Friday, January 29, 2010

Truly Legendary

Concert Review

Buddy Guy
Opening: Moreland & Arbuckle
Buddy Guy's Legends, Chicago
January 28, 2010

I have long appreciated the greatness and legacy of Buddy Guy--the greatest living bluesman and a guitar genius whose influence on Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Beck and others clearly helped shape rock & roll. Every January, he does a residency at his Chicago club, Buddy Guy's Legends, and I've attended 4 of those shows plus a Ravinia gig, but until last night I had not seen him live since 2006.

For while his mind-blowing guitar work alone has always been worth the price of admission, his past shows have been a mixed bag. Typically, they have opened strong, but about halfway into a normal 90 minute set, he would usually start fiddling around with songs by (or made famous by) one of his disciples and then go into a long-winded dissertation about how he has largely been overshadowed. In my mind, his habitual whining diminished his otherwise amazing act.

But having seen other blues players over the years and being reminded just how exceptional a musician Buddy is--with his appearances in The Rolling Stones' Shine A Light movie and on the recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert only bolstering that opinion--I thought I should try to get to another of his Legends' shows, especially as it seems every year the club is said to be on the verge of closing (according to Buddy, this year it actually is, but only to move to a larger venue down the street).

Boy am I glad that I went. First of all, I was lucky to get a ticket for last night's show just a few weeks ago, after most of his 16 shows were already sold out. And fortunately, given that I was in the club for 5 hours, I was able to get a seat, at a table with a seemingly platonic couple, who seemed nice but didn't really talk to me. To get the evening of music started, as is the norm, someone (whose name I didn't catch) was playing some acoustic blues. And I ordered a Blackened Catfish Po'Boy off the Bayou-flavored menu (Buddy is from Louisiana). It was pretty good, but not in itself worth the visit.

At 9:00 came the opening act, which varies every night of the residency. It was a trio of white guys from that blues hotbed, Wichita, Kansas, called Moreland & Arbuckle. I had never heard of them before, but I was very impressed. They played a great blend of originals and blues covers (and a Tom Waits song), all of which sounded really good and went over well with the crowd. They have a new album out at the end of February and I plan to check it out.

Then, at about 10:30, came Buddy with his backing band. From the first note, the ever-stylish Guy was wailing, and for over 100 minutes, he didn't really let up. His guitar-playing sounded as great as ever. In fact, as someone who has seen Clapton, Page, Beck, Van Halen, Anastasio and myriad other guitar heroes, I don't recall ever having been as impressed by anyone's playing over the course of a full show.

And although he made a few genial comments to the audience, and late in the show did dabble in emulating Clapton (Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love) and Hendrix (Voodoo Chile, which brought goose bumps), he never filibustered. He just played, including as is his custom, on a trek around his club, during which I caught this close-up.

In fact, the only respite he took from singing and really letting the fretboard rip, turned out to be a real highlight. Buddy relayed how a few years ago he was playing a gig in Massachusetts when a guy asked if his 8-year-old son could play with him. Buddy humored the guy, but then was blown away by the kid, a blues prodigy named Quinn Sullivan (beyond my clip below, you can find many more on YouTube).

Quinn is now the ripe old age of 10 (nearly 11) and was in town to open Saturday night's show (the last of the residency), so Buddy brought him up to play a bit last night. Beyond the wistful realization that I will never in my life be able to do anything as good as this kid plays the guitar, I and the rest of the crowd were truly amazed. Quinn sang two songs and then jammed with Buddy on a third, which is when I clandestinely captured this video:

After the show, I bought Buddy's latest album, Skin Deep, which Buddy signed along with a free souvenir laminated pass. The album sounds really good, and Buddy revealed that he (and Quinn) will be playing at Clapton's as-yet-unannounced Crossroads Guitar Festival on June 26 at Toyota Park. I think I might have to go to that, but even if not, last night was a show I won't soon forget. Thanks Buddy; you're a true legend.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Supremely Entertaining

Theatre Review

Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago

Dreamgirls was a highly successful musical on Broadway way back in 1981 and seemingly was largely forgotten--no revivals or local productions to my knowledge-until it was turned into a movie in 2006. Due to the popularity of the movie, the musical was re-staged last fall at New York's famed Apollo Theater, which is where the show's story opens. Now it is touring the country and I saw it last night in Chicago.

Although I saw the movie, this was my first time seeing it onstage. I would rate the musical itself as very good, but not outstanding, at least in comparison to other top-flight musicals. But the production and performances were truly first-rate, making for a supremely--despite creators' claims that there is no direct connection with Diana Ross and the Supremes, they obviously seem to be a point of reference--entertaining evening. Moya Angela as Effie, Syesha Mercado as Deena (Diana?) and Chester Gregory as James Early were particularly great. I don't think all the songs themselves are that fantastic, with about a half-dozen real highlights, but for a touring production, this one rendered--and even enhanced--the source material about as well as one could hope.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Prairie Home Excursion

Theater Review (and Mini-Travelogue)

Little House on the Prairie: The Musical
Overture Center, Madison, WI

Yesterday I took a ride up to Wisconsin's capital, about 2-1/2 hours away, to see a new musical version of Little House on the Prairie. I had read pretty good notices about it when Minneapolis' acclaimed Guthrie Theatre debuted it in 2008, and although it has been touring the country since last fall, it doesn't appear that it will hit Chicago, or Broadway for that matter, anytime soon.

So although I never read any of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books and can't recall ever watching the TV show, I am enough of a musical theater aficionado to make an excursion to see it. The show's cast is headed by Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura in the TV show and plays Ma here. Now in her mid-40s, she still looks good but isn't a great singer, which worked fine as Laura is really the central character in the musical, and the actress who played her (Kara Lindsay, pictured with Gilbert below) sang quite well.

With the caveat that unlike most musicals I see in Chicago and elsewhere, I did not go into Little House with any familiarity with the music (i.e. there is no cast recording), I thought it was enjoyable and pretty much achieved its aim as a tuneful, family-friendly musical, but was a good bit shy of fantastic. A day later I can barely remember any of the songs, which while pleasant, didn't seem remarkable. Although for most folks it wouldn't necessitate a road trip of any length (although now over in Madison, it will play Appleton in March), it was actually better than several other musicals I've seen. Case in point, Blood Brothers has been running for 20 years in London; I saw it in April with an ecstatic audience and hated it. My friend Paolo just saw it the other day and concurred that it was nothing special. Little House on the Prairie is much better than that.

Although I think Madison is fairly enjoyable, especially for a day trip, I didn't have much time for much sightseeing yesterday. Which was fine, for as you can almost see below, even from a block away, the beautiful state capitol could hardly be seen on a foggy, overcast day.

Thus, no visits to see any Prairie-style houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, who grew up about an hour from Madison and has several works in and around the city (although mostly later-career and not Prairie style). If you do go on a nice day, be sure to check out this one, among others, as well as a nifty FLW-designed church.

Before the show, I did have time for a quick visit to the Chazen Museum of Art on the University of Wisconsin. The admission was free and hopefully will remain that way after the addition now being built is finished. The collection isn't spectacular, but worth a look. Though very few paintings were by artists I had heard of, the museum had several good examples of paintings that were similar to those by famous artists.

For example, the works below might suggest that they are by El Greco (or Zurbaran), Caravaggio and Mondrian, but they aren't, but rather by others painting around the same time (whose names are unfamiliar to me and likely most casual art lovers).

Finally, although I undoubtedly could have found somewhere good to eat in Madison's downtown area near the Capitol and new Overture Center (where I saw the play), I opted to head out of downtown and find (after 3 tries) a place I couldn't help but notice on my way into town: Ella's Deli.

While both my Pastrami Reuben and Noodle Kugel were solid but not special, I really enjoyed the kitschy decor, which included all sorts of weird & wacky displays. Click to enlarge the photo below to get a better sense of what I'm talking about, but it's probably better appreciated in person. Though it really only dates back to 1976, it feels like one of those places that has been around since way back when. I'm glad I stumbled upon it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Pillowman at Redtwist: A Storied Production

Theatre Review

The Pillowman
Redtwist Theatre, Chicago

Beyond being an outstanding, intimate production of an excellent play, Redtwist Theatre's rendition of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman is a powerful reminder of the amazing depth of Chicago's theatre scene. While I very much enjoy the touring Broadway shows that come to town and many fine productions done at Goodman and Steppenwolf (their current version of American Buffalo is superb), there are literally dozens of storefront or smaller-sized theater companies all around town--and even into the suburbs--at which I have seen wonderful work.

Redtwist's rendition of McDonagh's highly acclaimed 2003 play about a storyteller under investigation for grisly murders that resemble his prose, directed by Kimberly Senior, is a shining example. As is routinely the case at Chicago's myriad storefront stages, excellent performances abound from actors who I hadn't previously seen or heard of, led by Andrew Jessop and Peter Oyloe.

At 2-1/2 hours, The Pillowman is a bit long (especially Act I), but always engaging. And while its subject matter is rather disturbing, at times it is laugh out loud funny. I had seen it once before, in 2006 at Steppenwolf with a first-rate cast, and had loved it then. But Senior's ability to reinterpret it in a room less than 10' in depth, shared by the actors and all 30 audience members (this was a full house; the show has been extended into March), was truly remarkable.

Having last year seen McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, as well as his movie, In Bruges, I believe the Irish playwright (and now screenwriter/director) is one of the best--if not the best-- working today. I'd like to see any of his other highly praised plays and look forward to 2010's A Behanding in Spokane. Although I don't know how concerned I should be that, according to the Wikipedia article on The Pillowman, what seemed like a completely original work is in fact largely similar (if not derivative of) to a 1991 movie called Closet Land. But I have to imagine this was known even back in 2004-05 when The Pillowman was named Best Play in England and was nominated for a Tony.

Regardless, especially for prices as low as $22, Redtwist's remarkable production shouldn't be missed and is one you won't soon forget.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's good to have Jack back saving the world

24 is my favorite show on television. It was my favorite show of the '00s and is one of the very few shows ever on TV of which I've never missed an episode.

Although it is somewhat formulaic--an impending crisis threatens the world and Jack Bauer must stop it, all within 24 hours without ever taking a potty break--for the first 7 seasons, some better than others, the writers have always managed to keep me engaged and actively looking forward to the subsequent episode. And though the new season is only 4 hours in, after the Sunday/Monday 2 hour "special event" before it settles in on Mondays at 8pm Central, it already has me hooked.

Let's just hope Kiefer Sutherland manages to keep himself out of trouble.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In case you're looking for a way to help...

Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

There are many great organizations raising relief money to aid the earthquake victims in Haiti, including the American Red Cross, long one of my favorites. Doctors Without Borders is another group doing invaluable work, and the sister of my good friend Paolo is in Haiti as part of their rescue efforts. Clicking the image above will take you to a page where you can make a donation, if you're so inclined. (You'll be just like Brangelina, who already donated $1 million to Doctors Without Borders; kudos to them.)

The Woolly Mamet Endures Splendidly

Play Review

American Buffalo by David Mamet
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

When brilliance reveals itself via backstreet whispers rather than rooftop exhortations--metaphorically speaking--it is considerably harder to discern or appreciate. Such is the case with David Mamet's 1975 drama, American Buffalo, which I enjoyed more through Steppenwolf's excellent current production than I had in past viewings of the play or the movie that was made from it.

Especially for someone who first came to know and appreciate Mamet through the clever plot twists of his movies, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner and Heist, as well as the overt pathos and profane linguistic barrage of Glengarry Glen Ross (both play & movie), American Buffalo can seem underwhelming and puzzling upon first viewing (and beyond). Though its rapid-fire, cantankerous dialogue makes the 100-minute, two-act play eminently watchable--especially when imbued with wonderful acting as delivered by Steppenwolf's trio of Tracy Letts, Francis Guinan and Patrick Andrews--it really doesn't seem like a whole lot of significance happens in Mamet's single-setting chronicle of small-time hustlers and their low-rent scheming.

Yet, particularly through my substantial exploration of foreign and independent films over the past few months, I've come to realize that quality storytelling need not follow the clearly delineated and definitively--often happily--concluded narratives common to many mainstream American movies, as well as novels, plays and other fictional works. We've--and certainly I've--come to expect plot lines to be fairly clear and obvious, and if done artfully enough, substantial pleasure and meaning can be derived from a somewhat straightforward delivery.

But life itself isn't always clear, obvious, happy or formulaic; rather it's pretty full of abstraction, ambiguity, struggle and tedium. The line between antagonist and protagonist is often blurred in real-life, and rather than shine in the spotlight, many of us just plug away on the fringes. So it shouldn't be so shocking or off-putting to see or read fictional works that similarly are a bit vague and whose significance cannot be clearly explained in a sound bite.

Of course, Mamet is too skilled a writer to describe American Buffalo as "stuff just happens." Clearly, a whole lot of talent is required to make a non-action packed narrative engaging and allegorical rather than insipid and inconsequential. And with Letts, a great actor in addition to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, channeling his inner-Johnny Fever to give the Teach character a much different take than I'd previously seen, accompanied by the always excellent Guinan and multi-talented Andrews (who I recently saw shine as the MC in Cabaret at Drury Lane), Steppenwolf's rendition of American Buffalo was altogether engrossing, even if still not entirely understood.

Though I'm sure there's a whole bunch of analysis out there that I can look up, I think the play is meant to be more about the characters themselves and their ramshackle scenarios rather than any precise reading of their activities. Regardless, I really liked it, and as it runs until Valentine's Day, you still have plenty of time to see it. Twice if need be.

Be aware that Steppenwolf puts 20 tickets on sale for $20 at 11:00am every day for that evening's performance, and also sells all remaining tickets for half-price one hour before curtain. So you can see a great show for far less than full price.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

All Aboard the 'Chuck' Wagon

I like Chuck.

Not enough to have participated in the "Save Chuck" campaign that successfully brought the NBC dramedy back for a third season (that started on Sunday, although Chuck's regular slot in Chicago is Monday at 7pm), but I am glad it's back.

For the uninitiated, the show is about a geeky guy named Chuck, who works in a big retail store (a la Best Buy) but has oodles of secret intelligence information stored in his brain. Working with his CIA-type handlers, Sarah and Casey, Chuck helps thwart global mayhem while maintaining relationships with his co-workers, sister and brother-in-law. Along the way, mutual romantic feelings have developed between Chuck and Sarah, but for one reason or another, have not yet come to fruition. This season, Chuck now has the Matrix-like ability to instantly "download" kung fu and other operative expertise, so he is becoming a full-fledged spy in his own right.

Although there is certainly some linkage between one episode and the next, this isn't a series in which you have to see every episode or else feel like you shouldn't even bother. Chuck isn't a show I've always DVR'd, but most episodes are pretty good and in sum it's one of the better "non-essential but enjoyable" shows on television.

The Damned United: One Thing 'Leeds' To Another

Movie Review

The Damned United

Last night, I saw a special showing of The Damned United, presented by the After Hours Film Society at the beautiful old Tivoli theater in Downers Grove. The British film had a very limited run in Chicago last fall, which I was sorry to have missed, and won't be out on DVD until Feb. 23, so I was quite pleased to catch it in support of a fine organization utilizing a wonderful venue.

Ostensibly, it is a movie about English league soccer and specifically a brief episode in the coaching career of Brian Clough, who became iconic in England for his success before and after his disastrous 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United in 1974, on which the film centers. But even if you're clueless about Clough (pronouned "cluff"), as I was, and don't give a hoot about "football" (as the Brits call it), sports of any kind or Anglopology, you still should very much like this movie, as did most of the audience across both genders at the after-show discussion.

First of all, it features a fabulous performance by Michael Sheen, who seems to be making a career out of playing British icons (Tony Blair in "The Queen;" David Frost in "Frost/Nixon") when he isn't playing vampires (supporting roles in the Underworld series and Twilight: New Moon). And while quite an interesting character study in its own right, and ultimately much more about ego, ambition and friendship than about soccer, The Damned United can be seen in a similar light to three other recent films by its screenwriter, Peter Morgan: The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Last King of Scotland. Though Clough certainly isn't as famous and/or wretched as Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon or Idi Amin, his story, as told here, has rather interestingly parallels as a parable about hubris.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Good Times--and Bad--For the Goal-Oriented

I've never been a huge hockey fan, but I've always rooted for the Blackhawks and have long loved attending a few games each season. Even now, when the Hawks are one of the best teams in the NHL, I rarely watch their games on TV, and except for rare playoff appearances, in the past only tended to see games I actually attended.

Which until last season was pretty cheap and easy.

As recently as the 2007-2008 season, the last of a 5-year playoff drought, you could walk up to the United Center box office minutes before face-off and buy a 300-level ticket for $10 or $15 and pretty much have your choice of any row in the mostly empty upper deck. This was an especially good deal because, when it comes to hockey, sitting up high isn't only a consequence of personal economics, but a genuine preference. I like being able to see how plays unfold and watch passing opportunities develop.

In fact, back in 1995, a friend invited me to the fifth game of the conference finals between the Blackhawks and Red Wings. He was graciously able to use his grandfather's prime season tickets, which were in the fourth row from the glass, parallel to one of the goalies. It was the coolest thing ever, except for the Hawks losing the game--and series--on an overtime goal. But I still couldn't personally tell you if there was ever a puck on the ice that game; I could not see it despite being so damn close.

So I'll happily sit in the 300 level on one of the bends and never wish I was "down there with the rich folk." Not that I'd turn down free tickets if anyone if offering ;)

But now, with the Blackhawks having the best record in the league, and offsetting a disappointing Bulls season after the Bears, Cubs and Sox fell short of hopes and/or expectations, tickets at any face value price are hard to come by.

Forget walking up to the UC at gametime; now you can hardly find a single seat on Ticketmaster for games two months out. The Blackhawks have been basically sold out for the season ever since it started. And even for the rare lowest-priced seats that you can find, they are now $25-30 rather than $10-15, Ticketmaster fees add another 40% (as tickets almost never remain for "walk-up" purchase), only scattered single seats seem to exist and you have absolutely no chance moving down from your ticketed seat.

So while things are awesome for Blackhawks fans in general--who finally have a dominant team to root for--and season ticket holders who are enjoying great games and huge resale values when they can't attend, the Hawks' success has largely put the kibbosh on occasional game yokels like me. Or at least greatly raised the price of admission (through the secondary market).

But having gone to my 1-3 games per season during the bad years, I felt silly not being able to take in any live games now that the Blackhawks are great. So yesterday, for their game against the Anaheim Ducks, I looked on Craigslist and found a seat in the first row of the upper deck, Section 322, right on a bend, for $65.

Forgetting for a moment that these seats were long gone and largely--if not entirely--filled by season ticket holders, if I were able to buy a comparable ticket through Ticketmaster, it would cost about the same or more (I believe the face would be $45 and Ticketmaster's fees at least $20). And if you look at any game on a ticket broker website, such as Gold Coast Tickets for February 3rd, you'll see that all seats, even those in the upper 300s with a $25 face, are selling for over $100.

So $65 for that good a seat was a real bargain, even if the seller didn't "take $50" like I asked. So I went to my first game of a season in which the Hawks have won 20 of 25 home games, and even after Saturday night's devastating loss to the Minnesota Wild, where the Hawks blew a 5-1 third period lead and lost 6-5 on an overtime shootout, had won 7 of their last 9 games overall.

The Blackhawks went down 1-0 early on a Ducks' power-play goal, and after they gave up another first period goal to fall behind 2-0 to a .500 opponent, I told the guy I bought the ticket from, who was sitting next to me, that I wanted my money back. He laughed and reminded me of the Hawks' amazing comeback (on Oct. 12), when after falling behind to 5-0 to Calgary, they came back to win 6-5.

But the Hawks would be shut down for the first 55 minutes of the game by an amazing performance by Ducks' goalie, Jonas Hiller. They finally notched a goal to make it 2-1, but a furious attempt failed to even the score, and an empty net Ducks goal made the final 3-1. This despite the Blackhawks having 43 shots on goal to the Ducks' 12.

Oh well, what can you do? It was still a fun night and, at least before the game, there was noticeable electricity in the air. And the food concessions at the UC, now run by Levy Restaurants, have been significantly upgraded. I had a deli-quality pulled pork sandwich with homemade kettle chips. Quite tasty.

And I again enjoyed one of the greatest traditions in sports: Hawk fans cheering loudly throughout the National Anthem. I'm not big on overt patriotism, but this always gives me goose bumps. Here's the rendition from last night; hopefully I'll be hearing it again--though almost assuredly on TV--during the Stanley Cup:

There's Something Engaging About 'Merry'

Opera Review

The Merry Widow
Lyric Opera of Chicago

Let me start by saying that I am not an opera buff. While I have attended several operas, I am not all that well versed in the genre. And although I have become quite an aficionado of musical theater over the last decade, rock 'n roll is still first & foremost in terms of my musical tastes. But several years back, in hopes of expanding my horizons, I started to explore jazz and classical music, and started attending some operas.

I appreciated the operas and artists enough to become a Lyric Opera season ticket holder for several years, but although I enjoyed most of the performances at face value, I never "felt" them, like I do with the best of rock, theater and jazz. Without ever developing the emotional connection or learned interest (i.e. listening to opera recordings, studying up before or after a performance, vividly recalling & discerning one opera from another, etc.), after five 8-opera seasons of trying to "get into" opera, I cut back.

Now I only go to 1-2 operas per season, with last night's performance of The Merry Widow being my first visit of the 2009-2010 Lyric Opera season. I will also be seeing Puccini's Tosca in a few weeks.

The reason for this rambling preamble is to establish that while I am not truly an opera beginner, in many ways I still am. And if perhaps you're like I was a few years ago--wanting to explore something new, albeit with no prior predilection for opera and likely some hesitancy--I can tell you that The Merry Widow is the perfect starter opera.

To begin with, it's not really an opera, but an operetta. Which I think essentially means that its music and story are more light and airy than a standard opera, although very few of those involve high drama. Although the 1905 piece by Franz Lehar was originally sung in German, the Lyric is doing it as an English version, with lyrics and dialogue based on a 1970 transliteration by Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof and other Broadway classics.

There are a lot of melodic arias (songs sung as solos), vibrant choral pieces, substantial dancing and more than a good bit of humor. This production is being directed by noted theater director Gary Griffin, who has inventively staged several well-received shows around Chicago, as well as the Broadway & touring versions of The Color Purple. Even from the top of the upper balcony, the scenery was splendid and the performers, led by Elizabeth Futral, Roger Honeywell and Andriana Chuchman, not only sang beautifully, they infused the stage with genuine glamor (i.e., the 3-hour piece was over before any "fat ladies" sang).

Granted, some of the reasons I particularly enjoyed The Merry Widow--English lyrics, a Broadway director, attractive people to look at, etc.--may have caused some more traditional opera lovers to turn over in their seats. And to be fair, while quite enjoyable, the whole experience was still short of life-changing. Though I liked the whole thing aesthetically, I still didn't savor it emotionally, as I imagine true opera fanatics often do. So I am not suggesting that it will in itself convert the uninitiated into aficionado.

But if you're looking to start exploring opera, or think it might be fun just to check one out, The Merry Widow is an ideal place to start.

But be fast, after a matinee this Friday, it closes after Saturday evening's performance. And as it's been 23 seasons since the Lyric last staged it, who knows when The Merry Widow will roll back into town.

If you're interested, you can learn more and purchase tickets here.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Addams Family: Relatively Improved but Issues Remain

Theatre Review

The Addams Family (a new musical)
Ford Center/Oriental Theatre, Chicago

Long before The Addams Family came to Chicago for a pre-Broadway run, I augmented my nosebleed subscription series seat--for a pre-Thanksgiving preview performance--with a third-row orchestra ticket for last night. This seemed like a good idea back in May, when after hearing that Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth would head the cast, I assumed I would get a second and better chance to appreciate a stellar new musical--ideally on par with The Producers--as it crystallized its fine-tuning before heading for an NYC-opening in April.

Unfortunately, despite--or perhaps because of--my high expectations, when I saw the show back on November 24, I was quite disappointed. Though Lane and a stellar cast ensured that it was far from unwatchable, it just seemed too straightforward and far less imaginative than it should have been. As I said on Facebook at the time, the Addams Family needed to be "altogether ookier." Forget the Producers, it wasn't even as good as Young Frankenstein (the musical). Understanding that it was still in previews at that time, I would have given it @@1/2 (out of @@@@@).

So especially with the snow making getting downtown a bit more chilling, I didn't exactly head into the Oriental Theatre last night with great expectations. In his official review, Chris Jones of the Tribune pretty much agreed with my thoughts, and while subsequently revealing that changes were being made and Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks was being brought in to helm (and help) the show, Jones said the most substantive revisions wouldn't be seen until the Addams relocated to New York.

Well, whether due as much to my up-close seat than any specific changes--the details of which I really couldn't recall--I enjoyed the show considerably more last night than I did in November. To the point that if someone simply asked if I liked it, I would say "yes" rather than "no."

That said, it still isn't fantastic--which the Producers was even in pre-Broadway previews--but at this point, I would say The Addams Family is on par with Young Frankenstein and Spamalot, which I didn't love nearly as much as others did. In talking with an usher after the show, she verified that they had cut at least one song and did a lot of tightening, which I guess made the whole thing seem a lot better. Lane, Neuwirth, Kevin Chamberlain (Uncle Fester), Krysta Rodriguez (Wednesday), Terrence Mann (the original Javert in Broadway's Les Miz; the father of Wednesday's boyfriend here) and the whole cast were really great to watch, especially from a prime seat.

Hopefully as it heads to Times Square, Zaks and the existing creative team can make it another leap better without messing it up, which assuredly happens sometimes. Where I think the show still falls far short of brilliant is in the music, or more precisely the lyrics. Although composer & lyricist Andrew Lippa is obviously talented, the songs here just don't have the imagination and verve that Mel Brooks, Stephen Sondheim or the writers of Hairspray, Avenue Q or Legally Blonde might have brought to the wonderfully weird characters and promising premise. I would also love to see Lane occasionally step out of character and make dead-pan quips (as he slyly did in the Producers), like perhaps telling Neuwirth as Morticia that she's not nearly as creepy as Lilith Crane.

So while I followed The Producers to Broadway, Los Angeles, London, Cleveland and beyond, if I'm able to get to New York this year, unless it really earns raves, I doubt I would make a point of seeing The Addams Family again, certainly not ahead of Spider-Man and American Idiot, unless those two tank.

But at least I'm far happier today than I would have been if I'd wasted $110 on a family that wasn't any more entertainingly dysfunctional than it was six weeks ago.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

My Favorite Movies of 2009, So Far

Despite being a movie glutton for about the last month, devouring just about every well-reviewed year-end theatrical release while catching several others on cable and DVD, I still have not seen every significant film released in 2009 (and probably never will).

But while I will still be watching movies from last year well into this year, and for years to come, knowing that the world (or even just my mom) will care even less about this list if I publish it in June, I figure I've reached a good demarcation point.

I will follow my "Best of" list with a recap of major movies I have not yet seen, and will be sure to let you know if any of those turn out to be outstanding. But for now, here are My 25 Favorite Movies of 2009:

1. The Hurt Locker - Somewhat contrary to the the title of this list, this might not have been my favorite movie in terms of acute enjoyment, but was clearly the best in terms of quality and importance.
2. Avatar - Be sure to see it in 3D; it's worth it.
3. Crazy Heart - Jeff Bridges should win the Best Actor Oscar; great songs too.
4. Me and Orson Welles - Richard Linklater's fine film stands on its own, but you might want to read a bit about Welles and his mythology before seeing it, at least on Wikipedia
5. An Education - See it and then read this (or vice versa)
6. Capitalism: A Love Story - Best documentary; not as preachy as Michael Moore can sometimes be, and right on target
7. Up - Best animated film, though Fantastic Mr. Fox is also good; didn't see The Princess and the Frog
8. Goodbye Solo - Look this small gem by Ramin Bahrani (who Roger Ebert called the Director of the Decade) up on Netflix or your local library
9. A Serious Man - I often don't love Coen Bros. flicks, but this one was excellent
10. The Young Victoria - Somewhat surprised by how well I liked this, but it was perfectly made
11. Brothers - There will be 10 Best Picture Nominees for the Oscars this year; Capitalism either can't or won't qualify, so this would be my 10th choice
12. Star Trek - I've never been much of a Star Trek fan, but really enjoyed this movie
13. Broken Embraces - Best Foreign Language Film
14. Anvil: The Story of Anvil
15. The Hangover
16. Nothing But the Truth - This was officially a late-2008 release, but never hit theaters in Chicago
17. Precious
18. Invictus
19. Up In the Air
20 In the Loop
21. Sunshine Cleaning
22. Public Enemies
23. District 9
24. The Blind Side - I just finished reading the book; the movie is actually just as good except for some of the Left Tackle evolution stuff
25. Knowing

I liked these movies, but the list doesn't go to 30

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Police, Adjective
The Soloist

I didn't like these nearly as much as friends & reviewers did, though I didn't hate them

Inglorious Basterds - Maybe I need to see it again
(500) Days of Summer
The Class
Of Time and the City - An acclaimed documentary about Liverpool, but I was bored

Acclaimed movies of 2009 I have not seen; feel free to tell me which ones I should

A Single Man
The Lovely Bones
Drag Me to Hell
Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Lorna’s Silence
Sin Nombre
The Damned United
The Road
Julie & Julia
Summer Hours
The Informant