Sunday, April 23, 2017

Ours Go to 11: Great Female Movie Directors

This was a much harder list to compile than it should have been, and the fault clearly isn't merely mine.

I wanted to post something on Seth Saith and without anything recent to review--and with an event this afternoon limiting my time--I thought I'd do one of my occasional "Ours Go to 11" lists.

With today's commitment also restricting my getting to the monthly lunch Meetup of the Chicago Film Discussion Group--whose topic today is Female Directors--I thought I'd list my favorites in that category.

I initially thought I'd limit inclusion to women directors who have made at least three feature films I've really liked, but that sadly left me with almost nobody.

And in perusing the Meetup group shortlist, a referenced list on Mubi of A Year With Women, IMDB and the results of a bit of Googling on the topic, I found that not only are their far too few female directors, most have not been enlisted to make all that many films.

Of a few thousand movies I've seen in my lifetime, clearly less than 100 have been directed by women, perhaps by half or less if only counting those I've particularly liked. 

As such, I'd be happy to hear of women directors whose work I should see. Mira Nair, Barbra Streisand and Catherine Hardwicke are three notable names not on this list simply because I haven't seen any of their films.

Agnes Varda and Barbara Kopple have made documentaries I've enjoyed, but I decided to keep this list to feature film directors, simply because there are probably several other worthy female documentarians I should cite but can't.

Given how few works of each director I've seen, it also seemed silly to overtly rank them, so this is roughly a "Top 11" plus Honorable Mentions to every other woman who has directed something I've enjoyed.

Great Female Movie Directors
(who have made at least one feature film I've really liked):

Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty
Ava DuVernay - Selma
Amy Heckerling - Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless
Lana and Lilly Wachowski - The Matrix
Lone Scherfig - An Education 
Sofia Coppola - Lost in Translation
Kimberly Peirce - Boys Don't Cry 
Julie Taymor - Frida, Across the Universe
Penny Marshall - Big, Awakenings, A League of Their Own
Patty Jenkins - Monster
Haifaa al-Mansour - Wadjda

Jane Campion - The Piano
Nora Ephron - Sleepless in Seattle, Julie & Julia
Jodie Foster - Little Man Tate
Lisa Cholodenko - The Kids are All Right
Nicole Holofcener - Enough Said
Elaine May - Mikey & Nicky
Kelly Reichardt - Wendy & Lucy
Nancy Meyers - The Intern
Penelope Spheeris - Wayne's World
Allison Anders - Grace of My Heart
Ida Lupino - The Hitch-Hiker
Claire Denis - 35 Shots of Rum
Angelina Jolie - Unbroken
Niki Caro - Whale Rider
Debra Granik - Winter's Bone
Betty Thomas - Private Parts
Jennifer Kent - The Babadook
Deniz Gamze Ergüven - Mustang
Susanne Bier - In a Better World

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Porchlight's 'Marry Me a Little' Blissfully Weds Sondheim Songs Lacking a Familiar Ring -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marry Me a Little
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru May 21
@@@@1/2

Simply at face value, Marry Me a Little should appeal to almost anyone...with a basic appreciation of musical theater or just talented people performing magnificently.

It features a simple love story with just 2 people in the cast, no dialogue to muddle up the narrative, an excellent set design (by Jeff Kmiec) and wonderful songs by the masterful Stephen Sondheim, all remarkably well-sung by the likable Bethany Thomas and Austin Cook--with the latter also dazzling on piano.

And though the 75-minute runtime might seem short when assessing transportation options, the entertainment provided actually feels quite sufficient.

I can imagine this being an idyllic choice for date night, even for those married half a century.

So I don't mean to suggest a deep-seated appreciation of Sondheim, his music, lyrics and the musicals he's created over 60+ years is imperative to tremendously enjoy Marry Me a Little, as presented by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773 on Belmont Avenue.

But being a Sondheim acolyte as I am only adds to the delectability of this piece--which I had never seen--and this particular production.

Sondheim revues and tribute concerts have been fairly commonplace going back to the '70s and I've seen several in recent years, including a magnificent Sondheim on Sondheim at Porchlight, also starring Austin Cook.

Marry Me a Little--which I was somewhat surprised to learn was originally created in 1980, by Craig Lucas and Norman René--is a bit different in that:

A) The Sondheim songs are largely unfamiliar ones, written for but not used in* shows like Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, etc., or from his unproduced first musical, Saturday Night (and lesser-known works like Evening Primrose); and B) The tunes are strung together to tell a new story.** (*Since Marry Me a Little was originally created, its title song has been regularly included in revivals of Company, and Saturday Night has been staged. **This is similar to Snapshots, which uses Stephen Schwartz songs--albeit notable ones--in service of a new narrative.)

Beyond the exquisite talents of Thomas, Cook and of course, Sondheim, making Porchlight's production of Marry Me a Little all the more special is that--thanks to interaction with and approval from the maestro himself--the songlist and sequencing are entirely unique.

It isn't surprising that the show has been updated over the years, but even compared to a 2012 Off-Broadway version I used to Spotifamiliarize myself, the piece presently directed by Jess McLeod is markedly different.

It opens with Cook ("The Man") living underneath the apartment of Thomas ("The Woman"), as both rue being home alone on "Saturday Night."

In what I would describe as a "musical reverie romcom," the two stars spend the entire show singing songs about, to, with or simply near each other. That these songs fit together sublimely well without being written expressly for this show bespeaks the universal genius of Sondheim.

As does the truth that tunes such as "Bang!," "Two Fairy Tales," "A Moment With You," "Rainbows," "I Remember Sky"--with a particularly sensational vocal from Thomas--"If You Can Find Me, I'm Here," "Can That Boy Foxtrot" and more sounded absolutely phenomenal at Stage 773 but weren't deemed good or apt enough to make it to Broadway, at least initially.

And so, with the light in the theater sufficient to read the program's songlist--which cited each song's origins--as I watched Marry Me a Little, it only added to my bliss to consider how and where six terrific songs may have originally fit into Follies, or two great ones ("Bang!," "Two Fairy Tales") into A Little Night Music, why "Happily Ever After" might've been squeezed out of Company and the wondrous "Rainbow" was cut from Into the Woods.

Appreciating that this century's "You Are the Best Thing That Ever Has Happened"--which I recalled from Bounce at the Goodman Theatre in 2003, before that show morphed into Road Show--must have been approved by Sondheim for inclusion in this production, I was also impressed by several numbers he had written for Saturday Night before turning 24 years old. (The show was expected to hit Broadway in 1954-55, but never did.)

And I was struck by how there was seemingly nothing--at least apropos--left on the cutting room floor from Sunday in the Park with George or Passion, among others.

Also worth noting is that the truly gifted Austin Cook wrote orchestrations for the songs--in addition to singing and playing piano onstage and serving as the show's musical director--allowing for a 4-person orchestra to add to the beauty of the evening.

With its brevity, lack of dialogue and rather simplistic storyline somewhat limiting my emotional embrace, I can't quite put Marry Me a Little on the same level of full-fledged Sondheim masterpieces. 

But for what it is, it's really superlative.

Especially right here and now. 

While watching, I kept noting songs I found exceptional, and wound up with at least 10 such notations.

So whether you're simply looking for some live entertainment you might truly love or are continuing a lifelong Sondheim symposium in your mind, if Marry Me a Little is to be taken as a proposal your answer should clearly be a most definitive...

"Yes."

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Fun & Enlightening Few Days in Kansas City, Even If Not Everything's Up-to-Date -- Travelogue

Travel Recap

Kansas City, MO
Trip from Chicago by Amtrak Train
Tues., April 4-Sat., April 8, 2017

Includes concert by Radiohead
4/5/17 at Sprint Center - @@@@@

Of all the places in all the world I could've gone last week--at least among those representing relatively inexpensive domestic jaunts, as I've already slated an international escapade for late summer--I opted to visit the 36th largest city in the United States:

Kansas City, Missouri

That I also considered Buffalo and Memphis should suggest that while I've often visited "hipper" locales at home (NYC, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans) and abroad (London, Paris, Venice, Rio, etc.), I'm also an unabashed fan of grittier, mid-sized U.S. cities offering a wealth of history and attractions. (See past recaps/guides on St. Louis, Detroit, Grand Rapids and Milwaukee.)

Especially given that I prefer exploring museums to sitting on beaches, my domestic travels are fairly predictable and rather similar.

Generally a specific event provides the impetus--a rock concert, ballgame in a new stadium, theatrical performance, art exhibition, etc.--around which I go to art museums, other local attractions and restaurants, etc.

This was largely the case this time as well, as I was somewhat drawn by the chance to see Radiohead--a band I've long liked but didn't bother braving Lollapalooza for last year--at Kansas City's Sprint Center on Wednesday night (no Chicago or otherwise closer show was on the books).

But while I was happy to snag an aftermarket ticket for just $19.27 (including fees) and enjoyed their terrific show, this was more a convenient excuse to revisit a city I'd been to in 2002 and had been wanting to visit again.

In fact, I only really decided to go a few days before I did, and while initially imagining I would drive--with a stop in St. Louis for a Cubs-Cardinals game--a pre-trip safety inspection convinced me that going via Amtrak would be more prudent.

Though as with air fares, train fares can be considerably lower if booked with more lead time, last Monday I was able to secure round trip tickets for roughly what I might have spent in gas. (I skipped going to St. Louis, as well as Fulton, MO--home to an excellent Winston Churchill Museum--and a night with friends in Urbana, IL, but at just 7hr15min. each way, the train made for an excellent option.)

Not having a car while there would incur substantive taxi and Uber expenses, but I was able to book a Motel 6 for approx. $50 and tried to plan my days in ways that would limit local transportation costs.

As I was reminded, the attractions around Kansas City are rather spread out, so even if I stayed downtown--likely for 2-3x the Motel 6--I still likely would have used numerous Uber rides. (And this is without the Kansas City Royals being in town; their Kauffman Stadium is about 8 miles away from downtown.)

So I got to Kansas City without any issues, arriving after 10pm on the Southwest Chief into Union Station, the same depot Ernest Hemingway would've passed through in arriving for his first job--as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star--just a few months shy of 100 years ago.

In fact, the station would be among the beat the young Hem covered, and about it he wrote:
"Union Station was everybody going in and out of town... Some shady characters I got to know and interviews with celebrities going through."
From there, I caught a waiting cab--Uber would've been cheaper, as I later learned--to my motel. It was raining pretty heavily, and I learned that it had all Tuesday.

It still somewhat was when I awoke on Wednesday.

While I was still getting ready before 9:30am, the Motel 6 maid knocked on my door, and was even attempted to enter before I threw on some clothes and shoo'd her off. (A similar exercise would occur even earlier the next two mornings; other than this the motel was perfectly fine, if far off the beaten path. The only food available within walking distance was a gas station Subway.)

Particularly fortuitous given the rain, I had planned to begin my touring on Wednesday at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City's major art institution, which I had recalled fondly from 2002.

Mind you, the only specific painting I remembered was John the Baptist by Caravaggio, one of relatively few works in America by the Italian Renaissance master.

And though I had checked the museum website before leaving Chicago and--unlike for other pieces--saw no mention of it being "Not on View," the first thing I learned upon arriving at the museum is that it indeed was not presently hanging.

Supposedly the masterwork gets loaned out a lot, and though it was said to be back at the museum, it was "being examined" somewhere prior to another exhibition away from KC.

Certainly in the overall realm of life's inconveniences, this is no tragedy, but within context I was rather pissed.

I asked everyone I could--security guards, docents, the information desk, the museum's phone lines and Twitter feeds--if perhaps I could get special dispensation to see the painting even as it was undergoing compensation.

Nope.

As would be reiterated, there is a plethora of great art inside and outside Nelson-Atkins--the exterior sculptures include many by Henry Moore--and as yet another fine metropolitan art museum offering free admission (a la Cleveland, St. Louis and others), the visit considerably enriched me. (The painting shown nearby is one of the best I've ever seen by Pissarro.)

But there's a song called "Kansas City"--not the more famous Lieber/Stoller sung by Little Richard, the Beatles and dozens of other artists, but a tune from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma--with lyrics I innately know that go, "Everything's up to date in Kansas City."

So it was rather ironic--and perplexing--that the first thing I learned on a trip to KC is that the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art website wasn't up to date.

I still spent nearly four hours at the museum and would recommend it to anyone as not only somewhere to visit in Kansas City, but even a reason to go there, yet obviously they need to do a better job of communicating about the visibility of their most famous painting.

To provide a sense of geographical perspective, the art museum is about 5 miles south of downtown KC, and a beautiful shopping district called Country Club Plaza--referenced locally as just "The Plaza"--is about a 10 minute walk west of the museum.

So I was glad that when I was finished at the museum, it had stopped raining--essentially for the remainder of my trip--and I was able to explore the Plaza and have some lunch before catching a city bus downtown for the Radiohead concert that night.

However, as I'd learned, en route to the Plaza, I was able to stop and see the Community Christian
Church, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1942.

I have long been an FLW acolyte, and I was delighted to be able to explore the church interior, with employees even showing me around a bit (sans an official tour).

The church is somewhat famed for its Spire of Light, which I wasn't there at the right time to see, but I was happier just to see the impressive architecture, including in the sanctuary and a chapel.

Those unfamiliar with Kansas City--an no, I never got to the adjoining Kansas side--probably don't think an outdoor shopping area is anything unique or special, but with buildings modeled after those in Seville, Spain, Country Club Plaza is the most beautiful such district I've ever seen in the U.S.

I happen to live across the street from one of the earliest outdoor shopping malls--Old Orchard in Skokie, IL--and Country Club Plaza, which is privately-owned as a cohesive entity, predates it by 30 some years.

I had no interest in any actual shopping, but walking through several blocks of the Plaza was an absolute pleasure, as in addition to the beautiful buildings there were many lovely pieces of art, many replicas of famous European sculptures, but themselves nearly 100 years old.

One of these was a replica of Porcellino, a sculpture of a boar most famously on display in Florence, Italy.

On the plaque in Kansas City, it says there are only 3 replica boars, so I imagined I'd now seen them all--including ones in Sydney, Australia and Victoria, British Columbia--but according to Wikipedia there are actually a couple dozen replicas.

At Country Club Plaza is an outpost of a small local chain dating back 60 years, Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue.

It is a large, sit-down restaurant with a bar. My previous familiarity with "Burnt Ends," including at Chicago area restaurants, is that they are the ends of a brisket, but per the menu and waitress burnt ends can be beef brisket, ham, pork or sausage.

I ordered a sandwich on a sesame seed bun with brisket and sausage burnt ends, accompanied by fries and a corn bake.

The sandwich was tasty and sufficient, but not huge nor sparking thoughts of being "one of the best things I've ever eaten."

Fortuitously--but not unwittingly as I'd done my homework--across the street from Jack Stack BBQ was a bus stop for the MMAX, which took me downtown for $1.50.

I did a bit of meandering around downtown streets, seeing the stately old Municipal Auditorium, a lovely fountain (with Royal blue water) and the "Community Bookshelf," a parking garage next to the main branch of the Kansas City Public Library, adorned with huge representations of literary classics.

When I had learned about this a few years ago, I thought the books sheathed the actual library, which would've been one of the coolest designs in the world. 

This isn't quite the case, yet it was still rather striking and I'm glad I made a point of seeing and photographing it.

The Radiohead concert was ticketed for 7:30pm at the glass-sheathed Sprint Center, and a bit before 5:00 I had made my way to the adjoining College Basketball Experience (and Hall of Fame).

I knew it would close at 6:00 and I likely didn't really have enough time to justify the admission fee, but coming on the heels of the NCAA Tournament and in an ideal location (especially as it began to rain heavily for just a spell) I figured I'd check it out as best I could.

Except that in trying to enter, I was told it was "closed for a special event."

I still don't know what that meant. Perhaps Thom Yorke was shooting hoops inside.

So once the rain stopped, I circled the exterior of the Sprint Center, winding up within the courtyard of an entertainment square called KC Live (within the Power & Light District).

I grabbed a slice of uninspiring Hawaiian pizza at a restaurant called the Pizza Bar--I don't mean to be brazenly dismissive as it provided a good place to charge my phone--and eventually made my way into the arena.

As I discussed with an area resident sitting next to me with his two teenage sons, the rather grand, 19,000+ seat Sprint Center opened in 2007 despite Kansas City lacking professional basketball and hockey teams, or even a regular college tenant.

The arena annually hosts the Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament, has been a repeat venue for NCAA Tournament games and seemingly gets its share of concerts, but its existence seems especially strange given the extant Kemper Arena less than 2 miles away (though not in the downtown district).

Kemper opened in 1973 with NBA and NHL teams who were gone from KC by 1985, so the need for Sprint is a bit confounding, even if it now draws most of the arena-sized events in the area.

Opening for Radiohead (on their entire, brief U.S. tour) was Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis, an Israel-based band featuring an electric guitar-playing singer--presumably Dudu Tassa--a drummer and bassist (playing a striking Hofner bass), but also a 3-piece string section.

The music they played, which sounded terrific, was clearly rock 'n roll, but with Arabic (or possibly Hebrew) lyrics. I really enjoyed them.

And Radiohead was fantastic.

I'm a big fan of the British quintet; this was my 9th time seeing them since 1998 and the 4th time I've traveled more than 2 hours to do so.

But while I enjoy much of the more discordant music they've made in the 21st century, I still mostly love the more straightforward rock of OK Computer and The Bends from the '90s.

Sometimes they've delivered far too much of the former and too little of the latter for my preferences--such as the last time I'd seen them in 2012--and though it likely sounds like the gripe of a Radiohead-lite fan, I've never heard them perform their great 1992 hit, "Creep."

And still haven't.

Yet while I didn't expect Radiohead to do a '90s-heavy "greatest hits" set--which wouldn't be true to who they are--setlists from the few 2017 tour stops prior to Kansas City indicated five songs per show from OK Computer, which is celebrating its 20th Anniversary.

Of course, I only got three songs from that landmark album--"Airbag," "Lucky," "Karma Police"--but along with some other relatively low-hanging melodic fruit ("Street Spirit," "Fake Plastic Trees"), most songs they played surprised me...and sounded terrific, accompanied by mesmerizing visuals. (See Radiohead's KC setlist here.)

Sure, I would have loved to hear "Creep," "No Surprises," "Paranoid Android" and some others, but at least in recent memory, this was the best Radiohead show I've seen. I give it @@@@@ (out of 5), as the band gave me enough of what I relished while staying true to their enigmatic selves.

After the show Uber surge pricing back to my motel was around $54 for what seemed normally about a $20 ride, and there were no cabs near the arena, so I walked a few blocks to the Crowne Plaza hotel. Even though they called a cab for me, it never came, so when an Airport Shuttle pulled up, I arranged a $25 cash trip to the Motel 6.

Thursday morning, I decided to begin my day with a bit of blackjack at one of three casinos relatively
near my motel, going (via Uber) to Ameristar rather than Harrah's or Isle of Capri.

I'm not much of a gambler, but have long enjoyed playing blackjack in moderation, so commonly avail myself of convenient casinos while on vacation.

I prefer quiet mornings to bustling nights, and largely got what I wanted at a table where it was just the dealer and me.

However, it was a $10 minimum table; I would have preferred a $5 minimum table, but there was only one and it was filled with people who didn't seem to be leaving anytime soon.

After opening on a losing streak, I had a nice run, but then went cold again. I walked away only having lost $25. I would have happily lost another $25 at the $5 table, but never could get a seat.

Seems a bit silly that they didn't open another $5 table.

It was nearly 11:30am when I had an Uber come and take me to the "world famous" Arthur Bryant's Barbecue.

The restaurant has origins going back to 1908, opened in 1940 and has stood at its current location--1727 Brooklyn--since 1958.

I love the tenor of the place, which has long-served the city's African-American community--which had been centered nearby at 18th & Vine--and had visited in 2002.

Here, "Burnt Ends" did seem to mean just brisket, with a sandwich basically meaning an open-faced pile upon a few slices of white bread.

As at Jack Stack BBQ, I enjoyed my food, but don't know that I can say it was better than barbecue I've had in Chicago--including the Burnt Ends Sandwich at Real Urban BBQ.

Still, I was glad I went--and that I got there about 10 minutes before the lunch line got really long--and the Red Cream Soda was a real treat.

I then walked a long block or two to the 18th & Center district, which had once been the epicenter of African-American life and culture in Kansas City. Helping to give rise to jazz and blues, it supposedly rivaled Chicago and New York as a mecca for blacks following the Great Migration.

Though this past--and to a less overt degree, present--certainly saw its share of injustices and tragedies, the largely rebuilt tourist district on 18th Street celebrates notable glories.

The great jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, hugely influential progenitor of bebop, grew up and began his career in this area, and behind the museums I will soon mention is a park with a beautiful oversized sculpture--by Robert Graham--of the late legend's head, titled Bird Lives.

I really enjoyed just sitting there looking at the  big Bird while listening to "Ornithology" and "Parker's Mood" and imagining a teenage Charlie traipsing that very ground--sax case in hand--to cut his teeth in the jazz clubs of 18th & Vine (or 12th & Vine as celebrated in Leiber & Stoller's "Kansas City," which is now just an empty yet commemorative lot that I didn't see).

I then walked past another musical sculpture and small pavilion before entering the "Museums at 18th & Vine" complex through its back door

For a $15 combo ticket I spent a fine four hours in the American Jazz Museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a common area with a film depicting the history of the 18th & Vine district.

I could also have heard several hours of free music in the jazz museum's Blue Room club but I lost steam around 5 o'clock and the music wasn't starting until 7:00.

I began my visit by watching the movie about the area's rich history--Kansas City once rivaled New York and Chicago as a mecca for African-American culture and epicenter in the rise of blues and jazz--and viewing a gallery jazz portraits by Juliette Hemingway and Javari Eugene-Poet Chase.

Having visited the American Jazz Museum in 2002, I was hoping it might have been updated or augmented, but it didn't seem to be.
 
There are nice kiosk displays on jazz luminaries such as Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and others, and some prime artifacts such as one of Bird's saxophones--played at the famed Massey Hall concert--and one of Ella's dresses, eyeglasses and microphones.

But several of the interactive displays weren't working, a movie no longer runs and there was hardly a word to be found about several jazz legends I would have liked to learn more about (John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, etc., etc.).

Considerably more insightful--about its acute topic and the history of African-Americans in the U.S.--is the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame museum, which I warmly and fairly acutely recalled from my visit 15 years earlier.

Detailed text explains the proud--but unjust in its need to exist--Negro Leagues that were founded at a YMCA just two blocks away by a man named Rube Foster.

The Kansas City Monarchs long stood as the most esteemed franchise, featuring--among many others--the great Satchel Paige. They, and eventually the Royals upon their genesis, played at Municipal Stadium.

In recent years I had read that Geddy Lee--a white, Jewish, Canadian rock star as part of the band Rush, of whom I'm a big fan--had donated a vast collection of baseballs signed by Negro Leagues veterans.

Most of the names didn't mean anything to me, but it was wistful to note that so many talented baseball players were denied the chance to play in the major leagues--until 1947 when Jackie Robinson, himself a former KC Monarch, broke the MLB color barrier.

Lee's collection is displayed in several cases next to the museum's centerpiece Field of Legends, on which sculptures of Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and several others are positioned for immortality.

Overseeing the field, appropriately, is a sculpture of Buck O'Neil, a player and manager for the Monarchs, who became the first African-American coach in the major leagues--with the Cubs--and was the driving force in establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

When I had gone to a Royals game in 2002, I had seen the still quite ebullient--in his 90s--O'Neil, and bought a signed copy of his I Was Right on Time autobiography in the museum's gift shop.

I had originally intended to stick around and hear some jazz--though the Blue Room performer that night, Lester "Duck" Warner, seems to be more of a blues bassist--but I was worn out and decided to take an Uber back to my motel.

I also passed on the chance to see a performance at the Gem Theater across the street--supposedly
only the facade is original--and couldn't find anywhere to justify spending another $40+ roundtrip Ubering for food or entertainment, so I just walked to the Subway at the gas station and ate in my room while watching TV.

Which brings us to Friday.

I had ascertained that the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence, MO was essentially no further from my motel than was downtown KC, and got there as it opened at 9:30am, after having the Uber driver--for which I gave him a few bucks in cash--take me to Truman's longtime house so I could snap a few pix.

Truman lived in the house at 219 N. Delaware Street with his wife Bess long before becoming the 33rd U.S. President, would return there during his time in office and maintained it as his primary residence until his death in 1972.

At the museum and library--the latter of which can only be utilized for research by appointment--I watched a fine introductory movie, stopped by Truman's grave in the courtyard, saw his famed "The Buck Stops Here" desk sign and stepped into a replica Oval Office before spending hours in galleries devoted to his life and presidency.

The beginning of the presidential galleries featured several newspaper front pages from Truman's tumultuous first four months in office, when he succeeded FDR, oversaw the fall of Berlin and surrender of Germany and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.

The subsequent room posited about the propriety of having done so, but portrayed that Truman was fully comfortable with his decision and never second-guessed himself.

Another newspaper front page also featured prominently as there was a copy of the Nov. 3, 1948 Chicago Tribune pronouncing--incorrectly--DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

Especially in having been at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum the day before, I found it interesting that there was no mention in the Truman Museum about Jackie Robinson.

The breaking of baseball's color barrier would seem to be among the most momentous--then and now--things that happened during Truman's time in office, but I guess the president didn't have very much to do with it.

Declaring my independence from Independence, I had an Uber bring me to Crown Center, a KC complex of multiple office buildings and a shopping mall developed by the Hallmark Cards company, which has its headquarters there.

A Hall's department store is the anchor retail tenant.

All of Crown Center's quick-serve restaurants were long-lined at lunch time, but especially as I recently wrote a blog post about posh taquerias, I opted for a local place called Unforked.

I circumvented the line a bit by taking a seat at the bar and ordered a trio of tacos from a rather enticing menu: a Barking Pig, Tilapia Tango and Crispy Avocado. They were all really good.

After lunch I proceeded to the Hallmark Visitors Center.

Though not on a huge scale, nor featuring a factory tour, this is one of the "Kansas City museums" I really enjoy, perhaps due to my love of making greeting cards.

The staff at the Center's front desk were exceptionally friendly, and I began my hourlong visit by viewing a film about the history of Hallmark.

Displays depicted the venerated timeline of the company while galleries illustrated that Hallmark's renown goes well beyond cards.

There were displays devoted to unique Christmas trees Hallmark employees had made for the company's owner, a section on Keepsake Ornaments, a chance to watch clips of Hallmark Hall of Fame TV programs and kiosks in which to watch quite moving Hallmark commercials.

At this point I imagine most tourists may have had enough, but knowing I was leaving town the next morning and wanting to see the World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial, I shlepped up a steep hill to get "over there."

I only had about an hour to see a museum for which the $16 admission covers two days. But without reading anything in too much detail, I was able to see most of the main galleries.

This came 100 years and 1 day after the United States entered World War I, with a huge commemoration taking place at the museum the day before, attended by U.S. and foreign dignitaries.

I had heard of the event shortly before leaving Chicago but was unable to secure a ticket, and with the museum being closed on Thursday and--per many Uber driver reports--traffic snarled, I had stayed away from the area.

But though I would have valued at least another hour viewing the special exhibit galleries and going to the top of the Liberty Memorial tower, I'm glad I saw what I did.

And it was a downhill shlep to Union Station afterward, where I had a 6:00pm reservation at Pierpont's.

Apologies to lovers of KC BBQ for my not overly singing its praises, but--as per the @@@@@ review I posted to Open Table--this was easily the best dining experience of my trip.

I was intending to splurge on a 14 oz. Kansas City Strip steak--what else?--for $45 but benefited from the restaurant's generous "Small Plates Tasting Menu."

For $47 dollars, I got a 10 oz KC Strip which was more than sufficient, a Crab Cake appetizer better than I'd had in Baltimore, Blue Crab & Sweet Corn Bisque, whipped potatoes and asparagus alongside the steak and a Honey Crème Brûlée that was absolutely heavenly. (The small plates menu features several other options for each course.)

And without wishing to sound too creepy about it, I had a lovely waitress named Courtney who helped to make my dinner even more enjoyable.

Still in Union Station--which serves Amtrak but is otherwise devoted to dining, entertainment, shopping and museum space, and was hosting a massive Science Fair--I attended a local production of Avenue Q by MTKC.

Without the Royals in town and no jazz of note, my best Friday night entertainment options were two musicals, the other being She Loves Me. But I'm slated to see that in Chicagoland soon, and though I'd seen Avenue Q five previous times, including its original Broadway and much-heralded-though-short-lived Las Vegas productions, its one of my favorite shows.

The chance to see how it was interpreted by a professional troupe in a regional city was quite appealing, and rather rewarding.

Though I empathize with budgetary concerns that probably dictated the decision not to have the typical Avenue Q streetscape as a set piece--but rather an open stage with video supplying scenic references--the acting and singing in the show directed by Julie Danielson was top-notch.

I particularly liked Kayli Jamison, who played and puppeted Kate Monster as well as anyone I recall, and it was nice to see the City Stage theater space rather full, despite my being able to buy a ticket just the day before.

On my Seth Saith rating scale, I'd give this production of Avenue Q @@@@, but perhaps @@@@1/2 had I not seen the show done a bit better elsewhere.

The next morning--at 6:30am--I made it back to Union Station without incident, and with perhaps the nicest Uber driver of many I enjoyed chatting with on the trip, but I had rather a scare just before I was to begin boarding my train back to Chicago.

My printed ticket wouldn't scan, and in looking at it, I immediately knew why. Instead of saying April 8 for a return date, it said August 8.

I had made the reservation with Amtrak by phone and had them email me the ticket, so I knew the fault wasn't mine, but having to go see the ticketing agent and have him call to seek permission to allow for the change was rather perplexing 12 minutes before departure.

But it all worked out. As did the entire trip. Sure, seeing the Caravaggio, playing $5 blackjack, finding the college basketball museum open and better enjoying the famed BBQ might have made things more perfect, but if nothing else, along with a good time I was left with a tale to tell.

And a few more photos to share.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Here's the Rub: 'Aladdin' a Terrific Touring Production of a Fun But Not Quite "Genie-us" Musical -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Aladdin
a Disney musical
First National Tour
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru Sept. 10
@@@@

I remember the 1992 Disney animated movie, Aladdin--based on an age-old Middle Eastern folk tale--being a great vehicle for the manic genius of the late, great Robin Williams.

Though I saw it once, or perhaps twice, way back when--which is more than I can say about Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King before they were adapted into stage musicals--I couldn't recall any particular music in Aladdin, not even "A Whole New World," which I guess was something of a hit.

Still, I certainly appreciate the talents of composer Alan Menken, his lyrical partner Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice, who wrote additional lyrics for the movie and now the musical after Ashman's death in 1991. Chad Beguelin, who penned the musical's book, also added some lyrics.

Following a few years of development and out-of-town tryouts, Aladdin opened on Broadway in 2014 to decent but not scintillating reviews. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, with James Monroe Iglehart winning for playing the genie. The show continues to run rather successfully in New York, and Tuesday night it began its First National Tour in Chicago. 

Photos from Aladdin on Broadway
I was in attendance and will fairly note that it was likely officially a "preview" performance. 

All of the above is meant to connote that--while excited for Broadway in Chicago to provide a new, fresh-from-NYC title, and impressed that Aladdin is booked at the Cadillac Palace until September--I didn't enter with any palpable affinity, other than a bit of wistfulness for Robin Williams and some crash Spotifamiliarization with the Original Cast Recording

And my enjoyment of the musical--considerable but not overwhelming--pretty much aligns with my moderate expectations. 

Appreciably, well before Williams took his life in August 2014, Disney and the creative talent responsible for the theatrical adaptation realized that there is likely no one alive capable of imbuing Aladdin's genie with the same type of madcap brilliance. 

Instead, sizable, bald, vivacious African-American men--Iglehart originally on Broadway, Anthony Murphy on tour in Chicago--have embodied the genie with considerable sass and charm, and abundant talent in their own right, but not nearly Williams' kaleidoscopic points of humorous reference. 

Being the first night of a national tour, hewing closely to the script was certainly understandable, but it seemed well within Murphy's wheelhouse to break the fourth wall and extemporaneously ad lib a bit--about the Cubs, the current president, the United passenger-dragging debacle, etc.--and I think Aladdin could well benefit from this in appealing to adults as much as kids (as I believe the film largely achieved). 

As it stands, the clearly well-funded show features excellent scenery--designed by Bob Crowley--and top talent, led by Murphy and Adam Jacobs, who reprises the title role he originated on Broadway. 

Per the evolving story of Aladdin coming to find the lamp containing the genie--at the cajoling of the evil Jafar (an excellent Jonathan Weir)--after the fine opening number ("Arabian Nights") Murphy is off-stage for the musical's first hour, and largely missed. 

Jacobs has an excellent voice showcased early on "One Jump Ahead" and "Proud of Your Boy," and makes for an affable presence as the poor-but-resourceful local who pursues the beautiful Princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla). 

But it is only when the genie reappears to deliver the show's one truly sensational production number--"A Friend Like Me"--that the whole enterprise really comes alive. 

The show continues to be impressively staged and sung throughout, with "A Whole New World" being a fine Aladdin/Jasmine duet early in Act II, and Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo and Mike Longo providing nice comic relief as Aladdin's pals, Babkak, Omar and Kassim.

I didn't see Aladdin on Broadway, but this seems to be a clearly superb rendition of the source material, with Broadway director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw at the helm and beautiful costuming by Gregg Barnes.

As demonstrated numerous times throughout their esteemed careers, Menken, Ashman, Rice and Beguelin obviously know how to write quality songs and to Aladdin's credit, there was never a point in the 2-1/2 hour show where I didn't feel impressively entertained. 

But while Aladdin is a good musical, it isn't a great one. I never managed much of an emotional investment, at times thought there was too much onstage commotion and didn't leave humming any songs. 

Although not everything it does appeals to everybody, Disney remains one of the world's premier entertainment companies, and its forays into live theater have been estimable.  
The Lion King is truly brilliant, while Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins are excellent musicals. (I haven't seen The Little Mermaid or Tarzan.)

Aladdin isn't quite on that level, but like Newsies and Aida, it is sumptuously presented and makes for an unabashedly solid--and imaginably for some, particularly kids getting indoctrinated to live theater, truly delectable--night of quality entertainment. 

Sometimes that is all you can wish for.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Pithy Philosophies #33

Seth Saith:

The only way to give is without wanting anything in return. 

Otherwise, it's just buying. 

Monday, April 03, 2017

Taco Tuesday (...Wednesday, Thursday...): Biting Into the Proliferation of Posh Taquerias in North Shore Suburbia

As my big belly can attest, I like many different types of foods across numerous cuisines. (In 2013 into 2014, I published 50+ articles on Chicagoland restaurants representing various ethnicities, which I dubbed the "Chicago Dining World Tour.")

But I don't think there's any cuisine I like any more than Mexican food, and while in full-service restaurants I tend to order chimichangas, fajitas, chile rellenos or enchiladas--particularly with a dark mole sauce--I also love tacos.

Though a big fan of the ubiquitous homespun, mostly counter-service taquerias that dot the city of Chicago--and I'll cite a few below--in recent years one of my favorite restaurants has been a more refined variation.

I likely found Taco Nano (1743 Orchard Lane, Northfield; website) on Yelp and now tend to get there about once every couple months.

Among their standard tacos--ranging from $3-$4/each--I really like the Pork Al Pastor, Sea of Cortez and Adobe Skirt Steak.

But they also have a special "Taco of the Week" that usually sounds rather tasty and rounds out a trio with two of the above.

Though Taco Nano's guacamole is terrific, I usually forgo ordering it in favor of their delicious fried plantains and a cheese quesadilla.

A bottle of pineapple or mango Jarritos typically rounds out what has consistently been a delightful visit.

But more recently, I've noticed a number of other relatively posh taquerias on Chicago's North Shore--basically, north of my home on the north end of Skokie--and while I wouldn't say any outdo Taco Nano, I've enjoyed trying them out, not just to write this story.

As such, these aren't meant as ratings, or even overt reviews, as much as simply to highlight each of the places visited (just once so far, for the most part).

Located within one of the most beautiful strip malls you'll ever see--Plaza del Lago, on what was once known as "No Man's Land"--is Taco Lago (1515 Sheridan Rd, Wilmette; website).

As far as I was able to discern, none of the places I'll mention are run by the same people, but in name and menu, Taco Lago felt somewhat similar to Taco Nano.

Prices were a bit higher, and if you want 2 tacos they have to be the same kind. I got two Al Pastor tacos for $9 and also a steak quesadilla, but chips and salsa were complimentary.

(All the visits I'm referencing were of the dine-in variety.)

Also in Wilmette, but in the downtown shopping district, is The Trendy Taco (1195 Wilmette Ave, Wilmette). Unlike the others, this is a cash-only enterprise.

Even in the fonts and colors used on the chalkboard--which also had $3-$4/taco prices--this seemed quite akin to Taco Nano, but I'm pretty sure I asked and was told there was no connection.

Here too I got an Al Pastor taco--which came topped by a nice avocado salsa--accompanied by a Chipotle Tilapia taco and a Poblano Rojas, which was stuffed with peppers.

All three of these were really good, especially the poblano. For good measure, I also had a cheese quesadilla and a Jarritos.

The next place I tried, Taco Diablo (1026 Davis St, Evanston; website) is a bit different than the others in that there is wait staff, a bar and more menu selections. I also don't believe Evanston is officially considered part of the North Shore, but this was my first visit to a fairly new restaurant, so I'm including it here.

Although priced at $15 for 3 tacos--albeit with rice and beans, the latter declined by me--the selections here were the most unique and, in sum, flavorful.

Able to get three different kinds in my order, I got Smoked Brisket, Pork Belly & Chicharrons and Gulf Snapper tacos.

And I was also enticed by Pork Carnitas, Spicy Shrimp, Carne Asada, Lamb Barbacoa and Potato. (I'm allergic to poultry; hence no chicken or duck tacos.)

Along with the rice, chips and two kinds of salsa were provided. The green (verde) was one of the best I can ever recall having.

Although it also serves sandwiches--hence the name--Stacked and Folded (551 Lincoln Ave, Winnetka; website) also features a nice slate of tacos and merits being included here.

In one of Chicago's most affluent suburbs, the tacos were $5-$6 each, so rather pricey but quite delicious.

I got Braised Lamb with tzatziki sauce--so something like a gyros taco--an Ahi Tuna Poke and my cherished Al Pastor, which topped the pork with a cilantro lime cream.

Although more expensive than the other places I tried, I liked the vibe at Stacked & Folded--the staff was friendlier than elsewhere--and with several other appealing taco varieties, let alone sandwiches, I intend to return.

Lake Bluff is quite a bit north of the other North Shore towns in which I went taco hunting, but I remembered that a few summers ago I'd found a place close to the town gazebo.

It wasn't that easy to re-find, even online, as The Otherdoor (30 E Center Ave, Lake Bluff; website) not only has no taco in its name, it has no identifying signage on its facade.

If I hadn't come across it before, I likely wouldn't have revisited it now, but figured it merits inclusion here.

With three tacos for $8.85--and you can mix them, making this a better deal than elsewhere--I had a barbacoa, steak and pork belly, and enjoyed them all.

Like at almost all the places, Jarritos made for a nice beverage. There was a wide array of salsas to choose from and I appreciated being able to order just a cup of guacamole for under $4.

All in all, I think it's "bueno" that there is now quite a smattering of quality, reasonably new taco joints within 15-20 minutes of where I live.

But as something of a corollary to my North Shore taco exploration, I made a point of revisiting some more traditional tacquerias--mostly in Chicago proper--where I found the going rate for tacos to be about $1.80-$2.00 each.

They didn't have all the fancy sauces I found at the posh places, but invariably the tacos were very good and indirectly ridiculed the need to spend up to six bucks apiece.

And as a Mexican friend of mine conveyed when we had lunch at El Taco Veloz on Chicago Ave., true taquerias don't serve fish tacos; those are "only for the gringos."

So while the focus of this piece was on posh North Shore interpretations of taquerias, let me end by also listing a few of the more authentic variety. (Some of these are wait-service joints, but still inexpensive.)

- Taqueria Los Comales (9055 N Milwaukee, Niles and several other locations; website)
- El Pueblito (3941 Touhy, Lincolnwood)
- Taqueria Morelia (3943 W Lawrence, Chicago)
- El Taco Veloz (1745 W Chicago Ave, Chicago)
- Allende (2408 N Lincoln, Chicago)
- El Burrito Mexicano (936 W Addison, Chicago)
- Taqueria Uptown (1144 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago)

Their of the fancier/pricier variety, but I also really like the tacos at:

- BIG & little's (3 Chicago locations; website)