Monday, September 30, 2019

A Real Cut-Up: Lyric's 'The Barber of Seville' Delights on Opening Night, but... -- Chicago Opera Review

Opera Review

The Barber of Seville
by Gioachino Rossini
directed by by Tara Faircloth
based on original direction by Rob Ashford
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru October 27

Despite being one of the most frequent readers of this blog, my friend Ken was rather surprised when I recently mentioned that I have seen about 60 operas in my life, all within the past 20 years. 

Granted, the majority of the performances came before 2010, when I both met Ken and began maintaining with regularity.

Hoping to acclimate myself to the operatic art form, I had subscribed to the venerated Lyric Opera of Chicago for five full seasons between 2003-2008.

Still, even since 2010, I’ve seen and reviewed about 15 operas, including classics of the canon like The Merry Widow, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro and Nabucco, as well as new or less-traditional titles such as Wozzeck, The Passenger, The Invention of Morel and Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.

Most of these have been by the Lyric at the Civic Opera House, where in recent years I’ve also seen all of their productions of Broadway musicals: Show Boat, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, Carousel, The King and I, My Fair Lady, Jesus Christ Superstar and, this year, West Side Story.

But while I used to try to attend at least one or two genuine operas each year, until Saturday, I had not
seen any classics at Lyric since 2016.

So I was especially delighted to be invited to Opening Night of The Barber of Seville, a famed early 19th century work by Gioachino Rossini.

Although the storylines of many classic operas of rather light, even silly and slight, The Barber of Seville is actually classified as an “opera buffa,” meaning a comic opera.

The current production at Lyric is a revival of a 2013-14 staging that had been directed by Rob Ashford, a noted director and choreographer of Broadway musicals.

Beginning with Rossini’s sumptuous overture featuring a refrain that is familiar to me, played by the terrific Lyric Opera orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, almost everything about The Barber of Seville was a delight.

Though I had seen the opera in 2008, I didn’t much recall the story or most music, and truly relished hearing anew many individual arias or songs among various couplings of characters.

As Lindoro, a disguised count smitten by the beauteous Rosina, Lawrence Brownlee shines early on “"Ecco, ridente in cielo," while his comedic advisor in matters of courtship, Figaro—the namesake barber of Seville—is wonderfully embodied by Adam Plachetka.

His entrance song, “"Ecco, ridente in cielo,” is a particular delight, as is Rosina’s aria— "Una voce poco fa"—sung by the striking Marianne Crebassa.

Also much meriting mention are Alessandro Corbelli as Rosina’s guardian Dr. Bartolo, Krzysztof Bączyk as his pal and her music teacher Don Basilio and—for the impressive “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” in Act 2—Mathilda Edge, a first-year Ryan Opera Center member making her Lyric debut as Berta, Rosina’s governess.

Particularly given the light tone, fine costuming (by Catherine Zuber) and swell set design by Scott

Pask, everything I witnessed and heard was enjoyable.

Whether you love opera or are wanting to explore it, I feel confident in advising that this particular production of The Barber of Seville should be a ravishing, satisfying choice. If nothing else, at most operas you won’t laugh nearly this much.


I still can’t say it changed my mind about opera.

As I was telling Ken, my previous forays into attending opera had helped me admire and appreciate the craft, the artistry, the musical form and more. Going to the Lyric always made for a special evening, and still does.

But as opposed to rock ‘n roll, Broadway musicals and some jazz, I watch opera, I don’t feel opera. 

Or as Ken put it, it just doesn’t quite stir my soul.

I was thrilled to be invited and I hope to be again, and I genuinely relished The Barber of Seville.

But not nearly as much as Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones or Hamilton or West Side Story or other performers or works of art that intrinsically move me.

Which isn’t at all an indictment of this particular opera, nor even—in terms of appreciation—opera in general.

But in addition to reviewing The Barber of Seville, I feel compelled to reflect my experience in seeing it.

And though all aspects of this rendition were—as best I can judge—a cut above, in terms of providing holistic, intrinsic joy, I can’t quite say The Barber of Seville was indelibly styled.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Offering My Fondest Regards for a Job Well Done

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Boss Hits 70: Celebrating Bruce Springsteen on His Birthday

Bruce Springsteen, my favorite musician of all-time by a wide margin--although I absolutely love the Beatles and have greater reverence for their importance--turns 70 today.

I myself am 50, and will turn 51 in just about 3 weeks, on October 15. 

Although there are several dates I can pinpoint in reference to the Boss--I bought Born in the U.S.A. (on cassette) on its day of release, June 4, 1984, first saw Bruce live with the E Street Band on July 17, 1984, last saw him with the band on September 1, 2016, saw Springsteen on Broadway on December 9, 2017 and met him (quite briefly) on November 28, 2016 at a promotional event for his Born to Run autobiography--I can't tell you exactly when I became a Springsteen fan.

My guess is sometime in the fall of 1980, after "Hungry Heart" became a hit single.

Without yet owning any of his four prior albums, I know I bought The River on LP--which came out October 17, 1980--but not immediately.

So presumably I became a Bruce Springsteen fan at age 12, and have loved him and his music ever since.

I can't recall if I knew the song "Born to Run" at that point, or had seen yet clips of Springsteen in concert (likely a few).

Unlike in the recent Blinded by the Light movie, there was no obvious demarcation moment--nor is there in Saffraz Manzoor's book on which it is based--but at some point when I was in 7th grade (1980-81), perhaps already in possession of The River there was this:

A class assignment instructed we visit someone doing a job we could imagine wanting to do. I visited disc jockey Terri Hemmert at WXRT Radio (where she's remained a staple until just this year).

I don't recall the exact context, but I remember Terri bantering with others (off air) about Springsteen, expressing admiration for this line from the song "Badlands":

"Poor man want to be rich / Rich man want to be king / And a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything"

That conversation, and those words, have always stuck with me.

I was too young to see Bruce when he played the Uptown Theatre or Rosemont Horizon on the original River Tour, but still recall a local Chicago sportscaster--Chuck Swirsky, who remains one--raving about how incredible Springsteen was live.

Click to enlarge
As I detailed here, in July 1984, while working a summer job as a messenger for a Chicago Loop law firm at the age of 15, I convinced my parents that spending $35--via a ticket broker--to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Rosemont Horizon was an important thing for me to do.

They even gave me a ride to the show.

And as you can see via the nearby graphic, I've now had the sheer pleasure of seeing The Boss onstage 50 times, most since 1999.

I'm hoping to increase that by at least five if he tours with the ESB next year, as rumored.

All told, I've seen over 800 rock concerts by various artists, including numerous shows by several of the all-time greats: The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant + Jimmy Page, AC/DC, Elton John, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, U2, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Rush, Green Day, Arcade Fire and dozens of others.

I relish all of them.

But--and I say this with great respect for many others I love--as a live performer, there is Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band, and then there is everyone else.

Clearly, I could prattle on about how my love of seeing Springsteen live has taken me to many places: New York/New Jersey, Cleveland, Columbus, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Louisville, London, Washington DC, many repeatedly, leading to wonderful interactions with fellow fans and rewarding concurrent explorations.

I could delve deep and tell you how much the man and his music have meant to me, at the happiest and darkest of times.

When I share how I made it through a somewhat bully-ridden, unpopular, romance-less high school existence with reasonable aplomb, invariably I say that in lieu of going to parties, I would stay home, read a book and listen to Springsteen...and it would be more than enough to get me by.

It's been ages since I've seen the same movie twice in a movie theater in the same year, but I did so with Blinded by the Light. I loved it because of Javed's (the main character) love of Springsteen and all the music that was therefore featured, but wasn't overwhelmed by it simply as a movie (it was a tad too obvious).

Still, when I first saw the trailer it brought tears to my eyes, because the connection Javed has with Springsteen songs and lyrics that would change his life, well, I've had that.

But I could write another 5,000 words and they all would be driving home the same point: My existence has been forever immeasurably enriched by being a Bruce Springsteen fan.

His music, his integrity, his incredible concerts, his politicism, his sense of decency and honor, his candor about his struggles with depression, his smile and spirit after 3-1/2 hours onstage, his continued exploration of new musical directions and perhaps most of all, my belief that no one does what they do better than he does what he does, with an ever-abiding exuberance and passion and gusto and joy.

He's not just the Boss, he's the Best.

So Happy Birthday #70, Bruce Springsteen.

I'm thankful you were born and will be alongside for as long as you continue to run.

Or I do.

It was really hard whittling down to my 20 favorite Springsteen songs, which could change daily. But with apologies to "Atlantic City," here's a Spotify playlist ordered from #1 to 20: 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Saintly Instincts: 'Mother of the Maid' Provides Intriguing Look at Joan of Arc, Not as a Heroine but as Someone's Child -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mother of the Maid
by Jane Anderson
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 20

Heading into Jane Anderson's Mother of the Maid at Northlight, I was intrigued by what I knew of the premise.

Although I have never had any ingrained reverence for Joan of Arc, I am aware of her veneration as a teenage French war heroine turned victim, martyr, saint and symbol.

While I appreciated the play filling me in on the basics of her legend, to capsulize her mythic tale from the perspective of her family--particularly her mother--seemed like a rather a compelling approach.

Which it is to a large extent, especially given the stellar work--as Isabelle Arc--by the always terrific Kate Fry, and by Grace Smith as her headstrong daughter Joan.

I like how Anderson never cheats in making Mother of the Maid a period piece, set 6 centuries ago amid The 100 Years War between England and France (with fine costuming by Izumi Inaba), yet almost instantly makes contemporary audiences realize it won't be too theatrically stuffy by having Isabelle speak to her teenager--sans judgment--about masturbation. 

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Though I imagine many are far better versed than I in Joan of Arc history lessons, I don't want to reveal too much about how the narrative unfolds across two acts and approximately two hours.

Let's just say that Joan--who became known as the Maid of Orleans--tells her mom that she's had visions of Saint Catherine, believes she's been chosen to lead the French to battlefield victory, is met with considerable incredulity by both ma and pa (Kareem Bandealy), but with the buy-in of a local bishop (Ricardo Gutierrez) heads off to war with brother Pierre (Casey Morris) by her side.

Beyond citing some nice work by Penelope Walker as a kindly lady of the court, I won't share further plot details except to note that things don't go so rosily for brave young Joan.

And while Isabelle wishes things could be different, Fry warmly depicts her maternal love and faith in her daughter as steadfast.

The premise, acting and direction by Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones are all strong enough to make Mother of the Maid sufficiently entertaining.

To use a hallowed historic persona such as Joan of Arc to reflect on how a mother's love could, and should, be boundless is a neat creative approach, and--in my being a huge Bruce Springsteen fan--it reminded me of a relatively obscure song of his, "Jesus Was an Only Son," which takes a somewhat similar approach (as he explains here).

But, at least at face value, Mother of the Maid doesn't seem angular or surprising enough to feel transcendentally special as a work of theater. The abiding theme, of Isabelle's enduring love for her daughter, is warm and noble, but also pretty straightforward.

But in leaving the theater, I saw an accompanying graphic panel--not duplicated in the show program, as it probably should be--which has this explanation from the author, Jane Anderson:
"Mother of the Maid is a deeply personal play for me... I had a Joan of Arc obsession when I was a young gay girl trying to come out to my mom. I think women of my ilk had that with Joan blasting apart traditional male/female roles. Then when I became a mother, I realized how it must've been to raise a child like me. Now that I am older, I have a deeper understanding of what it is to raise an unusual child, and how painful and exciting it is."
Although it doesn't greatly change my assessment of the play, these insights do add considerable complexity to perceptions of Mother of the Maid is "about."

Certainly, while watching it, I picked up on how Anderson fused in the familiar battles teenagers have with their parents. One could be Joan of Arc and still bicker with mom about boys and chores and choice of clothing.

But Anderson's posted comments helped me further see Mother of the Maid--in which Isabelle clearly is the lead role--from Joan's point of view.

How do you tell--and convince without, or with, reproach--your parents that you're different, but normal, and every bit as deserving of their love and acceptance.

How do you stand up and announce, at least in their eyes, "I'm special," while really just doing what comes naturally, and being who you're meant to be, with them--hopefully--having your back, no matter what may ultimately be at stake?

Monday, September 16, 2019

Be Well-Advised: Nicely Staged 'Tiny Beautiful Things' Offers Perceptivity and Poignancy-- Chicago Theater Reviews

Theater Review

Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Directed by Vanessa Stalling
Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago
Thru October 13

Dear Sugar: (which is the name author Cheryl Strayed used in anonymously serving as an advice columnist for the literary website The Rumpus from 2010-12, with columns compiled into Tiny Beautiful Things and then turned into a play by Nia Vardalos, who starred at NYC's Public Theater in late 2017. A Chicago production by the Victory Gardens Theater has just opened.)

How might I fairly assess a play that is well-intentioned, well-written, well-acted and well-staged, which I liked far more than I didn't--and can readily perceive others loving far more than me--but which I just didn't quite find phenomenal?

Signed, Seth Saith

Presumably, given the perceptive and poignant responses enacted onstage under the direction of Vanessa Stalling, the reply from Sugar/Strayed would be more sage than my supposition, but perhaps she might offer:
Dear Seth Saith:  
You answered your own question. Review the show “fairly,” reflecting how you engaged with it, not how you think others might. 
Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Fair enough, especially as I did like the show.

And while I don’t have much familiarity with Strayed beyond seeing the movie Wild based on her memoir of embarking on a long, therapeutic hike, I highly respect her talents and accomplishments. I think a friend of mine even knew her personally back in the day.

Like probably everyone, I loved Vardalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which she wrote as well as starred in, and she was really sweet a few years ago when I met her at the Skokie Public Library. 

She was encouraged to adapt Strayed’s advice columns into a play by Thomas Kail, who directed it at the Public. He also happens to be the director of a show called Hamilton.

So the pedigrees behind the creation of Tiny Beautiful Things are obviously strong, and Stalling has become one of Chicago’s top directors while Victory Gardens regularly does fine work.

Per what I’ve read, in New York the play was set in Sugar’s apartment, but I like how Stalling decided to base it in a homey diner, complete with a blueish hue and faded Edward Hopper reprints on the wall.

Starring as Sugar at Victory Gardens is Janet Ulrich Brooks, and she is terrific. This isn’t a surprise, as I’ve seen her before—notably in 33 Variations at TimeLine—but she’s really well cast. 

Accompanying her are three actors/actresses—August Forman, Eric Slater and Jessica Dean Turner—who each serve as a variety of letter writers seeking Sugar’s advice.

As selected by Vardalos—who to be clear, does not appear in the show in Chicago; Strayed doesn’t
either but was on-hand Friday night—many of the included queries are rather weighty, including from individuals trying to understand love, deal with a miscarriage, facing the challenges of being transgender and cope with the death of a child.

I won’t reveal any of Sugar’s specific responses, but several rather incisively extend beyond the question at hand, as Strayed reflects on her own personal tragedies, as well as experiences from a job in which she counseled abused teen girls.

So Tiny Beautiful Things is certainly a show that pulls at your heartstrings. And I surmise this might be enough for many to love it.

But without suggesting that its brevity and unique structure are automatically imperfections, as an 80-minute show without a true narrative arc and a few moments that lag, it’s very good without feeling theatrically transcendent.

Undoubtedly, acutely to some letter writers and more widely to many readers, Sugar’s advice—and truly intuitive words—actually changed people’s lives.

But with great respect and regard, I can’t say that Tiny Beautiful Things, as a stage work, affected me to such a degree.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Strangers in the Wrong Town: 'The Band's Visit' is Brief, Reserved but Rather Pleasant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Band's Visit
a recent musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru September 15

The Band’s Visit is a lovely musical.

It’s not a musical I absolutely love, but its merits are many, and I found myself a bit more smitten in seeing it for the second time, on its first national tour, than I had in catching it on Broadway in late 2017. 

Though only a 90-minute, one-act affair, the musical is a tad too slow for me, and while I appreciate—especially post Once, Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, etc.—that first-rate musicals can have considerable dramatic heft and a lack of chorus lines, high-energy production numbers, lavish choreography, etc., The Band’s Visit is really rather low-key.

This kept me from buoyantly embracing it on Broadway—where I had seen an up-against-flying-home matinee after attending Springsteen on Broadway the night before—and makes the upper balcony of Chicago’s spacious Cadillac Palace not the idyllic perch from which to appreciate all the tenderness, especially as Israeli and Egyptian accents are employed.

As they should be, given that the musical--based on a 2007 film of the same name--tells the story of an Egyptian Ceremonial Police Orchestra, invited to play at an Arab community center in Petah Tikvah, Israel, that instead winds up in the sleepy desert town of Bet Hatikva.

Somewhat similar in storyline and underlying themes to another fine musical of recent vintage, Come From Away, The Band's Visit likewise chronicles how villagers treat their unexpected guests.

Nicely directed by David Cromer--who, like me, hails from Skokie, IL--the musical is humane and heartwarming, quite welcome at this time...or anytime.

On tour, Sasson Gabay stars at the leader and conductor of the Egyptian band, Tewfiq Zakaria, as he did in the movie. The great Tony Shalhoub played the role on Broadway and won a Tony Award, but Gabai is likewise terrific.

So too is Chilina Kennedy as Dina, a single woman who runs a small cafe in Bet Hatikva. Also earning a Tony, Katrina Lenk was brilliant on Broadway but this tour clearly has been skillfully cast with quality talent.

With the bus needed to move the band along not due until the next day, Dina and other locals let the musicians stay with them overnight, making for some nice scenes of interaction and adjustment from both parties.

Reference Wikipedia if you want a full plot summary and run-down of characters. I'll share simply that there is a nice scene with a couple of the Egyptians interacting with the Israeli Itzik (Pomme Koch), his wife and father-in-law, and another that involves the visiting Haled (Joe Joseph) helping Papi (Adam Gabay) address his bashfulness around women.

The score, with music & lyrics by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) features some excellent instrumental pieces by the band members, as well as some quite nice songs, including "Waiting," "Welcome to Nowhere," "It Is What It Is," "Beat of Your Heart" and "Omar Sharif."

Several cast members have fine vocal moments, but Kennedy--who played Carole King as a replacement in Beautiful--shines brightest in this regard.

While several of the songs here are beautiful, many are more touching than vibrant or soaring.

It's great that Broadway musicals, including the most highly decorated ones--this show won 10 Tony Awards out of 11 nominations--come in many varieties, and The Band's Visit should strike a nerve, particularly among those who don't love over-the-top, big boisterous "tuners."

Yet while there is much to appreciate, especially in this richly enacted touring rendition--pushing it to a @@@@1/2, up 1/2@ from my perception on Broadway--I still would have liked a tad more oom-pa-pa in The Band's Visit.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Rare Candor: Ed Asner Shares His Innermost, um, Feelings in 'A Man and His Prostate' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Man and His Prostate
a one-man show starring Ed Asner
written by Ed. Weinberger
presented by Piven Theatre Workshop
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, IL
2-Performance Run Ended

I could tell you that A Man and His Prostate is rather funny, informative and even potentially life-saving.

Yet while none of this is untrue, the reason I saw it—and theoretically why you may want to, though the current two-performance opportunity in Evanston has passed—is because it offered the chance to see an actor I’ve long enjoyed, Ed Asner, in a small theater for a reasonable price. 

Asner, who in playing Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, then on a drama bearing the character’s name, won more performance-based primetime Emmy Awards than anyone: 7.

And two months from turning 90 on November 15, he remains a unique and engaging performer.

It’s understandable why writer Ed. Weinberger—who wrote for the Mary Tyler Moore Show and created Taxi, The Cosby Show and more—penned a pained-but-humorous recollection of a personal true-life episode specifically for Asner to perform as though the medical circumstance had happened to him.

Essentially, Weinberger—as Asner enacts—was off-ship in Florence while on an Italian cruise when, having previously experienced some urinary distress, he collapsed right in front of one the world’s most famous works of art (and one noted for its exposed male genitalia).

This leads to being taken to an Italian hospital, having tests run, getting in touch with his primary care physician and re-connecting with his wife, who had stayed aboard the ship.

I’ll refrain from revealing any more details about the medical condition, test, findings, treatment, etc., but beware that the famously irascible Asner is entirely graphic—including utilizing on-screen graphics—in speaking about masculine body parts.

For those who aren’t too squeamish, A Man and His Prostate is enjoyable in its frankness.

And as a life-lesson, let’s just say that the basic prostate check of having one’s doctor still a finger up your rear end shouldn’t be avoided—as seemingly it was for Weinberger—due to embarrassment, momentary discomfort, etc.

So this wasn’t a bad use of 80 minutes at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, particularly as I can now say I’ve seen Ed Asner onstage, as I previously had—among many others—his late MTM co-stars Valerie Harper and Georgia Engel, as well as noted TV performers such as John Mahoney, Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Rhea Perlman, George Wendt, Bebe Neuwirth, Marilu Henner, Jason Alexander, Richard Kind, Linda Lavin, Linda Evans, Joan Collins, Holland Taylor, Alan Thicke, David Soul, Christina Applegate, Carol Kane, Michael McKean, Stacy Keach, John Lithgow, William Petersen and more.

Unlike most of the theater I attend and review, this wasn’t based on a press invite. I bought my own ticket, for $40, which seemed reasonable to sit 5 rows from an actor I’ve long admired.

Though this is a show Asner has been touring for a couple years, in Evanston it was presented by the Piven Theatre Workshop, which has long been housed in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

As something of a nifty twist, the Piven was founded by Joyce and Byrne Piven, the latter now deceased. They are the parents of Jeremy Piven, whom they trained along with John and Joan Cusack and many others.

But back in the 1950s, the Pivens were two of the founding members of the Playwrights Theatre Club, along with Paul Sills and David Shepard. Also part of Playwrights were such budding stars as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris and, yes, Ed Asner. (They later formed the Compass Players, a forerunner to The Second City.)

If Joyce Piven was present on Sunday afternoon, I didn’t notice or recognize her, and from the stage Asner made no ad hoc comments about her, Chicago, the recently passed Valerie Harper, Mary Tyler Moore, his time on television or anything else.

He stuck to the script, of A Man and His Prostate, which he actually read (rather than recited from memory).

Again, I was there to see Ed Asner, and I did.

And I don’t mean to imply that it wasn’t a performance or enjoyable for what it was. There are reasons to attend theater beyond acute artistic greatness; such was the case here.

But as a one-man performance, this was OK, not fantastic.

And even the gist of Weinberger’s script—beyond the smart suggestion to get prostate exams with some regularity—didn’t seem all that consequential.

So really, just in the realm of wanting to see Ed Asner, there could’ve been far preferable things to hear him talk about.

As it was, I’ve now seen Ed Asner.

Monday, September 09, 2019

I Want You To Gimme All Your Lovin': ZZ Top and Cheap Trick Pair for a Fun Evening -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

ZZ Top
w/ opening acts
Cheap Trick
Marquise Knox
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre
Tinley Park, IL
September 7, 2019
@@@@ (ZZ Top/Cheap Trick composite)

Cheap Trick has been one of my favorite bands for about as long as I've had favorite bands.

The Rockford, IL native's 1979 live album, Cheap Trick at Budokan, was either the first LP I bought with my own money or close to it. (This remembrance recently re-arose in fun fashion when I visited Tokyo and saw the Budokan's exterior.)

I've seen Cheap Trick numerous times over the years--first in 1983--and especially with singer Robin Zander still in fine voice and guitarist Rick Nielsen an exuberantly kooky stage presence, every few years I look for and relish another opportunity.

This one was provided by a tour supporting ZZ Top, a band celebrating its 50th anniversary--with the same three longtime members--that deserves being seen more that the one time I did, in 1986.

So while I really don't like the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre--its dull utilitarian design, poor acoustics, bland ambiance and especially the time it takes to get to & from its Tinley Park location--when Live Nation offered $20 pavilion seats, I couldn't resist buying the last row of the pavilion.

After aptly, in my mind, preceding Cheap Trick with sushi at a nearby strip mall, I arrived at my seat as the evening's first performer--blues singer/guitarist Marquise Knox--was about half-way through his half-hour set. He sounded good as he teased a couple cover song riffs, including "Layla," that I wish he actually played in full. 

Cheap Trick played for about an hour, opening--as they did at Budokan--with "Hello There."

Despite wearing a police cap at the start that made me wonder if--at age 66--his trademark long blond hair was a thing of the past, Zander soon revealed that it isn't.

And more importantly, his voice sounded great, perhaps most demonstrably on Cheap Trick's #1--if somewhat saccharin--hit, "The Flame."

Drummer Bun E. Carlos is the only original Trickster no longer part of the band, replaced by Nielsen's son Dax, who well-powered the intro of "Ain't That a Shame," a highlight of the night and the Budokan set.

Actually, of the 10 songs that were on the original Cheap Trick at Budokan LP--which wasn't the full Tokyo concert, more of which came out on later editions--seven were performed Saturday night.

These included “Clock Strikes Ten,” “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender,” all rather delectably, the last one accompanied by Scott Lucas of Local H.

It’s never not fun to hear Cheap Trick play these songs plus "Dream Police" and some others—
including a cover of Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for My Man” led by bassist Tom Petersson on guitar and vocals—and the hour-long, 14-song set was generous for an opening act (not co-headliner).

But as such, Cheap Trick didn’t have much in the way of visual accoutrements—beyond Nielsen’s plethora of cool guitars, including one that looks like him and another with five necks—and though there was nothing wrong with what the band delivered, I can’t say this was Cheap Trick at their most exciting.

And I would basically say the same about ZZ Top, who I recalled being particularly phenomenal back in 1986, but largely felt like nostalgic fun here.

Certainly it’s cool that with the “tres hombres” now at or near 70, guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill have truly aged into their navel-length beards—and the ironically-named drummer Frank Beard still hasn’t grown one—but while undoubtedly enjoyable, their performance felt a bit too by the book.

For a band celebrating 50 years together, the 90-minute set principally found me loving the three MTV-era gems, “Gimme All Your Lovin’, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs”—though the nostalgic videos of yore actually detracted—and two wonderful earlier classics, “La Grange” and “Tush.”

This doesn’t mean that other songs weren’t enjoyable; “I Thank You,” “Waitin’ for the Bus,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” certainly were, among others. (See ZZ Top's setlist here and Cheap Trick's here)

But including the standard-on-this-tour show closer—a quick cover of “Jailhouse Rock”—the show suffered for feeling like a band playing all the same songs in every city.

In the home of the blues, the affable Gibbons and Hill paid some lip-service homage to Chicago, and
Gibbons remains a terrific guitarist.

But did they conjure up some rip-roaring blues cover to bring a particular vitality to this show? Or just to differentiate a bit from what the folks in St. Louis and Milwaukee had heard?


It’s admirable that it’s still just Gibbons, Hill and Beard onstage, and if some of the lead vocals—mainly delivered by Gibbons but also Hill—weren’t all that powerful, well, they ain’t youngsters anymore.

But for lack of a better way to put it, I wanted their performance—again, in the Tinley Park “shed” that brings built-in sterility—to have some stomp and swagger.

Unfortunately, it really didn’t.

Sure, including Cheap Trick and even Marquise Knox, there were enough great songs to make it a fun, satisfying night for my $20.

Even given the venue, I can say the long trek from and back to Skokie was worthwhile.

But I just can’t say it was all that special.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

No One Is Alone: In the Round at Writers, 'Into the Woods' Makes for an Enchanted Evening -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Into the Woods
Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Thru September 29

In terms of artistic appreciation, I think I've greatly expanded my horizons in the 21st century, across many idioms, genres and creators.

But I don't think there is any artist who has freshly come to mean more to me in this millennium than Stephen Sondheim.

Certainly, this dovetails with a widespread, voluminous embrace of musical theater that--after a childhood introduction gone latent--emerged around the turn of the century.

And though I love the work of many esteemed composers & lyricists--Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb, Bock & Harnick, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lin-Manuel Miranda, etc., etc.--I believe Sondheim is the greatest ever.

Generally he writes both music & lyrics, although early on--with West Side Story and Gypsy--he handled just the lyrics. And with universal insights that go beyond what anyone else has consistently brought to the genre, I'm comfortable with dubbing the man a genius, who has appreciably added not only to my fandom of musicals, but my everyday outlook.

In the 21st century--but not really before save for a high school production of Sweeney Todd--I've seen roughly 60 productions of 16 Sondheim musicals, plus a number of revues and tribute concerts.

From local park districts to Broadway, a great number of directors have been responsible for these productions, but most importantly has been Gary Griffin.

At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater since 2001, Griffin has directed eight stellar productions of Sondheim works--Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park with George (twice), A Little Night Music, Passion, Follies, Gypsy and Road Show--and I've seen and loved all of them.

So I was thrilled to note that Griffin is helming Into the Woods at Glencoe's Writers Theatre, which in 2016 staged a sublime rendition of yet another Sondheim show, Company (directed by William Brown, not Griffin).

And I'm pleased to report that this version of the maestro's brilliant concoction--with writer James Lapine--of fractured fairy tales is as good as I could have hoped.

In full disclosure, still a bit jet-legged after a trip to Japan, my synapses weren't fully firing during parts of Act I, but I nonetheless soaked in superlative singing as Cinderella (Ximone Rose), the Baker (Michael Mahler), his wife (Brianna Borger), Jack of beanstalk fame (Ben Barker) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Godinez) headed into the woods.

Writers' artistic director Michael Halberstam serves as the show's narrator, while Bethany Thomas plays a witch that helps drive the action.

Also on hand are Jack's mom (McKinley Carter) and beloved cow (wonderfully embodied by Mary Poole), as well as as Cinderella's mother (Harriet Nzinga Plumpp), stepmother (Kelli Harrington), step-sisters (Molly Hernandez and Nicole Armold), Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole), a couple of charming princes (Alex Benoit, Ryan McBride), a mysterious man (William Brown) and a wolf (Matt Edmonds).

In his remarkable score, Sondheim mines universal truths about childhood discovery via exploration ("I Know Things Now," "Giants in the Sky"), collaboration among husband & wife ("It Takes Two"), unrequited love ("Agony"), the desire of a parent to keep a child sheltered ("Stay With Me"), the realities of lust even if taboo ("Moments in the Woods"), choices having consequences and how everyone is interconnected ("No One is Alone") and more.

I pretty much love all of the songs of Into the Woods--including the long, self-titled prologue--and with terrific vocalists and a fine trio of musicians, they are sublimely rendered here.

In marketing the show, Writers seems to driving much focus to it being done in the round, but most of the seats in the Nichols Theater have always been set around an arc. For patrons filling in the circle on banks of seats unique to this production, the perspective is likely rather nifty, but I really didn't find this to be a major aspect of Griffin's production.

Appreciating the considerable effort to make it seem so seamless, basically you have a terrific musical in the hands of a first-rate cast under the direction of a venerated pro who clearly knows his Sondheim.

Many who worked on this rendition--including scenic designer Scott Davis and costumer Mara Blumenfeld--clearly deserve particular commendation, but Sondheim + Griffin + Writers is a formula that should work wonders.

And indeed it does.

Ever after.

Especially with a nifty twist at the end, which if I was wondering if perhaps @@@@1/2 was merited--just because I recalled some of the Shakespeare Theater Sondheim shows a tad more exquisitely--clarified that this is a pretty much perfect take on a musical that delights across the ages.