Tuesday, April 30, 2013

'Barnum' Not Just For Suckers, Even If Not Quite the Greatest Show on Earth -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart
Directed by L. Walter Stearns
Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru June 16

I wanted to see the rarely staged musical, Barnum, largely for nostalgic reasons.

Not because I had previously seen a production of "the circus musical" about Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, which bowed on Broadway in 1980.

And not due to any overt sentimentality for the circus that in part bears Barnum's name.

Strange as it may sound, I just distinctly remember the original cast recording being an album that resided in the record cabinet at my family's home.

It isn't even that I listened to it much, if at all. Maybe due to its title, the record was at the very front of my dad's collection of Broadway albums, or perhaps the bright yellow cover heralding star Jim Dale was that powerfully iconic. But for whatever weird reason, when I noted that the Mercury Theater was staging the show--as part of the venue's recent foray into self-producing musicals--it brought a reminiscense of inherent interest.

Of course, there were more direct reasons for my wanting to see Barnum, not that it ever takes much for me to explore a musical I've yet to witness.

- Though the musical had a strong initial Broadway run--854 performances--and was nominated for the 1980 Tony (it lost to Evita, deservingly), I have never noted it being performed at any level, anywhere since I started heavily paying interest to musical theater around 1999.

- The show has at least a couple top notch songs that I fondly recalled and recently rediscovered through Spotify: "There Is A Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute" and "Come Follow the Band."

- The Mercury's robust, largely-Equity cast stars three terrific local performers I've seen and liked in several other shows: Gene Weygandt, Cory Goodrich and Summer Naomi Smart.

- I applaud the Mercury's seemingly risky decision to start producing its own musicals, rather than simply renting out the venue.

- And while Chris Jones' review in the Tribune wasn't completely glowing, it is positive and champions the efforts of director L. Walter Stearns and his crew to shoehorn a show that includes circus acts into a relatively small space.

So between wanting to support an ambitious effort, warmly remembering an old record album and being able to get a half-price ticket on Goldstar (the show has also been on HotTix), last Saturday I wandered down to the Mercury on Southport, just steps from the Music Box Theater.

Though I could have done without the clowns climbing over audience members pre-show--the one on stilts in the lobby was pretty cool--Barnum turned out to be a highly enjoyable and admirable production of a good but not quite fantastic musical.

Weygandt, who was the Wizard of Oz in the long-running Chicago production of Wicked and stellar in shows such as Working and Snapshots, among others, is perfectly cast as P.T. Barnum and terrific throughout.

In watching him cover Barnum's life as an impresario--largely before he connected with James Anthony Bailey late in life--it was hard to imagine anyone being much better suited for the leading role.

Weygant was well-sung and lest anyone--OK, me--wonder whether a performer can be quite as good at a Saturday matinee following a show the night before and preceding an evening performance, he and the rest of the cast consistently made me feel that this was the one and only performance they were giving.

Goodrich plays Barnum's ever-tolerant but exasperated wife, Chairy, and their relationship forms the closest thing to a contextual storyline aside from Mark Bramble's book being a cursory biography of the showman's life from the 1830s through the 1880s.

And while the ravishing Smart is onstage throughout alongside the circus/sideshow troupe, she is also featured as Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer Barnum promoted in America. This allows her to demonstrate her lovely voice on "Love Makes Fools of Us All."

While the three stars are impressive, so too are the circus performers, including clowns, acrobats and ones embodying Tom Thumb, the world's smallest man (Christian Libonati) and Joyce Heth, the world's oldest lady (Donica Lynn).

Between the acrobatics, biographical overview, strong performances and a some terrific songs by the legendary composer Cy Coleman (he also wrote Sweet Charity, City of Angels, The Will Rogers Follies and other musicals) and lyricist Michael Stewart, Barnum makes for a rather pleasing 135 minutes and is well-worth recommending.

Especially, because of hummable tunes like "There's A Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute," "Come Follow The Band," "Bigger Isn't Better," "Out There" and "The Colors of My Life," I think Barnum outshines the in-Chicago-on-its-way-to Broadway Big Fish and the recently-here Catch Me If You Can.

All this said, in viewing Barnum for the first time, I never felt I was watching a @@@@@, truly top-tier musical.

Not every song was a rock-solid winner and the biographical synopsis of P.T. Barnum was a bit slight and sketchy at parts.

So while excellent, I wouldn't quite declare Barnum "must see" for those without any sentimental connection.

If you can get to the Mercury and support this impressive big-top undertaking, particularly with half-price tickets, I'm certain you'll find plenty to enjoy.

But, re: the famous slogan of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, you may not find it quite the greatest show on Earth.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Hyde Park and Seek: Photographic Proof That I Went to the University of Chicago (at least for a day as a tourist)

I had a very nice day yesterday with my mom in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, home to the University of Chicago.

Below is a photo recap, covering:
  • Robie House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright - We took a tour but interior photos were not allowed
  • Rockefeller Chapel
  • Oriental Institute Museum
  • Smart Museum of Art
  • Various sights around campus, including Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy sculpture
Robie House

Charles Harper Center, across from Robie House
Rockefeller Chapel

Above the entrance to the Oriental Institute

My Mummy with a Mummy
Who knew I was a god? Of course, my artifact was among the smallest in the museum.

Inside the Smart Museum of Art
Soldier at a Game of Chess by Jean Metzinger, French, circa 1915-16

The original dining room table & chairs from Robie House, now at Smart Museum.
Nuclear Energy by Henry Moore, at the site of the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction

Friday, April 26, 2013

'Anything Goes' Blissfully Takes Me To Another Time and Place -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Anything Goes
Music & lyrics by Cole Porter
Directed & choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru May 5

Watching Anything Goes at the Cadillac Palace on Tuesday night, I felt terrifically happy.

With a blissful Cole Porter score--including such standards as "I Get A Kick Out of You," "You're The Top," "It's De-lovely" and the title song--wonderfully executed by a 32-member Equity cast led by the gorgeous Rachel York, the top-notch touring production, highlighted by a knockout tap-dance routine (to "Anything Goes"), left very little not to like.

Yet I couldn't help but to also feel a sense of wistfulness.

While those gathered at the Palace seemed to appreciate this mirthful piece of anachronistic entertainment--and an aunt of mine in attendance quite affirmatively did--on the first night of a two-week run in Chicago, the balcony was no more than half-full.

And though I, born in 1968, recognized nearly all the lyrical references made in "You're The Top," I couldn't help but imagine that whatever rather small percentage of today's "masses" still cares about the majesty of Cole Porter's music and this terrific show--originally produced on Broadway in 1934--it is largely at risk of dying off within the next couple decades.

Yes, one hopes, there will always be some younger folks who love musical theater and are willing to look backward, or appreciate revivals of shows from another time and place.

After all, nearly 80 years after its creation, Anything Goes continues to sail on, as it has through the advent of Bebop and Elvis and the Beatles and disco, punk, hip hop and more modern theatrical songsmiths like Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, plus eminently "hipper" shows like Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon.

In fact, this tour is derived from a rather successful Roundabout Theatre Company 2011 staging on Broadway, where I saw it with the remarkable Sutton Foster and a cast that included Joel Grey, John McMartin, Laura Osnes, Kelly Bishop, Colin Donnell and Adam Godley. The production won a Tony for Best Revival--Anything Goes was also revived on Broadway in 1987 with Patti LuPone--and earned Foster a Tony as well, while running for 521 performances.

So I am not here to give last rites to such a joyous piece of American entertainment. I just fear that in an age of ever-more-fractionalized and superficial interests, and a willful obliviousness to the past, the stage works of Porter, George Gershwin and others of their ilk may go the way of the dinosaur even more rapidly than an appreciation of Rogers & Hammerstein, Sondheim and Webber.

And I am prattling on about this because I think it would be a real shame.

I certainly can't claim to have been fully enamored with musical theater until after the age of 30, and my musical tastes range from hard rock to jazz, blues to bluegrass. But it's hard for me to imagine that anybody who gives a show like Anything Goes an open-eared, open-eyed and open-hearted chance wouldn't find it delightful.

Though the lovely and rich-voiced York, who I've seen in several shows, doesn't quite have Sutton Foster's charisma and Fred Applegate--a likable Producers veteran--isn't nearly as legendary as Joel Grey, the touring production is about 95% as good as I recall the Broadway version being, with similar sets, a full orchestra and wondrous singing and dancing.

The story is hokey, but in a way that also seems timeless.

York stars as Reno Sweeney, a singer who boards the S.S. American cruise ship from New York to London.

Joining her is Billy (Josh Franklin), on whom Reno has a crush, but who is in love with Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke), also on board with her fiance (Edward Staudenmayer) and her parents. Throw in gangster Moonface Martin (Applegate), his sassy companion, Erma (Joyce Chittick), Billy's Wall St. boss Elisha Whitney (Dennis Kelly) and plenty of 1930's gags and misdirections--some more recently updated--and well, you've got a boatload of enjoyable entertainment.

With most of the best songs in Act I, which ends with the sensational "Anything Goes" production number, Act II feels a bit like an afterthought, but the whole show is well worth your time and money. (Discounts for all performances should be readily available on HotTix and Goldstar.)

I certainly can love a great new show as much as I do a great old one. But in a Broadway in Chicago season that has presented Peter Pan, Jekyll & Hyde, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Catch Me If You Can and  Big Fish, this is by far the best musical I've seen on stage in 2013.

So don't miss the boat. Anything Goes is that delightful, delicious and de-lovely.

And hopefully, no time soon at risk of being decommissioned.

This is a promotional clip featuring the recent Broadway cast, but should give you some sense of Anything Goes:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Terrific Italian Food in Edison Park Tastes Like Rome Cooking

Nonno Pino's
6718 Northwest Highway, Chicago
(Edison Park)

What I ate: Grilled Calamari, Salad, Bowtie Arrosto, Pork Brasciole, Cannoli, Nonno's Chocolate Delight

According to Yelp, there are over 2,000 listings for "Italian Restaurant" in the Chicagoland area.

I have to imagine many are quite good, and are favorited and frequented by those who live nearby, or even further away.

Yet while I have eaten at a number of savory Italian joints over the years, and have noticed many more, there was nowhere that readily came to mind as a place I should sample and spotlight for my Chicago Dining World Tour.

Although The Noodle in Wilmette is one of my favorite restaurants of any kind--in large part due to pasta made fresh before your eyes--I don't really think of it as expressly Italian. And while Maggiano's has been good to me over the years, including just this week, it's far too hugely popular to merit a detailed dining dissertation.

Fortunately, my friend and frequent dining partner, Ken, had an Italian restaurant to recommend: Nonno Pino's, along the Northwest Highway restaurant row in Edison Park.

With its name translating to "Grandpa Pino's," it was nice to note the comfortable, casual atmosphere included a number of families among the weeknight patrons. The restaurant also seems to be quite popular as a place for groups of women to dine out together. 

(I don't mean this in reference to any of the ladies at Nonno Pino's, but now seems like as good a time as any to reference this cartoon, one of my favorite Once Upun a Time works.)

The decor is attractive, but far from stuffy and the prices at Nonno Pino's are quite reasonable, with a wide selection of items under $15, and almost all under $20 (see the menu here).

Opting for Diet Coke in lieu of wine or a Moretti, after some delectable bread was brought to the table Ken and I opened our dining festivities with Grilled Calamari, sautéed with tomatoes, spinach & a spicy broth. Delizioso!

Thanks in part to strong mentions on Yelp, I was also intrigued by the Pino Puffs appetizer, comprised of shredded zucchini with 3 cheeses formed in a light puffy ball. Something to look forward to next time.

Next, as included with our entrees--which we would split--was family-style salad, for which we wisely chose (from a taste if not cardiology standpoint) to have Creamy Garlic dressing mixed in, not on the side.

This made for one of the tastiest salads in ready recall.

Up front our plan was to share our entrees, but with a recommendation from our waiter, I ordered Bowtie Arrosto, a bowtie pasta with crumbled sausage, peppers, ricotta cheese and marinara.

Though even in splitting it with Ken I couldn't come close to finishing my half-portion, this dish was truly outstanding. I don't go out for pasta all that often, but the Bowtie Arrosto was about as good as I could want.

Unlike this pasta, which our friendly waiter described as the most popular item on Nonno Pino's menu, Ken chose--but again, split with me--a special written on a chalkboard upon the wall, a dish that the waiter said shows up every once in awhile.

This was Pork Brasciole = pork tenderloin rolled with spinach, Fontinella & salami. Served with roasted red pepper cream sauce, garlic mashed potato and spinach. 

Not to sound like a hyperbolic broken record, but again, absolutely fantastic.

Even before taking a bite, of the pork or the pasta, it was pretty clear why Ken was such a fan of Nonno Pino's. And I'm pretty sure, both entrees we ordered were different than those he'd had in the past.

Continuing the spirit of sharing into the dessert portion of the meal, Ken and I divided and devoured a Cannoli--good but not historic--and a slice of Nonno's Chocolate Delight, a 3-layer chocolate fudge cake, coated with walnuts.

This was rich and sensational, even better than the chocolate cake at Portillo's (long a favorite).

Ken had a coffee and I continued getting Diet Coke refills (yes, a bit paradoxically perhaps), and until
our parking meter boxes ran us out of time--a reminder that Edison Park is still Chicago--we sat and savored yet another truly remarkable meal.

Even if Italian may be among the most commonplace cuisines I'll sample as part of my local gastro-ethnic expedition, the wonderful flavors of Nonno Pino's made this excursion one of the most memorable.

Ciao for now! And hopefully again.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From the Balcony, Spirit of Namesake on Heartwarming Display at Ebertfest

Roger Ebert was born in Urbana, IL on June 18, 1942.

After years of bravely facing cancer and disfigurement, the loss of his speaking voice and ability to eat, and following a year in which he wrote more movie reviews than ever before in his life, Roger Ebert passed away on April 4. 

On April 8, he was buried.

On April 20, his wife of 20 years, Chaz, opened the day's events at Ebertfest in Champaign by walking on-stage with actress Tilda Swinton--who was the special guest at the previous evening's screening.

Saying something like, "Tilda insisted we do this, because it's what happens at film festivals in Scotland,"--and according to this article, keeping a promise Tilda had made the night before--Chaz called everyone in the Virginia Theatre to their feet, pumped a Barry White song over the historic theater's speakers and, as Swinton proceeded into the audience to lead a conga line, Chaz Ebert stayed onstage.

And she danced.

It was one of the most amazing, and heartwarming, things I've ever seen.

As was the movie that followed, a 2012 black-and-white silent film from Spain called Blancanieves

The title translates to Snow White and brings the Brothers Grimm fairy tale--not so much the Disney movie--into 1920s Andalusia.

If, after a cinematic year that saw--though I didn't see--Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror, plus the ongoing TV show Once Upon a Time, you may be thinking "I've had all the Snow I need for awhile," you'll be missing out on a truly unique and special film, about which Chaz instantly said:

"That is the most beautiful movie I've ever seen."

I'm told Blancanieves will have a limited release in Chicago soon, so it'll be a good while until it turns up on Netflix or in your local library, but I suggest you keep an eye out for it.

Being a latter-day silent film, it certainly reminds in some ways of The Artist, but its sensibilities also made me think of Pan's Labyrinth (with a shared star, the lovely, but not so nice here, Maribel VerdĂș).

The movie was made, over 8 years, by Pablo Berger, who both introduced it at Ebertfest and participated in a Q&A afterwards, moderated by film historian David Bordwell.

Given audience comments about how wonderful the movie's score is--composed by Alfonso de Vilallonga--Berger adroitly suggested that it should  more accurately be called a "music film," rather than a silent one.

Reflecting on a much-cited line from Ebert's autobiography, Life Itself--"We must try to contribute joy to the world"--which was reprinted on a remembrance card handed out at Ebertfest, Berger said that is why he makes films.

And it certainly felt to me that this is a man who directs movies primarily because he loves to tell stories (rather than, overtly, to make money), something Ebert strongly championed for years.

Whereas The Artist was a love letter to Hollywood's silent film era, Blancanieves is, as Berger confirmed, a love letter to silent European cinema.

And in watching it, it was easy to see why Roger Ebert loved it so much.

I can also imagine what Roger appreciated about Escape From Tomorrow, a film shot guerilla-style at Walt Disney World and Disneyland by director Randy Moore, who was on-hand with a collaborator and three of the film's actors.

But while the film has an interesting premise and was quite funny in parts, I didn't like it nearly as much as Blancanieves.

Of course, it didn't help that those of us in the standby line weren't let into the 5:00pm screening until 5:20pm. Films at Ebertfest rarely start right on time, with Chaz--and in past years, Roger--typically providing a nice introduction, but I know I missed at least 5 minutes of Escape From Tomorrow, if not more, after waiting in line for an hour.

Thus I opted not to bother trying to get into Saturday's 9:00pm film, The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt and starring Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), both of whom were on hand.

That was fine, as part of the fun of Ebertfest for me is that it allows me to visit my longtime friends, Jordan and Erin, who live just blocks from the Urbana house in which Roger grew up.

So while Ebertfest, or the world for that matter, will never quite be the same without Roger Ebert, it was nice to see that through the town, the university, the movies and the woman he so clearly and dearly loved, his spirit will live on.

Thumbs up, indeed.