Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best of 2012: The Best New Movies I Saw

The greatest challenge, for me, in ranking the Best Movies of a given year, at the end of that year, is a matter of time.

By this, I don’t mean—primarily—the difficulty of comparing a film I saw literally minutes ago with one I watched in early January. Certainly, faltering recollect can be an issue, but I rate all movies in a database shortly after seeing them and refer to those ratings when making a list such as this.

But more problematic is trying to figure out which movies should be eligible for consideration. For instance, the film that is topping many Best of 2012 critics lists—Zero Dark Thirty—won’t be released in Chicago until early 2013. I haven’t seen it and can’t put it on my 2012 list, but am I going to remember that it should, presumably, be on the Best of 2013 list?

Basically, for my purposes, the year of Chicago release—and not just at a film festival—is what I go by, rather than the calendar year criteria used by most professional critics and the Academy Awards. So foreign films—including three that were 2011 Academy Award nominees—that opened in Chicago in 2012 are fair game.

Of course, confusing matters even more is that although I saw about 50 new releases in 2012—out of 280 total films that I watched—I certainly don’t presume to have seen every worthwhile new movie from this year. And while some of the ones I missed were films I had adequate chance to catch in a theater, or even perhaps on DVD, others were pictures that may have only played for a week or two at the Music Box or Century Centre Cinema.

So what all this mishegas adds up to is my need to precede my primary Best Movies of 2012 lists with a couple of other lists.

2011 Movies seen in 2012 that could have made my Best Movies of 2011 list:
Take Shelter, The Ides of March, Drive, 50/50, Terri, In A Better World (F), Incendies (F), The Help, The Interrupters (D), Sing Your Song (D), Bill Cunningham New York (D), Bobby Fisher Against the World (D)

Notable 2012 Movies Not Seen (first 2 not released in Chicago)
Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, The Sessions, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Holy Motors, Cloud Atlas, End of Watch, Sister, Prometheus, Hitchcock, The Deep Blue Sea, Your Sister's Sister, Rust and Bone, Killer Joe, Premium Rush

The Best New Movies I Saw in 2012
(F) = Foreign Film; (D) = Documentary

1. A Separation (F)

2. Argo

3. Monsieur Lazhar (F)

4. The Kid with a Bike (F)

5. Flight

6. Les Miserables

7. Moonrise Kingdom

8. Skyfall

9. The Impossible

10. Arbitrage

11. Life of Pi

12. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (D)

13. Bernie

14. The Imposter (D)

15. Safety Not Guaranteed

16. Silver Linings Playbook

17. Ted

18. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (F)

19. Looper

20. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Honorable Mention

The Dark Knight Rises
Footnote (F)
Hell and Back Again (D)
Marley (D)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Queen of Versailles (D)
The Amazing Spider-Man
Django Unchained
Safe House
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
The Avengers
The Bourne Legacy
The Hunger Games
Shut Up and Play the Hits

Other 2012 Films Seen

Jack Reacher, Killing Them Softly, Seven Psychopaths, 21 Jump Street, The Vow, Dark Shadows, The Dictator, Underworld Awakening, Total Recall, Rock of Ages, Goon

My Friend Dave’s Top 12

Like me, Dave saw plenty of movies in 2012, both new and old, but notes that The Master, Skyfall, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty are among those he has not seen. His top pick is a movie that opened in Chicago in fall 2011, but had such a short and limited release that he didn't hear of it until after it was gone and only came to see it in 2012.

1) Margaret
2) A Separation
3) Argo
4) The Kid with a Bike
5) Silver Linings Playbook
6) Moonrise Kingdom
7) Django Unchained
8) Bernie
9) Killing Them Softly
10) Looper
11) The Perks of Being a Wallflower
12) Compliance

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Onstage, 'It's a Wonderful Life' Has a Worthwhile Existence, By George -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play
American Theater Company, Chicago
Run Ended

I have long loved Frank Capra's classic 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life and have seen it several times, although not during this holiday season.

But until this year, I have never been prompted--nor even much tempted--to attend a Christmastime "radio play" of the famed movie, even though they have seemingly been a Chicago staple for several years.

In 2012 (and perhaps previously), not one but two theater companies in Chicago--American Theater Company and American Blues Theater--staged It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play within 2 miles of each other. I had read good things about both, but decided to go to the ATC version because the great Mike Nussbaum was in the cast.

Mind you, I went on the day before the run ended (for both troupes) so this review isn't going to help you much, unless when the chance to see this unique reading of It's a Wonderful Life rolls around next winter, like me you may be latently inspired to go.

While I wouldn't call it essential theater, the 90-minute staging was well-done and rather fun, particularly for a HotTix discount. Except for a few kids in the audience, I imagine most attendees were well-acquainted with the movie, which while perhaps not mandatory to enjoy the radio play, certainly added to the experience.

As I alluded to when I reviewed Freud's Last Session, any chance you get to see Nussbaum on stage is a treat. Here he "played" both Clarence and Mr. Potter, as well as other characters. As the terminology "radio play" references, It's a Wonderful Life is not acted out like a theatrical drama, but rather the movie script is read on stage (not quite line-for-line), with an occasional bit of acting.

Though it's enjoyable, and even heartwarming, to be reminded of the movie's storyline, what makes this work as theater is the pretense of taking place in a radio studio, circa 1948. Along with the voice actors, there is an emcee, stagehands, a foley (sound effects) artist and a pianist.

Everyone in the ATC version did a nice job, but along with Nussbaum, Cliff Chamberlain--who I've seen in several shows over the years--is demonstrably good as George Bailey. He channels Jimmy Stewart just enough for it to feel right, but not to the point that it seems overly gimmicky.

Sadieh Rifai likewise handles the Mary part quite nicely, embodying the character to the point where you feel the affection between her and George, while still straddling the line of being a voice actor, rather than fully acting out the part.

In what has been another highly enjoyable year of theater going--see my rundown of the Best Plays and Musicals I saw in 2012--this was a nice way to close it out.

And if you missed it, I imagine It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play will get its wings again next year. And of course, you can just watch the movie, which like Clarence--and Mike Nussbaum--never seems to get old.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Best of 2012: The Best Musicals I Saw on Stage (i.e. the best productions)

In a year that didn’t include any trips to New York or London, and therefore no 4-shows-in-3-days clusters, 27 seems like a good number of musicals to have seen on stage.

And though this included few brand new musicals—excepting two World Premieres (Kinky Boots, Hero) and a recent Broadway-bound creation (Bring It On)—12 shows were ones I saw for the first time, while the other 15 were new productions of musicals I’ve long liked (or at least had seen before).

Of the repeats, five done at the community theater or college level were more satisfying than some elaborate Broadway in Chicago touring productions.

My biggest musical disappointment of 2012 was American Idiot, based on the Green Day album of the same name. I love the band, I love the album, I love the songs, but I thoroughly disliked what I perceived as a mish-mash of a musical without any narrative structure. (You can see my review of it here, and of Bring It On here.) I won’t bother telling you about the other musicals I didn’t much like, but below are the ones I did.

I always like to note that I am really ranking the productions I saw, not necessarily the musicals themselves. But whereas the runner-up on my list was an absolutely sensational rendition of one of my all-time favorite musicals, it lost out to an outstanding production of a show I like even better. So some unscientific blend of source musical and specific production come into play in ranking The Best Musicals of 2012, from among those I saw on stage:

1. Les Misérables – Broadway in Chicago (my review)

2. Sunday in the Park with George – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (my review)

3. The Book of Mormon – Broadway in Chicago (my review)

4. Jersey Boys – Broadway in Chicago (my review)

5. Kinky Boots – Broadway in Chicago (World Premiere) (my review)

6. A Chorus Line – Paramount Theatre, Aurora (my review)

7. South Pacific – Broadway in Chicago (my review)

8. Show Boat – Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)

9. Hairspray – Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)

10. Singin’ in the Rain – Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)

Honorable Mention (in preference order)

- Sister Act – Broadway in Chicago (my review)
- Fela! – Broadway in Chicago (my review)
- Hero – Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (World Premiere) (my review)
- A Little Night Music – Village Theatre, Glen Ellyn (my review)
- Spring Awakening – Northwestern University (my blog post)
- Brigadoon – Starlight Theatre, Wilmette (my blog post)
- Woody Sez – Northlight Theatre (my review)
- My One and Only – Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (my review)
- Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Broadway in Chicago (my review)
- Legally Blonde – Devonshire Playhouse, Skokie 
- The Producers – North Shore Theater of Wilmette (my blog post)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Best of 2012: The Best Concerts I Attended

It makes sense that I would like most concerts I attend, especially because at this point, there are very few artists I am inspired to check out for a first time. Seeing live acts whose music I like and who have previously impressed me in concert, leads—not so surprisingly—to a pretty high percentage of shows I’d deem “great” or better.

Still, it is pretty gratifying as I look back on a year in which I attended 36 concerts, that I rated 10 of them @@@@@, 11 more @@@@1/2 and another 9 @@@@. That makes for 30 of 36 shows that I really liked, with the handful of lesser ones including free festival performances and a Merle Haggard gig that was impeded by audio issues at the awful Congress Theater.

In fact, the only concert that truly disappointed me in full—i.e. beyond wishing some different songs were played and/or the pacing was a bit better—was one by Madonna. You can read my review of that show here, but I was actually anticipating it to be good as I had seen and liked her three previous times.

There was only one artist I saw multiple times in 2012, and the four shows by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would, honestly, hold down the top four slots on my list below. But rather than have the Boss monopolize 40% of the top 10, I’ll group all four of his shows as #1. However, that still leaves 17 gigs that I gave @@@@@ or @@@@1/2 vying for the nine remaining berths before Honorable Mention. And all I have to really separate them at this point is my eroding memory. So know that everyone listed below up to and including Dinosaur Jr. could easily be considered a Top 10 concert.

And even some of the acts toward the bottom of this Best of 2012 list may have made a case for Top 10 status if but for a few small adjustments. Radiohead and Wilco should have sprinkled a few poppier selections into their setlists; Prince shouldn’t have kept the United Center house lights off for 45 minutes after his set ended, then played “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” after most people left (me included) after the lights came up; and I would’ve liked the always great Garbage even more if it weren’t for my discomfort in the jam-packed and sweltering Metro.

I won’t include Tributosauras—who I saw do Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers—below, even though I really enjoyed their show at Skokie’s Backlot Bash, and I suspect I liked the Rev. Al Green a bit more from the lawn at Ravinia than pavilion dwellers have shared. But everyone else here not only belongs on my Best Concerts of 2012 list, but perhaps even a bit higher than I ranked them.

Note: I will cite opening acts in cases where I enjoyed them in their own right, but my rankings are based solely on the performance of the headliner. All venues are in Chicago area except as noted.

1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – September 7 – Wrigley Field (my review)
Also, September 8 – Wrigley Field, April 12 – Palace of Auburn Hills (my review), November 3 – KFC Yum! Center, Louisville (my review).

2. Coldplay – August 8 – United Center (my review)
This surprises me, too, but they were unsuspectingly fantastic.

3. Elvis Costello and the Imposters – September 15 – BMO Harris Bank Pavilion, Milwaukee (my review)
Opening act Willy Porter was also terrific.

4. Neil Young and Crazy Horse – October 11 – United Center (my review)

5. Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators – September 28 – Riviera Theatre (my review)
Another show that pleasantly surprised me by being as great as it was. Opening band Foxy Shazam was the strangest act I’ve ever seen, but surprisingly tuneful too. Another opener, The Lovehammers, were also good.

6. The Killers – December 21 – UIC Pavilion (my review)
I also really liked opening act Tegan and Sara

7. The Who – November 29 – Allstate Arena (my review)

8. Willie Nile – April 28 – Fitzgerald’s (my review)
Nile was backed by the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, who also opened the show

9. The Hives – June 30 – The Vic (my review)

10. The Beach Boys – May 22 – Chicago Theatre (my review)

Honorable Mention (in preference order)

- System of a Down – August 15 – Allstate Arena (my review)
- Peter Gabriel – September 27 – United Center (my review)
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – May 28 – Allstate Arena (my review)
- Maximo Park – September 17 – Schubas (my review)
- Roger Waters – June 8 – Wrigley Field (my review)
- Aerosmith with Cheap Trick – June 22 – United Center (my review)
- Dinosaur Jr. – June 23 – Green Music Fest (my review)
- Weezer – July 27 – The Venue at Horseshoe Casino (my review)
- The Zombies – July 31 – Viper Alley (my review)
- Van Halen – April 1 – Allstate Arena (my review)
- Radiohead – June 10 – First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre (my review)
- Wilco – July 3 – Adler Theatre, Davenport, IA (my review)
- Prince – September 24 – United Center (my review)
- Smashing Pumpkins – October 19 – Allstate Arena (my review)
- Garbage – August 7 – Metro (my review)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Best of 2012: The Best Plays I Saw

To be candid, it can be a challenge for me to stay focused—or even awake—throughout an 80-minute play. So it’s especially impressive that of the 18 non-musical productions I saw onstage in 2012, all in the Chicago area, my favorite one was nearly 5 hours in length.

Not that I would have minded if Eugene O’Neill had figured out how to make The Iceman Cometh just as compelling in half the time, but it was certainly a pleasure to see the epic play performed by a splendid cast at Goodman Theatre, including the marvelous Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Stephen Ouimette and others.

It is also rather gratifying that I liked and would recommend 17 of the 18 plays I saw this year, bestowing @@@@1/2 (out of 5) to the top 5 on my list below and @@@@ to 10 others. Besides the 15 I cite here, I also enjoyed I Love Lucy: Live on Stage, which wasn’t so much a play as an enactment of two classic teleplays, and Black Pearl Sings, a two-woman show at Northlight that had a good amount of singing but really couldn’t be considered a musical.

The only play I truly didn’t like in 2012 was Camino Real, a non-linear work by the great Tennessee Williams, which had many patrons exiting the Goodman Theatre early. I stuck it out, primarily to justify giving it the worst review I’ve given anything on Seth Saith.

Fortunately, that was the only stinker in an otherwise stellar year at the Goodman, where I have long been a subscriber.

A couple of the biggest revelations of the year were 33 Variations, a play that wove a biographical study of Beethoven around a family drama, and an excellent world premiere staging of The Book Thief by Steppenwolf for Young Adults. In bringing Markus Zusak’s novel to life through an adaptation by Heidi Stillman, the fine cast led by Francis Guinan and Rae Gray created a truly first-rate drama.

Before providing my list of the Best Plays of 2012, I should note that I am really ranking the productions I saw, not necessarily the plays themselves. While many of the works are of fairly recent vintage, this should not be construed as a ranking of the best new non-musical stage works, but merely a list running down my favorites from the 18 plays I saw this year.

1. The Iceman Cometh – Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Tennessee Williams; directed by Robert Falls

2. 33 Variations – TimeLine Theatre (my review)
written by Moisés Kauffman; directed by Nick Bowling

3. War Horse – Broadway in Chicago (my review)
written by Nick Stafford; directed by Bijan Sheibani

4. The Cripple of Inishmaan - Redtwist Theatre (my review)
written by Martin McDonagh; directed by Kimberly Senior

5. The Book Thief - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Heidi Stillman; directed by Hallie Gordon

6. Metamorphoses - Lookingglass Theatre (my review)
written and directed by Mary Zimmerman

7. Sweet Bird of Youth - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Tennessee Williams; directed by David Cromer

8. Race - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by David Mamet; directed by Chuck Smith

9. After the Revolution - Next Theatre (my review)
written by Amy Herzog; directed by Kimberly Senior

10. Good People - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by K. Todd Freeman

Honorable Mention

Black Watch - Chicago Shakespeare Theatre/National Theatre of Scotland (my review)
written by Gregory Burke; directed by John Tiffany

The Odd Couple - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by Neil Simon; directed by BJ Jones

Freud’s Last Session - Mercury Theatre (my review)
written by Mark St. Germain; directed by Tyler Marchant

Broken Glass - Redtwist Theatre (my review)
written by Arthur Miller; directed by Michael Colucci & Jan Ellen Graves

The School For Lies - Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (my review)
written by David Ives; directed by Barbara Gaines

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Best of 2012: The Best Albums I Heard

2012 was once again a year in which I didn’t hear much in the way of newly recorded music that changed my life.

Or even substantially enhanced it.

This is not for lack of trying.

There are few things that I want more than to discover new music that I find invigorating. Toward that end, I bought at least a couple dozen albums in 2012—either in physical or digital form—and listened to many more via Spotify. I regularly perused reviews from Rolling Stone,, Metacritic and various newspapers, magazines and websites. I checked out best sellers and new releases on and I paid attention to who played at Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Bonnaroo, Coachella and other festivals, even streaming much of them on YouTube. I watched a lot of live gigs on Palladia. And I read numerous Best of 2012 opinions, both mid-year editions and especially of late.

Based on all this, I have sampled a lot of new music, at least within styles I tend to like. And between releases by cherished favorites—Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Garbage, Alejandro Escovedo, Dinosaur Jr., Bob Dylan, Soundgarden, Rush, Jack White and more—as well as newer bands oft cited as releasing stellar albums in 2012—Fun., Tame Impala, Japandroids, Howler, Divine Fits, The Lumineers, Titus Andronicus—there has been very little that, especially across an entire album, has made me go “Wow!”

Yes, there have been some decent albums and enjoyable songs, but for me, a truly great album is one that I come back to again and again—upon its initial release or my discovery, but also in years to come.

Looking back now at my picks for the Best Albums of 2011 and 2010, the above criteria has really only applied to my top pick in 2011 (Adele – 21) and perhaps just half of my top 10 in 2010.

And while I genuinely enjoy all the albums I cite below to some extent, at this point I suspect only my top 2 picks will prove to have shelf life in my musical universe. So you may wish to listen on Spotify before buying any of them.

But without any further ado, these are the albums I liked best in 2012:

1. Maxïmo Park – The National Health
I feel somewhat sheepish about awarding the top slot to a band so little known in America, but other folks’ Best Albums of 2012 lists are full of artists with which I’m not familiar. Maxïmo Park’s 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, still ranks as my favorite album of the ’00s and after a couple lesser ones, I thoroughly enjoy The National Health from start to finish. (Spotify link)

2. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
It says a lot about The Boss that I like at least 10 of his previous albums better than this one, yet I still think it’s an excellent record with interesting sounds and a lot to say. (Spotify link)

3. The Hives – Lex Hives
They may not be the buzz band they once were, but the Swedish band continues to produce infectious, Ramones-like rapid fire rock songs. And Lex Hives is full of them. (Spotify link)

4. Paul Weller – Sonik Kicks
The Modfather has been on quite a hot streak in the 21st Century, with Sonik Kicks his 6th stellar studio album of the millennium. (Spotify link)

5. Kelly Hogan – I Like to Keep Myself in Pain
A longtime bartender at Chicago’s Hideout, Hogan proved captivating in an opening set for Wilco in Davenport in July, and though her album doesn’t scale Adele-like heights, she’s an impressive vocalist in a somewhat similar vein. (Spotify link)

6. Susanna Hoffs – Someday
The Bangle beauty showcases strong songwriting throughout her latest solo album. (Spotify link)

7. Neil Young – Psychedelic Pill
With a 27 minute song to open the album and two others clocking in over 16:00, this new work with Crazy Horse isn’t easy to listen to—in full—while driving. But two of the epics, “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant” are among the album’s best songs, and there’s more than enough here to remind why Neil Young is one of the greatest rock artists of all-time.

8. Taylor Swift – Red
I’ve never cared about Swift’s romantic melodramas and subsequent musical salvos, but I find her to be one of the few present day musical artists to actually possess impressive artistry. Red showcases a rather impressive range of songwriting and singing styles. (Spotify link)

9. Bob Mould – Silver Age
According to reviews, I was supposed to like Mould’s new album as much as 1993’s great Copper Blue, released with Sugar. I don’t, but he fell short of past glories a bit more satisfyingly than did the Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Soundgarden, Garbage and others I had high hopes for. (Spotify link)

10. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
In listening to a lot of artists cited in other Best Album of 2012 lists, the Japandroids seem to be the best of what I’ve heard. The guitar buzz created by the Vancouver duo admittedly fits into my sweet spot, though so far I like their sound more than their songcraft. (Spotify link)

Honorable Mention

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (Spotify link) 
Bob Dylan – Tempest (Spotify link)
Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky (Spotify link)
The Killers – Battle Born (Spotify link)
Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth (Spotify link)
Slash with Myles Kennedy & the Conspirators – Apocalyptic Love (Spotify link)

Highly worthwhile live albums/DVDs

Blur - Parklive (Spotify link) 
Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day

Monday, December 24, 2012

My One and Only: 'S Enjoyable? Yes. 'S Wonderful? Not Quite -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

My One and Only
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru January 6, 2013

There's nothing particularly wrong with My One and Only, and no reason I would recommend that anyone avoid seeing it at Marriott Lincolnshire, which always stages excellent musical productions to the largest subscription base in the country.

The compilation Gershwin score is lovely, even if it traipses much the same ground as Crazy For You, the now-on-Broadway Nice Work if You Can Get It and classic movies like An American in Paris and Funny Face. But it is never a bad thing to hear "I Can't Be Bothered Now," "'S Wonderful," "Strike Up the Band," "Kickin' the Clouds Away" and other gems by George and Ira.

For those who enjoy tap dancing--and I do--the show is a joy just for having so much of it, including several group numbers, a sensational solo turn by Ted Louis Levy, the impressive trio of Quinn M. Bass, Jarran Muse and Clinton Roane, and some great hoofing by the show's star, Andrew Lupp as Captain Billy Buck Chandler.

I would be duplicitous if I didn't admit to enjoying watching many of the legs doing the dancing, as the women in the ensemble were quite attractive (and often scantily clad), as was very much so the female lead, Summer Naomi Smart as Edythe Herbert. And my sister and her friend spoke similarly about some of the men.

Of course, there was also much great singing, by Lupp, Smart and longtime Chicago theater stars like Paula Scrofano, Felicia P. Fields and Roger Mueller.

So you had great songs, fine singing, terrific dancing, good acting and beautiful people to look at. What more could you want?

Strictly in terms of an entertaining show making for enjoyable evening, not much.

As I said above, there was nothing particularly wrong with My One and Only.

But for all the good things about it, for me it never reached the level of being fantastic. Mainly because the story--a 1927 romance between Billy, a pioneering pilot, and Edythe, a famed swimmer of the English Channel--and the songs never felt like they fully congealed into a thoroughly satisfying whole.

Although the book for My One and Only, which had a nice Broadway run starring Tommy Tune and Twiggy starting in 1983, was co-written by the esteemed Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer to accompany the Gershwin songbook, the sum of the show's parts are just better than its whole. I think "book problems" might well be what kept it from being truly sensational, although I also didn't sense a whole lot of chemistry between Lupp and Smart. Both played their roles well--though Smart's English accent tended to come and go--but it was hard not to note the considerable age gap.

I imagine My One and Only may well be a delight for many of the mature subscribers who fill most of the Marriott's Theatre's seats. But coming in a week where I also saw The Book of Mormon, War Horse, Metamorphoses, one other musical (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) and a great concert (The Killers), not every show can be the very best.

But that's OK. Sometimes a likeable musical with good songs, dancing, performers, etc. can be just fine.

And that's what My One and Only is, for better or worse: just fine.

Thrilling Killers Provide Hope for Rock's Survival -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Killers
with opening act Tegan and Sara
UIC Pavilion, Chicago
December 21, 2012

The world didn't come to an end on 12/21/12, but if the apocalypse had come, I hope the Mayans would've timed it to allow me to see Friday night's Killers concert in full.

It wouldn't have been a bad way to go.

Ironically, after taking the stage to a recording of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World (and I Feel Fine)" and launching into "Mr. Brightside"--see my video clip at bottom--the Killers wound up having their superb show cut a song short, not by the Mayans, but supposedly by an 11:00pm curfew.

But by then, the Las Vegas-bred foursome, accompanied by two touring musicians, impressively demonstrated why they stand as one of the best bands in the world right now. And, along with Arcade Fire, Coldplay and the Black Keys, one of the few arena-filling rock acts arising in this century that might fill out a benefit concert roster in 2030, such as The Who, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi, Roger Waters and Paul McCartney just did with the 12-12-12 show for Hurricane Sandy Relief.

Beyond simply being popular enough to fill a 10,000-20,000-seat venue, there is an art to being a great "arena rock" band, notably the ability to make an arena rock, and the fans within it, truly shake.

Although The Killers' first two albums--Hot Fuss and Sam's Town--were both among my 10 favorite albums of the '00s, the first time I saw them, in 2007 at Sears Centre Arena, I was pleasantly surprised by how great they were, not only as a live act, but as an arena act.

After seeming a little lesser in January 2009, also at the UIC Pavilion, they once again truly dazzled me on Friday night throughout a 100-minute gig that felt just about perfect in pacing and performance. That they sounded so good to me was especially impressive given the cold--as in extremely chilly, but also rather sterile--confines of the Pavilion (I like arenas, but not particularly this one).

Like 2008's Day & Age, the Killers' 2012 album Battle Born also seems a good deal shy of their first two discs. But one of the things that makes the band an excellent live act is their ability to showcase recent material in ways that make me reassess it.

New album cuts like "The Way It Was," "Miss Atomic Bomb," "From Here On Out," "Runaways" and "The Rising Tide" mixed in well with older material and helped me reconsider the depth and quality of Battle Born.

Of course, past gems like "Mr. Brightside," "Spaceman," "Human," "Somebody Told Me," "Read My Mind," "When You Were Young" and "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" also went over great with the sold out crowd. (See the full Killers Chicago setlist on

And though "Battle Born" was supposed to be the show closer--per past setlists and the notes on was nixed due to curfew, I doubt many fans rued ending the night with "All These Things That I've Done," which, in sound, scope and stature, has become The Killers' "Where The Streets Have No Name."

All in all, it was just a terrific show by a terrific band, featuring a smart, well-paced setlist, an impressive light and video show and just the right amount of stage patter from Brandon Flowers, who has become a pretty great frontman.

Adding to the evening's enjoyment was an excellent opening set by Tegan and Sara, a duo comprised of identical twin sisters.

Though I had heard of them, I wasn't familiar with their music, but I genuinely enjoyed everything I heard over a 9-song set. (Tegan & Sara Chicago setlist)

Even though I perceived myself to be older than some of the fathers bringing their daughters to this show, I nonetheless want to have reasons to be attending rock concerts 10 years from now.

So it was encouraging to see the Killers (and Tegan and Sara), do what they do as well as they do it. While being grateful the world didn't end, let's hope that rumors of rock's demise are forever premature, as long as bands like The Killers continue to survive.

First, here's a clip of The Killers taking the stage to a recording of R.E.M.'s "It's The End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" and launching into "Mr. Brightside" [partial], shot by me:

And here's a six song YouTube playlist of songs from the Killers Chicago show on December 21, with videos uploaded by vivacoldplay and coldplay0129, neither of whom I know: 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mane Attraction: 'War Horse' Dazzles By Mastering the Art of Horseplay -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

War Horse
by Nick Stafford
directed by Bijan Sheibani
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru January 5, 2013

Although nearly a full year has elapsed since I saw the movie version of War Horse, I wish I had not seen it before seeing the stage version, which I did Wednesday night at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace.

I had read nothing but rave reviews about play—written by Nick Stafford, adapted from a best-selling 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo—since it opened in London in 2007 (where it won the Olivier Award for Best Play) and then on Broadway in 2011 (where it earned the Tony).

The show proved so popular that snagging a ticket proved an impossibility for me in both New York and London. When the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, was released around Christmas 2011, I didn’t yet know the play would be coming to Chicago a year later and, figuring it was a story worth knowing about, I saw the film.

Though reviews for the film—which used real horses rather than the life-size horse “puppets” imaginatively employed onstage—weren’t as unanimously glorious as for the play, they were generally strong and the movie did earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I liked the film sufficiently for it to have been worthwhile at the time, though I felt it suffered from an overdose of Spielbergian sentimentality and schmaltz.

Cut to Wednesday night, when just a day after seeing The Book of Mormon (which I had previously seen on Broadway), I entered the Cadillac Palace with even greater anticipation—as much as I can recall for any non-musical play.

And in large part, I was blown away.

Referring to the horses as puppets doesn’t quite feel apt, as though I love the Muppets and their Sesame Street/Avenue Q brethren, the way Joey (the main horse) and others were brought to life was something else entirely, even a step beyond the wonders of The Lion King onstage.

While the horses didn’t quite look real, they felt like actual creatures—perhaps even more so—with their movements, gestures and, yes, personalities masterfully embodied by the puppeteers.

These miraculous puppets, with at times up to four full-size horses onstage simultaneously, were created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, and were well-accompanied by a beautifully hand-drawn digital backdrop which served to fill in any blanks as to times, places and landscapes.

Thanks to the puppets, the way they looked and moved, the innovative & tasteful digital scenery and fine acting—including by Andrew Veenstra as Albert, the teenager who owns Joey—it is without intended hyperbole that I say that War Horse is the most imaginatively staged work of dramatic fiction I have ever seen.

As such, this is very much a recommendation that if you can see it, you should—and based on the substantially undersold balcony Wednesday, you should readily be able to score tickets. Especially given its source novel, it’s worth noting that the show should be compelling for any non-overly sheltered kids in junior high or above.

But likely exacerbated by my knowing most of the key plot points due to having seen the movie, the play itself didn’t seem quite as brilliant as its enactment. The story of Joey being “drafted” into the British army for World War I, his separation from Albert (who subsequently joins the fight himself) and the atrocities both horse and man encounter is certainly substantive and rather moving. Yet I didn’t find it entirely riveting—again, likely because I wasn’t much surprised—and at a few points the 2-1/2 hour play even seemed to drag. It was also apparent that, while the play is better than the movie, not all the oversentimentality was Spielberg’s doing.

I have friends who will be seeing the show shortly without having seen the movie (nor read the book) and I’ll be curious to hear if they found the plotline itself slightly more captivating than I did.

But this quibbling is mainly to explain why I didn’t give @@@@@ to a show that seemingly has earned perfect marks from everyone else.

Coincidentally, my regard for War Horse as a stage work is somewhat akin to my regard for another Spielberg movie, Lincoln. I certainly wouldn’t say that Lincoln, as a whole, was bad, it just wasn’t quite as great as I was expecting. But Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was absolutely phenomenal and makes the movie worth seeing.

Even more so, the puppetry of War Horse is so amazing—and per reports, so closely replicated in the touring version to what the West End and Broadway saw—that this is a show not to be missed. Especially as even if a future local production isn’t entirely unfathomable, the likely drop in puppetry and production values will greatly diminish what truly makes this show special.

So if you can, see War Horse.

Now. Onstage. In Chicago.

Even if you’ve already seen the movie.

But especially if you haven’t.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

'The Book of Mormon' is Heavenly If Perhaps Excessively Exalted -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Book of Mormon
Music, lyrics & book by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Open run

About the worst thing I can say about The Book of Mormon, now playing in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre, is that I don’t agree with this heavily promoted—front & center on the marquee—opinion, ascribed to Ben Brantley, esteemed theater critic of the New York Times:

“The Best Musical of This Century.”

Although I believe the show, a phenomenon of astonishing proportions that has sold out every performance on Broadway since opening in March 2011, is clearly the best musical of this decade (though I haven’t seen Once), there are a number of shows from the '00s that I think are better. These include, roughly in order, The Producers, Avenue Q, Hairspray, Wicked, Spring Awakening, Billy Elliot, The Visit, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys, with The Book of Mormon slotting in next, just above In the Heights and Mary Poppins.

Overall, beyond works from the new millennium, I recently ranked The Book of Mormon #28 among My 100 All-Time Favorite Stage Musicals, based on having seen it on Broadway last year. And though the touring production now in Chicago is also outstanding, if perhaps a little less so, there are at least a couple classic musicals I’ve seen this year that left me slightly more exuberant at night’s end. (My list of the Best Musicals I’ve Seen in 2012 is coming next week, along with other Best of 2012 rankings.)

So no, even though the musical written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez, is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end, often hilarious, terrifically inventive, musically robust and rather uplifting, it is not the best musical of all-time. And thus, perhaps not quite deserving of what seems like unprecedented hype, hoopla and hard-to-get tickets.

But if your question is simply, “Should I see it?” my answer is a definitive “Yes.”

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Unless, of course, you are easily offended by extremely explicit blaspheming of God, lyrics and dialogue that giddily reference bestiality, dysentery and sexual organs (among other topics) and, yes, a good bit of ridicule toward Mormonism and its missionaries.

Before I lose those who are blanching right now, let me say that much akin to South Park—even though I really don’t watch it that often—The Book of Mormon works, and is truly rather brilliant, because of the clear reverence within Parker and Stone’s irreverence.

These are guys who, along with Lopez—co-composer/lyricist of Avenue Q—obviously love musicals, and while they certainly poke fun at Mormons, in the end of this surprisingly warmhearted show, it’s apparent that their targets are much more ritualistic inflexibility and closed-mindedness rather than any particular religious beliefs or doctrines.
While I don’t think the score (credited to all three creators, as is the book) scintillates quite as much as those of shows cited above, this is not a case of a dirty jokes accompanied by throwaway songs. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of raunch in the tunes themselves, but most of the songs are catchy in their own right.

And especially for musical theater aficionados—though Book of Mormon should also appeal to those who aren’t—it’s fun to note how the score often alludes to, imitates or simply reminds of other famous musicals.

Songs, or simply their styles or just a refrain, from The Book of Mormon harken back to The Lion King, The Sound of Music, Annie, Wicked and—according to the cast recording’s liner notes, as cited on Wikipedia—Bye, Bye Birdie, The Pajama Game and The King and I. But nothing really feels derivative, and with many other melodies that simply sound familiar, in its own way the score is an homage to musical theater.

There are songs that develop into big production numbers—"Hasa Diga Eebowai,” “Turn It Off,” “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”—as well as big, yearning solo ballads—“Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” “I Believe”—that make The Book of Mormon not just the funniest show in recent years, but one whose music is surprisingly first-rate.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
I won’t cite many storyline specifics so as to let all the humor come as a surprise, but The Book of Mormon is essentially about two young Mormons—Elder Price and Elder Cunningham—who are sent on their first mission, to Uganda. They meet up with other missionaries and try to convert the people in a northern Ugandan village to Mormonism.

In Chicago, Nic Rouleau (above) and Ben Platt (left) play Price and Cunningham, roles originated on Broadway by Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. Rouleau had taken over the role on Broadway and seems rather perfect as Elder Price. As Cunningham, however, Platt is quite a bit thinner and less overtly humorous than Gad, now starring on NBC’s new 1600 Penn. Having very much enjoyed Gad on Broadway and the cast recording, I couldn’t help but perceive the tour casting as diminishing the Odd Couple dissonance of the Price/Cunningham pairing and lacking the overt physical humor of Gad’s Chris Farleyish manic exasperation.

Platt certainly sang well enough and in his 4-star (out of 4) Tribune review, Chris Jones calls him this production’s “true revelation,” as well as “hilariously funny.” So perhaps my perception of Platt being the one noticeable drop-off from Broadway is just mine. In any case, I’m not suggesting he should be a distraction for anyone encountering Book of Mormon for the first time.

I must admit that while watching the show on Tuesday night, there were points where I thought that I might rate it just @@@@1/2. Despite being terrific, it just felt a good step below The Producers, Avenue Q, Hairspray, etc., and perhaps a tad overrated and successful out-of-proportion.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
But by the end, with the uplifting “Tomorrow is a Latter Day” bringing things to a touching conclusion, I was sufficiently reminded that even if I believe there have been better musicals created throughout history, and even just the 20th Century, The Book of Mormon is a rather special piece of entertainment and worthy of an absolutely phenomenal @@@@@.

I hope you can get tickets while it’s in town. I think some are available next June. (Actually, I just checked Ticketmaster and their Interactive Seat Maps for some weeknights in January; if you don’t mind scattered singles, you can easily find a ticket. Plus there is a daily Book of Mormon ticket drawing that allows those selected to buy 2 up-front tickets for just $25 each.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

‘The Grinch,’ on stage, should make kids smile, but he’s now left town, so is this review really worthwhile? -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Run ended

For more than a decade now, I’ve had a Broadway in Chicago subscription that lets me see the first Tuesday night performance of a run. Sometimes, however, for reasons that are never made clear, my assigned show dates are not Tuesday nights.

There have been occasions where this aberration has been logical—such as this week, when both The Book of Mormon and War Horse are in town; strangely though, I was originally ticketed for both shows on the same night—but I have no idea why I am ticketed to see Peter Pan on Thursday, January 31 at 2:00pm nor why I was assigned to see Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas: The Musical this past Sunday at 5:00pm.

Broadway in Chicago has a very accommodating exchange policy for subscribers, so there have never been any inconveniences that couldn’t be adjusted, and though I may have been able change away from the Sunday twilight performance, it actually worked out rather well.

Except that seeing the last performance of the Chicago run at the Cadillac Palace renders my review even more inconsequential than normal, except perhaps to denizens of Detroit, where the Grinch goes next.

So I will keep this somewhat brief and say that, especially if you have kids and want to see this show for a price you find acceptable, there’s no reason not to.

It is not a fantastic musical and at just 90 minutes, it's a rather short one. Even among musicals clearly targeted towards families, it falls far short in engendering delight (at least for adults) on par with The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins. And in the realm of holiday-themed family musicals, I found A Christmas Story: The Musical—which ran in Chicago last winter and is on Broadway this one—considerably more imaginative and tuneful.

But although I can’t recall the last time I saw the TV version of The Grinch—and have never watched the Jim Carrey movie—it is sufficiently fun, considerably moving (even for an old Jewish bachelor) and has enough well-executed musical numbers that I can’t suggest it is crassly opportunist.

Stefan Karl makes for a good Grinch, Bob Lauder is a fun Max as an old dog, Seth Bazacas as a young one and little Jenna Iacono almost steals the show as Cindy-Lou Who. She almost single-handedly gives it whatever emotional heft it has.

The book and lyrics of the musical, which is based on Dr. Seuss' book of the same name, are by Timothy Mason, while Mel Marvin wrote the music. Although the musical was first staged in 1994 and had short Broadway runs in both the 2006 and 2007 holiday seasons, I couldn't find a cast recording to familiarize myself with the music beforehand.

So other than the old "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch," I didn't know any of the songs, and while several sounded tuneful, the only one I really recall a day later is "Who Likes Christmas," and that's because it was reprised often.

To close the book on "The Grinch" in Chicago, it was by no means a masterpiece, but especially after the tragedy that took place on Friday, it was heartwarming to hear the laughter of children. And even without any kids of my own, the show was worthwhile as part of my upper balcony subscription.

Though I am glad I didn't shell out more green on this night / For the Grinch on stage is fun, but in the end fairly slight.

While It May Well Be Worthy of Its Mythology, 'Metamorphoses' Isn’t Quite Life-Changing -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review
by Mary Zimmerman
adapted from the classic Ovid poem of the same name
Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 6, 2013

As someone who attends and appreciates Chicago theater as much as I do, the revival of Metamorphoses at Lookingglass seemed like a show I really shouldn’t miss.

Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, a Northwestern University theater professor, Metamorphoses debuted at NU in 1996 (under the name Six Myths), then had a highly successful Lookingglass premiere in 1998, an off-Broadway run and a 400-performance run on Broadway starting in early 2002. It won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, earned Zimmerman a Tony for Best Direction and garnered numerous others awards and accolades.

So it stands as one of the most decorated theatrical works to ever evolve out of Chicago, and in Chris Jones’ 4-star (out of 4) rave review in the Tribune (of the current revival), he calls Metamorphoses “one of the very best products ever to be made in Sweet Home Chicago, dogs and deep-dish included.”

That Zimmerman was again directing her most famous work, accompanied by many of the original creative team and even several of the initial actors (some whom have now been replaced in the revival cast) further enhanced my sense that I should see Metamorphoses. So I was particularly glad that discount tickets have appeared on HotTix of late, and I went to a matinee on Saturday.

Problem was, despite all the exaltation, it didn’t sound like something I was likely to love. Rather than a linear, story-based play, Metamorphoses enacts a series of brief mythological tales, all of which utilize a pool of water, which I believe can fairly be called the production’s centerpiece.

I am not a huge fan of mythology and even less an appreciator of non-linear theatrical works. So given the acclaim, I was excited to experience such an esteemed work in a supposedly stellar revival, but was also somewhat wary as I entered the theater at the Water Tower Water Works. Upon doing so, I found a towel on my chair, as I was in the front row next to the pool.

Photo by Liz Lauren;
To its credit, I wound up enjoying Metamorphoses far more than I didn’t. Over the show’s 90 minutes—comprising 11 vignettes, though a few are briefer interludes—I was never bored and was frequently engrossed by the myths, the actors and the water.

While my @@@@ rating (out of 5) does not match Jones’ more esteemed enthusiasm nor the work’s storied recognition, it is very much a recommendation that anyone who values unique theatrical experiences—and especially those who enjoy mythology—should definitely get to it before the revival closes on January 6. If nothing else, it seems rather likely that Metamorphoses won’t be done this well again in Chicago, at least not anytime soon.

I’ll let you reference Wikipedia for the details on the various myths that are depicted, most of which Zimmerman adapted from the epic poem Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. The same 10 actors rotate through various roles in the roster of myths, with Raymond Fox—an original cast member—rather compelling as King Midas and Louise Lammon—who was in the show on Broadway along with current castmates Fox, Chris Kipiniak and Erik Lochtefeld—was luminous as Alcyon among other characters. Anne Fogarty is another original actor returning for this revival.

Photo by Liz Lauren;
And without any point of reference, new cast members seemed rather good as well, including the always stellar Patrick Andrews (who I’ve seen twice already this year), Ashleigh Lathrop  and Lauren Orkus.

As far as highly hallowed plays go, Metamorphoses didn’t hit me like some of the best, more straightforward, linear works have (Doubt, Proof, or even among those seen this year, The Iceman Cometh and 33 Variations). But that’s probably on me, based on my proclivities going in.

Yet even if I didn’t find it life changing, I now understand why Metamorphoses is so mythologized, and for folks with a bit wider palette than mine, perhaps quite deservedly so.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

One Needn't Be A-Verse to a Good Farce -- Chicago Theater Review: The School for Lies

Theater Review

The School for Lies
by David Ives
adapted from The Misanthrope by Molière
directed by Barbara Gaines
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Thru January 20, 2013

In the venerated venue that celebrates Shakespeare
Plays a fun new farce that regenerates Molière

With rhyming couplets like this, though better you’d hope
The School of Lies puts a new English twist on The Misanthrope

Still set in 1666 with costumes Baroque
The anachronistic script features many bawdy a joke

Written by David Ives or more truly adapted
With a fine cast the schtick is enjoyably enacted

Ben Carlson is Frank, a tart-tongued critic of life
Who pursues Celimene, played by Ben’s actual wife

Deborah Hay, these actors sure are good one and all
Including Sean Fortunato and Kevin Gudahl

And a finely vexed Greg Vinkler, along with Heidi Kettenring
Who shines without even getting to sing

All in all it makes for a memorable night
Though I can’t quite call it a “must-see” delight

For while I frequently smiled I rarely guffawed
I liked the uniqueness but wasn’t continually awed

I felt the humor could have had a much sharper sting
Had Ives imbued his verses with a mightier swing

Instead of merely mix-matching chronological sense
Why not make the jibes more topically dense

For as Frank demonstrated his desire to condemn
Dissing his foes like a dandified Eminem

Perhaps he could have ridiculed their pretentious devices
By chastising the chicanery that perpetuated the crisis

And in telling Celimene that her communiqués had vexed him
How ‘bout suggesting that next time she just text him

I realize my examples aren’t really that witty
But the farce could’ve been funnier with more Second City

Types of timely and wry observations
Rather than merely explicit titillations

In truth School of Lies is a pretty good show
But not one to bring tears if unable to go

While I felt it tickled more than did fully entrench
At least I’m glad it wasn’t in French

Monday, December 10, 2012

Workshop Production of New/Old 'Kennedy' Musical Doesn't Quite Feel Like 'Camelot'

Theater Commentary (but not a full review)

A Musical Memoir
Book, Music and Lyrics by Allan Jay Friedman and Leslie Bricusse
Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago
Workshop run ended

Over the weekend, I saw a staged workshop production of a musical called Kennedy, as in President John F. According to a Tribune article by Chris Jones, the show’s producers and its creators—Leslie Bricusse and Allen Jay Friedman—are looking to bring the show to Broadway to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, preceded by a full-scale Chicago production.

Although at this point, Kennedy supposedly consists of a new title, several new songs and a heavily revamped book, it is not an entirely brand new musical, but rather the descendent of One Shining Moment, which ran only in Chicago in 1983. With a cast that included Kevin Anderson, Megan Mullally and Alan Ruck, that show ran for 9 months at the old Drury Lane Theatre at Water Tower Place, but according to Jones’ article, the Tribune theater critic at the time, Richard Christensen, was far from completely enthralled, writing that "One Shining Moment is a series of very smart and attractive bits surrounding what seems to me to be a basically stupid and repugnant idea."

Last week’s piece by Jones was the first I’d ever heard of One Shining Moment or the updated Kennedy workshop production, for which Proscenium Productions offered free tickets to five performances at the Athenaeum Theatre. I was appreciative and excited by the chance to see a Broadway-targeted musical in a developmental stage, and did so with no awareness of what remained from the show’s earlier incarnation.

Given that Kennedy was promoted as a workshop and presented for free, and that the workshop run has now ended, I don’t feel it proper to rate or fully review the show. Anything I say below should not be taken as a recommendation to see or avoid the show, which is clearly still a work in progress.

But while even this might be inappropriate if I were an actual theater critic and not just an idiot with a blog, I mean it constructively to say that IMHO, Kennedy needs a good bit of work if it is to succeed—at least critically—on Broadway or even just again in Chicago.

This isn't to say that it was bad, and with scenery added—aside from a collection of photographs employed for the workshop—the show could make for a passable night of entertainment in tribute to the 35th President of the United States. But with deference to the impressive pedigrees of Bricusse and Friedman, Kennedy just didn’t seem particularly special.

Even with excellent vocal performances from Branden James Smith as JFK and Casi Maggio as Jackie, overall the whole affair just felt somewhat flat, rather than especially inspired.

I won’t pick at specific songs or storyline choices, other than to say that I don’t think the assassination really needed to be acted out, but my impression is that a lot more imagination needs to go into the musical numbers and the way the biographical events unfolded on-stage. As it stands, the choices mostly seem a bit too obvious.

I can imagine the Kennedy story being a tricky one to stage, and it seems that Christensen had a real problem with the tone that One Shining Moment employed in being both “breezy and serious.” This version is supposedly a good bit more serious, but in making reference to JFK’s megalomaniacal father and the President’s incessant womanizing, it isn’t fully a fawning hagiography.

Save for two songs encapsulating the enemies Kennedy made (along with Robert Kennedy, his Attorney General) and presaging the tragedy that was to come, the show really isn't very dark, but my two cents worth of advice to those involved in Kennedy would be this:

Find ways to make the audience smile, particularly with the musical numbers.

Yes, I realize this is a musical about a president who led America to the brink of nuclear war, who had a Svengali-like father that likely helped orchestrate his election, who repeatedly betrayed his wife and who was murdered at 46. It probably doesn’t lend itself to a lot of ebullient singing and dancing.

But in trying to find a way to easily separate musicals that are truly special from the ones that are just OK, I can’t think of any great musical that doesn’t at some point bring a smile (or several) to the faces of those watching, typically through extraordinarily catchy songs.

Even musicals with somber overtones—Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Evita, Rent, Spring Awakening and more—have multiple musical numbers that are truly joyous, or at least sublime enough to be heartwarming.

So in my estimation, what Kennedy needs is more than just songs that tell the tale of JFK’s life in a professional, tuneful way. It needs songs that truly make people smile.

And as the guy who wrote “Candy Man” (from Willy Wonka) and “Talk to the Animals,” (from Dr. Doolittle), Bricusse is clearly capable of doing this. It won’t be easy to find the right balance, but Kennedy needs a good bit more oomph if it wants to effectively shine.