Wednesday, November 29, 2017

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

Dance Concert Review

Savion Glover
featuring Dance Candy (band)
McAninch Arts Center at
College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL
November 26, 2017

Having once again been boggled by the beyond amazing Savion Glover, Sunday afternoon at the Mac, I was going to begin my review by saying something along the lines of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He's that singular.

Monday, November 27, 2017

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

Concert Review

Maxïmo Park
w/ opening act Active Bird Community
Lincoln Hall, Chicago
November 24, 2017

A common gripe of mine is that there are rather few relatively new rock bands that excite me.

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

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

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

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

This juxtaposition reiterated two seeming truths:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

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

Exhibition Review

Take A Stand Center
Illinois Holocaust Museum
and Education Center, Skokie, IL
Permanent Addition

"Your generation should continue to learn and make sure it doesn't happen again in the future.

"Otherwise there will be no future."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the factoids that struck me include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Skokie Welcomes Everyone."

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

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

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Letts’ Look at Ourselves: Taking Its Time to Percolate, Steppenwolf's ‘The Minutes’ Stings With Sly Brilliance — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Minutes
a world premiere play
by Tracy Letts
directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 7

If we accept that Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior was an open secret for decades in Hollywood, why didn’t anybody say something sooner?

Clearly, given reports of the producer’s elaborate efforts to quash damning allegations, many—including women directly victimized by him—undoubtedly felt threatened to remain silent, and perhaps were coerced and/or compensated to do so.

Others likely felt that they lacked sufficient evidence or realistic channels to report Weinstein’s alleged sexual—and serial—misdeeds. Remember, for much of his reign of terror, alerting the world via Twitter or Facebook wasn't an option.

But as per screenwriter Scott Rosenberg’s screed alleging that “everybody f'ing knew” but—himself included—did nothing, many, many people kept mum out of self-interest.

Although it's repulsive that Weinstein--and now many others of his ilk--got away with what he did for so long even as a wide range of people were seemingly aware, this isn’t meant as condemnation, at least when considered on an individual level.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Let's say you're aware of repeated and believable insinuations that the president of your company is harassing, even abusing women, or embezzling money, or discriminating against minorities, or otherwise engaging in criminal practices.

What would you do? Or I?

Not theoretically but literally.

Especially if it meant, in all likelihood, that you would be disbelieved and threatened, perhaps even harmed. Or fired. Or even if not, that as a result your company would collapse and 1,000 people, including close friends of yours, would be out of work and unable to feed their families or have health insurance. Or that you would be terribly jeopardizing your own family's well-being.

As much as I would want to, I can't say I would open my mouth. 

Which isn't at all what Tracy Letts' latest play, The Minutes--now in a Steppenwolf world premiere under the direction of Anna Shapiro--is an acute sense.

It was obviously written well before the allegations about Mrssrs. Weinstein, Spacey, Rose, et. al, became public. Though given that Letts has appeared in many TV shows & films--including significantly in the current Lady Bird--and is married to an increasingly popular actress (Carrie Coon), the decades of whispers had likely reached his savvy ears.

On the surface, The Minutes is a 100-minute one-act comedy that chronicles the often farcical proceedings of the city council in fictional Big Cherry, a small town anywhere in the United States.

And with this show already slated to hit Broadway next year, much of the fun at Steppenwolf--for much of the show--is simply in watching several ensemble stalwarts and other wonderful actors verbally spar in the guise of their quirky, mostly oddly-named characters.

Within an astonishing set designed by David Zinn.

William Petersen of CSI fame is Mayor Superba, who feels like a venal, power-hungry figurehead--though far from Trumpian levels--as he runs the meeting with effrontery veiled as efficiency.

The always wonderful Francis Guinan (Mr. Oldfield), Penny Slusher (Ms. Innes) and Sally Murphy (Ms. Matz) provide comic relief as they bicker about parking spaces and struggle to remain awake and focused on the matters at hand.

It's great to see Kevin Anderson (Mr. Breeding) back on a Steppenwolf stage, as with Ian Barford (Mr. Carp) and James Vincent Meredith (Mr. Blake), the latter of whom offers a particularly wacky suggestion for a new attraction at the town's annual Heritage Festival.

The council's sense of shady ineptitude is abetted by Mr. Assalone (well-played by Jeff Still)--who repeatedly reminds the clerk Ms. Johnson (Brittany Burch) that the "e" at the end of his name isn't silent--while as Mr. Hanratty, Danny McCarthy brings a great sense of hyperkinetic unease.

Driving much of the play's narrative is Mr. Peel (a stellar Cliff Chamberlain), a new-to-town dentist and alderman who had missed the previous council meeting due to a family emergency and returns vaguely aware of happenings no one seems eager to divulge.

Per the play's title, the meeting minutes taken by clerk Johnson play a part in the mystery.

There is also an amusing enactment of a crucial moment in the town's history, gleeful for those familiar with the playwright's propensity for going "over the top."

Yet despite shrewd political satire that provides much laughter across many minutes of The Minutes, the play doesn't feel like a Letts' masterwork--he won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, which premiered at Steppenwolf, and I thought last year's Mary Page Marlowe was even better--until slyly, but quite profoundly, it does.

Theatrically, what unfolds demands that I be circumspect about specifics.

But given that it's a story as old as time, let's just say that people of a certain persuasion have mistreated and maligned those they perceive as unlike them, demanding--for individual and communal self-interest--the conformity and complicity to which I allude above.

I won't tell you more but will share that in a post-show discussion, Shirley Jackson's masterful short story "The Lottery" and William Holding's novel, Lord of the Flies, were cited as among Letts' inspirations, both thematically revolving around "going along with the crowd."

Just as much however, The Minutes made me think of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, in which a key character made a poor choice with deadly consequences, yet defends it by saying--not inaccurately--that his actions were financially essential for his family and also those of hundreds of men who worked for him.

Like in All My Sons, the brilliance of The Minutes comes not so much from what we see happen onstage--though much of it winds up being quite inspired--but due to the central question it asks not just of its characters but of ourselves:

What would we do? 

Not just theoretically, or in posting PC sentiments on social media, but if it means true sacrifice or even hardship or danger.

Minutes to ask; our entire shared history to ponder.

Monday, November 20, 2017

To See or Not to See: Either Way, Lauren Gunderson's 'The Book of Will' Makes One Glad Shakespeare's Plays Continue To Be -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Book of Will
by Lauren Gunderson
directed by Jessica Thebus
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru December 17

In an acute sense, I am far from the world's biggest Shakespeare fan.

Quite honestly, I often have trouble following--and/or staying focused on--his plays, due to the poetic language, Elizabethan tongue, elaborate plots and multitude of characters, though I mean this far more as self-indictment than criticism.

I have seen several of Sir William's plays, and feel it quite valuable, even vital, to have done so, but my enjoyment typically tends to be academically appreciative rather then emotionally embracing. (This might be heresy to staunch Shakespeareans, but I've found modern-dress productions have considerably aided my grasp.)

Still, given how much I love writing, the poetic, playwriting and theater arts, creativity of all kinds and everything William Shakespeare's plays have directly and indirectly influenced--and, despite the above, I very much concur with his esteem, exaltation and importance--it's hard to imagine the world, and my life, if Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and most other of his masterworks had been lost to history shortly after Will's death in 1616 (at just 52).

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
As deeply ingrained as Shakespeare is in our consciousness as a genius, genre and gestalt--or should be; I recently had a debate with someone about the Bard's contemporary scholastic relevance or lack thereof--this hardly sounds plausible.

Or a bit like saying, what if air and water didn't exist?

But the truth seems to be--and the new play, The Book of Will, is based largely on real events--that until the First Folio was published in 1623, only some of Shakespeare's plays had ever been printed, most with the text largely incomplete or inaccurate.

Directed at Northlight by Jessica Thebus, The Book of Will is written by Lauren Gunderson, who at the age of 35 stands as today's most produced playwright in America not named William Shakespeare. (I'm sorry to have missed Gunderson's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley last year at Northlight; it recently earned a Jeff Award for Best New Play.)

Clearly based on detailed historical research as well as considerable imagination, the inventive play chronicles the efforts of Shakespeare's comrades in the King's Men acting troupe and key associates--including wives, daughters, printers and a scrivener--to compile haphazard iterations of his works into a qualitative collection titled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, which modern scholars refer to as the First Folio.

As the play begins, three of the King's Men--Richard Burbage (Austin Tichenor), Henry Condell (Gregory Linington) and John Heminges (Jim Ortlieb), all terrifically personified--bemoan a theater troupe's butchering of Hamlet as they know it, due to the reliance on pirated text such as that spuriously recorded in the "bad quarto."

At this point, it should be pretty clear where this leads, and fine characterizations of Heminges' daughter Alice (Dana Black; the role itself is something of a fictionalized composite), wife Rebecca (Rengin Altay) and Cordell's wife Elizabeth (McKinley Carter, fresh from Victory Gardens' excellent production of Fun Home), allow for The Book of Will to explore personal matters providing some breadth beyond the fortuitous discovery of working scripts, search for a suitable printer and repeated concerns about financial shortages.

Yet I found a familial tragedy that occupies a sizable portion of Act Two to be a bit too far beyond the parameters of Act One's narrative for it to fit in smoothly, and the play's last 10 minutes added unnecessary pathos past what should have been a perfectly apt ending.

While I was happy to learn about the preserving of Shakespeare's plays for history, and several of those pivotal to this--including scrivener turned editor Ralph Crane (Thomas J. Cox), father & son printers William & Isaac Jaggard (Austin Tichenor & Luigi Sottile) and fellow writer Ben Jonson (William Dick)--The Book of Will seems to be missing something.

Partly this is intangible, as despite a beguiling premise there just wasn't enough to make me care deeply across 2+ hours--or afterwards--beyond the core facts.

Click to enlarge
But conceivably, I also would have liked for Sir William himself to figure into this play.

Yes, The Book of Will takes place after Shakespeare's death, and Gunderson is clearly a shrewd enough writer to have considered or tried various possibilities, so maybe this really wouldn't work.

But as this is a play "about Shakespeare" and there are multiple scenes involving the King's Men drinking--within an attractive set by Richard & Jacqueline Pernod--perhaps in a flashback or hallucination the Bard could join his buddies at the bar, allowing the audience to get a better sense of Sir Will beyond the classroom factoids.

An illuminating lobby display shares "10 Things You Didn't Know About William Shakespeare," and much as The Book of Will is enlightening in revealing a reality of which I was clueless, I can't help but imagine that a characterization of Shakespeare might also have elucidated richly.

Who knows? I expect audiences should sufficiently enjoy The Book of Will, especially individuals with a proclivity toward Shakespeare and his legend.

But other than some briefly--but rather nicely, particularly by Tichenor as Burbage--recited passages from Hamlet and other works, there isn't a whole lot of or about Shakespeare in this play.

Certainly it does a nice job of celebrating those who ensured his work, and legacy, would be passed on--one hopes--forever.

On that level alone--and to make one ponder, "Are other preternaturally brilliant souls history has completely forgotten?"--it's worthwhile.

But as you like it, you may not quite love it.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Perfectly Wilde: At Writers Theatre, 'The Importance of Being Earnest' Is Frankly Rather Wonderful -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
directed by Michael Halberstam
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 23

Dating back decades, I've been a big fan of the legendary Irish writer, Oscar Wilde.

Even more than other great quotesmiths--Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Will Rogers, Yogi Berra, Muhammad Ali, etc.--Wilde is my favorite for wonderful witticisms. (He purportedly never actually said "I have nothing to declare except my genius," upon passing through U.S. Customs in 1882, but I love the line anyway.)

Among my multiple visits to London--where the scribe spent his prime writing years--a standout memory is an Oscar Wilde tour from London Walks on which the tour guide (Richard Walker) dresses as the debonair raconteur while leading a walk on the Wilde side.

But while I've known the conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray since childhood--when I saw the 1945 film--I've never actually read Wilde's sole novel.

And though, going back a dozen years or so, I did see and enjoy three of Wilde's plays--Salome, Lady Windemere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest--I'd be lying to suggest the specifics had stuck in my memory.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So the truth is that I've regarded Oscar Wilde as one of my favorite writers without really knowing--at least in a present tense--much of his writing.

And while I was excited to see Writers Theatre's new production of The Importance of Being Earnest, I was a bit worried I might find it too dense, dated, Victorian and hard to decipher & digest given all the British accents.

But as directed by Writers' longtime artistic director Michael Halberstam--with some atypical touches well-explained in the program--it was absolutely delightful from beginning to end.

Thereby serving to justify my perceived penchant for Wilde, whose gift for wit and wordplay is brilliantly on display in lines such as "The very essence of romance is uncertainty."

Although Earnest is a fantastically comedic affair, in which Wilde skewers Victorian society in ways that very much still resonate, I would be remiss not to note the tragic turn of events that accompanied the play's 1895 premiere at London's St. James's Theatre.

At a time when homosexuality was an imprisonable crime in England--where it would remain so until 1967--Wilde, who was married with two kids, maintained a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, cordially known as Bosie.

Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had planned to throw a bouquet of rotten vegetables at Wilde when he took his bow at the end of the show.

The writer was able to have Queensberry barred from the premiere, but upon ongoing harassment--including being called a sodomite--Wilde filed libel charges, which backfired terribly.

Queensberry was found not guilty; Oscar and Bosie were immediately put on trial and declared guilty of gross indecency. Upon being sentenced, Douglas went into exile while Wilde served two years of hard labor.

Inarguably weakened, he would die just three years after his 1897 release, at the age of 46. (Several years ago, I saw David Hare's fine play The Judas Kiss regarding the events above, as well as a musical, A Man of No Importance, which incorporates Wilde's clandestine homosexuality.)

Though he would write the long poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, during his incarceration, The Importance of Being Earnest was Oscar Wilde's last major work.

And though one can certainly enjoy the play--especially an exquisite rendition such as now at Writers Theatre--without knowledge of real-life events, the sad reality was never far from my mind (not that it diminished the face value pleasure).

As the play opens, a man ostensibly named Ernest (Alex Goodrich, great here as he's been in musical roles at Marriott Theatre) visits his caddish pal, Algernon (an excellent Steve Haggard).

Both men soon reveal perpetuating  falsehoods, with Ernest really named Jack--and utilizing both alter egos--and Algernon pretending to have an invalid friend named Bunbury whom he can opportunistically claim to visit.

This gave rise to the term "bunburying" to denote maintaining the pretense of being somebody else--or visiting someone who doesn't exist--often to enable engaging in behavior that could damage one's reputation.

Especially with notes in Writers' thorough show program sharing that early drafts of The Importance of Being Earnest had Algernon named Lord Alfred, it's not hard to see how Wilde's fictional comedy contains slyly autobiographical elements.

At least overtly, in the play Ernest and Algernon aren't drawn to each other, but rather pursue--with some degree of duplicity--two beautiful young women, Gwendolyn (Jennifer Latimore) and Cecily (Rebecca Hurd), with both actresses being terrifically engaging.

Lady Bracknall (Shannon Cochran, first-rate in a role in which a man is often cast, per the program), who is Gwendolyn's mother and Algernon's aunt, represents a rather snobbish and totalitarian obstacle that must be overcome.

I won't reveal any more details about Wilde's convoluted narrative--which feels a bit like a high-brow episode of Three's Company (itself a 40-year-old reference)--as laughing out loud as the farcical escapades unfold is much of the fun.

But I admittedly found it beneficial to have perused the plot synopsis on Wikipedia before attending, as some of the chicanery may be a bit hard to follow.

Also contributing several LOL moments is local theater legend Ross Lehman in playing two separate servants, one rather soused.

Anita Chandwaney (as Miss Primm) and Aaron Todd Douglas (Reverend Canon Chasuble) round out the stellar cast.

Though there is a whole lot going on in The Importance of Being Earnest in terms of surface-level deceit and between-the-lines social commentary, watching it--in the Nichols Theatre within Writers' stunning complex--was never arduous.

I often have some trouble catching jokes, smoothly following accented speech or staying focused on period pieces, and that this rendition felt completely accessible bespeaks the wonders of Wilde's script, the talent of the performers--who at times seemed close to cracking each other up--and the skillfulness of Halberstam's direction.

Along with the "long-time pattern of casting men in the role of the formidable Lady Bracknell," Halberstam's program notes indicate that "Cecily and Gwendolyn and Jack and Algernon are frequently played as almost interchangeable in type."

But as cast and embodied here, that clearly is not the case.

My recollection of a 2005 viewing of Earnest is far too scant to gauge just how much difference these choices made, but my sense is that the aptly named Writers Theatre really gets it right.

Not only is one in for a delightful night of hilarious theater, but the genius--and importance--of Oscar Wilde is acutely rendered in ways readily understood and appreciated.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Parrotheads in Paradise? Lively 'Escape to Margaritaville' Should Delight Jimmy Buffett Fans — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Escape to Margaritaville 
a new musical featuring Jimmy Buffet songs
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 2

With due respect to his vast popularity over several decades, his legions of adoring fans known as Parrotheads, his seemingly quite genial personality and the truth that I've never delved too deeply into his music, let's just say that Jimmy Buffett has never been my cup of tequila.  

Despite attending well over 700 concerts by more than 300 different artists, I have never considered seeing him, even as he continues to fill arenas, amphitheaters and the occasional stadium--e.g. Wrigley Field, my favorite venue--at the age of 70.

I haven't particularly enjoyed my rare visits to the Cheeseburger in Paradise or Margaritaville restaurants & bars--named for Buffett's two best-known songs--and while I agree with his seeming philosophy that sometimes you just have to slow down and savor things, I haven't ever bought into his "way of life" brand.

Call me a killjoy, dweeb, whatever, but I'm happier spending hours in an art museum than a few minutes drinking on a tropical beach. Yet I honestly have no antipathy toward Buffett or his fans, just apathy.  

Still, excited to see any new musical, especially one heading to Broadway, I Spotifamiliarized myself with several Buffett songs incorporated into Escape to Margaritaville's World Premiere in San Diego earlier this year--the songlist seems to have changed a bit--and arrived at the ornate Oriental Theatre with an open mind.

And I genuinely enjoyed the show.

Not in an "OMG! It's the best thing I've ever seen" sort of way, or even a "I can't wait to see it again" sense, but though not brilliant theater, I found it to be rather well done.

And quite likable without thinking about it too deeply. 

Sure, its contrived storyline built around several tunes Buffett wrote or recorded is slight even compared to Mamma Mia standards.

So I can easily imagine those with even less affinity—or tolerance—for Buffett’s music and tropical paradise trappings not loving it simply as musical theater.

But let’s face it, it's--smartly given their loyalty and spending power--aimed at the proud Parrothead community.

And without insinuating that any of them couldn't also be discriminating about the fun but flimsy book by Greg Garcia & Mike O'Malley, I expect those who love Jimmy Buffett should largely love Escape to Margaritaville.

At the same time, non-converts like me should at least respect that Buffett knows how to write a catchy tune, and appreciate that Garcia/O'Malley, director Christopher Ashley--a Broadway pro who's helmed Memphis, Come From Away and more--choreographer Kelly Devine and an appealing cast have put together a sprightly, well-paced affair.

As with Mamma Mia--the ABBA musical to which Escape to Margaritaville is akin in using Buffett songs to tell an original story, not a biographical one--much of the conceivable fun for his fans should come from being surprised at how certain beloved songs fit into the narrative.

So while much of this pleasure escaped me sans inherent love for most of the tunes--and I was a bit clued in from reading about the La Jolla Playhouse production--I will be circumspect about details concerning the placement of certain songs, and even some foreshadowing references tied to them.

The show begins with a musician named Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) pensively strumming and singing on a beach before leading an effusive chorus number reflecting his role as head entertainer of the Margaritaville Hotel & Bar, run by Marley (Rema Webb) on an unspecified tropical island.

Though the resort, at which Brick (Eric Petersen) is the bartender and Tully's best friend, is a bit ramshackle, guests arrive en masse, including a pair of women from Cincinnati, Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard), ostensibly there for one last hurrah before the latter gets married to a doofus named Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart).

Rachel is an environmental scientist intent on studying the energy-producing effects of volcanic soil, and per one of Buffett's other best-known songs, the island just happens to have a live "Volcano."

Leaving the specifics for you to uncover, lets just say that Tully and Rachel--who make for an attractive couple--and Brick and Tammy, a comedic one, eventually pair off and among the songs sung are "Ragtop Days," "Fins," "It's My Job," "Three Chords" and "Son of a Son of a Sailor."

Also on hand at "Margaritaville"--and yes, that classic is played, actually rather movingly--is a jocular old writer named J.D. (Don Sparks), who partakes of the kind of libations that make their way into many a Buffett tune.

I don't think it would ruin much element of surprise to know that he leads an audience singalong of "Why Don't We Get Drunk"..."and screw."

Along with a few sophomoric jokes, this is the most risque thing that happens in Escape to Margaritaville, which per the Buffett brand, always keeps things rather sunny. I also couldn't help but appreciate a heavy dose of goofy puns, most voiced by J.D.

While no one will mistake Act One of this show for Les Miserables, after intermission it feels like a mad dash to the tiki bar as narrative twists come fast & furious primarily for the purpose of working in relevant Buffett songs.

Most effective of these, in terms of theatrical exposition, is "He Went to Paris," which serves to tell a moving backstory about one of the characters.

Others you'll hear include "Cheeseburger in Paradise"--complete with actual cheeseburgers onstage--"Love and Luck," "Tin Cup Chalice," "Come Monday" and "One Particular Harbor."

Even with a couple additional songs after the fine cast takes their bows, Escape to Margaritaville clocks in well under 2-1/2 hours, so no one will wind up wastin' away for too long. 

As one would expect, Walt Spangler's set design and Paul Tazewell's costumes are festively colorful, and with deference to the talented team involved--including Buffett--this isn't a musical meant to make you ponder the meaning of life, more so just avoid it for a night.

Perhaps to varying degrees per one's pre-existing fondness for Jimmy Buffett, his music and worldview, just relax and enjoy Escape to Margaritaville.

Even if you might not be able to remember much of it in the morning.