Thursday, November 07, 2019

A Rather Fine Twist: Marriott's 'Oliver' Will -- for the Most Part -- Have You Asking for More -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru December 29

Despite a magnificent score featuring several of the most delightful songs ever written for musical theater—“Food Glorious Food,” “Oliver,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “It’s a Fine Life,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Reviewing the Situation”—Oliver resides, in my mind, a notch or two below other brilliant classics of the Broadway canon.

This is in part due to somewhat ponderous pacing early on—more pronounced in the 1968 movie version, which actually won the Oscar for Best Picture—but primarily due to one other song by Lionel Bart, who wrote the show’s music, lyrics and book, based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Coming early in Act II is a song sung by Nancy, a young woman who is part of Fagin’s gang that the orphaned child Oliver falls in with in London.

While warm, even maternal towards Oliver, she is the girlfriend of the malevolent Bill Sikes, a particularly nasty but criminally successful confederate of Fagin’s. After Bill hits Nancy, she sings—and at Marriott, as delivered by Lucy Godinez, exceptionally well—a Stand By Your Mannish tune called “As Long As He Needs Me.”

Perhaps in 1830’s London (when Dickens wrote and set Oliver Twist) or even 1960 London (when the musical premiered in the West End), mores were somewhat different.

But I've hated that song since I saw a touring version of the show in 2004, and amid the #MeToo movement, it really feels ugly and obtuse (though musically, it’s beautiful).

So that—and the whole Bill/Nancy relationship, which actually devolves from there—is why I’ve never absolutely loved Oliver, even as I relished most of the songs.

This holds for a remarkably good production at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, under the direction of Nick Bowling.

A terrific cast—headed by young Kai Edgar in the title role at Wednesday’s Press Night; he alternates with Kayden Koshelev—wonderfully delivers all of the aforementioned songs and more, including “Where Is Love?” on which the 8-year-old Edgar shows formidable vocal chops.

William Brown makes for a fine Fagin, even if the gentleman sitting next to me didn’t find him menacing enough. I truly enjoyed his take on “Reviewing the Situation.”

The seemingly teenage Patrick Scott McDermott is a rather nifty Artful Dodger, and along with Godinez as Nancy, I really liked Ziare Paul-Emile as her friend Bet.

Marriott vets Bethany Thomas and Terry Hamilton are strong as Mrs. Corney and Mr. Brownlow, while Dan Waller is good as bad Bill Sikes.

And with at least a dozen young boys delivering a delectable “Food Glorious Food” to open the show, the vast ensemble cast comprised of kids and grown-ups is demonstrably superb.

In sum, even in a well-staged production that makes fine use of Marriott’s intimate, in-the-round Oliver still has its inherent issues. Along with “As Long As He Needs Me”—though Godinez’ rendition and reprise merited the lavish applause bestowed, including by me—I could also do without an early “flirtation” scene between the orphanage’s Mr. Bumble (Matthew R. Jones) and Mrs. Corney, which doesn’t do much besides hamper the pacing.

But so many of Bart’s songs are absolute delights—“Consider Yourself” and “I’ll Do Anything” especially had me humming along happily.

And how can you not like a show with so many talented kids?

So although Bowling’s production doesn’t overcome or circumvent the points of aversion I entered with, it renders them what they are: troublesome moments in an otherwise fantastic musical.

Consider yourself advised. Oliver isn’t perfect, but this excellent iteration at Marriott Theatre should provide young and old with a Dickens of a good time.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Muy Bueno: John Leguizamo Turns 'Latin History for Morons' Into a Compelling Contemporary Lesson -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

John Leguizamo
Latin History for Morons
Cadillac Palace Theater, Chicago
Run Ended (tour schedule)

"Latin history is American history," said John Leguizamo early in his latest one-man show--which I saw on Saturday night--and it rightfully garnered considerable applause.

Understandably, there was an appreciable Latinx turnout among the almost-full crowd, but even to someone without any Latin blood--you can tell by my dancing skills, or lack thereof--Leguizamo's history lesson hit home.

I have always enjoyed the 55-year-old actor, comedian and writer but haven't seen any of his one-man shows--Freak, Sexaholix, Ghetto Klown, Spic-O-Rama, Mambo Mouth--not even on TV.

So although Latin History for Morons--which ran on Broadway for a few months beginning in November 2015--wasn't part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, nor a show for which I got a press invite, I was happy to get a balcony seat for $26 (which Ticketmaster fees somehow turned into $46).

And it was really good, not just because Leguizamo is a likable performer or because the substance of what he imparts powerfully combats the moronic wall-building sentiments and shameful kids-in-cages realities of our times.

Although I was aware of some of the truths he shared--such as the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs having once had vast, enlightened and longstanding empires decimated by European colonialism--the Columbian-born, multi-ethnic star enveloped his teachings in plenty of humor, pathos and poignancy.

The framework for much of Latin History for Morons has Leguizamo trying to illuminate his son to help ward off bullies and succeed on middle school projects.

And it's clear that in writing this show, John has clearly done his homework, well-beyond all that he has likely long known well.

References are made onstage to several books--including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States--often serving to establish that U.S. history textbooks have long been created by (and to serve) a white, patriarchal culture.

I won't reveal too much of Leguizamo's "lesson," as even though the brief Chicago run has ended, this shrewd show will conceivably make its way to TV at some point after the tour concludes, but just in terms of colonialism I appreciated his insights about how many European conquests could be ascribed far more to the spreading of disease than to military might.

And yes, some of the syphilis jokes made for some raunchy hilarity.

It also bespeaks Leguizamo's savvy that one of my favorite lines of the show had nothing to do with Latin history but rather how stealing music once meant waiting all day to tape an album off the radio and hoping the DJ wouldn't talk over much of it.

Though the two hours without an intermission went fast and were well-paced, I felt the end--in which Leguizamo cites U.S. military heroes of Latin descent and other notables--was a bit rushed.

Carlos Santana had been briefly name-dropped early on, but I wish more time was devoted to the
contributions of Latinos in entertainment, government and industry, among other fields.

Props to the New Yorker, however, for mentioning the Cubs' Javier Baez, along with icons like Frida Kahlo, Cesar Chavez and Sonia Sotomayor. 

And not only is Latin History for Morons a terrifically entertaining show, it's an important one.

Including, sadly, for those prone to ignore or deride it.

While folks adorned in "Make America Great Again" caps would undoubtedly find much to hate about this show--which does at times mock the president--they will, if open-minded, find a whole lot more to learn from it.

Late in the show, about those of Latin descent, Leguizamo imparts with palpable anguish, "We're so American it hurts."

Which is why it's so painful to realize the "cultural apartheid" he references exists merely due to ignorance (or xenophobia), which could be remedied if we all bothered to learn some Latin history. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Imperfect Visit: Despite Some Nice Touches, 'Kentucky' Doesn't Put Me in a Happy State -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Leah Nanako Winkler 
directed by Chika Ike
Gift Theatre
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru November 18

It's hard to say precisely what left me lukewarm about Kentucky, as the two-act play contains some inspired ideas, decent writing and fine acting.

And there's enough promise in the premise for the piece to have potentially been strong throughout.

I've read that playwright Leah Nanako Winkler grew up in Lexington, KY and is half-Japanese like the like the two main characters, sisters Hiro (Emjoy Gavino) and Sophie (Hannah Toriumi).

So, without knowing quite how much of Kentucky is true to her own life, it's easy to imagine Winkler--in perhaps reflecting upon her own relocation--having love/hate feelings about the bluegrass state such as those exhibited by Hiro,

Photo credit on all: Claire Demos
But with Hiro now a marketing executive in Manhattan who repeatedly brags about making "$60,000 a year"--which I believe would barely allow her to cover rent in a Queens walkup--her visit home initially reeks of a condescending sense of superiority.

Having long stayed away due to a distressing relationship with her emotionally abusive father, James
(Paul D'Addario), Hiro ventures back to Kentucky due to Sophie’s impending wedding.

But it isn’t the chance to serve as Maid of Honor for her younger sister that brings her home, nor primarily to see her mom, Masako (Helen Joo Lee)—who Hiro loves but condemns for not leaving dad—Grandma (Emilie Modaff) and close friends.

Rather, believing that Sophie is, at age 22, making a brash and foolish mistake by opting to marry a born-again Christian named Da'Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes)—who has also prompted her to become quite religious—Hiro comes, at a rather late hour, to convince Sophie to call off the wedding.

Before she even sees her sister, Hiro gets drunk and gets something going with Adam (Martel Manning), a handsome guy she had a crush on in high school.

So essentially—and this brief summary covers just the play’s first 10 minutes—Hiro sees herself as a moral voice of reason regarding her kid sister, but is a rather adrift hot mess.

Certainly, one can’t help empathize with Hiro given how brutally D'Addario embodies her dad, but I had trouble buying into her sense of righteousness from the get go.

And while part of Winkler’s point is clearly to reflect on Hiro’s “save Sophie” journey taking unexpected turns regarding herself, without giving anything else away about the narrative let’s just say it didn’t convince me.

Gavino—who reminded me of comedienne/actress Ali Wong—does a nice job playing Hiro even if I didn’t love the character, and Toriumi finds some nice nuance in Sophie.

And the concept of having Sophie’s bridesmaids (Ana Silva, Maryam Abdi) also serve as a singing
Greek Chorus is clever, especially as the actresses handle it with the right amount of cheeky glee. Silva also humorously fills the guise of Hiro’s NYC therapist.

There is also a funny portrayal of a cat best left without me saying more.

So Kentucky isn’t unwatchable. Under the direction of Chika Ike, the Gift’s production is an estimable effort and the entire cast does a nice job. 

But though I tend to share Hiro’s preference for big cities and marketing careers and understand her aversion to Sophie’s choices, her insistence is off-putting and Kentucky just never settles into a tonality that I found engaging.

And I didn’t really care any more for where it ends than where it begins.

As I intimated at top, that criticism is rather vague, but for whatever reasons—tangible and not—Kentucky just wasn’t a wonderful place to spend a couple hours on Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

With Autumn Closing In: As He (Finally) Turns the Page, Bob Seger Ensures Rock and Roll Never Forgets -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
w/ opening act Anthony Rosano & the Conqueroos
United Center, Chicago 
October 19, 2019

Until late 2006, Bob Seger stood as one of my favorite living rock artists never seen live in concert.

Since then, I have seen Seger—who is now 74 years old—and his Silver Bullet Band seven times in seven different years, including Saturday night at the United Center.

It was the fifth to last show of his Roll Me Away Final Tour, which began in Fall 2017 but had many gigs postponed for over a year due to Bob having a back injury. I caught a rescheduled show last December at Allstate Arena but couldn’t resist one last chance. (The tour concludes November 1st in Philadelphia.)

Even back in 2006, Seger’s hair and beard were fully white and he was a bit paunchy. His voice wasn’t as robust as in his heyday, and he wasn’t the same kinetic stage presence (per old clips). He didn’t delve as deep into his catalog as I would’ve preferred, nor mix things up much tour-to-tour let alone night-to-night.

But his songs remained great and the Silver Bullet Band—with some old members and some new—were superb.

He was a remarkably earnest and amiable presence and his voice was good enough to make for enjoyable shows.

Thirteen years later, that’s pretty much still the same, with Seger just as good on Saturday as throughout his entire latter-day touring resurgence.

Maybe even better, though if I’m really giving this show an extra ½@ for lifetime achievement, so be it.

His opening number, “Simplicity” isn’t a favorite of mine, but I was happy Seger was open to venturing away from the obvious.

I would say the same for “No More,” a song I didn’t recognize (and can’t find where it’s from), but it was nice that he dedicated to the late congressman Elijah Cummings. 

It took the place of setlist staple “Her Strut,” a better song but one I  really didn't need to hear again.

The somewhat rare “Shame on the Moon” and “You’ll Accompany Me” were nice touches, his use of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” to pay tribute to longtime pals Glenn Frey, Tom Petty and others was moving and while there are many other Seger songs devoted fans might wish to abet his encore choices, which have been the same since at least 2006—the guys behind me kept yelling for “Fire Lake”—no one could really blame him for dedicating “You Take Me In” to his wife before “Against the Wind,” “Hollywood Nights,” “Night Moves” and “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” closed out seemingly his last ever Chicago show. 

Seger has been playing the Windy City since at least 1968 (then with the Last Heard) and the core encore quartet and many of the other songs performed on Saturday—“The Fire Down Below,” “Mainstreet,” “Come to Poppa,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” “Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser,” “Turn the Page,” “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”—have been heard here often over the years.

But that’s why I, and the rest of the sold out audience, was there.

Backed by the ageless, eternally cool saxophonist, Alto Reed, original Silver Bullet bassist Chris Campbell, pianist Craig Frost and many other fine musicians and singers, I think it's safe to say that Bob Seger clearly pleased the crowd.

Not in any new way, but with me particularly glad to have "Still the Same" included in this tour--after being MIA for years--the old man singing "Old Time Rock and Rock" was more than enough to accompany me and my memories out the door and into the night, movingly.

As he wrote and recorded in 1972:

"Here I am on the road again / There I am up on the stage / Here I go playin' star again / There I go turn the page"

To which for this show, all the others and much music that I'll always love, I saith:

Thanks, Bob.

Enjoy the next chapter.


Monday, October 21, 2019

Personal Favorite: Another Rockin' Night with Willie Nile and Band -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile & band
w/ opening act Brad Ray
Evanston SPACE
October 19

There are a lot of rock acts I've seen and reviewed who wouldn't be considered super famous.

Alejandro Escovedo, Stereophonics, Maxïmo Park, Ash and The Waterboys are just a few "personal favorites" who aren't household names.

Of this ilk, I don't think there is anyone I've seen or championed more than Willie Nile, particularly in this decade.

Friday night at Evanston's comfortable SPACE venue, I saw Nile live for the 8th time.

This lags well behind the 50 I've seen his pal, Bruce Springsteen, but isn't bad for a 71-year-old rocker I only learned about around 2008 (via the Springsteen fan site,

I've caught Willie in various incarnations: backed by Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, solo
acoustic, paired with bassist Johnny Pisano and with his own touring band, which has varied over the years but includes Pisano.

Friday was a band gig with a quartet including Nile, Pisano, guitarist Jimmy Bones and drummer Jon Weber.

For whatever reason, SPACE had another show booked for the same night.

No offense to the later performer, singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell, who composed the current Tony Award-winning musical, Hadestown. I might’ve liked to have seen her, but her 9:30pm show was sold out. And it meant that Willie was only slotted from 7:00-9:00pm, including an opening act.

Smartly, the opening act, a young singer/guitarist from Georgia named Brad Ray, took the stage at about 6:50pm, allowing for about a 35-minute performance.

Playing acoustic guitar and singing some nice-sounding songs, he was accompanied by his dad, who played some fine licks on electric guitar and provided harmonies.

So Nile and his band didn’t take the stage until 7:40pm, and though they were terrific, the set did seem slightly curtailed, without room for an encore.

That, and—perhaps as a consequence—the show just feeling a tad less frenetic than Nile band gigs in the past accounts for my awarding “just” @@@@1/2 (out of 5).

But it was certainly good enough to be glad I went, as after opening with “Forever Wild,” Nile ripped through one of my favorites of his, “Run,” and was his usual gracious and loquacious self, dedicating “The Innocent Ones” to the Kurdish people and telling how his “This is Our Time” facilitated his meeting the amazing young activist, Malala.

From “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go” from 2018’s Children of Paradise to the rollicking “Heaven Help the Lonely” off 1991’s Places I Have Never Been, Nile demonstrated that he’s been writing great songs for a long time. (His self-titled debut came out in 1980.)

2006’s Streets of New York is the first album of his I came to know and love, and a highlight of Friday’s set was a gorgeous rendition of the title song, with Nile on piano.

The title track of 2009’s House of a Thousand Guitars was also delectable, as was a rocking cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” and a show closing “One Guitar” with the Rays joining Nile’s band onstage. shows that the night before in Michigan, there was an encore of The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” so the scheduling kept us from hearing that or some other gem.

Another 20 minutes or so would’ve been quite nice and—per past experience—likely quite phenomenal with the band fully revved.

But, another chance to see the great Willie Nile was appreciably fantastic nonetheless.

It’s somewhat a shame he remains one of my favorite "secrets," but undeniably one I’ve been very glad to know.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

#18) Theater Such as This: Unique, Superb 'Every Brilliant Thing' Should Be High on Your List -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Every Brilliant Thing
by Duncan Macmillan
directed by Jessica Fisch
starring Rebecca Spence
Windy City Playhouse (at Motor Row), Chicago
Thru December 8

Bruce Springsteen. The Chicago Cubs (even when they disappoint). A char cheddar Polish on French bread at Poochies. Harlan Coben's latest thriller, perpetually. Having the same best friend since the first day of kindergarten. Singing "Hey Jude" with Paul McCartney and 50,000 fans. Bulldogs. Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. My mom. The universal truths found in almost all Stephen Sondheim lyrics. A great saxophone solo. Twizzlers. La Dolce Vita. The great melting pot of the Red Line at Midnight. Posting a damn witty comment on Facebook (or so you want to believe). The way Nyquil coats your throat when it hurts like hell. Writing this blog.

In the terrific solo-performer play, Every Brilliant Thing--written by Duncan Macmillan and starring a man in its UK and NYC premieres, but featuring the fantastic Rebecca Spence here--the narrator speaks of having created a list of "brilliant things" in life, or reasons for living.

She initially does so at the tender age of 7, in 1984, when she quite suddenly becomes aware of her mother's suicidal tendencies and hopes to positively affect mom's worldview in the face of depression.

Continued intermittently throughout her life to the present day, Spence's list--the actress is not telling her own story, but we never learn her character's name--eventually gets to, well, let's just say well beyond five digits, not to give things away.

The string of items that opens this review of Every Brilliant Thing represents the start of my own such list--not meant in ranked order, as the narrator's isn't--apt not just due to thoughts the play inspired, but because the audience, seated in large, comfy chairs in an open floor space, is asked to participate.

To be clear, I don't mean that within the 80-minute one-act, we are asked to cite our own reasons for living, but rather prompted via props to enunciate items on Spence's list.

Hence, when she got to number 5, I shouted:

"Things with stripes!"

In addition to starring a woman speaking without an English accent, this production under the sharp direction of Jessica Fisch seemingly tinkered a bit with Macmillan's script to add some Chicago-centric references.

Not that Michael Jordan and the Art Institute of Chicago couldn't be seen as "brilliant"--which retains an Anglo parlance essentially meaning "awesome"--from far and wide, along with things like ice cream, sunlight and soul music, the latter factoring heavily into the show before it even officially begins.

During the monologue--mostly regarding her mom's struggles, but never to the point of being maudlin--Spence also engages a few audience members to help her dramatize some key interactions, with her dad, a school counselor and others I won't divulge.

Though Every Brilliant Thing also eventually broaches the narrator's own psychological challenges, the overriding vibe is amiable, warmhearted and life-affirming.

Yet, unless past iterations were performed quite difficulty, the Guardian blurb on the poster at top--about this being one of the funniest plays you'll ever see--doesn't really strike me as apt.

Spence comes across as effervescently likable and there are some moments of hilarity, plenty of crackling remarks in the script and some really clever list items, but this isn't by any means Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays (which actually had plenty of poignancy as well).

Unless you are entirely squeamish about ever speaking among a crowd--and I imagine your request to just sit and watch with no interaction would be respectfully accommodated--you should enjoy Every Brilliant Thing on many levels, and even laugh plenty.

But for me, the realistic-feeling drama of what transpires far outweighs the comedy, just as a matter of clarity. (There is also a bit of education about suicide, including that it can be quite contagious.)

Though anyone who knows me and/or this blog needn't need convincing that attending theater would be high on a list of things that bring me great joy and sustenance, seeing a show this unique and superlative could really warrant a berth of its own.

It's not just terrific, it's good for the soul.


So especially as, unlike me--somewhat unwittingly--you won't have to route yourself around the Chicago Marathon to see it, you really should get yourself down, and into, and enriched by, this brilliant thing.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Striking Accord: Tony-Winning 'Oslo' Given a Fine TimeLine Production in Chicago -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by J.T. Rogers
directed by Nick Bowling
TimeLine Theatre Company
at Broadway Playhouse
Presented by Broadway in Chicago
Thru October 20

In Amadeus, the 1984 film about Mozart adapted by Peter Shaffer from his own play—Shaffer also wrote Equus, which I recently saw for the first time—his patron, Emperor Joseph II, gives a small but condescending critique of one of the maestro’s compositions, saying:
"My dear, young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. There are simply too many notes, that's all. Cut a few and it will be perfect."
To which Mozart sharply retorts:
“Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?” 
I feel it only fair to share this point of reference in suggesting that J.T. Rogers' Tony-winning 2016 play, Oslo—which is quite astute, enlightening and largely masterful—might have felt even greater to me were about 30 minutes cut from its 2 hour & 45 minute runtime.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
Obviously, Rogers—whose The Overwhelming I also enjoyed several years ago—didn’t think there was any unneeded excess to his script, and in addition to the 2017 Tony for Best Play, it won a slew of other awards.

So who am I to say, and regardless I still highly recommend Oslo, which despite all its honors didn't get funding for a national tour so is being presented in Chicago--under the auspices of Broadway in Chicago--by TimeLine Theatre, long one of the city's best local troupes.

I am delighted for the exposure TimeLine is getting in staging this high-profile work within the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place (rather than in its regular home in part of a church complex on Wellington Avenue).

Though I didn't have time to read a lot of it, it's great that TimeLine is able to maintain its tradition of accompanying shows with informative background information on lobby displays, as well as publishing additional material in its Backstory pamphlet, which supplements the regular show program.

Oslo's focus on international diplomacy--specifically negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leading to peace accords announced in September 1993--reminded me of a play called Blind Date, about the first meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But Oslo is considerably better than that work in almost all ways, including by focusing on negotiators a step--or several--below Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, PLO Chairman Yassar Arafat and U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The Palestinians are primarily represented by Arafat subordinates Ahmed Qurie (Anish Jethmalani) and Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama), while a rumpled economics professor named Yair Hirschfeld (Ron E. Rains) is initially selected by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Yossi Belin (Stef Tovar) to negotiate on behalf of Israel, with Uri Savir (Jed Feder) also getting involved. An attorney named Joel Singer (Tom Hickey) later takes a key seat at the table.

All these roles are well played, and under the fine direction of Nick Bowling, Rogers' deeply-researched script incorporates a surprising amount of humor and humanity into the clandestine negotiations that largely take place in Oslo, the capital of Norway.

But the heart of the play--which features a 13-person cast, and that's with some actors playing multiple roles--comes in enlightening the world to the behind the scenes involvement and importance of Norwegian couple Terje Rød-Larsen (an excellent Scott Parkinson) and Mona Juul (Bri Sudia,  terrific again as in TimeLine's A Shayna Maidel and several musicals).

Terje is a professor who runs a think tank/aid organization with the help of Mona--who is also a noted diplomat--and they essentially push for the Israel-PLO summit to happen, initially quite secretly.

There's a lot going on, and its to Rogers' great credit--as well as Bowling and the excellent cast here--that despite the subject matter, it's eminently watchable and far more powerful than ponderous.

Yes, as I opined to open, the play feels long, particularly the first act, where it seemed there could be fewer scenes with the various negotiators involved.

Certainly, heading downtown after a workday in the far north suburbs wasn't ideal for me staying pinpoint sharp throughout, but Oslo did hold my attention, while considerably entertaining and enlightening me.

It is an excellent play that demands being seen.

Perhaps even more if there was just a bit less.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Discovering Japan: Recapping My Trip From August 13-30, 2019

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto
The 15 full days—plus parts of 2 others—I recently spent in Japan represent the most time I’ve spent in a single country on a single trip.

And I would say that all of the days were well spent.

I wouldn’t necessarily nominate Japan as the favorite place I’ve been nor the first place tourists from the United States should venture, but this is essentially due to the many fantastic places I’ve been fortunate to visit.

This shouldn’t be construed as a ranking, but London, Paris, Italy, Spain, India and Peru are just some of the spots I don’t feel it wrong that I got to before going to Japan.

I’ve also been to Australia, Ireland, Israel, Cairo, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Brussels, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, various points in Mexico and Canada and many cities across the U.S., and have enjoyed pretty much everywhere I’ve been.

Now including Japan.

Senso-ji, Tokyo
I liked what I saw there. What I did. What I experienced. What I photographed. What I ate.

I might wish to have learned a bit more, about the culture, the people, the history and customs, but given the parameters of my trip—traveling solo, 3 weeks to allot at most, a somewhat limited budget, my age, physical shape, proclivities, etc.—I can’t say there is anything I would decidedly do differently.

A few days at a beach resort with a Japanese supermodel may have been nice, but what would be in it for her?

I tried to eat at the top-rated restaurant in the country—Den—but given the stringency in securing a reservation, I can’t say I would try any harder than I did.

Hiking a good ways up Mt. Fuji would likely be beautiful and spiritual, but my legs hurt each night just from traipsing around tourist sights in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Fans of anime or manga or martial arts or professional wrestling or sumo or karaoke may well have sought out spots that likely wouldn’t have meant much to me, and followers of Shinto, Buddhism and/or students of Japanese history undoubtedly would have had more holistic experiences at the numerous temples, shrines and pagodas I visited.

Feeding time, Nara
And while I managed to find sufficient food to eat each day, only once resorting to a Big Mac, others may well have had more delectable meals or delved deeper into Japanese cuisine.

So be it.

Because I had internet access everywhere I went—at no extra cost as part of my T-Mobile plan—I was able to post numerous iPhone photos to Facebook every day, from most of the attractions I visited.

In part due to this, and also because I found myself sufficiently knackered each night to rather sleep than write, I didn't post many recaps to this blog. But you can find pieces 1, 2 and 3 here. (In the past I've used my space for on-the-go posts, but didn't this time.)

And rather than recite what I did and saw on a daily basis, I think the following might be an efficient way to handle this travelogue. If you have any questions about specifics, please post a comment or contact me at

Shinjuku, Tokyo
Arrived: August 14
Departed: August 22
Returned: August 29-30

APA Hotel & Resort Nishi Shinjuku Gochome (8 nights), The B Hotel Roppongi (1 night)
Both of these and the hotel in Kyoto were booked on and selected based on a combination of price, location and offers of American Airlines frequent flyer miles in return. The APA was well-located in relatively quiet Nishi Shinjuku, steps from a subway stop. The room was small but satisfactory; front desk staff more perfunctory than friendly or helpful. Whereas a front desk clerk at the B in Roppongi was proactive in helping to get me onto a shuttle bus to the airport.

Tokyo Subway
Areas visited:
Shinjuku, Nishi Shinjuku, Chiyoda, Asakusa, Akibahara, Shibuya, Ginza, Harajuku, Tsukiji, Jimbocho, Minato, Ueno, Sumida, Roppongi, Tokyo Midtown
I enjoyed exploring all these areas, including Harajuku, the epicenter of teenage Japanese culture and upscale Ginza. But Asakusa, home to the Senso-ji Temple, would be the area I'd most eagerly seek out on a subsequent trip. Visiting Senso-ji at night was a particular delight, including a walk afterward through what once was a theater district. 

Sights/attractions explored:
Imperial Palace East Gardens, Imperial Palace Guided Tour, Tokyo Tower, Zojoji Temple, Tsukiji Outer Fish Market, Kabuki-za Theatre, Senso-ji Temple & Pagoda, Nakamise Shopping Street, Meiju Jingu Shrine, Takeshita Street (Harajuku), Shibuya Crossing, Roppongi Hills, Shinjuku Gyoen Garden
Imperial Palace, Tokyo
A mix of shrines, gardens and bustling, modern districts like Shinjuku and Shibuya. In addition to Senso-Ji (as mentioned above), getting to the Tsukiji Market area was fun, though the actual fish market has moved elsewhere (vendors, shops and food stands remain). 

Museums visited:
National Museum of Western Art, Edo-Tokyo Museum
I probably should have done more in this regard. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo National Museum and sword, sumo and samurai museums were also on my shortlist. But I was happy with the two I visited, while considering the numerous shrines, temples, gardens outdoor museums of a sort. I enjoyed how the Western Art museum had a special exhibit covering its formation and initial collection, while Edo-Tokyo provided a good glimpse into Tokyo when it was long-known as Edo. 

Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo
Shiryu, Bocce, Suisen, Kizuna Sushi, Kaisendon, Tsukijiya, Meiju Jingu Café, Sekkaen, Marion Crepes, Harajuku Crepe Cafe, Suisen, Vie de France, Wadakura Fountain Park Restaurant, Peter Cole Irish Pub, Kani Doraku, Hard Rock Café, Ichiran Ramen, Yoshinoya
None of these would be considered high-end gastronomic splurges--as opposed to Den, which I couldn't get into--but all satisfied while enabling me to enjoy sushi, tempura, ramen, soba noodles, crab, Chinese food, Kobe beef, mochi, crepes, sake, a Japanese buffet and more. I mean no disrespect in saying that none of these demand being specifically sought out, though the crepes cafes were fun and the buffet at Wadakura Fountain Park Restaurant was worth being a bit pricey (3200 yen), especially given the nice location across from the Imperial Palace grounds. 

Show at Robot Restaurant, Tokyo
Live Events
Robot Restaurant Show, Yakult Swallows baseball game, Kabuki Theatre, The Parrots (Beatles band) at Abbey Road nightclub
The show at Robot Restaurant--the food service is really negligible--is crazy fun, something like the Japanese version of Medieval Times. On speed. Though some may find it sensory overload, as it's really loud with tons of flashing lights. I loved going to the baseball game, particularly at the venerable but fun Meiju Jingu Stadium (as opposed to the Tokyo Dome, home of the richer Yomiuri Giants; I didn't get there). I'm not sure which piece of theater I saw at Kabuki-za--I caught one-act of a larger production--and couldn't tell you exactly what happened in it. Still it was cool. Abbey Road and The Parrots were a delight, as they sang 4 sets of Beatles songs in English, though they spoke solely in Japanese. 

Great Buddha, Kamakura
Side Trips:
Kamakura (Great Buddha, Hasedera Temple)
I got to Kamakura on my own via trains (as opposed to a Mount Fuji bus tour) and enjoyed getting to and seeing the Great Buddha, and nearby Hasedera Temple was quite formidable. A small joint called Kamakura Dog had wonderfully elaborate corn dogs; mine with fried potatoes and cheese was so elaborate I barely noticed I got one without a hot dog. If I didn't tire myself out, I would've liked to have seen the Hachiman shrine and perhaps gotten to the beachfront. Overall, my plan just to stay in Tokyo and Kyoto and take day trips worked quite well, but Kamakura may have merited a bit more time. 

Mount Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi
Mount Fuji (5th Station, Cruise on Lake Kawaguchi)
I wasn't sure if I should try to get to Hakone on my own to try to see Mount Fuji or to sign up for a bus tour. Although I likely could've gotten to Hakone pretty easily by train from Tokyo, I wasn't clear where I might head from there, which prompted me to do some Googling. I found an $82 tour via a company called Veltra, which put me on a bus tour seemingly run by Shinki Bus Tours, though the sign I was to look for at the Shinjuku Center Building was "Limon," which also adorned the bus. The bus took me and about a dozen others to what's known as Mount Fuji's 5th Station, partway up the mountain. On the way, the overcast sky prevented any good views of the mountain, and even at 5th Station it was hard to see the peak, but at least I saw the mountain. We then went to what seemed to be a French-themed resort--La Ville de Gaspard et Lisa--which adjoins an amusement park. There we had lunch before going to Lake Kawaguchi, first to ride up a hillside in a ropeway car, then to take a 20-minute cruise. On the cruise, I finally got a decent glimpse of the famous Mount Fuji. 

Takeshita Dori, Harajuku, Tokyo
Other Places of note:
Tower Records, Garrett’s Popcorn, McDonald’s, 7/11, Shinjuku Station, Tokyo Station, subway
I used to love perusing and shopping at Tower Records in Chicago (and Los Angeles, London and more), but the chain went out of business several years ago. But it survives as a separate company in Tokyo, although with the familiar red and yellow iconography. I went to a store in Shinjuku, and saw the exterior of an even larger one in Shibuya...It seems Chicago-based Garrett's has expanded far & wide over the years, but it was still nifty to see a store in Harajuku, where I sample Matcha-flavored caramel corn (and didn't love it)...McDonald's was fairly ubiquitous in both Tokyo and Kyoto, but didn't have Quarter Pounders with Cheese (or anything equivalent)...I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that 7/11 is the most prevalent store in both Tokyo and Kyoto, though there are also several similar Lawson convenience stores...The commuter train stations, of which Shinjuku is supposedly the world's largest, were an attraction in themselves and crazily mobbed. But I used them often, and the subways stations even more so. 

Additional comments:
I enjoyed Tokyo, especially the dichotomy of old and new. With its criss-crossing subway lines, it reminded me of London, Paris and New York, and the challenge of exploring it was much of the fun. 

Pontocho, Kyoto
Arrived: August 22;
Departed August 29

Hotel M’s Plus Shijo Omiya
Right near train and subway stations and major bus lines, the hotel proved quite convenient. And the women working at the front desk were much friendlier than those I had encountered at the APA Hotel in Tokyo. Though it took four clerks to help me buy a baseball ticket from a mobile website that was solely in Japanese, it was cool that they took the time to help accomplish this. Unfortunately, the game--a rare one to be played in Kyoto by the Orix Buffaloes, who mainly play in Osaka--was rained out. 

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto
Areas visited:
Gion; see sights visited
Although with approximately 1.5 million residents, Kyoto can be considered a big city, this is only about 1/10 the size of Tokyo. As such, it seemed like the "areas"--at least for a tourist--corresponded more explicitly with specific sights. Except perhaps for Gion, which I didn't get to explore as much as I would've liked because it rained the three times I went there. It has many old-style Japanese tea houses or buildings that look as such, and is famed as geisha district. 

Sights visited:
Kinkaku-ji Temple, Ginkaku-ji Temple, Tenryuji Temple & Gardens, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Togetsu Bridge, Iwatayamu Monkey Park, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Yasaka Shrine, Nishiki Market, Pontocho Alley, Hanamikoji Dori, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Pagoda & grounds, Sanjusangendo
Many of the major sights I saw--Kinkaku (the gorgeous golden temple), Ginkaku (meaning Silver Temple, though it actually isn't silver), Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Fushimi Inari (orange Torii gates up a mountain), Kiyomizu-dera--had what I would term touristy (though still quaintly Japanese) shopping districts serving somewhat as gauntlets before you get to the actual attraction. But these sights in particular, along with the hundreds of golden statues at Sanjusangendo, were truly spectacular.

Samurai & Ninja Museum, Kyoto
Museums Visited:
Samurai & Ninja Museum
This is a small museum on the upper floors of a space within the Teramachi-dori covered shopping district, and clearly appealing to tourists. But I enjoyed it, as English-speaking guides gave a nice explanation and I got to throw stars (ninja weapons) and put on a shogun outfit and wield a sword. 

Train station sushi box, Café Bear, Donguri, Way to Emue, Gyugyu, JIki Miyazawa, Trattoria Sette (Hyatt)
The sushi box isn't a restaurant; it's a box with maki in it, but I was impressed by how well packaged it was. Donguri introduced me to okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes with various stuffing or toppings), while Jiki Miyazawa is a traditional kaiseki restaurant with numerous courses created and served by the chef. I went there for lunch and had the lower of two price-tier menus, but still enjoyed it very much. 

Dotonbori Canal, Osaka
Side Trips:
Osaka (Umeda Sky Building + observatory, Osaka Castle, Dotonbori, Ganko (sushi), River Cruise)
An easy hourlong train ride from adjoining Kyoto, Osaka proved a cool place to explore. Though it isn't all that tall or new, the Umeda building felt really modern and has a nice observatory. Osaka Castle was rebuilt in 1931 and though the exterior is extraordinarily lovely, the inside is that of a modern museum. Worth a look but not all that exhilarating. Per a travel blogger's suggestion with high praise, I went to the nightlife area of Dotonburi seeking a ramen restaurant called Hanamaruken Namba Houzenji. I found it...closed. A couple doors down, Ganko seemed inviting as a large sushi restaurant in a basement space, and I enjoyed the food I had. I then went wandering to the Dotonbori Canal that gives the district its name, and was beguiled by a boat cruise led by a guide leading cheers. It only lasted 20 minutes but stands as one of the more overtly enjoyable moments on the whole trip. 

Todai-ji, Nara
Nara (Mister Donut, Kofuku-ji temple, Nara Park, deer walking all around, Todai-ji w/ Buddha, Totogin sushi-go-round)
Similarly, in terms of overtly enjoyable experiences, I don't think anything I did quite topped the few hours I spent in Nara. Kofuku-ji had a beautiful temple, pagoda and other structures, while the grounds, main shrine and giant Buddha housed within Todai-ji were all splendiferous. But adding to the merriment were deer. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of freely roaming docile deer that you could pet, photograph and--in buying deer cookies--feed. I just loved it. And I was also delighted to dine at a sushi-go-round restaurant. 


How does one measure or evaluate a trip or destination? By how much fun was had? By the memories or photographs? By some intangible vibe?

It has now been more than a month since I returned home from Japan, and a few weeks since I began writing this recap. Some of the exact experiences are slowly starting to fade, and while I think some of the sights/photographs displayed here are rather spectacular, none is as singular as the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu or even Chichen Itza in Mexico, which I visited in April.

But, as I mentioned above, there is nothing I wish I had done differently. That bespeaks a great trip, and great experiences.

And while some additional interpersonal interactions may have been nice, to complement all the sights seen and places visited, there were some rather rewarding moments in this regard as well.

As I chronicled in this blog post, at a rather (but enjoyably) nondescript restaurant in Tokyo, a young waitress not only engaged me in some nice casual conversation, she wound up pulling out her laptop computer to show me a PowerPoint presentation she'd put together about sights she recommended a friend see in the city.

At the Yakult Swallows baseball game I went to in Tokyo, I carried on a great conversation throughout with a Japanese fan who spoke fine English, and even wound up friending him on Facebook.

While taking a tour of Tokyo's Imperial Palace, I met and befriended an American couple who were, like me, from Chicago's northern suburbs, though they now live in Florida. We would then meet for dinner in Kyoto.

Particularly in Kyoto, the hotel clerks were quite friendly and there and at the B Roppongi in Tokyo, their willingness to help with some logistics added considerably to my trip.

While feeding deer in Nara, I noticed some people photographing and filming it, and asked two if they might email the pix and video. Both did.

And from the guide on the tour to Mt. Fuji to the river cruise leader in Osaka to multiple guides & assistants at the Samurai & Ninja Museum in Kyoto to the staff at most restaurants I visited, I really did have several pleasant encounters with the Japanese people.

So, however one might measure it, going to Japan was a really great trip.