Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sensational Saxophone: A Spotify Playlist in Honor of International Jazz Day

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to make compilation albums. Or, in old school parlance, mix tapes.

And, new school, playlists.

My days of filling Maxell, TDK and Memorex cassettes disappeared with the advent of CD-Rs, but at some point I put together a disc of great jazz saxophonists for one of my nephews. I even put together some cover art utilizing images of wonderful jazz paintings by Bruni Sablan, simply for personal use.

The artwork isn't mine to replicate here, but noting that today is International Jazz Day, I was able to find all the tracks to compile into the Spotify playlist below. Obviously there is a lot more music by each of these artists to be found on Spotify, YouTube, etc., and info at and Wikipedia. But for now, please enjoy:

Sensational Saxophone

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway' Musical Hits Moderate Aims, Humorously -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical
The PrivateBank Theatre (i.e. the Shubert), Chicago
Thru May 1

I've never seen Woody Allen's film Bullets Over Broadway, which was released in 1994 and stars John Cusack.

And while I think several of Allen's movies are terrific--Annie Hall, Manhattan, Bananas, Take the Money and Run, Broadway Danny Rose, Match Point, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine and more--I've long ceased being a fan of Woody himself, so although he isn't in the movie, I'm not likely to seek it out.

But from the musical based on it--which Allen wrote, incorporating early 20th century standards as the score--I can perceive a rather humorous premise.

In New York in 1929, a young playwright named David Shayne--played by Cusack in the film, Zach Braff in the short-lived Broadway production and Michael Williams in the non-Equity tour now in Chicago, whose cast members will be those cited from here on out--is suddenly green-lighted to bring a play to Broadway under the auspices of noted producer Julian Marx (Rick Grossman).

Funding is being provided solely by mobster Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino), with the insistence that his squeaky-voiced girlfriend Olive (Jemma Jane, who is largely delightful) play a role.

Nick orders one of his henchmen named Cheech (an excellent Jeff Brooks) to look after Olive through the play's development, rehearsal, out-of-town and NYC production process, and he--SPOILER ALERT, I guess--turns out to be something of a script doctoring savant.

Actors & actresses within the play within the musical also factor in, with star name Helen Sinclair (Emma Stratton) getting cozy with David despite his having a girlfriend (Hannah Rose Deflumeri).

Originally directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman--who so brilliantly helmed The Producers--Bullets Over Broadway brings some nice laughs, if not as many LOL guffaws as I was hoping, and makes for a solid evening of entertainment.

Though there are a number of quality songs--few known to me prior to their use here--such as "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," "Let's Misbehave," "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" and more, and some terrific production numbers with Stroman's inspired choreography ("Tiger Rag," "The Hot Dog Song," etc.), perhaps because none were expressly written for Bullets Over Broadway, the show's narrative flow feels a bit stilted.

And though this seems to be a rather strong and spirited non-Equity cast, there were too many characters and too few individually superb performances--beyond Jane, Brooks and fine singing & dancing throughout--to ever let me get too invested in what was transpiring.

By the time the closing number perplexingly proclaiming "Yes, we have no bananas"--which has nothing to do with anything going on prior--came about, I was ready to put Bullets Over Broadway in my rearview mirror.

It's still in Chicago through the end of this week, and those in town for, say, a convention and looking for some light evening theater, or even devout musical theater lovers who value seeing every new title, should be quite aptly and thoroughly entertained.

Though I generally prefer tours that employ Actors Equity union members--the quality is usually higher and performers paid more, though I understand production costs can be prohibitive--this production reminds that there are numerous non-Equity troopers with loads of talent.

And while Bullets Over Broadway might have worked better with original songs, that idea was supposedly pitched to Allen--a noted jazz aficionado and skilled clarinetist--and rejected in favor of the standards-filled score, so it's not like the music wasn't carefully culled or generally well-supportive of the narrative.

But even with the always estimable Stroman, the power of Woody Allen's name especially in New York and a strong 2014 original cast--besides Braff, notables included Marin Mazzie, Vincent Pastore, Karen Ziemba, Brooks Ashmanskas and Nick Cordero--Bullets Over Broadway survived only 6 months on the Great White Way.

Yet it did receive six Tony nominations, although not one for Best New Musical.

All in all it was worth my time--and money, as part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series--and may well be worth yours, simply as a fun night on the town.

Just don't expect it to shtick.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Max Laughs at Mercury: 15 Years On, The Producers Still Produces Musical Comedy Delight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Producers
Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru June 26

Ever since I first saw Mel Brooks' The Producers, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, on a pre-Broadway run at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre in Feburary 2001, I have consistently called it my favorite stage musical of all-time

This opinion has held, and been strengthened, through seeing The Producers live now a total of 14 times, including on Broadway with Lane/Broderick, in Hollywood with Jason Alexander/Martin Short, in London with Lane/Lee Evans, again on Broadway with Richard Kind/Roger Bart, on national tours in Chicago, Cleveland and Aurora, in regional productions at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and Theatre at the Center in Munster, in a community theater production in Wilmette, in an intimate production by NightBlue Performing Arts Company last September and now in another local professional staging at Chicago's Mercury Theatre. 

But while never wavering from my opinion that The Producers is my favorite stage musical (I've also seen both the non-musical and musical movies), I've frequently felt compelled to stipulate that West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Les Miserables, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music and Cabaret--not necessarily in that order and perhaps including a few others--are probably better musicals. 

While none has entertained me more thoroughly than The Producers, these other musicals--all of which I love--have greater thematic heft and are more chock full of brilliant, classic show tunes. 

But especially in again appreciating how richly The Producers delights, 15 years down the theatrical life-cycle, devoid of star names, and not just for its hilarity but with several terrific songs, characters and production numbers--AND some slyly meaningful messaging underneath--perhaps it's time for me to quit with the caveats. 

I know every line, lyric and gag in The Producers, and still LOL'ed a number of times, while loving hearing all the hearty guffaws of audience members, many who may have been coming upon Mel Brooks' musical masterpiece for the first time (he is credited for writing all the music & lyrics, as well as co-writing the book with Thomas Meehan).

And I had a smile on my face the entire time, abetted by wonderful performances by the local actors playing Max Bialystock (Bill Larkin) and Leo Bloom (Matt Crowle). 

This is, after all, a musical that won the most Tony Awards ever--12--and ran on Broadway for 6 years. I'm obviously not the only one who loves The Producers, so who am I to say it isn't the "best musical ever" just because nobody is killed or persecuted in it. 

Director L. Walter Stearns, who runs the Mercury Theatre, is to be commended for putting together a pretty robust rendition of a show that involves numerous scenes, substantial characters, sets, costumes, etc.

I really enjoyed Larkin's take on Max, a bit less overtly wry than most, but extremely good, and with wonderful facial and physical comedic gestures, Crowle is among the best Leos I've ever seen.

But the producers in The Producers are only the beginning, as they set out to find the worst play ever written to "make more money with a flop than with a hit."

I found Harter Clingman especially good as playwright Franz Liebkind, while Jason Richards as theatrical director Roger DeBris, Sawyer Smith as his common law assistant Carmen Ghia and Allison Sill as Swedish actress (and Leo & Max's office assistant) Ulla also do nice work.

Though sizable for the venue, the cast is smaller than I've seen but its quality is strong.

So such great numbers as Max's "The King of Broadway," Leo's "I Wanna Be a Producer," the pair's "We Can Do It" and showpieces for Franz, Roger (and his production team), Ulla and the elderly ladies who are Max's longtime financial backers are truly delectable.

Most of the sight gags and choreography from Susan Stroman's original staging are replicated here--including the single funniest dance routine I've ever seen--and both those who love The Producers and especially those who have never seen it onstage should avail themselves of the Mercury's fine and affordable production. (Check HotTix and Goldstar for discounts.)

While my praise for this rendition is considerable, and I don't feel it cheats the original in any substantive way, as something of a self-proclaimed Producersologist, there are a few small elements I noticed missing, some of the scenery is clearly flimsy and I seem to recall NightBlue doing an even more imaginative job last year in an even smaller space with many fewer performances.

But Stearns, scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and company also add some nice touches I haven't seen before, including newly humorous Times Square signs, a "key change" gag (look for it) and some dance formations which cleverly alleviate some budgetary sacrifices.

Larkin's ad lib shtick during Act II's "Betrayed" is also among the funniest I've ever seen.

So although I can't say this is among the very best Producers productions I've ever seen, it was more than good enough to make this show an absolute delight yet again--and in especially doing so on the night Prince's stunning death was top of mind, its artistic merits shouldn't be understated.

I'm also happy to report that my mom and sister, who have seen The Producers previously but much less recently or often than I, were even more greatly wowed anew.

And as noted above, the crowd's laughter was as prevalent as at any theatrical performance I've ever seen besides those of what well may be...

...the very best stage musical of all-time.

At least to me.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Rainbow High: If Not Quite Iconic, Marriott Theatre's 'Evita' is Attractively Satisfying -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru June 5

I'm pretty sure Evita was the first blockbuster Broadway musical I knew about in real time.

My father was an avid musical theater fan and we had a sizable selection of original cast recordings in the family record collection. 

I can't remember exactly when Evita entered my consciousness--or the record cabinet--but I think I knew that Patti LuPone played the titular role on Broadway early on during its initial run. (The show opened in Sept. 1979 and ran until 1983.)

Too cool in junior high--or so I thought--to accompany the rest of the family to an early 1980s national tour at Chicago's Shubert Theatre, it took until my musical theater renaissance for me to finally see Evita in 2000.

That was the first production I ever saw at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, where I've enjoyed dozens of musicals since.

Including, once again Evita, which I also saw three other times, including most recently in October 2013 on a tour that came to the Oriental Theatre in downtown Chicago.

In my review of that production, I wrote about how Evita is my favorite among the impressive musical canon of Andrew Lloyd Webber, with a superb, deep score and brilliant lyrics by Tim Rice.

As with that version, I found Marriott's latest rendition sufficiently impressive to satisfy most anyone who knows and loves--or is newly coming to--the material.

Per my @@@@ (out of 5) rating, I think this production is excellent if not quite phenomenal, but both Marriott's vast subscriber base and ad hoc patrons should enjoy plenty of delights.

Hannah Corneau--who is sharing the demanding title role with Samantha Pauly and performed the night I attended--makes for a lithe and lovely Eva Peron, who she depicts from an ambitious (even scheming) 15-year-old whose radio and acting aspirations take her to Buenos Aires, where she eventually meets, weds and accompanies military colonel Juan Peron in his rise to the Argentinean Presidency.

Since the last time I saw Evita, I visited Buenos Aires where I saw Eva's likeness, famed Casa Rosada balcony and grave in a city and country where she remains iconic six decades after her death.

So even though Tim Rice's narrative--in the program he isn't credited as Book writer, simply the lyricist, as there is virtually no dialogue that isn't sung, yet he won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, one of seven Tonys Evita won that year--likely has some historical discrepancies (most stage & screen biographies usually do), it was particularly interesting to see Eva Peron's story depicted once again.

Part of what makes Evita so brilliant is that it is far from a hagiography, despite songs such as "Santa Evita" that show the love of Eva's ardent admirers.

Through a narrator named Che--loosely based on Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara but never identified as such--Rice and Webber spend much of Evita mocking its title character for, among other things, sleeping her way to the top and largely serving her own interests.

Austin Leach, who brings recent Broadway credits to Lincolnshire, is nicely derisive as Che, and while he wasn't a vocal match for Mandy Patinkin--as heard on the Original Broadway Cast Recording on the way to the show--much as Corneau didn't equal LuPone, this is none too damning as the same could be said for most vocalists ever.

I really liked seeing local stage veteran Larry Adams as Juan Peron, and with familiar names and faces throughout the ensemble (George Keating, James Rank, Jameson Cooper, Emily Rohm, etc.), the cast was deeply impressive, particularly on Webber/Rice's powerful choral numbers, most demonstrably "A New Argentina."

Evita is a musical filled with terrific songs, and Corneau ("Don't Cry For Me, Argentina"), Leach
("High Flying Adored") and Eliza Palasz ("Another Suitcase in Another Hall," among Webber & Rice's most beautiful creations) well-handled the ballads.

Eva and Juan's enterprising courtship song, "I'll Be Surprisingly Good for You" is terrific--and lends to musical motifs throughout--and Corneau does a nice job on "You Must Love Me," which was added after Webber & Rice re-teamed to write it for the film version of Evita starring Madonna.

Forceful choreography--often enacted by the show's military forces--by director Alex Sanchez powers strong transitional numbers like "The Art of the Possible" and "Peron's Latest Flame," and for all the strong individual performances, this Evita is more so a joy when lots of people fill Marriott's square (but in the round) stage.

I've long admired Marriott Theatre's ability to adapt large-scale Broadway musicals in ways that give patrons on all four sides clear sight lines, but while Evita is great enough musically to render the sparsity of the scenery rather moot, this was a production where the spatial limitations and sacrifices were felt.

Still, at both intermission and the end, I instantly turned to my companion and enthusiastically proclaimed, "I like it!"

And, of course, I was singing along in my head quite often.

So while there were a few aspects that left this production from feeling "OMG!" incredible, there is also nothing about it that should dissuade anyone from seeing--and enjoying--it.

I count Evita among the very best stage musicals of all-time, and this is a strong version of it, if not quite as iconic as its title character became.

But great songs, strong singing, terrific dancing, an informative narrative, excellent lyrics ("I came from the people, they need to adore me, so Christian Dior me, from my head to my toes") should leave nothing for Lincolnshire--nor Argentina--to cry about.

Friday, April 22, 2016

In the Purple Reign: A Tribute 2 Prince 4 His Singular Genius

Tragically, the majestic Prince died yesterday, in of all places, an elevator.

Like millions who enjoyed his music and much else, I was terribly saddened by the news. While many are undoubtedly bigger fans of his than I was, and there are numerous musical artists of whom I am a bigger fan, even a day removed from the hyperbole that shock can bring, I would say this unreservedly:

Prince was the most artistically talented individual of my lifetime. 

As this blog reflects, probably my greatest passion in life is appreciating, and celebrating, artistic brilliance. 

In not only rock 'n roll, but many music genres, as well as musical & dramatic theater, opera, ballet, dance, fine art, film, television, literature, comedy, architecture, culinary arts and more.

And while I have far too much admiration for musicians, actors, painters, comedians and more, at all levels of achievement, to suggest true dissipation of the creative arts, as also intimated in remembrances of Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Bowie and others, my sorrow over the loss of Prince is intensified by the certainty that I won't see his like again. (No matter how good artists like Beyonce and Bruno Mars may be.)

I remember hearing about Prince as something of a prodigy out of Minnesota around the time of his first few albums, but like many, really came to know of him through the hit singles "1999" and "Little Red Corvette" off 1982's 1999 album. (Speaking of "Little Red Corvette," see Chevrolet's subtle and classy tribute to Prince nearby.)

Then in summer of 1984 came Purple Rain, both the movie in which Prince starred and the soundtrack album that many considered his masterpiece.

I loved both of them, with the film likely being the first narrative rock musical movie I'd ever seen--and still among the very best--and "When Doves Cry" truly one of the greatest pop singles of my lifetime. (By that time I had long ceased piano lessons and couldn't play worth a darn, but attempted to learn "Take Me With You" as best I could.)

Unable to recollect anyone who might have gone with me, or genuine plausibility of having gotten tickets, I can't really say I "should've gone" to one of Prince & the Revolution's five sold out shows at the Rosemont Horizon in December 1984, including the last one on a Friday afternoon...

...but I really wish I had.

Although then, and now, I was much more a fan of Bruce Springsteen than Prince, Madonna or Michael Jackson, the time when the four of them ruled the music world circa 1984-1985 will forever feel like halcyon days.

Yet while I recall loving--in real time, and ever since--great Prince '80s gems like "Pop Life," "Raspberry Beret" and "Kiss," even by 1987's largely-regarded-as-masterful Sign "O" the Times, my fandom became more selective and sparing. (Though great songs made famous by others, such as "Manic Monday" and "Nothing Compares 2 U" also deserve mention here.)

I truly believe that Prince, much akin to David Bowie, deserves great credit for forever loosening cultural mores when it comes to acceptance of indeterminate sexuality, androgyny, interracial love and just general--and meant completely admiringly--freakishness, but I can't deny that at times Prince's strange persona was a bit off-putting.

The whole thing about renaming himself an unpronounceable symbol and being referenced as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" just seemed far too precious.

Or petulant.

I can't say I know much of the music he's put out of the past 25 years, and while I'm glad I was smart enough to seize the chance to finally see him live, first in Milwaukee in 2000--I'll never forget seeing his silhouette as he took the stage--and then in Chicago in 2004 and 2012, I felt Prince routinely undermined his brilliance as a performer by delivering wildly unstructured shows and clustering some of his best songs in medleys.

I'm pretty sure I never heard "When Doves Cry" done in full.

Prince's 2012 concert at the United Center was the only one I reviewed here, and though I generally liked it more than some rather scathing reviews, I would have preferred if it wasn't so choppy.

Far worse, I felt that keeping the house lights down for 40 minutes after the last note was played, then bringing them up to clear most of the remaining fans (including me) only to have Prince subsequently perform "1999" and "Little Red Corvette" to a near-empty house, was one of the most bush league things I've ever experienced in nearly 700 concerts attended.

That left a rather bad taste in my mouth, but such is my regard for Prince that I still gave the show @@@@ (out of 5) and have never been able to think too negatively about him. If his latest Hit and Run tour, with just him and a piano, had come to Chicago, I would have loved to have attended, though scoring a ticket would have understandably been quite tough.

Anyway, this is not a hagiographical tribute to Prince, yet one that recognizes that for whatever flaws he may have had, or missteps he may have taken, the guy was a genius.

I remember back when I lived in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, I knew a guy who was studying to be a concert pianist. His two primary musical passions were Mozart and Prince, and he would convey parallels he saw in both.

I recall how, in going to the Twin Cities for the first time in 1994, I drove around suburban Minneapolis trying to find Paisley Park, Prince's recording studio complex--and seemingly also one of his residences--where he would be found dead yesterday. (I did find it, only to discover nothing special about its exterior, which wasn't even purple. I also paid homage at the famed First Avenue club from Purple Rain.)

Heck, just last week, a few days prior to the incident where Prince's plane made an emergency landing in Moline--at this point the cause of death hasn't been released, but I'm not sure why it would really matter to me--I visited the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

After about 5 hours there, I wandered to the gallery that formally identifies the inductees, of which Prince became one in 2004, his first year of eligibility.

Prior to getting into the inductee hall, there was a video screen randomly showing highlights from past induction ceremonies.

The clip that happened to be on when I entered the room was from the 2004 induction concert, in which the late George Harrison's solo induction was being paid tribute by a rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" led by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and George's son Dhani Harrison.

About halfway through the song, Prince begins blazing away on the solo, originally performed on The Beatles' White Album by Eric Clapton.

I have seen this clip several times before, and though Prince didn't allow his own material to stream online, it can be viewed on YouTube. (Seriously, watch it if you haven't seen it.)

But although I was a bit wearied, could've watched the same performance any time on my iPhone and didn't know at that point that Prince was in any distress, I could not move.

The artist known as Prince was a lot of things.

Including mesmerizing.

And obviously phenomenal, if at times frustrating.

A prolific songwriter who gave away "Manic Monday," "Jungle Love," "The Glamorous Life," "I Feel For You," "Nothing Compares 2 U" and more, and who supposedly left vast amounts of unreleased material in Paisley Park vaults, though surprisingly didn't have a huge hit in decades.

A musician who played every instrument proficiently and probably could have been regarded as the best guitarist of our times if he didn't do everything else so well. (If there's ever been a more gifted multi-instrumentalist in rock, no one comes to mind.)

A hyperkinetic concert performer who channeled James Brown, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix and more, but at times revealed too little of himself or his best work.

A multi-octave singer who merged numerous musical genres, a master musician, an endlessly inventive producer, a dynamic dancer, a skilled actor, a fashion provacateur, a cultural icon and yet, often an enigma.

A man who had (or perhaps had) affairs with Vanity, Kim Basinger, Susannah Hoffs, Carmen Electra and myriad other beautiful women, but well may have--gloriously uncaringly if not intentionally line-blurringly--been presumed by many to be gay.

The artist who pissed off Tipper Gore with "Darling Nikki," and gave the world tons of great music. 

The creator of such indelible lyrics as:

- "I'm not a woman, I'm not a man, I am something that you'll never understand"
- "How can you just leave me standing, alone in a world so cold"
- "I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never mean to cause you any pain"
- "She wore a raspberry beret, the kind you find in a secondhand store"
- "You don't have to be rich to be my girl, you don't have to be cool to rule my world"
- "I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray"
- "You were so strange, you didn't have the decency to change the sheets"
- "Life it ain't real funky, unless it's got that pop"
- "Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down, oh no, let's go"

Lesser known, but perhaps just as important, Prince was a devoted humanitarian, and if CNN's Van Jones--who worked with him--is to be believed, an eminently humble one at that.

But for all that he was--including synonymous with the Twin Cities, the color purple and 2, 4 & U being used as words--Prince Rogers Nelson, as he was christened at birth, was most of all singular.

One of a kind.

Not to come our way again.

And though now passed, immortal.

I've never seen evidence that another Minnesota-bred music legend wrote "Shooting Star" about Prince, but as with most things, Bob Dylan says it rather eloquently:

"Seen a shooting star tonight 
Slip away 
Tomorrow will be 
Another day 
Guess it’s too late to say the things to you 
That you needed to hear me say 
Seen a shooting star tonight 
Slip away"

RIP Prince.

And thanks for the ride.

This is what it sounds like when doves cry. 

Just a snippet of "Purple Rain" from September 24, 2016 at the United Center:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A-Ha, It's Iha: Smashing Pumpkins Show Has Great Moments, Fails to Leverage Best One -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Smashing Pumpkins
w/ opening act Liz Phair
Civic Opera House, Chicago
April 14, 2016
@@@@ (for both acts)

I've guess I've come to accept, if not always acutely in the moment, that if a Smashing Pumpkins show doesn't leave me scratching my head, it probably wasn't a Smashing Pumpkins show. 

Which isn't to imply that I don't like the Pumpkins, haven't been glad to attend each concert I did and don't have tremendous regard for the vast talents of Chief Pumpkinhead, Billy Corgan. 

I have loved the music of the Smashing Pumpkins since coming to hear Siamese Dream soon after its 1993 release. (Though I remain puzzled as to why I remained oblivious to 1991's Gish while living in L.A. from 1990-92, especially as I was smitten by another band breaking out of Chicago around the same time, Material Issue.)

But I still recall having seen a big Chicago Tribune article in 1993 heralding it as a huge year in Chicago rock 'n roll, with the release (and subsequent success) of Siamese Dream, Saturation by Urge Overkill and Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, another longtime favorite of mine who I was excited to see opening Thursday's show at the Opera House.

I thought Phair looked and sounded great as she comfortably--she once had notorious stage fright--ran through 11 tunes solo, mainly with an acoustic guitar.

These included several early gems ("Johnny Feelgood," "Fuck and Run," "Stratford-on-Guy," "Never Said," "Divorce Song,"), a pair of singles from her critically-derided-as-too-poppish self-titled 2003 album ("Extraordinary" and "Why Can't I," both of which sounded good here) and a new song she noted was about Chicago, "Our Dog Days Behind Us." (See the full setlist here.)

Phair, who grew up in Winnetka, noted her parents were in the audience and that as they had taken her to the opera house in her youth, it was a particular thrill to perform on its stage.

Understandably, the home of Chicago's renowned Lyric Opera was also an acoustically pristine place to see the Smashing Pumpkins, whose performance was promoted as being a more musically low-volume affair than their fully electric sets.

So I wasn't bothered in the least when Corgan took the stage alone for a few songs done on an acoustic guitar, including a sumptuous "Tonight, Tonight" from 1995's massive Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and a nice solo composition, "The World's Fair."

I nearly cried when, accompanied by current Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder, Corgan delivered David Bowie's "Space Oddity," especially as I believe the two were good friends, with Corgan featuring prominently into Bowie's 50th Birthday Concert in 1997.

Phair sang with Corgan and Schroeder on "Thirty-Three," with the latter two then performing a pair recorded under the Zwan moniker, "Jesus I / Mary Star of the Sea."

While many in the opera house crowd were seemingly unable to sit silently and appreciate the unplugged renditions--some shouting inanities at Corgan, others getting in fights, a group behind me chattering throughout every song--I thought it was quite lovely, and was reminded of Corgan's stellar performance at Ravinia a couple summers ago.

Knowing that original Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain is playing with the band on this In Plainsong tour, and having perused the mostly static setlists from recent shows, I expected things would soon rock at least a bit harder.

But though I wondered if he might after doing so recently in Los Angeles, I was delightfully surprised when original Pumpkins guitarist James Iha joined the band for a suite of songs from Siamese Dream.

With 3/4 of the original Smashing Pumpkins (sans bassist D'arcy Wretzky) onstage in Chicago for the first time since their "breakup" show in December 2000, after years of purported acrimony, this was--especially for us locals--something akin to the Axl/Slash/Duff (but not Izzy or Adler) Guns 'n Roses reunion.

Starting with "Mayonaise" (see video below), this was a truly blissful concertgoing moment, with Chamberlain, Schoeder and touring Pumpkins Sierra Swan and Katie Cole joining Corgan and Iha in various combinations on "Soma," "Today" and more, before the pair played "Disarm" with Billy on keys.

But with Iha then leaving the stage without any acknowledgement from Corgan, this is where the head scratching began (on this evening; search this blog for "Smashing Pumpkins" to find variations on a theme from recent years).

Let me first note here that the origins of the Smashing Pumpkins date to mid-1988 when Corgan and Iha met at a Chicago area used record store (where both, or perhaps just Corgan, were working) and started playing together musically.

Wretzky and Chamberlain would soon join them, and Gish, stardom with Siamese Dream and superstardom with Mellon Collie... would follow. But substance abuse issues--and the death of touring musician Jonathan Melvoin in 1996--would force Chamberlain out of the band, and when he returned for the Machina/The Machines of God tour in 2000, D'arcy Wretzky had left. (The original 4 did play a brief tour in 1999 that I attended in Detroit, the only time besides Lollapalooza 1994 that I saw the fully unsmashed Pumpkins; overall I've now seen them 27 times, if one includes 5 shows under the Zwan name and 3 solo Corgan gigs.)

So during the initial 1988-2000 run of the Smashing Pumpkins, through which they became--for awhile--one of the biggest rock bands in the world, the one guy always standing at Corgan's side, literally, was James Iha.

It certainly seems likely that dissension between the two, perhaps stemming from Corgan openly stating that he played all the guitar & bass parts on Gish and Siamese Dream, is what initially ended the Smashing Pumpkins, but publicly or privately Corgan has seemingly tried to make amends with Iha for at least the past several years.

And now he does, with Iha probably flying in from L.A. or wherever he now lives, and what does Billy do?

Well, after introducing James to hearty applause, and dueting on the sublime "Mayonaise," he brought Schroeder onstage to play alongside Iha on the Siamese Dream material, with the current Pumpkins guitarist playing electric and taking the solos while Iha stayed on acoustic.

Iha then leaves the stage without a word, and Corgan & Co. proceed to play the exact same material that they have in Boston, Toronto, Nashville, etc.

This includes Corgan's own "Sorrows (In Blue)," "Identify" (which he wrote for Natalie Imbruglia), Hole's "Malibu" with Katie Cole on vocals (he co-wrote it with Courtney Love), a new song called "The Spaniards" to close the 24-song main set and, as the sole encore, an unremarkable cover of the Rolling Stones' "Angie" with Iha back onstage. (Was this last choice also a sly tribute to Bowie, as the song was penned for his wife?)

Only "1979" and to a lesser extent "Stand Inside Your Love" really seemed to delight the crowd--or at least me--following the Siamese Dream suite.

Odd setlist choices are just one way Corgan has confounded me over the years, with long angry harangues, endless feedback wails and egregious interview quotes being among the other avenues he has taken to antagonize his fans and undermine his musical genius.

Some might argue, including perhaps Billy, that he is challenging his fans rather than placating them merely with greatest hits, and as I obviously can't stay away, it's possible there is something to this.

Yet while I would suggest that he had already challenged the audience a good bit with the largely acoustic first third of the show, and the final third might have felt excessively esoteric on any night, on the rare occasion of Iha finally playing with him again--and it doesn't appear that he has in the two shows now subsequent to Chicago--why couldn't Billy have let James remain in the spotlight and, with Chamberlain, rip through "Cherub Rock," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" or even if staying in a lower-key vein, "Perfect," for old times sake?

Even at the end of the concert, after introducing all the band members including Iha, Billy Corgan stayed onstage to soak in the applause alone after everyone else walked off.

Now this is only my supposition; I've read and heard a good deal about the Smashing Pumpkins over the years, but don't purport any of this as gospel. But to my eyes, it would seem James Iha (and perhaps D'arcy) got so sick of Billy Corgan's egomaniacal, control freak ways--and being in his shadow--that he gave up millions to leave the band and not return until, briefly, now.

So Iha accepts Corgan's peace offerings, and at their hometown show, he's again relegated to being in Billy's shadow.

This should have been a night to celebrate--for my tastes--the best rock band ever to emerge from Chicago.

I don't care if Corgan always did most of the writing and singing--and I own, and largely love, nearly all of it--the truth is that to see three of the original Pumpkins onstage together was a very big deal.

But instead of seizing the moment and making a night featuring plenty of excellent music feel truly transcendent, Billy Corgan felt it more necessary to stick to the script and remind us that he wrote "Identify" and "Malibu" and end the night with a Rolling Stones cover.

This wasn't a bad show; in fact in large part, it was a very good one. It just seemed like the Smashing Pumpkins' fans, legacy and even one of its founding members deserved better.

Here's a clip of Billy Corgan and James Iha playing "Mayonaise," as posted to YouTube by Nicolás Blanco:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

AstonRep's Excellent 'Women of Lockerbie' Expresses the Power of Goodness Amid Unspeakable Grief -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Women of Lockerbie
by Deborah Brevoort
Directed by Robert Tobin
AstonRep Theatre Co.
at Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru May 8

Like anyone with a soul, I am horrified, saddened and angered whenever I hear of anyone being murdered, whether in a domestic dispute, on the streets of Chicago or in any other awful way.

Massacres, such as those recently in Brussels, Ankara, Lahore and elsewhere, only heighten the shock, anguish and outrage, although the sheer proliferation of such incidents demands a certain degree of numbness in the name of emotional self-preservation.

While I have felt great sympathy and sorrow for victims of senseless violence, it is perhaps because I haven't had a personal connection to anyone who has been killed, and am not myself a parent, that I probably haven't given ample thought to the depth of devastation survivors must face--and how and when parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends, relatives, etc., can move forward with anything passing for normalcy.

Deborah Brevoort's powerful play, The Women of Lockerbie, written about the aftermath of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103--which took 270 lives including 11 residents of the Scottish town where it fell--provides a mournful but enlightening glimpse into the grieving, and coping, process.

And under the fine direction of Robert Tobin, the new production by AstonRep--which has become one of my favorite Chicago storefront-type troupes in recent years--deftly presents the sorrow from several perspectives, yet avoids becoming maudlin, mawkish or overwhelming.

The 75-minute one-act, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2003 after winning a New Play award shortly after 9/11, takes place seven years after a bomb detonated aboard Flight 103.

With the investigation over, Bill and Maddie Livingston visit the Lockerbie crash site for the first time; their 20-year-old son Adam was among the victims (fictionally representing one of the 35 Syracuse University students who perished upon flying home on Christmas break from studying abroad in London).

Played poignantly by Amy Kasper, Maddie is still very much dealing with acute grief and anger. As the play opens, she is roaming the Scottish hills desperately looking for any remnants of Adam's existence, while Bill (played with dextrous aplomb by Jeff Brown) tries to calm her with the help of some women of Lockerbie.

The women, some of whom lost loved ones in the tragedy, all of whom were forever devastated by the carnage they witnessed, have decided to put their time and emotions to washing the 11,000 garments strewn from the plane now that they no longer need to be warehoused. To whatever extent possible, they hope to return the victims' clothing to their survivors.

The Livingstons' turmoil remains front and center, but Brevoort (who notes in the program she wrote 25 drafts of The Women of Lockerbie "before getting it right"), does a nice job in taking us beyond their pain--and recriminations for how each other shows it--by portraying the townsfolk with considerable grace. 

Also woven in is a rather heartless American diplomat (played by Ray Kasper) who aims to deny the women their laundering, a young local woman (Sara Pavlak McGuire) who serves as his assistant while being at odds, various recollections of the tragic day and a reference to the United States' downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988, which some believe prompted the December 21 terrorist attack on Flight 103.

All of the cast's Women of Lockerbie do excellent jobs, especially in adopting Scottish brogues that feel authentic without ever challenging comprehension.

Foremost among them, as Olive, is AstonRep ensemble member Alexandra Bennett, who I found superb in Wit a couple years ago.

As I told director Tobin afterwards, I feel he did a really great job calibrating the somber tonality of the material without leaving one too disconsolate to appreciate the play as insightful entertainment.

This parallels the characters' commitment to--though challenging--letting love and goodness be the best way to combat evil. As voiced by The Women of Lockerbie--and printed on the front of the program, so I'm not really spoiling anything--"Hatred will not have the last word."

There were a few times in the play when I wasn't sure why characters were speaking toward the horizon--and hence, directly at the audience--when it seemed they were in conversation with others onstage. I understand this sort of solitary vocalizing wouldn't be so atypical, particular when one is so wrought, but sometimes it felt the 4th wall was being broken unnecessarily, or a tad too often.

And for all that's superlative about Brevoort's script, Tobin's staging and the actors' performance, there isn't much surprise in what unfolds.

But these are very minor critiques and while it is hard to call The Women of Lockerbie an "enjoyable" play given its subject matter, it is quite a formidable and illuminating one.

With tickets just $20 through the box office and discounted on HotTix throughout the run, a terrific afternoon or evening of theater should well be within your reach.

Along with, perhaps, a better understanding of the human condition, at both its most broken and its most beautiful.

Somewhere, Somehow: 'West Side Story' Dazzles Anew in the Far West Suburbs -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

West Side Story
Paramount Theatre, Aurora
Thru April 24

Probably the worst thing I can say about the Paramount's superlative production of West Side Story is that for whatever nearly imperceptible, ill-defined reason, it just didn't feel like the best rendition I've ever seen.

The 1957 masterpiece based on Romeo & Juliet, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents and original direction & choreography by Jerome Robbins, would likely factor into any argument about the greatest Broadway musicals--and film musicals for that matter--and ranks third among my favorites.

I have now seen West Side Story onstage six times in the last 12 years--including on Broadway under the direction of Laurents, on a fantastic national tour, in a summer stock production in Sullivan, IL and in wonderful regional productions at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook and now the Paramount Theatre Aurora--and I have never not completely loved it.

Including yesterday.

Under the direction of Paramount artistic director Jim Corti, this large-scale version features demonstrably superb choreography by William Carlos Angulo, including wondrous dancing during the Prologue, the Dance at the Gym and on "America," "Cool" and "Gee, Officer Krupke."

All of the performers are quite good, including Zoe Nadal as Maria, Will Skrip at Tony, Mary Antonini as Anita, Alexander Aguilar as Bernardo and Tom McElroy as a particularly incensed Doc. (Sorry, but I won't be explaining the story here; find the movie if nothing else.)

It is truly a joy to hear a 20-piece orchestra playing Bernstein's sublime score, with the brass particularly resonant. Kevin Depinet's set design, Theresa Ham's costumes and the lighting by Jesse Klug are also to be highly commended.

Only in minor ways did some of the vocal timbres seem not quite pristine, and my seat location could well account for why I wasn't quite as intoxicated by this West Side Story as some past.

The decision to stage "Somewhere" as a group ballet rather than with soloists didn't much bother me, but perhaps lessened some of the "Wow!" factor.

Although Chris Jones' Tribune review had prepared me for the darker texture director Corti employs, particularly in the end scene, I'm not sure I would have noticed otherwise.

And certainly, a hidden camera would have caught me mirthfully singing along (silently!) and tapping my fingers to "Maria," "Tonight," "America," "Somewhere," "Gee, Officer Krupke" and even "I Feel Pretty," with Bernstein's orchestrations matched by the brilliance of Sondheim's words throughout.

The glorious Paramount Theatre makes for a great venue to see any show, particularly a musical this good.

So whether or not this is the very best West Side Story I've ever seen is rather immaterial; this is undoubtedly the best production of it right now in the Chicago area--I'm not aware of any others--and probably won't be topped all year.

So if you love musical theater and have the opportunity to get to Aurora to see this West Side Story before it closes in two weeks, by all means, do so. Despite some grim moments and dark themes, it should delight the entire family, and can be a great ways to introduce the kids to one of the very best cultural creations of any kind.

Anytime, anywhere.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The "Peripheral Visionary": In Skokie, Steven Wright Shows Why He's One of a Kind -- Chicago Comedy Review

Comedian Review

Steven Wright
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie, IL
April 8, 2016

"I'm addicted to placebos; I could quit but it wouldn't matter.
-- Steven Wright

To say that Steven Wright thinks of things that no one else does, while accurate, would essentially be to praise him for the gift that all stellar stand-up comedians have.

But with great admiration for all great comics, who are basically defined by a genius for observation, wording and timing, Steven Wright is, to my awareness, rather singular.

Certainly, the Boston-bred comedian shares the late George Carlin's love of wordplay, and I suppose Mitch Hedberg--who came along after Wright but died in 2005--had some similarities in the types of oddities he joked about, but I generally think of Steven Wright more comparable to Gary Larson's The Far Side cartoon than I do to Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock or any other stand-up.

If you are familiar with Wright, who has been famous since the mid-'80s without much stylistic change, you understand to what I'm referring.

And if you're not, you can find oodles of his material on the internet, whether on YouTube or in written form.

I think the guy's a genius, and his unique brand of humor was wonderfully and abundantly showcased in a near 90-minute set Friday night at Skokie's sold-out North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.

Without an opening act, Wright came onstage shortly after 8:00pm and simply offered--in his trademark monotone, lethargic delivery--"Thanks."

No, "Hello, Skokie" or pandering to the crowd.

Just a whole lot of jokes, or essentially wry observations, with a few accompanied by himself on guitar, in what could only charitably--but not derisively--be described as songs.

This was my third time seeing Wright live--the most of any stand-up comedian--and I've had his great I Have A Pony album (which you can find on Spotify) for decades, but though I knew some of his jokes Friday were golden oldies, it was great to hear the crowd LOL anew at lines like:

"I had a friend who was a clown. When he died, all his friends went to the funeral in one car."

"I was arrested for scalping low numbers at the deli."

But this was far from simply a "greatest hits" show, as Wright also delivered plenty of fresh material (at least to me). I think it proper to only share a few, and perhaps you should stop reading if you're planning on seeing him soon, but a few favorites were:

"In Europe, is Miles Davis known as Kilometer Davis?"

"What's another word for thesaurus?"

"I have reverse Tourette's Syndrome, random people swear at me for no reason."

"My friend has a trophy wife, but apparently it wasn't first place."

Some of these, and others may also go back a few years, but I thought it was perfectly fine for Wright to (re)introduce some of his wondrous material.

And though the above aren't exactly long jokes, the vociferous punster in me just as much loved simpler, wordplay-based quips that included: "Pulitzer Prizefighting," "Mail Order Bridesmaid," "Ouija Board of Directors," "Small Claims Court Jester" and as referenced in my headline, "Peripheral Visionary."

There are a lot of brilliant comedians, and many have well-defined styles that help make them great.

But there is no one quite like Steven Wright.

And on a Friday night in my hometown, he was as good as ever. 

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Service with a Smile: Drury Lane's World Premiere of 'Hazel' is a Well-Maid Musical That Could Use Some Tidying Up -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hazel: A Musical Maid in America
Music by Ron Abel
Lyrics by Chuck Steffan
Book by Lissa Levin
Directed & choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace, IL
Thru May 29

Let me, atypically, cut right to the chase.

Hazel, subtitled A Musical Maid in America but from here on out referred to without it, represents an impressive effort from Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace (DRO) in aiming to give its audiences something brand new.

Whether you are familiar with the 1960s TV sitcom and/or the comic strip by Tom Key on which the musical is jointly based, a musical theater lover excited by world premieres yet understanding that few are perfectly hatched, a fan of the stellar work DRO regularly does, or any combination of the above, if you attend Hazel with hopes of enjoying yourself you should go home quite happy.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
To begin with, the terrific Klea Blackhurst is a ton of fun in the title role, particularly when she breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience. With strong comic verve and a good singing voice, she is enough of a delight that the show notably suffers when she is offstage, despite several other nice roles, performances, scenes and songs.

I was not at all familiar with the Hazel sitcom, but from what I've read, the musical's book by Lissa Levin makes the show work as something of a prequel. Set in 1965, it has an infinitely intuitive and skilled maid named Hazel Burke first coming to work for the Baxters--an attorney named George (played here by Ken Clark), his wife Dorothy (Summer Naomi Smart) and their son Harold (Casey Lyons).

Unlike Mary Poppins, Hazel doesn't fly, but having recently seen yet another version of the Disney musical recently, I couldn't help but think of her as providing domestic help with a spoonful of sugar and a glass of sass.

Also factoring in prominently--some perhaps too much so as Hazel tries to fit too many things into its sitcomesque narrative--are three of Harold's precocious pals (Tyler Martin, Ava Morse, Rowan Moxley), a quirky local TV pitchman named Bonkers Johnson (Ed Kross) and a pair of Air Force officers (Bill Bannon, Meghan Murphy) who arrive to investigate the UFOs the kids claim to have seen.

If you are wondering how all this dovetails with the story of a maid--who in the course of solving every possible problem visits a grocery store and Cuban nightclub, among other errands--let me further convey that stage time is also devoted to George seeking advancement in his law firm, Dorothy trying to balance being a mother with newly returning to the workforce as an interior designer, and one of the characters above becoming smitten with Hazel.

It is to the considerable credit of the strong cast, composer Ron Abel, lyricist Chuck Steffan, director Joshua Bergasse, set designer Kevin Depinet and all involved that each scene devoted to Hazel's myriad aspects works relatively well on its own.

Blackhurst delights in Hazel's prologue number, "You're Gonna Need Help," songs for Bonkers (with his Bonkettes) and the Air Force duo are fun, the always splendid Smart delivers Dorothy's wistful "Sheer Perfection" in accordance to its title, Clark emotes as George on "The First Law of Living," young Casey Lyons as Harold sings wonderfully on "Space" and I couldn't help but love Hazel's ode to cherished keepsakes entitled "A Part 'A Me."

And this doesn't even cover hot-stepping chefs and mambo dancers, or give enough credit to several funny lines in Levin's script for this slice of 1960s America.

There's a whole lot there, and even if Hazel can use some winnowing to keep sharper focus on its title character, those looking simply to be entertained will be in abundance.

Even though this new work didn't enrapture me on par with sublime recent DRO renditions of Billy Elliot, West Side Story, Les Miserables and other well-known shows, I wholeheartedly applaud Drury Lane--like Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and Theatre at the Center in Munster--undertaking the development of new musicals to present their subscribers...and conceivably, eventually, audiences at similar venues nationwide.

Especially for the mostly mature crowds that support local theater, and who are likely to remember Hazel from TV, this could be a musical that brings considerable mirth not only in Oakbrook Terrace, but far and wide.

That said, while stipulating that suggestions of newly-developed shows being "Pre-Broadway" often emanate from critics like the Tribune's Chris Jones rather than the theaters themselves, I don't perceive Hazel in its present form being destined for success on the Great White Way.

Like Beaches before it at Drury Lane, and October Sky and Hero at Marriott, and The Beverly Hillbillies at Theatre at the Center--none of which have yet been staged on Broadway--Hazel is an estimable, entertaining musical with probably too much geniality and not enough edge to entice hordes of tourists in Times Square.

That doesn't mean it definitely won't hit the Big Apple--and I'd be delighted if my conjecture is proven wrong--but along with a number of refinements, I think Hazel would need to supplant the best thing it currently has going.

Though Blackhurst, who has nice NYC credits, is unconditionally marvelous--a Jeff Award would seem quite possible--a Broadway producer would probably need to entice someone like Bette Midler or Whoopi Goldberg to bring true box office pizazz to a "brand name" title well-known only to an older, U.S. demographic.

But not everything good winds up on Broadway, and not everything that winds up on Broadway is even as good as Hazel in its current form. So while some tidying up of the narrative is in order, there is no reason for this fine premiering show not to be warmly welcomed in its original home.