Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My Meeting with the Boss: Recapping the Bruce Springsteen "Book Signing" in Chicago on November 28, 2016

Anyone reading this blog that actually knows me--and perhaps even some who stumble upon Seth Saith with any regularity--knows that I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan.

I've written fondly about "The Boss" many times, including a recollection of the first time I saw him live in 1984 with the E Street Band, reviews of several more recent shows in Chicago (1, 2, 3) and elsewhere, album reviews, lists of favorite songs and much more. (If you're viewing this in web format, note the Springsteen label link at top and the [Search Bar] at right.)

I've openly shared that Bruce Springsteen is my all-time favorite musical artist and concert performer (by a vast margin), and while I'm also a great aficionado of theater, film, art, comedy, etc., etc., he's my most beloved entertainer or creator in any genre.

Except for family and friends, the Boss has probably meant more to me than anyone, and the 49 times I've seen him live in concert--mostly with the E Street Band, since 1999, but also without and well before, in Chicago, Milwaukee and far-beyond--have not only provided hours of soul-enriching, life-enhancing entertainment, but been the impetus for numerous road trips that have brought other joys.

But although I had once touched his shoulder on the Wrigley Field outfield during a 2012 concert, until Monday afternoon I had never met the man.

Thanks to an appearance Monday afternoon at Books-A-Million at Clark & Adams in Chicago's Loop, I now have, with photographs to prove it.

Though, perhaps apt given the title of Bruce's new autobiography, Born to Run--famously also the name of his watershed 1975 album and its title song--it was an encounter that went by at Usain Bolt speed.

Not that I didn't cherish the opportunity.

Garnering excellent reviews and becoming an instant best seller, the Born to Run book was released on September 27, just four days after Bruce's 67th birthday and less than two weeks after Springsteen completed his latest world tour with the E Street Band, on which I saw him five times (Chicago, Milwaukee, Columbus, Chicago, Washington).

The first two weeks after the book's release found the Boss doing in-store appearances, in his hometown of Freehold, NJ, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, L.A., other West Coast stops and back to Boston, but with no Chicago event scheduled.

So I had bought an unsigned copy on Amazon, which I quickly started reading with zest and enjoyment, but put aside during the Chicago Cubs' playoff run and have been lax to get back to.

Then somewhat out of nowhere--with the book's promotion now leading to the Dec. 6 release of an audiobook, read by Springsteen himself--last Monday my friend Brad, also a big Boss fan, texted me that Bruce would be doing a Chicago appearance.

From accounts of the earlier book tour events, I knew that--unlike most "book signings"--Bruce wouldn't actually be signing books at the store. Rather, those who wished to attend needed to buy an advanced ticket, entitling one to a signed book and a quick chance to meet the Boss and get a photo taken.

Fortuitiously, I was able to get a ticket as soon as they went on sale last Tuesday, and separately so did Brad.

Yes, I already owned the book, but this was a chance to meet my hero, and autographed copies of Born to Run have been selling for about $500 on Ebay so another $38 was a bargain in any regard.

The event was listed on the Books-A-Million Chicago Facebook page--which now has several photos of Bruce with fans--as lasting from Noon to 2pm, but we were alerted that the line to get in would begin at 9am and that Springsteen was known to begin early in other cities.

Brad works downtown but I was heading there from my home in north suburban Skokie, so we decided to meet at the back of the line at 11:00am, figuring our ticket assured us of a meet-and-greet and a signed book by 2:00pm.

Of course, at 11:00am, there was already a line in the alley just north of the store, stretching from Clark to Lasalle, down Lasalle to Adams, back east the whole block to Clark and north to the store entrance.

So Brad and I--who have several common interests in the realms of music, movies and politics--had plenty of time to talk, and even engaged a friendly stranger just in front of us, in what wound up being roughly 3 hours of banter.

Especially as it was a bit chilly and rainy--though not terribly so--I was certainly quite glad not to have been waiting on my own (though years of attending Bruce concerts solo have brought numerous fun interactions with other fervent fans).

Given the length of the line, and the pace with which it moved while still taking 3 hours to reach Bruce--I believe he showed up around Noon--it quickly became clear that there wouldn't be much time to converse with the Boss.

Even far less than the rather brief dialogue I had imagined.

I had read that Books-A-Million, as elsewhere, had provision to collect cards and gifts fans wanted to leave for Bruce--whether he'll actually see or read them is anyone's guess--so I made and wrote a card saying what I really wanted to tell him. (Which, I imagine, approximates what many others might say.)

This took some pressure off, as I knew I wouldn't have the time to say all that I wrote, nor likely the poise to be glib and conversant without peeing down my leg.

I kind of wanted to ask Bruce something I had long wondered about whether two of his songs on 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town album--"Racing in the Street" and the title cut--are overtly meant as an intertwined pair, with the same characters invoked in both, as something of a continuing narrative. (It seems possible, but I've never heard confirmation of this theory.)

But I figured this query, and my attempt to ask it, might well confuse Springsteen on the spot, and while in line and certainly once in the store, it became abundantly clear that such an esoteric line of questioning wouldn't be apt.

So I essentially settled on wanting to say something along the lines of:
"The Cubs won the World Series and I get to meet my hero [and you won the Presidential Medal of Honor] in the same month. It's been a pretty damn good month, the election notwithstanding."
(Bruce was vocally anti-Trump and appreared with Hillary at a rally the night before Election Day.)

Yet while I had years, months, weeks, days and even hours to plan things out, when the line finally approached the Boss, it was clear that there was almost no time for conversation. 

To its credit, the Books-A-Million store organized everything very well, including taking people's coats before they approached Springsteen, and having several staff members to take cameras from each guest and shoot photos (even knowing to use the iPhone's burst mode). 

So I had dropped off my card, was wearing my Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band baseball cap and "Show a little faith there's magic in the night" (from "Thunder Road") t-shirt, had my iPhone ready for the designated photographers and had traded digital cameras with Brad, as we were hoping to take a few more pix of each other with the Boss.

I was still kind of futtering around with Brad's camera when I was at the front of the line and someone was saying "Go up there." They even said it twice, "Go up there." So I did.

I approached my idol, shook his hand, put my arm around him, muttered, "This is a real honor" (probably twice), posed for a photo, said "Thank you for everything," shook his hand again and moved on. 

If Bruce Springsteen said anything to me in return, I honestly can't tell you what it was.

But that's OK.

I met the Boss and wound up with a satisfactory photo, and actually several more than I expected (though all basically the same).

It was really, really damn cool, something I'll never forget and forever be glad I did. I now have an autographed copy of Born to Run, and my regard for Bruce Springsteen was only elevated.

And I have nothing but praise for how the event was organized and handled. I'm happy I got to hang out with Brad and even made a new friend, who's now connected on Facebook.

But as I soon was asked by friends Dave and Paolo if meeting Bruce was better than the Cubs winning the World Series, and if it was the "greatest day of my life," I will convey--clear-eyed, honestly and with no lack of sentimental apprecation--the answer to both questions is definitively "No."

Certainly, "meeting the Boss" was a thrill, but let's be honest, I didn't really meet the Boss. It's not like I hung out with him at a bar after his motorcycle broke down (never trust one built by Billy Joel, I guess). 

This was more of a blur with a couple of mumbles and the pressing of an iPhone shutter button.

So just in terms of encounters with heroes, I can't say this matched the time I bumped into Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas. This doesn't make for a story like the time a then-married Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin came into the Kinko's I worked at in Tarzana, CA to get passport photos taken. Or, though I wasn't there, when Frank Thomas happened to show up at the Champaign, IL bar where my best friend Jordan happened to be on my birthday (circa 1995).

Even in terms of book signings, ones accompanied by enjoyable speeches--by Elvis Costello, and my favorite author, Harlan Coben, just 2 months ago--or a bit more interaction (Wayne Gretzky, Cal Ripken Jr., George Carlin, Roger Ebert, Pete Townshend) have offered more in the way of acute and/or or active gratification.

I'll never forget interacting a bit with Buddy Guy and Paul Westerberg after shows, and once saw Jeff Tweedy of Wilco perform in a living room.

In seeking autographs at stage doors, I have "met" Billy Crystal, Hugh Jackman, Antonio Banderas, Chita Rivera, George Hearn (who coolly recorded this for my sister's birthday) and will always relish Denzel Washington telling everyone just to line up down 44th Street before he signed everything and joshed with me upon fumbling to take a photo. (He's probably the coolest celeb I've ever encountered, though I've also met many sports legends at card shows, including the delightful, now-deceased Tony Gwynn.)

Meeting Bruce, as I did, was not as enriching or fulfilling as seeing one of his phenomenal 3-to-4 hour concerts, nor would I say it tops my beloved Cubs finally winning the World Series or my having attended three of the Series games.

I don't know a means for measurement, but this was not "better" than other sensational concerts, brilliant theatrical performances, life-changing travel experiences or wonderful personal interactions and events.

I've had several blessed moments in my life--including just over the past few months--and this was just one more of them.

Though I guess I can forthrightly say...

It was the best meeting with the Boss I've ever had.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why'd They 'Tinker?' Though Enjoyable, Touring Version of 'Finding Neverland' Doesn't Hook Me As Before -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Finding Neverland
a recent musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru Dec. 4

Well-beyond affinity for Peter Pan in any other form--except perhaps peanut butter--I am a big Finding Neverland fan.

I loved the 2004 Marc Forster film, which semi-biographically explored how J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) became inspired to create Peter Pan after meeting London widower Sylvia Llewelen Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons.

Nominated for Best Picture and several other Oscars, I still consider Finding Neverland one of my 10 favorite movies of this century.

On my most recent trip to New York City, in late-March of last year, I opted to see the brand new musical version of Finding Neverland on Broadway--starring Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer and Laura Michelle Kelly--and loved it even more than I expected. 

Though I didn't write a review, I gave the show @@@@@ in my database of shows seen, and ranked it among the best musicals I saw in 2015. It wasn't perfect nor visionary, but it was decidedly delightful.

So even without big name stars, I was really looking forward to seeing the first national tour at Chicago's
Cadillac Palace on Tuesday night, and experienced overt joy just in listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording on the Red Line downtown.

But while I took my seat in the Palace balcony anticipating urging musical theater lovers to catch Finding Neverland despite it having had a relatively-modest 17-month Broadway run with no Tony nominations, I am unfortunately unable to do so with much gusto.

This doesn't mean I would dissuade anyone from going; the current rendition garnered a standing ovation from many in the crowd and provided me with a fair amount of pleasure.

If you love musicals enough to venture downtown several times a year, or are going with a school, church or other group, I expect you will like Finding Neverland more than not. With some really talented kids in the cast, it was terrific to note so many kids in the audience. 

But less than before, I can't say I loved it.

Although I saw the Broadway version only 20 months ago, I can't explicitly convey all that has changed, but know that the show has been considerably reworked.

The first three songs that Broadway patrons saw and heard have been replaced--with far less buoyant ones--and for me this made the start of the show considerably colder and less ebullient.

There are still several delights in the score by Gary Barlow (of British boy band, Take That) and Eliot Kennedy--including "Believe," "All That Matters," "Stronger," "Play," "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground" and "Something About This Night"--but unless my hearing has eroded more than I realize, most didn't pack the punch they should have, either in terms of delivery or amplification. (To be fair, this was the tour's first night in Chicago and probably officially a preview performance, though part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription.)

And though this seems to be an Equity tour with considerable Broadway credits among the leads, only Christine Dwyer as Sylvia really stood out for me. Her delivery of "All That Matters" was excellent and she was quite engaging throughout.

But while Kevin Kern as J.M. Barrie and Tom Hewitt as his producer Charles Frohman (and also Captain Hook) are clearly professionals who can't be blamed for not being Matthew Morrison--of Glee fame, though I had known him more from the original Hairspray musical cast--or Kelsey Grammer, they never made me forget that they weren't.

Hewitt is a Broadway and touring vet who I've enjoyed previously, and there's nothing deficient about what he does here, but assuredly there must be some other sitcom stars of old who could bring a good bit of fun star power in a way that Grammer did.

For this show, in this rendition, could use quite a bit more oomph.

Certainly, if everyone who saw Finding Neverland on Broadway--or at least critics and award nominators--enjoyed it as much as I did, director Diane Paulus, book writer James Graham and Barlow & Kennedy wouldn't have felt compelled to "Tinker" as much.

Obviously, you can't please all of the people all of the time, and I still liked the show--as is--enough to give it a rating more positive than negative, and to expect many seeing it for the first time may be considerably more enchanted.

But while far from completely Panning a musical that retains numerous charms--and in Chicago, nice performances by the four "Davies boys" child actors--from the first song I wasn't nearly as Hooked as I had been previously, and by show's end, my effusive fondness for the Finding Neverland musical had largely Petered out.

Monday, November 21, 2016

'Sing Street' and the Evolution of '80s Pop Iconography

Sing Street
Netflix streaming link
IMDB link
Spotify soundtrack link

My favorite movie of 2016--though not necessarily the one I would dub "the best"--has clearly been Sing Street.

I instantly loved the small Irish film during its well-reviewed but brief stateside theatrical run in April, bought the Blu-ray upon its release in July and have watched it multiple times.

Sing Street is now streaming on Netflix and as--if nothing else--it makes for an enjoyable, warm, leisurely and for many around my age, nostalgic, watch, I would recommend it to almost anybody.

Directed by John Carney--whose Once I really liked, but not as much his follow-up, Begin Again--Sing Street centers around a Dublin teen named Conor sometime in the early-to-mid 1980s

Amid the splintering of his parents' marriage, Connor is enrolled in a new school--called Synge Street--where he encounters bullies in both the schoolyard and Headmaster's Office.

And to impress a pretty girl he instantly forms a rock band.

Though an endearing coming-of-age story, teen romance, depiction of family and fictionalization of the rock band formation & evolution process circa the early MTV years, Sing Street could certainly be called more glossy than gritty.

Those insisting on ultra-realism may have a hard time accepting how quickly and easily almost everything unfolds for Conor--finding bandmates, writing quality songs, shooting videos, trying out various fashion guises, etc., all happen with incredulous rapidity seemingly over just a few days, weeks and months.

Carney, an Irish musician who also penned the screenplay, noticeably plays fast and loose in terms of historical and chronological accuracy regarding certain bands, albums and songs.

For instance, in the film Duran Duran's video for "Rio"--a big hit in the UK by the end of 1982--is shown as highly influential at roughly the same time as The Cure's The Head on the Door album, which wasn't released until August 1985.

Hall & Oates' "Maneater" (from late 1982), Spandau Ballet's "Gold" (late 1983) and Back to the Future (summer 1985) are all touchstones referenced without time frame exactitude.

But although I had a problem in finding Begin Again unconvincingly facile, even as a work of cinematic fiction, the abundant charms of Sing Street supersede any qualms about suspending my disbelief...and appreciating the picture it paints.

Though far from matching my own reality, I really like the way Conor's (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) self-confidence carries him through a variety of challenges without the emotional turbulence becoming a major focus of the film.

And while there are nice nuances to Conor's love interest (Lucy Boynton), primary songwriting partner (Mark McKenna), older brother (Jack Reynor), parents (Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) and others, Carney never lets the pathos become cumbersome.

In doing so, he keeps the film--though far more substantive than most Hollywood teen comedies--lighthearted enough for me to primarily embrace it as an imagining of how nascent MTV-era bands developed their sound and look.

Iconic music videos forever seared the music, images and often flamboyant fashions of bands like Duran Duran, the Cure, Depeche Mode, U2--notably absent from Sing Street given where and when the movie takes place--and myriad others into public consciousness, and this film makes it fun to think about, "How did they get there?"

I can't help but mentally connect Sing Street with having come across, just this year, early Cure videos, from before their lead singer Robert Smith donned the "goth" makeup and frizzed hair that came to define him and his band.

Seeing Smith as a clean-cut, slightly artsy college-aged kid--with his now trademarked voice already well-defined--made me think about how he, as with Conor in Sing Street, probably tried out various audiovisual personas before settling on one that made him iconic.

So after watching Sing Street yet again the other night, and telling a few more friends about it, I enjoyed surveying videos of famed rock acts--mostly from the UK and arising in the '80s, but not all--in what might be considered gestational periods, before coming to look as they did in posters adorning millions of bedroom walls.

A few more such videos are below; taking note might make watching Sing Street even more fun. For as much as anything else the movie smartly touches on--love, friendship, music, fashion, brothers--it's ultimately about exploration, and taking chances without worrying about what might happen.

Early Gary Numan:

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hoosier Nephew: A Photographic Review of a Weekend Trip to Indiana University

Over the weekend, my mom, sister Allison and I took a road trip to Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University, where my nephew is a freshman.

We spent both Friday and Saturday nights in the same motel in southern Indianapolis, and did a bit of Indy sightseeing on Sunday.

But the focus was seeing my nephew on Saturday and having him show us around campus, the nearby town and even downtown Bloomington, as captured in these photographs. 



Composite artwork by Vic Muniz, reproducing a painting by Manet. An excellent exhibit on Muniz, subject of the
documentary, Waste Land, is at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at IU through Feb. 5, 2017

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Art Trumps Anguish: Excellent 'Fun Home' Illustrates How Bold Theater Can Reflect, Elevate and Supersede Reality -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Fun Home
a recent musical on its first National Tour
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru November 13

The other day I was telling a friend about Fun Home, before having seen it but generally familiar through the cast recording and having read a good deal about the show.

I relayed that it is an autobiographical musical centering around a lesbian cartoonist named Allison Bechdel, who had written a highly-acclaimed graphic memoir on which the musical is based.

Now in her mid-50s but a decade younger when the Fun Home book was published, Bechdel chronicled life growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, with her mom, two brothers and father, a high school English teacher who also ran the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home (i.e. "fun home").

As revealed in the first few minutes of the Fun Home musical--which is narrated by a fully grown Allison (well-played in Chicago by Kate Shindle) and enacted by Small Allison (around age 10, terrifically embodied by Alessandra Baldacchino) and Medium Allison (a college freshman, the excellent Abby Corrigan)--Allison's father Bruce maintained gay relationships and committed suicide soon after she became aware of this, and her own sexuality, shortly after entering Oberlin College.

In telling my friend about Fun Home, which I would see and greatly enjoy on Wednesday night, she noted that it seemed like an odd subject for a musical.

And within the still largely apt parlance of a musical containing "show tunes," chorus lines, choreography, etc., I fully understand the comment and incredulity.

But with occasional exceptions going back much further, over the past decade the boundaries of musical theater have considerably widened, whether in bringing new sounds into the idiom--such as in Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and Hamilton--and in the rise of musicals that are largely dramatic and about weighty subjects, notably Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Fun Home, which won the 2015 Tony Award for the Best New Musical.

Especially in neither being based on popular movies nor featuring well-known pop songs, these dramatic musicals offer exciting deviations from more traditional musicals, whether new or old.

I love any musical worth its salt, but as with Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Hamilton, I imagine Fun Home should greatly appeal to "serious theater lovers" perhaps generally adverse to more typical song & dance musicals.

With a score by Jeanine Tesori, who also wrote the music for Thoroughly Magnificent Millie, Caroline, or Change, Shrek: The Musicals and others--complemented by lyrics by Lisa Kron, who also penned the show's book--Fun Home certainly has several fine songs.

But with deference to some outstanding performances on tunes pivotal to the artistic enterprise, the greatness of Fun Home is more so found in its storytelling, structure and poignancy.

Perhaps because of this, and even some slow pacing within a one-act musical just 100 minutes long, I can't say I loved Fun Home quite as much as Hamilton, or even another non-traditional musical I recently saw called Come From Away, in which more of the songs were overtly infectious.

I also imagine the show might've been much better appreciated up close at Broadway's intimate Circle in the Square than from the balcony of Chicago's cavernous Oriental Theater.  

But whether it's best described as a dramatic musical, an autobiographical play with somber overtones set to music or simply a unique work of theater, Fun Home is, at the very least, terrific.

It's almost impossible not to be moved by Bechdel's recollections of childhood beratings by of her father, her realization and embrace of her own gayness, learning about her dad's hidden life, the coping of her mother (empathetically played by Chicagoland stage veteran, Susan Moniz), her father's death and her own life ever since.

But as adapted by Kron, the show also has considerable humor, and from the Jackson 5ish romp of "Come to the Fun Home," as Small Allison and her brothers create a mock commercial for the funeral home, to songs of sexual awakening ("Changing My Major," "Ring of Keys") to touching introspective tunes by both the mother (Moniz shines on "Days and Days") and father ("Edges of the World" nicely handled by Robert Petkoff as Bruce Bechdel), the music hits many high notes.

While the concept of multiple actresses playing the same character, sometimes onstage simultaneously, might sound like it could get confusing, under the Tony-winning direction of Sam Gold, it never is, and works rather uniquely and effectively.

And while five members of the Broadway cast were nominated for Tony Awards--including all 3 "Allison" actresses--in terms of both acting and singing those in the first national tour cast seemed as good as one could hope.

Shindle, a Northwestern grad, former Miss America and Broadway vet, is really good as the real-time Allison, and Petkoff--who I've seen in Sondheim musicals at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater--brings nice nuance to the difficult role of her cultured, conflicted, harsh, technically even criminal (he has some dalliances with teenage boys) but clearly beloved father.

As the two younger Allisons, Corrigan and Baldacchino are also rather superb.

Although Fun Home didn't quite blow me away to @@@@@ fulfillment--and unless one prefers darker, dramatic, non-traditional musicals, I wouldn't insist you go see it before the Chicago run ends on Sunday--I look forward to seeing it sometime down the road in a smaller setting.

And on the night after Donald Trump won the presidency, it served as a reiteration that art will be our salvation, that beauty can eclipse darkness and that even a rather solemn musical can be uplifting and inspiring at times when real life isn't.

As Shindle said post-show in soliciting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS donations, "We are not going back. We will not return to the world that killed Bruce Bechdel."

Daring yet open-hearted musicals like Fun Home will help see to that.