Thursday, January 30, 2014

I Can See For Niles and Niles: Historical Museum Provides a Pleasant Look Back

Museum Visit Recap / Photo Gallery

Niles Historical Museum
8970 Milwaukee Ave., Niles, IL
Visited January 29, 2014

Yesterday, my friend Ken and I took advantage of an open afternoon and traveled back to the early 20th century--and even a bit further--by visiting the Niles Historical Museum.

This was the first time either of us had been to the imposing building a bit south of Golf on Milwaukee--which served as the Cook County Sheriff's Quarters from 1923 to 1984--despite Ken being a Niles resident for 30 years and me living in nearby Skokie, part of Niles Township, on and off and on again for 45 years.

Although there are occasional movie showings and other special programs on weekends, the museum is regularly open just Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10:30am to 3pm. It is operated by volunteers of the Niles Historical Society, and though admission is free, we were taken on a nice tour of the collection's three floors that made us happy to each donate $5 at the end.

Certainly the museum contained plenty of history directly tied to Niles, including photos of long-gone homes, farms and taverns, relics from prominent local businesses such as Salerno, reminders of the Tam O'Shanter Country Club (which survives in part as a 9-hole public golf course but once hosted major tournaments and celebrities) and Mill Run Playhouse, impressive battlefield paintings by hometown artist Konrad Hack and items that were donated by local residents, including the uniform and shoes a Niles man had worn as a POW in North Korea.

But with our docent, Doris, being a good bit older than Ken, who is a half-generation beyond my 45 years, I best enjoyed how items likely present in many similar local historical museums--lanterns, school desks, old telephones & typewriters, radios & televisions, dollhouses & other toys, ice boxes, early washing machines, etc.--prompted varying levels of recollect and discussion among the three of us. Of course, many items displayed predated us all, such as a covered wagon, Model T Ford and various tools & farming instruments.

But with myself having only known color televisions, electric typewriters and (for the most part) touch-tone phones during my lifetime--and all that the Internet and digital information age has fostered--it was pointed and a bit poignant to be reminded of the types of items people managed to live with, and even without, back in the proverbial day.

Rather than describe everything we saw, I'll post below a gallery of photographs I took--while encouraging you to stop into the Niles Historical Museum if you ever get your chance.

It's well-worth a couple hours of your time, and many decades preceding it.

(The photos are "beneath the fold;" click below to see them if you don't.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Rebecca Gilman's 'Luna Gale' Provides a Compelling Look at Those Not Always Seen -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Luna Gale
a world premiere play by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Through February 23

Like many it seems, last year I became enamored by the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black.

While the show is terrific for many reasons, on several levels, what I valued most were the backstory vignettes that powerfully humanized each of female prisoners.

Similar to the recent documentary, The Interrupters, and the based-on-a-true-story feature film, Fruitvale Station (both outstanding), Orange serves as a powerful reminder that even those oft defined by pejoratives--criminal, convict, thug, gangbanger, junkie, etc.--are human beings, often surprisingly  similar to, or even more admirable than, many who may deride or simply disregard them.

As was conveyed by Robert Falls--the Goodman Theatre's artistic director and the director of its current world premiere production of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale--in an illuminating pre-show "Artist Encounter" conversation that also included the playwright as well as moderator Steve Edwards, Gilman's plays often give voice to the voiceless, instilling characters typically marginalized in society with a sense of dignity.

Regrettably, I have yet to see any of Gilman's most lauded works--Spinning into Butter, Boy Gets Girl, The Glory of Living, Blue Surge--and didn't much care for her adaptation of Ibsen, Dollhouse, nor the ambitiously convoluted A True History of the Johnstown Flood.

But with the Artist Encounter informing my appreciation of the social commentary and subtext of Luna Gale, I was able to not only greatly enjoy the wonderfully-acted play on Sunday night, but better understand why Falls has so often (seven times) commissioned Gilman to write plays for the Goodman to produce.

As Gilman herself explained, Luna Gale--its title being the name of the unseen 6-month-old girl at the center of the drama--is a play she worked on over a 9-year period, but which drew its inspiration from two primary sources.

One was a PBS documentary called Failure to Protect, which chronicled an incident in Maine in which a 5-year-old girl died while in the care of her foster mother, who was also a case worker for the state's Department of Human Services.

More directly--though not explicitly--tied to the action of the play was Gilman's observance of meth-addicted teen parents in an emergency room waiting area.

Gilman relayed how she initially noted the girl frenetically on the phone with her drug dealer, but was shocked when, in taking a call from someone watching her baby, the young woman gave instructions about feeding and napping with clear competence and composure.

Affected by the dichotomy between perception and reality, Gilman fostered Luna Gale's theme of "Who (and what) makes for a good parent?"

In the play, meth-addicted teen parents Karlie and Peter (wonderfully portrayed by Reyna de Courcy and Colin Sphar) have brought their baby to the ER, where their interaction with a social worker named Caroline (the always stellar Mary Beth Fisher) sets the narrative rolling.

Especially as this is a World Premiere production that is well-worth seeing, I feel it best to be quite sparse with any plot details.

All I will say is that the story involves Caroline trying to aid Karlie & Peter and determine the best course of action for Luna.

Characters also include Karlie's mother (Jordan Baker), a local pastor (Richard Thieriot), Caroline's boss (Erik Hellman) and Lourdes, a college student who until recently was a ward under Caroline's care.

In addition to drug addiction, fundamentalist Christianity plays a large part in Gilman's piece, and in addressing a query about questions of faith in Luna Gale during the Artist Encounter, the writer noted that "the characters all have a great need for something that will give them hope," be it drugs, God or something undetermined.

By no means is hearing directly from the playwright and director prior to curtain requisite for understanding, enjoying and appreciating Luna Gale.

With outstanding performances throughout but especially by de Courcy and Sphar, a brilliant rotating set design by Todd Rosenthal and keen direction by Falls, Luna Gale is more than entertaining and compelling at face value.

Though the story is dramatic, there are a number of laughs, and while perceiving how carefully Gilman tries not to overtly demonize any of her characters, there is an acute "Whose side are you on?" sense of dramatic confrontation that makes for riveting theater.

Still, I felt the only possible shortcoming of Luna Gale is in the way Gilman imbues her characterizations to the point of feeling nearly like caricatures, whether of drug addicts, fundamentalists, negligent parents, screwed-up adolescents, jerk bosses, etc.

While I gained vast respect for Gilman and the effort that goes into writing, developing, rehearsing, revising and producing a play--all done with far more depth of thought than penning this review--I can't help but suspect that her messaging (leading to, per Falls, the all important post-show conversations among viewers) might have been even more powerful if some of the characters and their actions weren't so clearly distasteful, at least to me.

To explain this further would involve plot points I won't reveal, but I would be happy to have a discussion after you see Luna Gale.

Which if you enjoy great theater, created by two of Chicago's most esteemed practitioners (and numerous gifted colleagues), you definitely should. Not least because you may well come away questioning some of your own preconceived notions.

And in an ever more polarized world, a bit greater depth perception--not to mention empathy and compassion--can only do us all some good.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

With a Little Magic Power, Rik Emmett Triumphantly Continues to Fight the Good Fight -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Rik Emmett
An Acoustic Night of Triumph
w/ opening act Classical Blast
Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL
January 25, 2014

From the late 1970s to the late '80s, the Canadian rock trio Triumph released 9 studio albums, all of which were certified platinum or gold in the U.S. and/or Canada. rates three of these albums 4 or 4-1/2 stars (on a 5-star scale)--the best being 1981's Allied Forces--and songs like "Lay it on the Line," "Fight the Good Fight," "Magic Power" and "Somebody's Out There" were once staples on rock radio and/or seen on MTV.

The band headlined arenas and amphitheaters across North America, and in 1983 played at the massive US Festival.

But somehow, perhaps because they were often considered secondary peers of Rush--themselves a Canadian trio with a high-pitched singer, vast popularity and critical disdain--Triumph was seemingly never considered "cool."

Then again, neither was I, and I unapologetically liked the band which featured dual songwriters and singers--guitarist Rik Emmett and drummer Gil Moore--and was rounded out by bassist Mike Levine.

In September 1986, I saw Triumph live for the only time, when early in my freshman year I came home from Northern Illinois University, met up with my friend Gary who was in from Illinois State, and went up to Alpine Valley.

Triumph long ago disbanded and while I retained a fondness, I didn't even know they had reunited for a couple festival shows in 2008, or that following a 1990 solo album, Rik Emmett had remained active.

But last night, Gary and I--along with two of his family members--shlepped to the historic Arcada Theater in St. Charles to see Rik Emmett in what was billed as "An Acoustic Night of Triumph."

With no disrespect to his old bandmates, Emmett was essentially the reason I enjoyed Triumph, as I found him to possess one of rock's sweetest voices and be a gifted guitarist who often included classically-infused instrumentals on the band's albums.

(Notably, at least to me, I was seeing Emmett just 9 days removed from a show by the only other guy I know to fill the category of "singer-guitarist from a prominent '80s power trio who split songwriting and lead vocal duties with the band's drummer." That would be Bob Mould, who was originally in Hüsker Dü.)

Although in recent days, I had learned through YouTube,, Wikipedia, etc. that the now 60-year-old Emmett is still in good stead, occasionally performs and has long been teaching at a college in Toronto, I really didn't know what to expect from the concert.

I thought it would be just Rik with an acoustic guitar playing and singing several of Triumph's greatest hits.

But for the most part, I was rather pleasantly surprised.

First of all, for a guy I wouldn't be shocked to note playing at some free summer festival, perhaps not even on a headlining stage, I was glad Rik Emmett provided an excuse to finally attend the Arcada Theater, a venue built in 1926 that has been nicely restored and hosts a number of concerts by artists that were once much bigger than they are now but rather impressively can still fill a good portion of the theater's 900 seats. (Upcoming acts at the Arcada include Cheap Trick, The Buckinghams & Gary Puckett, 10,000 Maniacs, Gordon Lightfoot, Three Dog Night, Eddie Money, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Kevin Costner, Blue Oyster Cult, Herman's Hermits and Lita Ford).

An usher mentioned that 700 tickets were sold for the Rik Emmett show, but the main floor we were on--at the back for just $29--seemed almost completely full. And in a way, from the t-shirts being worn to the small talk in line for the far-too-tiny men's room, it felt less like a typical concert crowd than a convention of Triumph fanatics.

(It seems I was also oblivious to a show Emmett did at the Arcada in June 2012 with a full band; sorry I missed it but good video exists of "Magic Power" and "Fight the Good Fight.")

On this Saturday night, I didn't figure there would be an opening act, but upon seeing a cello and violin setup onstage along with an acoustic guitar, I realized I was wrong.

Being told the warmup band was called Classical Blast, I still didn't expect much, but we were treated to a delightful 50-minute set of prime cover songs with classical tinges.

In what may be the only time I knew every lyric sung by an opening act, Classical Blast performed U2's "Beautiful Day," R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," The Cure's "Lovesong" Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters," Oasis' "Wonderwall," Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," Supertramp's "Breakfast in America" and the end part of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," with a violin solo substituted for Jimmy Page's guitar solo.

Although back in the day, R.E.M. and the Cure may have been played on different stations than Triumph, the fans seemed to really enjoy the set, during which the singer/guitarist Daniel Kav was demonstrably gracious, saying "Success isn't having what you want, but wanting what you have," and that being onstage there and then was exactly what he wanted. (I notice via the Classical Blast website that the band also includes a bassist and drummer, not present at this acoustic gig.)

It soon became apparent that Emmett would not be performing solo nor completely acoustic.

Though seated for most of the performance, Emmett played an electric acoustic guitar and was joined by (as I now know) longtime sidemen Dave Dunlop on guitar and Steve Skingley on bass & keyboard.

In yet another unexpected occurrence, they opened with a song that often closed Triumph shows of old: "Fight the Good Fight."

At 60, Emmett's great voice has deepened a bit, but somewhat appealingly so, and he seemingly still has his full range. And as the next song, a Triumph instrumental--I think it was "Petite Etude" off Allied Forces--demonstrated, Rik Emmett is still a hell of a terrific, dextrous guitarist.

Another classic, "Lay it on the Line," was played before Emmett--quite amicable and engaging throughout--noted that "A Night of Triumph" was a bit of a marketing ploy.

But though a song written and sung by Dunlop ("Light of Day") was then played, and another one later ("Only Time Will Tell," with lyrics by Emmett), virtually all the songs on this night were either by Triumph or fully in the spirit of Triumph.

There were lovely instrumentals including "Midsummer's Daydream" off Thunder Seven, the fine album cut "Ordinary Man" from Allied Forces and even a cover of Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way," which was actually one of Triumph's earliest singles.

Only another solo Eagle cover, Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer," was truly beyond the Triumph terrain, and it was wonderfully played and sung.

Emmett and his mates were onstage for nearly 2 hours--the Arcada setting was just about perfect--and they satisfied throughout. Though Emmett was warm and gracious, saying he had "music to thank for giving me a lovely life" before delivering a sublime rendition of Triumph's trademark "Magic Power" that had most of the middle-aged crowd singing along like "young now, wild now" teenagers, he also chided those who brazenly shouted out song requests.

"I know it's hard to believe," Emmett said, "but I actually rehearse. And there's actually shit I would like to do."

But though Rik was completely right in championing his artistic vision and ignoring the small but all-too-vocal jackass contingent, he somewhat short-circuited his pledge to "get to most of those songs later."

After yet another fine, but a bit too long, instrumental preceded the main set closing "Magic Power," I was hoping for a couple more of Triumph's greatest hits for encores. Perhaps "Somebody's Out There," "Hold On" and/or "Follow Your Heart."

But Emmett opted for the more obscure "Suitcase Blues"--I didn't know it--off 1979's Just a Game, and then he, Dunlop and Skingley took their bows and left the stage for good.

So while all-in-all it was a highly enjoyable "Night of Triumph," for me the victory lap came up a tad short and thus the Skokie judge is deducting a 1/2@ (from what mostly felt like a @@@@1/2 performance).

Still, although unlike a woman in front of us, I was never compelled to hold up a Bic lighter--or even the lighter app on my iPhone--I won't apologize for delighting in a Triumphant blast from the past, or for finding great resonance in this final verse of "Magic Power":
The world is full of compromise, the infinite red tape 
But the music's got the magic, it's your one chance for escape 
So turn me on - turn me up - it's your turn to dream 
A little magic power makes it better than it seems
Here's a little "Magic Power," the only video I shot: 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Tapping into the Genius of Savion Glover -- Chicago Dance Review

Dance Review

Savion Glover's STePz
Harris Theater, Chicago
January 24, 2014

As oft shared on these pages, I have been fortunate to have seen some of the greatest performers of our time--and perhaps even all-time--in a variety of idioms.

From musicians and singers in many genres, to some of the most acclaimed actors, actresses & comedians, to superstar athletes in several fields, to Cirque du Soleil acrobats and others with rare & amazing talents, I have witnessed--live and in person--virtuosity in myriad forms.

Yet while I reserve the right to be contradictorily hyperbolic as the inspiration arises, there has been no one as jaw-dropping, mind-blowingly impressive at his or her craft than tap dancer Savion Glover. At least from a visceral standpoint.

Within the first two minutes he was on stage at the Harris Theater on Friday night, Glover displayed "hoofing" abilities that I don't think anyone else in the world can match.

This includes Marshall Davis, Jr., himself a phenomenal award-winning tap dancer who often shares the stage with the titular star of Savion Glover's STePz.

Davis is extraordinary, as are the "3 Controversial Women"--Robyn Watson, Ayodele Casel, Sara Savelli--who fill out the cast of this touring tap extravaganza set to recorded music by Prince, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Shostakovich, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and others.

I mean, imagine how good a tap dancer must you be to be hand-picked by Savion Glover to dance alongside him in a show he directs and choreographs.

But with all due respect, Glover's abilities--even to a dilettante like me--are a clear step beyond even his esteemed colleagues.

Words won't do him justice--I'll try to find a video to post below--but after his castmates opened the show together, Savion came on to do a rapid-fire solo piece that went for at least 5 minutes straight.

It was "Holy shit!" good. Over and over again.

But perhaps just as good, and even more demonstrative of the depth of his talent, was when Glover shared the stage in group numbers.

On the second piece, titled "When the Lights Go Down," all five dancers maintained a slow, cool rhythm that was sublimely showcased the beauty of syncopation.

Also stupendous was when Glover and Davis twice shared the stage on numbers that had them hoofing up and down two small, double-sided stair cases (see the video below). At times both men would go flying off the top stair, seemingly out-of-control, but never missing a beat.

After intermission, a blond woman who was not listed in the program--I think she's danced with Glover before; this was my fifth time seeing him--joined Savion and two others, and was also dazzling.

Excepting a brief wave at the end, Savion Glover never openly acknowledged the seemingly full house--it was nice to see several kids--and never spoke.

But even with pre-recorded music, and at times no musical accompaniment, I was riveted for the show's full 90 minutes, during which Glover hardly left the stage. If nothing else, just his stamina is awe-inspiring.

Believe me, I am far from a tap dancing aficionado, and certainly no expert. But what Glover can do goes beyond astonishing (or whatever adjective I've yet to use).

And it's not just his blinding speed.

One of the coolest parts of the show was when all 5 cast dancers were in a line at the front of their tap floor, seemingly still and silent. Except for what sounded like a woodpecker.

Only through my binoculars--and I was sitting rather up close--could I see that Glover was doing the tap dancer's version of ventriloquism. Though his leg was not apparently moving, his right foot was tapping with phenomenal rapidity. And he only got faster.

Also astonishing was the penultimate piece, with Savion dancing a beautiful solo to Nina Simone's Mr. Bojangles.

And the final number, an ebullient group dance to Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," was pure joy.

While Savion Glover was openly paying tribute to some of his dance and music heroes--including his early mentor, the late great Gregory Hines--at the age of 40, he clearly belongs among the all-time greats.

Of anything.

This clip, from Savion Glover's STePz website, should give you an idea what the show and its phenomenal star is all about:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Chicago Dining World Tour: When in Little Bucharest, Do as the Romanians Do

Little Bucharest
3661 Elston, Chicago

What I ate: Ciorba de Perisaure (meatball & vegetable soup), Charbroiled Sausages, Braised Short Rib Goulash, Chocolate Ganache, Apple Streudel

Little Bucharest Bistro is a prime example of a restaurant I likely never would have noticed, cared about, remembered or patronized if not for overtly seeking ethnic eateries to explore on my Chicago Dining World Tour.

Although i have traversed Elston Avenue numerous times, it was only in early 2013 that while riding with my friend Ken--who accompanied me on several "Sethnic dining" expeditions, including this one--that I noted Little Bucharest, just a tad north of Addison.

I kept it in mind over several months, though for awhile couldn't recall if it was Little Bucharest or Little Budapest.

Ironically, I had to go to Budapest itself last year to eat at a Hungarian restaurant, but went with Ken to the Romanian one in Chicago in mid-December.

Also ironically, when I mentioned my intention to try Little Bucharest to a friend at work, he said that he had just seen an offer for the restaurant from Amazon Local Deals.

So I purchased an offer of $30 worth of food for $15.

But this turned out to be fool's gold in a way.

First of all, as I noticed after buying it, the voucher wasn't valid on Saturday nights, which was when Ken and I preferred to go (we wound up going on a Sunday).

And we were told at the restaurant that, for no clear reason, the voucher couldn't be used in conjunction with the $28 3-course dinner featured on the menu. This essentially meant we wound up spending the $15 we had saved on dessert that otherwise would have been included.

So while the offer for Little Bucharest Bistro seems to be still offered by Amazon, I would be wary of its true value. 

The restaurant was a lot larger than one might have suspected, and rather attractively appointed. We were initially the only ones in the main dining room, but a little later live music was played and more patrons arrived. I enjoyed the European feel.

We were assisted by a waitress who seemed rather aloof, almost cold. So this was far from the best of my "Sethnic dining" excursions in terms of getting wonderful service and helpful suggestions.

But the food was good and the experience nonetheless enjoyable.

We both started with soup. Ken got "Ciorba de Borscht" Beet Soup, made of red beets with cabbage and a dollop of sour cream.

He declared it to be "delicious; very strong and beety."

I ordered Ciorba de Perisaure = meatball and vegetable soup. This was a rather large bowl and although the photo doesn't do it justice, there were lots of meatballs within the broth. I liked it.

For an appetizer, Ken and I shared an order of "Mititei" Charbroiled Sausages = beef and pork, garlic, served with greens and crispy polenta.

This was rather tasty, not only the sausages but the spinach and polenta as well. 

Though on most shared Chicago Dining World Tour stops, Ken and I have intently ordered different entrees so as to let me try a couple to write about, at Little Bucharest our eyes and taste buds were both drawn to the same thing:

"Bucharest Signature" Braised Short Rib Goulash, in which pieces of de-boned beef were mixed with tomato stew, green beans, pearl onions and homemade gnocchi.

We both really liked it, though I would have about half of it at home on a subsequent evening. 

Ken ordered a cup of "traditional Romanian coffee," which, we were told, was Turkish. Certainly not unfathomable, as both Romania and Turkey abut the Red Sea, but a bit noteworthy.

Ken said the coffee was good.

As were our desserts, which we shared.

I wouldn't say the Apple Streudel was as good as that I had in Vienna, or even at the German Laschet's Inn in Chicago, but there was certainly nothing not to like about it.

But considerably more delish, IMHO, was "Tort de Ciocolata" Chocolate Ganache Torte = Cupcake filled with chocolate gelato and raspberry sauce.

Especially as I love raspberry flavoring, this was as good as it sounds.

And a rather delectable to conclude a perfectly pleasant meal--we enjoyed the musical trio, who played presumably Romanian songs, as well as a nice version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"--even if everything about it wasn't quite perfect.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sumptuous New Production Unmasks My Phandom -- Chicago Theater Review: The Phantom of the Opera

Theater Review

The Phantom of the Opera
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru March 2

I'm as surprised as anyone about my giving The Phantom of the Opera a @@@@@ review.

Although I was wowed upon seeing the famed Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in 1993--when a trip to the theater was a great rarity for me--I was rather disappointed in seeing the show in 2004 and again in 2007.

I can't recall my specific dissension, but think I think I found the scenario creepy, much of the music middling and the whole affair rather bloated.

But in seeing a new touring production at the Cadillac Palace on Tuesday night--with my friend Paolo, who considers Phantom his second favorite musical behind A Chorus Line--I was somewhat astonished to find just about everything rather delightful.

Perhaps the revamped staging, though still quite grand, makes the proceedings seem less Gothic and ghoulish, especially as the Phantom abducts his ingenue Christine and transports her by boat to his secret lair.

Photo credits: Matthew Murphy, except where noted
Or maybe in seeing the insipid Ghost the Musical just a week prior, I was primed to better appreciate the vastly superior scenery, script, score, singing, orchestrations, costumes, acting, pacing and direction exhibited by Phantom.

I still wouldn't say I like the source material as much as that of Les Misérables, nor others among my very favorite musicals, but can't deny I found the current production to be a complete treat.

And, of course, Paolo loved it. 

Though according to their listed credits in the Playbill, neither Cooper Grodin (The Phantom) nor Julia Udine (Christine) have Broadway experience--and while I would guess that this is a tour utilizing Equity (actors union) performers, I see nothing to confirm it--if you told me that both stars had held the same roles on Broadway or in London's West End, I'd have no reason to doubt it.

Both were spectacularly well-sung and looked great--Grodin may have seemed a tad young, but this isn't even a quibble--as did Ben Jacoby (Raoul, Christine's love interest), who came directly from the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

At that fine venue, last year I saw Now & Forever, a revue of Andrew Lloyd Webber showtunes--he's the composer but never the lyricist; Phantom's lyrics are by Charles Hart--and in it an actress with substantive Broadway credits, Linda Balgord, sang a beautiful version of "Memory" from Cats. Here she plays Madame Giry, the ballet choreographer and seeming confidant of the Phantom.

So the cast was superlative, the sets were astonishing--if any lesser than previously, I couldn't tell--and the orchestra sounded fantastic, especially in delivering the powerful overture.

Photo Credit: Alastair Muir
But though I knew several of the early songs--the Overture, "Think of Me," "Angel of Music," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Music of the Night"--were pleasant and powerful, after turning to Paolo and saying, "Well, at least the first 45 minutes were great," unlike in viewings past, for whatever reason, the rest of the show didn't let me down.

Sure, a couple of the songs are more pedestrian than their companions, but that's true in every musical. But though I somewhat expected to, there was never a point where I thought to myself, "This really isn't that good."

Quite the contrary, in fact, which made it a bit confusing why the balcony at the Cadillac Palace was way undersold, only two weeks into a run slated to go another six.

Of course, with The Phantom of the Opera being the most successful musical--and live entertainment event of any kind--of all-time (it's been running in London since 1986 and 1988), and having played Chicago on numerous national tours, it's conceivable that many theater lovers are all "been there, done that."

And perhaps, "Didn't even love that."

But whether you are an avowed Phanatic--as Paolo assuredly is--or someone like me, who hasn't been blown away in the past, or even one who has never seen Phantom live on stage, this spectacular production (directed by Laurence Connor, with a new set design by Paul Brown) is well worth (re)discovering.

And with tickets as low as $25--and for a giant production like this, the balcony is certainly fine, if not even preferable--and better seats discounted on HotTix, a couple could easily take in Phantom for the price of a movie or two.

So who knows, if in the past I was wrong or right, but I was captured anew by the music of the night.

Here's a promotional clip from Broadway in Chicago, although not with the current cast: 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Legend in His Own Time...and Place -- Chicago Concert Review: Buddy Guy at Legends

Concert Review

Buddy Guy
w/ opening act Chicago Blues All-Stars
Buddy Guy's Legends, Chicago
January 19, 2014
(performances thru Jan. 26)

Excepting, at best, Michael Jordan, assorted other retired athletes and Oprah Winfrey, Buddy Guy may well be Chicago's greatest living legend.

But unlike Oprah, MJ, Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Ernie Banks, Frank Thomas, Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, et al, who either long ago left the Windy City or ceased showcasing their talents here, Buddy is a living, breathing and still smoking-hot guitar-playing pillar--and icon--of the community.

He lives in the area as he has since coming here 57 years ago from his native Louisiana; he owns and often hangs out at his namesake club, likely the most famous and successful extant blues venue in Chicago; and every January, Buddy Guy furthers his own legend by doing a 16-show residency at Buddy Guy's Legends.

Sunday night was the sixth time I've gone to one of Buddy's January shows but the first time since his club moved a few doors north on Wabash. I had gone four straight years from 2002-05, but as ticket prices have risen over the years from $25 to $55, this was my first gig since a sensational one in 2010.

Buddy Guy is now 77 years old and while he seems to be in good shape--despite nursing a minor malady of some sort; he relayed how several medications were suggested to him--one never knows how many more opportunities exist to see and hear the man whose guitar soloing may well be the sweetest sound my ears will ever hear.

Thus it was well worth the time, money and effort for my friend Ken and I to get down to Legends at 6:30pm on Sunday. Although this was a good 2-1/2 half hours before Buddy would take the stage, all of the seats and much prime standing room were already taken. (A guy at an upfront table told me after the show that he arrived at 9:30am, though the doors didn't even open until Noon.)

But though it seemed that we might be relegated to watching the show via a video feed to a seating area upstairs, things actually worked out for the best.

We were able to comfortably enjoy dinner from Legends' Cajun-style menu, both choosing blackened catfish--mine smothered with crawfish étouffée; the entire meal was delicious--while being able to watch the NFC Championship Game and then the opening act while comfortably seated.

Sadly, as printed on my ticket, the opening act on Sunday, January 19 was supposed to be Eric "Guitar" Davis. Exactly a month prior, Davis was shot to death while in his car on Chicago's South Side during what is believed to be an attempted robbery.

So an assemblage of musicians called the Chicago Blues All-Stars opened the show at Legends and money was collected to benefit Davis' family. (An even larger benefit for Davis was also held Sunday night at Rosa's Lounge.) 

The music by the All-Stars sounded strong even piped into our upstairs perch. (I should also note that there was an acoustic performance beginning at 4:00pm by an artist I can't name, but we only caught the last couple minutes.)

While I wasn't optimistic about finding a place to stand let alone comfortably doing so for the duration of Buddy's set, Ken and I decided to give it a try and were able to shoehorn our way into spots at the back right of the room facing the stage.

Being vertically challenged I often had to settle for brief glimpses of Buddy through the crowd, seeing him on my camera's LCD screen as I held it above the heads in front of me or turning to watch a video screen behind us. But the experience was undoubtedly exponentially better than had we stayed upstairs to watch on closed circuit.

Being almost a foot taller than me, Ken was able to see almost everything, and only towards the end of Buddy's 2-hour set--likely the longest I've ever seen him play by at least 20 minutes--did my feet start hurting.

But with blazing guitar solos by Buddy, second guitarist Ric Hall and, for a couple numbers, Buddy's son Greg, time seemed to go by a lot faster than normal.

Buddy looked dapper as ever in a white blazer and trademark hat and seemed to be in good spirits and fine form.
Buddy Guy, right, with Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters at Chess Records studio

Coming on promptly at 9:00pm, he opened his set with the title track from his Grammy-winning 1991 album, Damn Right, I've Got the Blues

He then paid homage to his old friends and Chess Records comrades, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, by playing "Hoochie Coochie Man," written by the former and first recorded by the latter in 1954.

Though he did pause his playing several times to speak to the audience, and late in the show demonstrated that he could mimic the playing of Keith Richards ("Satisfaction"), Eric Clapton ("Strange Brew") and Jimi Hendrix ("Voodoo Chile"), the performance was not marred--as were ones past--by lengthy harangues of underappreciation (accurate as they may have been).

Supported by his crack Damn Right Blues Band--including Hall, bassist Orlando Wright, drummer Tim Austin and Marty Simon on keys--Buddy augmented most songs with exquisite solos that not only were still blazingly fast, but sounded singularly thick and deep in a way that made one almost feel the callouses on his fingers.

There really is no other guitarist quite like him; Ken noted the sound Buddy gets from his Marshall amp and how he "bends notes like no one else."

Buddy graciously spread the solos around, letting Hall take a few impressive turns, and in bringing his son Greg out to join in on a request for "Feels Like Rain," it was apparent that some of Buddy's genius has been passed down through his genes.

Highlights were many, including the songs already mentioned plus "Got My Mojo Working," a romp through "What'd I Say," the poignant Guy original "Skin Deep" and "Meet Me in Chicago," from Buddy's latest album, Rhythm & Blues.

At once paying tribute to late legends and reiterating his place among them, Buddy also played songs by John Lee Hooker, Issac Hayes and Albert King. On the latter, his took his standard once-per-show stroll through the aisles of his club, and I can't deny the thrill of seeing such an icon so up close, and briefly reached out to touch his shoulder.

Adding to the many kernels of history and wisdom Buddy offered from the stage--including "It's not
where you're from but who you are that makes a difference," "Don't tell me you love me, show me; if you tell me, you can lie" and recalling how his earliest gigs in Chicago were "for a dime"--the uplifting experience of seeing and hearing Buddy Guy, in his own club, still at the height of his powers, was summed up nicely by Ken:

"It's great to be back in church."


Per the website for Buddy Guy's Legends, tickets seem to remain available for this Thursday and Sunday nights, on the last weekend of Buddy's 2014 residency. 

Though tickets are a bit pricey and the requisite effort rather lengthy, especially if you've never had the experience of seeing Buddy at Legends, I highly recommend you try to get there.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Outstanding Performances Add to the Lasting Power and Pertinence of 'The Children's Hour' -- ChicagoTheater Review

Theater Review

The Children's Hour
a play by Lillian Hellman
directed by Derek Bertelsen
Pride Films & Plays
Collaboraction, Pentagon Theater
at the Flatiron Building, Chicago
Thru February 9

I don't know what seems more astonishing, that The Children's Hour--a play about two teachers being accused of lesbianism by a student--was first staged 80 years ago or that it still seems entirely pertinent today.

While one hopes that those in the LGBT community are able to live their lives more freely and openly today, while encountering less bigotry, hatred and discrimination than likely existed in 1934--when homosexuality was more widely viewed as a sin, unnatural and was officially a crime in every U.S. state--one only has to look to the recent re-criminalization in India, bigoted comments by TV personalities and Russia's anti-gay laws to recognize that The Children's Hour surmises a controversy that is far from unthinkable in the 21st century.

Heck, in a single, 2-second Google search, I just found a current news story that sounds rather familiar to the play I saw on Saturday night for the first time. (I've also never seen the 1961 movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.)

So while with its group of privileged teenage girls at a boarding school, headed by the particularly devilish Mary--wonderfully played here by Nora Lise Ulrey, who pretty much owns the first act--The Children's Hour couldn't help but feel a bit akin to an episode of Gossip Girl, Lillian Hellman's brave script touches on many themes with acute contemporary relevance and import.

To think that she penned it--supposedly, per Wikipedia, with the help of her longtime lover Dashiell Hammett--almost 20 years prior to Arthur Miller's similarly-themed The Crucible, only adds to the accomplishment, activism and verve inherent in Hellman's first successful play. I find it interesting to note on Wikipedia that the Jewish Hellman had lived in Bonn, Germany for a period in 1929, but left with the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism, later writing "Then for the first time in my life I thought about being a Jew."

So she obviously well understood the damage that mere accusation can inflict, even for doing or being something that isn't actually wrong.

And especially in the character of Mrs. Tilford (quite believably enacted by Joan McGrath), who is Mary's grandmother and the one who publicly raises issue with the teachers' supposed affair, Hellman's script resists easy demonization or melodrama.

It's rather adept in the way we see Mrs. Tilford's initial recognition of and resistance to the spiteful utterances of her beloved granddaughter, and--with some deference to 1934 mores--is only doing what she truly believes is in the best interests of the children.

It's also telling in the way Hellman makes the effect of whispers, gossip and accusation the thematic gist for most of the play--which director Derek Bertelsen deftly references with a few ethereal scenes of silent pantomime amongst the students--and only broaches the question of whether the teachers, Karen and Martha (brilliantly portrayed by Britni Tozzi and Whitney Morse), are actually lovers late in Act 2.

I feel somewhat silly critiquing the narrative merits of an 80-year-old
play, but not only is Pride Films &
Plays presenting a new production of a work I've never noticed being staged in & around Chicago, but in introducing me to this important drama, PFP impressively demonstrates just how far-reaching top-notch theatrical talent is throughout the Chicago area.

The show's venue is on the 3rd floor of the Flatiron building in Wicker Park, where Milwaukee, North and Damen intersect. The in-the-round space within the Pentagon Theater has about 50 seats, with--even with The Children's Hour consistently listed for just $15 on HotTix--only about half in use on a Saturday night. And like me, a friend of Tozzi's, it seemed many in the crowd were there because they knew someone in the cast.

But I assure you this isn't a "Nice job, pal, you and everyone else were just swell" review graded on a curve. Another avid theatergoer who attended with me agreed that many of the performances, though likely given for little or no remuneration, were truly splendid in service to a first-rate play.

Certainly, I was thrilled to witness the truly wondrous work by Britni Tozzi, who winds up with mascara smeared all across her lovely face in grippingly embodying Karen's myriad emotions, particularly within powerful dialogues with fiancé Joe (Nelson Rodriguez, also quite stellar) and Martha.

But I was also immensely impressed by several others in the cast, including Morse, Ulrey, McGrath, Rodriguez, Michelle McKenzie Voigt (as Lily Mortar, Martha's aunt and a school employee) and Nathalie Mendez as Rosalie, the most prominent of the schoolgirls besides Mary.

I won't pretend I'm above putting in a plug for the estimable work of a friend--and feel it worth noting that Tozzi has been hailed elsewhere (including the Chicago Reader), impressively runs an African relief organization with her fiancé and allowed me to profile her here--but, especially at HotTix prices, you can take this recommendation completely at face value.

Even if you don't know anyone in the cast, you would be well-served to familiarize yourself with The Children's Hour and this excellent production.

This 1934 play reminded me a bit of a terrific--and newly Oscar-nominated--2012 Danish film called The Hunt, about a kindergarten aide accused of improprieties due to a lie by a student, who happens to be his best friend's daughter. Well worth your time.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Even All by Himself, Bob Mould Shows That Few Dü It Better -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Mould
w/ opening act Jason Narducy
Prairie Center for the Arts, Schaumburg, IL
January 17, 2014

I got into Bob Mould 10 years too late—as a Def Leppard and Scorpions-loving 15 year old, I was oblivious to Hüsker Dü—but have gotten virtually all of his albums (including the preceding ones) and seen him live multiple times over the past 20.

I have seen him raging with hard-driving, hardly-take-a-breath rock bands—both under the Sugar moniker and his own—as well as acoustic, both all-by-himself and with another guitarist.

I tend to prefer when Bob goes electric and fronts a band, as Mould at full tilt is one of the great forces of nature. But as a consequence of the non-stop gale, Mould + band have typically seemed to play for a relatively brief—but blistering—70 minutes.

In September, Bob played a band set on Sunday afternoon at Riot Fest in Chicago—on a day of torrential rain, I got there only for the Pixies and Replacements in the evening—and multiple people on the bus afterward proclaimed his the best performance of the day, despite it being just a 40-minute set.

But Mould can be just as intense in a solo acoustic mode, and certainly has the songbook—and voice—to support being onstage all by himself with just a guitar. In getting tickets with my friend Brad to see him Friday night at the Prairie Center of the Arts in Schaumburg (for just $36!), I was expecting an acoustic performance.

What I got—in a pleasant setting but one that felt quite suburban and vaguely scholastic—was a terrific blending of Mould's various incarnations.

Photo of Jason Narducy not by me nor from Friday's show
Opening the evening with an enjoyable 45-minute set was Evanston's Jason Narducy, who is the bassist in Mould's band as well as the front man of a band called Split Single (of which I was unfamiliar).

Onstage alone with an electric guitar, Narducy showed that he is rather adept on the six-string and as a songwriter and vocalist.

I wasn't blown away by any song in particular, but was never bored—high praise for an unfamiliar artist alone onstage for 45 minutes—and was impressed enough to sense Narducy would be all that much better with his band.

I am checking out some Split Single songs on Soundcloud as I write this; last night Narducy also played songs from a former band, Verbow.

And when Mould came onstage, alone, he like Narducy was playing a Fender Strat, fully amplified with various effects petals.

With a large percentage of the frenzy he puts into band shows—or at least did, as he's now 53—Mould proceeded to blaze through songs from all stages of his storied career.

I didn't recognize every song and don't see a setlist yet up on, but there was early solo material, such as the opening "Wishing Well" and "See A Little Light," both from 1989's Workbook, prime cuts from his '90s power trio Sugar—"Hoover Dam," "Your Favorite Thing," "The Act We Act," though a bit disappointingly, no "If I Can't Change Your Mind"—great stuff from 2012's sizzling Silver Age ("Star Machine," "Keep Believing") and classic indie rock chestnuts from Hüsker Dü: "Hardly Getting Over It," "Chartered Trips," "I Apologize," "Flip Your Wig," "Hate Paper Doll," "Makes No Sense At All" and more.

Mould was gracious and verbose, affably complaining about how the light snow prolonged his drive out to Schaumburg from Belmont Avenue, and in playing a raging introductory guitar riff, wryly offering "that could be any of about 14 songs."

Noting that this was his first area appearance since Riot Fest, Bob asked the crowd how they liked The Replacements and, after some cheers, said that he had advised them—similarly-revered, early alt rock Twin Cities compatriots—to perform (for the first time in 20+ years) so that people would stop asking him about a Hüsker Dü reunion.

(Grant Hart, Mould's songwriting counterpart in Hüsker Dü, has maintained a much lower profile over the years but is musically active again, playing at least 2 shows last year at Chicago's Red Line Tap. I caught and reviewed one last January.)

Narducy never came back out on Friday night to accompany his band leader, but although I still think full-band, full-bore Mould showcases him at very his best, at 110 minutes this was the longest I've ever seen him play and it never felt like anything was missing.

In a way, being plugged-in and highly-charged, Mould gave the sold-out and appreciative crowd a superb performance that had the intensity he brings fronting a band, but which also allowed for his insightful and often incisive lyrics to shine through, as they do when he plays an acoustic gig.

And really, I can't readily think of any other rock artist who could stand onstage alone with an electric guitar and give such a performance over nearly 2 hours.

Brad, who had seen and loved Mould at Riot Fest, said he enjoyed this show just as much, and two other friends at Friday's show also found it fantastic. My friend Al, who has seen Mould multiple times, pondered how the Prairie Center—which doesn't program many rock acts—had landed the indie rock icon, especially as Mould is also playing at the Old Town School of Folk Music and City Winery in Chicago this weekend.

But having seen him at the Metro, Riv and Aragon, as well as Old Town and a bit more surprisingly, the Field Museum, it seems clear that Bob Mould's music can satisfy just about anywhere. And whether with a band or solo, acoustic or electric, any Mould way will Dü.