The All New Original Tribute to the Blues Brothers

Chicago Auditorium Theatre Daniel Fletcher and Brad Henshaw as Elwood and Jake BluesThe All New Original Tribute to the Blues Brothers

Directed by Brad Henshaw

Musical Director Steve Parry

Produced by EBJ Entertainment

At the Auditorium Theatre

How come nothing that I try to do ever comes out right?

We all know The Blues Brothers, the classic cult hit from 1980 with SNL members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, a film that is dear to many people’s hearts, especially, perhaps, here in Chicago, where the film was set.  So tampering with something like this, well, it’s sort of like trying to make a Broadway musical out of Pulp Fiction, or remake Casablanca: Bogart and Bergman defined those roles such that anyone else playing them would just be wrong. The Blues Brothers is sacred, in a way – especially because of the tragedy surrounding Belushi’s death just two years later.  So, you have to be careful with something like this.

Auditorium Theatre chicagoWhich they were, in a way.  This show pays special attention to detail; the actors playing “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues were careful about their characters’ mannerisms: Jake with his head tilted slightly to the side, Elwood always very stiff and slightly awkward.  And, along with the backup singers (called “The Bluettes”) and the band, these people work very hard to entertain.  And they’re good, too: they can all sing, dance, act, play unimpeachably.  The problem with this show is not the people on stage.

It is the concept.  To take something like The Blues Brothers and make an evening review about it, including campy references to the movie, like having the police “looking” for the Brothers, is something that will make money but offend taste – besides which, it’s already been done.  By Aykroyd and Belushi themselves, who took The Blues Brothers on tour with an outstanding band in 1978.  A concert which this show largely copies, along with the movie and a few SNL skits.  For instance, at one point “Jake” (played by Brad Henshaw) breaks into Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which John Belushi did in the first season of Saturday Night Live – and worlds better, it seems frivolous to add.  That was a truly outstanding performance; Henshaw was a poor impersonation of Belushi doing Cocker.  He simply didn’t – perhaps couldn’t, in his suit – go far enough.

Auditorium Theatre ChicagoThere were other problems.  Bassist Steve Parry first entered in a very tacky Chicago sports get-up, with a jersey, a baseball cap, bandana, sunglasses, and baggy jeans.  It absolutely didn’t fit the vibe of the classy blues act that The Blues Brothers were all about.  When Henshaw and Daniel Fletcher (as “Elwood”) stepped back and let one of the Bluettes sing lead, their harmonies overpowered everyone else.  There were two incredibly tacky scenes, when they lowered a chicken-wire “cage” between the cast and the audience during the country-western numbers (an homage, but one that didn’t work, to the movie), and when they jumped onto a trampoline and posed.  Yikes.

Chicago Auditorium TheatreI also have to single out the version of Randy Newman’s “Guilty” they did, a wonderful and heart wrenching track off of his album Good Old Boys. First, the arrangement was simply not good.  It was jazzier than Newman’s, which is fine, but it was too frilly, light, and airy for such a somber song.  And Henshaw just didn’t deliver the emotionally crushing lines with sufficient weight.  Not to mention holding up a bottle of Jack while singing “it takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I’m somebody else.”  We get it.  We don’t need the visual.  Especially since it’s the lynchpin of the song.  So, that really frustrated me, being a very big Randy Newman fan myself.

The band was also nothing special.  They were all good, don’t get me wrong; but nothing extraordinary.  I saw a tighter group the previous night, with Theo Katzman & (((LOVEMASSIVE))).  That said, I imagine it would be hard to be tight when you’re all in different corners of the stage.  Still, I was nonplussed by them.  Which is not to say that they were bad – as I mentioned previously, they were good.  Just nothing to write home about – save, I should say (and should have said earlier) the horn section, especially Dave Mian on the trumpet and Richard Beesley on the saxophone.  They were pretty stellar.

Auditorium Theatre Chicago John Belushi Dan AykroydStill, the experience left me rather empty.  I saw two characters that were defined by the people that played them mimicked by, yes, wholly talented actors, but the whole operation leaves a tarnish on that movie and those two roles (let’s forget about Blues Brothers 2000 – let’s do the only responsible thing and pretend it never happened).  I suppose I’m just glad that Belushi’s estate (and wife) are seeing some income out of this.  I have mixed feelings about Dan Aykroyd raking in the bucks from it, though (he used to be so damn good, what the fuck happened to him?).  Ultimately, though, a better experience would be had simply watching the movie, listening to the Briefcase Full of Blues album that preceded it, and grabbing the first season of SNL from Netflix and watching Belushi’s brilliant impersonation yourself.  This show has very little appeal to those with taste.  That said, if you’re a middle-aged, fat, and decidedly un-hip Midwestern tourist, this could be your lucky day!

Somewhat recommended

Will Fink

Reviewed on 7.7.11

For more information on this show, please visit the Theatre In Chicago Blues Brothers Tribute page.