Monday, October 31, 2011

It's Still Super...califragilisticexpialidocious -- Theater Review: Mary Poppins

Theatre Review

Mary Poppins
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 6, 2011

While the early years of this millennium aren't likely to go down in history as a particularly stellar period for rock 'n roll or various other art forms--including fine art--I do think it's been a rather robust era for new Broadway musicals.

The Producers, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, In the Heights, Spring Awakening and Billy Elliott are all shows I've found to be truly sensational.

Just a notch or two below but still wonderfully entertaining, especially with first-rate productions, have been Legally Blonde, Next to Normal, Jersey Boys, Caroline or Change, The Drowsy Chaperone, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Million Dollar Quartet, Mamma Mia, Urinetown, The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Woman in White, Spamalot, The Color Purple, Grey Gardens, Curtains, Shrek, Young Frankenstein, The Addams Family, ...Tick, Tick, Boom, Aida, Movin' Out, Contact, Spider-Man Turn off the Dark, The Boy From Oz and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

I've also enjoyed shows that have yet to hit Broadway--and perhaps never will--like The Visit, Bat Boy, Dangerous Beauty, The Adding Machine, The Beautiful Game, A Man of No Importance, Daddy Long Legs, Little House on the Prairie and Stephen Sondheim's Bounce (later reworked as Road Show), and I've heard good things about shows I've yet to see, like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Memphis and American Idiot.

Perhaps somewhat overlooked under the umbrella of "Great Musicals of the 2000s"--although it has been rather successful and generally well-reviewed in London, on Broadway and in touring incarnations--is Disney's stage rendition of Mary Poppins.

Like medicine with the help of a spoonful of sugar, the show--which features classic songs from the 1964 film alongside some nice ones newly created for the stage--goes down in the most delightful way.

I've now seen Mary Poppins live and in person four times and highly recommend the show for musical theater fans of all ages. Currently in Chicago on its second national tour, 'Mary' will be at the Cadillac Palace for the remainder of the week.

The current production remains superb, even if the scenery and stars are a bit lesser than the London and initial American tour versions (the latter featured the original Broadway Mary and Bert, Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee).

But Rachel Wallace and Nicholas Dromard are rather good in their own right, supported by a full Equity cast.

And while I may not put 'Mary Poppins' quite up there with the very best recent musicals due to its preponderance of pre-existing songs, in an era when "jukebox musicals" are ubiqitous, there have been few with a score as good as this one.

With magical tunes of old by Richard and Robert Sherman, including "Jolly Holiday," "Spoonful of Sugar," "Let's Go Fly a Kite," "Step in Time" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," I had a smile on my face much of the night. And "Anything Can Happen"--one of seven freshly written songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe --is one of my favorite showtunes of recent vintage.

While the show should hold great appeal for kids--it is certainly one of the best family musicals of the last decade--there is something about the story that should resonate no what your age, with the relevance of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement only adding greater resonance to the tale of the Banks family.

Though it is slightly scaled down form the first tour, which originated in Chicago, this might be your last chance to see a production this elaborate. Especially with discounts readily available from HotTix and Goldstar, or even just a cheap upper balcony seat from the box office, I suggest you "Step in Time" and fly on over to see Mary Poppins.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

One of Life's Great 'Follies' - Theatre Review

Theatre Review

a musical by Stephen Sondheim
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Thru November 13

From my perspective, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre should be renamed the Chicago Sondheim Theatre. For I've yet to see any of the Bard's plays there, but have now seen all five of CST's wonderful, Gary Griffin-directed productions of classic Stephen Sondheim musicals.

I'm sure the theater does a great job with the works of Sir William, but with the only other show I've seen there being a play about another musical genius--Amadeus--the sublime renditons of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Passion and now Follies have been absolute treats. To the point that I would gladly subscribe if CST wanted to present a Sondheim series.

In fact, Follies is one of the rare shows in Chicago in recent memory for which I've paid full price--$55 on Sunday night--and I feel lucky to have gotten a ticket.

Such is my regard for the venue's Sondheim productions--the current hit show is in the CST's large theater but all of his other musicals ran in the studio theater upstairs--that Follies was a "must-see" despite my having seen the show's current Broadway revival in August.

That version was filled with Tony winners--Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell--and other musical theater luminaries, including Elaine Paige, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines. It was quite good, with many outstanding indvidual performances on the various "pastiche" numbers--songs showcasing each of aging, former Follies girls who have gathered for a reunion--but as I wrote here (my review is contained within), the show felt like its parts were greater than its sum.

Certainly, there were many great showstopping performances at CST too, where several cast members had Broadway credits and/or impressive local resumes, but perhaps due to more intimate confines, the entire affair congealed a bit better.

Although Follies has an interesting conceit--former showgirls reuniting 30 years after Weismann's Follies (a la Ziegfield) had its last revue, and before their old theater gets wrecking balled--it works better (at least on the surface) as pure entertainment.

Literally without missing a beat, Sondheim wondrously weaves the diverse pastiche numbers--his mimicking of Gershwin and other early 20th century composers--with songs supporting the story of Sally/Buddy and Phyllis/Ben, who are married couples and former friends.

That storyline, filled with regret and recriminations, certainly has a fair amount of compelling pathos and songs that support it ("Buddy's Eyes," "The Right Girl," "The Road You Didn't Take).

But even on a third viewing of Follies--and second in 10 weeks--something about the romantic tale remains obtuse, especially amidst the pastiche musical pastries, particularly in giving way to Loveland, the show within the show in which the Buddy, Sally, Phyllis and Ben get their own pastiche numbers.

It's somewhat short-shrifting Sondheim, book writer James Goldman, Griffin and the exemplary cast to say one should avoid over analysis and just enjoy the songs, but even if you don't quite get it all, Follies remains tremendously entertaining, particularly in this stellar production.

Susan Moniz is quite good as Sally, delivering a chilling version of "Losing My Mind," while another longtime Chicago favorite, Hollis Resnik, sings "I'm Still Here" as well as Sondheim devotees could hope. While Caroline O'Connor doesn't imbue the role of Phyllis with the same glamour Jan Maxwell does on Broadway,  she certainly has adequate dramatic and vocal chops.

It seemed that both male leads--Robert Petkoff as Buddy and Brent Barrett as Ben--were, or at least looked, too young for their roles of men in their 50s, but they both gave strong performances. And as always, it was fun to see the legendary Mike Nussbaum, playing the elderly impresario Dimitri Weismann with typically wry panache.

While I don't know that I noted any overly crafty directorial choices by Griffin--such as with his minimalist take on Pacific Overtures--but the production used the Shakespeare's Courtyard Theatre well, with cast members routinely existing the stage through the auditorium aisles. Probably the best touch was having the orchestra on stage as a backdrop to all else going on. They sounded great and gave the proceedings a feel both classy and classic.

As much as I love Sondheim, I must admit that I often have some difficulty with his works in the moment I'm watching them. For as great as Follies was on Sunday night, I didn't leave the theater with quite the feeling of ebullience that more traditionally upbeat musicals (such as Mary Poppins, which I will be reviewing soon) provide.

But I think that's part of what makes Sondheim, and many of his works, including Follies, so great. Rather than being--at least by the finale--joyously crowd-pleasing, his shows often have a pervading melancholy or darkness that can be discomfiting. But outstanding works of art often involve an element of challenge, and while there is plenty in CST's rendition of Follies that's easily enjoyable, along with the exceptional score it's the troubling underbelly that makes this a musical worthy of deeper exploration.

Dedicated Sondheim fans might be interested in his upcoming appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival. I've already got my tickets.

Friday, October 21, 2011

'Love, Loss' and What a Bore -- Theatre Review

Theatre Review

Love, Loss, and What I Wore
by Nora & Delia Ephron
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru December 4

I think I can appreciate creativity, artistry and quality in almost any form, including fashion (even if I'm no Beau Brummell baby).

And I have seen and enjoyed theatrical performances of myriad types and topics, including many shows for which I'm not the target demographic.

So while it might seem my not caring much for--nor about, but as a consequence--Love, Loss, and What I Wore is due largely to my gender, I think that does a disservice to "non-wheelhouse" shows whose quality rises above pandering to a particular audience.

Yes, had Broadway in Chicago done the smart thing and offered subscribers a choice of Love, Loss... or Colin Quinn: Long Story Short--another show it presented at the Broadway Playhouse this fall, and one that skews more heavily toward men--I would have chosen the latter to be part of my series. (I saw Colin Quinn and enjoyed him far more than Love, Loss..., but had to buy a $40 a la carte ticket.)

And no, I don't have the emotional attachment to clothing that Love, Loss, and What I Wore purports to be universal among women. But great theater--whether a musical, drama, comedy or five seated ladies reading from binders, as was the case here--should rise above the confines of its subject matter to hold some appeal for all audiences.

In fact, despite a lack of passion for fashion and almost no recall of specific clothes I wore on a given occasion--other than topical ties or a Springsteen concert t-shirt to a subsequent show--I get what the Ephron sisters are trying to evoke in their "play" based on a 1995 book by Ilene Beckerman.

With a greater feeling of authenticity, more insightful humor or even more poignant nostalgia, Love, Loss... could have been much more winning. But despite the writing talents of the Ephron sisters--Nora penned When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, which she also directed, and Delia also has a number of film credits--the whole affair comes across as rather facile and obvious.

I understand why the show needs to be scripted rather than ad libbed, but I would much rather have heard the ladies onstage--including the superb Chicago actresses Barbara Robertson & Felicia Fields and Saturday Night Live vet Nora Dunn--speak honestly about what certain clothes and related experiences have meant to them, rather than reciting canned stories that lack spark or much heart.

Sure, some of the anecdotes that involved childhood, death or illness couldn't help but be moving, and some observations were sufficiently funny, but for the most part, Love, Loss, and What I Wore didn't just seem ill-fitting; rather, the whole fabric of the felt-much-longer-than-90-minute show is poorly designed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Charlemagne's Kid Gets Along -- Theatre Review: Pippin

Theatre Review

BoHo Theatre at Theatre Wit
Thru November 13, 2011

In the quantitatively shallow but qualitatively deep category of "Superb and successful Broadway composer-lyricists named Stephen who have 8-letter surnames starting with S," Stephen Schwartz comes in a somewhat distant second.

But though his overall canon is a good bit shy of Mr. Sondheim's, with Wicked, Schwartz can probably claim the single most successful show (especially if West Side Story and Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote just the lyrics, aren't considered).

But while I fairly well know the majority of Sondheim shows and tend to see a few each year--including West Side, Sweeney Todd, Follies and Merrily We Roll Along so far in 2011--besides Wicked, my direct familiarity with Schwartz' output had been rather limited before this year.

I saw Children of Eden several years back, but couldn't name--let alone hum--a single song from it. And thus, though I love Wicked and have seen it several times, I really couldn't sing Schwartz' praises beyond it.

In 2011, that has changed considerably. Somewhat.

In February, I saw the new production of Working, a 1977 show for which Schwartz wrote some of the songs. He himself was strongly involved in the show's resurrection and staging at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse and I really liked the show, but I can't recall which songs were his (vs. those by about a half-dozen other composers/lyricists).

In July, for the first time I saw Schwartz' first hit--Godspell--in a summer college production at Northwestern. Perhaps it's because I'm Jewish--as I imagine is Schwartz--and didn't know "the source material," but despite some tuneful songs, I didn't like it much. To the point of not bothering to write a review ripping college kids. (The show was just revived on Broadway, so perhaps when a future tour routes through Chicago, I can give it another chance.)

Much better was Snapshots, Northlight's new "musical scrapbook" using Schwartz songs in the service of a new story (with Stephen himself revising some lyrics). Though I didn't recognize many of the songs--besides a few from Wicked--I liked most of them. Snapshots considerably upped my regard for Schwartz' oeuvre, and as a few nice tunes were from Pippin, I was curious to see that show.

Fortuitously, Chicago's Bohemian Theatre Ensemble--now dubbed the BoHo Theatre--is presenting Pippin in a refurbished space at the Theater Wit on Belmont. (If it's any solace to Mr. Schwartz, re: my opening paragraph, I opted to see Pippin on Sunday--with a cheap ticket from HotTix--rather than Putting It Together, a Sondheim review running in the adjoining theater.)

BoHo's rendition of Pippin wasn't quite boffo--the Tribune's Chris Jones was rather lukewarm--but it certainly provided sufficient entertainment for a bargain matinee.

Given the sparse staging and generally solid but not superlative performances, I don't know that I can rightfully judge Schwartz' creation itself. "Magic To Do," "Corner of the Sky" and "Morning Glow" were the only songs I recall as first-rate just a few days later, but the rest reinforced that even in his early-'20s, Schwartz was already a formidable talent (by 26 he had three Broadway hits running simultaneously). And though I think I generally followed the story, I'm not certain I got everything that was going on.

(Given my title for this post, perhaps I should explain that Pippin is the son of Charlemagne (aka King Charles) in what I believe is 8th century France. My oblique reference is to this song, not from the show.)

Shawn Nathan Baer in the title role and Travis Porchia as "Leading Player" (a role originated by Ben Vereen) led a cast that did a nice job executing the choreography of Brenda Didier under the direction of Peter Marston Sullivan.

While I can't say I was blown away, if  you likewise want to expand your knowledge of Schwartz' work, there's no reason not to see this production of Pippin, especially with tickets as low as $11 on HotTix. But if you can get to Snapshots before it closes this Sunday, it should provide a better picture of the merits of the runner-up, but still quite winning, Stephen S.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Pumpkins Still Smashing But Only in Parts -- Concert Review: The Smashing Pumpkins

Photo Credit: Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune
Concert Review

The Smashing Pumpkins
with Light FM, Fancy Space People
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
October 14, 2011

In considering a Smashing Pumpkins concert at this stage in their career, it's easy to focus on what "they" no longer are.

As in, "they" no longer include 3/4 of the original band--with singer/songwriter/ guitarist Billy Corgan the only holdover--and they are precipitously shy of their peak mid-'90s popularity, when the Pumpkins were truly one of the world's biggest bands.

But although I have some mixed feelings about the current incarnation being called the Smashing Pumpkins, in truth the band name may have always been more of Corgan's alter ego (his Nine Inch Nails or LCD Soundsystem) than a unified group.

While the band, so to speak, once consisted of Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D'arcy Wretzky and drummer James Chamberlain, on their breakthrough 1993 album, Siamese Dream, Billy played all the instruments except drums. When I first saw them at Lollapalooza '94, the band sounded rather loose and sloppy, and at their '96 peak, Chamberlain was ousted after a drug incident that left tour keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin dead.

The band would continue as a 3-piece, augmented by several musicians on their 1998 Adore tour, and by their 2000 farewell tour, Chamberlain was back but D'arcy was gone.

Since even in their heyday, the Pumpkins were often carved into various manifestations, it's somewhat hard to rue that the original band no longer exists. Chamberlain accompanied Corgan after the initial 2007 resurrection--with Iha and D'arcy seemingly wanting nothing more to do with the supposedly dictatorial head Pumpkin--but he split in 2009.

Now the so-called Smashing Pumpkins are Corgan and guitarist Jeff Schroeder, 21-year old drummer Mike Byrne and Nicole Fiorentino, the latest in a line of hot female bassists that Billy somehow manages to perpetually find and recruit.

And at the Riviera, on several great Pumpkins songs of yore, the new band still sounded smashing. Although not quite as powerful as Chamberlain, one of rock's best drummers, Byrne was rather impressive. And though I used to think Iha did a bit more onstage than Corgan probably gave him credit for--I liked the way his guitar fills danced around Corgan's 6-string roar--Schroeder seemed adequate and Fiorentino appeared to offer more than eye candy as she supplied bass licks and background vocals that sounded rather strong.

There are few bands, ever, whose sound I enjoy as much as the Smashing Pumpkins, and if Billy is able to fairly-well replicate it accompanied by trained monkeys, well, I'll probably be there cheering, playing air guitar and singing along. On great back catalog cuts like "Geek USA," "Muzzle," "Siva," "Cherub Rock" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," the thunderous melodies sounded sublime and any qualms about promotional legitimacy seemed rather pointless.

But though, in direct opposition to latter-day Pumpkins concerts in late 2008 and even in their heyday, Corgan avoided any ill-advised verbal harangues--in fact, he barely spoke to the hometown crowd at all--he still couldn't resist his tendency to deliver roughly half of a truly sensational show. Although Saturday's setlist looks pretty decent on paper, particularly to a pretty avid fan--I've seen the Smashing Pumpkins and other Corgan incarnations (Zwan, solo) over 20 times, more than any other act except Bruce Springsteen--there were still large portions of the show where the music meandered and dragged.

While I feel my @@@@ rating is about right, it's more based on the really good parts of the show deserving @@@@1/2 and the lesser sections only about @@@, rather than being solidly fulfilling throughout. Which serves to remind that even during their initial run, there were often portions of Pumpkins shows that left me scratching my head, while the great parts kept bringing me back for more.

At this point, my advice to Billy Corgan--not that I'd expect him to heed it--would be to start focusing on composing rock-based stage musicals (or even rock operas), something that clearly should be within his talent and comfort zones. And when he wants to play concerts, it should be as Billy Corgan, allowing him to mine not only the Pumpkins' glorious past, but also some of the stellar work he did with the short-lived Zwan, whose 2003 album is probably the best thing Billy has created in the last decade or so.

But as Saturday night proved, whatever brand of Pumpkins gets served up, I'll still be there, gloriously happy, at least for part of the night.

I should also mention that there were two opening bands, Light FM--of which current Pumpkins bassist Fiorentino is a former member and who were quite enjoyable--and Fancy Space People, which was one of the weirdest, most annoying bands I've ever seen (all the members wore space outfits). And as part of the Pumpkins' encore, Billy reunited the members of a band named Catherine, who he explained used to share rehearsal space with his band. I've never heard of them, so it didn't mean much to me, but the two songs they played sounded decent enough. Sure, I would rather have heard "Zero" and "Tonight, Tonight" but the Pumpkins weren't going to play them anyhow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

'Raisin' Some Dramatic Questions, 'Clybourne Park' Shines at Steppenwolf -- Theatre Review

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow,
Theatre Review

Clybourne Park
a new play by Bruce Norris
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 6, 2011

I don't mean for this to sound preachy, as though I'm really telling you what you should do. After all, despite beautiful weather in Chicago over the weekend, suggestions that I take a bike ride along the lake, watch the marathon or even (with proper training) run the marathon wouldn't have been heeded. Not my thing, and perhaps going to live theater isn't yours. No harm, no foul. Free to be you and me.

But should you be someone interested in exploring thought-provoking entertainment, you would be amiss not to see Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Clybourne Park, at Steppenwolf Theatre. Especially when, as I did, you should readily be able to get a ticket for just $20 (+ a small handling fee) by availing yourself of Steppenwolf's generous 20 for $20 daily discount ticket program. Steppenwolf also offers half-price rush tickets and student discounts, and the show has also been discounted on HotTix.

So although patrons who paid the full $70 price for the same Sunday matinee I attended for $20 saw an excellent, contemplative, often humorous drama, I got a bargain of such tremendous value that I urge others to take advantage as well. You won't see theater any better for any less.

Norris, whose 6 previous plays all originated at Steppenwolf, debuted Clybourne Park in New York before it played London, where it won the 2011 Pulitzer for Drama as well as the Olivier Award for Best New Play.  Given his history with Steppenwolf and the fact that Clybourne Park is based in Chicago, it's a bit ironic that Norris' most decorated work premiered elsewhere, but the cast here certainly delivers an excellent rendition.

The new play plays off Lorraine Hansberry's classic 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun, which I've yet to see or read, but Clybourne Park clearly stands on its own. From what I've discerned, 'Raisin' is about the Youngers, an African-American family in Chicago that has an opportunity to move to a better neighborhood called Clybourne Park after receiving a life insurance payout. Along with debates within the family, the story involves a bigot named Karl Lindner who tries to pay off the Youngers to keep them away for racist reasons.

Set in 1959, the first act of Clybourne Park revolves around a white couple that lives in the house the Youngers wind up buying in A Raisin in the Sun. Norris depicts why the couple wants to leave their neighborhood, shrewdly showing how intolerance isn't only across racial lines. But largely through the inclusion of Karl Lindner, Norris also reveals the ugliness that pervades the neighborhood after it is learned who will be buying the home. (A question for dramatic afficionados: Besides Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, can you think of any other plays derived from characters/plotlines of a different play?)

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow,
Act 2 is set 50 years later, in the same house, now being purchased by a white couple that plans to knock it down to build a McMansion. Their black neighbors, descendants of the Youngers, oppose their plans. I found this act to be a bit confusing and not quite as slyly tension-packed as Act 1. But as I mentioned, along with being quite commentative about the past and present, Clybourne Park is infused with a good deal of humor, so even if a bit top-heavy, the show is never less than richly entertaining.

With Red now playing at the Goodman, two of the best, most highly acclaimed plays of recent years are currently making their regional debuts in Chicago, with world-class productions. If you can't get to both, do yourself a favor and find a few hours to catch either Red (Goodman also has discount programs) or Clybourne Park. I promise you'll be better off for doing something so rewardingly dramatic.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

At 85, Life is Still But a Dream for Mr. Canoe, Ralph Frese

"In canoeing, we have the only trail in nature that leaves no trace of our passing."

With this thought-provoking statement, one of many insights imparted during an engaging and educational conversation, Ralph Frese, longstanding proprietor of the Chicagoland Canoe Base, cast a light on two of his enduring passions--canoeing and environmental preservation--while obliquely referencing a third: history.

But although the aches left by 85 years of arduous and inspiring activity have curtailed the personal paddling days of the man widely known as "Mr. Canoe," with his passion for our waterways and our world Frese undeniably continues to blaze indelible trails.

Perhaps that's why when Chicago's Steinmetz High School celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2009 and devoted space in its program to two of its notable alumni--both from the class of 1944--Hugh Hefner got a half-page and Ralph Frese got a full one.

Yet while the numerous awards and honors he has received--many of which are listed here--certainly serve as a testament to Mr. Canoe's impressive legacy, even more powerful proclamations are those of a personal nature, as I observed first-hand during the three hours I spent with Frese a day before his 85th birthday on September 22nd.

But first a little history...

Although Ralph Frese, now a Niles resident, could be found day-in, day-out at 4019 N. Narragansett in Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood for roughly the last 56 years, first as a blacksmith in his father's shop, which dates back to the late '30s--"We were professional chiselers," Ralph shared, simultaneously being literal and glib--and running the Canoe Base since sometime in the '60s, I was oblivious to his and his shop's existence until about 2 months ago.

A friend of mine had recently bought a used SUV and needed bars put on top to accommodate a folding boat. He knew of Frese's shop from years of seeing its unique facade just north of Irving Park Rd., but had never patronized it until we stopped in on a Saturday.

Along with selling and renting canoes and kayaks, including some hand-crafted by its owner, and carrying a boatload (pun intended) of accessories--oars, life jackets, clothing, maps, etc.--Chicagoland Canoe Base is the Midwest's only custom installer of Yakima bars. And though my pal's Santa Fe didn't require any custom holes drilled, Ralph personally handled the install as part of the sales price. Which was fortunate as it saved my friend & I three hours of blood & turmoil in attempting to do so ourselves.

It was instantly apparent that the CCB's website claim to be "The most unusual canoe shop in the U.S." would largely ring true even without the word "canoe." And much of the uniqueness is embodied by Ralph Frese himself.

Which he knows causes a bit of a conumdrum as he seeks to sell the business and retire. In fact, a story I found about Frese from 2007 revealed his desire to find a buyer for the Chicagoland Canoe Base.

"That's the problem with having something this special," he opined. "I see it as an opportunity for some young entrepreneur who wants to carve a niche in this world. Like I did.

"Someone could buy the property and business, or just the business, or just the inventory. And I'm not leaving the area, so I could give the new owner some help."

Which brings me back to Ralph Frese's proudest accomplishment, inspiring others

Just as soon as I sat down to talk to Ralph in the office of his store--housed in a building that got its start as a 300-seat silent movie theater and subsequently served a craftsman who "built airplanes in here" before Carl Frese took it over--a young woman walked in and said she wanted to rent a canoe.

As this is a core of the CCB's business, Ralph was certainly happy to oblige her, with generous accommodation. A canoe rental is $50 per day, and though it was only about 2:30pm on Wednesday, Ralph told her she didn't have to bring it back until Friday. The rental included oars, life jackets and seat cushions, and, well, installation. I helped Ralph carry a canoe to the lady's car and lift it over the roof, where Ralph strapped it down.

It turned out that the woman was from Ohio, in town due to her husband attending a trade show at McCormick Place, and with a son waiting in the backseat. The kid couldn't stop smiling when I pointed out that he had a boat over his head.

Back in the shop as Ralph rang up the transaction and gave her tips about where to launch--he initially suggested the Linne Woods Forest Preserve at Dempster St. in Morton Grove (a sign marking the "Ralph Frese River Trail" is nearby) but after learning she'd be picking her husband up from McCormick Place before they could start canoeing, he cited the Clark Park boat launch where Addison St. crosses over the Chicago River--Ralph made a point of telling the woman about The Grove in Glenview, because he thought her young son would get a kick out of seeing the historic nature preserve.

And that in a nutshell--even more than canoeing itself and more specifically than environmental preservation or history--is seemingly Ralph Frese's principal passion: helping others, especially young people, gain an appreciation of nature.

In 1940, at age 14, Ralph got his first boat, a canvas kayak built by a neighbor kid in shop class and sold by the boy's father after the son joined the Marines. Using a bike trailer and hitch he built in his dad's blacksmith shop, Ralph would ride 15 miles to go fishing in the Skokie Lagoons.

In the late '50s, in the first of two 30+ year marriages, Ralph followed his father-in-law's passion for working with the Boy Scouts. Wanting to take the kids out canoeing, he began building canoes in an empty portion of  the shop. After initially building 6, and then a dozen, canoes for his troop, word got around, and Ralph wound up building somewhere between 400-600 canoes for local Boy Scouts.

Wanting to further get scouts passionate about canoeing, in 1958 Ralph Frese founded the Des Plaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon, which had its 54th annual race this past May.

This passion for inspiring others to become involved with canoeing explains why, when I asked him what made him proudest of all his accomplishments and awards, Ralph spoke of a local school teacher who had come into his shop one day.

"After I told him about all the trails he could be exploring, he got so interested he wound up working for the American River Conservation Council, ultimately becoming its President. Now he's working for the National Forest Service, which oversees 30 million acres of wildlands and 119 wild & scenic rivers," relayed Ralph.

"I'm proud of what he accomplished."

Ralph also cited another disciple who became "river-oriented" because of his influence and went on to head the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Living proof of Ralph's lasting influence wasn't hard to find

While I was at the Chicagoland Canoe Base talking to Ralph in September, not only did a woman come in to rent a canoe and a friend of Ralph's come by to discuss photos of a historic Nordic boat taken on a recent trip, but when I ventured through the adjacent workshop to find the restroom, I encountered a guy shaving wood in the proximity of a birch bark canoe-in-progress.

The man, a high school science teacher named Richard Gross, was a teenager when he first met Ralph. Along with a number of other teens imbued with a passion for history and the outdoors, Rich accompanied Ralph in researching and re-enacting RenĂ©-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's pioneering expedition from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico. According to Gross, their 6-month trek in 1976--which came 3 years after Ralph and others, including one of Gross' teachers, re-enacted the Joliet/Marquette expedition on its 300th anniversary--took a year of preparation and the building of six birch bark canoes.

All these years later, Gross is still building canoes, regularly stopping in to see Frese and trying to inspire the kids he teaches.

"I credit the whole thing to Ralph. If he hadn't wanted to involve people, I wouldn't have wanted to get involved," Gross shared. "I have to pass it on. I have to 'involve' the next generation of people."

Tickled at the admiration being shared right in front of him, and directly with him--Gross and a pal had just given Frese a new power drill they insisted was "not a birthday present" as such had been deemed taboo--Ralph offered, "I've enjoyed all the years. People who come in [to the store and workshop] are doers; they're interesting people to know.

"They've expanded my whole world and provided an education for me."

In fact, Ralph Frese and those he's inspired through his myriad journeys are not only avid students of history, occasionally they actually re-write it.

For over 300 years, the site of Fort Crevecoeur, established by LaSalle and Henri de Tonti, was presumed to be near present day Peoria, Illinois (which has a suburb called Creve Coeur). But through a thorough examination of LaSalle's letters and documents, Rich Gross was able to establish that Fort Crevecoeur was sited about 80 miles down the Illinois River at what is now Beardstown, IL.

So not only has Ralph Frese helped influence the future, his influence has helped change the past

Speaking to what Ralph has meant, Rich Gross noted the impossibility of summing it up succinctly, but said, "He's been the focal point in bringing so many issues out of the back and into the front of people's minds. The Chicago River used to be uninhabitable; now there are over 90 species of fish. That's due to people like Ralph."

Although his 85th birthday is now a few weeks past, when I talked to him the day before it, Ralph Frese was planning to celebrate it with his wife Rita and several friends at his favorite restaurant--and one of mine--Kappy's in Morton Grove.

Beyond wanting to sell down some of his inventory--"I really should learn to sell stuff on eBay"--and hoping to find a like-minded buyer for the Canoe Base, Ralph is hoping to do a lot more writing.

Long an avid writer--you can see his fine tribute to fellow canoeist on the Illinois Paddling Council home page--Ralph extended our visit well past his shop's closing time with tales of commemorative canoe trips involving notable politicians and Pocohontas (of the Disney on Ice variety).

On a more serious note, he mentioned how he had been enlisted to build canoes for a youth center, and how by fostering canoe trips for troubled kids, he had seen their angry resistance turn into enriching collaboration. "I can sum up the success of those programs in one word," he said. "Love."

It sounds a bit silly for me, having spent all of about 5 hours in the company of Ralph Frese, to try to neatly summarize his life and achievements. But it's abundantly clear that Ralph loves what he does, and has done, would love for you to discover, and share, the joy of canoeing--"The canoe has always been a symbol of romance, adventure and exploration, especially in this region," he conveyed. "It's affordable, and parents can use the canoe as a learning tool, to expose kids to geography, history, nature, the environment"--and has enjoyed the love, admiration and appreciation of untold masses that he has inspired and influenced, directly or not.

Though he's not planning on going anywhere for awhile, he would clearly like nothing more than for someone to follow in his footsteps, or per the opening quote here, his wake. He also has, as apparent even to an avid indoorsman like myself, a wealth of wisdom that would benefit anyone who cares about environmental preservation and sensible flood control.

Yet despite being such a rabid fan of history, Ralph spent little time reflecting on his place in it, or how he has personally changed the world for the better. But near the end of our fascinating conversation, he neatly encapsulated the abiding attitude with which he had lived his impressive life.

"The world is filled with givers and takers. I want to go down in history as one of the givers."

Chicagoland Canoe Base, 4019 N. Narragansett, Chicago, (773) 777-1489
There is substantial information about Ralph Frese online that I found valuable, including this YouTube clip of a 2007 Chicago Tonight piece.
(This story was not sponsored nor requested. I have no affiliation with Ralph Frese or his commercial enterprises.)

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The "Princess" Diaries: Carrie Fisher Uses the Force of Frankness ...For Good -- Theatre Review: Wishful Drinking

Theatre Review

Wishful Drinking
an autobiographical one-woman show
written by and starring Carrie Fisher
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 16

When I hear the name Carrie Fisher, I instantly think of Princess Leia. In a gold metal bikini bound in chains by Jabba the Hutt.

But in an age where many so-called celebrities are famous just for being famous, it's easy to forget that Fisher has led a rather newsworthy life well beyond that seminal role.

Fisher's candor and considerable humor--much of it self-deprecating--in addressing the highs and lows, including struggles with substance abuse and bipolar disorder, made Wishful Drinking far richer than what one can learn from her Wikipedia entry.

Opening by talking about the 2005 death, in her bed, of Greg Stevens--"he didn't just die in his sleep, but in mine"--a close friend who happened to be a gay Republican, Fisher, herself a hardcore Democrat, went on to discuss her famous family.

She was born to Golden Age Hollywood royalty--Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds--but by age 2 was the child of one of the world's most public divorces. (After Eddie Fisher's best friend, Michael Todd, died in a plane crash, Fisher consoled and then married his widow, Elizabeth Taylor, who happened to be Reynolds' best friend.)

A chalkboard lesson on the multiple marriages of both parents made for one of Wishful Drinking's best segments, but the surprisingly long show--nearly 2-1/2 hours--never suffered from a shortage of compelling topics.

In fact, while Fisher devoted a good chunk of monologue to her iconic role as Leia--including the hairdo, bikini and being immortalized as a Pez dispenser--she well-filled the evening without mention of working with Belushi & Ackroyd in The Blues Brothers, something I would've enjoyed hearing about (and perhaps especially apt in Chicago).

She spoke quite frankly about the mental difficulties that have caused her to be institutionalized and receive regular ECT treatments, and was also rather open about her history of substance abuse (without delving into too much detail about wild times in Hollywood).

While I knew that she was married to Paul Simon for a relatively short time--Wikipedia says one year though she said two--I didn't realize that the marriage came in the middle of a 12-year relationship. On this topic, I especially enjoyed Fisher talking about some of the songs she inspired--"Hearts and Bones," "She Moves On" among them--though she didn't cite the most famous one ("Graceland").

Fisher subsequently had a relationship--and daughter--with a high-powered Hollywood agent (Bryan Lourd) who would wind up leaving her for a homosexual relationship.

Suffice it to say, Fisher has enough material for a rather memorable monologue and--as the author of 5 best-sellers and also a noted script doctor--she knows how to shape a compelling, well-paced narrative.

Sure, a number of her jokes were a bit corny, but how can I complain?

No, I wouldn't hope to see her in a gold metal bikini at this stage, but she looks good for 56, having lost 50 lbs. on Jenny Craig, for whom she now serves as a spokesperson.

And Wishful Drinking isn't quite as good a solo show as 700 Sundays--by Fisher's When Harry Met Sally co-star, Billy Crystal--nor as fulfilling a night of theater as a great play (such as Red) or musical.

But as an interesting memoir, a rather public form of ongoing therapy for its creator and an enjoyable night's entertainment, Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking succeeds as a testament to the force...not of celebrity, but of personality, perseverance and plenty of candor.

You should be able to get discount tickets for Wishful Drinking, through HotTix or by using a discount code provided on Carrie Fisher's website (most recently it was GOSSIP but I'm not sure how long this will stay valid). 

Monday, October 03, 2011

'Red' Paints a Colorful, Abstractly Expressionistic Picture of Mark Rothko -- Theatre Review

Theater Review

a recent play by John Logan
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 30

I like the "color splotch" paintings of Mark Rothko, though I would be hard-pressed to define why.

Though widely-renowned as prime examples of Abstract Expressionism--a term Rothko hated--the pictures seem relatively simplistic in composition and craftsmanship.

Yet there is something engagingly evocative about Rothko's use of color and the spatial relationships; my attempt years ago to paint a "Sethko" showed that not just any idiot could create a museum-quality imitation.

Somewhat similarly, I can't explicitly explain why Red, John Logan's somewhat factual/somewhat fictional Tony-winning drama about Rothko and a young apprentice, is so good. It's not really a biography or staged documentary, as it focuses on just two years in Rothko's life and creates the character of Ken in a 100-minute, two-man, one-act play.

Ostensibly the drama revolves around Rothko's 1958 commission to create murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the nascent Seagram's building, and his ultimate decision not to fulfill it. Yet this central dilemma doesn't acutely come to the fore until the last half-hour, with artistic rumination dominating the dialogue far more than a plot-driven narrative.

Though Logan, a playwright from Evanston who's enjoyed great success as a screenwriter--Gladiator, The Aviator, Any Given Sunday--fills the stage with shrewd insights as espoused by Rothko, I would need a copy of the script to specifically cite any of the great lines--or even key messages. Abstractly, nothing felt particularly novel or overly revelatory; even the quasi-father/son relationship between Rothko and Ken was more overtly tyrannical than touching.

And yet, not unlike Rothko's art itself, Red works. And rather wonderfully at that.

The Goodman production is the first beyond the much-decorated London/Broadway original and under the direction of Robert Falls, Edward Gero delivers a richly-saturated portrayal of Mark Rothko.

Embodying the painter's artistic temperament with seamless sophistication, Gero gives us a Rothko who mixes churlish arrogance with an intellectual sensitivity that fuels his desire to--above all--create works of significance.

Patrick Andrews, who I've seen do fine work as the Emcee in Cabaret and as Bobby in American Buffalo, is also quite good as Ken, a seemingly eager, oft put-upon assistant who becomes as possessive of Rothko's artistic integrity as the artist himself.

I can't say I'm entirely clear on the motivation that Logan has given Ken, whose backstory seems a bit melodramatic, but at face value his interaction with Rothko is quite engaging, and this is a play that would be ideal for further exploration when produced at a venue like Timeline Theatre a few years hence.

For while I'm no expert when it comes to Abstract Expressionism, Rothko's paintings provoke a presumption of something deeper at work beneath the surface--as supported by this exploration of his intellectual convictions--and though it succeeds extremely well simply as high-quality entertainment, Red is a play that will likely reveal an even richer hue upon further, and future, contemplation.

An Evening of Transient Beauty, But Well Short of Folklore, From Fleet Foxes -- Concert Review

Concert Review

Fleet Foxes
with The Walkmen
October 1, 2011
Chicago Theatre

Fleet Foxes will not be the next great band to change my life, nor even rock my world.

Which isn't to say their Saturday concert at the Chicago Theatre--the second of two sold-out shows--wasn't good. With two solid albums worth of well-crafted songs, many featuring three-part harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Seattle-bred band delivered a 105-minute performance that sounded entirely pleasant and occasionally inspired.

But not transcendent.

To a listener who has, and appreciates the quality of, both albums but can't claim rapture, too much of their material seems too much alike. And though it was punched up a bit onstage, for the most part, it still came across as far too sedate.

Mind you, Fleet Foxes are basically a folk band; despite their city of origin, they eschew the emphatic electric guitar base of grunge and are essentially the antithesis.

So it would be fair to wonder what I was expecting going in. For live on stage, Fleet Foxes pretty much matched--if not slightly surpassed--my affinity for their recorded output.

But after a wondrous April show by Arcade Fire multiplied my appreciation for that band, stellar concert reviews garnered by Fleet Foxes--including of their Pitchfork Festival gig--had me hoping the Foxes would reinvigorate my waning regard for modern music.

For I really need to discover and embrace some great new bands. Most of the ones I love are rather old at this point, or at least quite veteran, if not extinct. Forget about rueing the retirement of R.E.M.; even relatively new bands I've found to like--The White Stripes, LCD Soundsystem--have already pulled the plug.

Sure, there are still several longtime favorites that should still have some good years in them, but at this point, there are no rock artists I've yet to see in concert that I'm actively hoping to see. But I'm also hoping someone will come along to surprise me.

But with the crowd, even on the main floor, remaining seated throughout the show, there was an inherent sense of detached appreciation rather than fervid anticipation (not that I minded sitting). And I might suggest that Fleet Foxes pristine performance was marred--for me and those seated nearby--by a commotion caused by a loudmouth jerk, but as unfortunate as the ruckus was, the potential fistfight (fortunately not involving me) brought a sense of tension, even excitement, that the show itself lacked.

At one point, the Fleet Foxes' guitarist Sky Skjelset jokingly played the opening riff of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" and band leader Robin Pecknold and the other musicians were seemingly on the verge of following him into a full-fledged cover version, cheered on by the crowd.

Unfortunately, they instead stuck to the playbook, which was a shame, as a little spontaneity--or even a couple planned covers--would've gone a long way in loosening up a fine band that never seemed to rise above the fray.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Of Katz and Katzman: Unique Longtime Local Merchants Get Some Well-Deserved Press

I'm currently in the midst of writing a profile piece on a unique Chicago retail establishment and its erstwhile, rather singular owner. Hopefully I'll have it finished and posted in the next few days.

In the meantime, I'm happy to draw your attention to a couple fine articles that were published this week about area proprietors of a similar nature.

Bob Katzman is the owner of Magazine Museum, a back issue emporium in Skokie. I wrote this Seth Saith feature on him back in January and just yesterday happened upon Michael Miner's story about him in the current Chicago Reader, which you can read online.

While I was tickled to see Bob get such prominent press, I was chagrined to read that his store is struggling to survive. Should you have interest in buying old magazines for nostalgia, unique gifts, stage props, etc., or any of the 50,000 posters Bob is liquidating for just $10 each, or mini-flags from any of world's countries, be sure to stop by the Magazine Museum at 4906 W. Oakton in Skokie. If nothing else, you'll undoubtedly agree that--like its owner--it's entirely one-of-a-kind.

Similarly distinctive is Burt Katz and his Burt's Place pizzeria in Morton Grove. Located on a residential street, around the corner from Pequod's (at least until it opens in a new, larger location next year), which is the pizza restaurant he used to own and run, Burt's Place is a small, kitschy joint in a building dating to the late 1880s. Burt makes the pizza--itself rather unique and quite good--and his wife Sharon (incidentally a high school friend of my mom's) waits on tables and takes orders over the phone, a requirement for anyone who wants to eat there.

The long-bearded Burt, who hasn't shaved since 1971, was the subject of a long story in Thursday's Chicago Tribune by Christopher Borrelli, promoted on the paper's front page and also readily available to read online.

Although I've eaten at Burt's Place a couple times and interacted with Sharon, I've never talked to Burt. So the article was rather illuminating, revealing that before starting Pequod's, he had also founded Gulliver's on Howard in Chicago, as well as a long-closed place called The Inferno. That's quite a pizza legacy, which in his own iconoclastic way, Burt extends every day, not only by making the pies at his eponymous pizzeria, but by buying all the necessary ingredients at local markets rather than relying on corporate food suppliers.

So even if you have to order ahead, a trip to Burt's Place -- 8541 Ferris Ave., Morton Grove, IL. Phone: 847-965-7997 -- will be well worth it. As will be reading the story about him.