Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pithy Philosophies #8

Seth Saith:

What other people think doesn't matter an ounce,
it's only what you know that counts.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Harlan Coben's Latest Thriller, 'Six Years,' Makes Time Fly

Book Review

Six Years
by Harlan Coben
now in hardcover

Reading--and liking--page-turning thrillers by Harlan Coben is nothing new for me.

Since Tell No One was recommended to me, perhaps 10 years ago or so, I have read 21 of his novels, which is essentially everything he has published except two books aimed at young adults and one early, previously out-of-print work (Miracle Cure).

For those unfamiliar with Coben, his output is split between mysteries featuring the recurring character of Myron Bolitar (and his motley crew of cohorts) and "stand alone" thrillers, such as Tell No One, Gone for Good and the new Six Years.

I am certainly not going to suggest that Coben's books be confused with great literature. While I believe he deserves high praise for writing fictional works that I and millions of others--as they're almost always bestsellers--want to read, and read quickly, what he does is not quite high art.

That said one of the reasons why I like Coben so much--and he stands as my favorite current author--is not just because I find myself turning the pages quickly.

More than others of his ilk--though there are other mystery writers I enjoy; predominantly Lee Child and Linwood Barclay--Coben infuses his thrillers with shrewd wit and insight which add considerably to the pleasure derived from his suspenseful story lines, primarily involving a loved one gone missing and the like.

I've said pretty much all of the above in reviewing two other Coben stand-alone novels on this blog Stay Close and Caught. But I think Six Years is even a bit better, if only measured by my reading time. 

While I have never been a fast reader and trudge through great literature and biographies, I have devoured each of Coben's books in less than a week.

Six Years, which deals with a man who is prompted to rekindles his interest in deducing why his fiancĂ©  chose to marry another man six years prior, took me just two days to read. 

There's no point in me revealing anything more that happens, as all the twists and turns are much of the fun with reading Coben, and Six Years is filled with plenty, several of which I didn't see coming.

As Six Years is just out in hardcover, unless you can get it from your local library--as I did from the Skokie Public Library--there is no reason not to start with another of his thrillers and wait until this one turns up in paperback.

But if, like me, you are a Coben fan who puts each of his latest thrillers on the "Hold List" at your local library, this is one you'll look forward to devouring.

In six days, tops. Maybe even six hours.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Pithy Philosophies - #7

Seth Saith:

To me, the meaning of life is to explore.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Malaysian Expedition with My Ma

1720 W. Algonquin Rd.,
Arlington Heights

What I ate: Malaysian Lemongrass Pork Chop/King Pork Chop, Penang Char Kway Teow (stir fried noodles), Satay Tofu

Through the first 5 months of 2013, I sampled and spotlighted 23 restaurants representing different cultures and cuisines as part of my Chicago Dining World Tour.

Though there are still enough yet-to-be-savored ethnicities to engender dining excursions throughout the rest of the year, I've already picked much of the low-hanging fruit (e.g. Italian, Mexican, Thai, Greek, Chinese). And while the places I've visited have been in 9 suburbs as well as Chicago, I imagine there won't be a surplus of non-city options when it comes to Ethiopian, Turkish, German and Columbian restaurants, to name a few cuisines still on my list.

Thus, I didn't have a ready answer when my mom asked where we might go after catching a puppet opera by Opera in Focus--which turned out to be outstanding, as you can read about here--in Rolling Meadows on the first Saturday in June.

But through a perusal of Yelp for restaurants in the vicinity, I discovered Penang Malaysian Cuisine, just a few minutes away on Algonquin Rd. in Arlington Heights.

The restaurant's website purports that it is "The only Malaysian cuisine in town," while stating that its culinary style is "mainly influenced by four major Asian groups - Malay, Thai, Chinese & Indian."

I'm certainly well aware of how cuisines from nearby countries can overlap, but being rather familiar with--and appreciative of--Thai, Chinese and Indian food, I was hoping to find some choices that were more specific to the country of Malaysia (of which Penang is a state).

Toward this end, my mom and I were guided in our choices by a friendly waitress within the attractively appointed restaurant. She mentioned that satay is authentically Malaysian--though I've long associated it with Thai food--so we ordered Satay Tofu, described as fried tofu stuffed with bean sprouts and cucumber topped with spicy peanut sauce.

Whereas beef and pork satay that I order at Thai restaurants comes on skewers, this was rather different as you can see.

I like peanut sauce, so that made the appetizer enjoyable enough for me, although the fried tofu, while unoffensive, was roughly equivalent to what I perceive styrofoam would taste like. OK, perhaps a bit better, and the bean sprouts didn't hurt me either, but they still don't rank as one of my favorite things.

For my entree, I was torn between Malaysian Style Sweet & Sour Shrimp and a Malaysian Lemongrass Pork Chop/King Pork Chop.

I went with the latter, largely because it was indicated as a "Chef Recommendation." Makes you wonder why the chef wouldn't recommend everything.

There wasn't really anything about it I disliked, except a bit too much fat and bone versus good meat, but I also can't say it was the best thing--or even the best pork chop--I've ever tasted.

But with three good-sized chops, it afforded me another meal to take home, and worked well reheated (and utilizing a sharper knife).

My mother went with a stir fried noodle entree called Penang Char Kway Teow.

The menu describes this dish as stir fried noodles with shrimp, squid, bean sprouts and chives with soy sauce.

Mom cited it as being tasty, and having tried some I would concur, even if I didn't like it nearly as much as I do Pad Thai.

As with many of the places I've tried on my gastro-ethnic excursion, I have to imagine that different appetizer and entree choices at Penang could easily have left me more dazzled, especially if I wasn't aiming for something I perceived as authentically Malaysian.

So although the food we had at Penang was more decent than truly delectable, dining there was nonetheless a pleasant experience, and certainly a worthwhile exploration.

Even if I'm still not sure I could pinpoint Malaysia on a map.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

All's Welles That Ends Welles for the Blackhawks

After last night's exciting, then deflating, then exhilarating Chicago Blackhawks victory over the Los Angeles Kings to earn a Stanley Cup berth against the Boston Bruins, thanks to a hat trick and game-winning goal by Patrick Kane, I was inspired to make this:

Patrick Kane photo by Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune. Design by Seth Arkin.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Despite Strong Performances, 'Reverb' Lacks Resonance -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A play by Leslye Headland
Directed by Jonathan Berry
Redtwist Theatre
Thru June 23

The archetype of the churlish, tortured and/or torturing--either to one's self or others--rock star has existed ever since there were rock stars.

Or even long before, if you want to lump Mozart, Poe, Van Gogh and the like in with Elvis, Brian Wilson, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, et al.

Leslye Headland's 2009 play, Reverb, now in its Chicago premiere at the stellar Redtwist Theatre, isn't oppressive as it aims to investigate the line between genius and madness, artistic beauty and interpersonal viciousness, but despite terrific performances from the 6-person cast, it doesn't seem to break much new, or truly compelling, ground.

Without giving anything essential away, Dorian (broodingly played by Peter Oyloe) is a talented musician in an unsigned band, who has written a few great solo songs, primarily about June (a superb Mary Williamson), who is his ex-girlfriend, muse and--as played out with brutal force onstage--punching bag.

The play takes place in Los Angeles and Headland none too obliquely drops in references to Phil Spector
(a genius turned murderer), Brian Wilson (a genius turned emotional cripple), Ian Curtis (the Joy Division singer who committed suicide), Jeff Buckley (another gifted singer gone too soon) and others. And in Jonathan Berry's production, a Jimi Hendrix poster is quite prominent in the scenery.

The narrative weaves around Dorian's infantile and violent interactions with June, as well as tempestuous relationships with his once wild, now born again and timid sister Lydia (Brittany Burch) and bandmates Hank and Shayne (Nick Vidal, Chris Chmelik).

I don't think I will be ruining anything to share that Dorian's troubles, as well as those of June and Lydia, have roots in abusive parental relationships.

But while Headland sets up reasons to be empathetic toward her central character and those he clings to (and vice versa), she also instills Dorian with substance abuse issues and a general boorishness that is supposedly offset by musical brilliance, although we only hear brief snippets.

Redtwist, where I have seen superb takes on Martin McDonagh plays and, last fall, Arthur Miller's Broken Glass, has subtitled Reverb in its promotional materials as "A darkly comic, brutal dissection of the destructive force of wrath."

Candidly, except for the self-aggrandizing character of Ivy (Ashley Neal), a music blogger and wanna-be industry insider, I didn't find too much comic about Reverb.

Nor would I have described it as dissecting "wrath."

Without meaning to dismiss the way psychological factors can affect us all, Dorian comes across as more of a crabby asshole who hits June largely because she lets him--and even persuades him. Thus, it's hard to accept him, nor certainly embrace him, as a temperamental genius out-of-control due to forces beyond his control.

Reverb is the type of savage, hyperdramatic play I've more commonly seen at another of Chicago's great storefront theaters, Profiles.

But while the intense action is never unwatchable and Oyloe, Burch, Neal and particularly Williamson deliver terrific performances, Reverb just doesn't feel all that special. Some of the rock-world and L.A.-scene references are fun, but many come off as trite and may be obscure for an audience comprised largely of older folks.

I went because of an excellent review by the Tribune's Chris Jones, and Redtwist cites a number of other positive notices. So if you're planning on going to see Reverb, I certainly won't tell you not to, but as I was watching it, I couldn't help but think that this is a show I really wouldn't recommend to anyone I know.

It isn't terrible, and Redtwist can be lauded for trying something different, but for me Reverb really never strikes a resounding chord.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Puppet Opera in Rolling Meadows Enchants Quite Delightfully, With No Strings Attached

Attraction / Performance Review

Opera in Focus - Puppet Opera
Current production featuring selections from South Pacific, Rigoletto, Sweeney Todd, Cats and Les Miserables
Rolling Meadows Park District Theater
Thru June 22 (other productions year-round)

There are few things in life I love more than seeing great performances, so this past weekend was pretty terrific. 

Friday night, I saw The Rolling Stones at the United Center and found them to be absolutely astonishing. 

I also saw a stellar movie, Before Midnight--Richard Linklater's latest installment in his Before Sunrise/Sunset series--and watched (on TV) the Blackhawks win playoff games on Saturday and Sunday. (Yes, I also watched them lose last night.)

But another highlight in the name of witnessing talent and artistry was considerably more unique and surprising, and all the more gratifying for it. 

Operating in the basement of a park district building in Rolling Meadows, as it has for 20 years--with origins that date back to 1958--is something called Opera in Focus, which in shorthand form is a producer, creator and presenter of puppet opera. 

Yes, puppet opera. 

I won't bore you with too much of the backstory--which you can read more about on the Opera in Focus website and in this Chicago Tribune article by Christopher Borrelli--but it adds a good deal to how impressed I am with the entire operation.

Basically, there was a guy named William B. Fosser, who worked as an Art Director and Set Designer for movies, but was also an avid puppeteer.

He created "rod puppets"--the only of their kind in existence--founded Opera in Focus and presented puppet operas for many years at a Chicago restaurant called Kungsholm that closed in 1971 (it was where Lawry's: The Prime Rib now is, on Ontario).

In working at the Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera, Fosser oversaw full-length puppet operas, but also initiated what I'll term "medley shows," including a mix of scenes/songs from opera, Broadway musicals and movies.

Fosser brought Opera in Focus to Rolling Meadows, where it continues to operate within the Rolling Meadows Park District Theater at 3000 Central Road.

Fosser passed away in 2006, but along the way a pair of brothers from the Southwest suburbs--Justin and Shayne Snyder--became his apprentices and they now run Opera in Focus with help from two other puppeteers and, as needed, a costume designer.

Per the Tribune story, Justin (shown above) and Shayne are both now in their early 30s, and with full-time jobs and long commutes to Rolling Meadows, their commitment to creating high quality puppet operas--with 14 different productions in 2013, complete with sets built on site and puppets customized for each scene--is rather admirable and impressive.

As is the end result.

Although Opera in Focus has a long history and deserves considerable attention, I was completely unaware of it until Borrelli's article in the Tribune this March. And I didn't even read it; my mom did and told me about it.

Intrigued, I was supposed to go to a May performance of Madama Butterfly--the only production this year focused on a single opera, though not quite done in full--but fell ill.

Reflecting how commendably the Snyders run their operation, when told that I couldn't make the show because I was sick, they not only gave me a pass to use at any other performance, they gave me two so that I wouldn't have to go alone. (Tickets are only $12 to begin with.)

Performances take place Wednesdays at 4:00pm and Saturdays at 1:30pm--though can be scheduled ad hoc for groups of 30 or more--and my mom, who along with my sister and aunt thoroughly loved what she saw at Butterfly, accompanied me this past Saturday.

The cute, 65-seat auditorium--adorned with opera posters and the words "NOT ONLY FOR AMUSEMENT" above the puppet stage--was largely filled by patrons who not only made me feel young, they made my mom feel young (although, of course, she still is).

I don't know if there were many repeat visitors, but all seemed to greatly enjoy the show, which opened with Maestro Tosci--a puppet built in the '50s, modeled on Arturo Toscanini--rising from the stage, then turning and descending to lead his unseen orchestra.

Actually, there is no unseen orchestra. All of the music at Opera in Focus is pre-recorded, typically Original Cast Recordings and the like. But as with all the other production values, the sound system is really terrific, making you feel like you are hearing the music live and in person.

The current production, which runs through June 22, opens with four songs from South Pacific. You can see puppet Nellie Forbush above, singing "Cockeyed Optimist," and below is a video I shot of her counterpart, Emile de Becque (recorded vocals by Ezio Pinza) performing part of "Some Enchanted Evening." (The puppets are made from polyester and resin, but can be re-used as each base puppet costs about $1,000.)

Next came a few scenes & songs from Act II of the opera Rigoletto by Verdi. This was preceded by a thorough description of what we would be seeing and hearing--as no translation is provided for the Italian-sung opera--by the sonorous narrator, Tony Mockus.

The photo at the top is from Rigoletto and should depict how great the costuming and staging was for this piece. Plus, there was something particularly delightful about seeing the puppets perform actual opera.

But though I imagine I would have greatly enjoyed their take on Madama Butterfly, I tremendously liked Opera in Focus' renditions of Broadway classics that I knew and loved, so I think the "medley show," worked well for my first encounter.

The final three songs were three great ones: "My Friends" from Sweeney Todd, "Memory" from Cats and "Master of the House" from Les Miserables.

As the photos should reflect, the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into creating the costumes and sets--particularly for a single 4-minute song that gets performed eight times over the course of a month--is rather remarkable.

The back of the Opera in Focus program thanks a long list of donors, and the Tribune article notes a grant the group received from the Illinois Arts Council, but even rudimentary economics suggests the Snyder brothers and their cohorts are doing this primarily as a labor of love.

Which is proven out after each performance, as Justin demonstrates how the only-of-their-kind rod puppets operate, then invites everyone in attendance backstage for a tour to see how the shows are performed. And based on brief conversations with both brothers and another pair of puppeteers--all who roll around on modified office chairs under the stage--it's clear that Opera in Focus is a first-class operation in every respect.

To be clear, not only was this my first exposure to Opera in Focus, but I have absolutely no connection to the Snyders or anyone else involved.

But as someone who has written a travel guide about Chicago's best attractions, I can honestly say that the Opera in Focus puppet opera is one of the most unique, impressive and delightful things I've come across in this vicinity or any other.

No, I won't be there every weekend, or take in every production, but for anyone--of any age--looking for something a bit different to enjoy, including but not primarily because of the backstory behind it, I can't recommend Opera in Focus highly enough.

With absolutely no strings attached. 

Opera in Focus puppet operas take place Wednesday at 4pm and Saturday at 1:30pm, with reservations required. Tickets are $12 for adults, with discounts for seniors and children under 12. Reservations can be made by calling 847-818-3220 x186 during normal business hours.


Here are a few more photos, followed by another video clip, of Grizabella performing "Memory" from Cats.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

One For the Aged: Mossless Stones Provide Nothing But Satisfaction, All Down the Line -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Rolling Stones
United Center, Chicago
May 31, 2013
(also performing 6/3)

Unless you were at the United Center on Friday night, for the band's second of three Chicago shows on their brief 50 & Counting tour, it may be hard for you to believe just how good the Rolling Stones were.

I was there and it's hard for me to believe. 

Sure, they have now spent half a century living up to the self-proclaimed title of "World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band." (Yes, in the erstwhile "Beatles or Stones?" debate, I side with the former, but they didn't last through a decade).

And truly, the Stones have never been less than magnificent in the 10 times I have now seen them live, in eight different years since 1989, when they were already considered long in the tooth. 

So no, I've never given credence to critical scoffs--and likely public assumption--deriding the Stones as an oldies act that tours simply to refortify their castles and the trust funds of children they may have fathered, knowingly or not. 

This doesn't mean that I don't find their opting to charge $600 for the majority of seats on this tour disgusting; I think it's utterly egregious and rued having to pay a quarter of that for the "cheap seats," which is still the most I've ever spent on a face-value concert ticket. 

Especially with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards turning 70 this year, Charlie Watts hitting 72 today and Ron Wood having celebrated his 66th yesterday--both were feted with "Happy Birthday" at Friday's show--it wasn't implausible to conceive that the Stones' battleship could be starting to creak, perhaps even leak. 

But really, unless they completely embarrassed themselves, a fraction-of-their-past performance would've been OK. It's not inconceivable that, as the song goes, "This could be the last time" one gets to see the Stones, and my friend Paolo and I went into the UC with a sense of reverence, while hoping that those who hailed earlier shows on this tour weren't judging on a curve. 

Well, you can take the band's famed logo lips and kiss that notion goodbye. 

Friday night I witnessed one of the greatest artists in musical history still at the height of their powers. 

The Rolling Stones weren't just every bit as good as I would've wanted them to be in 2013. They were as good as I would've wanted them to be in 1973. 

Perhaps even better, as I have concert DVDs from tours in 1969, 1972, 1978 and 1981.

While except for the reptilian Jagger--supernaturally fit and frenetic a month shy of 70--the band members aren't quite as spry as they once were, their 2-1/2 hour show was longer than any of those earlier ones. And with Mick's voice in fine form, Keith playing strong rhythm & lead guitar and Charlie as rock solid as ever, they sounded truly remarkable.

And of the 22 songs they played, at least half--if not more--easily qualify as being among the best rock 'n roll has ever produced. 

After a laudatory video featuring people like Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, Perry Farrell, Cate Blanchett and Iggy Pop trying to define what the Stones mean to them, the core band members plus bassist Daryl Jones and longtime keyboardist Chuck Leavell--subsequently augmented by saxman Bobby Keys, another horn player and a pair of backup singers--launched into "Get Off My Cloud." (video here, not shot by me)

You can see the Rolling Stones' full Chicago Night 2 setlist on, but virturally everything they played sounded great and worked well into the show's pacing. 

"Paint It Black" and "Gimme Shelter" were early highlights (see video clip at bottom), and while I wasn't all that excited about the announced "Special Guest" being Sheryl Crow--Tom Waits, Gwen Stefani, Dave Grohl, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood and others have joined the Stones elsewhere on tour--she acquitted herself well in helping the band rage through the relatively rare "All Down the Line," one of four tunes culled from Exile on Main Street (including the requested-by-online-vote "Shine a Light). 

Former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor has been guesting throughout the tour and added fire to another lesser-played gem, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," as well as "Midnight Rambler."

Though the Stones aren't touring on a new album--somewhat thankfully as most of the recent ones have largely
been lackluster--the two songs they put out last year, "Doom and Gloom" and "One More Shot," didn't substantially stagnate the festivities. 

Nor did Keith's pair of lead vocal selections, the touching "You Got the Silver"--accompanied only by Wood--and a rollicking romp through "Happy."

And if one didn't enjoy hearing "Honky Tonk Women," "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar," "Tumbling Dice," "Sympathy for the Devil," "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (featuring a Roosevelt University chorus), "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Satisfaction," well, they paid $600 or some fraction or multiple thereof for the wrong show. 

Of course, with the Stones, there are always myriad other songs I would have liked to have heard, including "Rocks Off" and "Wild Horses" (both played on Tuesday), "Let's Spend the Night Together" and likely my favorite of theirs, "Street Fighting Man."

But even though "Emotional Rescue" was one song they didn't quite pull off perfectly, I'm glad they pulled it out of mothballs for this tour and it was fun to hear Mick sing falsetto and tenor in the same song. 

Compared to past outdoor stadium extravaganzas, the band's stage was rather barren, backing musicians sparse and lewd inflatables & other bombast not missed. 

As appropriate, given that many couples conceivably spent roughly a mortgage payment to sit on the first two levels of the United Center, Mick was appreciative and rather affable in his stage patter. 

With a "Stones 50" Blackhawks jersey in hand, he acknowledged the extra efforts of the band's crew in tearing down and rebuilding the stage around playoff hockey games, and joked that after the pair of weekend Hawks games, Monday would see a performance of "The Rolling Stones on ice." 

Although after every Stones tour I'm always incredulous about their ability to mount another one, let's hope it's awhile before the most legendary band still in existence is truly on ice.

Although just in recent months, I've seen and greatly enjoyed several concerts by artists well into their 60s or beyond--Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac, The Who, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel--except for Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones were amazing well beyond any of them.

Without my binoculars or video screens, from Section 304--in the far corner of the top deck--you couldn't have convinced I wasn't seeing and hearing a band in the prime of their career. 

And while in life in general I might not always get what I want, with a show that would blow any relatively new band I'm aware of off the stage, the Rolling Stones once again provided living proof that if I try sometime, I can still get what I need.

Here's a clip from YouTube of "Paint It Black" and "Gimme Shelter," posted by MrMotown100: