Monday, June 28, 2010

Hopefully This Post Won't Be Disallowed

(the above photo is of a goal that didn't count in the England-Germany World Cup game on Sunday)

I was thinking about writing a blog article about the atrocious refereeing at the World Cup, and how it is greatly threatening to damper the fledgling enthusiasm of newfound soccer fans, but Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated has written a piece that pretty much sums up my thoughts, undoubtedly much better than I would have expressed them.

I'll just say that while I love the mystique and global confluence of the World Cup, sometimes sitting through entire games is a chore. So when refs blow seemingly obvious calls--invariably disallowing goals that should count or allowing ones that shouldn't--it further diminishes the luster of what are already low scoring, drawn out games.

I understand that refs are human and I doubt there is anything more at play than honest mistakes, but with technology readily available to review disputed goals, why not employ it and add the proper justice to the world's largest sporting event?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Leaping Lizards! War With the Newts Presents Quite a Gripping Allegory

Theater Review

War With the Newts: Mr. Povondra's Dream
Next Theatre, presented at Mullady Theatre, Loyola University
Run Ended

War With the Newts is based on a 1936 story of the same name by Czech writer Karel Capek. Evanston's Next Theatre Company--which continues to produce stellar work yet was recently plagued by a controversy surrounding Artistic Director Jason Southerland, resulting in his resignation--borrowed Loyola University's Mullady Theatre for their season-closing, World Premiere play version directed by former Next Artistic Director Jason Loewith, who shared writing credit with Artistic Associate Justin D.M. Palmer.

I've never read the story, but from what I've read about it, the play seems to hew pretty closely in telling the prophetic tale of the discovery of an intelligent race of oversized newts, or giant salamanders, who have the ability to do underwater construction as well as communicate with their human counterparts.

At first, man, of various nations, utilizes the newts to further his own agenda, but in an allegory about greed, imperialism and probably much else, at the end of the play, mankind is at "war with the newts" and at great peril of being overrun.

While the play was somewhat dense to take in uninitiated--like artful movies, books, music, etc., I find many plays hard to appreciate fully the first time through but don't have the luxury of a rewind button--the impressive staging, fine acting and understandable theme made it more than sufficiently enjoyable. Although I may not have caught the depth of every line of dialogue, I knew I was watching something of substance and merit that never dragged. Next stalwarts Joseph Wycoff and Steve Pickering gave particularly strong performances among an excellent cast.

I hope Next doesn't suffer much from the issues with Southerland--who has been accused of plagiarism in adding content to their stellar Return To Haifa this past winter--as it has become one of my favorite theaters in the area, with their work often superior to what I'm seeing at Goodman and Steppenwolf. Although War of the Newts has now closed, it certainly served as yet another example and I look forward to what next season brings.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fuerza Bruta Doesn't Quite Succeed Through Brute Force

Theater Review

Fuerza Bruta: Look Up
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Open Run

A high energy piece of performance art created by the Argentina's De La Guarda company, Fuerza Bruta: Look Up is certainly the most unique show Broadway in Chicago has presented in the 10+ seasons I've been a subscriber.

Not only did the audience stand on stage at the Auditorium Theatre rather than sit in the seats, but the crowd--considerably younger than at most BIC performances--became part of the show, moving around the stage and even dancing & bouncing in accompaniment with the music and performers.

Those who enjoy large, loud nightclubs and/or drug-infused raves probably thought Fuerza Bruta was really cool. But despite much kinetic movement that provided nice eye candy in conjunction with (canned) ear candy, for me, "cool and hip" didn't really equate to "all that entertaining" nor "worth my time."

And especially if I had a bought a non-subscription ticket for $50-80 + fees (I have no clue why there are two price levels, as again, everyone stood on-stage), the hour-long spectacle certainly wouldn't have been worth my money.

For even in the parlance of Cirque du Soleil, Stomp, Blast and other non-narrative, performance art shows, while the performers in Fuerza Bruta were obviously quite spry and talented, nothing was really all that dazzling or mind-blowing.

In fact, although I know the reference is a bit anachronistic, throughout the show I couldn't help imagining Beavis & Butthead watching the show and commenting on what they were seeing.

"Look Butthead, there's a guy walking on a treadmill."

"Uh, yeah, but someone should tell him he's not really getting anywhere."

"But look, now he's running. He's running! Aaaaay, he's been shot. Someone just shot him."


"Yeah, blood rules! But look, he's taking off his bloody shirt and now he's running again."

"Dammit, Beavis. Can't anything stop this guy."

This imagined dialogue made the show a lot better than when taken at face value. Like me, B&B would have enjoyed the part when several lithe women were splashing around in a water-filled plastic tub positioned just above the audience's heads. Sure, it was unique and even somewhat sexy, but was it incredible? No.

Energy without emotion, or at least without stirring emotion in me, always feels kind of empty. And especially while standing on the same stage where I've seen several stellar performances--from Les Miz to Miss Saigon and R.E.M. to Radiohead--to be brutally honest, Fuerza Bruta (which translates to Brute Force) just didn't feel all that forceful.

If you have money to burn and like things that vibrant yet vacuous, Fuerza Bruta can provide an hour of enjoyable but not particularly memorable entertainment. But if you prefer your paid entertainment to also be somewhat enriching, don't Look Up, look elsewhere.

This 2-1/2 minute trailer pretty much shows you everything you'll see onstage. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

My Cup Runneth Overtime

It's been five whole days since the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, so I probably should have written something about it by now. But seeing how it's been 49 years in the making, I don't feel all that delinquent.

On the night they won, Wednesday, June 9, 2010, I was very happy, although like most fans and the Hawks themselves, the uncertainty of Kane's clinching goal stifled the spontaneity of my celebration. And this after the Flyers late tying goal already deflated my impending euphoria.

But though not quite as rapturous as my Pavlovian response system may have liked, the ending was certainly better than a loss that would have brought about Game 7. And for the first time in my lifetime, the Blackhawks are Stanley Cup Champions.

A friend asked me how the Hawks' winning ranks among my sports memories, primarily comprised of now having seen (not in person, except for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals) the Bears, Bulls, White Sox and Hawks win the ultimate prize in their respective sports. I'm still waiting on the Cubs, but then so is everyone not around in 1908.

I couldn't readily answer, and really there is no need for comparison. Watching (almost) all the Chicago teams win--and I am a fan of both the Cubs and Sox--has brought tremendous joy and a wonderful diversion from real life. Though the Sox winning their division in 1983 and the Cubs in 1984 were big deals due to their long playoff droughts, the Bears were the first Chicago team I saw win it all, and coupled with the dominance and personality of the 1985 Bears, made for an experience I'll never forget.

I was a huge Bulls fan ever since they drafted Michael Jordan, so was ecstatic when they won their first championship in 1991, but I was living in Los Angeles at the time and thus the celebration felt a bit distant. The subsequent championships were all fantastic, but obviously lost their unique aspect.

Though I honestly like the Cubs and Sox, the Cubs are ingrained a bit deeper. So while I was thrilled when the Sox won the World Series in 2005, I couldn't clearly claim them to be my team. Their win came just after I was released from a job for the first time, so it was an especially nice excuse to celebrate.

As for the Blackhawks, they've always been the only NHL team I cared about, but for a long time, I wasn't really a hockey fan. I never went to a Hawks game in the old Chicago Stadium and though I've gone to a game or two a season for most of the last 15 years, each was usually the only game(s) I saw in a given season.

So no, I have not been a die-hard season ticket holder since 1977, nor someone who ever played hockey (I still don't clearly understand some of the rules).

But what makes the Blackhawks victory so pleasing to me is my admiration for the rapidity of their rise.

Before the season before this one, the Hawks had missed the playoffs--in a league where 16 of 30 teams get in--9 of the previous 10 seasons. They were seemingly the worst franchise not only in hockey, but all of sports.

In the first half of the last decade, I remember regularly bemoaning the idiocy of their business plan to a Hawk-loving colleague. Year after year, they seemed to not try to sign any good free agents, when it seemed to me that the expense would've been easily offset by selling more tickets to each game, making the playoffs (and thus having tons more ticket and broadcast revenue) and having popular players with jerseys to merchandise.

It just didn't make sense to me that they would stay mired in mediocrity.

But then the owner, Bill Wirtz, died in September 2007. His son, Rocky, took over, hired John McDonagh away from the Cubs to serve as President, had some fortunate draft picks (most notably Kane and Toews), signed big name free agents like Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa, and less than three years later are the best team in hockey.

Everything I imagined came true.

Not only did the Hawks win the crown, they sold every seat during the 2009-10 season and tons of jerseys and merchandise. At the victory parade and rally, which I didn't attend, it was a sea of red.

So while the Hawks' winning wasn't the most emotionally rich championship for me, likely more than any other, it meshed with my sense of logic. Do things right and good things will happen. At least once in a lifetime.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Enjoying A Newfound Thrill

Book Review

No Time For Goodbye
by Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay--and particularly his 2008 thriller, No Time For Goodbye--was recommended to me based on my penchant for Harlan Coben, a best-selling writer of thrillers in a similar vein. In fact, Coben's "Caught" was the last book I read & reviewed, and this made for a good follow-up.

It certainly fit the bill of a captivating page-turner, as I got through it in a few days and couldn't readily put it down once I got about 200 pages in. The comparisons to Coben, whose entire oeuvre I've devoured, are certainly apt, as No Time For Goodbye concerns itself with a family crisis akin to many of Coben's stories.

I can't speak too much about Barclay based on one book, but rather than revolving around international espionage or more worldly matters, Coben's thrillers deal much more with individual dramas and things like missing family members. Which matches the plotline Barclay develops here, regarding a woman who is still trying to figure out why her parents and brothers disappeared one night 25 years ago, never to be heard from again nor found dead.

Though it took awhile to really start percolating and wasn't quite as good as much of Coben's best work--Barclay doesn't seem to have the same wit nor Coben's sly knack for beyond-the-story societal insights--No Time For Goodbye involves an intriguing mystery with many twists and once it gets going, it spellbinds like a top-notch thriller should.

I don't yet perceive that Barclay is a writer who I will be inspired to explore in sum, like Coben and Lee Child, but I won't hesitate to check out something else by him next time I'm looking for a cheap thrill. And I fully recommend No Time For Goodbye to anyone looking for a good summer thriller.


Speaking of cheap thrills, this weekend I intend to buy a few second-hand page turners at the Little City Used Book Sale, taking place in the parking lot at Old Orchard shopping mall. The sale is there all week, but the last weekend offers the best bargains (albeit with the most depleted selection). A great cause and a chance to pick up some good reads for next to nothing.

Monday, June 07, 2010

'Low Down Dirty Blues' Strikes A Nice Chord, But Is Far From High Drama

Theater Review

Low Down Dirty Blues
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru July 3, 2010

Low Down Dirty Blues features four excellent performances and none of its 80 minutes are less than enjoyably entertaining.

Certainly there are many stage shows that deliver a whole lot less, but despite keeping with the continual morphing of musical theater into meagerly-scripted concert performances, it feels like the piece--featuring a fine selection of bawdy old blues numbers--owes patrons paying for a night of theater a good bit more.

For while I understand the economics that cause many if not most new musicals to rely on existing songs (rather than being freshly composed) and applaud the broadening of "Broadway music" to include--as visaged by the current crop of Tony nominees for Best Musical--early rock, punk rock, Afrobeat and beyond, I believe that "theater" should still contain a certain amount of storytelling to distinguish it from the dominions of night clubs, cabarets and concert halls.

Most of the predominantly elderly and Caucasian audience at Northlight--perhaps pointedly not apt to frequently attend Chicago blues clubs--seemed to relish the effusiveness with which Felicia P. Fields, Mississippi Charles Bevel, Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Gregory Porter presented a collection of songs simmering with sexual double entendres. But much like the first show of the 2009-10 Northlight season, The Marvelous Wonderettes, the similarly slight-yet-smile-inducing Low Down Dirty Blues is a songbook musical (although no songwriters are credited) with a storyline so scant as to make Mamma Mia seem positively Dickenseque.

This isn't to suggest that LDDB needs some kind of cockamamie scenario; the concept of four singers plus three backing musicians hanging out after-hours at a blues club and entertaining each other with tunes too risque for the tourists is enough of a skeleton to support a show rightly driven by stellar individual performances (though if the songs aren't too salacious for the octogenarians at Northlight, would they really be taboo to sing in front of blues club patrons, especially as the show is seemingly set in the present?).

But given the wealth of Chicago's blues history and its legendary performers from Muddy Waters to Howlin' Wolf to Koko Taylor to Buddy Guy, I would have liked to see the show enlighten a bit more by providing some background information on the city's clubs and players, sharing some after-hours stories to accompany the songs or telling much more about the motivations, passions, disappointments, etc. of each of those showcasing these great songs of lust and longing.

Only a morsel of personal information was provided by each character, and nothing of much substance (nor even a character name in some cases). So rather than knowing who these four people are and why they're singing the blues as thousands have before them, all we're left with are the songs.

Again, they were universally nice to hear, with quite a laugh in several of the lyrics, but with almost nothing in the way of dialogue, exposition, narrative, biography or character information, what makes this theater besides the fact that it was in one?

To wit, each summer I try to see American English, my favorite Beatles tribute band, as they play great renditions of Fab Four songs while dressing as the Early Beatles, Sgt. Pepper Beatles, Abbey Road Beatles, etc. Though never heavy on dialogue, a few jokes get cracked in introducing a few of the tunes, and you're given a small sense of the unique aspects of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Almost always, I see American English for free or $5 at a local village festival, usually near the 4th of July. I invariably love the performance, but consider it a free tribute concert, not a piece of theater.

So while charging theater ticket prices of up to $54, what should the onus be on Low Down Dirty Blues (and similar shows) to deliver something a bit more theatrical?

Friday, June 04, 2010

In an Imperfect World, Why Not Do the Right Thing?

As you may have heard, on Wednesday night, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga threw what should have been the third perfect game--27 up, 27 down, no hits, walks or errors--of the 2010 season.

As the replay above shows, the 27th batter, Cleveland's Jason Donald, clearly should have been called out on a close play at first, but the umpire Jim Joyce called him safe. Galarraga, without protesting at the time, then retired the next batter. His manager, Jim Leyland, and teammates barraged Joyce after the last out, prompting Joyce to watch a replay immediately after leaving the field.

Upon doing so, Joyce demonstrated great class--and distinction from other umps who maintain a belligerent air of infallibility even when clearly in error--by admitting his mistake. Through tears, he said ""I took a perfect game from that kid."

Galarraga continued his remarkable display of grace, refusing to condemn Joyce and instead offering an ironic summation, "Nobody's perfect." And after learning how devastated the well-respected Joyce was about blowing the call, Leyland went to the umpire's room to console him.

Along with the replay being shown innumerable times, lots of words have been written and spoken about the missed call, and even more so the aftermath, which included Galarraga delivering the Tigers' lineup to Joyce on Thursday, when Joyce was coincidentally the home plate umpire. Detroit News columnist Lynn Henning had a nice summation of what had happened, which was not only unprecedented in many ways, but likely considerably even more newsworthy than what would've been the first perfect game in Tigers history and only the 21st ever in baseball, yet strangely the third within 2 months of the 2010 season.

Also on Thursday, it was reported that Major League Baseball, and particularly Commissioner Bud Selig, was considering giving Galarraga official credit for pitching a perfect game. But although the notoriously spineless Selig released a statement saying that "there is no dispute that last night's game should have ended differently" and that he would review both the umpiring system and the expanded use of instant replay in baseball, Selig refused to overturn the call and award Galarraga a perfect game.

While Selig didn't explain his rationale, several professional commentators and a few baseball-loving friends have supported Selig's decision, seemingly on the grounds that 1) Human error, including umpiring mistakes, has long been part of baseball and MLB has consciously decided not to implement instant replay for calls such as Joyce's. Thus, the logic goes, Selig shouldn't change an on-the-field decision & result based on evidence seen in a replay; and 2) In the annals of history, and even on any given day, there are many botched calls--some with much greater consequence in terms of the outcome of games--and no others have been changed after the fact.

I respect both these reasons, and the possible Pandora's Box a controversial decision by Selig might open, in terms of what he might be asked to review in the future. And perhaps contradictorily, while I do not categorically disapprove of greater use of instant replay, I am somewhat concerned about how seamlessly it can be implemented in baseball and am not yet a proponent.

But while it might seem a somewhat "head in the sand" approach, I say damn the torpedoes, don't worry the inconsistencies and ramifications, and officially award Galarraga perfect game. One that will forever be officially considered as such by the Baseball Hall of Fame,, Wikipedia and all other keepers of such records.

There is no question that Galarraga pitched what should have resulted in a perfect game. This is an unprecedented circumstance, and no one, from the Indians to Jason Donald would be harmed or could seemingly object. And we're talking about baseball, not a war tribunal or a dispute over territorial boundaries.

Especially given the grace shown by Galarraga, the honesty & sorrow displayed by Joyce and the forgiveness offered by Leyland, Selig shouldn't just "do the popular thing," but nonetheless heed the opinion of over 75% voters in multiple polls on the matter and issue a simple statement saying:

"Armando Galarraga deserves to be credited for pitching a perfect game on June 2, 2010 and I am using the power of my office to see that he is."

Over. Done. Turn off the pundit debates on ESPN. Ignore all questions. Do the right thing and move forward. The world will keep spinning. Life will continue. Justice will be done. And a class act like Armando Galarraga will take his rightful place in the annals of baseball records that celebrate scum like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

'Vin'tage Voice Continues to Announce Its Virtuosity, Play-by-Play

As anyone who has paid attention to this blog, even sporadically, over the past 6 months, should realize, I have a great appreciation for people who are masters of their craft--in a wide variety of genres.

From Sonny Rollins to Stephen Sondheim, Raphael to Frank Lloyd Wright and Buddy Guy to Bono, I tried to share my passion for people I consider among my creative heroes.

Today I would like to use a few words to celebrate someone who remains better than anyone else at what he does, even after 60 years of doing it.

At 82, Vin Scully is still the best baseball announcer I've ever heard. And while I obviously haven't heard everybody who's ever called a ballgame, it is with tremendous admiration for late legends like Ernie Harwell, Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Harry Kalas and Curt Gowdy that I would presume Scully to be the best announcer who's ever lived.

Although he's called over 10,000 baseball games and other sporting events, I haven't really heard him all that often, as he's the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers (and even during my three years in LA in the early '90s, I didn't watch or listen to many Dodger games).

But this past Monday, during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, when I was channel surfing during breaks in the hockey game, I came across a Dodgers-Diamondbacks game being carried on the MLB Network. Vin Scully was doing the play-by-play, and as seems to be his custom, was not accompanied by a color analyst. He was amazing to listen to, even for just a few minutes as he called a mundane middle inning.

Then yesterday, when I had already decided to write a tribute, I discovered the MLB Network was carrying another Dodgers-Dbacks game. I started watching in the 5th inning and, although I could really care less about the game's outcome, I watched until the scoreless tie was won by the Dodgers in the bottom of the 14th inning.

Listening to Scully was like listening to a symphony. He is just that good; always keeping you informed of the action on the field, while subtly yet meticulously painting the picture that surrounds it. And again, at age 82, he's calling 14 inning games with no partner and no breaks.

I can't find video that I can repost here, but here is a link to his call of yesterday's game-ending play. What happens isn't even all that dramatic, but there is just such an elegance to Scully's call. Similarly, here's his call of a walk-off homer from the night before.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Scully started calling baseball games in 1950--following Harwell into the Brooklyn Dodgers' radio booth, after Harwell left to work handle NY Giants games--and also spent 10 years broadcasting NFL games. (Scully gave this warm remembrance of Harwell after Ernie passed away on May 4).

Anyway, I don't have much to say about Vin Scully that he couldn't say much more remarkably. But after having the pleasure of hearing him a couple times this week, it seemed right that I say something. If you have a chance to catch him doing play-by-play, stop and listen. You'll never hear anyone do it any better.