Sunday, December 14, 2014

Party Like It's 1889: Auditorium Theatre Celebrates 125 Years With a Spectacular Showcase

Theater / Showcase Review

Living the History: 125 Years of the Auditorium
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
December 9, 2014

In about a week, I'll start writing and posting my "Best of 2014" lists on this blog.

In terms of live entertainment, these will include Best Rock Concerts, Best Plays and Best Musicals, with my having seen at least 20 of each this year.

Although I haven't seen nearly enough Operas, Classical concerts, Blues gigs, Jazz performances or Dance shows to compile much of a Best of 2014 in any of these categories, perhaps I'll lump them and some other things together in a "Best Other Live Entertainment" category.

Especially now, because last Tuesday I saw a show that doesn't really fit into any of the specific categories. Rather, it would more so be classified as quite nearly "All of the Above."

The show only lasted 100 minutes, but in harkening back 125 years to the opening of Chicago's glorious Auditorium Theatre--and celebrating the years in between--Living the History was truly outstanding from beginning to end.

The joys started in the lobby, where several attractive young men and women were dressed in garb emblematic of December 9, 1889, the day President Benjamin Harrison attended the grand opening of the Auditorium Theatre, within the then tallest building in Chicago and largest in the U.S.

Vice President Levi Morton, a New Yorker, was also there with the President, who at one point turned to him and said of the Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan-designed masterpiece:

"I say, Mr. Morton, New York surrenders, eh."

To which the Vice President replied, "Yes."

So while I wasn't exactly dressed in my fineries precisely 125 years later, it was fun to see others who were.

The anniversary celebration also featured a gala dinner, which I didn't attend, happy just to get a $25 discount ticket to the show through Goldstar.

My seat turned out to be on the lower level of the Auditorium, which after years of re-configurations--including as a USO Servicemen's Center complete with bowling alleys replacing the orchestra seats during World War II--has long been restored to one of the most resplendent places to see a show, anywhere.

Before the performance even started--with a 6:00pm curtain seemingly to accommodate the donors and others who would later party like it's 1889--it was fun to peruse the commemorative program for the event.

I liked these tidbits:

- In the same week in November 1970, the Auditorium hosted Aretha Franklin, Frank Zappa, Smokey Robinson, Derek & the Dominos, Stevie Wonder and Fifth Dimension

- Between 1969 and 1971, James Brown performed 11 times on the Auditorium stage

- In August 1971, over the span of 10 days, the theatre hosted two Neil Diamond shows, two Grateful Dead shows, two Who shows and one Black Sabbath performance.

And as much of tenor of the 125th anniversary celebration was to salute the performances people remember seeing there, before getting back to a recap of Tuesday's show, I will regale you with a list of shows I've seen at the Auditorium.

In terms of rock concerts, somewhat surprisingly I didn't attend any at the venue until October 25, 2004, when I saw R.E.M. from the FIRST ROW--I was right under Mike Mills.

I would see Wilco there just 5 days later.

Subsequently, I saw Bob Dylan with Merle Haggard, Robert Plant, The White Stripes, Radiohead, Foo Fighters (acoustic on their Skin & Bones tour), the Smashing Pumpkins, Eddie Vedder and the Pet Shop Boys.

In terms of theatrical performances, I saw The Phantom of the Opera there in 1994, and both Les Miserables and Miss Saigon in the early 00s. The Auditorium would subsequently become part of the Broadway in Chicago circuit, so I've seen several more musicals there including--without naming all of them--The King and I (with Sandy Duncan), Evita, Mamma Mia, Sister Act, Spamalot (with Richard Chamberlain) and Movin' Out.

I've also seen Riverdance there, the ballet Giselle (by the Kirov Ballet) and for Fuerza Bruta: Look Up in 2010, I--and the rest of the audience--got to stand on the same stage where luminaries such as Sarah Bernhardt, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Katherine Hepburn, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, James Brown, Bob Marley, Muddy Waters, Bruce Springsteen and thousands of others once performed.

Photo credit: John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune
So the 125th anniversary of the Auditorium had special meaning to me before the show even started.

But then the lights went down and a boy--whose name I would later learn is Matthew Uzarraga--came onstage alone and started singing "Do You Hear the People Sing," from Les Miserables.

Goose bumpingly, he was soon joined--on one of the greatest choral songs of musical theater and a personal favorite--by the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, whose origins go back to 1872 and which performed at the Auditorium's opening in 1889.

I learned several such tidbits from the show's emcee, the great John Mahoney, a Chicago native who got famous on Frasier but has now long returned to local stages. (I've seen him frequently at the Steppenwolf and Northlight theaters). 

It's always a joy to see him, especially as he now seems much more hearty and hale than he had in recent years.

After a few remarks following "Do You Hear the People Sing," Mahoney introduced Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who noted that in his being a former ballet dancer onstage at the Auditorium, "At least one Jewish mother in America is happy."

The mayor cited First Lady Michelle Obama as an Honorary Chair of the event--she wasn't there Tuesday--and shared that when the Auditorium opened in 1889, it was called "The 8th Wonder of the World."

Emanuel also noted how historically significant the Auditorium was symbolically, in rising 18 years after the Chicago Fire decimated the city and being a catalyst for Chicago landing the World's Fair, i.e. the Columbian Exposition of 1893. 
"It helped make Chicago one of the cultural capitals of the world," Mayor Emanuel said about the theater we were in, which next year, he also boasted, will become the location of the NFL Draft.
Photo credit: John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune
I guess it's pretty cool that Chicago has taken that event away from New York, but on Tuesday I was much more excited that Patti LuPone was in the building. 
Her appearance was notable on several levels, not just because she is one of the greatest Broadway stars--and simply singers--in the world.

On the Auditorium's opening night in 1889, the star performer was Adelina Patti, who the composer Giuseppe Verdi had called the greatest singer who ever lived. 

Patti LuPone is the great-grand-niece and namesake of Adelina Patti, and her first appearance on stage Tuesday was in singing the latter's most famous tune, "Home Sweet Home."

LuPone then sang her signature tune, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," from her original starring role in Evita, and it was absolutely sublime (and all the more meaningful for me because I was in Buenos Aires this year, and even saw Eva Peron's grave).

This was only about 15 minutes into the show, and I already had my money's worth. (With the caveat that this was the 10th time I was seeing LuPone, as well as Mahoney, live on stage.)

Photo Credit: John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune
Later, LuPone would recollect how she had first appeared at the Auditorium in 1976 while part of John Houseman's Touring Company that was performing a musical called The Robber Bridegroom. Backed by four Chicago musical theater stars--Michael Mahler, Brandon Dahlquist, James Earl Jones II and either Andrew Mueller or Matt Raftery (sorry, not quite sure)--and forgoing a microphone, she sang "Sleepy Man" from that show. Even though I am unfamiliar with the song, it was pretty cool. 
As were the rest of the night's performances. 
Representing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which had its start at the Auditorium, the CSO Brass played a lovely number, and Jonathan Johnson and Hlengiew Mkhwanazi were on hand in homage to the Lyric Opera's origins at the venue. 

They did a nice duet, but her version of Gershwin's "Summertime," from the Lyric's current Porgy and Bess--in which she stars as Clara--was positively blissful and one of the night's clear highlights.

Johnson, who was seemingly on hand in place of the listed Eric Owens, then delivered a superlative "Be My Love," originally sung by Mario Lanza in the 1950 musical film The Toast of New Orleans.

There were also two truly outstanding dance numbers, first a solo performance by Vernard J. Gilmore of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, doing things with his body that suggested he and I are not of the same species.

And representing the Joffrey Ballet, which calls the Auditorium home, Rory Hohenstein and Christine Rocas, seemed about as talented and beautiful as one could want--even to a ballet neophyte--in a performance from Romeo and Juliet.

Rock 'n Roll was represented Tuesday by a group led by Chicagoan Jim Peterik, accompanied by Paul Wertico, Barbara Unger-Wertico and Richard Patterson. I guess Springsteen or Elton John, who also famously played the Auditorium in the '70s, were well beyond the event's budget.

But Peterik, who wasn't specifically billed or introduced, is something of a Chicago rock legend from his days in both The Ides of March and Survivor. So the rock set that included "Vehicle" and "Eye of the Tiger," as well as "Sweet Home Chicago," was fun enough, even if--without any clear connection to the Auditorium itself--it didn't quite match the gist of the evening.

Reappearing late in the show, LuPone paid tribute to Ravinia, where she has often performed--including in Gypsy, which led to a Broadway run--and delivered a terrific version of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," from that musical.

We were also treated to two other marvelous singers, Roderick Dixon and Alfreda Burke, who dueted on a song I can't name but that sounded along the lines of "We'll Build Our House."

All the evening's performers joined them on stage, whose bracketing panels then raised to reveal the orchestra, stagehands and the back of the house.

We were then invited to come back "125 years from now" for another celebration.

Congratulations to the Auditorium on its 125th Anniversary. I hope to be back a whole lot sooner then 2139. 

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