Arts & Minds: Music times three

Broadway master Alan Menken takes to the stage; Idan Raichel visits City Winery Chicago; and ‘An American Dream’ heads to the Harris Theater.

A music three image
A scene from An American Dream, composer and pianist Jack Perla’s one-act opera, staged at the Seattle Opera in 2015. The opera will premiere in Chicago later this month. Photo credit: Philip Newton, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.

Broadway master Alan Menken takes to the stage at the Auditorium Theatre

Even if his name doesn't trigger instant recognition-and more than likely it does-the list of composer-pianist Alan Menken's credits for both stage and screen musicals will quickly have you singing, as well as tallying up his awards, including Oscars (eight of them), Emmys (11), and a Tony.

Consider just some of the titles: Little Shop of Horrors , Beauty and the Beast , The Little Mermaid , Aladdin , Sister Act , and Newsies . Then add A Bronx Tale, The Musical , an adaptation of Chazz Palminteri's autobiographical, 1960s era coming-of-age story that will play at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre (March 12 -24), in a national touring production.

Shortly after the run of that show, Menken himself will arrive on the stage of Chicago's Auditorium Theatre (March 30) to perform A Whole New World of Alan Menken , his one-man show, enhanced by archival video. And along with playing and singing some of his most popular tunes from the Disney classics and beyond, he will chronicle his long and winding career in New York (where early on he worked as a piano accompanist for ballet classes and wrote songs for Sesame Street ). And he will muse on his collaboration with such gifted lyricists as Howard Ashman, David Zippel, Tim Rice, Stephen Schwartz, and Glenn Slater. 

Ashman, now 69 (and happily married for 48 years to a former dancer he describes as "adorable, and the key to my stability"), describes his work as "an amalgam of my first love, classical music, and rock, pop, and Broadway."

"With this show I get to do whatever I want with the songs-pausing, or rushing the tempo-and it's nice to have that freedom," said Menken. "And while there is not that much difference in writing for movies and theater, in the movies you have close-ups, so you can do more with less song, while on the stage the songs are the close-ups."

I asked Menken, whose newest musical, Hercules , will debut this summer at New York's Delacorte Theater in Central Park, that classic question: What music would you bring to a desert island?

He thought for a minute before answering: "Well, if I were by myself, it wouldn't be rock 'n' roll. It would be something by Debussy or Ravel, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony , an album by either Joni Mitchell or Jackson Brown, and, from Broadway, West Side Story ."

A Whole New World of Alan Menken will come to the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr., on March 30 at 7:30 p.m.
For tickets call (312) 341-2300 or visit 
auditoriumtheatre.org.

Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel visits City Winery Chicago

You might think of Idan Raichel, the Israeli singer-songwriter and richly poetic world beat enthusiast who will perform at Chicago City Winery on March 23, as Israel's answer to Yo-Yo-Ma. But he quickly downplays any comparison to that globally-connected cellist who he calls "a genius, who I've never met, but whose artistic choices and development of the Silk Road Ensemble I greatly admire."

Born in Kfar Saba in 1977, Raichel began playing the accordion at age nine, grew attracted to gypsy music and tango, and studied jazz piano in high school. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces army band, he worked as a counselor at a boarding school for immigrants where he met Ethiopian Jews who introduced him to the folk and pop music played in Ethiopian bars and clubs in Tel Aviv. What he heard opened his ears.

Raichel's big breakthrough came in 2003 with the release of the song "Bo'ee" ("Come With Me"), a lush blend of Ethiopian voices that drove his band, The Idan Raichel Project, to the top of the charts in Israel. And his devotion to the sounds of the Jewish diaspora and other cultures resulted in further collaborations with Ethiopian Jews, as well as Arabs, traditional Yemenite vocalists, and artists from around the globe, including such American pop stars as India Arie and Alicia Keys.

Raichel, who sings primarily in Hebrew, as well as English, has been described in The Times of London as "A one-man Middle East peace accord who makes music that is an ambitious celebration of multicultural diversity, and whose ethnic elements are cleverly reworked with modern grooves to create an ambient journey that thrillingly bridges the traditional and the modern."

At the City Winery he will play songs from his new album, And If You Will Come to Me ( Ve'Eem Tavo'ee Elay in Hebrew), although without the guest musicians from Japan, Bulgaria, Cuba, India, and Ethiopia on the recording. He also will return to some earlier work.

"I will be playing solo piano to introduce what is a very personal album, with the emphasis on my role as a storyteller who explores how I see Israel during the past decade, and my own reality as a father," said Raichel whose two young daughters (with his Austrian partner, Damaris Deubel), could be heard in the background as we chatted by phone. "It's about being on the road, and being home."

The concert also is about reaching out to musicians with whom he might collaborate. And he urges all those in Chicago who might be interested to send him a link to their work via Instagram. 

As with Menken, I posed the "music for a desert island" question, and this was his answer: "It would be the Talking Timbuktu album with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure and American guitarist Ry Cooder; Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming album; an audio of someone reading the Bible in Hebrew; and Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words for solo piano."

Idan Raichel will perform at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph, on March 23 at 8 p.m. For tickets call (312) 733-9463 or visit citywinery.com.

'An American Dream' heads to the Harris Theater for music and dance

Born in New York and based in San Francisco, Jack Perla is a composer and pianist with a reputation for "cross-fertilizing" jazz, improvisation, and classical music.

Among his widely produced operas are Shalimar the Clown , based on the novel by Salman Rushdie, Jonah and the Whale , inspired by the Old Testament story, and River of Light , with a score that combines Indian and Western instruments.

This month, An American Dream , Perla's 90-minute, one-act opera, with a libretto by journalist Jessica Murphy Moo, will have its Chicago premiere at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance as part of the Lyric Opera Unlimited project. First produced by the Seattle Opera in 2015, the work, described as "a darkly nuanced morality play" is set in the United States during World War II, when, in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all Japanese-Americans were required to evacuate the West Coast, and approximately 120,000 people were sent to internment camps throughout the country.

Writing in the Seattle Times , Melinda Bargreen observed: "The opera is about the agonizing departure of the Japanese Kobayashi family, who are forced to move out of their home, and about the desperate worry of the German-Jewish war bride who leaves her endangered family behind as she unknowingly displaces the Kobayashis."

The new Lyric production of "An American Dream," directed by Matthew Ozawa, will be performed on March 15 at 7 p.m. and March 17 at 2 p.m. at the Harris Theater, 220 E. Randolph. For tickets call (312) 827-5600 or visit lyricopera.org/AmericanDream.  

  Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times  from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for  WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the  Chicago Tonight  program.

 



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