Fab Four’s northern songs hit the North Side

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Rick Ko­gan

The first time I saw the Bea­tles, on a Septem­ber night in 1964 at the In­ter­na­tional Amp­ithe­ater, I could not hear the Bea­tles.

Even though we — my 12-yearold self, younger brother, our fa­ther and our 13-year-old friend/ neigh­bor Mary Bauler — were three rows from the stage, the scream­ing and frenzy and vo­cal hys­te­ria of those in the au­di­ence was all that we could hear.

Still, it was fun and ob­vi­ously mem­o­rable. But sadly, I never saw the Bea­tles to­gether in per­son again. I fi­nally did hear them of course, again and again and again, so fre­quently that, like many with whom I share a gen­er­a­tion, they are a ma­jor part of the sound­track of my life.

The last time I heard the Bea­tles was a cou­ple of weeks ago when pi­anist/vo­cal­ist Beckie Men­zie and singer Tom Michael played for me a cou­ple of sam­ples of what they would be per­form­ing in their am­bi­tious new show, “Re-Imag­ine The Bea­tles,” Satur­days dur­ing April at Daven­port’s Cabaret, 1383 N. Mil­wau­kee Ave. (dav­en­port­spi­ano­bar.com).

This pair has been col­lab­o­rat­ing for 20 years, cre­at­ing themed shows tack­ling all man­ner of mu­sic, com­posers and per­form­ers. One of my fa­vorites was 2017’s “The Highs and Lows of Mu­si­cal Duos,” ex­plor­ing the re­la­tion­ships of such mu­si­cal pairs as Si­mon & Gar­funkel, Steve Lawrence and Ey­die Gorme, The Car­pen­ters, Fred and Adele As­taire.

But they are far from some by-the-num­bers cover band. They dig deep to in­ter­pret songs and pep­per their per­for­mances with sto­ries. Their work is in­no­va­tive and fresh.

Says Men­zie: “I do like risk. I don’t like per­form­ers who phone it in. I re­ally have a dis­dain for that, though I see how easy it can

be to do. But I will never phone it in.”

Says Michael: “We have been cre­at­ing and re­hears­ing this show since sum­mer of 2018.”

Their show fea­tures more the 20 Bea­tles’ songs, among them “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yes­ter­day,” “Come To­gether,” “The Fool on the Hill,” “Black­bird” and more.

“Ev­ery year we create a new show, it gets to a cer­tain point that the ar­range­ments and con­cept for the show can’t grow much more in the re­hearsal process,” says Michael. “The rest has to hap­pen in front of an au­di­ence.”

And so, how did it go on open­ing night?

“Very well,” said Michael. “We were sold out and had a ter­rific and en­thu­si­as­tic crowd and au­di­ences will al­ways let you know, for bet­ter and for worse, what works and what doesn’t. One com­ment I heard over and over again on open­ing night was that as much as peo­ple loved hear­ing th­ese songs that they have heard for­ever, they felt like they were hear­ing the lyrics in an en­tirely new way. That was won­der­ful feed­back for us, be­cause that was cer­tainly one of our main goals.”

Men­zie echoes that, say­ing, “We had a blast. The crowd was so re­cep­tive. This was the first time we per­formed this show for an au­di­ence, after work­ing on it for a year. The thing we heard re­peat­edly from au­di­ence mem­bers was how fresh our re-imag­in­ings were and how it made them lis­ten even more in­tently to the lyrics. The crowd was a mix of peo­ple who were our fans and help­ing us cel­e­brate our 20 years to­gether, but also a lot of peo­ple for whom the Bea­tles were part of their own mu­si­cal lives.”

Men­zie and Michael first met 30 years ago. He had been a mem­ber of that peppy, tour­ing singing group Up With Peo­ple (ac­tor Glenn Close was also a mem­ber) un­til one late 1980s night when he got up at an open mic at the by­gone lo­cal night club and sang what he calls “the only two ap­pro­pri­ate songs I knew.”

He sang “God Bless the Child” and “All of Me” and that, along with Michael’s ebul­lient per­son­al­ity, suf­fi­ciently im­pressed the club’s owner that Michael was asked to re­turn an­other night as host. The $20 he re­ceived for that chore was, he says, “Is the first $20 I ever made as a solo per­former.” He still has that bill, tucked in­side a scrap­book.

More mean­ing­fully on that night, he was ac­com­pa­nied on pi­ano by Men­zie. They hit it off and worked to­gether a bit, with her pro­vid­ing ar­range­ments, ac­com­pa­ni­ment and the oc­ca­sional backup vo­cals, un­til be­gin­ning their deep col­lab­o­ra­tion two decades ago.

Men­zie, who is originally from North­east In­di­ana, worked in the­ater there be­fore mov­ing here and be­com­ing a fix­ture on the city’s mu­si­cal scene. When you talk to peo­ple in the mu­si­cal and cabaret com­mu­ni­ties about her, the word “beloved” is fre­quently heard. My col­league Howard Re­ich has writ­ten, “Spirit in­vades Men­zie’s art, which pairs un­com­monly sen­si­tive vo­cal lines with a sweep­ing, sump­tu­ous ap­proach to the key­board.”

She (beck­iemen­zie .com) and Michael (tom michael.net) have won all man­ner of praise and awards and of­ten take their shows on the na­tional road. To­gether and solo, they have per­formed in such spots as Carnegie Hall and Lin­coln Cen­ter. Con­tent­edly in per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with other peo­ple, they are quite happy in what they call their “mu­si­cal mar­riage.”

But wait, there’s more. For the past 10 years, Men­zie has col­lab­o­rated with Denise McGowan Tracy on an adventure called Pet­terino’s Mon­day Night Live and this Mon­day they will cel­e­brate their 500th show.

They started in 2007, “The idea be­ing to bring back the days when the city was filled with great night­clubs filled with great singers,” says McGowan, a pro­ducer, per­former and for some lively years the man­ager/em­cee of by­gone By­field’s night club. “I pitched the idea to (Pet­terino’s owner) Richard Mel­man and he loved it.”

And so it goes, ev­ery Mon­day night at around 7:30 p.m. and stretch­ing past 10 p.m. There is no cover charge, but a $19.95 per per­son food and bev­er­age min­i­mum, an easy enough goal to reach. The singers are of vary­ing ta­lent and pres­ence but all share a pas­sion to per­form. Of, course there are in­her­ent sur­prises and risks in this im­promptu for­mat but most per­form­ers are solid and al­most al­ways in­clude pros from the lo­cal club scene and cast mem­bers from theaters and vis­it­ing shows such as “Hamil­ton” and “Dear Evan Han­son.”

“This is a re­mark­able mile­stone when you con­sider that we create a new show ev­ery Mon­day night,” says McGowan. “De­spite the vari­ables, the con­stants are me at the mic and Beckie at the pi­ano. And, with Beckie at the pi­ano, there is never a worry.”

A spe­cial cake will be served Mon­day night and Tom Michael will be in the au­di­ence. He might sing.

What? Maybe a Bea­tles tune. Sing along if you like. I know you’ll know the words.

YOUNGRAE KIM/FOR THE CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Becky Men­zie plays the pi­ano dur­ing a per­for­mance of “Re-Imag­ine the Bea­tles” with Tom Michael at Daven­port’s Pi­ano Bar in Wicker Park.

YOUNGRAE KIM/FOR THE CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Tom Michael in­ter­act with the au­di­ence dur­ing an April 6 per­for­mance with Becky Men­zie at Daven­port’s Pi­ano Bar in Chicago. The duo has worked to­gether for 20 years.

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