Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Storied Evening as Harlan Coben Brings His Latest Thriller, 'Home,' To My Hometown Library

Speaker Recap

Harlan Coben, Author
Skokie Public Library
September 21, 2016

This isn't a book review. It's a recap of a promotional speaking appearance by my favorite contemporary author, Harlan Coben, at the Skokie Public Library in my hometown and current place of residence.

But if you were to click the "Book Reviews" link atop this blog--on the web version, not mobile--and scroll through those I have written and posted, you will see Coben represented more than any other author.

I think it was back in 2002, when in downtown Chicago on my way to the Lyric Opera I stopped into a now defunct bookstore named Brentano's--I'm pretty sure that was the name; it was near the Civic Opera House and wasn't called Kroch's & Brentano's--and asked the clerk to recommend a page-turning paperback.

He pointed me to Coben's Tell No One, which was published in 2001 and at that point relatively new in paperback. I had never heard of the author or book, which revolved around a man discovering that his wife--missing for 8 years--might still be alive.

Subsequently turned into a pretty good French movie, this was Coben's first book (of those then in print) not to revolve around recurring characters. (A couple early "stand-alone" efforts have since been released.)

Finding it to be a fantastic read, I next consumed the 2002 stand-alone Gone For Good when it came out in paperback.

I've since read all of Coben's novels, except 3 that are aimed at teen readers, and I should probably check those out too.

In addition to 15 stand-alone books, he's written ten--including his first seven to be published and his newest work, Home--thrillers featuring the crime-fighting, mystery-solving duo of Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood.

The former is an ex-Duke All-American basketball player that Coben admitted Wednesday is his own "wish fulfillment" alter ego, while the latter--a preppy multi-millionaire unsuspectingly adept in administering brutal force--is loosely based on an affluent college roommate who would admire himself in the mirror while saying, "It must suck to be ugly." (Coben's Wikipedia bio also notes that he was childhood friends with Chris Christie and a fraternity brother of The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown.)

While I don't proclaim Harlen Coben to be "the best current author"--he doesn't traipse in great literature--he is my favorite, as evidenced by my actually loving to read his books, and usually doing so in well less than a week. (I'm generally not a fast nor particularly avid reader.)

And as I first heard when the author guested on the Howard Stern Wrap-Up Show on Tuesday, and was reiterated Wednesday night, he has over 70 million books in print in 43 languages--and nine straight #1 New York Times Bestsellers.

Home was just released on Tuesday, and in an event facilitated by The Book Stall of Winnetka--which sold books at the library, one of which I got signed--Coben spoke to a packed auditorium at the Skokie Public Library on Wednesday, September 21.

Given how much I've enjoyed his work over the years, it was damn cool to see him speak in my hometown, especially as another commitment forced me to miss my other favorite suspense novelist, Lee Child, at a 2015 appearance within walking distance of my home.

Though his radio appearances reflected a genial glibness, I wasn't sure what shape Coben's SPL appearance would take. I've been to a good number of book signings, and a few library events with authors, but didn't know if he would read from Home, answer questions within an interview format or what.

But pretty terrifically, for nearly an hour, he just stood and spoke.

After being introduced as "The master of the hook" and the first author to win the three major awards for mystery writing (Edgar, Shamus and Anthony), Coben began by telling the crowd that he was born just east of Skokie.

In Newark, New Jersey.

Self-effacing throughout, he noted that upon seeing a New York Times ad for Home featuring his photo, his teenage daughter greeted him at breakfast by simply saying, "Ewwww."

The 54-year-old Coben spoke a bit about his wife and kids, and mentioned that losing his own parents before they could see their grandchildren has prompted him to creatively keep them alive in the guise of Myron Bolitar's folks.

Clearly comfortable in front of a crowd and no newcomer to giving book tour presentations, the novelist was not only engaging--a patron afterward compared him to a stand-up comedian--but quite insightful about writing and his approach to it.

He shared how the inspiration for his stories can come from anywhere--tabloid headlines, observances in a store, etc.--but that the key driving force is the question, "What if?"

Back when picking up printed photographs was much more commonplace, he was once shocked to note a picture in his packet he didn't recognize--turns out it was merely turned upside down--and then imagined a scenario around "What if a misplaced picture changed my entire life?" that begat the book Just One Look.

Giving a few similar examples, Coben conveyed that in hatching a thriller plot, he will often "know the beginning and end and nothing in between," which becomes what he works to figure out.

He emphasized this thought with his second favorite quote about writing, from E.L. Doctorow:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

...and followed it with his most cherished nugget about drafting compelling novels, which came from Elmore Leonard:

"I try to cut out all the parts readers normally skip."

While clearly proud of his success and continued ability to knock out at least one new book per year--for a total of now 30--Coben claimed that insecurity, desperation and the "inability to do anything else" are what drives him.

"Only bad writers think they're good," he offered, while also enthusing that he loves being a writer, "the single greatest profession in the world."

He didn't provide much in the way of direct advice to aspiring writers, but intimated that "only writing is writing," meaning that thinking about writing, preparing to write, getting positioned to write, etc., are negligible next to actually putting pen to paper, or words to screen.

In a similar vein, he noted that he isn't big on research--"It's called fiction for a reason"--and suggested that the time many devote to oodles of advance research could be better applied by simply writing.

Before signing a book for everyone who had bought or brought one, Coben took a few questions from the audience, including mine about how & when he decides if he'll be writing a stand-alone or Myron & Win book.

He said this is determined naturally--i.e. not prompted by the publisher's wishes or any obligatory sense of direction--as upon finding a story he wants to tell it, he then figures out the characters who need to tell it.

Hence, Home is only his third novel in the past 16 years to feature his primary pair of recurring characters.

And after getting my newly-purchased copy signed, chatting briefly with Coben about hearing him on the Wrap-up Show and asking if another New Jerseyan who has meant a lot to me, Bruce Springsteen, is often mentioned in his books--I couldn't recall, but Harlan assured me he is--and then having a photo taken (kudos to the Skokie Public Library for enlisting a staff member who could snap good pix quickly while keeping the line moving), I went home and began reading Home.

Look for that book review in just a few days.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Juicy Ode to the Big Apple: Mary Zimmerman's Take on 'Wonderful Town' Proves Quite Refreshing -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Wonderful Town
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 23

Wonderful Town was originally scheduled to end Goodman Theatre's 2015-16 subscription season rather than begin the 2016-17 slate.

I was ticketed to see it on a Sunday evening in July, but a pre-Broadway World Premiere of War Paint came about as a special presentation in Goodman's Albert Theatre and pushed the 1953 Tony winner a couple months down the road.

Had I enjoyed a midsummer's night with Leonard Bernstein's delightfully diverse score--with lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green--well-rendered by an 18-member orchestra, excellent cast and an imaginative take by director Mary Zimmerman, I'd have to assume I would have liked it just as much as I did this past Sunday afternoon.

But the postponement worked out well on multiple levels, including my very much valuing the chance to see Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in the good-but-needing-refinements War Paint.

Having switched to Sunday matinees for the new subscription season, I was able to see Wonderful Town--a show based in and largely celebrating New York City--on a beautiful day in Chicago, and appreciate how a classic ode to the Big Apple compared and contrasted with a more recent one, In the Heights.

Now perhaps billboarded as "Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical," prior to the phenomenon that Hamilton has become, In the Heights won the Best New Musical Tony Award in 2008--I saw it on Broadway that year--and is now being produced locally by Chicago's fine Porchlight Music Theatre.

I saw it on Friday and, as my review conveys, greatly enjoyed it--both the original source material anew and Porchlight's excellent rendition.

And the juxtaposition of In the Heights with Wonderful Town on my theatrical calendar made for a rather illuminating perspective from which to better appreciate both shows. (I'm also ticketed to see Hamilton for the first time on October 4 at Chicago's PrivateBank Theatre.)

While Miranda--who wrote the music & lyrics for both In the Heights and Hamilton--deserves heaps of praise for fusing contemporary sounds (rap/hip-hop, pop and more) into the traditional Broadway milieu, the brilliant brassiness of Bernstein's Wonderful Town score, exquisitely executed by Goodman's largest-ever orchestra, bespoke a similarly adventurous approach and visionary musical melange.

In 2007, I had seen a touring production of Wonderful Town based on a Broadway revival--in Champaign, Illinois; it never played Chicago--and though I can't recall much about it, my database rating of 7/10 for both the content and performance would seem to corroborate my current feeling about the show's book (by Joseph A. Fields and Chodorov) being somewhat creaky.

Though I was much more enamored with the whole affair this time around--Zimmerman, set designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer Ana Kuzmanic merit great commendation for an inspired vibrancy that greatly counteracts inherent datedness--occasional stalls and shortcomings in the narrative keep this from being a full @@@@@ review (though it wouldn't be unreasonable).

But, especially for those who love classic musicals, this is a rather robust recommendation, as musically, visually, humorously and with terrific performances, this Wonderful Town well merits encountering and exploring.

Complemented by Kuzmanic's colorful costumes, Rosenthal's strikingly imaginative set--featuring 2-dimensional Manhattan buildings  moved about by cast members and a basement apartment that brilliantly ascends to center stage--makes the show wonderful to behold from the get-go.

Quirky gags at the shrewd hand of Zimmerman--most demonstrably a human-sized cockroach--only add to the fun.

Based on short stories by Ruth McKenney originally published in the New Yorker and compiled in a 1938 book called My Sister Eileen, the musical initially set in the 1930s but now updated to the '50s focuses around sisters named Ruth and Eileen--surname fictionalized to Sherwood--who have just moved to New York City from Columbus, Ohio.

Ruth, played perfectly by Bri Sudia, who I've liked in supporting roles and well-justifies the leap to a high-profile lead, is a writer; Eileen, a delightful Lauren Molina, who brings Broadway credits and was in Goodman's 2010 Zimmerman-helmed production of Bernstein's Candide, a wanna-be actress.

Landing in Greenwich Village, whose somewhat archaic Bohemian archetypes are depicted in the dynamic opening number, "Christopher Street," the sisters find an apartment rather quickly, but encounter some hardships, such as the giant cockroach and occupational roadblocks.

But they attract a variety of friends and would-be paramours, such as football-playing Wreck (Jordan Brown), artist/landlord Appopoulos (Matt DeCaro), newspapermen Robert Baker (Karl Hamilton), Chick Clark (Steven Stratford), Walgreens worker Frank Lippincott (Wade Elkins) and assorted others, including a bunch of Brazilian sailors.

The storyline involves various interactions, situations, misunderstandings and the sisters' acclimation to the Big Apple, but this is a musical in which the music is the main driving force (and raison d'être, especially on a Chicago stage in 2016).

Few of the songs in Wonderful Town became staples on par with those from Bernstein's next muscial, West Side Story, but most are delightful, including "Ohio," "One Hundred Easy Ways"--which Sudia delivers superbly--"A Little Bit in Love," "Conga," "My Darlin' Eileen," "It's Love" and "The Wrong Note Rag."

Along with the demonstrably strong direction, scenery, costumes and performances noted above, the choreography by Alex Sanchez is also quite good, and the singing univerally strong.

There are numerous magnficent shows in the musical theater pantheon, and while I'm not convinced Wonderful Town ranks with the very best, Goodman's rendition is one that considerably elevates my regard for it.

It's pretty easy to imagine that most will have wonderful time at Wonderful Town, and in helping me better appreciate what Leonard Bernstein and pals brought to the Broadway table long before Lin-Manuel Miranda re-set it, I found this New York musical adventure--in the wonderful theater community of Chicago--all the more rewarding.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Porchlight's Well-Scaled 'In the Heights' Achieves Impressive Elevation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

In the Heights
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru October 23

On Friday night I saw Porchlight's local production of In the Heights, the 2008 Tony-winning musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who would go on to likewise conceive, compose and star in an even more successful show: Hamilton.

Though I had seen and loved In the Heights on Broadway with Miranda shortly after it garnered the Best New Musical Tony Award--and catching the first National Tour in Chicago in 2009 reiterated how good and groundbreaking the musical was even sans Miranda and the original cast--time had sufficiently eroded my memory for Porchlight's impressively-downsized take to be newly, and fully, enchanting.

Upon leaving the theater in the Stage 773 complex on Belmont Avenue, I was exuberant enough to feel a full @@@@@ rating was merited.

But between seeing the show and writing this review, three endeavors threatened to adjust just how highly I viewed this In the Heights:

1) I began a deep dive into exploring Hamilton, listening intently to the cast album while reading the lyrics, watching whatever clips I could find--from June's Tony Awards, where the show won 11 categories, as well as performances of select songs at the White House--and getting a better sense of just how brilliant that biographical musical is, which I haven't seen but am ticketed to attend on October 4 in Chicago (thanks to a longstanding Broadway in Chicago subscription).

2) I watched a Tony Awards performance and other clips of the original Broadway production of In the Heights featuring Miranda & co., the full-fledged set design, initial costumes and more

3) I attended, on Sunday afternoon, Goodman Theatre's excellent new, Mary Zimmerman-directed production of Wonderful Town, a classic musical dating to 1953 that, like In the Heights, celebrates New York City and its residents--including young, vibrant, talented-yet-uncertain ones--while featuring a brilliant, dynamic and fresh-for-the-time score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein.

Yet while I can't say the performances and production values of Porchlight's In the Heights uniformly matched what Broadway audiences saw, nor that Miranda's first Tony-winning musical is likely as mind-blowing as his second one, the comparisons and points of reference only "served to "heighten" my regard for the show--and this rendition.

With a top ticket price of $48 within Stage 773's 148-seat Thrust venue, patrons should well understand the inherent limitations tackled by director Brenda Didier, her crew and the mostly non-Equity cast.

But not only will the imaginative staging at Porchlight--with a clever bi-level set design by Greg Pinsoneault that well-conveys Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, including storefront signage closely hewing to that of the Broadway version--provide a fine introduction (or re-introduction) to In the Heights, this fine complement to the upcoming Chicago run of Hamilton makes for an economical entreé to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Hamilton has quite rightly received tons of praise for its highly diverse (i.e. predominantly African-Amercian and Latinx cast) and for bringing rap/hip-hop and Latin rhythms into the Broadway vernacular.

But In the Heights actually did all of this first, and its celebration of Washington Heights denizens largely from Caribbean islands remains refreshing to behold in a city as diverse as Chicago.

There was some controversy over Didier's casting of Jack DeCesare in the Miranda role of Usnavi, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

But DeCesare, who is of Italian descent, looked and played the part quite well, even if his rapping skills and overall being as the show's Emcee of sorts didn't quite equal the original.

And while his specific ethnic background, like that of the rest of the mostly Hispanic cast, isn't of my acute concern, I appreciated the group of gifted performers who in sum looked different than the ensembles of most musicals I see, while exclusively showcasing actors I don't recall seeing on local stages across hundreds of shows. (Usually any large cast includes at least a couple performers I've seen previously.)

I found the entire cast to be excellent, with three of the key actresses--Michelle Lauto, Lucia Godinez and Isabrl Quintero--particularly outstanding.

Lauto sizzles as Vanessa, who works in the local hair salon, dreams of moving down to the Village and is romantically pursued by Usnavi.

Her early delivery of "It Won't Be Long Now" not only demonstrates strong vocal talents, but is just one of many reminders that Miranda's compositional skills (in terms of both music & lyrics) go far beyond hip hop.

I've been saying this since I first saw & heard In the Heights, but anyone who is dismissive of this show (or Hamilton for that matter) because they're "not into rap" is short-changing Miranda's mastery and range.

Certainly, Miranda has a great affinity, familiarity and talent for rap/hip-hop, but it should also be apparent to anyone who sees In the Heights or Hamilton that he's indebted to both Eminem and Sondheim, and Rodgers & Hammerstein as much as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

Seemingly, Lin-Manuel's own preferred singing style is rapping, and whether as Usnavi or Alexander Hamilton, this is the mode of vocalizing his particular characters employ (even when not actually played by him).

But some of In the Heights' best songs are in a rather traditional Broadway or pop vein, such as "When You're Home," well-sung here by Godinez and Stephen Allen as Nina and Benny, a fledgling couple after the former returns from Stanford to the Heights, where the latter works for her parents' livery service.

Miranda gives several characters considerable depth, including Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Frankie Leo Bennett), the neighborhood's grandmother-figure Abuela Claudia (Isabel Quintero), Nina's parents Kevin and Camilia Rosario (Jordan DeBose and Keely Vasquez) and even a Piragua (flavored ice) vendor (Stan Decwikiel, Jr.).

As such, In the Heights--the origins of which date back to Miranda's sophomore year at Wesleyan University in 1999 but subsequently had its book re-developed by playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes--  reflects a rather strong sense of community through compelling individual stories, even as several residents are on the verge of relocation, in part due to gentrification.

It was fun for me to see it again, just a couple weeks before I get to see Hamilton, and from all I've discerned so far, I should love that show.

But Porchlight's stellar production reiterated that In the Heights is an exceptional musical in its own right, one that changed the look and sound of traditional Broadway while also reflecting the best of it.

With all the hoopla surrounding Hamilton and its unprecedented success, it may be that In the Heights forever more lives in its shadow, referenced primarily as Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical.

Yet while what Hamilton has done is astonishing, so too is having a musical first concocted before he was 20 go to Broadway and win the Best Musical Tony by the time Miranda hit 30.

And while those who can't yet score Hamilton tickets would do well to get to Stage 773 to see what LMM created first, In the Heights is far better--and better-staged here--than simply to be seen as a curiosity.

Despite its own considerable success, it never entered the zeitgeist like Hamilton has, but In the Heights was and remains a rather lofty artistic accomplishment, with many considerable merits to be appreciated on their own (though also as more of a companion piece than it may overtly seem).

And even in a rather intimate space away from the Loop, Porchlight does it right and takes it to the heights.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 17, My Favorite Art Museums

I love art.

Not just in the wider context of artistic creation, in terms of theater, film, music, etc., but specifically in terms of fine art.

Though the breadth and depth my appreciation has evolved over the years--and continues to--I enjoy art of many styles, eras, genres, countries and levels, from the world's most renowned museums to art fairs and student exhibitions.

On a recent trip to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, I explored 11 art museums (and/or sculpture galleries) over just 4 days, and have now visited nearly 160 museums plus a variety of churches, palaces, schools and other places where art is prominently displayed.

I certainly don't have a photographic memory about what paintings, sculptures and other art pieces I've seen and enjoyed at each museum, especially ones I was last at many years ago. So this list is something of an unscientific melange blending my (sometimes vague) recall of the quality of the collections and how much I enjoyed my visit(s)--including for reasons that could go beyond the art itself, such as the building, setting, cost, etc. (Although the art must be pretty incredible to merit inclusion, which is why the Guggenheim Bilbao isn't here despite the amazing architecture by Frank Gehry.)

Museums I've been to more often might naturally feel like favorites, even if their collections are perhaps lesser than those ranked lower or omitted, and those I've been to more recently are also likely to benefit. So it's quite possible this list would be ordered differently at another time, but to be taken with an inevitable grain of salt, these are:

My Favorite Art Museums Visited (not necessarily a "Best of" list) 

1. The Art Institute of Chicago
2. National Gallery, London
3. Pitti Palace, Florence
4. Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
5. Museum of Modern Art, New York
6. National Gallery, Washington, DC
7. Louvre, Paris
8. Prado, Madrid
9. Detroit Institute of Arts
10. Guggenheim Museum, New York
11. Secretaria de Educación Publico building, Mexico City (Diego Rivera murals)

And several more great ones: 

Cleveland Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
Tate Modern, London
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Courtauld Gallery, London
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
Milwaukee Art Museum
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Getty Center, Los Angeles
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Belvedere, Vienna
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio
Reina Sofia, Madrid
Vatican Museum, Vatican City
St. Louis Museum of Art
Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Picasso Museum, Barcelona
Centre Pompidou, Paris

Monday, September 12, 2016

Aston Rep's 'The Black Slot' Sufficiently Filled With Interesting Angles, Even If In Unexpected Directions -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Black Slot
a world premiere play by Warren Hoffman
AstonRep Theatre
at Raven Theatre Complex
Thru October 2

With considerable regard for the work of Aston Rep Theatre Co. and that of director Derek Bertelsen--both within and beyond the troupe--I was intrigued enough by the premise of The Black Slot to attend on Sunday afternoon, even if it meant missing the second half of the Bears' opener (and it turns out I didn't miss much).

Though I am a great fan of theater, I've never worked or trained in it, so the concept of a behind-the-scenes play about a Wisconsin theater company trying to set an upcoming season while hewing to having one, but just one, "black slot" sounded particularly appealing on multiple levels.

I have long noted that some highly-regarded Chicago theater companies I attend, whose audiences tend to be predominantly white--and typically rather mature--offer at least, but often at most, one play per season overtly aimed at minority audiences and/or with racially diverse themes.

While it seems gauche for anyone to openly refer to this as a "black slot" or to steadfastly limit offerings written by and/or largely featuring African-American, Latinx or Asian-American actors as though filling a quota, I believe it's important for theater companies to offer various perspectives, insights and outlooks--both to their existing audience base and ideally newly-attracted patrons--as well as to leverage the talents of writers, directors and performers of diverse backgrounds.

Yet while I felt playwright Warren Hoffman--who is Caucasian--drafted The Black Slot's Artistic Director character of Pat (played by Amy Kasper) a bit too cartoonishly in her brazen adherence to having just one representation of diversity in her fictionalized theater's subscription season, she also cited aspects that seemed worthy of legitimate consideration.

Rhetorically asking her young, idealistic dramaturg Beth (Brittany Stock), "What would our subscribers think if we did two black plays in the same season?" came across as ugly, even racist, but it's not hard to imagine her concerns about ticket sales, subscriber proclivities and the marketability of known titles/writers/actors vs. new/unfamiliar ones being regularly weighed and discussed at self-producing theaters across the country.

Not knowing much about "The Black Slot" before deciding to see it, though filled in a bit by other reviews that perhaps provided too much information--so consider this something of a SPOILER ALERT--I initially anticipated a play primarily focused around various facets of having a "black slot." Perhaps an Artistic Director arguing with a theater's Board of Directors reflecting differing viewpoints, or maybe a dilemma when (as could be the case in more rural Wisconsin) too few qualified African-Americans audition for a play featuring several characters of color.

Hoffman's narrative, however, takes a different path, and I initially found the proceedings somewhat slight, and credulity a bit stretched.

The theater company in the play already has scheduled The Piano Lesson by the late, great African-American playwright August Wilson  as part of their upcoming season.

For the one remaining slot, dramaturg Beth has read and recommended several worthy plays, most notably as The Black Slot begins, a new one by a young, never-before-produced black writer named Tim (Justin Wade Wilson, excellent for the second time in a show seen this year, following #LOVESTORIES at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre).

As audience members, we have no way of knowing how good Tim's play might be, but while we can take it on faith that Beth truly believes in it, she comes off somewhat pushy and naive, while fairly understandable objections Pat may have are undermined by a buffoonish and culturally insensitive characterization.

So rather than getting a riveting discourse and debate about black slots, what transpires involves Tim getting in touch with Beth, asking her out on a date, listening to Beth vent about Pat's unfairness in rejecting his script and Beth & Tim conspiring to purport his possession of an unproduced August Wilson play that Pat jumps at staging, with the unexpected blessing of Wilson's estate trustee (Linsey Falls).

This is essentially what I knew going in on Sunday afternoon, and I found what continued to unfold more dramatically worthwhile that I may have anticipated.

This isn't to say The Black Slot is a phenomenal play; it has a number of flaws, especially if one dissects it too closely. And though a conceit of having paper scripts "talk" to Beth throughout the play was imaginative and initially quite droll, it became a bit much and hampered the seriousness of the tone, even in what is promoted as a comedy. (I also couldn't help but be reminded of Avenue Q's bad idea bears, who would offer cheeky advice in sarcastic voices).

As I've tried to connote above, I think the basic premised could have been mined far more powerfully, even if in a more straightforward approach. (Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection covered somewhat similar ground in a way that has me recalling it quite fondly it more than a decade removed from seeing it at Northlight.)

But while The Black Slot becomes more about personal conniving, dishonesty and one's willingness to "play the game" than the multicultural conundrums inherent in planning theatrical subscription seasons, I saw value in it as a character study.

With fine pacing throughout, the two-hour two-act kept me sufficiently engaged and entertained, most acutely around the compelling dichotomy that emerges among Tim and Beth, who Wilson and Stock adroitly embody.

Afterward, I couldn't help but consider just how early Tim may have had his duplicitious but potentially career-advancing plan in mind.

Each of the play's four main characters engages in actions that are untoward or even underhanded, yet in a way that allows for considerable subjectivity in who to admire, forgive, admonish and/or deplore.

Pablo Picasso once said, "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," and after viewing The Black Slot--for which Bertelsen and his crew deserve credit for deftly conjuring several settings within a small space for a conceivably modest budget--I couldn't help wonder, "What if great art is created through a lie? Or several? Is it still worth admiring, and applauding?"

So although The Black Slot doesn't really pose the dramatic questions that I might have wanted explored, I still found it worth my time on a Sunday afternoon.

If nothing else, I assume it was better than the Bears' offense.

And though it really shouldn't be anything worth noting, it was nonetheless heartening to see considerably more of a mixed race audience at an Aston Rep production (in the Raven Theatre complex on north Clark St.) than I readily recall.

Motivational purity might be imprecise, even impossible, to discern, but bringing wider audiences to the theater is only ever a good thing.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

An East Coast Jaunt to the Heart of America -- Travelogue: Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia

In Fiddler on the Roof, the main character and family patriarch, Tevye, asks his longstanding but oft-bickering wife Golde if she loves him.

Rather than instantly replying, "Yes," she is taken aback at the question, retorting, "Do I what?"

But she subsequently reasons that having, for 25 years, washed his clothes, cooked his meals, cleaned his house, milked his cow, shared his bed, given him children, fought with him, starved with him, etc., etc., her considerable love has been abundantly demonstrated, if not frequently or vociferously vocalized.

Which may seem like a rather strange way to begin a recap of a 5-day trip over Labor Day Weekend that took me to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

But in the week prior, there had been considerable discussion about patriotism--and what constitutes it--surrounding the decision by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest police brutality (via which the deaths of many African-Americans have gone unpunished) by not standing up for the National Anthem.

I do not condemn Kaepernick, and largely support him. Not only is it fully within his rights to protest, there have been far too many egregious police killings--which doesn't mean the majority of cops aren't highly honorable and commendable--and that his stance and actions are controversial, even possibly detrimental to his career, make his courage and convictions more admirable.

Protest often needs to be unpopular to have any real effect.

And although it seems Thomas Jefferson never actually said it despite often being credited, I do believe in the sentiment that "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

But considered in the more conventional connotation, I have never considered myself particularly patriotic, at least not in terms of overt trappings.

While I have always proudly and gladly stood for the National Anthem, and greatly admire & appreciate all men & women who have served in the Armed Forces, I have never owned an American flag and usually cringe whenever I hear chants of "USA! USA!"

I'm not too concerned about being seen as patriotic, and believe being a humanitarian is more important. But in traveling to the capital of the United States, the city where the Star Spangled Banner was written and the country's birthplace, particularly amid the Kaepernick controversy, I couldn't help but think about patriotism and to what extent, and in what form, I embrace it.

And I think my trip reiterated, probably primarily just in my own mind, how much I love many aspects of the country in which I have always lived, without feeling any need to keep quiet about many problems and injustices.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines patriotism as love for or devotion to one's country.

Which to me, taking a cue from Golde, means something far beyond--and perhaps in lieu of--adorning one's car with mini-Stars & Stripes.

In Washington, DC, I went to another absolutely phenomenal concert by my favorite rock singer--and in my mind, an American hero, for his legacy of work, his dedication to promoting the common good in his music and, nearing age 67, performing non-stop for almost 4 hours with a similarly veteran band--Bruce Springsteen.

This was my 49th time seeing The Boss, my 5th this year and my second in the same week, after a Chicago show that went beyond awesome.

Outdoors, at Nationals Park in DC, he was even better.

I also made a point of scheduling tours of the White House and U.S. Capitol Building; the former was terrific; latter a little lacking because the Rotunda wasn't open (it should be now, with construction scheduled to finish after Labor Day).

I walked much of the National Mall and took hundreds of photos of the great buildings, memorials and monuments, as well as within the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, perhaps the most beautiful interior space in the U.S.

(I've been to Washington previously, so missed getting to the Vietnam War memorial and some others this time, as 2 days isn't nearly enough to do everything. Some may enjoy this Travel Guide I once wrote about DC.)

After getting to Washington on Thursday afternoon, the first thing I did was trek via subway to the Phillips Collection, a wonderful collection of modern art begun by Duncan & Marjorie Acker Phillips long before many knew, cared about or liked Impressionism, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Matisse, etc.

That the Phillips, as well as the Cone Sisters (who would donate their vast collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was my main reason for stop in that city), Henry Walters (who with an art collection started by his father formed Baltimore's fine Walters Art Museum) and Dr. Albert Barnes (an early champion of modern art who created Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation), devoted good chunks of their good fortune to championing art and beautifying America through it, also stands as something well-worth celebrating about the United States.

It also delighted me that I went to several other art museums--the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Sculpture Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the U.S., Rodin Museum (only saw the outdoor sculptures here)--all, including the ones mentioned above, without having to pay a dime.

That at a time of much national and municipal financial distress, the country and some major cities see the importance of providing locals and visitors with enlightening cultural opportunities free of charge (at least some of the time, in certain cases) is something to feel proud about.

On Friday night in Washington, before catching a train to Baltimore--I loved riding the rails between cities and seeing the stately train stations--I indulged one of my favorite American art forms: musical theater.

Unbeknownst to me in booking the trip, Friday was the first Washington performance of a musical headed to Broadway called Come From Away, which had played San Diego and Seattle last year. (A promotion for the first preview had all tickets given away by lottery through the TodayTix app; I was lucky to win one that very day.)

The show is about the town of Gander, Newfoundland and its warm acceptance of people from all over the world whose planes were forced to land there on Sept. 11, 2001.

With music, lyrics and book by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away admirably handles
challenging subject matter in a way that is respectful, not often maudlin and ultimately inspiring. On my Seth Saith rating scale, I would give it @@@@@ (out of 5). It was really phenomenal, and with the 15th anniversary of 9/11 just days a way, a way to remember the tragedy without feeling too morose.

Somewhat astonishingly, the quality of Come From Away itself at times almost made me forget that I was watching it within a historic venue where another tragic event occurred: Ford's Theatre, where on April 14, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

I guess it's cool that the Ford's remains a working theater--that also gives tours and has a museum in the basement I was able to visit pre-show--but the Presidential Box remains intact above the stage and there was something a bit eerie about watching a musical happen just a few feet from where a president was killed, just moments after I had seen Booth's gun as part of the museum.

But I was able to learn a bit more about Abraham Lincoln, and in Baltimore and Philadelphia, visited small museums dedicated to two other great Americans: Babe Ruth and Benjamin Franklin.

Beyond the Walters and BMA museums in Baltimore, I spent some time near Inner Harbor, watching a seemingly popular street performer dubbed the Unicycle Lady, seeing a pair of historic battleships--the main one being the U.S.S. Constellation--and eating crab cakes at a large, longstanding establishment called Phillips Seafood.

The food there was good though I can't say I get all the fuss about (somewhat pricey) crab cakes. Just as memorable, not necessarily in terms of the food but in reflecting the spirit of the America I love, was a small, non-descript restaurant I wandered into across from the Walters Art Museum.

It's called Cozy Corner and it seemed to have a single proprietor/employee, an Asian woman who was quite pleasant. The menu was somewhat culturally mixed, but seeking breakfast I simply got some scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.

Nothing particularly special, but the kind of sleepy little place with a hardworking owner (one presumes the woman working on a holiday weekend is the owner) that I really relish.

Of course, when it comes to America, one of the things I most relish is baseball, and Saturday night I went to see the Orioles beat the Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The second of the wave of new ballparks in the early '90s--after Chicago's Comiskey Park, now dubbed Guaranteed Rate Field--Camden Yards remains wonderfully retro and a cool place to watch a game.

Sandwiched between single nights at posh hotels in Washington (the Hyatt Regency near Capitol Hill) and Philadelphia (Doubletree City Center)--albeit at reasonable holiday weekend rates--I was happy to avail myself of a pair of inexpensive nights at Motel 6 in the heart of Baltimore.

Motel 6 has served me quite well over the years on myriad road trips, and though the North Avenue location wasn't much to look at, the room was comfortable and my needs were sufficiently satisfied for a bargain rate.

The Barnes Foundation was cornerstone in my desire to again visit Philadelphia. I had seen the
amazing Impressionism repository when it was located in suburban Merion, but it relocated to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in a big new building, but with all the paintings hanging exactly as Dr. Barnes had specified long ago.

With dozens of works by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Modigliani and many more practically hanging on-top of each other in intimate rooms--not typical museum galleries--it offers one of the more unique art-viewing experiences you'll ever encounter.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was also tremendous, though my ability to climb the "Rocky Steps" (and see the Rocky Sculpture) was precluded by the Made in America Festival--a bit oddly featuring the British band Coldplay and which I didn't choose to attend.

Though I had done so probably three times previously, it was still a thrill to see the Liberty Bell and to tour Independence Hall, including the room in which the Declaration of Independence was signed, and two others that served as the houses of Congress before the Capitol was built in Washington.

I also visited Benjamin Franklin Court, where only an outline of his house stands, and saw his grave before going to the National Constitution Center.

And after having had dinner at the nice--but nothing amazing--restaurant called Barbuzzo the night before, I savored a terrific Philly Cheesesteak from Sonny's as my last meal in town. Having to wait in line for 20 minutes actually made the experience even cooler.

I realize this all was a bit of a haphazard recap of my trip out east, but hopefully it conveyed most of
what I did, saw and ate, while trying to convey that "love of one's country" can be defined in many different ways.

I've been fortunate to travel to many parts of the world--much of Europe, Egypt, Israel, St. Petersburg, Russia, Australia, South America, etc.--but this year have stayed domestic.

While I hope to travel abroad again, what I've done, seen, experienced and enjoyed in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, St. Louis, Milwaukee, my beloved hometown of Chicago, and now Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, has been extraordinary enriching.

Music, art, history, musicals, monuments, memorials, baseball, food, planes, trains, automobiles (taxis & Uber), people--including witnessing some truly touching moments, such as cops cheering on runners in a 5K race, who profusely thanked them in return; a white cop giving some money to help out a woman in a hijab--all told made me proud of where I live, warts and all.

If that ain't love, what is?

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Marriott's 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying' Aims to Please -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru October 16

Because my dad was a big Broadway fan who had an affinity for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I was likely aware of the 1961 musical within the first decade of my life.

I don't recall having seen it in my childhood, whether onstage or the 1967 film version, nor having any of its songs forever ingrained, but the title has always been familiar to me.

But since the turn of the century, when I started going to theater quite frequently, including seeing well over 250 different musicals, not only haven't I seen How to Succeed..., I have never even noted a Chicago area production being mounted.

This seems a bit odd, for although clearly not a musical with contemporary fame to rival My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, etc., the original Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying did Best Musical plus six other Tony Awards (and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and ran for about 3-1/2 years. So it was a pretty big hit way back when.

And a 2011 Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe--of Harry Potter fame--and John Larroquette seemed to go over pretty well and ran for more than a year. But it didn't spark a National Tour.

So although it seems I should have seen How to Succeed... sometime over the past 40 years--and assuredly could have benefited from the lessons promised by the title--I hadn't.

But the opportunity finally presented itself at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire last Wednesday night, and even though I would be leaving on a Labor Day vacation early the next morning, I felt I shouldn't pass up the chance.

With music & lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book partly by his Guys and Dolls collaborator (along with Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert), Marriott's rendition is an enjoyably spirited affair under the direction of Don Stephenson, with fine choreography by Melissa Zaremba.

Also an actor I once saw as Leo Bloom in an early National Tour of The Producers, Stephenson is married to Emily Loesser, daughter of Frank and the offstage (presumably prerecorded) voice of a book called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying that serves as a playbook for the show's protagonist.

As the musical set in the early 1960s begins--contemporary when written, co-opting some Mad Men-type stylings now--J. Pierpont Finch (Ari Butler) is a young Manhattan window-washer who aims to put the book's teachings to the test within World Wide Wickets, beginning by literally bumping into the company president J.B. Biggley (the always fine Terry Hamilton).

Finch soon gets a job in the mailroom alongside Biggley's dim-yet-conniving nephew Bud Frump
(Alex Goodrich) and even before he expedites his way up the company ladder, "Ponty" is pursued by a pretty secretary named Rosemary (Jessica Naimy), whose "catch an exec" dreams of life in suburbia are fodder for her pal Smitty's (Marya Grandy) rejoinders.

Also factoring in are other company executives (Neil Friedman, Jason Grimm and others) and a floozy named Hedy La Rue (Angela Ingersoll), hired on due to a relationship with the married Biggley.

There are a good number of laughs as Finch ascends though the company due to a combination of playing the right cards, kissing the right ass and being within a company where no one really knows what they're doing--or what anyone else is.

Without quite matching the mastery of Loesser's Guys and Dolls score, How to Succeed... is rather tuneful throughout, beginning appropriately enough with a song called "How to Succeed."

"Coffee Break" is a lot of fun, abetted by some quite imaginative choreography, while "A Secretary is Not a Toy" seems to genuinely (if a tad glibly) rebuke sexual harassment, albeit in a show that retains some rather dated sexism. To wit, the closing song--and among the most tuneful--is "Brotherhood of Men," an ode to the fraternity of the gender that makes up all of the company execs.

On opening night, the primary cast members and sizable ensemble were all engaging and well-sung, even if no one individually amazed me. 

Likewise, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a quality musical that I'm glad to
have seen; its brightly-hued reading at Marriott seems to do the material proper justice and it's easy to imagine the venue's vast subscriber base being well-smitten.

(Set designer Thomas M. Ryan and costume designer Catherine Zuber merit mention, the latter particularly for a nifty twist to abet the song "Paris Original" about Rosemary's desired outfit for a corporate dinner.)

But I have seen many classic musicals I consider far more classic. Though everyone here is really trying--in a positive connotation--and more than not, the show does succeed, it just doesn't feel that vital.

Especially as, despite feeling dated, there is still relevance--some in the jibes at the corporatocracy; others less intended given the continuation of glass ceilings and harassment faced by many women, as well as there being far too few minorities in corporate suites--How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying may have been better presented in the present tense (particularly if a few tweaks were allowable).

Why couldn't some of the executives be women? Why couldn't some of the secretaries be men?

As it stands, it's a fun show I think nearly everyone may like, but despite being long-lost not one that I quite loved.