Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Road to Anywhere: 'Bob: A Life in Five Acts' Heads in Interesting Directions, a Bit Too Chaotically -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bob: A Life in Five Acts
by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
directed by Will Quam & Derek Bertelsen
The Comrades
at Apollo Studio Theater, Chicago

In a 1923 discussion about Cubism, Pablo Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

My interpretation of this is that art—be it rendered through fractional figures, paintings of harlequins, wildly distorted faces, etc., or plays or stories or movies or music or dance or however else—typically doesn’t depict the precise realities of our everyday lives, yet it nonetheless reflects common experiences and universal truths in imaginatively representational ways.

Sometimes art can be rather realistically identifiable to our own existences, but practitioners with great inventiveness—e.g. Picasso—may wildly warp reality while still reflecting it, as challenging and confounding as this may be to some audiences.

Undoubtedly, there could be—and have been—far more straightforward ways to address the meaning of life and one's search for a sense of purpose & place than Peter Sinn's Nachtrieb's play, Bob: A Life of Five Acts, currently being staged in Chicago by The Comrades theater troupe. 

Photo credit on all: Cody Jolly
The current movie, Lady Bird, for example, chronicles a teenage girl's quest for love, friendship, individuality, acceptance, cultural passions, connection with her mother and venturing beyond the known in ways that don't seem particularly novel. 

Yet as written & directed by Greta Gerwig and acted in the lead role by Saoirse Ronan, it is tremendously compelling, poignant, powerful and probably the best American film of 2017. 

That the film’s characters feel just a tad more like artistic archetypes than everyday people we are apt to encounter is due in large part to stellar work by not only Ronan but three legendary members of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble: Laurie Metcalfe, Tracy Letts and Lois Smith.

Bob, as I’ll call the play at hand from here on out, takes a far more unique tack in exploring an individual’s longing for purpose, achievement, advancement, exploration, etc.

At the beginning of the first act—of a 90 minute play with no breaks—the titular character (Raymond Jaquet) is born and left in White Castle restroom, where he is found by an employee named Janine (Angela Horn, though like all 4 cast members besides Jaquet she rotates through several roles), who decides to raise him, even if it means going on the lam in a beige Chevy Malibu, such as I once owned.

This odd birthplace scenario reminded me a bit of the movie/book Where the Heart Is—in a 6-degrees-of-separation coincidence, the novel is by Billie Letts, mother of Tracy, who of course is also a famed playwright—in which the central character gives birth in a Walmart.

From a young age, Janine instills in Bob the notion that he will become a great man, and this sets in motion an eternal road trip type quest to overtly realize this prophecy.

To reveal where this journey takes him, and who he meets along the way, would ruin much of the play’s fun, and Nachtrieb does present some humorous beyond-the-beaten-path scenarios.

It’s to the credit of the actors—including Brittany Stock, Bryan Renaud and Sara Jane Patin—that Bob is entertaining throughout and kept me curious about how Bob’s pursuits would unfold.

Under the artistic direction of Bertelsen, the Comrades have carved a nice niche by staging—typically in intimate surroundings for a low price on Sun/Mon/Tues nights—modern plays that would seem to resonate with millennials newly exploring the wonders of live theater.

Without wishing to sound snobbish or dismissive, I prefer plays that—likely in sacrificing a bit of hipness—hit somewhat harder and delve a good deal deeper than Bob does.

Having seen his takes on The Children’s Hour and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Bertelsen—who co-directs here with with Will Quam—certainly knows his way around such works, old and new. But like some past Comrades' productions, Bob seems to skew to younger audiences, and that's quite logical and welcome, even if I wasn't all that smitten.

A pre-show recording of Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” nicely sets the stage for Bob: A Life in Five Acts, but ultimately George Harrison’s “Any Road”—with the lyric “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”—seems more apt as among his offbeat adventures and often frenzied encounters, we get no real sense of what Bob greatly wants, or wants to do...greatly.

Perhaps leading to why a fine effort failed to provide me with much insight, about Bob’s life or mine, was that the characters—primarily but not just the main one—never seem to find time for much, or any, introspection amid the quest for greatness.

I really don't think it ruins much to share that Bob ultimately discovers that one's life is made estimable not so much by what we achieve as by those we love & impact, and vice-versa.

If not exactly a new or unexpected revelation—which is only part of the play's resolution—I found it accurate, identifiable and even inspiring.

But the circuitous, at times over-the-top way Bob comes to such an understanding not only feels less engaging & effective than the plainer path of Lady Bird, it also didn't connect with me as much as another similarly-themed yet even more obtuse work I recently once again saw live, Stephen Sondheim's musical, Into the Woods.

Though the "lie" there is far more preposterous than anything presented in Bob: A Life in Five Acts—fairy tale characters venture into a forest with hopes of enhancing their lives—the universal truths that are exposed, while thematically akin to those here, also wind up being more cogent.

Which is all a rather convoluted way of conveying that while I was happy to have seen Bob—and would even recommend it to audiences a good bit less old and curmudgeonly than me—I ultimately didn't love it.

And just to end with a small quibble from a huge Cubs fan...

It seems Nachtrieb wrote Bob: A Life in Five Acts in 2010 and it premiered in 2011 at The Humana Festival for New American Plays in Louisville—the locale of Bob's birthplace White Castle—so it's understandable that there would be references within about Cubs fans longing for success that never seems to come. Such had obviously been the case, then and for decades.

But presumably due to a little localized tinkering to the script, there's a line near the beginning—and I'm paraphrasing—about how “Rizzo had overcome cancer to win it all.” 

A nice touch that made me smile, but it would seem to invalidate later references in the play to the Cubs' perpetual futility. I get that as it chronicles a 60+ year life in 90 minutes, the play isn't stringent in avoiding anachronisms, and this "continuity issue" is entirely minor, but it just felt a touch contradictory.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sans Ballet, The House Theatre’s ‘Nutcracker’ Pirouettes Rather Imaginatively — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Nutcracker 
The House Theatre of Chicago
at the Chopin Theatre
Thru December 30

For as long as I’ve been aware of the concept of live entertainment, I’ve been aware of The Nutcracker.

As a ballet.

When I was knee high to, well, a nutcracker, my Aunt Mickey took me to the ballet at the Goodman Theatre, when it adjoined the Art Institute of Chicago.

She had been intending to just take my sisters, but probably around the age of 5, I insisted I should get to go, too.

So I’ve long been aware of Clara and the nutcracker/prince and sugar plum fairies and the great Tchaikovsky score and, well, ballet dancing.

And after many years of not again seeing The Nutcracker, I took myself to the Joffrey Ballet version in 2015, the last year of the Robert Joffrey-conceived production.

And I loved it.

Now the Joffrey does a version imagined and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, and I'm hoping to see it in a few weeks.

But though clearly sketchy on the details, I knew the noted House Theatre of Chicago puts on its own annual version of The Nutcracker, now for the 8th year.

So the other night I took advantage of the chance to see it, with my mom and sister Allison in tow.

It was certainly not The Nutcracker I remembered--even from just 2 years ago--as it is not a ballet, nor does it contain any.

Until shortly before attending, I didn't realize this.

I knew that in general, the House puts on rather imaginative shows, typically with a quirky bent. (Certainly not only, per its fine preceding production of United Flight 232.)

And given that the troupe's current venue, the Chopin Theatre on the Division side of Chicago's Polish Triangle, doesn't give it a humongous stage footprint, I didn't expect a Joffrey Ballet-type production.

At which point, you may be thinking, "but wait, you said this is the 8th year, didn't you know it wasn't a ballet?"

No, until reading about it a few days before attending, I really didn't. I thought it might be the House Theatre's version of a ballet, substituting some silliness for dance virtuosity, but I thought The Nutcracker, particularly around the holidays, means ballet. (Arguments could be made for, though also against, changing the title here.)

But while there is still Clara, a nutcracker given to her by a man named Drosselmeyer, dolls that come to life, live music and even a bit of dancing, there are no plies, releves or sautes to be found.

Which doesn't make it bad, just different.

Even more different than what I had vaguely anticipated.

Yet to call it a play also seems imprecise, as there is live music throughout and even a number of nice songs, though it is also not a traditional musical.

The House version of The Nutcracker is based, somewhat, on the E.T.A. Hoffmann story that begat the Tchaikovsky ballet, but this rendition is created by House Theatre members Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich, Kevin O'Donnell and Tommy Rapley.

The show originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 under the Visiting Company Initiative and has enjoyed new House productions since 2010, with a supposedly significant revamping in 2016.

This year it is directed by Chris Mathews. 

Though fun, festive, tremendously inventive with terrific performances and some really nice songs, it revolves around themes of death, grief and fear far more than the ballet Nutcracker.

While it should be enjoyable, and even informative, for children of a certain age--which as a non-parent I won't try to pinpoint--be aware that it is a good bit darker than the ballet.

Essentially, the House uses the dreamy surrealism of Tchaikovsky/Hoffmann's Nutcracker and adapts it to modern times, where after joyously gathering--and even interacting with the audience--to celebrate the Christmas homecoming of their son Fritz (Desmond Gray) from an ongoing war, his parents (Amanda de la Guardia, Nicholas Bailey) instead receive heartbreaking news.

Fritz's teenage sister Clara (a terrific Haley Seda, who also shines vocally) mourns his loss, including through a fine song perhaps called "Christmas is the Darkest Time of Year." (No song list is provided in the program, nor composers/lyricists specified.) 

Though the family's holiday festivities are also forestalled the following December, odd Uncle Eric, also known as Drosselmeyer (an excellent Torrey Hanson) shows up anyway with a gift for Clara .


The present is a nutcracker version of Fritz, who--along with a monkey (Ian Maryfield), rag doll (Rachel Shapiro) and tin man (Ben Hertel)--comes to life in Clara's dreams or nightmares or hallucinations or imagination or just somehow.

There are some truly droll, delightful moments as the toys welcome Fritz and play together, and--as Sugar Plum Cookies abound in this production--a fun tune urging, "Let's Make Cookies."

From here, theoretically as a manifestation of Clara's fears, the narrative revolves around huge rats coming to threaten her and her toy pals, including the impending arrival of the Rat King. (Not, as I surmised, Rat King Cole, a swell-singing merry old soul.)

Much of this is great fun thanks to the excellent, exuberant 8-person cast, many of whom wind up portraying rats along with their other roles.

But it also all becomes a bit much.

In a variety of ways, including the costuming by Debbie Baer, the House Nutcracker is hugely imaginative, but in being so, it's also rather manic as it dances between deep despair and giddy ebullience, intense fears and tender poignancy.

There is much to be admired and savored, including fine background music throughout--Matthew Muniz is the music director and created the orchestrations--and four strong songs, with the Fritz sung "Ghost of Christmas Day" another highlight. (Again all titles are just guesses on my part.)

I can readily see why this show has become a Chicago seasonal staple, and was happy to add my applause.

But ultimately it was a bit too frantic and surreal--a type of theatricality I often struggle with--for me to relish it quite on par with other works.

Such as the Nutcracker ballet.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

An Engaging First Chapter: The American Writers Museum Provides a Fine Introduction to Storied Authors, Poets, Historians, Songwriters, Critics, etc. — Chicago Museum Review

Museum Review

American Writers Museum
180 N. Michigan, 2nd Floor
Chicago, IL

As hopefully evidenced by this blog—and my other one,—I am a passionate advocate for cultural literacy.

I am also a writer, not just of blog articles of many ilks, but advertising copy, poems, cartoons, greeting cards and much else.

Even more so, while far from the world’s most avid reader of books, I am a fervent admirer of what others have written, in numerous realms.

Thus, per an initial visit to the new American Writers Museum in downtown Chicago, I was most impressed by the breadth of practitioners represented, ranging far beyond novelists.

Between the museum’s Writers Hall—with both pictures and placards denoting hundreds of
individuals—and a smaller section of banners highlighting Chicagoans, names like Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Charles Schulz and Tupac Shakur can be found among those of Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Lorraine Hansberry and Nelson Algren.

Per a couple of friendly associates at the front desk of the museum occupying the second floor of a Michigan Avenue building, the institution’s creators and consultants have decided to focus solely on non-living writers. At least in the permanent collections, as the photographs (of writers) by 95-year-old Art Shay presently comprise a nice if small special exhibit.

Excepting scribes who haven’t yet left us for the great library in the sky, or were bred beyond U.S shores, it seemed that most writers one would expect to find were indeed hanging around the museum.

Though other than the impossibility of including everyone, I was unable ascertain why a children’s gallery spotlighted Maurice Sendak but didn’t seemingly have any mention of Shel Silverstein.

Or why an interactive display allowing patrons to indicate their favorite books and authors completely omitted J.D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye from even being in the database. (I alerted a staff member to this oversight.)

In indicating I would write about my visit, I was graciously extended complimentary admission but—without overthinking comparisons for cultural expenditures—I would have been satisfied had I paid the standard $12.

But while far from reading every word of text about every writer, even in taking two loops around,
photographing everything—as permissible for all—and taking notes, my visit lasted less than 90 minutes.

And even in being suitably informed and impressed, and solidly recommending the AWM is well-worth your perusal, I can’t perceive the need for a return visit until the museum—which just opened in May—eventually begins its next chapter.

Without suggesting that there are yet any known plans for upgrades, expansion or revision other than a new temporary exhibit soon to open on Laura Ingalls Wilder, the front desk duo corroborated my sense that the museum seems more an exciting work in progress than completed vision. They mentioned that the proprietors themselves have spoken of it as a “first edition.”

Understanding spatial and budgetary constraints are never not a consideration, I would suggest AWM turn to its vast roster of writers, professors, etc. to create some vignette videos briefly expounding on why a specific author, poem, screenplay, etc. is considered great, unique, ahead of its time, important or whatever.

Certainly the museum hosts a nice slate of live programs—though understandably not on many weekday afternoons—and there are already several inspired interactive touches, including games aimed to elucidate on the art of writing and word choices.

In fact, or at least opinion, everything in place is attractively presented; it’s clear a lot of care went into the galleries, including not only presenting writers from disparate milieus but diverse cultural backgrounds.

But it all feels a bit cursory, and while I hope the museum delights and excites curious kids, I expect most visitors will be resigned to learning relatively little—given the limited text that can be devoted to so many worthy subjects—both about writers they already know well and those with whom they’re unfamiliar.

For example, Ernest Hemingway stands as one of the most legendary of all American writers, likely
the most famous novelist (and short story writer) to ever come out of the Chicago area and an author still presumably studied in high school and/or college literature courses.

And certainly Hem is well-represented in the American Writers Museum.

One can read about him in an interactive kiosk about writers from each state. In Writers Hall, his three-sided rotating biography provides a brief overview, a short factoid and a quote about him (by poet Robert Frost). His image with a passage from The Old Man and the Sea is included in a nice Nation of Writers multimedia display. And currently, there are four Art Shay photos of him in the temporary exhibit.

Presumably because the Oak Park born & bred Hemingway didn't spend any of his famed writing career in the Chicago area, he is not--at least to my observance--included in the Chicago Gallery.

Hem's "A Soldier Story" is part of an interactive display devoted to the craft of writing, but overall I was still left with little clarity as to what made Ernest Hemingway so stylistically novel, save for a notation that as a young reporter with the Kansas City Star, he was "forced to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone."

I realize that the only real way to understand what makes a writer great is to read what he or she has written. Though the American Writers Museum does have a Readers Hall that allows one to peruse some great books, the idea isn't to sit there and read all day.

And there are so many great writers represented, I know the current set-up doesn't much allow for deep insights on any, let alone all. But that's where short video vignettes would be nice.

In the Writers Hall, there are multiple video on-demand stations, but at present all have the same
content. Ideally, this could be expanded upon over time, including with greater insights about the writers who adorn the walls.

Perhaps this may get burdensome on busy days, but there are already handy stools provided for those who wish to sit and watch the clips.

Specifically about Hemingway, a museum devoted to him--besides his birthplace museum--just closed in Oak Park, so maybe the AWM can look into getting some materials or tapping into additional subject matter experts. 

Regarding the special exhibit, Capturing Stories: Photographs of Writers by Art Shay, viewing Shay's pictures--ranging from Hemingway to Shay's noted compadre Nelson Algren to George Plimpton, Art Buchwald, Masters & Johnson, Roger Ebert and even Dolly Parton--should certainly accompany any visit to the AWM, and while the gallery isn't particularly extensive, could well provide reason enough to prompt one before a TBA exhibit end date next spring.

I am sorry to have--by just days--missed the exhibit containing the full scroll of Jack Kerouac's manuscript for On the Road, but I had actually seen it elsewhere. As of this writing there's no information on the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit on the museum website, but I was told it is starting soon.

As anyone who has written anything knows--so basically everyone--a lot of good thoughts, ideas and phrasing can go into the first draft, but invariably some spell-checking, editing, refinements or even wholesale rewriting can create vast improvements.

Without meaning it as an exact parallel--the AWM is certainly further along than a "first draft"--this also describes the American Writers Museum.

It is a wonderfully welcome addition to Chicago's cultural landscape, and deserving of bringing in visitors old and young from near and far. If not yet a masterpiece, it represents a fantastic beginning.

And I can't wait to see what happens next.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Teach Your Children (To Jam) Well: As a Stage Musical, 'School of Rock' Earns a Solid "B" — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

School of Rock: The Musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru November 19

Given the preponderance of popular movies being turned into stage musicals, it certainly wasn’t surprising when School of Rock was brought to Broadway, especially as the 2003 Richard Linklater film starring Jack Black revolves around music.

What I wouldn’t have guessed is that the show’s composer would be Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Certainly, anyone familiar with Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita—and the entire breath of his oeurvre—shouldn’t be surprised that Sir Andy knows his way around a power chord.

Though I’ve come to like several musical theater composers more than Webber, he’s inarguably a legend who has created many an iconic tune, including in a rock vein. Even the notion of a "rock musical" owes him a great debt (though I think Hair was truly the first one).

And with lyrics by Glenn Slater—his collaborator on the Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies—the maestro has penned enough enjoyable songs to make School of Rock a quality musical, especially when the tunes are performed by a gaggle of talented kids.

In Chicago, on the show’s first national tour—it continues to run on Broadway and in London—the
movie’s Jack Black character, Dewey Finn, is well-played in lovably schlubby fashion by Ned Colletti.

Kicked out of a rock band he helped form, Dewey lies his way into becoming a substitute teacher at an uppity private school, in the guise of his roommate, Ned Scheebly.

At Horace Green School, he discovers the kids in his class are musically talented, in a classical vein, and takes it upon himself to turn them into rebellious rockers, weaned on legends like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC.

Yet while songs like "You're In the Band" and "Stick It to the Man"--as played by Phoenix Schuman (Zack), Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton (Freddy), Theordora Silverman (Katie) and Theo Mitchell-Penner (Lawrence), though there's also an unseen orchestra--rock hard enough to get the point across and make one smile at the gifted kids, none nearly compare to the best of the bands mentioned above, or any other rock classics.

Although in the movie, the kids in Dewey's class performed new songs with Black on lead vocals--notably "In the End of Time" and "School of Rock," both reprised here--the soundtrack prominently featured music by Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Ramones, Cream, The Doors and more, with the children clearly being indoctrinated to such "rock history lessons."

I get that in buying the rights to adapt School of Rock into a stage musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber probably couldn't acquire clearance to use famous songs, especially those by artists a big bigger (and presumably still rather well-off) than those who sold their permission for Rock of Ages.

So that Webber, Slater and the musical's book writer, Julian Fellowes--who has a rather impressive list of film, theater and television writing credits--have created a song-filled show good enough to earn generally positive reviews, multiple Tony nominations and an ongoing 2+ year Broadway run, is rather impressive.

And that well into School of Rock's 3-week Chicago stop, the Cadillac Palace was largely packed, with a ton of teens in the balcony, bespeaks a good movie, strong rationale for theatrical adaptation, legendary composer, skilled collaborators, excellent lead, talented kids, other strong performers and decent songs combining to result in a rather enjoyable, quite marketable musical.

In addition to Coletti and the kids already mentioned, Lexie Dorssett Sharp (as the school's principal, Rosalie Mullins), Matt Bittner (Ned), Emily Borromeo (Ned's shrill girlfriend, Patty) and--among many enjoyable youngsters--Ava Briglia (Summer) and Gianna Harris (Tomika) merit warm praise.

And lending itself to one of the show's most imaginatively-staged numbers--by director Laurence Connor--"If Only You Would Listen" attests to ALW's continued ability to create a showtune that sticks in your, uh, "Memory." (There's a funny reference to that famed Cats song in School of Rock, but the joke was a bit ironically in the movie as well.)

"Stick It to the Man" allows the kids to adorably stomp around with punkish aggression, and Act Two opener "Time to Play" is another key song, though it seems to crib the melody line of Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" and the opening of The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville."

And for me, the galvanizing, defiant, therapeutic, jubilant and redemptive power of rock 'n roll isn't theoretical.

"I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Gimme Shelter," "Layla," "Baba O'Riley," "Rock and Roll," "Rebel Rebel," "Born to Run," "London Calling," "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and myriad other of rock's holy scriptures have changed my life, and probably even saved it.

So a musical full of ersatz rock 'n roll--and no real classics, save for one Stevie Nicks song and a few famed riffs--doesn't truly get the point across, any more than middling, saccharine songs substituting for "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" or "Music of the Night" would satisfy my affinity for Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And fatuous as this may sound, I think the true "gospel of rock" is what inspired Linklater, Black and screenwriter Mike White to create the movie. In fact, Jack Black personally pleaded for Led Zeppelin's permission to use "The Immigrant Song," which was granted, rather atypically.

Though conceivably also legally forbidden, after the musical's performers took well-deserved bows to real-name introductions, I was hoping the School of Rock band of kids--who Webber himself, in a recorded pre-show announcement, assured the audience were playing live--would bust out some AC/DC or Bowie, Zeppelin or Petty.

But I was left to quickly channel some through my brain and, soon, headphones.

So at the end of the day, even though School of Rock: The Musical makes for a decent night of entertainment, it's not as good as the film, or a great rock concert, or the best ALW musicals, or far better rock-infused musicals about defiant kids (Billy Elliot, Matilda, Spring Awakening, Newsies to name a few).

It's good but not essential. I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing it, but also wouldn't urge anyone I know.   

As written at top--where classroom grades usually go--I give it a "B."

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Among the Greatest: At Evanston's Bookends & Beginnings, Jonathan Eig Speaks About His Comprehensive New Biography, 'Ali: A Life'

Book Event Recap

Ali: A Life
by Jonathan Eig
Bookends & Beginnings, Evanston, IL
November 7, 2017
Book website | Store website

"Why did a black man growing up in the 1940s and '50s think he could be special?"

"If you can't answer that, don't write the book."

This is what renowned African-American comedian and activist Dick Gregory told Jonathan Eig was central to the noted journalist and author writing a new biography about Muhammad Ali.

Eig himself relayed Gregory's contention and challenge Tuesday evening in an engaging presentation promoting Ali: A Life, the 539-page result of a 4-1/2 year effort during which time both Ali and Gregory have passed.

A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Eig was appearing just blocks away at Evanston's Bookends & Beginnings, an independent bookstore in the spot occupied by Bookman's Alley for decades (behind the 1700 block of Sherman).

Although I haven't read any of Eig's previous works, including 2005's Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, I was aware of him as an acclaimed biographer.

Given my fascination with Ali, who I had once memorably encountered--as relayed here upon his death in June 2016--I knew I wanted to get the new biography, even if staying focused enough to read it in full will be a 15-round challenge (given my admittedly fickle reading proclivities).

I noted several Chicago-area engagements for Eig, including at the Oak Park Public Library and the Chicago Humanities Festival, but even in necessitating rescheduling a theater ticket, the event at Bookends & Beginnings worked out best.

After a warm introduction by store owner Nina Barrett--including praise for a prior appearance by Eig tied to his 2014 book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution--Eig spoke for about an hour on why he wanted to write about Ali, how he went about his research and what he learned.

Affable throughout, the slight, bald, bespectacled author began by saying he and the three-time heavyweight champion of the world had much in common, including--as Eig clenched his fists in a boxers stance--"We both have lightning fast jabs."

And drolly, without having flinched, "Wanna see it again?"

More seriously, while noting that Ali, once considered the most famous person in the world, had garnered voluminous press coverage and has been profiled in fine books by Norman Mailer (The Fight), David Remnick (King of the World), Mark Kram Jr. (Ghosts of Manila) and others--I'll add Thomas Hauser (Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times)--Eig found that no one yet had done the kind of full-blown, comprehensive biography he was envisioning.

So he set about writing one, first interviewing a reluctant Ferdie "The Fight Doctor" Pacheco, who Eig said tried to throw him out of his house, and then Ali's second wife, Khalilah (a.k.a. Belinda), who told the author, "Says who?" when Eig introduced himself as an Ali biographer.

After initially insisting on $6,000 for her cooperation--which Eig found an odd amount and didn't feel compelled to pay--Khalilah became a valued and friendly source as the writer delved deep into learning what made the man born Cassius Clay tick.

And how Ali's life--through which wove race, politics, war and boxing, plus worldwide popularity, immense public hatred, quite a bit of womanizing and crippling illness--can enlighten ours.

"The key is to make him human," shared Eig, "to get beyond the mythology."

I'm not going to transcribe Eig's entire speech, key aspects of which can presumably be found in Ali: A Life, but he discussed interviewing Ali's brother Rahman, showed a slide of their childhood home in Louisville, told the famed story of young Cassius Clay getting into boxing after having his bicycle stolen and shared how even from a young age, Ali desperately wanted to become famous.

A nice gathering at Bookends & Beginnings, including my friend Ken and seemingly some of Eig's fellow journalists, also heard about Ali beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, soon joining the Nation of Islam, adopting a Muslim name, becoming "the most hated man in America" and, in 1966, refusing induction into the U.S. Army at the time of the Vietnam War.

Referencing the vitriol faced from certain corners by Colin Kaepernick today, Jonathan Eig noted that in the mid-'60s, white American reaction to Ali was ten times worse.

Even at the height of his fame in the 1970s,
Ali hawked a variety of products purely
for profit, as Eig depicted with this one.
Yet he also "became a hero to those in the anti-war movement" and, after having his title stripped in his prime, Ali's resiliency in rising off the canvas following a brutal knockdown at the hands of Joe Frazier in their hallowed 1971 title fight--in which Ali lost for the first time in 32 pro fights--marked the beginning of his becoming more widely beloved.

"White people accepted him more when they saw him as vulnerable," Eig offered as hypothesis rather than fact.

Eig shared some sad truths about Ali, including that--based on research he had conducted for the book--the boxer likely absorbed more than 200,000 punches in his amateur and professional career, which was unnecessarily extended for financial gain.

The Parkinson's syndrome that robbed Ali's motor skills and famed loquaciousness was undoubtedly caused by all the abuse he took in the ring, per Eig, but though its effects were apparent to the public from the late-'80s until his death, the author's research uncovered much earlier signs of brain damage, including a substantial drop in "speaking rate" between 1970-1980.

Although I happily purchased Ali: A Life at Bookends & Beginnings, had Eig sign and inscribe it to me and even began reading it at bedtime last night, it'll be a good while--if ever--before I can share much about the book itself. (It seems to be getting stellar reviews, and strong accolades from people such as Ken Burns.)

But based on what Eig shared on Tuesday night, it would appear the tome is far from a hagiography.

Although I, perhaps only before reading the bio, would readily use the word "hero" to describe my affinity for Ali--I've twice visited the museum in his honor in Louisville and have watched numerous documentaries--Eig notably never did in his presentation.

In fact, while saying that he was surprised by discovering how humble Ali could be among strangers, despite his famed "I am the greatest!" exhortations, the author expressed being quite troubled by certain elements of the full picture he painted in his book.

Not only could Ali be terribly cruel to Frazier, Foreman, and other black opponents--far more than white ones--according to Eig he treated his wives and children poorly, and among several adulterous affairs cited in the biography were ones with underage girls.

Over time, the author shared, the champ--beset by financial troubles and depression, imprisoned by the ravages of Parkinson's, emboldened by renewed adoration after lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics--became more thoughtful and religious.

Eig didn't reveal if he ever met Ali or attempted to interview him for the biography--I should have asked in the Q&A segment--but did attend his funeral, noting that the boxer got "more than a Presidential sendoff."

"He was turned into a saint," said Eig, amiably, admiringly, but seemingly not entirely in agreement with such veneration.

Which should make Ali: A Life far more fascinating than just a highly-detailed deification.

And along with all I will learn about Muhammad Ali, I valued gaining insight into the process taken by a skilled biographer, the truths he tries to reveal, the scenarios he depicts to give readers a sense of being there and the questions he tries to answer.

Including, ultimately, the key quest Dick Gregory set him upon:

Why did a black man growing up in the 1940s and '50s think he could be special?

Because, Jonathan Eig intimated on an enlightening evening in Evanston:

"[Muhammad Ali] believed he didn't have to accept the world the way he found it."

Monday, November 06, 2017

Revue Review: Second City's Talent-Rich 'Dream Freaks Fall From Space' Amuses, To An Extent

Theater / Comedy / Improv Review

Dream Freaks Fall From Space
106th Mainstage Revue
The Second City, Chicago
Thru May 31

I think a lot of people think a lot of things are a lot funnier than I do.

I mean, I don’t want to believe that I’m a humorless grump, and I actually think laughing often is vital to living in today’s world.

Without suggesting that I’m particularly funny, I offer up puns, witticisms and wisecracks pretty much on a daily basis.

But while realizing that great comedy should spark new insights as much as loud guffaws, I very rarely LOL at anything.

I almost never watch Saturday Night Live these days, as I haven't found it to be great for years, save some occasional political impersonations.

Neither have many if any Mainstream American comedy movies of recent vintage much tickled my funny bone, and though I've seen and enjoyed many legendary stand-up comedians, very few have kept me constantly in stitches.

The fact that Steven Wright still consistently does may suggest that I'm drawn to a more unique type of comedian, but I've generally laughed more at humorous plays--including the recent The Legend of Georgia McBride and the ongoing Yasmina's Necklace--than at comedians or improv/sketch shows.

Nonetheless, I still believe comedy should be part of my live entertainment diet, but it has candidly been a rather small one.

So I was delighted to be invited to The Second City to review their 106th Mainstage Revue, titled Dream Freaks Fall From Space.

Which, in not knowing what that title is meant to reference, may reiterate that I could well be at fault for not loving the show, though I did enjoy much of the material, the six cast members and the overall experience.

In being admiringly deferential in lieu of profusely laudatory, I can perceive overdoing the Trump bashing, including in a revue's title, can come off as far too obvious and even trite.

Although...Tyler Davis' song insisting a potential paramour not have voted for the Donald, or must now express regret for that decision, was one of the show's clear highlights.

Each of the other writer/performers, adorned in white jumpsuits, had plenty of fine moments as well, whether in group sketches, smaller scenes or solo bits.

An oddly but enjoyably anachronistic Where's Waldo piece, featuring the consistently good Nate Varrone as the hard-to-find, cap-wearing cartoon figure, definitely made me laugh, and I found Tien Tran's song speculating that "Maybe your baby is gay" both amusing and astute.

There was a considerable amount of live music performed by the talented cast--also including Ryan Asher, Kelsey Kinney (the only veteran from a past mainstage revue) and Jeffrey Murdoch--and I also enjoyed a bit featuring the lip syncing of famed songs pertinent to particular characters, only to have others point out that the lyrics incorrectly matched the memories.

So certainly there were plenty of inspired moments over 2 hours of stage time, and not only isn't comedy universal-- Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune loved this revue--even for the most talented practitioners in the realms of sketch & improv, it's gotta be daunting to work in the shadows of Belushi, Ackroyd, Murray, Candy, Myers, Farley, Fey, Colbert, Carrell, etc., all still hanging around on the famed venue's walls.

While I have to be honest in my assessment that it was a fun night with appreciable efforts and some fine entertainment but well short of fantastic--and a friend alongside, who has taken improv classes and performed in various shows, neither was overly enthused--I certainly wouldn't dissuade anyone from taking in this show.

I hadn't been to The Second City for 10 years, which really has been too long, and I think this was only the second mainstage revue I've ever seen.

So I don't have much to compare it to, nor a good gauge for measuring the level of delight & insight provided vs. fair expectations.

I can easily imagine returning--perhaps for more of an improv show than a mostly pre-written revue--and perceive Second City to be one of Chicago's best options for date night.

Yet while I liked the experience, the performers and the beignets I ordered during Dream Freaks Fall From Space, the truth is I just didn't fall in love.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Extra! Extra!: 'Newsies' Is Strikingly Good at Marriott Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
Thru December 31

I recently posted a list of my favorite stage musicals of the 21st Century, in which I ranked my Top 11, then cited 22 others.

Although in 2014 I had seen and enjoyed a touring rendition of Newsies derived from its successful Broadway run--a live adaptation based on the 1992 Disney movie--it did not make my list.

Since compiling said list, I've watched Newsies the Broadway Musical on Netflix--a full rendition, though filmed in Los Angeles after the Broadway run had ended--and attended the show's first regional production, at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, which is what I'm presently reviewing.

Both of these stellar versions have convinced me the Newsies should probably rank among the top musicals of the millennium, though still toward the bottom of my Honorable Mentions.

This may still only sound like middling praise, but while I can't honestly call Newsies one of the greatest musicals ever created, how thoroughly I enjoyed it at Marriott bespeaks not only the quality of the the theater's productions, but the depth of the musical art form at a time when many others--rock 'n roll, film, fine art, etc.--seem to be experiencing a dearth.  

Or maybe I'm just a sucker for powerful ensemble singing, electrifying dancing and a whole lot of youthful exuberance, from a Marriott cast older than their characters but not by that much.

Starring as Jack Kelly, the street smart leader of the newsies, is Patrick Rooney, nicely complemented by Eliza Palasz as Katherine, an ambitious young reporter who catches his eye.

Both leads are quite likable and handle their vocal duties well. The same can be said for those embodying other major characters, including Matthew Uzarraga (as Crutchie), Nick Graffagna (Davey), Carter Graf (Les), the great Chicagoland stage veteran Kevin Gudahl playing the newsies' nemesis, Joseph Pulitzer, and Stephanie Pope, as Medda Larkin, a theater-owning singer who provides kinship and refuge in key moments.

But Newsies is a show that shines more so due to group efforts.

After all, it chronicles the formation of a union and the potency of organized protest, and at Marriott, strength-in-numbers numbers like "Carrying the Banner," "The World Will Know" and "Seize the Day" rang out quite powerfully.

With great choreography by director Alex Sanchez--derived from the Broadway version and probably the movie, which I've never seen--"King of New York" early in Act Two dazzles with so much impressive singing, dancing and gymnastics as to just make one appreciate all the talented people onstage, in theater anywhere and in the world.

As such, opening the show with Jack plaintively singing to Crutchie about his desire to escape the city and head west to "Santa Fe" feels like an oddly low-key and intimate choice, but I get the narrative necessity of the song and--probably like the great Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the musical's book--couldn't suggest where better to place it than at the beginning. (Alan Mencken is the show's composer, with Jack Feldman writing the lyrics.)

"Santa Fe" also can't help but remind of a similar song in Rent, but this one--from the 1992 Newsies film, as with several of the 2012 Broadway musical's best songs--actually came first.

While watching Newsies at Marriott on opening night, I had the thought--as I did in seeing the touring version in 2014--that it's a musical that, while quite good, just doesn't have the heft or depth of Les Miserables or Billy Elliot, two shows it brought to to mind,  and which I'd seen again recently.

Yet while @@@@ (out of 5) might fairly assess Newsies' place within the pantheon of musicals, everything I witnessed onstage--including clever scenery by Kevin Depinet that well adapted Manhattan to the Marriott auditorium's in-the-round stage with limited airspace--was so effusively and thoroughly enjoyable that I'd feel like the show's grumpy Mr. Pulitzer if I withheld another 1/2@.

I've been going to shows at the Lincolnshire resort venue for years and have always found the quality--and creative spatial reformatting--quite estimable.

So it needn't make headlines that I thought their rendition of a rather-likable-if-not-quite-sensational recent Broadway musical to be quite delightful. (I really hope it brings many teens to Marriott, much as the balcony was filled with busloads at the downtown Oriental Palace.)

No, Newsies won't go down as the best thing I've seen at Marriott, even just this year. (Their exquisite take on The Bridges of Madison County musical was one of the best shows I've seen anywhere in 2017.)

But like the rest of the crowd, I instantly got to my feet to give the mostly-young cast a much-deserved standing ovation.

It's hard to imagine many seen this show and not at least liking and admiring it, and many should truly love it.

No matter how often that may be the case, or how many musicals may simply be better, such eminent enjoyment is never less than newsworthy.

And especially for suburban families who want to indoctrinate their kids to the wonders of live musical theater without heading downtown--and with easy parking to boot--this Disney musical would seem to have "Start here" written all over it.