Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Columbian Expedition on Columbus Day Weekend

La Parrilla
6427 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago
Yelp page

What I ate: Jugo en Leche with Passion Fruit (drink), Patacones (Tostones) Con Carne Asada,  Empanada, Churrasco, Brevas Con Queso

Just as much as being about eating, my Chicago Dining World Tour has been about exploring.

So where better to venture on the Saturday before Columbus Day--though it was actually more coincidental than acutely planned that way--than a Colombian steakhouse. 

Colombia was named for Christopher Columbus, not just due to his famed 1492 New World voyage, but a navigation deeper into the Caribbean in 1502. 

La Parrilla, located on Irving Park Road just west of Narragansett in Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood, has a Spanish name that--according to Google Translate--means the Grill. 

And while the Churrasco (grilled NY strip steak served with cassava, potato, sweet, plantains, and chimichurri sauce) both I and my frequent "Sethnic dining" companion Ken ordered was about one-fourth the thickness of a steak at Gibson's or Morton's, it was terrifically tender and thanks in no small part the chimichurri sauce, tremendously tasty.

In other words, it was a satisfying steak dinner that wasn't overly heavy, hedonistic or hard on the wallet.

Especially as Ken treated me for my birthday.

Waited on by a friendly, attractive waitress named Myra, we started with a pair of Jugos en Leche with Passion Fruit, which was something between a milkshake and a smoothie (the drink is available in a couple other flavors as well, and with a water base instead of milk).

Although I've had empanadas--or something closely akin--at other South/Central American and Caribbean ethnic dining excursions, I've never had one I didn't like. And having read stellar comments about La Parrilla's on Yelp, we ordered a couple which the menu here described as Colombian fried turnovers filled with meat and potatoes.


But the reason we only got one empanada each is because another appetizer caught my eye, both on the menu and as it passed by to another table.

Patacones (Tostones) Con Carne Asada (three flat pieces of fried green plantains topped with steak, thin slices of avocado, sauteed onions, & tomatoes) may well be the most attractive appetizer I've ever seen presented.

But even if it may have been too pretty to eat, we did. Rapturously. And it too was fantastic.

As was the Churrasco.

And Brevas Con Queso = figs with cheese, proved a tasty and unique way to end the meal (not that we didn't get some ice cream later, after some shopping at Rolling Stones Records nearby).

It has occurred to me that many of my ethnic dining recaps have sounded like rave reviews. But not only have I picked highly-rated places, I've really enjoyed not only the unique forays, but--as here--the food itself.

As I said to Ken, there's nothing wrong with frequenting tried and true places, but there has really been something enormously gratifying--on multiple levels--about my gastro-ethnic exploration.

And not just over Columbus Day weekend.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Crazy Little Thing Called 'We Will Rock You' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

We Will Rock You
by Queen and Ben Elton
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru October 27

We Will Rock You did, but that's about all.

The show, which has been running in London for 2002 but is just days into its first American tour--I had seen it once before in a community theater-type production--has a storyline that my friend Paolo describes as kitschy, but I would best call inane and non-sensical.

And while some might find the campiness and stupidity so silly as to be charming, I found it--even the bad puns and hokey song title references; I know, I know--to be more annoying than engaging.

Thus I cannot call We Will Rock You a great musical, nor even a good piece of theater.

But despite all the banality, it features a bunch of great Queen songs and while no one reminded me of Freddie Mercury--or even his spirit and persona--the 2-1/2 hour show couldn't help but be enjoyably entertaining while tunes like "Under Pressure," "I Want To Break Free," "I Want It All" and many others, including the title song, were being performed.

We even got "Bohemian Rhapsody" as an encore.

I won't bother describing much of the plot--I doubt I could--but the action seems to take place on iPlanet, where rock music is long since dead and banned.

In other words, it's basically the story of Footloose or any other work where young people fight the system for their right of expression.

The two main characters are named Galileo Figaro (played here by Brian Justin Crum)and Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis), with a third whose adopted moniker, Buddy Holly (Ryan Knowles), is principally thus just to set up the line, "Buddy, you're a boy make a big noise playin' in the street gonna be a big man someday."

There was also a Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold)--not so unlike the Acid Queen in The Who's Tommy--and Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith), the tyrannical head of a malevolent company named GlobalSoft

As I said to Paolo, the narrative of We Will Rock You makes that of Mamma Mia seem like Shakespeare.

And if you're wondering why this show is better than simply seeing a good Queen tribute band, it probably isn't.

I once saw a good Queen tribute band, although it was actually just the surviving members of Queen touring with Paul Rodgers (of Bad Company) as their singer.

Sadly, I never saw the great Mercury in person, as though I loved Queen as a kid--what 8-year old boy wouldn't be smitten by "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions"--after 1980's The Game album and the "Under Pressure" collaboration with David Bowie, the band largely became an afterthought in the U.S., where they didn't tour past 1982.

Though they would remind the world just how great they were with their Live Aid set in 1985, and would remain huge around the world, it wasn't until after Mercury's death from AIDS in 1990 that America seemed to re-embrace the band's unique "kind of magic."

So whatever its theatrical merits--or lack thereof--the show was worth my time simply for the songs. But I don't know if I need to see it ever again.

The main performances were solid if not spectacular and while the storyline and jokes were cringeworthy--even, or perhaps especially, with obvious recent script additions not only referencing (often) the likes of Lady Gaga, but Miley Cyrus and her twerking--I did applaud the show's "championing" of the artistic brilliance of Queen (and other classic rock artists) vs. the tepid auto-tuned mediocrity of what passes for much of pop music today.

Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik
To wrap this up, particularly as We Will Rock You will only be in Chicago through Sunday:

If you love Queen enough to appreciate their songs being performed live in any form, this show is dumb but harmless, and you'll probably enjoy it.

If you're simply a musical theater lover without any inherent affinity for Queen, stay away.

And for anyone else, including those who relish Queen but would rather not hear their classic material be messed with, get yourself a copy of Queen at Wembley on DVD.

As a much more satisfying choice, that will really rock you.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Willie Nile Blasts Into SPACE, Proceeds to Rocket to the Core -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile
SPACE, Evanston, IL
October 18, 2013

This is my third @@@@@ Willie Nile concert review in as many years (1, 2). If I was regularly writing this blog in 2009, I would have posted one then too.

For those unfamiliar with the 64-year-old New York rocker, and thus oblivious to the four superb studio albums he has released since 2006--his recording career dates back to 1980, but start with Streets of New York from '06 (though for some reason that one's not on Spotify)--and the stupendously good live shows that feel as if Bruce Springsteen collided with the Ramones, this might sound outlandish, excessive, deranged.

Or as though I were the president of the Willie Nile Fan Club, or perhaps one of his relatives.

I assure you other than a shared love of rock 'n roll--from Buddy Holly to the Beatles & Stones, all of whom he covered on Friday night at SPACE, as well as the Boss, Ramones, Clash and much else--there is no kinship between me and Willie Nile.

And while I have gladly posted his setlists to on a few occasions and see him every chance I get, I am not in any club. I am simply a fan.

The three previous times I've seen Nile--first at Martyrs' and the next two at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn--he's been backed by Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra.

Not only has this saved Willie the expense of bringing a band to town, but it has made for outstanding
shows given the impressive instrumentation of the NTO (basically a large rock band), whose leader has been well-known locally for many years.

This time, Nile came with the bandmates who played on his latest album, American Ride. While this meant no opening set from the NTO--as has been the norm--and a bit less expansive sound, guitarist Matt Hogan, bassist Johnny Pisano and drummer Alex Alexander were terrific in their own right.

Nile opened with a couple new songs, "This is Our Time"--currently the "Coolest Song of the Week" on Little Steven's Underground Garage--and "Life on Bleecker Street," and would spotlight his new record throughout, but he also reached back to the recent and not-so-recent past with gems like "The Innocent Ones," "Heaven Help the Lonely" and a truly resplendent "Love is a Train" that brought him and the band a mid-set standing ovation.

During the main set, he and his band ripped through Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," and after having asked if Tremulis was in the house--to no avail at the time--and dedicating "The Crossing" to Nick's recently passed father, Tremulis showed up just before the encores. He joined the band for blistering versions of "A Hard Day's Night" (which I'd never heard covered outside of a Beatles tribute band) and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

After the show I bought a copy of American Ride and got it signed by Willie, who remembered me as having met and blogged about him before. And I told him that though everything he played sounded fantastic over the course of nearly 2 hours, he left out some of my favorites and easily could have pleased me just as much with an entirely different set.

As always, he was quite gracious, as he was throughout the night from the stage to a nearly full crowd at SPACE, where I  attended for the first time. I found it to be a comfortable venue, with even a general admission ticket affording me a seat just a few feet from the stage.

Willie also shared how his new album is selling gratifyingly well and that he has two more albums worth of material ready to go, but needs to find the money to record them, having utilized crowdsourcing in the past.

Wherever his American Ride continues to take him, I look forward to accompanying his musical journey, which seems to be  flowering more robustly than ever well into his mid-60s.

For not only did he deliver another astonishing show--if there is a more dependable club-level performer, I'm not aware--but if my mere $20 admission fee could anywhere have been better spent, I doubt I could have gotten, as his closing song would suggest, any greater satisfaction on this particular night. Or most others.

For a taste of Willie Nile live, here's a YouTube clip of him and his current band at a recent show, doing "This is Our Time" and "Life On Bleecker Street."

And for a bit more, these are clips I've shot and shared from shows in years past: "One Guitar," "Run" and "Hard Times in America."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

'Once' Charms Repeatedly, but Greater Intimacy Could Result in Dublin My Pleasure -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a musical based on the film
Music & lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru October 27

2007's Once is a delightful little movie about a downtrodden Dublin street musician whose life is changed by a chance encounter with a young Czech woman who also happens to be a skilled pianist.

By "little movie," I don't so much mean its 86-minute runtime, or the small, largely unknown cast (though star Glen Hansard had fronted an Irish band called The Frames).

Unlike the bombastic blockbusters that rattle cineplexes and one's senses, Once is an intimate, tender and touching film, with a lovely soundtrack featuring mostly acoustic songs by Hansard and his co-star Markéta Irglová.

Though the film seemed a wholly satisfying form in which to tell its story, I understand the compunction to turn it into a stage musical, albeit a somewhat unconventional one at that.

And on Broadway, Once has likely made a bigger splash, proportionately, than the movie did.

It collected 8 Tony Awards in 2012--including Best Musical--and, per Playbill's weekly grosses, it seems to still be playing to mostly full houses a year and a half into its run.

In New York, Once plays at the 1,059-seat Jacobs Theater. Now on its first National Tour, in Chicago--as part of my Broadway in Chicago series--it's at the wondrous but voluminous Oriental Theater, with a capacity more than twice the show's Broadway home.

Now I love the Oriental, which I recently cited as my favorite interior space in Chicago. And my "Balcony Club" Broadway in Chicago subscription may well be the city's best live entertainment bargain. I'm usually none too chagrined about being in the nosebleeds, especially as it affords me the opportunity to see more shows.

But even in being about 10 rows closer than my normal seat--due to an undersold balcony--I couldn't help feel that I wasn't gleaning the pathos from Once that I might in the Orchestra section, or even more so, within a much more intimate venue.

For while it actually has more choreography than one might expect, Once doesn't feature a bunch of peppy showtunes complete with chorus girls. 

Rather it utilizes Hansard & Irglová's guitar and/or piano ballads, delivered smartly in Chicago by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. 

I had no problem with the performers, performances, storyline or music, all of which I rather liked.

"Falling Slowly," "If You Want Me" and "When Your Mind's Made Up," among others, are terrific tunes, and were a pleasure to hear.

But perhaps my hearing, and/or the preponderant Irish brogue, was the problem, for from my upper balcony perch I think I missed about half the spoken dialogue. 

And while I applaud the decision of book writer Edna Walsh, director John Tiffany and other Once creators not to try to enact movie scenes verbatim, but rather adapt them for the stage--a single, unchanged set piece of a Dublin bar interior served as a backdrop for everything, even when the action takes place in a music store or a vacuum shop--I also felt my physical distance limited my emotional embrace of this tender show. 

In his 4 star (out of 4) review, the Tribune's Chris Jones suggests that Once fits perfectly into the expanse of the Oriental, saying that "nothing will be lost" upon viewing it in the large venue. But with great respect for Jones, I doubt he was seated in the upper balcony for the performance he reviewed. 

So while mine is likewise a positive review of a musical that has great merits, including an impressive cast of on-stage musicians--leads Ward & de Waal were proficient on guitar and piano, as well as stellar singers--given the Tony Award, Jones' raves and my fondness for the film, my high expectations weren't quite met for Once.

Wanting to assume the material exceeds my response to it, I blame being in the cheap seats in a great, big theater. I already look forward to the day I see Once at the Marriott Theater Lincolnshire, and/or somewhere even smaller. I think then it will render the emotional impact that is likely there, but diminished by watching through binoculars and straining to catch & comprehend each word being said.

For while there are several compelling strains in the narrative--about music, muses, love, perseverence, parental relationships, recording studios, broken vacuum cleaners and more--my favorite moments in Once were pretty consistently the songs. 

Which makes it essentially no better, I imagine, than seeing the Swell Season--Hansard & Irglová as a touring duo--or simply watching the DVD of the movie...from the relative intimacy of my couch. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Springsteenesque Saga of Hope and Heartbreak, Cubs Style

(In my opinion Bruce Springsteen is still the best concert performer around. But unlike "back in the day," he no longer tells long-winded stories introducing--or even amidst--his songs. The story that comes at about the 4:50 mark of this video is a prime example of which I'm referring.

Although I'll come far short of the Boss' offhand eloquence, I thought I'd try to tell this 10th anniversary recollection of a night that will live in misery as though I was leading into a song on stage. 

So I'm imagining a bed of Roy Bittan piano music as I recite this into my iPhone. (Reading it back, I realize I really don't nearly match Bruce's cadence, but go with me.))

When I was young, way before I knew any better, I became a Cubs fan. A diehard Cubs fan.

One might think this resigns you to a life of perennial pessimism, but you can't really be a Cubs fan unless you're an optimist somewhere deep, really deep, underneath.

So I can't deny that, 10 years ago, on the night of October 14, 2003, I entered Wrigley Field with hope. Hope that I might be present to witness something I never had seen, nor had most others in the ballpark that night. Or on TV around the city, country and world.

At that point it had been 58 years since the Cubs had last won the pennant and played in a World Series, which they hadn't actually won for 95 years. (It's 105 now, but who's counting.)

But, for the first time since 1908, they had just won a playoff series, the National League Divisional Series against the Braves. And I'd been there, not just for Game 3 at home, but for the Game 5 clincher in Atlanta. That was pretty damn cool.

And with the Cubs having taken a 3 games to 1 lead against the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series, I was ready for something even more historic.

And yes, unbelievable.

Not that I had a ticket mind you, but I went down to Wrigleyville anyway and found a scalper with a single ticket in the upper part of the upper deck--the last seat along the left-field line--for "just $300."

The Cubs jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, and when they added runs in the sixth and seventh I must admit I began to think the unthinkable. To imagine the unimaginable. To dream the impossible dream.

Although, like any real Cubs fan, I was still more acutely skeptical until proven otherwise. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but begin to get a bit giddy with anticipation. "Could this really be happening?"


In the notorious 8th inning, of course, everything went to hell.

Pitcher Mark Prior, who had been dominant up to that point, started getting wild (here's my brief video of him getting pulled). Shortstop Alex Gonzales made a costly error. And, of course, there was the Steve Bartman incident.

I've never been one to blame Bartman for the loss nor to demonize him. I admire how he's kept a low profile all these years; not once seeking or accepting publicity or profit. And from my vantage point at the time, I couldn't actually see the play.

But in watching it again--through the power of YouTube--I was reminded that he really shouldn't have been reaching for the ball. 

So yes, he made a mistake--though he wasn't the only one with arms outstretched and at risk of interfering with the play--but the truth is that the Cubs made many worse. You can't hold one guy responsible for a century of futility, and Mr. Bartman deserves to be left alone, as he always has.

As history sadly recalls, the Marlins wound up scoring 8 runs in that 8th inning on route to a 8-3 victory--"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?" to quote Springsteen's "The River"--and I still remember feeling like something invaluable had just been snatched away from me. 

Never mind that the Cubs still had Game 7 left to attempt to win the pennant--I didn't even think about going, much--and would, in fact, have an early yet fruitless lead in that one, too.

Without meaning to over overstate it in terms of life & death importance, I--and presumably most of the 39,576 others at Wrigley and millions more Cubs fans elsewhere--was rather shattered by the brutal turn of events.

From a sports fandom standpoint, Game 6 was--and still is--the most devastating loss I have ever experienced, especially in person.

But my night didn't quite end there. As I got on the L train to head north from Addison, I happened to noticed that sitting across from me was a girl I knew.

A girl I hadn't seen for nearly a year, but had worked with just prior, and who I didn't even know was back in the U.S. after having done a teaching stint abroad.

A girl who I had, for awhile, closely befriended and for whom I had developed deeper feelings I thought (or at least hoped) were mutual.

A girl who, if it didn't sound so silly in retrospect, I fell in love with (or at least thought I did).

A girl who had rejected me when I actually asked her out.

Which I haven't really done often. In the romance department, I've been as perennial a loser as the Cubs. But every so often there's a woman of whom I dare to imagine, 'It might be, it could isn't.'

So at the time, she was the one person I least would've wanted to see at that particular moment--she hadn't even
been at the game, but at a bar watching it--or at least the one most symbolically synonymous with the same feelings of disappointment and dejection the game itself had manifested.

Impossible as it was to pretend I didn't see her, we talked a bit and I don't recall it being unbearably uncomfortable; I think even at the time I could appreciate the wry irony of the encounter.

But it wasn't like out of the depths of despair rose love and marriage.

Rather it was as though fate didn't think kicking me in the nutsack once that evening was sufficient.

So you see, October 14, 2003 wasn't just a heartbreaking night for Cubs fans. For me, it was a night on which dual heartbreaks--both exacerbated by a giddy sense of anticipation soon proven foolish--callously collided. 

But by the time I got home, October 14 had turned into October 15 and I had turned 35.

And here we are 10 years down the road. The Cubs still haven't won the World Series--nor another playoff game.

And I still haven't found true love.

But yet, for the most part, happiness abounds...and hope remains.


Or perhaps infernal.

But with a thought that the looming possibility of euphoria might actually be better than the realization of it--and heck, as a Sox fan, too, I celebrated in 2005--in the words of the almighty Boss, "let the broken hearts stand as the price you've gotta pay..."

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: An Exceptional Evening of Eating Like an Ethiopian

Ras Dashen
5846 N. Broadway, Chicago
773.506.9601 Website

What I ate: Sambusa (appetizer) with Lentils and with Beef, Injera with Zilzil Alicha, Mushroom Wat, Qosta and Yeqay Tikil Gomen, Ethio Chai

Regrettably, when I hear "Ethiopia" or "Ethiopian food," I can't help but think of images of emaciated children; victims of a brutal famine that prompted the BandAid, LiveAid and USA For Africa ("We Are the World") relief efforts in the mid-1980s.

I haven't seen such photos for several years, so while I'm sure there are many people still suffering in sub-Saharan African, hopefully the efforts of people like Bob Gelfof, Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bono and more made a real life-and-death difference with lasting impact.

And perhaps one day I can enjoy Ethiopian food without such harrowing images coming to mind.

But even if they did, the other night I very much enjoyed an Ethiopian meal at Ras Dashen with my friend Ken.

Though there seem to be a good handful of Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago, I've only eaten at one other--Demera, at Lawrence & Broadway--once, with a couple friends of mine.

That was recent enough to recall the general concept of Ethiopian cuisine but distant enough to forget the specifics.

For my current Chicago Dining World Tour "Sethnic" excursion, I chose Ras Dashen primarly because it was top ranked on Yelp.

When Ken & I arrived at about 8pm on Saturday night the place was rather full and, I would subsquently note, quite diverse in the race, ethnicity and age of its patrons. 

Without a reservation, we were initially seated in the very back at a table seemingly made from bamboo or something akin, with wobbly chairs to match. Not very comfortable for me, and especially Ken who's nearly a foot taller, so we asked to switch to an open, more standard table. But even that was next to the rest rooms in back.

Fortunately, before we even began perusing the menu, the hostess informed us that a table next to the front window had opened up, so we gladly switched again.

All the better to appreciate a nicely-appointed restaurant with appealing artwork on the walls, as well as anyone strolling along Broadway.

Between a helpful explanation on the menu and a helpful waitress, we were (re)introduced to the principal conceit of Ethiopian dining, in which the table's choices of entrees and sides come on an injera in a circular pan.

Injera is best described (at least by me) as a flat, spongy bread, not so unlike--in use, if not texture--a Mexican tortilla or Indian naan.

Before getting to the main course, for an appetizer we got an order of Sambusa = lentil, spinach, shimbera or beef wrapped in pastry and lightly fried. We chose lentil.

Accompanied by a terrific homemade tomato-based dipping sauce, the sambusa was so delicious that we re-upped with another order containing beef.

Having read good things on Yelp about the Honey Wine, I tried to order a glass but was told they were out of it. So I stuck with a Diet Coke. Ken ordered Ethio Chai Tea, of which he said, "I like it a lot and I'm not really a tea person."

To explain our main course, I direct you to the photo below, as well as the next one.

As I mentioned above, the food comes on an injera, which sits on a circular pan.

The biggest-looking portion is Zilzil Alicha = strips of beef cooked in a tasty sauce with onions, garlic and green peppers.

This was listed under Beef Entries, while our other main selection--seen at roughly the 12 o'clock position--was from "Special Vegetarian Entrees" and therefore appropriately called Special Mushroom Wat = mushrooms and special potatoes in a tasty berbere sauce.

We asked what berbere sauce was but didn't really get a clear answer. (According to Wikipedia, berbere is an Ethiopian spice mixture.)

The two other items on the injera were sides that were complimentary accompaniments--chosen from a variety of options--to our "main dishes."

The purple one is Yeqay Tikil Gomen = sweet and sour red cabbage, Ethiopian style. while the green, spinach-looking one is indeed Qosta = spinach cooked with onions, garlic and spices.

In addition to the injera that the food is one, we were served a basket containing several folded injera. These were used to pick up and eat the various foods--either separately or mixed together--not so unlike how I like to use Naan with Indian curry and rice.

It looks a bit strange, and the spongy consistency of the injera makes it unlike anything else I've ever eaten, but everything tasted terrific.

The beef was quite tender and tasty, the mushroom wat had a real kick to it and the spinach and cabbage felt essentially like equal partners, not side dishes.

As you can see from the next picture, we pretty much devoured it all.

We skipped dessert--only one selection sounded authentically Ethiopian--in favor of a jaunt to Julius Meinl, but Ken got a cup of coffee.

Or as descibed in length on the menu: Buna be jebena The coffee plant is endemic to Ethiopia, so coffee has a special place in Ethiopian society. We roast organic, fair trade Ethiopian coffee beans fresh every day in a ceremony repeated daily in Ethiopian households around the world. Be sure to try our traditional Ethiopian coffee, boiled in a clay pot called a jebena over an open flame.

Given how much Ken liked this Ethio Chai Tea at the beginning of the meal, at the end of the meal as he got coffee, I ordered tea--and concur precisely with what he said.

If it wasn't the best tea I've ever tasted, I can't readily recall any better.

All in all, Ras Dashen provided one of the most unique dining experiences of my gastro-ethnic expeditions.

While I have seen numerous similarities in the numerous cultural cuisines I have explored in 2013, Ethiopian food seems completely distinctive. Though I have yet to find and try Sudanese, Kenyan or Somalian restaurants in Chicago, as those countries surround Ethiopia and could theoretically cook in a similar style.

The food at Ras Dashen was quite different, as was the way of consuming it, but everything was delicious, and the ambiance--once we were moved from next to the bathrooms--was quite welcoming.

And, as I hope is now true for the vast majority--if not all--residents of Ethiopia itself, we weren't left hungry.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Hank's for the Memories as 'Lost Highway' Proves Well-Worth a Song -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hank Williams: Lost Highway
by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik
directed by Damon Kiely
American Blues Theater
at Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago
Thru October 12

It's often been said that there's a fine line between genius and insanity, and I have found both--or some derivation thereof--equally difficult to have acutely depicted and defined upon a theatrical stage, particularly in the context of musical biographies of musicians.

For there are many artists who showcase talent and perseverance without rising to the level of being famous, let alone legendary. Likewise, infinite numbers of people  suffer hardships, sorrow and insecurities without--fortunately--experiencing the devastating lows that make headlines when a star dies via suicide, substance abuse or some combination thereof.

So I understand the inherent challenge, but having seen stage bios of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Fela Kuti, Buddy Holly,  and now Hank Williams, I can't say any have given me particular insight into what made their subjects exceptional--beyond the brilliance of their music.

To be fair, a Rolling Stone piece on Kurt Cobain that I read earlier on Sunday before seeing Hank Willams: Lost Highway didn't come that much closer to defining the intangible, nor did a fictional play--Reverb--that covered similar ground. Even Martin Scorsese's bio-docs on Bob Dylan and George Harrison were best simply for the performance clips. (A documentary I recently saw about Ginger Baker was noteworthy for showing what was different and distinctive about his style of drumming.)

So while I enjoyed Lost Highway for the music, the performances and what I did learn about Hank Williams, it was--not all that surprisingly--considerably more entertaining than enlightening.

Williams is one of those icons who--in the spirit of what I call Associative Learning--I have long known of, but other than a handful of songs and that he died young, didn't know all that much about.

Lost Highway, written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik and nearing the end of an acclaimed and successful run at the comfortable Greenhouse Theater Center under the direction of Damon Kiely, did fill in various gaps when it came to basic familiarity with Williams' biography. 

And as Hank, Matthew Brumlow was terrific, as was the luminous Laura Coover as his wife Audrey. And in embodying Williams' backing band, the Drifting Cowboys, Austin Cook, Michael Mahler, Greg Hirte and John Foley, sounded great in playing their instruments onstage, as did Brumlow. Suzanne Petri, as Hank's mom and initially his manager, was also noteworthy.

Songs such as "Lovesick Blues," "Move it on Over," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Jambalaya," "Lost Highway," a plaintive "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and the show-closing "I Saw The Light" were a pleasure to hear. And as the deterioration of Hank's marriage and health due to heavy boozing depicted, one certainly got a "brush strokes" concept of his life's triumphs and tragedy.

So though you only have a few more opportunities to get to the current run, if you like Hank Williams or care to acquaint yourself with one of the greatest legends of country--or any type of music--particularly with discount tickets available for most performances through HotTix and Goldstar, Lost Highway is well worth the trip.

But in terms of providing any real depth in explaining what made Williams' music so groundbreaking, his legacy so large or his fall--into and from substance abuse--so precipitous, this show doesn't go any further than others of its ilk.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Don't Stop Belizean

Redz Belizean Restaurant
7605 N. Paulina, Chicago

What I ate: Small Oxtail dinner, Panades, Cornbread, Caramel cake

When I hatched the idea for my Chicago Dining World Tour at the beginning of this year, I began by doing some internet research into places that offered ethnic cuisines beyond the tried and true.

One of the first places I noted as rather unique was Tickie's Belizean Cuisine, which seemed to be located in the shadow of the Howard L station.

But before I even started embarking on any gastro-ethnic excursions, I discovered that Tickie's--though generally well-reviewed on Yelp--was already extinct.

However, another Belizean restaurant, called Redz, had taken over the same storefront at 7605 N. Paulina in Chicago. And based on the Yelp reviews, seemingly rather similar--if not exact--in its menu.

With a Saturday errand to run on Howard Street, stopping at Redz proved rather opportune--and delicious.

The intimate establishment felt quite familial, with likely all other patrons being repeat customers, many seemingly on a first name basis with the proprietor--Red--and other employees.

A few entrees listed on the menu board caught my eye--including King Fish, Red Snapper, Tilapia, Beef and Oxtail--and I asked Red for a recommendation.

He suggested the Oxtail, and as I've never had it and was informed that it is beef that comes from the tail of a cow, I opted to give it a try.

I enjoyed the three pieces of oxtail that came on my plate--they weren't so unlike rib tips--but they a rather minor part of the "Small Oxtail dinner."

I elected seasoned rice from the included side dish options; it came lightly laced with beans--which I generally don't like--but there were few enough that it was fine among the healthy bed of tasty rice. Other choices were white rice, rice & beans, stewed beans & white rice or split peas & white rice.

The dinner plate--albeit at lunch--included a scoop of potato salad, as well as a fried plantain, which I always find delicious.

A la carte, I ordered Panades, which was described to me as fried corn with fish inside. Essentially they were empanadas, which seem to be a staple of many Central/South American and Caribbean cuisines, albeit with slight variations.

Four panades came in a single appetizer order, which is unusually plentiful though offset by the fish filling in each one being rather sparse.

Still, they were terrific, with just a smidgen of really hot habanero sauce, and served as a nice accompaniment to my main dish. 

I also ordered a piece of cornbread, which was quite good, and more out of curiosity than necessity, a piece of caramel cake for dessert.

The caramel frosting was delicious but the cake part a bit dry.

For a beverage, I got a soft drink called Kola Champagne. It's Jamaican, not Belizean, and the spelling reminded me of a Clash song

And it was really, really good, as was my entire initial excursion to Redz--and taste of Belizean food.

Which, for all of the above, cost less than $20.

So I Belize I might be back again. 


Friday, October 04, 2013

'Pullman Porter Blues' a Satisfying Journey Over Familiar Ground --Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Pullman Porter Blues 
a play (with live music) by Cheryl West
directed by Chuck Smith
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October

There are a lot of good things about Pullman Porter Blues--the new show at Goodman--including three good men.

Although not technically billed as a musical, the recently-created, two-act piece features several terrific blues numbers played live on stage and sung wonderfully by the likes of E. Faye Butler and Larry Marshall.

The acting is excellent throughout, including strong work from Marshall, as Monroe Sykes, senior porter on a Pullman rail car, Cleavant Derricks as his son, Sylvester, also a porter, and Tosin Morohunfola as Cephus, their grandson and son respectively, who is making his first journey as a Pullman porter. And having seen them many times on Chicago stages, it was no surprise that Butler--playing a blues singer named Sister Juba--and Francis Guinan--as Tex, the train's racist and petty conductor--were also wonderful.

The set design by Riccardo Hernandez--basically a full size replica rail car designed to seamlessly accommodate scene changes--is terrifically impressive.

And Cheryl West's script, saluting the dedication and decorum of Pullman Porters while decrying their
mistreatment, is informative, funny, poignant and--when the songs are worked in--buoyant.

All told, the positives of Pullman Porter Blues make for an enjoyable night of theater while broaching familiar themes in an original way.

But while I was sufficiently entertained, and even enlightened, I can't say I was all that engrossed by the narrative. 

The events of the play primarily focus on the three generations of Sykes men as porters on a Pullman train bound from Chicago to New Orleans, over the course of a night in 1937 when Joe Louis fought James "Cinderella Man" Braddock for boxing's World Heavyweight Championship. 

Beyond exploring the often-strained paternal relationships among the three, and providing a unifying asshole in Guinan's Tex character, West weaves in Sister Juba (Butler) and a train-jumping, harmonica-humming young white woman named Lutie, who befriends Cephus in risk of bigoted malevolence.

I don't mean to imply that the truth of how badly African-Americans have often been treated since coming to America as slaves can ever be told enough. And in telling it while introducing many to a bygone age and profession, West certainly scores points for originality.

But very little that happens in Pullman Porter Blues took me by surprise, including--of course--the outcome of the Louis-Braddock title fight.

All the typical tropes and themes one might expect were aboard this train--except for, as shown on-stage, ignorant and demeaning passengers--and while some of the messaging was powerful, little felt particularly revelatory.

Not to shortchange the strong acting, compelling characters and heavy undertones, but my favorite parts of Pullman Porter Blues were almost invariably the songs.

If this show isn't officially a musical, it should be.

For not only, at this point, do the plotline and spoken-word scenes not congeal perfectly around the interspersed tunes--played by an impressive live band that just happens to be hanging out in the lounge car--but though the premise of Pullman Porter Blues is on clearly track, as a "play" it uniformly stops short of traveling deep enough into uncharted territory.

Nonetheless, for those looking for nice blend of great blues music and thoughtful theater, Pullman is worth getting on board--particularly if you can take advantage of some nice discounts through HotTix or the Goodman box office.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Mid Flying Enjoyed: Even on a Not-Quite-Rainbow-High Tour, 'Evita' Still Shines as Webber's Masterwork -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A national tour presented by Broadway in Chicago
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 6

More than not, I like Andrew Lloyd Webber and many of the musicals he's composed.

Although I trace the maturity of my musical theater appreciation directly to when I came to prefer Stephen Sondheim and other brand-name contemporaries such as Kander & Ebb and Boublil & Schönberg, it's not like I regard Sir ALW as a hack.

I've seen 10 of his shows--including London premieres of lesser-knowns like The Beautiful Game and The Woman in White--and earlier this year, a revue, in whose review I opined about him similarly.

While the record setting, still-running-on-Broadway-and-in-the-West-End Phantom of the Opera is his most successful show--and likely to many his greatest achievement, perhaps followed by Cats--I greatly prefer Evita (followed by Sunset Blvd.; see this list of My 100 Favorite Stage Musicals).

Whereas the best songs in Phantom--"Music of the Night," "Think of Me"--and Cats--"Memory"--are rather overt, I like how two of Evita's finest--"Another Suitcase in Another Hall" and "High Flying Adored"--are sublime in a much more subtle way. And even "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" doesn't reach for the rafters until near the end.

Currently playing at Chicago's astonishing Oriental Theater through Sunday, the latest touring production of Evita is derived from the 2012 Broadway revival that starred Elena Roger in the title role and Ricky Martin as Che, the narrator. 

Reviews in New York were generally tepid and the run lasted less than a year. The touring version, though featuring an Equity cast, is presumably scaled down from there, in terms of production values and, possibly, performance quality.

So though the score of Evita is good enough for me to likely relish a solid high school, college or community rendition--and considerably more than not, this version--here the source material outshines the production and any particular performances.

A year ago in Chicago, I saw the very first public performance of the Tony-winning Kinky Boots, in which Caroline Bowman was an ensemble member I likely hardly noticed. Now she is starring as Evita--a.k.a. Eva Peron, an Argentinean First Lady revered for her style and lionized after dying young--which is quite an impressive leap. 

Even through binoculars from the top of the balcony, she looked lovely but seemed to be acting her role--with something of a doe-eyed naivety--rather than truly inhabiting it with a steely verve. Her singing voice was pleasant but not spine-tingling distinctive or powerful like the role's Broadway originator, Patti LuPone.

Sean MacLaughlin's Playbill credits suggest he is older than he looked, but though well-sung, he didn't seem perfectly-suited to embody Juan Peron, Eva's husband who rose from military leader to Argentine president in the mid 1940s (when he was already 50).

Josh Young was the best of the three stars as Che, but even he didn't have me going "Oh, wow!"

The musical moved quickly, and was never less than tuneful--the chorus numbers, such as "A New Argentina," sounded terrific--and though not the best, this production serves as a worthwhile introduction to anyone unfamiliar with Evita.

Frequent early Webber collaborator Tim Rice wrote the lyrics, and I find many to be tremendously sharp, such as this couplet from "Rainbow High":
"I came from the people,
they need to adore me
So Christian Dior me
from my head to my toes"
And unlike most biographical musicals, many of which require acquiring rights from the subject's estate, Evita refreshingly isn't a hagiography.

Through the sardonic Che--himself based on a real-life figure not as uniformly noble as his oft t-shirted image might imply--Webber and Rice poke at many of Eva's flaws & foibles, and even those of her adoring public.

In a variety of ways that, IMHO, Andrew Lloyd Webber never topped, Evita really is a superlative piece of theater.

But though rather pleasurable and well-worth recommending, this production of it--which somehow just seemed to have a slight sheen overall--isn't quite.