Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pithy Philosophies #15

Seth Saith:

A good book equalizes all surroundings.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Permanent Separation: 'The Good Wife' Eliminates Key Character in Shocking Fashion, Yet Executes It Badly

If you are a regular viewer of The Good Wife, or one day intend to catch up, do not read this post until you've seen Episode 15 of Season 5, which aired Sunday, March 23, 2014.

In life, all too often death defies logic.

So it is understandable, seemingly even realistic, if at times it also does so on television.

But when a TV series kills off or otherwise writes out a primary character, typically the choice is not due to a storyline decision either logical or illogical.

Most of the time such dramatic happenings are designed to spark publicity and increase ratings, with the decision prompted by the actor either indicating his or her desire to leave the show, asking for too much money to continue on it or, more tragically, having passed away or become infirm.

Roughly two-thirds through the fifth season of the fine CBS drama The Good Wife, the character of Will Gardner--a central figure since the original episode, portrayed by Josh Charles--was killed off rather abruptly and unceremoniously in the season's 15th episode, last Sunday.

I had tickets to the theater that evening and thus planned to catch the episode a day or two later via Comcast On-Demand.

Ironically at the theater I had mentioned to my mom--who I thought was still a regular Good Wife watcher but without a DVR or on-demand--that she would be missing what CBS had promoted as its "most shocking episode ever."

To which she revealed that she "gave up on the show as nothing different ever happens."

Well something different did happen, and given CBS' promotional tease, all it took was a Friend's rather nondescript Facebook post for me to correctly assume what had taken place.

Within 90 minutes of the episode ending in the Central time zone--it had begun 41 minutes later than its "normal" 8:00pm start due to an NCAA Tournament game, causing DVR users without the wherewithal to extend the recording time (most regular watchers have been burned enough by prolonged NFL games to know to do so) to miss the critical ending--you could barely look at a social media channel or Internet news site without being informed repeatedly that Will Gardner was dead.

By 9:55pm on Sunday, The Good Wife's showrunners had posted a letter addressing the decision on Facebook and, which then was frequently reposted. (I've included it here.)

Essentially Robert & Michelle King explain that Will's death was precipitated by Josh Charles' decision to leave the show--a well-kept secret, especially in this day of social media--and that his brutal, out-of-nowhere death (at the hands of a murder suspect he was defending in court) is artistically justifiable because untimely passings are a part of real-life.

Let me say that while I don't like Will being out of the show, because I think he was one of the very best things about it--and central to several ongoing plotlines--I do not feel like a member of my family, or anyone I care about, has died.

Will Gardner was a TV character. Now he isn't. This isn't a tragedy; I'm not torn up or angry about it, just mildly chagrined.

If, after nearly 5 full seasons of having the writers tease that Alicia (Julianna Margulies, the title character who is married to Peter Florrick, a politician who incongruously disgraced himself and went to prison BEFORE becoming the Governor of Illinois) will leave him and openly get together with Will--an old flame with whom she has had an off/on/mostly off affair--Charles decided he was done with the "been there, done that" plotlines, I don't blame him for wanting to bail.

Yet it does seem unfair to me that--especially because they knew Charles was leaving--the producers never had the balls to bring the always simmering Alicia-Will romance to full boil.

And in having made him a central part of another political corruption plotline running throughout this season, it would seem that there is more that could have been dramatically developed if he was killed as part of a coverup involving Peter, not just randomly.

One reason I'm sorry to see Charles leave the show was shrewdly enunciated by another writer--sorry, I can't find the exact piece again--who suggested that Will was one of the only Good Wife characters who could engagingly banter, as many others can be oft times be staid. 

And while I think the main plotline of this season--Alicia has left Will's law firm to start her own, and he's been overtly pissed at her--dragged on too long and made Will seem overly petulant, I felt that Will was just as much the moral compass of The Good Wife as Alicia.

I have watched every episode of The Good Wife since it began, and feel it is one of the best, smartest, most adult shows on television. So I am expecting the skilled producers, directors, writers, etc. behind it will continue to make the show interesting, and Will's death will undoubtedly have compelling ramifications.

But not only do I think they've forever severed the possibility of resolving multiple storylines that have engaged viewers for over 100 episodes, killing off Will in the rhyme-and-reasonless way they did just seems more crass than I'd expect from a show of such class.

Coming just days after The Good Wife was renewed by CBS for a 6th season, despite (per most reports) struggling in the ratings, the shocking plot twist--and the way it was carried out--just feels like it has more to do with resurrecting the show's faded buzz than having plausible artistic rationale.

Trying to sell the notion of 'sudden deaths happen in real life so why shouldn't we kill Will through an out-of-the-blue tragedy' also loses a sense of genuine gravity given that Charles openly joked about his exit with David Letterman.

Plus, you can call me a sentimentalist, but I'm not the only one.

Noting the Kings' phrasing in their letter of rationalization that suggest they alternatively could have sent Will off to Seattle, they are obviously referencing the way Doug Ross (George Clooney) was written out of ER, where he was the love interest of none other than Julianna Margulies' Carol Hathaway.

By not killing off Clooney's character, the producers allowed him and Margulies to reconnect when she was leaving the show.

And it is likely the single moment I most remember about a show I watched for several seasons.

Thus, The Good Wife didn't just kill Will, they eliminated the possibility for the happiest ending of the series--likely after next season--I, and likely others, could imagine.

This won't make me stop watching, instantly, but I already care less about The Good Wife than I had last week. Perhaps they should hire Clooney for an arc as Alicia's lover. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Went to a Basketball Game and Took a Few Shots -- Photo Gallery: Chicago Bulls vs. Indiana Pacers, March 24, 2014

I'm rather impressed by--and even proud of--the way the Chicago Bulls have been playing this NBA season.

Most teams who lose their best player--Derrick Rose, a former league MVP--due to injury for the second straight season, and then trade away another key scorer (Luol Deng) would struggle to win very many games. To wit, the Los Angeles Lakers are 23-46 without Kobe Bryant.

But with Joakim Noah continuing to evolve into one of the league's best players, and relatively low draft picks like Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler performing terrifically, the Bulls stand at 40-31, fourth best in the Eastern Conference.

They are just 1 game behind earning the 3rd seed in the conference playoffs.

So, having not been to a game this season, I was happy to find fairly decent and inexpensive tickets on StubHub for Monday's game against the Indiana Pacers, the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Trailing 34-33 after a low-scoring first half, the Bulls dominated the second and won 89-77.

Including field goals, 3-pointers and free throws, they made 54 shots. Below are a few I took:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Despite Strong Performances, Goodman's 'Venus in Fur' Fails to Scintillate in Its Attempt to Stimulate -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Venus in Fur
a recent play by David Ives
directed by Joanie Schultz
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 13

Venus in Fur didn't do much for me.

I realize that is about the tritest possible way to critique a theatrical production, in this case a play by an acclaimed writer that was well received Off- and on Broadway and is being staged in Chicago by the often terrific Goodman Theatre.

But it is because I have such esteem for the Goodman, respect for playwright David Ives and admiration for the only two cast members--who are on stage for the entire 100 minutes--that I won't try to detail what it is I didn't love about Venus in Fur.

Perhaps I just didn't "get" Ives' multi-layered messaging in creating a play that largely involves the reading of a script for an imagined play called Venus in Fur, based on 1870 novel Venus in Furs by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which inspired the term Masochism (derived from the author's last name).

Maybe I just tended to drift, especially during the accent-inflected script reading between the play-within-the-play's writer/director Thomas (played by Rufus Collins) and the auditioning actress conveniently named Vanda (Amanda Drinkall).

I appreciate that Ives is a very witty writer so it's quite possible I failed to appreciate his insightful commentary about sexual politics, and just plain old sexism, in theater and in general.

Likely demonstrating the latter, I applauded the lovely Drinkall's talent and effort as she spent most of the show in various stages of undress.

And though I can't say I ever cared enough about either character to try to deduce their truths and motivations, Collins seemed to be quite stellar in the role of Thomas, as written.

With the Goodman's typically impressive scenery, designed by Todd Rosenthal, I don't doubt Director Joanie Schultz interpreted the material well, and to be fair, I sensed that other patrons in the balcony on Sunday night enjoyed the show considerably more than I.

I admittedly don't know that I can intelligently delineate the difference between plays--and productions--I greatly enjoy and ones I simply endure, and I realize that some I may more acutely appreciate may merely be more accessible, not necessarily better.

So I will not say that the Venus in Fur is bad, nor will I suggest that it is not worth your while. 

But as simplistic as it may sound, it just didn't do much for me.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Socio-Cinematic 70s: When the Movies Had Something to Say

On the last Sunday of each month--or occasionally the one before, in case of conflicting holidays and Philadelphia Eagles games (whose fans take over the same bar)--the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group gathers to discuss a given monthly topic. 

Over the past 4-5 years, I have gotten to as many of these Lunch Meetups as I could--there are also meetups at film screenings--and have enjoyed discussing and learning about certain directors (Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, etc.), Genres such as War Movies, Comedies and Documentaries and the cinema of Italy, France and Japan, among other countries.

Although we have previously discussed "Films of the 80s," it is rare for the conversation to focus on a certain decade.

But at my suggestion, "The Seventies" will be the topic of the next Film Discussion Lunch on Sunday, March 30. (All are welcome but & group registration and an RSVP are preferred.)

Unfortunately, I will be unable to attend.

Although what I hear at the meetups is always more substantive than what I share--and knowing the 30th wouldn't be conducive I haven't been devouring films of the 70s of late--I have given the topic some thought and thus am writing this post.

I feel somewhat sheepish to share my favorite film of the 1970s, but feel compelled, as I would asked to do so at the meetup by means of introduction to other attendees.

Without arguing that it is the best film of the 70s, nor even of 1976--the year it won the Best Picture Oscar--my favorite movie made and released between 1970 and 1979 is:

(Fanfare please...)


Yes, I know most critics and serious film fans--at least of the male persuasion--would likely cite The Godfather or The Godfather Part II, or Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now or Clockwork Orange or even Star Wars.

But perhaps due to it being one of the first movies I acutely recall seeing, with its tale of a plucky down-and-out boxer being dear to my 7-year-old heart and its Rocky-like melodrama lacking the syrup that would increasingly coat its sequels and imitators, I just like Sylvester Stallone's underdog opus more than any other movie of its decade.

Even if it isn't a prime example of what I most like about "Movies of the 1970s" on a macro level

As with any Film Discussion Lunch topic, group moderator Brad Strauss has compiled a "Suggested Viewing" list of noteworthy films from the Seventies. (Though beneficial, it is not imperative that you watch any or all of these before attending; you are more than welcome to regale with your love of The Bad News Bears.)

Included with Rocky, The Godfather, Star Wars and Apocalypse Now on Brad's list are such films as M*A*S*H, Patton, Blazing Saddles, Taxi Driver, Saturday Night Fever and Three Days of the Condor.

Obviously, Brad couldn't readily name every great, important or influential movie of the decade in the space allotted (though he likely could otherwise). But a few that I would add are Catch-22, A Clockwork Orange, Serpico, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President's Men, Network, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer.

Now, look back at the 20 movies cited in the last two paragraphs. What commonalities exist between most or all of them?
While this is obviously subjective, most if not all would be considered high-quality movies. Seven won the Best Picture Oscar and nearly all were nominated.
Most revolve around an iconoclastic and/or anti-establishment (or anti-authoritarian) character (or two).

Several overtly, surreptitiously or metaphorically question and even battle governmental entities or "the establishment."

Many address substantive topics: war, corruption, crime, greed, mental instability, divorce, etc.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, all 20 movies were among the box office leaders of their given years. Most ranked among the top 10, with Network the lowest at #21 in 1976.
For comparison's sake, take a look at the Top Grossing Movies of 2013. Even with nine Best Picture Academy Award Nominees (instead of five, formerly), only two--Gravity at #6 and American Hustle at #17--wound up among the 25 top U.S. box office draws.

Without seeing all of these, I imagine the numerous superhero or similar films--Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc.--have a slight anti-authoritarian or underdog bent, but I doubt many would argue that any of 2013's top-grossing movies offer congruent thematic heft when compared to the aforementioned films from the 70s.

Now certainly, the decade of the 1970s in general, and any given year in particular, had its share of "popcorn movies" that may have been entertaining--and even among the top box office hits--but didn't offer much social consciousness or historical resonance.

Still, I would argue that films like Love Story, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Every Which Way But Loose, Halloween, Animal House, The Goodbye Girl, Silver Streak, Slap Shot, Grease, Heaven Can Wait and the aforementioned Bad News Bears have a certain amount of anti-authoritarian verve and/or artistic merit not all that present in mainstream movies today.

And other films that can be cited among the decade's biggest and best--Airport, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Poseidon Adventure, Cabaret, Young Frankenstein, American Graffiti, The Sting, The Conversation, Chinatown, Jaws, Nashville, Shampoo, Carrie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 10, Alien, Manhattan--offer not only impressive qualitative depth, but substantial social commentary especially if one looks beneath the surface (i.e. at the subtext).

But before this becomes misconstrued--though not inaccurately--as yet another article about me loving the past, artistically speaking, a whole lot more than the present, indulge me another favor:

Look at the U.S. top grossing films of any year from the 1980s. (You can do so easily here; for the 1970s you'll have to search "19__ in Film" on Wikipedia.)

Though there are a few successful comedies with a mild anti-establishment strain--often thanks to the late, great Harold Ramis--year-after-year, you'll see almost no movies in the Top 20 that offer acute or even subtextually substantive social commentary about contemporary times.

Even most of the high-brow, decorated and/or "socially important" movies of the 80s--Chariots of Fire, Reds, Gandhi, Amadeus, The Right Stuff, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, Mississippi Burning--were historical in nature, with even Vietnam films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket set about 20 years prior to their release.

In other words, even just by 1980 when The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, 9-to-5, Private Benjamin and The Shining were about as iconoclastic as popular American cinema got, the type of creative and/or rebellious verve that begat Network, The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, etc., etc., was largely erased from Hollywood, or at least not embraced by mass audiences.

(For those wondering, Martin Scorsese's brilliant Raging Bull was #27 in 1980 box office and Goodfellas #26 in 1990; his Taxi Driver was #17 in 1976.)

Before I broach on why socially commentative cinema flourished in the 1970s, let me note that I am not suggesting that it had not existed prior (even keeping this to domestic filmmaking), or that it has completely disappeared since. 

Just in the last few days, I've watched Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941) and have noted an anti-establishment strain--or at least, anti-bullshit, which seems to go hand-in-hand--far ballsier than you're apt to find in today's cineplexes.

Similarly "populist" directors like Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times, The Great Dictator) and Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, The Apartment) weren't afraid to use their art to decry societal ills, highlight hypocrisy and/or focus on weighty subjects.

Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) took on the most powerful man in journalism--William Randolph Hearst--and Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove) pointed out the evils of military meglomania amidst the Cold War.

While the truth that Do the Right Thing ranked #43 in 1989 box office, The Insider #69 in 1999, The Hurt Locker #116 in 2009 and The Social Network #32 in 2010 actually supports the notion that even when movies about modern, often troubling, realities are made and widely distributed, they aren't all that popular, I know that even if their films go straight-to-Netflix, there are still directors willing to say something with their work. (Look to the oeuvres of Ramin Bahrani and the Dardenne Brothers, who both provoke deep thought with films of deceptive intimacy.)

But this does suggest that the answer as to why socially conscious films have largely evaporated from the American zeitgeist is, same as the answer to nearly all questions...


And this is not incorrect. The almighty dollar goes a long way to explaining why so many gritty films sprang up in the Seventies, and why they largely evaporated.

But perhaps not entirely.

(Note: The following is largely supposition supported by brief internet research; it is not stated as fact or even scholarly intelligence.)

Around 1966, Hollywood was in a doldrums. Though I can't find Yearly Box Office totals dating back that far, the two highest grossing movies in the U.S. in 1966 (per Wikipedia) were two I had never heard of until looking it up.

The Bible: In the Beginning and Hawaii each grossed under $35 million in 1966. By comparison, two films--The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago--had tallied well over $100 million each in 1965,

With the Baby Boomers coming of age, suburban cineplexes starting to spring up and a distinct youth culture mushrooming in the wake of the Beatles, movie audiences were starting to skew forever younger.

Given its disastrous results of 1966, the movie "business" recognized the need to reach younger audiences. Not incidentally, foreign films with fresher styles and subject matter were beginning to gain popularity in America, notably among increasingly disaffected youth.

I don't know if the production of Mike Nichols' The Graduate--a film about a college graduate facing uncertainty--was a direct result of this or if its 1967-topping $105 million gross merely propelled what was to come, but the age of New Hollywood was ushered in.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on New Hollywood for a more in-depth introduction, but essentially young directors with new ideas were not only given the opportunity to make movies, but largely allowed creative control to make films the way they wanted.

Dubbed the Film School Generation as many of the directors who would make their mark--including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg George Lucas and many more--were recent graduates of NYU, USC, UCLA and other collegiate film programs, these young filmmakers were well-versed in the movies that had come out of France, Italy, Japan and Sweden.

Concurrent with the rise of sentiment, and outright protest, against the Vietnam War--and consequentially, the U.S. government--New Hollywood adapted the celebration of the anti-hero (as seen in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless), realistic takes on modern life, often with a critical eye and non-narrative arc (Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Antonioni's early 60s trilogy), questions of morality (Kurosawa's Rashomon and High and Low, much by Ingmar Bergman) and contemplations on the effects of war (Japan's The Burmese Harp, Russia's Ballad of a Soldier), among other themes, tones and techniques of world cinema. 

Initially, it seems, New Hollywood created films that celebrated the outlaw (Bonnie and Clyde--which actually predated The Graduate by a few months--and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid); Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns were both examples and influences. 

With Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider in 1969, outcasts and misfits became commonplace in American cinemas, and with much more subversion than Stalag 17 or Paths of Glory had done, 1970's M*A*S*H and Catch-22 dared to ridicule the inanity of war while the United States was in the midst of an unpopular one. 

From there, you had films that focused on gangsters, whether the corporate-type in Coppola's Godfather films or more street-level such as in Scorsese's Mean Streets. (And due to advances that made film cameras more portable, it became easier to capture realistic "street-level" happenings on location rather than within a Hollywood soundstage.)

Though set in slightly earlier times, The Last Picture Show and American Graffiti referenced the confusion faced by kids leaving the high school cocoon, while films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver graduated disillusionment into adulthood.

Observations of disaffected blue collar youth would continue through the decade with films such as Saturday Night Fever and Breaking Away, while "blaxploitation" movies like Shaft, Super Fly and Foxy Brown brought hip African-American protagonists to the fore for the first time, often in stark contrast to bumbling whites in positions of power.

It isn't hard to see how Vietnam and a distrust of authority--exacerbated by Watergate and Nixon's resignation--was woven into the fabric of most substantive 70s, to varying degrees of acuity.

Rocky celebrated the underdog battling patriotic puffery, Star Wars chronicled rebellious renegades facing off against an evil demigod, Animal House trashed the staid--and judgmental--status quo.

More directly, movies like Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation pointed out that real-life spies weren't all valiant playboys like James Bond, All The President's Men turned Watergate's web into a Shakespearean parable on the abuse of power, and The Deer Hunter and Coming Home brutally showed how devastating Vietnam was, to individuals and communities. 

Empowered by the movies of the Film School Generation, a veteran director like Sidney Lumet--who had shown his embrace of weighty topics with 12 Angry Men and The Pawnbroker--repeatedly took aim at the power structure in America with 70s' classics like Serpico (about a whistle-blowing cop), Dog Day Afternoon (which turned a bank robber trying to pay for his lover's sex change operation into a moral crusader and public hero) and Network, whose pushed-out anchorman Howard Beale was "mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore!" as seen in the clip atop this post. 

Supported also by such strident sitcoms as M*A*S*H and All in the Family, it seems clear that the 70s were a time when Hollywood was trying to say something. 

So why did it shut up?

As with anything, a variety of factors seem to converge, but certainly money is a big one. 

Jaws and Star Wars were such huge blockbusters that they clued Hollywood into how much money could be made targeting big-budget movies primarily towards teenagers.

And as Brad points out, "a series of high profile flops in the early 80s caused producers to wrest Hollywood’s center of gravity back to themselves and away from those pesky auteur directors. The most notorious being Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, but also Robert Altman’s Popeye and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart."

With Godfather Part II but even more so Rocky II and The Empire Strikes Back, sequels became a way to safeguard big-budget investments by assuring built-in audiences.

Though some of this evolved over time, the studios soon came to realize even more millions could be captured through the emerging home video market, ancillary revenues from action figures and Happy Meal toys, etc., and international moviegoers.

Movies with flashy special effects, little dialogue and brand-name characters were not only easier to sell to American teenagers, but to non-English speaking audiences and burger chains eager for promotional tie-ins.

Thus, blockbusters and especially franchises--sequelized series based on superheroes or other known characters--propagated across the cineplexes in the 1980s and ever since.

Still, as the Vietnam War faded into the rearview mirror for those not directly devastated, I wonder if the events such as Iranian hostage crisis, the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics due to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the election of populist actor Ronald Reagan as President and the attempt made on his life (by a guy smitten with Taxi Driver) put the kibbosh on movies that challenged the American political power structure.

What I'm not sure about is whether America stopped wanting such strident movies or Hollywood simply stopped making them.

My movie buff friend Dave--also a member of the Meetup group--is undoubtedly right when he suggests that the movies made in the 70s were a reflection of the tenor of the country, and for whatever number of reasons the tenor changed with the rise of Reaganomics.

With similar acuity, David Mamet argued in his brilliant 1988 play Speed-the-Plow that Hollywood--always a moneymaking machine--cannot be much blamed for giving the people what they want.

Even--or especially--as the cost of a movie ticket has soared, Americans (at least the dominant ticket buying young) have repeatedly voted for superheroes, quasi-superheroes and re-booted superheroes rather than intelligent thought-provoking movies with great acting.

In the Seventies, American movies were populated by many outstanding actors and actresses, or at least ones with the charisma to ensnare the public.

These included Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Walter Matthau, Warren Beatty, Richard Dreyfuss, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Jane Clayburgh, Diane Keaton, Ali MacGraw, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine and others, most in the prime of their careers and under 45 years of age.

Nowadays, I doubt most could name even five actors or actresses of similar stature under the age of 45.

Sure, Christian Bale is a great actor, I like Ryan Gosling quite a bit and Jennifer Lawrence has shown both talent and a bit of box office punch, but in general, movie stars are much less important than the franchises themselves.

Heck, how many different actors have played Superman,  Spiderman and the Hulk in just the last 12 years, let alone Batman over the past 25?

All the more reason to miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. At least he had the kind of presence that once stamped "the movies" with a steely-eyed sense of intelligence.

For while I really have meant this piece as a celebration of the socio-cinematic Seventies rather than just another denigration of modern Hollywood, what chagrins me is that the world really could use a voice like Howard Beale's (as embodied by Peter Finch).

With the amount of war, terrorism, corruption, Wall Street malfeasance, unemployment, injustice, environmental devastation and all else that has taken place during this millennium, where are the movies that examine the issues, condemn the culprits and explore the consequences?

And don't tell me to search for them on Netflix or check-out documentaries from the library.

As I have blathered on about, many highly popular mainstream American movies of the 1970s had something to say.

But now "the movies" have almost completely been muted.

As, by now, should I. 

Hopefully, I'd have left a few minutes for someone else at the Meetup to talk.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Amazing? Perhaps Only to Idol Worshippers, as Solid 'Joseph' with DeGarmo and Young Fails to Reach Biblical Proportions -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Starring Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru March 30

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a fun, entertaining and rather short--under 2 hours--musical.

As the first publicly performed collaboration between composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, its 1968 origins make it perhaps just the second rock-tinged musical--after Hair--and its pastiche of various musical styles deserves points for originality, especially given its creation date.

From an history of musical theater perspective, it is also interesting to note how Webber & Rice would evolve after Joseph with Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Phantom of the Opera (Rice didn't work on the latter) also being about rather iconic figures.

I doubt either Webber or Rice would call their somewhat hammy musical chronicling the biblical narrative of Joseph--son of Jacob--being cast out by his brothers their crowning achievement, but it's easily understandable why the show holds considerable appeal for groups of high schoolers and retirees alike, and many folks in between.

The Cadillac Palace was nearly full on the current tour's first night in Chicago on Tuesday, and with most of the balcony crowd bestowing a standing ovation, I can imagine many attendees doting high praise in telling friends and coworkers about the show. 

Photo credit on all: Daniel A. Swalec
So this is not a review meant to dissuade anyone interested from attending, disregard the affinity of others, nor rain on the parade of anyone intrigued by now-married American Idol alums Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo, who play Joseph and the narrator, respectively.

Though not quite one of the very best, Joseph is a good musical and there's nothing bad about this production.

However, in my estimation, there is nothing particularly spectacular or special about it either.

If I didn't know who Young and DeGarmo were--and I haven't ever really watched Idol--I easily could have perceived the two leads being fairly inexperienced, run-of-the-mill non-Equity performers. (To be clear, this is an Equity tour, and both stars do have legitimate Broadway credits.)

Both are clearly good singers, but neither seems to have the kind of first-rate Broadway-caliber timbre that dazzles way up into the balcony with line-drive power.

Played by ex-teen idols aplenty--from David Cassidy to Donny Osmond--Joseph is a role that demands a good bit of overt personality, and though Young is fine (and certainly impressively fit given many shirtless scenes), he is also rather nondescript.

Similarly, the melange of musical stylings--country, Elvis, calypso, disco, etc.--offers several performers the chance for their "Master of the House" moment;  i.e. the opportunity to really raise the roof on their one song of the night.

Yet while no one was subpar on these numbers, there was also nobody sensational enough to make me really sit up and take notice. 

Only "Those Canaan Days" sung by Joseph's brothers was noteworthy for its verve and exuberance.

Even Young's prime solo spotlight, "Close Every Door," failed to sparkle like I've seen it done by others. 

Incidentally, earlier Tuesday I renewed my Broadway in Chicago "balcony club" subscription for another season and--with six shows for just $99--I feel it is one of the entertainment bargains anywhere.

But while many at Tuesday's performance undoubtedly experienced a "Wow! factor" due to seeing an impressively-staged Broadway musical at a downtown Chicago theater, as a whole I felt this version of Joseph was inferior to musicals I've witnessed at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Paramount Theater Aurora, Light Opera Works, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Theo Ubique and elsewhere around Chicagoland.

And with an increasing number of shows touring for the umpteenth time and/or featuring non-Equity casts,
the once unmatched allure of Broadway in Chicago presentations has routinely slipped below the stellar musical theater work being done by many local production houses. 

I applaud the patronage of live theater of all levels and types, and if you have a chance to see this run of Joseph for a ticket price you find reasonable, by all means "go go go." (Check HotTix for discounts.)

But if you've seen a great production of this show before, this one likely won't outdo it.

Heck, even the current design of Joe's famed Technicolor dreamcoat just didn't seem all that amazing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Late Night Singalong: "Human Jukebox" Gerry Grossman Well Worth a Song

Concert / Theater Review

Gerry Grossman
Human Jukebox Reloaded
Greenhouse Theater Center
March 15, 2014
(Ongoing residency)

As I arrived at the Greenhouse Theater Center late Saturday night--on the weekend before St. Patrick's Day--it was impossible not to notice scores of people, most presumably much younger than me, seemingly enjoying themselves at (and outside) numerous bars along Lincoln Avenue. 

Yet, and I've undoubtedly long been an old fogie at heart, not only wasn't I green with envy, but after the show by a sixtysomething named Gerry Grossman--a.k.a. the Human Jukebox--at which I was, by a wide margin, the youngest of 18 total attendees, I couldn't help but think that we had a lot more fun.

At least per my sense of it. 

Admittedly, I have always loved hearing great music much more than pounding down beers, green or otherwise, and acting as if I was 21--even when I was 21--but for those of us at the Greenhouse, the blast from the past was a delight with far more than nostalgia present. 

Before seeing his current show--which is more a one-man concert than it is theater, although it takes place in one--I had never heard of Gerry Grossman prior to getting an advertisement for discount tickets from Goldstar

Especially with Goldstar tickets only $6 plus half that in fees, I couldn't help think that this would be something that I would like and my friend Dave--who has encyclopedic knowledge and appreciation of songs from the '60s far beyond my own--really should love. 

Though I rarely relish being in the midst of hipster-infested Lincoln Park on a Saturday night, the combination of St. Patrick's Weekend and a plethora of crater-sized potholes on Lincoln Ave. made March 15 theoretically even less desirable. Yet earlier dinner plans in the city made it well-suited for meeting Dave--who lives nearby--for the 11pm show. 

Even just the lobby of the Greenhouse felt like a comfortable cocoon amidst the swarm of green-clad revelers. And after the venue's executive director, Jason Epperson, welcomed the crowd by noting that the particular room we were in is the oldest existing storefront theater space in Chicago--operating since 1969, it held early David Mamet plays back in the day--the affable Grossman effusively welcomed those of us who made the effort to get there. 

Not touching his guitar for the first 15 minutes, Grossman giddily rambled, observing that "my peeps have aged with me," letting us know how happy he was to have returned home from a gig in Huntsville, Alabama and sharing that his wife was among those of us in the small but enthusiastic audience.

In addition to subsequently learning that Grossman is an enormously talented guitarist who can deftly play and sing virtually any old rock song that is shouted at him, I gleaned that he grew up in Glencoe, went to New Trier West (some years before Dave), was part of the great Chicago folk scene at Earl of Old Town, once almost joined the Lovin' Spoonful and has often opened for the Temptations, among others.

But while I would imagine a memoir show from Grossman would be quite entertaining, the bits of biography he shared in cheerfully introducing songs, honoring requests and answering questions didn't comprise the main component of his 100-minute performance.

No, he and the collective "we" were there to share an immutable love of great rock music. And not of the current kind, as Grossman pretty aptly proffered that "new rock and roll sucks."

Though both the songs and stories likely vary a good deal from night to night, a part of the show in which he sings lyrics from golden oldies--such as "Under the Boardwalk" and "For What It's Worth"--and lets the audience continue them seems to be a staple, as is likely a brief segment running through classic TV Theme Songs and another showcasing some of the "weirdest songs ever written."

While all of this was a lot of fun, I liked the portions that were even more free form, when Grossman would--instantaneously and with virtuoso guitar abilities--play songs from artists mentioned by the audience (The Monkees, Four Seasons, an impressive extended Beatles medley, a near complete rendition of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," etc., etc.).

Click image to access purchase page on; free registration
is required. Discount tickets also may be available on
I appreciated his mixing in a number of tunes that went beyond my musical vocabulary, including "Red Rubber Ball" and "Turn Down Day" by The Cyrkle, "Nashville Cats" by the Lovin' Spoonful  and "Five O'Clock World" by the Vogues, all of which Dave knew well. 

And although on the way in, Epperson estimated that the "Human Jukebox" would unplug after about 75 minutes, not only was it well past that when Grossman honored my callout for "Bus Stop" by the Hollies, but after 12:30 or so he remembered that an hour previously I had mentioned the Kinks when he asked for some of our favorite bands.

At my request, he delighted with "A Well Respected Man" and "Sunny Afternoon," and threw in "Tired of Waiting for You" for good measure.

Now, I would guess that most of those assembled in their finest greenery at nearby watering holes couldn't imagine that 18 mostly suburban fossils singing along to a shaggy old dude with a guitar could be having anywhere near as much fun as they were, let alone more.

But I'll take Gerry Grossman and his crowd any day.

For even without celebrating the Irish with "Gloria" or "Here Comes the Night," I was a whole lot happier to be with Them.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Much More than a Morse L of a Musical: Theo Ubique Imbues Sondheim's 'Passion' With Impressive Intimacy -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Stephen Sondheim
book by James Lapine
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Thru April 27

Whenever I discover, or latenty rediscover, a place I greatly enjoy--and here I'm referencing Chicagoland entertainment venues but the sentiment has universality--there is a sense of psychic bifurcation (conceivably created the double-edged sword).

For while I am always happy for newfound delights, and believe exploration is the meaning of life, I also can't help but think, "What took me so long to get here, and how much great stuff have I missed out on?"

I had such dual feelings early last week when I visited the venerable blues club Kingston Mines for the first time on Monday.

And I had a sense of déjà too on Friday upon my inaugural attendance of a musical staged at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in Rogers Park.

Although the proper pronunciation of "oo-bah-kway" does not rhyme with unique, the venue most certainly is.

Within the No Exit Café--essentially the size of a small local bar, located on Glenwood south of Lunt alongside the Morse L station--Theo Ubique stages musical productions with impressive acting, singing, music, sets and panache that belie the intimate confines.

But of course, until Friday night, I had only read about this. 

It seems Theo Ubique dates back to 1997, settled at No Exit in 2004 and only since 2009 has been staging full seasons of four productions (not to negate the task of doing even 1-2 shows per year).

So although I recall reading good things about its renditions of Chess, Aspects of Love, The Light in the Piazza and Evita--and wish I'd gotten to the first two, infrequently staged as they are--it's not like I've missed out all that long, or at least often. 

But in noting their staging of Passion, a "chamber musical" or operetta by Stephen Sondheim--with a book by James Lapine based on the 1981 Italian movie Passion d'Amore--I made a point of getting to Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, especially when half-price tickets appeared on HotTix

I did not opt to partake in the venue's dinner offerings, provided by the nearby Heartland Cafe, and although I wouldn't have minded sharing a table with other patrons, I was able to get one of my own. 

I didn't think to count, but Theo Ubique seems to have about 8-10 cocktail tables, as well as perhaps 25 seats not tied to tables. 

Or at least it does for this production. Impressed before the show even began with a rather formidable stage set--that looked as if it were built into the venue--I asked a nearby tech if the set was a permanent fixture and was told, coincidentally by the set designer, Adam Veness, that the configuration of the No Exit Cafe changes with each production. 

Certainly I've been aware of such impressive spatial adaptations in other Chicago storefront theaters--such as Profiles, where the set designer's ability to dazzle in small space for low-dough was recently showcased by the Tribune's Chris Jones--but became all the more impressed throughout Passion as such nifty features as a fold-out wall bed and a balcony & staircase located behind a section of audience rafters became apparent.

I had seen Passion twice before, once at Ravinia with luminaries such as Patti Lupone, Audra MacDonald and Michael Cerveris, and in a typically superb Chicago Shakespeare Theater rendition in 2007. (See my review of CST's superb current production of Gypsy.)

So I am aware that it is an atypical musical, with a string of sung passages--most epistolary (i.e. the reading of letters aloud) in form--rather than traditionally structured songs, and certainly no "show tunes."

It primarily revolves around a soldier named Giorgio (played here by Peter Oyloe) and two women, his beautiful yet married lover Clara (Colette Todd) and a sickly, theoretically homely woman named Fosca (Danni Smith) who lives at the soldiers' compound where Giorgio is stationed--she is his Colonel's (John B. Leen) cousin--and rather insistently, even creepily, pursues him. 

Perhaps even more so than many Sondheim shows, Passion's beauty, depth and insight may not be instantly accessible, or readily appreciable to the highest level given the narrative's unconventional structure. 

But having reacquainted myself with the music, lyrics, story, etc., I was able to appreciate its brilliance
going into Theo Ubique, and even more so coming out. 

While I felt Oyloe imbued Giorgio with a bit too much of a hang-dog sensibility, he is certainly well sung, and both Todd and Smith, as Fosca and Clara, are terrific. Peter Vamvakas is also notably good as Dr. Tambourri, who tends to both Fosca and Giorgio.

I don't know if this is a backhanded compliment or forehanded critique, but Smith's appearance as Fosca was not nearly as offputting as perhaps it should have been to enunciate the dichotomy between the two women. But not only do I get that in finding a non-Equity actress who can act and sing as well as Smith, director Fred Anzevino should not have held her lack of homeliness against her, but Sondheim himself has noted the same issue with Donna Murphy, who originated the role of Fosca on Broadway in 1994 and won a Tony for it.

In the commentary of the DVD of the Broadway production, Sondheim says the following about Murphy, who despite ghostly makeup and an attached mole, lacked the "genuinely frightening, like a skull-come-to-life" appearance of Fosca in the movie he adapted:
 "It does change the value of the show, because as one looks at it, despite Donna's acting, she's a plain woman, not a frightening ugly one, which is what she was in the movie. In the movie she was scary."
Similarly, and this isn't a knock on her or her acting in the role, Smith's Fosca never felt all that scary to me, nor the sense that Giorgio's opinion of her could readily evolve.

But a little imagination can go a long way, and even with just a 4-member orchestra, there was nothing that felt small about the production, despite the close-knit surroundings.

And given the themes of Passion, the intimacy was an estimable plus. 

I can't say that I was quite swept away as I was by Chicago Shakespeare's Gypsy--or as best I recall, its Passion--and apples to apples I may have settled on a @@@@ rating rather than awarding the extra 1/2@. 

But not only was I delighted by my introduction to Theo Ubique, given their clear spatial and budgetary constraints--and the sub-$20 ticket I was able to score on HotTix--my admiration for their accomplishment seems to rightfully justify @@@@1/2.

Plus, hopefully, your attendance.

And, almost certainly, my return for a future show.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Des Plaines, Boss, Des Plaines: Stopping, Albeit Erroneously, to Note the End of an Era -- and an Oasis

I am writing this overlooking Interstate 90 from within the Des Plaines Oasis.

Tomorrow--St. Patrick's--and all future days I will be unable to do so. For today, March 16, 2014, marks the end of a 55-year run for this particular tollway oasis. 

Per this article, which provides details as to why the Des Plaines Oasis--which has stood in the same spot albeit with multiple modifications since 1959--is being eliminated (due to a highway reconfiguration that seems to make sense), demolition is slated to start in late May or June. 

Now, for all things for me to wax nostalgic about, a tollway oasis may seem to be low on the list. Unlike the recent erasure from the local landscape of the erstwhile UBAA Tap in Skokie and the Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood, the oasis is not a place where I have enjoyed celebrations nor have ever considered particularly unique or special. 

But I have spent much pleasurable time here.

Or so I thought. 

You see, when I recently read that the Des Plaines Oasis was closing--the adjoining gas stations will remain for quite awhile--I thought they were referring to the one over I-294 near O'Hare. After all, that is only a couple of miles from the Rivers Casino, which is denoted as being in Des Plaines. 

So without much else to do today, I went there. 

For without meaning to over-sentimentalize this, nor imply that I was there all that often, I really liked the oasis. 

And not just because it provided a convenient spot to get a bite to eat or relieve myself if the need arose during the many years I drove 294 getting from Glen Ellyn to Deerfield and back, or to/from Skokie from Glen Ellyn, or from Skokie to & from Naperville, Munster or other such places, or before/after concerts at the Rosemont Horizon/Allstate Arena when I lived in Glen Ellyn, etc. 

Certainly, most often, an acute need prompted me to stop at the oasis. But rather than simply making a beeline to the bathroom, McDonald's and back to my car, I almost always liked to linger. 

Especially late at night, I found the oasis to be a tranquil place to read and/or just watch the cars go by. And in more recent years, to write.

So many--relatively--were the times I found a seat at a table overlooking the tollway and happily sat for awhile reading a book. And though I've never been a coffee drinker, even sans or after a full meal, I would grab a Krispy Kreme donut or Auntie Annie's pretzel and a Diet Coke to enjoy as I read.

In total, I've likely only spent an hour or so reading inside a tollway oasis at most a couple dozen times, but there is one at which I did so the most often. 

And excepting my bed, I don't know if I can cite another specific place where I so repeatedly have enjoyed reading. 

However, that place is not the Des Plaines Oasis. 

It is the O'Hare Oasis, which is where I initially went today to hang out for  sentimentality's sake, thinking it was the one marked for extinction. 

But, only by virtue of asking the cashier in the Travel Mart, I learned that that oasis is not going away. At least there are no closure plans that she knew about.

The one that is disappearing, which I'm now at--possibly for the first time--is just a few miles away but over I-90, just west of Mt. Prospect Road. 

So after being the only moron snapping photos at the O'Hare Oasis, I relocated to the Des Plaines Oasis to find that I am not the only sentimental fool. 

Just, presumably, the only fool sentimental about the wrong place.

Which I'm glad will still exist after tonight.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Feeling the Blues, Quite Enjoyably, at Kingston Mines (plus collegiate classical and jazz shout-outs)

Concert / Blues Review

Carl Weathersby Blues Band
J.W. Williams and the Chi-Town Hustlers
Kingston Mines / Chicago Blues Center
March 10, 2014
(Same pair play every Monday; Weathersby also has a Wednesday residency)

Article also references:

Student Jazz Combo Performance
Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago
March 6, 2014

Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra
featuring piano soloists Xuan He and Xia Jiang
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Evanston
March 8, 2014

As I was driving to Kingston Mines on Monday night, it occurred to me that not only was this the first time I was going to the erstwhile establishment which, like me, has existed since 1968, but that aside from multiple visits to Buddy Guy's Legends specifically to see its namesake legend, I haven't gone to any Chicago blues clubs.

Which isn't to say I haven't enjoyed live blues.

At festivals like Skokie's Backlot Bash, I've seen local greats like Lonnie Brooks, Eddy "The Chief"
Clearwater and Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials.

I've seen the legendary B.B. King a couple of times in theaters, and Eric Clapton playing blues-heavy sets at the United Center.

Though I never visited Maxwell Street in its heyday, in recent years I've seen blues ensembles playing nearby on Roosevelt Road. And I've seen multiple blues performers on Taste of Chicago stages, or even the fest's periphery.

I've been wowed by Buddy Guy six times at Legends, most recently in  January, and at a Ravinia show with Robert Cray opening. About 20 years ago, I saw Lonnie Brooks at a suburban club that wasn't specifically a blues venue (Shades) and even caught Lil' Ed (Williams) and his Blues Imperials a couple years ago in the unexpected environs of the Glenview Public Library.

But for no good reason, until Monday night I had never ventured to Kingston Mines at 2548 N. Halsted, nor the nearby B.L.U.E.S., or to Rosa's Lounge, Blue Chicago or any other extant or extinct blues clubs. (I won't count the House of Blues, at which I've never seen an actual blues concert.)

I don't know what took me so long.

Although many supposedly stellar blues clubs--such as the Checkerboard Lounge--once existed on Chicago's south side, the aforementioned venues are located in relatively upscale and/or gentrified areas; certainly Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. are in the heart of Lincoln Park. 

Granted, even on a Monday night, the music doesn't start at Kingston Mines until 9:30pm, and though it goes until 3:30am, even leaving at 11:30 after a single set each by J.W. Williams and Carl Weathersby made for a relatively late weeknight.

But though, like me, Kingston Mines--which also dubs itself the Chicago Blues Center--isn't all that old, walking through its doors felt like passing into part of Chicago's storied history.

Granted, the club has only been at its current location since 1982, but the building and venue space are considerably older, as it once held a jazz club called Redford's. (Read more history here; I found it interesting to note that the original Kingston Mines started as a coffeehouse, mostly for folk musicians, and also served as a theater that held the first production of the musical Grease.)

I acutely enjoy this sense of stepping into a largely unchanged past, and have recently felt similar sensibilities in (re)visiting the Green Mill, Manny's Deli, Laschet's Inn and the Pickwick Theater (in Park Ridge), among other Chicagoland relics. (This is a great website for those who relish Chicago history, from an entertainment & commerce standpoint.)

Kingston Mines has a pair of adjoining rooms with stages, allowing two acts to alternate hourlong sets; there is also a third, typically acoustic performer on given nights.

I imagine on weekends, one need commit to one room or the other if sitting down is a necessity--or just a
desirability, given that food is available from the internal Doc's Rib Joint--but I was easily able to get a prime seat for both Williams' and Weathersby's first sets of the night (though the Main Stage room, where the latter played, did fill up quite a bit). 

Before I get to the music, let me share that the ribs were excellent. I got a half-slab that was really meaty and accompanied by terrific fries, cole slaw and a jalapeno corn muffin.

The cover charge varies by night, but on Monday (and others) is just $12. A pretty good deal for up to 6 hours of great music.

I was not previously familiar with J.W. Williams and his Chi-Town Hustlers--apologies if this isn't exact, but I believe the band was identified as Calvin on guitar, Tomiko on keyboards and Cardell on drums--but found his set quite enjoyable.

Williams is a bassist and singer, and just seems as though he's lived the blues (don't ask me to define this). While most of his initial set seemed comprised of traditional Chicago blues, such as "Hoochie Coochie Man"--written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Muddy Waters) and "Got My Mojo Working" (see a brief clip here), I also enjoyed his romps through Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and James Brown's "I Feel Good." His three bandmates were also very good.

Back in 2002 I had seen Carl Weathersby as an opening act for Buddy Guy at Legends, but beyond being impressed enough to have remembered his name, I can't say I knew much of him or his music going into Monday's gig.

Well, I was instantly reminded what a terrific guitarist he is; if not quite at Guy's groundbreaking level, he is impressive enough to truly dazzle.

And while it wouldn't have seemed surprising if the seated Weathersby and his band--again, apologies for inaccuracies, but I believe Ron Moten was on keys, Leon Smith on drums and Skip ?? on bass--stuck largely to 12-bar blues, even within an hourlong set the variance in styles from song to song was really admirable.

Certainly, there were a few traditional numbers, but there was also a couple of nice uptempo tunes--one sounded like it may have been called "Open the Door to Your Heart"--and Weathersby ended his 10:30 set with an extended take on "Blue Moon" (which I'm a bit surprised to learn was written by Rodgers & Hart).

You can learn more about Carl Weathersby via his rather in-depth if somewhat dated website, and below is a snippet of video I shot. But if you love live blues--especially with relatively little cost, effort or hassle--I highly recommend that you get down to Kingston Mines.

Like I finally did.

And I have to assume that several other performers there, including those with residencies and special weekly guest artists, are also quite remarkable.


I don't critique student performances but had written in this piece about the pleasure I derive from attending shows of various types at local colleges for very little money.

Most often I see theater at Northwestern--which is just 15 minutes from my home--but in addition to the Charles Mingus-infused jazz concert I wrote about, this past Saturday I attended a truly sublime performance by the NU Symphony Orchestra, comprised of over 60 students.

For just an $8 ticket, I heard three stellar pieces conducted by Victor Yampolsky. While I won't suggest the students sounded as good as the esteemed Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to my ears not only were they terrific, but the particular program in full was more pleasing than one I recently attended at the CSO.

First up was Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, Op. 25 "Classical Symphony." Then came the first of two piano concertos--both accompanied by the full orchestra: Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23. The piano soloist on this one was a graduate student from China named Xuan Lee, who was excellent and earned a well-deserved standing ovation.

After an intermission was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, a notoriously difficult piece that was featured in the movie Shine. But like Lee, NU doctoral student Xia Jiang performed his piece--playing almost non-stop for 40 minutes--without sheet music. He too was truly outstanding and reverently saluted by a crowd that undoubtedly included many more expert classical music fans than I.

Last Thursday, my friend Ken and I attended another local university, Northeastern Illinois, at its main campus in Chicago's North Park neighborhood.

Like Northwestern, NEIU has a full slate of concerts and theatrical events, both by students and visiting artists. Most of these are free or inexpensive.

Always open to expanding my familiarity with jazz, I noted a program featuring student jazz combos, which was free of charge and, per the norm, open to the public.

Within a comfortable auditorium, it was nice to see the diversity of those enrolled in NEIU's jazz program--including some students significantly older than typical college age--and the hour's worth of music was truly enjoyable.

And it was also informative, as an emcee--presumably a professor or dean--introduced each of the pieces played by four different combos, providing technical insights that were appreciated if a bit over my head. There was no printed program, but I know Miles Davis was represented by at least a couple works, including "Dear Old Stockholm."

One musician notably played stand-up bass in one combo and piano in another.

I've seen and heard great jazz at some legendary venues, including Chicago's Jazz Showcase and the Village Vanguard, Birdland and Blue Note in New York, and I found the NEIU student program perfectly satisfying.

And combined with a footlong Polish Sausage + 20 oz. fountain drink combo at Costco for just $1.50--which Ken kindly treated me to--it again proved that enjoyable food and entertainment are indeed available for just a mere pittance.

Even adding in the NU and Kingston Mines outings, I was well-nourished by three days' worth of jazz, classical and blues for just $20. 

So while I fear treading upon the terrain of redundant preaching, what I'm really hoping to do is to enlighten others to the enrichment that can be readily had for very few riches.

Thus, even if I hadn't loved the pictured jar at Kingston Mines, please consider all this simply as a tip that I'm happy to share.