Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 18, My Favorite Rock Albums of the 1990s

Last night, I saw a band named Ash perform their album titled 1977--released in 1996--in its entirety.

A review of the show will be forthcoming, but the live rendering served to not only reiterate but enhance my regard for a disc I bought 20 years ago.

In a Facebook post, I called 1977 one of my favorite albums of the '90s--then and now--but it got me thinking about "just how favorite?"

Top 10? Top 20? Top 50?

So as best I could cull, I've put together the following list, with a Top 11 and several other albums deserving mention.

My 11 Favorite Albums of the '90s
(as of now, not necessarily reflecting my regard at the time, though largely so; studio albums only)

1. Nirvana - Nevermind 
2. Pearl Jam - Ten
3. Dinosaur Jr. - Green Mind
4. Green Day - Dookie 
5. Nirvana - In Utero
6. The Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
7. Radiohead - OK Computer
8. U2 - Achtung Baby
9. R.E.M. - Out of Time 
10. Foo Fighters - self-titled debut
11. Sugar - Copper Blue

And 22 more great ones, roughly in preference order: 

Stereophonics - Word Gets Around
Ash - 1977
Pearl Jam - Vs.
Garbage - self-titled debut
Blur - Parklife
Radiohead - The Bends
Manic Street Preachers - Everything Must Go
Liz Phair - Exile in Guyville
Soundgarden - Superunknown
Red Hot Sugar Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik 
Pulp - Different Class
Guns 'n Roses - Use Your Illusion II
Oasis - (What's the Story) Morning Glory
Material Issue - International Pop Overthrow
Weezer - the blue album
Depeche Mode - Violator
Midnight Oil - Earth and Sun and Moon
Wilco - Being There
The Flaming Lips - Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
Bruce Springsteen - Lucky Town
The Replacements - All Shook Down
Metallica - the black album

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Harlan Coben's 'Home' Adds New Twists to Familiar Territory, Characters -- Book Review

Book Review

by Harlan Coben
New in Hardcover

Last Wednesday, September 21, I was thrilled to be able to meet my favorite contemporary novelist, Harlan Coben, after he gave an insightful speech at the Skokie Public Library, in my hometown.

I wrote about Coben's stellar presentation just a couple posts ago, noting that it wasn't a book review for his just-released Home, but surmising that in having bought it--and being able to have Harlan sign it--that night, my reading and reviewing of his latest thriller likely wasn't far off.

I don't think that any of Coben's 25 previous page-turners--not counting three aimed at teen audiences, though the author suggested in person they are also worthwhile for adult fans--have taken me more than a week to read, and although I only had evenings to devote to Home, the same can now be said of it.

Although I theoretically love to read, the truth is that I don't read that many books, and certainly not quickly for the most part. Often I start reading something but give up before getting too far, and cannot call myself a great reader.

So the fact that I voraciously devour Coben's works--and the "Jack Reacher" novels by Lee Child, but all that much else--must speak to his gifts as a writer.

Yes, he's writing quick reads not high literature, but whatever that may connote, the truth is that I look forward to finishing them...and do, quickly, as again with Home.

And with 9 straight #1 New York Times Bestsellers--I assume Home will make 10--Coben, who was the first author to win the three top awards for mystery writing (Edgar, Shamus, Anthony), clearly isn't only to my liking.

So if you're a Harlan Coben fan who's come across this review, you can consider this a rather strong recommendation.

In Home, Coben has brought back the characters of Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood--a college basketball star turned sports agent-cum-detective and his preppy-yet-lethal best friend and partner-in-crime-solving--who were constants in his first seven published novels, but now intermittent among numerous "stand-alone" works.

The two pals, who as the book begins haven't seen each other in a year, have a rather fun rapport, and as always, Coben augments the mystery at hand with keen observations about modern life and human nature.

The writer's stories almost always involve people from New Jersey or New York and some sort of domestic disappearance; in Home, Myron and Win are on the trail of two teenagers who went missing a decade ago from affluent Jersey environs.

Without giving too much away, there are some new variations on the theme, as the narrative begins in London with Win speaking in the first-person (Myron usually serves as the narrator, but not unilaterally here).

There are a few aspects that stretch credulity, and the protagonists actions aren't entirely admirable, but for the most part Home is a typical Coben runaway train that you read fast, don't want to put down and finds you rooting for the dynamic duo.

But for those who haven't read Harlan Coben before, and particularly not any Myron & Win tales, Home isn't the book with which I recommend you start, not just because of the cost of hardcover.

Although it isn't crucial that one be deeply familiar with the recurring pair (and as always Coben provides some background), at least one (if not all) of the Myron Bolitar novels of the '90s--as well as the more recent Promise Me, Long Lost and Live Wire in which they're central--would probably be beneficial to readers' appreciation of the tandem's backstory and interactions.

Obviously, use of a recurring protagonist or two isn't native to Coben, and in general it's a bit less than idyllic to jump in uninitiated. Which isn't to say newbies can't still enjoy Home, which shouldn't take anyone too long to ingest, but I would more so suggest beginning with Myron & Win of old, or one of Coben's excellent stand-alone novels, which also cover similar ground. (Six Years is a fairly recent favorite, Tell No One an older top pick and the new-in-paperback Fool Me Once also worthwhile.)

It's to Harlan Coben's great credit that he continues to churn out stellar page-turners at least once a year. As he noted at the library, he ascribes to Elmore Leonard's aim to "leave out the parts reader will skip," and as such, one rarely gets bogged down reading his books.

Of which his latest, Home, is another fine example, even if at this point acolytes who dive right in should feel a bit more at, uh, home, than those first encountering Myron and Win.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Northlight's 'City of Conversation' Speaks To Just How Divisive Politics Can Be -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The City of Conversation
a recent play by Anthony Giardina
directed by Marti Lyons
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru October 23

Let's say you're a longtime Democrat, who is not only supporting Hillary Clinton but heavily involved in fieldwork and fundraising.

Your grown son, however, doesn't just intend to vote for Donald Trump, he actually works for his campaign in a rather high-level capacity.

Though obviously a bone of contention, this has not yet ruined your relationship.

But what if you, fully convinced that a Trump presidency would be hugely detrimental for the country and world, had the means to virtually ensure a Clinton victory.

Though there would be nothing illegal about your actions, as a fairly direct consequence your son would lose his job and--especially if your role was revealed--his reputation, standing and career.

And you would essentially lose your son. Plus the privilege of seeing your grandchildren.

This isn't specifically the setup of Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation, which was written and staged off-Broadway in 2014, before Donald Trump was a presidential candidate, but a dilemma somewhat akin forms the centerpiece of the play, now getting its Chicagoland premiere at Skokie's Northlight Theatre.

I doubt I was the only one watching who  made the mental leap to battle lines being drawn between relatives and friends on opposite sides of the political spectrum, particularly amid this highly-charged and especially polarized election campaign.

Heck, barely a day goes by when I don't see friends being fairly nasty to each other on Facebook for beliefs and positions espoused.

So whatever else I might say about The City of Conversation--which I enjoyed quite a bit but wouldn't call phenomenal--the crux of its most riveting moments are clearly quite resonant.

Which I don't think is coincidental, even if Giardina concocted it pre-Trump, as the scenarios onstage unfold across three presidential administrations: Carter, Reagan and Obama.

Lia Mortensen, excellent in Writers Theatre's Company where she delivered a terrific "Ladies Who Lunch," ostensibly plays one here in Hester Ferris, a left-leaning Washington, DC socialite virtually married to a Democratic Senator, if only he wasn't otherwise married.

As the 3-part (but 2-act) drama begins, Hester is preparing to host a dinner at her Georgetown home largely to enable her pal, Sen. Chandler Harris (Tim Decker), to cajole another senator, George Mallonee (Tim Monsion) into voting to demand federal judge nominees disavow membership in segregated country clubs.

The specifics of the political gamesmanship confused me a bit, but Giardina here mainly seems to be illustrating how politics were once much more genteel (at least outwardly), with rivals often finding common ground over cocktails and conversation in swanky parlors off the National Mall.

This was abetted by strong writing throughout, but I found The City of Conversation spoke much more powerfully when it intertwined family dynamics with politics.

Though entailing less overt dramatic tension than other relationships depicted, I found Hester's interactions with her older, politically like-minded but much considerably less suave sister Jean (Natalie West) rather notable.

But the show is mainly driven by Hester's interplay with son Colin (Greg Matthew Anderson), who still within the first scene arrives home from his studies at the London School of Economics with a striking classmate, Anna (Matte Hawkinson), whom his mom is seemingly not only meeting but hearing about for the first time, even though she has become his fiancé.

Anna is ambitious--I appreciated Giardina's reference to All About Eve--and even more to Hester's chagrin, Republican (or at least a budding Reaganite).

Especially given the imagined scenario I outlined at top, I don't think it behooves me to reveal any more of the specifics that unfold, only to share that Colin & Anna--now with a son of their own named Ethan (Tyler Kaplan)--become even more adversarial with Hester in the play's Reagan-era part, with repercussions that continue into the Obama years.

Throughout the play, I felt that I was watching a quality, substantive work--as I almost always do at Northlight--with strong performances throughout and nice set design by Tom Burch, all under the direction of Marti Lyons.

And that I continue to think about it a few days later also bespeaks the merits of The City of Conversation, even if it only occasionally seemed to amplify itself into a show truly worth shouting about.

But when it comes to politics, perhaps getting away from too much in your face(book) rancor is a good thing.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Storied Evening as Harlan Coben Brings His Latest Thriller, 'Home,' To My Hometown Library

Speaker Recap

Harlan Coben, Author
Skokie Public Library
September 21, 2016

This isn't a book review. It's a recap of a promotional speaking appearance by my favorite contemporary author, Harlan Coben, at the Skokie Public Library in my hometown and current place of residence.

But if you were to click the "Book Reviews" link atop this blog--on the web version, not mobile--and scroll through those I have written and posted, you will see Coben represented more than any other author.

I think it was back in 2002, when in downtown Chicago on my way to the Lyric Opera I stopped into a now defunct bookstore named Brentano's--I'm pretty sure that was the name; it was near the Civic Opera House and wasn't called Kroch's & Brentano's--and asked the clerk to recommend a page-turning paperback.

He pointed me to Coben's Tell No One, which was published in 2001 and at that point relatively new in paperback. I had never heard of the author or book, which revolved around a man discovering that his wife--missing for 8 years--might still be alive.

Subsequently turned into a pretty good French movie, this was Coben's first book (of those then in print) not to revolve around recurring characters. (A couple early "stand-alone" efforts have since been released.)

Finding it to be a fantastic read, I next consumed the 2002 stand-alone Gone For Good when it came out in paperback.

I've since read all of Coben's novels, except 3 that are aimed at teen readers, and I should probably check those out too.

In addition to 15 stand-alone books, he's written ten--including his first seven to be published and his newest work, Home--thrillers featuring the crime-fighting, mystery-solving duo of Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood.

The former is an ex-Duke All-American basketball player that Coben admitted Wednesday is his own "wish fulfillment" alter ego, while the latter--a preppy multi-millionaire unsuspectingly adept in administering brutal force--is loosely based on an affluent college roommate who would admire himself in the mirror while saying, "It must suck to be ugly." (Coben's Wikipedia bio also notes that he was childhood friends with Chris Christie and a fraternity brother of The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown.)

While I don't proclaim Harlen Coben to be "the best current author"--he doesn't traipse in great literature--he is my favorite, as evidenced by my actually loving to read his books, and usually doing so in well less than a week. (I'm generally not a fast nor particularly avid reader.)

And as I first heard when the author guested on the Howard Stern Wrap-Up Show on Tuesday, and was reiterated Wednesday night, he has over 70 million books in print in 43 languages--and nine straight #1 New York Times Bestsellers.

Home was just released on Tuesday, and in an event facilitated by The Book Stall of Winnetka--which sold books at the library, one of which I got signed--Coben spoke to a packed auditorium at the Skokie Public Library on Wednesday, September 21.

Given how much I've enjoyed his work over the years, it was damn cool to see him speak in my hometown, especially as another commitment forced me to miss my other favorite suspense novelist, Lee Child, at a 2015 appearance within walking distance of my home.

Though his radio appearances reflected a genial glibness, I wasn't sure what shape Coben's SPL appearance would take. I've been to a good number of book signings, and a few library events with authors, but didn't know if he would read from Home, answer questions within an interview format or what.

But pretty terrifically, for nearly an hour, he just stood and spoke.

After being introduced as "The master of the hook" and the first author to win the three major awards for mystery writing (Edgar, Shamus and Anthony), Coben began by telling the crowd that he was born just east of Skokie.

In Newark, New Jersey.

Self-effacing throughout, he noted that upon seeing a New York Times ad for Home featuring his photo, his teenage daughter greeted him at breakfast by simply saying, "Ewwww."

The 54-year-old Coben spoke a bit about his wife and kids, and mentioned that losing his own parents before they could see their grandchildren has prompted him to creatively keep them alive in the guise of Myron Bolitar's folks.

Clearly comfortable in front of a crowd and no newcomer to giving book tour presentations, the novelist was not only engaging--a patron afterward compared him to a stand-up comedian--but quite insightful about writing and his approach to it.

He shared how the inspiration for his stories can come from anywhere--tabloid headlines, observances in a store, etc.--but that the key driving force is the question, "What if?"

Back when picking up printed photographs was much more commonplace, he was once shocked to note a picture in his packet he didn't recognize--turns out it was merely turned upside down--and then imagined a scenario around "What if a misplaced picture changed my entire life?" that begat the book Just One Look.

Giving a few similar examples, Coben conveyed that in hatching a thriller plot, he will often "know the beginning and end and nothing in between," which becomes what he works to figure out.

He emphasized this thought with his second favorite quote about writing, from E.L. Doctorow:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

...and followed it with his most cherished nugget about drafting compelling novels, which came from Elmore Leonard:

"I try to cut out all the parts readers normally skip."

While clearly proud of his success and continued ability to knock out at least one new book per year--for a total of now 30--Coben claimed that insecurity, desperation and the "inability to do anything else" are what drives him.

"Only bad writers think they're good," he offered, while also enthusing that he loves being a writer, "the single greatest profession in the world."

He didn't provide much in the way of direct advice to aspiring writers, but intimated that "only writing is writing," meaning that thinking about writing, preparing to write, getting positioned to write, etc., are negligible next to actually putting pen to paper, or words to screen.

In a similar vein, he noted that he isn't big on research--"It's called fiction for a reason"--and suggested that the time many devote to oodles of advance research could be better applied by simply writing.

Before signing a book for everyone who had bought or brought one, Coben took a few questions from the audience, including mine about how & when he decides if he'll be writing a stand-alone or Myron & Win book.

He said this is determined naturally--i.e. not prompted by the publisher's wishes or any obligatory sense of direction--as upon finding a story he wants to tell it, he then figures out the characters who need to tell it.

Hence, Home is only his third novel in the past 16 years to feature his primary pair of recurring characters.

And after getting my newly-purchased copy signed, chatting briefly with Coben about hearing him on the Wrap-up Show and asking if another New Jerseyan who has meant a lot to me, Bruce Springsteen, is often mentioned in his books--I couldn't recall, but Harlan assured me he is--and then having a photo taken (kudos to the Skokie Public Library for enlisting a staff member who could snap good pix quickly while keeping the line moving), I went home and began reading Home.

Look for that book review in just a few days.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Juicy Ode to the Big Apple: Mary Zimmerman's Take on 'Wonderful Town' Proves Quite Refreshing -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Wonderful Town
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 23

Wonderful Town was originally scheduled to end Goodman Theatre's 2015-16 subscription season rather than begin the 2016-17 slate.

I was ticketed to see it on a Sunday evening in July, but a pre-Broadway World Premiere of War Paint came about as a special presentation in Goodman's Albert Theatre and pushed the 1953 Tony winner a couple months down the road.

Had I enjoyed a midsummer's night with Leonard Bernstein's delightfully diverse score--with lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green--well-rendered by an 18-member orchestra, excellent cast and an imaginative take by director Mary Zimmerman, I'd have to assume I would have liked it just as much as I did this past Sunday afternoon.

But the postponement worked out well on multiple levels, including my very much valuing the chance to see Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in the good-but-needing-refinements War Paint.

Having switched to Sunday matinees for the new subscription season, I was able to see Wonderful Town--a show based in and largely celebrating New York City--on a beautiful day in Chicago, and appreciate how a classic ode to the Big Apple compared and contrasted with a more recent one, In the Heights.

Now perhaps billboarded as "Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical," prior to the phenomenon that Hamilton has become, In the Heights won the Best New Musical Tony Award in 2008--I saw it on Broadway that year--and is now being produced locally by Chicago's fine Porchlight Music Theatre.

I saw it on Friday and, as my review conveys, greatly enjoyed it--both the original source material anew and Porchlight's excellent rendition.

And the juxtaposition of In the Heights with Wonderful Town on my theatrical calendar made for a rather illuminating perspective from which to better appreciate both shows. (I'm also ticketed to see Hamilton for the first time on October 4 at Chicago's PrivateBank Theatre.)

While Miranda--who wrote the music & lyrics for both In the Heights and Hamilton--deserves heaps of praise for fusing contemporary sounds (rap/hip-hop, pop and more) into the traditional Broadway milieu, the brilliant brassiness of Bernstein's Wonderful Town score, exquisitely executed by Goodman's largest-ever orchestra, bespoke a similarly adventurous approach and visionary musical melange.

In 2007, I had seen a touring production of Wonderful Town based on a Broadway revival--in Champaign, Illinois; it never played Chicago--and though I can't recall much about it, my database rating of 7/10 for both the content and performance would seem to corroborate my current feeling about the show's book (by Joseph A. Fields and Chodorov) being somewhat creaky.

Though I was much more enamored with the whole affair this time around--Zimmerman, set designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer Ana Kuzmanic merit great commendation for an inspired vibrancy that greatly counteracts inherent datedness--occasional stalls and shortcomings in the narrative keep this from being a full @@@@@ review (though it wouldn't be unreasonable).

But, especially for those who love classic musicals, this is a rather robust recommendation, as musically, visually, humorously and with terrific performances, this Wonderful Town well merits encountering and exploring.

Complemented by Kuzmanic's colorful costumes, Rosenthal's strikingly imaginative set--featuring 2-dimensional Manhattan buildings  moved about by cast members and a basement apartment that brilliantly ascends to center stage--makes the show wonderful to behold from the get-go.

Quirky gags at the shrewd hand of Zimmerman--most demonstrably a human-sized cockroach--only add to the fun.

Based on short stories by Ruth McKenney originally published in the New Yorker and compiled in a 1938 book called My Sister Eileen, the musical initially set in the 1930s but now updated to the '50s focuses around sisters named Ruth and Eileen--surname fictionalized to Sherwood--who have just moved to New York City from Columbus, Ohio.

Ruth, played perfectly by Bri Sudia, who I've liked in supporting roles and well-justifies the leap to a high-profile lead, is a writer; Eileen, a delightful Lauren Molina, who brings Broadway credits and was in Goodman's 2010 Zimmerman-helmed production of Bernstein's Candide, a wanna-be actress.

Landing in Greenwich Village, whose somewhat archaic Bohemian archetypes are depicted in the dynamic opening number, "Christopher Street," the sisters find an apartment rather quickly, but encounter some hardships, such as the giant cockroach and occupational roadblocks.

But they attract a variety of friends and would-be paramours, such as football-playing Wreck (Jordan Brown), artist/landlord Appopoulos (Matt DeCaro), newspapermen Robert Baker (Karl Hamilton), Chick Clark (Steven Stratford), Walgreens worker Frank Lippincott (Wade Elkins) and assorted others, including a bunch of Brazilian sailors.

The storyline involves various interactions, situations, misunderstandings and the sisters' acclimation to the Big Apple, but this is a musical in which the music is the main driving force (and raison d'être, especially on a Chicago stage in 2016).

Few of the songs in Wonderful Town became staples on par with those from Bernstein's next muscial, West Side Story, but most are delightful, including "Ohio," "One Hundred Easy Ways"--which Sudia delivers superbly--"A Little Bit in Love," "Conga," "My Darlin' Eileen," "It's Love" and "The Wrong Note Rag."

Along with the demonstrably strong direction, scenery, costumes and performances noted above, the choreography by Alex Sanchez is also quite good, and the singing univerally strong.

There are numerous magnficent shows in the musical theater pantheon, and while I'm not convinced Wonderful Town ranks with the very best, Goodman's rendition is one that considerably elevates my regard for it.

It's pretty easy to imagine that most will have wonderful time at Wonderful Town, and in helping me better appreciate what Leonard Bernstein and pals brought to the Broadway table long before Lin-Manuel Miranda re-set it, I found this New York musical adventure--in the wonderful theater community of Chicago--all the more rewarding.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Porchlight's Well-Scaled 'In the Heights' Achieves Impressive Elevation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

In the Heights
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru October 23

On Friday night I saw Porchlight's local production of In the Heights, the 2008 Tony-winning musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who would go on to likewise conceive, compose and star in an even more successful show: Hamilton.

Though I had seen and loved In the Heights on Broadway with Miranda shortly after it garnered the Best New Musical Tony Award--and catching the first National Tour in Chicago in 2009 reiterated how good and groundbreaking the musical was even sans Miranda and the original cast--time had sufficiently eroded my memory for Porchlight's impressively-downsized take to be newly, and fully, enchanting.

Upon leaving the theater in the Stage 773 complex on Belmont Avenue, I was exuberant enough to feel a full @@@@@ rating was merited.

But between seeing the show and writing this review, three endeavors threatened to adjust just how highly I viewed this In the Heights:

1) I began a deep dive into exploring Hamilton, listening intently to the cast album while reading the lyrics, watching whatever clips I could find--from June's Tony Awards, where the show won 11 categories, as well as performances of select songs at the White House--and getting a better sense of just how brilliant that biographical musical is, which I haven't seen but am ticketed to attend on October 4 in Chicago (thanks to a longstanding Broadway in Chicago subscription).

2) I watched a Tony Awards performance and other clips of the original Broadway production of In the Heights featuring Miranda & co., the full-fledged set design, initial costumes and more

3) I attended, on Sunday afternoon, Goodman Theatre's excellent new, Mary Zimmerman-directed production of Wonderful Town, a classic musical dating to 1953 that, like In the Heights, celebrates New York City and its residents--including young, vibrant, talented-yet-uncertain ones--while featuring a brilliant, dynamic and fresh-for-the-time score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein.

Yet while I can't say the performances and production values of Porchlight's In the Heights uniformly matched what Broadway audiences saw, nor that Miranda's first Tony-winning musical is likely as mind-blowing as his second one, the comparisons and points of reference only "served to "heighten" my regard for the show--and this rendition.

With a top ticket price of $48 within Stage 773's 148-seat Thrust venue, patrons should well understand the inherent limitations tackled by director Brenda Didier, her crew and the mostly non-Equity cast.

But not only will the imaginative staging at Porchlight--with a clever bi-level set design by Greg Pinsoneault that well-conveys Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, including storefront signage closely hewing to that of the Broadway version--provide a fine introduction (or re-introduction) to In the Heights, this fine complement to the upcoming Chicago run of Hamilton makes for an economical entreé to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Hamilton has quite rightly received tons of praise for its highly diverse (i.e. predominantly African-Amercian and Latinx cast) and for bringing rap/hip-hop and Latin rhythms into the Broadway vernacular.

But In the Heights actually did all of this first, and its celebration of Washington Heights denizens largely from Caribbean islands remains refreshing to behold in a city as diverse as Chicago.

There was some controversy over Didier's casting of Jack DeCesare in the Miranda role of Usnavi, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

But DeCesare, who is of Italian descent, looked and played the part quite well, even if his rapping skills and overall being as the show's Emcee of sorts didn't quite equal the original.

And while his specific ethnic background, like that of the rest of the mostly Hispanic cast, isn't of my acute concern, I appreciated the group of gifted performers who in sum looked different than the ensembles of most musicals I see, while exclusively showcasing actors I don't recall seeing on local stages across hundreds of shows. (Usually any large cast includes at least a couple performers I've seen previously.)

I found the entire cast to be excellent, with three of the key actresses--Michelle Lauto, Lucia Godinez and Isabrl Quintero--particularly outstanding.

Lauto sizzles as Vanessa, who works in the local hair salon, dreams of moving down to the Village and is romantically pursued by Usnavi.

Her early delivery of "It Won't Be Long Now" not only demonstrates strong vocal talents, but is just one of many reminders that Miranda's compositional skills (in terms of both music & lyrics) go far beyond hip hop.

I've been saying this since I first saw & heard In the Heights, but anyone who is dismissive of this show (or Hamilton for that matter) because they're "not into rap" is short-changing Miranda's mastery and range.

Certainly, Miranda has a great affinity, familiarity and talent for rap/hip-hop, but it should also be apparent to anyone who sees In the Heights or Hamilton that he's indebted to both Eminem and Sondheim, and Rodgers & Hammerstein as much as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

Seemingly, Lin-Manuel's own preferred singing style is rapping, and whether as Usnavi or Alexander Hamilton, this is the mode of vocalizing his particular characters employ (even when not actually played by him).

But some of In the Heights' best songs are in a rather traditional Broadway or pop vein, such as "When You're Home," well-sung here by Godinez and Stephen Allen as Nina and Benny, a fledgling couple after the former returns from Stanford to the Heights, where the latter works for her parents' livery service.

Miranda gives several characters considerable depth, including Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Frankie Leo Bennett), the neighborhood's grandmother-figure Abuela Claudia (Isabel Quintero), Nina's parents Kevin and Camilia Rosario (Jordan DeBose and Keely Vasquez) and even a Piragua (flavored ice) vendor (Stan Decwikiel, Jr.).

As such, In the Heights--the origins of which date back to Miranda's sophomore year at Wesleyan University in 1999 but subsequently had its book re-developed by playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes--  reflects a rather strong sense of community through compelling individual stories, even as several residents are on the verge of relocation, in part due to gentrification.

It was fun for me to see it again, just a couple weeks before I get to see Hamilton, and from all I've discerned so far, I should love that show.

But Porchlight's stellar production reiterated that In the Heights is an exceptional musical in its own right, one that changed the look and sound of traditional Broadway while also reflecting the best of it.

With all the hoopla surrounding Hamilton and its unprecedented success, it may be that In the Heights forever more lives in its shadow, referenced primarily as Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical.

Yet while what Hamilton has done is astonishing, so too is having a musical first concocted before he was 20 go to Broadway and win the Best Musical Tony by the time Miranda hit 30.

And while those who can't yet score Hamilton tickets would do well to get to Stage 773 to see what LMM created first, In the Heights is far better--and better-staged here--than simply to be seen as a curiosity.

Despite its own considerable success, it never entered the zeitgeist like Hamilton has, but In the Heights was and remains a rather lofty artistic accomplishment, with many considerable merits to be appreciated on their own (though also as more of a companion piece than it may overtly seem).

And even in a rather intimate space away from the Loop, Porchlight does it right and takes it to the heights.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 17, My Favorite Art Museums

I love art.

Not just in the wider context of artistic creation, in terms of theater, film, music, etc., but specifically in terms of fine art.

Though the breadth and depth my appreciation has evolved over the years--and continues to--I enjoy art of many styles, eras, genres, countries and levels, from the world's most renowned museums to art fairs and student exhibitions.

On a recent trip to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, I explored 11 art museums (and/or sculpture galleries) over just 4 days, and have now visited nearly 160 museums plus a variety of churches, palaces, schools and other places where art is prominently displayed.

I certainly don't have a photographic memory about what paintings, sculptures and other art pieces I've seen and enjoyed at each museum, especially ones I was last at many years ago. So this list is something of an unscientific melange blending my (sometimes vague) recall of the quality of the collections and how much I enjoyed my visit(s)--including for reasons that could go beyond the art itself, such as the building, setting, cost, etc. (Although the art must be pretty incredible to merit inclusion, which is why the Guggenheim Bilbao isn't here despite the amazing architecture by Frank Gehry.)

Museums I've been to more often might naturally feel like favorites, even if their collections are perhaps lesser than those ranked lower or omitted, and those I've been to more recently are also likely to benefit. So it's quite possible this list would be ordered differently at another time, but to be taken with an inevitable grain of salt, these are:

My Favorite Art Museums Visited (not necessarily a "Best of" list) 

1. The Art Institute of Chicago
2. National Gallery, London
3. Pitti Palace, Florence
4. Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
5. Museum of Modern Art, New York
6. National Gallery, Washington, DC
7. Louvre, Paris
8. Prado, Madrid
9. Detroit Institute of Arts
10. Guggenheim Museum, New York
11. Secretaria de Educación Publico building, Mexico City (Diego Rivera murals)

And several more great ones: 

Cleveland Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
Tate Modern, London
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Courtauld Gallery, London
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
Milwaukee Art Museum
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Getty Center, Los Angeles
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Belvedere, Vienna
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio
Reina Sofia, Madrid
Vatican Museum, Vatican City
St. Louis Museum of Art
Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Picasso Museum, Barcelona
Centre Pompidou, Paris