Thursday, July 31, 2014

Be True to Your School: Forceful 'Exit Strategy' Teaches the Power of Pride on the Precipice of Obsolescence -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Exit Strategy
a world premiere play by Ike Holter
Directed by Gus Menary
Jackalope Theater Company
at the Broadway Armory, Chicago
Thru August 29
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I recently participated in an online focus group conducted on behalf of one of Chicago's premier theater organizations.

One line of questioning focused on the sources and stimuli that prompt me to attend any particular production.

Certainly, there are a variety of contributing factors, including pre-existing awareness, affinity and/or curiosity about the play or musical, word-of-mouth, show schedules, theater location, parking/transit convenience, familiarity with those in the cast (mostly meaning "I've seen their work before," but occasionally involving personal acquaintances) and cost--I predominantly go to shows that offer discounted tickets, whether through the theater box office, HotTix or Goldstar.

For several years now, I've had subscriptions to Broadway in Chicago and Goodman Theatre, and a few local theaters have begun inviting me to Press Night after 5 years of writing reviews on this blog.

But as I cited in my response, the most acute motivator for me to see something I otherwise wouldn't is a rave review by Chris Jones, the head theater critic for the Chicago Tribune.

I have always been a Tribune print subscriber--excepting a few years when the LA Times was my local daily--and though I read his Tribune predecessors (Richard Christiansen, Michael Phillips) and currently peruse other Tribune reviewers, peers like Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times and write-ups in the Chicago Reader and on ChicagoCritic.com, for several years now Jones has been my primary and preferred source for Chicago theater criticism. (His book on Tribune theater reviews over 150 years--Bigger, Brighter, Louder--is quite fun.)

Often, Jones' positive notices enhance my desire to see something for which I was already inclined--such as well-known musicals and shows at venues I regularly attend ad hoc (e.g. Steppenwolf, Northlight)--and always augment my experiences in attending subscription shows, undoubtedly informing my own take on many.

But I most appreciate Chris for quite specifically being the reason I have taken a flyer on several shows--mostly new, mostly plays--that have introduced me to lesser-known writers, troupes, venues and performers.

These have included Aftermath, Suicide Incorporated, The Adding Machine, Black Watch, East of Berlin, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Graceland, Reverb, The Overwhelming, War With the Newts, Harper Regan, 33 Variations and Freud's Last Session, among others.

And now, Exit Strategy, a drama written by a 28-year-old playwright named Ike Holter revolving around a Chicago public high school slated for closure.

Jones gave the play 4 stars (out of 4) back in May, prompting the initial run in a 50-seat space within Edgewater's Broadway Armory to be entirely sold out as soon as I looked.

But when a second extension was announced, I got myself a $30 ticket--not waiting for any unlikely HotTix or Goldstar possibilities--for Wednesday night's performance, which was close to capacity

I wasn't completely oblivious to the Broadway Armory, as a couple years ago I saw a production of Black Watch--an Irish touring production presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater--that was held in the gymnasium of the huge Chicago Park District building at Broadway & Peterson.

Exit Strategy, however, is staged in a small space on the second level, which Jackalope Theater Company has begun utilizing this year. Winding my way to the theater by following intermittent signs was a bit unusual, and if nothing else, this was the first performance of any kind I saw immediately after encountering a Trapeze Training class in session.

The theater itself was quite warm on a night that wasn't, and though I wasn't affected, I categorically have an issue with Jackalope's policy of not letting patrons back into the theater if they must go potty during the 100-minute one-act performance. Unlike other small spaces, the seating arrangement wouldn't seemingly preclude re-entry, and it was a shame to see a couple audience members disappear forever.

So be forewarned, seeing Exit Strategy in its initial production is a bit more Bohemian than attending theater at, say, the Cadillac Palace or the Goodman.

But, as Chris Jones accurately suggests--even if a bit more effusively than I--it is quite worthwhile.

Taking place in six scenes roughly over the course of a school year, Exit Strategy opens with Ricky Hubble (Patrick Whalen), the Assistant Principal of the fictional Tumbledon High School in one of Chicago's rough neighborhoods, informing a veteran teacher named Pam (Barbara Figgins) that the city had decided to shutter and demolish the school the following June.

From there, the action--with rather electric interaction--involves four other teachers and one student discussing, in various Teachers' Lounge meetings, the impending denouement and what if anything can, or just should, be done about it.

I won't give anything more away, but will simply say that--as you may imagine--not everyone accepts their fate lying down.

Holter's modern script is sharp, strident, poignant, profane, rather humorous in parts and quite relevant.

I doubt I would have thought of this, but Chris Jones' comparison of this play to the excitement of David Mamet's early work in Chicago appears apt in terms of language, sensibility and themes analogous to American Buffalo or even the later Glengarry Glen Ross.

Under the direction of Gus Menary with a static, believable set by John Holt, the acting is excellent throughout. 

Figgins, Lucy Sandy, Paloma Nozicka, Andrew Saenz and Ron Turner feel quite authentic as CPS teachers of differing ages and backgrounds--the latter two actors are replacements since Jones' review--and Jerry MacKinnon is terrific as a student activist named Donnie.

I can't say I felt like I knew all the characters all too well or completely understood their motivations; perhaps this is the result of a first encounter with the material, but in the name of abundant bristle and tension, the drama seems to sacrifice perfect clarity and cogency.

Though well-played by Whalen, the central Vice Principal character is a bit hard to read; I'm not sure if he's meant to be a good guy in a tough situation or a jackass prompted to see the light. Is he an authoritarian lackey turned radical thinker, or merely a spineless opportunist seeking self-aggrandizement?

I would have liked to feel a bit more clued in, but of course it may well be that--like most first-rate plays--Exit Strategy intends for you to leave pondering, not exactly knowing.

Though I'll stop short of insisting that everyone rush out to see this world premiere play while it's still on Broadway (the street, in Chicago, though a future NYC run doesn't seem improbable), I applaud Jackalope for offering $15 tickets to teachers and students, many who will more acutely recognize the circumstances being chronicled.

But what I admire about Exit Strategy even more than the narrative, characters, dialogue and performances is its contemporary commentative cojones.

I regularly rue the relative lack of unrest, righteous anger and organized resistance within society in general, and especially within the creative fields where people like Bob Dylan, Norman Lear, Sidney Lumet, The Clash and David Mamet once infused popular entertainment with plenty of outraged indignation.

Just the other day, I watched Cool Hand Luke for the first time in ages and was astonished at how brazenly, in 1967, a mainstream movie star like Paul Newman railed against "the system" amidst rising dissension over the Vietnam War.

Perhaps it's just the juxtaposition, but I can't help see Exit Strategy as one of the increasingly rare antidotes to communal antipathy, even within the realm of dramatic arts, where all too many upper middle class dramas of late pose questions of pedantic psychology rather than punch you in the face with matters of common-struggle consequence.

On Playbill.com, you'll do well to find this interview with Chris Jones, who now also serves as the director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute. In it, Jones provides keen insight as to his role and responsibility as a theater critic for a major publication at a time when every idiot--yes, that's me--can offer up his or her opinion on the internet.

See this article on Playbill.com
Jones embraces his interaction--and even competition--with the public-at-large in ways far more acute and voluminous than previous mainstream press critics have faced. But even (or especially) as one who spends hours writing theatrical critiques of my own, I will never not have extraordinary regard and appreciation for Chris and others of his professional ilk.
In my eyes, the most important thing a critic can do is to give amplification to voices that deserve to be heard.
Hence, this is reason enough for professional critics, and even printed daily newspapers, to always exist, even amid times of declining readership and perhaps influence.

For akin to deriving more from the fight than the outcome--whether in regards to a crumbling school facing extinction or any other "us vs. them" battle--it's always nice to know someone still believes in doing, and championing, what's right.

And goes to small, out-of-the-way, scattershot theaters to be my--and many others'--entree into important new artistic works like Exit Strategy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Perhaps He's No Boy Wizard, but Slobbish Sleuth Makes for Satisfying Storytelling -- Book Reviews: 'The Silkworm' and 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling)

Book Reviews

The Silkworm
by Robert Galbraith
(pseudonym for J.K. Rowling)
now in hardcover/Kindle
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The Cuckoo's Calling
by Robert Galbraith
(pseudonym for J.K. Rowling)
now in paperback/Kindle
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Having never read any of the Harry Potter books, I can't say if I like J.K. Rowling as an author.

But now having finished--within a week--The Silkworm, the second novel revolving around an oafish detective named Cormoran Strike, just a few months after having read The Cuckoo's Calling, I can say I've enjoyed the writing of Robert Galbraith.

Which is the pen name Rowling used, initially covertly, to branch out into crime fiction, or perhaps more accurately, some sort of detective, mystery and thriller hybrid.

Certainly, in a rather literal sense for me, both The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm can be called page turners as they made me want to read them actively, rather than leisurely or even languidly as is often my wont.

While both of the Rowling-as-Galbraith books pretty much fit what the term "page turner" typically connotes for me--a deft but disposable suspense novel and not a highly insightful work of great literature--I think the books excel more for their characterizations than their mysteries, although both kept me guessing to the end.

Many suspense writers develop series around a central crime solver and--while unlikely to ever become anywhere near as iconic as Harry Potter--Cormoran Strike is a nice addition to the canon. 

Strike is described as being rather large in both height and girth, unkempt, often slovenly but rather resolute and self-sufficient, despite having a grievous war injury and being the non-bestowed-upon son of a wealthy and iconic father. (The book covers do nothing to aid my imagination of the detective's appearance, so whether apt or not, I can't help picturing Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces.)

Early in The Cuckoo's Calling, a pretty young blonde named Robin comes to work for Strike, and I don't think I'm giving anything much away by saying that she remains a fixture throughout The Silkworm (and conceivably, any continuations of the series).

The Cuckoo's Calling revolves around the death of a supermodel, with one of her relatives engaging Cormoran Strike to investigate the circumstances. 

In The Silkworm, Strike is enlisted by the wife of an author who has gone missing.  

To reveal anything more about the storylines or additional characters would be a disservice, but while Strike's private eye work drives the somewhat Agatha Christiesque whodunit plots, it is Rowling/Galbraith's description of the detective's thoughts and his interaction with Robin that provide the most pleasure. 

Even without having read the Harry Potter books, it isn't surprising that a writer who created one of the most iconic characters in literary history has a gift for characterization. 

So while at this point, other mystery writers are likely more adept at detailing the detective's deduction processes--it seems that Strike's "a-ha!" moments come almost out of nowhere--it isn't the specter of another crime but learning more about Strike's rather tortured-yet-impish existence (including a romantic implosion that has tickled and teased for more resolution) that already has me looking forward to the next adventures of Cormoran & Robin.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Way-O-way-O, Way-O-wayyy-O: The Bangles Sample a Nice Range of Vintages at City Winery -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Bangles
City Winery, Chicago
July 28, 2014
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1986 was the breakout year for The Bangles, as the 4-woman band from L.A. released their biggest selling album, Different Light, which spawned their first hit single--"Manic Monday," which would hit #2 on the charts--and their first #1, "Walk Like an Egyptian."

Without meaning any slight to the other band members, or wanting to sound too prurient, the video for the latter song convinced me that Susanna Hoffs was the hottest woman in rock.

14 years later, with Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, Debbi Peterson and Michael Steele having recently reunited after disbanding in 1989, I saw the Bangles at Chicago's House of Blues in September 2000.

It was a fun show, with the band sounding good and--all disclaimers reiterated--Hoffs still looking terrific at 41.

14 more years later, the Bangles are back together--minus Steele--and I caught them last night at City Winery with my friend Dave.

We had seen a Hoffs solo show at the same venue in November 2012, so it wasn't all that surprising but nonetheless impressive that Susanna still looks and sounds lovely--even if her voice is a smidgen less sticky-sweet--and she and the Peterson sisters remain an engagingly dynamic force.  

I can't quite say it felt like 1986 all over again, as not only hadn't I ever seen the Bangles in their heyday, but I doubt I would have attended a venue as swankified as City Winery even if one existed.

But it's nice to know that, unlike yours truly, the Bangles are aging gracefully.

Accompanied by a male bassist named Derek Anderson, the band opened Monday's show with Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter," a big hit for the Bangles in 1987.

With Hoffs and Vicki Peterson on guitar, and Debbi Peterson remaining a powerful drummer, the three original Bangles traded lead vocals throughout the night and harmonized wonderfully as they delivered all of their biggest hits including "If She Knew What She Wants," "In Your Room" and "Eternal Flame" along with the aforementioned.

But just as impressive, for those of us at City Winery not talking loudly through anything not overtly nostalgic, were renditions of the opening two songs from the Bangles' 2011 album, Sweetheart of the Sun--"Anna Lee (Sweetheart of the Sun)" and "Under a Cloud"--as well as a cover of Nazz' "Open My Eyes," which appears on that album. (Dave would want me to note that Nazz was a late-'60s garage band that included Todd Rundgren, who wrote "Under a Cloud.")

Reaching back to 1981 for "Getting Out of Hand," the first song Hoffs and the Peterson sisters wrote after forming the Bangles (initially named The Bangs)--the City Winery bio notes their story started the day after John Lennon's murder--they also played four songs from a self-titled 1982 EP that Vicki noted will soon get its first digital release ("The Real World," "I'm in Line," "Mary Street," "Want You").

Another five, including the terrific "Going Down to Liverpool," "Hero Takes a Fall," "Live" and "James," came from the Bangles' first full album, 1984's All Over the Place.

Having just the night before attended an outstanding John Fogerty concert highlighted by marvelous performances well beyond the biggest hits, I was open to being impressed by songs outside those I knew well, but was nonetheless rather beguiled by the full range of the Bangles' career retrospective.

You can see the full setlist for the Bangles' Monday night gig in Chicago, and others, on Setlist.fm--they also played City Winery on Sunday--but while beforehand I was a bit baffled by how many songs I didn't recognize, the comprehensive and revelatory curation was a definite strength of the show.

I can't say the 85-minute performance was among the most exciting, or emotionally affecting, that I've seen, and though there was nothing awful about the City Winery--other than people near us gabbing loudly during songs, but that happens anywhere--the upscale venue just doesn't feel very "rock and roll" to me.

I surmised the Bangles' may have been better served headlining one of the big Chicago street festivals, allowing the nostalgic ether of the closing "Walk Like an Egyptian" to ebulliently waft in the summertime air, rather than swirl around expensive wine glasses.

Nonetheless it was a fun night, far better and--abetted by cheery chatter among the three Bangles--much warmer than a mercenary rehashing of past glories.

Though there have been long periods of hiatus, the Bangles aptly showcased that their history has stretched--substantively--across nearly 35 years now, not just the 3 that most people know (or at least "most people" of a certain age).

And if we're all still around another 14 years from now...

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Here's a clip of "Walk Like an Egyptian" posted on YouTube by Nuno Zomot: 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Keeping on Chooglin' in Chicago, John Fogerty Gives Creedence to His Legendary Stature -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

John Fogerty
Chicago Theatre
July 27, 2014
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I arrived at the Chicago Theatre on Sunday night with tremendous regard for the greatness of John Fogerty.

I left with even more.

While he may not retain quite the renown or continued drawing power of other legendary rock songwriters dating back to the 1960s--including Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Paul Simon and Barry Gibb, all of whom I've seen earlier this year--Fogerty's output as the primary force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival is among the most remarkable in pop music history, especially as it was all created within a 4-year span.

Though I think I only really came to know CCR after Fogerty's chart-topping 1985 comeback album, Centerfield, I have never not been an avid fan since becoming aware.

I have seen Fogerty in concert before, including 7 years ago at the same venue, and own a concert DVD.

So while my friend Paolo and I didn't buy tickets to Sunday's show until the middle last week--for just $38.50 per, albeit at the very top of the balcony--I was very much anticipating reveling as Fogerty rocked through a cavalcade of CCR classics, plus a couple solo hits.

And with "Traveling Band," "Green River," "Who'll Stop the Rain," "Born on the Bayou" and "Lodi" comprising the opening quintet, I certainly wasn't disappointed straight out of the gate.

At 69, Fogerty remains in great shape and his iconic voice is seemingly as powerful as ever.

Thus, many more gems were certainly joyful to hear, and the rather full crowd--I was worried it would be shamefully undersold--clearly enjoyed "Looking Out My Back Door," "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," "Down on the Corner," "Up Around the Bend" "Bad Moon Rising," "Proud Mary" and more. (See Setlist.fm for full list of John Fogerty in Chicago.)

Yet while the string of greatest hits was glorious, if pretty much a given, I found myself newly impressed with just how terrific Fogerty is as a guitarist and overall musician.

His current touring band--including his son Shane on guitar, the great veteran drummer Kenny Aronoff, a demonstrably good keyboardist, plus another guitarist and a bassist--was outstanding, turning extended instrumental jams on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Ramble Tamble" and "Keep On Choogling" into rather surprising highlights.

Beyond cover songs that were part of CCRs canon, like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Susie Q" and "Midnight Special," Fogerty did pleasing versions of "Night Time is the Right Time" and "New Orleans," the latter a Gary U.S. Bonds song I didn't previously know.

Though I thought the longtime baseball fan missed a chance to salute the day's Hall of Fame inductees--including three with strong Chicago ties--he played his trademark baseball bat guitar on a romp through "Centerfield."

While I knew another 1985 hit, "The Old Man Down the Road," harkened back to CCR--Fogerty actually got sued for plagiarizing his own "Run Through the Jungle"--it was particularly pleasing to hear how good "Mystic Highway," a new song from 2013's Wrote a Song for Everyone (mostly a collection of duets on Creedence classics), held its own among towering tunes essentially as old as I am.

Like other highlights of the evening--which had no opening act and saw Fogerty taking the stage soon after the 7:30 ticketed start time--"Mystic Highway" included an extended instrumental interlude.

Other than some gracious appreciation for the reverent applause, Fogerty didn't do a lot of talking from the stage, but reminded that Creedence Clearwater Revival played at Woodstock 45 years ago--the exact anniversary is just a few weeks away--and noted that he wrote "Who'll Stop the Rain" based on his observations of others gathered there.

But while I went in thinking I'd be more than happy with a musical history lesson, or more so a rather thorough recap, the truth that some of Fogerty and his band's best performances came beyond the hits made the show even better than I anticipated.

Of course, seeing how good John Fogerty still is--and having it reiterated that "Fortunate Son" remains among the greatest protest songs ever written--only made me wistful that rock music this good may soon be a thing of the past, perhaps never to regenerate itself.

While this pessimism seem seems to have some Creedence, one can only hope there will sooner-than-later be a revival.

But until then, I'll keep rolling on the river any chance I get.

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Here's a clip of "Fortunate Son" from Sunday's show uploaded to YouTube by joeypgh1:

Friday, July 25, 2014

Speeding Through Spotlights: From 'Boyhood' to the Hall of Fame, Some Things Worth Noting

Rather than devoting a full blog post to any or all of the following topics, I thought I would cover them in a collective piece. 

Hence, these are not meant as abridged reviews or profiles, but simply an opportunity to provide some illumination on worthy subjects of recent exploration or thought. 

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Boyhood (movie) - directed by Richard Linklater

If prompted to consider the best contemporary movie directors, I likely would not readily think of Richard Linklater among names like the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh, Ang Lee, Alexander Payne and others.

But I certainly should.

Though he has never been Oscar-nominated for Best Director, since coming to attention with 1991's Slacker the Austin-based Linklater has made a whole bunch of movies I've really enjoyed, including Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, Bernie, Me & Orson Welles and School of Rock.

And with Boyhood, he has likely made his best film yet; certainly his most novel, if not in subject matter then in the creation process. Filmed with the same actors over a period stretching from 2002 to 2013, Linklater has brilliantly documented--though this is a narrative film--the maturation of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei), their mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke).

The way Boyhood works as a cohesive film is fairly astonishing--credit must also be given to editor Sandra Adair--and while I may have been expecting greater crisis and consequence at various stages of Mason's development, Linklater shrewdly avoids overt twists and easy coming-of-age melodrama.

That he parallels--in screen time and seeming importance--theoretically major life moments with more mundane ones makes Boyhood feel more real than most Hollywood films, as it imparts that much of what forms us isn't always so obvious.

Playing Mason from about age 6 to 18, Coltrane is terrific, as is the entire cast. I think I may have liked Boyhood slightly less than the Polish masterpiece Ida, but it is an amazing accomplishment, clearly worth investing 2 hours & 45 minutes and by far the best new American narrative film I've seen this year.

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Chicago's Hall of Fame Duo
Frank Thomas and Greg Maddux

This Sunday, two of the very best baseball players to spend considerable portions of their careers in Chicago uniforms will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Frank Thomas--who spent 16 seasons with the White Sox, is the best hitter the team ever had and, in his prime, perhaps the best hitter I've ever seen--was a first-ballot selection, as was 355-game winner Greg Maddux, who began his career with the Cubs, won his first Cy Young Award here, returned late in his career (after going to Atlanta in 1993) and, at his best, may be the best pitcher I ever saw.

It's also rather notable that, playing through an era riddled by the use of steroids and other PEDs, the Big Hurt and the Mad Dog are presumed to have always played clean.

Certainly, it's too bad the Cubs foolishly let Maddux get away in his prime--he would win 3 more consecutive Cy Young's with the Braves--and at times Thomas mitigated his greatness with grating petulance, but this is a weekend to celebrate their legendary careers.

Chicago, and baseball fans everywhere, should be proud.

Also being inducted on Sunday are Maddux' fellow Braves' ace Tom Glavine, their manager Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees to four World Championships and Tony La Russa, who successfully managed the White Sox, A's and Cardinals.

It's a pretty classy group, and though I'm not a huge fan of La Russa's, not only does he add to the Chicago contingent, he was the manager of the first winning team I ever rooted for (the 1983 White Sox).

A tip of my caps to all, but especially Thomas and Maddux.

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Bring on the Blues at Glenview Public Library - featuring Donna Herula and Dave Ricks
Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I like the the unlikely, or perhaps more accurately, the unsuspected.

Having seen Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials there previously, I already knew of the Glenview Public Library as a venue that occasional presents live blues performances indoors, however atypically.

But if you had asked me to "pick out the blues singer" among everyone within the library Tuesday night, I likely would not have guessed it was Donna Herula.

And even after hearing an hour's worth of deep and early blues, covering the likes of Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, Bessie Smith, Son House and others, with Herula singing and playing impressive guitar (including much slide guitar, on classic instruments dating back to 1935) accompanied at times by a harmonica player I believe is named Dave Ricks, I couldn't help think many co-workers at her daytime job--I was told she has one--were likely oblivious to this petite white woman being a such a terrific and decorated blues player (and clearly, a devoted historian).

Herula's performance was even more impressive considering that the program was originally scheduled to have her play on Wednesday in tandem with her husband, Tony Nardiello, but a mix-up in the library's promotion meant he was unavailable on Tuesday. We were told that Herula did a lot of shuffling just to show up for an auditorium mostly filled by seniors--who sang along quite enthusiastically--and even brought along Ricks.

I'm glad she made it, and that I--with my friend Ken in tow--did too.

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Gee's Bend - a play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, Evanston, IL - Thru July 27

Last month I wrote about seeing my first play presented by the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre--Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years--despite the Evanston company now celebrating its 35th year.

I have now seen my second, Gee's Bend, which sheds light on a rather geographically-isolated Alabama community of the same name, in which descendents of slaves have become noted for their beautiful quilt making.

Far more than an explication on textiles, the 80-minute drama is a story about humanity, perseverance, grit and dignity revolving around four women (two are played by the same actress) and the husband of one of them.

Cat Davidson, Elana Elyce, Nicholia Q. Aguirre and Sean Blake all give strong performances under the direction of Tim Rhoze, and the set design includes a number of lovely quilts. The brief run of Gee's Bend ends this weekend with shows Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Tickets can be found here.

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Eataly - 43 E. Ohio, Chicago - Prime Rib Sandwich from Roticceria

This Italian food emporium created by chef Mario Batali opened its Chicago location with much fanfare late last fall.

I hadn't been compelled to Eataly's cacophony of restaurants, food stands and markets until my friend Paolo recently posted a photo of a Prime Rib Sandwich he had gotten from Roticceria (rotisserie) counter.

It looked terrific, and having stopped en route to a Millennium Park concerts, I can affirm that it is.

While I loved the sandwich, and subsequently a brioche with Nutella, the IKEAesque Eataly isn't somewhere I'm likely to frequent, even notwithstanding the not-so-convenient location and not-insubstantial cost (though $11.80 for the generous sandwich was actually rather reasonable).

There was a small standing-but-no-seating section near the 2nd floor rotisserie station, which had a few available side dishes (I opted for roasted potatoes) but no beverages. I wound up finding a table near a first floor coffee bar, then had to walk across the entire store to find an overpriced Italian cola (no Coke or Pepsi products were to be found anywhere). After finishing my sandwich, I wandered to the nearby Nutella stand only to have my half-full beverage cleared away. Though I was given another one, my entire dining experience--and the establishment itself--felt more pretentious than may natural preference.

But if anyone ever wants to bring me another Prime Rib Sandwich...

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Curt's Cafe - 2922 Central St., Evanston

Much more attuned to my sensibilities is this charming breakfast and lunch cafe amidst Central Street's western shopping strip.

Though the menu isn't vast, it's appealing. I had a wonderful breakfast menu concoction called The Berry Patch, which was a warm tortilla filled with strawberries, Nutella and toasted almonds. And a White Chocolate Apricot Scone. Yum!

But even better than the food at Curt's Cafe is the mission: "To equip at-risk youth (15 to 22 years old) with job and life skills through training, career coaching and mentoring."

It is a 501(c)3 non-profit that hires young people in hopes of helping them move forward from difficult pasts, rather similar to the aims of Youth Build Lake County, for whom I developed marketing messages and strategies through the Taproot Foundation last year.

I don't know how long Curt's Cafe has been where it is, but am glad I discovered it and look forward to going back. The interior is spacious and welcoming, with appealing art and photos lining the walls. Open Mon.-Fri. 7:30a-5:00p, Saturday 8:00a-4:00p, with food service until 3:00.

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Baby Boom or Bust!
Display at the South Shore Arts Gallery, Munster, IN

Last Sunday, I attended a world premiere production of The Beverly Hillbillies: The Musical--which I reviewed here--at Theatre at the Center in Munster.

This was pleasurable in itself, but my mom and I made a point of arriving early at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts because we've long-known the Munster venue to have appealing displays within its South Shore Arts Gallery. We also like the adjoining Gift Shop, which does some of the best and most unique product procurement I've come across, and thus is always fun to peruse.

We didn't buy anything, this time, but enjoyed the Baby Boom or Bust! display curated by John Cain. Featuring "Memorabilia from an Atomic Childhood," it had fun collectibles such as one might expect: Beatles, Howdy Doody, Flintstones, Casper the Friendly Ghost, etc., even a Beverly Hillbillies lunch box.

But along with some paint-by-numbers artwork, the walls were adorned by original oil paintings from Champaign-based artist Brian Sullivan that were vibrant and engaging through their mash-ups of iconic imagery celebrating the same era as the Baby Boomer memorabilia.

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Jose Abreu and Anthony Rizzo - The Two Most Powerful Men in Chicago

2014 will not go down as a great season for either the Cubs or White Sox, but history may reveal it to be a key turning point, in part because of the arrival of Jose Abreu and Anthony Rizzo--literally and figuratively, respectively.

The two slugging first-basemen are currently leading their leagues in home runs; 29 for the Cuban Abreu, who at age 27 is having a monster rookie season for the White Sox after being a star in his native country, and 25 for the 24-year-old Rizzo, who hit 23 all last season but has even more impressively improved his batting average and OPS.

It's possible that both stars may be the only (or one of few) position players remaining on their teams the next time either plays a postseason game.

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Final Say - a cover band seen in Lake Bluff, July 6
playing today in Lincolnwood at 5:30

A few Sundays ago, in search of a well-reviewed restaurant on Yelp that turned out to be more of a store, I wound up in downtown Lake Bluff.

I found somewhere else to eat, and--about to leave--noticed people setting up chairs on a patch of grass containing a gazebo.

Picking up on a free Sunday Night concert at part of the town's Bluffinia Concert Series--their answer to Ravinia--I pulled my sling chair out of my trunk and stuck around to hear a band called Final Say.

I found them to be rather enjoyable, with excellent male and female lead vocalists covering a nice array of new and old, rock, pop, R&B and more.

In looking up Final Say just now on Facebook, I noticed that they will be performing today at 5:30 at Lincolnwood Fest in Proesel Park. I'm likely to go, especially as they will be preceding the always-enjoyable Tributosaurus doing the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

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Grosse Point Lighthouse, Trail, Park and Beach - Evanston, IL

The lighthouse where Central Street hits Sheridan Road in Evanston (shown atop this post) has been familiar to me my whole life, but only yesterday did I take a thorough walk around it, noticing a wildflower nature trail leading to the beach behind it, in addition to a small sculpture display in front of the Evanston Art Center, with which I was already aware. 

The beach has a daily admission of $8.00, which wouldn't be bad on the right day, but I contented myself with doing some reading on a bench overlooking the lake in an adjoining park.

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Opera in Focus Puppet Opera
Rolling Meadows, IL

Last year I went to a puppet opera presented in a Rolling Meadows park district building by an entity known as Opera in Focus. On multiple levels, I found it to be phenomenal.

Tomorrow afternoon, with my mom and sister, I will be going again. 

The program will include artfully costumed, wooden rod-puppets performing to recordings of songs from Tosca and other operas, as well as The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

I expect it to be wonderful and recommend it  highly. For more details and tickets, click here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cooler Near the Lake: A Fun, Free Night with Aimee, Ted and the Both, Together at the Remarkably Communal Millennium Park -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Both (Aimee Mann & Ted Leo)
w/ opening act Pillars & Tongues
Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park, Chicago
July 21, 2014
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The Chicago Tribune recently ran a series of articles commemorating--and largely saluting--the 10th anniversary of Millennium Park. 

The overall gist, which I agree with, is that despite being completed more than 4 years late, with accompanying cost overruns, the park instantly became--and certainly remains--one of Chicago's crown jewels, with its architecture, sculpture, greenery, communal spaces and entertainment programming making a great city even greater.

I have been to the park a good number of times over its first decade, whether simply strolling through to look at the Bean (a.k.a. Cloud Gate), observing tourists and locals splashing around among the electronic face pillars (a.k.a. the Crown Fountain), walking the bridge to the Art Institute or catching shows of various types at the Pritzker Pavilion, as well as at the Harris Theater along Millennium Park's northern border.

While I relish Cloud Gate, the Crown Fountain, the Lurie Garden, the two bridges, the colonnade in the NW corner and temporary art installations--a current one of large face sculptures by Jaume Plensa, designer of Crown Fountain, is particularly engaging--Pritzker Pavilion is by far my favorite feature of Millennium Park, both because of the architectural flair of Frank Gehry's design and the numerous fine performances I've seen there, for free (excepting a paid-entry Wilco show in 2007, and one by Tori Amos in 2005).

I've caught Grant Park Symphony Concerts with famed piano soloists, a Stephen Sondheim tribute with Broadway luminaries, jazz legend Sonny Rollins and, last summer, a fine concert by folk-rock band Dawes.

But if the City of Chicago's Downtown Sound series has ever been as strong as it has in 2014, it's to my detriment that I never noticed.

Already this summer I've seen phenomenal shows by Richard Thompson and Bob Mould, not just for free but with up-close pavilion seats (by virtue of arriving early).

I've also heard good things from others about Robbie Fulks, Omar Souleyman and Joe Pug, and it was on a friend's recommendation--complementing my high regard for the amazing venue, superb series and beautiful weather--that on Monday night I was compelled to check out The Both, after having familiarized myself with their stellar debut album.

Once again I was rewarded with a superlative show on a lovely night in the company of friends, without having to spend a dime for performers who easily could charge $40+ at other venues.

Seems Millennium Park may be a keeper.

Especially as, although I've long known of Aimee Mann--dubbed the ultimate indie rock chick by my friend Paolo--and had heard of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, prior to preparing myself for Monday's show I could have named just one song by either Mann or Leo, who have joined forces as The Both.

And that song, "Voices Carry," was one Mann wrote and sang in 1985 as part of the band 'Til Tuesday.

So not only has Millennium Park supplied me with three terrific rock concerts thus far this year, it spurred my familiarity with The Both's excellent self-titled debut album--I downloaded it from Amazon; it doesn't appear to be on Spotify--as well as some of Mann and Leo's extensive back catalogs. (I also didn't know all that much of Richard Thompson before seeing him there in mid-June.)

On Monday night, backed by drummer Matt Mayhall, Mann and Leo played all the songs from their album, reiterating how strong an effort it is.

Every song was notably good, with opener "The Gambler," "Volunteers of America," "The Inevitable Shove," "Bedtime Stories" and "Milwaukee"--which chronicles seeing this Fonz statue--cited as highlights only in lieu of naming all 11 tracks from the album. (See the full setlist on Setlist.fm)

From song to song, but also within many of them, Mann and Leo traded vocals and also harmonized rather nicely.

Leo, who comes from a harder rock vein, impressed on guitar, while Mann, who still looks terrific at 53, played a strong bass most of the night, switching to acoustic guitar for a few songs sans the drummer.

One of these was a song from her long solo career, "Save Me," which she noted she had played at a non-partisan political event last year, to the seeming delight of both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Leo amiably contradicted Mann's recollection, saying that Bush had only exchanged niceties with them due to a delay in accessing a rest room.

Steady banter between Mann and Leo added to the fun of the evening, with the South Bend-born, Notre Dame grad Leo citing that it was "cooler by the lake" seemingly befuddling the Boston-bred Mann, and making for several subsequent "it's ____ by the lake" references.

Leo also noted that the Both was born last year in a Chicago hotel room, where the two first discussed a collaboration, leading to the "first song we wrote," the then-played, "You Can't Help Me Now."

Drawing attention--and video screen cameras--to a beetle that had parked on his pant leg, Leo made an arcane U2 Rattle and Hum reference that I appreciated, and later imitated KISS' Paul Stanley addressing the crowd.

Having earlier played a new song of his own called "Lonsdale Avenue," Leo followed Mann's "Goodbye Caroline" by closing the main set with "Bottled in Cork," from Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' 2010 album, The Brutalist Bricks.

With "Both" harmonizing on each other's pre-tandem songs, all fit well within the concert's flow, and the duo's fledgling canon.

Though it seems clear that there is a 9:00pm curfew on the Downtown Sound shows, the Both's nearly 90-minute, 16-song set matched their club shows at earlier tour stops.

Fortunately, time allowed them to fit in two encore songs, a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Honesty is No Excuse," which appears on The Both album, and a crowd-pleasing rendition of "Voices Carry," of which I've included a clip below.

Lately, I've been having some discussion about how I do, or perhaps should, determine ratings on my @@@@@ scale. How much is acute enjoyment reflected vs. artistic merit, should I rate shows in comparison to each other or based on how well my expectations are met for any given performance, should I rate coming down from @@@@@ or going up from @@@, should how much I paid or others might weigh into the ardor of my raves, critiques and recommendations?

Certainly it is not an exact science, and as I am not a professional critic who wields much influence, I take my best guess.

On a perfect night at the perfect price, preceded by a solid if a bit hypnotic opening act named Pillars & Tongues, The Both were every bit as good as I could have imagined them being.

Their show was not as blistering as Bob Mould, nor as eye-opening as Richard Thompson at the same venue--Leo himself paid homage to the two legends his picture appeared among on the Downtown Sound schedule--nor in terms of personal meaning and musical stature can I really compare a new act (albeit comprised of long-respected professionals) to recent concerts by Billy Joel and Paul McCartney.

So who knows if @@@@1/2 is right, or why?

All I know is that I applaud the Both for a delightful performance, highly recommend their album, look forward to more music from them and salute the folks behind Downtown Sound for allowing me to "check them out" for nada, nothing, zilch.

For if I were simply rating it in terms of value, the free Both concert at Millennium Park could easily merit @@@@@@.

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Though not really representative of the excellent new music The Both are making, here is the show-closing "Voices Carry" from Monday night at Millennium Park in Chicago:


Monday, July 21, 2014

Tasty Tunes Make 'The Beverly Hillbillies' Musical Worth Tuning Into -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Beverly Hillbillies: The Musical
by David Rogers & Amanda Rogers
Music & lyrics by Gregg Opelka
Directed by David Perkovich
World Premiere
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN
Thru August 10
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Given how much I prattle on--as in this article--about the enjoyment and benefits to be found in exploring culture and entertainment beyond (and especially, before) what is readily put within your purview, I must rather sheepishly admit this:

I have never, to my recollection, seen an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

This despite almost always knowing of the famed sitcom--which originally ran on CBS from 1962-71, then regularly in reruns during my youth and even until this day on Me-TV--including its rags-to-riches, fish-out-of-water premise and the names of its primary characters.

But unlike Gilligan's Island, The Honeymooners, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch, Partridge Family and other classic television shows that essentially ordained the UHF dial--back in the proverbial day--not only did I not follow the Clampett clan with regularity, I really don't recall ever actually seeing the show.

So while I was drawn by my longstanding regard for the Theater at the Center in Munster, my admiration/curiosity about their staging the world premiere musical based on The Beverly Hillbillies and--to some extent--the title's TV immortality, it's not like I arrived with much point of reference, comparison or acute affinity.

Photo by Bridget Earnshaw and Theatre at the Center
Though I'm not sure how much that really matters. For in this day of new musicals often being based on well-known movies, franchises or other brand-name sources, the level of my fondness and/or familiarity with the source material (or lack thereof) has usually factored into my enjoyment far less than the quality of the score and songs written for the stage.

Cases in point, Young Frankenstein was a mediocre, even tedious musical despite my love for the movie, but though I--also somewhat sheepishly--never saw A Christmas Story on screen before seeing it on stage just a few years ago, I found the musical really terrific because so many of the songs were clever and catchy.

Such was largely the case with The Beverly Hillbillies: The Musical.

That's not to say it's a masterpiece, as devoid of any sharp edges it veers between being light, and slight, entertainment. This didn't detract all that much in Munster--where I was far younger than most of the crowd--but if this musical is destined for Broadway, a bit more acerbic bite may be necessary.

As it stands, the Ozark-bred Clampetts, their new neighbors in Beverly Hills and particularly the engaging, tuneful delivery of many endearing songs from Gregg Opelka's delightful original score make The Beverly Hillbillies a rather pleasant and enjoyable musical.

I'm not sure what prompted Theater at the Center to develop this piece, but it seems the story is that over 40 years ago a writer named David Rogers crafted a play based on the TV show. With that script initially envisioned as "the book," Gregg Opelka--who also created a musical I liked called La Vie Ennui--was hired to write music and lyrics.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
In learning of the project, Rogers was compelled to collaborate on a new script, and worked with Opelka for 3 years before passing away last summer. His daughter, Amanda Rogers, helped to finish what he started and shares writing credit.

I'm sure it couldn't have been easy to decide how to distill 274 television episodes into 2 hours of stage time, and the musical's early narrative following the hillbillies from their old home to their new one works more cleanly than the second act shenanigans involving a conniving pair of grifters and the multiple love interests of Jethro (John Stemberg), the nephew of Jed Clampett (James Harms).

But, from what I've garnered, The Beverly Hillbillies was never high drama, and it's not like the book here is laughable--in a bad way; there actually are a number of funny jokes. It's just that the characters, performances, songs and choreography (by Nicole Miller) are what make the musical directed by David Perkovich most enjoyable, and well-justify its existence.

Hence, even with 18 musical numbers, the show lagged at times between them. And it seemed like too many secondary characters got their own centerstage songs to sing.

But every one of Opelka's tunes was really good, many terrific--and this was on a first time hearing, in a way verifying what I've felt was wrong with several higher-profile world premiere musicals, including Big Fish last year.

Arriving at the theater to learn that one of the stars I was most looking forward to seeing--Summer Naomi Smart, who has been ravishing in several regional productions--had hurt her foot at a recent performance and the role of Elly May would be handled by an understudy named Julie Baird, I was delighted when the latter proved to be immensely appealing herself in belting out the show's first number, "What About Me?"

Having been introduced to Jed (wonderfully-played by the always great Harms), his daughter Elly May, his mother-in-law Granny (a terrific Kelly Anne Clark) and nephew Jethro as hillbillies who hit the gold mine--er, oil well--we are treated to buoyantly charming group numbers like "Millyun Air" and "We're Movin' West."

As the stage trades its Missouri swamp for a lavish Beverly Hills mansion--Ann N. Davis is the set designer--we are introduced to characters like banker Milburn Drysdale (Norm Boucher, who I remembered from The Producers at the same venue), his wife Margaret (Holly Stauder), his secretary Jane Hathaway (Tina Gluschenko), various other BH denizens and multiple suitors of Jethro's, including Emaline Fetty (the very well-sung Colette Todd, recently seen in Passion at Theo Ubique), supposedly a friend of the family from back home.

After the mirthful "Stamp It Like a Clampett" ends Act I, another substantive new character comes aboard after intermission: Colonel Gaylord Foxhall, dressed like Colonel Sanders and imbued with charm and smarm by another local stage stalwart, Bernie Yvon.

It's to all the actors' credit--and Opelka's--that six of nine second act songs feature someone other than (or along with) the four main Clampetts, and none comes close to being a dud.

Tunes like "Girl Friday" and "Just A Couple of Kids in Love" rise above being show-filling showtunes and stand well on their own, though I did feel Jed and Elly May got a little lost in the shuffle of visitors to the Clampett estate.

If this show does eventually get to Broadway--perhaps after pleasing audiences in regional productions nationwide--it's not hard to imagine the stars who sign on as Jed, Elly May and Granny demanding more vocalizing stage time and Cast Recording solo numbers.

But at this point, the creators, cast and crew of this fun, fine show are to be applauded--a standing ovation was deservedly bestowed on Sunday--as is the Theatre at the Center. I've seen several shows there, and have found it often does work on par with Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and Drury Lane Oakbrook (though both these venues, particularly the latter, have stepped up their game in recent years).

I can't speak much to TATC's recent quality, as I haven't caught anything else there for awhile, but I admire that they seem to be getting away from trotting out the tried-and-true in favor of brand new and recent musicals. In 2008, I had seen their world premiere of Knute Rockne: All American, and their 2014 slate has no signs of Gypsy or Fiddler on the Roof, but rather four shows I have never seen elsewhere.

Next up is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a musical adaptation of the Pedro Almodóvar film. Unlike The Beverly Hillbillies, this is not a world premiere as the show had a brief Broadway run in late 2010 (starring Patti Lupone), but to my awareness it has never toured or otherwise been produced on Chicago area stages.

With ample regard for the large number of seniors who comprised the audience at Sunday's matinee--and likely, TATC's subscriber base--it's to their credit as well that the Munster theater is able to program, and even commission, such unique fare.

Can I dare to be obvious and suggest that a musical version of The Munsters be forthcoming at Theater at the Center?

Anyway, before I started writing this I set my DVR to record a couple episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies off Me-TV, and I look forward to checking them out. But I'd like to think that whether one is highly nostalgic for the old show or--believe it or not--largely ignorant of it, this new musical should make for a rather satisfying, and perhaps even enriching, encounter.

If tolerance-espousing hillbillies can relocate happily to Beverly Hills, why can't Broadway-caliber new musicals arise from Northwest Indiana?