Friday, April 27, 2018

Reverie Afoot: Joffrey's Surreal 'Midsummer Night's Dream' Feels Amiss Amid a Chilly Spring -- Chicago Ballet / Dance Review

Ballet Review

Midsummer Night's Dream
Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 6

My life is an ongoing quest to be entertained, enlightened and occasionally dazzled.

And this long-running blog--now prominent and well-regarded enough to bring me many gracious Press Night invitations--provides an outlet to passionately tell you when I am.

And just as candidly, when I am not.

As in this case, about a new ballet by the esteemed Joffrey, called Midsummer Night's Dream (with no direct connection to the Shakespeare of the same name).

While my disappointment was echoed by everyone who--many far more vociferously--voiced an opinion on the train platform post-show, I hope that you disagree with me.

And if you are inclined to attend ballets, including rather new and non-traditional ones, it likely behooves you to check out what Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman has put together, with no regard for what a rube like me might think.

Photo credit on all: Cheryl Mann
Certainly the undertaking--including new music composed by Ekman's frequent collaborator, Mikael Karlsson--is immense and impressive.

I am certainly not a ballet expert and will take it on faith that the numerous Joffrey ensemble members onstage danced wonderfully. But for me, there really were no "Oh, wow!" moments, even in terms in terms of demonstrable balletic artistry.

And with all the caveats you may want--that Ekman's concept was unfolding within a dream and thus intentionally quite surreal, that I often have problems with highly interpretative, non-linear art, that almost anything now considered brilliantly original probably met with scathing initial disdain--I really had no clue what was going on.

Through intermission, watching the performers first dance around in hay and later seemingly gather to extol a prophet on a beach, interlaced by a Swedish vocalist named Anna von Hausswolff channeling Kate Bush--with appealing but largely indecipherable songs--I was willing to see this Midsummer Night's Dream as something quite creative-but-different, if not personally moving.

But Act II took the surrealism to far more heightened levels of oddity, confusion and--to this viewer--seeming self-indulgence. 

Beds floated, tables levitated, huge fish heads appeared, making for quite the acid trip and/or dream, yet I was sober and awake.

Late in the show, the entire gaggle of dancers sashayed around in their skivvies. With all the lithe, sculpted bodies--of both sexes--I can't say this was an unpleasant sight, but given my utter lack of comprehension or embrace, it almost felt exploitive.

To be clear and fair, Ekman seems to be quite esteemed and--appreciative of his ambition--I'm not accusing him of anything except creating a newfangled ballet that left me cold.

But while understanding that ballet dancing is often a scantily-attired profession, I couldn't tell you why everyone wound up prancing around in near nakedness.

No harm, no foul, and full respect to all involved.

Yet despite usually beguiling ingredients--enjoyable music, good singing, wonderful dancing, interesting scenery, attractive people--on a still chilly spring night in Chicago, this Midsummer Night's entertainment just wasn't a Dream come true.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

With Fringe on Top: Marriott's Stately 'Oklahoma' a Bit Better Than Just OK -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
Thru June 10

In years--or more so decades--past, Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire seemed to be best known for solid productions of classic musicals.

West Side Story, Damn Yankees, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver, etc., etc.

Though it would be wrong to imply there wasn't always a bit of adventurousness--along with considerable quality--it seems to me that in more recent years, the self-producing theater has put more of a focus on mixing things up.

There have been self-commissioned musicals, such as Hero and October Sky, shows that skew a bit younger (Mamma Mia, Newsies, Spring Awakening) and stagings of lesser-known musicals both old (She Loves Me, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and relatively new, like Honeymoon in Vegas and their sublime rendition of The Bridges of Madison County last summer (which I raved about here).

The venue's last non-children's production, Ragtime, is somewhat in the traditional vein, but its themes of immigration, racism and activism made it feel especially timely.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Currently upon the in-the-round stage is Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma, which was brilliantly modern when it hit Broadway in 1943--it's widely-regarded as an idiomatic cornerstone, as its great songs integrate rather seamlessly into the narrative, as opposed to "everybody stop-and-sing now" earlier musicals--but while meriting a 75th anniversary revisiting, it is more of the type of old school musical Marriott used to present much more often.

And though I certainly relished hearing fine renditions of wondrous tunes like "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top," "Kansas City," "I Cain't Say No," the title song and more, enough for it to have made for an enjoyably spent 2-1/2 hours or so, for whatever reason--including perhaps comparison to what Marriott Theatre has recently done--it too rarely felt amazing, incredible, awesome or whatever word best describes an innate specialness that is hard to define.

I mean no absolutely no disrespect to--and indeed, considerable admiration for--Oklahoma's two main stars, Brandon Springman as Curly and Jennie Sophia as Laurey.

But after Nathaniel Stampley has been mind-blowingly good in three recent leading man roles at Marriott--in The Man of La Mancha, Bridges of Madison County and Ragtime--and delightfully complemented in the last two by Kathy Voytko, it was hard not to imagine how good the two of them may have been as Curly and Laurey, even if adding a touch more maturity to the roles than normal.

Certainly, under the direction of Marriott Artistic Director Aaron Thielen, with some superb choreography by Alex Sanchez, the cast--headed by Springman and Sophia--comprises substantial singing, dancing and acting talent (plus that of the unseen musicians).

Michelle Lauto is largely delightful as Ado Annie, as she flirts with the emotions of both Will Parker (Aaron Umsted, who leads a fine "Kansas City") and a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (the likable Evan Tyrone Martin).

Susan Moniz makes for a fun Aunt Eller, while Shea Coffman is properly belligerent as Jud Fry, a farmhand whose crush on Laurey seems to be met with undue hostility, given how she does use him as a pawn in her love game with Curly.

So there's no dearth of well-sung classic songs, stage-filling dance numbers and impressive performances.

And per director Thielen expressing in recent press his desire to make some contemporary tweaks, there are some intriguing touches such as opening the show with a brief ballet that provides some backstory on the orphaned Laurey.

The famed ballet that leads to intermission is, for me, a tad longer than it needs to be, but well-done and narrative-enhancing.

But while there's nothing obviously deficient about this Oklahoma, it lacked something to make it feel truly fantastic.

I realize Marriott can't cast Stampley--who I recently dubbed the venue's best-ever performer--in every show without things getting repetitive, but hearing him approaching Laurey and Aunt Eller with a booming "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" might have provided the kind of chills truly wondrous shows can.

And while I imagine Oklahoma wasn't all that multicultural in 1906--aside from Native Americans who aren't represented in this show--it felt like greater diversity in the cast, perhaps including the leading roles, may have helped with making the musical feel a good deal more modern.

This isn't to suggest anyone onstage didn't deserve to be, especially as I have no idea who may have auditioned.

Certainly, the Ali Hakim character seems a bit ahead of his time--be it 1906 or 1943--and Rodgers & Hammerstein touched on social issues more than one may consider at first blush.

But Oklahoma was their first musical collaboration to reach Broadway, and it generally feels very white.

Still, based on this production. 

I'm sure there are more varied backgrounds represented in this cast than face value might suggest, but while I happily sang along in my head and bequeathed a genuine applause at the end, some kind of oomph was missing.

Which isn't to say more diverse casting--especially if forced--or Nathaniel Stampley (who is a black man) or Kathy Voytko or anyone or anything else would clearly be the solution.

But Oklahoma is a first-rate musical--I loved it at the Lyric Opera in 2013, and to be clear, there wasn't much diversity then either--and Marriott Theatre has consistently been delivering first-rate productions.

Yet while inherently enjoyable, and even quite good--not just OK--this go-round of a venerated classic just didn't put me in a euphoric state.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Earnest Dedication(s): At City Winery, Willie Nile Impresses Yet Again, on a Quieter Note -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile
accompanied by Johnny Pisano
w/ opening act Nicholas Tremulis
City Winery, Chicago
April 14, 2018

The ongoing viability of rock music is a subject regularly on my mind, and although I've often rhapsodized about it on this blog--without much to say beyond that there are still great bands I love to see, but not many new ones I know of--a variety of stimuli have prompted me to acutely consider it yet again.

From articles suggesting how the concert business may soon be hurting after the announced retirement of several legacy acts, to the deaths over the past few years of several artists I greatly enjoyed, to discussions with friends who attended the South by Southwest conclave, to the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide--from which it could be argued rock 'n roll has never regenerated--there is likely gist for another meandering Seth Saith piece lamenting the future state of my favorite art form.

But while I believe there is genuine reason to be chagrined and concerned about relative lack of new rock acts with the seeming ability to rise above the din, one thing that does hearten me is the knowledge that--at least in terms of recorded music--I can conceivably be sustained for multiple decades with quality rock that already exists but which I have yet to discover.

In terms of cherished rock artists that I've come across in the 21st century, a few have arisen anew--Arcade Fire, The Killers, Maximo Park--but in terms of acts to which I was long oblivious, along with The Wildhearts a singer/songwriter named Willie Nile now stands near the top.

I learned of Nile as a FOTB--friend of the Boss--on the excellent Bruce Springsteen fansite,, some time after the release of his wonderful 2006 album, The Streets of New York.

Prior to that, Nile had put out albums--to some acclaim, but not my awareness--in 1980, 1981, 1991 and 1999. See his Wikipedia page for some explanation of the odd cadence, seemingly due to legal and contractual issues.

Willie has put out six studio albums since Streets of New York, and I have now seen him in concert seven times, always bestowing @@@@@ or, as here, @@@@1/2 (on my 5-star scale).

Most of his Chicago area shows have looped in longtime local troubadour Nicholas Tremulis, and Saturday at City Winery Tremulis opened the show with an engaging 45-minute solo acoustic set.

Tremulis was talkative throughout, and after sharing that his erstwhile equipment van had broken down just that day, he sardonically and repeatedly referenced hoped-for audience generosity in helping him out.

I can't cite every song he played, and may not have titles quite right, but the first three were seemingly "Bless It All," "Red Line" and "Washington."

Tremulis also played an Irish country song--"Rambling Rover," I believe--covered Buck Owens' "I Don't Hear You" and did a fine tune he said he wrote "over the phone" with another favorite of mine, Alejandro Escovedo.

As best I could tell, this was called "Without You With Me."

After paying tribute to the recently passed Yvonne Staples, he ended his set with "Lover Man (Where Can You Be?)."

Tremulis would return to the stage for the last third of Willie Nile's set, but for the most part the headliner was accompanied by just his bass playing collaborator, Johnny Pisano.

I was somewhat disappointed to discover Nile wasn't playing with a full band, particularly as I had enticed three friends to also attend, and it wasn't quite the "OMG, he's awesome" affair his full-tilt shows have been.

But he and Pisano (and eventually Tremulis) played for a generous two hours, with tickets ranging from just $22-$30.

Without being locked into a band setlist, Willie took a nicely ad hoc approach, choosing songs from a big binder--see the setlist I posted to telling lengthy anecdotes before nearly every one, and dedicating most to multiple inspirations.

Before playing "This is Our Time," he spoke with pride of not only meeting the social activist, Malala, but in having that song serve as a theme at a recent event honoring her.

Among others, he name-dropped Bob Dylan and Edgar Allan Poe prior to "Life on Bleecker Street," and performed two strong new songs--"Have I Ever Told You" and "Looking for Someone"--that should appear on an upcoming album.

The latter was written in Nashville with Andrew Dorff--a noted songwriter and brother of Stephen Dorff--shortly before he passed at 40 while vacationing in Turks and Caicos, and Nile spoke of him quite admiringly and mournfully.

Willie also told of visiting John Lennon's childhood home in Liverpool, where he was inspired to write the Beatlesque, "My Little Girl," and mentioned that "God Laughs" has a Buddy Holly vibe.

With Pisano following him adroitly, Nile showed his piano aptitude on "Sunrise in New York City," "I Can't Do Crazy (Anymore)" and "The Crossing."

Although the fans bellowing out song titles were buffoonish, hearing him do the requested "Whole World With You" would have been sweet, as it's probably my favorite of his.

But amid a couple Dylan covers--"Rainy Day Women" and Blowin' in the Wind," both on Nile's recent Positively Bob tribute album--and his own "Les Champs Elysees," "House of a Thousand Guitars" and "One Guitar," I'm glad he did "Vagabond Moon" for the insistent shouters, if only to shut them up.

All in all, it was rather like a show I saw Nile do at Evanston's SPACE in 2015, with just Pisano alongside.

Without the electric guitars and drums, it just isn't quite as scintillating, but the acoustic performance and laid-back atmosphere allowed for Willie Nile's songwriting and storytelling to shine through.

While my pals who hadn't seen him previously weren't quite salivating with praise, they agreed it was a strong show by an estimable performer, and I believe Nile made fans out of a couple of nearby couples--one from Australia--who had come largely due to affinity for the City Winery venue, but bequeathed a standing ovation when the show ended.

Without being amped up, part of my "Dylan and Springsteen meet the Ramones and Clash" description to them didn't quite ring raucous, but even in pushing 70, Willie Nile well-proved why he remains one of my favorite artists of the 21st century.

And, at least for the time being, content with the present state of rock 'n roll. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Being Alive, and Well: Fine 'Company' Fits Nicely Into New Venus Cabaret Theater at Mercury -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Venus Cabaret Theater
at Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru June 3

An appreciation for the musicals of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim has not only earmarked approximately the last third of my life, it has considerably enhanced it.

In every year since 2001, I have seen at least one live rendition--and often several--of shows for which Sondheim wrote the music & lyrics (or, in the cases of West Side Story and Gypsy, just the lyrics).

There have also been a number of revues featuring the maestro's sublime songs, tribute concerts (including some televised ones) and even a few occasions at which I got to see Sondheim himself speak.

But I find that revisiting the material--including via Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods movies--never fails to tangibly regenerate my "passion" for Sondheim, whose lyrics (and music) uniquely befit a given show while invariably being remarkably sage on a universal level.

So although I had seen his 1970 musical, Company, as recently as 2016 (in a terrific take at Glencoe's Writers Theatre) and own-on-DVD two New York productions from just the past dozen years, I was excited to check out yet another rendition by Chicago's fine self-producing Mercury Theater.

This wasn't my first Sondheim show of 2018, as I saw Porchlight's Merrily We Roll Along in late January, but still represented something enticingly new.

Although I didn't quite grasp this until I arrived Saturday afternoon at Mercury's longstanding home on Southport Avenue--just doors from the Music Box Theater--under the auspices of executive director L. Walter Stearns, the Venus Cabaret Theater has newly been opened in an adjoining space.

The large auditorium--whose origins date back to 1912 and in which I'd seen Mercury productions of The Producers, Avenue Q and Ring of Fire--still exists, but while I can't cite exactly which restaurant or bar most recently sat just south, extensive renovation has created the Venus.

Company represents the public bow for the spiffy new 80-seat space, and it's a show that works quite well in such a setting.

The 2-act show revolves around a New York bachelor named Robert (nicely played here by David Sajewich), who, as the show opens is being feted at a surprise 35th birthday party.

Before the performance begins, cast members mingle with the audience, even doing some ushering and cocktail serving, and occasionally are interspersed throughout during the show.

This helps the patrons feel like they are at Robert's party and--at least at the opening performance--we were graciously provided with charcuterie boards and birthday cake.

A three-piece band, let by music director Eugene Dizon, provides fine accompaniment, and the cast does Sondheim's fine songs--largely about marriage and relationships, as Robert's pals cajole him about remaining single--generally quite proud.

Some exemplary so, such as Sajewich on "Someone is Waiting," Kyrie Courter (as Marta) on "Another Hundred People," Jenna Coker-Jones (as Amy) on a wonderfully-frazzled "Getting Married Today" and Heather Townsend (as Joanne) on "Ladies Who Lunch."

Group numbers, such as "Side by Side," sound fantastic, and along with Sajewich, Allison Sill shines on the sublime "Barcelona."

Townsend also well-renders "The Little Things You Do Together" as Frederick Harris and Nicole Cready engage in married-couple karate while welcoming Robert to their home.

But Company--which features adjoining vignettes rather than a straight-line narrative, and has several long stretches without songs being sung--is a tough show to get exactly right.

And while I would recommend this production to anyone not familiar with Company--and even Sondheim acolytes who are--it isn't as goosebump-inducingly good as others I've seen.

None of the performances deserve knocking, but there were a few too few "OMG!" vocal deliveries, and even some timbres close to suspect.

And though Stearns, who directs, is clearly a pro who gets what Sondheim, book writer George Furth and original director Harold Prince were going for, he doesn't quite solve the pacing problems in a seamless way.

Also, while on the surface, the idea to include smartphones onstage seems sage, especially given the literal contemporary setting within the Venus, it does bring a strange dichotomy.

That Sondheim, a gay man not knowingly in a long-term relationship until years later, would in the late-'60s write a somewhat cheeky, but largely not, ode to the wonders of marriage, makes the whole affair feel a bit dated.

Yet if we are to imagine Company is taking place circa 2018 and not 1970--given the iPhones and other small touches--it feels odd that "Bobby" is being given shit for still being single at 35, that none of the couples are gay (though one of the men makes a pass at Robert) and that the actors are predominantly young and white.

I realize that some of these issues are inherent to the material, not unilaterally adjustable (i.e. without seeking/receiving permission) and that you hire the best performers who audition.

So that Mercury's first foray into a "cabaret musical"--with no scenery except for nicely-utilized video panels--is as good as it is, is largely estimable.

And any day when I get to hear fine renditions of "Sorry Grateful," "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," "Being Alive" and pretty much all of the songs in this show is a good one.

This may not quite be the Sondheim rendering of one's dreams, but especially in a comfortable and welcoming new venue, it undoubtedly makes for fine Company.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Flight of Fancy Pants: Beyond a Masterful Lead Performance, Steep's 'Birdland' Doesn't Quite Soar -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Simon Stephens
directed by Jonathan Berry
Steep Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 12

I was really excited to see Birdland, on multiple levels.

Over the last several years, Steep Theatre Co. has established itself as one of Chicago's best storefront theaters--and among the finest of any size--in part due to its affiliation with the British playwright, Simon Stephens.

I'd seen Stephens' Harper Regan there in 2010, and absolutely loved the 2016 touring rendition of his Tony-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time--an adaptation of the book by Mark Haddon--which significantly raised his profile.

I probably haven't been to Steep--conveniently next to the Berwyn L station--as much as I should, and was thrilled to be graciously invited to see Birdland, whose title stirs warm memories of the New York jazz club named for Charlie "Bird" Parker. (I've only been to the current location, not the more famed original one, and there is no obvious reference in the play. A friend who also attended suggested the title comes from a Patti Smith song of the same name.)

This production is directed by Jonathan Berry, whose work I've often seen, and is about a fictional rock star.

Photo credit on all: Lee Miller
A rock star named Paul, in fact, which while it may not seem to be the most rock starrish of names, pretty much is.

Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Paul Weller, Paul Westerberg, Paul Stanley, Paul Rodgers, Paul Smith--lead singer of a British band I love called Maximo Park--Paul Kantner, Paul Young, Paul Simonon, Paul Carrack, even Paul Hewson, better known by his stage name, Bono. (I once wrote this blog piece about all the rock 'n roll Pauls.)

Adding to my anticipation was a glowing, 4-star (out of 4; my scale is out of 5) review of Birdland by the Chicago Tribune's excellent theater critic Chris Jones.

Thanks to which, the current run is sold out, though an extension seems a possibility. 

So I would really love to tell you that I too found this play--the tale of a world-renowned rocker who hits some serious potholes--to be absolutely wonderful.

But while the work of Joel Reitsma as Paul--who is onstage for entirety of Birdland, which runs 2+ hours with no intermission--is superlative, I can't say I was all that captivated by the play itself.

The show begins as Paul and his guitarist, Johnny (a fine Dushane Casteallo), are in Moscow near the end of a tour that has seen them rise to playing 75,000 seat stadiums.

I imagine the characterization of Paul can vary based on the age, costuming and choices of the actor cast, but other than employing a British accent, Reitsma's take reminds more of, say, Robbie Williams--a now 40-something UK superstar who fills stadiums worldwide, except in the USA--than Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen or an aging legend. Though there may be a bit of Bono in the leather pants Paul adorns.

From the way he speaks to a reporter named Annalisa (Cindy Marker) in his hotel room, to a much darker episode involving sex, betrayal, self-entitlement and tragedy--which I won't detail other than to note nice work by Lucy Carapetyan--Paul seems like an asshole from the get-go, not some charming rogue who has let fame, and stereotypical rock star excesses, go to his head.

So while it may be tempting to call this story a "fall from grace," despite Reitsma's valiant work and some shrewd staging that had "off-stage" characters sitting along the edges-- eerily representing paparazzi, groupies, fans, disposable relations and other hangers-on--I never embraced Paul enough to empathize with his fall or the price he pays.

Which isn't to say Stephens' depiction of a rock star's world isn't keen, or likely accurate, complete with Paul enticing a room service waitress (Aila Peck) to up and cavort to Berlin with him.

Though the pre-show music featured favorites from British acts like Pulp, the Fratellis and Kaiser Chiefs, during Birdland I couldn't help think of the Eagles' great line from "Hotel California"--"you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"--especially given the mirrors and chandeliers on the ceiling of Joe Schermoly's sparsely functional set. (I actually once wrote a screenplay about a rock star's fall from grace, derived from "Hotel California.")

So there are many estimable pieces to this play and production, including fine acting well beyond Reitsma. Steep's artistic director Peter Moore does stellar work as Paul's manager, while Jim Poole is terrific in a variety of roles, including--separately--an ardent fan and Paul's father.

And while Paul being less than likable to begin with isn't all that diminished my embrace of Birdland--plays needn't be about good people to great, though there was too little charm, smarm or humor about this guy--I can't say I took away all that much.

Basically, when shallow people--and this play doesn't provide any real sense of Paul's talent that brought the stardom, veneration and life in a constant world tour bubble--become famous and beloved, they aren't (always) given a blank check to do stupid, selfish things without consideration for others.

Yet while I feel compelled to try to justify--even just to myself--why I didn't love Birdland as much as I had hoped, nor nearly as much as Chris Jones, @@@1/2 still represents a play I liked much more than I didn't.

I'm grateful for the chance to have seen it, and hope Steep invites me back for an encore.

Not of this play--which might well have felt sharper at about 70% of the runtime--but perhaps their next one.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

A Fine Revue: Second City e.t.c.'s 'Gaslight District' Finds Laughter in Truth, and Vice-Versa -- Chicago Comedy/Theater Review

Sketch Comedy Review

Gaslight District
The Second City e.t.c. 42nd Revue
Open Run

After it had been about 10 years since I had seen anything at The Second City, the new revue under their "e.t.c." moniker marked my third visit to Chicago's hallowed self-producing comedy venue in the past 6 months.

I had previously seen and reviewed the mainstage revue, Dream Freaks Fall From Space, and an all-woman sketch show, She the People, both of which are still running. (Hyperlinks are to my reviews.)

Both those shows were enjoyable, and the obvious effort quite estimable, even if neither blew me away.

So it is with no disrespect to those two shows, their casts, writers and crews, that I say I found The Second City e.t.c.'s Gaslight District the best of the three.

As best I could ascertain, the six performer/writers in Gaslight District--Emily Fightmaster, Sayjal Joshi, Katie Kershaw, Andrew Knox, Alan Linic, Jasbir Singh Vasquez--have been as thoroughly trained and practiced as those in the mainstage revue.

And except for a vague suggestion that e.t.c. tends to be a bit edgier than mainstage, I couldn't determine anything that particularly earmarks this troupe/show vs. others. 

Although there was a little bit more improv incorporated than I recall from Dream Freaks... or She the People, this too was mainly a scripted, sketch comedy show that ran through numerous short vignettes, including some musical ones.

Coincidentally, within the past month, I had watched for the first time the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight, which saw her character's husband manipulating her into believing she was delusional.

This had given rise to the term "gaslighting," which Wikipedia describes as:

"A form of psychological abuse in which the victim is gradually manipulated into doubting his or her own sanity."

Without knowing why else this Gaslight District revue was so titled--some cities have a so-dubbed district, but not Chicago to my awareness--I'm not suggesting there was any overt connection to Gaslight or gaslighting.

But with several references to a certain current president and (indirectly) his beguiling of a sizable portion of the masses, plus the frequent use of an imagined "truth zone" onstage, well, it kind of fits.

Even more so than with most theatrical reviews, I feel I should be circumspect about the material, as surprise is often part of the LOL pleasure.

Yes, there are a few gags about Trump--and they work well--but some of the best skits were not only non-political, they were weirdly (in a good way) not very topical.

I found a piece about how a certain country has overtaken another to become the world's most despised to be rather inspired, and a skit spoofing a men's hair salon chain takes a wonderful left turn, led by Fightmaster and Knox.

Terrific too is a piece about an adult chaperone messed with by his charge of high schoolers during a hotel stay, and a musical ode is sung to a surprising but quite relevant subject.

All six cast members are excellent, with Linic, Kershaw and Joshi clearly being talented pros.

For his musicality, sly facial expressions and multi-linguistic, I found Vasquez to be a particular standout, and would have liked to have seen him do even a bit more in Gaslight District.

A teacher named Kate from Wisconsin was brought onstage from the audience for some improv bits, and also acclimated rather well.

That a couple of skits--including one that has Vasquez playing a man volunteering to be deported by ICE, with Joshi the agency newbie handling his case--wind up more poignant, even maddening, than funny, only adds to the adroitness of Gaslight District.

I'm not sure if I'll ever become a regular at Second City, and it'll obviously take awhile for new shows to hit their boards.

But even more than before, I can see why the venue is so venerated, and with the 42nd e.t.c. revue daring to hit a bit harder, it's nice to know such laughter can be found in truth.

And the other way around.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Re-Do the Conga?: The Rhythm of 'On Your Feet' Still Gets Me, but Not So Gloria's-ly -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

On Your Feet: The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru April 8

On June 2, 2015, I saw the first public performance of On Your Feet!--then subtitled: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan--in its Pre-Broadway Chicago run.

In my review--likely the first by anyone of the show, since I had seen what was technically a "Preview" performance as a Broadway in Chicago subscriber--I called it "the best jukebox musical since Jersey Boys."

I also said I expected "On Your Feet! to be quite successful in New York and well beyond."

The show--which I intimated should appeal to fans of the music of Gloria & Emilio Estefan and maybe even more so to "aficionados of musical theater with cohesive narratives, fluent pacing, strong performances"--wound up running on Broadway for nearly 2 years and has begun international productions along with its current U.S. Tour.

I did not see On Your Feet! subsequently in its initial Chicago run, or on Broadway, so I wasn't aware of any changes that were made by esteemed director Jerry Mitchell, yet while ongoing tinkering is the point of previews and out-of-town tryouts, in my review headline I had dubbed the very first known incarnation "Already a Sound Machine."

So I was fairly excited to see the musical--now subtitled The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical--back in Chicago, where I caught it at the Cadillac Palace on Wednesday night.

And while I still enjoyed it--and recommend it to those looking for a sprightly show--I can't say I was quite as enamored.

My memory isn't good enough to cite too many specifics about what may have changed about On Your Feet!--and I won't say this is explicitly why the show about the musical Estefans felt a little less "Gloria's"--but from reading my old review I do know some adjustments were made.

The show no longer opens with a full blast through "The Rhythm is Gonna Get You"--it's quite abridged, with nearly no vocals--nor is there early reference to Gloria's near fatal bus accident in 1990, which had formerly served as a narrative thread throughout the entire show.

Other than that, I don't know exactly what, if anything, is much different, though I think there were significant Act II variances.

I saw an understudy, Danny Burgos, for the regular touring Emilio (Mauricio Martinez), but he seemed solid if not quite electrifying.

And if not quite as good as Ana VillafaƱe--who originated the role of Gloria--Christie Prades is truly superlative and actually sounds more like the famed singer.

As Gloria's mom, grandma and sister, respectively, Nancy Ticotin, Debra Cardona and Claudia Yanez are demonstrably good.

And as Young Emilio (and a couple other children), Jordan Vergara is an outstanding dancer who nearly steals the stage.

So the talent on this tour--under the direction of Mitchell and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo--is quite estimable, including the on-stage musicians.

Songs like "Get On Your Feet," "Conga," and "Turn the Beat Around" remain electrifying, and On Your Feet! well uses many songs from the Estefans' time with Miami Sound Machine and Gloria's solo career.

Not all of these are sung by the Gloria character, and Burgos' take on "Don't Wanna Lose You" is a highlight, as is Ticotin's "If I Never Got to Tell You," written by the Estefans' daughter Emily.

What I had liked so much about On Your Feet! on my first encounter was that it was a "jukebox musical" that felt akin to a more traditional musical with universal themes and insights.

And it's not like this is a completely different show.

We still learn about Gloria's dad being a Vietnam vet--the Fajardo family had left Cuba during the Cuban Revolution, when she was just a toddler, and settled in Miami--who becomes badly injured, and we get to know her overbearing mom and sympathetic grandma (aka Consuelo). 

And as Emilio and Gloria meet, become musical collaborators, fall in love, marry and build their careers, there is still a big audience cheer when he exclaims to a record company jackass: 

"This is what an American looks like!"

The horrifying tour bus crash that left Gloria having to learn to walk again still factors into the latter part of On Your Feet!, even if not as intertwined throughout as it initially was. 

While I believe Act II is a bit different from what I don't quite recall, I won't spell out anything further, and Prades' grand delivery of "Coming Out of the Dark" is both beautiful and touching. 

Certainly, I realize it may be a bit unfair to be comparing this touring production of On Your Feet! to a version that likely was never officially locked in, and which has no real bearing to what others will see at the Cadillac Palace (or elsewhere on tour). 

But throughout, this felt like a @@@@ (out of 5) musical, and I'm probably just trying justify to myself why I was so enamored--bestowing @@@@1/2--to a show I first saw so early in its public gestation. 

Who knows? Maybe it's just a vague matter of perception, or perhaps I was particularly excited to see something brand new back in 2015.

And while the current performers are excellent, maybe the originals who took the show to Broadway were just a tad more kinetic. 

I did sense Act I was a bit slower-paced than I remembered, but otherwise I'm not sure what accounts for my not being quite so Gloria's-ly smitten. 

Nonetheless, this fine show should still get you On Your Feet!

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

As an Imagined True Story About Two Legendary Playwrights, Raven's 'Gentleman Caller' Fascinates -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Gentleman Caller
a world premiere play
by Philip Dawkins
directed by Cody Estle
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 27

I have seen many a middling play by many an acclaimed playwright, so to have great respect for the art ... and appreciation for the challenge of penning something others--including critics--will love.

To do so on commission probably adds to the pressure.

And to write a play with just two characters, who just happen to be two of the greatest American playwrights in history, imagining the circumstances, conversation and sexual tension that supposedly existed in encounters between the two--but haven't ever to my knowledge been documented--well, that has to be damn daunting.

But the Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins, abetted by strong performances by Rudy Galvan as Tennessee Willams and Curtis Edward Jackson as William Inge, pulls it off in a rare self-commissioned world premiere production by the Raven Theatre.

And beyond being an engrossing 2-1/2 hour play that covers almost every emotion in the book, The Gentleman Caller--already slated for an Off-Broadway production--is at its core a work about finding the inspiration, motivation, encouragement, balls or whatever else necessary to do something daunting, whether in one's personal or professional pursuits.

Directed by the Raven's new artistic director, Cody Estle--who himself rather daringly has made this somewhat audacious piece essentially his opening salvo--The Gentleman Caller begins with Galvan as Williams rather cheekily breaking the fourth wall and speaking to the audience.

This establishes that what we're about to see is a fundamentally fictionalized version of things that may well have happened (based on what history does know).

On the precipice of The Glass Menagerie--originally titled The Gentleman Caller--opening in Chicago and soon making him quite acclaimed and famous, in November 1944 St. Louis resident Tennessee Williams comes to the "not so garden apartment" of Bill Inge (as in hinge), for an interview with the then arts critic for the St. Louis Star-Times.

While Williams is, and remains--through the show and seemingly throughout his real life--openly gay and confidently debonair, Inge is--onstage here and presumably off--knowingly gay but quite closeted and uptight.

The sexual tension between the two emotionally-different men is apparent--and central to the play--but it is rather surprising when one essentially attempts to rape the other fairly early in the first act, although laughter soon ensues.

I don't have the wherewithal to know how biographically accurate the characterizations of Williams and Inge are, but it's a dramatic delight to see the overtly outward former--in a gleefully great performance by Galvan--push the buttons of the exceedingly inward latter. (That homosexuality was perceived far differently in 1944 than today is a reality that hangs over both characters.)

On a set designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec, Act Two moves about 6 weeks forward to a hotel room in Chicago, where the two writers meet again after The Glass Menagerie has charmed the Chicago Tribune's notoriously tough theater critic, Claudia Cassidy.

This will set Williams on his way to becoming one of the holy trinity of American 20th Century playwrights--alongside Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller--with such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer (which the Raven will stage next), Sweet Bird of Youth and Night of the Iguana.

Within the rather brief time frame of The Gentleman Caller, Inge is not yet a published playwright, but by 1950 his Come Back, Little Sheba would appear on Broadway, and--threatening to eclipse Williams for awhile--Picnic would earn a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1953. (Incidentally, the Broadway production largely introduced a young Paul Newman to the world, and over the next decade, he'd appear in Williams' film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Broadway production of Sweet Bird of Youth.)

I won't share any more about what The Gentlemen Caller intimates about Williams' and Inge's romantic and sexual entanglement, or spell out what goes down to help propel Inge in his playwriting career. But to provide a bit of helpful historical context I think it fair to note this blurb from Wikipedia:

"With Tennessee Williams's encouragement, Inge wrote his first play, Farther Off from Heaven."

So while accepting that it may not all be truth, The Gentleman Caller helped me get to better know two esteemed playwrights, perhaps with greater acuity than biographical plays or movies that aim to cover a subject's entire life. (I would love to see similar "conjecture works" about John Lennon and Paul McCartney meeting in 1974, and the times Miles Davis and John Coltrane teamed up and split up, musically.)

And making this play powerful on a contemporary, psychological and universal level is the way it tackles the notion of daring to do that which is daunting.

Having greatly enjoyed The Gentleman Caller, I'm glad Dawkins, Estle, the Raven and all involved indeed did.

And I admire this estimable new play all the more so for it. 

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

In the Hometown of Joliet Jake, Damn Right Buddy Guy and Ronnie Baker Brooks Brought the Blues -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Buddy Guy
w/ opening act Ronnie Baker Brooks
Rialto Square Theatre
March 31, 2018

Although this should actually date back further, since 2002 I have now seen Buddy Guy live onstage 10 times.

Seven of these shows have come during his annual January residency at the Chicago club he owns, Buddy Guy's Legends.

This is the quintessential way, and place, to see the legendary blues guitarist and singer.

But is also something of a pain in the keister.

Not only have prices steadily risen, costing nearly $100 per person including Ticketmaster fees for a Friday or Saturday night, but as the general admission club has far fewer seats than the number of patrons who attend Buddy's gigs, you are advised to arrive around Noon if you want to reasonably assure yourself of sitting. And on Fridays & Saturdays, Buddy doesn't take the stage until 10:30pm or so.

Thursdays and Sundays tend to be a bit cheaper, earlier and slightly less of a hassle, but--though I loved seeing Buddy Guy at Legends as recently as January 2017--I wasn't that motivated to commit 10+ hours to do so again this year. (Though watching live streams aren't nearly the same, they sufficed.)

But even amid Buddy's 2018 residency, he announced a concert at Joliet's Rialto Square Theatre.

So I bought a ticket, having never been to the grand old venue that began as a movie house in 1926, just 10 years before Buddy Guy was born.

And I still devoted about 10 hours to getting to, waiting for, returning home from and seeing the show.

This isn't just because Joliet is a good hike from my home in Skokie.

As it happened--having already prompted my mom to postpone a Night 2 Passover Seder because I was oblivious to the conflict--the Loyola Ramblers wound up playing in the NCAA Final Four on Saturday.

A bit fortuitously, their game was at 5:00pm so I could watch it--in Joliet--before the concert.

A friend who lives near Joliet had mentioned a couple of options close to the theater, including a restaurant/bar called Juliet's, which is where I wound up, in part because a cop I asked near the Rialto also recommended it. 

As anyone who cares already knows, Loyola lost.

Things looked good for the first 3/4 of the game, but then things fell apart.

But enough about that.

And while I found it a bit odd that noted horrorcore act Insane Clown Posse was playing a bar between Juliet's and the Rialto in downtown Joliet the same night, it had no real consequence on me.

I had a pretty good main floor seat at the resplendent Rialto, for $52.50 plus fees, so a bit less than I would have paid at Legends even on a Thursday or Sunday, although with considerably less intimacy.

Opening the show was Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of longtime Chicago blues legend Lonnie Brooks, who passed last April 1.

Before playing a note, Ronnie dedicated the show to his dad, and went on to deliver a delightful hour, complete with audience singalongs, standing ovations and much great guitar soloing from RBB.

I had seen Ronnie a few times alongside his dad, and opening a show for B.B. King in 2008, so I knew he was terrific.

And his performance with three sidemen was so good, it almost would've justified the shlep to Joliet in itself.

I can't cite many of the song titles, but as he mentioned his new album, Times Have Changed, I know Ronnie Baker Brooks and his band played the title song and "Long Story Short" from it.

Mentioning his dad Lonnie again, he also got the crowd to sing along heartily on "Sweet Home Chicago."

A little after 9:00pm, Buddy Guy and his band took the stage with the title song from his 1991 album, Damn Right, I've Got the Blues.

In a white fedora and a black shirt with white polka dots that matched his Fender Strat, the 81-year-old Guy cut his normal dashing figure.

And when he played blazing solos, it was--as always--one of the greatest sounds I have ever heard.

Though he is, almost inarguably, the world's greatest living bluesman, Guy spent much of the near 2-hour performance paying homage to his predecessors and late contemporaries: Willie Dixon ("I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man"), Muddy Waters ("Nineteen Years Old"), John Lee Hooker ("Boom, Boom") and the man he called the greatest guitarist he ever heard, B.B. King ("Sweet Sixteen").

As is typical, he also referenced--verbally and musically, but often with just snippets--those who followed in his wake, like Eric Clapton (part of "Strange Brew" and "Sunshine of Your Love") and Jimi Hendrix (a taste of "Voodoo Child").

Given the locale, I liked how Buddy regaled the sold-out crowd with recollections of frequently playing a Joliet blues club in 1960s--perhaps called Route 66 Blues or something akin I didn't quite glean--and noting that he often had to learn the pop songs of the day, such as Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar," which got a nice run-through.

Despite the larger venue, it was the type of performance I've often seen him give at Legends, with similar songs, snippets, stories and his wondrous Cheshire cat grin.

Though likely more novel to those seeing him for the first time--and Buddy mainly plays these types of stately venues in maintaining a prolific touring schedule--it was still fun to see him play the guitar, on occasion, with his mouth, a drumstick and behind his back.

And while much of the old blues was glorious, I really enjoyed renditions of more (relatively) recent tunes such as "Feels Like Rain," "Someone Else is Steppin' In" and a sublime "Skin Deep" that followed touching memories Buddy shared about his mom instilling core human values in him.

Buddy Guy's band--including, I believe, Ric Hall on guitar, Marty Sammons on keys, Orlando Wright on bass and Tim Austin on drums--was typically stellar, with Sammons often locking in with Buddy, and Hall playing some great solos of his own.

At night's end, Buddy Guy brought Ronnie Baker Brooks onstage with him, for another pass through "Sweet Home Chicago."

All in all--despite Loyola losing--it was a pretty swell night.

Though I'm still convinced that the best way, and place, to see Buddy Guy is at the club that bears his name.