Monday, June 27, 2011

The Good, The Better and The Best of Clint Eastwood -- Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image to access my latest "ours go to 11" list on Booth Reviews. (6/30/11: It seems Booth Reviews may be having some issues due to a systems migration. You may not be able to see the slideshow; hopefully this will be resolved soon.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

From a Musical Genius, an Evening of Often Absorbing New Blood If Not Quite Regenesis -- Concert Review: Peter Gabriel

Concert Review

Peter Gabriel & the New Blood Orchestra
June 20, 2011
United Center, Chicago

I can't say that I've listened to--or even thought about--Peter Gabriel all that much in recent years, but I still consider him one of the great musical innovators of my lifetime. As well as one of rock's best vocalists ever.

While his work with Genesis and then on his own bespeaks vast and enduring brilliance, at 61 it appears that his most fertile creative years are behind him. In the quarter-century since the So album--and its groundbreaking videos--made him a megastar, he has managed to release only two records of original songs on which he sings. I was oblivious to his 2010 Scratch My Back collection of cover songs and though I enjoy the sound of a symphony, I hadn't initially bought a ticket to see him backed by the New Blood Orchestra.

But after being reminded that friends were going to his Monday gig at the United Center and reading several stellar reviews from earlier tour stops, I was fortunate to find a half-price ticket on the lower level. Getting nearly three hours of high quality music from dozens of musicians for just $45 certainly qualifies as worthwhile and I respect that Gabriel didn't undermine the integrity of this foray by, as he put it, affixing an orchestra on the back of a rock band. There were no guitars to be heard.

Photo Credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune
Having also respected Gabriel for not cashing in on a Genesis reunion tour--despite overtures from his ex-bandmates--I can't say I expected him to simply deliver his greatest hits with violins and bassoons (especially having perused past setlists, roughly the same as performed here).

But respect and rapture are two different things, and especially during the first hour of the show, when Gabriel mined many of the covers found on Scratch My Back--including David Bowie's "Heroes," Paul Simon's "The Boy In the Bubble" and Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage"--along with some lesser-known songs of his own, things tended to languish. While I cringed when some buffoon yelled, "This is boring me!" I couldn't entirely disagree. It wasn't until the wondrous-in-any-form "Biko"--one of the best socially-conscious songs ever written--that the first set really caught fire. Only to lead into a 15-minute intermission.

Fortunately, rendering the performance an overall success, the second set and encores featured several highlights, not just in showcasing some wonderful Gabriel songs--"San Jacinto," "Signal to Noise," "Mercy Street," "The Rhythm and the Heat," "Red Rain," "Solsbury Hill," "In Your Eyes,"--but with some appropriately angular orchestral interpretations as well.

I did feel that the orchestra often seemed a bit too restrained, or perhaps constrained. I would have loved to hear them swing a bit on the omitted "Shock the Monkey," "Big Time" and/or "Sledgehammer" and hearing an innovative arrangement of "Games Without Frontiers"--or even "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway"--would've have been thrilling (and also a smart nod to the fact that some folks did spend over $200 apiece for this atypcial "rock concert" that filled only about 2/3 of the arena).

I still remember the performances I saw Gabriel deliver in 1986--as part of Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope Tour--and 1987 as being absolutely phenomenal. Though it had its moments, the show I saw in 2002 didn't wow me nearly as much. So it makes sense that he would now explore something different and tour with an orchestra.

With the timber of Peter's phenomenal voice remaining robust, even if he isn't the kinetic stage performer he once was, the evening had enough quality music to make it very enjoyable. But I can't deny that I likely would have been just as happy--if not more so--with more of Peter Gabriel's own songs played in a more conventional fashion. Going into the show, the punster in me was planning (or at least hoping) on calling the show a re-Genesis. But as the title of this post suggests, the "New Blood Tour" didn't deliver that strong a testament.

Here's a clip of Biko from Monday night; not shot by me

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Low 'Rent' Production Deserving of High Admiration

Community Theater Appreciation

Presented by the Devonshire Playhouse Adult Theatre, Skokie, IL
Run Ended

When it comes to theatrical talent, I'm a triple reverse. I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't act.

So beyond frequently enjoying the talents of those who can do any or all of the above, I also have vast admiration for the dedicated efforts of anyone who performs onstage, at any level.

Recently, I wrote about outstanding productions by local troupes who present only a handful of performances-- Brigadoon by Light Opera Works; The Sound of Music by Chamber Opera Chicago. I can only imagine just how vast the disparity is between time spent rehearsing (and putting together sets) vs. time onstage in front of the public.

And while I'm fairly certain that even many local "professional troupes" don't pay their actors much if at all, the myriad denizens of community theater take my admiration and appreciation to a whole other level.

It doesn't seem quite right to write a critical review about volunteer, mostly teenage performers showcasing their talents at a community center, but relative to my expectations going in, the Devonshire Playhouse Adult Theatre's production of Rent clearly merits @@@@@.

No, it wasn't as good as when I've seen the show--one of my very favorite musicals--on Broadway or national tours through Chicago, including a 2009 version with original stars Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal.

But with adequate scenery, clever staging, a strong band and several terrific performances--including some startling strong vocals--this was an unequivocally enjoyable production, directed by Liz Yerkovich. 

Jack Shurluff, a high schooler who played Mark (the role originated by Rapp). could step into a touring production tomorrow. His singing, acting and presence were that good. Rebecca Iloulian was also very strong as Mimi, as was Daven Taba as Tom Collins.

Certainly, some performers were a bit better than others--true at any level of theater--but I was impressed with all the actors in key roles, including Kevin Pollack as Roger, Jose A. Guerrero as Angel, Kailey Hopkins as Maureen, Abby Rakocy as Joanne and Joe Poradyla, a cop by day who was quite good as Benny.

Although I am a Skokie resident and became aware of this production as such, I do not know any of the cast or crew members involved in Rent; this isn't a case of being relatively proud of friends & family. I was genuinely impressed. The 4-show run has ended, so I can't even recommend you go--for a scant $9--but I just wanted to voice my high regard for what I saw & heard, and the effort undoubtedly involved in putting together such a satisfying rendition of a challenging show.

For someone who has seen Rent at the highest levels, or even anyone who never has, this was an extremely worthwhile representation of Jonathan Larson's masterpiece based on La Boheme. My kudos to all who helped make it such...and anyone who participates in creating local theater productions that can be treasured by any community.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

An Appreciative Farewell to the Big Man, Clarence Clemons (1942-2011)

One of my favorite sounds will never again be emitted anew.

And one of the few things in my life that I found absolute in its artistic quality and the pleasure I derived from it--seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live in concert--will never again be the same.

If at all.

Clarence Clemons, fondly known as the Big Man, the super-sized saxophonist who helped defined Springsteen's classic songs--and largely integrated the sax into the rock 'n roll soundscape--passed away last night from complications of a stroke he suffered last Sunday.

After monitoring reports of Clarence's condition all week and having had my hopes for his survival and eventual recovery emboldened by promising news, hearing of his death was a relative shock.

Last night, I had some friends over to watch the classic Western, The Wild Bunch, and after that movie ended, in honor of Paul McCartney's birthday, I threw on A Hard Day's Night. We were enjoying the brilliant buoyancy of the young Beatles, who, without wanting to get too deep into this, along with Springsteen are more like religion to me than any religion is.

Not long into the film, someone thought to ask how Clarence was doing. Oblivious to the truth already a few hours old, I replied that he seemingly was recovering better than initially expected. Soon thereafter, a friend that I rarely hear from texted me that "Clarence Clemons has died."

Perhaps because I was among friends and watching the Beatles, the news didn't crush me as much as it might have. Certainly, I was sad and after waiting for a song in the movie to finish, shared the news with my pals. After they left, I looked up the news reports and Facebook/Twitter posts, and read a bit more this morning while listening to some great Springsteen songs highlighted by Clarence's sax.

Just a few of my favorite Clarence moments come on "Badlands," "Born To Run," "The Promised Land," "The Ties That Bind" and "Night." But pretty much any Clemons solo was a great one.

Having seen Bruce with the E Street Band--whose original organist, Danny Federici died in 2008--32 times in concert, including 30 shows between 1999-2009, I appreciated just how much Clarence meant to the music, to the band, to Bruce, to the fans and to me.

The roar of the crowd when Clarence stepped up to play one of his phenomenal solos was always amazing, often goosebump-inducing. And though hobbled by serious pain in his back and knees on recent tours, when he put his horn to his mouth, he always gave it his all--and I don't remember any solos that were ever anything but note perfect.

Springsteen is the greatest live performer I--and perhaps the world--has ever seen, and Clemons made his legendary shows notably better, and not just musically. With no disrespect to the other E Street Band members, he was the most important person onstage besides Bruce, playing the Boss' stalwart foil while shredding on his sax. After he had suffered his stroke, someone called him "the greatest sidekick ever," and that seems about right.

Including the time when I saw him do a solo show at Milwaukee Summerfest in 2004, I would estimate that I saw Clarence Clemons live and in person for the equivalent of four full days. I'm sorry I never will again, but sure am glad I did.

And though his size--he was a promising football prospect in college until a car accident ended any chances of making it to the NFL--might suggest that he'd be intimidating, he had the warmest smile of almost anyone I've ever seen. Check out his 2009 interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show--accessible here--to see what I mean. His book, Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales was also great fun, as was the interview he did with Howard Stern around its release.

Fittingly, Bruce paid tribute to Clarence last night with this post on 
Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band. 
The last sentence might suggest that the E Street Band isn't finished. Part of me hopes not, as I would hate never to see Bruce rocking out again if the rest of his bandmates are ready and willing. But as I said at top, it will never be the same.

The Big Man has left an immeasurable void.

So long, Clarence. And thanks.


Although the camera work here doesn't do it justice, I love how Clarence's sax powers the opening of "Night."

Again, not a perfect video, but a great old version of Thunder Road, with Clarence's sublime saxophone coda.

One of my true favorites, from 1980, "The Ties That Bind"

"The change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band." - "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" in Milwaukee, November 15, 2009, the last time I ever saw and heard Clarence Clemons.

Clarence's solo on "Jungleland" was probably his most famous, although the original was pieced together by Springsteen in the studio. Clarence never held it against him and this rendition is typically note perfect, fittingly from a concert for the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

When introducing the E Street Band onstage, Springsteen always called out Clarence last, with true reverence.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fine Yet Fleeting Production Renders 'The Sound of Music' Harmionously Sublime -- Theater Review

Theater Review

The Sound of Music
presented by Chamber Opera Chicago
at the Athenaeum Theatre
Run Ended

Until Sunday afternoon, The Sound of Music stood as the most famous--and presumably best--musical I had never seen on stage.

Although I have avidly been attending musicals over the last dozen years--seeing more than 300 different ones, many multiple times--I don't recall ever having an opportunity to see the great Rodgers & Hammerstein musical live and in person. And when I finally did get the opportunity, I literally had only two chances, as Chamber Opera Chicago slated just a pair of performances last weekend at the Athenaeum Theater.

Though I had never seen nor heard of this troupe before, they fortuitously found me with a promotional postcard.

Thanks to Goldstar, a wonderful, free-to-all ticket discount service, I was able to get a ticket for just $13 including convenience fees. And as impressed as I consistently am with the high-quality productions that Evanston's Light Opera Works delivers of shows that typically run for a scant 8 performances and cost me about $40 after discounts, I was even more awed by the experience Chamber Opera Chicago provided, given the even shorter run and lower admission cost. (Although, straight up, LOW's wonderful recent staging of Brigadoon had slightly better production values and performances.)

I have been to the Athenaeum on Southport many times but had never had occasion to sit in its grand mainstage theatre, so I was delighted to see it completely packed for this strong rendition of The Sound of Music. I don't know if they were borrowed or specially built, but the sets were far better than anyone had a right to expect for a 2-show run. The 30-piece Orchestra sounded excellent, as did most of the vast, almost exclusively non-Equity cast in giving a 3+ hour performance packed with superlative songs, such as the title tune, "Maria," "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "So Long, Farewell" and several more. 

Nick Sandys, who I'd seen as Professor Henry Higgins in a Light Opera Works production of My Fair Lady, was very good as Capt. Georg von Trapp, and most of the young stars playing the von Trapp children were also notably good, particularly Sarah Huffman as Liesl. And though she sang only one song, Erika Morrison delivered a phenomenal rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."

I hate to call Barbara Landis' performance as Maria a weak spot, since as the artistic director of Chamber Opera Chicago she likely put this whole wonderful production together. And she was certainly more than adequate, but just didn't seem perfectly suited to the part.

Perhaps I'm unfairly comparing her with Julie Andrews--who legendarily played the role in the 1965 movie version--but I didn't feel that Landis quite exuded the proper ebullience. And while the seasoned opera singer certainly has an impressive--if rather deep--voice, the operatic tonality of her singing just didn't strike the right note for the role of Maria, a fanciful nun turned governess. 

Although she was much more good than bad, Landis' performance was probably the main thing preventing me from delivering an unprecedented fourth straight @@@@@ review on Seth Saith.

Though it only shared the 1960 Best Musical Tony--with Fiorello--The Sound of Music is clearly one of the best musicals ever written. Perhaps I'll see an even better production some day, but as an initial live experience, this outstanding local staging brought true joy to my eyes, ears and soul.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Post Worth Reading -- My Favorite Current Thriller Authors, Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image below to learn of some writers you might enjoy.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Astute Script, Unforgettable Performances Power Great New Play About Alzheimer's -- Theater Review: The Outgoing Tide

Theater Review

The Outgoing Tide
a world premiere play by Bruce Graham
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 26, 2011

The Tony Awards will be presented this Sunday night. In order to be eligible for awards honoring the best of the 2010-11 season, theatrical productions must have opened on Broadway by April 28, 2011

Although I haven't seen any of the shows nominated for Best New Play--nor any productions on Broadway in the past year--I'm confident that had The Outgoing Tide opened about three weeks earlier than it did, with the exact same cast, in a Times Square theater rather than at The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, it would have earned a Tony nomination. As undoubtedly would its star, John Mahoney, and likely his two co-stars, Rondi Reed and Thomas Cox. (Mahoney and Reed are already Tony winners).

Produced by the routinely superb Northlight Theatre, the world premiere drama by Bruce Graham stands as the best play I've seen this year, and that includes the Goodman Theatre production of God Of Carnage, which earned the Best New Play Tony in 2009.

I feel lucky that Northlight performs 5 minutes from my home, attracts world-class talent--and Chicago stalwarts--like Mahoney and Reed and offers "Day of Show" discount tickets for $20 when available (call 847-673-6300). For this play, about a man afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease facing both his future and his past, is well-worth the effort for anyone to get to; on a trip to New York or London, you'd be unlikely to see a new dramatic work that's any better.

There are some twists and surprises from the beginning of the narrative, so I'll share very little of the play's plot, but Mahoney delivers a masterful performance as Gunner, a retired businessman not willing to passively accept the ravages of senility. His relationship with his wife, Peg (Reed), is not a simple one; she is doting but often harsh, inherently sympathetic to his plight but at times exasperated to the point of cruelty.

To see these two veterans--plus the also very fine Cox--interact for 2 hours would be worth the ticket price in itself, but Graham's script is shrewd, poignant, thought-provoking and even quite humorous. Director BJ Jones does a great job of never letting it get too cloying, or even predictable, and even the stage set would suffice just fine in a small Broadway house.  

Regular followers of Seth Saith may be ready to submit an entry to Ripley's Believe It or Not, for this is my third straight @@@@@ review. That's never happened before. But The Outgoing Tide is that good; if justice is to be served, it may yet earn a Tony nom--amidst a successful Broadway run.

Monday, June 06, 2011

A Perfectly Delightful Afternoon in 'Brigadoon' is Not to be Mist -- Theater Review

Theater Review

a classic musical by Lerner & Loewe
Presented by Light Opera Works at
Cahn Auditorium, Evanston, IL
Through June 12, 2011

On Sunday afternoon, I had the pleasure of seeing the second performance of Light Opera Works' new production of Lerner and Loewe's first masterpiece, Brigadoon.

In telling you that I found it outstanding--to the point of near Broadway quality performances accompanying LOW's trademark full orchestra treatment--it seems almost a shame that you only have four more chances to see it.

I can't say I fully understand the business model of the Evanston-based troupe that charges downtown, touring Broadway ticket prices for predominantly non-Equity performances done over just two weekends. But in picking up a half price ticket through HotTix, as I nearly always do, I was extremely pleased with just how good this production was.

Though I have long been familiar with the legacy of Lerner and Loewe--I have seen both My Fair Lady and Camelot multiple times in the last decade, as well as Light Opera Works' stage version of Gigi--I was largely unindoctrinated to Brigadoon (other than always knowing of it and loving a line mentioning it in one of my favorite songs.) This despite having owned the 1954 MGM musical version for some time, but never watching it until last weekend in anticipation of seeing this performance.

Starring the incomparable Gene Kelly, the movie is quite good but I actually found LOW's live production to be more richly satisfying in telling the tale of an enchanted town in the Scottish Highlands that rises out of the mist one day each century.

The large cast and 24-piece orchestra really brought songs like "Down on MacConnachy Square," "Almost Like Being In Love" and "I'll Go Home With Bonnie Jean" to life with a buoyancy the movie musical didn't entirely convey.

Robert Hunt, the only Actors Equity member in the cast, was outstanding as Tommy Albright, with the exceptional voice one might expect from someone who's played Javert in Les Miserables on Broadway.

Jenny Sophia was also wonderful as Tommy's love interest Fiona MacLaren  and Emily Rogers was beautiful in the balletic role of Jean MacLaren. In a cast of standouts, Clay Sanderson and Meg Brockie were two other performers particularly worth mentioning.

As I noted in reviewing their exquisite production of Carousel last August, Light Opera Works consistently demonstrates that it may be the very best musical theater organization in the Chicagoland area. They may not put on that many performances--perhaps as a consequence--but when it comes to cast size, quality, the sublime orchestra and more than adequate scenery in the somewhat confined Cahn Auditorium, they certainly don't scrimp.

I realize it may be hard to fit the limited schedule into yours, and even on HotTix, tickets aren't all that cheap. But I promise you that if you can, making your way to Brigadoon will be worth the hike.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Rock, American Style -- My Top 11 Stateside Bands of the 1960s, Now on Booth Reviews

Click here or on the image to see my selections.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

On a Jingle Jangle Evening, an Old Byrd Flies High -- Concert Review: Roger McGuinn

Concert Review

Roger McGuinn
Beverly Arts Center, Chicago
June 3, 2011

Roger McGuinn belongs in the same sentence as Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, John Fogerty and Lou Reed.

Although not quite a songwriter--or at least lyricist--on par with the others, McGuinn was the central force and primary singer behind one of the most acclaimed and influential rock bands of the 1960s. As likewise a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer--for his work with The Byrds--he is, in my book, among the greatest of rock's living legends.

And while, in an age that celebrates transient artifice, Msssrs. Wilson, Davies, Fogerty and Reed may no longer enjoy the type of mainstream mass awareness they deserve, I'm pretty sure that besides those few hundred in attendance and perhaps scant others, the public at large was largely ignorant to McGuinn performing "in town" on Friday night--not at the Chicago Theater or Auditorium--but the Beverly Arts Center at 111th and Western.

Mind you, the BAC--which I had long heard of but never previously attended--is an extremely attractive, comfortable and respectable venue, seemingly holding a capacity congruent with the main stage at Old Town School of Folk Music (where not only has McGuinn performed a number of times, but is the institution where he first learned to play guitar).

And in watching McGuinn deliver a perfectly engaging and educational performance--making the venue where, as at Old Town, myriad classes are offered, all the more fitting--that would have made a great VH1 Storytellers episode (if only he were famous enough), he himself doesn't seem to be bemoaning his relative obscurity.

Walking onstage with the jangly intro of "My Back Pages" ringing out on his Rickenbacker 12-string--few instruments and playing styles are more identifiable with a single musician--McGuinn, appearing for two hours all by himself, proceeded to deliver a musical history lesson.

Deftly switching among various guitars and a banjo, the Chicago-bred artist--whose voice remains a wonderful instrument in itself--led into his songs and those of his influences by giving plenty of spoken-word backstory. He recalled his teenage days at Old Town, shared how hearing "Heartbreak Hotel" changed his life and talked about the years spent honing his talents in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York before meeting up with Gene Clark and David Crosby as the Beatles-influenced Byrds formed in 1964 back in LA...and were named over Thanksgiving dinner.

In addition to a hefty selection of great songs that told stories unto themselves--including about a dozen Byrds classics--McGuinn's remembrances were captivating in their own right, as they casually interwove his connections with Bob Gibson (the folksinger not pitcher), Andrés Segovia, Theodore Bikel, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Hoyt Axton, Lenny Bruce, Eartha Kitt, Bobby Darin (for whom he worked), Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, George Harrison and Peter Fonda, among several others. And much of this occurred by his early 20s.

Now about a month shy of 69, Roger McGuinn was entirely affable and anything but self-aggrandizing as he illustrated how his guitar techniques fueled such masterful Byrds songs as "Mr. Tambourine Man"--which, according to McGuinn, Dylan didn't recognize as his own song upon first hearing the Byrds' unique version--"Eight Miles High" and "Mr. Spaceman."

The man who is largely responsible for originating both folk-rock and country-rock also delivered wonderful renditions of "Ballad of Easy Rider," "Chestnut Mare," "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better," "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "All I Really Want To Do" (my partial video below), along with several tunes I didn't know as well but which fit in wonderfully.

Given the relatively low-key vibe of a show with just one man on stage, it would be far too hyperbolic to call McGuinn's performance one of the best concerts I've ever seen. But it decisively earned @@@@@ for being every bit as good as I could have hoped, and then some. Eight Miles High, indeed.

(In mentioning this rare clip that can be found on YouTube--he can be seen playing the banjo--McGuinn coolly told the audience that it was perfectly fine for anyone to film him and post the video. Most of the time I just wanted to savor the songs without holding up my iPhone, but I caught a bit of "All I Really Want to Do," below.)