Friday, March 30, 2018

Over My Head?: Despite Feeling Fresh, 'Smart People' Doesn't Achieve -- or Even Approach -- Brilliance --- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Smart People
a recent play
written by Lydia R. Diamond
directed by Hallie Gordon
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru June 10

As I waited in Writers Theatre's beautiful lobby for Smart People to begin, I joked on Facebook that it's always good to see plays about those different than you.

I meant this somewhat facetiously, and self-deprecatingly, as I like to believe I'm reasonably intelligent.

But the truth is, that unlike the four characters in Lydia Diamond's play--which ran Off-Broadway in 2016 with a star-studded cast but middling reviews--I never earned a master's degree, doctorate or MD.

Nor did I attend Harvard.

In addition to being far more academically and professionally accomplished than I have been, Valerie, Jackson, Ginny and Brian seem to be roughly half my age. The first two characters are African-American, the third Asian-American and the last a rather unlikable white guy.

None of which, in itself, makes the play unappealing. There is a hipness to Diamond's dialogue, and a sprightly structure as--for most of the 2-act play--only two characters at a time chat with each other through a series of brief scenes.

We learn that Valerie Johnston (engagingly played by Kayla Carter) is an actress, who bumps her head and winds up being seen in the emergency room by Jackson Moore (Julian Parker, first-rate as he was in last year's Pass Over at Steppenwolf).

The latter is aiming to become a surgeon, but his tendency to stick to his guns in ethical arguments with his money-minded superiors has set him back to doing ER rounds.

Ginny Yang (Deanna Myers), holds a doctorate in psychology and--being of mixed Chinese and Japanese descent--conducts studies on anxiety and depression among Asian-Americans. Myers performance is strong, but the role seems fairly stereotypical, as Dr. Yang is hard-nosed, hard-shelled, headstrong, bossy and likes to shop a lot.

And I'm not quite sure what to make of Brian White (Erik Hellman), a Harvard neuroscientist who conducts studies to see if the brain impulses of white people will prove his theory that they are biologically compelled to racism.

As we first get to meet Valerie and Jackson, Brian and Ginny, Brian and Jackson, Jackson and Ginny, etc., etc.--and a sparse but functional set by Collette Pollard with a video backdrop--there is a nice freshness to all the fast-paced interactions.

We come to understand that even though all the characters are clearly quite intelligent and--except for Valerie, who struggles to support herself through local stage roles--in "good jobs" that compensate them well, all are faced with work frustrations, self-esteem questions, romantic difficulties and all the things that pretty much everyone encounters.

Smart People takes place amid the first Presidential campaign by Barack Obama in 2008, and while race isn't always at the forefront of the multiple dialogues, it becomes particularly prevalent through the pretty pompous white "liberal" character of Brian, the aims of his academic study that almost no one (including unseen superiors, colleagues, etc) understands and his fledgling but kind of cold romantic relationship with Ginny.

But while the play moves pretty well and Diamond is a talented writer--I enjoyed her The Bluest Eye
years ago, also directed by Hallie Gordon--the episodic scenes never really congealed into anything I could much embrace.

And though I recognize that vile racism can manifest in many ways, including by those who like to fancy themselves rather open minded, I don't feel like Smart People much enlightened me.

It even seemed to traipse in unfortunate stereotypes, and at the very least suggested that unlikable people can come in any color.

Or level of intelligence. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

4 Women, A Fun Show: Musically Chronicling a Quartet of Female Friends, 'A Taste of Things to Come' Proves Appetizing -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Taste of Things to Come
a recent musical
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru April 29

Due to theater subscriptions and press invitations, I see a pretty wide swath of shows, including some that I may not naturally select to see.

I believe this to be valuable, as art is one of the best ways for us to learn about people and perspectives we may not otherwise.

And I've rarely found theater to be parochial. Quality, whether in terms of plot, narrative, writing, music, acting, singing, dancing, set design, costumes, etc., typically transcends specific subject matter to provide fairly universal appeal.

Good is good. (And great is great.)

Heck, a hip-hop musical about America's first treasury secretary is one of the most amazing shows ever created.

Loving musicals as much as I do, happy for new ones I've yet to see and enjoying an earlier cast recording on Spotify, I was excited to check out A Taste of Things to Come at the Broadway Playhouse as part of my Broadway in Chicago series.

Even though it is a decidedly female affair.

Photo credit: Brett Beiner
Between the four-member cast, four-piece band, composer/lyricist/book tandem and the director/choreographer, there isn't a man to be found, save for technical team members listed in the program.

Which isn't a bad thing.

I, and probably most men, could stand to learn quite a bit more about women, and this show about friendship, change, growth and empowerment in the 1950s and '60s is enjoyably engaging.

Having run Off-Broadway, briefly, in 2016, A Taste of Things to Come isn't a world premiere, but it's arrived in Chicago without seemingly being on tour, and given that it chronicles four women living in Winnetka, it feels like it belongs here.

On a set by Steven C. Kemp representing the home of Joan Smith (a charming Cortney Wolfson), initially in 1957, the Wednesday Winnetka Women's Cooking Club has gathered, ostensibly to concoct an entry for a Betty Crocker cooking contest.

Joan's three best friends--pregnant Connie (Libby Servais), single & sassy Agnes (Linedy Genao) and cheeky Dottie (Marissa Rosen)--initially stick to the planned activity, singing and dancing to a fun tune called "Cookin'," with fine choreography by the director, Lorin Latarro.

But it soon becomes clear that cooking is just the catalyst for evenings of female friendship, chatter, concern, commiseration and more.

With the music, lyrics and book by Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin, Act I brings tunes about advise ("Dear Abby"), gossip ("Didja Hear") and Agnes' ode to wanting something more than a quiet suburban life ("Outta  Here").

There are references to the popular lifestyle books written by Joe Bonomo, but without me needing to reveal too much, things take a bit of a turn when Sidney Poitier is mentioned, and particularly as the women discover the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, by Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

Act II jumps us ahead 10 years to 1967, as the women once again gather in Winnetka, in some regards quite different than they had been, but falling into familiar patterns.

While Dottie has a nice solo lament about being "Just a Mom," most of the songs are group numbers, eventually regarding womanhood and empowerment.

All of which makes for an enjoyable show, just never quite an outstanding one.

And without me having any sort of problem with this, A Taste of Things to Come is clearly a show aimed at women, particularly those old enough to remember how things "used to be."

This is shrewd in the truth that older women make up the largest percentage of theatergoers.

So while anyone should find this show somewhat appetizing, it might well be truly savored--primarily--by those with different tastes, recollections and body parts than me. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Despite a Solid Rendition at Northlight, Martin McDonagh's 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' is a Hard Play to Warmly Embrace -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
by Michael McDonagh
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru April 22

Although he is likely now more known for writing and directing movies--including 2016's Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri--Irishman Martin McDonagh remains my favorite contemporary playwright.

He gets that nod over David Mamet because the last Mamet play I really like is Oleanna, written in 1992, and I've seen some more recent stage works of his I haven't much cared for.

McDonagh turns 48 today, and his plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Pillowman are among my favorites by anyone. (In addition to Three Billboards, I also liked his film In Bruges a good deal; Seven Psychopaths not so much.)

Currently, Skokie's excellent Northlight Theatre is staging the first McDonagh play ever to be produced: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which premiered in 1996 and whose 1998 Broadway production earned four Tony Awards, though not Best Play despite being nominated.

So I would love to tell you I absolutely loved it, much as I had Northlight's 2009 rendition of The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

But this is the second time I've seen The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which focuses on a 40-year-old "spinster" named Maureen (played here by the always terrific Kate Fry), who lives--and constantly bickers, rather acrimoniously--with her mother, Mag (a stellar Wendy Robie).

The only other two characters are the Dooley brothers, Ray (Casey Morris)--who primarily provides comic relief in some bantering with Mag--and Pato (Nathan Hosmer), a contemporary of Maureen's who shows some latent interest in her after 20 years with nary a word between them.

And while McDonagh's sharp dialogue drives a play that is really rather simple at its core--a battling mother & daughter, a bit of fledgling romance--as in the past the whole thing left me a bit underwhelmed.

Which isn't to suggest there's anything notably wrong with Northlight's production, directed by longtime artistic director, BJ Jones.

The acting is stellar, the set design by Todd Rosenthal provides a proper sense of a dingy but likely once rather homey Irish cottage, the 2-hour, 2-act play holds one's interest without dragging.

There's also plenty of McDonagh's trademark black comedy at play, not only in the verbal sparring between Maureen and Mag, but in what eventually unfolds.

But while this is, of course, true of any play or creative enterprise, I think audiences could be well-split by The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Some may like it, as done here & now, a good bit more than me, appreciating the humanistic nuance within intense script and performances.

Others, however, might be even more turned off, not quite knowing what the point is, or what one is supposed to take away from all the surface-level nastiness.

There's nothing here that lessens my considerable regard for McDonagh, Jones, Fry, Northlight or anyone else involved.

If nothing else, I was glad to see this play again, having only ever done so in a 2011 production by Shattered Globe Theatre (where I awarded @@@@, but barely).

But in attempting to fairly judge The Beauty Queen of Leenane based on what seems like an estimable staging, I'm unable to crown it as one of my favorites.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Robert Falls' Pull-No-Punches Adaptation Makes for a Grippingly Modern 'Enemy of the People' at Goodman -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

An Enemy of the People
by Henrik Ibsen
adapted & directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 15

"Stupid people put stupid people in charge and the rest of us suffer for it."

So says Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Philip Earl Johnson) in Robert Falls' potent new production of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 morality tale, An Enemy of the People, at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

With the script also referencing "power-hungry dimwits," "fact facts" and "deplorables," at first blush it may seem that Ibsen was even more acutely prescient than timeless drama can often be.

And indeed, during a scene change between the post-intermission Acts IV and V, I said to my mom next to me, it feels like this could have been written yesterday, not 130+ years ago.

But looking a bit more closely at the program's title page, Falls is credited with adapting & directing Ibsen's Norwegian play, based on a translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling (who died in 1898).

I have never read any version of An Enemy of the People, and there are various English adaptations to be found online--including one by the great Arthur Miller, upon whose own plays one can readily sense Ibsen's influence, even though this is the first work I've seen by the legendary Norwegian playwright (save for a re-write of A Doll's House by Rebecca Gilman that Falls directed at Goodman in 2005).

So while I believe Falls stayed largely true to Ibsen's original narrative and themes (at least per the Wikipedia synopsis), I don't think the ferociously contemporary bent of this iteration is as coincidental as it may initially seem.

Falls, Goodman's longtime Artistic Director and--per his now stagnant but previously quite active Twitter feed--seemingly an avid anti-Trump liberal, clearly knew what he was doing in scheduling this play, and he presumably punched up some the wording to ensure the relevancy wasn't missed.

But whatever the specific development and scripting of what is currently being presented in Goodman's Albert Theater, the end result is pretty astonishing.

And, hoping Falls didn't manipulate Ibsen's original tale too much for his own purposes, it is rather amazing to note how remarkably resonant plays about corrupting self-interest can date back to the Victorian age, far earlier as with Shakespeare's King Lear, the mid-20th century as with Miller's post WWII All My Sons and--per Tracy Letts' The Minutes--just last fall.

Interestingly, Falls--who likes using theatrical classics to remind us of our shared humanity and plight--staged & directed King Lear during the George W. Bush era, and I've now seen the other 3 works over just the past 5 months.

And perhaps because it smacks the golf ball so solidly--though a tad more subtlety may be welcome--I think I liked this rendition of An Enemy of the People more than any of them.

Although I can't directly compare it to earlier iterations, it's not like Falls has changed the basic constructs of Ibsen's play.

In an unnamed but presumably Scandinavian hamlet, Dr. Stockmann is the medical director for a public baths spa that is the town's main tourist draw and economic catalyst supporting many small business owners.

Shortly after the play begins, Stockmann--whose overbearing brother, Peter (Scott Jaeck) is the mayor of the village--has his suspicions confirmed: the water of the baths is toxic, poisoned by upstream pollutants (from commercial enterprises, the specificity of which I'll leave vague).

Not only does the doctor feel it his duty to alert the town of his findings and prompt corrective actions, he vaingloriously believes he will be heralded as a savior and perhaps even thrown a parade.

Stockmann's seemingly righteous intentions are initially supported not just by his wife Katherine (Lanise Antoine Shelley)--the daughter of a local businessman, Morton Kiil (David Darlow)--and his own daughter from a previous marriage, Petra (Rebecca Hurd), but also by Hovstad (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez), editor of the town's apparently progressive newspaper, and more begrudgingly by Aslaksen (Allen Gilmore), the newspaper's printer and head of the small business association.

But the good--if a bit delusional--doctor's fantasies of not only validation but veneration are soon crushed by the jackboots of self-interest, spearheaded by his heel of a brother.

How things unfold in something of a showdown between Dr. Stockmann, Mayor Stockmann and the townsfolk is rather gripping--enhanced by Falls' adapted dialogue practically ripped from recent headlines--so no need to give away any more specifics.

Admittedly, I am rather liberal, even progressive approaching radical, in my politics, and while I can't help but wonder how Trump supporters among Goodman patrons--even in decidedly Democratic Chicago--may take to Falls dramatically insulting them, I imagine I might have even more arduous debate with Hillary fans or those satisfied with what President Obama accomplished or even tried to.

"Change every aspect of our government! The system is rigged against you!" Dr. Stockmann exhorts to the townspeople, who clearly--and understandably, to an extent--fear what revelations of the poisoned baths will do to their own financial interests.

Pretty powerful stuff.

And while I feel Falls may be overdoing it a bit--though I'm generally aligned, I'm often somewhat squeamish with the one-sidedness and sly manipulation of Michael Moore's documentaries--it makes for riveting theater even without overt polemics...

...or occasionally--as happens onstage at one point--being beaten over the head.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Quite an Odessey: At City Winery, the Legendary Zombies Still Live to Rock -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Zombies
w/ opening act Don DiLego
City Winery, Chicago
March 19, 2018 (also playing 3/20)

Who were the best musical artists of the 1960s?

Presumably, many an avid music fan could respectably name over 50 first-rate acts--The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Supremes, Temptations, Cream, Creedence and on and on--before they might get to The Zombies.

Even in terms of British Invasion bands that accompanied or followed the Beatles and Stones, not only the Who and Kinks but the Animals, Hollies, Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Manfred Mann and the Yardbirds may be more top of mind.

For the Zombies really only had three hit singles--"She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and "Time of the
Season"--and their masterpiece album, Odessey and Oracle wasn't widely recognized as such until over a decade past its 1968 release (itself coming after the band had split up).

But thanks in good part to a Zombie resurrection in the early '00s that has seen core members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent frequently tour under the group moniker, I've been prompted to more deeply mine the band's estimable '60s output.

Thanks to a gaggle of stellar singles--including "I Love You," "She's Coming Home," "Just Out of Reach" and "I Want You Back Again"--and the sublime Odessey and Oracle, I now consider the Zombies the fifth best British Invasion group, behind just the Beatles, Stones, Who and Kinks.

And with a stellar show Monday night at Chicago's City Winery--where they've also sold out a Tuesday gig--I've now seen the Zombies live three times, having also done so in 2004 (on a great double bill with Love) and 2012.

While lead singer Blunstone and keyboardist/vocalist Argent are now into their 70s, both still represent their strong legacy impressively well. (The three musicians touring with them are also stellar.)

And what made this show particularly sweet was how well songs from 2015's Still Got That Hunger--"Moving On," "Edge of the Rainbow" and "Chasing the Past"--fit in with the classics.

Introducing 2004's "Sanctuary," Argent relayed how Blunstone had joined him out of the blue at a charity gig a few years earlier after decades had passed without their making music together. The reconnection begat a handful of shows, an additional 19 years of touring (to date) and some fine new music.

Including extended renditions of two songs recorded by Argent's eponymous band--"Hold Your Head Up" and the closing "God Gave Rock and Roll to You," dedicated to longtime Zombie sideman Jim Rodford, who died after a fall in January--as well as a lengthy run through "She's Not There," the Zombies' excellent set ran roughly 80 minutes.

This was after a fine opening solo set by Don DiLego, who won over the crowd with engaging tunes, warm & humorous stage patter and a singalong version of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody."

And although my friend Dave and I were happy just to be in standing room for the sold-out show, a gracious City Winery host kindly moved us to a pair of open seats a few songs into the Zombies set.

Loving Odessey and Oracle as much as I do, I would've happily heard a few more than the four songs played from it--"Care of Cell 44," which Argent noted Dave Grohl had called the song that most inspired him, "This Will Be Our Year," the Argent-sung "I Want Her She Wants Me" and "Time of the Season"--but I really relished the way the newer songs proved there's still life in these Zombies.

Who stand as one of the best bands of the '60s, very much in the present tense.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Straight From the Heart: At First Glance, Musical 'Pretty Woman' Is Appealing But Not Ravishing -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Pretty Woman: The Musical
a world premiere musical
with original songs by Bryan Adams & Jim Vallance
directed by Jerry Mitchell
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 15

(Note: Seen at the first preview performance, as a paid attendee and longtime Broadway in Chicago subscriber.)

Although it doesn't strike me as a screen-to-stage adaptation that absolutely needed to get made, at face value Pretty Woman:The Musical would seem to have a lot going for it.

The 1990 movie starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere made the former a superstar while grossing nearly a half-billion dollars worldwide.

I happened to be living in Los Angeles--where the film is set--when it was released, and though I haven't re-watched the movie often, I remember it and the surrounding hoopla fondly.

The cast for the musical, which is being promoted as a "Pre-Broadway World Premiere" is stocked with first-rate talent, including--in the Roberts role of Vivian--Samantha Barks, best-known for playing Eponine in the film version of Les Misérables.

Steve Kazee, who won the 2012 Tony Award for Leading Actor in a Musical for his performance in Once, plays Edward Lewis as Gere did onscreen. And supporting cast members Orfeh, Jason Danieley, Eric Anderson and Kingsley Leggs also have impressive Broadway credits.

Writing the music and lyrics are rock star Bryan Adams and his longtime collaborator, Jim Vallance. Though Adams hasn't recorded much that has caught my ear since the 1980s, I was once a pretty avid fan. And he has supposedly sold over 75 million albums throughout his career.

The musical's book is credited to the Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, the film's director and screenwriter, respectively. (Marshall passed in 2016.)

And perhaps most fueling my reasonably high expectations upon entering the Oriental Theatre for Pretty Woman's first public performance (officially a preview) on Tuesday night is that the musical was largely developed by its director and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell.

He had done likewise with the musical versions of Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots and On Your Feet, all of which I've terrifically enjoyed.

In 2012, I had likewise seen Kinky Boots in its very first public performance, also as a pre-Broadway Chicago tryout, and I was largely dazzled (as I wrote here).

While that show was similarly written by an '80s pop star taking a first stab at composing for the theater--Cyndi Lauper--the score and the whole affair got things a bit more right than Pretty Woman, although I liked the new show well more than I didn't.

Kinky Boots is also a musical based on a movie, but a little-known British film rather than one of the more iconic romantic comedies ever. And while Pretty Woman is considerably better than the stage version of Ghost, I don't perceive many finding the musical more beguiling than the original film.

Yet while Samantha Barks isn't Julia Roberts, she is "pretty" outstanding here. With many stage credits along with the Les Miz movie gig, she in herself is good reason to see this initial rendition of Pretty Woman.

After the opening group number, "Welcome to Hollywood," Barks belts out the poignant "Anywhere But Here" in a way that not only reminded of her stellar take on "On My Own" in Les Miz, but had me whispering to my pal Paolo in our seats near the top of the balcony, "She has one of those seemingly effortless, Broadway-caliber voices."

Persona wise, I found Kazee a tad bland--though that's kind of what the part of Edward's initially soulless financier calls for--but he too has a terrific voice, as demonstrated early on "Something About Her."

Albeit with some refinements, the musical hews pretty closely to the movie, so I don't feel a detailed description is necessary.

But as a rough outline, Vivian is a Hollywood hooker and roommates with her colleague, Kit (Orfeh, who I recalled fondly from Legally Blonde's original cast and is good here as well).

Through more of a chance encounter than a solicited one, Edward winds up taking Vivian to his penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, managed by the prim-but-sympathetic Mr. Thompson (Eric Anderson).

Personal growth accompanies Vivian and Edward's evolving bond over the course of a week, as do trips to snotty Rodeo Drive boutiques and corporate takeover plans steered by Edward's loathsome lawyer, Philip (Broadway's fine Jason Danieley in the Jason Alexander movie role).

Though some may find even his best songs a bit cheesy--as I do his monster hit "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You)"--I genuinely like Bryan Adams songs such as "Cut Like a Knife," "Lonely Nights," "This Time," "Somebody," "Heaven," "Straight From the Heart" and "Summer of '69." (Despite my headline reference, none of his catalog material is employed in this show.)

Yet while Lauper, Sting on The Last Ship and other rock vets have acclimated well to the musical theater idiom, the music and lyrics of great Broadway songs often feature nifty rhymes, insightful storytelling, overt catchiness, subtle charms and/or sly humor that demand a deftness even venerated pop hitmakers may not bring.

While all of Adams & Vallance's songs here are serviceable, and some rather enjoyable, on a first exposure I couldn't call any phenomenal--in either a rock 'n roll or Broadway sense.

Barks still manages to dazzle on "Look at Me Now" and "This is My Life," while "On a Night Like
Tonight" is a fun, dance-infused showcase number for Anderson as Mr. Thompson.

But Act I closer "You're Beautiful" is far too hammer-meets-nail than it should be, and Vivian's emotionally rousing "I Can't Go Back" feels like a hackneyed, second-rate '80s album cut.

Also, for a show en route to Broadway, the set pieces seem rather chintzy.

I know the era of Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables grandiosity is long over, but the scenery here feels already downsized for when this show gets to the in-the-round Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire in about a decade.

All this said, nothing about Pretty Woman: The Musical is awful, and pre-Broadway world premieres that opt to try out in Chicago should be cheered just on principle.

It wouldn't be crazy to think Barks could win a Tony Award for this role, and to see such talent on display elevates the material and makes for an entertaining evening.

Thanks to the leading lady, along with the estimable abilities of many in the cast and crew, this stage version of Pretty Woman merits you taking a look.

But--unlike shows that instantly inspire me to look forward to seeing them again--probably not a second glance. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sisterhood of the Salon: Theatre at the Center's Steel Magnolias Proves an Engaging Showcase of Impressive Women -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Steel Magnolias
a play by Robert Harling
directed by Linda Fortunato
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN
Thru March 25

Without my ever having seen it, the 1991 film Steel Magnolias--starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah and Olympia Dukakis--seems like the very essence of a "chick flick."

I say this with no disdain, disparagement or valid justification for any aversion, but the truth is that's I've never sought it out.

Not shockingly, but unknown to me until recent days, the movie was adapted from a 1987 play by Robert Harling, who also wrote the screenplay. The stage version originally ran off-Broadway for nearly 3 years.

Having never previously noted a Chicago area theater company staging Steel Magnolias--at least since I started paying attention around 2000--I was curious enough to ride out to Munster with my mom for a Sunday matinee at the erstwhile Theatre at the Center (within The Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, which features nice exhibition space and a great gift shop).

And thanks largely to excellent performances from the 6-woman cast--including both old favorites and fine actresses I'd never seen--I wound up being quite solidly entertained, considerably impressed and even a good bit moved.

Set in Chinquapin, Louisiana in 1987, the play takes place entirely within a beauty salon run by Truvy (the always stellar Heidi Kettenring, who unfortunately doesn't get to sing here; I've seen her in several musicals but this isn't one).

Presumably in her 40s, Truvy has a husband and two college-aged sons we never see. Her salon is built into an addition onto her house and clearly patronized by a group of regulars, four of whom we get to know here.

Aiding Truvy is the young, new-in-town Annelle (the likable Myesha-Teara), who is hired on in the play's opening moments, on a day focused on prepping Shelby (a terrific Landree Fleming) for her wedding.

Shelby's mom, M'Lynn, is played by Cory Goodrich, who--like Kettenring--I've seen shine in many an area musical. Without giving anything more than this away, we learn early on that Shelby is diabetic, and while she and her mom bicker, the love and concern is readily apparent.

Two other, older patrons of Truvy's--though they never do get their 'dos done onstage--are the posh Clairee (Jeanne Affelder) and irascible Ouiser (Joslyn Yvonne Jones).

As with Myesha-Tiara, I've never knowingly seen these two actresses before, but along with Kettenring, Goodrich and Fleming--who I remember fondly from Seussical at Marriott Theatre--all are demonstrably good.

Certainly, there is inherent quality in Harling's script--filled, for the most part, with humor and good-natured banter more than overt poignancy or pathos--as the women talk candidly about their men, children, dogs, faith, the local high school football team and more.

The 2-act, 2+ hour play takes place over a 2-1/2 year span, so while Shelby's nuptials are initially the prime topic, her life drives much of the narrative along with her changing hairstyles.

Directed by Linda Fortunato upon an impressive set designed by Greg Pinsoneault, Steel Magnolias is ostensibly about women, and Southern women at that.

But like almost any good work of fiction--although some of the events are inspired by circumstances in author Harling's life--it's widely relatable, even if you happen to be a decidedly Northern man.

Ultimately, it's about life and love and friendship and family and good days--and good hair days--and bad days and finding a way to get through it all.

I wouldn't have attended the play if I wasn't hoping to like it--and with the actresses whose work I knew, I figured to be reasonably impressed--but not only did I enjoy Steel Magnolias onstage more than I might've expected, it somewhat sneakily rose from @@@@ to @@@@1/2 in my mind (on my @@@@@ scale) as it reached its conclusion.

Who knows how or why certain plays from the theatrical canon get selected for local productions, but upon this one ending, I posited to my mom that I think it could work quite well at several venues we attend.

Although it would be hard for it to be much better cast than it is right now in Munster.

Complemented by the opportunity to meet up with some of my own family residing in the NW Indiana hamlet, I'm glad I found the opportunity to see Steel Magnolias.

And it's probably about time to seek out the movie.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Sans Great Biographical Heft, 'Hail Hail Chuck' is Berry Goode, Musically -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hail Hail Chuck
A Tribute to Chuck Berry
Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago
Thru April 1

On the first night of 2011, my pal Dave and I attended a concert at Chicago's then 84-year-old Congress Theatre by a legendary artist the same age:

Chuck Berry.

Although Berry at that point, and for a good while after, toured semi-regularly, we were there more so out of reverence for Chuck's seminal place in the history of rock 'n roll than any expectation that the show would be ravishing.

But even in cutting him plenty of slack, it was a rather dreadful evening.

As I wrote in my review here (for which I didn't feel right bestowing a star rating), Berry began solidly enough, with a decent run through "Roll Over Beethoven," backed by--as was long his wont--musicians he hired locally, presumably without prior collaboration or even much rehearsal.

Soon, Chuck was openly berating the sidemen over sound quality issues, keeping with his reputation for being ornery, even hostile.

Much more frightening, Berry subsequently slumped over his piano and had to be taken off-stage for
medical observation. He later returned, but clearly wasn't right, and the performance was aborted after about an hour...with only about 20 minutes of actual music played.

Such is my regard for what Chuck Berry meant to music--including directly influencing the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and myriad others--that I was nonetheless happy to have seen him in person once in my life, but it was a pretty distressing affair.

Chuck Berry passed away last March at the age of 90, and while many well-deserved tributes were paid, mention was also made of his tempestuous nature, and also a couple periods of incarceration.

This past Saturday, Dave and I visited Chicago's impressive Black Ensemble Theatre to see Hail Hail Chuck: A Tribute to Chuck Berry.

And perhaps not too surprisingly, with Lyle Miller well-embodying an older Chuck and Vincent Jordan a younger one--backed by a stellar 5-piece band--the music, and especially the singing, was better than that delivered by Chuck Berry himself (on 1/1/11).

Likewise beginning the show (after a couple non-Chuck warmup tunes) with "Roll Over Beethoven," Miller, Jordan and several others in the fine ensemble--including Rueben D. Echoles and Kelvin Davis as young & old versions of Berry's longtime pianist and collaborator, Johnnie Johnson--mixed in a good dose of narrative biography, as scripted by L. Maceo Ferris.

Early on, we learn about Berry's teenage musical tutelage by a blues guitarist named Bulldog Willie, Chuck's running away from home at 17 due in part to his tough deacon father, and the misdeeds that led to him being locked up in a reformatory.

From here, Berry encounters likely the two most important people in his life, Johnson--who invites him to join his St. Louis trio--and Themetta "Toddy" Suggs (Kylah Williams) Chuck's wife of 68 years.

Hail Hail Chuck focuses much more on his music--including important interactions with Muddy Waters (Dwight Neal) and through him, Chicago record impresario, Leonard Chess (Jeff Wright)--than his marriage.

Or, for that part, his tough personality, although Toddy notes that Berry changed considerably after spending nearly 2 years in prison for (supposedly) violating the Mann Act, at the height of his success.

Berry's rancor is readily apparent during Act II's chronicling of the Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll concert for his 60th birthday, organized by Keith Richards (and filmed by Taylor Hackford.

This was my second visit to the Black Ensemble Theater, following Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. in December. Although I liked that show a touch more, this one was somewhat similar in providing delightful entertainment honoring a true legend, but being too narratively cursory to be truly first-rate theater.

Both Jordan and Miller do excellent work personifying Chuck Berry--with the latter looking far more like him--and remarkable songs like "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Maybelline," "Johnny B. Goode," "No Particular Place to Go," "Rock and Roll Music" and "School Days" are delivered with plenty of panache and punch.

We also get musical performances in the guises of Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley (Trequon Tate) and--supporting the cantankerous Berry in 1986--Keith Richards.

So it's certainly a fun time and a fine show, save for some biographical and narrative superficiality.

Understandably, given Berry's career arc that had him exploding in the '50s and then being somewhat forgotten for a long while, Hail Hail Chuck at one point jumps ahead 20+ years in a rather abrupt instant.

But the pacing isn't so much the problem as the truth that what we learn about Chuck Berry is actually rather limited.

Dave noted that my nearly 50-year-old self was probably the youngest audience member by a decade, so it's doubtful that many attendees arrived without already possessing a decent familiarity about the show's subject.

But I would have liked a bit more done, not only in terms of Berry's biography--both the admirable and less so parts--but in enunciating just how influential he was.

I was somewhat surprised that the Beach Boys, Beatles and Rolling Stones (of the 1960s) were never mentioned.

If you're looking for a Goode time, you'll find it at Hail Hail Chuck.

Nothing at all wrong with enjoying some great music and an occasional duck walk. But in terms of documentary-style depth, you might wind up longing for your "School Days."

Or feeling inspired to research a good bit more about the legendary Chuck Berry after the show.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Powerful Themes of 'Hang Man' Fail to Overcome Stylistic Absurdity -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hang Man
a world premiere play
by Stacy Osei-Kuffour
directed by Jess McLeod
Gift Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 29

As Hang Man opens, set in--per the program--"a shit town in Mississippi," a black man is hanging from a tree.

Later learning that his name is Darnell (and wonderfully embodied by Gregory Fenner), we certainly presume him to be dead.

But given the absurdist leanings of the world premiere play by Stacy Osei-Kuffour--directed at Gift Theatre by Jess McLeod--of this we are soon made less than fully certain.

Though hung in a noose--at whose hand, including possibly his own, is unclear--Darnell talks to the audience, as well as to characters within the 80-minute one-act play.

And while there is inherent thematic power as Darnell is discovered by townfolk, initially by a couple in coitus--Margarie (Angela Morris) and Archie (Paul D'Addario)--I had trouble getting much out of the play beyond the obvious. 

Photo credit on all: Claire Demos
Clearly, Osei-Kuffour--a Chicago area native who studied at NYU and Hunter College and now writes for TV in L.A.--is trying some new approaches to address racism, as exemplified through both bigotry and ignorance.

But while there is plenty of good acting onstage, including by young Mariah Sydnei Gordon(?) as G--Darnell's loving niece--the white townsfolk, including Margarie, Archie and another of her suitors, a junior police officer named Wipp (Andy Fleischer), feel more like dimwitted caricatures than real people. 

Perhaps that's the point, as Sage (Jennifer Glasse)--who is G's mother and Darnell's sister--and Jahaad (Martel Manning), a black Muslim in town with hopes of collecting money Darnell owes him, are far more sympathetic. 

Admittedly, I don't often acclimate well to absurdity or surrealism onstage. 

Some patrons on opening night seemed to love Hang Man and I wouldn't question their affinity.

Certainly, parts of Osei-Kuffour's writing seemed sharp, with some humorous moments and some grim ones. 

But while wishing nothing but good things for the playwright, a very pleasant young woman who was in attendance on Thursday, in sum I didn't find Hang Man all that riveting or moving. 

Stupidity obviously infuses much racism, and I guess the largely banal actions of simple white folk upon discovering a possible lynching in their midst bespeaks this.

And while winding up in some weird directions, the compassion of one character is at least somewhat touching.

But in terms of much true enlightenment about the human condition and our racial divides, this well-intended, well-acted 80-minute one-act really just left me hanging.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Ours Go to 11: Volume 28, People I Would Have Relished Seeing on the Oscars

I watched the Oscars last night, all nearly 5 hours of the telecast.

Although I had seen all the Best Picture nominees and was actively curious about what film would win that category, as well as which actors & directors would be honored with trophies, I found myself largely bored.

I appreciate the show attempting to be inclusive, and respectful, towards woman and non-white, non-American talents in the film industry, who still represent too small a minority.

But I felt the telecast--and much of Jimmy Kimmel's comedy--was far too tepid.

Given the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it would seem a female host could've been more appropriate--perhaps Tiffany Haddish or Sarah Silverman--and probably more inspired.

As it was, on a show celebrating 90 years of the Academy Awards, my favorite moments were when classic stars and moviemakers were commemorated. Not so much in the compilation clips, but actually onstage.

Occasionally, in the cases of James Ivory (for best adapted screenplay) and Roger Deakins (for cinematography) it was great to see old pros win Oscars. But I also relished seeing Eva Marie Saint, Rita Moreno, Jane Fonda and--in a reprise from last year--Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

I would have liked more of this honoring of Hollywood's past (and the international film community), as other than the awards themselves--and those often seem flawed--I like the Oscars best as a celebration of film. (I don't care so much about the fashions, and the political statements--while on target--can become a bit much.)

I'm not saying all 11 of these people should have been included in this year's Academy Awards telecast on ABC, and I truly don't know if any or all would be healthy enough to present an award or participate in some kind of special number. But in the spirit of celebrating film greats who are still among us, I would have relished seeing: 

1. Sidney Poitier 
2. Gene Hackman 
3. Francis Ford Coppola 
4. Sophia Loren 
5. Robert Redford 
6. Robert De Niro 
7. Al Pacino 
8. Sally Field 
9. Katherine Bigelow (narrating a featurette on female directors)
10. Julie Andrews 
11. George Lucas

Friday, March 02, 2018

Pithy Philosophies #38

Seth Saith:

People hate others in fear of learning that the myth of their own superiority was really just a lie.