Saturday, March 30, 2019

Unseen No More: At United Center, Mumford & Sons' 'Delta Tour' Proves Worth Taking a Flier -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Mumford & Sons
w/ opening act Cat Power
United Center, Chicago
March 29, 2019

My interest in seeing Mumford & Sons did not come naturally.

I don't mean that I was forced or coerced, nor was I invited or given a press pass.

It's that I wanted to see them--and went to their show Friday at the United Center--without ever having been that much of a fan.

I mean no disrespect, especially as I enjoyed their performance. But although I am old fogie who will still buy CDs--admittedly not that often anymore given a Spotify Premium account--I don't own any Mumford & Sons albums, and until studying up for the concert, knew relatively few songs.

But I love rock concerts, and perhaps even more holistically, the art of live performance. And over the past decade, as Mumford & Sons almost instantly became one of the world's biggest bands--the rock part somewhat came later--and has remained quite popular, people I respect have called them a great live act.

Though there are plenty of rock acts I love and see in concert repeatedly, many have been retiring or passing away, and there are relatively few I know replacing them. And I didn't come to truly love Arcade Fire--my favorite "modern" band by some margin--until I first saw them live in 2011.

Mumford & Sons sold out the United Center--all the way around, plus a general admission floor--when the show went on sale last year, but figuring this was an opportunity to check them off my list if nothing else, I bought a Club Level ticket just a few days ago for essentially face value. (This was Mumford's first arena show in Chicago, although I think they technically sold more tickets in playing at Montrose Beach in 2015.)

In Spotifamiliarizing myself with songs on recent setlists, and ultimately all four of their albums to date--including 2018's Delta, which seemed not so well-received by critics--I found myself liking enough songs sufficiently to genuinely anticipate a stellar show.

And I enjoyed it.

Seemingly not as much as many of the 23,000+ really exuberant white folks in attendance--Chicago singer Sharon Lewis, who guested on an encore of "Sweet Home Chicago" was literally the only person of color I saw all night, though to be fair the same can be said of other concerts I attend--but enough to be glad I went.

At least once, though for the right price in the right place, I'd consider a Mumford & Sons reprise.

After an opening set by Cat Power--the stage name of singer Chan Marshall--that I found solid if a bit too muted, and unlike other cities, devoid of any duets with Marcus Mumford, the headliners took the stage to the strains of Alan Parsons Project's "Sirius."

This is the song the Chicago Bulls have long used for introductions at the United Center, and while it may have seemed a tad opportunist for a British band to tie into the local sports scene, their Montrose Beach show in 2015 came just days after the Blackhawks won their last Stanley Cup and several team members brought it onstage, where the band members drank from it.

So I was tickled by the intro, which brought Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, Ted Dwayne and at least three touring musicians to a long, rectangular stage set in the middle of the UC floor.

They opened with Delta's fine "Guiding Light," but it was two songs from the band's 2009 debut, Sigh No More--"Little Lion Man" and "The Cave"--that, as the show's second and fourth songs, really got the crowd excited and singing along loudly.

Though I refrained from demonstrably gesticulating like the woman next to me, I could see why Mumford & Sons has such devotees, especially with Marcus making for a glib and amiable frontman.

They didn't blow me away on par with Arcade Fire, but for much of the show I thought @@@@1/2 (out of 5) might be an apt rating.

As you can see above, I settled on @@@@, as clocking in at just 93 minutes, I felt the show was not only somewhat brief, but at times rushed and even mechanical.

I thought it was a bit cheesy to tell the crowd to hold up their lit phones prior to "Believe"--shouldn't that be inspired, not instructed--and the rockers from 2015's Wilder Mind wrapped around it, "Tompkins Square Park" and "Ditmas," sounded like kinda good songs that don't have all that much depth too them. (Comparisons to Coldplay, at their more mundane, are apt.)

In the same vein, but better, was "The Wolf," which closed out the main set after a trio of album tracks from Delta: "Slip Away," which was really good, and two others that were more middling. (See the setlist here.)

The in-the-round stage worked fine even if it didn't add that much, and there were some nice lighting effects if well short of those employed by Arcade Fire, or Coldplay for that matter.

Marcus Mumford was predominantly the focal point, at one point running up into the seats, with banjo/guitarist Winston Marshall awash with smoke to open "Tompkins Square Park" the most overt moment for the Sons.

The four main members opened the encores around a single microphone in the lower level seats--on "Timshel"--before returning to the stage for "Awake My Soul."

In most recent cities, the encores have included a cover of Nine Inch Nails'--by way of Johnny Cash--"Hurt," which I would've been intrigued to hear, but we got the ebullient Lewis leading "Sweet Home Chicago."

Though the selection was rather routine, it was truly delectable, with Lewis sounding great and the band forced to rock out and improvise more than they had otherwise.

It was a great moment, but one that suggested that Mumford & Sons would benefit--well, at least to my perspective--from loosening up and breaking out of their comfort zone more often.

Another crowd-pleasing singalong on "I Will Wait"--from 2012's Babel--was undeniably joyous, though it was followed by the far more ponderous "Delta" to close the show.

For the record, Chicago got 2 fewer songs than most tour stops, though other than "Hurt" there wasn't anything I really missed. ("Babel" might've been nice as an audible.)

Still, the show could've done with another 20-30 minutes, perhaps not planned down to the T.

I understand that I didn't attend as the biggest Mumford & Sons and respect if the evening was far more emotionally rewarding for others.

The band is really good--and successful--at what they do, so who cares what I think.

But I feel they'd do well to mix--and stir--things up quite a bit more if they truly want to be considered a great band...and live act.

And to--perhaps--bring me back again.

Here's a taste of "Little Lion Man":

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Truly Regal? 'Anastasia' is Genuinely Entertaining but Too Many Middling Songs Keep It From Being Majestic -- Chicago Theater Revew

Theater Review

National Tour
Nederland Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 7

Near the end of Act I of Anastasia, a Bolshevik Russian general named Gleb (played on tour in Chicago by Jason Michael Evans) sings a song about pursuing a woman he believes might be the show's title character, who years earlier may have survived the assassination of her family, the formerly ruling Romanovs.

The song is called "Still," and it's a nice, professional showtune written by the musical's noted composer/lyricist team, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

Evans delivers it quite well.

But as a solo number for a male authority figure, about chasing after someone he sees as a fugitive, nearly closing out the first act and even having a five-letter, one-word title beginning with "St," it couldn't help remind me of "Stars," which serves much the same purpose in Les Miserables.

And, even in trying not to factor in the benefit of familiarity, "Stars" is just a far, far better song than "Still."

Which kinda encapsulates Anastasia, which is derived from the 1997 animated film but whose songs are mostly new.

About to end its Broadway run after two years--I did not see it there--the show is solidly entertaining, with a good narrative, some fine songs, nice scenery and an excellent touring cast.

Referencing its storyline based on long-persistent rumors that the Romanovs' youngest child survived and lived clandestinely, Anastasia--as a piece of musical theater--is not an impostor, it just isn't majestic.

Which is fine, really.

I love classic, fantastic musicals and in coming months am looking forward to seeing, among others, new productions of A Chorus Line (at Porchlight Theater), West Side Story (at the Lyric Opera of Chicago) and The Music Man (at Goodman Theatre).

Though I've seen each several times, I love virtually every song in all of these shows, and can't wait to hum, tap and sing along (hopefully quietly) yet again.

But in just the past two weeks, I've seen for the first time, four musicals that recently ran on Broadway with lesser acclaim and success:

Hands on a Hardbody and Bright Star in local Chicago productions; A Bronx Tale and now Anastasia on national tours as part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series.

To varying degrees--you can see the other reveiws by clicking the hyperlinks--I've liked all of them.

And even more so, I've valued seeing them, just as recent entries in the musical theater canon. And as something different.

Which brings me back to explaining that although Anastasia isn't phenomenal, it's an impressive endeavor--perhaps even far more so to those who haven't seen tons of better musicals--and a satisfying night of entertainment.

As Anya, a street sweeper who may or may not be the Grand Duchess Anastasia in her mid-20s, Lila Coogan is entirely lovely, with her beautiful voice richly displayed on "In My Dreams" and the show's best song, "Journey to the Past." (It carries over from the film, for which it was Oscar-nominated.)

I don't need to reveal too much of the narrative, but Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) are schemers in Leningrad--which St. Petersburg has been renamed by the Bolsheviks--who want to pass someone off as Anastasia, find the possible real deal and manage to bring her to Paris, where her grandmother the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz) now lives.

Lily (Tari Kelly), the Empress' lady-in-waiting and Vlad's ex-lover, also factors in and leads the fun group number, "Land of Yesterday," and I've already mentioned Gleb, whose interest in Anastasia isn't simply in her capture.

With a book by the venerated Terrence McNally, choreography by Peggy Hickey, sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Linda Cho, Anastasia is--under the direction of Darko Tresnjak--consistently a pleasure to look at.

But while I've liked past Flaherty/Ahrens collaborations such as Ragtime, Seussical and A Man of No Importance--and have listened to their score for Rocky the musical and hope to see it someday--too few of their songs here stand out as special. Even after having listened to the Broadway cast recording a number of times.

Many of the songs that were in the movie--which Flaherty & Ahrens scored, along with David Newman--are among the best in the musical, including "A Rumor in St. Petersburg," "Learn to Do It," "Once Upon a December,"  "Journey to the Past" and "Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)."

This isn't to say there aren't some other decent tunes, and all are well sung, but too much of the music is pedestrian and forgettable.

We do get a nice mini-version of the Swan Lake ballet in one the scenes, with Ashlee Dupre, Mark
MacKillop and Ronnie S. Bowman Jr. doing impressive dancing.

So in one way or other, there's plenty to enjoy in Anastasia, and if you love musicals, this is one worth knowing.

It's a likable show with great talent and strong production values.

But though the effort is noble, I just can't crown Anastasia as undeniably imperial. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Oh, Bloody Hell: Tempestuous 'Yen' Works Mostly as Metaphor -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a play by Anna Jordan
directed by Elly Green
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 5

One of the things I most value about theater is how it lets me spend time observing people I might not much encounter in real life.

This has helped me identify with, and develop greater empathy for, individuals of many different backgrounds.

Even when a play presents characters who are predominantly unlikable, it can allow us to gain insight into why certain people are the way they are.

I have also come to realize that I needn't like the characters in the play to like to play itself, though this can make it harder to embrace.

And on the surface, Yen--a play by Anna Jordan that ran Off-Broadway in 2017 and is now getting its Chicago premiere at Raven Theatre--is hard to embrace, even as it focused me on the unfamiliar.

The two-act piece features two brothers, Hench (played by Reed Lancaster) and Bobbie (Jesse Aaronson), specified as ages 16 and 13, respectively--though as cast, each seems at least 5 years older--who live on their own in a squalid apartment in East London.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Owning a single shirt among them, they are not in school and seemingly spend all their time insulting each other--often with crude sexual references--physically quarreling, playing combat video games or watching porn.

Occasionally their mom, Maggie (Tiffany Bedwell) stops by, usually drunk or otherwise addled, and it's easy to see why the boys are so troubled.

Maggie lives elsewhere with the latest in a series of husbands or lovers; Alan is unseen as is Maggie's mom, who had sometimes watched the kids but has run off.

Lancaster and Aaronson adopt British accents--not always convincingly, but good enough--and do a fine, if sometimes overexuberant, job of embodying the hyper-aggression of the teen brothers. Lancaster is particularly strong in the Hench role played by Lucas Hedges in New York, and somewhat reminds of the young star.

But while I appreciated the often discomfiting glimpse into aimless, teenage Britain--and could see the brothers' situation as a metaphor for inner city Chicago, where kids failed by parents, schools and society turn to gangs, drugs and guns--I didn't find the play all that theatrically convincing or compelling.

And while the arrival of an attractive new neighbor named Jennifer (an excellent Netta Walker)--who had been called Yen by her greatly missed late father--almost literally brings fresh air to the brothers and the play itself, the piece rarely feels much more than "just OK."

Things get rather dramatic in Act 2, including involving the boys' unseen but often heard dog--who is named Taliban for rather racist reasons--and at the very least, Yen is intense and fairly engrossing.

But while I applaud what I perceived as Jordan's underlying message--that love, tenderness and sunshine can brighten and change lives that have largely known only the opposite--the messaging feels a tad too trite, and the whole affair a touch inauthentic.

I fully realize that it would be almost impossible to cast actual 16 and 13 year old boys in a play being performed largely on school nights. And there is nothing inherently wrong with how Lancaster and Aaronson play their parts. But theoretically Raven should have sought Jordan's permission not to mention the ages, or to modify them to, say, 20 and 17.

Though I noted above that I didn't need to like a play's characters to like the play, Yen seems to be chronicling the reformation, rejuvenation and redemption of Hench and Bobbie, yet for reasons I won't spell out, I wound up liking both even less at the end of the play.

At least at the beginning they were somewhat empathetic.

Regardless of my feelings about Yen, I applaud Raven and its artistic director, Cody Estle, for bringing the play to Chicago.

It merits being seen, and whomever designed its promotional artwork deserves compliments.

But I found this tale of tumultuous brothers--not quite as heinous or humorous as those of Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West--to really only be relatively intriguing. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

The New BoHomians: Steve Martin/Edie Brickell Musical 'Bright Star' Shines in Its Chicago Premiere -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bright Star
a recent musical
BoHo Theatre
at the Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago
Thru May 5

I will always regard Broadway as the major leagues of musical theater.

This doesn't mean that there aren't hugely talented people who will never perform on the "Great White Way" in New York. Virtually every week I see and salute remarkable performers in and around Chicago; the show I'm now reviewing includes several prime examples.

But even if it's just my perception, I consider a musical--or play, for that matter--that runs on Broadway to have "made it" to the top level of theater (with London's West End nearly on par).

Certainly some lousy musicals can make it to Broadway and great ones fail to do so. And many a new Broadway musical has flopped on arrival; closing within a few days, weeks or months.

Bright Star, written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell but with neither starring in it, opened on Broadway in late March 2016 and--despite fairly strong reviews--closed just 3 months later.

Photo Credit on all except as noted: Cody Jolly
Up against the phenomenon of Hamilton, many long-running hits and even the then-new jukebox musical, On Your Feet!, it's understandable why the homey Bright Star didn't bring tourists and NYC denizens in droves.

But it was a BROADWAY MUSICAL, which doesn't guarantee quality, but to me, means something.

And even if I've liked the shows to varying degrees, I've relished whenever local Chicagoland theaters have staged productions of recent Broadway musicals that never even toured (at least not to Chicago).

Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire's take on The Bridges of Madison County was--pleasantly surprisingly--one of the very best shows I saw in 2017, and their Honeymoon in Vegas wasn't bad. 

I'm glad Porchlight Theatre introduced me to Kander & Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys and just last week I enjoyed Refuge Theatre Project's take on Hands on a Hardbody, a fun musical that Phish's Trey Anastasio co-composed. (It's still running in Chicago.)

So I was quite intrigued when I noted that BoHo Theatre--an ensemble whose 2018 staging of Stephen Sondheim's classic A Little Night Music was ravishing--was presenting Bright Star.

And I genuinely found it to be terrific.

Not quite on par with the greatest musicals ever, but a warm, tuneful, enjoyably original work whose folksy musicality fits well within intimate confines at the Greenhouse Theater Center.

And while my regard for "Broadway caliber" performers--with insanely rich vocal timbres and remarkable stage presence--would temper me from easily heaping such praise on the cast members here, I really couldn't have wished for them to be any better.

Set in North Carolina and bouncing between 1945 and 1923, Bright Star in its Chicago premiere stars Missy Wise as Alice Murphy, and she is fantastic.

Photo Credit: Katie Stanley
In 1945, Alice is a magazine editor in Asheville, where Billy (Jeff Pierpoint) seeks to get published,
and flashing back to 1923, Jimmy Ray (Josiah Robinson) is a boyfriend who impregnates her and wishes to do the right thing when her baby is born, but is precluded by his domineering father (Scott Danielson).

As with Wise, the three actors are demonstrably good, including vocally, as is the effervescent Kiersten Frumkin as Margo, Billy's longtime friend who longs to be something more now that he has returned home from World War II.

Along with being a brilliant comedian and at one point, one of the world's biggest movie stars, Steve Martin has in recent years made a point of showing the world his prowess as a banjo musician. And once upon a time, Edie Brickell had considerable pop success with her band, The New Bohemians (hence my cheeky headline lead-in above).

The two had collaborated musically even before creating Bright Star, and save a bit of banjoesque sameness in some songs, it's a rather satisfying score.

The show begins with Wise as Alice singing "If You Knew My Story," which evolves into a fine group number, and Pierpont soon superbly leads the title song.
"Way Back in the Day" is another delight, with Wise and Robinson both demonstrating strong vocal chops that will be shown repeatedly, and Frumkin delivers a fine "Asheville."

Although there was a tad too much similarity among a few songs, the Americana soundscape is robustly enjoyable and rather unique for a "Broadway musical." And the score is nicely diverse for the most part.

Under the direction of Ericka Mac, everyone in the cast does an excellent job, with Danielson really good at playing an unkind character--his singing is also strong--and the striking Rachel Whyte leading "Another Round" delectably.

There are a couple narrative twists I'm certainly not going to reveal, but while the story--credited to both Martin and Brickell, with the former cited as the book writer--loosely based on a real-life scenario may well have been a touch too melodramatic and saccharin to engender Broadway success, it lends itself to the wholesome likability of Bright Star.

Over the last few weeks, I have seen a strong local production of The Producers, which is my all-time favorite musical, and the first national tour of Dear Evan Hansen, one of very the best musicals of the past few years.

Even with a swell local production, I just didn't derive quite the same delight from Bright Star.

Yet it outshone not only a solid introduction to Hands on a Hardbody but the enjoyable A Bronx Tale musical on its initial national tour. And that show ran on Broadway for 20 months. (It should be noted that Bright Star was Tony-nominated for Best New Musical in 2016, but lost to Hamilton.)

So while a Broadway run of any length will infer to me a show worthy of my awareness, success or failure on the Great White Way needn't be construed as proof of musical's merits.

And there is almost nothing better than when a local troupe showcases the considerable merits of a musical that may not have gotten its due in NYC.

Such is the case here, and great kudos is due BoHo, Mac, the cast, crew and musicians.

The source material may not quite be brilliant, but under their care Bright Star clearly sparkles. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

"But You Must Pay the Rent!": At Northlight, Compelling 'Landladies' Hits Us Where We Live -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by Sharyn Rothstein
directed by Jess McLeod
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru April 20

There is actually only one landlady in Sharon Rothstein's fine new play, Landladies, which was inspired by but not directly based on the Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted.

But the landlady--a woman named Marti, terrifically played by Shanesia Davis in Northlight's world premiere production--seems symbolic of all kinds of "landladies" in our lives, well beyond those who rent apartments.

While, like everyone, she has some issues, Marti appears to be a decent person. But without giving much away, she is also unavoidably "the bad guy" at times when it comes to her new tenant, Christine (an also excellent Leah Karpel).

Or, at least, the authority figure. i.e. The school dean who must discipline us for being late. The auto mechanic who must inform us that our car needs $2,000 worth of work. The supervisor who must fire us, perhaps for good cause or reasons beyond his/her control.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Someone who might well be a kind, dedicated, empathetic individual who we might truly love if we knew them in another circumstance.

And while Rothstein adroitly slips in a couple aspects that make us wonder if Marti might not be all she seems, we understand that as the owner of an apartment building--even one geared to lower income tenants--there is only so much unpaid rent and personal transgressions she should be expected to tolerate.

But what serves to make Landladies quite compelling is that Christine is largely empathetic as well.

She is a single mother who has shown enough dedication to doing the right thing that she has worked at a crappy taco stand for four years, enduring all sorts of nastiness due to her known responsibilities.

We don't know if she has living parents or any relationship with them, and her need for sometimes unplanned childcare--the taco joint tends to switch her shifts--strains things with an unseen sister.

Though, at least as played by Karpel, she is an attractive and sharp young woman, her self-esteem has suffered to the point of maintaining ties with an ex-boyfriend--called Poet and played by the always stellar Julian Parker--who, I'll just say, has not treated her right (despite having endearing qualities that make it hard for her--or us--to entirely hate him).

From the brief awareness I gleaned about Landladies' subject matter beforehand, I arrived expecting the two women might have more of a close friendship, but with the casting of Davis--who I recalled as being wonderful in Porchlight's 2017 staging of Billy Elliot--and Karpel, it feels like more of a maternal relationship.

This is not a negative, but makes what transpires between them a bit less thorny than it might have been, and I wonder how closely Rothstein specified the characters' ages in her script.

Likewise, that Marti here is an African-American--as is Poet--and Christine is white isn't of great dramatic consequence, but I'm curious if it was written that way, or just cast as such in Northlight's production directed by Jess McLeod.

This is a play I can perceive being done by many regional theaters, and it could be interesting for the characters to be played by actors of different demographics, which would affect some of the dynamics.

I was engrossed throughout the 90-minute one act, and would recommend Landladies for anyone looking for an entertaining and thoughtful evening of theater.

In part due to some intangibles about its tonality, I can't quite call it awesome, and--perhaps intentionally--I didn't get complete clarity about Marti.

There is a situation regarding her encouraging Christine to take classes for--as Poet posits--possibly duplicitous reasons, and I was also a bit confused about entreaties to have Christine do some work for her...and how they play out.

Arnel Sancianco's set design of Christine's dingy apartment, complete with a hole in the floor is impressive; I particularly liked the visual pun of Andrew Wyeth's painting titled "Christina's World" being hung on the wall.

But some scenes take place in a much nicer dwelling in a building Marti is trying to buy, and others in Marti's own home, and though kudos are well-merited for the physical shifting of the set pieces, I found the differentiation between the appearances of the homes less than idyllic.

Landladies is well-worth your time given the sharp writing and fine performances in a new piece commissioned by Northlight.

I have to imagine Rothstein tried a variety of options in shaping the play, but it feels like it might benefit from an additional character, and future stagings could conceivably continue to mold it.

Still, if nothing else, Landladies should make you think about people you may see unfavorably given a certain situation--a cop giving you a speeding ticket; a teacher giving you or your kid a subpar grade--who really may be quite good at heart.

And also to consider the times when you might be the person being seen unfavorably.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Simmering Tension: Pulitzer-Winning 'Sweat' Finds Sly Power in Its Pertinence -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Lynn Nottage
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 14

There are numerous reasons for the loss of jobs, and the decimation of entire employment sectors:

Automation, societal change, corporate greed, shareholder returns, Wall Street shenanigans, shifting realities, changing priorities, foreign competition, personal shortcomings and more can all be contributing factors.

None of these make for easy targets on which to focus one's anger, so all too often we blame and/or assail co-workers, supervisors, family, friends, minorities, immigrants and more readily identifiable scapegoats.

This is one of the points I believe playwright Lynn Nottage--the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, including one for this play--to be making, artfully, slyly and eventually, in Sweat.

It's a powerful work, all the more so because the 2-1/2 hour two-act is in no hurry to fully reveal itself.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Based in the hardscrabble town of Reading, PA, Sweat--now on the mainstage at Chicago's Goodman
Theatre under the direction of Ron OJ Parson--largely takes place within a bar near a steel mill in the year 2000.

But creating something of a mystery that lasts until the final scenes, it begins in 2008, as a parole officer (Ronald L. Connor) speaks separately to Jason (Mike Cherry) and Chris (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), both recently released from prison and somehow connected.

I'll only partially address their connection by sharing that each is, respectively, the son of longtime plant workers and friends Tracey (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), who along with Jesse (Chaon Cross) regularly visit the tavern where Stan (Keith Kupferer) tends bar.

He had also worked in the mill for decades before a leg injury forced him to quit.

It seems safe to assume that audiences who watch Sweat having taken a glance at the show program or marketing materials are initially more aware of the steel mill's impending fate than the characters who work there, but anyone who's been through a downsizing or closure should be able to relate to the emotions Nottage conjures.

The relationship among the three female co-workers becomes complicated when at least two of them vie for a promotion into a management role, which only one gets.

This puts her in the untenable position of having to share with her pals information they don't want to hear--or worse, keep it from them.

This aspect of Sweat reminded me of Dominique Morisseau's play, Skeleton Crew, which I saw last year at Northlight Theatre.

Economic downturn and its repercussions--on companies, factories, workers, friends,  communities, etc.--is fertile dramatic ground, and it is no knock on Nottage that similarities came to mind.

And while I found Sweat's first act intriguing but not phenomenal, it's to the credit of Nottage, Parson, cast and crew that the work's power and pertinence snuck up on me by the end--without simmer ever obviously turned up to boil.

The show's structure, of scenes in the Reading bar in 2000, divided up among various characters--somewhat also reminding me of the non-war parts of The Deer Hunter--intermixed with a few scenes occurring in 2008 served to pique my interest in the characters, and wonder why Nottage made the time-bouncing choices she did.

But two Pulitzer Prizes--and other plays of hers I've seen--obviously bespeak Nottage being a gifted playwright, and I suspected there was more at play than initially obvious at face value.

The writer began work on Sweat in 2011 and it premiered in 2015 before hitting Broadway in 2017, but--even without being overtly political--it's easy to see it as a piece even more reflective of Donald Trump's America than the slightly earlier times of its setting.

It doesn't provide ready answers, for there often aren't any, and leaves it to the audience to judge certain characters without clearly taking sides.

That's why I mean it as quite a compliment to dub Sweat as deceptively terrific.

It makes its points--at least as I perceived them--sharply, but slyly, not overtly.

So while all of the actors--including Steve Casillas as Oscar, an employee of the bar, and Andre Teamer as Cynthia's ex-husband Brucie--do clearly stellar work, Sweat is a play that ultimately achieves greatness through inspiration, more than perspiration. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Good If Not Quite 'Trey' Bien: Refuge Theatre Project Provides a Solid Introduction to 'Hands on a Hardbody' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hands on a Hardbody
a recent musical
Refuge Theatre Project
The Preston Bradley Center,
Chicago (theater website)
Thru April 27

Although it contains several fine songs, in full Hands on a Hardbody isn't a fantastic musical.

And though the rendition by Refuge Theatre Project in Chicago has several excellent vocal performances, as a production it feels more solid than spectacular (and was marred by audio problems on opening night).

Still, it is an enjoyable endeavor that I found endearing and worth recommending on several levels.

Though I've attended shows by dozens of theater troupes in and around Chicago, I never before had heard of Refuge, which professes to specialize in "Under-produced, under-appreciated musical theater."

As a musical that opened on Broadway in early 2013 and closed after just 28 official performances, and--to my knowledge--had yet to be seen in Chicago proper, Hands on a Hardbody would seem to qualify.

Based on S.R. Bindler's 1997 documentary about an endurance competition in Texas in which contestants aim to keep one hand on a pickup truck for the longest amount of time, the musical notably features music by Trey Anastasio, the guitarist and singer of popular jam band, Phish.

Amanda Green, who wrote the lyrics, is credited with co-writing the score with Anastasio. And the show's book writer, Doug Wright, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, I Am My Own Wife.

So particularly in just having put together a blog piece and Spotify playlist noting how rock music has been infused into original Broadway scores of late--I didn't include any of Anastasio's compositions--I was rather intrigued to see Hands on a Hardbody for multiple reasons.

Even the venue utilized by Refuge coolly counts as one of those, as the show is being staged in a grand room on the 4th floor of the Preston Bradley Center in Uptown.

In it, the only real piece of staging is a sculptural rendition of a pickup truck, along with a couple lawn chair for spectators. (There are also 5 musicians on an old stage.)

A nice group number, "Human Drama Kind of Thing" opens the show providing an overview of the contest, and is really the only song in which Anastasio's trademark guitar work stood out to me.

Which isn't to say several of the other tunes weren't good, but anyone explicitly expecting a "Phish musical" likely won't be hooked.

Essentially, each of the contestants--and in a couple cases, their spouses--sings a song outlining their reason for being in the competition, their aspirations, etc., and each tune in this production is deftly handled.

I particularly liked Judy Lea Steele--as Virginia Drew, wife of contestant J.D. Drew (Tim Kough)--belting out "Alone With Me," and Alli Atkenson (as Kelli) and Roy Samra (Greg) do a fine job on "I'm Gone."

Max Cervantes plays an ex-Marine named Chris, whose "Stronger" is quite poignant, while Cathy Reyes McNamara (as Norma) leads a gospel number called "Joy of the Lord."

Derek Fawcett is Benny Perkins, a former contest winner back for another try, while Molly Kral (Heather), Jared David Michael Grant (Ronald), Sebastian Summers (Jesus Pena), Dan Gold (Mike Ferris, a contest host) and Jenna Fawcett (Cindy, a co-host) also do impressive work.

I am not familiar with the documentary, so I don't know how closely the characters in the musical hewed to real-life contestants.

But it felt like there should have been more diversity represented beyond a few Hispanic characters or actors and one African-American man.

For as the audience gets to know each of the contestants, they get to know each other, and it seems such a tale celebrating individuality and eye-opening interaction might include a wider range of characters (Muslims, homosexuals, transgender individuals and/or those with physical impairments).

Although almost all of the songs have inherent quality and are well-delivered here, Hands on a Hardbody doesn't fully overcome the challenges of an episodic show highlighting many different people rather than centering its narrative around just a few. (A Chorus Line, The 30th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Come From Away all solve this issue with more holistic aplomb.)

I didn't come to care about any of the contestants more than any others, and was never compelled to wonder who the eventual contest winner might be.

Understanding that Refuge is probably presenting this show on a fairly limited budget, I also saw spots where director Christopher Pazdernik--who is also the company's artistic director--might have been a bit more imaginative with the staging.

Just as one example, as the somewhat older Drew couple reflects on their lives together on "Alone with Me," why not have a couple dancers representing the youth gone by?

This isn't that original a concept and I don't know what choreography may have been created for the Broadway production, but with rather little innate visual interest given the characters largely being tethered to the pickup, some inspired variance would be nice.

And hopefully it was just an opening night glitch, but several microphones couldn't be properly heard, and loud crackling was unfortunately too present.

Despite the flaws, I want to be clear that I admire the efforts of Pazdernik, cast and crew in not only presenting this musical, but in providing a rather solid sense of it.

Beyond its technical merits--and to some degree, lack thereof--I'm happy to have seen Hands on a Hardbody, and I think it should be worth your time as well.

Especially as you'll spend just 2-1/2 hours in the theater, not several days attached to a pickup truck. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

All That Chazz (by Proxy): It Isn't One of the Great Ones, but 'A Bronx Tale' Musical Well-Merits a Cheer -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Bronx Tale
the musical
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 24

Like many, I imagine, I first heard of A Bronx Tale as a movie, written by and starring Chazz Palminteri, co-starring and directed by Robert De Niro--his first directorial effort--and released in 1993.

The story was actually first created a few years earlier as a one-man play by and starring Palminteri; it played in Los Angeles and Off- Broadway, leading to the film adaptation.

Palminteri--who also enjoyed Hollywood success in Bullets Over Broadway and The Usual Suspects, among others--brought the play to Broadway as a starring vehicle in 2007, followed by a National Tour, which I saw in Chicago in 2009.

By the time A Bronx Tale was adapted into a musical and hit Broadway in late 2016, I found myself dubious about how many iterations the material needed.

And though the musical had a nice Broadway run through the end of last year, my expectations upon entering the Nederlander Theatre Tuesday night in Chicago were rather muted, even in giving the Original Cast Album a few listens.

But with a fine score by Alan Mencken--who's composed many a Disney film--lyrics by Glenn Slater, the book credited to Palminteri (who isn't on hand) and direction, somewhat interestingly, by De Niro and Broadway vet Jerry Zaks, as a musical A Bronx Tale made for an enjoyable evening of entertainment.

No, in referencing one of its better songs, the show isn't "One of the Great Ones," but it's more than solid.

Beowulf Boritt's fine set brings us to Belmont Avenue and 187th Street in the Bronx in the 1960s, where Calogero--which is Palminteri's real first name--lives with his mom and dad in the heavily Italian-American enclave.

Playing Calogero as a young adult, a fine Joey Barriero serves as the narrator, while Frankie Leoni embodies the same role as a younger kid.

Through a quick series of events, Calogero catches the favor of the community's ranking mobster, Sonny (Joe Barbara, reprising the role he originated on Broadway), which causes friction with the kid's bus-driving dad, Lorenzo (normally Richard H. Blake, also part of the original Broadway cast, but on Night 1 in Chicago, Mike Backes handled the role).

"Belmont Avenue" sets the stage as a fine opening number, while "Look to Your Heart" follows with Lorenzo imparting wisdom to young Calogero, who soon leads, "I Like It" about his newfound respect in the neighborhood.

All the singing voices are strong, particularly Barriero's and Barbara's, the latter standing out on the glib "Nicky Machiavelli" and the shrewd, "One of the Great Ones."

Interweaving with the storyline about Calogero becoming involved with Sonny's crew is one where he is smitten by an African-American classmate named Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell) at a time when even his friends are grossly intolerant.

Also meriting mention is Michelle Aravena as Calogero's mom, Rosina.

Even with an intermission, A Bronx Tale barely reaches two hours, so is one of the shorter two-act musicals you'll ever see.

With little non-sung dialogue, it is nicely paced, and the songs are strong enough to justify this material being turned into a musical.

Although this really should be true of any musical, A Bronx Tale feels like a show suited for wives bringing their husbands along, and not having them grumble.

But while it's certainly not unwelcome in moving along quite quickly, a few narrative weaknesses make this musical feel as though it's comfortable not quite being one for the ages.

Discord between Calogero and his dad over both the friendship with Sonny and the relationship with Jane feels like it never really plays out to a boiling point, and it seems like Rosina gets rather little stage time (though Aravena nicely handles the "Look to Your Heart" reprise in Act II). Other aspects also seem a tad curt.

As I tried to explain to my Uber driver on the way home--whose musical theater knowledge seemed pretty much limited to West Side Story, and even then just barely--A Bronx Tale just isn't as brilliant a show as Hamilton, nor Dear Evan Hansen, which it is following at the Nederlander (long known as the Oriental).

There really isn't anything groundbreaking or earth-shattering here.

But as a new musical included in my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, it turned out to be an unexpected pleasure.

Not every show can be the very best, but if it's robustly entertaining, that's good enough for me, especially on a random Tuesday night in March.

And even though it's not one of the great ones, as a musical--like as a play and movie--A Bronx Tale does itself more than proud. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Broadway Rocks -- Featuring a Playlist of Rocking Tunes from Musicals of Fairly Recent Vintage

The musical theater genre--colloquially known as Broadway, given its pinnacle locale--existed far before the advent of rock and roll.

And even after rock rose in the mid-1950s, for quite awhile the two idioms rarely overlapped.

1957's West Side Story focused on youth culture, and 1960's Bye Bye Birdie was acutely inspired by Elvis Presley, but neither musical could really be said to rock.

It seems that the counter-cultural phenomenon, Hair, which opened on Broadway in 1968, merits being considered the first rock musical, but it's not like a slew quickly followed.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, the early musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber--Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, all 3 with lyrics penned by Tim Rice--are quite rock-oriented, having begun as concept albums perhaps inspired by The Who's Tommy, the first rock opera on vinyl.

There was a sprinkling of other rock-infused musicals in the '70s and '80s--Godspell, Grease, The Wiz and Chess--among them, but it was a handful of prominent shows in the 1990s that really helped strengthen the connection.

Presented onstage for the first time, The Who's Tommy had a nice run on Broadway beginning in 1993, and three years later, the massively successful Rent likely became the most notable rock musical ever, especially among those with songs written specifically for the theater.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch--its lead character seeming inspired by David Bowie, who along with Alice Cooper, T-Rex, KISS, Meat Loaf and others, helped make rock concerts far more theatrical--opened Off-Broadway (a Broadway staging wouldn't take place until 2014).

And with its smash London bow in 1999, Mamma Mia--featuring the songs of ABBA--firmly established the jukebox musical, by which Broadway musicals are created and marketed around well-known songs and artists, typically from the rock canon. (The show hit Broadway in 2001 and has toured everywhere).

From the terrific Jersey Boys chronicling the Four Seasons to the kitschy fun Rock of Ages, featuring tunes by Journey, Def Leppard and more, to myriad others of varying degrees of creative merit--see a list of Jukebox Musicals on Wikipedia--these shows have made rock music fairly ubiquitous within the parlance of musical theater.

I don't mind a good jukebox musical--Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is terrific theater--and though I still predominantly love rock music, as I always have, I also unabashedly love more traditional Broadway scores, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb, Bock & Harnick, Boublil & Schönberg, Stephen Sondheim and many others.

Although I was indoctrinated to Broadway as a child, I didn't really get into it as an adult until around the year 2000. And part of the reason for that was because in terms of new music by new artists, rock and roll had left me somewhat cold.

In large part--again referencing anything new, not legends playing live--it still does.

So beyond the jukebox musicals, it has been interesting and fun to note how rock music has made its way into original musicals, particularly over the past dozen years.

To highlight this, I have put together the Spotify playlist below, featuring rock-infused songs from Dear Evan Hansen--I just saw it last week--and many other shows, essentially dating back to Spring Awakening from late 2006.

I did include one song from the the 2014 Broadway production of Hedwig starring Neil Patrick Harris, but otherwise have limited this to songs from shows of the past dozen years or so.

So no HairRent, Hairspray, etc., and I also avoided Jukebox Musicals. These are all tunes written for the shows they originated in. I think it makes for a nice listen and while some songs could fairly be described as "rock-ish," at least a few could really compete with most modern rock tunes.

Though he didn't fit into my explanation above, I think Elton John should be mentioned in terms of the merging of rock and musicals. He composed the music for several successful shows--The Lion King (initially the movie), Aida, Billy Elliot--and also Lestat.

I didn't including anything from Sir Elton in the playlist--some Billy Elliot tunes rock pretty well but are highly intertwined with show dialogue--but his success, critically and commercially, has likely helped blur the line between rock and Broadway.

Perhaps I should delve into the songs, musicals and songwriters represented in the playlist, but I think you can get the gist from listening, and noting the origins of anything you really like. It's not intended to be exhaustive, but feel free to let me know of anything it would seem I should've included. 

Enjoy the playlist. You can play it below, but if you need help finding it on Spotify, be in touch.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

A Masked Ball: If This Really is Farewell, KISS Goes Out With a Bang -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act David Garibaldi (painter)
March 2, 2019
United Center, Chicago

To my awareness, no rock act has ever so overtly delighted prepubescent boys any more than KISS.

In the mid-70s, they amplified the glam theatrics of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, T-Rex and the New York Dolls while eliminating almost any sense of subtlety, irony or androgyny.

Simplifying the riff-heavy metal of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, the New York quartet--initially comprised of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss--donned full character makeup and costumes while pumping out trashy testosterone tunes like "God of Thunder," "Love Gun" and "Rock and Roll All Nite."

Live--and I was too young to see it except on TV, but was smitten nonetheless--they employed a cacophony of flashing lights, pyrotechnics and explosions.

Though never part of the Kiss Army fan club, my little self ate it up, with KISS Double Platinum becoming a cherished part of my fledgling record collection.

But if the band's foray into disco--see "I Was Made for Loving You"--didn't completely curb my interest, it had waned by 1983 when I was in high school, KISS was out of makeup and Frehley & Criss were out of KISS.

Cut to 1996. On the Grammy Awards, as introduced by Tupac Shakur, the original foursome reappears in full makeup and classic costumes. 

A full reunion tour followed--it should be noted that, sans full regalia, Paul & Gene had kept KISS going with other musicians, including drummer Eric Carr, who would pass in 1991--and in July 1996, I saw KISS in concert for the first time, at the Rosemont Horizon. 

And candidly, I thought they largely sucked. 

I was 27 at the time, so while reliving part of my childhood held a bit of fun, I wasn't that removed from it. 

Sure, seeing the costumes and explosions was cool, but I was acutely struck by how simplistic the songs were and how terribly tinny they sounded instrumentally.

Theoretically, that could have forever cured me of my KISS curiosity, but in 2009 my pal Paolo--who I had met just the year before but who has remained my most steadfast concert and theater companion--convinced me to see them at Summerfest in Milwaukee. 

With Frehley and Criss again gone--replaced, as still, by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer--the show was better, but still would've seemed sufficient. 

But after doing a "Farewell Tour" in 2009 and seemingly frequently threatening to hang up their boots, KISS is now in the midst of their End of the Road Tour, supposedly to last another 2 years. 

And though we didn't get tickets until Saturday morning, and wound up having to sit apart, Paolo and I went to the show that evening at Chicago's United Center.

(Having seen favorites like Tom Petty, David Bowie and Prince pass on in recent years, and other such as Rush, Elton John and Bob Seger retiring from the road, we take "last chance to see" pretty seriously, whether a bit dubious about the marketing or not.)

Again quite candidly, this time around--both nostalgically and musically--I loved KISS.

My seat was in the top deck on the side of the stage, limiting my view of the video backdrop and other visuals, but I could see and hear the four band members just fine, feel the heat from numerous fire blasts and nearly have my ear drums ruptured by multiple explosions.

It was truly an audiovisual feast, and from the opening song--"Detroit Rock City"--KISS really sounded great.

Perhaps Thayer and Singer are just better musicians than Frehley and Criss, or--in donning the same outfits and makeup--at least have far better amplifiers.

Sure, Stanley's incessant, often inane stage patter seemed well in keeping with Saturday coincidentally being the 35th anniversary of the release of This is Spinal Tap, and yes, most of the lyrics are still rather silly, if not outright sexist.

But post-1980 selections--see the setlist here--like "Say Yeah," "Heaven's on Fire," "Lick It Up" (with its inclusion of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" classic scream) and "Psycho Circus"--came off considerably better than I would've imagined.

Childhood joys like "Shout It Out Loud," "Calling Dr. Love," "Do You Love Me" and "Rock and Roll All Night" had me bouncing in my seat, drummer Singer nicely handled piano and vocals on "Beth"--as did Criss back in the day--and tunes like "Deuce," "100,000 Years," "Cold Gin" and "Black Diamond" reminded that KISS had some nice chops on their self-titled debut album, released 45 years ago last month.

I can't quite give the show a full @@@@@, but with a robust 2 hours, there were few moments I didn't at least enjoy, and plenty that I loved.

Gene Simmons turns 70 this year and Stanley is 67. Even with makeup belying their age--and vocally both sounded quite good--the End of the Road is probably indeed near, even if the KISS brand could conceivably carry on with franchises and holograms.

My guess is that they'll probably come through Chicagoland at least once more, but though I won't swear to it, I doubt I'd go again.

So if this really is farewell, I'm glad a 40+ year relationship with some ups and downs has ended with a surprisingly great KISS.

Here's just a bit of "Rock and Roll All Nite," shot by me: