Saturday, March 28, 2020

Pithy Philosophies #42

Seth Saith:

Demonstrating class, even if not reciprocated, is never the wrong decision.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Madness Amid the Malaise: Recapping a Rock Tournament, Commencing a Reel One

These are odd times. Certainly the oddest that I lived through. I mean, I was living in Los Angeles during the riots of 1992 and stayed in my apartment for a couple days, but this has obviously been longer.

And worldwide.

A blank version of the original Rock Madness 2020 tournament;
click here for a large version you can right-click and save

While nothing I'm about to say should be construed as a complaint--I believe we should all relax and stay put in our homes until doctors, scientists, epidemiologists and trusted leaders tell us to resume normal activity once EVERYONE is safe from risk--as someone who in many ways relies on the arts, sports and live events for companionship, I certainly miss theater and concerts and baseball and the NCAA tournament and so much more.

And, of course, just seeing friends and relatives face-to-face.

But I've been making enjoyable use of Facebook, not just to interact with friends and family--I still do that more so directly--but to maintain daily features other seem to enjoy.

I did just last week cease updating my 6word Portraits blog after 3 full years of describing esteemed folks "sixinctly" on the birthday of a given legend--and then sharing it to Facebook, where I and others would run through additional daily birthdays--but I've taken to culling five photos a day from my vast archives of pictures taken, which I share to Facebook as Random Access Memories.
And to somewhat cheekily replace the NCAA Basketball Tournament--a.k.a. March Madness--I created a tournament I dubbed Rock Madness.
I selected 64 rock artists of various eras, including big name legends and some personal favorites--for a sensibility akin to smaller schools making the NCAA Tourney--and invited my Facebook friends to vote on matchups in order to advance the bands through the bracket.

I got a bunch of great feedback as about 40+ different people participated, with each "game" gathering between 15-25 votes. And others told me it was great fun to watch, even if they didn't "play."

Although I was tempted to spread it around more publicly than to just my 356 Facebook friends, I honestly didn't want to tally up hundreds of votes and enjoyed seeing the preferences of actual friends (about 90% of my Facebook connections are people I've known in real life).

As you can see at top, The Beatles won, beating The Rolling Stones in the title game.

Now, after gathering "nominations" from friends--rather than just my own whims--I'm running a Movie version I've dubbed Reel Madness.

Four "Play-in Games" were held last night--with even more response than for Rock Madness--and Round 1 matchups in the A Regional are taking place today.

A blank bracket is below; likely at the conclusion I'll add the completed one.

I truly hope everyone is doing OK in these trying times, but with a bit of trying, I've found some fun ways to waste time.

And not just mine.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Ours Go to 11: Volume 36, My Favorite Music Movies (that aren't concert films, documentaries, musical adaptations or biopics)

Nobody told me there'd be days like these.

Strange days, indeed.

Most peculiar mama.

But I am trying to get through them with much grace and aplomb as possible.

And that has included watching movies and having discussions about others, via email, Facebook, etc.

One of these days I may try to write something more substantive, but for now, a list seems apt.

And so, mainly in a pop/rock vein, without including concert films, documentaries, Broadway adaptations or biopics (i.e. Rocketman, Ray, Bohemian Rhapsody, Walk the Line, etc., even if some of the choices below are technically biographical), I give you my picks of:

The Best Feature Films About Music:
(Primarily in a pop/rock vein; no concert films, documentaries, Broadway adaptations (or akin: Singin' in the Rain) or biopics, although some might say the first three choices somewhat are the latter. Go with it.)

1. A Hard Day's Night
2. Purple Rain
3. This is Spinal Tap
4. Sing Street
5. Saturday Night Fever
5. The Blues Brothers
6. Almost Famous
7. Once 
8. The Commitments
9. School of Rock
10. Across the Universe
11. Quadrophenia

Plus A Few More

8 Mile
Blinded by the Light
A Star is Born (2018)
High Fidelity
La La Land
Crazy Heart
The Five Heartbeats
Pink Floyd: The Wall
Rude Boy
Yellow Submarine
Pirate Radio
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Cadillac Records

Some I Haven't Seen or Recall

American Hot Wax
Black Snake Moan
24 Hour Party People
Pump Up the Volume
The Idolmaker
Empire Records
Eddie & the Cruisers
Jailhouse Rock (or anything except Viva Las Vegas)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Where Are They Now?: Ex-TV Stars Make for a Fun If Fleeting Trip to 'Middletown' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Middletown: The Ride of Your Life!
a play by Dan Clancy
starring Sandy Duncan, Donny Most, Adrian Zmed & Kate Buddeke
Presented by GFour Productions
at Apollo Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 22

likable \ˈlī-kə-bəl \
having qualities that bring about a favorable regard: PLEASANT, AGREEABLE

Certainly there are worse things to be called, and while I wouldn't dub Middletown: The Ride of Your Life brilliant or stupendous or deep or sensational or especially incisive, I found the four character play--performed without scenery or props and with the actors reading from scripts, often while seated--to indeed be likable.

The draw in Chicago for presumably most attendees is the cast, consisting of three fairly well-known names from television and a local stage actress of some note.

Sandy Duncan, a frequent presence on our sole household TV when I was a kid in the '70s, but also boasting dozens of theater credits and three Tony nominations, looks great and is quite amiable as Peg, long married to Tom, played by Adrian Zmed, a Chicago-bred one-time heartthrob best-known for co-starring on TV's TJ Hooker in the '80s.

As Middletown chronicles, Peg and Tom are close, weekly-dinner friends with Don (Donny Most, forever known as Ralph Malph on Happy Days) and the sassy Dottie (Kate Buddeke, a longtime Chicago theater performer--I saw her in Airline Highway and Superior Donuts at Steppenwolf--who also has Broadway, film and TV credits).

And across 90 minutes and at least 30-some years, we learn about their lives.

How the spouses met, how Peg and Dottie met, when the husbands got introduced, about their jobs, their families, their ups and their downs--some particularly wrenching--and to a degree, how the world changed around them.

Not too much happens that one mightn't expect, but writer Clancy does a nice job making the characters and scenarios seem both unique and universal.

Though I have no aversion to nostalgia and have seen numerous TV celebs onstage over the years--Linda Evans, Joan Collins, Jason Alexander, Kelsey Grammer, John Mahoney, David Hyde Pierce, Bebe Neuwirth, George Wendt, Teri Hatcher, Christina Applegate, Marilu Henner, Alan Thicke, Michael McKean, Carol Kane, Melissa Gilbert, Richard Thomas, Richard Kind, Holland Taylor, etc., etc.--I can assure you that I have never wistfully wished to see Duncan, Most and Zmed act together. (I did once see Duncan years ago in The King and I.)

But each was fun and--yes--likable, and Buddeke more than held her own.

Her character, Dottie, a grade school teacher with a sharp tongue who enjoys a cocktail or three, is probably the best written of the quartet.

And Dottie's life with Most's Don just feels a bit "cooler" than the Duncan/Zmed pairing, not that they don't too come off well.

I see and enjoy all kinds of theater, much like I take in a good cross-section of movies, TV and books. Everything has it's place and art needn't be groundbreaking or profound to be worthwhile.

So while, despite its subtitle, Middletown wasn't quite the "ride of my life," and not the type of play I would want to regularly ingest, it was undeniably fun to see some older yet still familiar faces in the comfortable confines of Chicago's Apollo Theatre.

And--perhaps all the more so amid global pandemics and crashing stock markets--it was perfectly nice just to see something likable. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Not to Be Missed: Sharp Satire, Powerful Messages Entirely Present in 'Day of Absence' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Day of Absence
a classic play by Douglas Turner Ward
directed by Anthony Irons
Congo Square Theatre Co.
at Victory Gardens Biograph, Chicago
Thru March 22

A friend of mine has frequently surmised about the potential efficacy of "avoidance strikes" to protest various injustices.

What if--abetted by the ability of social media to spread the word to millions or even billions of people--everyone of a like mind agreed not to purchase gas on a given Monday or use a credit card for any purchases on a given Friday.

Might corporations and politicians take notice? Isn't it possible to imagine change could occur in response?

Day of Absence--a bitingly satirical play written by Douglas Turner Ward, first performed in New York in 1965 and now being staged in a re-imagined production by Chicago's erstwhile Congo Square Theater--powerfully posits how an organized disappearance by people of color might counter and combat racial prejudice.

Photo credit on all: Jazmyne Fountain
Within the upstairs Richard Christiansen Theater at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, the show--with tweaks to make it feel contemporary, such as the inclusion of mobile phones--is set in an unnamed southern town.

With each of the black and Hispanic actors strikingly adorned in whiteface, Day of Absence begins with a pair of mall workers (played by Ronald L. Conner and Kelvin Rolston Jr.) slowly coming to realize that no dark-skinned people have shown up to work, or to shop.

At their home, an affluent couple (Jordan Arredondo, Meagan Dilworth) sleeping off a bender is rather wildly bewildered to discover that their housekeeper/nanny is nowhere to be found.

And while I'll won't spell out each ensuing circumstance--as sharply humorous-yet-telling vignettes are pretty much the entirety of the 70-minute piece--the town's mayor (Ann Joseph), a news reporter (Dilworth, who like everyone deftly rotates through roles) and business people (Bryant Hayes, Sonya Madrigal) are among the "white folk" who come to realize the essential everyday contributions of those suddenly gone.

And though it sometimes feels more like an elongated sketch comedy piece than traditional narrative theater, Day of Absence--directed by Congo Square ensemble member Anthony Irons--is genuinely inventive, engaging and compelling.

While making shrewd social comment, it's also a lot of fun.

Congo Square is currently celebrating its 20th season of presenting theater with largely African-American themes.

Though I have seen a variety of diverse plays and musicals at the Black Ensemble Theater, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and presented by Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Court, Northlight, TimeLine, Writers, Shattered Globe, Porchlight, Raven and many other troupes around Chicagoland, I believe this was my first Congo Square Theatre foray, and I'm certainly better for it.

My interest was candidly prompted by a recent article in the Chicago Reader by Coya Paz Brownrigg that somewhat challenged critics--particularly those from the daily newspapers--to expand their horizons and see/review more works by & representing those of non-white backgrounds.

The Reader piece is certainly worthy of consideration, though IMO also somewhat flawed in some of its contentions. I won't delve deep into that here, but in noting Paz Brownrigg's assertion that the Tribune "rarely covers performance happening on the south and west sides of Chicago," I specifically tried to find shows I might see in such areas.

And wound up in the heart of Lincoln Park.

In no way is this meant as criticism of Congo Square for staging Day of Absence at the Biograph. It's an easily accessible location near the Fullerton Red Line stop and the Christensen theater space well-fits the production.

I just honestly would like to learn of some of the stellar work Paz Brownrigg was referencing--without any specificity--that regularly takes place in areas I don't much get to. 

But whatever your cultural background, consider yourself well-advised to make yourself present at Day of Absence.

For sometimes it takes a bit of disappearance for our individual and collective importance to rightfully be recognized. 

Monday, March 09, 2020

"How Did You Find America?" Largely Terrific but with Some Issues & Imperfections -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act The Buckinghams
Genesee Theater, Waukegan, IL
March 6, 2020

Just the other day, a friend sent a nice note thanking me for all the music I had turned her onto over the years.

And while I likely wouldn't know much about, say, the top 200 most listened to artists on Spotify--Led Zeppelin ranks #239; Bruce Springsteen #329; The Who seemingly beyond the top 500--I am happy to have explored a pretty wide swath of acts in different rock & pop veins (as well as some jazz, classical, blues, country and much Broadway).

I've seen more than 300 different bands in concert--some many times--and fairly recently have made a point of catching artists I haven't before, including in New Wave (Duran Duran, The The, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, Jesus & Mary Chain, The Church, Simple Minds) and pop diva (Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Cher) realms.

But a relative blind spot--deaf spot?--to this day has been soft/folk rock, typically dating from the 1970s.

Sure, I've seen the Eagles, CSN(Y), Jackson Browne and James Taylor.

But Bread, Seals & Crofts, Poco, English Dan & John Ford Coley, Three Dog Night, Loggins & Messina, Pure Prairie League, Little River Band and others of this ilk?

Never seen any and am really not sure I could name 5 songs combined. Though Pablo Cruise may have been the first concert I ever attended, with my family at ChicagoFest.

And--other than geographically--I've never been much into America.

But I've always liked "Sister Golden Hair"--and per some Spotifamiliarization, a few more other songs than I thought I did--so in the name of exploration, I attended their 50th Anniversary Tour stop Friday night with a friend at Waukegan's historic Genesee Theatre.

After few & far between visits over the years, this was my third trek to the Genesee in as many months, following shows by Herman’s Hermits and UFO.

As with Gary Puckett & the Union Gap opening for Herman’s Hermits, America was nicely preceded by The Buckinghams in what also seemed to be a Waukegan-only pairing, not a package tour.

Not hugely familiar with the Chicago-based ‘60s band beyond a few big hits, I enjoyed the 40-minute opening set, which had just three band members—originals Carl Giammarese (guitar/vocals) and Nick Fortuna (bass) plus Dave Zane (guitar)—playing acoustically while seated.

Having been scuttled for one reason or other in past attempts to see The Buckinghams, my friend Alison found it “Kind of a Drag” that we didn’t get the high-energy 8-piece band with horns experience that I guess is typical.

But with Fortuna nursing a broken foot and Giammarese in good voice despite what he termed a recent “face plant” leaving a considerable shiner, I liked the laid-back run through a string of 1967 chart hits: “Don’t You Care,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Susan” and “Kind of a Drag.” their only #1.

Giammarese was amiably conversant throughout, and led into a lovely solo rendition of The Beatles’ “I’m a Loser” by explaining he had recorded it on an album with another original Buckingham, Dennis Tufano, and that at a party, John Lennon complimented their version.

Another Beatles tune, “This Boy” was also played, as was the Zombies’ “You Make Me Feel So Good.”

And Giammarese shared that the Buckinghams—presumably in full stead—will be playing at Highwood’s Club 210 on April 11 and then back at the Genesee on August 8 as part of the Happy Together Tour (with The Turtles, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, The Association and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders).

Beginning their set with “Tin Man,” erstwhile America members Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell—who founded the band in 1970 with the late Dan Peek, when all three were sons of personnel at a U.S. Air Force base in London—spoke quite appreciatively of the Buckinghams, citing them as early influences along with many famed British acts of the era (some, such as Pink Floyd, for whom they would soon open).

Sharing lead vocals and often harmonizing while playing acoustic guitars, Beckley and Bunnell sounded good, backed by a bassist, electric guitarist and drummer Ryland Steen. (Beckley also occasionally manned a keyboard.)

During America’s second song, “You Can Do Magic,” Steen seemed to signal to a roadie, and upon the tune’s conclusion the music was halted because the drum head on his bass drum had broken.

As referenced above, I’ve been to hundreds of rock concerts, including by numerous hard rock legends, and I’ve never seen a show stalled by a broken drum.

Until America.

Beckley and Bunnell affably filled time by introducing stagehands, but I was somewhat surprised that they couldn’t audible a bit more imaginatively, perhaps by playing something that wasn’t setlisted.

They hemmed & hawed for more than five minutes until Steen sang a seemingly planned “Don’t
Cross the River,” albeit without the benefit of a kick drum.

The problem was then resolved and the show continued nicely, including a beautiful take on “I Need You” and “Ventura Highway,” both Top 10 hits from 1972.

I enjoyed the sonic dichotomy of “Here,” accompanied by historic band photos and both bass and guitar solos. Later, “Hollywood” also had an engaging slide-show backdrop.

America recorded several albums with famed Beatles producer, George Martin, and in speaking fondly of him, they preceded some pertinent songs of their own with a cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” a rendition which I candidly didn’t love--and which thematically probably should’ve led into “Lonely People” anyway.

As of now, the setlist for the Genesee show isn’t posted on, but if this one from Windsor isn’t exact, it’s quite close.

While there was nothing played that I didn’t like, some tunes clearly delighted—or slightly dragged —more than others, and the whole 90-minute affair was more a good show filled with fine music than a blazingly fantastic rock concert.

I never mind when an act sprinkles in some choice cover songs, but a take on the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” also seemed oddly amiss, and not just due to the lack of female voices. 

But the show-closing quartet of “Lonely People,” a highly-charged “Sandman,” sumptuous “Sister Golden Hair” and galloping “A Horse With No Name”—the last with two of the Buckinghams onstage—ended things on several high notes.

Beckley had shared that America has played at least 100 shows for 50 straight years, so it was about time I checked them out, and I’m glad I did.

Even if it probably won’t set me on a flag-waving frenzy to discover America’s fellow Lite-Rock forefathers. (And yes, Little River Band will flow into the Genesee, with John Ford Coley, on May 7.)

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Stories We Could Tell: A Rather Solid Take on 'The Pillowman' at The Gift -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Pillowman
a play by Martin McDonagh
directed by Laura Alcalá Baker
The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 29

I first saw Martin McDonagh’s chilling drama, The Pillowman, in 2006 at Steppenwolf, and enjoyed it immensely.

It helped that Michael Shannon and Tracy Letts were both in it, and I still recall Jim True-Frost being fantastic.

At the end of 2009 I would rank it as one of my favorite plays of the decade.

And then, early in 2010, I also loved a version I saw early in 2010 at Chicago’s Redtwist Theatre, and would cite it as the top play seen in that year.

So I was very much looking forward to seeing it once again, now staged by one of Chicago's best storefront theaters, The Gift, in Jefferson Park.

I still very much liked it, and--particularly for fans of McDonagh and/or those who have never seen The Pillowman--would definitely recommend it.

The acting, led by Martel Manning as Katurian--a writer being interrogated by cops because grisly
scenarios from some of his stories have been enacted in real-life--is excellent, and good chunks of the play remain absolutely riveting.

But for whatever inexact reasons, I can't say I loved this rendition as much as past productions, as best I recall and per ratings I keep in a Shows Seen database.

Now, although I believe I maintained consciousness and pretty good focus across nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes (including intermission), a Monday night performance on a workday may well bring challenges beyond the material itself.

Especially in a first act that seemed to go on and on.

Yet while I feel it apt to note not quite being blown away--due to long thinking of The Pillowman as one of my favorite plays--this is still very much a positive review of a fine production of a work of tremendous imagination.

And the truth is, that as much as I regard the Irish-British McDonagh as among the very best contemporary playwrights, and now also a fine screenwriter and movie director, various works of his--plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West and films In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Seven Psychopaths--have left me hotter or colder, sometimes across different stagings or viewings of the some piece.

But at the very least, The Pillowman warrants your awareness, and director Laura Alcalá Baker does some nice things with this iteration.

To begin, whereas past casts have typically been all male, here Cyd Blakewell is terrific as she handles the role of Topolski, the "good cop" interrogating Katurian in a dingy, seemingly Eastern Bloc jail cell, along with "bad cop" Ariel (Gregory Fenner, who is also quite good).

That Manning and Fenner are both African-American further illustrates how talented performers of differing backgrounds than those seen before in the same roles can considerably adjust the context and tonality of a play in intriguing ways.

Rounding out the cast at the Gift is Jay Worthington as Michal, the mentally addled brother of Katurian, who has also been brought in for questioning.

I think it best for me to avoid further details, but should mention that the purported crimes are quite dark--as are, interconnectedly, Katurian's stories and matters of family history & psychology.

But there is also much more going to The Pillowman than merely a crime mystery.

Which is why McDonagh's script spends so much time in the telling--and even acting out--of several of Katurian's stories.

And while stellar drama often offers a good deal of relevance no matter when it's seen, the idea of a creative storyteller facing off against an authoritarian state, well, hello.

So if you see The Pillowman and absolutely love it, I can readily understand why.

And if your regard for the play is a bit more middling, it's also entirely possible for you to like it far more on a subsequent encounter.

Or a previous one.