Saturday, November 13, 2010

By Focusing Spotlight on Brian Jones, Stones Musical 'Aftermath' Provides Tremendous Satisfaction: Theater Review

Theater Review

a new musical play by Ronan Marra
featuring songs by the Rolling Stones
Signal Theatre Ensemble, Chicago
Thru December 12, 2010 (unless extended)

If Keith Richards is to be believed--and it seems his recent comments are already being contradicted--The Rolling Stones will record and tour in 2011. If it happens, it will mean--somewhat astonishingly--that Keith, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts will still be working together 49 years after the band's formation in 1962.

With current second guitarist Ron Wood having joined in 1975 and original bassist Bill Wyman having put in 30 years before retiring in 1992, it's easy to consider guitarist Brian Jones--an original member who was dismissed and soon after died in 1969--a footnote to musical history. But the still ongoing story of the Stones could never have been written without him, and not just because he was the one who chose their name.

As Ronan Marra writes in the program notes of Aftermath--a new work he wrote and directs for Chicago's Signal Ensemble Theatre, of which he is co-founder and co-artistic director--coming across a magazine article on Jones decades after his death was eye-opening.
"To me and anyone else I knew the leaders of The Rolling Stones had always been Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. To find out the band wasn’t even founded by these two legends was definitely news to someone who considered themselves a pretty serious rock fan. ... This article initiated my fascination with Jones. I came to learn that he was not only the band’s lead guitarist, but was also the one responsible for bringing many non-traditional instruments to their rock/R&B landscape."

Years later, Marra was inspired to write Aftermath, which Signal initially produced and staged in May; after a sold-out monthlong run--likely spurred by this glowing review from the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones and much other praise--the show has now been remounted. And is again entirely sold out. 

Fortunately, acting quickly after Chris Jones mentioned the show's revival, I was able to buy one of the last remaining tickets and went on Thursday night. Living up to the hype, Aftermath is one of the best pieces of theater I've seen this year. (Though it may seem pointless to write or read a rave review about a show for which no tickets remain, there is a waiting list for each show that you can get on an hour before curtain--I was told they try to be accommodating as possible--and the possibility also exists that Aftermath will get extended past its slated December 12 closing date; it would seem kind of silly if it isn't.)

And while it may be a bit tricky for any producer to take Aftermath to New York, given that the Stones have yet to officially endorse the show which features live renditions of about 5-6 of their songs (and even one by the Beatles), this is clearly a work that deserves an even wider audience.

Given the recent glut of "songbook" musicals using old rock songs, relatively few of which have been good or successful, the thought of a Rolling Stones musical might sound a bit garish. But although Aftermath features the talented cast performing late '60s Rolling Stones songs live on stage, it feels less like a musical akin to Mamma Mia--in which ABBA songs narrate the story--than simply a biographical drama with Stones songs as accoutrement. The program--actually a mock "backstage pass" that Signal cleverly substitutes for both ticket and program--calls Aftermath "a new play by Ronan Marra," rather than a musical.

Not to get too bogged down on this point, but it seems that a play with live music is technically "a musical." But even compared to stellar songbook stage affairs like Jersey Boys and Million Dollar Quartet, where the songs simply accompany biography rather than move the story along, Aftermath seems to avoid gathering musical moss, or gloss, by doing away with any dancing (other than Mick's gyrations) or over-the-top production numbers.

I realize that I'm probably not doing a very good job in describing why Aftermath is so good, and in a way, it's a show that is a lot better than the sum of its parts. The biography was interesting, but not all that revelatory beyond what one can learn on Wikipedia (although I'm glad it inspired me to do so). The Stones songs are great, but only a handful are played in the 90-minute show, and not only are just of few of those--Paint It Black, Sympathy for the Devil, Satisfaction--particularly well-known, singer/actor Nick Vidal looks a lot like Mick but doesn't really sound like him vocally. And the rest of the actors/musicians--even Aaron Snook who is excellent as Jones--aren't exactly spitting images of the other Stones.

All "Stones" imagery in the theater substitutes the actors' pix.
Yet, it all works. Wonderfully. Perhaps because the show is--much like the Stones--a bit scruffy and unkempt.

In staying focused on Jones during period from 1966-69--only slightly touching on his death, which many still believe was a murder--Aftermath strikes an incredibly engaging, entertaining and enlightening balance between biographic theatrical drama and a showcase for some of the greatest rock music ever made. 

And for just $20 if you're lucky enough to get one, it's not only the hottest ticket in town, but one of the best.

1 comment:

WendySchmidt said...

Wow - cool - why have I totally missed this? Just under my radar, because I saw the title around, but didn't ever connect.