Thursday, November 29, 2018

Mary Christmas: Zimmerman's Magical 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' is a Holiday Gift of Imagination -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Conceived & directed by Mary Zimmerman
from the story by Hans Christian Andersen
Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 13, 2019

I became an avid Chicago theater aficionado around the turn of this century, so a couple years after Mary Zimmerman enjoyed considerable success and acclaim for her Lookingglass adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which would eventually move to Broadway and earn her a Tony Award for Best Direction.

But I did catch Lookingglass's reprise of Metamorphoses in 2012 and have seen several other  Zimmeman productions, including Galileo Galilei, The White Snake, new stagings of the musicals Candide and Wonderful Town and a world premiere musical adaptation of The Jungle Book, all at Goodman Theatre.

I can't say I've loved everything Zimmerman has done, but I greatly admire her talent, including a true gift for whimsy. I found The Jungle Book a particular joy, and rue that the production seemingly hasn't had much of a shelf life (e.g. Broadway) after the Goodman staging in 2013 and a short subsequent run in Boston.

And after a 3-year break from working in professional theater, Zimmerman's latest show, The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass, is nothing less than a work of genius.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
As in tickle my mind for relatively few similar examples of creations--in any genre or realm--that are so
extraordinarily imaginative as to keep me awestruck from beginning to end, with a smile plastered upon my face.

The Muppet Show. Yellow Submarine. Fantasia. The Lion King musical. Christopher Wheeldon's rendition of The Nutcracker, soon to be reprised by Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. The Wizard of Oz. And a special few holiday classics that bring merriment and mirth when they show up on your TV.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which in certain promotional materials is subtitled A Christmas Pantomime--as there are no spoken words during the show--already feels like that.

Beyond my prior awareness, the story comes from a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, and is inherently infused by abundant imagination from one of the greatest of storytellers.

But what Zimmerman and the team at Lookingglass do with it--including scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, costume designer Ana Kuzmanic, music composers Andre Pluess & Amanda Dehnert, puppet designers Blair Thomas & Tom Lee and several others--is simply astonishing in its originality, creativity and sheer glee.

The show runs little more than an hour and the scenario is relatively simple:

A toy soldier made with just one leg gets wantonly chucked around by a baby, becomes smitten with a toy ballerina dancing upon one leg, suffers--steadfastly--through a variety of misfortunes and indignities before, well, I'll leave that for you discover.

So it may well sound like light holiday fare, with its brevity not mandating a trip down to the Magnificent Mile and Chicago's old pumping station, which Lookingglass calls home.

But Chris Jones gave The Steadfast Tin Soldier 4 stars (out of 4) in the Chicago Tribune, and even in arriving with a touch of dubiousness nonetheless, I absolutely loved it.

Though I enjoy much Christmas fare, in being Jewish I am not inherently drawn to that much of it, but any and all such reservations are entirely immaterial here.

Really, no matter what your religion--or lack thereof--or age for that matter, you should simply find
yourself mesmerized by creative ingenuity and beautiful music.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier is so good--quite magical, really--that I don't want to tell you too much about it, rather just let you encounter it on your own.

As you should be able to tell from the pictures, sometimes the namesake tin soldier is a small toy--as handled by a baby, who himself is seen in various sizes--but is also played in human form by Alex Stein.

Kasey Foster plays the ballerina, and somewhat astonishingly for all that goes on onstage--including much puppetry--there are only five people in the cast, rounded out by Christopher Donahue, John Gregorio and Anthony Irons, the latter embodying a Goblin sprung from a Jack-in-the-Box.

There are also four musicians who play throughout the entire performance, and merely the music would be worth the price of admission.

Taking a look at ticket availability and prices, seeing this show shouldn't be impossible, and--depending on the specific performance--relatively reasonably priced.

There may also be discounts on HotTix, including for tonight as of this writing.

Unless you're a complete Scrooge, I really think you'll love The Steadfast Tin Soldier--on multiple levels--and suggest you don't miss it.

Though really, it should become a holiday tradition. Its gifts are that special. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Phenomenally Fun: Blistering the House of Blues, The Struts Are an Absolute Blast -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Struts
w/ opening act The Glorious Sons
House of Blues, Chicago
November 24, 2018
(also played 11/23)

As I've often opined, for me, rock music can be far more than merely entertaining.

It can be insightful, illuminating, inspirational, motivational, spiritual,  therapeutic, restorative, sustaining, life-affirming, soul-enhancing, even world-changing.

But at its core it should also be:


And more than any band I know of, especially in terms of newish ones, the Struts are unabashedly fun.

I won't debate anyone who finds the British quartet too retro or overly derivative. I'm having similar issues with Greta Van Fleet, who I feel are aping Led Zeppelin without proper appreciation for all that went into Zeppelin (influences, contemporaries, etc.).

Certainly, Struts singer Luke Spiller wears his heroes on his sleeves.


At least in the past--per Wikipedia--and I have to imagine it remains true, Spiller's stagewear was designed for him by Zandra Rhodes, who formerly dressed Freddie Mercury.

So yes, the Struts remind quite a bit of Queen, without my suggesting they're nearly as brilliant.

And they also remind of the Darkness, another retro British band that was quite a bit of over-the-top fun until they disappeared rather quickly.

But while I think it may be time the Struts develop material devoid of such obvious sonic allusions, they rise above being slagged as little more than imitators of greatness--as I perceive Greta Van Fleet--for a few reasons.

First, though their songs sound like those by classic rock forebearers, they aren't pure ripoffs and are largely inventive, really catchy and remarkably fun.

Next, though Spiller seems akin to a video game avatar of the great Mercury--with a bit of Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler mixed in--he has a self-aware stage presence and an insanely great voice.

Finally, as I get to some specifics about their sold out headlining concert Saturday at Chicago's House of Blues--which they also packed on Friday--the Struts rock ridiculously hard and aren't cheating anyone.

For $27.50, they delivered a delectable 2-hour show that seemed to delight everyone to the point of mass exertion and exhaustion, preceded by a strong opening set by the Glorious Sons.

That band, hailing from Kingston, Ontario, Canada, also pays clear homage to rock 'n roll predecessors.

Initially, singer Brett Emmons seemed to channel a mix of Ronnie Van Zant and Axl Rose a bit too overtly, verging on the cartoonish. (His shirt represented a collection of Playboy covers.)

But especially for a band opening for another that isn't that famous, by the end of their 40 minutes--including a great cover of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter"--the Glorious Sons hard-charging sound left me considerably impressed.

As for the Struts, I'm a tad chagrined that a band so right up my alley existed for about 5 years--their debut album, Everybody Wants, was released in the UK in 2014, with a U.S. reissue in 2016--as I remained oblivious, until this summer when they opened for the Foo Fighters at Wrigley Field.

As I wrote then, it was love at first Spotify, just a few days before the show.

And then Spiller, guitarist Adam Slack, bassist Jed Elliott and drummer Gethin Davies ripped up the Friendly Confines--as did the Foos--prompting me to want to see a full show.

Fortunately--given how many others already seemed to know of the Struts, despite a relative lack of U.S. chart success--I was able to not only get a ticket to House of Blues, but a seat.

Somewhat surprisingly, most of the crowd seemed to be--like me--a good bit older than the band members.

I guess the Struts' representing rock's future might be too much to ask, but they certainly do justice to its past in the present.

Even though I had a stool along a railing and attend numerous concerts alone, I didn't feel all that comfortable being boxed in by the big crowd, especially with a big dude with a broken arm right alongside me.

But any creature discomfort was rendered inconsequential, as I relished every moment of the Struts' super-charged show.

The band's second album--Young & Dangerous--was just released in late-October, and a couple of blazers from it, "Primadonna Like Me" and "Body Talks," kicked things off with a high-volume blast that never really let up.

You can see the setlist here, which probably won't mean much unless you know the Struts' oeuvre, but while a few songs are sillier than others, nothing played failed to delight.

Although it didn't acutely shock me given perusals of past setlists, a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" seemed an unsuspecting choice, but they pulled it off with aplomb.

Searching for a "Courteney Cox" from the audience--she danced with the Boss in the video long before Friends fame--Spiller pulled an enthusiastic young woman named Patti (if I heard right), who nearly upstaged him.

Though it came mid-set, the extended cover help pushed the Struts' time onstage to nearly 2 hours, covering just 16 songs plus a bit of a blues vamp.

On "One Night Only" and "Somebody New," Spiller demonstrated skill on the piano--also in a Mercuryesque sort of way--and the latter ballad (from Young & Dangerous) was perhaps the best example of the band forging some new territory of their own.

Though I abstained, the singer also frequently exhorted the crowd to dance and jump, and on main-set closer, "Where Did She Go?" the joint nearly exploded.

I also liked what Spiller had to say, from graciously thanking the crowd to conveying not to care what others may think of you to recalling Chicago as the city that--on an early tour--first convinced the Struts that a sustainable career was feasible.

I've heard such stage talk before, but from a guy who's undoubtedly been derided for playing dress-up, it sounded quite earnest.

And as the Struts closed a smoking show with their best song, "Could Have Been Me," espousing the thought of never wanting to look back with regret at what you didn't do, I was quite glad to be present.

Despite what Bohemian Rhapsody and numerous concert videos portray, I'll never really know what it was like to have seen Queen. But I'm pretty sure, that along with much else, the experience would've been really damn fun.

And to whatever extent they traipse an ersatz existence--or may be perceived as such--that aspect of seeing the Struts felt genuinely comparable.

To give the uninitiated a sense of the Struts, here's a clip of "Could Have Been Me" from a recent show, as found on YouTube:

Friday, November 23, 2018

Love and War: Stellar, Somewhat Downsized 'Miss Saigon' is Sumptuously Sung but Shows Its Soft Spots -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Miss Saigon
National Tour
directed by Laurence Connor
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru December 8

Once upon a time, in the recesses of my mind, Miss Saigon was third.

Not the third best stage musical of all-time, but in terms of chronology and preeminence, the third mammoth West End (London) then Broadway (New York) blockbuster production that--for quite awhile--dominated the musical theater landscape, including on tour.

Though shows like Evita, Sweeney Todd and Cats were pretty huge in terms of size, scope, grandeur, greatness and success, Les Misérables (1985 London/1987 NYC), The Phantom of the Opera ('86/'88) and Miss Saigon ('89/'91) seemingly took things to a whole new level.

Andrew Lloyd Webber composed Evita, Cats and Phantom, while Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (music & lyrics, respectively) were the primary creators of both Les Mis and Miss Saigon.

So the types of blockbusters brought to Hollywood in the 1970s and early '80s by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were somewhat echoed on Broadway a few years later.

Or, in terms of threesomes, the Beatles, Stones and Who?--which is actually both question and answer--of musical theater were, at least commercially, Les Miz, Phantom and Miss Saigon.

But while The Phantom of the Opera continues its original West End and Broadway runs--with well over 12,000 performances in each locale--and Les Miserables has never closed in London and initially lasted 16 years in New York before closure and subsequent revivals, Miss Saigon lasted "only" 10 years and 4,000+ performances in each theatrical mecca.

It also hasn't toured nearly as much, particularly in the new millennium.

I'm glad to have seen a full-scale, full-sized-helicopter-on-stage production at Chicago's Auditorium Theater in 2000--when I was still rather newly getting into theatergoing with regularity--but until Tuesday night, had only otherwise seen a regional production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, IL.

And while a double-CD of the Original London Cast Recording has remained a notable part of my collection of Broadway albums, I perceive that intervening huge hit musicals such as Rent, The Lion King, The Producers, Mamma Mia, Hairspray, Wicked, Jersey Boys, Billy Elliot, Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Beautiful and Hamilton have rendered Miss Saigon considerably less top of mind.

And though its original production scale might really outrank almost anything--its national tours used to require 17 trucks--thinking of it as "third" feels rather anachronistic.

But in recent years, mega musical producer Cameron Macintosh enlisted director Laurence Connor to oversee somewhat more modestly-scaled yet still enormously impressive stagings of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera while retaining their magic--though I love the former show far more than the latter--so I was truly excited to the Connor-concocted take on Miss Saigon.

I obviously wasn't the only one, as in its second of just four weeks in Chicago--where it once ran for nearly a year--the Cadillac Palace was packed.

Thankfully, from the very last row of the upper balcony, I had binoculars.

And even from there my sense of hearing was well-dazzled, as the singing throughout this production is exquisite.

Before citing Miss Saigon's storyline, songs, current cast, etc., I should mention that the narrative is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, and--per Wikipedia--"similarly tells the tragic tale of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover."

Though I've seen the source opera, more than once, I don't recall its specifics enough to reference how acutely it may have influenced Miss Saigon or how the musical varied.

On a somewhat similar level, Mackintosh brought in Chicago composer/lyricist/actor Michael Mahler to freshen up some of the original lyrics--credited to Boublil and Roger Maltby Jr.--but I can't specify anything that changed.

But Miss Saigon remains an impressive, moving and largely terrific musical, focusing on an American GI named Chris (Anthony Festa) who falls in love with a young Vietnamese woman, Kim (Emily Bautista) on the cusp of the fall of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City).

They meet at a nightclub-cum-brothel called Dream Land, run by and entrepreneur-cum-pimp known as the Engineer (Red Concepcion), but as the Vietnam War comes to a combustible conclusion, let's just say it tears them apart.

So the show's setting is split between 1975 and 1978, as all three main characters--plus Chris' soldier pal, John (J. Daughtry)--have somewhat moved forward, albeit with strong ties, emotional and otherwise. 

Most demonstrably, the singing from everyone in this production is outstanding, including Festa & Bautista on several Chris/Kim duets, each of them individually--"Why God Why" notably by him; "I'd Give My Life for You" by her--and by Christine Bunuan, heading up "The Movie in My Mind" as a call girl named Gigi.

There are several other fine songs including the touching and informative "Bui Doi" led by Daughtry as John, and among much fine staging and choreography by Bob Avian, a fantastic Act II production number, "The American Dream," that Concepcion "engineers" fantastically.

But this viewing of Miss Saigon didn't consistently wow me as much as I hoped, certainly not as much as Hamilton--which I saw for the third time earlier this month--nor Boublil and Schönberg far superior Les Misérables. 

There are times when the music drags and the storyline lags, and though it isn't comparatively an excessively long musical, the first act especially feels like it keeps going and going.

Some of its "pure entertainment" shortages are understandable given the rather grave narrative, but though I was glad to see it yet again--and excited when a helicopter did appear above the stage--for me Miss Saigon didn't achieve maximum elevation, in the realm of all-time great musicals.

And while it may qualitatively compare with The Phantom of the Opera if not Les Miz, thoughts of it as third in a venerated trio mostly harken to another time and place. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Up Close in Skokie: Amid Poignant Songs and Saab Stories, Matt Talbott Invites Us to Hum Along -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Matt Talbott
solo show on "Living Room Tour"
November 17, 2018
Bird Machine, Skokie, IL

Unlike many people from my home state, I did not attend the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

But my best friend, Jordan, has lived in the community for 30 years and his wife is an Urbana native.

So not only have I visited a good bit over the years, I've been slightly more clued into the local music scene than I might've been otherwise.

I remember the Poster Children catching some buzz in the late-'80s/early-'90s and my pals remain avid fans of a local group called Lonely Trailer.

Rising to some post-grunge alt-rock prominence was another Champaign band called Hum.

I can't recall if Jordan introduced me to them or if I first heard the superb single, "Stars," on Chicago radio--and/or possibly read about them in Rolling Stone--but I bought and liked Hum's 1995 major label debut album, You'd Prefer An Astronaut around the time of its release. 

Because of the C-U connection, Hum probably stayed with me a bit more than some other bands that come and go, but I can't say they've remained top of mind in the intervening years.

I don't own 1998's Downward is Heavenward--which I now see that cites as "the group's best album [and] a lost classic of '90s rock"--and though it seems that there were a good handful of Hum shows in Chicago this millennium, they escaped my purview.

Still, Hum occasionally comes up in conversation with Jordan, and a few months ago he alerted me to the band's singer/guitarist Matt Talbott doing some "living room shows," including one in my hometown of Skokie, a near north suburb of Chicago.

It seems these shows--in this case throughout the Midwest--are organized by an entity called Undertow Music, which pairs artists with fans who wish to host intimate concerts in their homes.

Understandably, one isn't provided the exact address until you buy a ticket, and I didn't firmly decide to do so until the Friday before Saturday night's show.

I can't speak for any other locales, but in Skokie, the "living room" was actually the production space of a small print shop called Bird Machine, run by a cool guy named Jay who has long created posters for Hum after meeting Talbott when he (Jay) was a University of Illinois student.

And as much as I might have relished hearing a stripped down version of the soft-then-loud "Stars," in the promotional information Talbott made clear that he likely wouldn't play any Hum songs, preferring to "keep that music with the band."

I enticed my friend Dave to join me and after meeting Jay upon arrival--following a fine Vietnamese dinner at Pho Phu Linh across Skokie Blvd.--I introduced myself to Talbott as a mutual friend of Jordan's, and was pleased to find him amiable.

Without doing a headcount, I would guess there were about 30 people assembled, some seemingly with an Illini connection.

Just a bit past 8:00pm, Talbott sat down with an acoustic guitar and shared that the bulk of what he would play were songs written over just the past two months, after he agreed--following some prior reluctance--to Undertow's entreaties to do such an up-close tour.

As such, I don't know song titles, and as Talbott has yet to record or release most of the material, not only was video recording obviously taboo, I feel I should refrain from discussing lyrical particulars.

I'll also be respectfully discreet about a personal tragedy the singer shared with the crowd, but it and other emotional matters infused poignant songs Talbott's wife had told him could be categorized as "grief rock." 

One of these was "Thimbles," which he had originally produced within a trio called Centaur.

The honesty and vulnerability Talbott shared added power to his often somber lyrics, and his clear voice was occasionally abetted by electronic echoes and other effects.

Though his own material came off quite well, a strikingly plaintive rendition of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" was a definite highlight.

Talbott had already done some living room shows, including the night before in Chicago, and he conveyed that despite his initial hesitancy, he's come to love them.

Though off-and-on over the years, Hum continues to be an active entity, with hopes for a new album in 2019.

But the intimacy of Saturday's show clearly let Talbott not only come face-to-face with his fans, it seemingly allowed for his evocative lyrics to be better appreciated sans amplifiers.

And though some nervousness and raw emotion suggested a bit of discomfiture, Talbott's candor, graciousness and humor made for a special night.

Toward the end of the 80-minute performance, he shared an uplifting "Saab" story about a newly-bought, heavily-used car he's taken on the road.

It had broken down a few minutes outside Grand Rapids in recent days, en route to a show in Champaign-Urbana, but his 17-year-old son was able to troubleshoot it back to life over-the-phone. (Jay of Bird Machine featured the Saab in Talbott's tour poster, and the car was parked out front in Skokie.)

Dave concurred that it was a really fine show, and I imagine most in attendance would agree.

Though I go to a number of concerts in football & baseball stadiums, hockey arenas and theaters, with all kinds of lavish accouterments, it was really cool to see a gig in the back room of a print shop in my hometown. a fine musician, good guy and friend of a friend.

And while I fully understand his eschewing the material he created with his primary band, I couldn't help but smile when Matt Talbott--in his only eliciting of audience participation on the evening--asked the audience to, yes, hum along with him.

And thus, I gladly did.

Monday, November 19, 2018

'Austentatious' Surroundings: Northlight's Take on 'Mansfield Park' All Dressed Up but Where Does It Go? -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mansfield Park
a world premiere play
by Kate Hamill
based on the novel by Jane Austen
directed by Stuart Carden
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru December 16

Northlight Theatre, which regularly does stellar work in my hometown of Skokie, is currently presenting a world premiere stage production of Mansfield Park.

Based on the novel by Jane Austen--which I haven't read and don't know that I ever even heard of among her more famed Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma--the two-act play features a script by Kate Hamill, who is also one of the performers.

The show's star, Kayla Carter--playing Fanny Price, who is sent from her ramshackle home to live within the extravagant Manfield Park estate--is terrific, as is Gabriel Ruiz, whose work I've enjoyed in several recent plays.

He plays Edmund Bertram, whose being a cousin of Fanny's doesn't ebb her infatuation as she grows from girl to mature young woman.

There are many other fine performers in the cast, including a number of faces familiar to me.

Mark Montgomery is Sir Thomas Bertram, Edmund's father, the patriarch of Mansfield Park,  Fanny's uncle and a cantankerous lout who verbally abuses her when he bothers to acknowledge her presence at all. 

He's married to Fanny's bedridden aunt, Lady Bertram (embodied by Hamill, who is one of several playing multiple parts).

Another of Fanny's mom's sisters living in the house, Aunt Norris (Heidi Kettenring), domineers with a haughtiness perhaps stereotypical of the snooty upper crust in 18th century England.

Click here to see the full cast and their dual, even triple roles. as I don't want to get too deep into a plot summary. 

Suffice it to say, Edmund has a brother and sister, and another set of well-heeled siblings--the Crawfords--arrive to spend time at Mansfield Park (as elegantly designed by Yu Shibagaki).

Without wishing to be overly dismissive regarding a Dramedy of Manners that should offer a nice alternative to those tired of overly topical plays--or today's news itself--I just can't say a whole lot of Mansfield Park meant a whole lot to me.

As a English period piece, it reminded me of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest without being nearly as comedic, cheeky or brilliant (based on a sterling rendition I saw a year ago at Writers Theatre).

The gathering and revolving-door romances of the aristocracy also brought to mind Stephen Sondheim's, A Little Night Music, and the Ingmar Bergman film--Smiles of a Summer Night--that served as its source.

While appreciating that Austen wrote Mansfield Park in 1814, long before any of the above, and
Hamill's new stage adaptation stands on its own, it didn't delight me nearly as much as some artistic works it's "kinda like."

I did find myself more engrossed by the second act, as Fanny begins to show considerably more pluck, empowered by Carter's passionate performance.

Those wanting to see contemporary relevance certainly can find some, simply in the maltreatment of an intelligent young woman, driven not only by misogyny but classism, demonstrating how not so far we've come in 200+ years.

So as always, I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing Mansfield Park, nor would I heartily debate those who love it.

I just didn't.

What You Will, Shakespeare: Moments of Delectable Farce Drive 'Twelfth Night' at Writers -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Twelfth Night or What You Will
by William Shakespeare
directed by Michael Halberstam
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 16

I love Shakespeare.

Historically, culturally, influentially.

I just--due perhaps to his dense language or maybe just my own denseness--have had a hard time embracing and loving his plays at face value.

Being a comedy, Twelfth Night or What You Will, would seemingly be easier for me to understand and appreciate, especially within the beautiful confines of Glencoe's Writers Theatre.

And with many terrific performers in the cast under the direction of Writers' artistic director Michael Halberstam, I was sufficiently entertained, particularly when things got delectably farcical.

I suspect that if, unlike me, you are a devout Shakespearean--especially one familiar with the Twelfth Night text--you may considerably enjoy this production. 

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
My companion for the opening night production was far better-versed and indeed liked the show quite a bit more than I did.

He was able to savor the considerable humor but concurred that much of the pathos of the central
storyline seemed to largely be sacrificed.

And regarding the main love triangle narrative, he was hard-pressed to explain exactly why Viola (a fine Jennifer Latimore) assumes the masculine guise of Cesario after being shipwrecked and brought ashore, while assuming her brother Sebastian lost at sea.

Behind her disguise, Viola longs for the the Duke Orsino (Matthew C. Yee, recently in Vietgone at Writers) but is herself--as Cesario--passionately desired by Olivia (Andrea San Miguel).

Though this plotline sounds farcical, like something out of a '70s sitcom--Three's Company comes to mind--it's actually more substantive than secondary narrative elements, which here come to the fore.

This essentially involves a band of merry pranksters led by Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby (the always terrific Kevin Gudahl) and including foppish squire Sir Andrew (Scott Parkinson) and two female servants of Olivia's, Maria (Karen Janes Woditsch) and Fabian (Mary Williamson).

Along with getting considerable drink on--most abundantly in the case of Andrew--they seem to exist to torture Malvolio (local stalwart Sean Fortunato), the all-too-prim steward of Olivia.

Also toiling about is Feste, a fool, played by William Brown, who bursts into occasional song.

Much of the mayhem, particularly in Act I, is so over the top in terms of slapstick humor, that it's hard not to simply appreciate the talents of Gudahl, Parkinson and director Halberstam in taking the Bard on such a wild ride.

But as much of the bawdiness seemed to be in the name of bullying Malvolio--and if he deserves it, I didn't catch why--so the revelry could only amuse me so far.

In Act II, the love triangle comes back a bit more to the fore, with nice work being done by Latimore, San Miguel and Yee.

But I can't say it mattered that much to me.

I also can't judge this staging against other versions of Twelfth Night as I haven't seen any, but Writers' production values are typically strong and that my pal was well-more smitten than I merits being noted.

Perhaps one day I may more fully embrace Shakespeare and never consider exposure to his works a bad thing.

But at least for now, I'm not looking forward to a Thirteenth Night.

Or what you will. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Do Not Throw Away Your Shot: 2+ Years Along in Chicago 'Hamilton' Remains Simply Extraordinary -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

CIBC Theatre
Open Run (presently booked thru May 2019)
Seen November 13, 2018
Previously reviewed Oct. '16 | Mar. '17

Last weekend, tickets went on sale for a 3-week run of Hamilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico in January 2019.

Most of the cast has not been announced, but Lin-Manuel Miranda--who wrote, composed and initially starred in the show during its ongoing Broadway run--will reprise his performance in the title role of Alexander Hamilton.

25% of the tickets for each performance will be priced at $10 solely for locals, affording Puerto Rico residents a wonderful opportunity to see one of the greatest musicals ever created.

For all other American citizens, and people everywhere, box office tickets for the PR run were considerably pricier, starting at $99 and going up to $338.

This actually sounds fairly reasonable compared to the second-hand frenzy in New York during Miranda's stint, and a quick check of Stubhub reveals that even today, the high-end face value in Puerto Rico is less than the cheapest scalpers' tickets one might find for Broadway.

I was somewhat seriously interested in buying a ticket for Hamilton in Puerto Rico, especially if I could get one for $99 on a Saturday night--i.e. not miss much work--but a perusal of flight and hotel prices made me decide that it wasn't worth $1500 or so to me to see Lin-Manuel Miranda play Hamilton (factoring in a couple more days to see San Juan).

My regard for LMM and his talent couldn't be any higher, but I'd seen him on Broadway in his likewise Tony-winning In the Heights, and as much as I would like to support the residents of Puerto Rico as they continue to recover and rebuild following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, I really couldn't do it. (The run sold out in minutes so who knows if I could've got a ticket had I tried.)

But having seen, loved and reviewed Hamilton in Chicago in October 2016--a week after its run here began--and again in March 2017 (see links at top for those reviews), I had a hankering to see it yet again, further stoked by the mythic Puerto Rico possibilities and my currently working downtown, just 2 blocks from the CIBC (long known as the Shubert) Theatre.

Photos not necessarily of current Chicago cast members. 
I have fairly frequently entered the $10 ticket lottery for Chicago on the Hamilton app, but have never been successful in winning the chance to buy such cheap ducats.

Though the show is booked at the CIBC through late May 2019 and still seems to be selling well, after more than two years in Chicago, tickets can pretty readily be had for face value for weeknight performances, though due to dynamic pricing, that can vary greatly.

But if you're flexible, you can find fairly good deals as I did, abetted by my being a Broadway in Chicago subscriber which meant that I could buy the ticket through their Customer Service Dept. and avoid some of Ticketmaster's service fees.

On Monday, Nov. 12, after seeing what I wanted on Ticketmaster's seat map for the next night's show, I called BIC and bought a single seat in the Orchestra, row L, seat 1 for $92, which adjusted up to $105 with some fees.

This is the cheapest I've ever seen such a good seat available for, besides the lottery which often allots the first two rows. And interestingly, as I write this on Thursday, Nov. 15, the same seat for Tuesday, Nov. 27 is showing as $192, with Ticketmaster fees pushing it to at least $221 (with perhaps more tacked on in completing the transaction).

So yes, I paid $105 to see a show I've seen twice before, but I wanted to be up close for a change--I'm usually in the balcony--and felt it well worth the price.

And while it would be amazing to see Lin-Manuel Miranda play Hamilton, the terrific Miguel Cervantes has performed the role in Chicago for it's entire run and thus--unless there were long furloughs I'm not aware of--he has been Hamilton more times than LMM or probably anyone else alive, though there is now also a London production and U.S. Tour.

Even though I had loved Cervantes, all the original Chicago cast members and the show in full just a week into it's Windy City "sit down," it now really feels like his role, not him inhabiting Miranda's take.

Obviously, his vocal timbre and that of others in the current Chicago cast don't exactly match those of the Original Broadway Cast Recording, but when a friend asked me via text how Hamilton was, my answer was simply:


Devoid of any expectations innately tied to seeing the latest, greatest, most overhyped thing, I watched Hamilton this time--from a damn good seat--as though I was seeing a splendid touring rendition of, say, Les Miserables, which I consider the greatest stage musical ever created (though The Producers remains my personal favorite).

And Hamilton holds up as not just a great musical, or one with a groundbreaking hip-hop infused score--though In the Heights actually did it first--or even an astonishing incisive American history lesson, wrought extremely resonant for a multicultural contemporary populace.

While acknowledging that I'm prone to redundant hyperbole, I perceive--at this moment in history--that Hamilton stands at the greatest artistic achievement of the 21st century, of any idiom or ilk.

I won't regurgitate the show's genesis, storyline nor the diversity of its casting in embodying the U.S. Founding Fathers. Either you know this, can read my past reviews and thousands of other sources, or you simply don't care.

I will reiterate, as this viewing certainly did, that dubbing Hamilton a "hip hop musical" shortchanges the varied beauty of its score, including the wondrous "Wait For It," "Burn" and "The Quiet Uptown."

But otherwise, I'll simply say that the current Chicago cast--and there has been considerable turnover outside of Cervantes--is sensational.

I have only the highest of praise for everyone in it, including Akron Watson, who is superb as Aaron Burr, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, wonderfully sung as Eliza, Montego Glover, really terrific as Angelica, Tamar Greene, a stately presence as George Washington, Colby Lewis, quite charmingly handling the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Call, who is a hoot as King George.

You can see the current Chicago cast members here, and feel comfortable that in their hands--and phenomenal voices--Hamilton is being presented as well as it presumably can be anywhere.

Including, conceivably--with all due deference--Puerto Rico. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Tempestuous Telemarketing: 'Spirits to Enforce' Uses Superheroes to Sell Theater, but Doesn't Fully Soar -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Spirits to Enforce
a play by Mickie Maher
directed by Will Quam
Passage Theater
at Berry Methodist Church, Chicago
Thru November 17

I can't say I loved Spirits to Enforce and--admittedly not well-versed in Shakespeare's The Tempest, which weaves through it--perhaps didn't completely understand it.

But I really liked seeing it.

And from what I could grasp, I think that's much of the point being made, including in a life imitates art (or vice-versa) sort of way.

Within the play, 12 people are onstage the whole time, sitting at one long table being used as a phone bank.

We soon learn that the dozen, generally young and of various races and ethnicities, are superheroes--collectively known as the Fathomtown Enforcers--or at least individuals blessed with superhuman traits.

Having recently defeated a nemesis, the Enforcers are holed up in an underwater submarine, charged with a seemingly much more mundane task, but one proving quite challenging.

They--including Ariel (played by Peter Andersen), the Ocean (Mikey Gray), the Page (Jin Park) and the Untangler (Preston Choi)--are making calls to raise funds and sell tickets for a production of The Tempest that they are staging and starring within.

Pretty much the entirety of the 95-minute one-act consists of one-sided telephone conversations, often overlapping.

The conceit--by playwright Mickie Maher, who wrote Spirits to Enforce in 2003--is certainly unique, and though it tends to drag in spots and extends a bit long, the script provides considerable humor and poignancy.

Despite presumably saving the lives of those answering the calls, the heroes--like presumably all telemarketers--are met with disinterest, scorn and worse, even after revealing their supernatural talents.

The characters each employ three names--given/hero/Tempest role, such as Randall/The Tune/Ferdinand (Nick Barnes), who self-consciously flirts with Susan/Memory Lass/Miranda (Morgan Burkey)--and I imagine there is more here for those who well-know The Tempest to appreciate than I picked up on.

But I came to feel for the heroes' unabashed love of theater, their discouragement, occasional despair and resiliency, with nice pluck shown in a speech by the Intoxicator (Jasmine Manuel) and many funny lines by the Snow Heavy Branch (Carey Morton). (Seen on the day Stan Lee died, an ad lib in tribute would have been welcome.)

I gleaned something of a "we should all feel like superheroes" vibe, or one of "even superheroes feel like shite sometimes," and all the actors do nice work. Those not yet mentioned include Chesa Greene (the Silhouette), Julianne Lang (the Bad Map), Tyler Anthony Smith (Frangrance Fellow) and Danny Turek (the Pleaser).

So I found Spirits to Enforce appealing if a good bit shy of sensational.

Yet in a week when I will also take in a return visit to Hamilton and attend opening night premieres of Twelfth Night and Mansfield Park--at Writers and Northlight theaters, respectively--I acutely relished a rare Monday night curtain of a little-known work being enthusiastically performed by talented young actors within a new troupe (Passage Theater) in the basement of a nondescript Lincoln Square church.

I appreciated Maher's advocating in an interview within the show program that audiences
experience Spirits to Enforce "as a piece of music," rather than a work with a singular, overarching message to derive.

This helped me like it in the moment more than I might have otherwise.

And whether within the play or beyond it, the idea that theater is something to be endeavored, supported, loved and grateful for is something I wholeheartedly applaud.

Even when I may not think it super, I still find it rather heroic. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Ours Go to 11: Volume 33, My Favorite War Movies

For these purposes, I am not considering films principally about the Holocaust, documentaries, Casablanca or The Great Dictator.

1. The Deer Hunter
2. Paths of Glory
3. The Hurt Locker
4. Ballad of a Soldier
5. Saving Private Ryan
6. Stalag 17
7. Bridge on the River Kwai
8. The Great Escape
9. The Burmese Harp
10. Dunkirk
11. M*A*S*H

Others meriting mention

Apocalypse Now
Coming Hme
Full Metal Jacket
Born on the Fourth of July
All Quiet on the Western Front

Zero Dark Forty
The Battle of Algiers

Friday, November 09, 2018

Brothers Grim: At AstonRep, Martin McDonagh's 'Lonesome West' Conveys Much Through Relative Ugliness -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Lonesome West
by Martin McDonagh
directed by Dana Anderson
AstonRep Theatre Co.
at The Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru November 18

It’s certainly logical that Irish works of the late 20th century—especially those created before 1998’s Good Friday Agreement brought lasting peace—would focus on “The Troubles,” even if indirectly.

The decades-long conflict in and over Northern Ireland, between British-backed Protestants (and entities representing their interests) and Catholics supporting the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other factions was brutal, bloody and often deadly.

I very much like the films of Irish director Jim Sheridan, including 1993’s In the Name of the Father—about the trial and imprisonment of those wrongly implicated in a 1974 IRA pub bombing in Guildford, England—and even more so, 1997’s The Boxer, likewise starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

Illustrating life in Belfast amid the Troubles, the latter film highlights how certain people will resist peace purely out of self-interest, for fear of such progress rendering them personally obsolete.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Though Martin McDonagh’s plays often seem like domestic black comedies, with only his The Lieutenant of Inishmore overtly concerning the Troubles, I believe 1997’s The Lonesome West—which I saw Thursday night in a fine production by AstonRep after having seen in it at The Gift in 2010—is also a commentary on the perpetual violence long witnessed in Ireland.

And while The Boxer suggests that some may manipulate tempestuous situations due to ulterior motives, my take on the endless fighting between brothers Coleman and Valene in The Lonesome West is that violent proclivities can be even more feral than deliberate, and may supply one’s only real outlet amid an otherwise languid and lonely existence.

Seeing the play the day news broke about another massacre in America at the hands of a seemingly unhinged lone gunman--this time in Thousand Oaks, CA--I couldn't help but think that long after the Troubles have largely ended, McDonagh's observations about mankind remain all too resonant.

And downright disturbing, even if the play's entertainment value on the surface mitigates some of the grim undercurrents.

It might be hard to believe for patrons not well-versed in McDonagh, but The Lonesome West isn't nearly as darkly embittered as The Beauty Queen of Leenane nor as grisly as The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

I also don't think it's as brilliant as the latter play, or McDonagh's The Pillowman and The Cripple of Inishmaan for that matter. (I also love two of his movies: In Bruges and last year's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.)

But under the direction of Dana Anderson, AstonRep's is a fine rendition of an engaging play at a very reasonable price point.

Robert Tobin--whose work onstage I regularly enjoy--and Dylan Barr play Coleman and Valene, respectively.

As the play opens, Father Welsh (frequently called Father Walsh and played nicely by Marc Tacderas) has joined the brothers at their ramshackle home in the Western Ireland town of Leenane.

That same day, Coleman and Valene buried their father, who let's just say didn't die of natural causes.

Issues regarding the dad's death and how he has provided for the boys forms some of the brotherly acrimony, but there is little that doesn't, from the brand of potato chips Valene has purchased to a collection of figurines he keeps above what may be the most discussed--and ultimately abused--stove in theatrical history.

Both the brothers and even Father Welsh are steadfast drinkers, and their supply of poteen is also a frequent matter of dissension.

The alcohol is supplied by an enterprising young woman named Girleen (Phoebe Moore), who rounds out the four-person cast.

Most of The Lonesome West--a 95-minute one-act--centers around the verbal and physical battles between Coleman and Valene, but other than noting that Irish brogues are believably employed throughout, I think I can leave any other narrative details for you to discover, including some shocking revelations as things really erupt.

But I will note that some of the brutality is offset not only by McDonagh's sly humor--with dialogue that can shift from the macabre to the mundane in the same sentence--but by the put-upon priest who wonders "If it's your own brother you can't get on with, how can we ever hope for peace in the world?" (Basically the gist of the entire play.)

There is also a warm tenderness between the priest and Girleen, whose scene together provides a humane respite from the over-the-top savagery.

You may not like what it has to say about the human condition and may feel a bit squeamish at times, but for rather low ticket prices--through AstonRep and even less through HotTix--The Lonesome West makes for a pretty fecking powerful night of theater.

At face value and well-beyond.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

"The Keeper of the Flame": Promoting TeachRock, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul Put on a Rock 'n Roll Clinic -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul
Copernicus Center, Chicago
November 5, 2018

Though I've long been a fan, it's hard to say for exactly what Steven Van Zandt--a.k.a. Little Steven or going back even further, Miami Steve--is best-known.

He's a long-standing guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, was an instrumental producer and/or arranger on some of the Boss' best songs & albums and is possibly Springsteen's closest friend.

He co-starred as Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, one the most acclaimed TV shows ever, and led a Netflix series of his own, Lilyhammer.

In the mid-'80s, he wrote "Sun City" to protest the apartheid regime in South Africa and led the Artists Against Apartheid recording of it, the accompanying video and activist movement that I perceive as having great effect.

With Little Steven's Underground Garage radio program and subsequent channel on SiriusXM, he has become a radio mogul, he runs his own Wicked Cool record label (I love the album Pictures by the Len Price 3) and is an avid and quite active champion for the multifaceted importance of rock 'n roll.

Toward this end, he has spearheaded the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and the TeachRock initiative, which creates K-12 national curriculum.

He's notably worked with other musical artists--particularly Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes--helped get the Rascals to reunite & tour as a theatrical presentation and has written numerous songs for himself (including the strident "I Am a Patriot," covered by Jackson Browne and Pearl Jam, among others).

And when time and opportunity allow, Little Steven is a bandleader, frontman and singer who tours with the Disciples of Soul.

Monday night, SVZ and 13 Disciples thoroughly rocked Chicago's grand Copernicus Center, which houses the auditorium of the old Gateway movie theater.

I was there for the music--which thoroughly delighted--but was happy to support the educational mission of the Soulfire TeachRock Tour. (Soulfire being the title of Little Steven's 2017 album.)

You can learn much more through, but the initiative seems to comprise a vast collection of lesson plans aimed at ensuring the history of popular music is part of the K-12 curriculum at schools across the country and around the world.

Via this blog and beyond, I have frequently championed--directly and inferentially--the numerous benefits of cultural literacy, and never underestimate the emotional and therapeutic benefit rock 'n roll has had on my life.

So while TeachRock seemingly extends far beyond making kids today aware of the importance of the Beatles, I think they merit a place in classrooms every bit as much as Shakespeare, Dickens and trigonometry.

I am not a teacher, but am pleased to see that a couple hundred educators took part in a TeachRock workshop with Little Steven prior to the concert at the Copernicus Center. (Teachers enjoy free concert admission throughout the tour.)

And while he and his vast band proceeded to put on a clinic regarding rock 'n roll influences and the art of live performance, it was by no means didactic.

This wasn't a lecture, it was a 2-1/2-hour concert that rocked hard.

Virtually all of the Soulfire album was represented, with 11 of its 12 songs comprising nearly half those played on Monday, but even these tunes represented a rather robust mix.

Van Zandt had his hand in writing most of the songs, either solo or in collaboration, but has spread them around long before recording his  own versions.

"Some Things Just Don't Change," "Love on the Wrong Side of Town" (written with Springsteen) and "I Don't Want to Go Home"  were all recorded by Southside Johnny--whose nickname, Stevie shared, derived from Chicago's South Side--while "Standing in the Line of Fire" was a shelved tune initially intended for Gary "U.S." Bonds that also pays homage to Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone.

"Ride the Night Away" is a song Van Zandt co-wrote with Steve Jordan that Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes recorded in 1985. I'm only familiar with Barnes due to his guest appearance on a Springsteen tour of Australia in 2013 (which SVZ incidentally had to skip due to filming commitments).

A couple of straight covers included "Blues is My Business"--made famous by Etta James--and James Brown's "Down and Out in New York City," with an extended horn jam that reminded me of Springsteen's live versions of "Kitty's Back."

As of this writing, a setlist for Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul at Copernicus Center in Chicago doesn't appear to be posted to, but I think what was played matches this Green Bay setlist, except that we got a cover of Them's "Gloria" as a first encore with Jim Sohns of Chicago's classic Shadows of Knight band.

With Stevie keeping his stage patter largely non-political but noting Election Day, I relished a reggae-tinged "I Am a Patriot"--on which three women backing singers sounded great--but with the vast band anchored by drummer Rick Mercurio and featuring a 5-piece horn section, everything sounded great. (See the list of band members here.)

There were many selections I didn't knowingly know or recall, but "Lyin' in a Bed of Fire," "Angel Eyes," "Under the Gun," "I Saw the Light," "Salvation," "Bitter Fruit" and the closing "Out of the Darkness" all packed quite a wallop and proved that while no one will mistake his vocal talents for Freddie Mercury, Little Steven sings pretty darn well for a famous sideman, even as he'll turn 68 this month.

And even if his songwriting isn't quite Springsteenian, it's pretty damn boss.

WXRT morning DJ Lin Brehmer introduced Little Steven by aptly calling him "the keeper of the flame," and especially with a $25 ticket in a cool venue, I would have happily applauded just for all his past and off-stage exploits.

But he and his band--and given all the players, it's hard to imagine SVZ realizing much profit on this tour--delivered 150 minutes of music that was never less than thrilling.

This was my 42nd time seeing Little Steven onstage, though my first without him being alongside Springsteen.

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity, and without needing to compare this show to E Street Band extravaganzas--which are my favorite things ever--I can even better appreciate why & how Steve contributes mightily to Bruce's longstanding greatness.

Like Springsteen, Van Zandt not only clearly loves to perform, he understands the tremendous, holistic, soul-replenishing power of rock 'n roll.

As a fan, so do I, and rarely has having that lesson reiterated been any more fun.