Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Perfectly Wonderful: Ribald, Rousing and Grimly Foreboding 'Cabaret' Dazzles on Tour -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

National Tour
The PrivateBank Theatre, Chicago
(formerly the Bank of America, LaSalle Bank and Shubert Theatre)
Thru February 21

First staged 50 years ago, Cabaret stands as one of the greatest musicals ever created.

With the caveat that it has pretty regularly been re-created.

Or at least heavily tinkered with.

Based on John Van Druten's 1951 play, I Am a Camera, which was adapted from the short novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret was a big success upon composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb and book writer Joe Masteroff bringing it to Broadway in late 1966.

The original production won several Tony Awards including Best New Musical, ran for 3 years, toured extensively and went to London.

Yet while the 1972 movie version of Cabaret was also very successful--earning 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actress (Liza Minelli) and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey, reprising his Broadway role as the Emcee, for which he won a Tony)--it significantly changed the plot, several of the characters and retained just six songs from the stage version while introducing three others.

Subsequent stage revivals utilized various song combinations, most notably the 1998 Broadway production directed by Sam Mendes and starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles.

A personalized signed photo of Teri Hatcher
from the 1999 National Tour of Cabaret
Highly acclaimed as something of a reinvention--although derived from a Mendes/Cumming London production in 1993--this revival included the three stellar Kander & Ebb songs introduced in the movie ("Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time" and "Money"), won four Tony Awards and ran on Broadway for 6 years, with numerous high-profile cast changes.

I did not get to it during this Broadway run, but the 1999 National Tour based on it changed my life.

At the age of 30, I had attended just a handful of live theatrical performances in my adult life before going to the Shubert Theatre--then its official name--on June 15, 1999 to see Cabaret, starring Teri Hatcher as Sally Bowles.

At that point, it had been a couple years since Lois & Clark had ended, and over five before Desperate Housewives debuted, so Hatcher wasn't a huge star, but well-known for her beauty. I can't deny this helped inspire me to check out Cabaret, which I found both real and spectacular (a Seinfeld reference I won't explain further).

I went back to see it the following month--along with Hatcher, Norbert Leo Butz and his understudy Jon Peterson were terrific as the Emcee--and since then I've seen almost 1,000 theatrical performances.

Thus I refer to seeing Cabaret in 1999 as my "Sandy Koufax moment," which I explained at the beginning of this 2013 review of a local production. And, as shown above, Teri Hatcher was kind enough to respond to my request for an autographed photo during the run in Chicago.

And hence, not only is the 1998 Broadway revival version of Cabaret the rendition I most know and love--thanks too to the Cast Recording--but one that holds much sentimental value.

So although I've seen stellar local productions of Cabaret, any that didn't include "Money" (makes the world go 'round) or "Maybe This Time" intrinsically had a strike against them, even if largely replicating the 1966 version that was great in the first place. (Beyond the songlist, the various stage productions haven't deviated from the original anywhere near the extent of the movie, in terms of the characters and basic scenarios.)

Technically, the National Tour production of Cabaret now playing in Chicago, for a rather short run, is based on the 2014 Broadway production. But that was essentially a re-revival of the 1998 version, with Alan Cumming back as the Emcee under the direction of Mendes and co-director/choreographer Rob Marshall.

In late March last year, I went to New York and saw the second-to-last show of the Cabaret re-revival--with Cumming, and Sienna Miller as Sally Bowles, following Michelle Williams and Emma Stone having played the role--and absolutely loved it. It was as good as I could have hoped.

The National Tour, which began just a few weeks ago, stars Randy Harrison and Andrea Goss. He was a regular in the 2000-2005 TV series Queer As Folk, which I never saw, and she was an ensemble member and Sally Bowles understudy in the recent Broadway production of Cabaret.

Clearly, they must be incredibly talented to be chosen for such high-profile roles--and to be fair, I wouldn't have known Cumming in 1998, though he's since raised his profile through The Good Wife--but I was concerned that this version of Cabaret might suffer for lack of star power.

Which it did, for me, but not in any way that substantially diminished an exceptionally superlative show.

Harrison, who many may know more than Cumming back then or even now, is excellent as the Emcee, if not quite as delectably cheeky.

And though I believe my being familiar with Hatcher and Miller--a beautiful British actress perhaps better known for tabloid romances and breakups--and their real-life careers abetted my appreciation of their takes on Sally, a British cabaret performer in Berlin who is something of a hot mess, Goss sang, danced and acted wonderfully.

I would still advocate for a vocally-gifted-if-perhaps-fading Hollywood starlet, and Alan Cumming for that matter, but as it stands, there is no reason not to see and love Cabaret in Chicago, including the two leads.

For the entire production, now directed by BT McNichol, is demonstrably fantastic, from the sexy on-stage band, to excellent performances by Lee Aaron Rosen (Clifford Bradshaw), Shannon Cochran (Fraulein Schneider), Mark Nelson (Herr Schultz) and everyone else, to source material that is, in a word, brilliant.

With Kander's bold brassy score making for many memorable songs in which every one of Ebb's lyrics is meaningful, and to whatever extent Masteroff's original book or revised latter-day re-iterations deserve credit, Cabaret combines in-your-face fun with foreboding underpinnings perhaps better than any musical ever.

As basic synopsis, in 1931 a fledgling American writer named Clifford Bradshaw comes to Berlin, meets a mysterious man named Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes) and is introduced to the Kit Kat Club cabaret and one of its performers, Sally Bowles.

With sex abiding in various combinations at both the club and the boarding house where Cliff rents from Fraulein Schneider, a spinster whose suitor Herr Schultz is a Jewish fruit merchant, the club's Emcee provides something of a gothic omnipresence to the entire, rather brashly risque proceedings, offset by the foreboding rise of Nazism.

More so than I had noted before, the premise alluded me to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, what with Cliff being an American writer with an imperfect attachment to a beautiful-yet-flighty Englishwoman.

And with a recently passed hero still top of mind, I recalled from the David Bowie Is museum exhibit that Bowie was an avowed fan of Cabaret and Christopher Isherwood, the novelist that inspired the musical. Especially with this awareness, it isn't hard to perceive Bowie's outlandish, androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona as something of an amalgamation of the Emcee and Sally.

But while I've enjoyed sharing my nostalgic connection to Cabaret and some of my extemporaneous thoughts in seeing it once again, none of that should matter much to those wondering simply...

"Should I see it?"

If I haven't made the answer clear enough already, it's an emphatic, "Yes!"

Assuming you like the musical theater form--or while noting how this particular musical ignited my love for it--this show has it all: great songs, a substantive story, wonderful dance numbers, sexy performers, etc., etc., in service, here and now, to a truly magnificent production.

"What good is sitting alone in your room, come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret."

Monday, February 08, 2016

A Great Deal of Fine Food: Recapping Another Appetizing Chicago Restaurant Week -- 2016

Although it doesn't seem to get the same type of media coverage as Taste of Chicago, in a different way Chicago Restaurant Week serves a similar purpose:

To encourage locals and tourists to discover, try and savor Chicagoland dining establishments, in a bit more economical fashion.

I've long been a Taste of Chicago fan and attendee, but particularly for those who don't love waiting in line at food booths and devouring a wide variety of food types arpeggio-style while squeezing among the masses, the Restaurant Week promotion offers a nice alternative for those who love to eat--and who appreciate restaurants lowering their prices to entice new patrons.

According to the CRW page on the Choose Chicago website, this was the 9th edition of Chicago Restaurant Week, though I only recall having heard of it--or at least partaking in it--for the past 3 or 4 years. I've also savored Restaurant Week in New York City, which I believe well predates the one here.

Though it actually lasted 2 weeks--from January 22 through February 4--Chicago Restaurant Week 2016 is now officially over, so the participating restaurants and their promotional menus are no longer listed on the website.

But several of the 350+ places that had participated in what has supposedly been the most successful CRW to date have extended their offerings at the aligned prix fixe prices--some until the end of February--as Chicago Tribune food critic Phil Vettel detailed here.

With menu selections up to the participating restaurants, and a few variances in structure and/or price, generally a 3-course appetizer/entree/dessert lunch during Chicago Restaurant Week is $22, with dinner being either $33 or $44.

As in years past, I found myself enjoying the opportunity to eat at some excellent restaurants, many for the first time, often in the company of friends I hadn't dined with previously, but also with longtime friends.

Finding a good steak dinner (with salad, side and dessert) for just $44 a particular bargain, during CRW 2014 I ate at Smith & Wollensky and McCormick's & Schmick's (the latter for lunch) and enjoyed The Capital Grille in Rosemont last year.

In 2015, I also tried Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill for the first time, as well as Evanston's fine Oceanique. And though a snowy night postponed the visit until after Restaurant Week, the promotion deserves credit for prompting an initial visit to Frontier.

With regular companions Paolo and Dave also well indoctrinated to the value offered by Chicago Restaurant Week, we chose Del Frisco's for 2016's CRW Steak Dinner outing, along with another friend.

Paolo was already quite a fan of the steakhouse, located on Oak Street in the old Esquire Theater, from which signage is retained both outside and inside, but it was the first time there for the rest of us.

Each course offered a variety of choices--typically at least 3--with additional options entailing an upcharge.

I enjoyed a Caesar's Salad, a bonus Tomato Basil soup because Dave declined any of the first course selections, an 8-oz. filet mignon accompanied by mashed potatoes and green beans (or maybe it was asparagus; see the photo and let me know) and a piece of cheesecake with butterscotch sauce.

It was all terrific, especially the steak, which my pals corroborated. One paid extra for Prime Ribeye and said it too was excellent.

Chronologically, Del Frisco's was my third--and presumably last--CRW 2016 excursion, coming on the final day of the official promotion.

But during a period in which I also enjoyed breaking bread with some former colleagues at non-Restaurant Week joints, the smorgasbord of savings provided some well-received suggestions for places to meet/eat--initially or infrequently in these cases--with other friends.

(Because I wasn't as comfortable being my shutterbug-schmuck self as I am with Paolo & Dave, I do not have photos of the food I consumed at the following establishments.)

At 5:30 on a Saturday night, before the chattering reached supersonic decibels, I met up at Mercadito--the one on Kinzie; the one on Delaware being now closed--with a fun married couple I had befriended after sitting next to them at a concert last year.

Mercadito is a Mexican restaurant, one of several whose CRW menus appealed to me (Cantina Laredo and El Mariachi being others). I included the menu above and you can see they deviated a bit from the norm by offering selections--2 types of guacamole, 1 cerviche, 4 taco varieties, 1 side and a trio of flan desserts--to be ordered for the table.

This was just $33, with the option to add a drink for $7; I got something that equated to a fruity margarita (I forget which flavor).

Everything we had was wonderful, most demonstrably the Estilo Baja taco comprised of beer-battered Mahi Mahi. The other tacos (the first 4 listed on the menu), the Mango and Blanco guacamole, Dorado (mahi mahi) cerviche and Fried Plantains were also delicious. I'm not so big on flan, but all three were good, too.

I also had the pleasure of meeting an old co-worker for lunch at the Grillhouse by David Burke in Schaumburg.

A few years back, I had enjoyed a great steak at David Burke's Primehouse in Chicago; some prime cuts were on the suburban outpost's lunch menu, but not as part of the Restaurant Week pricing.

Yet quite generously, for just $20--yes, $2 off the already appreciable CRW norm--I got lobster bisque, a venison cheeseburger, fries and crème brûlée.

Again, I was quite delighted with everything I had, as was my friend who went a good bit healthier with a salmon entree he proclaimed as great.  

With so many appetizing Chicagoland restaurants I haven't tried, including among 2016 Chicago Restaurant Week participants, I don't know that I'll realistically soon get back to Del Frisco's, Mercadito or Grillhouse by David Burke, but I would never mind doing so.

All served themselves quite well by providing beautiful meals at handsome prices, and I appreciate it, even if--this year and others--a few participants have been a bit lackadaisical about offering up CRW Menus unless asked.

With the economic challenges the city faces in paying teachers, putting more cops on the street, etc., it's understandable if some of Chicago's great communal festivals--Taste of Chicago, Blues Fest, Jazz Fest, etc.--continue to be downsized.

But with the city seemingly only having to foot the bill for some Chicago Restaurant Week publicity, this is a terrific city promotion that should have considerable staying power--and only get bigger and better.

Whether still this year among extracurricular participants, by patronizing restaurants learned about via CRW 2016 or in years hence, you would be very well-served--and, of course, well-fed--to take part. 

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Wisconsinjustice: Taking a Look at 'Making a Murderer'

SPOILER ALERT: While I will aim to be vague enough about specific details so as not to rob Making a Murderer of its suspense as television, it chronicles real-life events that I will address, so some may wish to avoid reading this until after they have watched the entire first season. 

Between Tuesday, January 26 and Tuesday, February 2, I watched all 10 hourlong episodes of Netflix' Making a Murderer documentary series.

This was about a month or more later than many others had seemingly watched it, as until David Bowie died on Jan. 10, no other topic--save perhaps for politics--filled my Facebook news feed with greater preponderance in early 2016.

Although not a huge binge watcher of TV series--and with Making a Murderer having been released in full and garnering such attention and commentary, it's hard to envision watching it episodically over 10 weeks--my initial avoidance wasn't based so much on time, disinterest or aversion as technical impairment.

Through Sony Blu-ray players in both my bedroom and living room, hard-wired to a cable modem/router, I am able to access Netflix streaming content to watch on TV. But for no known reason--and I've talked to Netflix, Comcast and Sony without resolution--in the bedroom Netflix constantly stalls and rebuffers. As this is where I would most utilize Netflix, I had canceled it awhile back.

Although all the commotion about Making a Murderer made me curious, the premise of a purportedly wrongly accused and judicially railroaded suspect didn't sound like anything all that new to me.

While I haven't heard the podcast series called Serial, which I believe also covers a dubious murder case, I have seen Errol Morris' documentary The Thin Blue Line--which actually led to a reversal--and the story of the West Memphis 3 in West of Memphis and/or Paradise Lost: Purgatory. (I'm not sure if I saw both of these or just one, but the latter is the third part of a trilogy on the case, broadcast by HBO.)

I've also read John Grisham's non-fiction book The Innocent Man, whose subtitle, "Murder and Injustice in a Small Town" could essentially serve to define the domain of all these cases--and undoubtedly many more of which I'm not specifically aware.

Let me state here that I do not hate "the cops" and have generally positive regard for all who serve and protect, whether police, sheriff's department personnel, prosecutors, investigators and judges.

I have never gotten so much as a speeding ticket--knock on wood--and particularly with the son of a close friend an active-duty police officer, I have a bit of awareness and a ton of respect for the constant challenges and dangers, inordinate bravery and instantaneous decisions that are often involved.

Anyone who ever puts on a police uniform demonstrates daily more courage than I ever will.

Yet much as there are wonderful and lousy, kindhearted and malevolent, honorable and corrupt teachers, doctors, corporate executives and everything else, there are along with many very good cops undoubtedly some--perhaps even several--very bad ones.

It's likely even fair to say there are good cops, prosecutors, judges, etc. who simply make wrongful, misguided decisions, whether in the name of overzealousness or even just to corroborate a likely accurate hunch.

I don't believe in blanket condemnation and would like to believe that whether in small towns or big cities, cops and sheriffs and FBI agents are predominantly good and extremely admirable.

But whether through the epidemic of police officers demonstrating excessive force and a lack of restraint--if not exhibiting outright bias--in incidents that have left several young black men & women dead, or more Machiavellian cases such as those cited here, it isn't hard to believe that the police and judicial system are often far from fair and just.

Some of the scenes that stand out most from Making a Murderer--and I know this is a bit out of order in recapping my feelings about it--are ones in which a prosecution lawyer decries even the notion (raised by the defense) that sheriff's department personnel and others could have planted evidence or done anything improper.

It's fair to suggest Americans don't want to believe cops are crooked, but it's also idiotic--given many proven examples--to think that the possibility doesn't exist.

So although Making a Murderer was heralded by many people I respect--including my best friend Jordan on Christmas Eve, before most had seemed to ingest it all--especially as I couldn't watch from bed, I wasn't sure I really needed to.

But it did begin to feel like something with which I should familiarize myself, if merely to partake in personal and societal conversations

So after Jordan recently reiterated his regard for the series, I re-started my Netflix subscription and watched the 10 episodes over 8 days, mostly on a Kindle in bed though occasionally in the living room.

For those unfamiliar, the show is a documentary--albeit one with a clear point of view--created, written and directed by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi.

Making a Murderer chronicles a Manitowoc, Wisconsin man named Steven Avery, who was convicted in 1985 of sexual assault despite seemingly disputable evidence, with more holes arising in 1995 but kept under wraps. After serving 18 years in prison, Avery was released in 2003 after DNA evidence proved the crime was committed by another man, whom the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department might well have considered a better suspect from the beginning.

But that's not the main part of the story; just the first episode.

In late 2005, amid depositions of key personnel involved in Avery's 1985 arrest and convictions for a $36 million lawsuit he had filed, a young Auto Trader photographer named Teresa Halbach came to the Avery family's salvage yard business, on the grounds of which Steven and others lived, to photograph a van for sale.

And was never seen again.

Bone fragments were found on the Avery compound, suggesting that Halbach had been killed and mutilated. After additional evidence started to turn up, in some ways mysteriously, Steven Avery was charged with her murder. His learning-challenged 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was subsequently charged as an accomplice. (Avery himself is a relatively simple man supposedly with an IQ of 70.)

This is about what I knew before I began watching Making a Murderer, so although you can probably guess where things go or readily read about it, the show largely centers on how the murder case is presented--from both sides--and makes for pretty compelling television.

Given that I've only successfully binge-watched the 3 seasons of Netflix' Orange is the New Black--and yes the technical difficulties were manifest then too--and recently Season 1 of USA's Mr. Robot, just the fact that Making a Murderer engaged me enough to watch the 10 episodes in a fell swoop speaks to it being quality viewing. It's a bit akin to the page-turners I read in 3 days; even if not great literature there's obviously something I greatly enjoy.

Yet somewhat contradictory, I didn't find myself all that riveted by the series. If not for wanting to discuss MAM with Jordan and others, participate in the cultural conversation and write this blog post about it, it's possible I would have bailed after a few episodes.

I quickly got the general gist, and it reflected what I had anticipated and encountered before.

I won't reveal the verdicts here, but at least in his murder trial as shown by the documentarians, I can't say I believed Steven Avery to be innocent beyond a reasonable doubt any more than I found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Still, based on what was depicted--and there are now charges, including by the main prosecutor (who did not come off well in the series), that key evidence and even damning characterizations of Avery's past were left out of the program, which did seem slanted in this direction--it appears that Steven Avery was railroaded. Certainly once, and if not as conclusively, twice, at least in terms of questionable actions by sheriffs' personnel, detectives, prosecution, etc.

And Brendan Dassey definitely seemed to be badly mishandled.

After finishing Making a Murderer, I've probably read about a dozen articles on it, citing various opinions and points of view. 

I found Kathryn Schulz' piece for New Yorker to be pretty astute in pointing out flaws in how the filmmakers presented their evidence. (For me, just the fact that they seemingly had been filming and interviewing participants since 2005 has to be considered in terms of the need to wind up with a cogent series to sell Netflix, with possible editing to erase conflicting evidence or suppositions.)

Of the thousands of articles Google will surface offering opinions on holes in the prosecution's evidence or what the documentary revealed, as well as oodles of alternate theories and vociferous takes on Steven Avery's innocence or guilt, I found this piece by Tony Frye on to rather concisely compile some angles to think about. (Both of the above contain more overt spoilers than I've included.)

At the end of the day, or I guess week, I believe I benefited from watching Making a Murderer; even if I can't quite call it brilliant television and found it a good deal overextended compared to similar documentaries, it was worthwhile to again witness how the authorities we are supposed to trust can seemingly act quite unjustly.

But beyond the specifics here--and regardless of the accused's complicity or lack thereof, it's obviously tragic that a young woman wound up dead; any possibility that the "system" had anything directly to do with it is still hard for me to digest--Making a Murderer didn't really reveal all that much I didn't already know.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Emotionally Unwelcoming 'Domesticated' Leaves Me Out in the Cold -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play
written and directed by Bruce Norris
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 7

Unlike the rather comparable Goodman Theatre, I am not a subscriber to Chicago's erstwhile and venerated Steppenwolf Theatre. 

This is largely because the latter's generous discount programs--especially Day Of $20 tickets--enable me to see selections for less than the per-play subscription cost.

While this allows me to be more selective, I tend to see at least a few Steppenwolf productions each season--often influenced by strong reviews.

When I noted their staging of Domesticated by Bruce Norris, I was initially quite interested as I have very much enjoyed some of the writer's previous plays at Steppenwolf, especially Clybourne Park (2011) and The Qualms (2014) but also The Pain and the Itch (2005) and to a lesser extent A Parallelogram (2010).

The male lead in Domesticated is Tom Irwin, a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 1979 who I've seen a few times here but will also always fondly recall as the father in the single season of My So-Called Life. And opposite Irwin is Mary Beth Fisher, who I have seen onstage no less than a dozen times over the years, and always find terrific.

While press reviews seemed generally favorable, I noticed few that were outstanding or insistent, and a word-of-mouth opinion was even more middling. So despite the author--who also directs this production--and cast, it seemed Domesticated would come and go without me seeing it. (It closes this Sunday.)

But then Steppenwolf sent me an offer to buy a $20 ticket in advance, although I wound up buying it on the "Day of Show" anyway, coinciding with a performance a friend was attending.

Especially as there are just a few days left in the Steppenwolf run, I won't spend too much time and space detailing what I didn't like about Domesticated; suffice it to say there was little I did.

Irwin plays Bill Pulver, an unspecified public official forced to resign as the play opens after a prostitute he was with winds up in a coma. Fisher is his wife, Judy, high-strung, controlling and initially some combination of naive, in denial and oddly forgiving.

They have two daughters, the highly combustible Casey (Melanie Neilan) and Cambodian adoptee Cassidy (Emily Chang), whose science presentations on social dimorphism in nature provides Norris' only obvious revelation that he is knowingly mocking Bill's galling insensitivity--just when you think he can't become even more of a dillweed, he does--and the couple's disconnect.

In the post-show discussion, it dawned on me that in creating such cold, unsympathetic characters of an age and social strata roughly approximating a good portion of Steppenwolf's patrons, perhaps Norris was slyly trying to provoke discomforting self-reflection among his audience. (Domesticated premiered in New York in 2013.)

As is often the case, it's possible there is something here I just didn't connect with to the extent others have or might. (Though some others in the post-show discussion seemed to share my distaste.)

I guess it's fair to say Irwin and Fisher, as well as Neilan and others, do a really good job of making their characters unlikable, but in doing so, they provided me with no emotional way into Domesticated.

Within the play, you never get much inkling that anyone likes each other, not even the daughters by their parents, or even one another.

So whatever deeper messaging I was supposed to appreciate, or thoughts to ponder, I never enjoyed simply watching Domesticated, and beyond basic empathy for anyone treated unkindly, didn't care about anything that was happening to anyone.

Perhaps that was the point, but I like theater--and almost all art forms--to provide me with some sort of emotional connection. A bit of warmth to go along with my wonder.

Domesticated simply left me feeling like I really didn't need to be there.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

'Another Word for Beauty' is Fleeting in the Eye of This Beholder -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Another Word for Beauty
a World Premiere play with music
by José Rivera
Music by Héctor Buitrago 
Directed by Steve Cosson
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 21

Seemingly attributed to William Cowper in the 18th century, "Variety is the spice is life," may well be the axiom/cliché I find most germane to my existence.

As the range of posts on should attest, I enjoy a variety of music, movies, TV, books, art and a vast array of live events, including rock concerts, musicals, plays, operas, ballets, jazz, blues, comedy, sports and more.

Even just in the realm of theater, the shows I see cut a wide swath and expose me to a variety of subjects, styles, thoughts and themes.

Over the three nights of this past weekend, I saw a drama about a mother's intolerance toward her gay son, even as he was dying (Mothers & Sons), a dramedy revolving around Muslims, refugees and the concept of arranged marriage (Yasmina's Necklace) and the subject of this review, Another Word for Beauty, a play with music--but probably not enough to be termed a musical--about a beauty pageant within a Colombian women's prison.

The first two, at Northlight Theatre and the 16th Street Theater, respectively, could be described as relatively small, simple plays. What happens is primarily conversational, taking place in one or two rooms, with no notable changes in scenery or costumes.

Under the direction of Steve Cosson, artistic director of New York theater company, The Civilians, with whom the Goodman co-commissioned writer José Rivera--an Oscar nominee for The Motorcycle Diaries movie--Another Word for Beauty is a rather vast production.

Nearly 3 hours in length, the show features a full band in an orchestra pit, a solid handful of songs sung live--which could technically qualify it as a musical though it doesn't seem to be marketed as such--movable sets including the depiction of a multi-level cell block and vibrant costumes with Latin flair in service to an Act II beauty pageant that is only a Steve Harvey faux pas short of network television production values.

In terms of presenting me with something a bit different, Another Word for Beauty certainly fit the bill, and with several genuinely attractive Latino ladies--this isn't a physically ecumenical "internal beauty" pageant, as I was prone to imagine--for reasons both substantive and superficial, in large part it was rather "agradable."

Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune seemed to like this show a bit more than I, and it's not hard to imagine others will as well.

That is the beauty of theater.

And variety.

But not only did I considerably prefer the emotional richness and resonance of the two plays I saw on preceding nights, my familiarity with a range of entertainment vehicles served to undermine the uniqueness of several of Another Word for Beauty's better aspects.

Although an unabashed admirer of attractive women simply on a superficial level, I've never cared much for or about beauty pageants.

I'd rather notice a nice looking woman on a subway train than watch a gaggle of professionally-pageanted "gals" compete in some insipid televised contest.

But even in terms of beauty pageants in unsuspecting places, perhaps bringing unexpected partnership and pride, Another Word for Beauty made me think of the U2 song, "Miss Sarajevo," which--along with a documentary of the same name, produced by Bono--chronicles a makeshift beauty pageant held amid war torn Sarajevo, Bosnia in the early 1990s.

This doesn't negate the actual, annual Buen Pastor prison beauty pageant that Rivera and Cosson heavily researched in Colombia making for an interesting theatrical piece, but while pleasant enough to watch--if simply for Emily Rebholz' costume design--the gallantry of the pageant that comprises Act II of the play was reminiscent of folkloric extravaganzas I've seen in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico and, frankly, is quite impaired by the inclusion of a sexist, crude and vapid male guest host, parody or not.

The best parts of Another Word for Beauty, at least where not merely my eyeballs were concerned, came as the contestants and other inmates individually told their backstories.

Moving, troubling and poignant, these recollections covered ground one might expect--childhood, sexual assaults, drug trafficking, pregnancies--but also included a number of intriguing surprises, including a social protester remorseful over a political attack gone horribly wrong.

Yet vignettes such as these, which add much humanity to "criminals" many never give much thought to, are also my favorite aspect of the Netflix hit drama, Orange is the New Black, which is about life in a women's prison. 

Even theatrically, the women--and Danaya Esperanza, Stephanie Andrea Barron, Helen Cespedes, Carmen Zilles, Zoe Sophia Garcia, Yunuen Pardo and Monique Curnen all do nice work here, with Socorro Santiago particularly good as something of a den mother--singularly baring their souls onstage couldn't help but draw allusions to A Chorus Line.

All these comparisons wouldn't matter if what I beheld seemed special enough to render me truly dazzled, enlightened and enriched.

And there's enough of each--plus some fine songs by Grammy winner Héctor Buitrago, sung in Spanish with projected supertitles--to make for a somewhat alluring evening of theater.

But at the end of the night, the unique but not all that distinctive Another Word for Beauty was mostly passing--without enough to make me look, or think, twice.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Despite Relatively Simple Structure, 'Mothers & Sons' Provides Insightful Look at Family, Society, Intolerance and Change -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mothers & Sons
a recent play by Terrence McNally
directed by Steve Scott
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru February 27

Artistic brilliance is all too often equated with originality, breaking new ground and being stylistically diverse, distinctive, daring.

But I've frequently found that the distinguishing merits of exceptional playwrights--and actors, painters, movie directors, novelists, chefs, heck even copywriters--can just as commonly, if not as readily, be revealed in how adroitly they execute the more traditional and straightforward.

I am not all that familiar with the oeuvre of Terrence McNally, having previously seen (and liked) just one of his 30+ plays: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, his film adaptation of which--simply Frankie and Johnny--may well be my favorite romantic comedy ever.

This means I haven't seen McNally's two Tony-winning plays--Love! Valor! Compassion! and Master Class--but have consistently enjoyed his work as the book writer on musicals, including Ragtime, The Visit, The Rink, The Full Monty, A Man of No Importance and more.

So I arrived at the Chicago-area premiere of Mothers & Sons with solid regard for its writer and vague awareness that the play had been decently reviewed and Tony-nominated on Broadway in 2014.

Northlight has regularly produced stellar work, including my two favorite plays of 2015, further reason to have high expectations.

Yet while Mothers & Sons unarguably deals with a substantive topic worthy of my attention--the U.S. AIDS epidemic that took millions of young lives, most vociferously in the 1980s and '90s, each one excruciatingly tragic--its basic setup and synopsis suggest something a fledgling or even student playwright might tackle:

4 characters, 1 room, 90 minutes, the "action" throughout consisting entirely of conversation among the cast in various combinations.

A gay man, now quite successful and living on Central Park West in New York City with his husband and their 6-year-old son, is visited unexpectedly by the mother of a former lover who died of AIDS while they were a couple 20 years ago in more spartan quarters. The mother, a Long Island native who had moved to Dallas after getting married, had repudiated her son due to his homosexuality, shunned him during his illness and has only met his partner once previously, at a memorial service shortly after her son's death. She remains bitter, angry, haughty and intolerant.

Certainly, every writer would tackle this premise a bit differently, and many with a deftness of concept and language could likely make it quite compelling.

Yet many might take similar paths as McNally, including playing up the mother's denial and disgust, her son's boyfriend's surprise--and myriad other emotions--over her showing up out of the blue, their anger at each other, shared-yet-divergent senses of loss, conflicting worldviews, awkward small talk about the present, bitter vitriol about the past, etc.

And as it plays out, at Northlight under the direction of Steve Scott, Mothers & Sons in the sound byte sense doesn't go far beyond the readily imaginable.

Yet not only does it move along briskly, showcase McNally's gift for dialogue and feature first-rate performances--Cindy Gold as Katharine, Jeff Parker as Cal, Benjamin Sprunger as his husband Will and Ben Miller as their son--it provides many sharp insights, undoubtedly born from the experiences and memories of its gay, 77-year-old, longtime NYC-dwelling author.

Often with deft subtlety rather than direct commentary, Mothers & Sons showcases progress in gay rights since Cal's relationship with Andre--who had been a theater actor of some renown--including marriage equality and the greater commonality & acceptance of same-sex couples being parents. 

At the same time, through Katharine--whose dogmatic imperiousness Gold embodies almost-too-well toward making the whole play often feel unlikable--McNally shows that those in the LGBT community are still far from enjoying full acceptance, even from their families, in 2016 and/or on their deathbeds.

Especially as the nuances are as meaningful as most plot points in Mothers & Sons, I'll skip the citation of additional specifics, but will note that along with providing shrewd insight into gay life, the devastating plague of AIDS, societal mores, alienated families, etc., the play left me thinking about geographical cultural variances--even among neighboring towns and just across Central Park--as well as the myriad challenges of child rearing, how much past relationships can affect future ones and a whole lot else.

As bespeaks the gifts a playwright like McNally has assuredly honed throughout his storied career, Mothers & Sons is infuriating, funny, touching, poignant, simple and deep, often almost simultaneously. Just on a semantics level, what it expresses is estimable.

While it isn't close to the most nouveau drama I've ever seen, not only is its storyline one I've never specifically encountered, it is quite entertaining and engrossing at face value.

But what makes Mother & Sons relatively special comes in how much it says without overtly seeming to.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Love, American Style: Of Muslims, Hispanics, Refugees and Romance, 'Yasmina's Necklace' Holds Universal Charms -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review 

Yasmina's Necklace
a World Premiere play
by Rohina Malik
directed by Ann Filmer
16th Street Theater, Berwyn, IL
Thru February 27

I don't claim to be perfectly magnanimous nor enlightened, but I believe it wrong to dislike, devalue, denigrate or discriminate against anyone based on his or her race, ethnicity, homeland, immigration status, religion (or lack thereof), skin color, appearance, manner of dress, language, accent, physical capacity, mental prowess, psyche, health, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, income, education, occupation, employment, passions, pursuits, allegiances, beliefs or other factors that don't determine the quality of their heart and soul.

As the late great David Bowie perhaps elucidated me more than anyone, we can all be freaks--and heroes--in our own special way, and those most derided for being different can truly be the most exceptional.

While hating others for minor perceived differences has likely been an ugly aspect of human nature since the dawn of man, recent "political" rhetoric has despicably reiterated just how inhumane people can be to those they believe somehow unequal.

I'm not above certain biases, but numerous travels, cultural explorations and life experiences have shown me that we all have far more similarities than we do differences.

Except for the malevolent or petty few of any and all backgrounds, most everyone everywhere seems to congruently want and value peace, comfort, safety, security, health, love, family and friendship, with hopes for a happy, fun, meaningful life for themselves and--if apt--their kids.

I believe this as intrinsically true in the Middle East as I do the Midwest.

But yes, this is a theater review, not a mislabeled societal screed, although my hope above is to rather prosaically reflect some of the territory Rohina Malik so artfully--and humorously and poignantly and sorrowfully--covers in her terrific new play, Yasmina's Necklace, world premiering at Berwyn's 16th Street Theater through February 27.

Under the direction of 16th St. Artistic Director Ann Filmer, the 2-hour romantic dramedy deftly balances considerable laugh out loud dialogue--and I've never been a big LOLer, but was here--with sobering reflections on war, slaughter, loss, longing, rape, abduction, displacement, refugees, prejudice, Islam, multiculturalism, assimilation, marriage, divorce, depression and more.

This may suggest a rather heavy and heady night of theater, but in the hands of a skilled cast, Malik's script shrewdly offsets anguish with ebullience while avoiding overt polemics in making for acutely enjoyable entertainment.

Based in Chicago, the two-act play begins with a sitcomesque scene in which a Muslim man born Abdul Samee is being boisterously chastised by his Iraqi father (Amro Salama) and Puerto Rican mother (Laura Crotte) for having legally changed his name to Sam following a divorce from a (presumably white) woman named Tracy.

Sam, engagingly played by Michael Perez--who I had enjoyed last fall in Funnyman, one of three actors here from my Top 5 Plays of 2015--is cajoled into meeting with Yasmina (an excellent Susaan Jamshidi, from Malik's The Mecca Tales) toward the possibility of an arranged marriage.

With her father Musa (Mark Ulrich, terrific here as he was in a very different role in Assassination Theater), Yasmina is an Iraqi refugee who saw her mom killed in Baghdad and suffered brutal torment in both her homeland and then Syria. She paints to cope with her pain, and has dedicated herself to founding an organization to help other refugees.

Along with a hijab, Yasmina proudly wears--in the face of bigoted insults--a necklace in the shape of Iraq, a gift from longtime friend Amir (Salar Ardebili), who factors in heavily through flashbacks that provide much of the play's harrowing gravity.

But while there is also considerable poignancy in the scenes with Sam, Yasmina, their parents and a local Imam (Miguel Nunez) in various combinations, including reminders that those who face intolerance and prejudice aren't immune from being similarly judgmental and derisive, there are ample amounts of comedy and romance that wouldn't feel out of place in a Meg Ryan movie.

On an attractive set designed by Joanne Iawanicka, director Filmer nicely blends punchlines and pathos, with a number of quite short yet important scenes seamlessly woven in, abetted by a notably agile lighting design by Cat Wilson.

I won't reveal any more of the plot, especially as anyone who can fit into the 49-seat venue for just $20 definitely should, but even as Yasmina's Necklace seems to be heading in expected directions in Act II, it twists in compelling ways.

Though I don't believe it is affecting this review in any impure way, I feel obliged to note that I met Rohina Malik after seeing her one-woman-five-character play Unveiled last year--it had debuted at 16th Street in 2009--greatly enjoyed The Mecca Tales, have now interviewed her twice for Seth Saith articles and also spoke with Ann Filmer toward a preview piece on Yasmina's Necklace.

So I can't deny I wanted this new play to be really good, particularly as I spoke to both Malik and Filmer afterwards. But along with the high praise I shared with them--and having seen 36 of this century's Tony Award nominees for Best Play, I honestly don't believe Broadway aspirations would be outlandish--there are a few elements that may benefit from ongoing thought and tinkering.

Early on, Sam's parents upbraid his Americanized name change, which he believes has made it easier to find work as a Financial Analyst, and Yasmina also takes issue with this assimilation. Yet while we see how Sam is bolstered in many ways by his developing relationship with Yasmina--though some of this is spoken of more than actually shown, or truly felt--by the end of the play, we don't know to what extent Sam has re-embraced Islam, what name he now prefers and how his choices may have impacted his career.

The writer and director both told me afterward that they consciously chose to avoid having too many threads for viewers to follow, and in finding the play very cohesive and well-paced despite numerous topics, tones and time shifts, I trust their judgment yet still think there might be a way to better define Sam's evolution.

And though Yasmina's Necklace could easily be set in any large American city or even Malik's native London, given that Chicago is mentioned, it's possible the locale could be better leveraged.

Only a planned outing to the Art Institute of Chicago employs the Windy City with any specificity, and without meaning this as an explicit suggestion, it dawns on me that I can't recall ever seeing a woman wearing a headscarf at either Chicago ballpark. Given Malik's enlightening me in many realms of her faith and culture, I'm genuinely curious what she might suggest Yasmina would encounter if Sam took her to, say, Wrigley Field, perhaps chaperoned by the Imam--who cheekily might ridicule them both for not being White Sox fans. (The notion here being to somehow address the ongoing racism, Islamophobia and cultural divides that pervade even the most diverse of American cities.)

But then, to Malik's great credit, I think it's a disservice to imply Yasmina's Necklace is a play about Muslims. Although it portrays refugees and Muslims and Iraqis and Latinos with a generosity of spirit that will forever be foreign to Donald Trump--and provides many enlightening insights, including that Iraq had once been known for having the most educated women--this is truly a play about people.

American people.

Including, as referenced within, those who love Bruce Springsteen, much as I do. (As though there weren't enough other reasons for me to like this play.)

If you've ever gotten grief from your parents, battled anxiety over a broken relationship, worried about pursuing a new one, had a first encounter not go as planned, grieved over the loss of loved ones, failed to have past accomplishments appreciated in new settings or been chided by your dentist about flossing more, etc., etc., there is a whole lot you'll be able to identify with--and laugh at, and maybe cry over--in Yasmina's Necklace.

Wherever you came from, whenever you arrived or however you got here.