Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best of 2015: The Best New Movies I Saw

With a few hours left to go in 2015, I've watched 151 movies this year.

For my purposes, 53 of them were new releases, including some that for Academy Award purposes, or for list makers who have better access to everything, or for the main IMDB parentheses date, are officially 2014 movies.

But several of the "prestige films" that may have opened in New York or LA in December 2014 didn't hit Chicago area cinemas until January, February.

In a couple cases, movies may have played one screen in Chicago--typically the Century or River East--around Christmas 2014, but didn't open in the suburbs until awhile later.

Then there are movies--many of them foreign--that may have played film festivals throughout 2014 but didn't actually open anywhere in Chicago, or even on any U.S. screens beyond festivals, until sometime in 2015. (I'm really not sure how film festival screenings count against Academy Award eligibility for a given year.)

So while acknowledging the imperfections, I am essentially counting as eligible any movies I watched over the past 12 months that I didn't have a reasonable chance to see previously.

I realize that this logic could theoretically make eligible films that showed up for a week at the Siskel Film Center, Facets or the Music Box in, say, 2012--or didn't even--but only came to DVD, cable or Netflix in 2015, but in reality it means that I'm looping into the choices below about 7 movies technically from 2014 that I didn't get to see until 2015.

Given my erosive memory, there's always the possibility that films seen almost a year ago may suffer in my thought process next to ones seen just this week or month, but it's also possible I may recall something as even better than I would now find it to be.

So, take my rankings for what they're worth.

To augment my rankings, I also provide the Top 10 choices of my friends Dave and Brad, both--like me--members of the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group.

Obviously there are numerous other lists like this but I enjoy pointing out Paste Magazine's list of The 50 Best Movies of 2015, which further serves to reveal how many substantive movies I didn't see this year, whether I could have or not.

For no entirely explainable reason, I've decided to cite my favorite documentaries separate from feature films, possibly because some were never released in theaters.

Anyway, enough with the preamble, here are my:

Best New Movies Seen in 2015 -
Feature Films
(F = Foreign; 14 = Officially a 2014 release)

1. Selma (14) 
2. Room
3. Phoenix (F)
4. Two Days, One Night (F, 14)
5. 99 Homes
6. The End of the Tour
7. Love & Mercy
8. Wild Tales (F)
9. Spotlight
10. Carol
11. Still Alice (14)
12. The Martian
13. The Big Short
14. American Sniper (14)
15. Ex Machina
16. Brooklyn
17. The Gift
18. The Danish Girl
19. Trumbo
20. Bridge of Spies

Honorable Mention (in preference order)

A Most Violent Year
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Son of Saul
Straight Outta Compton
Force Majeure 
Desert Dancer
A Borrowed Identity
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Last Five Years

Notable 2015 Movies Not Yet Seen
Anomalisa, Chi-Raq, Steve Jobs, Sicario, The Revenant, White God, The Tribe, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amselem, The Peanuts Movie, It Follows

Notable Movies Seen But Not Cited Above 
The Hateful Eight, Trainwreck, Youth, Mad Max: Fury Road, While We're Young, Far From the Madding Crowd, Woman in Gold, Joy, Z for Zachariah

The Best New Documentaries Seen in 2015

1. The Jam: About the Young Idea
2. Keith Richards: Under the Influence
3. Amy
4. Lambert & Stamp
5. Red Army (14)

Didn't see: Cartel Land, Janis: Little Girl Blue, Iris, Seymour: An Introduction

Saw, didn't love: Cobain: Montage of Heck

Dave's Top 20 Movies of 2015

1. Wild Tales (F)
2. Human Capital (F, 13)
3. Tangerine
4. Mommy (F, 14)
5. Two Days, One Night (F, 14)
6. Steve Jobs
7. Carol
8. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (F, 14)
9. Spotlight
10. Goodnight, Mommy (F, 14)
11. Victoria (F)
12. The Gift
13. Bridge of Spies
14. Phoenix (F)
15. The End of the Tour
16. Leviathan
17. Selma
18. Inside Out
19. Inherent Vice
20. The Hateful Eight  

Brad's Top 11 Movies of 2015

1. Inside Out  
2. Mountains May Depart (F)
3. Mad Max: Fury Road 
4. The Hateful Eight 
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens 
6. Son of Saul (F) 
7. Tangerine 
8. Anomalisa 
9. It Follows 
10. Love & Mercy
11. Spotlight

The Best of 2015: Some Most Memorable Meals

It should be fairly obvious that I like to eat.

But I don't like to cook, or at least just don't do it very often.

Certainly, financial imperative demands that I eat some meals at home, but almost all of these involve a microwave, toaster, George Foreman grill, cereal bowl or--if I'm really ambitious--a frying pan.

So in the name of good taste, I wind up eating in quite a lot of restaurants.

The majority of these aren't very fancy and as, in addition to not demonstrating culinary skills I've never watched a single cooking show, I can't really pass myself off as a gourmet.

Or a foodie.

But somewhat akin to how I attend, enjoy, review and, at year's end, compare & extol concerts, musicals, plays, albums, songs, museums, movies, etc., etc., so to do I perceive fine cooking to be an art form worthy of exploration, comparison and, yes, expenditure, rather than simple digestion.

Though I am comfortable dining by myself, and often do, again in 2015 I delighted in many meals
shared with a wide array of relatives, friends and colleagues, some who were kind enough to treat me.

See the full Zagat list here
All of these made for "memorable meals" and although any sort of rankings would be about the food itself, given the challenge of remembering specifics of meals savored over the past 12 months--and who knows if I ordered "the right thing" anywhere--instead I'll just highlight places I greatly enjoyed, split as best I can.

A good number of restaurants below can be found on Zagat's 50 Best Restaurants in Chicago list--based on consumer surveys; published in January 2015--which I used as something of a guide of places to try.

Before the start of 2015, I had eaten at 12 restaurants on the Zagat list, but added 10 more to my tally throughout the year.

The categories are imperfect; some "fancy & exotic" cost far less than some steakhouses--especially if patronized during Chicago Restaurant Week--and a few could even qualify as "cheap eats." And a few of the "cheap eats" had rather fancy flavorings and some costlier options.

The Most Memorable Meals I Enjoyed in 2015
were at these restaurants (in no specific order):

Fancy and/or Exotic

Jean-Georges - NYC
Azul Historico - Mexico City
Pujol - Mexico City
Jean-Georges - NYC
El Mayor - Mexico City
Frontera Grill - Chicago (Mexican)
Longman & Eagle - Chicago
Au Cheval - Chicago (Famed cheeseburger)
Katsu - Chicago (Sushi)
Oceanique - Evanston
Mixteco Grill - Chicago (Mexican)
Blackbird - Chicago
The Purple Pig - Chicago
Tava - Morton Grove (Indian Buffet)
Kansaku - Evanston (Sushi)
Tanta - Chicago (Peruvian)
Seagrape - Miami Beach
Glenn's Diner - Chicago (Seafood)
McCormick & Schmick's - Skokie
Hello Tacos / De Cero - Chicago
Oceanique - Evanston

Heaven on Seven - Chicago (Cajun)
Xoco - Chicago (Mexican)
Cafe de Tacuba - Mexico City
Depot Nuevo - Wilmette  (Latin)

Steak & Chops

The Capital Grille - Rosemont
Chicago Cut Steakhouse - Chicago
Frontier - Chicago
Morton's - Northbrook
Keens - NYC
Rosebud PrimeSwift & Sons
Jameson's Charhouse
Chicago Cut Steakhouse - Chicago

Miller's Pub
L. Woods (Ribs)
Gale Street Inn (Ribs)
Longhorn Steakhouse
Rub Backcountry Smokehouse (Ribs)
Allstate Arena Prime Rib Sandwich
United Center Prime Rib Sandwich
Cheap Eats

Curt's Cafe - Evanston
Real Urban BBQ - Vernon Hills
Naf Naf Grill - Niles
BIG & little's - Chicago
Taco Nano - Northfield
Dengeos - Skokie
El Carrito - Chicago
Poochie's - Skokie
Portillos - Skokie and various
Al's Beef - Niles
Sarkis Cafe - Evanston
Sparky's - Skokie
Pizza Capri - Chicago (I like the Mixed Baby Greens salad) 
Johnnie's Beef - Arlington Heights
Herm's Palace - Skokie
Superdawg - Chicago
Pita Inn - Skokie
Taste of Cuba - Lincolnwood
El Carrito - Chicago (A great newcomer)
Sopraffina - Chicago (I enjoy their salads) 
Cafecito - Chicago
Chicago's Dog House
Azul Historico - Mexico City

Hot "G" Dog

Standbys - Old & New

Las Fuentes - Morton Grove
Pizano's - Glenview (Best Pizza)
The Noodle - Wilmette
Bakers Square - Wilmette
Ruby Tuesday - Skokie
Alexander's - Skokie (Brunch)
Annie's - Skokie (Brunch)
Hotcakes - Wilmette (Brunch)
Courier Cafe - Urbana (Brunch)
Taqueria Los Comales - Niles
Blackbird - Chicago
El Tipico - Skokie
Himalayan - Niles (Indian Buffet)
Glenview House - Glenview
Dixie Kitchen - Evanston
Ridgeview Grill - Wilmette
Players Grill - Highland Park
Siam Rice - Chicago
Lou Malnati's - Lincolnwood 
Sweet Tomatoes - Glenview
The Bagel - Skokie

Sweet Treats

The Doughnut Plant - NYC
Doughnut Plant - New York
Mirabelle Bakery - Urbana
Chez Bon Bon - Miami Beach
Margie's Candies - Chicago
Stan's Donuts - Chicago
Cafe Lutz - Chicago

For the History more than the Meal

Versailles - Miami
News Cafe - Miami Beach
Sloppy Joes - Key West
Jack's - Skokie

Patsy's - NYC

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Best of 2015: The Best New Albums I Heard (and Some Great Old Ones)

When it comes to hearing, obtaining and maintaining collections of music, I am both old school and new school.

I still have, on numerous shelves in my condo, over 2,000 physical CDs, and though far less so than in years past--due to both new technology and perceptions of modern musical quality--I continue to buy hard copies of most albums I acutely want to "own."

There are some inconsistencies to this--primarily regarding official concert "bootlegs" released by Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, for which I will pay simply to download--but generally I only feel like I own, or even "have," an album if I can hold it in my hands. 

But I use Spotify voluminously, and even pay $10 for the Premium ad-less version, so in giving me access to pretty much every album ever recorded, with the same ease of access as provided by iTunes or the AmazonMusic app--which provides me free "Auto-Rip" MP3s of any physical CD I buy through notion of albums I own or have has been forever transmogrified, especially as I do the bulk of my listening via digital files, even if I have the physical CD. (I'll either have imported the CD into iTunes--and perhaps then onto my iPhone--or have Amazon MP3s or simply listen to Spotify, even for albums I physically own.)

I used to believe that there was something slightly unscrupulous about using Spotify, as the concept of hearing full albums you didn't pay for--and even free Spotify users can do so--has been taboo for the majority of my 47 years.

Except of course for records you borrowed from the library and recorded onto a Maxell cassette, albums a friend copied for you whether onto cassette or later CD, Napster downloads and various other means of getting free music.

But Spotify seemed to be sanctioned piracy, and it felt kind of wrong--and in many cases, likely still is--that artists weren't being equitably compensated for their creations, at least versus the album royalties of old. Certainly, there have been numerous--and recent--reports about how millions of listens on Spotify have earned the recording artists mere pocket change. And Taylor Swift and Adele have opted to keep their gazillion-selling latest albums off Spotify, and The Beatles' entire catalog was unavailable on steaming platforms until just last week.

See article here
Yet, I recently read that record labels now make more money from streaming services such as Spotify than they do from purchased downloads or physical album sales.

And with the Beatles providing further validation that streaming is a fully legitimate form of musical distribution, it feels even less necessary to buy CDs, even if I intrinsically like having something tactile, with cover art and liner notes and printed lyrics.

So I undoubtedly still will, but sparingly, especially as the $120 I pay Spotify yearly equates to 12  CDs in physical form. 

All of which is a long-winded way of getting to the point that, of albums newly released, I bought a total of two CDs in a rock vein in 2015. One was Blur's first album in 12 years and the other was Adele's mammoth-selling 25, which I'm guessing she doesn't regret keeping off Spotify, and which proves that physical CDs still can sell.

(Just to mention it, perhaps for my own future knowledge, besides the reissues mentioned below and two previously released Beatles reissues, the only old CD I bought in 2015 was King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King, which is not on Spotify.)

Anyway, here's what I liked best of what I heard anew in 2015, including mostly rock artists but--given the relative sparsity of those--also a few Broadway cast albums that provided great listening pleasure. And yes, I'm aware that Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is almost universally praised as the Best Album of 2015 elsewhere, but with all due respect, I never got into it as I'm not a big rap fan. Though I may continue to explore it from time to time.

On Spotify.

The Best New Albums I Heard in 2015

1. Blur - The Magic Whip (Spotify link)

2. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday (Spotify link)

With my top 2 picks, some may appreciate the inherent allusion to the Blur vs. Oasis "Battle of BritPop" 20 years ago.

3. Hamilton - Original Broadway Cast Recording (Spotify link)

4. Adele - 25 (Not on Spotify)

5. Ash - Kerblammo (Spotify link)

6. Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern (Spotify link)

7. Keith Richards - Crosseyed Heart (Spotify link)

8. Florence + the Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (Spotify link)

9. Wilco - Star Wars (Spotify link)

10. Darlene Love - Introducing Darlene Love (Spotify link)

11. The Waterboys - Modern Blues (Spotify link)

Honorable Mention

- Finding Neverland - Original Broadway Cast Recording (Spotify link)
- Jeff Lynne's ELO - Alone in the Universe (Spotify link)
- Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free (Spotify link)
- Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Spotify link)
- The Visit - Original Broadway Cast Recording (Not on Spotify)

Special Mention

Bruce Springsteen - The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (Spotify link)
As I wrote about here, the entire box set commemorating 1980's The River album is terrific. But had simply the 11 previously unreleased outtakes been put out as a new Springsteen album, it would rank #1 on the list above.

Bruce Springsteen - Archival Concerts - Philadelphia 1975, Nassau 1980,
East Rutherford 1984, Los Angeles 1988, Columbus 2005, Rome 2013

Each concert above was individually released in 2015--plus Cleveland 1978, released late 2014--and most represent the best music I acquired during the year. All are great; my top recommendations would be 1) Cleveland 2) Nassau 3) Rome 4) Los Angeles. Downloads or physical CDs can be bought through:

Pearl Jam - Nov. 4, 2015 Santiago, Chile - official concert bootleg
Unlike previous tours, Pearl Jam hasn't released recordings of every show on their recent South American trek, but this Santiago show is a great listen with a rabid crowd. A Buenos Aires show is also available. Shop here for downloads or physical CDs.

Best Reissues:

Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti (Spotify link)  
Led Zeppelin - Presence (Spotify link)
Led Zeppelin - In Through the Out Door (Spotify link)

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Best of 2015: The Most Enjoyable & Enlightening Museums, Exhibitions and Attractions I Experienced

Like many, I predominantly visit museums and other tourist attractions while, well, being a tourist.

Which isn't to say I didn't find illumination within museums, exhibits and the like in & around Chicago, including Skokie, Elmhurst and Rockford.

But though each was relatively brief, trips to Mexico City, New York City, Detroit and Miami provided ample and enriching explorations, as the lists below exposit.

As with all of my Best Of lists, there are imperfections in terms of definition and delineation.

It seems apt to split museum and non-museum attractions, but while the latter could theoretically include ballparks, restaurants or live performances, I'm not looping such things in here.

And even in terms of the museum listings, in some cases I cite particularly great Special Exhibitions, while in others simply a visit to the museum itself. The point is more to highlight than to rank these, though in the case of Special Exhibitions, most have come and gone.

In the specific case of the Art Institute of Chicago, I have visited it for so long and so often--including a few times this year--here I will merely consider special exhibits I saw this year, although the museum as a whole could always rank near the top My Favorite Museums list.

My Favorite Museum Visits of 2015

1. Secretaria de Educacion Publico - Mexico City (Mexico City recap & photos) - Not technically a museum, but hundreds of murals by Diego Rivera adorn its courtyard walls. This also applies to some other venues I've included in this list, rather than the one below.

2. National Anthropology Museum - Mexico City

3. Frida Kahlo Museum - Mexico City

4. Templo Mayor Site & Museum - Mexico City

5. Chapultepec Castle - Mexico City

6. Detroit Institute of Arts, including the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit Exhibit (my review)

7. Ernest Hemingway House - Key West, FL (included in this Miami trip recap)

8. Norton Museum of Art - West Palm Beach, FL

9. Milwaukee Art Museum - Van Gogh to Pollack: Modern Rebels exhibit (works from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo) (my review)

10. Neue Galerie - New York, NY

11. Palacio de Bellas Artes - Mexico City

Honorable Mention

- Holocaust Memorial Center - Farmington Hills, MI (Detroit area)
- Museo Mural Diego Rivera - Mexico City
- Vizcaya Museum and Gardens - Miami
- Light & Noir exhibit plus Museum Tour, Illinois Holocaust Museum - Skokie, IL (my review) - Exhibit ongoing through Jan. 10, 2016
- Museo de Arte Moderno - Mexico City
- Museum on Eldridge St. (a former synagogue) - New York
- DuSable Museum of African-American History - Chicago
- Native Haute Couture, Mitchell Museum of the American Indian - Evanston, IL 
Exhibit ongoing through January 2016
- Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye, Art Institute of Chicago
Exhibit ongoing through Jan. 3, 2016
- Chicago Architecture Biennial, Main Exhibit, Chicago Cultural Center
- New American Paintings, Midwest Edition, Elmhurst Art Museum
My own online art exhibition on Stuart Davis 

Best Non-Museum Attractions Visited in 2015

1. Teotihuacan - anthropological site near Mexico City

2. Art Deco district - Miami Beach, FL

3. Key West Historic District - Key West, FL

4. Jungle Island - Miami

5. Carnegie Hall tour - New York

6. Anderson Japanese Gardens - Rockford, IL

7. Chicago Botanic Garden - Glencoe, IL

8. Lambs Farm - Libertyville, IL (photo gallery)

9. Metropolitan Cathedral - Mexico City

10. St. Mary of the Angels church - Chicago

11. House of Tiles - Mexico City

Honorable Mention

- Biltmore Hotel - Miami, FL
- Home architecture of Coral Gables, FL

Special Mention

Ebertfest Film Festival - Champaign, IL

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Best of 2015: My Favorite Songs -- A Spotify Playlist

Why is this Best of 2015 list different than all other Seth Saith Best of 2015 lists? 

Well, as opposed to Best Musicals, Best Plays, Best Concerts and the upcoming Best Albums and Best Movies, my choices of Best Songs of 2015 are not presented in ranked order. (Though some other possible upcoming lists may not be ranked either.)

But perhaps most uniquely, this list is interactive.

Via the power of Spotify, you can listen to the playlist below--or via my Spotify Profile page or a vanity URL you can enter in any browser--to actually hear the 22 new songs I came to like best over the past 12 months. 

This is the URL (i.e. web address) you can click or enter for direct access to the playlist, anywhere you have internet access--desktop, laptop or mobile. You must be a registered Spotify user (or become one) but it is both Free and easy.

But since you're here already, you can just click play and hear some groovy tunes as you go about your day. Again, the songs are ranked in any order, but sequenced for what I hope is a pleasant listen.

My Favorite Songs of 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Best of 2015: The Plays of the Year (dramatically speaking)

Occasionally I sense, or simply imagine, a certain dubiousness over how many shows I highly rate on my Seth Saith @@@@@ scale.

While understanding that no critic can expect anything close to 100% congruency with any given reader--let alone all of them--and without apologizing for the great number of shows I substantially enjoy (across various idioms and genres, within and beyond theater), I believe there is at least one logical rationalization for my high percentage of @@@@ and above reviews:

I primarily go to shows I expect to like.

Unlike a paid professional who may get assigned to see anything and everything, I specifically select what I see--excepting works in my Broadway in Chicago and Goodman Theatre subscriptions.

In terms of rock concerts, the acts I see are predominantly repeats; several I've seen 5-10+ times, so I can pretty much count on the latest show being satisfying, or even superb. (See my picks for the Best Concerts of 2015.)

A lot of theater that I attend ad hoc is based upon the recommendations of professional critics, most notably Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune. And even shows within subscription series have usually passed some muster, whether having succeeded on Broadway or otherwise convincing esteemed Artistic Directors of their merits.

But for those who still see me as a softie, let me note of the 27 plays I saw in 2015, while I at least "liked" the vast majority, I bestowed less than sterling @@@1/2 ratings upon the 2013 Tony-winning play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (which I saw staged by Chicago's Goodman Theatre), one of the classics of the American theater canon, The Little Foxes, and seemingly the longest-running local production in 2015 (spanning three separate venues), Bad Jews

And while my ranking of the musicals I liked best in 2015 includes seven shows I felt merited @@@@@ and another 13 that got @@@@1/2, I gave only one play the former--the top choice below--and just seven more the latter.

So while I was again greatly enriched by an abundance of excellent dramatic and comedic theater, most featuring wonderful performances and well-worth others' attention, I can in fact be somewhat discriminating.

Or so I like to think.

And no, the top two selections being from the same theater just a mile from my home is in no way based on homerism.

Anyway, here are...

The Best Plays I Saw in 2015
All were in the Chicago area unless noted. New/recent works are denoted with an *.

1. Outside Mullingar* - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by John Patrick Shanley; directed by BJ Jones

2. Funnyman* - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by Bruce Graham; directed by BJ Jones

3. The Mecca Tales* - Chicago Dramatists (my review)
written by Rohina Malik; directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith

4. Assassination Theater* - Museum of Broadcast Communications (my review) written by Hillel Levin; directed by Kevin Christopher Fox

5. Skylight - Golden Theatre, New York 
written by David Hare; directed by Stephen Daldry

6. The Herd* - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Rory Kinnear; directed by Frank Galati

7. Churchill* - The Greenhouse (my review)
written by Ronald Keaton; directed by Kurt Johns

8. The Royale* - American Theater Company (my review)
written by Marco Ramirez; directed by Jaime Casteneda

9. Good for Otto* - The Gift Theatre (my review)
written by David Rabe; directed by Michael Patrick Thornton

10. A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre (my review)
Adapted by Tom Creamer; directed by Henry Wishcamper

11. Disgraced* - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Kimberly Senior

Honorable Mention

Beast on the Moon - Raven Theatre (my review)
written by Richard Kalinoski; directed by Michael Menendian

Never the Sinner - Victory Gardens Theatre (my review)
written by John Logan; directed by Gary Griffin

Marvin's Room - Shattered Globe at Theater Wit (my review)
written by Scott McPherson; directed by Sandy Shinner

Maya's Last Poem* - Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre (my review)
written & directed by Tim Rhoze

Two Trains Running - Goodman Theatre (my review) @@@@
written by August Wilson; directed by Chuck Smith

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Best of 2015: The Best Rock Concerts I Attended (plus some Classical and Jazz)

No, folks, you haven't somehow stumbled upon a year-end blog post chronicling the best concerts of 1996 or 1987 or 1971.

Blogs didn't exist back then. 

But yes, every one of the 21 acts that delivered my favorite rock shows of 2015 could well have done so in any one of the above years, if not two or all three. (With the caveat that some didn't actually tour in those years or may have been performing under different incarnations; e.g. Noel Gallagher with Oasis. Also, for most of 1971, I was only 2 years old.)

I would worry--kinda, though not really--about being seen as a fossil, glorifying the virtues of musical dinosaurs, oblivious to what's happening in the here & now, if not for a couple mitigating rationales:
A) The acts I've long loved continue to play numerous songs I love--and they're still really good at it. I wouldn't repeatedly make a point of seeing the Rolling Stones, Who, AC/DC, Robert Plant, etc., etc., if I felt they were delivering shoddy, piss-poor shows that diminished their legacy. Those who don't want to believe it, won't, but the gigs they and others gave in 2015 genuinely rocked.  
B) While I'm not a big fan of festivals nor general admission venues without seating options, I'm not adverse to seeing great new, young bands; I just don't know any. If there's a rock band comprised of members in their 20s who you believe can deliver a fantastic, 2-hour concert in a 10,000+ seat venue, I beg you to tell me about them. 
Anyway, it's not like I didn't see anyone "new" in 2015; Manic Street Preachers, Jesus & Mary Chain and Judas Priest are all acts I saw for the first time, although each has existed for well over 20 years. And I did see one relatively recent band, The Fratellis, but found them disappointing compared to previous shows.

So archaic as they may seem to some, I was rather excited and delighted by...

My Favorite Rock Concerts of 2015
Notable opening acts cited, but rankings are based on headliner performance only.

The top two artists could take up the top 5 berths, but I decided to list them just once.

Venues in Chicago unless noted.

1. U2 - June 24, 25, 28 - United Center (my review)

2. The Rolling Stones - June 23, Summerfest, Milwaukee w/ Buddy Guy (my review); July 8, Comerica Park, Detroit (my review)

3. The Who w/ Joan Jett & the Blackhearts - May 13 - Allstate Arena (my review)

4. Manic Street Preachers - April 29 - Metro (my review)

5. AC/DC - September 15 - Wrigley Field (my review)

6. Foo Fighters w/ Cheap Trick, Urge Overkill, Naked Raygun - August 29 - Wrigley Field (my review)

7. Robert Plant - September 23 - FirstMerit Bank Pavilion (my review)

8. Jesus & Mary Chain - May 5 - Riviera Theatre (my review)

9. Bob Mould w/ Jason Narducy - October 11 - SPACE, Evanston (my review)

10. Willie Nile - February 13 - SPACE, Evanston (my review)

11. John Mellencamp w/ Carlene Carter - February 18 - Chicago Theatre (my review)

Honorable Mention (in preference order)

The Waterboys w/ The Blue Bonnets - May 6 - House of Blues (my review)

The Replacements w/ Smoking Popes - April 30 - Riviera Theatre (my review)

Smashing Pumpkins w/ Marilyn Manson - August 7 - FirstMerit Bank Pavilion (my review)

Van Halen w/ Kenny Wayne Shepherd - July 24 - Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park (my review)

Rush - June 12 - United Center (my review)

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - May 29 - Riviera Theatre (my review)

Paul Weller - June 17 - The Vic (my review)

Judas Priest w/ Saxon - May 21 - Rosemont Theatre (my review)

Garbage - October 17 - Riviera Theatre (my review)

Chicago - August 23 - Ravinia, Highland Park (my review)

(You may wish to also see my recent ranking of the 25 Best Live Rock Acts, currently, but regardless of concerts this year)

Classical and Jazz
It's probably not idyllic to shoehorn them into this piece, but I saw a few stellar Classical and Jazz concerts in 2015 that I wanted to cite, but not enough for their own post. From a total of 10 performances seen, I'll highlight 3 in each genre, without ranking them. (A few concerts bridged both musical forms.)

- Lang Lang in Recital - May 9 - Civic Opera House (my review)
- Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven's 5th Symphony - February 8 (my review)
(same piece also performed impressively by the NEIU Student Orchestra around the same time)
- Itzhak Perlman and Emanuel Ax - September 9 - Ravinia
- Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra featuring Trio Globo - April 24 
  - North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (my review)
- Trio 3 (jazz combo) - March 27 - Village Vanguard, New York
- McCoy Tyner Trio, Geri Allen, Danilo Pérez - December 4 - Symphony Center (my review)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Best of 2015: The Best Musicals I Saw Onstage (plus Opera and Dance)

2015 was a rich and rewarding year for indulging my love of musical theater, and also finding delight in opera and dance presentations.

Broadway in Chicago offered its usual stellar slate of national tours of recent Broadway hits--Kinky Boots, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Beautiful--and shows heading to NYC, or hoping to: On Your Feet, Gotta Dance, First Wives Club.

I got to New York in late-March, where I caught a legendary re-revival of Cabaret, starring Alan Cumming and Sienna Miller, the initial Broadway staging of The Visit--starring Chita Rivera, and which I had followed since it premiered in Chicago in 2001--and the new Finding Neverland musical that I enjoyed greatly.

No, I didn't see the year's huge Broadway smash, Hamilton, nor the 2015 Best New Musical Tony Award winner, Fun Home, but am slated to in Chicago in 2016. (My Broadway in Chicago subscription cohort, Paolo, did see Hamilton in New York at my suggestion and shares that it was his favorite musical of the year.)

But along with the delight I found on Broadway and in the Loop, it was an abundance of astonishing work done in less glitzy environs that made this such a wonderful year to appreciate the joys of musical theater.

Chicago's excellent suburban and off-Loop self-producing theaters--Drury Lane Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Paramount Theatre Aurora, Mercury Theater and others--mounted truly superlative renditions of Billy Elliot, Les Miserables, West Side Story, La Cage Aux Folles and other famed musicals, but also got into the game of developing new ones.

Though each could likely use a bit of refinement, Beaches at DRO, October Sky at Marriott, Shining Lives at Northlight in Skokie, Ride the Cyclone at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Baritones Unbound at the Royal George were all the more impressive for being world premieres or recent works continuing their gestation locally, while Mercury's Chicago premiere of Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical was right on the money.

So too were outstanding small-house takes on The Producers, which NightBlue Performing Arts Company presented in repertory (i.e. rotating with another show) at Stage 773, and Next to Normal, which MadKap Productions wonderfully squeezed into the Skokie Theatre for just a few weekends.

Porchlight's production of the Sondheim on Sondheim revue was sublime, and along with a blissful Grant Park concert helmed by the composer's longtime conductor, a wonderful Northwestern University staging of Into the Woods and DRO's terrific West Side Story, my eternal regard for the genius songsmith was further enhanced.

As was my regard for the magnificent Mueller family from Evanston, which performed at a Sarah Siddons Society benefit gala honoring Jessie Mueller, a Tony winner as Carole King in Beautiful, a role I would see her sister Abby play on the national tour.

All told I saw 33 musicals, of which I rated 32 at least @@@1/2 (out of 5), with seven earning perfect @@@@@ scores, thirteen coming close with @@@@1/2 and eight more deserving @@@@. So only one musical failed to at least be sufficiently enjoyable: First Wives Club, which needs serious work but at least boasted some stellar old & new songs by Motown legends Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Hence, several shows that failed to crack my Top 11 merited abundant admiration and strong recommendations.

I also saw four excellent operas, two wonderful Joffrey ballets and the resplendent Ballet Folklorico traditional dance extravaganza in Mexico City, which I'll separate from the traditional musicals.

As I tried to reference above, the musicals I liked best in 2015 varied considerably in production size, level and stage in their life-cycle, with some performances seen officially being previews. So my rankings should not be taken as an apples-to-apples comparison, or arbiter of technical merit, but simply my unscientific gauge of what gave me the most pleasure--among many extraordinary theatrical experiences.

And now, finally, here are...

The Best Musicals I Saw On Stage in 2015:
(Note: My rankings are based on my enjoyment of the particular productions, but blend in the quality of the source material as well. All theaters in Chicago proper unless noted; in some cases the theatrical company is cited rather than venue. New shows are denoted with an *)

1. Cabaret - Studio 54, New York 
2. Billy Elliot - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)
3. Les Miserables - Paramount Theatre, Aurora (my review)
4. West Side Story - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)
5. Sondheim on Sondheim - Porchlight Theatre Co. (my review)
6. Beautiful - Oriental Theatre (my review)
7. The Visit - Lyceum Theatre, Broadway 
8. The Producers - NightBlue Performing Arts Co. (my review)
9. Finding Neverland* - Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York 
10. Baritones Unbound* - Royal George Theatre (my review)
11. Ride the Cyclone* - Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (my review)

Honorable Mention 

Carousel - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
On Your Feet!* - Oriental Theatre (my review)
Next to Normal - Skokie Theatre (my review)
Mamma Mia! - Cadillac Palace (my review)
Into the Woods - Northwestern University 
Kinky Boots - Cadillac Palace (my review)
La Cage Aux Folles - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)
Million Dollar Quartet - Apollo Theatre (my review)
Seussical - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)
Shining Lives* - Northlight Theatre (my review)
Beaches* - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)
October Sky* - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)
Pippin - Cadillac Palace 
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder - Bank of America Theatre (my review)
A Christmas Story: The Musical - Paramount Theatre, Aurora (my review)
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash - Mercury Theater (my review)
Anything Goes - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)

Special Events 

1. Sarah Siddons Society Gala honoring Jessie Mueller - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)
2. A Sondheim Celebration - Grant Park (my review)
3. Hooray for Hollywood - Park Ridge Senior Center


1. The Passenger - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
2. The Merry Widow - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
3. The Marriage of Figaro - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
4. Wozzeck - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)


The Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet (my review)
Unique Voices - Joffrey Ballet (my review)
Ballet Folklorico - Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City (my review)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Ralphie Redux: Musical 'Christmas Story' Presents a Nice Way to Wrap Up the Holiday Season -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Christmas Story: The Musical
Paramount Theatre, Aurora
Thru January 3

The hearty few who read Seth Saith religiously--and bless you if you do--may recall that a few weeks ago I saw and reviewed a live version of A Christmas Story at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN.

While it was enjoyable enough for an evening's entertainment, and a show I imagined many would find appealing, it wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Specifically, it wasn't the musical adaptation of the beloved 1983 movie, which I really relished in its first Chicagoland production, pre-Broadway in late 2011 at the Chicago Theatre.

To be clear, Theatre at the Center did nothing to promote it as such, but not knowing a non-musical stage version existed, upon deciding to go I assumed I'd again get to see the musical. It was only on the day of the show that I discovered I wouldn't.

Those involved did a nice job essentially re-enacting the movie, but having seen the film--a bit oddly, not until after I had seen the musical--I wasn't convinced of the necessity of a straightforward live replication, especially as it didn't delight nearly as much as the musical.

And to gauchely quote myself, in the closing paragraph of my @@@ (out of 5) review, I noted that:

"I'm still hoping the musical version will reappear somewhere down the line."

Well, down the line turned out to mean pretty much at the same time, and about 60 miles west at the opposite end of what may comprise "Chicago area theater."

So I felt compelled to see A Christmas Story: The Musical at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

And I'm glad I did.

Of course, to those of you who might consider it a bit extreme for a Jewish kid from Skokie to shlep to Munster, and to Aurora, to see two theatrical interpretations of a movie that will run 'round the clock on TBS, well I can't really offer strenuous debate. (And on top of also seeing A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker, I've likely reached my limit of live holiday fare.)

But supposedly boasting a 30,000 strong subscriber base, the Paramount in recent years has joined Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and Drury Lane Oakbrook (and often Theatre at the Center in Munster, as well as Chicago's Mercury Theatre) as regional self-producing houses that regularly stage musicals with comparable--and at times superior--quality to touring Broadway shows that play in the Loop.

In April I found this again to be the case when I caught an exceptional Paramount production of Les Misérables.

Thus, it wasn't just that someone was doing the Christmas Story musical, it was a theater whose work I've found consistently superb.

And under the direction of Nick Bowling, the musical scored by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul--with a book by Joseph Robinette, based on the movie--was about as good as I could have hoped.

Which in an odd way, made it a tad less thrilling than I remembered.

Playing Chicago a year before going to Broadway, in 2011 it was a new musical I saw without knowing any of the songs ahead of time. Also unfamiliar with most of the movie's specifics at that point, I found the story beguiling while many of the tunes were instantly catchy and several production numbers inspired.

By and large, the quality I noted remains true in Aurora, as young Michael Harp--so good earlier this year in Drury Lane's Billy Elliot (as Billy's friend Michael)--delivers a winning performance as Ralphie, the Indiana boy who shares the highs and lows, laughs and tears of a holiday season in which he wishes for a particular Christmas present.

Michael Accardo and Danni Smith are really good as Ralphie's parents, and Philip Earl Johnson is not only
strong as narrator and ostensible "adult Ralphie," Jean Shepherd--the real-life radio host who created the source material and wrote the movie based on his Hammond, IN childhood--I preferred the balance that was struck here vs. the non-musical, where the grown-up Ralphie is more prominently the main character.

Songs like "Ralphie to the Rescue," "Sticky Situation" and "Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana" are a lot of fun, and the most memorable moments from the movie are all present in a well-paced show that barely tops 2 hours with an intermission. (Though I missed any hints at fledgling romance for Ralphie, which was present in the play version.)

But while there is much to love in Pasek & Paul's score, and I've now owned a Cast Recording for awhile, I was less wowed than I was upon hearing it fresh.

While it was reiterated that A Christmas Story is a fine musical with a strong score to complement its warmhearted seasonal recollections, in a year where I've seen really terrific regional renditions of Les Miz, Billy Elliot, West Side Story, The Producers, La Cage aux Folles and more, I didn't perceive it to be quite on par, whether in terms of the material, production or some enigmatic combination of both.

Which isn't to suggest this @@@@ review doesn't constitute a recommendation.

A nearly full house of approx. 1,500 patrons at the resplendent Paramount seemed to validate my affinity for one of the better movie-to-stage musical adaptations of recent years...and for the quality of the work regularly done at the host venue.

I'm glad I made the trek from Skokie.

And back even more merrily.

But for those who don't travel by sleigh, or live relatively close to Aurora, I can't quite insist one's presence at this Christmas Story is a gift you must give yourself--and others.

Even if the musical version is, live and in-person, clearly the way to go.