “I Thank You,” “Waitin’ for the Bus,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” certainly were, among others. (See ZZ Top's setlist here and Cheap Trick's here)

But including the standard-on-this-tour show closer—a quick cover of “Jailhouse Rock”—the show suffered for feeling like a band playing all the same songs in every city.

In the home of the blues, the affable Gibbons and Hill paid some lip-service homage to Chicago, and
Gibbons remains a terrific guitarist.

But did they conjure up some rip-roaring blues cover to bring a particular vitality to this show? Or just to differentiate a bit from what the folks in St. Louis and Milwaukee had heard?


It’s admirable that it’s still just Gibbons, Hill and Beard onstage, and if some of the lead vocals—mainly delivered by Gibbons but also Hill—weren’t all that powerful, well, they ain’t youngsters anymore.

But for lack of a better way to put it, I wanted their performance—again, in the Tinley Park “shed” that brings built-in sterility—to have some stomp and swagger.

Unfortunately, it really didn’t.

Sure, including Cheap Trick and even Marquise Knox, there were enough great songs to make it a fun, satisfying night for my $20.

Even given the venue, I can say the long trek from and back to Skokie was worthwhile.

But I just can’t say it was all that special.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

No One Is Alone: In the Round at Writers, 'Into the Woods' Makes for an Enchanted Evening -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Into the Woods
Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Thru September 29

In terms of artistic appreciation, I think I've greatly expanded my horizons in the 21st century, across many idioms, genres and creators.

But I don't think there is any artist who has freshly come to mean more to me in this millennium than Stephen Sondheim.

Certainly, this dovetails with a widespread, voluminous embrace of musical theater that--after a childhood introduction gone latent--emerged around the turn of the century.

And though I love the work of many esteemed composers & lyricists--Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb, Bock & Harnick, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lin-Manuel Miranda, etc., etc.--I believe Sondheim is the greatest ever.

Generally he writes both music & lyrics, although early on--with West Side Story and Gypsy--he handled just the lyrics. And with universal insights that go beyond what anyone else has consistently brought to the genre, I'm comfortable with dubbing the man a genius, who has appreciably added not only to my fandom of musicals, but my everyday outlook.

In the 21st century--but not really before save for a high school production of Sweeney Todd--I've seen roughly 60 productions of 16 Sondheim musicals, plus a number of revues and tribute concerts.

From local park districts to Broadway, a great number of directors have been responsible for these productions, but most importantly has been Gary Griffin.

At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater since 2001, Griffin has directed eight stellar productions of Sondheim works--Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park with George (twice), A Little Night Music, Passion, Follies, Gypsy and Road Show--and I've seen and loved all of them.

So I was thrilled to note that Griffin is helming Into the Woods at Glencoe's Writers Theatre, which in 2016 staged a sublime rendition of yet another Sondheim show, Company (directed by William Brown, not Griffin).

And I'm pleased to report that this version of the maestro's brilliant concoction--with writer James Lapine--of fractured fairy tales is as good as I could have hoped.

In full disclosure, still a bit jet-legged after a trip to Japan, my synapses weren't fully firing during parts of Act I, but I nonetheless soaked in superlative singing as Cinderella (Ximone Rose), the Baker (Michael Mahler), his wife (Brianna Borger), Jack of beanstalk fame (Ben Barker) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Godinez) headed into the woods.

Writers' artistic director Michael Halberstam serves as the show's narrator, while Bethany Thomas plays a witch that helps drive the action.

Also on hand are Jack's mom (McKinley Carter) and beloved cow (wonderfully embodied by Mary Poole), as well as as Cinderella's mother (Harriet Nzinga Plumpp), stepmother (Kelli Harrington), step-sisters (Molly Hernandez and Nicole Armold), Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole), a couple of charming princes (Alex Benoit, Ryan McBride), a mysterious man (William Brown) and a wolf (Matt Edmonds).

In his remarkable score, Sondheim mines universal truths about childhood discovery via exploration ("I Know Things Now," "Giants in the Sky"), collaboration among husband & wife ("It Takes Two"), unrequited love ("Agony"), the desire of a parent to keep a child sheltered ("Stay With Me"), the realities of lust even if taboo ("Moments in the Woods"), choices having consequences and how everyone is interconnected ("No One is Alone") and more.

I pretty much love all of the songs of Into the Woods--including the long, self-titled prologue--and with terrific vocalists and a fine trio of musicians, they are sublimely rendered here.

In marketing the show, Writers seems to driving much focus to it being done in the round, but most of the seats in the Nichols Theater have always been set around an arc. For patrons filling in the circle on banks of seats unique to this production, the perspective is likely rather nifty, but I really didn't find this to be a major aspect of Griffin's production.

Appreciating the considerable effort to make it seem so seamless, basically you have a terrific musical in the hands of a first-rate cast under the direction of a venerated pro who clearly knows his Sondheim.

Many who worked on this rendition--including scenic designer Scott Davis and costumer Mara Blumenfeld--clearly deserve particular commendation, but Sondheim + Griffin + Writers is a formula that should work wonders.

And indeed it does.

Ever after.

Especially with a nifty twist at the end, which if I was wondering if perhaps @@@@1/2 was merited--just because I recalled some of the Shakespeare Theater Sondheim shows a tad more exquisitely--clarified that this is a pretty much perfect take on a musical that delights across the ages.