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