Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Original Grease: A Fun Blast From Someone Else's Past -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Original Grease
a new production based on the initial 1971 Chicago version
American Theater Company, Chicago
Through August 21, 2011

I have a great affinity for Chicago history, musical history and musical theater history. So I appreciate the sentiment behind Chicago's American Theater Company--likely following a suggestion surfaced by Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones--staging a new production of Grease that supposedly hews quite closely to the initial version that debuted at Chicago's Kingston Mines Theater in early 1971.

According to Jones and Wikipedia, the true original version, conceived & composed by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey based on Jacobs' days as a "greaser" at Chicago's Taft High School in the 1950s, was considerably grittier than the Broadway edition that bowed the next year, the 1978 movie and subsequent Broadway revivals and touring productions.

The basic storyline was the same, but assuming The Original Grease can be believed--even if it isn't an exact replica of the initial script and songs--it is clearly set on Chicago's Northwest Side (the movie was filmed in Venice, California with mountains in the background) and its score does not include several of the songs that would become best-known from the Broadway and especially Hollywood renditions. 

So from an archival, historical perspective, The Original Grease--which has been running at ATC since April and is currently extended until August 21--is rather interesting and even enjoyable in its own right. But where some have nostalgia for the 1971 version or perhaps the somewhat altered 1972 Broadway version that ran for several years or even for being a Chicago high schooler in 1959, I'm of an age that made the movie musical my initial introduction to--and still my favorite version of--Grease.

Thus, while it was interesting to hear the score open with "Foster Beach" rather than "Summer Nights," which it morphed into on Broadway, and several other unfamiliar tunes that had more of a true '50s rock feel than some of the movie's disco influenced flavorings, I can't deny missing the movie's version of the title song and "You're the One That I Want," among others.

Also, while I got more of a sense of greaser sensibilities than the movie portrayed, in providing greater Chicago 1950s teenage realism, the original narrative makes the Danny-Sandy romance a bit less central. On Saturday, I think I got an understudy as Danny, and though he wasn't bad, he also wasn't a young Travolta.

Certainly, Grease became legendary as a stage musical--initially running on Broadway for 8 years--but having been indoctrinated by the movie, even when I've seen touring productions (most recently in 2009) that appended the Broadway score with the well-known movie additions, I haven't found them all that satisfying.

All in all The Original Grease is probably the best stage version of the show I've seen, though this might have more to do with production values than the story and score. The performances were solid and several of the new old songs might stand up even better with familiarity. But I have the movie version with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on DVD, and however sanitized and saccharine Grease may have become in spreading well beyond Norwood Park, that's still the one that I want.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

'Chinglish' Translates to a Terrifically Insightful Dramedy -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by
David Henry Hwang
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Through July 31, 2011

In recently awarding @@@@@ to the touring production of West Side Story now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, I strongly advocated that it is a show any Chicago-area fan of musical theater make a point of trying to see.

Although I am breaking my string of maximum-rating reviews and bestowing “only” @@@@1/2 to Chinglish, I just as strongly advise any lover of great dramatic or comedic theater to go see Goodman Theatre’s world premiere production.

For even in a being a trifle shy of perfect—or that much over my head—it is clearly one of the best plays that will debut in Chicago this year, and a Broadway-bound new work by one of the world’s most acclaimed playwrights, David Henry Hwang.

In addition to being completely topical in its subject matter--which pertains to American businesses expanding into China, where in addition to the challenges posed by politics, corruption and tradition is the tricky matter of often amusingly imprecise translations between English and Mandarin (and other dialects)--Chinglish features the most innovatively modern staging I have ever seen, certainly when it comes to non-musicals.

Making great use of turntables to seamlessly change scenery between numerous settings, David Korins’ set design is absolutely phenomenal. It should get @@@@@ all by itself. And it wouldn’t be at all shocking if Chinglish winds up winning numerous Tony Awards next June.

Although it has been announced that this production—directed by Leigh Silverman—will transfer to Broadway, the most recent article I found on the matter indicates that its unknown whether the entire cast will go to New York.

There's no reason why it shouldn't. 

James Waterston plays Daniel Cavanaugh, a Clevelander who has assumed leadership of his family's sign-making business. He has traveled to China and hired a consultant named Peter (Stephen Pucci) in hopes of convincing a Minister of the Guanxi province (played by Larry Zhang) to award him a signage contract for a new cultural center.

While much humor is derived by the often mistranslated communication among these three characters, it is Jennifer Lim as Vice-Minister Xu Yan who provides the primary interaction with Waterston and raises Chinglish well beyond just a comedy. Presuming Lim heads to Broadway, it's a pretty safe bet that she earn at least a Tony nomination.

Although the play only runs at the Goodman until Sunday, July 31, there are enough twists to preclude me from further describing the narrative. While I thought the entire show was wonderful--in addition to amazing scenic design, the use of music between scenes was also strikingly good, I was left a bit fuzzy by the supposed motivations of a few characters. But this is a play I certainly wouldn't mind exploring again, even if it's a few years from now in a production likely not to be  quite this good. So if you can catch it before it leaves town, by all means do so. Even--or especially--with a good portion of the dialogue in Mandarin and translated through supertitles, Chinglish is a play that speaks volumes.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pretty and Witty and Bright...and a Storied Delight in all Directions -- Chicago Theater Review: West Side Story

Theater Review

West Side Story
a touring production presented by Broadway in Chicago
Cadillac Palace Theatre
Through August 14, 2011

West Side Story is one of the greatest works of entertainment ever created.

The confluence of genius between Arthur Laurents’ Romeo & Juliet-derived, multi-ethnic story, Leonard Bernstein’s beautifully orchestral score, Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking choreography & direction resulted in a show that was simultaneously—upon its initial Broadway bow in 1957—of its time, ahead of its time and entirely timeless.

The stage musical and its success—despite losing the Tony Award to another phenomenal show from 1957, The Music Man—spawned the Oscar-winning movie version in 1961, and West Side Story may well stand as the most famous musical of all-time, with its title well-known even among those who have no affinity for the genre.

While the show has long been a staple in the realms of high school, college, community and regional professional theater, I have no recollection of a full-fledged touring version playing a downtown Chicago theater; certainly not in the past dozen years and perhaps never in my lifetime.

So however ubiquitous West Side Story may seem, the current national tour now playing at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theater is really a rare and remarkable treat. I had seen the 2009 Broadway revival from which this touring production is derived and except for remembering that the leads in New York were especially first-rate (and beautiful), I doubt that this full Equity production is in any way inferior. And the leads in Chicago—Kyle Harris as Tony, Ali Ewoldt as Maria and Michelle Arevena as Anita—all looked and sounded pretty damn good.

So when you take a musical in which nearly every song is a masterpiece and give it a first-class staging with Broadway-caliber actors, actresses, singers & dancers, re-creations of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and devote a 20-member orchestra to enunciating Bernstein’s glorious score, the result is a pretty special evening of entertainment.

Virtually the whole show was a highlight, with astonishing dancing during the "Prologue," the "Dance at the Gym," "America" and the "Somewhere" ballet--a truly spectacular number--and strong vocal takes by Harris on "Something's Coming," "Maria" and dueting with Ewoldt on "Tonight."

Occasionally Ewoldt's voice didn't seem to mesh perfectly with Harris'--a quite minor quibble--and her take on "I Feel Pretty," complete with some new Spanish lyrics was ebulliently fun.

And though it's always seemed a bit odd coming (not immediately) after dead bodies have been strewn about the stage, the Jets' take on "Gee, Officer Krupke" was truly sensational.

Although I won't hold this against the performers themselves, one small flaw on opening night was the under-amplification of the spoken dialogue (or maybe I just can't hear anymore after that Soundgarden show on Saturday). The volume needs to be pumped up a bit, but this was only a minor distraction and even the nosebleed seats should suit anyone just fine. The sets are adequate though not supersized, but with all the spirited, company-wide dancing, the balcony provides a nice vantage point.

West Side Story has such great source material that any production that stays fairly true to the original vision is bound to be enjoyable. In addition to seeing the show on Broadway, I've caught a summer stock rendition (at Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, IL) and an in-the-round version at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire. I remember all being extremely stellar. But as I noted above, a touring version of a Broadway revival--which had been directed by Laurents, who passed away earlier this year--is really an extreme rarity, even more so these days by virtue of featuring an Equity (actors union) cast.

Musical theater doesn't get much better than this and if you appreciate the art form, you're bound to be thankful if you go to see this production.

(How to score cheap tickets: Although I was delighted to see the Cadillac Palace packed on opening night, keep an eye on and for discount tickets. Or avail yourself of a great bargain in terms of special Broadway In Chicago subscription package. As you can see here, 6-show packages start at just $100--for seats way up in the balcony, like mine--but if you add West Side Story for a 7-show package, the cost is just $110. Other shows of note in the series are Memphis, La Cage Aux Folles and Come Fly Away, but $10 for this great a version of West Side Story is really a steal; somebody better call Officer Krupke.)  

Monday, July 18, 2011

Soundgarden Returns With A Sonic Bloom -- Concert Review

Photo Credit: Eric Freitag from July 6, 2011 show in Connecticut
Concert Review

with Mars Volta
July 16, 2011
UIC Pavilion, Chicago

By almost all measures, Soundgarden is a band that has enjoyed estimable critical and commercial success.

But although evidence of the Seattle foursome's stature as one of the best bands of the 1990s--and a pretty big one at that--was readily apparent during a rock solid, hit-filled show on Saturday night in Chicago, I was reminded again that in a way, Soundgarden has often found itself stuck on the doorstep of mega-sized super-stardom.

This is in no way a knock on the show itself, in which the band sounded every bit as good as I could have hoped, 15 years since they last toured. (Their reunion officially began last year, when they performed at Lollapalooza and a few other gigs.)

Yet it was surprising that a band whose legacy--at least in my mind--looms tremendously large, failed to sell out the 9,000-seat Pavilion, the smallest of the Chicago area's concert arenas (behind the United Center, Allstate Arena and Sears Center).

I was reminded that in 1996, when it felt to me that the band was poised for true world-domination--with their stellar Down on the Upside album following up the multi-platinum success of Superunknown--I had seen Soundgarden not at the UC or Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena) but the Aragon.

Although they were the first "grunge" band signed to a major label and according to, "most critics expected Soundgarden to be the band that broke down the doors for alternative rock, not Nirvana," their initial success behind 1991's Badmotorfinger album was dwarfed by that of Seattle-brethren Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Heck, even when they reunited for the Sunday-night, festival-closing slot at Lollapalooza last year, according to friends who attended, Soundgarden was significantly outdrawn by Arcade Fire, who was playing opposite them. And Arcade Fire went on to sell out 3 nights at the Pavilion this April (including a @@@@@ show I caught).

Anyway, all of this means nothing except that Soundgarden has never been quite as popular as they should've been and seemingly remain that way. And thus, thousands of alternative rock fans--many of them likely at the Pitchfork festival also in Chicago this weekend--missed one of the best shows of 2011 by one of the best bands the genre has ever produced.

Perhaps Soundgarden is a bit too heavy, even heavy metal, for the type of mainstream success they continue to merit, but boy did they sound good. Maybe Chris Cornell, a.k.a. the Prince of Wails, didn't quite hit all the high notes with the oomph he once did, and bassist Ben Shepherd is looking a little puffy, but along with Chicago area native Kim Thayil on lead guitar and Matt Cameron--now also a member of Pearl Jam--on drums, the band was incredibly powerful and tight as they ran through the setlist shown below.

The whole show was pretty much a highlight, even songs with which I was unfamiliar, but "Spoonman" rocked early--as shown in the video below--and I was really glad the band pulled out "Pretty Noose," which they had omitted on most previous tour stops.

Although it will be nice when the band releases new music next year rather than simply mining their past glories, this was what a rock concert should be. No need for videos or frills, just a group of great musicians who take their craft seriously and--without changing a whole lot all these years down the road--continue to make their Soundgarden grow with tremendous power and panache.

Opening act Mars Volta demonstrated a powerful sound of their own, but were a bit hard to appreciate given the density of their approach. Although I own one of their albums, what I heard sounded largely unfamiliar and though there was readily apparent quality, much of it was lost on me.

Soundgarden Setlist, July 16, 2011, Chicago:

Searching With My Good Eye Closed
Room a Thousand Years Wide
Jesus Christ Pose
Blow Up the Outside World
The Day I Tried to Live
My Wave
Fell on Black Days
Ugly Truth
Hunted Down
Rusty Cage
Black Hole Sun
Burden in My Hand
Pretty Noose
4th of July
Beyond the Wheel

Nothing To Say
Like Suicide
Slaves & Bulldozers

(A YouTube clip of Spoonman from Saturday night in Chicago)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Relegated to Perennial Futility, Unless...

The Chicago Cubs lost today. 9-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that has about one-third the Cubs' team payroll and 10 more wins--including in 6 of 9 games against the Cubs--through the All-Star break, which begins tomorrow.

Yes, the major league baseball season is roughly half over and for all practical purposes, the annual refrain of "Wait 'til next year" already applies for Cubs fans...and has for several weeks.

For those keeping track, and I guess even those who aren't, the Cubs are a robust 37-55, giving them a winning percentage of .402, second worst in the major leagues. For those looking for small consolation, the only team with a worse record--the Houston Astros at 30-62--are also in the National League Central, so the Cubs aren't technically in "last place."

Of course, the Cubs being bad is nothing new. Even in recent years when they were relatively good, seasons that forewent futility still ended in abject failure. Remember the glory years of 2007-2008, when the Cubs made the playoffs in consecutive seasons, only to bow out meekly in first-round sweeps?

Even ignoring that their payroll has been in the top 3-6 overall in recent years, the Cubs' perennial ineptitude is almost a mathematical improbability. Over the last 20 seasons, 20 different teams--of 30 major league franchises--have played in a World Series and many of those that have had longer dry spells--including the Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A's, Kansas City Royals won World Championships in the dozen years before 1991.

As the toteboard accompanying the Eamus Catuli (Latin for "Let's Go Cubs!", approximately) sign on a Sheffield Avenue rooftop alludes, it has now been--not yet counting 2011--2 years since the Cubs have been in the playoffs, 65 years since they won a pennant (and thus appeared in a World Series) and 102 years since they last won it 1908, for the mathematically-challenged.

Although the Ricketts family, who bought the Cubs from the Tribune Company at the end of the 2009 season, inherited some atrocious--and terribly stifling--contracts, like $18 million committed to under-productive left-fielder Alfonso Soriano each year through 2014, they have now seen the Chicago National League ballclub win 112 games and lose 141 during their brief ownership rein. And especially given some lagging attendance, the Ricketts as of yet don't seem willing or able to do anything about ending the futility.

Certainly, money itself isn't the answer; many franchises that spend considerably less than the Cubs have done remarkably better, with the Tampa Bay Rays being the latest prime example. Although I believe it is time for General Manager Jim Hendry to lose his job and Manager Mike Quade looks like another failure--though I supported his hiring after interim success last year--I'm not here to say that the Cubs aren't trying their hardest to win.

The players' goofy decision to wear "F**k the Goat" t-shirts at a practice earlier this season--referencing an age-old but not recently pertinent "curse"--certainly seemed pathetic. And shortstop Starlin Castro stands as the only current player that I enjoy watching. But from the players to the manager to the front office, I want to believe the Cubs are trying their best.

But for 103 years--yes, including this one--their best hasn't been good enough.

So instead of simply being relegated to their annual fate, I think it's time the Chicago Cubs faced the threat of relegation.

You see, in the English Premier League, the highest level of club soccer in England and likely the world's most prominent sports league, every season begins with 20 teams. But the next year, only 17 of those teams are around to play at the highest level of competition, with the worst 3 dropping to the next level, the English Championship League, from which three teams ascend to the EPL.

This system of promotion and relegation is common in many soccer (football) leagues around the world, including in Spain, Italy, Germany, Brazil and Argentina, where River Plate, a perennial powerhouse, just got relegated to the second division for the first time in its historic 110-year existence.

Now, although serious baseball writers and thinker --including supposedly Bill James, although I can't readily find a specific reference--have floated a promotion and relegation system for the major leagues, given the current landscape of minor league teams being affiliates of big-league clubs, I'm fundamentally being facetious.

While it might be fun, even judicious, for the Iowa Cubs--who went 82-62 last year but aren't doing so hot this year--to replace their major league counterparts, anyone decent enough in Iowa should already be in Chicago. And a pure promotion system of the best AAA teams replacing the worst MLB teams doesn't really make sense. Right now, the top AAA team is the Columbus Clippers, a Cleveland Indians affiliate. It wouldn't work, without a whole lot of systemic change, for them to replace the Cubs. Or even the Astros.

And although I wouldn't really fancy seeing the Cubs in AAA playing the Durham Bulls, Toledo Mud Hens and Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (managed, not incidentally by Ryne Sandberg, pretty successfully at 52-37), as my soccer-rabid friend pointed out, the threat of relegation adds tremendous late-season interest for fans of lousy teams.

It would be nice to have something to root for after the all-star break for a change. According to the website, which tabulates likely baseball outcomes, the Cubs have just a 0.1% chance to make the playoffs this year. But if all they needed to do was overtake the San Diego Padres to avoid demotion to the minor leagues, well, we'll all be singing "Go Cubs Go" though the end of September.

And then watching on Opening Day as the Cubs travel to Syracuse.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

A Pro Bono Review of a Value-Packed Performance -- U2 at Soldier Field

Concert Review

with Interpol
Soldier Field, Chicago
July 5, 2011

Probably the worst thing I can say about Tuesday's U2 show is that the legendary Irish quartet didn't have to give me my money's worth quite to the extent they did.

Certainly, many of the 63,000 or so fans at Chicago's Soldier Field paid far more than the $32 + fees I ponied up for an upper deck seat (back in November 2009 for a show that was originally scheduled for last summer but postponed due to Bono's back injury). Given that U2 360 tour now stands as the highest-grossing concert tour ever--supposedly with revenues of $700+ million--I doubt Bono & the Edge will be busking in Temple Bar anytime soon, despite the troubled web of bringing Spider-Man to Broadway.

And even if the mammoth stage setup known as "The Claw" that's been shlepped around the world the last 2 years is completely excessive--and perhaps even unnecessary--it is pretty damn cool in its multifaceted visual and technological capabilities. Although I didn't quite feel this way during the tour's opening shows in Chicago in Sept. 2009--when the Claw and numerous intertwined video & lighting cues proved an uncomfortable albatross for the band--I now find the 360 tour's visual feast less obtrusive and overshadowing of the music than U2's Zoo TV or PopMart outdoor concert spectacles of the 1990s.

Having seen them fifteen times over 25 years, I've preferred their (relatively) stripped-down arena shows to the over-the-top stadium productions. But no one shoots for the moon like U2 and even if all I really need is the music--hence why even the highly acclaimed Zoo TV production seemed like subtraction by addition--the sonic and visual production was fantastic enough, and now more properly coalesced, to not only well merit $32, but @@@@@.

According to one in a string of statistics streaming pre-show on on the Claw's video screens, there are 436 tour personnel in addition to Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. And I assume that doesn't include the members of the opening band--in this case, Interpol (as with most U2 opening acts, they're relatively popular, though I wasn't overly impressed with their 45 minute set).

So in addition to one of my favorite bands ever playing several of their biggest hits and some other noteworthy songs for nearly 2-1/2 hours, I got a gargantuan production requiring a mid-sized company worth of roadies, plus a substantial opening act, all for considerably less than the cheapest ticket to the Cirque du Soleil show now in the United Center parking lot.

How can I complain?

Photo Credit: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune
I really can't, especially as the pacing and production glitches prevalent back in Sept. 2009 didn't plague this show, and I even found U2's performance slightly better than when I caught them in Denver 6 weeks ago. On a beautiful Chicago night, Bono seemed loose and the band sounded tight, as best I could tell from 100 yards away and 300 feet up.

Although Tuesday's U2 set list was largely similar to Denver, I appreciated the inclusion of "Out of Control," (their very first single, preceding even "I Will Follow"), "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and a surprise show-closer of "One Tree Hill" commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of its subject (Greg Carroll, who had been Bono's personal assistant).

And while "Pride (In The Name of Love)," "Where The Streets Have No Name," "With Or Without You" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" have been highlights of every U2 show I've seen since 1987, they resonated well in the packed stadium. Although I always wish the band would mine their catalog a bit deeper--and write more great new songs--even the set list didn't provide much room for griping.

All in all it was an extremely worthwhile, rather remarkable evening, even if the poor logistics of Soldier Field meant getting out of the stadium and to the subway took nearly as long as U2's performance.

I won't mind if the next U2 show I see is much more sparse in its presentation--though if they do ever return to an empty stage at the Aragon it'll assuredly cost me far more than $32--but this one really did nothing to disappoint. And 30+ years into a band's career, that's really something for U2 appreciate.

(Here's a YouTube clip of "One Tree Hill" from Tuesday night. It was seemingly not planned, hence the initial confusion.)