Monday, November 30, 2015

Hail Renée: Fleming Makes for a Mirthful 'Merry Widow' at the Lyric -- Chicago Opera Review

Chicago Opera / Theater Review

The Merry Widow
an operetta by Franz Lehár
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru December 13
(Nicole Cabell replaces Renée Fleming
in title role after December 3rd performance)

The last time I saw Renée Fleming, I wasn't even on the outside looking in.

But rather at a video screen on the side of a building.

It was June 2013 and I happened to be in Vienna, Austria, while Fleming was starring in Richard Strauss' Capriccio at the grand Vienna State Opera.

Although the theater was just a few feet from my hotel and I took a tour of it, Capriccio was sold-out, with even face value seats predominantly pricier than I could justify, let alone scalper's tickets had I known where to find them.

It would have been cool to see Fleming--by then serving as a Creative Consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago--on stage in Vienna, but as a tourism experience, sitting alongside the opera house with a large crowd of tourists and locals as the opera was broadcast from within may well have been even cooler.

I've seen Fleming at the Lyric a couple times before, and seeing her in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow once again gave me no reason to doubt that she is--as often acclaimed--one of the best opera singers in the world.

Yet quite honestly, everyone I hear at the Civic Opera House sounds outstanding to me, and I really doubt if I could distinguish much vocal difference between Fleming and any other prima donna, even those relatively new to prestigious opera roles and houses.

But still a striking presence in her mid-50s, the soprano is also an engaging actress, and while I am ill-qualified to pen any sort of comparative critique, I found Fleming and The Merry Widow rather delightful.

It is deemed an operetta, lighter in tone and musicality than most classic operas, and while I could perceive some differences--including considerable spoken dialogue--here too I lack the wherewithal to provide much contrast, particularly as most "operas" seem to have slight, silly, melodramatic librettos (i.e. plot lines).

Still, as anyone who has read any of my previous opera reviews could likely recite at this point, though I admire, appreciate and enjoy most operas I see, I still fail to emotionally embrace the art form--or any particular opera--the way I do Broadway musicals and great rock concerts.

And I will say that this essentially remained true at The Merry Widow, which I had also seen at Lyric in 2010.

But given the presence and quality of Fleming, her terrific co-star Thomas Hampson--this is the third time I've seen them paired--the other singers in principal roles (Heidi Stober, Michael Spyres) and many oft-enjoyed Chicago theater performers largely in speaking and/or dancing roles (Jeff Dumas, Michael Weber, Fred Zimmerman, Jennie Sophia, Ariane Dolan and more), The Merry Widow was about as acutely enjoyable as a night at the opera gets for me.

It also helped that this lavish production is directed by Susan Stroman, who helmed my all-time favorite Broadway musical, The Producers.

Although originally written by Lehár in German, the operetta has been performed in numerous languages, and here it is delivered in English (though supertitles still helped).

While there is sublime operatic singing by Fleming, Hampson and others, there are also some lively choral numbers that veer a bit closer to Broadway musical stylings.

The story isn't deep, as it involves a hugely wealthy widow (Hanna, played by Fleming) from the fictional country of Pontevedrian attending an Embassy ball in Paris, where in order to keep her wealth within his country's coffers the ambassador tries to set her up with a Pontevedrian playboy of sorts, who happens to be her former lover (Danilo, enacted by Hampson with a rogue charm).

The melodrama is relatively easy to follow, and pretty fun, especially in looping in some adultery and
deception among secondary characters, plus a visit to the sexy Parisian dance hall, Maxim's, where a cadre of fetching grisettes dance the Can-Can.

So while I can't speak to The Merry Widow's relative merits within the operatic canon or how this production compares to other versions--even the one I saw in 2010--nor can I truthfully say that I found it preferable to a first-rate musical or concert, simply in terms of abundantly entertaining and pleasing me, the current rendition rates rather high.

And any chance to see Renée Fleming perform on an opera stage is a welcome one.

Especially from inside the theater.

As of this writing, Fleming performs as Hanna once more, on Thursday afternoon. The also rather esteemed Nicole Cabell assumes the role for the Lyric's final 3 performances, and with the rest of the cast remaining intact, I have to imagine The Merry Widow will remain rather enchanting.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Contested Photographs: My Submissions to the Smithsonian's 13th Annual Photo Contest (2015)

It seems that the Smithsonian's 13th Annual Photo Contest began accepting submissions on March 31, 2015.

I only learned about it a couple weeks ago, via an email from, likely by virtue of having registered to avail myself of their nationwide Free Museum Day promotion in late September.

Deadline for photo entries is tomorrow, November 30, 2015.

So, as I did through a rather quick but fun perusal of photos I took during 2015 that would fit into the six categories--Altered Images, Mobile, Natural World, People, The American Experience and Travel--hit them with your best shots at:

Here are 15 photos that I submitted (of up to 90 allowed), not under any illusions that any--especially out of 25,000+ entries--likely qualifies as award winning, but among my favorites of 2015:

Cow with an Itch -- Category: Natural World; Taken July 2015 at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, IL
Hello Pretty Parrot -- Category: Natural World; Taken August 2015 at Jungle Island, Miami, FL
Flowers in Bloom -- Category: Natural World; Taken July 2015 at Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL
Waterfall Under the Bridge -- Category: Natural World;
Taken August 2015 at Anderson Japanese Gardens, Rockford, IL
Mexico City Drumbeat -- Category: People; Taken January 2015 in Mexico City
Aw, a Macaw and Awe -- Category: People; Taken August 2015 at Jungle Island, Miami, FL
The Beatles Ate Here -- Category: People; Taken August 22, 2015 at Margie's Candies
50 years to the day the Beatles ate the same Atomic Buster sundae in the same booth
Lunch at Superdawg -- Category: The American Experience; Taken May 2015 at Superdawg, Chicago, IL
Wave the W -- Category: The American Experience; Taken October 13, 2015 at Wrigley Field, Chicago, IL
(The clinching Game 4 over the Cardinals in the NLDS)
The Train Kept A-Rolling, The Band Kept A-Rocking -- Category: The American Experience;
Taken April 2015 in Champaign, IL; performance by Lonely Trailer on Record Store Day (organized by Exile on Main Street)
Doorway to Vizcaya -- Category: Travel; Taken August 2015 at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, Miami, FL
Balloon over Teotihuacan -- Category: Travel; Taken January 2015 at Teotihuacan, Mexico
Bethesda Fountain from Bethesda Terrace -- Category: Travel;
Taken March 2015 in Central Park, New York, NY
Water Glass -- Category: Mobile; Taken March 2015 at Jean-Georges restaurant, New York, NY
A Piece of Cake -- Category: Mobile; Taken Februray 2015 at Lutz Cafe & Pastry Shop, Chicago, IL

You should be able to see these, and/or thousands of other submitted photos, on the Smithsonian Photo Contest website.

All photos copyright 2015 by Seth Arkin. Please do not repost without permission and attribution. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Near Jean Shepherd's Hammond, a Nice, Neighborly 'Christmas Story' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Christmas Story
a play based on the movie
by Philip Grecian
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN
Thru December 27  

In late 2011, I saw A Christmas Story: The Musical at the Chicago Theatre and thoroughly enjoyed it

It was a fun and festive affair, with many great songs that dazzled on a first hearing and lent themselves to some terrific production numbers. Having seen several musicals adapted from popular movies, I found A Christmas Story to be among the better ones.

Thing is, at the time, I had never seen the widely beloved 1983 film.

Subsequently I did, and liked it, but few of the key moments surprised me, as they had been faithfully represented in the musical.

Still, I could see why the movie--based on stories by Jean Shepherd, who served as the "adult Ralphie" narrator (and was also one of three screenwriters)--is a holiday favorite.

The musical, which had played Chicago at the end of a national tour before running on Broadway, made it to the Great White Way for the 2012 holiday season, and returned to New York the next year.

It has not, to my knowledge, been back in the Chicagoland area, though Wikipedia notes that a number of regional productions have been mounted.

So when I was invited to attend the opening of A Christmas Story at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, I assumed I would be seeing a new staging of the musical I had so relished. And having learned that Jean Shepherd had grown up in Hammond, I figured there'd be something cool about seeing a work based on recollections of childhood spent less than 5 miles away.

Turns out, only half of this was true.

As I discovered less than an hour before leaving home on Sunday, in having looked at the Theatre at the Center website, the Munster production is not of the musical but rather A Christmas Story play written by Philip Grecian, based on the movie.

This wasn't as compelling a reason to shlep from Skokie to Munster for a Sunday night performance, but I had long since accepted an invitation for two, my mom & I had made concurrent plans to see my sister's family in the same NW Indiana town and my mother had never seen A Christmas Story in any form. (Only as means of partial explanation, I'll mention here that we're Jewish.)

And far be it from me to be Ebeneezer Scrooge, Mr. Potter, the Grinch or any other Christmas villain, as I'll cheerfully impart that TATC's staging of A Christmas Story is a perfectly pleasant affair.

It brought plenty of smiles and laughs, with a good cast and impressive stage set, and I have nothing specifically negative to say about it.

No, it doesn't equal the movie, isn't as good as the musical, doesn't constitute truly great theater and while it will undoubtedly bring pleasure to the thousands who see it--and I wish not to dissuade anyone so inclined--the play can hardly be considered essential viewing, especially if TBS runs the movie for 24 straight hours as it has in the past.

Oddly, while the late Jean Shepherd's name is used as that of the narrator in the musical, in Munster it is never mentioned onstage (even his hometown of Hammond is modified to Hohmand). I realize TATC likely secured the rights to a universally-employed script, but unless forbidden, mention of Shepherd even in an ad hoc introduction would seemingly have been apt.

But as it stands, Rod Thomas--who I've seen in many area shows, including Les Misérables and City of Angels this year--essentially plays the Shepherd part, and quite substantially at that. In serving as the adult Ralphie, not only does he narrate the play, his is the largest speaking role in it.

Thomas is good, although in never needing to use his terrific singing voice, my own disappointment that this wasn't the musical version was only amplified. (Although I should note that in the musical rendition I saw in 2011, another great Chicagoland musical theater vocalist, Gene Weygandt, did not sing in embodying the Jean Shepherd narrator.)

Most reading this likely know all the events of the movie far better than I, and for the few who don't I will reveal little so as not to ruin the movie nor this stage version, which my mom enjoyed at face value.

Suffice it to say, the story revolves adult Ralphie recalling how he had wished for a particular Christmas present in 1938, complemented by warm, often funny remembrances of his family & friends that holiday season (which are acted out onstage).

Along with Thomas, impressive work is done by the two other primary adults--John Lister and Linda Gillum as Ralphie's parents--and starting with Nate Becker as Ralphie, a host of kids make for an enjoyable production under the direction of Linda Fortunato.

Those seeking wholesome family holiday entertainment, live and in person, will certainly find it at A Christmas Story in Munster.

Whether it's worth theater ticket prices compared to catching the movie on TV is a call you'll have to make--and I'm still hoping the musical version will reappear somewhere down the line--but especially for NW Indiana residents who cherish this hometown tale, facilitating their presence could be a rather welcome gift.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Oh, the Thinks I Can Think: 'Seussical' for Young Audiences is No Small Delight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre for Young Audiences
Lincolnshire, IL
Thru December 21

In the company of kin
via modern chariot
a ways did I go
to the theater Marriott

Where merrily, quite cheerily
would I enjoy such a musical
as the pretty and witty 
kiddy Seussical

Shortened for shorties
to just an hour's duration
in brief I thinks it 
a delightful creation

Culled from Seuss 
by Ahrens and Flaherty
the once Broadway tuner
benefits greatly from sparity

Having liked it before
the gleeful songs were
none too surprising
But one could call this
a case
of judicious downsizing

There's no beating
George Keating
as the Cat in the Hat
And as Hoo-hearing Horton
Michael Aaron Lindner
is clearly all that

Landree Fleming delights
as Gertrude McFuzz
while recurring
Marriott favorites
merit plenty of buzz

But proving a person's a person
no matter how small
little Sage Harper's JoJo
well may be the most
joyous of all

...amid a show
quite kiddily engaging
even for those of us
hoo have done
a good bit more aging

Rachel Rockwell's direction
is as crisp as can be
with colorful costumes and dancing
and scenery to see

So I thinks
for a merely and fairly
seventeen dollars
one should bring the kids
for musical thrills
and hoots and hollers

Or just yourself
if not mirthfully
for no one is alone
in the Dr. Seuss

Hopefully you won't have
to drive through the snow
but once you get there
oh, the places you'll go

And let me just note
that by no children unruly
was I ever vexed 
yet chagrined by a mom
who could not turn off
her constant need to text

(Please teach your kids to love theater, politely.)

'Never the Sinner' Provides Compelling Look at Chicago History, Criminal and Theatrical -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Never the Sinner
by John Logan
Directed by Gary Griffin
Victory Gardens Theater (at the Biograph), Chicago
Thru December 6

Few criminal acts, and resulting trials, loom as large in Chicago lore as Leopold & Loeb's abduction and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924.

I have long heard the basics about this grisly episode, with the crime all the more heinous due to the brazen assumption by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb--wealthy, handsome, brilliant University of Chicago students in love with each other--that they were committing the perfect crime...and couldn't be caught.

But other than some Wikipedia forays, I've never much explored the incident, trial or individuals involved, whether through articles, books, movies, documentaries, plays, etc.; my friend Dave, who accompanied me to the theater on Thursday night, recommends the 1959 film Compulsion.

So I was intrigued to see Never the Sinner, a drama about Leopold & Loeb, their relationship, the planning and predominantly the trial, at which they were represented by the famed attorney, Clarence Darrow.

Adroitly telling the story through various non-linear scenes, the play itself is quite good, especially in having been the first written by John Logan, while a Northwestern student in the early 1980s.

It was initially staged at the school, then at Chicago's now-defunct Stormfield Theater in 1985 and 10 years later for the first time by Victory Gardens, which would debut other Logan plays.

Given that Logan would become one of the most successful playwrights--and then screenwriters--to develop within and excel beyond Chicago, seeing his first work also made for a compelling history lesson.

Logan's writing credits are mighty impressive--plays Hauptmann, Scorched Earth and Red, among others; many movies including Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, The Last Samurai, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd, Hugo and the James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre; the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, which he created; and the book for The Last Ship musical--and as he notes in a Never the Sinner program interview, he's often been drawn to monstrous characters.

Which he certainly painted Leopold & Loeb to be, with their belief that they represented Nietzsche's concept of supermen (a.k.a. Übermenschen), which Wikipedia describes as: transcendent individuals, possessing extraordinary and unusual capabilities, whose superior intellects allowed them to rise above the laws and rules that bound the unimportant, average populace.

I don't know if it is clinically accurate to call them sociopaths, but as embodied by Japhet Balaban as gawkish, stodgy Nathan Leopold and Jordan Brodress as the more slickly salesmanish Richard Loeb, there is certainly a considerable chill to their imperious scheming, and even their dialogue once caught and on trial.

But as Logan's title comes from the line--appropriating an age old phrase--"I may hate the sin but never the sinner," what helps make the drama work so well is that it isn't merely a condemnation of monsters, but a look at more sympathetic aspects of the perpetrators, who at 18 and 19 were just kids themselves, and gay long before it was openly acceptable.

Unless I missed it--I must admit to some droopy eyelids and split focus following a long, distressing workday--I wasn't clear how Clarence Darrow came to be involved in the case (Wikipedia notes that they he was hired by Loeb's parents, perhaps for $1 million), but local stalwart Keith Kupferer embodies him well, powerfully intoning Darrow's 12-hour courtroom plea in less than 1/60th the time.

Derek Hasenstab well plays the prosecutor, and Celeste M. Cooper is good embodying both a newspaper reporter and a would-be paramour of Leopold's.

Not represented onstage is Bobby Franks, the 14-year-old second cousin of Loeb's, who the pair gruesomely and audaciously murdered. So while Logan's deft if specific script--i.e. any commentary on more contemporary criminals or acts is supplied mainly by the mind of the viewer, endlessly apt as it may be--mitigates some sense that Leopold & Loeb were pure evil, the perspective of the victim and his family is never portrayed.

One never knows if Logan might've written Never the Sinner a bit differently with more maturity, but not only had he clearly done his research, the dramatic devices he uses throughout the 90-minute one-act are rather impressive, with time shifts enhancing rather than confusing the narrative.

This Victory Gardens production is in good stead under the direction of Gary Griffin, another Chicagoan who has also gone on to national prominence.

That the play is being staged at the Biograph Theater, now home to Victory Gardens but long a movie house famed for being the last place visited by John Dillinger before he was gunned down by FBI agents just outside, only adds to the sense of Chicago history converging--whether in the realm of criminal justice or theatrical greatness.

Given all the marquee names involved, including that of Victory Gardens Theater itself, long one of Chicago's most renowned companies, I was surprised at how many empty seats there were on Thursday night.

But the likelihood of discount tickets--through either Goldstar of HotTix--should make it even more appealing and conducive to appreciate a harrowing and theatrically compelling part of Chicago's past.

In the present.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pithy Philosophies #27

Seth Saith (with deference to similar sentiments by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and likely many others):

You can't quell hate with more hate.   

Saturday, November 14, 2015

I Weep for Paris -- But I Will Not Stop

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Joy Re-Björn: On a Non-Equity Tour Years Down the Road, 'Mamma Mia!' Remains a Super Trouper -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mamma Mia!
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru November 15

It's been 14 years since I first saw Mamma Mia, on tour in Chicago before it opened on Broadway, where it ran until this past September. (It's still running in London, as it has since 1999.)

Until Thursday night, it had been 7 years since I last saw Mamma Mia, on another tour through Chicago. (I had also seen it in early 2002 in Melbourne, Australia, and in Chicago in 2003.)

I've always enjoyed the show, so it may not quite be accurate to say the musical made from ABBA songs is as good as--or even better than--ever. 

Though the non-Equity cast is largely excellent, some of the vocal timbres weren't quite idyllic, the 5-piece band sounded tinny at times, a few performers seemed rather young for their roles and in a couple cases, the classic ABBA songs packed a little less punch than I would have liked.

But still helmed by original director, Phyllida Lloyd, Mamma Mia! remains an excellent show and perhaps more appreciable than ever. 

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
Back when its use of beloved pop songs was a novelty in the musical theater realm--to my mind, only The Who's Tommy really precedes it as a modern songbook or jukebox musical--it was easy to jest about Mamma Mia's rather slight narrative.

But while the story of a 20-year-old Greek Islands girl named Sophie inviting to her wedding three of her mother's former lovers in order to determine which one is her father will never be mistaken for high drama, given the rash of middling to awful jukebox musicals that have followed in its wake, it's now easier to appreciate all that Mamma Mia! gets right.

While many subsequent songbook musicals have settled for telling biographical tales of a given artist--à la Jersey Boys, by far the best in that vein--and others have been so theatrically flimsy as to essentially be tribute concerts, Mamma Mia! book writer Catherine Johnson actually employs the ABBA songs to further the storytelling, more cohesively and successfully than any other example.

So while the show is one of the most influential pieces of musical theater in my lifetime for having spawned songbook/jukebox musicals en masse, it actually feels like a traditional, organic Broadway musical, albeit with a nifty gimmick.

It's easy to call Mamma Mia! a "fun" show, as I always have because it's entirely true.

But in watching it again--and how much I acutely recalled from 7+ years ago is a testament to the show, although knowing the music so innately abets this--I was pleasantly reminded just how strong its "bones" are.

No, the story isn't deep, but the same can be said for most operas and many musicals, and Lloyd's direction ensures it is coherent and easy to follow, with the songs fitting in seamlessly--I loved how many still elicit surprised gasps and/or laughter when the audience catches onto each ABBA classic and its clever usage--and the pacing is pretty much perfect.

Although Sophie (a quite likable Kyra Belle Johnson) could be called the show's protagonist, her mom, Donna (the winning, well-sung Erin Fish) is really the main character, surrounded by two ex-singing partners--the thrice-divorced Tanya (a fun Laura Michelle Hughes) and cheeky Rosie (a terrific Sarah Smith)--and unexpectedly, three former lovers from around the same time, Sam (Chad W. Fornwalt), Bill (Ryan M. Hunt) and Harry (Andrew Tebo). 

Also factoring in is Sophie's bridegroom, Sky (Stephen Eckelmann), and Mamma Mia! does a shrewd job of rotating all these characters--and more--into scenes and songs with each other in various combinations.

While the title song, "Dancing Queen," "Super Trouper," "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" and "Voulez-Vous" are all high-energy first act blasts, they are nicely complemented by the pathos of "Chiquitita" and "The Name of the Game."

This balance continues in the second act, and unlike most jukebox musicals where I might simply like the songs, here I found myself continually marveling at how well each one worked as "musical number."

"Under Attack" is rather imaginatively used to open Act II, and Fish's singing as Donna is particularly emotive on "Slipping Through My Fingers" and "The Winner Takes It All."

Tanya's romp through "Does Your Mother Know?" is a hoot in the hands of Hughes, and as always, Rosie and Bill's take on "Take a Chance on Me" is a highlight, merrily delivered here by Smith and Hunt.

Originating early in my 21st century embrace of musical theater, wholeheartedly rekindling my sheepish appreciation for the brilliance of ABBA and reshaping the Broadway landscape in ways that it mostly stands above, Mamma Mia! is a show I've always thought of fondly.

But whereas I might've begun to wonder if it was more a cheesy pleasure than a musical that really holds up against subsequent gems of the millennium--Hairspray, Wicked, Avenue Q, Billy Elliot, Spring Awakening, etc., etc.--an entirely enjoyable non-Equity (i.e. devoid of members of the acting union, as opposed to Broadway and many touring shows), latter-day touring edition served to silence any qualms that Mamma Mia! isn't truly a first-rate piece of theater.

I don't think I'd put it above the many of the aforementioned shows and some others, but in diggin' the Dancing Queen, "you can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life."

And whether you've seen it before--even in movie form--or not, there's no reason you shouldn't (still) love Mamma Mia!

Perhaps more than ever.

Ours Go to 11: Volume 6, My Favorite Neil Young Songs, on His 70th Birthday

Includes songs from any incarnation.

1. Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) (video)
2. After the Gold Rush (video)
3. Like a Hurricane (video)
4. Ohio (video)
5. The Needle and the Damage Done (video)
6. Old Man (video)
7. Down By the River (video)
8. Rockin' in the Free World (video)
9. When You Dance I Can Really Love (video)
10. Cinnamon Girl (video)
11. Helpless (video)

And a few more
Southern Man (video)
I Am a Child (video)
Heart of Gold (video)
Someday (video)
Love and Only Love (video)