Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Unfit For A King (a musical review)

All Shook Up

A few weeks ago, I saw a Broadway tryout, premiere production of "On The Record," a new musical featuring old Disney songs. With a minimal, static set simulating a recording studio, eight actors dressed in black took turns singing the songs. No story, no dialogue, no costumes, minimal choreography; in short, not much of anything (my rating: just one @ ). Which made me think, "Couldn't the most imaginative company in the history of entertainment, and even an innovator in musical theatre, come up with some kind of story?" Well, I guess be careful what you wish for, because "All Shook Up," a new musical comprised of Elvis songs, did concoct a story by a playwright of some note (Joe DiPietro), had dialogue, choreography and costume changes, and featured dozens of performers. And yet at the end, I thought that I would have better enjoyed an Elvis impersonator just standing there singing the songs. For though the songs were inherently good, and the performers professional and for the most part of fine voice, they really didn't enhance my enjoyment of the songs; if anything they made me long to get to a stereo and listen to Elvis' original versions instead. And that's my praise. The flimsy, silly & scattered story made Mamma Mia (the progenitor of these "old songbook" musicals) seem like Shakespeare and while it would be a bit extreme to term All Shook Up intolerable, it really didn't provide any moments of true enjoyment (other than a few of the song renditions) and it certainly wasn't inspired.

And if to me, you're going to cheat and steal an old songbook to draw a built-in audience, you owe it to really craft something special (or at least undeniably enjoyable, like Mamma Mia). Because if you don't, where's the art, rather than just a cover band?

Sunday, December 19, 2004

'S Wonderful, By George (a musical review)

George Gershwin Alone - Royal George Theatre - Chicago

Self-decribed as 'an "imagination" with music,' this one-man show created by and starring Hershey Felder as George Gershwin was a highly enjoyable exploration of the great American composer's life and musical genius. Though perhaps not as in-depth biographically or musically as I might have appreciated -- again spurring post-show research -- the show was engaging throughout, with Felder's piano and vocal prowess more than worthy of his subject. His take on Rhapsody in Blue was particularly exhiliarating and the show's "encore" was a refreshingly sentimental surprise -- much more acutely for all the old folks in audience, but it was nice for me to observe. This show has played Broadway, London and many other stops and is in the midst of an extended run in Chicago. Try to catch it. One other thing that I have no glib transition for: in the Playbill it revealed that Felder is married to Kim Campbell, a former Prime Minister of Canada, which is unique enough, even without knowing that she's at least 20 years his elder.

A Stella Production (a play review)

A Streetcar Named Desire - Raven Theatre - Chicago

This fine production by a small professional theatre group housed in a former grocery story on Chicago's North Side did just about everything I could have wished it would. For just $16 (through HotTix, on which it's been readily available) , it gave me a great introduction to one of America's most iconic plays. Though its title has been familiar since who knows when, I had never seen or read the play, and though I picked up the DVD after Marlon Brando's death earlier this year, I had yet to watch it (other then checking out the "Stella! Stella!" scene). I enjoyed the play at face value, particularly the performances of Liz Fletcher and Dominica Wasilewska as Blance DuBois and Stella Kowalski, respectively. I thought Mike Vieau's Stanley seemed a bit too brutish, without the rogue charm of Brando, and subsequently watching the movie confirmed that thought. But if the worst thing I can say about a $16 play is that the star wasn't as good as Marlon Brando, I'm really being unrealistic. And since seeing the play on Friday night, not only have I watched the movie, but I ordered the book, did a bit of internet research on the play's meaning & message, as well as Tennessee Williams, and am now interested in exploring his works further (having only seen Glass Menagerie some years ago). Not bad for 16 bucks.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Worth A Glance (a movie review)


A beautiful character study, albeit at times laboriously paced, Sideways is one of those movies that's probably even better than my acute enjoyment of it. But although I may not have appreciated all that it was trying to say, and could've used a bit more action or a few more moments of outright hilarity, I still enjoyed it. Though I'm not sure if I would have liked it as much if I were trying to sit through it on TV. But of late, there's no one better at playing sad sacks than Paul Giamatti (who I just discovered is Bart Giamatti's son) and though he's been MIA since Ned & Stacey (and who else even knows what that is), Thomas Haden Church is still enjoyably off-beat, though at times, a tad off-putting. At least enough time has passed that I don't automatically think of him only as Lowell from the TV show Wings. Anyway, Paul & Thomas as Miles & Jack take a week-long trip to wine country in California, (not the one near Napa, but near Santa Barbara which I never really realized existed) shortly before Jack's upcoming wedding and while Miles continues to drown in a post-divorce malaise. They meet a couple of women and we follow the events of their week. But rather an outright comedy, it's more a psychological character study that works for the most part, if you have the patience.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Wow, That's More Like It

Last Wednesday (not last night), I went to the Chicago Bulls-Cleveland Cavaliers game, expecting to witness a phenomenal exhibition from LeBron James, which I would've blogged about the next day. Because from what I had been seeing and hearing, he is extremely rapidly on his way to being the world's greatest basketball player, if he isn't already. Well, wouldn't you know it, the up-til-then hapless Bulls blew out the Cavs 113-85 (earning me a Big Mac) and LeBron really did nothing all that amazing. He was 5-15 from the field and except for a few nice passes, was pretty mediocre in scoring just 19 points. Learning that day that it would be the Cavs 2nd of back-to-back games I had a premonition that it may be an off night for LBJ, and I was right. There were a few glimpse of transcendent ability, and I got some decent photographs (nothing phenemonal), but certainly could not blog about seeing the second coming of Michael Jordan based on the performance I had seen. And then, I was too busy at work the next day to blog anything about it anyway, so I just never did.

Well, based of a 30-second ESPN highlight clip from last night's Cav's game, my hyperbolic tendencies have been re-ignited. There was one mind blowing play where he took a an errant pass out of the air with his left hand and made it seem like a designed alley-oop. And there was also a period where he scored like 12 points in 3 minutes, or something like that. So while I guess he has a little ways to go to match MJ's ability to amaze virtually every time he took the court, he clearly is the most exciting player in the game, and given Kobe's free fall from grace, likely the most popular. And excepting perhaps those 6'11" and over (Duncan, Garnett, Shaq) very possibly already the very best.

Monday, December 13, 2004

What I'd Say (a movie review)


I finally saw "Ray" yesterday after having wanted to since it was released in October, both due to the subject and the excellent reviews it -- and particularly Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles -- received. I was not disappointed and certainly found Foxx to be phenomenal; he deserves to receive the Best Actor Oscar, even over Johnny Depp's excellent turn in "Finding Neverland." The movie itself may deserve to be nominated (there's still several I need to see, like "Sideways" and the upcoming "The Aviator"), though it didn't quite reach the highest heights. It was a very well-crafted portrayal of an incredibly talented and admirable, though flawed, man; that said, it didn't seem all that revelatory. The movie's timeline basically ended in 1965 and along with Charles' musical genius, one of the central elements of the movie was Ray's addiction to heroin and ultimate struggle to conquer it. Though the movie doesn't say it, from what I've read on, although Ray had a career for nearly 40 years since the mid-60's (until his death this year), his peak -- in terms of hits, creative brilliance and popularity -- pretty much stopped then. I'm not saying he should've kept doing smack, but there obviously seems to be a connection the movie never quite made.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Fumble!!!!!!!! Laughing At The Whole Holy Mess

Even way back when, when its football team was perennially excellent, I never cared much about, or for, Notre Dame. They always seemed to have a (literally) holier-than-thou arrogance that back in my formative sports fan years made me hate them along with the Yankees, Cowboys and Celtics. And combining my early distaste with an approximate 15 year run of mediocrity (and sometimes worse), I really don't quite understand -- or perhaps more correctly respect -- why Notre Dame maintains this elite stature, er, posture. I mean, I guess they have a powerful following that earns them major play in the Chicago media, special status in the BCS, invitations to bowl games they may not deserve, and supposedly, attractiveness to players and coaches. But though the coverage of them is unavoidable, I've largely done my best not to pay much attention. I can't even tell you what the football team's record is this year (ok, I just looked it up, they're 6-5 and headed to the Insight Bowl). And while my not being Catholic has never mattered to me in rooting for (or at least not against) DePaul, Marquette, Villanova or other Catholic universities, Notre Dame has always seemed to overtly cloak itself in its Catholism, which only has added to my disdain and disinterest.

So from a football fan's standpoint (and I'm not a huge follower of college football), I felt no particular outrage at the firing of Tyrone Willingham as Notre Dame's football coach, as I'm not well enough aware of his strengths & weaknesses. Based on what I knew of prior not-so-successful ND coaches (Gerry Faust, Bob Davie) fulfilling their 5 year contracts despite rancor among the faithful, it seemed somewhat unfair to dump Willingham in his 3rd season. By many accounts, including Notre Dame's explanatory press conference, Ty was a man of integrity, with the respect of his players, an upstanding demeanor and a strong record in facilitating the academic development of his players. But in the eyes of the powers that be in South Bend, and among their seemingly buffoonish, self-righteous fat cat alumni boosters, he just didn't win enough.

Others can argue if racism played a factor in the alumni's demand that Willingham (who is black) be canned, but supposedly the ND Nation was hoping to lure Urban Meyer, a former Irish assistant who is the hot coach of the moment after leading Utah to an 11-0 season . And supposedly the interest was mutual, but despite Notre Dame's rapid overtures, Meyer chose to take the job at Florida for much more money and -- aided by lesser admission standards that Notre Dame wouldn't budge on -- a better chance of winning.

So now, the proud and mighty Notre Dame University is flailing around (much resembling the bumbling Chicago Bears organization) trying to find a coach and getting shot down by all the high profile names, like Jon Gruden and Steve Mariucci. They're now wooing a guy named Tom Clements, a former ND quarterback and current Offensive Coordinator for the Buffalo Bills. Though I've never heard of him, he seems to be a popular choice among ND followers, at least according to the Tribune. So if they don't get him, they'll really have egg all over their face and nowhere obvious to turn.

Keep in mind Willingham himself was hired after a fiasco involving the hiring-then-firing of George O'Leary for falsifying his resume. And though not overwhelmingly successful, Willingham had won his first 8 games in his inaugural 2002 season, restoring some prominence to Notre Dame, led them to a bowl game this year (though he won't be coaching it), upheld the academic standards ND claims are so important to them and didn't even get to see any of his recruiting classes through to fruition. If only Notre Dame hadn't fired him, he'd be their best head coaching candidate.

Oh what a holy mess. And I can't help but laugh. Morons.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Catching Up On My Projections

It had been quite awhile since I had seen a new movie, well before I went to Europe, but here's my take on a few I just saw (I tend to see them in bunches). To remind, my rating scale is based on the @@@@@ system.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
This one's on it's last legs at the cheap shows, but I'm glad I saw it on a big screen (especially for $2) and for fun, escapist entertainment with a new technological twist, I recommend it. It combines live action performances by Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi with scenery that I believe is 100% computer generated. But it looks good and despite a somewhat simplistic "hero saving the world" storyline, has pretty good writing including some humorous banter between Jude & Gwyneth.

Written by Patrick Marber based on his acclaimed (though unknown to me) late 90's play and directed by the legendary Mike Nichols ("The Graduate"), this is a movie that didn't seem all that good, or meaningful, as I watched it, but like a good play, it has depth that didn't reveal itself until the end, and even beyond. I enjoyed reading Roger Ebert's review (after the movie, as I tend to do with him; I knew he'd given it 4 stars (out of 4) but he tends to give away too much in his reviews) and I also gained good insight & food for thought by reading message board discussions at There's more going on than you may initially pick up on, though even at face value (and with Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, it'll be hard for anyone to complain about its "face" value) it's entertaining.

Finding Neverland
This was a real treat. Albeit with some creative liberties, this is a reality-based film about J.M. Barrie's inspiration for writing "Peter Pan" through his friendship with a widower and her 4 sons. With great performances by Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and some of the child actors, this may be the best film I've seen this year. I always have some trouble with creative liberties in bio-pics because I don't know if I should believe the subject is as admirable as he is being made to seem; though I did some post-film browsing on J.M. Barrie, I don't really know enough about his "reality" to make certain assessments. But especially if you take this as simply a movie, and not necessarily a factual biography, it's fantastic.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Upon Further Review, 'Bomb' Still A Dud

U2 - How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb

Wire. Exit. The Three Sunrises. Twilight. Like A Song. Hawkmoon 269. Ultraviolet. Some Days Are Better Than Others. Kite. Indian Summer Sky. I've just named 10 U2 songs that would not make their way onto a "Best Of" compilation of my making, nor were included on the band's two greatest hits releases. Yet I would rather listen to any of these songs, and dozens of others, than just about anything on U2's new album, "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb."

A few weeks ago, I reported on hearing a radio preview of the album and being largely unimpressed. After having bought the album and listening for more than a week, I still feel it is a sub-par effort. The album is selling like crazy (820,000 in its first week) and has seemingly gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews. But while repeated listenings have made the songs more familiar, with a few exceptions, they have not made them any more exciting. This is not an unlistenable album, but certainly an uninteresting one. And when you have been, at your best, one of the most brilliant bands of the last 25 years, one of my personal favorites and likely the most popular, blandly professional just isn't good enough (just ask John Kerry).

While I can't deny the ear candy enjoyability of "Vertigo" despite its seeming banality, it sadly is clearly the high point of the album. Some reviews I've read have heaped praise on Bono's deep lyricism, but perhaps that's the problem. U2 used to blend sonically interesting music with passionate sentiments, now it's like most contemporary art: overtly obvious messages with no stimulate-your-soul artistry, or even much surface appeal. There's a song on the new album called "Love and Peace or Else," the Edge-less version of what once was "Sunday Bloody Sunday" while the wretched "A Man and A Woman" traipses so listlessly over common ground that you can't believe this was a band that once wrote "With or Without You."

On a somewhat curious note, I read an Amazon's shopper's review that pointed out that there are several excellent "extra" songs that didn't make the album; I found a couple and while they're still not "Where The Streets...", "Pride" or even "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" they do seem better than most of the songs on the album. But I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

Of course, when U2 tours next year (look for them stateside in March) I'll pony up my $100 or more to go see them, but it certainly seems I'll have no shortage of songs during which to take a bathroom break or grab a beer.