Tuesday, November 22, 2011

'Memphis' Pleases the Crowd, If Not Quite the Soul -- Theatre Review

Theatre Review

a new musical
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 4

Taking its initial bow in Chicago as part of its first national tour, Memphis is a bit of an anomaly these days, as it is a new musical not based on brand-name source material or utilizing pre-existing songs.

Having won the 2010 Tony for Best Musical and still enjoying a strong Broadway run, it has clearly garnered a fair amount of popular acclaim. And as evidenced by the standing ovation from the full house at the Cadillac Palace, many found it quite satisfying.

I found it to be a decent musical though far short of fantastic; well-intentioned but somewhat hackneyed and artistically shallow. There were some nice highlights and I'm glad I saw it; it does what it does well and may seem excellent to those with less discerning tastes, but there are literally hundreds of shows I've liked better.

I haven't re-read it all, but I think I wrote pretty much the same about a July 2010 concert by Bon Jovi, whose longtime keyboardist, David Bryan, wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics for Memphis.

Which isn't to imply that the show has obvious sonic similarities with the New Jersey band. Bryan does a good job applying his talents to the musical stage and has composed songs that work within the context of the race-relations story of Memphis (not so unlike that of Hairspray, a much better musical).

Though Joe DiPietro, who wrote the musical's book and co-wrote the lyrics, also has a track of record of popular, but often critically-suspect plays and musicals, this is more than the work of two hacks. Memphis is a credible musical that might have deserved its Tony, but wouldn't have against stronger competition. Its original story isn't all that original, and its original music seemed only occasionally inspired (I had listened to the cast recording, but it too didn't grab me). 

If you're a musical theater buff, Memphis is well worth your time, but won't be the best show you'll ever see. And if you only rarely go to musicals, it may well be a show you like even better.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Taylor-Made 'Ann' Is Quite Impressive But Not That Interesting -- Theatre Review

Theatre Review

Written & Performed by Holland Taylor
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 4

I have seen many wonderful performances on theatrical stages this year, but I doubt I will witness one any better than that which Holland Taylor gives as ex-Texas Governor Ann Richards in the biographical show Taylor also authored.

But while 'Ann' is a tour de force for Taylor--a longtime TV star now on Two and a Half Men--and provides a decent briefer on its subject, as a piece of theater well over 2 hours, it falls short of superlative.

Which isn't to say that the late Richards isn't worthy of a bio-play or that Taylor doesn't showcase plenty of her own strong writing. And Taylor's embodiment of Richards makes this a work worth recommending, simply for the acting. But the show is more a superb characterization than a fully captivating and compelling drama.

'Ann' opens with Richards making a commencement speech at a fictional Texas college well after her term as governor ended in 1995 (she was defeated for re-election by George W Bush; imagine how history may have changed if she wasn't). Taylor does a phenomenal job of looking and sounding like Richards, providing biographical background and anecdotes.

But though Richards herself was a gifted speaker--as she famously showcased in her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention--the "speech portion" of the show starts to feel a bit long. Wisely, after about 40 minutes, Taylor--directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein--enacts Richards' time as governor by sitting behind a desk, barking out orders and berating subordinates (other voices were occasionally heard, but no other actors were onstage).

But the show fails to provide much closure on the scenarios it depicted, whether in terms of Richards' trying to stop the execution of a death row inmate or track down her children for a family gathering. It also didn't leave me with as much sense of Richards' accomplishments as I would have liked, and though its theoretically fine that the affair is more a documentary-type depiction than a dramatic narrative, the various threads got a bit long and unwieldy in the second act.

I think 'Ann' would work much better if what Taylor showcases about Richards becomes a good deal more concentrated. Like its subject matter, who passed away from cancer in 2006, the show is rather impressive. (Prior to becoming governor, Richards had overcome a battle with alcoholism and had been divorced.) But at this point, there are considerable portions that just aren't all that interesting.

Monday, November 14, 2011

'East of Berlin' Poses Interesting Questions -- Theater Review

Theater Review

East of Berlin
The Russian Play
by Hannah Moscovitch
Signal Ensemble Theater
Thru December 18
@@@@ - East of Berlin
@@1/2 - The Russian Play

"What's the right thing to do?"

Though I don't know that there was really much gray area in the case of Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary or others involved in the Penn State cover-up, you can see how the answer isn't always so cut & dried.

Say you learned that your father, who in your lifetime has always been upstanding, was once a very bad man. Are you morally obliged to report his whereabouts to the authorities so that he could be held accountable for past indiscretions?

And even if you know you should, could you? And would you? Especially if doing so would essentially ruin your own life?

Hannah Moscovitch's gripping play, East of Berlin, takes awhile to its central dilemma, but once it does, it's thoroughly riveting.

Without giving too much away, Rudi has grown up in Paraguay. In his teens, he learns that his dad was a Nazi SS doctor, a war criminal. He doesn't feel compelled to do anything about it until long after he himself has moved to Germany and falls in love with a Jewish girl, Sarah, who takes him to visit Aushwitz, where her mom had been held as a concentration camp prisoner.

Even then, Rudi isn't completely forthright with Sarah nor sure of what actions he will take. And I'm not sure I agree with the action Moscovitch has him take, but that doesn't make the play any less powerful or thought-provoking. It didn't quite captivate me all the way through, but by the end it was certainly one of the better new works I've seen this year.

Which made the Signal Ensemble's choice to follow it with The Russian Play, a shorter, more frivolous and not nearly as good play by Moscovitch, a bit puzzling. East of Berlin was so intense that leaving the theater to think and/or talk about it would have been preferable to spending another 30 minutes taking in The Russian Play. It was a bit of fun seeing the excellent trio of actors from the first play, Billy Fenderson, Melanie Keller and Tom McGrath, take on something quite different. But my head wasn't ready to give it much attention and it actually diminished the experience of having been so engaged in East of Berlin.

Friday, November 11, 2011

With Concertful of Kinks Klassics, Ray Davies Puts on a Clinic

Concert Review
Ray Davies
with The 88 (opening & backing)
November 11, 2011
Chicago Theatre, Chicago

Though still rather spry at age 67, Ray Davies isn't doing a lot he hasn't already done. At least in concert. But that's OK.

In terms of recorded output, in recent years Davies has been "re-doing" many of his classic Kinks tunes, first with a choral collection and then a compilation duets. He's also put out, in 2006 & 2007, a pair of respectable solo albums.

But on his current tour, which brought him to the Chicago Theatre on Friday night, there was no chorus, no famous guests and just one song from his solo work.

Which left his bread & butter: a boatload of great old Kinks songs, some performed acoustically with a second guitarist named Bill Shanley and the rest backed by a rock band from L.A. called The 88, who also performed a show opening set of their own material.

There are few rock canons that I love any more than that of the Kinks, so while Davies isn't doing anything particularly novel in coming through town every year or two--I've now seen him five times in the last 5 years--and rifling through a bunch of his chestnuts, I'll gladly come out to hear him. And while each of his shows has been stellar, this one was as rewarding as any, as without a new album to promote, Ray not only played more Kinks klassics, he also mined his old band's discography a bit deeper.

After an enjoyable set by the 88, Davies came onstage accompanied only by Shanley, and played "I Need You," "I'm Not Like Everybod├┐ Else," "Sunny Afternoon," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," "Waterloo Sunset," "See My Friends" and "Apeman." Not a bad way to start.

In referencing his collection of duets, called See My Friends, he mentioned a collaboration he had done with Lucinda Williams on a lesser-known Kinks song called "A Long Way From Home," which he then played. The 88 came onstage to back him on a rollicking version of 20th Century Man, and they--along with Shanley--rolled through more Kinks treasures, like "This Is Where I Belong," "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," "Till The End of the Day" and "All Day And All of the Night."

But what I appreciated just as much was when Ray reached beyond his 60s output and into the 70s, for "Misfits," "Celluloid Heroes" and "Full Moon," a song from 1977''s Sleepwalker album that I didn't know, but still sounded great. Of course, a buzz-saw rendition of "You Really Got Me" was also wonderful, but in opening his encores with 1979's "Low Budget," Ray again re-itereated the timelessness of his best material, whatever its original time. And though at some shows on the tour, it seems he's been skipping "Lola," I was certainly glad he came out for a second encore and played that one. (Full setlist on Setlist.fm)

I realize I don't have much to say about this show beyond what was played. But when one of your favorite singer/songwriters plays 2 hours of entirely wonderful music, there isn't a whole lot to complain about. Sure, I could always name 10 other songs that would have been "nice to hear". And though I don't think the public is truly demanding it, a Kinks reunion could be nice to see. But sometimes you needn't worry about Something Else and just enjoy being Face to Face with a living legend doing what he does.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Sunday in Symphony Hall with Sondheim (but no piano)

Event Recap

Stephen Sondheim in conversation with Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune Literary Prize; part of Chicago Humanities Festival
Symphony Hall, Chicago
November 6, 2011

It's pretty much a given that Stephen Sondheim is the greatest living legend in the field of musical theater.

But you wouldn't get much of an argument from me--though I might cite Chuck Berry, Paul McCartney, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bill Russell or Vin Scully--if you wanted to call him the greatest living legend in any field.

And while he was ostensibly receivng the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for his work as a writer--of some of the most eloquent lyrics ever, as well as wonderful music--he is also one of the most articulate speakers I've ever heard.

So although his Q&A session with Tribune theater critic Chris Jones lasted just 45 minutes--about half the length of this public conversation in March 2010--it was still worth the trek down to Symphony Hall.

Given the setting, you'd have thought someone might have made a piano handy, in case the great composer wanted to expound on his answer to one of Jones' questions about his lyrics and shows.

The Tribune's Mark Caro gives a good recap of Sunday's conversation here; in which he cites two of the Sondheim's most interesting comments--about "Maria" and "A Weekend in the Country.").

If you still can, see Sondheim's Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater this weekend--he attended a performance last Sunday afternoon; assume he was pleased--and if not, his new collection of annotated lyrics (Look I Made A Hat) should make a great gift for yourself or anyone who loves musical theater.

Suffice it to say that even without the music, I enjoyed hearing a few words from a true master.