MIDLAKE, THE URBAN LOUNGE, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 9 p.m., $15
It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since Texas crew Midlake released The Trials of Van Occupanther, an expansive set of lush folk-rock than earned them a lot of national attention. It was certainly the first I had heard of them, and the buzz drew me to a Salt Lake City tour stop from the band. From what I can recall, they sounded fine, but were a rather staid group on stage. 2010 album The Courage of Others was as appealing as its predecessor, but the band’s new release, Antiphon, might take long-time fans of the band a little getting used to. Gone from the band since their last release is singer and primary songwriter Tim Smith, who quit about a year ago as the band worked on its fourth album. Guitarist and former backup vocalist Eric Pulido is now front and center, and Midlake added a couple of guys from their expanded touring lineup for Antiphon, and the resulting songs will still ring familiar for fans of the older albums, but there’s no denying the change in vocalists is a big one to get used to. Fellow Texan Sarah Jaffe opens the show, and is well worth your getting there in time for her set.
THE LOWER LIGHTS, SALT LAKE MASONIC TEMPLE, Monday-Tuesday, Dec. 9-10 and Thursday-Friday, Dec. 12-13, 7:30 p.m., $12
The Lower Lights are a treat to hear perform any time the unwieldy collective manages to gather enough of its members to do a show, but these annual Christmas shows are something special. It’s impossible to be a cynic–even amid the typical holiday mayhem that’s more about commerce than the spirit of the season–when you witness the joy on stage and in the audience at these gigs. The setting inside the Masonic Temple certainly adds to the vibe, but hearing the voices of some of the best singers in the state harmonize through a variety of carols and gospel-tinged country is the real gift. The group has a new album of seasonal fare, The Lower Light Sing Noel, that I can definitely recommend–particularly its delving into less-familiar Christmas songs, and let’s all hope they throw in some Carter Family or Hank Williams. Santa would like that.
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical walking into opening night of Pioneer Theatre Company’s Elf the Musical, at least for for this reviewer.
Adaptations of popular Hollywood films later taken to the stage have been some of my least favorite theater experiences–hello The Wedding Singer–and when Pioneer brought the musical version of another holiday classic to life a couple years back with A Christmas Story, I absolutely abhorred the adaptation.
I’m happy to report all that mental baggage was quickly stashed away as the colorful, energetic take on Will Ferrell’s holiday favorite unfolded on the Pioneer stage Friday night. Elf the Musical is ideal holiday family fare, hewing pretty closely to the movie’s plot while adding winning original songs and ornate choreography that turned the stage into a festive feast of colors and lights.
At the center of all the action, of course, is Buddy the Elf, played with a winning naivete by Quinn Vanantwerp. Buddy’s journey from the North Pole to find his human family in New York City is familiar from the film, but Vanantwerp manages to infuse Buddy with a fresh sense of awe and wonder as he navigates the bustling streets of the city, forges a relationship with his father Walter (Martin Vidnovic) and woos his Macy’s coworker Jovie (Libby Servais).
The proceedings are appropriately schmaltzy, but even when the show threatens to get a little too cute, the script delivers a winking barb that lets the audience know the writers are totally aware of treading the line between sentimental and saccharine.
The set design is spectacular, as we’ve come to expect from Pioneer, and the songs and score fuel infuse everything with an appropriately jolly soundtrack. Put all the elements together, and Elf the Musical is a worthy addition to the theater canon we’ll be seeing at the holidays for years to come.
Elf the Musical runs at Pioneer through December 28, running Mondays through Saturdays (except for Christmas day). Visit the Pioneer website for showtimes and ticket information.
The coolest part of watching Plan-B Theatre Company’s near-annual Radio Hour productions in person is seeing the physical performances of the voice actors as they contort their bodies and faces to bring the script to life–actions the listeners tuning in to the live broadcast on KUER don’t get to witness.
That remained true for this year’s edition, Fairyana, with fine and funny performances from Jay Perry, Teresa Sanderson and Jason Tatom, together delivering a wicked, hilarious script from Eric Samuelsen about the writers of a children’s show trying to come up with a truly special Christmas episode–at any cost.
All three actors are veterans of the Radio Hour series, and bring remarkable vocal dexterity to their roles. Perry’s Stan goes from befuddled lackey to confident loudmouth by hour’s end. Sanderson, so remarkable in Plan-B’s Eric(a) last season, deftly handles the voice of grizzled writer Viv, as well as the children show’s adult star, Amber. And Tatom is excellent as Max, the show’s producer, who’s narration gives the show a noir vibe that just adds to the laughs as the characters resort to increasingly over the top plans to come up with a script acceptable to Amber.
I won’t spoil the plot much here, since the curious can listen to a rebroadcast of the show Wednesday at 11 a.m. during RadioWest’s normal slot, or online at KUER.org through the month. Suffice to say, the absurd lengths Max goes to get a script out of Viv and Stan make for non-stop laughs during the hour. During the “season of Eric” that Plan-B is undertaking, producing a season of scripts penned by Samuelsen, it was fun to hear him deliver comedic dialogue with plenty of dark twists and witty one-liners.
The production includes original music composed and performed by David Evanoff, and sound effects from foley artist Michael Johnson that greatly add to the atmosphere. Take the time to give Fairyana a listen–it might not exactly put you in the holiday spirit, but it’s a hour of laughs that can only help your mood during the busy Christmas season.
Radio Hour Episode 8: Fairyana will rebroadcast on KUER 90.1 FM Wednesday at 11 a.m., and will be available on KUER.org through the holiday season. (Photo by Rick Pollock)
GREEN DAY’S AMERICAN IDIOT, KINGSBURY HALL, Tuesday, Dec. 3-Thursday, Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m., $42/$52/$64.50/$15 students
When pop-punk trio Green Day released their American Idiot album in 2004, it marked an ambitious release from a band that many viewed on the downside of its career. Instead, the rock opera about childhood friends’ respective paths in post-9/11 America proved a creative and commercial high point for rock music in the ’00s, as well as a rebirth of sorts for the trio of Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt. The album sold millions, and the story of St. Jimmy and his friends earned Green Day millions in sales and the ability to push the concept even further on their 2009 follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown. In a move that one could argue solidifies the band’s punk street-cred–or solidify one’s view of the band as sell-outs, depending on your perspective–Armstrong and Co. adapted the American Idiot story into a brash, bombastic Broadway musical that gained accolades for its energy and atypical approach to musical theater. I saw this touring production about a week ago, and I can vouch for its creative choreography and visual appeal. And as a fan of Green Day’s source material, I could enjoy the fact that the show is short on dialogue and told primarily through the familiar lyrics of the band’s songs. Anyone unfamiliar with the music or the album’s story lines, though, might find themselves struggling to keep up with the various characters as they strain to catch the lyrics coming through the rock and roll soundtrack.
It seemed like half of Salt Lake City decided to take in Built to Spill’s headlining show at The Urban Lounge on Thanksgiving eve, and I’d guess they were thankful they did.
Doug Martsch and the four guys in his band delivered a thrilling set on the final night of their fall tour, a show full of unexpected covers, a few super-sized guitar jams and some of the best songs the band’s back catalog has to offer. The audience was clearly thrilled with the proceedings, and one could even spy an occasional smile on Martsch’s face through his scruffy beard as the gig moved along.
Built to Spill opened with two songs from their You in Reverse album, starting with the sprawling “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” a lengthy tune they often close shows with, and following up with the gorgeous “Liar.” “Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else),” “Living Zoo” and “Reasons” led into a monstrous take on “Center of the Universe,” one of Martsch’s most undeniably poppy gems.
That burst of songs led to the first surprise of the night, a note-perfect cover of Pavement’s “Here.” Martsch proved the ideal voice to take on the delicate ballad, and it made for a nice segue to the bombastic tune “The Plan.”
Guitarist and backup singer Brett Netson took over lead vocals after a run through “Mess with Time,” taking on what the Internet reports was a cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Abba Zaba.” I’m no Beefheart authority, so I’ll assume that’s right–and add that Netson added a little Donny and Marie scatting to the end of the tune before Martsch took the reins again.
The band closed out the set with a run through “Big Dipper,” “Velvet Waltz” and “Carry the Zero” before having members of the opening bands Slam Dunk and Genders join the band on stage for some cowbell assistance on encore covers like Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” The Clash’s “Train in Vain” and The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” It was a joyful way to end the show, and the musicianship on stage made for incredible takes on those old classics.
We get spoiled with the number of Built to Spill shows that happen in SLC, thanks to the band’s Boise home base, but this Thanksgiving eve show in 2013 will certainly be remembered among fans as one of the best. That’s how I’ll remember it.
PLAN-B THEATRE COMPANY’S RADIO HOUR: FAIRYANA, ROSE WAGNER PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 7 p.m., $20/$10 students
In the past few years that I’ve regularly been seeing theater productions in and around Salt Lake City, the almost-annual Radio Hour productions jointly offered by Plan-B Theatre Company and KUER’s RadioWest have become some of my favorites. Past editions have included adaptations of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, fairy tales and scary stories, and no matter the subject matter, watching the voice actors, live musicians and foley artists bring the radio plays to life has always been a treat. I expect no different this year as the show moves to the Christmas season and is part of Plan-B’s “Season of Eric”–the year-long series dedicated to the craft of playwright Eric Samuelsen. For Fairyana, Samuelsen has penned a holiday show about a holiday show, with the writers of a children’s TV show possessed by their own fictional characters. It’s part-spoof of saccharine holiday entertainment, and part-noir detective story, and should make for a fine time. I encourage you to get tickets to the live production on Tuesday night at the Rose Wagner, but if you can’t make it, be sure to tune in to the live radio broadcast on KUER 90.1 FM .