Saturday, March 28, 2020

Pithy Philosophies #42

Seth Saith:

Demonstrating class, even if not reciprocated, is never the wrong decision.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Madness Amid the Malaise: Recapping a Rock Tournament, Commencing a Reel One

These are odd times. Certainly the oddest that I lived through. I mean, I was living in Los Angeles during the riots of 1992 and stayed in my apartment for a couple days, but this has obviously been longer.

And worldwide.

A blank version of the original Rock Madness 2020 tournament;
click here for a large version you can right-click and save

While nothing I'm about to say should be construed as a complaint--I believe we should all relax and stay put in our homes until doctors, scientists, epidemiologists and trusted leaders tell us to resume normal activity once EVERYONE is safe from risk--as someone who in many ways relies on the arts, sports and live events for companionship, I certainly miss theater and concerts and baseball and the NCAA tournament and so much more.

And, of course, just seeing friends and relatives face-to-face.

But I've been making enjoyable use of Facebook, not just to interact with friends and family--I still do that more so directly--but to maintain daily features other seem to enjoy.

I did just last week cease updating my 6word Portraits blog after 3 full years of describing esteemed folks "sixinctly" on the birthday of a given legend--and then sharing it to Facebook, where I and others would run through additional daily birthdays--but I've taken to culling five photos a day from my vast archives of pictures taken, which I share to Facebook as Random Access Memories.
And to somewhat cheekily replace the NCAA Basketball Tournament--a.k.a. March Madness--I created a tournament I dubbed Rock Madness.
I selected 64 rock artists of various eras, including big name legends and some personal favorites--for a sensibility akin to smaller schools making the NCAA Tourney--and invited my Facebook friends to vote on matchups in order to advance the bands through the bracket.

I got a bunch of great feedback as about 40+ different people participated, with each "game" gathering between 15-25 votes. And others told me it was great fun to watch, even if they didn't "play."

Although I was tempted to spread it around more publicly than to just my 356 Facebook friends, I honestly didn't want to tally up hundreds of votes and enjoyed seeing the preferences of actual friends (about 90% of my Facebook connections are people I've known in real life).

As you can see at top, The Beatles won, beating The Rolling Stones in the title game.

Now, after gathering "nominations" from friends--rather than just my own whims--I'm running a Movie version I've dubbed Reel Madness.

Four "Play-in Games" were held last night--with even more response than for Rock Madness--and Round 1 matchups in the A Regional are taking place today.

A blank bracket is below; likely at the conclusion I'll add the completed one.

I truly hope everyone is doing OK in these trying times, but with a bit of trying, I've found some fun ways to waste time.

And not just mine.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Ours Go to 11: Volume 36, My Favorite Music Movies (that aren't concert films, documentaries, musical adaptations or biopics)

Nobody told me there'd be days like these.

Strange days, indeed.

Most peculiar mama.

But I am trying to get through them with much grace and aplomb as possible.

And that has included watching movies and having discussions about others, via email, Facebook, etc.

One of these days I may try to write something more substantive, but for now, a list seems apt.

And so, mainly in a pop/rock vein, without including concert films, documentaries, Broadway adaptations or biopics (i.e. Rocketman, Ray, Bohemian Rhapsody, Walk the Line, etc., even if some of the choices below are technically biographical), I give you my picks of:

The Best Feature Films About Music:
(Primarily in a pop/rock vein; no concert films, documentaries, Broadway adaptations (or akin: Singin' in the Rain) or biopics, although some might say the first three choices somewhat are the latter. Go with it.)

1. A Hard Day's Night
2. Purple Rain
3. This is Spinal Tap
4. Sing Street
5. Saturday Night Fever
5. The Blues Brothers
6. Almost Famous
7. Once 
8. The Commitments
9. School of Rock
10. Across the Universe
11. Quadrophenia

Plus A Few More

8 Mile
Blinded by the Light
A Star is Born (2018)
High Fidelity
La La Land
Crazy Heart
The Five Heartbeats
Pink Floyd: The Wall
Rude Boy
Yellow Submarine
Pirate Radio
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Cadillac Records

Some I Haven't Seen or Recall

American Hot Wax
Black Snake Moan
24 Hour Party People
Pump Up the Volume
The Idolmaker
Empire Records
Eddie & the Cruisers
Jailhouse Rock (or anything except Viva Las Vegas)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Where Are They Now?: Ex-TV Stars Make for a Fun If Fleeting Trip to 'Middletown' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Middletown: The Ride of Your Life!
a play by Dan Clancy
starring Sandy Duncan, Donny Most, Adrian Zmed & Kate Buddeke
Presented by GFour Productions
at Apollo Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 22

likable \ˈlī-kə-bəl \
having qualities that bring about a favorable regard: PLEASANT, AGREEABLE

Certainly there are worse things to be called, and while I wouldn't dub Middletown: The Ride of Your Life brilliant or stupendous or deep or sensational or especially incisive, I found the four character play--performed without scenery or props and with the actors reading from scripts, often while seated--to indeed be likable.

The draw in Chicago for presumably most attendees is the cast, consisting of three fairly well-known names from television and a local stage actress of some note.

Sandy Duncan, a frequent presence on our sole household TV when I was a kid in the '70s, but also boasting dozens of theater credits and three Tony nominations, looks great and is quite amiable as Peg, long married to Tom, played by Adrian Zmed, a Chicago-bred one-time heartthrob best-known for co-starring on TV's TJ Hooker in the '80s.

As Middletown chronicles, Peg and Tom are close, weekly-dinner friends with Don (Donny Most, forever known as Ralph Malph on Happy Days) and the sassy Dottie (Kate Buddeke, a longtime Chicago theater performer--I saw her in Airline Highway and Superior Donuts at Steppenwolf--who also has Broadway, film and TV credits).

And across 90 minutes and at least 30-some years, we learn about their lives.

How the spouses met, how Peg and Dottie met, when the husbands got introduced, about their jobs, their families, their ups and their downs--some particularly wrenching--and to a degree, how the world changed around them.

Not too much happens that one mightn't expect, but writer Clancy does a nice job making the characters and scenarios seem both unique and universal.

Though I have no aversion to nostalgia and have seen numerous TV celebs onstage over the years--Linda Evans, Joan Collins, Jason Alexander, Kelsey Grammer, John Mahoney, David Hyde Pierce, Bebe Neuwirth, George Wendt, Teri Hatcher, Christina Applegate, Marilu Henner, Alan Thicke, Michael McKean, Carol Kane, Melissa Gilbert, Richard Thomas, Richard Kind, Holland Taylor, etc., etc.--I can assure you that I have never wistfully wished to see Duncan, Most and Zmed act together. (I did once see Duncan years ago in The King and I.)

But each was fun and--yes--likable, and Buddeke more than held her own.

Her character, Dottie, a grade school teacher with a sharp tongue who enjoys a cocktail or three, is probably the best written of the quartet.

And Dottie's life with Most's Don just feels a bit "cooler" than the Duncan/Zmed pairing, not that they don't too come off well.

I see and enjoy all kinds of theater, much like I take in a good cross-section of movies, TV and books. Everything has it's place and art needn't be groundbreaking or profound to be worthwhile.

So while, despite its subtitle, Middletown wasn't quite the "ride of my life," and not the type of play I would want to regularly ingest, it was undeniably fun to see some older yet still familiar faces in the comfortable confines of Chicago's Apollo Theatre.

And--perhaps all the more so amid global pandemics and crashing stock markets--it was perfectly nice just to see something likable. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Not to Be Missed: Sharp Satire, Powerful Messages Entirely Present in 'Day of Absence' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Day of Absence
a classic play by Douglas Turner Ward
directed by Anthony Irons
Congo Square Theatre Co.
at Victory Gardens Biograph, Chicago
Thru March 22

A friend of mine has frequently surmised about the potential efficacy of "avoidance strikes" to protest various injustices.

What if--abetted by the ability of social media to spread the word to millions or even billions of people--everyone of a like mind agreed not to purchase gas on a given Monday or use a credit card for any purchases on a given Friday.

Might corporations and politicians take notice? Isn't it possible to imagine change could occur in response?

Day of Absence--a bitingly satirical play written by Douglas Turner Ward, first performed in New York in 1965 and now being staged in a re-imagined production by Chicago's erstwhile Congo Square Theater--powerfully posits how an organized disappearance by people of color might counter and combat racial prejudice.

Photo credit on all: Jazmyne Fountain
Within the upstairs Richard Christiansen Theater at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, the show--with tweaks to make it feel contemporary, such as the inclusion of mobile phones--is set in an unnamed southern town.

With each of the black and Hispanic actors strikingly adorned in whiteface, Day of Absence begins with a pair of mall workers (played by Ronald L. Conner and Kelvin Rolston Jr.) slowly coming to realize that no dark-skinned people have shown up to work, or to shop.

At their home, an affluent couple (Jordan Arredondo, Meagan Dilworth) sleeping off a bender is rather wildly bewildered to discover that their housekeeper/nanny is nowhere to be found.

And while I'll won't spell out each ensuing circumstance--as sharply humorous-yet-telling vignettes are pretty much the entirety of the 70-minute piece--the town's mayor (Ann Joseph), a news reporter (Dilworth, who like everyone deftly rotates through roles) and business people (Bryant Hayes, Sonya Madrigal) are among the "white folk" who come to realize the essential everyday contributions of those suddenly gone.

And though it sometimes feels more like an elongated sketch comedy piece than traditional narrative theater, Day of Absence--directed by Congo Square ensemble member Anthony Irons--is genuinely inventive, engaging and compelling.

While making shrewd social comment, it's also a lot of fun.

Congo Square is currently celebrating its 20th season of presenting theater with largely African-American themes.

Though I have seen a variety of diverse plays and musicals at the Black Ensemble Theater, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and presented by Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Court, Northlight, TimeLine, Writers, Shattered Globe, Porchlight, Raven and many other troupes around Chicagoland, I believe this was my first Congo Square Theatre foray, and I'm certainly better for it.

My interest was candidly prompted by a recent article in the Chicago Reader by Coya Paz Brownrigg that somewhat challenged critics--particularly those from the daily newspapers--to expand their horizons and see/review more works by & representing those of non-white backgrounds.

The Reader piece is certainly worthy of consideration, though IMO also somewhat flawed in some of its contentions. I won't delve deep into that here, but in noting Paz Brownrigg's assertion that the Tribune "rarely covers performance happening on the south and west sides of Chicago," I specifically tried to find shows I might see in such areas.

And wound up in the heart of Lincoln Park.

In no way is this meant as criticism of Congo Square for staging Day of Absence at the Biograph. It's an easily accessible location near the Fullerton Red Line stop and the Christensen theater space well-fits the production.

I just honestly would like to learn of some of the stellar work Paz Brownrigg was referencing--without any specificity--that regularly takes place in areas I don't much get to. 

But whatever your cultural background, consider yourself well-advised to make yourself present at Day of Absence.

For sometimes it takes a bit of disappearance for our individual and collective importance to rightfully be recognized. 

Monday, March 09, 2020

"How Did You Find America?" Largely Terrific but with Some Issues & Imperfections -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act The Buckinghams
Genesee Theater, Waukegan, IL
March 6, 2020

Just the other day, a friend sent a nice note thanking me for all the music I had turned her onto over the years.

And while I likely wouldn't know much about, say, the top 200 most listened to artists on Spotify--Led Zeppelin ranks #239; Bruce Springsteen #329; The Who seemingly beyond the top 500--I am happy to have explored a pretty wide swath of acts in different rock & pop veins (as well as some jazz, classical, blues, country and much Broadway).

I've seen more than 300 different bands in concert--some many times--and fairly recently have made a point of catching artists I haven't before, including in New Wave (Duran Duran, The The, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, Jesus & Mary Chain, The Church, Simple Minds) and pop diva (Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Cher) realms.

But a relative blind spot--deaf spot?--to this day has been soft/folk rock, typically dating from the 1970s.

Sure, I've seen the Eagles, CSN(Y), Jackson Browne and James Taylor.

But Bread, Seals & Crofts, Poco, English Dan & John Ford Coley, Three Dog Night, Loggins & Messina, Pure Prairie League, Little River Band and others of this ilk?

Never seen any and am really not sure I could name 5 songs combined. Though Pablo Cruise may have been the first concert I ever attended, with my family at ChicagoFest.

And--other than geographically--I've never been much into America.

But I've always liked "Sister Golden Hair"--and per some Spotifamiliarization, a few more other songs than I thought I did--so in the name of exploration, I attended their 50th Anniversary Tour stop Friday night with a friend at Waukegan's historic Genesee Theatre.

After few & far between visits over the years, this was my third trek to the Genesee in as many months, following shows by Herman’s Hermits and UFO.

As with Gary Puckett & the Union Gap opening for Herman’s Hermits, America was nicely preceded by The Buckinghams in what also seemed to be a Waukegan-only pairing, not a package tour.

Not hugely familiar with the Chicago-based ‘60s band beyond a few big hits, I enjoyed the 40-minute opening set, which had just three band members—originals Carl Giammarese (guitar/vocals) and Nick Fortuna (bass) plus Dave Zane (guitar)—playing acoustically while seated.

Having been scuttled for one reason or other in past attempts to see The Buckinghams, my friend Alison found it “Kind of a Drag” that we didn’t get the high-energy 8-piece band with horns experience that I guess is typical.

But with Fortuna nursing a broken foot and Giammarese in good voice despite what he termed a recent “face plant” leaving a considerable shiner, I liked the laid-back run through a string of 1967 chart hits: “Don’t You Care,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Susan” and “Kind of a Drag.” their only #1.

Giammarese was amiably conversant throughout, and led into a lovely solo rendition of The Beatles’ “I’m a Loser” by explaining he had recorded it on an album with another original Buckingham, Dennis Tufano, and that at a party, John Lennon complimented their version.

Another Beatles tune, “This Boy” was also played, as was the Zombies’ “You Make Me Feel So Good.”

And Giammarese shared that the Buckinghams—presumably in full stead—will be playing at Highwood’s Club 210 on April 11 and then back at the Genesee on August 8 as part of the Happy Together Tour (with The Turtles, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, The Association and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders).

Beginning their set with “Tin Man,” erstwhile America members Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell—who founded the band in 1970 with the late Dan Peek, when all three were sons of personnel at a U.S. Air Force base in London—spoke quite appreciatively of the Buckinghams, citing them as early influences along with many famed British acts of the era (some, such as Pink Floyd, for whom they would soon open).

Sharing lead vocals and often harmonizing while playing acoustic guitars, Beckley and Bunnell sounded good, backed by a bassist, electric guitarist and drummer Ryland Steen. (Beckley also occasionally manned a keyboard.)

During America’s second song, “You Can Do Magic,” Steen seemed to signal to a roadie, and upon the tune’s conclusion the music was halted because the drum head on his bass drum had broken.

As referenced above, I’ve been to hundreds of rock concerts, including by numerous hard rock legends, and I’ve never seen a show stalled by a broken drum.

Until America.

Beckley and Bunnell affably filled time by introducing stagehands, but I was somewhat surprised that they couldn’t audible a bit more imaginatively, perhaps by playing something that wasn’t setlisted.

They hemmed & hawed for more than five minutes until Steen sang a seemingly planned “Don’t
Cross the River,” albeit without the benefit of a kick drum.

The problem was then resolved and the show continued nicely, including a beautiful take on “I Need You” and “Ventura Highway,” both Top 10 hits from 1972.

I enjoyed the sonic dichotomy of “Here,” accompanied by historic band photos and both bass and guitar solos. Later, “Hollywood” also had an engaging slide-show backdrop.

America recorded several albums with famed Beatles producer, George Martin, and in speaking fondly of him, they preceded some pertinent songs of their own with a cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” a rendition which I candidly didn’t love--and which thematically probably should’ve led into “Lonely People” anyway.

As of now, the setlist for the Genesee show isn’t posted on, but if this one from Windsor isn’t exact, it’s quite close.

While there was nothing played that I didn’t like, some tunes clearly delighted—or slightly dragged —more than others, and the whole 90-minute affair was more a good show filled with fine music than a blazingly fantastic rock concert.

I never mind when an act sprinkles in some choice cover songs, but a take on the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” also seemed oddly amiss, and not just due to the lack of female voices. 

But the show-closing quartet of “Lonely People,” a highly-charged “Sandman,” sumptuous “Sister Golden Hair” and galloping “A Horse With No Name”—the last with two of the Buckinghams onstage—ended things on several high notes.

Beckley had shared that America has played at least 100 shows for 50 straight years, so it was about time I checked them out, and I’m glad I did.

Even if it probably won’t set me on a flag-waving frenzy to discover America’s fellow Lite-Rock forefathers. (And yes, Little River Band will flow into the Genesee, with John Ford Coley, on May 7.)

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Stories We Could Tell: A Rather Solid Take on 'The Pillowman' at The Gift -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Pillowman
a play by Martin McDonagh
directed by Laura Alcalá Baker
The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 29

I first saw Martin McDonagh’s chilling drama, The Pillowman, in 2006 at Steppenwolf, and enjoyed it immensely.

It helped that Michael Shannon and Tracy Letts were both in it, and I still recall Jim True-Frost being fantastic.

At the end of 2009 I would rank it as one of my favorite plays of the decade.

And then, early in 2010, I also loved a version I saw early in 2010 at Chicago’s Redtwist Theatre, and would cite it as the top play seen in that year.

So I was very much looking forward to seeing it once again, now staged by one of Chicago's best storefront theaters, The Gift, in Jefferson Park.

I still very much liked it, and--particularly for fans of McDonagh and/or those who have never seen The Pillowman--would definitely recommend it.

The acting, led by Martel Manning as Katurian--a writer being interrogated by cops because grisly
scenarios from some of his stories have been enacted in real-life--is excellent, and good chunks of the play remain absolutely riveting.

But for whatever inexact reasons, I can't say I loved this rendition as much as past productions, as best I recall and per ratings I keep in a Shows Seen database.

Now, although I believe I maintained consciousness and pretty good focus across nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes (including intermission), a Monday night performance on a workday may well bring challenges beyond the material itself.

Especially in a first act that seemed to go on and on.

Yet while I feel it apt to note not quite being blown away--due to long thinking of The Pillowman as one of my favorite plays--this is still very much a positive review of a fine production of a work of tremendous imagination.

And the truth is, that as much as I regard the Irish-British McDonagh as among the very best contemporary playwrights, and now also a fine screenwriter and movie director, various works of his--plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West and films In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Seven Psychopaths--have left me hotter or colder, sometimes across different stagings or viewings of the some piece.

But at the very least, The Pillowman warrants your awareness, and director Laura Alcalá Baker does some nice things with this iteration.

To begin, whereas past casts have typically been all male, here Cyd Blakewell is terrific as she handles the role of Topolski, the "good cop" interrogating Katurian in a dingy, seemingly Eastern Bloc jail cell, along with "bad cop" Ariel (Gregory Fenner, who is also quite good).

That Manning and Fenner are both African-American further illustrates how talented performers of differing backgrounds than those seen before in the same roles can considerably adjust the context and tonality of a play in intriguing ways.

Rounding out the cast at the Gift is Jay Worthington as Michal, the mentally addled brother of Katurian, who has also been brought in for questioning.

I think it best for me to avoid further details, but should mention that the purported crimes are quite dark--as are, interconnectedly, Katurian's stories and matters of family history & psychology.

But there is also much more going to The Pillowman than merely a crime mystery.

Which is why McDonagh's script spends so much time in the telling--and even acting out--of several of Katurian's stories.

And while stellar drama often offers a good deal of relevance no matter when it's seen, the idea of a creative storyteller facing off against an authoritarian state, well, hello.

So if you see The Pillowman and absolutely love it, I can readily understand why.

And if your regard for the play is a bit more middling, it's also entirely possible for you to like it far more on a subsequent encounter.

Or a previous one. 

Monday, February 24, 2020

Last Dance: 'Summer' a Shimmering If Shallow Salute to the Queen of Disco -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sunmer: The Donna Summer Musical
National Tour
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago 
Run Ended; tour continues

When I was around 10, before--and even after--impudent voices would suggest that "Disco Sucks" or intimate that certain songs should only appeal to certain kinds of people, Donna Summer ruled the airwaves with several catchy singles.

And though I don't think I've ever owned any of her music, I can't deny that tunes like such as "Last Dance," "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff" and "On the Radio" have have long conjured a sentimental smile...and even some rather oafish booty shaking.

The singer certainly had enough hits and--though I never knew much about it--sufficient drama in her life to make for a jukebox musical. And in the spring of 2018, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical bowed on Broadway.

It would only last until the end of that year, and is now on a tour that began last fall, runs through September and just finished two weeks in Chicago.

For the nearly 20 years I've been a Broadway in Chicago subscriber, I've always gotten tickets for the first Tuesday of a show's run. But for whatever odd reason, I was given the closing Sunday night for Summer.

Perhaps BIC thought I'd want to be present for the "Last Dance" in town.

Thus, this review won't do much good for theatergoers in Chicago, wondering if they should adorn their disco garb.

Theoretically, some could catch Summer this summer in Detroit or Minneapolis, but--especially relative to time, effort and cost--I think watching the real Donna on YouTube would be more satisfying than a road trip.

Which isn't to suggest those local to upcoming tour stops should stay away from Summer.

With some strong touring talent, the show makes for sufficiently satisfying--at times even superb--entertainment.

If you love Donna Summer, you may well relish how the 100-minute piece pays tribute.

But you'll only get some bullet-point biography--rather than real insights into her ups and downs--and true musical theater lovers will recognize why this is a rather routine jukebox musical, and far from tremendous theater.

If you've seen the far superior Jersey Boys or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, or perhaps the more similar Cher Show or On Your Feet! about Gloria Estefan--all "jukebox" musicals that are about famed musicians, rather than using their songs to tell other stories (a la Mamma Mia)--Summer's narrative approach will seem rather similar.

Eventual superstar shows considerable talent at a young age, gets discovered, makes great music, becomes famous, quarrels with record executives, hits a few speed bumps and--sometimes, as in Donna Summer's case--dies. (She passed in 2012 at the age of 63.)

Embodying the star onstage, sometimes simultaneously, are mature Diva Donna (Dan'yelle Williamson), twentysomething Disco Donna (Alex Hairston) and teenage Ducking Donna (Cameron Anika Hill, understudying for Olivia Elease Hardy at Sunday night's performance).

With Hairston and Williamson doing the bulk of the lead singing, all three women are demonstrably good.

After Hairston begins "MacArthur Park" by herself, impressively, Summer's first #1 hit becomes a showcase group number, while the middle Disco Donna also dazzles on a moving "Dim All the Lights" and the Diva, Williamson, sparkles on "Friends Unknown."

Though all the hits you might expect--including the songs I cited at top, plus "I Feel Love," "Love to Love," "Bad Girls," "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)" and "She Works Hard for the Money"--are represented, it's to the show's credit that I enjoyed some Donna Summer songs that were unfamiliar before a bit of Spotifamiliarization in recent days.

Along with "Dim All the Lights" and "Friends Unknown," these included "Heaven Knows" and "I Love You." (As a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, I was hoping I might hear "Protection," which he wrote for Donna.)

But while Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, who are co-credited as Summer's book (i.e. script) writers well-chose the songs to include, the superficiality of the narrative made me think they simply made a list of biographical factoids and just plugged them in one-by-one, in roughly chronological order.

While this probably sounds like what any biographical jukebox musical should do and has done, the problem is that even extremely weighty matters are often handled in mere seconds and then discarded.

Arguing with her parents, check. Dropping out of high school, check. Being molested as a church singer, check. Landing a role in a tour of Hair, check. Meeting Giorgio Moroder (interestingly played by a woman, Kyli Rae; several other roles are also gender fluid), check. Getting married, check. Having a baby, check. Becoming a superstar, check. Taking pills, check. Finding a new love, check. Being beaten by her ex-husband, check.  Suing her record company, check. Suffering a loss and singing at a funeral, check. Contemplating suicide, check. Stepping away from the spotlight, check. Dedicating herself to motherhood, check. Finding Jesus, check. Getting a terminal illness, check.

I've seen so many jukebox musicals that I think I can imagine the creative debates among those making them:

Do we make it biographical or tell another story with the songs?

If the former, do we cover the entire life or focus on a specific compelling period?

If the former, do we make it primarily chronological or bounce all around?

Do we keep the storytelling rather staid so as not to interfere with the famous songs, or do we really ratchet up the pathos in parts to provide dramatic heft?

And, honestly, I don't condemn Summer: The Donna Summer Musical's creators for routinely making the first, more routine choice. The songs shine and that's obviously what has put fannies in the seats, and occasionally up & dancing.

Heaven knows, everyone onstage works hard for the money, and there are many moments to love to love.

Simply as a fun night out, it's a disco ball.

But as a holistic work of theater, Summer just isn't hot stuff. 

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Not Your Plain Ol' Sisters: Existential Tonality Makes It Hard for Me to Reach 'Plano' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a new play by Will Arbery
directed by Audrey Francis
First Floor Theater
at Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 28

Sometimes it happens.

I see a show I don't much care for and am compelled to say so, having been invited--literally--to share my opinion.

Over the years, I think you will find that the vast majority of shows I see and review--be they plays, musicals, concerts, operas, ballets, comedians, magicians, etc.--are ones I truly enjoyed.

On my @@@@@ Seth Saith rating, I'm guessing all the theatrical performances I've reviewed would average at least @@@@.

This actually might seem excessively positive, but even in now being invited to most theater I attend, the majority is put on by venerated troupes, usually of works that have been acclaimed elsewhere.

I do occasionally like "taking a flier" on a piece I've never heard of, perhaps by an upstart theater company. Surprises can be sensational.

And though I'm far from a huge influencer, as a "critic" the only fair thing to theaters, the press agents that directly invite me and readers is to give my candid assessment of any show I see.

Yet I have too much regard for the whims of taste, my own proclivities and the estimable talent & efforts of anyone who delivers any type of public performance to presume that I am "right."

Or that what I say should unilaterally determine what shows others may see or avoid.

I do what I do with integrity, a fair amount of wherewithal--I've written over 500 theater reviews for this blog--and presumably some ego, but I relish someone saying: "I saw that show you didn't like and think you were dead wrong; it was fantastic."

I love theater and want everyone to love whatever they see.

I just didn't love Plano, a recent play by Will Arbery, now being staged in Chicago by First Floor Theater as part of Steppenwolf's Lookout Series.

The one-act dramedy ran Off-Broadway in New York last year, and I've noted some strong reviews, others more lukewarm.

Here it is being directed by Audrey Francis, a Steppenwolf Ensemble Member who's done some fine acting work at several local theaters.

And I have only good things to say about the performers, including Elizabeth Birnkrant, Ashley Neal and Amanda Fink who play sisters named Anne, Genevieve and Isabel. (Supposedly there is some allusion to Chekhov's Three Sisters, but I've never seen or read it.)

Let me here candidly admit that I often don't well-embrace plays that are abstract, surreal, avant
garde, etc., and while I can hail some originality in Arbery's writing style--which repeatedly references something happening "later," and then instantly jumps to "it's now later" rather humorously--the tonality certainly didn't abet my affinity.

Certainly, I tried to go with it, and beyond the oddities appreciate the scenarios regarding the sisters and their respective men, who frequently seem to be "going to Plano" metaphorically in terms of not doing right by the women.

Without divulging too much of even the parts I understood, elder sister Anne is married to Juan (Chris Acevedo), who also goes by John, and may or may not be gay.

Middle sister Genevieve's husband Steve (Andrew Cutler) is so untoward she appears to imagine him as two different people.

Isabel gets mixed up with a Faceless Ghost (Andrew Lund), while I won't reveal how a character listed in the program as Mary (Janice O'Neal) factors in.

There is some existential angst at play, and seemingly righteous condemnation of our patriarchal society, but neither the narrative nor overarching themes much resonated with me.

At least not acutely.

I won't belabor the problems I had with Plano, as many are hard to specify.

Maybe because of the structure and tone, or maybe for reasons well beyond it, I just didn't find myself much caring.

Out of respect, deference and vagaries of predilection, I won't say that Plano is bad, or even not worth your while.

I will merely say that I didn't really like it.

Sometimes it happens.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Of Race and Raw Footage: 'Sheepdog' Provides a Searing, Nuanced Glimpse Into Police Shootings -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a new play by Kevin Artigue
directed by Wardell Julius Clark
Shattered Globe Theatre
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru March 15

In the first 45 days of this new decade, I've seen and reviewed 12 works of theater.

All have been worthwhile, many superb, a few sensational.

I've also attended some concerts, and of course I can't get to everything. (Besides blogging, I'm presently working full-time.)

But four current shows I hadn't seen--Sheepdog, Top Girls, Sophisticated Ladies and An American in Paris--have drawn raves from the Chicago Tribune's esteemed theater critic, Chris Jones.

His 4-star (out of 4) review, other high praise and the topical subject matter particularly intrigued me to see Sheepdog, and so I did on Sunday afternoon, where the sold out crowd at Theater Wit also included at least one Tony-winning actress and a noted local Artistic Director.

And though sometimes it doesn't quite work out this way, I found Sheepdog to be as terrific as Jones opined.

Deftly written in non-linear fashion by Kevin Artigue and wonderfully directed by Wardell Julius Clark, the 90-minute one-act drama features just two characters, though recorded voices flesh out a few scenes.

Amina (Leslie Ann Sheppard) and Ryan (Drew Schad)--with both actors doing remarkable work--are Cleveland cops, roughly in the present day.

Neither is a rookie, but also not old; perhaps late-20s/early-30s.

As scripted by Artigue, she is black, he is white.

Initially they are partners, and as one supports the other through recovery from a significant line-of-duty injury, they become lovers and eventually move in together.

The romance appears genuine, with Ryan and Amina seeming to overcome hesitancy born from parents who treated them harshly and/or spoke belligerently about those of other races.

She is proud of her heritage and having risen out of "the ugly" of Cleveland's East Side; he is from a small Ohio town but works with inner city youths and befriends a veteran African-American cop who becomes something of a mentor.

There are places they don't quite intersect--Amina extols James Baldwin beyond his familiarity; Ryan can't fathom that she's never heard of Pearl Jam--but the relationship feels strong.

Until--and even awhile after--one of them shoots and kills a suspect of the opposite race in an incident where it is unclear if excessive force was used.

I'm purposefully keeping the details even more vague than Chris Jones did, in part because I can imagine a thrilling play switching up who does what to whom.

But Artigue's riveting work is clearly drawn from tragic episodes that ended the lives of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castilo. Walter Scott and several others.

Each of these real-life incidents is in some way unique, and not only may public perceptions vary, they might have changed as more became known and additional footage was released.

So besides chronicling a young cop whose actions go viral in a way all-too-familiar, Artigue smartly addresses relationships with other cops--including one's work & life partner--as well as institutional responses (from the police department, unions, city management and the justice system) and an increasingly malleable explanation as to what exactly happened.

As often seems true to me, the cover-up may be more deplorable than the deadly act itself.

Abetted this particular Sunday--I'm not sure if it's a regular occurrence--by a post-show discussion featuring a longtime but now retired Chicago police officer who provided some excellent insights, Sheepdog is one of the best new plays I've seen in awhile.

It's topical, about a highly charged subject, but it's also balanced, enlightening and absolutely riveting.

And the Shattered Globe production at Theater Wit has now been extended until March 15.

So if you haven't heeded Chris Jones' recommendation--and that of several other critics--you can now follow mine.

For Sheepdog--the title is explained within the show--demands your attention, theatrically and beyond.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Lights Out: Quite Fantastically, UFO Lands in Waukegan and Rocks Me, Rocks Me -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Damon Johnson
Genesee Theatre, Waukegan, IL
February 14, 2020

One's tastes should evolve over the years.

Although I was indoctrinated to musical theater during the first decade of my life, I really didn't come to love Broadway until I was 30.

Perhaps as a consequence of appreciating the diverse styles employed in musicals, not caring what others might think and developing a diverse love of live performance, in recent years I've made a point of attending concerts by a somewhat wide range of noteworthy acts that I'd never seen before--and which my teenage self didn't much like, know or care about.

Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Cher, George Clinton & P-Funk, Bruce Cockburn, Herman's Hermits, Peter Frampton, Jethro Tull, The The, Simple Minds, Journey, Erasure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Hall & Oates, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, The Church, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Bryan Ferry, Aretha Franklin, Chicago, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Barry Gibb, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen and others.

But by the time I was 12, in 1980, I loved hard rock: the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Rush, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, The Who, AC/DC, Van Halen and more.

And I've never stopped. In the ensuing years, I've seen all of these artists multiple times--except Led Zeppelin, who splintered that year after the death of drummer John Bonham. But I've seen seen Robert Plant nine times, including twice with Jimmy Page.

Yet there was another hard rock band of that ilk that I really loved--I remember listening to their 1979 live album, Strangers in the Night, partially recorded in Chicago, at a junior high school friend's home--but never got to see live in concert.

Until Friday night at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan.

That band is UFO.

If's list of their Chicago area shows can be counted on as comprehensive, it seems that after playing a number of gigs at the long-defunct International Amphitheatre--including the one captured on Strangers in the Night--between 1977-82, only a NW Indiana show brought them back to the region until 1995.

And I guess I never cared enough to see them at the House of Blues, where they've played fairly often since 2004.

They also have played the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles a number of times since 2011--a co-worker seeing them in 2012 is what made me realize UFO remains extant--but I never shlepped to that far western suburb.

But I'm currently working in the northern suburbs, so getting to the Genesee in Waukegan--where I enjoyed seeing Herman's Hermits in January--was fairly convenient, especially as a face value ticket without Ticketmaster fees could be bought at the door Friday night. (They also played in Joliet on Saturday.)

Famed guitarist Michael Schenker, who powered some of UFO's most famous songs from 1973-78, and was back in the fold between 1993-2003, is no longer part of the band, now in their 51st year.

And longtime keyboardist/guitarist Paul Raymond sadly died of a heart attack just last year during a break from ongoing touring.

But original singer, Phil Mogg--who at 71 looks and dresses more like Leonard Cohen in his later years than his once ragamuffinish rock star self--still sounds good vocally, and is an erudite and engaging front man.

Another UFO original, Andy Parker, remains on drums, and Raymond's replacement--Neil Carter--had been with the band a bit in the early '80s.

Rob De Luca is the current bassist, and--as since 2003--Vinnie Moore is the lead guitarist, and on Friday night his playing was sensational.

Phil Mogg, in the early days of UFO and more recently
So although I didn't mind providing some sentimentality as I sang along lustily to AOR classics like "Lights Out," "Only You Can Rock Me" and "Too Hot to Handle," this was a genuinely excellent rock concert in the present tense, even as the Last Orders Tour seemingly signals the final flight of UFO.

A couple songs from this decade--"Run Boy Run," "Burn Your House Down"--fit in well with the oldies, including a few I wouldn't have recognized had I not studied up on Spotify. (See UFO's Waukegan's setlist here.)

Understandably, Mogg revealed that his upper register isn't what it once was on the "Love to Love You" ballad--quite apt on Valentine's Day, even with a number of aging stragglers like me on hand--but from the opening "Mother Mary" to the end of "Shoot Shoot" 100 minutes later, his vocals were entirely satisfactory.

And Moore repeatedly played the kind of blazing guitar leads--and extended solos, such as on "Venus" and "Rock Bottom"--that helped me fall in love with rock music as a young kid.

No offense to Smokey Robinson, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and others referenced above, as I truly enjoyed their performances, and widening my musical tastes. (Smokey, who I saw just a week prior, was especially sensational.)

But it sure was nice to have my ears blistered, my balls rocked and my ass kicked.

Once again, and specifically in terms of UFO, for the first time.

Opening the show was a singer/guitarist named Damon Johnson, alongside a drummer and bassist. He played in a '90s band unfamiliar to me named Brother Cane and seems to currently tour with a latter day version of Thin Lizzy. His 48-minute set was solidly enjoyable, including tunes from his new solo album, Memoirs of an Uprising ("Dallas Coulda Been a Beatdown," "Down on Me"), Brother Cane ("Got No Shame") and a pair of Lizzy classics ("Jailbreak," "The Boys are Back in Town").

Here are snippets I shot of UFO's "Lights Out" and "Only You Can Rock Me." No rights assumed or infringement intended.

Friday, February 14, 2020

It's a Family Affair: In 'Stick Fly,' A Summer Gathering on Martha's Vineyard Gets Rather Heated -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Stick Fly
a play by Lydia R. Diamond
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru March 15

Think about your family.

Not just your spouse and kids, if you have such, but your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, etc.

Undoubtedly, there are some pretty good stories you could tell. Arguments and disagreements you could share.

Good times, bad times, moments of profuse laughter and unstoppable tears.

This is why families—whether a writer’s own, entirely fictionalized or somewhere in between—are often chronicled in plays.

They are inherently ripe with both drama and comedy, with aspects that are unique and universal at the same time.

But while many excellent plays have been written about families, one can readily imagine the inherent challenges.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Tell tales that feel too much like daily life and attendees might think, "My own family is more entertaining; why'd I pay good money for this?"

But if the writer weaves in a whole bunch of intersecting drama--as Lydia R. Diamond does in her fine 2008 play, Stick Fly--it can begin to stretch credulity and feel somewhat contrived.

Although family masterpieces like Eugene O'Neill Long Day's Journey Into Night and Tracy Letts' August: Osage County have had longer running times, and likewise a lot going on, there were points in watching Writers Theatre's strong take on Stick Fly that I felt it seemed overstuffed with numerous threads.

And yes, 20-30 minutes too long.

But I was kept entirely engaged, often riveted, with much to think about when the onstage action came to an end.

Pardon any plot details I don't get exactly right, as not only does Diamond give us much to follow--though director Ron OJ Parson keeps it quite digestible--but there isn't a synopsis I can readily find online.

But as a description without giving too much away, here goes.

The LeVay family owns a vacation home on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

The patriarch, Joe (David Alan Anderson) is an African-American neurosurgeon who I believe has long been married to a white woman from an extremely wealthy family, but she has not joined the family on this summer weekend.

Their sons are Flip (DiMonte Henning), a plastic surgeon and long something of a proud playboy, and Kent (Eric Gerard), a more sensitive, socially-conscious type who is--to Joe's chagrin--pursuing a fledgling career as an author.

Although Stick Fly dates back to 2008, it also helps that Diamond set it in 2005, before the days of Facebook and photo texting would make it less likely that Joe wouldn't yet know of the women in his sons' lives, or them of each other.

Kent has brought his fiance Taylor (Jennifer Lattimore), a daughter of divorce who grew up in relative hardship with her mom while her father was a famed social anthropologist.

Taylor is highly intelligent, studying biology pertaining to flies--hence the play's title--and while a bit geeky, rather assertive about perceived slights. Lattimore does a terrific job finding the right balance, including natural nervousness in Taylor's meeting her fiance's family.

Kent's girlfriend is an affluent, "pretty white girl" named Kimber (Kayla Raelle Holder), who though a tad pretentious is imbued with a strong sense of self and the gumption not to wilt under some withering glares and sharp rejoinders.

Joining these five at the house is Cheryl (Ayanna Bria Bakari, excellent here as she recently was in Writers' The Niceties), the daughter of the LeVay's longtime Vineyard housekeeper who is ill and having her daughter fill in.

There are several conversations--often quite charged--between characters in every possible pairing, as well as in larger groups and all together.

As I referenced, it will seem like there is a lot happening, maybe even too much, but to the credit of Diamond, Parsons and the entire cast, all of the characterizations and interactions are substantive and relatable.

There were points when I thought @@@@ (on my @@@@1/2) might be apt, which still signifies an excellent, engaging play.

But with some terrific escalating tension, Stick Fly plays out in a way that makes the myriad narrative strains and long runtime readily forgivable.

It isn't the best play I've ever seen, but it is a family drama that enlightened and moved me, including in various racial contexts.

And while I don't pretend to be an expert arbiter, just a theater lover with a blog, as a family play I liked Stick Fly--which ran on Broadway for just a few months starting in late 2011 and didn't garner a Tony nomination for Best Play--more than The Humans, which won that award in 2016.

Obviously it's all relative, but like families themselves family plays can be a tricky thing.

And despite all the ways it intertwines, Stick Fly comes together quite endearingly.