Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Saturday Night At Wrigley, Phish Plays a Rather Strong Center Phield, Especially in the Dark -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Wrigley Field, Chicago
June 25, 2016 (also played 6/24)

Corresponding to last weekend’s pair of concerts by Phish at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field were a good number of Facebook posts and comments that seemed to reflect the polarized reactions the erstwhile Vermont quartet tends to engender.

On one extreme were phervent Phish-heads who seem to follow the band with the devotion of a religious cult, seeing Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell and Jon Fishman perform every chance they can get, routinely traveling to multiple cities, attending every gig of multi-night stands and knowing every note & lyric of every song played in setlists that entirely vary from show-to-show.

And then there were those espousing that they “just don’t get Phish,” decrying the similarity of their songs, the endless noodling of long jams, the phashions and phunky dance moves of the group’s phollowers, etc.

As with many things in life, when it comes to Phish I find myself fitting comfortably between the two extremes.

They are a band that has made some music I’ve liked, and a lot more that I either haven’t heard, haven't remembered or haven’t cared for.

Musically speaking, I can’t say I truly “get” what all the fawning fanaticism is about, but I realize others could say the same about my obsessive enjoyment of Bruce Springsteen or other artists I more avidly relish.

I appreciate Phish’s longevity, the loyalty and ardor of their community of phans, and--as I wrote about The Cure a few weeks ago--it would seem their popularity and predominance in a particular niche should merit inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, rather than the seeming disregard by those who vote on such.

Largely because of the affinity friends have had for the band, and also because I love live music and like to know what I may be missing, I saw Phish in 2003 following their hiatus and return, and again in 2009. Just one show each time, neither of which did much to convince me that they were a band closely aligned with my tastes.

But with Wrigley Field being my favorite place on Earth, at least among possible concert venues, and a decent ticket in the first row of the top section of the upper deck—which meant I could sit all night as most others stood—to be had on StubHub for just $20, I went to see Phish on Saturday.

Especially with it being a beautiful night, with a good seat, relaxed vibe and no bullshit in the stands around me, I’m glad I went, considerably more so than on my past Phishing trips.

I am not now planning to follow Phish around the country, but the show was good enough--in sum--to entice me to see them again if the time and place were right. (They have often seemed to play Alpine Valley, which is more of a hike than I would bother with.)

But though the band's first set was far from terrible, I can't deny that during it I was thinking this may be the last time I need to see Phish. (And really, that's still the case, though I wouldn't mind another show with all the right variables.)

After the band came onstage at 7:45pm, opening with "Moma Dance" (a song I've heard before but mainly know by name), during the hour before the sun set Phish mixed tunes I found middling verging on boring--and likely rather emblematic of the "I don't get Phish" sentiments--with a handful of more upbeat tunes I liked much better.

These included "AC/DC Bag"--a song dating back to the mid-'80s--"Heavy Things" and "Cavern." (See Saturday's full Phish setlist here.)

I jotted down in my notebook that Trey Anastasio's guitar playing sounded great in the old ballpark, but also that perhaps his soloing was the most special thing about Phish.

And though their first set-closing cover of Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times"--with Page (McConnell) singing (Robert) Plant--sounded great, it was to me, notably far better than any of their own songs yet performed.

So if I rated just the first set, I'd have bestowed @@@1/2 (out of 5).

Hence, that I have awarded @@@@1/2 means Phish really stepped things up a few notches in the second set, and during some sublime long--but not laborious--jams, I began to "get" why many phans find Phish so phantastic.

After a 40-minute intermission, with the sky now dark and the backdrop lighting design working much better, the band kicked off with "Carini," that whether coincidental or not features a guitar riff that reminded be of Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

Most of the rest of the set, including "Tweezer," "Fluffhead," "Wading in the Velvet Sea," "Harry Hood" and "Tweezer Reprise," sounded pretty terrific to my ears.

What Phish does may not be for everyone, nor always or fully for me, but the four guys--who have been playing together for 30+ years and employ no touring sidemen to bolster their sound--are clearly first-rate musicians who in pretty much defining a "jam band" probably don't get the credit they deserve as a "rock band."

Ending the evening with The Beatles' "I Am The Walrus," after concluding Set I with Led Zeppelin--and doing a sweet a-cappella cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" the night before--showed how important Phish's influences remain to them while re-iterating that they've had a rather remarkable career themselves.

So though the second set felt far more electric than the first--and seemingly not just in a low-hanging fruit sort of way to please posers like me drawn by the venue--the night in full had me more hooked on Phish than any prior encounters.

It won't put me in the camp of those who worship everything Phish does, but by hitting a late inning Grand Jam at Wrigley Phield, they helped move me further from those who fail to see anything special about the band beyond the Phish Food flavor of Ben & Jerry's.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Holy Matrimony, Sondheim: Love is Spending an Afternoon with Blissful 'Company' in Swell New Digs -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Thru July 31

My understanding and appreciation of the world has been considerably enriched by Stephen Sondheim.

And my understanding and appreciation of Stephen Sondheim has been considerably enhanced by—among 50+ productions I’ve seen of his various musicals—a few truly exquisite renditions.

This isn’t to knock community theater stagings or more pedestrian professional versions, many of which have been highly enjoyable.

And this isn’t a case of theatrical snobbery, as Broadway productions of Follies and Sunday in the Park with George aren’t among those I rank as the very best.

Both those shows were more perfectly rendered by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (links to my Follies and Sunday... reviews), under the direction of Gary Griffin, as were A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Passion and Gypsy.

The new Writers Theatre building in Glencoe
Passion, Sunday… and Anyone Can Whistle were also given sublime concert stagings at Ravinia with Broadway luminaries Patti LuPone, Audra MacDonald and Michael Cerveris. (So were , Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, but I didn’t see them there.)

I still recall a terrific Sweeney Todd by Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2002, and a more recent strong version at Drury Lane Oakbrook, one of several venues where I’ve seen resplendent West Side Storys in recent years.

After a couple lesser versions, a Northwestern University student take on Into the Woods helped me appreciate all of its charms. And though I’ve only seen Merrily We Roll Along done by a small suburban troupe, it was a storied production with Jessie Mueller in her last local show before becoming a Tony-winning Broadway star.

Which essentially left Company as the only major Sondheim work I’d yet to see, and appreciate, at full tilt (excepting a rather strong 2006 Broadway version and 2011 New York Philharmonic rendition seen via DVD).

I would think the show a natural for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to stage as they’ve done with many other Sondheim shows, and as the narrative is uniquely episodic rather than linear, it would seem quite apt for a Ravinia concert staging.

But fortunately, after not getting a professional Equity Chicagoland production of Company since 1989 if the Writers Theatre show program is to be believed, the Glencoe self-producing house is now presenting it as the first mainstage production in its beautiful new home designed by world-renowned Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.

And corroborating my opening thesis, the superbly staged, sung and acted performance considerably elevated my regard for Company, well-beyond simply knowing the wonderful score or having seen somewhat middling community and small professional productions in the early '00s.

Obviously, any musical--or play for that matter--will be more satisfying the better the production values and performances, but given the intelligence, depth and sophistication of Sondheim's music and particularly his lyrics, a truly supreme iteration is especially appreciable.

Company was first staged on Broadway in 1970, and like every show since for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics, it can challenge unsuspecting audiences. (West Side Story and Gypsy, for which Sondheim only wrote the lyrics in the late '50s, are brilliant but less emblematic of the shows he also composed.)

Coming 8 years after Sondheim's only real 1960s hit, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and half a decade after two flops--Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz?--the ensemble piece was both daring and groundbreaking.

Not only is it devoid of chorus lines or much choreography, but rather than having a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end, it offers keen insights on married life by having 35-year-old bachelor Robert--well-played at Writers by Thom Miller--observe five sets of married couples in a series of vignettes.

With three women Robert--or alternatively, as in the show's dominant musical motif, Bobby, Bubby, Robby, etc.--is dating also factoring in, each scene involves a good amount of dialogue (written by George Furth) that leads into a song, either by the given couple, the other couples, Robert, his paramours or some combination thereof. (Little in the world of Stephen Sondheim is ever routine.)

If you don't know the songs of Company, my describing them isn't going to adequately convey how shrewd they are, but each one works brilliantly on multiple levels, both within the show and as universal life lessons.

For example, early in the show, following a vignette where Robert visits his friends Harry and Sarah (James Earl Jones II and Alexis J. Rogers, both superb), who wind up wrestling with each other, the song "The Little Things You Do Together" features stanzas such as:

"It's the little things you share together,
Swear together, 
Wear together, 
That make perfect relationships. 
The concerts you enjoy together, 
Neighbors you annoy together, 
Children you destroy together, 
That keep marriage intact"

But while I would recommend that Writers patrons wanting to get the most out of Company familiarize themselves with the music ahead of time--and be forewarned about the and non-linear, episodic conceit--what makes this production directed by William Brown so good is how well each of the scenes work beyond the songs.

I used to perceive them as often dull, overlong interludes, but here they truly add to the artfulness and acuity in depicting relationships.

This is abetted not only by universally strong acting (and then singing)--Allison Hendrix (as Amy), Christine Mild (Marta) and Lia Mortensen (Joanne) are among the standouts--but by the deftly intimate 250-seat Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre within Writers' spacious new complex.

On a considerably smaller scale than Chicago Shakespeare employs for its mainstage Sondheim affairs, director Brown and set designer Todd Rosenthal really make smart use of the thrust stage to let one imagine we're with Robert and his friends in various Manhattan apartments.

The makeshift bedroom on the wondrous "Barcelona"--featuring Jess Godwin as April, a stewardess Robert is seeing--is particularly ingenious.

As, again, are so many of Sondheim's songs, including "Another Hundred People" about the non-stop pace of the Big Apple (really well-sung by Mild), "Getting Married Today," probably the most brilliant song ever composed about getting cold feet on one's wedding day (Hendrix handles the staccato lyrics terrifically), "The Ladies Who Lunch," with Mortensen giving a different but fully compelling feel to a tune made famous by Elaine Stritch in the original cast, Robert's closing "Being Alive," strongly delivered by Miller.

For all the insights the songs and libretto put forth about married life--and it's worth noting that Stephen Sondheim is a gay man not himself in a long-term relationship until recent years; in 1970 the word "gay" was barely referenced in Company and gay marriage not depicted--I can't say I can truly gauge the intended motivations of the central character.

I'm not really sure if Robert longs to be married--at any point in the show--or is just continually made to feel sheepish and apologetic about remaining single by his wedded friends.

Making things a bit more interesting at Writers is that while seemingly none of the original dialogue or lyrics are altered--therefore keeping things in certain regards as they were in 1970--Brown's decision to prominently employ smartphones makes this Company feel rather contemporary at the same time. 

Based on some audience reactions I heard, as well as those of patrons at a performance a relative attended, Company probably isn't a musical everyone will wholeheartedly embrace, especially on a first encounter without some wherewithal. (For all of the beauty of Gang's interior space, the theater would do well to glean the type of informational displays well-employed by Northlight and TimeLine theaters.)

Appreciating Sondheim takes a bit of work, and although I think several of the songs here are rather hummable, this isn't a traditional "show tunes" musical.

But for those, like me, who love most everything the maestro has done, you'd be hard-pressed to spend 2-1/2 hours in more delightful Company.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Pithy Philosophies #29

Seth Saith:

Those with nothing are forever susceptible to the delusion that those with everything will enrich them, and that those who share their struggle will deprive them. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Awfully Strange Fruit: 'A Small Oak Tree Runs Red' Presents Powerful Look at a Heinous Past -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Small Oak Tree Runs Red
a World Premiere play by Lekethia Dalcoe
directed by Harry Lennix
Congo Square Theatre
at Athenaeum Theatre Building, Chicago
Thru July 3

One obviously needn't see a play based in the 19th century to encounter abundant, distressing glimpses of man’s depravity to man (and woman).

Or absolutely abhorrent examples of racism.

But if it hadn’t been so horribly true, it would seem nearly unfathomable that it was once rather commonplace for white folks to lynch blacks in the American south.

And as Lakethia Dalcoe’s fine new play, A Small Oak Tree Runs Red, brutally chronicles, victims were often hung from a noose tied to a tree branch and also—while still alive—stripped, shot, burned, castrated and/or otherwise mutilated.

Which makes for a rather challenging, although rewarding, piece of theater.

Presented by Congo Square Theatre—which identifies itself as presenting "Black theater in Chicago"—and directed by noted TV and film actor Harry Lennix in a small 3rd floor studio in the Athenaeum Theatre building at Southport & Wellington, A Small Oak Tree Runs Red isn’t easy to watch.

Or for me, at least in part, follow.

Dalcoe, a clearly gifted young writer commissioned to pen this World Premiere, creates a scenario involving husband and wife Hayes and Mary Turner (Ronald L. Conner, Tiffany Addison) and their friend Sidney Johnson (Gregory Fenner).

The story takes place after the abolition of slavery, but all three African-Americans remain indentured to the white, unseen Hampton Smith, who we learn regularly beat the men, raped Mary and got his comeuppance.

The play alternates between flashbacks of the trio interacting following their brief freedom with Mar and scenes that take place with them in purgatory, after having been lynched and—almost incomprehensibly—worse.

Quite understandably, much of the dialogue is rather aggrieved or otherwise highly-charged, making for an intensity that made lines occasionally hard to catch and/or digest, and the narrative sometimes difficult to comprehend.

This is exacerbated by the frequent flipping between real-life and the afterlife.

Which doesn't mean the play isn't quite affectingly staged by Lennix, nor that it is lacking in deft dialogue.

A scene where foot-stomping accompanies the characters' shouts truly burns with fury, while the iniquity in their situation is adroitly reflected in lines like:
"I'd rather hope than fight any day."
"The world has turned its back on us a long time ago; I'm just trying to get whatever joy I can."
So whatever I may have missed in terms of specificity, the overall gist was all too devastatingly clear.

The horrors of what I was hearing about--and to some extent seeing  re-enacted quite eerily--were more gripping in their reality than pristine was the play's theatricality, but seeing A Small Oak Tree Runs Red was undeniably a valuable experience.

However dreadfully.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Vibrant, Imaginative Efforts Can’t Make 'The SpongeBob Musical' Must Sea - Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The SpongeBob Musical
a World Premiere
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 10

Although I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, all a good while ago, I’m aware of the abundant charms of Nickelodeon’s rabidly popular animated series SpongeBob SquarePants.

My best friend had quite an affinity for the show—at least during its initial three seasons; he’s largely soured on its quality since—and thus acquainted me with the endlessly upbeat title character who “lives in a pineapple under the sea” along with an array of anthropomorphized creatures.

So while I arrived at the Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night somewhat dubious about how an animated TV series might be translated to a stage musical—featuring original songs by a variety of pop acts—my mindset was, as Spongebob might say, “I’m ready!” to be entirely enchanted. 

Especially as my subscription mates were the night before (I had to postpone due to car troubles). And because The Lion King musical certain proved that animation could be theatrically re-imagined rather brilliantly.

But entirely enchanted I wasn’t.

Which isn't to suggest the show failed to bring a smile to my lips, as even before it began the vibrancy of the sets spreading far beyond the Oriental's stage bespoke considerable imagination and ebullience.

Directed somewhat unexpectedly by longtime Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member, Tina Landau, under the auspices of Nickelodeon, the production has opted not to put its SpongeBob, Patrick Star, Squidward, Plankton and others in full body costumes, but rather interpretive get-ups that allow their faces to be seen.

As this is an attempt to be legitimate Broadway-bound entertainment, rather than just a brazen attempt to cash in on the kiddies, it makes sense that we can see the performers' faces and bodies.

Yet while Ethan Slater as SpongeBob tackles this challenge about as well as one could imagine--and Gavin Lee, who was great as Bert in Mary Poppins, is super here as Squidward, complete with an extra set of legs--nothing here tickled me as much as simply seeing an effervescent animated sponge in a pair of short pants.

In other words, the musical loses something for not having SpongeBob truly look like SpongeBob.

And though there really is some terrific costuming, wonderful scenery--including two ingenious "pinball" type chutes to left and right of the stage--inspired performances (including by Danny Skinner as Patrick, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks and Nick Blaemire as Sheldon Plankton), some fine songs and an apocalyptic volcano threatening to destroy Bikini Bottom storyline that feels akin to an episode, I can't say that watching the musical felt better than catching an inventive 30 minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants on TV.

Contrary to my fears, The SpongeBob Musical never felt tawdry, tacky or crass; the effort in shaping the material is clear, and although the stylistic variances of songs by various artists doesn't abet overall cohesion, I can't say it ruined the show.

The opening song, "Bikini Bottom Day" by a songwriter named Jonathan Coulton comes off well, and there is something inherently compelling about hearing "No Control," written by David Bowie and Brian Eno--and easily imagining it being sung by Bowie.

"Hero is My Middle Name" further proves the showtune composition chops of Cyndi Lauper, who won a Tony Award for writing the music & lyrics for Kinky Boots, and Gavin Lee heads the show's best production number as Squidward leads a tap dancing crew on "I'm Not a Loser," written by They Might Be Giants.

Christopher Gattelli is the show's choreographer, and like Scenic & Costume Designer David Zinn, deserves considerable credit for making The SpongeBob Musical as good as it is.

But while it is fairly entertaining, and occasionally delightful, it is not a great musical. That it's nowhere near as good as The Sound of Music, which was playing just down Randolph Street at the Cadillac Palace, is probably a petty criticism as few shows can compare, but also within the previous 8 days, I found a local production of Bat Boy: The Musical far more pleasing, substantive and cohesive.

I realize that nobody going to see The SpongeBob Musical will be expecting West Side Story, and there's no reason both can't exist.

I also never mean for even my lukewarm reviews to dissuade those so inclined from attending a show, and in addition to two friends liking it far more than I, a standing ovation on Wednesday night also seems to offer a considerably higher opinion.

Of course, the balcony was half-empty, so perhaps the SpongeBob franchise isn't beguiling the theater crowd as much as was hoped. And that the show neither rivals any first-rate musical--including, by a great distance, The Lion King--nor equals the animated series on which it is based, would seem to suggest that, despite some nice efforts, this world premiere musical just isn't sponge worthy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Even on a Tragic Day, Griffin Theatre’s Bat Boy Demonstrates Delectable Bite — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bat Boy: The Musical
Griffin Theatre at The Den Theatre
Thru July 25

Like a great friend, great art—or even just great entertainment—can make both the good times and bad times better.

This past Sunday morning, I woke up to hear the devastating news about the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Although sad news is a daily occurrence, and mass shootings all too common, the slaughter of 49 people out for a night of dancing—with 53 more injured—is something no one with a heart & soul could easily shrug off.

I can’t say I felt much in the mood for a Sunday matinee, but had been quite anticipating the professional Chicago premiere of Bat Boy: The Musical, a show I saw and loved, somewhat unsuspectingly, on a trip to London in 2004. (I had also seen an Oak Park Village Players production in 2009.)

So, glad to have been granted an invitation for the Press Opening, I arrived at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Ave. with a good deal of melancholy mixed into my mindset, but smiled as soon as I saw the show curtain.

It essentially recreated the Weekly World News tabloid front page from 1992, with a headline and story about a BAT BOY FOUND IN WEST VIRGINIA CAVE.

This served to not only inform the uninitiated that this Bat Boy show had nothing to do with baseball or Batman, but to set the occasionally (but not overly) campy tone employed by the performers under the direction of Scott Weinstein.

From the opening number, “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” the show with music & lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe—who was later responsible for Legally Blonde: The Musical—has enough solid songs to be a legitimately likable musical.

So while calling it campy may foster connotations that don’t do it qualitative justice, I like how the show, and particularly this rendition, never takes itself too seriously.

Henry McGinniss seems just about perfect in embodying the titular Bat Boy, who is christened Edgar after being taken in, then educated and gentrified, by a local family consisting of the local veterinarian Dr. Taylor (Matt Miles), his wife Meredith (Anne Sheridan Smith) and their teenage daughter, Shelley (Tiffany Tatreau).

I found Smith to be quite vocally strong on “Mrs. Taylor’s Lullaby,” while Tatreau is terrific, as she has been in a succession of shows I’ve seen lately (Ride the Cyclone, Spring Awakening, Sister Act). 

Perhaps prompted by budgetary and cast-size constraints—I don’t recall if it was previously done this way—I like how director Weinstein has a few of the actors (Jeff Meyer, Jordan Dell Harris, Ron King) occasionally donning wigs to play female townsfolk, while alternately embodying male characters.

King especially steals every scene he’s in, while the rest of the cast is also quite appealing, including Michael Kingston as the local Sheriff and Erin Daly as the Mayor and assorted others.

Abetted by some quirky, inspired choreography by Rhett Guter and Amanda Kroiss, several of the numbers are positively delightful, including “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” “Christian Charity,” “Another Dead Cow” and “Show You a Thing or Two,” whereupon Edgar cites a litany of cultural references to illustrate the depth of his newfound literacy.

I can’t say I ever forgot what had happened in Orlando as I was watching the show, but it’s a testament to caliber the material, performers and production that I was able to thoroughly enjoy it, nonetheless.

And while such a distressing real-life prism would likely have reflected on anything I may have seen that afternoon, I couldn’t help but appreciate considerable relevance and resonance in the Bat Boy’s initial ostracization for being different, and his touching struggle for acceptance amid a close-minded community.

After originally seeing Bat Boy: The Musical in London in 2004—it world premiered in 1997 and ran Off-Broadway in 2001, but never On-—I imagined that some hip North Side theater could have quite a hit, and perhaps a long run, with it, particularly around the period when the similar themed Wicked was packing them in during a sit-down run in the Loop. While there was a good-sized, highly enthusiastic, often LOLing crowd at the Den Theatre on Sunday afternoon, I doubt this production is primed to capture such caché.

But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. For even amid great darkness, Bat Boy: The Musical showed that it's quite something to be seen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Cure "Just Like Heaven?" Not Quite, but Relatively "Close to Me" -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Cure
w/ opening act The Twilight Sad
June 10, 2016 (also June 11)
UIC Pavilion, Chicago

The Cure are not in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

And to my awareness, they’ve only ever been nominated for consideration once, in 2012, despite seemingly being eligible since 2004, 25 years after their debut album (which was Three Imaginary Boys, not Boys Don’t Cry).

Although the Rock Hall is a dubious arbiter—and has thus far omitted favorites like the Zombies, Jam, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Warren Zevon and Midnight Oil—other genre-defining bands germinating in the ‘80s such as U2, R.E.M. and Metallica have been inducted.

To me, in terms of their popularity at the time and their staying power, The Cure are of that ilk.

And especially in terms of the Goth subset of British New Wave—the former and/or latter from which contemporaries like Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, XTC, Joy Division, New Order, Duran Duran, Bauhaus, the Psychedelic Furs, Jesus & Mary Chain and others have also been entirely ignored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voters—the band led by Robert Smith seems iconically influential and qualitatively distinctive enough to warrant inclusion.

As, for my money, they demonstrated once again Friday night at the UIC Pavilion, with Smith’s trademark vocals—hopefully doleful or dolefully hopeful, depending on the song—sounding as strong as ever at age 57.

But it was also a show that could have corroborated the opinions of those not completely sold on the Cure’s illustrious merits.

Because it informs my take, let me note that I was not a Cure fanatic in real-time at the height of their popularity. Unlike presumably many in the audience Friday (and Saturday), they did not dominate the soundtrack, ameliorate the angst nor dictate the fashion sense of my high school and college years, although I was of a conducive age.

Certain songs were inescapable, but it wasn't until 1993’s twin live albums—Show and Paris—that my music collection became, well, Curated, though I would subsequently acquire 1989’s Disintegration and much that came after, as well as multiple hits sets.

My familiarity and regard have grown considerably over the years, and in preparing to see the Cure live in 2000, 2008 and now, another 8 years later, I came to appreciate how far their quality extends far beyond the sizable trove of hits.

Yet I can’t deny that my overt affinity runs mostly to the more popular songs, and even in (re-)acquainting myself with several of their albums and Spotifamiliarizing myself based on recent, somewhat rotating setlists for nearly a month, I found myself unfamiliar with a good number of tunes they ran through on Friday night, especially in their 18-song main set. (See the setlist here.)

With the caveat that I recognize a number of Cure songs I couldn't readily name, "Kyoto Song," "All I Want," "Primary," "Like Cockatoos," "The Perfect Girl," "Screw," "The Walk," "Charlotte Sometimes" and "Jupiter Crash" are among those played that I would consider a bit esoteric.

This doesn't mean I didn't like what I heard; everything in itself actually sounded pretty swell, with Smith's vocals and guitar accompanied by longtime bassist, Simon Gallup, former David Bowie collaborator Reeves Gabrels on guitar, Roger O'Donnell on keyboards and demonstrably-terrific drummer Jason Cooper. (Note: These names are per Wikipedia, as they weren't introduced onstage. I think only Gallup goes way back with Smith.)

Even when I didn't know what was being played, it was unfailingly well-delivered, usually with an entrancing mix of lights and video.

So it's not like I only wanted easy ear-candy Cure, which when it came in abundance late in the 2 hour, 40 minute show--"Never Enough," "Fascination Street," "In Between Days," "Friday I'm In Love," "Close to Me," "Boys Don't Cry" and more--was delightful, but almost too sticky sweet all run together.

But about 90 minutes into the show, with only "A Night Like This," "Pictures of You," "Lovesong" and "Just Like Heaven" having truly served the low-hanging fruit contingent, The Cure were at risk of overstaying their stay in laborious, self-indulgent territory.

While the terrific A Head on the Door album cut, "Push," "One Hundred Years," the propulsive main-set closer "Give Me It" and other songs I can't specifically cite kept things from ever getting too dull, I think Smith may have best squeezed just a bit more bubblegum into the early proceedings.

And maybe a couple more dense, challenging songs could well have broken up the late-show hit parade.

As my companion said as we were leaving--and he was much more smitten by the deep cuts than the hits--"it felt like two different shows."

Each of which had plenty of moments that, to me, aptly demonstrate why The Cure deserves to be in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

So even if I probably could have been just as happy with a half-hour less, other than tight-squeeze arena seats seemingly designed for slim college students, it was a comfortable evening, so I can't really complain--or deduct @'s--for getting a bit more of a Cure than I needed.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Among My Favorite Things: A Wonderful 'Sound of Music' With All the Von Trappings of Grandeur -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Sound of Music
National Tour
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru June 19

Somewhat akin to the Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret--of which I also saw a sensational touring edition this year in Chicago--Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music is all the more brilliant for the way it intertwines a remarkably tuneful score with the inhumane rise of Nazism.

That its rash of hummable songs--"The Sound of Music," "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "So Long, Farewell" and more--are accompanied by foreboding undercurrents makes for a musical masterpiece while reminding that the delightful and the despicable aren't always mountains apart.

To which today's political landscape--and newfound specter of fascism--only enhances the eerie resonance.

So while one might imagine mercenary producers trotting out a legendary title simply for the sake of a National Tour with built-in box office, esteemed director Jack O'Brien's new production of The Sound of Music feels entirely vital for anyone who embraces not only musical theater but all of mankind.

Photo credit on all: Matthew Murphy
And though reading that the winsome Kerstin Anderson was a college sophomore before being selected to star as Maria had me assuming that this is a Non-Equity tour, a bit of online research affirms that this is indeed an Equity production. (I couldn't find any such indication in the Playbill.)

Which isn't a huge deal, as I would have called it the best Non-Equity production in memory, but this does corroborate my sense that those who get down to Cadillac Palace in the next two weeks will see a Broadway-caliber rendition, actors' union performers and all.

Anderson--who even from the upper balcony seemed to have major stardom written all over her--is accompanied by a stellar cast through and through, including Ben Davis as Captain Georg von Trapp, Paige Silvester as Liesl, the kids playing the six other von Trapp children (Jeremy Michael Lanuti, Ashley Brooke, Austin Levine, Iris Davies, Kyla Carter and Audrey Bennett in the characters' descending age order) and Melody Betts, who delivers a sublime "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" as the Mother Abbess.

Also quite fine are Dan Tracy as Liesl's love interest Rolf, Teri Hansen as Elsa (a love interest of Captain von Trapp before he met a girl named Maria--sorry, wrong classic musical) and Merwin Foard as Max, a Minister of Culture in the show's pre-war Austrian setting who encourages the musically-talented family to perform publicly.

Under the musical direction of conductor Jay Alger, the orchestra aptly reiterates the mirthful magnificence of Rodgers and Hammerstein overtures and entr'actes, and the vocalists quite favorably render all of the sensational songs.

While the aforementioned classics consistently brought a smile to my brain, I was even more struck by how good the lesser-known tunes are, and came off here.

The family singalong of "The Lonely Goatherd" was blissfully abetted by Anderson's youthful exuberance, songs like "How Can Love Survive?," "No Way to Stop It" and "Something Good" further showcased R&H's deft musical/lyrical mastery and Davis' delivery of "Edelweiss" was truly touching.

Just a few weeks ago, I enjoyed the Lyric Opera of Chicago's fine staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, but noted in my @@@@ (out of 5) review that there just weren't enough songs I found truly sublime.

This was my fourth time seeing, and loving, The Sound of Music in the past 5 years--including at the Lyric in 2014--and I've long been smitten by the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, so I wasn't exactly surprised by the majesty of the score, yet was reminded just how rare it is for a musical to have all of its songs be magnificent.

And while this might well be chauvinistic of me, despite having taken some issue with the Lyric's pairing of a rather young King (Paolo Montalbano) and Kate Baldwin's clearly older Anna in The King and I, here I felt O'Brien's choice of Anderson to play a youthful, more sisterly governess to the von Trapp children worked well and didn't pose a creepy disconnect when Davis' more mature Captain started to make googly-eyes at her. (i.e. She doesn't seem that young.)

Despite having seen The Sound of Music repeatedly in recent years--after it long stood as the most famous musical I'd never seen onstage--I can't really say I discerned the "radical new approach" said to have been taken by Jack O'Brien, a three-time Tony Award winner.

But I don't recall such prevalent use of Nazi symbolism as employed by set designer Douglas W. Schmidt, with five large banners backing the Von Trapps during their festival performance towards the end.

Though it will always be disturbing for me to see swastikas, their bold use served to further the poignant messaging of The Sound of Music and amplify how close to home the ascendancy to power through scapegoating, hate and exclusion threatens to hit.

In a year when Broadway in Chicago is bringing hot new musicals like Hamilton, Fun Home, Finding Neverland and the already come-and-gone Matilda to town for the first time, as well as currently presenting the world premiere of The SpongeBob Musical--I see it next Tuesday--it might seem like The Sound of Music is just a golden oldie to placate more traditional theatergoers.

Yet not only was it good to see the Cadillac Palace balcony near capacity on Tuesday night, including a good number of families, through a truly outstanding production of one of the greatest musicals ever created, The Sound of Music served to remind that--although first bowing on Broadway in 1959--it remains very much a musical for our times.

Happily and unfortunately.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 10, The Greatest Living Sports Legends Over 70

In the wake of the passing of Muhammad Ali--who would have topped such a list--I've been thinking about the truly legendary athletes who are still with us.

I'll focus strictly on those over the age of 70, so will not include Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi and others of current or not so distant vintage. (Those close to this age barrier include Bobby Orr, Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nolan Ryan and Terry Bradshaw, among others.) 

I'm also keeping this to athletes with whom I'm familiar, and while you should put whomever you want on your list, I think having played a major sport in the United States at some point will be a criteria for me. Thus, no Sadaharu Oh or some legendary cricket player I don't know. And apologies for not being able to come up with more than one woman.

Happy to hear your arguments and own submissions, but for me these are...

The 11 Most Legendary Living Athletes Past the Age of 70
As of June 6, 2016

1. Willie Mays 
2. Hank Aaron 
3. Jim Brown
4. Pele
5. Gordie Howe
6. Jack Nicklaus
7. Bill Russell
8. Joe Namath
9. Sandy Koufax
10. Arnold Palmer 
11. Dick Butkus

Honorable Mention 

Bob Gibson
Richard Petty
Frank Robinson
Tom Seaver
Steve Carlton
Jim Palmer
Reggie Jackson
Billie Jean King 
Oscar Robertson
Fran Tarkenton
Pete Rose
Gale Sayers
Carl Yaztrzemski
Bob Cousy 

Bobby Hull 
Whitey Ford
Rod Laver

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Time Muhammad Ali Mocked My Cluelessness (Quite Properly) Without Saying a Word ... and Other Reflections on The Greatest

Photo by Seth Arkin, March 1992; please do not republish without attribution
(Note: Much of this article was part of a post celebrating Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday on January 17, 2012, with some revisions and additions upon his passing on June 3, 2016.)

On March 14, 1992, I was insulted by The Greatest.

Quite justifiably.

I'll never forget it, and after the passing of Muhammad Ali on Friday night, I couldn't help but remember it yet again.

The date might not be exact, but it seems right. I think it was the Saturday of a weekend trip to Las Vegas with my friend Todd. I was living in Los Angeles at the time; Todd had come out from Chicago and we drove to Vegas. It was my first time there, and possibly Todd's.

We stayed in a low-rent, now long-defunct hotel/casino called the Continental, but on Saturday morning we were wandering through the MGM Grand (or perhaps it wasn't the "Grand" yet). I think we were in a gift shop when we noticed a bit of a hubbub, something of a throng in motion.

Upon which Todd, who's almost a foot taller than me and thus quicker to notice the nucleus of the commotion, said, "There's Muhammad Ali." (Ostensibly he was in Vegas due to a title fight taking place that night; I can't recall nor find online who was fighting.)

Although I had grown up a bit too late to see Ali fight in his prime, I was well aware of--and awed by--his legend.

In 1992, the Champ was already quite significantly stricken by the effects of Parkinson's Syndrome, but I think that only added to the reverence I had for him. I don't think there are very many celebrities, then or now, that I would be more excited to encounter. Or to photograph.

Unfortunately, as I made my way to the middle of the throng and stood in front of him, I fumbled with my point-and-shoot (well before the age of digital) and missed my chance for a shot of Ali. But, as he was handing out pamphlets about Islam--including one to me--he paused to allow me to snap the photo above.

And though I knew his motor skills weren't what they used to be--when they arguably, at least in a boxing ring, were greater than anyone's, ever--I asked him for an autograph.

Upon which, Muhammad Ali, whose legendary--and often biting--verbosity, but not his acuity, had been stolen by disease, looked right at me and pointed at the pamphlet, as if to say, albeit gently, "Hey you moron, I already signed these."

And being a bit dull, I think I still needed Todd to interpret what Ali was telling me.

While I have never actually read the pamphlet, I treasure it to this day.

Later that afternoon, in a shop in downtown Las Vegas, I had a caricature drawn depicting my encounter with Ali. But neither of us was particularly well represented, and I no longer know where this drawing is. 

Somewhat amazingly, it has been more than 24 years since I met, and was deservedly mocked, by the Great Ali, who was born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942 in Louisville.

And as he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1984--which would long corrupt his motor skills though not his intellect--it seems rather astonishing to me that the most lovably loquacious loudmouth of all-time spent many more years of his adulthood unable, or barely able, to speak ...yet seemed all the greater for it. 

Just this past December, as Donald Trump was voicing anti-Islamic rhetoric, with the stupid and vile suggestion that the U.S. shouldn't allow Muslims into the country, Ali was quoted as saying:
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” Ali said in a statement first released to NBC News. 
 “They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.” 

“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is,” he said. 
So if anyone thinks that as The Champ became more frail his voice wasn't still a vital one, well, you would be wrong.

Just as it would be wrong to perceive him merely, or even primarily, as a boxer, though he was among the greatest--and almost certainly the fastest, most beautiful and entertaining--of all-time.

Read any of the myriad tributes to him over the past couple days--from biographers David Remnick and Thomas Hauser, pretty much every media outlet in the world, friends & admirers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and President Obama--or even just his Wikipedia entry, and you'll learn just how momentous (and at the time quite controversial, even reviled) his decision not to go to Vietnam was, especially as it meant forgoing his championship belt and earning power at the height of his career.

This was a man who stood on principle, perhaps as strongly as anyone ever (and for those who want
to decry a lack of courage to go and fight, keep in mind that Ali was 25 at the time, so he wasn't just randomly drafted, and per his words he didn't see reason in being asked to go kill others around the world when there was so much injustice here in the United States).

Anyway, far beyond my own brief encounter with Muhammad Ali, I truly believe his self-proclaimed title of "The Greatest" is largely accurate, likely less so for what he did in the ring than what he did out of it.

I have numerous Ali books, movies and autographs throughout my apartment, love watching clips of his fights & interviews on YouTube and valued my 2006 visit to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville so much, I went back in 2012. (The building's cool facade--look at the image from a few feet away--and some of the Champ's wonderful quotes made for a nifty holiday card one year.)

Though far from perfect--his braggadocio could go beyond brilliant self-promotion to be brashly reprehensible, as in calling Joe Frazier a gorilla--but I truly believe that, in a plethora of ways, Muhammad Ali was one of the most beautiful human beings the world has ever known.

And truly The Greatest.

I will be forever grateful that he mocked my cluelessness, not just aptly but actually rather wonderfully and sweetly.

So long, Champ. Thanks for the autograph, the memories, the legacy, the social impact, your being a champion for humanity and--in this case, to a white Jewish kid who never saw you fight live in your prime but has long loved you for numerous reasons--a hero.

Because of your loss, our world is a good bit lesser, but because of your life, it is a whole lot greater. 

The first clip below is of Muhammad knocking out Cleveland Williams in 1966 in what many consider his best performance, with his hand and foot speed being astonishing, almost balletic. I find it strange, and a bit galling, that although he had officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964, the announcer here, two years later, is still calling him Cassius Clay.

And this is Ali's stunning 1974 victory over George Foreman, who was the undefeated champion at the time. You might want to skip the introductions and get right to the fight, but it's here in full. I was surprised by how well Ali did throughout the fight, in which I believed he was being more thoroughly beaten, even as he employed his famed "Rope-a-Dope" strategy. He didn't have the flash he did in '66, but what he does may be even more impressive.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Ours Go To 11, Volume 9: Great British Festival Singalongs

At this stage in my life, I don't much enjoy going to rock 'n roll festivals.

I still love live music, and go to numerous concerts each year, but due to reasons of physical comfort and other concerns, standing in a muddy field for 10+ hours with up to 100,000 other people for 3-4 consecutive days isn't my thing.

Sometimes I'm still tempted, and occasionally even go, but not often (except to Milwaukee's Summerfest, which tends to have abundant seating at each festival stage).

I do, however, enjoy watching live streams of festivals, clips on YouTube and recorded telecasts on the MTV Live (formerly Palladia) cable channel.

And with all due respect to Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo and other U.S.-based festivals, the British festivals--Glastonbury, Reading, Leeds, V, Isle of Wight, etc.--seem to be the coolest, especially at those times when it seems like everyone in the audience is singing along with the band.

To further illustrate what I mean, here are 11 of the Best British Summer Festival Singalong Songs: (Note: a playlist reel is at the end)

11. Manic Street Preachers - "Motorcycle Emptiness"

10. Mumford & Sons - "The Cave"

9. Coldplay - "Fix You"

8. Radiohead - "Karma Police"

7. Blur - "The Universal"

6. Keane - "Somewhere Only We Know"

5. Arcade Fire - "Wake Up"

4. Feeder - "Buck Rogers"

3. Travis - "Why Does It Always Rain on Me"

2. Snow Patrol - "Run"

1. Oasis - "Don't Look Back in Anger"

Making for easier listening without watching, here is a playlist reel compiling all the above songs in ascending order: