Wednesday, July 31, 2019

When Love Comes To/From Town: 'Come From Away' Wonderfully Sings the Praises the Giving One's Best at the Worst of Times -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Come From Away
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru August 18

The awful events of Sept. 11, 2001 probably seem like the last thing anyone should ever write a Broadway musical about.

But befitting a show in part about changing perceptions via kindness and compassion, Come From Away slyly deals with that devastating day in an artful, humanistic, spirit-uplifting way.

Written and composed by Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical isn't directly about the terrorist attacks, the heroic first responders, the resiliency of New Yorkers and Americans, etc., though that's certainly woven in adroitly.

Rather, it chronicles what happened when--amid the stoppage of air traffic--38 planes full of people from just about everywhere landed in Gander, Newfoundland.

Circa 2001, Gander was home to about 9,000 people and what was once the world's busiest airport. 

Before jets became capable of reaching transatlantic destinations without refueling, Gander International Airport (YQX) was the foremost aviation pit stop location, but had become rather sleepy by 2001.

With many global flights in the air well before hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, passenger jets needed to land somewhere after U.S. airspace was closed.

I imagine there were other locales where something similar happened to a lesser extent, but Gander nearly doubled in size literally overnight, as the planes brought about 7,000 people.

Initially there was understandable confusion about all the aircraft arriving, and for quite some time passengers weren’t allowed to disembark.

As would be expected, those unexpectedly winding up in Gander—without knowing the news of the day—were confused, tired, fearful, hungry, wary, etc.

Many, coming from Africa, Asia and elsewhere, didn’t speak English, let alone clearly understand the Newfoundland dialect. And there was some ugly anger targeted at those who prayed in Arabic tongues.

Yet rather miraculously—within Come From Away, but seemingly quite so in real-life—the residents of Gander and nearby environs not only welcomed everyone, they truly cared for them.

Given how polarized we seem to be in the Trump era, there will conceivably be folks who find Come From Away far too liberal, progressive, open-hearted, empathetic, tolerant, loving, etc.

So be it, but I think it represents the way life should be. With kindness and mutual respect and newfound friendships—transcending race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, language, etc., etc.— coming in the shadow one of the worst events in world history.

But what makes Come From Away fantastic is that it’s far from just a Pollyannish, feel good show.

Sankoff and Hein have written a cool collection of songs that help tell the story while speaking to the great sorrows as well as camaraderie in the midst of anxiety.

“Welcome to the Rock,” “Wherever We Are,” “On the Edge,” “Heave Away,” “Screech In,” “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere” and the poignant “Something’s Missing” are all terrific group numbers that mostly rock, but offer some nice variety.

Before I get further into details, let me note that I am specifically reviewing the Chicago stop of Come From Away’s first national tour, following the show’s Broadway opening in March 2017.

Prior to reaching Broadway--where it continues to run rather successfully--the show had played a few cities, including Washington, DC, where I saw the first preview in September 2016.

Through a promotion by TodayTix, I was able to get a free ticket, and the experience was abetted by the venue: the Ford's Theatre, where President Lincoln was shot and killed in 1865 but which remains an operating theater (as well as a tourist attraction).

A mini-review is just a minor part of this travelogue of a multi-city East Coast city I took, but--as now--I awarded @@@@@ on my 5@ scale and called Come From Away "really phenomenal."

Certainly there was some great talent in that cast, which largely went to Broadway--including Jenn Colella, who would be Tony-nominated, and Joel Hatch, who I recalled fondly from The Adding Machine at Next Theatre in Evanston, IL--but this is truly a musical where everyone in the cast is integral, especially as all rotate through multiple roles.

So although from my balcony seat at Chicago's Cadillac Palace I had some trouble seeing around a sizable patron in front of me, disregarding the unique appeal of the Ford's Theatre I would say the touring version of Come From Away is in no way lesser.

Becky Gulsvig, who I've liked in Legally Blonde and Beautiful, does a fine job in Colella's role, principally playing an airline pilot named Beverley. She belts out "Me and the Sky" really well.

Everyone is notably good, including Kevin Carolan, Nick Duckart and Emily Walton.

Having often enjoyed James Earl Jones II--who is not the son of but somehow related to his famed namesake--on Chicago area stages, it was delightful on multiple levels to note his inclusion in this touring cast.

And while everyone runs through multiple roles, as both passengers and Gander locals--it's not nearly as confusing as that may sound, thanks clearly to director Christopher Ashley--the friendship among Julie Johnson's Beulah and Danielle K. Thomas' Hannah, whose son is a Manhattan fireman, is definitely a highlight.

So you have an oddly heartwarming true story, well-told and staged, accompanied by some superb songs and excellent performances, all clocking in well under an intermission-less 2 hours.

By all means, Come From Away to see this striking musical. 

It's that special.

Particularly if you agree that much can be solved simply by people being nice to one another.

(Though in addition to touring and playing Broadway, it can also be found in Toronto, London (UK) and elsewhere.)

Monday, July 29, 2019

Frampton Remains Alive...and Seemingly Well: On Farewell Tour, I Love His Way -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Peter Frampton & band
w/ opening act
Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Evening
Huntington Bank Pavilion, Chicago
July 28, 2019

In January 1976, when he was 25 and I was 7, Peter Frampton released Frampton Comes Alive, a double live album recorded the previous year, mostly at shows in San Francisco and on Long Island.

Although he'd previously earned some acclaim as guitarist for the band Humble Pie, and put out four studio albums under his own name, at that point the Englishman was not a star.

Only 1975's Frampton had broken Billboard's top 100--it went to #32--and he had yet to have any hit singles.

But while Frampton Comes Alive wasn't an instant sensation, it rather soon exploded--hitting #1 in April 1976, selling 8 million copies and becoming the best-selling live album of all-time (though it now ranks 4th).

Although my dad--more a classical, opera and Broadway fan but open to some rock--did bring late '70s mega-albums such as The Eagles' Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack into the family's growing record collection, he never bought Frampton Comes Alive, nor did I until decades later.

So while I was aware of Frampton, hit songs such as "Show Me the Way" and "Baby, I Love Your Way," the popularity of Frampton Comes Alive and his role in the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie--which I saw upon its 1978 release--he never figured that strongly into my rock fandom.

I vaguely remember the title track of his 1981 album, Breaking All the Rules, but even at the time, it felt like a minor comeback by a has-been. Frampton was all of 30, and aside from some 21st century curiosity that saw me buy but not particularly love Frampton Comes Alive, Peter remained a blip on my rock 'n roll radar.

I'd never seen him live in concert, even deciding a 2017 show in my hometown of Skokie was priced too high for my interest.

But I'd heard some good things about that acoustic gig, loved an interview he did with Howard Stern and was moved by his announcement earlier this year that he will "retire from regular vigorous touring at the end of this year due to being diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM)," a progressive muscle disorder characterized by muscle inflammation, weakness and atrophy.

Thus, I took note of the announcement of his show at the Huntington Bank Pavilion on Northerly Island--a venue he also played in 2016 and '18--and when Live Nation offered a special $20 ticket deal, I snagged three seats.

Hence, I was eager to see Peter Frampton.

But not that eager.

Even in doing some Spotifamilarizing with setlisted songs from earlier on the tour, there wasn't much I loved besides some Frampton Comes Alive highlights and "Breaking All the Rules."

And to be perfectly honest, the best music I heard Sunday night came before Frampton and his band took the stage.

For the night's--and mostly the tour's--opening act was Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Evening.

Bonham, himself a powerhouse drummer, is the son of Led Zeppelin's late, legendary John Bonham, and has played in the stead of his dad in some sporadic Zep one-off reunions.

And as he said from the stage, for 9 years now, he has toured to essentially pay tribute to his dad and the music he once made with Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones.

At no point across Bonham's 50+ minute set did I imagine I was watch the actual Zeppelin, nor did it quite compare with seeing Plant, as I have numerous times. But with James Dylan doing a stellar job with Plant's vocals and Tony Catania ripping through the Page guitar parts, it was thrilling to hear "The Immigrant Song," "The Ocean," "Whole Lotta Love," "Rock and Roll," "Stairway to Heaven" and more.

Understandably, Bonham's crew didn't get headliner-style lighting, nor full crushing volume, but while Peter Frampton became pretty huge during the '70s, Led Zeppelin pretty much owned the decade.

So it was rather gutsy, and cool, that Frampton would readily wreak the comparisons upon himself, with an opening act that got most of the crowd onto their feet.

Yet while the music itself is one thing--and Zeppelin's greatest hits will win the battle for me against almost anyone--Frampton proved himself up to the challenge.

With a warm smile on his face, the once long-maned rock idol seemed comfortable as a still-estimable musician of 69, with little hair and a gray beard (and a t-shirt reading "EQUALITY").

Opening--as does Frampton Comes Alive--with "Baby (Something's Happenin')", Frampton often rather affably regaled the crowd with stories, including one about saving a bird that had somehow doinked itself on the singer's balcony in Nashville.

This actually led into a relatively new song about the incident called "I Saved a Bird Today."

Musically, the most overtly delectable moments harkened to the hallowed live album--"Show Me the Way," "Baby, I Love Your Way," the main set-closing long romp of "Do You Feel Like I Do," incorporating Frampton's famed talk box effect--but appreciating what Peter will be up against medically, just hearing him play any guitar leads was tremendously delightful.

Though he's been doing largely the same setlist--and therefore three blues covers--at most Finale Tour stops, it was particularly cool to hear him play these ("Georgia (On My Mind)," "Me and My Guitar," "Same Old Blues") in Chicago.

And being a huge Soundgarden fan, I got choked up hearing Frampton's largely instrumental take on "Black Hole Sun" and his spoken introduction to it, in which he dedicated the song to Chris Cornell, whom Peter had come to know after recording the tune for his 2006 Fingerprints album, his only to win a Grammy.

Even when a song, such as "(I'll Give You) Money," felt a tad indulgent--though Frampton's guitar interaction with Adam Lester was sweet--the truth is that on a picture-perfect night on Chicago's lakefront, skyline in view, two friends alongside, with a terrific opening act, all for $20, the whole performance was just joyful.

Most of all because of how cool Frampton seemed.

It would conceivably be easy for him to be somewhat bitter in having spent the last 40-some years in the shadow of a fabled album from his mid-20s, and now being stricken with an illness likely to rob him of his ability to play music.

But he was entirely amiable, engaging and gracious, thanking the rather full crowd, paying tribute to ex-bandmates who have passed on and speaking candidly about his diagnosis. (He didn't mention one notable childhood friend, David Bowie--who also was an art pupil of Frampton's dad--but did name drop another, Bill Wyman.)

As he's done in other cities, I would've relished him closing out the night with a cover of The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," seemingly a perfectly poignant end to the evening...and eventually his touring career.

But after a couple Humble Pie tunes as encores--including Ray Charles' "I Don't Need No Doctor," in
which I sensed an added air of defiance--Peter Frampton simply said "I can't say goodbye" and left the stage, seemingly not wishing to run afoul of the 11pm curfew. (Though Bonham and Frampton combined for a generous 3 hours of music, there's no reason the show couldn't have been slated to start half-hour earlier than the ticketed 7:30pm).

But I guess I really didn't need to hear his guitar weep, especially as Peter Frampton seemed not an iota sorry for himself.

Sure, it took me awhile, but I'm happy I saw Frampton come alive.

And, ooh baby, I loved his way.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

More Than a Feline: Revived Cats Remains a Rather Curious Musical -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

National Tour
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 4

For a long time, I consciously avoided Cats, and not just because I’m allergic to the real-life furballs. 

After opening big in London in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats hit Broadway the next year, and my dad was enough of a Broadway fan that I was aware of the phenomenon.

So when Cats first came to Chicago in March 1985, and stayed for over a year, it was a pretty big deal.

But though my parents took my sisters to see the show, I resisted, presumably being too cool as a high school junior/senior to see a bunch of singing & dancing cats. (For various reasons, including teenage peer pressure, trepidations about perceptions of one’s sexuality and having a tempestuous relationship with my dad, I didn’t fully embrace musical theater until years later, despite being exposed to it quite young.)

During the 1990s, Cats became the longest-running show ever on Broadway—its since been surpassed by Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, as well as The Lion King and Chicago—but after 17+ years a closing date was announced for June 2000.

That month, I happened to go to NYC to see my musical hero, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at Madison Square Garden, on Saturday, June 17. (Calling Ticketmaster from my home near Chicago, I fortuitously snagged a seat in the 10th row center.)

And for that same day, I got a matinee ticket to Cats, figuring I should see it before the closure. (…which wound up being pushed back a few months.)

I didn’t love Cats but liked it sufficiently.

Then in 2003, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, IL, a fine self-producing venue in the Chicago suburbs that presents shows in-the-round, staged a particularly innovative, intimate and enjoyable version of Cats.

Another 16 years have gone by and—until Tuesday—I hadn’t seen Cats again since. Nor ever felt much of a hankering.

But there’s a presently a U.S. National Tour, derived from the 2016 Broadway revival of Cats, still under the direction—as since London in 1981—of Trevor Nunn, with Andy Blankenbuehler replicating the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. (Blankenbuehler had notably choreographed Hamilton.)

I’m not sure if it would’ve piqued my interest had it not been part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, but it was.

And so I saw Cats once again, at the splendiferous Nederlander Theater, long-known as the Oriental. 

So what did I think of Cats, all these years later?

It’s good. For what it is. Which probably sounds like a back-pawed compliment. And likely is. 

Though I believe in the oeuvre of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats ranks behind Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sunset Boulevard, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Aspects of Love and perhaps some others—I have a soft spot for The Beautiful Game and The Woman in White, having seen them in London—I can’t deny that ALW imbued Eliot’s poems with some nice melodies.

The overture is lovely, while “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” nicely establishes that the musical chronicles a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles.

From there are songs spotlighting a certain cat, or perhaps a pair.

Many of these test my patience, but “Rum Tum Tugger,” “Old Deuteronomy” and “Gus: The Theatre Cat” are relative highlights, and “Mr. Mistoffelees” is gleeful near the end (if not as pirouetting as I recalled the dancing to once be).

And, as a showpiece for Grizabella, a formerly glamorous cat, “Memory” stands among Webber’s—and musical theater’s—greatest ballads. Keri René Fuller handles it nicely in this cast, twice.

So with a few terrific songs and several decent ones, delivered by a talented touring cast, Cats is entertaining. Though I can’t cite anything specific Blankenbuehler did with the choreography, there is good dancing to go along with fine singing and stellar musicianship.

And looking at musical theater as a more holistic enterprise, Cats truly is remarkable when it comes to costuming—by John Napier, who also did the sets—and makeup.

If it’s a show that indoctrinates kids to the wonders of musical theater, that’s only a good thing.

And there’s undeniably tons of talent in this cast, including Tony d’Alelio (Mungojerry), Rose Lannaconne (Rumpleteaser), Tyler John Logan (Plato/Macavity), Brandon Michael Nase (Victor/Old Deuteronomy), McGee Maddox (Bill Bailey/Rum Tum Tugger), Tion Gaston (Mistoffelees), the aforementioned Fuller and essentially everyone else.

Yet while Cats is an entertaining musical that I have no problem calling a “good” one, partially due to the lack of a cohesive storyline—even compared to the episodic A Chorus Line, there’s virtually no narrative thread between amidst the cat tales—it’s not a particularly meaningful one.

And while “great” is certainly subjective, it’s interesting to note that—at least for the next few days—Chicago’s Loop is home to four of the most popular Broadway musicals ever created.

But whereas Hamilton, Les Misérables and The Music Man are brilliant shows with stellar or truly superlative productions, Cats is, well, considerably less than purr-fect.

If you’re a fan, see it; this is a fine tour. If you want to take the kids, sure, why not.

But if—seemingly like a young man sitting near me, you decide to attend just because, and you find yourself wondering “WTF?” is going on—well, consider yourself forewarned.

I still don’t love Cats.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A Bit Too Steep: 'Pomona' Takes Me Somewhere I Don't Quite Get -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

by Alistair McDowell
directed by Robin Witt
Steep Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 24

Before I opted to see Pomona, all I knew was that it was being presented by Steep Theatre, which has regularly done stellar, often adventurous work. 

The play's director, Robin Witt, also helmed two of the shows I liked best by the troupe: Linda and Harper Regan.

Prior to attending Saturday night's performance, I had the benefit of reading Chris Jones' 4-star (out of 4) review in the Chicago Tribune.

And between Jones' review, program notes by the playwright, Alistair McDowell, and my own perceptions upon seeing the show, points of reference I can cite are pretty impeccable.

David Foster Wallace's acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest. Martin McDonagh's masterful play, The Pillowman. The great science fiction noir film, Dark City. Blade Runner. Pulp Fiction. The Sound and Fury

Photo credit on all: Gregg Gilman
Especially with the undeniable truth that theater is subjective, our reactions potentially immensely different, all of the above should serve as gist for you to (possibly) see Pomona.

Including a fine cast, it has a lot going for it.

Even if, try as I might, I didn't understand it.

Nor, with great deference to Steep, Witt, McDowell and the eminently more esteemed arbiter, Jones, much like it.

It's hard for me even to explain the show, and perhaps it's best that I leave most details for viewers to discover.

Pomona has nothing to do with the city in California with that name, but rather a region in England within the city of Manchester.

There, the non-linear story begins with Zeppo (Steep artistic director, Peter Moore, excellent as always), a local titan who is driving a ring road accompanied by Ollie (Amber Sallis) who seeks his help finding her missing sister.

For reasons still unclear to me, Zeppo regales Ollie with the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark and his predilection for chicken nuggets.

Many of the other characters are seemingly named for early screen comics--Charlie (as in Chaplin, played by Brandon Rivera), Moe (Nate Faust), Keaton (the young Phoebe Moore), and with the allusions less clear, Fay (Ashlyn Lozano) and Gale (Jamila Tyler). 

Ostensibly to prove that I was awake, focused and taking notes, I can tell you that the narrative involves a brothel of sorts, and that one of the male characters fantasizes about covering the world in his semen.

There is also seemingly a mystery about what happened to Ollie's sister, but while I certainly wouldn't spell out how this was resolved, the truth is that I don't really know.

Color me perplexed.

Which isn't to be blatantly dismissive.

McDowell is clearly an ambitious writer who traipses in complex, science fiction non-linearity akin to Alex Proyas (who wrote and directed Dark City), Christopher Nolan and Alex Garland (Ex-Machina, Annihilation).

The films by the aforementioned trio and others of their ilk (such as Quentin Tarantino) are often audacious, challenging and ultimately brilliant to some--including me in part--and far too confounding to others.

i.e. Also me, in several cases.

So at the very least, I would say, beware.

Pomona is not easy to follow or discern, although it's more watchable than that might suggest due to strong performances throughout.

My grade above and general sense of not being enthralled genuinely reflects my overall experience in viewing it, and what I derived.

But I wouldn't deem to call it bad, disappointing, etc.

I just didn't get it.

Stuck on the ring road, perhaps.

Or caught in a matrix (referencing a movie I did love).

So although I wasn't wowed by Pomona, it's not hard to imagine some might find it astonishing.

I hope you do.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Withering Heights? Steppenwolf's 'True West' Revival Stronger for Onstage Ferocity Than Acute Storytelling -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

True West
by Sam Shepard
directed by Randall Arney
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 25

Sam Shepard's True West stands as the most famous play ever staged by Steppenwolf Theatre.

Not the current production, though stellar, but the 1982 version that would go to Broadway, launch John Malkovich and Gary Sinise to stardom and define Chicago's Steppenwolf as the epicenter for in-your-face theater.

Though I was too young to attend that mythic run, I did see the production on TV a few years later, and retain a vague familiarity with the visceral explosiveness that long seemed to be synonymous with the theater now at 1650 N. Halsted (with ever-impressive expansion plans).

I've attended over 35 Steppenwolf shows over the past 20 years and am decidedly a fan of that particular theater, as well theater in general, attending roughly 60+ works each year.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So it's not like I need much impetus to see anything that seems intriguing, but given my appreciation of the history of True West at Steppenwolf, I was especially compelled to see this reprise directed by longtime ensemble member, Randall Arney.

Though any superlative play should sustain numerous productions over the years, in some ways the legacy of True West--explicitly at Steppenwolf--does viewing it presently something of a disservice.

During Act I, I found myself awaiting the onstage fireworks--i.e. fisticuffs between brothers Lee and Austin--almost to the point of distraction.

And when much more mayhem ensued during Act II, I found myself admiring the sheer physicality--and vague flashbacks--more than the narrative.

As the initially prim screenwriter, Austin, and his combustible brother, Lee, Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood are unequivocally good.

But without any apology required from either, they aren't Sinise and Malkovich, the latter of whom remains the archetype for menace on the verge of madness.

With the inclusion of Steppenwolf stalwart Francis Guinan, who reprises his role as Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer 37 years down the road--as well as the 4th cast member, Jacqueline Williams, as the mother of Austin and Lee--True West is eminently watchable, at times riveting and estimable with or without reverence for its history at Steppenwolf.

But--perhaps because I was anticipating the overt theatrics--I don't think I properly grasped Shepard's commentary on Hollywood, nor how differences in relations with their mother and much-absent father fostered the brothers' differing paths and temperaments.

Though I did stay for and appreciate the post-show discussion, I also was left unsure about a narrative point.

As mentioned above, Austin is Ivy League educated and working on a screenplay supposedly to be bought by Saul. He is staying at his mother's house, a good bit east of L.A., while she is in Alaska.

Seemingly, out of the blue, Lee arrives, his haphazard appearance readily defining him as roughshod.

He meets Saul, clearly more a money man than artist, and impresses him with a movie idea, seemingly beyond that of Austin's.

Which suggests to me something of a Mozart and Salieri dichotomy, with perhaps the volatile, uncouth Lee truly more creatively gifted than his far more educated and disciplined brother.

But because Saul's interest in Lee's pitch seems to arise after the former winds up on the wrong side of some wagering between the two, I was left unclear if Lee really may be some kind of wunderkind, or simply a fortuitous charlatan.

Which may well be part of Shepard's point, that the distinction between those who succeed and those who don't may not always be clear.

Or merited.

That such considerations came to mind bespeaks the talents of the immortal Shepard (who passed in 2017), and the qualities of True West, even if I only partially perceived the themes beyond the battered typewriter.

And I mean battered as in smacked with a 9-iron.

If you don't like commotion and chaos, True West clearly isn't the play for you.

And if you do, this fine rendition may not scale the heights of Steppenwolf's own historic precedent.

But, especially as this isn't a piece oft-done elsewhere, I suggest you avail yourself of the opportunity to see what Hill and Smallwood do with it, under the auspices of Arney, who was around for the original (though Steppenwolf's famed production wasn't the world premiere).

Then, with your interest properly stoked, head to YouTube and find the PBS version, whose image quality isn't great but which should provide a sense of why True West initially helped to take Steppenwolf Theater in such remarkable directions. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Magic in the Night, 35 Years Burning Down the Road: Remembering My First Springsteen Concert

(Note: This was originally published on the 30th anniversary, July 17, 2014; updated only to fix some links and stats)

It was the summer of 1984.

I was 15 and heading into my junior year of high school. Although I had a close circle of good friends--some of whom I still maintain--I was never part of the in-crowd, a jock, popular with girls or even involved in any school groups, such as student government, theater, Mathletes or chess club.

I wasn't an unhappy kid, but back then--as now--I frequently filled in the blanks with rock 'n roll.

I had already become a pretty heavy fan of The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, but also around that time relished several (quasi-)heavy metal acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, The Scorpions, Def Leppard, Rush, Triumph, Sammy Hagar and AC/DC. (My tastes haven't changed all that much, though I've long since embraced artists like R.E.M., The Ramones, Husker Dü and Metallica, who I wasn't hip or adventurous enough to care about at the time. In fairness, none were played on radio stations I listened to.)

Other than babysitting a couple times, I hadn't ever worked prior to that summer, but my Aunt Mickey, who was a longtime secretary in a large downtown law firm, helped me get a job in the firm's mailroom. This largely entailed serving as an on-foot messenger, delivering packages throughout the downtown Chicago area from the office at 208 S. LaSalle.

Along with indoctrinating me to the Loop's streets--from a geography perspective; I was only 15--the job was fantastic for expanding my experiences well-beyond white, Jewish, teenage suburbia.

I worked with men, not boys; mostly African-Americans who made skin color, age, social strata and much more forever immaterial in terms of comfort, camaraderie and assumption.

That summer was wonderful for Cubs fans, many whom had never before witnessed a winning team. I was taken by my boss--Wallace Winburn was his name, if I remember correctly--to a couple games, with some lawyer-donated seats in the first row behind the Cubs' dugout. I especially recall being at a game where the Cubs beat the Mets and Dwight Gooden (which I mentioned in this Wrigley Field 100th Anniversary post).

But in terms of singular events that summer, one stands out above all others.

On the first leg of his Born in the U.S.A. tour, Bruce Springsteen came to the Rosemont Horizon on July 15, 17 and 18, 1984.

I was already a big Boss fan--since The River album in 1980, from which I scoured backwards and forwards, buying Born in the U.S.A. (on cassette) upon its release in early June '84--but had been too young to attend any previous concerts of his.

And though I had already gone to some concerts the year before with friends, and even Rush at the same venue just a few weeks prior, no one else I knew was into the Boss and I, of course, was too young to drive, let alone own a car.

Tickets had long since gone on sale and sold out, but I really wanted to see Bruce.  

I can't recall why the Sunday night show on July 15 wasn't the one I targeted--now I would attend all three--but for whatever reason I focused on the second of Springsteen's 3-night stand, on Tuesday, July 17.

So one day at lunch--it may have even been the Monday before the Tuesday night show--I walked to a hotel on north Wabash Avenue called the Oxford House, which had a ticket broker office inside.

I paid $35 for a single ticket that had a face value of $15. My folks weren't thrilled about this, but I was spending money I had earned.

On the 17th, I worked downtown, but upon getting home that evening my mom and dad drove me to Rosemont. (Then called the Rosemont Horizon, the venue is now dubbed Allstate Arena.)

And after the show--which lasted nearly 4 hours, past midnight or close to it--they picked me up. I think they even took me to the nearby McDonald's afterwards.

Touring with the E Street Band--with Nils Lofgren having taken over for Steven Van Zandt--Bruce
was every bit as good as I could have hoped.

And more.

This isn't my jersey, as I don't know what became of it,
but I had one just like it.
You can see the setlist from that night here, but the only songs I explicitly remember being played are "Born in the U.S.A." (which opened the show), "Jungleland" (which I knew but didn't instantly recognize, hence why it's stuck in my memory) and a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."

But however much my memory may have eroded, I instantly knew that I was seeing someone absolutely incredible and unique.

And, to me, a hero.

Perhaps even a god. 

I've now seen over 800 concerts in my life--by at least 350 different artists--many of which I've found fantastic.

Yet since July 17, 1984--and reiterated 49 more times, including the following summer but mostly within these past 20 years--there has been one truth:
In terms of live rock 'n roll performers--or really, those of any ilk, IMHO--there is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and then there is everyone else.
Who knows how much that night changed my life?

My Bruce Springsteen concert log, as of July 17, 2019. Click to enlarge.
Perhaps I still would've become as much of a Springsteen fanatic, and seen him just as often once the internet made tickets easier to buy, tours easier to track (leading to numerous Thunder Road trips) and concerts easier to get to. (See graphic nearby for my current list of Springsteen shows attended; click to enlarge it.)

It's possible that my tendency to turn to art--including not only rock music but eventually a much broader spectrum of entertainment and culture--rather than alcohol, drugs, self-pity or depression during times of loneliness and adversity was already begotten by the time I got to the Horizon, or more holistically, developed long thereafter.

And perhaps it wasn't just that evening that made me comfortable going to concerts, many other events and even around the world all by myself, although it helped that the adults next to me were nothing but nice.

Likely it was as much the mailroom job itself that helped me acclimate to people and surroundings different from what I was accustomed, or perhaps not always perceived as "perfectly safe."

But for numerous reasons, I'm obviously glad I went to that Springsteen show on July 17, 1984, and happy that my parents helped get me there.

For whatever sentimentality, nostalgia, rite of passage pathos or pseudo psychology this recollection is dripping with, the truth is it was Springsteen's performance itself--quite possibly, with Michael Jordan's Bulls debut still months away, the best I had ever seen anyone do anything--that mattered most.

Let's hope I never forget I was there, but even if I should, my initial Springsteen concert experience and what it's meant to my life, will remain part of me.

To paraphase a famous lyric from "Thunder Road":

Show a little faith, there's still magic in that night.

Thanks, Bruce. Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks, Aunt Mickey, who like my father is no longer with us. Thanks, mailroom colleagues at Altheimer & Gray in the summer of 1984. Thanks, ticket broker long since gone from a hotel that no longer exists. Thanks, fellow Springsteen fans, who treated a kid with kindness and made a solo concertgoer feel forever part of a "tramps like us" community.

Thanks for that night and the 35 years since.

Thank you for reading this; I hope you have a similar story. 

And wherever you may be, Rosie come out tonight:

(This video is from a show a week after the one I attended, at which "Rosalita" was also played)

Thanks for reading. Since initially writing this remembrance, in 2014, I had the opportunity to briefly meet Bruce in November 2016 on his book tour. You can read about that experience here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Repeatedly Brilliant: Again in Chicago, 'Les Misérables' Remains a Perpetual Delight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Les Misérables
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru July 27

Do what brings you joy, as often as you can.

Seems a rather sage philosophy, one that everyone should theoretically be able to agree on.

And even in keeping this to specific things, done during waking hours, we probably all have things we’ve done quite happily and repeatedly.

Such as “I’ve seen Star Wars 87 times” or “I’ve been to 120 Chicago Bears games” or “I’ve eaten Lou Malnati’s pizza at least 5 times a year for over 30 years,” with only the latter potentially being true in my case.

So when I share that I’ve now seen Les Misérables live onstage 13 times, it might sound odd or exorbitant, but probably not next to your frequent pursuits.

And in the realm of theater, it’s less than I’ve seen The Producers, the only show I consider more of a favorite. And it’s far fewer than the 50 times I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen in concert, and less than a few other cherished acts.

But Les Misérables, the musical itself as well as most productions I’ve seen, is absolutely
phenomenal and I won’t apologize for seeing it any chance I get.

A friend I worked with some years ago, who was older then than I am now, had impressed me by saying she’d seen Les Mis over 20 times, but now it doesn’t seem crazy--in a certain parlance--that I might one day catch her, unless she has continued to attend (I've lost touch).

So, yes, on Sunday night I saw Les Misérables once again, at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago.

This came just 21 months after I last saw it at the same venue, with several of the same touring cast members. 

Then, as now and most times I’ve seen any production of the show--even locally-generated ones--I awarded a full @@@@@. And I posited, “What can I say about Les Misérables, the musical, that I haven't said before?”

So I’m not going to make this an in-depth review.

The show remains phenomenal in all the ways it should. Even with an understudy--Christopher Viljoen--playing the lead character, Jean Valjean, in place of Nick Cartell, who I saw last time. Even without the famed stage turntable of old, and some other downsizing measures (it’s still a bigger physical production than almost any other touring musical). Even with my having a limited view seat--a bargain off to the far right side of Orchestra Row H--while fighting a cold, terribly sore throat and a bit of fatigue.

Though Viljoen isn’t the most powerfully-voiced Jean Valjean I’ve heard--including Hugh Jackman, who played the role in the 2013 movie version and sang some songs in his recent concert--he was quite good, particularly on “Bring Them Home.”

Running through several of the musical’s other great songs… Mary Kate Moore (as Fantine) is terrific on “I Dreamed a Dream,” Jimmy Smagula and Allison Gunn (the Thenadiers) are a hoot on “Master of the House,” Josh Davis (Javert) delivers a sparkling “Stars,” Joshua Grosso and Jillian Butler (Marius and Cosette) pair on a poignant “A Heart Full of Love,” Paige Smallwood (Eponine) emotes wonderfully on “On My Own” and Matt Shingledecker (Enjolras) helps power several fantastic choral numbers, such as “The People’s Song.”

Several performers carried over from 2017, while some are new(er) to the ongoing tour.

Notably, the performance I saw on Sunday came just “One Day More” after the original production closed in London after 34 years.

It’s not really leaving the West End, just taking a hiatus while the Queen’s Theatre gets renovated--and renamed the Sondheim Theatre--but I believe it will henceforth be akin to this touring production, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.

Thus, no more turntable anywhere--which I had seen in the original Broadway production in 1998 and in London in 2018--but there’s nothing wrong with putting a new spin, or lack thereof, on things.

With or without comparison to any others, the current touring production of Les Miserables, in Chicago for two more weeks, is brilliant in every way.

Though I prefer The Producers as a personal favorite, I believe Les Miserables is the greatest work of musical theater ever created, and it remains phenomenal.

I recently saw stellar Chicago productions of my 3rd & 4th favorite musicals--West Side Story, now closed at Lyric Opera, and The Music Man, recently opened at Goodman Theater--and while both reiterated how sumptuous their source material is, neither got it as richly right as this touring Les Miz.

So if you’ve never seen the musical onstage, by all means, do so.

And if you have, there’s nothing wrong--and a whole lot right--with seeing it yet again.

And again.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Come See About Me: At 75, Diana Ross Remains a Supreme Entertainer -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Diana Ross
w/ opening act Rhonda Ross
Chicago Theater
July 10, 2019

Over the years, my perceptions of Diana Ross have not always been positive.

In fact, beyond the indelible string of hits she made with the Supremes, and then on her own, I would say I haven't really liked her.

She seemed to define "diva" in the worst connotations, with a out-sized ego, megastar affectations and what appeared to be an odd friendship with Michael Jackson.

Yet the woman always could sing.

And in my not only having seen many of the surviving male legends of the '60s, but in 2017 the similarly legendary Aretha Franklin, plus all kinds of musical theater and a number of tribute shows by the Black Ensemble Theatre, it was time for me to see Diana Ross.

...who turned 75 on March 26 and has embarked on a tour to celebrate the milestone.

Whichever of my perceptions may have had whatever degrees of truth underneath, none detracted in any way from Monday's show at the Chicago Theatre, which was thoroughly delightful.

As was Diana herself.

Until the encores--when Ross sat onstage and fielded questions from the audience--she didn't speak much  as she ran through a cavalcade of hits.

Oh, but what a cavalcade.

"I'm Coming Out"--appropriately to start--"More Today Than Yesterday," then four Supreme classics ("Stop! In the Name of Love," "Come See About Me," "You Can't Hurry Love," "Love Child") over the next five songs.

Proudly mentioning that she'd lost 20 lbs. from drinking lots of water, Ross looked great and her voice sounded terrific, backed by crack musicians and a quartet of vocalists. (The singer's daughter, Rhonda Ross, opened the show with a nice half-hour of her own, including covers of Aerosmith and Adele.)

On a few occasions, Diana would head offstage to put on another astonishing dress, but this gave the band some showcase time in extending "Love Child" and "Ease on Down the Road." (See the setlist here.)

"Upside Down" was a clear highlight as Ross not only urged the crowd to dance while shaking her own hips, she brought a few patrons onstage to dance with her.

Later she would also venture out into the crowd.

While I would've loved a few more Supreme cuts--"You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Baby Love," "I Hear a Symphony"--her rendition of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" was lovely. (Ross notably played Holiday in the Lady Sings the Blues biopic.)

"Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and a cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" nicely wrapped up the main set.

Though she hadn't spoken extensively throughout the show, Ross was far more gracious and pleasant than haughty or pretentious. But she really endeared herself during the brief Q&A after the encore break.

Asked who she would like to duet with but never had, Diana cited Jennifer Hudson, believing the Chicago native to be in the house.

Despite excited applause, Hudson was seemingly not to be found, and the performance appeared to end with "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand" after about 90 minutes.

But with some of the crowd already headed to the exits, Hudson then came onstage. 

At Ross' behest, the pair sang a good portion of "Endless Love," originally a duet Diana did with Lionel Richie.

Hudson sounded great but was clearly in awe of the living legend, and her surprise appearance made a cool evening even more so. 

I make no bones that beyond concerts by longtime favorites, I'm also trying to see several other esteemed performers before the opportunity disappears. (I'll soon be seeing Barbra Streisand in a similar vein.)

But seeing Diana Ross wound up going well beyond reverence, curiosity or just wanting to cross her off my list.

While still not quite ranking with my all-time favorites--though she's nearly as legendary as anybody--she proved, abetted by a warm smile throughout the show, that she truly is Supremely entertaining.
Play Vid

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Just One Off-Note: Sheer Delight of Goodman's 'The Music Man' Lessened by Central Casting -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Music Man
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 18

It’s somewhat astonishing to note that West Side Story—clearly one of the greatest musicals ever created—didn’t win the Tony Award for Best New Musical when it was eligible in 1958.

Personally, I consider WSS my third favorite stage musical of all-time, behind The Producers and Les Misérables, both of which came decades later.

But my fourth favorite musical is the one that beat West Side Story for that 1958 Tony:

The Music Man

As with WSS, and my likely #5, My Fair LadyCabaret, Hamilton and Sunday in the Park with George are also in the mix—I was first indoctrinated to The Music Man as a movie, starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones and Buddy Hackett and released in 1962 (long before I saw it).

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Thanks to Preston, Jones, Hackett and composer/lyricist Meredith Willson, I have relished many of The Music Man’s infectious songs since before I was a teen:

“Rock Island,” “Iowa Stubborn,” “(Ya Got) Trouble,” “Goodnight, My Someone,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little),” “Marian the Librarian,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Shipoopi,” “Lida Rose,” “Gary, Indiana” and “Till There Was You,” the last of which was actually covered by the Beatles on their famed first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

Strictly as a collection of catchy show tunes, I don’t know that any musical tops The Music Man.

Though going back to a high school production when I was a student, I have seen the show onstage five other times, unlike terrific Broadway, touring and renditions of West Side Story--and most other great musicals--I'd never experienced a truly astonishing live version of The Music Man.

Until now.


Under the direction of the rightfully esteemed Mary Zimmerman, Goodman Theatre's current staging is predominantly terrific and I had a smile plastered to my face most of Monday night.

As proven yet again with Lookingglass' The Steadfast Tin Soldier last Christmas, Zimmerman is a master when it comes to whimsy, and her take on this classic musical included some inspired physical humor.

I refrained from singing out loud but demonstrably enjoyed each of Willson's mirthful melodies and lyrics as they danced into my ears, courtesy of stellar performers such as Monica West (Marian), Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Heidi Kettenring (Eulalie MackecknieShinn).

To have Zimmerman cast Geoff Packard as "the music man," Harold Hill, after he had been in her Goodman musical productions of The Jungle Book and Candide, also bespeaks his considerable talent.

But without wanting to be too harsh given Packards's estimable effort, I didn't care much for his take, which seemed bland, too softly sung and devoid of any (crucial to the show) chemistry with West's Marian.

Initially, when his tonality on “(Ya Got) Trouble” was considerably different than Preston's, the variance was no big deal. And to be clear, Packard is a professional performer and quality singer.

But more so than his being the centerpiece, this Music Man was most joyful on the ensemble numbers--“Iowa Stubborn,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” a wonderfully choreographed (by Denis Jones) “Shipoopi,” led by Butler-Duplessis.

Ideally, West might've made for a tad more distinctive Marian, but her vocals were exquisite on “Goodnight, My Someone,” “My White Knight” and “Till There Was You.”

With impressive--but at times oddly minimalist--scenery by Daniel Ostling and costuming by Ana Kuzmanic the show was a visual delight, and the 12-piece orchestra under the direction of Jermaine Hill sounded fantastic.

So in many key ways, this was the caliber of Music Man I've long wanted to see and those not nearly as critical may well deem Zimmerman's production to be magnificent. (I know I haven't really described the plot, but for the uninitiated, a shady salesman comes to an Iowa town intent on selling band instruments and uniforms, and winds up unduly smitten with the town librarian and piano teacher. And there's a bunch of great songs.)

@@@@1/2 out of 5 means I really, really enjoyed the show, but that I found it just shy of perfect.

So this is effusively far more of a recommendation than not, and I'm glad to note that the Goodman's run has already been extended to August 18.

But having recently read that Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster will star in The Music Man on Broadway beginning in Sept. 2020, I'm now even more hopeful I might be able to see that production.

Or, at least sometime, a rendition that--even more than Goodman's largely exquisite one--fully matches my love for The Music Man.