Saturday, April 20, 2019

What They Do For Love: In Fine Porchlight Production, 'A Chorus Line' Remains a Singular Sensation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Chorus Line
Porchlight Music Theatre
at the Ruth Page Center, Chicago
Thru May 31
@@@@1/2

In terms of my ability to sing, dance and act, I'm a triple threat...to the general public.

As opposed to an early song in A Chorus Line, I can't do that.

So I have enormous regard for anyone with the talent and chutzpah to perform onstage, whether in a park district production, a Chicago storefront, on Broadway or anywhere else.

A Chorus Line, one of the most unique Broadway musicals ever created--a singular sensation if you will, originally running for 6,137 performances after opening in 1975--incisively focuses on the lives of performers.

Derived from interviews conducted at workshop sessions in 1974, with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante Jr., music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, the show--initially directed by Michael Bennett--tells the story of dancers auditioning for a Broadway musical, or rather, it lets them tell their own stories.

Photo credit on all: Michael Courier
In trying out for "the chorus line," the dancers are not stars, typically lacking singing and acting skills as formidable as their footwork.

Yet, they are gifted enough to appear on Broadway--for many auditioners, this isn't their first show--the mecca of musical theater.

This imprecise calibration of being really good yet not absolutely phenomenal is why the current, mostly non-Equity production by Porchlight works so well.

I don't mean this as a backhanded compliment; this isn't merely a good try, it's an impressive, professional production that works well in the intimate, longstanding Ruth Page Center auditorium.

But that you believe these are talented, hopeful kids--for the most part--rather than big-name stars is the point of the show.

And much of the joy.

Chicagoland musical vet Richard Strimer plays Zach, the director of the show being cast. He's good, though largely as an unseen voice.

And while I've prolifically attended area musicals for 20 years, he's the only actor in this Chorus Line that I've knowingly seen before.

But director Brenda Didier--who also helmed a stellar Billy Elliot for Porchlight--clearly did a fine job in finding talented performers (some still in college) who well-fit their roles.

Apologies for not naming every performer or song--there really aren't that many of the latter in a 2-hour show without an intermission--but if you arrive at A Chorus Line uninitiated, know that you are getting a quite credible rendition, one you may even perceive as incredible.

Anchoring two major songs as Diana Morales--"Nothing" and "What I Did for Love"--Adrienne Velasco-Storrs does a nice job, as do Erica Evans (as Sheila), Liz Conway (Bebe) and Aalon Smith (Maggie) on the the excellent "At the Ballet."

Alejandro Fonseca (Paul), Terrell Armstrong (Richie) and Laura Savage (Maggie) are also impressive, the latter on an extended dance solo in "The Music and the Mirror."

Part of my fondness for Chorus Line goes back to being taken to a first national tour stop in Chicago in 1978, meaning that before the age of 10 my parents were fine with me hearing its frank discussions about homosexuality, hard-ons and songs about "tits and ass."

Here, in the form of "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," the latter is well-handled by Natalie Welch as Val.

And a few rows from a stage filled with attractive people in tight dancewear, forgive my eyes for gladly beholding Taylor Lane (as Val), among others.

As I recently noted in a review of Hands on a Hardbody, musicals that take turns focusing on several individuals can be tricky for their lack of leading roles and narrative balance, but A Chorus Line the standard bearer in this regard.

Not only does it remain truly original in introducing theater goers to theater artists, the stories the dancers share--about which I've intentionally been circumspect--are truly compelling.

And the songs by Hamlisch & Kleban are first-rate, including the glorious showstopper, "One."

Perhaps intentionally, perhaps unimportantly, a few of the vocal timbres in this production aren't perfect, and some of the dancers didn't blow me away.

But I hadn't seen a local production of A Chorus Line since 2012--and that was out in Aurora--so this was truly a delight on many levels.

Any fan of musical theater--and any practitioner of it--owes it to themselves to see this show; one of the best, most important, most singular ever created.

And this is as good a chance as any.

Kudos to the cast, crew and everyone involved for doing what they do...for love. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sly Anxiety: In 'Grinning From Fear to Fear,' Second City e.t.c. Finds Fun in Discomfiture -- Chicago Comedy/Theater Review

Sketch Comedy Review

Grinning from Fear to Fear
The Second City e.t.c. 43rd Revue
Open Run
@@@1/2

Whether you are a Chicago area resident or a tourist to the Windy City, I genuinely recommend attending The Second City comedy club whenever opportunity allows.

2019 marks the 60th anniversary of its legendary local existence and, at North & Wells, Second City remains an iconic Chicago attraction, even if by population we've long been third.

This past Saturday night, I had the pleasure of attending the opening performance of the 43rd revue of The Second City e.t.c., which is distinct from the club's mainstage revue yet fundamentally similar.

Featuring six performers onstage, who also serve as the show's writers, the e.t.c. revue--like mainstage--is predominantly scripted, with occasional improv and/or audience participation bits.

With a friend alongside as part of an enthusiastic full house, with dinner, drinks and dessert kindly served, it was nothing less than an enjoyable evening.

And the six members of the current e.t.c. cast--Atra Abdou, E.J. Cameron, Mark Campbell, Andrew Knox, Laurel Krabacher and Chuck Norment--are nothing less than immensely talented.

Though I don't like to describe many of the sketches, as being surprised is much of the fun, one had Abdou and Campbell nicely playing a young couple interacting with the former's parents (Cameron and Krabacher) as the latter fidgets and worse.

As suggested by the revue's title, Grinning from Fear to Fear, a good deal of the material over nearly 2 hours focused on unease, whether personal, societal or both.

One of the most clever and topical skits featured all the castmates playing U.S. founding fathers as they proposed Bill of Rights amendments, certain that various wants and whims circa 1789 would only be temporary, and readily revised throughout history.

And well-demonstrating the great skills of the cast--with credit also due director Anneliese Toft and musical director Jacob Shuda, who accompanied many of the sketches--was a piece that had Asdou as a randy grandma watching rather smutty classic films alongside her grandson (Norment), which Knox and Krabacher would delectably enact.

So if you like a good laugh, clearly gifted comedians within a famed, comfortable venue with first-class service, you can't go wrong with The Second City e.t.c.'s 43rd review.

I again found it to be better than the mainstage revue--Algorithm Nation, or the Static Quo--though that still-running piece can also make for a nice visit.

Comedy is hard, and subjective, and not only do I admittedly not LOL at much, I readily stipulate that anyone on a Second City stage--or heck, in a class--is not only eons more talented than I'll ever be, but also much ballsier.

All this said, and meant--including about recommending Grinning from Fear to Fear for an enjoyable experience--I unfortunately didn't find it all that hilarious or insightful.

None of the sketches were duds, and more than the ones mentioned above were solid, stellar or superb. But very few, IMO, were brilliant.

Or, in this political climate, daring.

As I've surmised before, The Second City--which welcomes patrons from everywhere--understandably shouldn't shut out or brazenly piss off conservative clientele.

But I'd like to believe that great comedy should be able to, say, make fun of the current U.S. President and certain followers without overdoing the rancor...or the obvious targets.

Yet without ever even saying his name, the President was only referenced once or twice all night.

So it's like I was constrained to grinning from fear to, uh, let's not go there.

As I said to my friend upon leaving, I really would love to see--with the exact same cast & writers--the sketches that got cut, because they were too edgy or offensive or one-sided or whatever.

I've now seen enough Second City revues in recent years to understand that certain subject matter seems to be reigned in.

Again, I still enjoyed, valued and suggest others reprise my visit to this e.t.c. revue--their 43rd for the record--but last year's e.t.c. show was my favorite of recent vintage, so I can't deny hoping for something a bit sharper this go-round. 

Yes, there was plenty of fine wit to be found about family dynamics, our anxieties and how they often go hand-in-hand.

But something has much more so been stoking my fears, and once again the venerated Second City seems to be asking me to grin and forswear it.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Shake Your Windows and Rattle Your Walls: Powerful Themes, Strong Performances Amplify 'Cambodian Rock Band' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Cambodian Rock Band
a play with live music
Written by Lauren Yee
Songs by Dengue Fever
Directed by Marti Lyons
Victory Gardens Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 5
@@@@1/2

"What is Cambodian Rock Band about?"

Well, duh.

But as it turns out, it really isn't a silly question, as Lauren Yee's artful, multifaceted play--with live music onstage--isn't nearly as straightforward as the title may suggest.

And even just in terms of the name, things aren't quite so simple.

As I understand it, Yee was inspired to write Cambodian Rock Band through an affinity for Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles band from the 21st century influenced by Cambodian pop, surf and psychedelic music and its practitioners of the 1960s & '70s.

Songs by Dengue Fever are featured in the play, whose cast members perform them in the guise of The Cyclos, a presumably fictional Cambodian rock band, circa 1974, right before the Khmer Rouge seized power.

Dengue Fever will perform at Lincoln Hall on May 1 in conjunction with the play running across the street at Victory Gardens in the old Biograph Theater, but otherwise their members--only the singer of whom seems to be of Cambodian descent--are not in Cambodian Rock Band

The show isn't at all a biography of Dengue Fever, and there's almost no backstory about how the Cyclos--and the Khmer language and English sung but clearly British- and American-influenced music they play--came to be.

Rather, with some sly specifics I won't reveal, the play uses the Cyclos' members as a way to reflect on the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, said to have killed 2 million Cambodians.

With the narrative onstage also representing 1974 and 1978, at its most contemporary, Cambodian Rock Band is set in 2008.

Then, a Cambodian-American woman named Neary (played by Aja Wiltshire, who doubles as the lead singer of the Cyclos, and is fantastic) has been living in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh for a couple years.

Through an international advocacy group, she and her Thai-Canadian boyfriend, Ted (Matthew C. Yee, who also plays stellar guitar for the Cyclos), are involved in the crimes against humanity trial of a Khmer Rouge henchman named Duch (the terrific Rammel Chan).

Unexpectedly, Neary's dad, Chum (the also excellent Greg Watanable) comes to visit her, for reasons of his own that help drive Cambodian Rock Band's narrative.

From the get-go, we get some fine Dengue Fever songs--"Uku," "Family Business," "Cement Slippers"--well-performed by the cast members, including Eileen Doan and Peter Sipla, primarily musicians who supplement the four main actors in embodying Cyclos.

Strictly as a mini rock concert, with powerful chords struck simply in revealing the kind of music once made in Cambodia, the happenings onstage are terrifically enjoyable and eye-opening.

And with Cyclo recording an album on the precipice of Pol Pot taking over and the Khmer Rouge silencing--in quite grievous and permanent ways--artists of many types, I couldn't help think of Cabaret and the way its musical performances were infused with, and somewhat spiritually belied, a grave foreboding.

It's to Yee's great credit, and director Marti Lyons here--Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew helmed the original production of Cambodian Rock Band a few years ago for the South Coast Repertory near Los Angeles--that the show is truly about Cambodian musicians and so much more, with all the complexity handled quite adroitly.

Beyond mixing rock 'n roll with killing fields--which serves to address & amplify the indomitable spirit of art & artists--in having the superb Chan glibly break the fourth wall as the non-fictional Duch (pronounced "doik") who ran a murderous prison dubbed S21, the show even manages to add considerable humor to its tonality without feeling inappropriate.

Given all that this sophisticated, informative play impressively gets right, its imperfections only slightly detract from an effusive recommendation.

But its dramaturgical intricacy pushes credulity at times--we're asked to believe that Chum didn't tell his wife that he was flying from the U.S. to Cambodia to see their daughter--and I can't say I was entirely clear on how the latter got herself involved in Duch's trial.

And although the Biograph lobby contains panels informing of pioneering--and ultimately persecuted & perished--Cambodian pop musicians such as Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran and Sinn Sisamouth, I would've welcomed insights within the play about the Cyclos' impetus, inspiration and influences. (Though not so much sonically, Bob Dylan is revealed as an important one.)

Despite some minor weaknesses, Cambodian Rock Band is rather astonishing in its reach--and all that it achieves in about 2 hours.

Especially in telling a rather harrowing tale with great range & depth while also convincingly representing a multilingual rock band, the cast--along with the crew--is really sensational.

I had liked Yee and Chan in Vietgone last year at Writers Theatre--which I mentioned to that theater's artistic director, Michael Halberstam, who was seated nearby--and both are really good again here, with Chan's cheeky dexterity crucial to the play working as well as it does.

Though I knew Wiltshire could sing quite well from Merrily We Roll Along last year at Porchlight Theatre, she not only more thoroughly showcases her vocal talents, but impressive versatility as well.

And while I've been intentionally circumspect about how Watanabe factors in as Chum besides as Neary's dad, his performance is vital, diverse and superb. It's not surprising to note that he was in George Takei's Allegiance on Broadway.

If Cambodian Rock Band was simply what its title suggests, it would likely be quite good. As noted, I would've liked a bit more of a musical exploration.

But, one had to figure, it wouldn't be so narrowly-focused, and it quite impressively achieves its ambitious aims.

Musically, profoundly, poignantly, as history lesson, family drama and performance piece, it rocks.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Get Your Tickets: Ike Holter's 'Lottery Day' is a Winner at Goodman, Though Doesn't Hit Jackpot For Me -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

Lottery Day
a world premiere play
by Ike Holter
directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 28
@@@@

Back in mid-2014, prompted almost entirely by a rave, 4-star (out of 4) review by the Chicago Tribune's excellent theater critic, Chris Jones, I went to see Exit Strategy, a play by a local playwright named Ike Holter.

Even beyond the play itself, the experience of going to a small room--used by the Jackalope Theater Company--within the vast Broadway Armory is one that still stands out.

And though my @@@@1/2 (out of 5) review meant I wasn't quite as smitten as Jones, I agreed that Holter was a terrific, important writer with a keen touch for chronicling good people facing difficulties--in the case of Exit Strategy, an impending school closing--within the less-than-glamorous heart of Chicago.

Having previously earned acclaim for Hit the Wall--which I have not seen--over the past 5 years, Holter has written six more plays in his 7-piece Rightlynd Series, named for a fictional neighborhood in the likewise-pretend 51st Ward of Chicago.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Staged by various local theaters--Jackalope again, Victory Gardens, A Red Orchid, Teatro Vista, Steep--I by no means consciously avoided these Holter works (Rightlynd, Sender, Prowess, The Wolf at the End of the Block, Red Rex, which I rue just missing at Steep), but I didn't get to any.

Until Thursday night, when I saw the culminating play, Lottery Day, in Goodman's Owen Theatre.

I had tickets before Chris Jones wrote his review of Lottery Day, but will note that he again rewarded @@@@ (out of 4), and called the Rightland saga "extraordinary." (Though this play and Exit Strategy are the only two earning his top rating.)

My regard for Jones' theatrical assessment expertise is assuredly higher than my own, yet while I concur that Lottery Day is well-worth your attendance and attention as a fine piece of theater, once again I wasn't quite as dazzled.

Lottery Day takes place entirely within the backyard of the Rightlynd home of Mallory (the brilliant J. Nicole Brooks), who serves as something of a matriarch for the neighborhood which she loves, but where she has experienced horrific violence.

On this day, for reasons important to Mallory, she is throwing a shindig, a backyard barbecue with seemingly even cut of meat her friend Avery (the always stellar James Vincent Meredith) can grill.

I won't attempt to pinpoint them all, but guests largely include characters from Holter's earlier Rightlynd plays, including the same actors from the original productions.

Though I've seen several of the performers in other shows beyond this series--Sydney Charles (who plays Zora here) was superb in the recent Nina Simone: Four Women at Northlight; Aurora Adachi-Winter (Tori) delighted in Vietgone at Writers Theatre--I obviously could only recognize Pat Whalen (Ricky) in reprising his role in Exit Strategy.

The other cast members--McKenzie Chinn (Cassandra), Robert Cornelius (Robinson), Tommy Rivera-Vega (Ezekiel), Tony Santiago (Nunley), Michele Vazquez (Vivien)--in this strong ensemble piece all merit mention as well. 

Per the printed introduction to Lottery Day by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, as well as the superlative review from Jones, the play stands entirely on its own, without requiring familiarity with the entire Rightlynd series.

In many ways, this indeed seemed so, as the characters, dialogue, themes resonated purely within the Owen on Thursday night.

I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing Lottery Day as a newcomer to Rightlynd, even if this is the final work of the series.

August Wilson, the late, legendary African-American playwright with whom Holter merits some (if premature) comparison, wrote 10 plays--each taking place in in a different 20th century decade--for what wound up being The Pittsburgh Cycle, and one can readily see and enjoy any of these works, individually and completely out of order.

That said, because several of the Lottery Day characters had previous narratives with which I was unfamiliar, I felt somewhat like I do if starting to watch a TV series after its first season. Or when I go to see a longstanding band I've only recently come to know; even if I study up on their songs, it's not like they're holistically ingrained in me.

Understandably, I don't know if this was really an issue, or simply one of perception, but I couldn't help but feel I was missing something.

And though under the direction Lili-Anne Brown, the performances and many potent themes--including some between-the-lines--made for an excellent evening of theater, I rarely felt the intangible tingle with which the very best drama revs up my emotional embrace.

It's certainly possible that my expectations were just too high, or that true dramatic greatness isn't
often overt.

But while I valued the story of friendship, community--even as it's been changed, gentrified and dispersed--personal tragedy, economic challenges and a proud woman who (per the play's title) wants to share some newfound wealth by rewarding a lucky pal for personal, poignant and impassioned reasons, I can't award my grand prize (of @@@@@ or even @@@@1/2).

But as I was saying to two friends afterward, one who liked Lottery Day more than I did, another a bit less, the value of theater--especially for those of us lucky enough to see much of it--isn't truly found in the merits of any given play (or musical).

Through theater, we are introduced to people, lives, situations, etc. unlike our own--or perhaps much like our own--and beyond personal opinions or @ ratings, we benefit from taking in all of them.

So whether I absolutely loved Lottery Day or not, it's a play I'm glad to have seen, and Ike Holter a writer I'm happy to know a little more about. More than how greatly I was entertained, my worldview was indisputably enhanced.

And that's the real reward.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

From Me to Yucatan: Recapping a Trip to Playa del Carmen with Excursions to Chichen Itza, Tulum and Cozumel

Vacation Review

Playa del Carmen, Yucatan, Mexico
Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya
All-Inclusive Resort
Day excursions to Chichen Itza, Tulum and Cozumel
March 31-April 4, 2019
@@@@

Yes, it seems somewhat odd to award a rating to a vacation--on the Seth Saith scale of @@@@@--like I do with concerts, theater and other performances.

But while I will cite some things that didn't thrill me about this trip--and probably devote considerable word space to the negatives--I want to make it clear that I enjoyed myself far more than not.

Sure, it isn't coincidental that it has taken until age 50, with numerous adventures near and far under my belt, for me to go on a trip based around the beach, a resort and/or a cruise.

It sounds silly to say, but relaxing on vacation just isn't my thing.

No slight to those who prefer such trips--and I can now more acutely see the appeal--but I tend to venture alone as I do not have a romantic partner, nor any close friends with whom I regularly travel.

I barely drink and don't dance or club. I can't swim and don't partake in much physical recreation, in or out of the water. Given the choice of hanging out by a pool or visiting a stellar art museum, I will opt for the latter almost always.

But even though the resort part of this trip to Playa del Carmen was really only a means for getting to visit Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza and Tulum--and there were hiccups in both aspects--I can't deny that it was quite pleasurable in most regards.

After a long stretch--i.e. winter--of cold and crummy Chicago weather, the warmth, sunshine and scenery offered by Playa del Carmen and the Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya were wonderful.

Each of the five days of my trip, I did lie out by the pool and go in the water, and a couple times went onto the beach and--very minorly--into the Atlantic. (There was a ton of seaweed in the water and on the beach, so even if I were a swimmer, I'd have largely abstained.)

I got a sun tan, drank a few strawberry daquiris and enjoyed having all my meals--sans one off-site splurge I'll detail below--included in the lump-sum vacation package price offered through Travelocity.

Including round-trip flights to/from Chicago's O'Hare airport, this was about $1,200--and would've been an even better deal if I drank a whole lot more.

As it was, I found it to be rather fair and worthwhile.

Before booking the trip, having heard about Playa del Carmen's Quinta Avenida--"5th Avenue"--being a fun if touristy shopping street, I was looking at staying at either the Hilton or Grand Hyatt that virtually abutted the strip while also offering beachfront access.

But these two noted brands were a bit pricey and in learning that my barbers--a husband and wife couple--had visited Playa del Carmen multiple times, I took their advice to stay in a Riu property in the Playacar district, about a 5-minute cab ride south of the main part of Playa del Carmen.

They actually recommended the Riu Palace Mexico, a few blocks from the Riu Palace Riviera Maya--and amid the Riu Tequila, Riu Yucatan, Riu Playacar and Riu Lupita--but even as it is soon to undergo renovations, the Riu Palace Riviera Maya seemed to be the nicest of these.

And especially for about $500 less than the Hilton or Hyatt, for an all-inclusive stay, it seemed--as my barbers noted--to make sense not to be so close to the noise and hubbub of Quinta Avenida if I didn't intend to partake in the nightlife.

With a few qualms I'll enunciate, I think the Riu Palace Riviera Maya was a good choice, and gave it @@@@ (out of 5) in this review on TripAdvisor.

With a security checkpoint for any cars coming into the Playacar district, the hotel felt very safe, and I didn't mind it being away from town.

Even if I didn't use the beach much, I liked that the resort had its own beachfront access with lounge chairs attended by its wait staff.

The exterior appearance of the hotel, with its multiple pools and tons of palm trees, was gorgeous, and the lobby rather splendid.

The main restaurant--the Don Manolo buffet open for breakfast, lunch and dinner--had generous offerings, if a bit starch-heavy like most buffets, and I found the specialty restaurants to provide decent if not quite spectacular dinners.

These included a Brazilian churrascaria--the cuts of meat weren't as good or diverse as at Fogo de Chao, but were sufficient--a Japanese restaurant I enjoyed and Agave, featuring Mexican food.

There is also a poolside restaurant called Chili's--not the chain--where I ate after arrival after 3:00pm on Sunday, plus a fusion specialty restaurant, a sports bar and free room service.

After days in the sun or large breakfast and/or lunch buffets, my dinners at the hotel were typically a bit on the lighter side, but I think @@@@ (out of 5) is a fair assessment of the food offerings at the Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya. (As a guest there, I was welcome to visit any other Riu property for lunch, but never bothered.)

Because I was a bit knackered on my first evening, and had early-departing day tours on Tuesday and Wednesday, I only caught the Riu's featured entertainment offering on Wednesday evening.

This was a circus/magic show, which had some talented performers, but wasn't so amazing overall.

But I really liked that each night, live musicians performed upon a central gazebo a bit earlier in the evening, with jazz, mariachi and more.

I stayed in a Junior Suite, the smallest room size, but it was sizable enough and generally comfortable.

The pool area and pools themselves were fantastic, with points for lounge chairs that never threatened to tip as I maneuvered to get my fat ass out of them.

And for the most part, the staff of the Riu Palace Riviera Maya was delightful, with almost everyone offering a pleasant greeting every time they passed. A bellman/greeter named Paulinho was particularly cool.

But the front desk staff didn't offer much warmth, and their failure to seamlessly resolve a few small issues made this "relaxing stay" not perfectly so.

After my arrival from Cancun International Airport--via a pre-arranged shared Local Expert van--upon check-in a bellman let me into my room. But after changing into shorts and putting on flip-flops, I found that the key cards I was given did not in fact work.

Trudging back to the lobby as the flip-flops hurt my feet--I don't wear them often--I got another set of keys that also didn't work, and had to trundle back once again.

A staff member then joined me at my room and, after about 20 minutes, fixed the faulty lock.

Though this too is relatively ticky-tack, it bothered me that the power outlet next to my bed--where I would intend to charge my phone and have it next to me as I went to sleep & awoke--was extremely loose in terms of holding the plug prongs.

I told the front desk about this and a maintenance man attempted to fix it, but didn't. Fortunately I was able to live with it, but didn't like going to bed unsure if my phone and camera batteries would charge through the night.

At the Don Manolo buffet one day, a cheeseburger patty looked good, but there were no buns anywhere nearby. And it took two requests, two people and 20 minutes to get one.

Given that on Wednesday, I had to catch a tour bus to Chichen Itza at 5:00am, I requested a 4:15am wake-up call.

It never came.

Fortunately I had planned on this, and used my phone alarms.

In the whole scheme of things, well-beyond this particular hotel stay, these are rather piddly problems. But I did pay over $200 per night, and think it fair to note ways in which the Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya fell short of my expectations. And, IMHO, didn't work to resolve them with much kindness or chutzpah.

Beyond the resort, things were a similarly mixed bag. Absolutely astonishing in some ways; somewhat disappointing in others.

Monday, after a buffet breakfast, I took a cab to the main drag of Playa del Carmen, beginning at an outdoor shopping center near Quinta Avenida, and starting to stroll from there.

With Starbucks, Old Navy, Nike, Sunglass Hut, etc., etc., it didn't exactly feel authentically Mexican and past every smaller shop, I was cajoled to come on in.

So, much sooner than what I expected would be a good bit later, I opted to take a ferry to Cozumel at Noon.

It's only about a 30-minute ride and beyond enjoying being outside on a boat on a warm day--fortunately I didn't get seasick like the woman next to me--it made me flash back to going whale watching from Boston last August. I like how travels can connect in my memory like that.

I really don't know what I was intending to explore in Cozumel, which had 4 cruise ships docked and seemed to largely offer touristy shops like I had left in Playa del Carmen.

But I had heard that the coral reefs off Cozumel were spectacular, and though unable to see them as a scuba diver, snorkeler or swimmer, I was easily cajoled to buy a ticket on a glass bottom boat (as I had done likewise at Australia's Great Barrier Reef years ago).

I knew other tourists would be on the boat, but what I didn't realize was that everyone except one would go snorkeling with the tour leader.

And that though I did see some beautiful blue sea and some coral and fish I wouldn't have otherwise, the dirty glass bottom was pretty disappointing for viewing and photography.

I also didn't realize--and was assured otherwise by the ticket seller--that the small boat would be so topsy-turvy, and that I would get largely soaked.

Not a disaster, but it was 2 hours on a boat ride that was mainly for snorkeling and really only worth about 30 minutes of my time and a good deal less than the $30 I paid. I was going to complain to the ticket sellers afterwards, but couldn't find them.

After the boat ride, which followed a boat ride, I spent a few minutes going to a Hard Rock Cafe that was only a souvenir store--and over-priced bar; a 7-UP was $6 so I passed--then walked around the main tourist square a bit and got back on a boat to return to Playa del Carmen.

Giving credit to an enterprising local who recognized that a fat, white, solo American traveler was a prime candidate for a customer, I agreed to let him take me on a bike taxi from the ferry dock down a good stretch of Quinta Avenida.

Feeling somewhat sheepish and somewhat like royalty--perhaps penny "royal tea"--I didn't notice any stores, restaurants or bars I wanted to peruse or patronize, but did appreciate it being a popular pedestrian pathway (for most).

I got out near the Hilton but only saw its sign, before buying some souvenirs and catching a car taxi back to the Riu Palace, where I would eat dinner at the Japanese restaurant.

Though I could have booked my day tours at the hotel, given that Chichen Itza was the impetus for this trip, I booked a tour ahead of time through Viator, a website I've frequently used with satisfaction.

Viator, which is now part of TripAdvisor, doesn't run tours, or at least most of them. So the tour I booked--which was to take me to Chichen Itza on Tuesday and Tulum on Wednesday (as two separate outings from Playa del Carmen--was with an outfit called Amigo Tours, with whom I had gone to Teotihuacan from Mexico City in 2015.

For under $79, the two-day combo tour seemed like a really good deal, as seemingly comparable tours offered from the hotel to Chichen Itza were just $119.

But, planning to be picked up for Chichen Itza by 5:00am on Tuesday, on Monday I had an email from Viator/Amigo informing me that my Wednesday trip to Tulum had been canceled for unexplained reasons..

Fortunately, I was able to get in touch and--still really not knowing what the Wednesday problem was, and scheduled to fly home Thursday--was able to flip the days.

But this minor problem made me nervous about more substantive ones with Amigo, especially when the van that was to pick me up for Tulum at 7:00am didn't show up...until 7:15am and two phone calls later.

I also didn't realize the van that picked me up would take me to a larger tour bus, with far more passengers and the tour guide. (Not that this was a problem.)

Let me say here that I went on the tour to Tulum, and likewise Chichen Itza, wanting to learn some of the Mayan history.

And I realize a tour will be a balance between being shown the sights and simply hearing the history, and each person on the tour may wish for this to be calibrated a bit differently.

On Tuesday in Tulum, my Amigo Tours guide--a knowledgeable and professional man of Mayan descent going by the nickname of Cat--gave an informative tour, complete with several pictures & graphics he brought along.

And though it was early in the day, perhaps he was cognizant of the sun and rising heat. But, with the first half-hour at Tulum spent standing in one spot listening to him, I didn't feel he showed us around enough.

Especially as I was admittedly there primarily for the photography.

While I did wind up getting most of the shots I wanted, with some free time as the end, for me it was a good but not great tour.

What remains of the Mayan seaside city is striking, and I appreciated the insights Cat provided, but I just wish I had a bit more time to wander freely at Tulum.

Both the amazing sights I did see and photograph, and the disappointment over what I didn't, were even more pronounced the next day, at Chichen Itza.

Even without my requested wake-up call being handled by the Riu staff, I was up in plenty of time to catch the van at 5:00am, which--as with the Tulum tour--took me to a more populated tour bus. Fortunately, the van was on time and there was no confusion or worry.

I think it took us about 2-1/2 hours to reach Chichen Itza, allowing for some sleep along the way, yet getting us there early enough to be among the first two groups on the sacred grounds.

Our guide on this day, Frank--also a man of Mayan descent--was, like Cat the day before, informative and professional, but not particularly friendly or perceptive to the varying whims of the tour members.

And while I would have like to have said to him that while I was looking forward to listening to his explanations, I was admittedly there for photography and might occasional wander as such, his continuous narrative never provided me the chance.

So while I'll forever be thankful that I got to see Chichen Itza--and its glorious pyramid, El Castillo--on a beautiful day, initially without any crowds, I'm genuinely chagrined that Frank never led the group to, or suggested that I go see, a secondary but also monumental part of the grounds.

Certainly, I won't absolve myself, as at any point I was at liberty to ditch Frank and the tour--and honestly, in the moment, was oblivious to wanting to see the the El Caracol observatory, Las Monjas complex and more, though I had read about them--but I really did want to hear about the Mayan history and not be rude.

I don't know if companies such as Amigo Tours are limited to a certain amount of time on site per tour, of if the low cost of my 2-day tour factored in.

But after initially giving us 10 minutes to photograph El Castillo and whatever else we could see, Frank organized us back and led a 2-hour tour, saying we would have an hour on our own. But that was an hour including a 15-minute walk back to the tour bus.

I loved what I did see--including the Temple of the Warriors (though simply from the front; I would've valued more time here) and the Great Ball Court, where losing players were beheaded back in the day--so can't complain about where Frank did take us and the history he shared.

But if you click the El Caracol and Las Monjas links above to images on the Wikipedia entry for Chichen Itza, you should see that I missed some really great stuff (especially as a photography nut who likes to publish calendars from my trips).

Again, I'm largely to blame, as A) I was delighted with my time at Chichen Itza in the moment and not consciously aware of what I wasn't seeing; and B) I used my free 45 minutes to walk 15 minutes to see a Cenote (water hole) and buy some souvenirs from the gauntlet merchants, making it back to the bus with just 2 minutes to spare.

But I feel like I should've been told about these adjoining sights--it would've been a 5-10 minute walk through a clearing--and, if not taken on the tour, provided an extra half-hour to see them.

Now, although I was there just a week ago, I feel like I need to plan another trip to Chichen Itza and see it on my own timetable.

To be clear, while disappointed, I am neither distraught nor irate. I often say about traveling, enjoy what you see and don't rue what you don't.

And I'll have to follow my advice, especially as in the moment, my visit to Chichen Itza was wonderful. (It wasn't until later that evening that it dawned on me that I missed seeing the observatory.)

It's just a bit of a shame. (Hence, this review on TripAdvisor and this on Viator.)

Especially as I was back at my hotel by 3:00 and after getting some dessert from the lunch buffet, taking a nap and hanging by the pool, I still had plenty of time to kill before my 8:00pm dinner reservation, which required a 20-minute cab ride.

Now, it might seem like dinner after visiting Chichen Itza would be an afterthought, but not only had I planned for it to come after visiting Tulum--a much closer trip from/to Playa del Carmen--it was actually one of the highlights of my trip.

I don't truly consider myself a foodie, but when within reason, I like to try restaurants that are considered exquisite, including years ago Charlie Trotter's and Alinea in Chicago, and numerous notable places in New York City: Le Bernadin, Aureole, The Four Seasons, Nobu, Le Cirque, Jean-Georges, Cosme.

Understanding it isn't gospel, I like to reference the World's 50 Best Restaurants annual rankings, and in recent years it's helped me visit Pujol in Mexico City and both Maido and Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru.

Playa del Carmen is not represented on this list, even as it extends to a Top 100, but the rarefied list of AAA 5-diamond rated restaurants is another point of reference I respect. (Before I seem too snooty, let me say that I love McDonald's, hot dog stands, taco joints, etc., but respect the culinary arts as an creative pursuit I occasionally like to taste. )

Passion by Martin Berasategui is one of just two restaurants in PdC to receive 5 Diamonds--Cocina de Autor is the other--and is located in another all-inclusive resort, the Paradisus, which I believe does not include it in its all-inclusions.

So I had made a reservation there for 8pm on Wednesday, but was accommodated when I arrived a bit past 7:00pm (I didn't see much of Paradisus, which seemed more elegant than the Riu Palace Riviera Maya but didn't make me envious.)

Though a la carte service is available, the 7-course tasting menu was appealing, quintessential and--
though about $100--considerably less expensive than many prix fixe meals (I spent more at both Maido and Astrid y Gaston).

On my Facebook page, I posted pictures course by course, so I won't be so detailed here.

But while I don't think all of the relatively small courses were as imaginative as at Maido, or for the memories as at Picasso in Las Vegas, everything I ate was superb.

My waiter, Juan--who claimed to be a Bears fan when I told him I was from Chicago--was great, and the myriad, often richly-blended flavors I savored served to remind why I like to work high-end dining into palate when opportunity and budget allow.

I gave Passion by Martin Berasategui--the Spanish chef has restaurants around the world and was likely not on site--@@@@@ in this review on TripAdvisor.

So despite Chichen Itza being a tad disappointing once I had time to consider what I had and hadn't seen, I literally ended the day with a good taste in my mouth.

Back at my hotel, I was able to see some of the mainstage entertainment, but though some of the magic was impressive, I didn't last long.

The next day, Thursday, I didn't leave the hotel until it was time to go to the airport around 2:30pm.

This gave me a bit more time to lounge by the pools, go down to the beach and eat at Don Manolo--reminding me that there was much I'd enjoyed about the trip--but nothing that requires further detail here.

Unlike the outbound flight, which was direct from Chicago, my return included a connection in Dallas, which was a bit too tight, especially given DFW's confusing signage.

But like just about everything else regarding this trip, it was far better than it could've been, if not quite perfect.

This resort vacation came at a perfect time, and I'm entirely grateful I was able to go on it.

In a nutshell, to someone who didn't care deeply, I could comfortably say the trip "was great."

For in many ways it was. But for the few who've read this far, I'm happy to have given a fuller picture.

Cheers!



Saturday, March 30, 2019

Unseen No More: At United Center, Mumford & Sons' 'Delta Tour' Proves Worth Taking a Flier -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Mumford & Sons
w/ opening act Cat Power
United Center, Chicago
March 29, 2019
@@@@

My interest in seeing Mumford & Sons did not come naturally.

I don't mean that I was forced or coerced, nor was I invited or given a press pass.

It's that I wanted to see them--and went to their show Friday at the United Center--without ever having been that much of a fan.

I mean no disrespect, especially as I enjoyed their performance. But although I am old fogie who will still buy CDs--admittedly not that often anymore given a Spotify Premium account--I don't own any Mumford & Sons albums, and until studying up for the concert, knew relatively few songs.

But I love rock concerts, and perhaps even more holistically, the art of live performance. And over the past decade, as Mumford & Sons almost instantly became one of the world's biggest bands--the rock part somewhat came later--and has remained quite popular, people I respect have called them a great live act.

Though there are plenty of rock acts I love and see in concert repeatedly, many have been retiring or passing away, and there are relatively few I know replacing them. And I didn't come to truly love Arcade Fire--my favorite "modern" band by some margin--until I first saw them live in 2011.

Mumford & Sons sold out the United Center--all the way around, plus a general admission floor--when the show went on sale last year, but figuring this was an opportunity to check them off my list if nothing else, I bought a Club Level ticket just a few days ago for essentially face value. (This was Mumford's first arena show in Chicago, although I think they technically sold more tickets in playing at Montrose Beach in 2015.)

In Spotifamiliarizing myself with songs on recent setlists, and ultimately all four of their albums to date--including 2018's Delta, which seemed not so well-received by critics--I found myself liking enough songs sufficiently to genuinely anticipate a stellar show.

And I enjoyed it.

Seemingly not as much as many of the 23,000+ really exuberant white folks in attendance--Chicago singer Sharon Lewis, who guested on an encore of "Sweet Home Chicago" was literally the only person of color I saw all night, though to be fair the same can be said of other concerts I attend--but enough to be glad I went.

At least once, though for the right price in the right place, I'd consider a Mumford & Sons reprise.

After an opening set by Cat Power--the stage name of singer Chan Marshall--that I found solid if a bit too muted, and unlike other cities, devoid of any duets with Marcus Mumford, the headliners took the stage to the strains of Alan Parsons Project's "Sirius."

This is the song the Chicago Bulls have long used for introductions at the United Center, and while it may have seemed a tad opportunist for a British band to tie into the local sports scene, their Montrose Beach show in 2015 came just days after the Blackhawks won their last Stanley Cup and several team members brought it onstage, where the band members drank from it.

So I was tickled by the intro, which brought Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, Ted Dwayne and at least three touring musicians to a long, rectangular stage set in the middle of the UC floor.

They opened with Delta's fine "Guiding Light," but it was two songs from the band's 2009 debut, Sigh No More--"Little Lion Man" and "The Cave"--that, as the show's second and fourth songs, really got the crowd excited and singing along loudly.

Though I refrained from demonstrably gesticulating like the woman next to me, I could see why Mumford & Sons has such devotees, especially with Marcus making for a glib and amiable frontman.

They didn't blow me away on par with Arcade Fire, but for much of the show I thought @@@@1/2 (out of 5) might be an apt rating.

As you can see above, I settled on @@@@, as clocking in at just 93 minutes, I felt the show was not only somewhat brief, but at times rushed and even mechanical.

I thought it was a bit cheesy to tell the crowd to hold up their lit phones prior to "Believe"--shouldn't that be inspired, not instructed--and the rockers from 2015's Wilder Mind wrapped around it, "Tompkins Square Park" and "Ditmas," sounded like kinda good songs that don't have all that much depth too them. (Comparisons to Coldplay, at their more mundane, are apt.)

In the same vein, but better, was "The Wolf," which closed out the main set after a trio of album tracks from Delta: "Slip Away," which was really good, and two others that were more middling. (See the setlist here.)

The in-the-round stage worked fine even if it didn't add that much, and there were some nice lighting effects if well short of those employed by Arcade Fire, or Coldplay for that matter.

Marcus Mumford was predominantly the focal point, at one point running up into the seats, with banjo/guitarist Winston Marshall awash with smoke to open "Tompkins Square Park" the most overt moment for the Sons.

The four main members opened the encores around a single microphone in the lower level seats--on "Timshel"--before returning to the stage for "Awake My Soul."

In most recent cities, the encores have included a cover of Nine Inch Nails'--by way of Johnny Cash--"Hurt," which I would've been intrigued to hear, but we got the ebullient Lewis leading "Sweet Home Chicago."

Though the selection was rather routine, it was truly delectable, with Lewis sounding great and the band forced to rock out and improvise more than they had otherwise.

It was a great moment, but one that suggested that Mumford & Sons would benefit--well, at least to my perspective--from loosening up and breaking out of their comfort zone more often.

Another crowd-pleasing singalong on "I Will Wait"--from 2012's Babel--was undeniably joyous, though it was followed by the far more ponderous "Delta" to close the show.

For the record, Chicago got 2 fewer songs than most tour stops, though other than "Hurt" there wasn't anything I really missed. ("Babel" might've been nice as an audible.)

Still, the show could've done with another 20-30 minutes, perhaps not planned down to the T.

I understand that I didn't attend as the biggest Mumford & Sons and respect if the evening was far more emotionally rewarding for others.

The band is really good--and successful--at what they do, so who cares what I think.

But I feel they'd do well to mix--and stir--things up quite a bit more if they truly want to be considered a great band...and live act.

And to--perhaps--bring me back again.

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Here's a taste of "Little Lion Man":