Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Concert Review: MADONNA’s Rebel Heart Tour 2016

Filed under: Performing Arts,Popular Music — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:15


So by now I’m pretty sure you’ve heard about The Material Girl’s bad reputation earned for her making of her fans wait an extended period of time before she decides to take the stage. And while that may certainly be a worthy criticism (and for my partner, a deal breaker to ever seeing her live again), it shouldn’t distract from her enormous talent and ability to put on one hell of a show. On Wednesday, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing MADONNA’s Rebel Heart Tour, which featured about a 65%/35% split between performances of tunes from her 2015 Grammy-less nominated album Rebel Heart and her classic defining hits at Philips Arena in Atlanta, GA

After a horrific opening by a DJ whose name I cannot nor wish to recall and about an hour break, Madonna finally took the stage around 11:05pm. Her opening number “Iconic,” featuring a guest appearance by former boxer Mike Tyson (yes—that Mike Tyson, whose collaboration has resulted in many women’s rights groups to hurl some shade Madge’s way), was energetic and fantastic! Surrounded by 15 dancers clad in Asian warrior uniforms flailing choreographed fight sequences using large cross-like staffs, Madonna made her way down from the ceiling in a cage, where she was ultimately “freed” by her enormously talented dance squad.

The show included essentially every number from Rebel Heart. Luckily for me, I find most of that album tolerable (unlike Madonna’s last album MDNA, 70% of which I disliked). But fans wishing to hear Madonna perform the older mega-hits from her catalog probably left the concert a little disappointed. But many of those classic and artist defining hits like “Material Girl,” “Like A Virgin,” and “La Isla Bonita” remained in the set list. The highlight of the performance of Madonna”s older material for me was definitely “True Blue.” The True Blue album spawned many of Madonna’s biggest hit singles (“Cherish” and “Express Yourself” for example) and was certainly nostalgic for her longest-term fans to hear. She performed the number bathed in a blue light, surrounded by her dancers. It was also different from the poppy original version, sung to a more acoustical arrangement of the music.

The staging of the show was truly amazing. Screens rose from the stage floor, shifted in the background, and complimented the performances perfectly. Large set pieces, including a three-story staircase descended mid show, providing a great set for Madonna to perform some of the more slower songs from Rebel Heart. Madonna also showed off her talent on the guitar, playing along with her band to several ballads, including the title track from Rebel Heart, which I believe is the strongest song on the album.

While Madonna was certainly the star of the show, her dancers weren’t far behind. Of all the Madonna tours I’ve seen (and I’ve seen about 6 now), I have never seen her dancers play such a prominent role in the staging.  Countless numbers featured amazingly and well-choreographed sequences ranging from steamy HOTT simulated sex acts on several beds lining the stage to acrobatic stunts played out on poles that bent dancers down just feet in-front of audience members on the floor. And while the dancers were absolutely gorgeous (one female dancer even goes topless for most of the show), they are also dripping with talent! And the closing number, punctuated by “Holiday,” one of Madonna’s biggest hits, was so fun and full of energy that the entire arena remembered why their love for Madonna was worth the price of the $800 ticket.

Despite the three-hour delay, the crowd was raucous and enthusiastically supported Madonna throughout the performance of every number. And while Rebel Heart is not my favorite Madonna album, I do believe the music to be much stronger than her previous outing, MDNA. Consequently, I really enjoyed this concert more than her last concert tour, MDNA. This particular performance was also one in which Madonna interacted with the audience more than I’ve ever seen. She spoke candidly and joked about the mistakes she’d made in her life and marriages; and she really looked as if she was enjoying her time on stage and appreciated just how much her fans cherish her.

While her Re-Invention Tour will remain my favorite Madonna concert-going experience, this Rebel Heart experience isn’t far behind. Below, take a front row look at some fan-recorded footage of Madonna performing “Rebel Heart” from her show in Turin in November 2015:

MADONNA: “Rebel Heart” Live From Turn

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Video Clip for Upcoming Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical School of Rock Promises a TON of Fun!

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 01:51


If the video released today to promote the upcoming Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical School of Rock is any indication, this show, based on the beloved 2003 movie of the same name, is going to be a TON of fun! The video features the show number, “You’re in the Band” and is filmed in what is billed by Playbill as an “immersive” 360-degree format. As Playbill’s Andrew Gans points out: “Shot in a real NYC classroom, the video was designed by Lloyd Webber and School of Rock book writer Julian Fellowes to take full advantage of new 360° technology. The video will accompany a new single of “You’re in the Band,” produced by Lloyd Webber and music producer Rob Cavallo, to be released by Warner Bros. Records.” Take a look at the video below. School of Rock officially opens December 6th at the Winter Garden Theatre. Previews begin November 9th.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Jason Robert Brown & Bridges’ Director Boards KING KONG: The Musical

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:19


Jason Robert Brown, the two-time Tony-Award winning composer of such amazingly beautiful scores as The Bridges of Madison County and Parade has been brought on-board to overhaul the score of the Broadway-bound KING KONG: The Musical. Kong originally premiered in June of 2013 at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, the same theater where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s re-worked Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, enjoyed a healthy run back in 2011. The Australian production of KING KONG  was scored by composer and arranger Marius de Vries, whose credits include the soundtracks for Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. He created a score that featured revamped versions of 1930s Broadway classics like “Get Happy,” “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” as well as new and existing songs from a mix of contemporary artists: Robert Del Naja from Massive Attack, Sarah McLachlan, Justice, Guy Garvey from Elbow and The Avalanches. Brown will partner with de Vries in revamping the score for NY. In addition to Brown, Bridges director Marsha Normon has been tapped to write the book and lyrics. No timeline for the show has been set. Watch highlights from the Australia production below:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Theater Review: AIDA in Concert

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 01:20


An absolutely gorgeous and accomplished production of the Disney pop-rock musical AIDA is taking the stage at the Walt Disney Theater at the Doctor Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Encore! Productions, the team behind this mounting of the show, has really hit one out of the park! Now, to be honest, I might be a little biased here because I truly believe that AIDA is Disney’s ultimate stage show. With screen-to-stage adaptations of movies like The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Newsies, and Aladdin, Disney Theatricals is a major force in modern musical theater. AIDA, which is set to an amazing score by Elton John and Tim Rice, is not based on a Disney movie. It is also much more adult-themed than Disney’s other theatrical outings. That could be a reason why the show, which although enjoyed a long and healthy Broadway run, has been usurped by most of Disney’s other musicals.

The backdrop of AIDA‘s story centers on the war raging between Egypt and the small African nation of Nubia. Using Nubia’s captured people as slaves, Egypt is slowly building an empire under the command of powerful military leader Radames, who is betrothed to Princess Amneris. On his latest mission, Radames captured one female prisoner who is definitely unlike the rest. Unbeknownst to him, this prisoner is Nubia’s Princess, Aida. Aida serves as a mirror to help Radames reflect on his future; and in the course of their growing relationship, they fall in love under increasingly tumultuous circumstances.

This production of the show is billed as AIDA: In Concert. And while the traditional aspects of a concert production of a musical remain in place (there is a large and full orchestra providing the music and a full choir to lend powerful backing vocals throughout the show), there is so much more here. The cast is fully costumed, there are minor yet impressive sets and well-thought aspects of staging, and the entire show is acted out rather than script-read. The overall effect is truly phenomenal.  The orchestrations are rich and lush, the backing choir is perfectly utilized, and all of the performers deliver truly knock-out performances. The main leads– Hannah Berry Matthews (Amneris), Natale Pirrotta (Radames), and UCF Alum Jerusha Cavazos (Aida) would all fit as perfect leads to any musical on Broadway.

And the more minor roles– played by Daniel Rye (Mereb) and Andrew Meidenbaurer (Zoser) are equally as impressive. This production of AIDA is truly spectacular! It could be translated from the stage at Doctor Phillips to NYC’s famed Lincoln Center and actually eclipse the quality of their recent concert version productions of TITANICRagtime, and Parade! The quality is just that good and comes at the tail-end of Orlando’s Broadway season. Interestingly, the quality of AIDA surpasses all of the shows that made its way to Orlando as part of this year’s series. It’s surprising the show will only stay in Orlando for just two days. Perhaps even more shocking, tickets for tomorrow’s performance remain available and can be purchased here: http://www.drphillipscenter.org/shows-and-events/Shows-Events/Theater/20791-encore-cast-performing-arts-aida.stml. GO SEE AIDA! You’ll be grateful you did!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Intimate Production of TITANIC Ends Toronto Run

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 03:10


The intimate and scaled-down chamber version of the Tony-Award winning musical TITANIC, ends its run at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto, Canada on Sunday. The show was well-received by critics and will embark on a national US tour in 2016. My review of the phenomenal production can be found here: Theater Review: TITANIC: The Musical, Toronto. Playbill’s  Adam Hetrick reports on the closing of TITANIC:

An intimate revival of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone‘s Tony Award-winning musical Titanic, which was first seen in an acclaimed London staging, ends its Toronto run June 21 at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

U.K. director Thom Southerland directs the revival that is inspired by an acclaimed chamber production of Titanic that played London’s Southwark Playhouse in 2013. Toronto previews began May 19.

The revival had at one point been announced for Broadway following its Toronto bow, but the production was postponed. A future Broadway life for the production has not been announced; however, a national tour will commence during the 2015-16 season. A Los Angeles touring engagement was revealed for 2016.

The musical that tells the story of the passengers of the doomed luxury liner has a Tony-winning score by Yeston (Grand Hotel, Nine) and a Tony-winning book by the late Stone (The Will Rogers Follies, 1776). It opened on Broadway April 23, 1997.

Opera tenor Ben Heppner starred as Isidor Straus, the co-owner of Macy’s department store. His character performs the dramatic Act Two duet “Still.” Heppner also inhabits three other roles in the chamber production.

The cast also included Phillip Arran, Matt Beveridge, Greg Castiglioni, Scarlett Courtney, Matthew Crowe, Gary Davis, Jonathan David Dudley, Grace Eccle, Scott Garnham, Celia Graham, Simon Green, Chris Holland, James Hume, Alex Lodge, Claire Marlowe, Shane McDaid, Nadim Naaman, Beth Peach-Robinson, Philip Rham, Victoria Serra, Rachel Spurrell, Judith Street, Samuel J. Weir and Jack Wilcox.


Titanic won 1997 Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical (Stone), Best Musical, Best Orchestrations (Jonathan Tunick), Best Score (Yeston) and Best Scenic Design (Stewart Laing).

Below, watch some video highlights from the show, courtesy of playbill.com:


Friday, May 22, 2015

Theater Review: TITANIC: The Musical, Toronto

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 03:29


Sometimes, perhaps rarer than usual, theater grabs a hold of you and makes a truly indelible impression. For me, that occurrence came with the original 1997 Broadway production of TITANIC. It was the first show I had ever seen on the Great White Way; and it has forever lived in my heart as one of my absolute most favorite life experiences The show, which many believed was doomed from the start (after all, who would want to watch a musical about the famed ocean liner that’s fate is well, pretty well darned known?), became a surprise hit. Winning 5 Tony Awards, TITANIC proved it was the Unsinkable Molly Brown, taking home statues for Best Orchestrations, Best Score, Best Scenic Design, Best Book, and the coveted prize for Best Musical. The show ran for almost two years at the Lunt Fontanne Theater. And it was a juggernaut for actors who would go on to become major Broadway players. Victoria Clark, Michael Cerveris, and Brian D’Arcy James all had main roles.

But as the popularity of TITANIC the film started to wind down, the musical shuttered on March 21, 1999. However, the show has been considered by many to be a major contribution to the repertoire of American musical theater; and numerous reincarnations of the show have lived on–including a national tour, productions across the globe, and most recently at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, Canada. The Toronto production, which opened May 19th, is based on an acclaimed chamber version of the show which ran in London’s Off-West End Southwark Playhouse in 2013. That show was so well received, there were plans to run it in Toronto in 2014 and bring it back to Broadway in 2015. Unfortunately, producers were unable to find a house for the show; and plans were placed on pause.

To say that TITANIC lives alive and well in its new Canadian production fails to give it justice. This production, which stars many of the same actors who played in London’s chamber version of the show back in 2013, succeeds on every level. The ensemble is so absolutely incredible, it’s difficult to put into words just how truly remarkable they are. Not one actor, not even the famous opera tenor Ben Heppner (Isidor Strauss), who headlines the show, outshines another. To say that the show succeeds based on the talent of its cast is an understatement. It has been quite some time since I’ve seen a show that had such a strong ensemble that it makes it difficult to laud individual performers. But this production of TITANIC is that show!

Not only are the actors truly wonderful, but the sets and costume design are both superior. David Woodhead had a lot to live up to in the original Tony-Award winning design of Stewart Laing, who won the Tony for a set that did the unthinkable–SANK! But he succeeds. No–the set doesn’t sink during the second act (although it does do something similar in the exciting finale); but the set, mainly consisting of multi-level exterior and interior settings of the ship, brings an intimacy of the show that has never been seen before. The cast seems to almost hover into the audience, creating the sense of an experience rather than just a straight-forward piece of theater. Just as commendable as the actors and sets, Maury Yeston’s score soars!

When I first read the program, I was shocked and saddened to see that the orchestra only consisted of 6 musicians. But once the show began, the richness of that amazing score shattered the walls of the Princess of Wales Theatre! Ian Weinberger (orchestrations), Mark Aspinall (musical direction), and Gareth Owen (sound design) demonstrate that although a large and grand orchestra is traditionally considered optimal, a smaller set of musicians playing a well-crafted version of the score can make just as strong an impact. And while I missed the presence of woodwinds and brass, the arrangement of heavy strings covering the major solos contributed heavily to the more nautical feel of the show.

There are also some very smart, subtle, and intelligent changes to the book that bolster the quality and flow of the musical considerably. Some lines, delivered by different characters in this production compared to the original, make more sense. The final scene of the original show, which I truly believe was the best final scene ever written for the theater, is actually outdone here! It has been augmented to include a homage to those who died on the ship; but the breathtaking reunion of the living and the dead remains intact. But thanks to the changes made, the impact is even greater in this revival.

This production of TITANIC truly deserves a life on Broadway. I am really hoping that somehow, that happens! The quality of what is on-stage in Toronto right now is second to nothing currently running in NYC. And while Broadway is ever-increasingly cutthroat and ever so reliant on the rehashing of cartoon movies and movie musicals, TITANIC could be a real welcomed breath of fresh air. Transferring this show to Broadway is something that needs to happen. Just as Rex Reed rightfully identified the original production as a “genuine addition to the American Musical Theater,” this revival will take its place among the recent revivals like Cabaret and the short-lived Side Show that just may outdo their predecessors. TITANIC plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre through June 21st. For tickets, visit the show’s official Web site @: http://www.mirvish.com/shows/titanicthemusical.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sail On! Sail On! Great Ship… TITANIC!

Filed under: Performing Arts,Popular Culture — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:36


103 years ago today, TITANIC, the ship of dreams, struck an iceberg and sunk to the icy depths of the North Atlantic. Over 1,500 souls were lost when TITANIC sank. The sheer number of deaths made it one of the most deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in modern history. And the story of the tragedy has been told through just about every medium of entertainment imaginable. Perhaps one of the most unique means by which the story of TITANIC has ever been conveyed came in 1997, when a musical based on the doomed ship’s maiden voyage opened on Broadway.

What most would consider to be an event incapable of being recreated to music and acted out on a stage instead went on to become a major award-winning hit show that ran for close to 3 years. TITANIC: A New Musical swept the Tony Awards, taking home the coveted prize for Best Musical in addition to four other awards for Best Book, Best Orchestrations, Best Scenic Design, and Best Original Score. The show has been produced internationally countless times; and this Summer, it will play a pre-Broadway revival at the Princess Wales Theater in Toronto, Canada. Below, watch the opening (and finale) of the breath-taking concert version staged at Lincoln Center in 2013. And Sail On… Sail On… Great Ship… TITANIC!

Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 Blackwell San Jose Oscar Party is Here!

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:15
Untitled1 It’s that time of year again! It’s time for the 2015 Annual Blackwell San Jose Oscar Party! Please see your email Inbox or Official Facebook Event Invite for your official invitation to the PARTY OF THE YEAR! Walk the red carpet with your closest friends as we celebrate Hollywood’s big night on Sunday, February 22nd from 7:00pm until the ceremonies have concluded! We look-forward to seeing you all for an AMAZINGLY FUN TIME!!!
Chris and Ricardo

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Theater Reviews: Les Miserables and Aladdin

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 01:43

I had the opportunity to venture to NYC this past weekend with my partner to celebrate our 5-year anniversary. We were able to catch the revival of Les Miserables, Aladdin, Disney’s newest addition to Broadway, and the incredible current production of Cabaret at Studio 54. My reviews of Les Miz and Aladdin appear below. Click here to read my original review of CabaretTheater Review: Cabaret.

Les Miserables

LES MIS 2014 key art

There’s a lot to like in the new revival of Les Miserables which opened March 23rd at the iconic Imperial Theater on Broadway. There are also some minor annoyances which provide only a little not to like. Overall, however, the show is as spine-chilling and inspirational as ever. One of the most noticeable differences in this production of Les Miz is its more grand production scope than seen previously. The revival trades in the traditional rotating stage table for much more elaborate sets. While prior productions of the show relied much more on dark lighting to essentially create mood in the place of any real noteworthy set designs, that isn’t the case here. The sets are large and seem much more what would be seen in a mid-budget Broadway production. While I was originally concerned that the larger sets and lack of rotating table would distract from the minimalistic tone that made many fans love the show, I quickly found myself having the opposite emotion. The scenes are greatly enhanced and the overall quality of the production shines when given the opportunity to do so on a larger scale. The costumes seem to be a little more detailed in the revival as well; and the lighting, while maintaing the show’s overall darkened environment, seems to be appropriately brighter in certain scenes (“Master of the House,” for example).

The cast has some truly shining stars; but unfortunately, miscasting also is a concern. As Valjean, Ramin Karimloo (The Phantom in the West End Production of Love Never Dies) is great. His voice is so different and fantastic that he is able to bring a superb personal quality to the role that allows him to interpret the character uniquely on his own. It isn’t a surprise that he was nominated for the Tony Award for his performance.  Tony Nominee Keala Settle (Madame Thenadier) steals essentially every scene she is in as well; her hilarious interpretation of the oversized yet lovable con-artist brings the comedic relief the show is at times desperate for given its incredibly heavy story. Cassie Levy (the original Molly from the West End and Broadway productions of GHOST) hits the role of Fantine out of the park; her solo “I Dreamed a Dream” was heart wrenchingly convincing. And while these actors bring this production of the show to new heights, there are some distractors who unfortunately bring it down. Tony Award winner Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon) is horrifically miscast as Eponine. Her soft and almost whiny voice becomes an obvious flaw in “On My Own;” and the alteration of her race when the older version of her character is revealed comes off as strange and unnecessary. Another poorly cast actor is Kyle Scatliffe as Enjolras. Unfortunately, he has a strong lisp that overpowers his singing ability and I found myself cringing in almost every scene in which he was featured. With the amazing and competitively cutthroat talent on Broadway, I seriously question just how he was able to be cast in the show in the first place.

But even with these two awkward casting choices, Les Miz has enough shining and soaring moments that make these sore thumb stick-out performances easily forgotten. The orchestrations are absolutely brilliant; and the sound design in the theater is so well done that there are times when Claude-Michael Schoenberg’s classic score sounds as if it’s being performed by a 100-piece orchestra. The book, based on Victor Hugo’s classic tale of forgiveness and redemption set in the backdrop of an emerging French Revolution, is unaltered in the revival. This is a wise choice since the original production of Les Miz remains one of the most beloved musicals of all time. And while this production may not live in the hearts of theatergoers quite as long, it certainly has enough to it to leave quite the positive impression.



With such Broadway mega-hits like The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast, and Newsies in their massively profitable portfolio, it was just a matter of time before Disney turned their iconic cartoon-movie Aladdin into their next Broadway jewel. And unfortunately, while the costumes are adorned with enough shimmering rubies to put a disco ball to shame, the show itself quickly tarnishes. The one standout of the production is Tony winner James Monroe-Igleheart (MEMPHIS), who brings the story’s energetic and hilarious genie literally to life. However, he is immersed in such a sea of mediocrity around him that he practically upstages his fellow performers. I don’t fault him for that. Besides Jonathan Freeman’s standout performance as Jafaar, none of the other actors in the show are even remotely memorable. Sure, Adam Jacobs is ridiculously nice to look at. And his voice is certainly fine. But the same cannot be said of Jasmine’s Courtney Reed, who’s flat and unimpressive vocals leave much to be desired. The sets are also nice to look at (mostly); but they are nothing special.

But for all the shortcomings the performances and sets of Aladdin provide, the true atrocity of the show lies in its book. The story, by Chad Beguelin (Elf, The Wedding Singer) provides some promise in Act I, which is fun and lighthearted. But Act II quickly decimates any spark of enjoyment from the show. Instead of using Act I as a springboard to conclude the story and emphasize its moral message, Act II relies on childish humor and ridiculous dialogue that rapidly deteriorates the storyline, making it beyond silly, trite and meaningless. Even the orchestrations by the Disney music God Alan Menken come off as bad. “A Whole New World,” one of my all-time favorite Disney musical numbers, is supported by unbelievably weak instrumentation; and the unnecessarily repetitive lyrics sung by the two leads that give the impression they’re “going through the motions” by the time the song is performed, renders it a miserable failure. Countless times, my partner and I glanced at one another, rolled our eyes, and let out a deep sigh of disappointment in the ever-so-worsening show. I’ve seen countless shows over the years on the Great White Way. So very few I would describe as being completely “disposable” junk. Unfortunately, Aladdin easily earns that unflattering label.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Producer for Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark Eyeing Nationwide Arena Tour

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:45


In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark producer Michael Cohl stated that he plans to tour the $75 million Broadway musical to arenas across the U.S.  Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which ended its Broadway run Jan. 4, was previously announced for a Las Vegas sit-down engagement following its three-year New York run. Cohl states that Las Vegas is no longer the goal, and that the show will instead embark on an arena tour in late 2015 or winter 2016 in order to reach larger audiences. “I think Spider-Man is a pop culture rock show that was meant to be in arenas,” Cohl said.

Playbill‘s Adam Hetrick contributed to this BLOGBOARD post.


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