Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Smells Like Teen (and Pre-Teen) Spirit: New Songs, Lasting Memories Power Rock Musical, Verböten -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a new musical
Music & lyrics by Jason Narducy
Book by Brett Neveu
Directed by Nathan Allen
House Theatre of Chicago
at the Chopin Theatre
Thru March 8

Any of us who have an abiding love of rock music--or perhaps even make it--can undoubtedly cite key bands and solo artists who sparked our initial and enduring affinity.

Many would undoubtedly say the Beatles, or perhaps Elvis Presley, who was a big influence on John Lennon.

I think it's cool that Bob Dylan went to a Buddy Holly concert, and that David Bowie said that he "heard God" upon listening to Little Richard's "Tutti Fruitti."

A good friend of mine forever connects back to Cream, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.

I love all of the aforementioned, but it was probably KISS who first got me excited about rock 'n roll, soon followed by ELO, Queen, Cheap Trick and--before I was 12--Bruce Springsteen, who remains my favorite today.

Per interviews I've seen over several years and Episode #1 of the HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl--who found international fame & acclaim as the drummer for Nirvana, then went on to lead the Foo Fighters as singer, guitarist and chief songwriter--was highly influenced by being taken to a Naked Raygun concert at Chicago's Cubby Bear by his cousin Tracey in 1982.

And was further beguiled by the potency and possibilities of punk rock by a band 14-year-old Tracey was then in with friends, some even younger than she was.

That band was called Verböten.

Despite their youthfulness, they even opened for Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear, though as best I can now discern--even in asking the actual Tracey after seeing the loosely biographical new musical, also called Verböten, on Sunday night--that was a different Naked Raygun show than the one she took Dave to. It seems he, a Virginia resident who visited Tracey and her family in Evanston, primarily saw and was smitten by Verböten band rehearsals.

Of course, at the time, no one--including Tracey and her 11-year-old songwriting bandmate, Jason Narducy--could suspect that her cousin would go on to be a seminal member of two of the best bands of all-time, one of the most talented musicians of our day and, arguably, the last great rock star (with due deference to Eddie Vedder and Jack White).

Or even that Narducy would stay musically active, presently leading a band called Split Single and often playing alongside Bob Mould, whose earlier trio, Hüsker Dü, presumably helped influence Verböten, Nirvana and Foo Fighters.

Per a recent article by Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot, Grohl had shared the story of Tracey and the Naked Raygun concert in a 1996 Tribune piece as Foo Fighters were embarking in their first tour. And it was only then that Narducy realized that the powerhouse drummer for the world-changing Nirvana, and head Foo Fighter, was the kid he'd met years ago in basement band rehearsals.

Then in 2014, when this little bit of rock 'n roll kismet was shared in Sonic Highways, with Tracey and Jason featuring in the episode as adults, Chicago playwright Brett Neveu took note.

Neveu got in touch with fellow Evanstonian Narducy for permission to write a play, convinced him it should be a musical with new songs Jason would compose and interested Chicago's innovative House Theatre and their artistic director, Nathan Allen, in producing the show.

After five years of development, Verböten has now opened at Chicago's Chopin Theatre, incidentally but appropriately named for another of history's greatest musicians.

As a rather cool rock musical, I quite enjoyed it.

Seemingly blending fact, fiction, potentially hazy childhood recollections and dramatic license, the narrative that unfolds onstage is as much representative as it is steeped in precise reality.

For example, adult actors--all playing instruments as well--embody the pre-adolescent Jason (nicely played by Kieran McCabe), Tracey (a perfectly spunky Krystal Ortiz), Chris (Matthew Lunt) and Zack (Jeff Kurysz), and without knowing the real history, you'd likely assume Verböten was a band of older teens.

This isn't a problem, as the situations depicted--battles with one's parents or simply feeling sheepish about them, trying to find one's place, purpose and persona, a bit of outcast angst--aren't any more native to 13 than to 17.

And from the opening "New Song"--led by McCabe as Jason--the stage is often exuberantly filled not only by the ersatz Verboten members, but the performers playing their parents, all of whom rotate between playing instruments or just rocking out with abandon.

Many of Narducy's songs appropriately have a punk rock--and innate "me against the world"--bent, with lead vocals nicely spread among several characters.

Tracey powers "Breaking Out," while Chris (Lunt) and his sister (Marika Mashburn) belt the charged "I'm Not Sorry" and Zack (Kurysz, who I've seen in nicely diverse roles in recent years) rocks "Pound You Down."

Jason, who is shown as having a tumultuous time living with his dad after his parents' divorce, initially performs "Broken Home"--whose opening bass line couldn't help remind me of Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box"--but it is shrewdly reprised with other voices later.

Including "You Belong" richly delivered by Tracey, and the anthemic "Rock Dreams Never Die," all the songs sounded good, though the jarring style made some harder to appreciate on a first encounter. (With most musicals--except brand new ones--and even rock concerts, I usually know many of the songs coming in.)

And with all of the aforementioned performers, as well as Ray Rehberg (as Jason's dad), Paul Brian Fagen (Tracey's dad), Jenni M. Hadley (Tracey's mom), Jimmy Chung (Jason's stepdad), the delightful Marc A. Rogers (Zack's dad) and drummer Timothy Daniel Remis, doing fine work, I got a good sense of Verböten's curative camaraderie and musical verve while being well-entertained at face value.

Though Verböten is thematically strong, not everything congealed perfectly on a narrative level, with a bit too much redundancy among the parent/child relationships, true as that may be.

And while Chung does a nice job as Jason's stepdad, I was candidly confused as he initially seems to be an imaginary character that Jason speaks to but his real dad doesn't see.

Though I don't perceive Verböten as a Broadway-ready musical at this point, not only is it quite good but I can see it being even better with some refinements.

Still, I strongly recommend the show to any rock lovers intrigued by the backstory, though I wish a little more of it was slyly woven in onstage.

Respecting that Neveu, Narducy and Allen have tinkered with the script for years and probably decided it best not to reference Dave Grohl--or have him represented as a kid in the story--nor somehow note that Jason went onto have a nice rock career, I think something gets lost without this.

Narducy does mention the coincidences in his written introduction in the wonderfully-designed program book, but anyone who watches Verböten oblivious to Grohl's recollections--possibly House subscribers who aren't big alt-rock fans--will, IMHO, miss out on a cool element.

Sure, they'll see a great story of kids finding themselves--to multiple meanings--in a rock band, somewhat like the excellent 2016 movie Sing Street, soon to open as a Broadway musical.

But the idea that a band of really young punks, which only lasted for 15 months, could unwittingly inspire another kid who would join Nirvana--with great respect to Foo Fighters and others, I don't think there's been a better or more important band since--and remain a torch-bearing rock superstar decades later, is part of the relevancy that I don't think should be overlooked.

This is obviously an imperfect parallel, but if reading this review inspires anyone to see Verboten, I would be really happy. But if it also happens to inspire someone to become a writer, and they go on to be the next Lester Bangs or David Foster Wallace or Colson Whitehead or Rebecca Gilman, well how cool would that be to learn about?

I respect the challenge of making creative choices, and those involved in this fine new musical certainly settled on many right ones.

But I just don't think openly referencing the strange ways a cultural icon's career inspiration can come--such as in a cousin's basement--should be verboten. 

Caught by Surprise: Court Theatre's Take on Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap' is Nicely Twisted -- Chicago Theater Review

Theatre Review

The Mousetrap
by Agatha Christie
directed by Sean Graney
Court Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 16

Beyond family and friends, two of the things that have most given my life meaning are travel and theater.

In 1993, I went to Europe for the first time--primarily visiting London and Paris, with some day trips--and in the former, I went to a play called The Mousetrap.

At that point, the whodunit by famed mystery writer Agatha Christie had been running since 1952--and 27 years later it continues to.

I believe it to be the first play I attended post-college and fully of my own volition

Numerous overseas trips have now followed, and hundreds of plays (and even more musicals, as I also saw one of those in London in '93: City of Angels).

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So beyond the universal noteworthiness of The Mousetrap being the longest-running play in history--in terms of still being in its original production--I have a good amount of personal sentimentality for it.

Fortunately, in seeing the show anew in a stellar production at Court Theatre--an acclaimed professional theater on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park--my memory had long since erased remembrance the culprit and various plot twists.

Though, as I watched the play--directed here by Sean Graney with quite a bit of comic flair--some
embers of recollection flickered in the fireplace at the back of my brain.

I kind of remembered a few of the key elements, though not the mystery's full resolution.

And while I'm going to be quite circumspect in what I reveal, The Mousetrap largely ensnared me, keeping me both pleasantly entertained and wondering how the suspense would unfold.

On a wintry English evening, a ways outside London, sunny Mollie Ralston (the always delightful Kate Fry) and her easily agitated husband Giles (Allen Gilmore, another Chicago stalwart) are preparing to welcome guests to their newly opened guest house, Monkswell Manor.

With radio news of a London murder initially getting little attention, those who arrive include quirky Christopher Wren, namesake of the famed British architect (Alex Goodrich, clearly enjoying himself in the role), opinionated Mrs. Boyle (Carol Ann Hoerdemann), aloof Miss Casewell (Tina Muñoz Pandya), prim Major Metcalf (Lyonel Reneau) and flamboyant Mr. Paravinci (a swell David Cerda).

Later, Detective Sergeant Trotter (Erik Hellman) shows up.

I don't know how much of this is written into Christie's script or long part & parcel of the London production, but Graney makes sure each of the characters is rather pronounced, even considerably over-the-top.

This not only enables us to readily distinguish who's who when the mystery starts to unfold, but makes for lively fun--and even a touch of camp--throughout.

Well beyond some built-in nostalgia, I really enjoyed watching The Mousetrap, and despite some "oh, yeah" flashbacks, was predominantly puzzled, mostly in a good way.

I have no substantive criticisms of the piece or production, except to say that I wasn't fully satisfied or clear about the ending, and unsure if it perfectly followed what came before.

Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all-time, and had written dozens of mysteries--including a few plays--prior to The Mousetrap, which clearly has been rather successful (in London and far beyond) across its 67+ years in existence.

So I'll just take it on faith that any narrative confusion is on me, and not Christie, Graney or any of the excellent cast.

And, particularly for those who have never seen it, my recommendation isn't much mitigated by  details of the denouement, even if you too find them a bit confounding.

For over its nearly 2-1/2 hours (with intermission), The Mousetrap offers enough to gleefully pull you in and keep you there.

If you do see it and get everything sorted out, let's talk. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

On a Terrible Tragedy and the Death of Kobe Bryant

Ever since early Sunday afternoon, when I learned of the California helicopter crash that took the life of retired Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant--and as now known but not initially, eight more people including his daughter Gianna and two other 13-year-old girls--I've been thinking about how I've been thinking.

It is still, and will likely always be, somewhat complicated, and while I felt compelled to write something--in large part to work through my thoughts--I'm dubious if this will be coherent. It'll probably be more stream of consciousness.

What I hope it isn't is judgmental or preachy. It's not for me to tell anyone else how to think, especially as I imagine many are experiencing some mental complexity.

With what I now know, the news is unequivocally tragic, horrific and tremendously sad.

I am far sadder about the deaths of Gianna Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester--the three young girls who had their futures stolen by wicked fate--plus the five other victims in addition to Kobe, than I am strictly about his passing.

That nine people perished is much more tragic than the loss of a transcendent basketball superstar, even if he was a hero to many.

But the focus of much news coverage, and anguish, is understandably on the shocking death of Kobe Bryant at 41.

Gianna Bryant
Which would be sad in any event, but all the more so in being inextricably linked to the loss of his daughter--he is survived by three more daughters, along with his wife Vanessa--and seven others, including Kobe's longstanding helicopter pilot, Ara Zobayan.

Yet when the news first hit, while clear that Kobe didn't die alone, there was some speculation about who was with him in the helicopter, but without any specificity that I saw.

So at least for awhile, my thoughts went fairly solely to him.

I believe Kobe Bryant to be one of the five greatest basketball players to play during my lifetime--along with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, with due deference also to Julius Erving and others--and he could often be astonishing, even magical, to watch.

Yet I was never really a fan.

Especially early in his NBA career, straight out of high school, he seemed to be something of an arrogant competitor, trying a bit too hard to copy my hero, MJ.

When he won his first three NBA titles with the Lakers, in 2000, 2001 and 2002, he seemed to gripe too much about having to share the ball and spotlight with Shaq.

And of far greater consequence, in 2003--while already married to Vanessa--he was accused by a 19-year-old woman of raping her in his room at a Colorado hotel where she worked.

Bryant admitted to a sexual encounter with his accuser but denied the assault allegation.

Facing harsh scrutiny--and this was before the days of social media--the young woman refused to testify and the case was dropped.

On the same day the criminal case was dismissed, Kobe issued a statement through his attorney that in part said:
"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
A civil suit was later filed against Bryant by the woman, which was settled out of court and included Bryant publicly apologizing to his accuser, though admitting no guilt. Per Wikipedia, the Los Angeles Times reported that legal experts estimated the settlement was more than $2.5 million.

There were also stories about Kobe giving Vanessa a $4 million ring to help save their marriage.

You can believe what you wish, but I think it highly likely that Kobe Bryant raped a young woman and got away without punishment, save a bit of money, which was almost nothing next to the $328 million he earned from the Lakers across his career, plus lucrative endorsement income.

And without suggesting I've heard any other specific intimations, I don't think it impossible that Kobe Bryant engaged in other ugly episodes with women. It seems a bit unlikely he decided to be predatory solely on the night before he was to have surgery in Colorado.

Without implying that I'm perfect or above being judged, I've held the purported rape against Kobe in my ensuing perceptions of him, which weren't all positive previously.

Does this mean he deserved to die? No.

Does this mean his survivor has now gotten justice? No.

Does this mean I don't ache for what Vanessa and all the other loved ones of all the victims must be going through? No.

Does this mean that I'm not absolutely horrified to think what everyone aboard the helicopter, including Kobe, must've been going through in its last moments? By all means, no.

But does Kobe's known "crime," and some other factors--including my not being a Laker booster, even as I enjoyed seeing Phil Jackson's title tally rise--mean that, divorcing the entire 9-fatality tragedy that took his life, I'm not as devastated by his death as I have been by those of Stevie Ray Vaughan (also in a helicopter crash), Kurt Cobain, Walter Payton, David Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty and some others?

A photo I took of Kobe on Feb. 15, 2000 at Chicago's United Center

But these are just my thoughts, still a bit raw, still a bit shocked.

And even if my perceptions of Kobe's misdeeds are absolutely true, I understand what his on-the-court greatness--and the five titles he helped the Lakers win--have meant to fans who, perhaps, don't believe he raped someone. Or don't want to know. Or believe he paid the court-ordered punishments. Or maybe don't even care.

As I said at top, it's complex.

But still a tragedy.

If as much due to the death of Christina Mauser--and others--as that of Kobe Bryant.

Or even more so. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

What's the Word?: Despite Sharp Turns, 'Grease' Makes for a Fun Ride at Marriott Lincolnshire -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru March 15


That was the word I predominantly heard as patrons were filing out of the Marriott Theatre after having seen Grease.

Certainly there are far worse things audiences can say about a show, and I would concur that "Fun" is an apt summation of the musical itself and Marriott's well-cast new production.

We go to theater for other reasons as well--in this case, perhaps including a bit of local nostalgia, as I'll expound upon below--but we obviously want to enjoy ourselves.

And I definitely did, as I'd guess likewise for most in attendance.

Within its in-the-round auditorium, Marriott routinely does a stellar job in adapting musicals of various vintages, and under the direction of Scott Weinstein with choreography by William Carlos Angulo, Grease works well upon its stage.

Bringing some Broadway experience, Jimmy Nicholas is good as Danny Zuko, leader of a high school greaser gang called the T-Birds, and with a bubbly voice and sweet smile, Leryn Turlington well-enacts Sandy Dumbrowski's myriad emotions as Danny fiddles with her heart.

Fine talent abounds throughout the cast, with Michelle Lauto (Marti), Jacquelyne Jones (Rizzo), Landree Fleming (Frenchy), Kevin Corbett (Kenickie), Jake Elkins (Roger) and Jonathan Butler-Duplessis (Teen Angel) all demonstrably good.

So whether you're a Marriott subscriber or just looking for a "fun" show to see, Grease should certainly be a good time.

But while many may well have liked, even loved, the show more than me, I don't see as incidental what I didn't hear afterwards.

"Amazing," "awesome," "fantastic" nor "great" were not uttered by anyone within earshot expressing an opinion.

Mainly just "fun."

Which, as effusive but not exorbitant acclamation, I ascribe more to the source material than this nicely-rendered production or any of the fine performances.

Before I continue with this thread, let me say that I do appreciate the importance, originality and verve of Grease in the annals of musical theater history, particularly as it pertains to Chicago.

With deference to West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie and other earlier musicals about teenagers, Grease--whose book, music & lyrics were written by Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey about the former's days at Taft High on Chicago's Northwest Side--was rather progressive in focusing on cliques, gangs, popularity, peer pressure and even teen pregnancy.

And I have to imagine that some of the more mature folks in the audience at Marriott--20 miles up Milwaukee Ave. from Norwood Park, where Taft H.S. still exists--are quite familiar with the show's geography and/or 1959 setting.

Or perhaps, the original 1971 staging of Grease in Lincoln Park at Kingston Mines (not the same location as the still-operating blues club of the same name).

Jacobs' & Casey's creation obviously struck a nerve, and was taken to Broadway in 1972, where it ran for a then-record 3,388 performances over nearly 8 years.

But, having been born in 1968, my initial familiarity with Grease came via the 1978 film adaptation, a huge hit starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

The movie retained several of Jacobs/Casey's fine songs from the Broadway version--which had some revisions from the original Chicago rendition--including "Summer Nights," "Greased Lightnin'," "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," "Beauty School Dropout" and "We Go Together."

But, setting Rydell High (the fictional version of Taft) in the hills of Los Angeles, the movie deviated from and embellished on the stage musical in many ways, including by adding some songs--"Grease," "Hopelessly Devoted to You," "Sandy" and "You're the One That I Want"--and re-ordering many others.

Most Hollywood musicals based on Broadway shows make substantive modifications, about which I don't typically care much in viewing a live production.

But not only do I greatly enjoy the movie Grease--I would say more than the original musical, which Chicago's American Theater Company re-staged in 2011--Marriott's and most latter-day stage versions now incorporate some songs from the movie, while also retaining a number that were never in the movie.

I pretty much enjoyed everything I heard sung on-stage, whether sourced from just the stage musical ("Freddy My Love," "There are Worse Things I Could Do"), the movie ("Hopelessly Devoted to You," "You're The One That I Want") or both.

But the narrative, either because of how it was originally written or as revised to work in the movie songs, is something of a mess.

Specifically the love story between Danny and Sandy seemed ping-pong from hot to cold and back again every few minutes.

And while this likely befits an actual teen romance, the segues between scenes were rather herky-jerky, and I was caught by surprise when Act I ended before it felt it should have.

Even Sandy's "transformation" late in Act II feels a bit abrupt.

This was my fourth time seeing Grease onstage, and--including ATC's new "original" version--I've never quite loved it.

But thanks to the songs, spirited performances, Chicago-specific stage design (including a Bryn Mawr & Talcott street sign) and some nifty touches--from the "Greased Lightnin'" car to the way Turlington's fine take on "Hopelessly Devoted to You" is woven into the high school hop scene--I can't deny that this take on Grease is a whole lot o' fun.

And the best I've yet seen.

Except for the movie. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Despite Some Obstacles, 'Once on This Island' Proves a Pleasant Visit -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Once on This Island
Cadillac Palace, Chicago 
Thru February 2

It's an inexact delineation--and perhaps an ill-explained one--but my ratings (on a @@@@@ scale) and even full reviews inherently reflect my experience and enjoyment in seeing a certain show, along with providing an assessment of the work's artistic merits.

So while the @@@@ I'm giving Once on This Island suggests that, on my first encounter, I liked the one-act musical but didn't quite love it--which is an apt connotation--the truth is the performance I saw on Tuesday night had a lot working against it.

And by this, I don't even mean that this was the National Tour's first night in Chicago, especially as the performers were all quite good.

While I love Chicago's grand downtown theaters and have happily been a "Balcony Club" subscriber to Broadway in Chicago for 20 years, the Cadillac Palace's capacity is nearly three times that of Circle in the Square, the Tony-winning revival's home on Broadway from November 2017 through early 2019.

And that theater's single-level purview would seem much more conducive for this show than my upper balcony seat, given the somewhat confusing regaling of legends local to an island the French Antilles, with the cast employing Caribbean accents that--while fully appropriate and well-rendered--were frankly a bit hard for me to understand. (While I attend much theater with gracious Press Night invites and often excellent seats, this is not typically the case with Broadway in Chicago shows.)

It also didn't help that the woman sitting in front of me obscured my ability to see the stage, and in her drinking with, chatting with and occasionally hugging her adjoining pals, my ability to focus was also quite challenged.

Though the Palace stage is quite large, the sizable cast and onstage musicians were accompanied by several audience members seated on bleachers on the back left of the stage.

Nifty concept, but there just seemed to be a whole lot competing for my attention--in addition to the women in the next row.

Fortunately, to an extent, I had listened to the Broadway Cast Recording and perused the plot synopsis on Wikipedia before attending.

So I wasn't completely clueless as to what was going on.

Only partially. (I had to return to Wikipedia afterwards for a good bit of clarity.)

So there was a whole lot good about Once on This Island--including the music & lyrics by Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens, who first brought this show to Broadway in 1990 before going on to create Ragtime, Seussical, Anastasia and many other musicals--for me to like it as much as I did.

Although I didn't quite catch onto the show's island folklore as it pertained to various gods setting things in motion, in a (coco)nutshell some of the island's proud and exuberant peasant natives--the opening number is "We Dance"--share a myth about a fabled young woman named Ti Moune (a delightful Courtnee Carter).

As a young girl, Ti Moune miraculously survives a horrible storm by clinging to a tree, and is adopted by  Mama Euralie (Danielle Lee Greaves) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin).

Almost instantly--did I mention that this is a 90-minute one-act--she becomes considerably older, and in seeking to learn more about the island meets a boy from the upper class, Daniel (Tyler Hardwick, who demonstrates a terrific singing voice on "Some Girls").

Certainly, there is an element of Romeo & Juliet, but in different ways--storyline, musical stylings, accents, etc.--I was reminded of The Lion King, The Book of Mormon and Moana, even though Once on This Island preceded all of them.

Carter does some uniquely delightful dancing, Greaves & Boykin beautifully belt out a song called "Ti Moune" and Tamyra Gray--once of American Idol and whom I saw in Rent on Broadway--does a fine job as the most prominent of the gods, Papa Ge.

So there is clearly superlative talent in this touring cast, some carried over from the Broadway revival.

And even without quite "getting" everything, there are many delightful elements, including some other fine songs, performances and underlying themes.

Hence, while @@@@ is an honest appraisal of my initial take, I wouldn't mind seeing the show again--ideally in a more intimate but likewise wonderfully-sung production--a few years hence.

For while Once on This Island was good, twice might well be even better. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Quite the Trick: With 'Pure Lies,' Trent James Truly Engages, Nicely Enchants at the Chicago Magic Lounge -- Review

Magic Show Review

Pure Lies with Trent James
Chicago Magic Lounge
Thru March 25

Any quick perusal of this blog will accurately convey that I predominantly see and review theater (musicals & plays) and rock concerts.

But a far deeper dive would reveal that—even just over the past ten years—I’ve attended and often written about shows across many idioms.

Classical, jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, folk, ragtime, funk and concerts in other musical genres. Ballet, tap, modern dance, the Rockettes and Riverdance. Stand-up, sketch and improv comedy. Cirque du Soleil shows, similar productions and more traditional circuses. Numerous operas. Poetry readings. Kabuki theater. Professional wrestling.

And magic.

But rather little magic. Although I enjoy a good magic show, I think the only one I saw over the past decade was a touring production called The Illusionists.

I did also see, in 2016, a House Theatre play called Death and Harry Houdini, featuring the talented magician Dennis Watkins doing some tricks connected to the most famed magician ever.

And sure, back in the day, I saw some David Copperfield specials on TV. I once saw Penn & Teller in Las Vegas. I vaguely recall seeing a magic show by Kirby Van Burch on my only visit to Branson, MO. And I think I saw the legendary Doug Henning once at the old Mill Run Theater in Niles, IL when I was a kid.

But I really should see more magic.

…as evidenced by how much I enjoyed my first visit to the Chicago Magic Lounge and a show called Pure Lies by current artist-in-residence Trent James.

Per the above, I don’t have much point of reference. And while he demonstrated easygoing charm and engaging showmanship along with what I saw as strong magic, I imagine even the 22-year-old James would agree he probably needs a bit more seasoning and polish before he gets a Vegas theater named for him (à la Lance Burton, Criss Angel and other “name” magicians past & present).

James’ nearly hourlong set was nicely low-key—especially for a Wednesday night, though the well-appointed venue was pretty full—but never quite felt monumental.

But, as you can see above, that’s about all that’s keeping me from bestowing a full @@@@@ on my Seth Saith scale.

Now, before I loosely describe some of James' tricks and gags--I certainly won't give much away--let me back up a bit.

Although I am a fairly avid follower of the Chicagoland arts scene, consider magic a creative idiom I enjoy (even if I don't see it much) and have driven along the 5000 block of Clark of block a number of times--the Raven Theater is a few blocks north, the Black Ensemble Theater a few blocks south--I didn't know of the Chicago Magic Lounge's existence until late December 2019. (It seems to have opened nearly two full years ago.)

Granted, the facade of the building at 5050 N. Clark gives nothing away, unless you're specifically looking for the magic venue and notice a few vintage posters in the doorway.

Even once you step inside, what you see is a laundromat (I wouldn't give this away if ChicagoMagicLounge.com didn't).

Luckily, some other patrons enabled a friend and I to quickly find the right point of entry, and what we ultimately encountered was quite impressive.

It was via a Chicago Tribune mention about things to do on New Year's Eve that I became aware of the venue, and a perusal of their website indicated they do shows every night, including a "Signature Show" Thursday through Friday.

Intrigued, I reached out to see if I might be able to attend and review a performance, and learned of Press Night availability for Pure Lies with Trent James, the current quarterly artist-in-residence show.

After entering via a washing machine, my friend Ken and I were corralled into an attractive but rather close-knit cocktail area, where a guy named Al James was doing magic at the bar. (In his act, Trent James mentioned his dad also being a magician, but in asking him after the show I learned that Al James is not his father. Just a magical coincidence, I guess.)

Via a small magic library with some cool old posters and a framed Conjurer's magazine accompanied by a (presumably signed) photo of Harry Houdini, we then went into the main showroom.

This is a large, multi-level cabaret-type space that would well-accommodate a stand-up comedian, small jazz combo, vocalist/pianist duo, etc. (On Mondays at the Chicago Magic Lounge, there is a live jazz accompanying magic.)

We ordered some food & drinks, and while the menu isn't vast, what we had--Beef & Cheddar Sliders, Prosciutto Wrapped Dates, Peanut Butter Bonbons--was all quite tasty.

And before Trent James took the stage at 8:15pm, we and many other patrons were able to enjoy the talents of table magicians making their way around the showroom.

A friendly woman did card tricks; a denonair man did nifty tricks with two cushioned balls. Apologies for not being able to cite their names, though they did introduce themselves.

So my first impressions of the Chicago Magic Lounge were quite strong, even beyond James' show, the main focus of this review.

I perceive it as pretty nifty place to take a date, if only I could make one appear.

And my understanding is that the "Signature Show," which rotates performers night-to-night, makes for an even fuller night of magic than the Wednesday artist-in-residence shows. (There is also a Family Show on Sunday afternoons.)

Which brings me back to Pure Lies with Trent James.

Throughout his act, James had a hip, cheery, self-effacing manner, and his magic skills--he said he's been at it since the age of 5--are accompanied by fine comedic and acting prowess.

He started with some magic using various props--a handkerchief, egg, lemon, even a flute--but he was even stronger with pieces involving audience members brought onstage.

Whether he was reading minds--with the aid of a silent dummy named William--or picking pockets, he consistently had me fooled.

And entertained.

Without knowing how else to judge a magic show, it seems both are key criteria in saying this is a good one.

I'd be happy to see other shows and magicians at the spiffy venue, and/or elsewhere, and would be curious to note how James' career develops as his impressive poise continues to.

But even, or perhaps especially, to an arts lover who rather rarely takes in magic but was intrigued & tickled to do so, Trent James, his Pure Lies solo show and the Chicago Magic Lounge all appear to be the real deal. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Something Good: Led by Amiable Peter Noone, Herman's Hermits Merrily Invade Waukegan -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone
w/ opening act
Gary Puckett & the Union Gap
Genesee Theatre, Waukegan, IL
January 11, 2020

Based on what I love and value, the British Invasion has had a tremendous impact on my life.

Yet it took place before I was born.

And as such I may not completely understand what it was acutely like, or all the connotations.

I think everyone would agree that--as it pertains to rock 'n roll, as there was also something of cinematic invasion--the British Invasion represents the arrival in America of rock bands from the United Kingdom, or perhaps even more so, an influx of music made by such acts.

This was led by The Beatles--whose "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released in the U.S. 56 years today--with the Fab Four themselves landing at JFK Airport in New York on Feb. 7, 1964.

By almost all accounts, the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on the evening of February 9, 1964--watched live by a then-record television audience of 73 million people--was the watershed moment of the British Invasion.

In the wake of Beatlemania, many other British bands became very popular in America, and I've come to love several.

With the caveat that, having been born in 1968 and kindling an interest in popular music about a decade later, my purview lacks "in-the-moment" acuity, I perceive the best bands of the British Invasion as being:
1) The Beatles 2) The Rolling Stones 3) The Who 4) The Kinks 5The Zombies 6) The Animals 7The Yardbirds 8) The Hollies
But I understand that, in not really arising until 1965, The Who were part of a second wave, and that the intensity of the initial British Invasion also included:
The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Mannfred Mann and--perhaps especially--Herman's Hermits.
Fronted by a cute teenage singer named Peter Noone, who became perceived as "Herman," the Hermits had 14 songs hit the U.S. Billboard Singles Top 40 between August 1964 and February 1967, including "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" and "I'm Henry VIII, I Am," which both hit #1 in mid-1965.

A few more minor hits would follow this blitz, but Herman's Hermits' popularity seems to have ebbed well before Noone initially left the band in 1971.

To my wherewithal, HH's pop sound never significantly evolved in a way akin to the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks and Zombies, nor did Noone or other band members go on to form/join other famed projects, as did Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds, Graham Nash of the Hollies and Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group.

Unlike most contemporaries cited, Herman's Hermits did not write their own songs, and perhaps for that reason and others mentioned, they have not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Gary Puckett
Still, they were an important part of the British Invasion--for awhile in late '64 and early '65, it seems they may have been bigger in America than any import besides the Beatles--and even if a bit belatedly, my appreciation for their place in rock history brought me to the grand Genesee Theatre in Waukegan on Saturday night, accompanied by friend Dave, who gratefully did the driving.

Fortunately, the falling snow and high winds didn't mess with our trek too much, nor kept over 2,000 nostalgic fans from getting to the Genesee, but we learned that the weather had impacted both bands on the bill in their travels to Waukegan.

First up, and consequentially starting about 15 minutes late, were Gary Puckett & the Union Gap.

As is Noone with this version of Herman's Hermits, Puckett is the sole original member of his '60s outfit, an American one that still distinctively dresses in Civil War Union Army uniforms.

Although I had long heard the name Gary Puckett & the Union Gap and recognized some of the hits they played, I can't claim to be all that familiar.

In watching Puckett, I couldn't help perceive that most baristas, flight attendants, hotel clerks and whomever else encounters the fit, articulate, long-haired senior citizen on a regular basis would likely be oblivious to his significant rock stardom 50+ years ago.

Though he seems like a hip elder, his vibe also feels cordially unassuming.

But--also like Noone--he still seems to be having a lot of fun on stage, and not only is he an engaging storyteller, his voice still sounds great at 77.

Opening with "Lady Willpower," one of the band's two #2 hits from 1968, Puckett & co. proceeded to pay homage to some pretty famous songwriters & artists whose songs GP&UG had recorded way back when: Neil Diamond ("Kentucky Woman"), Sonny Bono/Sonny & Cher ("You Better Sit Down Kids") and Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix").

As Herman's Hermits would do likewise, this provided good context to appreciate the heyday of Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, even beyond their own hits--"This Girl is a Woman Now," "Woman Woman," "Young Girl"--which rounded out the set.

Prior to Puckett's set, Peter Noone had come onstage briefly with a show host for a prize drawing, and--dressed down in jeans--he looked a bit paunchy and also somewhat gimpy.

But for the headlining set, adorned in a 3-piece blue suit, it was possible to perceive the frenzied teenage screams he elicited when the Hermits first enchanted America.

If Wikipedia and my math are correct, Noone was only 16 when the band's debut single--"I'm Into Something Good"--hit the U.S. charts in late 1964.

That song, written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin, opened the show by Noone and his four current Hermits--apologies for not knowing their names, but all were fine musicians--followed by HH's hit take on Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World."

Cheeky from the get-go, Noone spoke of not being able to read the setlist on the floor, and while most of Saturday's selections seemed to match those of recent shows, it seemed that the singer was somewhat ad-libbing the order they were played.

And along with many Herman's Hermits gems--"Dandy," "A Must to Avoid," "Just a Little Bit Better," "Silhouettes," "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat," "Jezebel," "Sea Cruise" and a lovely "Listen People" with Noone in fine voice--the appreciative crowd heard a variety of other British Invasion songs (and those from roughly the same time period).

These included the Beatles' "All My Loving," the Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash"--with Noone aping Mick Jagger--Mannfred Mann's "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" and Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire."

Noone had fun interacting with a woman at the edge of the stage who was interpreting the lyrics into sign language--"How do you do "Do Wah Diddy Diddy?"" he asked--and in a variation on the de-aging process recently used in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, at one point glibly sang "Leaning on a Lamp Post" from behind a teen idol poster of himself a fan had brought.

He also played a bit of guitar while localizing lyrics to a song seemingly called "Travelin' Light," then still with the six-string took "No Milk Today" a bit more seriously.

A nice poignancy was also brought to "The End of the World."

Though I've long-known "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter," it was only in prepping for the show that I came to know Herman's Hermits' other #1 smash, "I'm Henry VIII, I Am," and both were loads of fun (though stylistically rather different).

"There's a Kind of Hush" ended the fully enjoyable 75-minute set.

Though "oldies acts" are most of what I see these days, this wasn't a rock concert on par with the energy, excitement and breadth of musical excellent Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and The Who--all of whom I saw again in 2019--still bring.

So while it was lots of fun and my knowledge of and appreciation for both Herman's Hermits and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap--to whatever extent the current lineups do them justice--were expanded, @@@@ (out of 5) seems about right.

But I also appreciate that for those about Peter Noone's age and older, who acutely recall him from the '60s, the visceral excitement of seeing him perform might be nearly on par with Paul McCartney.

He was part of the world changing, forever, and though this Herman's Hermits show was far more exciting than a history lesson, I was thrilled to be taught that much more about the British Invasion.

And to be--yet again but also somewhat newly--into something good. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Bearing a Gift Beyond Price: A Tribute to Neil Peart, Rush Drummer and Lyricist (1952-2020)

My fandom for the Canadian rock band Rush--whose legendary drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, passed away last week--goes back roughly 40 years

So I can't cite exactly how or why or when or through whom I got into them.

I'm guessing that via some combination of rock radio and junior high word of mouth, I became aware of (long after its release) "Fly by Night"--a 1975 gem that the band eschewed live after 1978--and was intrigued enough to buy the 1980 album Permanent Waves sometime following its January release.

I can't say exactly when that might've been, but I know I had Permanent Waves before Moving Pictures came out in February 1981.

I instantly loved the first song on Permanent Waves, "The Spirit of Radio," still consider it my favorite Rush song and ranked it in the top 10 of my All-time Favorite Rock Songs when I last compiled a list in 2015.

Back then, loving a band meant knowing the names of the people in the band, which was easy for a Rush fan as there were only three members (and if you look really closely at the Permanent Waves front cover, their last names are included in the art).

Geddy Lee, a really skinny guy with long hair and a high-pitched voice, was the vocalist and bass player.

Alex Lifeson was the guitarist, and a key part of the trio's sonic inventiveness.

And Neil Peart not only had a crazy massive drum kit, he was almost always referenced as "one of the best drummers in the world."

And while Lifeson, Lee and Peart collaborated on the band's music, once he joined Rush in mid-1974--John Rutsey was the band's original drummer and played on their eponymous debut--Peart wrote virtually all of the lyrics.

Some have likely called his lyrics "dense" in both senses of the word, and he may well have had too much of an Ayn Rand fascination at one point. But Peart showed a real sensitivity and social consciousness that I always appreciated:
- "Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive"

- "And the men who hold high places must be the ones to start, to mold a new reality closer to the heart"

- "No his mind is not for rent, to any god or government"

- "In the high school halls, in the shopping malls, conform or be cast out"

- "I can't pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend"

- "If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice"

- "Just between us, I think it's time for us to recognize the differences we sometimes fear to show"
- "Who can face the knowledge that the truth is not the truth?"
- "Freeze this moment a little bit longer, make each sensation a little bit stronger"

- "All of us get lost in the darkness, dreamers learn to steer by the stars"
- "And if the love remains, though everything is lost, we will pay the price but we will not count the cost"
Certainly, these lyrics were enhanced by accompanying what I thought were rather cool, mostly hard-rocking songs, played with the utmost technical proficiency.

After first getting into "Fly by Night" and then Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, I soon came to know much of Rush's earlier output, including the 2112 album with its famed "Overture" and "The Temple of Syrinx."

A friend had the band's first live album, All the World's a Stage, and I would excitedly buy the next one, Exit...Stage Left.

My freshman year of high school, in the fall of 1982, began a few months before I really started attending rock concerts with friends, so I rued not seeing the Signals tour at the Rosemont Horizon (now known as Allstate Arena).

But I first saw Rush on June 30, 1984 at the Rosemont Horizon, on their Grace Under Pressure Tour.

When I next saw them, in January 1992 at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles--I was living out
there at the time--it felt like I was seeing an "old" favorite, though Geddy/Alex/Neil were still great.

But the last 7 of the 9 times I saw Rush live were shows in seven different years between 2002 and 2015, at the amphitheater in Tinley Park, IL, headlining at Milwaukee Summerfest or at Chicago's United Center.

So, somewhat astonishingly, despite never quite being deemed "cool" by the rock intelligentsia--Rush was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, many years after first being eligible--the trio never lost their staying power.

Though there were Rush concerts I robustly loved, like this one in 2010, there were also quite candidly times--including the last few--when their setlists were a bit esoteric for my tastes and the shows tended to drag in parts.

Including--gasp--sometimes during Peart's extended drum solos.

Though my reverence for his drumming talent is immense, there were times when I wondered why he needed quite so many drums.

And of those I've seen in person--such as Dave Grohl, with Nirvana in 1993--as well as just on video (John Bonham of Led Zeppelin), I tend to prefer sheer brutality on a smaller kit.

Still, I believe what I posted on Facebook the other day holds true:
With the deaths of Ginger Baker and Neil Peart, every drummer in the world has moved up two notches.
Anyway, I imagine that to the public at large, I'm a major Rush fanatic and to true Rush "geeks," I'm something of a poser.

But in these polarized times I think we can tend to forget that to love someone or something--whether a friend, family member of lover, leader or country, band or baseball team, etc.--doesn't mean constant, automatic or unquestioning approval and adulation.

It means your life wouldn't be nearly as good without them. And your appreciation is both immense and intense.

I love--and always will--a lot the music Neil Peart helped make with Rush.

I loved his drumming, his lyrics and even a sense of humor that probably wasn't always obvious.

I am sorry for his suffering, of late from the brain cancer that ended his life at just 67, and the loss of his daughter and wife during a brutal 10-month stretch in 1997-98. (He would remarry and have another daughter.)

Unaware of his illness, or whatever part it likely played in Rush's retirement, I was shocked and gutted by the news of his death, even given this grim article about how the coming decade will see an ongoing parade to the grave of rock heroes, beyond the legends already lost.

But with nearly any death, excepting those of someone particularly young or via unnatural means, I like to offer this condolence:

As you weep for what has been lost, smile for all that has been gained

The truth is, I gained a whole lot via my fandom of Neil Peart and Rush.
"Love and life are deep" he wrote in the song, "Tom Sawyer."
And then in "Dreamline" some years later:
"When we are young
Wandering the face of the Earth
Wondering what our dreams might be worth
Learning that we're only immortal
For a limited time"
Thanks for the magic, Neil Peart.

Your drumbeats will live on for quite some time.

And not just on indelible songs--such as these--and DVDs I can watch upon my wall.