Monday, January 26, 2015

"Mambo!": 'West Side Story' is Downright Glorious at Drury Lane Oakbrook -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

West Side Story
directed by Rachel Rockwell
Drury Lane Oakbrook
Thru March 29
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"For most people West Side Story is about racial prejudice and urban violence, but what it's really about is theater: musical theater to be more precise. It's about the blending of book, music, lyrics and, most important, dance into the seamless telling of a story."

So wrote Stephen Sondheim, the legendary composer and lyricist, who penned only the lyrics for West Side Story, which bowed on Broadway in 1957.

The extremely erudite Sondheim shared these thoughts in his first compendium of collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat, and shrewdly referenced a rather unassailable truth:

West Side Story was created by some of the greatest artists in the history of theater, all working at the top of their game.

The original production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who essentially created a new language of dance to embody the tension between white and Puerto Rican gangs--the Jets and Sharks, respectively--on the streets of New York, as well as the unpopular-among-their-peers romance between Tony and Maria.

Of course, West Side Story borrows its basic storyline from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, whose story was updated by book writer Arthur Laurents.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
And though Sondheim would write the music for some of the most acclaimed musicals in history, on his first major work he ceded composer duties to the remarkable Leonard Bernstein.

With Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera, Mickey Calin and Ken Le Roy originating the roles of Maria, Tony, Anita, Riff and Bernardo, West Side Story was a pretty-much-perfect masterpiece from the time it opened on Broadway.

In the New York Times, Walter Kerr opined "Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons. ... The sheer visual excitement is breathtaking," while the headline in the New York Daily News read: "West Side Story a Splendid and Super-Modern Musical Drama."

Shockingly, West Side Story didn't win the Best New Musical Tony Award for 1957, losing out to another of my five favorite musicals of all-time, The Music Man.

But four years after its Broadway opening, West Side Story was adapted into a movie that won the 1961 Oscar for Best Picture.

Although I was well-indoctrinated to the movie, and the music, at an early age, I didn't see West Side Story on stage until 2004, when I caught a stellar local production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Over the intervening years prior to seeing another terrific local production the other night at Drury Lane Oakbrook, I had seen West Side Story in a summer stock production at Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, IL in 2008, in a Broadway revival in 2009 and on a National Tour in Chicago in 2011.

I have found every production to be outstanding, and that goes for the current rendition at Drury Lane as well.

Given my regard for the source material, perhaps I am not the most discerning critic, in terms of seeking any significant reinterpretations or reinventions. With virtually every song a classic, I'm delighted simply to hear great singing, watch phenomenal dancing, see strong acting and listen to powerful orchestrations.

And at Drury Lane, I--and the sold out Opening Night crowd of what has already become the most successful production in the theater's 30 year history--happily bestowed a standing ovation after getting all of the above.

Christina Nieves and Jim DeSelm are well-sung as Maria and Tony, national tour veteran Michelle Aravena is terrific as Anita, Rhett Guter, who also serves as choreographer, is strong as Riff and Joffrey Ballet member Lucas Segovia imbues Bernardo with truly outstanding dancing.

Tommy Rivera-Vega is particularly good as Chino, and also shines on the "Somewhere" ballet with Deanna Ott. Emma Rosenthal makes for a fine Anybodys, and I enjoyed seeing Roger Mueller--father of recent 2013 Tony winner Jessie Mueller--as a properly-exasperated Doc.

If you're looking for me to tell you that any or all DRO cast members were the very best I've ever seen in their respective roles, I can't--not due to qualitative judgment as much as eroded recollect.

There were a couple of performances I might have wanted to be a smidgen stronger, but as they didn't substantively diminishing my overall performance, to point them out would be unnecessarily nitpicky.

Without meaning to imply anything other than tremendous regard for the effort required simply to "get it right," the cast and crew of West Side Story at Drury Lane Oakbrook sent me home quite happy by delivering fine, faithfull versions of the sensational Robbins' dances--on the "Prologue," "Jet Song," "Dance at the Gym," "America" and others--and the numerous wonderful songs.

DeSelm "Something's Coming" and "Maria" both come across in fine form, and the charge of "Tonight" in tandem with Nieves is exhilarating.

Nieves is swell fun on the buoyant "I Feel Pretty" and wonderful alongside Aravena as Anita in a highly-charged "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love."

And the Jets' take on "Gee, Officer Krupke" is just outstanding, with the humorous song nonetheless being a prime example of how the insights of Sondheim's lyrics have held up for nearly 60 years--and seemingly always will.

The gist of what I was intending to say in this review is that West Side Story is such a good show--it's truly one of the greatest examples of 20th Century American artistry, in any vein--that even a routine rendition of it can feel magnificent.

But in writing this 4 nights after seeing the show, I'm reminded that the bulk of DRO's production is truly first-rate, and makes for more than a satisfactory night of entertainment.

Under the direction of Rachel Rockwell, with fine sets by Scott Davis, musical direction by Roberta Duchak and an 11-piece band, West Side Story in the western suburbs of Chicago is, as it's always been, an absolute delight.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Let's Play Two, Forever: Ernest and Eternal Thanks to Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks

Name someone whose name and fame you likely knew by the time you were 7 years old, and who is still living today.

I don't mean a family member or a cartoon character, even if they're not mutually exclusive.

Certainly, this should be a bit easier for those a good bit younger than my 46, although even with the more recent proliferation of information options, I'm not sure which actors or athletes or politicians might pervade the consciousness of a kid of 6 or under.

While I almost assuredly would have vaguely known of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford by sometime in 1975--my birthday isn't until October--they of course are no longer with us, and though I won't pretend to precisely recall my sphere of knowledge as a toddler, I really don't think I could have recognized and named still-living (and largely working) movie stars of the time such as Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Sylvester Stallone.

My guess is that my answer to the question above would be: Paul McCartney, possibly Ringo Starr, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver and Gene Wilder.

And until this past Friday night, Ernie Banks.

Banks played his last baseball game with the Chicago Cubs in 1971, so though I probably technically saw him play on TV--my dad was always a big Cubs fan--I certainly can't say I remember it.

But especially at a time when Chicago was largely devoid of great sports teams, Banks remained a larger-than-life icon whose resonance--if only to this fledgling Cubs fan at that particular time--was greater than that of Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Bobby Hull or other Windy City superstars.

So already somewhat indoctrinated to baseball before my 7th birthday, I was probably just as aware of Ernie Banks as I was of many active Cubs of 1975 (it's possible I knew Andre Thornton, Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Rick Reuschel, Steve Stone, Bill Madlock and Steve Swisher by then, but more likely not really until 1976 and beyond).

And I still recall how my family got to go onto the field at Wrigley circa 1977 and I met Ernie and got his autograph, along with that of Cubs starter Ray Burris.

That was a pretty big deal to an 8-year-old.

As was going to the Baseball Hall of Fame with my family in August 1977, just a few weeks after Ernie Banks was inducted.

I also recall, without real specificity but long before the Internet, that as kids my still-best friend Jordan and I somehow came upon Jack Brickhouse's call of Ernie's 500th career homer.

So although Ernie Banks' playing career was "before my time," it's not like he was just some legend of yore.

For much of my youth, and ever since, my reverence for "Mr. Cub" was in the present tense.

Also factoring into my chagrin over his passing--and conceivably that of many others, given the huge outpouring of memories and sentiments--is that Ernie essentially symbolized the Cubs, as his entire 19-year major league career was played in Chicago (and he remained prominent here long after).

While this also means he holds the rather dubious record of most MLB games played without a postseason appearance, even in playing in a pre-free agency era, Ernie Banks was unique from contemporaries such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew, who played for multiple teams and/or whose franchises changed cities during their careers.

Banks was born and raised in Dallas, was drafted into the U.S. Army, served in Germany during the Korean War and played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs.

He was sold to the Cubs in 1953, becoming their first African-American player when he debuted at Wrigley Field on September 17 of that year, without spending any time in the minors.

Initially a shortstop, Banks hit over 40 home runs in 5 of 6 seasons between 1955-60, winning 2 straight MVP awards in 1958 and 1959 despite the Cubs having losing records and the National League being filled with all-time greats like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews and Roberto Clemente.

In 1969, at age 38--having long since switched from shortstop to first base--Banks hit 23 home runs with 106 runs batted in as the Cubs had their best season in decades.

They were in first place by 9 games on August 15, but despite having three future Hall of Famers besides Banks--Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins--the Cubs wound up losing the NL East by 8 games to the New York Mets. (1969 was the first year the leagues had divisions.)

Despite--or likely in large part because of--their disastrous collapse, the 1969 Cubs have long stood as one of the most storied teams in franchise, and Chicago, history. Though toward the end of his glorious career, Ernie Banks was part of that.

And while his career home run total of 512 now ranks him 22nd all-time, he was in 8th place when he retired after the 1971 season.

Several of those who have recently passed him by--Bonds, A-Rod, Sosa, McGwire, Manny Ramirez--have been forever tainted by steroids, other PEDs or at least rather damning suspicion.

By all accounts, all Ernie Banks was ever on was the joy of life.

For despite truly being one of the best baseball players of all-time, many tributes in the last few days have referred to him as an even better person.

His "Let's play two!" catchphrase calling for a doubleheader due to his love of the game is legendary, and Ernie Banks is being remembered for having one of the greatest, most perennially upbeat personalities not only during his playing time, but in the 44 years since he hung up his glove.

Even fairly young media members, yet alone those who go back a long way, have been expressing their admiration for a man they personally knew.

I can't claim to have known Ernie Banks, or even encountered him often.

Back when I was collecting autographs much more avidly, I saw Ernie at a few sports collectibles shows, and without recalling specifics, I'm pretty sure I saw him at Wrigley at least a few times.

But in August 2010, I had the pleasure of seeing Ernie Banks speak at the Highland Park Public Library, where a conversation he had with longtime Chicago baseball writer Phil Rogers accompanied an exhibition called Pride & Passion: the African-American Baseball Experience.

As I wrote about here, it was a thrill to see Ernie talk about baseball--and life--to fans of all ages, but especially a large turnout of kids who could only have known about him second- or third-hand.

Banks was his typically delightful self, and it was a joy to see him reminisce with another Negro League player on hand that night--Ray Knox--but I was especially thrilled to see him stress the importance of education, as he urged the youngsters to learn something new every day.

This is a brief video I shot:



The last time I ever saw Ernie Banks in person was on the evening of July 19, 2013.

Actually, rather late in the evening, around 11:45pm.

That was the night Pearl Jam played Wrigley Field...

...and a rather gnarly lightning storm forced the sold out crowd to sit through a 90-minute rain delay.

After which, Pearl Jam lead singer and longtime Cubs fan Eddie Vedder told a story about Banks, Jose Cardenal and proceeded to sing his ode to eternal Cub optimism, "All the Way."

And then, brought the at-that-point 82-year-old Mr. Cub onstage.

Seeing and hearing Ernie, speaking ebulliently to the crowd, close to midnight, at a rock concert by one of my favorite bands, within the Friendly Confines, has to rank as one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

And especially given all that he must have seen and experienced, in the Negro Leagues and as the first black Cub, through years of losing teams and the misery of 1969, and even as the team's greatest fan through the heartbreaks of 1984, 2003, 2007, 2008 and all else, Ernie Banks stands as one of the coolest people, and certainly Chicagoans, of all-time.

For while I'm sometimes suspicious of how highly certain celebrities are extolled after their death, from all I've seen and known Ernie clearly was, as I've seen cited by a few commenters:

Pure joy.

Believe it, Ernie, someday we'll go all the way. And when we get there, we'll play two.

Thanks for making the world a happier place. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mexico City Provides a Safe, Satisfying Fiesta of Art, History and Culture -- Travel Recap

(Note: This is an overview/recap of a recent trip to Mexico City; for my daily summaries, please see my dedicated travel blog, seththetourist.blogspot.com)

Until shortly before I decided to go to Mexico City, which was about 2 months prior to my trip last week, I can't say I had ever much considered visiting the Mexican capital.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, I've been to over 50 major international and U.S. cities before heading south of the border, so to condemn or chastise "Americans" for avoiding such a relatively nearby, world-class city would be both disingenuous and hypocritical.

As corroborated by multiple hospitality/tourism workers I spoke to while in Mexico City, very few Americans--used as shorthand to primarily denote U.S. residents aside from those with family ties to Mexico--make one of the world's most populated cities a travel destination.

While Mexico's coastal resort cities, including Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Cozumel, Los Cabos, Mazatlan and others remain popular, for many stateside tourists Mexico City serves primarily as an airport connection, at best.

This was anecdotally confirmed by me being unable to find souvenir t-shirts or shot glasses in the international terminal monogrammed "Mexico City," rather than simply "Mexico."

Terrifying tales of murderous drug cartels, kidnappings and crooked cops have served to make Mexico--outside of the  highly-secured beach resorts--seem like one of the most dangerous places on earth.

This reputation was only furthered this fall with the horrifying abduction and murder of 43 students from the town of Iguala.

So although I have traveled, alone, devoid of tours--except occasional local ones--to cities that others might find daunting, including Jerusalem, Cairo, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, New York (multiple times) and elsewhere, I was especially keen on assaying personal safety concerns before deciding to book my trip. 

My interest peaked when a Facebook Friend posted positive impressions and beautiful pictures after visiting Mexico City with her husband, I was initially hoping to travel with my multilingual friend Paolo, who had previously been to the metropolis.

His interest waned due to Patriotic anticipation of the American football variety--which oddly has resulted in both elation and deflation--but having already zeroed in on a workable 5-day span in January, I decided that I would go solo. (At the time of planning/booking, I was working and somewhat expecting to still be so, but alas I'm not.)

Paolo, who has traveled far more extensively than me, was adamant that with a few minor adjustments & sacrifices--no jeans, no Springsteen t-shirts, no baseball caps, no Canon Rebel--Mexico City should be no more dangerous, or even intimidating, than any other big city I've been to. 

Including Chicago. 

Two other close friends who had also been to Mexico City this millennium echoed Paolo's "be smart, be wary, but it needn't be scary" sentiment, and though I was subjected to more paranoid exhortations by an acquaintance who had lived in the city 30 years ago, I embarked on my trip fully expecting it to go smoothly.

And I'm happy to report, it did. 

Mind you, beyond the aforementioned precautions--and believe me, relying on a digital point-and-shoot rather than SLR was quite a sacrifice given how central photography is to my love of travel--I did some things that I probably always should abroad, but usually don't. 

I left my ATM and Credit Cards in my hotel room, and carried the day's cash in two separate pockets. Since I was wearing Dockers and not jeans, back pocket buttons gave me a greater sense of securing my wallet and iPhone from pickpockets. 

In other words, while hoping not to be kidnapped, I essentially planned for something to go awry but tried to limit the ramifications if anything happened. 

But nothing did. 

And there really weren't any moments where I felt frightened, or even daunted. 

I decided to skip a few lower-agenda items--the Floating Gardens of Xochilmilco, Plaza Garibaldi with its Mariachi battles, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe--that I felt a bit more wary of doing on my own and/or at night. 

But I comfortably walked the streets near my hotel--Zocalo Central, right by Mexico City's vast square, the Zocalo, in the historic center--including at night, and rode the Metro to get to Chapultepec Park with its multitude of museums. (Mine was the only white face on the subway, but that's been the case in Chicago as well.)

I did opt for a private taxi tour guide to get to & from the Frida Kahlo Museum, rather than take multiple subway lines and stroll through the unfamiliar streets of Coyoacan, about 30 minutes south, but especially as the entire trip came in under budget, not only are there times when assurance should trump frugality, but this option also made for one of the trip's more illuminating experiences. 

It would be easy to rue not seeing some of the places/things I didn't get to--most especially the Diego Rivera murals that adorn the National Palace, the seat of Mexican government and just steps from my hotel, but closed to the public due to a recent fire caused by protestors--but the truth is that I've been to New York and London a combined 24 times and still not seen everything of note in either city, let alone in Chicago.

But pretty much everything I did in Mexico City I enjoyed immensely. So although there are many other places in the world I'd like to explore, including some in Mexico, I would hope to get back to the "DF" (distrito federal) someday.

As mentioned at top, you can see a rough chronology of what I did in Mexico City on my Travel Blog. And in the days or weeks ahead, I intend to cull some of my best photos and make a gallery that I will point to in an upcoming blog post.

So below I will try to cite much of what I did, saw and enjoyed, organized by category. Of course, many of the the sights could easily fit into 2 or 3 categories, but seems the most prudent way to cover my trip's many highlights.

Art

Murals by Diego Rivera and Others - While not getting into the National Palace, which is supposed to be mind-blowing, I nonetheless saw a sensational selection of work by the preeminent Mexican Muralists. 

I was most blown away at the Secretaria de Educacion Publico, where murals by Rivera encircle three vast floors overlooking a courtyard.

Two more Rivera murals, including the famed Man, Controller of the Universe that was initially commissioned for New York's Rockefeller Center, prominently adorn the splendiferous Palacio de Bellas Artes, which also includes huge murals by David Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, among others.

Museo Mural Diego Rivera has just one mural by its namesake artist, but it's a doozy: Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central, shown below. The museum also has some intriguing early works by Rivera, from his college years.






Although the Chapultepec Castle atop a hill in the Bosque de Chapultepec is quite worth seeing for its architecture, plush rooms used by Mexico's rulers of yore, beautiful gardens and more, there is a tremendous mural by Siqueiros, as well as other impressive ones by Juan O'Gorman.

I saw several other murals, some by famous painters, some by lesser-known ones, in various other buildings, even if not specifically art museums of the like. I only learned about the Antiguio Colegio de San Ildefonso, with a Rivera mural and more by others, after I got back home, but must have walked by it.

Frida Kahlo Museum - Located about 30 minutes south of the heart of Mexico City, La Casa Azul is a blue house in which Frida Kahlo was born, raised, lived with her husband Diego Rivera--though they also had other homes--and died. There are quality artworks by Kahlo and Rivera, but just as fascinating is seeing the couple's kitchen, studio, bedrooms, etc. The collection of Frida's dresses now in the temporary exhibition space is also terrific.

Museum of Modern Art - The Two Fridas, by Kahlo, is the the highlight of this museum in the Bosque (Park) de Chapultepec, but the permanent collection is satisfying in full, if not all that huge.

Anthropology

Templo Mayor / Museo Templo Mayor - After Spaniard Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs in 1521--when Mexico City was called Tenochtitlan--their former temples were destroyed, and on the Zocolo, the National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral were built over the ruins. But the ruins of another Aztec temple right next to the Zocalo were excavated in 1978.

For a single admission ticket equivalent to $4.38, I was able to walk through the Templo Mayor ruins and tour and extensive 4-story museum that holds many amazing artifacts found at the site.

National Anthropology Museum - Many pre-Columbian civilizations occupied Mexico, including the Teotihuacans, Toltecs, Olmecs, Oaxaca, Mayans and Aztecs, and this vast museum has huge galleries teeming with amazing artifacts from each culture and age.

I can't say I likely learned as much as I should have, as a good deal of accompanying text was only in Spanish--though there was a good bit also in English--but there was just so much to see and digest (and photograph).

While I did not categorize this as an art museum, like the Egyptian Museum I visited in Cairo, it really is one, and in seeing all the works of beauty and often stunning size & scope dating back 1000-2000 years, I couldn't help but think that artistic expression was much more advanced way back when then it is now.

The original Aztec Sun Stone is just one of many highlights.

Teotihuacan - Before going to Mexico City, I'm pretty sure I was confused between Tenochtitlan, the former name of the city, and Teotihuacan, a city and civilization that existed about 25 miles northeast of modern-day Mexico City.

With the information varying by source, Teotihuacan arose around 100 B.C. and lasted until sometime around 700 A.D., with 125,000-175,000 inhabitants at its peak.

I opted to go on an early morning tour with a private archeologist, that I found and purchased through Viator.com. The local tour agency is called Amigo Tour, and a van with around 20 people was led by a woman named Lise.

At the grounds, extensive walking and stair-climbing was required--with nary a porta-potty in sight--but I handled it fine while getting a good explanation of the pre-Columbian city and the various remaining structures. I did not climb either the larger Pyramid of the Sun (I did walk up to the first landing) or the Pyramid of the Moon, just as much out of fear of not getting down safely as not getting up.

But Lise didn't climb the stairs either, and the tour was quite worthwhile.

While fully respecting the sacred nature of the grounds, I would vote for tasteful rest room and refreshment facilities being added to accommodate the tourists.

And though I also respect that souvenir hawkers make their money off the tourists, they should be encouraged to be less aggressive. They kept hounding and hounding, and even after I bought something, they hounded even worse to buy more, not taking, "No, thank you" for an answer.

I've encountered street peddlers in many foreign cities, and generally enjoy the experience, but a few at Teotihuacan were far too insistent.

After our tour of the grounds, we were taken to a nearby souvenir stand/restaurant, where we were shown how paper is derived from plants, and given a sampler of some local liquors. I enjoyed the green Licor de Nopal; it tasted like KoolAid.

Architecture / Churches / Landmarks

Metropolitan Cathedral - Built in sections from 1573-1813 upon what had been sacred Aztec land, the largest cathedral in the Americas dominates the north end of the Zocalo. The inside is rather impressive, as far as huge and ornate churches go.

I also wandered into the nearby Santa Domingo church, and on my private taxi tour to Coyoacan, the guide Norma took us to the St. John the Baptist church on land that had been donated by the conquistador Cortes.

Back in the Centro Historico, street after street contains striking examples of mostly-Spanish influenced architecture, making Mexico City feel rather European.

The gorgeous Palacio de Bellas Artes, with majestic murals and a magnificent theater inside, dominates the east end of Alameda Central park, while the Post Office and Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) are just two other remarkably resplendent structures I saw nearby.

Designed in 1964, the exterior of the National Anthropology Museum is rather impressive, while the vast Chapultepec Castle atop the hill in Chapultepec Park has some beautiful features, including its tower.

Music and Dance

Unlike several other cities I've been to, in Mexico City I attended neither a rock concert nor a work of musical theater, and although I found Zinco Jazz Club--supposedly the city's best--just 5 minutes from my hotel, I opted not to wait around for the music to start at 11pm after arriving at 9:00.

But yet, I heard a good amount of really fine music, and attended a performance of the famed Ballet Folklorico, a showcase of traditional Mexican music and dance held within the theater at the Palacio de Belas Artes.

On two straight nights, I wandered upon a swell-sounding jazz outfit called Burocracia Cosmica playing in an alley outside the House of Tiles.

Also by chance, in arriving at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera just before 4pm on Sunday, I got to hear a terrific hourlong performance by a Latin Jazzish combo called El Kato Club.

There were also bits of Mariachi in various places, a variety of buskers including a violinist and a fine traditional singer/guitarist at the restaurant in Teotihuacan.

I'm not sure if it was a protest, demonstration or simply a showcase, but I also enjoyed an impressive display of traditional Mexican drumming and dancing outside the city's main Museum of Art.

And I was glad I was able to get to a Ballet Folklorico performance on Sunday night; everything about it was impressive, even if by intermission I had seen all I really needed to.

Dining

I was advised to avoid street food, so I didn't partake in any push-cart tacos, but otherwise enjoyed several terrific meals at a variety of levels.

Pujol - I had read a recommendation of this upscale restaurant in Travel & Leisure but didn't realize until after I went that it has been ranked as the best restaurant in Mexico and the 20th best in the world. It features a prix fixe menu such as I've had at Chicago's Alinea and Charlie Trotter's, and Picasso in Las Vegas, but was less expensive than any of those were, and much less so than other comparable restaurants (such as The French Laundry, Per Se or Atelier de Joel Robuchon). It was a truly fantastic experience, even if not quite as mind-blowing as other prix fixe indulgences, and perhaps not even as satisfying a meal as I had the night before at...

Azul Historico - Another place I learned about through Travel & Leisure, but much more modestly priced than Pujol. It's in the Zocalo area, just a few minutes from my hotel.

I enjoyed a wonderful fish dish called Tikin Xic Fish that included plantains and avocado. I also had an excellent soup, and a chocolate tamale for dessert.

Balcon de Zocalo and El Mayor Cafe - The food at both of these places where I ate breakfast was good, but the views were even better.

Balcon de Zocalo was on the 6th floor of my hotel (Zocalo Central), overlooking the Metropolitan Cathedral. I partook in a decent if a tad pricey breakfast buffet.

El Mayor Cafe overlooks the Templo Mayor, and the Enchiladas with Eggs that I had were very tasty. 

Cafe de Tacuba - Inspiring the name of a Mexican rock band (minus the "de"), this beautiful yet comfortable restaurant has existed on Tacuba Street since 1912. I enjoyed a thin Carne Asada accompanied by Enchiladas Suiza. I also ordered Quesadillas with Guacamole and was surprised to find then shaped more like empanadas rather than flat.

El Horreo - Though in an area frequented by tourists--on the west side of Alameda Park--I wandered into this restaurant just because it was in the right place at the right time, and it felt distinctly local & homey. I had a nice piece of fish with garlic.

I also ate at the cafe of the Anthropology Museum, where both I and the patrons at the next table experienced order problems due language confusion, but I wound up with a good dish of Pork Tacos.

Also enjoyable was grabbing some gelato on the go, getting a churro with pineapple filling in Coyoacan and stopping at the Pasteleria Vasconia bakery near my hotel. Supposedly it is long-standing and well-known.

Around Town

Hopefully from all of the above, you've gotten a good sense of what I saw and did in Mexico City. But of course, on any trip, there are several in-between type of moments. So just to mention it, I enjoyed riding the Metro (subway), seeing the upscale Polanco district and Presidente Masaryk Street (supposedly the poshest in Mexico), walking several streets around the Zocalo area, finding my way through the Bosque (Park) de Chapultepec and strolling along the Paseo de la Reforma, with El Angel and other impressive statuary. Heck, I even walked through a book fair I happened upon.

All in all, my initial journey to Mexico City--Tijuana being the only other Mexican city I've ever been to, long ago--made for a terrific trip. I had numerous wonderful experiences, and absolutely no problems, in terms of safety, confusion, digestive or respiratory issues (given the altitude) or anything else.

I fully realize it's never easy to figure out when, or to what level of priority vs. other options, but more Americans--and other travelers--should visit Mexico City. To end, before a few more photos, with some of the little Spanish I know, it's...

Muy bueno. 

---











Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Please Share: The Joy of Being Turned on to Cool New Things - Documentaries, Artists, Comedians and More

There is little in life that excites and delights me more than learning of things I should "check out"--particularly within an artistic realm--and which I wind up loving, or at least being happy to know about.

So although 2015 has been somewhat slow so far in a variety of ways, including not yet attending any live events of any kind or seeing any movies in a theater, it has been really rewarding thanks to friends--old and new, verbally and virtually--introducing me to works, artists, etc. that I've really enjoyed.

However archaic or digitally-reinvented it may seem, the concept of "word of mouth" is alive and well among those I know, and I'm much the better for it.

So in hopes of paying it forward and perhaps enlightening others, here are some cool things I've been turned onto over the past few days, as well as a few that I found on my own.

Good Ol' Freda (Netflix link) - I had never heard of this 2013 documentary nor its subject--Freda Kelly, secretary to the Beatles throughout their career--until a friend and former co-worker mentioned it tangentially in a text. Even then I didn't know what the title was referring to until I looked it up.

Fortunately the film is currently streaming on Netflix, and is well worth the time of any serious Beatles fan--and anyone who admires people who do their jobs, at any level, with great diligence and little fanfare or self-promotion.

Sign Painters (Amazon link) - This is another excellent documentary suggested by a former co-worker, albeit one that I didn't actually know when we worked together. In complimenting my entertainment and culture-infused Facebook
posts, a fellow former colleague likewise cited this other guy's for being highly enlightening. I'm glad he accepted my Friend request for this has proven to be the case, with Sign Painters being one prime example of what he has turned me onto in just a few weeks. 

As the appropriately concise title conveys, the 2014 film explores--and celebrates--the declining art of hand-painted signs and its remaining practitioners. The erosion of artistry due to technology is a theme I have long echoed, but filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon have done a great job of finding a wonderfully motley crew of sign painters across the USA who come off prouder of their increasingly rarefied expertise then angry or bitter about the changing times. The well-made and designed film dovetails well with my recent fascination with "Ghost Signs" that adorn many brick buildings in Chicago.

It isn't yet on Netflix, but Sign Painters can be rented or purchased for online streaming through Amazon. 

The same former co-worker also had posted the video below--featured on Adweek.com--and I similarly found it fascinating, even without being anymore a logo designer than I am a sign painter.

Logo Design Tutorial Clip - Lynda.com, a online library of video tutorials and courses, had a logo design contest, and Aaron Draplin, a freelance designer in Portland, OR put together this video showing how he went about designing a logo for a concrete company. It's really pretty fascinating--and well worth 16 minutes of your time--even for non-designers.


John Altoon, 1950s-60s painter - Although I only lived in Los Angeles from 1990-92, I have maintained several friendships including with a good handful of the many talented artists I came to know. One is Mark Vallen, who maintains an outstanding blog called Art-for-a-Change, featuring his art and others' worthy of awareness. Another is Ray Cuevas, a rather accomplished painter whose work you can see here.

Both Mark and Ray shared their outstanding artistic insights in recent days, with Mark providing excellent suggestions on artists for me to appreciate on an upcoming trip, which I may showcase afterwards. Despite long living well north of Los Angeles-proper and rarely venturing to the city, Ray shared that he was glad he had done so last year to see an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on John Altoon, a Southern California painter from the 1950s until his death in 1969 at age 43.

Now over, this was the first major retrospective on Altoon, who seems to roughly fit in with the Abstract Expressionists, but not precisely. Unfortunately, the exhibition website does not seem to include a gallery, but I've liked some of what I've found via a Google Image search, including: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

James Ensor (+ Lucy McKenzie, Bridget Riley and Toshusai Sharaku), Art Institute of Chicago - I never need much reason to visit the Art Institute, but hadn't been there since September. The other day, my friend Paolo obliquely referenced hearing good things about an exhibition on a contemporary artist somewhat reminiscent of M.C. Escher.

He couldn't cite the artist's name, but from the Art Institute website, I guessed he was referring to Lucy McKenzie, about whom it says "her primary mode is trompe l’oeil (literally, “deceive the eye”)."

The exhibit in the Modern Wing closes on Sunday, and with an open Tuesday I decided to go check it out. 

The exhibition on the Scottish-born, Belgium-based artist McKenzie is worth perusing, but not extensive or distinctive enough to justify a special visit and/or full-price Art Institute admission in itself.

And while the now just 37-years-old McKenzie employs some visual whimsy--the nearby painting called Manhattan depicts that and other New York boroughs through the arrangement of leaves--I wasn't really reminded of Escher's much more inventive optical illusions (as seen on WikiArt.org).

So I still don't know if that is who Paolo meant. Stopping in the gift shop on my way out of the museum, I noted a book on another, older, female British artist named Bridget Riley.

On paper, her paintings still didn't seem quite Escheresque, but perhaps more so than McKenzie's, so I wandered back through the Art Institute and over to the Modern Wing, where there was a single-gallery, 4-work exhibit on Riley.

One sculptural painting that you walked through was rather innovative, and a piece called Ascending and Descending Hero holds a certain appeal.

This exhibit will be up to March 8, and while worth a glance, also doesn't mandate a special trip.

But I am glad that--however ambiguously, still--Paolo's recommendation prompted me to visit the Art Institute, for I genuinely enjoyed their largest current exhibit, which runs through January 25.

Titled Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor, the exhibition centers on a monumental drawing called The Temptation of St. Anthony, which the Belgian artist (1860-1949) created across 51 separate sheets of paper.

This artwork was interesting, accompanied by an interactive guide to the various components of the
drawing, but I much preferred many of Ensor's paintings that the Art Institute curated to show his work before and after the monumental drawing of the 1880s.

I enjoyed the somewhat odd piece (shown here) called The Intrigue, and others such as The Oyster Eater and The Lady with Fan.

Overall, I would give the Ensor exhibit @@@@ (out of 5) and do suggest it may be worth getting to specifically before it closes. Especially as it can provide an excuse to explore the Art Institute's great permanent collection and other special exhibits.

Along with Impressionism masterworks, on this trip I especially enjoyed seeing the work of Toshusai Sharaku in the Japanese Prints gallery. 

Bill Burr, comedian - I recently struck up a new Facebook Friendship with a woman who is the niece of a close friend of mine. In messaging back and forth, I pointed her to a recent blog post highlighting some of my favorite writings of 2014 (as well as one piece by her uncle).

In reading the remembrance of Robin Williams I penned upon his death, in which I rued the relative lack of new, younger comics I knew and liked, she commented about Bill Burr, a comedian I did not know.

Turns out he has three stand-up specials on Netflix, all of which she recommended. I watched the newest one called Bill Burr: I'm Sorry You Feel That Way, and found it rather enjoyable. Like all first-rate comedians, Burr offers a nice mix of jokes and insights, and largely held my attention and interest across 80 minutes. He tackles a variety of current events, offers a rather shrewd take on religion and relates a rather shocking--and yet terrifically funny--story about an old guy who threw himself out of a helicopter.

Even if you don't have Netflix, you can see the entire special on YouTube.

Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror, Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 - I have long appreciated the musical and cultural magnitude of "Dylan going electric," referring to his playing with a full band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival to the outrage of folk traditionalists.

But I only came to know of this DVD (and Blu-ray) showing Bob Dylan's full performance at Newport in 1965--as well as 1963 and 1964--because a trailer for it accompanied the DVD of I'm Not There, a 2007 film in which 6 different actors (including most famously, Cate Blanchett) embody Dylan at various points in his life.

I probably should have seen I'm Not There long ago, but I never had until it was recently mentioned and extolled at a Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group lunch. I always get great movie recommendations from friends like Dave, Brad and Al, but truth be told I didn't really love I'm Not There. It didn't teach me much new about Dylan, and my favorite parts were simply his songs (this was also true about the Scorsese documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home).

But especially as there's little of Dylan's '65 Newport appearance on YouTube, I was tickled to learn there was a DVD of it, and I bought it instantly. (It came out in 2007.)

Rather than containing any explanatory narration, The Other Side of the Mirror is simply a film by director Murray Lerner capturing Dylan's performances at the Newport Folk Festival over the course of 3 years. It's interesting to note that even within the same fest, Dylan played on multiple stages, including ones shared with Joan Baez, who he was dating around that time. There is also a clip of Johnny Cash playing a Dylan song after speaking about him.

The music is obviously outstanding, from each festival, and it's pretty fascinating to see how Dylan's persona, stature and confidence grew over just three years. And the electric performance is scintillating; with no fanfare, Bob took the stage with a recently cobbled together band including Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, and played wondrous versions of "Maggie's Farm" and "Like A Rolling Stone," each followed by loud "Boos!"

He was convinced to then play a couple acoustic songs, ending with a notably acerbic, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," after which he was heavily applauded.

Though only 83 minutes long, The Other Side of the Mirror makes for an altogether illuminating yet unadorned glimpse into a storied moment in music history.

Glenn's Diner - Although it has been in the same spot on Montrose, just west of Ravenswood, for 10 years, I came know of this Chicago restaurant only last year, when I visited Margie's Candies (the other location) just across the street.

Even then it looked pretty nondescript, but in walking past, I was intrigued by all the fresh fish preparations written on chalkboards lining both sides of the interior.

So when my friend Dave and I were looking for somewhere new to eat on Saturday, ideally near an L stop as he'd be coming from downtown, I suggest we try Glenn's.

We both found it excellent, with first-rate food in a comfortable, low-key atmosphere adorned not only by chalkboards, but a display of cereal boxes. 

I got Pretzel-crusted Walleye Pike and Dave got Lake Superior Whitefish. Both came with roasted potatoes and garlicky broccoli, which actually made me want to eat my broccoli (and even take home Dave's). We also shared a creme brulee for dessert and concurred that we would gladly revisit Glenn's Diner.

Ironically, just the next day, Dave forwarded me an article from the Chicago Reader revealing that the
original proprietor, Glenn Fahlstrom, had been booted from his titular diner two years ago after a legal battle with a partner, and now runs the similar Fahlstrom's Fish Market (which the Reader writer seems not so wild about).

That concludes my recap of new things discovered in just the last few days, but in the same spirit I offer a few more quick recommendations. 

A Band Called Death, documentary (Amazon) / Death - For the Whole World to See, album (Amazon) - Although oddly similar to that of another long-forgotten Detroit musician--Rodriguez, as told in Searching for Sugar Man--the story of a band that really was called Death is remarkable in its own right. In 1974, three African-American brothers were playing and recording punk music, before most anyone had heard the Ramones or other punk pioneers. The documentary is terrific and the album, compiled in 2009 from old recordings, is really phenomenal. Unfortunately the movie doesn't appear to be on Netflix anymore, but you can find it through Amazon.

Ida (Netflix link) - I recently named this 81-minute, black & white Polish film the best new movie I saw in 2014, and I wasn't alone in my acclaim. Several critics bestowed similar praise, and two friends who heeded my suggestion separately conveyed that it felt like watching a series of Vermeer paintings, give the beautiful compositions employed by director Pawel Pawlikowski in telling a rather poignant and insightful tale. Ida is currently streaming on Netflix and is my top recommendation for anyone looking for a "good movie to watch."

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - The Agora, Cleveland 1978 (purchase here) - The Boss is my favorite musical artist of all-time, and by far my favorite live performer, so that I'd love the acoustically-pristine new release of a classic show from before I started going to them is kind of obvious. But Rolling Stone just called this "official bootleg" of a long-storied concert from the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour Springsteen's greatest live album, and I think they're right. For just $10 for the MP3 download, it's a gimme for fellow fans, and a pretty good place for neophytes to start beyond the studio albums that are on Spotify.