Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pride (in the Name of the Love Tonight): 'The Lion King' Re-manes a Glorious, Roaring Success -- Milwaukee Theater Review

Theater Review

The Lion King
The Milwaukee Theatre
Thru December 7

Back in July, I wrote up some Broadway recommendations for a trio of friends who would soon head to New York.

Although I expected them to see just one show--which they did--I listed 15 current productions that I might primarily recommend.

The Lion King wasn't among them.

To be fair, I included it among a final entry of "other options" and earlier in the article described it as "simply fantastic."

But even with knowing that my friends had never seen it, The Lion King wasn't a show I insisted they try to get to.

Partly this was because I surmised the long-running Disney hit wasn't a musical best aligned with my friends' tastes and proclivities. And as I was writing the piece just a month before my pals would hit the Big Apple, I also factored into my suggestions the likelihood of getting tickets for face value or perhaps even a discount.

Seventeen years after it opened on Broadway, The Lion King is not only still running but continues to sell out virtually every performance. (It is also still in its original run in London's West End, dating to 1999.)

Hence, it didn't seem prudent to pitch it to three guys over easier, cheaper and more overtly suited options such as Rocky: the Musical--which is what they saw, to their reported delight--or the Alan Cumming-led revival of Cabaret (my first choice if I get to NYC in time) or Kinky Boots or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. (Note: Rocky closed on Broadway soon thereafter.)

Photos are not specifically from the touring production playing in Milwaukee
And honestly, The Lion King has been so successful, and around so long--including through Chicago on
several tours--that it seems somewhat archaic to compel others to see it.

Before this past Saturday, I had seen the stage musical 3 times, including 2001 on Broadway and 2003 & 2005 in Chicago.

Though I know I loved it, the elapsed time since my last encounter also undoubtedly dulled my remembrance, and tempered the vehemence of any recommendation that others see it.

For yes, we are talking about a Disney musical, based on an animated movie of the same name, from which much of the score by Elton John and Tim Rice came directly.

And thus I realize than many might be dubious about just how good, or "for them"--as opposed to for kids, or at least with the family--the live Lion King really could be.

Well, by virtue of trekking up to Milwaukee to catch a touring version--still with Broadway-caliber performances and first-rate Disney production values--I will say this to anyone with any interest in musical theater, or simply live entertainment:

The Lion King is one of the very best stage musicals ever created, and one of the greatest theatrical creations of any type.

Everyone from age 4 onward should see it, at least once, just to have it within their cultural vernacular.

Especially because, with deference to the dubious, what makes it so great isn't the music itself, nor the source movie or the storyline.

It's how director Julie Taymor and her team of creatives turned an animated musical about animals into a stage piece that really must be seen to be believed.

Taymor is also credited with the costume design, and the way lions and elephants and hyenas and birds and other jungle creatures are personified onstage is nothing short of genius.

Clearly I'm not the only one to believe this, as with The Lion King's mammoth success on Broadway, in London and on tour (plus the movies), it now lays claim to being the most successful musical of all-time.

But lest anything think it being a "family-friendly" wonder diminishes its brilliance for theater lovers of any age, well this is me telling you otherwise. Repeatedly.

Not that anyone reading this is likely to rush up to Milwaukee (if based near Chicago, as am I) for The Lion King's last week.

For even with 3,000 seats, The Milwaukee Theatre is seemingly filled to capacity at every performance, so scoring tickets at this point likely won't be easy or cheap. (We got top of the balcony nosebleeds on StubHub for slightly under face value.)

So I am admittedly writing this largely for my own sake. Because I clearly think The Lion King is worth heralding, celebrating and--for what it's worth--recommending.

Even with binoculars, from where I sat the cast members themselves were less individually distinctive given the glorious costuming and set designs, but the show wouldn't work without outstanding performers who not only have to sing & dance, but maneuver their complicated masks and, in many cases, full-size animal costumes (in which the humans are never fully hidden, but intertwined).

At Saturday's matinee in Milwaukee, the cast included Patrick R. Brown (Scar), L. Steven Taylor (Mufasa), Jelani Remy (Simba), Chondra L. Profit (an understudy, as Nala), Drew Hirshfeld (Zazu), Nick Cordileone (Timon), Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa). Unfortunately, I can't specify which talented children I saw as the Young Simba and Nala.

Although the score itself is not the highlight of The Lion King--and doesn't match that of musicals that I rank above it, and some below, in this 2012 list of my 100 favorite musicals--it stands far beyond being merely serviceable.

"Circle of Life," "Chow Down," "They Live in You," "Hakuna Matata," "Shadowland" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" are all good-to-great tunes, well-performed in Milwaukee.

But just as good if not better is the fusion of African sounds and chants, often accompanied by wonderful choreography.

There is also, for the uninitiated, quite a bit of humor in The Lion King, from fart jokes to topical ad-libs, in this case about Black Friday Doorbusters. The wise-cracking pair of Timon (a meerkat) and Pumbaa (a warthog with flatulence issues) are a whole lot of fun; with better agents they'd have their own spinoff by now.

Obviously, this is as much an appreciation for The Lion King musical itself as it is a review of the current production in Milwaukee. Though perhaps not the very best rendition I've ever seen, this staging doesn't seem deficient in any way, and thus does more than ample justice to the original. (Note to Allison: The omission of "The Morning Report" has long been the case on Broadway and on tour.)

So believe me or not.

It's not as if the Milwaukee Theatre or the Walt Disney Co. is in desperate need of your attendance, this week or ever.

But IMO, you really should see The Lion King onstage.

Sometime, some place.

It really is that great.

And in its own way, completely singular. You'll never see anything else quite like it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Johnny Marr Well-Worth Applauding as He Forgoes "Easy Money" -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Johnny Marr
w/ opening act Meredith Sheldon
The Vic, Chicago
November 25, 2014

When married couples divorce, it seems rather rare that they are convinced to walk down the aisle again 20 years later or so.

But the reunification of long-disbanded rock groups, whose breakups often are presumably for similar reasons--acrimony, betrayal or just having run their course--seems to be clamored for and speculated about for as long as the primary members remain alive.

Certainly, much more native to the latter case is the specter of money, often loads of it, not just for the band members but managers, promoters, arenas, record companies, sponsors, etc., etc.

And also the allure of rekindled public adulation.

So while I would happily spend whatever it would take to see a reunited Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads or The Jam, I all the more respect the resistance of certain key participants to milk the cash cow of a latter-day reunion (with the caveat that each situation has different factors at play).

And much as I perceive Slash as being happy and wealthy enough to be better off without reconnecting with Axl for the humongous payday that would accompany a classic Guns 'n Roses reunion tour, I applaud Johnny Marr for doing his own thing rather than deal with Morrissey to reform The Smiths.

Barely a week goes by where I don't see something in my Facebook news feed about Morrissey that makes me cringe, from cutting concerts short to saying stupid, offensive things to cancelling tours altogether, as he's seemingly done now 4 times in 4 years. 

I had a ticket to see "Moz" for the first time this June at Chicago's Civic Opera House, but then he got sick, publicly blamed his opening act for getting him sick and cancelled the remainder of the tour. 

So while I have enough respect and regard for the music Morrissey, Marr and the rest of the Smiths made to have wanted to see the singer despite it all, and would certainly pay attention to a reunion, you know what? 

The guitarist singing some Smiths songs is more than good enough. 

For me, and seemingly for him.

Though the man sitting near me in the front row of The Vic's balcony on Tuesday seemed more credible than crazy, I'm still dubious that The Smiths were really ever offered $100 million to reunite. Seems a bit much for a band that never really cracked America.

But undoubtedly, if Marr wanted to tour with Moz as The Smiths, he'd be playing vastly larger venues than the Vic, which drew a nice crowd for $30 a head but was far from sold out. 

Yet not only is Johnny not having to deal with Morrissey's bull--, uh let's be nice and say "drama," in his early 50s he's really hit a creative groove. 


As he famously co-wrote many Smiths classics when he was in and barely out of his teens. 

I named Marr's The Messenger album my second favorite of 2013. And this year, he released another one named Playland that is nearly as good.

At the Vic, he played 8 of the new album's 11 songs, plus 3 from The Messenger, and the nearly 100-minute concert never suffered from it. 

In fact, although as the second song in, my favorite Smiths song--"Panic"--was a blissful delight, recent Marr solo tracks such as "The Right Thing Right" and "Easy Money" were nearly as enthralling. 

It was also clear that Marr knows how to put together a crowd-pleasing set, but one that should also be quite satisfying for himself.

Of the concert's first ten songs, only two were Smiths throwbacks--"Panic" and "The Headmaster Ritual"--and the audience seemed to be into it all. But even after "Generate! Generate!" allowed Johnny to demonstrate his dazzling guitar prowess, it seemed something special was needed. 

Which was delivered as Marr and his three bandmates--two from Manchester, as he is, and one from Chicago--ripped into the Smiths' classic "Bigmouth Strikes Again."

And especially given how much more lyrically and vocally straightforward his solo songs are than the crooning, melodramatic lyricism with which Morrissey largely defined the Smiths, I was tremendously impressed with how spot-on Johnny sang his old band's songs. 

One might imagine "the guitarist" warbling through past band hits as best he can when touring under his own name. Or abstaining altogether, as R.E.M.'s Peter Buck did when I saw him fronting his own group earlier this year. 

But Johnny Marr certainly didn't leave me longing for Steven Morrissey, on the Smiths songs or at all. 

I'm not saying he sang "How Soon is Now?" and "There is a Light That Never Goes Out"--see the Marr's full Vic setlist here--quite as distinctively as Morrissey once did, or perhaps again would, but Marr was completely in tune and key while emulating Moz's vocals without any overwrought affectations. 

Thus as he dedicated the closing "There is a Light..." to everyone in the building "and nobody fucking else!" it wasn't hard to imagine whom he might have meant. 

And, while gleefully singing along with some of the most macabre love lyrics ever written...

And if a double-decker bus crashes in to us
To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die
And if a ten ton truck kills the both of us
To die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine applaud him all the more for carrying on, pretty damn well, without his talented but exasperating ex-songwriting partner.

Or former band.

Appropriately, here is a good clip of "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" from the Vic, posted to YouTube by EQ404Hz:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Yesterday, Today and "Tomorrow": 'Annie' Remains a Show for the Ages (All of Them) -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru November 30

Because it is a musical about a kid, Annie is perhaps largely perceived as a musical for kids.

And while the original Broadway production won multiple Tony Awards--including Best Musical--and ran for 6 years, the 1977 show may seem somewhat quaint compared to the musicals that would follow, whether super-sized productions such as Phantom of the Opera & Les Miserables, musicals incorporating rock scores and, even in a kid-oriented vein, Disney screen-to-stage adaptations.

But in seeing Annie--somewhat surprisingly to me for just the second time--in a new touring production running through Sunday at Chicago's Cadillac Palace theater, I was gleefully reminded that although it is probably the best "starter musical" for kids, it really should delight musical theater lovers of any age. 

First of all, the score with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin--who directs this production much as he has numerous times since Annie's inception--is truly sensational.

"Tomorrow" is one of those songs that once was so ubiquitous it still feels almost embarrassing to hear it, like it and love its sentiment. But yet I do.

Tunes like "Maybe," "It's the Hard Knock Life," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," "N.Y.C." and "I Don't Need Anyone But You" are also fantastic, while songs chronicling Depression-era woes--such as "We'd Like to Thank You" (...Herbert Hoover)--still feel far more relevant and resonant than they ideally should.

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
It's hard to think of many recent musicals with scores anywhere near as strong as Annie's.

But an abundance of great songs all the more demands a gaggle of great singers, and one might have reason to be wary of a non-Equity cast featuring numerous children and few adults with particularly impressive credits.

Perhaps I wasn't all that discerning from the last row of upper balcony, but Issie Swickle seemed delightful in the title role, imbuing Annie with requisite amounts of charm and chutzpah while belting out "Tomorrow," "Maybe" and other songs with panache.

Lynn Andrews makes for a quite likably unlikable Miss Hannigan, who runs the orphanage where Annie lives as the show opens, while the wonderfully-named Gilgemesh Taggett is a rather standard but in no way deficient Daddy Warbucks.

If ever I could reveal plot details without wariness, it would seem to be for a 37-year-old musical based on an 80-year-old comic strip, with a 1982 movie adaptation and a new one coming out next month. But if you don't already know what happens in Annie, why should I ruin it for you now?

In addition to the music, the book by Thomas Meehan--who would collaborate on The Producers years later--holds up well, and even for those of us familiar with it, the story is fun to follow.

One certainly can't call this tour any sort of revisionist production, but that seems somewhat purposeful as Charnin opted to remount the original staging for the upteenth time, rather than base this outing on the 2012 Broadway revival, which supposedly tried some different things that didn't go over so well.

If you can't get to Annie in Chicago during this Thanksgiving week, odds are pretty solid that there will be additional chances in years to come.

But despite being a non-Equity rendition devoid of Actors Union performers, this rendition has a sizable orchestra and didn't feel lacking in any significant way.

Annie remains a first-rate show that should be a joy for all ages, including youngsters.

That it's also something of a holiday show only adds to the aptness to take the family, or just yourself, if you can fit it into your schedule and budget.

So why not tomorrow?

After all, it's only a day away.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Frenzied Outburst: Fitz & the Tantrums Throw Down, Fantastically, at the Riv -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Fitz & the Tantrums
w/ opening act Big Data
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
November 22 (2nd show 11/23)

There are few things I find myself kvetching about with more regularity than the sparsity of new rock artists that excite me.

As referenced in a 2012 blog article that elaborated on this gripe, back whenever creating a Google Profile was a new thing, as part of one's capsule a question was posed that pondered:

What are you searching for? 

My answer: The next Nirvana

Not only was I, and still remain, a huge fan of that hallowed Seattle band, but in my opinion--humble or otherwise--no greater rock artist has come along since.

I say this with great deference to many wonderful bands that arose in the roughly same 1990-95 period, including favorites such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Weezer, Blur, Oasis, Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails, Dinosaur Jr. and Garbage. (Two blog lists about my favorite rock artists and the best alternative acts since 1987 may be of interest.)

Though more scarce, there are also a handful of bands hailing from the early 21st century (or close to it) that I have found worthwhile, most notably Arcade Fire, The Killers, System of a Down, The Black Keys, The New Pornographers, Maximo Park and The White Stripes, though I haven't been taken with Jack White solo nearly as much as I think I'm supposed to.

But in terms of anyone really new, say with band members in their 20s, there's essentially no one I can name as beguiling me.

I like Cage the Elephant, but not historically and they're already hitting their 30s.

Prior to the show I went to on Saturday night, I verified via my concert database that since 2010 I had attended 165 concerts--and not one was by a headliner who had released their debut album during this decade. (Excepting a few "new old" acts, such as The Both, a duo comprised of rock vets Aimee Mann and Ted Leo.)

Fitz & the Tantrums change the above statement, as they are a band comprised of musicians I never knew of previously and which released their first album--Pickin' Up the Pieces--in August 2010.

So although their two highest-profile members--lead singer & namesake Michael Fitzpatrick and vocalist Noelle Scaggs--are in their mid-40s and 30s respectively, with the latter having spent 10 years fronting a soul band called The Rebirth, for my purposes they count as a new rock band.

Even though to call them a dance pop band with R&B, soul and rock stylings might be more accurate.

After they played Lollapalooza in 2011, my friends Paolo and Sarah spoke very highly of them. So I made a point of watching the live stream of this year's festival performance in Chicago, and was very impressed with their energy, catchy songs and stagecraft.

I liked what I heard from their 2013 album, More Than Just a Dream, and my sister Allison was also familiar with Fitz & the Tantrums, including having had their music featured in dance classes she's taken.

Thus we wound up at the Riviera on Saturday night.

No, Fitz & the Tantrums are not the next Nirvana.

Nor the next Arcade Fire.

And being my first concert since seeing Stevie Wonder play Songs in the Key of Life in its entirety did nothing to alleviate the sense that this is not an act for the ages, nor one for which the words "substance" and "significance" will adorn the rest of this review or likely many others.

All that said, and contributing to my not quite being able to award a full @@@@@, Fitz & the Tantrums were nonetheless outstanding.


For if not historic, they are great at what they do, and in terms of acute fun--equating to me getting up to kinda, sorta dance quite a bit--the concert was as enjoyable as I could have hoped.

Fitzpatrick and Scaggs make a great tandem and the highest-energy of many high-energy songs--"Break the Walls" and "Spark"--were among the early highlights of a near 90-minute, 17 song set. 

The setlist appears to be standard from city to city--this one from Boston is exact to Chicago's first of two sold out shows--but as this was an act I was seeing for the first time, it didn't matter. The singers and the rest of the band were spirited and gracious enough that I never got a sense of their act being staid or too by-the-book.

So even though their mid-set cover of The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" wasn't a surprise, it was a pleasure nonetheless.

Two albums into their career, with the bulk of the songs played coming from the newer album, a certain amount of sameness was likely unavoidable as the performance stretched beyond that of a festival set.

Still, tunes like "Out of My League," "Fools Gold" and "L.O.V." were all singalong and shake your groove thing--yup, I'm old--delights, while encores "MoneyGrabber" and "The Walker" (see video below) had the house up for grabs.

Though their sound certainly isn't brand new, I can't readily cite anyone else that Fitz & the Tantrums are like.

And thus even if their "novelty" isn't earth-shattering, for me amidst a concert year featuring many typically recurrent and treasured acts--Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, etc., etc.--the newness of Fitz & the Tantrums felt acutely joyful, likely elevating my fondness for a great performance in itself.

So unless you're even more of a curmudgeon than me, and really can't stand an overt dance beat intruding on your rock concert experience, I think Fitz & the Tantrums--with all the caveats above--qualifies as a new band well-worth knowing about.

Forgetting all my long-winded pontificating above--now I tell you!--assessing any concert experience really comes down to 5 basic questions:

Did I like it? Did it fulfill my hopes & expectations in all ways? Did I get my money's worth? Would I recommend the artist? Would I see them again? 

In this case, for all of the above, the same answer Fitz:



Opening the show was Big Data, whose sound byte description as "electronic" belies a sound that was nowhere near as dirgy or blippy as that often connotes.

With a drummer, bassist and powerful female singer accompanying a guy creating electronic noises, they were more so a rock band with electronic underpinings, featuring a fun stage curtain (and free accompanying hand fans for the audience) while clearly relishing their opening slot.

Their throwback '80s cover was Hall & Oates' "Private Eyes," but originals like "The Business of Emotion" and "Dangerous"--the latter having earned some popularity--came off rather well, as well.

Here is a clip of Fitz & the Tantrums' show-closing "The Walker," posted to YouTube by Steve Chicago Concerts:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Subterranean Passages: Down in the Pedway, Time Remains Fixed 'Around the Clock'

Having been called worse, I have no qualms being dubbed a sentimentalist.

I love old buildings, old movies, old movies in old buildings and almost anything that is quaint, unusual and/or historic.

Or just well-worn.

Working in the heart of downtown Chicago, as I have for parts of recent years, I've made a point of noticing, exploring and discovering things such as ghost signs that remain on old brick buildings long past pertinence, the beautiful terra cotta and other carvings atop many Loop buildings that would nearly impossible to replicate today and remaining places of yore such as the Walnut Room within Macy's on State Street (formerly Marshall Fields).

Perhaps more oddly, I also have an acute sentimentality for almost anything that feels anachronistic, from phone booths to news stands to record stores to various other enterprises much more representative of the past than the present or future.

Two of my favorite posts I've ever penned for Seth Saith have chronicled such businesses and proprietors.

The forever genial Ralph Frese, who ran the Chicagoland Canoe Base in the same Portage Park shop for over 55 years, was a decorated outdoorsman and environmentalist who spoke beautifully about the joys of canoeing, and at 85 still relished renting boats and equipment to first-time customers. Unfortunately, Frese passed a little over a year after I profiled him in October 2011 and his store no longer exists.

Though much more wearily wry, longtime Chicago news stand owner Robert Katzman clearly exudes a personal nostalgia for the print publications that overflow his Old Magazine Store in Skokie, which I also wrote about in 2011 (then dubbed the Magazine Museum). While commercial survival is of more imminent concern to Katzman than overt sentimentality, he loves to give each customer a detailed tour of his holdings and has self-published several recollections of times gone by.

So having noticed a watch & clock repair shop down in the Pedway that connects downtown Chicago buildings via subterranean passages, with my mind summoning Georges Méliès' toy shop in the movie Hugo, I imagined a quaint story of a skilled tradesman who relishes his unique place in the catacombs of the city.

Particularly with the paradoxical twist of thousands of people passing by every day, but time remaining literally and figuratively fixed in one longstanding shop.

Thus, after a couple years of thinking about doing so, one day last week I stepped into Around the Clock Repairs, underneath 69 W. Washington (across from Daley Plaza), which features a hand-drawn sign heralding its "30 Years Anniversary."

Waiting as the man working in the shop finished with a watch repair customer by asking for a cash deposit of "whatever," I ascertained that he was the owner and asked if I might interview him for a story.

I was envisioning coming back on a subsequent day with questions drafted, but the weathered--and certainly not improperly wary--gentleman asked in clear but accented English, "What do you want to know?"

So I pulled out my journal pad and sputtered out something like, "What do enjoy about fixing watches and clocks?"

To which he replied:

"There is nothing enjoyable about it. I work like a horse."

So much for sentimentality.

But whereas I might have been hoping for some kind of Disneyfied or Dickensesque saga complete with poetic characters in a chummy underground community, what I found was much more heartening.

For while Bruce Persky is unlikely to remind anyone of Geppetto, his is a genuine, no saccharin added story of a skilled, hard-working immigrant just trying to make a living.

And while some--OK, me--may wonder just how much demand there is for watch & clock repairs, particularly without any street-level presence, according to Persky not only is his business rather busy, but "when I go on vacation, people wait for me."

Nonetheless, the Russian émigré who learned his craft in Europe told me that he wanted to retire, and has tried to put his business up for sale, especially in the wake of his wife's passing.

"I have to retire someday," he asserted. 

Just down the Pedway from an Illinois Secretary of State facility, Persky works--seemingly alone--from 8:30am to 5pm every day. And based on the time I was there, and others when I've walked by, it would seem the bulk of each day is spent hunched over a work bench working fixing watches with tiny screwdrivers and other tools requiring keen vision, steady hands and occasional magnification.

As suggested by the 30th anniversary sign, Around the Clock Repairs has existed since 1984, but not always in the same location.

Accommodating and patient with my line of questioning, but not exactly gregarious, Persky shared that he was first at 22 W. Madison, and then spots on Randolph and Washington--presumably above ground--before settling into his current storefront down under 14 years ago.

On an arctic day, he spoke of being happily submerged away from the cold air--"I like it. There's no snow, no rain; it's like Florida"--but despite having some friends in other shops he didn't seem to summon any rhapsodic sense of communal camaraderie for his Pedway brethren.

It's just where he does business.

Which involves fixing and engraving watches, jewelry and clocks, with many beautiful examples of the latter decorating his shop. (Some watches and clocks are for sale, but it is much more a repair operation than a retail one.)

I asked Persky if he had any favorite clocks in the store, and he pointed out a couple, including one pictured here that features two weights.

And despite his protestation above, Persky not only takes apparent pride in his work--rarely has he found himself up against a watch or clock he couldn't fix--but admitted that he enjoys "working with old stuff."

Without quite giving me a slam-dunk, sum-it-all-up quote, he also clearly reflected his fondness for the time pieces of old and their self-wound mechanics, rather than digital watches and other modern devices:

"This is better, of course."

So too, obviously, was what I found, compared to what I thought I was seeking.

For who really has the luxury and wherewithal to sit and think wistfully about what they do or where they do it, as bills must be paid, work must get done and the hands of time keep turning.

In this case, quite literally, thanks to the seemingly sentimental but--underneath it all--still quite vital talents and tasks of people like Bruce Persky.

Around the Clock Repairs, 69 W. Washington, Suite LL-15, Chicago; 312-263-7070. (Not too surprisingly, there is no website, email address nor Facebook page that I could find.)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

You Can Feel It All Over: A Stevie Wonder Full Night in the Key of Life -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Stevie Wonder
performing Songs in the Key of Life
United Center, Chicago
November 14, 2014

Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand

With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands

-- Stevie Wonder
   "Sir Duke"

I've never not had tremendous regard for Stevie Wonder, but I came to be aware of him predominantly amidst an era of relative mediocrity--"I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Ebony and Ivory," "Part-Time Lover"--and caricature, albeit lovingly, by Eddie Murphy.

Subsequently, I became familiar with his greatest hits, but my point of reference for two of his best--"Superstition" and "Higher Ground"--was for awhile as much for great covers by Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as for the original recordings.

Wonder has only released one album in the 21st Century--2005's A Time to Love, which I've never heard--and though my friend Dave gifted my the 1973 classic Innervisions and I had a blast seeing Stevie at a 2008 Taste of Chicago concert, until recent days I lacked proper appreciation for the breadth of Wonder's oeuvre and the depth of his genius.

So while it might have been easy to wish his concert Friday night at the United Center in Chicago was more of a career-spanning affair with hits such as "Higher Ground," "Uptight (Everything's Alright)," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "That Girl" and others, even heading into the UC with Dave and two other friends, I was happy Stevie Wonder decided to revisit his 1976 Songs in the Key of Life album in full.

And with it being a double album with an additional 4-song EP, that made for a rather extensive "in full."

While I don't completely with disagree with Dave Grohl's recent, "It's presumptuous. It's lazy," condemnation of acts that tour behind a single classic album, not only have some of my favorites (and seemingly Grohl's) like Rush (Moving Pictures), The Who (Quadrophenia) and Roger Waters (The Wall) done so quite satisfyingly, but perhaps Dave should stop being such the arbiter of rock 'n roll purity and start writing Foo Fighters songs that don't all sound the same (and I say this as a huge Foo fan).

Because Wonder's decision prompted me to do something I imagine Grohl would champion: to mine an act's career, artistry and messages in depth, not merely their most popular songs on Spotify.

Songs in the Key of Life is not an instantly nor easily digestible album. Although it was a huge seller upon its release--ultimately selling over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone--and ranks #57 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, I must admit to only really knowing "Sir Duke," "I Wish" and "Isn't She Lovely" before listening prolifically prior to the concert.

And I still can't say I know all the songs thoroughly after a rather brief bout of cramming and now having heard them sung live. Few are mere ear candy, whether they express social concerns (including racial inequality) or more personal matters--all amazingly written when Wonder was just 24-26 years of age following three other classic albums (Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale). Also amazing is that it was already his 18th studio album.

So although the current concert tour was clearly promoted for what it was, unless one arrived at the UC long ago thoroughly versed in Wonderland--a lady sitting next to us had seen Stevie at the Regal back in 1963; our friend Stacy said her sister had seen him at Maine East High School around the same time--or having done their homework, much of the 3-hour show may not have been as acutely thrilling as it was for me and my friends.

But from the time Wonder walked onstage arm-in-arm with the great guest singer India.Arie and told the crowd that he was both proud and chagrined that the classic album was still entirely relevant, I loved every minute of it.

Sure, the ebullient hits were wondrous, especially as "Sir Duke" is one of most buoyant tunes ever written and to see the mixed-race crowd deliriously happy in harmony--per the quote atop this review--spoke to what a humanitarian treasure Stevie Wonder has always been.

But even more pleasingly, several of the songs I didn't know a couple weeks ago were demonstrably among the show's highlights.

You can see the full Stevie Wonder United Center setlist here, but in the first set "Village Ghetto Land," "Knocks Me Off My Feet," "Ordinary Pain" and "Saturn" (the latter with great singing from Aire) were glorious. But truly, so was everything else.

At 64, Wonder is still in great voice, and he's surrounded onstage himself with up to 30 crack musicians, including a horn section, orchestra and several longtime collaborators.

His daughter, Aisha Morris, is one of his backup singers, and a sweet moment occurred to begin the second set as Stevie explained before playing it that "Isn't She Lovely" was written upon her birth. 

The subsequent song, an extended take on "Joy Inside My Tears," actually brought Wonder to tears, but also did much to illustrate that we were witnessing not just sensational entertainment, but a kind of overarching musical brilliance and artistic genius not readily present today.

Introducing “If it’s Magic,” Wonder noted that the harpist on the original track, Dorothy Ashby, had passed away years ago. In tribute, Wonder sang the song backed by a recording of Ashby's original playing.

This was just one more sublime aspect of a special performance that was also enhanced by Wonder at his cheekiest--"In 2017 the world's going to learn that Stevie Wonder was never really blind"--and also much more austere in railing against the scourge of guns in this country.  

21 songs into the evening brought the end of Songs in the Key of Life with the wonderful "As" and "Another Star."

Though from setlists of recent shows in New York and Boston, I expected "Superstition" and perhaps "Do I Do/Master Blaster," the ever amiable star playfully adopted the guise of DJ Tick Tick Boom and abetted the latter with a medley of "For Once in My Life," "My Cherie Amour" (which he told us was written for a Chicago-based love) and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" before ending the night in ecstatic fashion with the former.

So it's not as if we were rendered hitless, even beyond the singles upon  Songs in the Key of Life.

But while any concert that includes "Sir Duke," "I Wish," "My Cherie Amour," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" and "Superstition" will almost assuredly be enjoyable, it was actually the less-famous songs--and my being prompted to become acquainted with them as components of one of history's most profoundly personal, all-encompassing musical statements--that made this one so tremendous.

A trip back to Songs in the Key of Life truly begat A Night in the Key of Wonder, in every possible way.

Here's a clip of "As," posted to YouTube by REMChicagoBoy:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' Beguiles but Doesn't Quite Burn -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Night Alive
a recent play by Conor McPherson
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 16

I first came to know of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson when I saw his 2000 play Dublin Carol in--aptly--Dublin (at the famed Gate Theatre) in October 2000.

It was one of the first plays I had seen of my own volition (i.e. not in school) by anyone, and perhaps enhanced by the novelty of the setting, I remember really liking it.

Not long thereafter, I made a point of seeing McPherson's The Weir at Steppenwolf, and also enjoyed it considerably.

Though my overall awareness was rather limited at the time--and I wasn't penning reviews--I imagine I would have referenced McPherson as the world's best young playwright. (He's still just 43.)

In these intervening years, the writer's works have garnered greater renown on Broadway, but though both Shining City and The Seafarer had their merits--I saw them at Goodman and Steppenwolf, respectively, along with another production of Dublin Carol at the latter--I wasn't as wowed as I would have liked.

The same goes for The Night Alive, playing at Steppenwolf through this Sunday. I liked it, but didn't love it. It was a good play, well-done with an excellent cast and a terrific set design by Todd Rosenthal, but it just didn't strike me as great.

So while McPherson would likely still be on a shortlist of top contemporary playwrights, in the category of current dramatic Irish Wunkerkinds--I only know of two--I now rather prefer Martin McDonagh. (I recently saw and reviewed his The Lieutenant of Inishmore, but have seen it and several other works previously.)

Nonetheless, The Night Alive certainly has--in several aspects--the earmarks of a highly talented writer, including successfully interpolating a variety of tones and themes.

The play is at both comedic and dramatic, part morality tale, part suspense thriller, part slice-of-life.

It revolves around a somewhat bedraggled middle-aged divorcee named Tommy--played perfectly at Steppenwolf by the always fantastic Francis Guinan--who lives with his Uncle Maurice (the great cinematic character actor, M. Emmet Walsh).

As the play opens, Tommy brings home a beaten-up woman named Aimee (the appealing Helen Sadler, who was also very good earlier this year in Tribes at the same venue).

The other primary character is Doc, a slightly addled friend of Tommy's who helps him in his vocation of buying & selling odd lots. Tim Hopper, a Steppenwolf Ensemble member who I wish appeared more regularly, is really terrific in the role.

Although anyone reading this only has a few days to get to this run, and I don't quite insist upon it--though Steppenwolf's wonderful $20 day-of-show discount tickets are more than worth the acting and scenery alone--I'll defer to my own preference to know as little as possible about storyline specifics.

So without me saying much more, The Night Alive spins heavily on Aimee's past, Tommy's less overtly benevolent relationship with his own (unseen) daughter of similar age and the grumbling interactions of the three men.

I don't think it's giving away the store to say the narrative has something of a transformative nature--though it took a post-show discussion for me to grasp the possible circumstances of the final scene--and whether scripted or the choice of Rosenthal and director Henry Wishcamper, I enjoyed the sly metaphor of The Great Escape movie poster decorating Tommy's home.

Also fun is the great use of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," serving to reiterate the uplift a marvelous song can bring, even amidst rather enigmatic times.

Over 100 minutes, The Night Alive is never hard to watch nor focus on, itself a testament to McPherson's
considerable gifts.

But though I was sufficiently satisfied on the surface level to justify @@@@ (out of 5), I just didn't sense enough in the script itself that was particularly profound or brilliant.

If you can get to Steppenwolf this weekend for $20 or even a bit more, it definitely won't be to your detriment to see The Night Alive.

But if you don't, it's not hard to imagine a better play bringing another evening even more to life.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Dylan Goes Eclectic, but Don't Think Twice It's All Right -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Dylan and his band
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
November 8, 2014 (also playing 11/9, 10)

Back in the mid-1960s, when Bob Dylan was presumably the most popular and revered folk musician in the world, he famously "went electric" and began recording and performing songs in a rock vein.

Devout folkies were far from happy about it, and at shows Dylan was loudly booed. At the widely-bootlegged but now officially released "Royal Albert Hall Concert"--which was actually in Manchester--he was met with shouts of "Judas!"

To which he responded, "I don't believe you. You're a liar."

And then to his band, "Play it fuckin' loud" as they ripped into "Like a Rolling Stone."

After which, the crowd erupted in applause and Dylan uttered, "Thank you."

Thus, the man born Robert Zimmerman on May 24, 1941 in Duluth, MN hasn't ever been shy about following his artistic instincts even in the face of derision, condemnation, disdain or disinterest.

So while I imagine anyone at the Cadillac Palace on Saturday night who wasn't a Dylan diehard long ago ceding to the notion of "Bob does what he wants" may have been perplexed and disappointed in just 4 of his 19 songs being classics harkening back to his exalted '60s and 70s output--"She Belongs to Me," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Blowin' in the Wind"--I was largely accepting of it with reverence for one of history's greatest and most iconoclastic artists.

Photos not by me nor from Saturday's concert as photography was prohibited.
Which isn't to say I wouldn't have liked to hear "Like a Rolling Stone," "Positively 4th Street," "All Along the Watchtower," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "The Times They Are A-Changing" or any of about 50+ other gems from Dylan's brilliant canon.

But having seen him in concert six times between 1997-2006 but never before or since, I knew well that his singing voice had long ago devolved into one approximating Cookie Monster, his vocal phrasing often made even famous songs indecipherable, he no longer plays the guitar, he doesn't address the audience despite being extremely articulate and he is rather spartan in filling his setlists with anthems of yore.

Still, such is my regard for his legacy that I entirely wanted to see him again, and--along with friends Paolo, Dave and Fred--entered the theater with three abiding notions:

A) Just go with it
B) Anything beyond him walking onstage is a bonus
C) It's Bob fucking Dylan

And to the great man's credit, although it was an evening more of reverent appreciation than acute rapture and not likely to wind up near the top of my Best Concerts of 2014 rankings in a year filled with many all-time greats, my rating of @@@@ (out of 5) is not a gift nor grading on a curve.

In fact, 53 years after he showed up in Greenwich Village, during which time numerous artists have been referenced or imagined as the "New Dylan," the original Dylan showed that he--rather admirably, despite me wishing for a bit more culling of his glorious past--considers himself a contemporary artist, not an oldies act.

Thirteen of the 19 songs performed--see the full Cadillac Palace Saturday setlist here--were from the 21st century, with 6 coming off his most recent studio album, 2012's Tempest.

But though certainly roughshod, his voice sounded better than I remember from a decade ago, and playing songs written for that voice kept Dylan more in his vocal comfort zone than a bunch of age-old tunes likely would have.

I like Tempest, but should've studied up on it and other recent albums more thoroughly prior to the show. Nonetheless, such are Dylan's continued musical and lyrical gifts--and the prowess of his 5-piece backing band including a stand-up bassist and multi-percussionists--that songs such as "Things Have Changed," "Workingman's Blues #2," "Duquesne Whistle," "Pay in Blood" and "Scarlet Town" not only sounded superb, but I easily could've been fooled into thinking some dated back nearly 50 years rather than just a few. 

The first 5 of the 6 songs I just cited were played during the first set, and following a half-hour intermission, Set 2 suffered from a bit too much sameness and sure could have benefited from another blast or two of classic poetic nostalgia.

Ending the show--following "Blowin' in the Wind" as a chills-inducing encore opener--with Frank Sinatra's "Stay With Me" was, perhaps in keeping, an odd, anti-climactic choice that easily could have given way to "Like A Rolling Stone," albeit for the 1,722nd time (literally).

But while far from a rip-roaring affair on par with outstanding shows by Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam or Arcade Fire, or even as satisfying as more congruent showcases by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen or Elvis Costello, to complain about what the concert wasn't would not only be churlish but disingenuous.

On Saturday, November 8, 2014, I saw one of rock's greatest living legends and among the most impactful, influential artists--of any kind--of all-time in the company of some of my closest friends within a beautiful, relatively-intimate setting.

And Bob Dylan was far better than he could have been, entirely enjoyable in an acute sense and true to himself in a "this man changed the world" aura of eternal appreciation.

"You said you'd never compromise," he wrote in "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965, and far cooler than if he had played a few more hits or regaled the crowd with sentimental remembrances is that--at the age of 73, forever trekking along on his "Never Ending Tour" despite his place in history being firmly established decades ago--Robert Zimmerman still hasn't.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

A Twisted X-Mess: Dee Snider's Rock and Roll Christmas Tale Brings Holiday Cheer, but Not All Good -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dee Snider's Rock & Roll Christmas Tale
A world premiere musical, written by Dee Snider
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru January 4, 2015

As I was watching Dee Snider's Rock & Roll Christmas Tale the other night I couldn't help think that--especially for those with rather limited time and resources for entertainment--the 90 minutes would probably be better devoted to any other work of quality or substance, whether a first-rate play (such as this one that I recently saw), top-notch musical, stellar jazz combo, strong symphony performance, funny comedian, even a good movie, book or television show.

Even in terms of hair metal and Christmas carols, which this Tale intertwines, one would likely be better off catching a decent cover band at a local club or a well-sung school holiday pageant.

Which isn't to imply that I was miserable seeing the real Dee and a cast of local actors and musicians who put forth a hardy effort in what I should qualify was officially a "preview performance" (that was part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series for no known discount).

I have a soft spot for Twisted Sister, the band that Snider fronted, especially the hits "We're Not Gonna Take It"--whose video was one of the best of the 80s--and "I Wanna Rock," both which are performed in the show, albeit without Snider on vocals and with Christmas song mash-ups.

Photo not from an actual performance
I'm not adverse to cheesy fun and my friend Paolo and I were gleefully fist-pumping along to these tunes.

Even some of the non-Twisted Sister songs--seemingly Snider originals written for the show, as he is the only one credited--performed (or at least fake-performed; I wasn't sure) onstage by Daisy Cutter, the fictional band that the story revolves around, weren't bad in a head-banging sort of way.

I didn't enter the theater expecting Shakespeare, so to decry the tale of a decidedly unhip hair band selling its soul to either Satan or Santa (I won't ruin it for you) and along the way being "cursed" into playing Christmas songs at high volume, may seem petty and petulant.

But wherever one draws the line betwixt cheesy, campy and schlocky, Dee Snider's Rock & Roll Christmas Tale just wasn't so bad it was good. It was mainly just bad with a fair amount of good cheer.

It was fun seeing Snider as the narrator, though he was off-stage far more than he was on; given that he wrote the show and is appearing throughout the World Premiere run in Chicago, it felt like he should have done more within the show.

Adam Michaels was good as D.D., the lead singer of Daisy Cutter, although his part was written to be especially moronic.

Laughs in the wrong places also subverted what could have been a touchingly goofy romance between Ralph, the band's drummer (played by Wilem Tarris) and Suzette, an attractive club owner (Keely Vasquez), but both performers did the best they could.

So while I honestly didn't care much for this rock & roll Christmas tale, I mean no spite in panning it. 

Snider had a clever idea and curiosity alone should bring in fans throughout the holidays.

I have no reason not to hope it makes them merry; no Scrooge am I.

But there are a whole lot of better things to be seen, and heard, and the most joyous of holiday delights are likely not apt to be found under this Christmas Dee.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Hello Hooray: With Bagful of Old Tricks, Alice Cooper Proves a New Treat in Hammond -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Alice Cooper
The Venue at Horseshoe Casino
Hammond, IN
November 2, 2014

I'm not really too into Halloween, in terms of costumes or parties or the celebration of the macabre--the candy, sure--and my seeing Alice Cooper in concert on Sunday night really had absolutely nothing to do with it being Halloween weekend.

But really, other than perhaps KISS or David Bowie, who in rock history would be more apt for the occasion?

And, in a year when I've seen 18 other Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame artists yet none similarly for a first time, heading to the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond to catch the man born Vincent Furnier turned out to be a real treat.

I've always known and liked the mega-hits--"School's Out," "I'm Eighteen," "No More Mr. Nice
Guy"--but Alice's heyday was a bit before my time, and I've never explored deeper, nor was ever much inclined to see him live (though I don't really recall many opportunities).

It's also taken some Wikipedia and research for me to understand that Alice Cooper was initially the name of a band that Vincent Furnier was the lead singer in, during which time the aforementioned songs were created. In 1975, Furnier adopted the Alice Cooper moniker and carried on as a solo act, seemingly in a similar vein as the group.

So even after finally seeing Alice Cooper in concert, I'm still somewhat piecing together his rightful place in rock history, but in terms of introducing makeup and theatricality into the rock arena (and arena rock), Cooper--and I'm hereforth using the name to refer to both the group and solo phases--certainly seems to be a forerunner to KISS, the New York Dolls, Elton John, Twisted Sister, Poison and many more. (I'm not sure if Alice influenced Bowie, or vice-versa or it both were somewhat simultaneous.)

But it seems that Alice Cooper is credited for creating "Shock Rock" and back in the early '70s he likely scared the bejeezus out of parents more than anyone.

Seeing him, at 66, in the sterile, soulless box that is the Venue at Horseshoe Casino, certainly felt far more slick than shocking, especially as he rolled through the same setlist he's played at other headlining tour stops in what felt a bit too much like a scripted performance. (He's spent much of the year opening for Motley Crue on their final tour.))

As noted, I'm rather late to the Alice Cooper party, so I can't speak to his wonts, but with Wikipedia noting that he is known for "his social and witty persona offstage," I found it a shame he didn't say anything to the crowd except "Thank you." (I'm not asking for silly stage patter, but like it when artists with such storied pasts pause for a bit of genuine reflection.)

Nonetheless, it was largely great fun.

Especially in having studied up for the show with the aid of Spotify, I now have a greater appreciation for Alice Cooper's canon than I did. I enjoyed everything that was played, especially as the band--with three terrific guitarists taking impressive lead turns--was superb.

With Alice in (presumably) the same ghoulish get-up he's worn for years, echoed by both a drop curtain in front of the stage and one that remained at the back of it, early musical highlights included "House of Fire," "No More Mr. Nice Guy," "Under My Wheels," "Billion Dollar Babies" and "Caffeine," which I really enjoyed.

While some of these numbers included the use of small props, it wasn't until after "Dirty Diamonds" and its extended guitar, bass and drum solos, that the show amped up the theatricality, first with a live snake on "Welcome to My Nightmare," then "He's Back (The Man Behind the Mask)" and most extensively, "Feed My Frankenstein," which had Alice dressed as Dr. Frankenstein, hooked up and fried into an oversized Frankenstein monster (this wasn't really him, as Alice was back too quickly for the next piece of macabre madness, including ultimately having his head chopped off by a guillotine).

Through a quartet of cover songs--that all sounded really strong, including Cooper's vocals--"dead"-but-not-headless Alice paid homage to his "dead drunk friends": Jim Morrison ("Break on Through"), John Lennon ("Revolution"), Jimi Hendrix ("Foxy Lady," with an attractive female guitarist, Nita Strauss, playing blistering licks) and Keith Moon ("My Generation").

In doing so, he did well to affirm his place among rock's immortals, but even with subsequent blasts through "I'm Eighteen," "Poison" and the show closing "School's Out" (with a good portion of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" interspersed), I couldn't help but have it reiterated that Cooper doesn't--musically at least--quite stand with the truly top echelon of history's best artists.

All in all though, it was a pretty good excuse to shlep to Hammond, as despite the Plasticine environment--to be fair, though the Aragon may have been more apt, I wouldn't have gone to a SRO show there--and somewhat boilerplate performance, I'm glad I can add Alice Cooper to my list of legendary artists seen on stage.

And much more than not, I enjoyed the show.

But as an example of what's lost when artists too closely heed to a set-in-stone setlist--and believe me, I understand that there were numerous well-rehearsed production and lighting cues to be considered--just two days before Election Day, I would have voted for Alice Cooper to include one of his biggest hits:


Just one more minor aspect that made a winning performance not quite a landslide.