Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Maybe Next Time -- Brief Reviews of Two Shows Recently Seen But No Longer Running

Theater Reviews

Passing Strange
a recent musical
presented by Bailiwick Chicago at
Chicago Center for the Performing Arts
Run Ended

I was really hoping, and even expecting, to like Passing Strange a good bit more than I did. I was aware of the show--an autobiographical rock musical written by and originally starring an African-American musician named Stew--when it received raves on Broadway in 2008...and even had a ticket only to have it close before I got to NYC. The movie by Spike Lee, which essentially just captures a performance of the Broadway production, remains the only movie I've ever ordered through Comcast, and I remember liking it.

The Broadway show never toured, but I took note of Bailiwick Theater's local production, the first in Chicago. I didn't know how well the show would play without Stew, but JC Brooks was certainly adequate in his stead. In fact, the entire cast was quite strong, but not enough songs really caught me (even on the original cast recording). "Keys," which I've always liked, is a clear highlight and "We Just Had Sex" is prurient fun, but little else really stood out. And though Brooks was fine in his own right, perhaps Stew's story lost a little edge without him telling it.

If you have a chance to see the movie, it's probably worth your while more so than this production, but that's OK since the run has now ended.


42nd Street
a classic musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Run Ended

Although I have seen numerous excellent productions at Marriott Theatre, tickets are a bit pricey--and seemingly never discounted due to a huge subscriber base--so I was obvious to 42nd Street playing there until its last performance. Which I attended because it was what my sister Allison wanted to do for her birthday.

And once again, I was extremely impressed with the quality at this north suburban, theater-in-the-round venue. With a full Equity cast, including performers with Broadway credits, the singing and particularly the frequent tap dancing were truly first-rate.

Based on a 1933 movie musical of the same name, 42nd Street has a somewhat hokey narrative, with songs that seem out of place. Although it has quality material, it isn't near the top tier of my favorite musicals (I'd seen a touring version some years ago). And while the performers at Marriott were universally great, I think the production values necessitated by in-the-round staging suffered a bit.

But it was still 2-1/2 hours of excellent entertainment, performed quite splendidly. The "Lullaby of Broadway" is alive and well in Lincolnshire, although this production has reached the end of its road.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Oh the Places We'll Go -- A Tour of My 11 Favorite U.S. Cities to Visit, Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image below to access my latest post to Booth Reviews, where my previous post on "My 11 Favorite Chicago Area Hot Dog Stands" received over 30,000 pageviews.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

U2 Returns to America With a Mile High Performance -- Concert Review

Photo Credit: John Leyba, Denver Post
Concert Review

with The Fray
Invesco Field at Mile High, Denver, CO
May 21, 2011

In catching U2 at Denver's Invesco Field on Saturday--as part of an excursion to visit a recently transplanted friend--I have now had the pleasure of seeing them live 14 times over the course of 25 years (with tickets to see them on their return to Chicago on July 5).

The last time I saw them--twice in September 2009 at Soldier Field, the kickoff shows of their still-running, most lucrative ever (by anyone) U2 360 tour--the gigs did not rank in the upper echelon of those I'd seen by Bono, the Edge, Adam and Larry.

Touring with the four-legged behemoth known as "The Claw" as their stage set, back then the legendary band seemed a bit dwarfed by their creation and were beset by pacing & technical glitches tied to lighting & video cues.

With the Denver show being the 89th of their current tour--which saw last summer's U.S. leg postponed after Bono suffered a back injury--the band has had plenty of time to get comfortable with their stage, props, lighting/video cues and setlists.

Thus, U2's first performance on U.S. soil since 2009 felt considerably better than their tour-opening gigs, and the quality of the music and overall production more than fulfilled the $35 paid for nosebleed seats (face value at the box office on the night of the show).

And while I, as a persnickety curmudgeon still found a few flaws, the three U2 newbies who joined me were completely wowed by the band's performance, including considerably strident social activism (such as celebrating the recent release of Burmese dissident Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose long-term imprisonment the band decried earlier on tour).

It is about time the band wrote some great new songs, as I put only a handful over the last 20 years in that category (Beautiful Day, Vertigo, Walk On and Elevation, all played). So every U2 show I see pretty much features the same highlights (Sunday Bloody Sunday, Where the Streets Have No Name, With Or Without You, etc., and I was quite glad that Pride (In the Name of Love) was played, as it's often been omitted on the 360 Tour).

I don't suppose Bono and the boys will see this by the time they reach Chicago, but if they do, I ask them to remember some great songs they seem to have long ago forgotten, such as A Sort of Homecoming, Exit, Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses and In God's Country. And I know its kitschiness helps justify the mammoth stage set, but the disco version of I Know I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight continues to be a waste of 5 minutes that could be way better utilized, while Moment of Surrendur (also off 2009's No Line on the Horizon) is a bit too long and languid to serve as a show closer.

That said, All I Want Is You, Stay (Faraway So Close), Miss Sarajevo and I Will Follow were nice inclusions, so the setlist was pretty satisfying, even if the pacing remains a bit disjointed at times.

In sum, there are few artists who do a big show better than U2 and the one I saw at a Mile High altitude was pretty damn great. On the night the world was supposed to end, this wouldn't have been a bad note to go out on. But that doesn't mean I not hoping for some first-rate new material and the rediscovery of some other first-rate old material to elevate U2 to even higher heights.


Even Better Than The Real Thing
I Will Follow
Get On Your Boots
Mysterious Ways
Until The End Of The World
All I Want Is You
Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
Beautiful Day
Pride (In The Name Of Love)
Miss Sarajevo
City Of Blinding Lights
I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Walk On

Encore 1:
Where The Streets Have No Name

Encore 2:
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me
With Or Without You
Moment of Surrender

(YouTube clip of Where The Streets Have No Name at Invesco Field, Denver. Not shot or uploaded by me.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Cars Reignite (Somewhat), Part II -- Concert Review

Concert Review

The Cars
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
May 18, 2011

I've liked the Cars for as long as I can remember, probably since first hearing "Just What I Needed" off their fantastic self-titled debut album in 1978, or certainly by the next year when I bought Candy-O.

The Boston-based quintet--now reunited as a foursome after bassist/singer Benjamin Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000--were never quite my favorite band, nor particularly close, but I really enjoyed their string of heyday hits and feel they've held up rather well. I don't recall specifically having passed up a chance to catch a Cars show in their original incarnation, but I had never seen them in concert. But from clips, I always got the impression that they weren't much of a live act, seemingly standing stiff as posts on-stage.

And whether or not that was the case in 1984, with the band members now in their 60s, the Cars didn't exactly give a high-octane performance Wednesday night at the Riv. It was still fun hearing the classics, even if--aside from a couple cases where Ric Ocasek handled the vocals on tunes originally sung by Orr--they basically just replicated the recorded versions. (For those wondering, the talented Ocasek remains a homely and boring beanpole, yet remains married to former model Paulina Porizkova.)

Songs off the surprisingly strong new album, Move Like This (review here) didn't sound out of place, but the show really only came alive when the Cars rolled through harder rocking relics like "You Might Think," "Let's Go," "Just What I Needed" and the show closer, "You're All I've Got Tonight," the only occasion on which the band stretched things out a bit.

Otherwise, over a 19-song, 88-minute show (with no opening act) that hewed to the same setlist as all their recent gigs--besides the wise addition of "You're All I've Got Tonight"--the Cars were pretty much on cruise control. I realize that they were never a fervent live act and just a few shows into their first tour in 24 years isn't the time to "Shake It Up." But it would've been nice had they rotated in that tune and/or a few other missing gems like "Bye Bye Love," "Magic" and "It's All I Can Do." And while "Good Times Roll" is a great song, "Hello Again" (off 1984's "Heartbeat City") not only would've made a more thematic opener, it would've got things off to a more rocking start. By the time the Cars kicked into high gear, the show was over.

I'm glad I finally got a chance to see the Cars live, but especially given that I could hardly see them over all the heads in front of me, the reunion tour DVD will probably be every bit as satisfying. If my well-worn copy of The Cars' Greatest Hits isn't already.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Allow Me To Be Perfectly Frank in Annointing the Wieners -- Now on Booth Reviews

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Hat Trick of Quick Theater Reviews

Merrily We Roll Along
a musical by Stephen Sondheim
The Music Theatre Company
at the Karger Center, Highland Park, IL
Run Ended (saw on May 13)

It distresses me to no end that among Americans under 50, Kim Kardashian undoubtedly has a higher Q Rating than Stephen Sondheim. I still don't know what she's ever done; he's simply the greatest composer and lyricist musical theater has ever known. This 1981 show was his notorious flop, but the score is still sumptuously sublime, with typical Sondheim sophistication in the music and lyrics. And the backward sequencing of the plot is an interesting narrative device. The cast was a bit young, but quite talented and the show rolled along quite merrily, indeed.

Photo Credit: Joel Moorman, Steppenwolf.org
The Hot L Baltimore
a play by Lanford Wilson
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 29, 2011

I liked the premise of this 1974 play by the recently-deceased Wilson: a bunch of social misfits demonstrating camaraderie, dignity and perseverance in the dying days of a once-grand Baltimore flophouse. The set design at Steppenwolf was fantastic and the '70s music that accompanied the show was a lot of fun. The acting by the large ensemble cast was excellent and the beautiful Kate Arrington shedding all her clothes at one point was quite, uh, eye-opening. But while it added up to a worthwhile show, the highly splintered focus (or lack thereof) was a bit hard to follow, rendering the Hot L Baltimore not wholeheartedly worth checking into.

Stage Kiss
a world premiere play by Sarah Ruhl
Goodman Theatre, Chicago

This show was quite funny and therefore enjoyably entertaining. But in addition to dragging on way too long, it didn't seem to provide any shrewd insights or say much more than "actors often turn on-stage passion into off-stage romance, but it often winds up being a superficial, unsustainable relationship."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Cars Reignite, Part I - Album Review

Album Review

The Cars
Move Like This

I think my Facebook post, shown below, will suffice for the album review. Part II will be a concert review after I see them live for the first time, next Wednesday at Chicago's Riviera Theatre.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Mother of a Blog Post -- My 11 Favorite TV Moms ... Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image to access my latest Booth Reviews article.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

'Spring Awakening' Still Holds Up, But Is Ready For a Downward Progression -- Theater Review

Photo by Andy Snow - SpringAwakening.com
Theater Review

Spring Awakening
a recent musical presented by Broadway in Chicago
Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 8

I think it's somewhat unfortunate that national touring productions of Next To Normal and Spring Awakening are both playing in Chicago during the same week. (This is the second & final week for NTN and the only one for SA.)

For while it's always great to see the downtown theaters abuzz with activity, my suspicion is that these two musicals--both among the very best of the last five years--may cancel each other out in terms of ticket buyers with time to see just one show. Although each show is completely unique and extremely worthwhile its own right, they are both mold-breaking musicals that are heavy on drama, feature an original rock-infused score and aren't based on extremely famous source material (though Spring Awakening is derived from an 1891 German play).

Both have also offered discounted tickets on HotTix so it's easy to imagine some may wind up choosing one over the other. If you're in this boat this weekend, I'd recommend you go to see Next To Normal (which I reviewed here). It's definitely the better production, even though I believe Spring Awakening is the better musical.

More so than Next To Normal did when I saw it for the first time last week, Spring Awakening blew me away when I saw it on Broadway in January 2007, just weeks after its opening. It was one of the freshest pieces of theater I've ever seen and its rock score--sometimes quite hard rocking--by Duncan Sheik was truly exhilarating on a number of songs. The choreography by Bill T. Jones, even in a relatively small setting, was likewise outstanding as the show dared to explore sexual repression and awakening among Bavarian teenagers.

Although the show began its first national tour in 2008, for whatever silly reason it didn't arrive in Chicago until August 2009. I saw it then and again enjoyed it, though not as much as with the original cast. And although its current visit to Chicago wasn't included in my Broadway in Chicago subscription, I like the show enough to opt to see it once again--likely for the last time--on the level of a national tour.

And I'm glad I did. The source material is great enough that I was sufficiently entertained and satisfied. I recommend it to anyone, even if it means seeing two musicals this weekend.

Photo by Andy Snow
But whereas Next To Normal now playing in Chicago features a Broadway-level cast including the Tony-winning star Alice Ripley--though I guess she's missed some performances--this version of Spring Awakening features a non-Equity (the actor's union) cast and thus virtually no one with Broadway pedigrees.

This isn't to say the performers weren't talented; I found almost all--including Coby Getzug (at left) as Moritz--to be more than adequate. But they were clearly a step, or two, down from what I'd seen on Broadway.

And probably not any better than a cast of Chicago-based actors & actresses would be. Given the relative sparseness of the staging (even on Broadway), this is a show perfectly suited for a local troupe to present, say at the Theatre Building, or even for a non-prudish college theater department to present.

I don't know if it's licensed down to that level yet--although the numerous empty seats on opening night in Chicago suggest that the touring version may be running low on financial gas--but it should be.

This is an awesome show that would thrive on the excitement and energy of great young performers, anywhere, and the size of a venue like the exquisitely beautiful Oriental Theatre was actually a detraction. Not only was the acting and singing not quite sensational, even the band wasn't quite on, with an under-amped guitar dampening the power of early Act I rocker, "The Bitch of Living."

To be fair, Act II's phenomenal "Totally Fucked" brought the house down and reminded me of the exhilaration upon first seeing Spring Awakening. So although it may be hard to tell, this is a much more positive than negative review. If you've never seen the show, you really should, and now's as good a time as any.

But I'm looking forward to seeing the show rocking out--and heck, breaking windows--in a Chicago storefront theater in the hopefully not-too-distant future. It's time for Spring Awakening to revitalize itself on a local level.

(This is a clip from the Broadway version I saw, starring Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele.)