Monday, December 11, 2017

‘Springsteen on Broadway’: Born to Run Through His Life’s Stories, Musically and Quite Movingly — Theater / Concert Review

Theater / Concert Review

Springsteen on Broadway
Bruce Springsteen solo (mostly)
Walter Kerr Theater, New York
Thru June 30, 2018
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Now 68, rock icon Bruce Springsteen published his bestselling autobiography in 2016. Titled Born to Run, the book shares its name with the Boss’ classic song and album from the mid-1970s.

This might suggest a newfound desire to look back on his life and career, as such recollections also form the gist of Springsteen on Broadway, a compelling one-man show raking in millions within the confines of New York’s theater mecca. (Bruce's wife, Patti Scialfa Springsteen, sings with him on two songs.)

But those long familiar with Springsteen as a concert performer—perhaps just from live recordings, with dozens now officially available—know that even as a much younger man, Bruce regularly regaled fans before and during songs.

Tales of teenage battles with his father, having his long hair shorn at his dad's behest after being injured in a motorcycle accident, failing his physical for the Vietnam draft, losing friends & band members in the war, talking to a priest about his parents' vocational wishes (lawyer, author), coincidentally meeting injured war hero Rob Kovic soon after reading his Born on the Fourth of July book, and many other anecdotes have long been shared from the stage (though Bruce's soliloquies have lessened and shortened in recent years). 

The same, or largely similar, stories would be repeated at multiple tour stops, many more planned and even rehearsed than it may have seemed at the time.

So given his propensity for both storytelling and self-reflection—manifest not only in the autobiography but on Springsteen’s most recent tour with his stalwart E Street Band, which celebrated (and for awhile, played live in full) his 1980 album, The River—his now devoting five nights per week to public introspection is far from an illogical undertaking.

Not only does the New Jersey legend maintain mammoth popularity in the Tri-State region—and among loyal fans willing to travel—he has repeatedly shown fondness for occasionally playing his music without any (or almost any) accompaniment, as on his The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust solo tours.

In a live music milieu, nothing—and I mean, nothing—compares to Springsteen’s 3-to-4 hour, malleable setlist extravaganzas with the E Street Band.

Of my 50 times seeing the Boss onstage, the vast majority have been with the ESB—and absolutely phenomenal.

But Springsteen on Broadway is completely thrilling in its own right, despite relying on songs and stories I know well, shared without any of Bruce's trademark ad-libbing,

Photo from November 2016
Certainly, having typically seen Springsteen from quite a distance in indoor arenas and outdoor stadiums, there was a palpable chill in being just 15 rows from my hero in the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre. (My ticket wasn't inexpensive, but less than the median face value price, and now selling on StubHub for about 5x what I paid via Ticketmaster.)

And despite working five days a week "for the first time in my life," as the Boss joked near the outset, his singing voice  sounded strong on Saturday night as he accompanied himself on a variety of acoustic guitars and a Yamaha grand piano.

Hearing my favorite musician performing spartan takes on cherished songs in an intimate, rarefied setting was undeniably electrifying.

Yet this wasn't simply Springsteen Unplugged, it was Springsteen on Broadway, and in beginning his monologue without offering even a cursory "Good evening," the show felt stylistically akin to Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking or other scripted memoirs recited onstage in theatrical venues.

I would assume—especially given a run selling every seat at unprecedented prices and then some, with an extension through next June—Bruce is at liberty to do whatever he wants within the Walter Kerr, one of 41 official "Broadway" theaters near New York's Times Square.

Photo from an earlier Springsteen on Broadway performance.
If he wished to change the setlist nightly—as he does on tour—or bring in various E Street Band members or other guests to accompany him, I'm not sure there are any regulations to preclude him.

But for most shows on the Great White Way, "Broadway" implies something scripted, or at least rigorously rehearsed.

In respecting that tradition, Springsteen on Broadway is a much tighter, regimented show than the three Devils and Dust gigs I attended in 2005, though those also featured just Bruce, acoustic guitars, piano and much storytelling.

And masterfully intertwining with carefully culled songs—not a greatest hits set, though with many well-known tunes—the stories are entirely compelling, with both considerable humor and great poignancy.

You can easily find the static nightly song list on Setlist.fm, but in my own way of respecting theatrical tradition, I'll avoid revealing everything played or spoken.

Having read (most of ) Born to Run, and being a Springsteen fanatic since the early '80s, I was familiar with many of the tales he told, including his upbringing in Freehold, NJ, where he was beguiled by seeing Elvis on Ed Sullivan and had vastly differing relationships with his mom and dad.

This led, fittingly, into "Growing Up," a song from Bruce's 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.

Photo from a previous performance of Springsteen on Broadway.
The stories and, in large part, the songs, progressed in chronological order and one wouldn't be crazy to perceive that this famed Jersey boy had crafted something of his own solo take on Jersey Boys (the musical biography about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons).

Coming in, I knew 15 songs would be played in about 2 hours, with no intermission. So when more than a half-hour had gone by before the second song was finished, I began to wonder when and how the music's pace would pick up.

Eventually it did, with highlights including "Thunder Road" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the latter complemented by Springsteen's highly moving remarks about his late sax player and sideman, Clarence Clemons.

As he does every night, Bruce brought Patti out to duet with him on two songs, both delightful.

The first, "Tougher Than the Rest," had Springsteen playing piano, as he did for about a third of the selections.

Bruce isn't nearly a pianist to match the E Street Band's great Roy Bittan, but the heavy use of piano on early Springsteen gems is one of my favorite aspects of his music, so it was a real joy to hear the Boss make his way across the keyboard.

The last five songs of the show were sans Scialfa, and while some were rather obvious—"The Rising," written in the wake of 9/11 was particularly moving just a couple miles north of Ground Zero, which I would visit the next morning—three came from post-1999, when Springsteen reunited the E Street Band after a decade apart.

Though Bruce never directly mentioned Donald Trump, who he had openly denounced during the 2016 Presidential campaign, he noted that this is "a terrible chapter in the ongoing battle for the soul our nation" before playing the dour, "Long Walk Home."

The hopeful corollary would have more predictably been Springsteen's great inspirational rocker, "Badlands," but in a bit of a theatrical twist—for those who hadn't studied the setlist—he played something newer and less famous, but to similar message and effect.

Us Springsteen diehards can be an oddly ornery lot—check out the Backstreets.com message board sometime—with word of the Broadway extension undoubtedly prompting exhortations of "So no E Street Band tour in 2018?" and "When's his [supposedly finished] new album coming out?"

But Bruce has long been someone who decides what he wants to do—band tours, solo tours, the Seeger Sessions Band, autobiography, Broadway show, etc.—and to his credit, has done them all pretty well.

As Jon Stewart noted in speaking of Bruce at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors, Springsteen "empties the tank" every time out. (The clip is part of the fine new documentary, Bruce Springsteen: In His Own Words, on BBC America.)

Though unique for the lesser amount of volume coming from the stage or perspiration running down the Boss' face, Springsteen on Broadway really is no different.

It's as good as I could have hoped.

Spiritual even, as without the audience standing up or singing along, there was a hushed reverence throughout that added to the parallels I find in dubbing rock "my religion."

And though I would describe the material far more as "moving" than "maudlin," there's an undeniable strain of mortality running through the show, in stories of Bruce's late father, elderly mother, early pals lost in Vietnam and longtime bandmates—Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici—who have passed in the last decade.

Add to this numerous Springsteen contemporaries who have recently gone to rock 'n roll heaven and one can't help but actively hope that Bruce—still physically chiseled and supposedly long abstaining from typical rock star excesses—truly is "Born to Run" forever.

On Broadway or anywhere else. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Merry Manilow: ‘A Very Barry Christmas’ Proves a Ho-Ho-Wholly Festive and Fun Affair — Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Barry Manilow 
A Very Barry Christmas 
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
December 5, 2017
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Other than perhaps the Beatles, I don’t think there is a musical artist I’ve been consciously aware of longer than Barry Manilow.

Several of his hit mid-'70s LPs were staples in our family record collection, and while I can’t say I've remained a big fan over the years, familiarity has blurred into grudging affinity.

With friends and family members who are comparatively hard-core Fanilows, I went along to a concert of his for the first time in 2008, and on Tuesday night found myself at Rosemont’s Allstate Arena for "A Very Barry Christmas."

And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, with no opening  act, it was a well-paced blend of just enough Manilow classics—for me—mixed with holiday tunes, most having appeared on Barry's multiple Christmas collections.

Even in his multi-platinum heyday, Manilow was never the hippest pop star, but in having written relatively few of his numerous hits--not even "I Write the Songs"--he must be credited as a crafty interpreter of tunes that catch the public's fancy. (Or at least part of the public.)

I realize it's somewhat backhanded praise to say I enjoyed everything he played because there wasn't that much of it, but it's been 40 years—if ever—since I've heard Barry Manilow II, Tryin' to Get the Feelin', This One's For You and Even Now in full.

So while he may well have some nice album tracks that were never hits, he isn't an artist I need to hear dig deep into his catalog.

Just his greatest hits are fine, and probably not even all of them. (Ultimate Manilow makes for a good compilation, with more than I really need.)

And although over the past few decades, while I really haven't been paying attention, Barry's been recording collections of pop standards in a variety of veins—big bands, Sinatra, love songs, duets, highlights of the '50s, '60s, '70s & '80s—I was happy to have "a nice Jewish boy" complement his hit songs with Christmas tunes.

Though the seasonal selections included some of the obvious—"Jingle Bells," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and as part of a medley after the jolly man showed up on his sleigh, "White Christmas"—I more so enjoyed when Manilow, a 16-piece big band and three backing vocalists nicely ventured off the traditional Xmas path.

Best of these were Barry's takes on Joni Mitchell's "River" and Frank Sinatra's "Violets for Your Furs."

At 74, with a new set of hips, Manilow remains a first-class showman and his self-effacing, deadpan humor amiably offset any perceived hokeyness.

After opening the show with "It's A Miracle," the sequined singer cracked that he was the Jewish Santa Claus and repeatedly noted the dichotomy of material being played, which at one point went "from happiness to total misery" as he led into his "Even Now," a song anguishing over an absent friend or lost love.

Manilow officially came out as gay just this past April, but per Wikipedia has been in a relationship with the same man since 1978, to whom he's now married but long kept secret in part due to his large female fan base.

So as he—in fine voice, still able to powerfully emote when needed—clearly delighted the crowd with classic ballads such as "Somewhere in the Night," "Looks Like We Made It," "Weekend in New England," "I Made It Through the Rain," "Mandy" and abridged versions of "This One's For You" and "Could It Be Magic," I couldn't help but imagine an empowering new (public) forthrightness in his professions of love.

And, of course, only a Grinch couldn't love Manilow's buoyant takes on "Daybreak," "Can't Smile Without You" and "Copacabana (At the Copa)."

Also making for a nice moment was "I Am Your Child" from the singer's 1973 debut album being preceded by his thanking fans who donated used musical instruments to be given to schools that need them, as part of the Manilow Music Project.

Along with several Christmas trees and other holiday trappings, the constant waving of green glow sticks handed out to the crowd added to the festive evening.

With so many musicians onstage, and vast decorations, "A Very Barry Christmas" can't be an inexpensive production, and Manilow appears to be performing it for just one night in only New York, Los Angeles and, first, Chicago, a city for which he profusely expressed great fondness.

Especially as the Allstate Arena balcony was well undersold, this made me all the more appreciative of the excellent musicianship coming from all those onstage.

Songs such as "Weekend in New England" and the main set closing "I Write the Songs" were powerfully, even blissfully, enhanced as the orchestra swelled.

Manilow was graciously appreciative of those performing alongside him, whom I regretfully cannot name.

At the end, this included not only Santa and some helpers, but a children's choir who accompanied the star on "Because It's Christmas (For All the Children)" before a brief reprise of "It's a Miracle" sent us off into the chilly night.

Scrooge that I may be, I have to admit it was a Barry good show, indeed.

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As best as I could jot it down, this was the Barry Manilow setlist for "A Very Barry Christmas" at Allstate Arena, near Chicago:

1. It's a Miracle
2. Christmas Is Just Around the Corner
3. Daybreak
4. Somewhere in the Night
5. This One's For You (partial)
6. Can't Smile Without You
7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
8. Even Now
9. River (Joni Mitchell song)
10. Jingle Bells
11. Violets for Your Furs (Frank Sinatra song)
12. Looks Like We Made It
13. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
14. I Am Your Child
15. Weekend in New England
16. Let's Hang On! (Four Seasons song)
17. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
18. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
19. I Made It Through the Rain
20. Mandy (with part of Could It Be Magic)
21. I Write the Songs
22. Copacabana (At the Copa)
23. Deck the Halls / Jingle Bell Rock / Feliz Navidad / White Christmas
24. Because It's Christmas (For All the Children)
25. It's a Miracle (Reprise)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Milquetoast 'Experience': Overproduced Earnestness Fails to Enliven U2's Latest 'Songs' -- Album Review

Album Review

U2
Songs of Experience
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I am unabashedly and unapologetically a U2 fan.

In the present tense.

The Irish quartet, still comprised of only its original members, is definitively one of my 10 favorite rock 'n roll artists of all time.

And I believe their stature as probably the biggest band in the world remains well-justified, merely as a live act.

Demonstrably proven again this year, in 2015 and across nearly four decades, U2’s concerts have consistently been thrilling, moving, galvanizing and often quite visionary in advancing the art of audiovisual presentation.

Sure, their shows typically resound around the same “tentpole” songs—"Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Pride (in the Name of Love)," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "With or Without You," "Bad," "New Year's Day," "One"— but this is rather standard for veteran superstar acts.

And in often having wished for them to dig deeper into their catalog, I relished their latest tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree album. For the first time in decades, I got to hear "In God's Country," "Exit,""Red Hill Mining Town," and more, even "A Sort of Homecoming" from the album prior, The Unforgettable Fire.

To me, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. still sounded fantastic. 

So I would vehemently disagree with anyone who claims, "U2 sucks" or "They've been shite for 30 years."

2014's Songs of Innocence cover
I even defended the band when, in 2014, U2 and Apple seemingly pissed off everyone alive who wasn't a fan by providing free digital copies of the new Songs of Experience album with the latest version of iTunes, tied to the announcement of the iPhone 6.

I didn't love that album, but certainly would have bought it, so was happy to have gotten free music. I subsequently even did buy a physical copy.

But much as I believe that people can become more patriotic by chastising their country and leaders--and actually protesting--I don't think being a fan, or fanatic, of a certain band means never being critical about them.

And to those who might say, "U2's been putting out lousy albums for years," I couldn't help but concur.

I still like 2000's All that You Can't Leave Behind--though largely just for "Beautiful Day," "Elevation" and "Walk On"--and 1993's Zooropa benefited from being relatively off-the-cuff, but basically since their last masterpiece, 1991's Achtung Baby, U2's records have mostly been mediocre at best. 

Pop (1997), How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), No Line on the Horizon (2009), Songs of Innocence (2014).

Meh, meh, meh and meh.


Still, enough time had passed since Songs of Innocence--whose 2015 tour featuring futuristic video technology chronicling the band members' early days was brilliant, as was The Joshua Tree 30 outing--for me to excitedly pre-order Songs of Experience.

And since getting it last Friday I've listened and listened hoping my initial reactions would be proven premature. But, well...

Meh.

Given the number of other negative or lukewarm reviews I've seen, I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so, though to be fair I've also seen Songs of Experience effusively praised by some publications.

While I'm comfortable with @@@ (out of 5), that may actually overstate my current enjoyment, abetted by some degree of expectation that--much as the 2015 tour did for Songs of Innocence tracks like "Iris (Hold Me Close)" and "Song for Someone"--next year's live presentation will heighten my regard for new tunes like "Red Flag Day," "The Showman (Little More Better)" and "Love Is Bigger than Anything In Its Way," that seem professional if not thrilling.

But right now, I would say there are only two "songs of experience" I really like, and it's likely neither of these would make a 25-song Best of U2 Spotify playlist.

"You're the Best Thing About Me" is a nice, straightforward love song that reaches for anthemic heights, but I'm not sure it equals "Mysterious Ways" or "Gloria," let alone the sonic imagination of "With or Without You."

"Get Out of Your Own Way" did make my Best of 2017 playlist, and is my favorite cut on the album, but with an overproduced sheen that lacks the sonic blast of "Wire," "In God's Country" or any of the band's truly greatest hits (like "Pride," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," etc.).

Part of me knows such comparisons are a bit unfair, or at least rather trite. For I don't think there is any major rock artist in history whose songs created past the age of say 40--obviously roughly, when it comes to bands--consistently outshine those written in younger days.

This doesn't mean I haven't liked much of what Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney or Pearl Jam or others have recorded on the downslope of their careers, but like U2, their pinnacle brilliance came far earlier. (Lesser-known favorites of mine like Willie Nile and Alejandro Escovedo have been better with maturity, but mainly due less familiar or more sparse earlier outputs.)

With U2, I suspect they just try too hard to create something profound, and it winds up meandering around your head rather than ever just punching you in the gut.

My guess is that if you locked Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry in a garage with a cassette recorder and said "write a song called, "Feed the Poor" in under an hour," I would like the result way more than overwrought SoE tomes like "Lights of Home" and "Landlady," or thumping rockers with nothing to say, "American Soul" and "The Blackout."

At least with Songs of Innocence, I learned--or was reminded--of U2's penchant for The Ramones, the repercussions from the death of Bono's mom when he was 14, that he grew up on "Cedarwood Road" in Dublin and has loved his wife, Ali, since childhood.

Here, any thematic "Experience" is muddled.

Bono wrote profuse liner notes, but honestly, I can't get through them.

Supposedly, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were conceived in tandem, but I don't know how far any of the SoE tunes date or, for the most part, their impetus.

Between being on an aircraft with a failed engine, getting badly hurt in a Central Park and having some kind of serious health scare in 2016 that I've seen referenced but not specified, Bono has certainly faced his own mortality. And a desire to loop social urgency born from the Brexit vote and Trump election into new material was said to further push back the new album.

But beyond Bono beginning "Lights of Home" with the lyric, "I shouldn't be here cause I should be dead," I'm really not gleaning much insight about his experiences, or the world's.

Opening the album is "Love is All We Have Left" and nearly closing it is "Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way." Not bad thoughts, but not great songs either.

I'll take "The Three Sunrises" any day.

And while comparisons to the past may well be unfair, the real problem isn't that these songs are horrible at face value (for the most part), they're just uninspired. Especially next to what U2 once created.

"The Little Things That Give You Away" is one of the better songs on the new set, but in a similar stylistic vein I much prefer a song they've never even officially released, "North and South of the River." (Another great rarity, "Mercy," is also better than anything here.)

Anyway, I really wanted to like Songs of Experience, even if U2's track record over the past 25 years would suggest otherwise (at least in terms of songs that made it onto albums).

And I have enjoyed exploring it.

I don't think it's terrible, just forgettable. Probably even disposable.

But of course, I still can't wait to see U2 again next May.

Perhaps that will make the Experience a bit better.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Boundless Imagination: Joffrey Ballet's 'The Nutcracker' as Reconceived by Christopher Wheeldon, is Simply Ravishing -- Chicago Ballet Review

Dance Review

The Nutcracker
choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Joffrey Ballet
at the Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 30 (Seen December 1)
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Simply at face value, I have nothing but effusive praise for The Nutcracker I saw performed by the Joffrey Ballet Friday night at the Auditorium.

While I won't pretend to be a ballet aficionado or expert, all of the dancing was sublime.

The lead performers, who I'll cite below, and the large ensemble--including a vast number of children--were entirely delightful.

The Chicago Philharmonic performed Tchaikovsky's score splendidly. In fact, just the music itself would have well justified my attendance and great appreciation.

And from the brilliant set and costumes (by Julian Crouch) to some cheeky rat puppetry designed by Basil Twist, the ballet was bursting with visual vibrance.

Given the thunderous ovation bestowed by the packed opening night crowd, including former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley--I didn't actually see him, but his attendance was noted by Joffrey's artistic & executive directors, Ashley Wheater & Greg Cameron, respectively, in a pre-show welcome where they saluted his support when the company relocated to Chicago in 1995, and dedicated the performance to him--I think it's safe to say the masses liked what they saw and heard.

Photo credit on all: Cheryl Mann
But as The Nutcracker--perhaps the world's most popular ballet--has been a holiday staple and family favorite for decades, seared into the memories of children and the adults they become, what makes this Joffrey production so noteworthy is that acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon had the vision, and chutzpah, to re-imagine every aspect.

And in spectacular fashion, he and his cohorts--not to mention the magnificent dancers--pull it off. (This is year two of the Joffrey's Wheeldon version, but the first time I saw it.)

Certainly, the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and the revised version by Alexandre Dumas, which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky set to sublime music for a ballet—first choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1892 at Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre—supplied much of The Nutcracker's underlying brilliance.

And numerous productions throughout the years--including by George Balanchine (1954) and Mikhail Barishnikov (1976)--have in one way or other employed significant variances.

Until last year, the renowned Joffrey Ballet version seen in Chicago since 1995 was one choreographed by company founder, Robert Joffrey, in 1987. Many locals may understandably consider that their blueprint, but--not that I really remember it--I first saw The Nutcracker when my Aunt Mickey took me in the early '70s, likely before I was 5. (I lobbied hard after she initially intended to just take my sisters.)

After never seeing the ballet, anywhere, since my toddler days, I went in 2015 to see the Robert Joffrey production--set in an affluent American household such as depicted by Currier & Ives--before it disappeared, and I absolutely loved it.

So if patrons arrive at the Auditorium with a certain sentimentality, or perhaps a longing to introduce the Nutcracker of their youth to their own offspring, they may well be surprised to find that in the Wheeldon version, there is no girl named Clara, she isn't given a nutcracker doll by an uncle named Drosselmeyer and the nutcracker doesn't become a handsome prince.

Also, as far I could tell, there are no Sugar Plum Fairies.

But most of the world's greatest achievements--artistic and otherwise--have come from daring to do something different, even audacious.

And beyond being entertainment of the highest order, nearly every moment of this 2-hour Nutcracker--in almost every aspect--palpably dances with awe-inspiring imagination.

The kind--while understanding the hyperbole of such exalted references--that truly ignites only a few times per generation.

Hamlet, The Marriage of Figaro, A Tale of Two Cities, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, The Wizard of Oz, Fantasia (which incorporates the Nutcracker Suite), West Side Story, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Blazing Saddles, Star Wars, Les Miserables (the musical), Harry Potter, The Lion King on Broadway, Hamilton. And whatever you might add to the list.

No, I'm not saying this iteration of The Nutcracker is as good, or groundbreaking, as any or all of these hallowed works of visionary creativity.

And after having my mind-blown the Sunday prior by the incomparable Savion Glover, and a month before by the gale storm of Arcade Fire in concert, etc., etc., I well know that imagination, inspiration and virtuosity come in many forms, often hard to measure other than through joy and, perhaps, enlightenment.

But starting with the font choice for "The Nutcracker" title on the stage scrim that welcomed us into the auditorium (of the Auditorium), everything about this production impressed me, often to "OMG!" levels, mentally if not verbally.

As I knew from having watched the WTTW documentary, Making a New American Nutcracker--you should be able to see it here--Wheeldon has, unprecedentedly, and explicitly for Chicago, tied the story of The Nutcracker to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, its neoclassical "White City" (grandiose, mostly temporary, architecture in what is now Chicago's Jackson Park) and the multicultural Midway, featuring the world’s first Ferris Wheel.

Certainly, Wheeldon--who directed & choreographed the recent Broadway musical version of An American in Paris, along with a long list of ballet credits--had plenty of help.

In addition to the set/costume designer and puppet master mentioned above, Joffrey leadership and many others, key to this production is story adapter Brian Selznick, best known for authoring the children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was turned into the 2011 Martin Scorsese movie, Hugo, which I love.

Rather than the traditional Clara, the young woman at the center of this Nutcracker is--as per Hoffmann's original story--named Marie (wonderfully enacted at the 12/1 performance by Amanda Assucena). Amid surroundings far more plebeian than the well-heeled norm, she and her younger brother Franz (Dylan Sengpiel) live among an ethnically-diverse community of workers prepping the Fair, with their mom (the superb Victoria Jaiani) being a sculptress.

Rather inventively, she is working on the Statue of the Republic, a gilded 65-foot tall sculpture (actually by Daniel Chester French. Like most of the World's Fair except the building now housing the Museum of Science & Industry, it was destroyed by fire soon after. A 1/3-size but rather impressive replica stands in Jackson Park.)

And later, in a dream of Marie's, her mom becomes a living embodiment of the golden statue.

In real life--beyond the ballet--famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was the primary planner and designer of the Columbian Exposition, which put the Windy City on the world stage, forever. (Burnham's contemporary, Louis Sullivan, designed the Auditorium building, which opened in 1889, so seeing The Nutcracker there adds to the appreciation for Chicago's storied history.)

In narrative stead of the often rather odd Drosselmeyer, Wheeldon and Selznick invented The Great Impresario of the Fair (Miguel Angel Blanco) as something of an ersatz Burnham. He's the one who winds up giving Marie a nutcracker doll, while also becoming rather smitten with her mother.

Although I think it's an excellent idea for anyone attending this Nutcracker to watch the hour-long WTTW special and to arrive early enough to read the brief synopsis in the program--fully deciphering all that's going on from the music, dance and design may be tricky on a first encounter with this new rendition--I never like revealing too many specifics.

But while I was stupefied by how amazing the first act was, post intermission is even better, not just because of the greater preponderance of music I've relished since childhood.

Drawing from, but re-conceiving, aspects of more traditional versions, here Marie and her prince (Alberto Velazquez, who doesn't play the nutcracker) encounter--in beautifully balletic form--Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Venetian and Wild West dancers, the latter gleefully including Buffalo Bill (Dylan Gutierrez).

Plus a group of dancing walnuts that truly cracked me up. 

Whereas Act I featured some brilliantly imaginative group dance numbers celebrating the diversity of the Fair workers, including an Eastern European folk dance, Act II has more overtly beautiful ballet, by Marie, the Prince, her mom, the Impresario and the ethnic combos or soloists.

Especially as the casts rotate, I won't take the time & space to name all the wondrous dancers I saw, but the Arabian dance couple--Fabrice Calmels and Christine Rocas, who has been blissfully beguiling in all of the (relatively few) Joffrey ballets I've seen in recent years--were particularly fantastic.

Obviously, I bestowed fervent applause for what I had witnessed, but also all that had clearly gone into it.

The Joffrey, Wheeldon and everyone involved are to be saluted not only for the exhilarating imagination and incredible performances, but for broadening the appeal of The Nutcracker, cross-culturally and socioeconomically.

So even though a production of this quality--more lavish than many Broadway shows I've seen--obviously isn't inexpensive to stage, I'm hoping it can also be financially accessible across the spectrum.

Hence I'll note that there are tickets priced as low as $35 through the box office, military discounts and possibilities to save via Goldstar and HotTix.

You may not consider yourself a ballet buff--I don't--or may perceive that The Nutcracker is slight holiday fare for kids. (The Joffrey website recommends it for "children ages 5 and up.")

Or perhaps, when it comes to this revered title, you're a stickler for "the way it used to be."

But if you admire imagination and multifaceted greatness, this really is a show—and a unique rendition—not to be missed.

Rare genius is on display.

From oversized nutcracker heads down to up on tippy-toes. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Truly Astonishing Feat: Tapper Extraordinaire Savion Glover Gets 'ALL FuNKD' UP,' Phenomenally, at the Mac -- Chicago Dance Review

Dance Concert Review

Savion Glover
ALL FuNKD' UP
featuring Dance Candy (band)
McAninch Arts Center at
College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL
November 26, 2017
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Having once again been boggled by the beyond amazing Savion Glover, Sunday afternoon at the Mac, I was going to begin my review by saying something along the lines of:

As oft shared on these pages, I have been fortunate to have seen some of the greatest performers of our time—and perhaps even all-time—in a variety of idioms.

From musicians and singers in many genres, to some of the most acclaimed actors, actresses & comedians, to superstar athletes in several fields, to Cirque du Soleil acrobats and others with rare & amazing talents, I have witnessed—live and in person—virtuosity in myriad forms.

Yet while I reserve the right to be contradictorily hyperbolic as the inspiration arises, there has been no one more jaw-droppingly, mind-blowingly impressive at his or her craft than tap dancer Savion Glover. At least from a visceral standpoint.

All photos by Seth Arkin. Please do not repost without
permission and attribution.
But in looking at my last review of Glover in concert—from January 2014 at Chicago's Harris Theatre—I found that's exactly what I wrote then.

Certainly, I will carry forth conveying as best I can—while employing some different words—what made Savion Glover's latest production, titled ALL FuNKD' UP, so special.

But at the center remains Glover's almost indescribable speed, rhythm, talent and stamina when it comes to tap dancing or—as dancer & tap expert Lane Alexander suggested as better terminology in an excellent pre-show discussion, noting how Savion has largely reshaped an art long associated with chorus lines—“foot drumming.”

And while I was graciously allowed to take photos from the wings of the beautifully refurbished Belushi Performance Hall—named for John & Jim, who attended the College of DuPage, at which the McAninch Arts Center resides—I didn't feel at liberty to shoot video of a new show that could have grander aspirations.

So for those completely unaware of this brilliant artist, who first appeared on Broadway at the age of 10 and seems to still be renowned—at 44—as the best tap dancer in the world, I suggest you take a look at this video clip, among many others on YouTube.

Though it should give a good sense of Savion Glover’s prodigious abilities, in the 2-1/2 minute clip he dances without any musical accompaniment.

At the Mac—and it was clearly quite a coup for COD to get this Midwest Premiere—Glover spent almost all of his 75 minutes on stage in constant motion accompanied, and often rhythmically inspired, by a 6-member band dubbed Dance Candy. 

I almost said he was "backed by a band," but that would be inaccurate as through his foot drumming Glover was clearly one of the musicians.

The dancer's reverence for the late great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane has long been apparent, so it was fitting that after a brief warm-up, ALL FuNKD' UP began with a live take on Trane's masterful interpretation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s "My Favorite Things," with Samantha Reed on vocals.

Before the show Alexander spoke about how Glover’s spirituality comes through in his percussive dancing, and witnessing his often transcendent movements and intense focus furthered my sense of his connection to Coltrane.

Likely most famed for his spiritual masterpiece, A Love Supreme, the jazzman died in 1967, but in 2005 at Ravinia I saw Savion tap alongside legendary pianist McCoy Tyner, who had played in Coltrane's classic quartet. And my sister Allison, who attended with me on Sunday, had seen a show in which Glover even more directly paid tribute to the saxophonist.

With the musicians onstage, including Glover, taking solo turns—à la a great jazz combo—"My Favorite Things" lasted about 20 minutes.

Savion would often accompany the others' soloing, and when he locked in with drummer Joshua McCormick it was particularly scintillating.

When the action finally stilled for the first time, Glover warmly welcomed the crowd but—battling some laryngitis—said he would "let my feet do the talking." Although later, he did introduce the rest of Dance Candy. 

In addition to Reed and McCormick, members include guitarist Steven Boone, bassist Derrick Englert, pianist Calvin Keys and Mark Ingraham on horns & percussion. (See the Dance Candy Facebook page.)

The songs performed weren't listed in the show program, so I can only cite what I recognized, and often there seemed to be just snippets of things. But Ingraham's trumpet sublimely drove the classic melody from Coltrane's "Blue Train."

I also picked up The Doors' "Break on Through" in one of Englert's bass lines, and without matching anything exactly, Boone blasted out some Jimi Hendrix-type riffs.

About 40 minutes into the performance, Glover—who had been the only dancer to that point—was joined by Marshall Davis, Jr. and Robyn Watson.

Both are outstanding tap dancers in their own right, and had featured far more prominently in Glover's sTePz show at the Harris in 2014.

Davis was also part of Savion's Bare Soundz production I'd seen at North Central College in 2008.

Watching the three of them onstage together—foot drumming individually, in pairs and all at once—was exhilarating, and hearkened to past Glover showcases involving considerably more group tapping.

But Davis and Watson were offstage after just 10 minutes or so, leaving Savion to provide a whole lot of sole on his own.

He and Dance Candy sizzled on the last two numbers of the night—actually afternoon, as the show began at 4:00pm at the tail of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

A full run through Michael Jackson's "Beat It" took me back to 1983, when MJ ruled the world and enlisted Eddie Van Halen to add a blazing guitar solo, which Boone did a nice job with as Reed sang and Glover stomped gloriously almost non-stop.

Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," by way of Whitney Houston and, here, Samantha Reed, closed out a 75-minute performance that was sensational in every foot-tapping-at-the-speed-of-sound moment.

In having introduced Savion, the Mac's Executive Director Diana Martinez noted that Glover would be conducting a Master Class for some COD dance students after his performance.

I can only imagine that was incredibly enlightening, as was Lane Alexander's lecture beforehand.

Though I absolutely loved what I witnessed, I've never been great at interpreting messages of Interpretive Dance, and apart from Glover's spirituality and musicianship, I can't say I discerned any cogent themes on Sunday.

Allison, who had turned me onto Glover—who I've now seen live six times, originally in Bring In 'Da Noise Bring In 'Da Funk, which told the story of black history—also didn't discern any narrative thread to ALL FuNKD' UP, but noted that much of the music driving it was by gifted performers who had died relatively young.

John Coltrane, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.

I don't know if a tangible statement tied to this truth was intended by Savion Glover or Dance Candy, as much as mainly just to get "all funkd up" to music they hold dear.

But exacerbated by the blur Glover became in most of the photos I took of him, I couldn't help but be reminded that life is fleeting, especially for many of our most visionary performers.

While he seems as spry and fantastic as ever, it is with such ephemerality in mind I strongly advocate that any chance you get to see the extraordinary Savion Glover, you really shouldn't miss out.

He's that singular.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Risking to Exist, Maxïmo Park Robustly Rewards My Passion -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Maxïmo Park
w/ opening act Active Bird Community
Lincoln Hall, Chicago
November 24, 2017
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A common gripe of mine is that there are rather few relatively new rock bands that excite me.

With the caveat that I'm probably not looking in the right places or coming across the right acts, I know of no bands arising this decade (or whose members are in their 20s) that I would care to see live or even just on YouTube.

But just a day before I saw and loved personal favorites Maxïmo Park at Lincoln Hall--albeit with less than 150 other fans--I heard of the passing of a power-pop singer/songwriter named Tommy Keene at the age of 59.

Though notable enough to be nicely saluted on Twitter by the Cubs' music-loving announcer Len Kasper, two members of Bob Mould's touring band (Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster) and Matthew Sweet--for whom he opened on a tour this year--as well as mourned on the Bruce Springsteen fan site, Backstreets.com, I had never known Keene's name, let alone his music.

But per these laudatory remembrances, I gave a listen to some of Tommy Keene's top songs on Spotify and really enjoyed several, particularly "Places That Are Gone"--the title tune from his 1984 debut EP--and "Out of Mind," which opens his last album, 2015's Laugh in the Dark.

This juxtaposition reiterated two seeming truths:

- There are undoubtedly hundreds or thousands of stellar rock artists--old and new--that I can still enjoy discovering

- At Chicago's plethora of smaller rock venues--i.e. "clubs"--there may well be bands as good as Maxïmo Park putting on superlative shows for just $20 almost every night of the year; I just need to be turned onto them

Which suggests--as others have noted--that rock isn't dead, it's just turning into jazz, with more than enough fantastic practitioners still existing, just well beyond the mainstream.

Certainly, though I'm unabashedly a fan of many rock superstars--Springsteen, The Beatles, Stones, Who, U2 and hundreds more--like most serious music lovers, I also have my "under the radar"  favorites.

"Lesser known" to varying degrees, these include Dinosaur Jr., Social Distortion, Willie Nile, Alejandro Escovedo, Ike Reilly and Jason & the Scorchers, and my penchant for appreciating opening acts was best fulfilled by The Wildhearts, who--as this article explains--became true favorites.

I've also long been drawn to bands much bigger in their native U.K. than they ever became in the U.S.--The Jam, The Move, Blur and Stereophonics being prime examples--and in 2006 put together an 8-disc, 4-decade compilation of such acts, which I dubbed Hidden in the Isles.

That deep dive introduced me to Maxïmo Park, a Newcastle-bred quintet whose 2005 debut album, A Certain Trigger, was my favorite of the '00s.

Five subsequent studio albums plus a collection of A Certain Trigger B-sides have been solid-to-stellar, if not quite as awesome, but though most seem to have sold pretty well in Britain, Maxïmo Park remains largely unknown here.

I very much enjoyed the band live in Chicago in 2007 and 2012, albeit among sparse crowds, and another five years on was pleased to catch them Friday night at Lincoln Hall.

Being the day after Thanksgiving, I very much gave thanks to my pal Dave for joining me and to the venue personnel for getting us a couple of stools to use on the edge of the otherwise SRO main floor, as LH's second level wasn't open.

This made for a perfectly comfortable and enjoyable night, first as a New York band called Active Bird Community played a nice set of alternative rockish songs for, as they said, "gas money."

Nothing I heard from the openers was life-changing on a first listen, but it heartened me to know that bands like them still exist in a rock vein, are able to create a nice assortment of quality songs and happily pile in a van from NYC to play an opening gig in Chicago for about 50 people.

The only song title I confidently caught was "Unwind With Me," but Active Bird Community have a couple albums on Spotify and as their song, "Pick Me Apart," has over 3.6 million listens, I imagine it would have been part of the satisfying 40 minutes.

Maxïmo Park's new album is called Risk to Exist and in opening with the title track and soon playing the record's first song, "What Did We Do to Deserve This?," the band's excellent and engaging frontman, Paul Smith, revealed that the album had been recorded in Chicago (at, per Wikipedia, Wilco's The Loft studio).

Though hard to clearly describe, I still find AllMusic.com dubbing Maxïmo Park's style as "angular pop" to be rather apt, and though they are a rock band, many of their songs are infused with dance beats.

This is certainly the case on "What Equals Love," likely the best of seven new songs that meshed well with tunes from throughout their career.

I was especially glad to hear "Graffiti" among others from A Certain Trigger, including the fantastic show closer, "Apply Some Pressure."

Other highlights among 80 minutes full of them included "The National Health"--from the fine 2012 album of the same name, which for whatever reason isn't on Spotify--"The Undercurrents," "Our Velocity" and "By the Monument."

Smith's comment about Risk to Exist being largely about "solidarity in hard times" and his noting the "I won't be put in my place" refrain on "Work and Then Wait" prompted me to give Maxïmo Park more credit for social stridency than I likely have before, as I've mainly just loved their sound.

I was also delighted that the quality of the songs came through to Dave, who was hearing most for the first time (though I've been championing Maxïmo Park for years).

He termed it a terrific show, and though Lincoln Hall was well short of packed, it seems agreement was universal. (See the setlist here; though exemplary, I wouldn't have minded another 4-5 songs as the band's catalog could well support a bit more stage time.)

Multiplying the $20 ticket cost with a rough guess at the crowd size makes me wonder if the band made back their transatlantic airfare, let alone other costs, so I'm all the more appreciative Maxïmo Park still deems it worth their while to play Chicago, or America for that matter (they're on a 10-show tour).

While I'll gladly continue to see & support them as long as I can, I but recognize the financial challenges faced by contemporary rock bands, even one of the very best IMO.

And like many relatively obscure acts I know--and undoubtedly dozens more I don't--with this excellent show, Maxïmo Park made me again quite grateful that they still Risk to Exist, while even daring to, lyrically, "Apply Some Pressure."

Without in any way suggesting that your personal favorites aren't--I'm always happy to hear of artists others think I should know--I'm again thoroughly convinced Maxïmo Park is a modern rock band that well merits your attention.

---
Here are a couple YouTube clips from recent Maxïmo Park performances, of songs new and old: 



Sunday, November 26, 2017

An Inspiring Addition: Futuristic Technology Preserves Ever Present Past in Illinois Holocaust Museum's 'Take A Stand Center' -- Museum Exhibit Review

Exhibition Review

Take A Stand Center
Illinois Holocaust Museum
and Education Center, Skokie, IL
Permanent Addition
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"Your generation should continue to learn and make sure it doesn't happen again in the future.

"Otherwise there will be no future."

Holocaust survivor Sam Harris recently voiced these powerful sentiments at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, in response to a question about the lessons that can be learned from his harrowing experiences.

Audience members understandably had many more queries--"How did you survive?," "What happened to your parents?," "Do you have nightmares?--and from his chair onstage the eloquent 82-year-old Harris answered them all...adroitly, candidly and poignantly.

Only thing is, Mr. Harris--the President Emeritus of the museum, whose creation he was instrumental in facilitating--wasn't actually present.

Nor, as some may have surmised, was he appearing via Skype, FaceTime or any other form of live video streaming. 

Rather, within the Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience that is the centerpiece of the museum's new Take A Stand Center, we were seeing, hearing and interacting with Sam Harris in holographic form.

And thanks to leading-edge 3D interactive technology that the Illinois Holocaust Museum is the first in the world to employ, answers that Harris recorded in a Southern California studio--along with 12 other Holocaust survivors--were triggered by questions posed by audience members.

Having sat through two sessions in which Mr. Harris first tells his story via video vignette--after the Nazis overtook his native Poland and sent his parents to perish in the Treblinka concentration camp, he was put into the Deblin camp by his older sister Rosa (as a protective measure) and later transferred to another, Czestochowa--and then asks for questions as he holographically appears onstage, I noted that there will understandably be some inquiries he, and the other participating survivors, just aren't programmed to answer or address.

Museum docents serve as moderators, rephrasing audience member questions--many presumably from inquisitive school kids--to best trigger the appropriate response, with answers from the loquacious Harris often extending far beyond what was specifically posed.

But this actually makes it feel more realistic, and the experience--featuring technology developed by  the USC Shoah Foundation's New Dimensions in Technology program--really is quite impressive and informative.

For now through the end of 2017, the holographic theater is featuring seven Chicago-area survivors long connected to the museum, which the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois originated in 1981 in a Skokie storefront before the striking Stanley Tigerman-designed building opened at 9603 Woods Drive near Golf Road, in 2009.

Check the Take a Stand Center website for the current and ongoing schedule, which in addition to Sam Harris, includes sessions with Fritzie Fritschall, Aaron Elster, Adina Sella, Izzy Starck, Janine Oberrotman and Matus Stolov.

In speaking with the museum's Communications Manager, Amanda Berrios, my understanding is that in the new year, the holographic Q&A sessions will also feature the six non-Chicagoland survivors who participated in the recording sessions, while repeating the local seven.

Perhaps exacerbated by the reality that I expressly visited the Take A Stand Center--which also has several powerful components complementing the Cooper Survivor Stories holographic theater--and did not walk through the museum's longstanding core, the Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition, yet again, my sense was that it could be fulfilling to see more than one survivor's story in a given visit.

I don't know if on-demand sessions, or multiple survivor stories being scheduled in a given day is in the offing--at present, each session starts on the hour, but even with numerous posed questions only seemed to last about 30 minutes--but as it happened I was able to speak briefly, in person, with Adina Sella, who had come to give family members the chance to view her hologram.

As I had been touring the Goodman Upstander Gallery and missed the start of Dr. Sella's special session, I wasn't able to see any of it, but greatly valued being able to talk to her for a few minutes as we waited for my second session with the virtual Mr. Harris to begin.

"Children do get damaged; childhood has a purpose," shared Adina, in noting that while she felt quite fortunate that she, her parents and brother all survived the Holocaust by hiding from German troops for several years, she recognizes the repercussions of constantly keeping oneself hidden, having to steal food, distrusting nearly everyone, fearing footsteps, etc.

"You can be a chameleon, but never an authentic self, who--like most kids--learns to assess and deal with fear and threats," Dr. Sella, who has long been a psychologist, continued as I sat engrossed.

So even beyond children who died in camps or on trains or lost members of their immediate family, I was getting a grim first-hand account of how devastating the Holocaust also was for kids--like her--who were deprived the "experience of normalcy" vital to one's development.

As she spoke, I couldn't help but think of the Illinois Holocaust Museum's excellent and ongoing--to January 7, 2018--temporary exhibit on the late rock 'n roll promoter Bill Graham, which I had toured and reviewed in August.

Somewhat akin to Adina Stella, Graham--born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin--was a fugitive from Nazi hunters for much of his childhood, before eventually coming to America as a refugee. Sadly, Graham's mom and one of his four sisters would perish in the Holocaust.

[This coming Wednesday, November 29, the Holocaust Museum will be hosting an evening concert in which a local band, Mr. Blotto, will perform songs by acts Bill Graham had showcased at New Year Eve shows at New York's Fillmore East in the '60s and '70s. Tickets for this event allow for touring the Bill Graham & the Rock 'n Roll Revolution exhibit, but presumably not the Take A Stand Center or other parts of the museum.]

The harrowing childhood accounts of Adina Stella and Bill Graham also reminded me of a "survivor talk" by the now-passed Walter Reed I had attended at the museum a few years ago and wrote about here. (Survivors involved with the museum have long been on hand to speak with school groups, and each month there is a public "Survivor Talk," which are listed here.)

Although being able to speak with Holocaust survivors, with great realism in the Cooper Survivor Stories theater is the most newsworthy aspect of the Take A Stand Center, I found the Upstander Gallery and Take A Stand Lab nearly as compelling. 

One of the challenges I think any museum devoted to the Holocaust faces--and I've been to many, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Memorial Center near Detroit--is how to document the nearly unfathomable decimation of 6 million European Jews at the hands of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany 70+ years ago in a way that makes this horrific history both resonant and actionable in the modern day.

The vast numbers of Holocaust survivors who eventually relocated to my hometown of Skokie and, with assuredly many others, spurred the development of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center are to be forever admired and lauded for--despite the deep pain it resurfaces, per Sam Harris--making "Never Forget" quite tangible.

But the "Never Again" corollary is a rather formidable challenge, not just on a micro level with many of the survivors passing on--undoubtedly one of the reasons behind the holographic testimonies--but on a macro one, as hardly a day goes by without hearing of the massacre of civilians, hate crimes and even ethnic cleansings somewhere in the world.

So in noting that the Skokie museum has added a tagline of "Take history to heart. Take a stand for humanity." it was especially pleasing to see not only how the other aspects of the Take A Stand Center well complement the Survivor Stories but also add contemporary inspiration and urgency to the baleful lessons of the IHMEC's permanent exhibition. (The museum has raised its standard admission fee to $15, but it includes all parts of the Take A Stand Center--though guests must set an entry time for the holographic theater--and special exhibits such as the one on Bill Graham.

Though spatial considerations may dictate taking things in a different order on crowded days, the Cooper Survivor Stories holographic theater is the first stop in the Take A Stand Center.

The theater's exit doors lead to a couple of wall displays about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as a response to the Holocaust, this document--expounding a set of Human Rights--serves as a framework for a fine set of on-demand video vignettes at stations next to the Upstander Gallery.

Selectable videos--and nearby wall text--address the topics of Education, Safe Communities, Equal Rights, Economic Opportunity and Health & Education. Each video is under two minutes, but quite compelling in outlining a fundamental right that has failed to reach many in the world, and then chronicling "Upstanders" and their efforts to change things.

Some of the factoids that struck me include:

● Nearly half the world's population do not feel safe from torture 

 ● An estimated 150 million children worldwide are forced into child labor

● Around 700 million people around the world live on less than $1.90 a day

● More than half the world's population has no access to healthcare

● The unemployment rate for African-Americans is about twice that of white Americans at every level of achievement

Further showcased in the subsequent gallery, Upstanders include famous names such as Nelson Mandela, Jane Addams and Malala Yousafzai, but also many impressive individuals of various ages and backgrounds whom I admittedly didn't know, such as Craig Kielburger, Henry Cervantes, Jack Andraka, Ma Jun and Dr. Raj Panjabi.

This is somewhat the point, as both through biographical trilons that can be spun to learn more about each upstander--while seeing oneself in mirrored imagery--and interactive displays that go a bit more in depth about each subject, one can readily learn how soccer star Carli Lloyd is championing equal pay for female players or how Theaster Gates is helping to rebuild Chicago's south side.

While the information to be found in the Take A Stand Center should be educational and inspiring to those of any age, the Illinois Holocaust Museum attracts many school groups, and the user friendly nature of the exhibits should make it particularly accessible, digestible and even actionable for kids.

Toward that end, the Take A Stand Lab has interactive screens in which users can input aspects of their personality and get suggestions for tangible ways to make an impact, complete with helpful resources that can be immediately emailed.

On a nearby wall, museum visitors are invited to Make-A-Pledge committing their efforts to a given cause or vowing to be an upstander, and a nearby display contains panels highlighting "Success Stories" among upstanding individuals and organizations.

These range from the Ice Bucket Challenge benefiting the ALS Association to Civil Rights Activist & Congressman John Lewis to the annual charity drive of Highland Park High School.

The final physical component of the Take A Stand Center is The Act of Art gallery showcasing artworks reflecting the museum's mission.

Here there is some striking artwork that previously was on the museum's upper level and likely often missed by weary visitors.

It's nice to see the fine collection being given more prominence, but it still may wind up being passed by rather quickly.

And while the Take A Stand Center in whole makes a terrific addition to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, I think one of the challenges it creates is how patrons should fit it into a holistic museum visit.

For museum members and locals like me who can get to the IHMEC multiple times per year, the Take A Stand Center is well-worth its own visit. The nearly 3 hours I spent is far more than most visitors will need, as I was gathering notes, taking copious photos, engaging in conversations, listening to Mr. Harris twice, etc.

Naomi Tereza Salmon, Asservate
Until the Bill Graham exhibit closes on January 7, it would seem some visitors might well opt to pair that Special Exhibition with the many facets of the Take A Stand Center.

The somewhat tricky part, as I see it, is that first-time visitors to the museum should first spend 1-2 hours in the Karkomi Holocaust Exhibiton, as it not only provides a thorough overview of the Holocaust, it gives context to all of the other exhibits, including the Take A Stand Center.

But if properly ingested, the main exhibition should be emotionally grueling, as the Holocaust is likely the worst thing that's ever happened.

So thinking of one's psyche, as well as just general museum fatigue, I would suggest out-of-town tourists and other first-timers budget at least 4 hours for their visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. This would include about an hour-long break--perhaps spent getting a bite at Old Orchard or strolling the nearby Harms Woods--allowing for a breather between the Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition, the Survivor Story hologram, the rest of the Take A Stand Center, and then perhaps special exhibits. (The admission fee allows for leaving and re-entering the museum within the same day.)

On my recent visit, primarily devoted to the Take A Stand Center, I also dashed through the excellent Bill Graham exhibit once again and then discovered some fine exhibits on the upper level, which also houses two reflection halls certainly worth some time.

I was particularly moved by BESA: A Code of Honor, which gathers photographs--by Norman Gershman--and stories of "Muslim Albanians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust."

Along with a sizable and lively youth exhibition space designed to illuminate and inspire younger kids, there is also a hallway reproducing pages from a booklet called How It Is But How It Should Be, which a Holocaust prison camp internee named Trudl Besag had written and illustrated for a barracks mate.

So there is a whole lot to be seen and contemplated at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, to which the Take A Stand Center makes an excellent addition.

And there's no reason repeat visitors can't properly see everything in due time; the museum is meant as an everlasting resource to battle evil and inspire heroism. Understanding the events and lessons of the Holocaust shouldn't just entail a 2-hour one-time museum visit, and the Take A Stand Center can be pivotal in connecting the bitter past to a better future.

In fact, where the village of Skokie was once well-known for its vast community of Holocaust survivors, it's now noted for its tremendous diversity, celebrated each year through the town's Festival of Cultures and the Coming Together in Skokie programs.

I don't see it as mere coincidence that a group of people who had borne first-hand witness to the very worst of mankind and pledged to fight hatred has led to a suburb that distributes lawn signs proclaiming:

"Skokie Welcomes Everyone."

Such tolerance, respect and neighborly kinship for those of differing races, religions, cultures and colors would seem to be what the Take A Stand Center is all about.

And intended to--eternally and entirely--inspire.