Sunday, January 31, 2016

Love, American Style: Of Muslims, Hispanics, Refugees and Romance, 'Yasmina's Necklace' Holds Universal Charms -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review 

Yasmina's Necklace
a World Premiere play
by Rohina Malik
directed by Ann Filmer
16th Street Theater, Berwyn, IL
Thru February 27

I don't claim to be perfectly magnanimous nor enlightened, but I believe it wrong to dislike, devalue, denigrate or discriminate against anyone based on his or her race, ethnicity, homeland, immigration status, religion (or lack thereof), skin color, appearance, manner of dress, language, accent, physical capacity, mental prowess, psyche, health, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, income, education, occupation, employment, passions, pursuits, allegiances, beliefs or other factors that don't determine the quality of their heart and soul.

As the late great David Bowie perhaps elucidated me more than anyone, we can all be freaks--and heroes--in our own special way, and those most derided for being different can truly be the most exceptional.

While hating others for minor perceived differences has likely been an ugly aspect of human nature since the dawn of man, recent "political" rhetoric has despicably reiterated just how inhumane people can be to those they believe somehow unequal.

I'm not above certain biases, but numerous travels, cultural explorations and life experiences have shown me that we all have far more similarities than we do differences.

Except for the malevolent or petty few of any and all backgrounds, most everyone everywhere seems to congruently want and value peace, comfort, safety, security, health, love, family and friendship, with hopes for a happy, fun, meaningful life for themselves and--if apt--their kids.

I believe this as intrinsically true in the Middle East as I do the Midwest.

But yes, this is a theater review, not a mislabeled societal screed, although my hope above is to rather prosaically reflect some of the territory Rohina Malik so artfully--and humorously and poignantly and sorrowfully--covers in her terrific new play, Yasmina's Necklace, world premiering at Berwyn's 16th Street Theater through February 27.

Under the direction of 16th St. Artistic Director Ann Filmer, the 2-hour romantic dramedy deftly balances considerable laugh out loud dialogue--and I've never been a big LOLer, but was here--with sobering reflections on war, slaughter, loss, longing, rape, abduction, displacement, refugees, prejudice, Islam, multiculturalism, assimilation, marriage, divorce, depression and more.

This may suggest a rather heavy and heady night of theater, but in the hands of a skilled cast, Malik's script shrewdly offsets anguish with ebullience while avoiding overt polemics in making for acutely enjoyable entertainment.

Based in Chicago, the two-act play begins with a sitcomesque scene in which a Muslim man born Abdul Samee is being boisterously chastised by his Iraqi father (Amro Salama) and Puerto Rican mother (Laura Crotte) for having legally changed his name to Sam following a divorce from a (presumably white) woman named Tracy.

Sam, engagingly played by Michael Perez--who I had enjoyed last fall in Funnyman, one of three actors here from my Top 5 Plays of 2015--is cajoled into meeting with Yasmina (an excellent Susaan Jamshidi, from Malik's The Mecca Tales) toward the possibility of an arranged marriage.

With her father Musa (Mark Ulrich, terrific here as he was in a very different role in Assassination Theater), Yasmina is an Iraqi refugee who saw her mom killed in Baghdad and suffered brutal torment in both her homeland and then Syria. She paints to cope with her pain, and has dedicated herself to founding an organization to help other refugees.

Along with a hijab, Yasmina proudly wears--in the face of bigoted insults--a necklace in the shape of Iraq, a gift from longtime friend Amir (Salar Ardebili), who factors in heavily through flashbacks that provide much of the play's harrowing gravity.

But while there is also considerable poignancy in the scenes with Sam, Yasmina, their parents and a local Imam (Miguel Nunez) in various combinations, including reminders that those who face intolerance and prejudice aren't immune from being similarly judgmental and derisive, there are ample amounts of comedy and romance that wouldn't feel out of place in a Meg Ryan movie.

On an attractive set designed by Joanne Iawanicka, director Filmer nicely blends punchlines and pathos, with a number of quite short yet important scenes seamlessly woven in, abetted by a notably agile lighting design by Cat Wilson.

I won't reveal any more of the plot, especially as anyone who can fit into the 49-seat venue for just $20 definitely should, but even as Yasmina's Necklace seems to be heading in expected directions in Act II, it twists in compelling ways.

Though I don't believe it is affecting this review in any impure way, I feel obliged to note that I met Rohina Malik after seeing her one-woman-five-character play Unveiled last year--it had debuted at 16th Street in 2009--greatly enjoyed The Mecca Tales, have now interviewed her twice for Seth Saith articles and also spoke with Ann Filmer toward a preview piece on Yasmina's Necklace.

So I can't deny I wanted this new play to be really good, particularly as I spoke to both Malik and Filmer afterwards. But along with the high praise I shared with them--and having seen 36 of this century's Tony Award nominees for Best Play, I honestly don't believe Broadway aspirations would be outlandish--there are a few elements that may benefit from ongoing thought and tinkering.

Early on, Sam's parents upbraid his Americanized name change, which he believes has made it easier to find work as a Financial Analyst, and Yasmina also takes issue with this assimilation. Yet while we see how Sam is bolstered in many ways by his developing relationship with Yasmina--though some of this is spoken of more than actually shown, or truly felt--by the end of the play, we don't know to what extent Sam has re-embraced Islam, what name he now prefers and how his choices may have impacted his career.

The writer and director both told me afterward that they consciously chose to avoid having too many threads for viewers to follow, and in finding the play very cohesive and well-paced despite numerous topics, tones and time shifts, I trust their judgment yet still think there might be a way to better define Sam's evolution.

And though Yasmina's Necklace could easily be set in any large American city or even Malik's native London, given that Chicago is mentioned, it's possible the locale could be better leveraged.

Only a planned outing to the Art Institute of Chicago employs the Windy City with any specificity, and without meaning this as an explicit suggestion, it dawns on me that I can't recall ever seeing a woman wearing a headscarf at either Chicago ballpark. Given Malik's enlightening me in many realms of her faith and culture, I'm genuinely curious what she might suggest Yasmina would encounter if Sam took her to, say, Wrigley Field, perhaps chaperoned by the Imam--who cheekily might ridicule them both for not being White Sox fans. (The notion here being to somehow address the ongoing racism, Islamophobia and cultural divides that pervade even the most diverse of American cities.)

But then, to Malik's great credit, I think it's a disservice to imply Yasmina's Necklace is a play about Muslims. Although it portrays refugees and Muslims and Iraqis and Latinos with a generosity of spirit that will forever be foreign to Donald Trump--and provides many enlightening insights, including that Iraq had once been known for having the most educated women--this is truly a play about people.

American people.

Including, as referenced within, those who love Bruce Springsteen, much as I do. (As though there weren't enough other reasons for me to like this play.)

If you've ever gotten grief from your parents, battled anxiety over a broken relationship, worried about pursuing a new one, had a first encounter not go as planned, grieved over the loss of loved ones, failed to have past accomplishments appreciated in new settings or been chided by your dentist about flossing more, etc., etc., there is a whole lot you'll be able to identify with--and laugh at, and maybe cry over--in Yasmina's Necklace.

Wherever you came from, whenever you arrived or however you got here.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Babylon Revisited: With Rousing Choruses and a Sensational Soprano, 'Nabucco' Pleases at the Lyric -- Chicago Opera Review

Opera / Theater Review

by Giuseppe Verdi
directed by Matthew Ozawa
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru February 12

Nabucco, written in 1841 as just the third opera by the legendary Giuseppe Verdi, is supposedly (per Wikipedia) the work that really launched the Italian's reputation and renown--at just 27 years old--but isn't as famed or commonly staged as La Traviata, Aida, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Otello and other operas Verdi would create over a subsequent half-century.

I hadn't heard of Nabucco until noting its inclusion in the Lyric's 2015-16 season, which intrigued me enough to not only take advantage of a 3-operas-for-$99 subscription offer, but to add a fourth opera to my package. (Some years back I subscribed to full seasons for awhile, but it became a bit too much for my level of enjoyment.)

Between a regard for Verdi's iconic stature--I've seen the first four titles mentioned two paragraphs up, though can't claim great recall--and a compelling description of Nabucco on the Lyric's website, I included it in my subscription and attended on Wednesday night.

As I learned by doing a bit more reading about Nabucco just this week, the title character is an Assyrian king--in English known as Nebuchadnezzar--who, circa 586 B.C., leads the army of Babylon into Jerusalem to do battle with the Jews.

Supposedly not much concerned with strict adherence to historical accuracy, Verdi's opera with a libretto by Temistocle Solera--based on both a play and ballet covering similar ground--deals not only with war, persecution and tyranny, but love, family and betrayal.

One of Nabucco's daughters, Fenena (Elizabeth DeShong), is captured by the Jews and entrusted to Ismaele (Sergei Skorokhodov), a former and rekindled lover, while his other daughter, Abigaille (Tatiana Serjan), turns against both her father (Zeljko Lucic as Nabucco) and her sister, in part because Ismaele has spurned Abigaille's advances in favor of Fenana.

So although Nabucco is something of a war story focusing on Jewish history I likely learned about in Hebrew school eons ago, its plot involves enough soap opera-y melodrama--akin to many "great" operas--that it held my interest but didn't fully captivate me through dramatic heft.

What I liked best about Nabucco is its preponderance of great choral numbers, including one of Verdi's most famed compositions, "Va, Pensiero" (literally "Fly, thought, on golden wings" but often referred to as "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves"), for which the stage was completely filled with singers.

The choruses were accompanied--directly but also separately--by several loud, bombastic flourishes in Verdi's score.

As admittedly still a neophyte when it comes to classical music and opera, I find the music most exciting when it swells thunderously--and in Nabucco it repeatedly does.

And while I never pretend to have the expertise to intelligently judge or critique opera singers--they all sound good to me--as Abigaille, Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan was demonstrably terrific, especially during a prolonged second act aria. (Nabucco has four acts, but is done with just one intermission.)

The other primary cast members, including Lucic, DeShong, Skorokhodov and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccharia, a Jewish prophet, are also entirely estimable.

Michael Yeargan's set designs aren't quite as stupendous as others I've seen at the Lyric, but certainly impressive enough, especially in accommodating the vast choruses. Jane Greenwood's costumes are terrific, chorus master Michael Black clearly deserves mention and in reviving the Lyric's last production of Nabucco from 1997-98--per John von Rhein's much more astute review in the Chicago Tribune--director Matthew Ozawa and conductor Carlo Rizzi impressively make it all work, musically and visually.

So with rousing choruses, orchestral flourishes, sublime singers including a sensational soprano, a somewhat sobering plot and engaging visuals, it would seem Nabucco was an opera I truly loved.

I certainly did enjoy it, and relished "Va, Pensiero" and other ravishing parts, but I can't say Nabucco changed my overall regard for opera--more appreciation and admiration than emotional embrace--nor delighted me quite on par with The Marriage of Figaro and The Merry Widow earlier this season.

Still I imagine that not only affirmed opera lovers will find great pleasure in Nabucco, it would seem a pretty good choice for those looking to "check out an opera" or go on a relatively rare excursion. 

Along with the powerful music, great choruses and excellent arias--essentially low-hanging fruit in terms of operatic enjoyment--Nabucco clocks in under 3 hours and moves along fairly swiftly.

I was hoping to end this by conveying that tickets are fairly available and reasonably priced, but though--based on a quick check of upcoming performances--the former indeed seems true, the furthest seats in the house (in the upper balcony) now seem to start at $149 (presumably based on a dynamic--i.e. fluctuating based on demand--pricing model).

For that much cash, I don't know if I can heartily recommend Nabucco on an ad hoc basis, though those interested may want to call the Lyric box office and/or check for any potential discounts on HotTix or Goldstar.

My $33 per show subscription rate actually has me down in the first balcony, rather than the upper. And though I haven't yet seen renewal offers, the Lyric recently announced its 2016-17 season.

Hence, while it is quite conceivable that you would enjoy Nabucco, you may do just as well--or even better--by planning ahead and catching other great productions a bit more economically.

I've seen four operas this season for less than the lowest prices I now note just for Nabucco. And while it is quite good, I can't say it is singularly so.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Iron Men: Blistering Black Sabbath Blasts Me Into Submission, From Beginning to 'The End' -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Black Sabbath
w/ opening act Rival Sons
United Center, Chicago
January 22, 2016


Just wow. 

Certainly, I had good reason to hope, and even expect, Black Sabbath would be stellar in concert on Friday night in Chicago.

Not only are they among the most hallowed rock bands in history--and along with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, the creators of heavy metal--but I've consistently read & heard strong reviews of their reunion shows, whether in 1999 or at Lollapalooza in 2012 (as well as before, between and since).

These raves, from both press and friends, are largely what prompted me to get tickets when Sabbath announced "The End," their supposedly final tour, the notion of which is made more credible by guitarist Tony Iommi suffering from lymphoma for several years now.

But not only didn't I know how much Iommi's illness might affect his playing, but with Ozzy Osbourne having become something of a caricature, I held some fears that Black Sabbath might come across as a bloated dinosaur act.

And leading up to the show, I came to realize that although "Iron Man," "Paranoid" and "War Pigs" were staples from my youth, I grew up much more knowing and loving Ozzy as a solo act.

Few other Black Sabbath songs were ever truly ingrained, and in Spotifamiliarizing myself based on recent setlists, I felt more appreciation for the influence of the band's heavy dirges than I embraced very many tunes as truly superlative.

Although I've seen Ozzy a couple times, as I headed into my first Black Sabbath show I can't deny a sense of pilgrimage to witness a legendary act before the window closes, rather than acute excitement for what I would hear.

That the show came just three nights after another fantastic, nearly 3-1/2 hour performance by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band--my all-time favorite artist--further muted my expectations.

To which Ozzy, Tony, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Tommy Clufetos--replacing Bill Ward from the band's original configuration--promptly proceeded to completely blast my head off and blow my mind.

With just the foursome onstage--no extra tour musicians or backup singers--even from the far end of third deck of the notoriously acoustics-challenged United Center, Black Sabbath sounded as thunderous as any band I can remember in an arena setting.

Iommi seemed no worse for wear as he blasted out sledgehammer riffs, Butler was clearly a pro's pro with his propulsive bass lines, Ozzy sounded just fine to my ears and Clufetos was incredible in a Tazmanian Devilish sort of way. He even delivered a drum solo far better than most I've heard.

After a solid if not incredibly distinctive set from Rival Sons, the headliners opened with their somewhat droning namesake song, "Black Sabbath."

Even this sounded much better to me live than recorded--my sense has long been that Black Sabbath's albums were under produced, at least in terms of their sonic brightness, which may have been intentional--but it was on subsequent, punchier material like "Fairies Wear Boots" and "Into the Void" that I really felt the incredible ferocity and density of the band's sound. 

I don't know if even now I will opt to listen to Black Sabbath's albums all that often--although their first 6 are supposed to all be outstanding (per beyond the joy of hearing "War Pigs," "Iron Man" and "Paranoid," songs like "Snowblind," "N.I.B," "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," the recent "God Is Dead" and show closer "Children of the Grave" came across with tectonic force. (See the full setlist on

Verbally, Ozzy was his lovable lunatic self, with exhortations of "We love you all!," "You're fucking beautiful!" and "Let me see your hands!" coming so often as to remind of a pull-string toy, let alone make one wonder if such stage patter is all that remains of Osbourne's lucidity.

But while my friend Paolo felt that Ozzy's voice was a bit flat at times, I didn't discern anything dismaying. The singer looks good for age 67--and the life he's led--and seemed to perform fully in service to the legacy and power of Black Sabbath, without bringing too much of his famed, goofy persona to the fore in any diminishing way.

Sabbath's set wound up about 10 minutes shy of 2 hours, but even had it been a bit shorter, it still would have been sensational.

I can't really explain why any better than to say it just sounded phenomenal (with some nice but not obtrusive visual and lighting accompaniments).

I haven't heard many guitarists come across any better in a live setting than Iommi, and Butler and Clufetos were--to borrow a great word from a rave Rolling Stone review of the same show--pulverizing.

If you weren't there, feel free to be dubious. I certainly was going in, and after lavishing such high praise on the Springsteen show, even I can't believe how effusively I'm extolling Black Sabbath in the same week.

But my incredulity was blasted to bits, and although a bit sheepish that I didn't bother catching Black Sabbath before, I'm really glad I did while I still had the chance--and don't feel like I saw them 2, 10, 15 or 40 years too late. 

This wasn't just another Hall of Fame band to check off my list, but rather one that was way better than I expected--or even wished--they would be.

A bit akin to how I felt about Santana--most recently in August 2014--and other legendary acts, Black Sabbath showed how incredible a veteran, venerated band can still be, especially when comprised of proud musicians who clearly put pride in what they do anytime they step on stage.

Contrary to the band's initials, this was a no BS show by an artist I now understand--more than I ever truly did--deserves to be considered holy in the pantheon of hard rock.

It would be a shame if this is indeed "The End," although another Chicago area show is already scheduled for September 4 (as an extension of the same tour).

But given that it's at the lousy Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in Tinley Park, I don't think I'll go.

All the more reason I'm glad I did.

Ordinarily I might close with a concert clip from YouTube to help convey the sense of what I saw. But having looked and listened to a few, I don't know that any will adequately convey what Black Sabbath sounded like there, in person. But you should be able to find a number of videos if you wish. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

An Uplifting Ride Down to 'The River': Springsteen, E Street Band Deliver Quality & Quantity Like No One Else -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bruce Springsteen
and the E Street Band
United Center, Chicago
January 19, 2016

Between the brilliant Bowie, the seemingly indestructible Lemmy, the unforgettable Natalie Cole and the original Eagle, Glenn Frey, the last few days and weeks have brought not only sad losses of musical greats, but grim reminders of our own mortality.

While these passings, at age 69, 70, 65 and 67, respectively, all came far too soon, hitting even closer to home was the death of Scott Weiland at 48--just a year older than me--and also that of a Chicago musician I really enjoyed, Kevin Junior of The Chamber Strings, at just 46.

The tragic loss of the son of longtime family friends, at only 52, himself a beloved musical instrument merchant, served to make the gravity, sorrow and sense of ephemerality all that much more acute, although I didn't know him personally.

So while certainly not lessening the losses, for me, seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band yet again on Tuesday night could hardly have come at a better (largely meaning worse) time.

Attested to by this Chicago show being the 45th time I've seen Springsteen in concert, not only is the Boss my #1 musical hero, he is essentially my psychiatrist, religion, booze, dope and other coping mechanisms, stimulants and/or emotional support systems rolled into one.

And with great admiration for and deference to the thousands of artists I've seen onstage in rock, blues, jazz, classical, theater, opera, ballet, comedy and other genres, Bruce Springsteen is the greatest live performer I've ever witnessed.


At age 66.

And accompanied by nine E Street Band members mostly of a similar demographic, Springsteen played for 200 minutes at the United Center without leaving the stage.

That's 3 hours and 20 minutes for the mathematically-challenged.

During which time, 33 songs were played.

After opening with--with the house lights still up--"Meet Me in the City," an outtake that just surfaced a few months ago as part of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set, the next 20 songs were, as advertised, those contained on 1980's The River album.

Played in album order, this got us to about 2 hours, roughly the length of most "generous" concerts--whether by still-great legends like The Rolling Stones & The Who or relative youngsters like Arcade Fire.

In fact, for many artists, 90-100 minutes is about the norm.

But the Boss & Co. then proceeded to play another 12 songs over approximately 80 more minutes, ending near 11:30pm.

Now, as a Springsteen diehard who knew every lyric sung, I loved what I heard.

All of it.

That said, it was a bit of an adjustment--though not a detriment--to hear The River in order, as part of the joy of seeing Bruce, so many times, is the element of surprise as no two setlists are the same.

So to know exactly what was coming, over the first two hours--I'd previously seen Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. played in full, but the double album River is much longer--was a bit unusual.

Yet especially as Springsteen introduced the album and songs like "Independence Day" with poignant soliloquies, hammed it up with Steven Van Zandt on "Two Hearts" and others, crowd-surfed during "Hungry Heart," added lovely extended intros to "I Wanna Marry You" and "Point Blank"--the latter featuring the great E Street pianist, Roy Bittan--and delivered great renditions of several songs rarely played live, including "Fade Away," "Stolen Car," "The Price You Pay," "Drive All Night," and album-closer "Wreck on the Highway," the album recital, at least for me, was glorious. (See for the full Springsteen Chicago song list, and for more detailed documentation.)

Not that this would be the show I'd most avidly recommend to Springsteen haters, doubters, disbelievers, newbies or middling, latent or populist fans.

Even among the three aficionado friends I went with--though all we could get were single seats at the four ends of the arena--there was discussion afterward about the length and density of The River, which combines bar band rockers with several long, slow (and to some, laborious) character-study ballads.

But not only was this promoted as The River Tour--I still rue being a bit too young to get to the first one in 1980-81--with the full-album playthrough no secret, Bruce has shared (in The Ties That Bind documentary included in the box set and aired on HBO) that after having initially submitted and pulled back a single album in 1979, his aim with The River was to make a "big" record that captured the sonic balance of his famed live shows.

Hence the dour "Point Blank" leading into the buoyant "Cadillac Ranch" and "I'm A Rocker," then sobered again by "Fade Away."

And several other like examples.

So akin to how I valued coming to much more know and appreciate Stevie Wonder's Songs of the Key of Life double album leading up to--and during--his 2014 concert performing it in full, Springsteen fans who didn't holistically know or recall The River could well have studied up (easily in the age of Spotify) and/or reveled anew in hearing it en masse.

And though this was just the second show of the tour, after Saturday in Pittsburgh, Springsteen did provide some great surprises in his selections after The River wound up.

I went into Tuesday's gig kind of hoping he would replicate "Badlands," "Backstreets"--my favorite song by anyone, ever--"Because the Night" and his tribute to David Bowie, "Rebel Rebel," that were played in Pittsburgh.

Yet though I would have loved to have heard those songs, I was just as happy to have them, unsuspectingly, replaced with "Night," "No Surrender"--Bruce botched the opening twice, but then "remembered how it goes"--a searing "Cover Me" and a touching solo acoustic "Take It Easy," in memory of Glenn Frey.

Also played were "She's the One," "Thunder Road," "Born to Run"--making for half of the Born to Run album, along with "Night"--"Human Touch," "Dancing in the Dark" (on which Bruce danced with a delighted gray-haired lady), "The Rising," "Rosalita" and more.

So those looking for greatest hits can't really say they didn't get them.

Though if anything--with the awareness that it's silly to kvetch at all about a near-perfect, nearly 3-1/2-hour show--I would have relished hearing a few more River outtakes.

As I compiled and sequenced in this 25-song Spotify playlist, Springsteen recorded enough first-rate material in 1979-80 to have put out a second double album just as good, if lacking the stylistic diversity of the finished product.

Along with "Meet Me in the City," songs like "Party Lights," "Roulette," "Dollhouse," "Loose Ends," "Be True," "Stray Bullet" and many more would have been a joy to hear performed by the mighty E Street band, including Bittan, Van Zandt, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Nils Lofgren, Jake Clemons (nephew of the late Clarence), Charlie Giordano, Soozie Tyrell and Bruce's wife, Patti Scialfa.

But I have tickets for Bruce in Milwaukee on March 3, so who knows?

Still, as I've hopefully conveyed, I loved this show, in part because of its uniqueness. My friends did too, and what may have sounded like booing was simply the packed house effusively yelling, "Bruuuuuuuce!"

And especially with the concert coming when it did, there was something genuinely inspiring about seeing a 66-year-old guy with an equally veteran band rocking out for 200 minutes with a smile on his face the entire time.

Who knows how much time we and those we love--whether personally or artistically--have left on this Earth?

Hopefully a lot, but for me the real wish is that we all find fulfillment in how we live, give, share, love and enjoy each and every day.

For me, no one has ever provided a better example of giving your best, every time out, than Bruce Springsteen.

And no entertainer--or anyone for that matter, other than family and friends--has ever made me feel more alive.

Or glad to be.

Repeatedly, and on this particular Tuesday night.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Show for All Seasons: With 'Spring Awakening,' Musical Theater's Dark, Dramatic, Youthful Side Plays Well at Marriott -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Spring Awakening 
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru January 31

The first time I saw Spring Awakening, in January 2007, early in its initial Broadway run--it's back again. but only briefly--I thought it was brilliant.

And even groundbreaking.

Sure, young-skewing musicals featuring rock-infused scores and themes of sexual liberation have existed since Hair in 1968, and this month marks the 20th anniversary of another such paragon--Rent--but in focusing on late-19th century German teens daring to unrepress their libidos amidst domineering (and oft-hypocritical) parents and authority figures, Spring Awakening not only features a highly charged score by Duncan Sheik and R-rated sexuality, it is one of the most dramatic musicals I've ever seen.

By 2012, I had seen Spring Awakening--with book & lyrics by Steven Sater--three more times, twice in downtown Chicago on National Tour stops and as a college production at Northwestern University.

But though I would regularly cite it among the best musicals of the 21st Century, and ranked it in the top 20 of my all-time favorite musicals, I can't say that it's been top of mind in recent years.

Especially as Broadway has continued to see edgy, distinctive and progressive musicals--In the Heights, Next to Normal, The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Matilda, Fun Home, Hamilton--the 2007 Tony Winner no longer felt like such a startling and rare example of emotionally-dense narrative, prurient shock value and a contemporary score in lieu of traditional showtunes.

And I really don't think I would have thought anything too amiss about seeing Spring Awakening included in Marriott Theatre's 2016 subscription season.

Yes, a high percentage of seniors comprise the subscription base--said to be the country's largest--of the Lincolnshire in-the-round venue, but although the programming respectfully reflects this, recent seasons have seen Legally Blonde, Hairspray, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and self-created productions of HERO and October Sky.

I obviously can't intelligently speak to anyone else's preferences, predilections or aversions, but having attended numerous shows--at the Marriott and elsewhere--with large numbers of seniors, my sense is that they appreciate quality in any form and aren't nearly the prudes that they may be perceived.

Be that as it may, in a move without known protocol, Marriott Theatre decided to produce Spring Awakening as a 3-week special presentation outside of its 5-show subscription season.

I attended on Opening Night last Saturday and was reminded just how good a musical Spring Awakening is.

And I'm pleased to report that my mom, a few years older than me and warned to be wary by my sister, greatly enjoyed it too.

With one of the auditorium's four sides blocked off for scenery (including strong video graphics) and musicians in a way I've never seen before at Marriott, the Spring Awakening stage setup reminded of that I saw at Broadway's Circle in the Square, and benefited from intimacy I lacked in the balcony of the Loop's massive Oriental Theater.

Director (and Marriott Artistic Director) Aaron Thielen's production is generally pretty strong, as is the cast.

Patrick Rooney makes for a rather good Melchior, a strong pupil who is derided by teachers for his friendship with class misfit, Moritz (well-played by Ben Barker), whose angst really forms the heart of the show, even more than Melchior's romantic liaisons with Wendla (a nicely-sung Eliza Palasz).  
One of the show's conceits comes in the way the characters, in group numbers and solos, sing into hand held microphones--sometimes pulled out of their clothing in ways that felt not only inorganic but a tad unnecessary.

But with his spiky hair and use of a microphone stand, Barker's Moritz couldn't help me think of David Bowie--during the week of his passing--and how Ziggy Stardust, et. al. had helped change social mores during my lifetime.

And Sheik and Sater's high-energy songs of the suppressed--"The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," "My Sadness" and "Totally Fucked"--are well-voiced and kinetically presented by the show's rebel rebels.

Especially in trying--and somewhat successfully, at least on Opening Night--to bring in a younger audience, Marriott would do well to turn up the amplifiers on these hard-rocking songs, as the bristling energy is much of what makes this show special.

Yet, despite this, along with a sense that Spring Awakening can only be "most electrifying" once and a questionable scenery decision that put metal poles in the way of some lines of sight, I still found the show to be terrific.

Perhaps because the rockers came off a touch muted, emotive ballads like "Touch Me," "The Dark I Know Well" and "Left Behind" sounded particularly powerful, and the dramatic resonance of Spring Awakening remains strong.

The poles in Thomas M. Ryan's set design--often used to represent doorways and to allow for various perches on which characters contemplated alone or came together in tandem--didn't tremendously bother me, but I can see how they could be a nuisance depending on one's specific seat. But Ryan's use of video imagery upon the backdrop added a touch I don't recall from previous productions.

Chicago theater stalwarts Kevin Gudahl and Hollis Resnik are likably unlikable as they rotate through a variety of mostly unsympathetic adult characters, and everyone playing the male and, separately, female classmates comes off well, particularly Adhana Cemone Reid as Martha.

And having liked her so much in Ride the Cyclone recently at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, it was nice to see Tiffany Tatreau back on stage.

At 47, I don't think I can really be described as a young theatergoer anymore, but nothing about Marriott's rendition diminished my thought that Spring Awakening is one of the best musical theater creations of my lifetime--especially of shows not derived from famed source material, though it is based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play of the same name.

I would like to believe those up to 30 years younger than me would value seeing Spring Awakening, and excepting $50 regular ticket prices, this is as good a chance as any for those in Chicago's northern suburbs.

But save for those who loathe rock music and being reminded of their own lustful youth, I'd like to think theater lovers 30+ years older than me would also value Spring Awakening's many merits.

I understand Marriott Subscribers can see the show at a considerable discount, and with the above caveats, I highly recommend it. In fact, unlike Marriott's typical 7-8 week runs, I find it something of a shame Spring Awakening won't even last until Groundhog Day. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

David Bowie: A Tribute of Tributes

Beyond writing my own tribute to David Bowie, which I posted here on Monday, I've been gathering tributes from artists he worked with and other admirers. I initially posted this to Facebook, but have now added to it.

And although I had come to know and love vast amounts of Bowie's music in multiple stages, my appreciation still has a long way to grow. As evidence, "Absolute Beginners" has become one of my favorite David Bowie songs--in just the last two days. And no, it's not from his new album, but rather 1986.

Monday, January 11, 2016

"In the event that this fantastic voyage should turn to erosion" -- On the Eternally Extraordinary David Bowie

David Bowie, Rosemont Theater, January 2004. Photo Credit unknown.
David Bowie just seemed like the coolest guy.

I don't mean because he was a legendary rock star, whose musical brilliance ran far deeper than I initially, or even long, knew--as I wrote about in a tribute for his 64th birthday (and reposted on his 65th).

And though my regard for his ceaseless and visionary creativity--as documented in the David Bowie Is exhibit I saw in both 2013 and 2014 and reviewed here--knows no bounds, and was reiterated just last Friday on his 69th birthday, when he released a brilliant new album, Blackstar, only 2 days before he would succumb to cancer, which means he devoted his dying days to new artistic life, this isn't really what I'm referencing.

Sure, Bowie fused art and theater and fashion and visual imagery and alternative personas into popular music like no one before him, and his shape-shifting personas of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and more made it cool to appreciate, admire, accept and embrace weirdness and outlandishness and gayness and androgyny and bisexuality and theatricality and alienation and misfits and Muppets and interracial marriage and restlessness and uncertainty and reinvention and searching for one's true self, perhaps behind disguises.

Not only was he one of my favorite musical artists of all-time--and second favorite solo act behind just Bruce Springsteen--but he acted on Broadway and in movies, bridging multiple mediums like few ever have. And forever inspired by his high school art teacher, who happened to be Peter Frampton's father, Bowie oversaw every aspect of his multifaceted presence, from concert stage designs & fashions to album covers to music videos, including his staggering way of saying goodbye, "Lazarus,"  released just last Thursday.

Somehow this immortal artist was able to forestall his death--said to have come after 18 months of bravely battling cancer, though other ill health rumors have existed with Bowie living largely outside the limelight for nearly 10 years--until he could foretell it in a new song & video, have his first official theatrical creation (also titled Lazarus) open off-Broadway and celebrate his 69th birthday with the release of a rather adventurous, highly acclaimed new album.

Long wondering "How and where is Bowie?" after a 2004 heart attack curtailed his touring career, I was ecstatically astounded on his 66th birthday in 2013 when--with no advance warning in the age of social media--he released his first song in 10 years, "Where Are We Now?" and announced a new album, The Next Day, which I would name my favorite of that year.

So while I've long had an uneasy notion that the man who fell to Earth might not be long for it, just Friday I was again reveling in a new David Bowie album, with thoughts that his appearing in the "Lazarus" video meant that he must be doing relatively well.

Sadly I was wrong.

Unable to readily fall asleep last night, I found myself checking Facebook at 1:15am and could not believe the news that rendered the Golden Globes fashion and gossip crap even triter than it had been a few hours earlier.

To paraphrase Bowie's great 1971 song, "Life on Mars"--a favorite along with about 100 others, from the well-known ("Rebel Rebel," "Changes") to the obscure ("Joe the Lion," 1964's "Liza Jane" when he was still known as Davie Jones)--I hoped I was "walking in a sunken dream."

But I wasn't.

After listening to several songs, reading tributes, shedding tears and finally falling asleep, I awoke to find it still true.

The "Starman," Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, etc., etc., but most of all, David Bowie--or perhaps David Jones--is gone, at least from our mortal world.

"Planet Earth is blue and there is nothing I can do,"--as Bowie sang on his first hit, "Space Oddity"--and as I posted on Facebook earlier:
Bowie was singular. We will never see anyone like him again. He was Elvis and Picasso and Bertold Brecht rolled into one, and I think the world senses a loss of genius that won't be replaced.

Like Elvis, Dylan and the Beatles--and maybe even more so--he essentially influenced everyone who came after.
When Elvis and John Lennon died, I hadn't yet developed the esteem I have now for Bowie. Other celeb deaths have hit me hard; Kurt Cobain certainly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, even Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. But those all involved a sense of regret; here the sorrow is solely based on appreciation, and both are deep.
But all of this doesn't explain why David Bowie just seemed like the coolest guy.

Nor does his being among the first musicians to champion Bruce Springsteen (with early covers of "Growin' Up" and "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City") or introduce me and much of the world to Stevie Ray Vaughan (who played on the Let's Dance album) or hung out with Andy Warhol and Lou Reed or lived with Iggy Pop or gave "All the Young Dudes" to Mott the Hoople or worked with Jim Henson or acted with Catherine Deneuve or married Angie and Iman or slept with Mick Jagger or made great, understated albums late in his career like Heathen and Reality and The Next Day and Blackstar that didn't try to replicate the AOR glories of his youth.

While my fandom will forever run deep, I am not extolling David Bowie because I  first came to own ChangesOneBowie on vinyl by the age of 12 or because his show at Dodger Stadium in 1990 was the first concert I attended after moving to L.A.--I still rue missing chances to see Bowie in '83 and '87--or because after seeing him in January 2004 at the relatively intimate Rosemont Theatre, I went again to the next show and then again when he came to Milwaukee that May.

No, while the music and visual stylings and acting and overall artistry of David Bowie has long enriched my life and forever will, what I'll remember most is, more literally, just how cool he seemed.

Onstage at the Rosemont Theatre, where I attended in awe of one of the world's greatest--and purportedly richest--rock stars, a visionary, a genius, a man who had cloaked himself in numerous personas and essentially defined "edgy," Bowie came off as gracious, warm, affable and comfortable in his own skin as any performer I've ever seen. 

And I've seen thousands.

There was no pretense, no pandering, no smugness, no megalomania, obvious ego or star affectations.

There was just David Bowie engagingly addressing the audience as if he were in a living room with friends.

And just happened to be the coolest guy you ever would want to know.

"I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day"

-- From "Heroes," by one of mine
    David Bowie, Jan. 8, 1947-Jan. 10, 2016

(Blog title quote from "Fantastic Voyage," 1979)

 Here's a full David Bowie concert from New York in late 2003, just a month before I saw him twice in Rosemont and found him tremendously personable:

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Re-engaging with Playwright Rohina Malik About 'Yasmina's Necklace' andthe Art of Opening Minds -- New Play Premieres at Berwyn's 16th St.Theater from Jan. 21 - Feb. 27

(Note: This is a preview and feature story, not a review.)

Among my greatest passions in life are attending live theater, blogging and furthering my understanding of the human condition in ways that can ideally promote harmony rather than hatred.

In all three realms, playwright Rohina Malik helped make 2015 a rewarding year.

Last January, I saw Malik perform Unveiled, her acclaimed one-woman play about being Muslim in post-9/11 America, and then in March conducted an illuminating interview with her for a lengthy blog article in advance of her first full-cast play to be produced, The Mecca Tales at Chicago Dramatists.

I saw, loved and reviewed The Mecca Tales a few days later, and at year's end would rank it as my 3rd favorite play seen in 2015.

Not having had further direct contact with Rohina since March, I was excited when the opportunity arose to discuss her newest play, Yasmina's Necklace, which will be directed by Ann Filmer in a world premiere production at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn from January 21 to February 27.

But while I presumed that the time between our conversations must have been personally and theatrically gratifying for Malik--with The Mecca Tales having earned a Jeff Award nomination for new play, Unveiled still being performed near & far and her latest play being readied to debut--I was concerned about how she was coping with the seeming uptick in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment perpetuated by Donald Trump amid the Syrian refugee crisis and tragedies in Paris and San Bernardino.

Fortunately, assuaging my fears that a cordial "How are you?" query might come off a bit trite, Rohina as-positively-as-ever replied:
"Great! The new play's in rehearsal and it's going really well. Once you get to see the actors onstage, the script starts to morph, and that's really exciting." 
Certainly, over the course of our chat, Rohina would express dismay and concern about the malevolent rhetoric, Trump's bigoted proposals to deny Muslims entry to the U.S. and a recent rise in hate crimes--at one point referencing unsettling allusions to Hitler and Nazism that, while echoing thoughts I've had, were that much more harrowing coming from a peaceful, constructive member of the Muslim-American community. 

Susaan Jamshidi - Photo credit: Joe Mazza
But while noting that after a 7-year gestation Yasmina's Necklace is being unveiled at a timely juncture, Rohina Malik is far more excited about creating dialogue through her art than merely decrying societal injustice, whether on a micro or macro level.

"I believe the language of the play shapes things in a positive and beautiful way, prompting each viewer to ask, 'What can I do?'" while avoiding easy stereotypes."

Malik's ability to broach potent themes uniquely yet universally is one of the aspects that has Yasmina's Neckace director Ann Filmer eager to again share Malik's voice with patrons of the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, where Unveiled also premiered under Filmer's direction in 2009.

"At its heart, Yasmina's Necklace is a love story, between a Muslim man who has Americanized his name to Sam, strayed from his faith and lost his roots, and Yasmina, who is an Islamic Iraqi refugee along with her father.

"I generally am not partial to romantic comedies, but while being a very funny writer whose work is quite accessible, Rohina has really created a story we haven't seen before--involving the concept of contemporary arranged marriage, something quite foreign to me--but yet makes it universal."

Both Malik and Filmer are ecstatic over the 7-member cast they've assembled for the 5-week run, which happens to include actors I enjoyed in plays I picked as my 2nd, 3rd and 4th favorites of 2015.

Susaan Jamshidi, part of The Mecca Tales at Chicago Dramatists, stars as Yasmina, with Filmer noting that the actress has long accompanied the play's development, including as part of a reading that provoked the director's interest.

After playing alongside George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky in Bruce Graham's excellent Funnyman last fall at Northlight Theatre--in Skokie, where both I and Rohina graduated from Niles North High School some years apart--Michael Perez embodies Sam, the son of an Iraqi father and Puerto Rican mother who imagines himself Italian.

According to Rohina, who spent her first 15 years in London, the daughter of an Pakistani mother and Indian father, it was important for her to reflect upon the Latino Muslim community, as notions of Islam being synonymous with Arabs or the Middle East ignore the truth that Indonesia and Pakistan are home to the world's largest Muslim populations, which globally exceed 1 billion people in many disparate locales.

And having recently found Mark Ulrich superb as an FBI Agent armed with riveting revelations in Hillel Levin's JFK docu-drama, Assassination Theater, I'm very much looking forward to his turn in Yasmina's Necklace, along with Miguel Nunez, Laura Crotte, Amro Salama and Salar Ardebili.

Ulrich also brings an existing connection with the playwright, having participated in early renditions of Unveiled before Filmer realized the material resonated greatest coming literally from Rohina's own voice.

According to the director, who founded the 16th Street Theater in 2007 and serves as its Artistic Director, audiences instantly came to love Rohina, and she believes patrons of diverse backgrounds and mindsets will again value Malik's insights, observations and unique perspectives.

"I'll never forget a young man, who had come as part of a group from a rural college, quite emotionally saying 'Thank you for this story' to Rohina after seeing Unveiled, admitting that she had helped to counter his negative assumptions about Muslims."

Taking pride in being the most affordable Equity (actors union) theater in Illinois--tickets are just $20, with a $2 discount for Berwyn residents--the 49-seat venue inside the Berwyn Cultural Center almost entirely presents new works, representing a diverse array of writers and themes meant to stimulate conversation.

"Theater is dialogue," states Filmer, while sharing that post-show discussions will take place after Thursday and Friday performances of Yasmina's Necklace. "The reason to put on a play is so audiences can talk about it afterward."

Dealing with a variety of issues, including religion, observance, loss of faith, assimilation, refugees, romance and more, Yasmina's Necklace will stimulate plenty of dialogue, according to Malik, who professes to feel no pressure to portray Muslims with any particular sensitivity, focusing instead on simply "telling the best story I can."

"Yasmina's Necklace is my favorite work so far. It has great characters, but every one has their flaws, and that's really what I'm trying to do, create human beings on stage that audience members of all backgrounds can identify with.
"With all the rhetoric going on right now, I'm happy to do what I can by presenting a play that will create dialogue. Not just about hate, but also things like the imbalance in the way Muslims are covered in the media, and are made to feel collectively complicit [when a terrorist act occurs], unlike Christians were after the Planned Parenthood attack."
Aligned with Malik and Filmer regarding the vital importance and insight of art--including highlighting our similarities far more than the minor differences that often form the basis for acrimony, vitriol and worse--I'm looking forward to seeing Yasmina's Necklace on its official opening weekend, and will write my review after.

On a dramatic level, I hope I like it as much as--or even more than--I did The Mecca Tales.

But if nothing else, I already admire what its author has to say.

Yasmina's Necklace by Rohina Malik, directed by Ann Filmer; January 21-February 27 at 16th Street Theater, Berwyn. Tickets and season subscriptions available through or 708-795-6704.