Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Pithy Philosophies #22

Seth Saith:

The more I've traveled, the less I've understood the hang-ups many seem to have over our differences.

Because, for the most part, we are pretty much all the same. 


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

August Wilson's 'Two Trains Running' Offers More Slow-Track Enlightenment than Fast-Track Excitement -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Two Trains Running
a play by August Wilson
directed by Chuck Smith
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 19

Although Two Trains Running is just the third August Wilson play I've seen, I'm quite appreciative of the late writer's accomplishment in creating a 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience across each decade of the 20th century.

In time, I would hope to see the entire series, although each play supposedly stands on its own and Wilson did not write them in chronological order.

Certainly, by taking me inside a somewhat sleepy diner in Pittsburgh's Hill District, circa 1969, Wilson--via director Chuck Smith, a fine ensemble cast at the Goodman Theatre and a wonderfully realistic set design by Linda Buchanan--added to my cultural and historical perspectives while artfully framing the civil rights era through sly undercurrents rather than strident overtones.

As with the other two Wilson plays I've seen--Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, on Broadway, and Radio Golf at the Goodman--Two Trains Running features a fine assemblage of characters.

These include the restaurant's proud, always dapper owner Memphis (played by Terry Bellamy), a waitress named Risa (Nambi E. Kelley), regular customers Holloway (Alfred Wilson) and Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.), a numbers runner named Wolf (Anthony Irons), wealthy funeral home owner West (A.C. Smith) and Sterling (Chester Gregory), who is the most vocal civil rights advocate and a proponent of the late Malcolm X.

I liked the way the numerous characters interacted, and riffed on each other, and offered observations regarding life, death and numerous other matters.

This 1992 play definitely showcases August Wilson's gift for writing dialogue and addressing universal topics on a personal level.

But while I found Two Trains Running worthwhile, I must admit to liking it more than loving it.

As I stated in my prior post, I accept that a play can be any length it needs to be, but at nearly 3 hours, this 2-act drama seemed to drag a bit. And while each of the characters, and performances, is appealing on both a micro and macro level, somehow the overarching meanings and consequences being communicated didn't connect with me all that forcefully.

Despite the nimbleness with which Wilson addresses the turbulent '60s--including civil rights progress, disgusting bigotry, riots, the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.--through the prism of everyday conversation over coffee, I left the theater entertained and enlightened, but not extremely wowed.

My regard for August Wilson, Chuck Smith, the Goodman Theatre and all involved is such that not only wouldn't I dissuade anyone from seeing Two Trains Running, I really do recommend it on the basis that even to enjoy it on the @@@@ (out of 5) level that I did would make for a rewarding theatrical experience.

And if you like it more than I did, that's even better. 

It was also heartening to see a much more diverse audience than usual at the Goodman, and I expect members of the African-American community may more holistically identify with the situations and subtexts Wilson addresses.

Though I don't think I'll be able to take advantage of the staged readings the Goodman is presenting of Wilson's nine other plays as part of its August Wilson Celebration, I really would like to see Fences, Jitney, Gem of the Ocean, Seven Guitars and the rest of the writer's oeuvre.

But while it made for satisfying Sunday night entertainment--and than plenty of it--Two Trains Running didn't quite take me where I was hoping it might.

Monday, March 23, 2015

With Plenty of Punch, 'The Royale' is a Quick Knockout -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Royale
a new play by Marco Ramirez
directed by Jaime Casteneda
American Theater Company, Chicago
Thru March 29

How long should a play be?

The proper answer is probably: As long as it needs to be to most effectively tell the story it aims to tell.

I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's great comment on the length of movies: "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."

The same thought can certainly apply to live theater, where Eugene O'Neill's nearly 5-hour The Iceman Cometh recently earned raves in Brooklyn in a production that originated at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Yet while I greatly enjoyed Robert Falls' 2012 production at Goodman, starring Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane and a wonderful ensemble of Chicago actors, I can't deny being a bit perplexed by the sheer length.

For while a great play--and Iceman Cometh and other O'Neill epics are that--provides more than simple entertainment, a viewer should acutely enjoy seeing it, not feel that they endured it.

And given Chicago weather, traffic, parking costs, train schedules, etc., as well as one's own sleep patterns, attention spans, other matters on one's mind or whatever, devoting at least 6 hours--including transport, perhaps dinner, etc.--to a night of theater is rarely ideal.

Conversely, the fine new play at American Theater Company, The Royale, has a stage time of
approximately 65 minutes--as corroborated by the box office--not even the 75 minutes other reviews have cited.

Which means the time it took to get to and from the theater at Lincoln and Byron was considerably greater than the time spent in it.

Due to dinner plans and other factors, I left my Skokie home at 4:30pm and arrived back at 10:30pm, for a 65-minute play.

But I'm glad I saw The Royale, and in watching it, didn't feel like it needed to be any longer than what it was. It used its time just about perfectly.

Written by Marco Ramirez--who has written episodes of acclaimed TV series Sons of Anarchy and Orange is the New Black--The Royale is a fictionalized boxing drama culled substantially from factual events surrounding Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion.

1n 1910, a white, undefeated former champion named Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson in what was dubbed the "Fight of the Century." When Johnson won, it became a major moment of celebration and pride among African-Americans.

In The Royale, the black champion named Jay Jackson, is powerfully embodied at ATC by Jerod Haynes, who I also found terrific in a 2013 TimeLine production of A Raisin in the Sun.

No actual punches are thrown onstage, and yet two boxing matches are believably acted out, including one in which Jackson takes on a white former champion clearly based on Jeffries.

But rather than overtly focusing on the sociological aspects of Jackson's career and the battle between races at a time when lynchings were common in the south--not far from where the real Jack Johnson lived--The Royale is primarily a propulsive, rhythmic showpiece about the fighter's determination, pride and ego.

Interactions, like quick jabs, take place between Jackson and his manager Wynton (Edwin Lee Gibson), promoter Max (Philip Earl Johnson), sister Nina (Mildred Langford) and an opponent, Fish (Julian Parker).

To tell you much more about the specifics would risk giving away the whole play, in this case somewhat literally.

But even in its brief duration, there is plenty to long appreciate about The Royale, and my mom and aunt also liked it considerably despite never being much in the way of boxing fans.

With crisp writing by Ramirez and excellent performances throughout under the direction of Jaime Castenada, this is a terrific piece of theater that should be well-worth your time--without any real sense of shortchanging it. (Discount tickets may be available on HotTix.) 

That said, just to answer my opening query, my preferred length for a play is 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Or if it needs to be a 2-act piece, 2 hours including intermission often seems about right.

Of course, many of the greatest playwrights ever have deviated greatly from my preferred durations, including--on the long side--for the play I'll review next.

But in The Royale's case, brevity works well. In just 65 minutes it really should knock you out.

Just don't blink too often.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

'The Mecca Tales' Takes Viewers--of Any Background & Beliefs--on a Rewarding, Recognizable Journey -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Mecca Tales
a world premiere play by Rohina Malik
Chicago Dramatists
Thru April 12

It might be easy to think that I am lavishing praise on The Mecca Tales because I recently interviewed and profiled its author, and admire Rohina Malik for the messages of peace, understanding and commonality she aims to impart.

And in full candor, it may be true that some of this factors into my rating the play @@@@1/2 rather than @@@@, for I might have bestowed @@@@1/4 if Seth Saith precedent allowed for it. But I have no compunction in rounding up rather than down given my appreciation for not only the play but the playwright.

Although Malik's previous, self-performed 45-minute play, Unveiled, is a substantive, impressive piece that she continues to present across the U.S., The Mecca Tales is her first professional, full-cast work to be produced. And though years of development--first with Goodman Theatre's Playwrights Unit and then at Chicago Dramatists--have resulted in a highly watchable, enjoyable, identifiable and affecting play, there are ways I can envision it and/or Malik's future plays becoming just a bit more potent in terms of narrative tension.

That said, I acutely liked The Mecca Tales more than many higher profile works by well-established playwrights that I've seen at Goodman, Steppenwolf and other large, prestigious Chicago theaters. In fact, a quick perusal of my shows-seen database and memory banks indicates that I've seen 34 Tony Award-nominated plays in the 21st century--most in subsequent Chicago productions rather than on Broadway--and I enjoyed The Mecca Tales more than the majority of these.

So even with any possible favoritism points, I genuinely recommend The Mecca Tales, especially as through the Chicago Dramatists box office or discounted on HotTix, tickets should be quite reasonable for a unique, eye-opening, thought-provoking play.

Given that the play is about five Muslim women traveling to Mecca on the Hajj--an Islamic pilgrimage--it should conceivably bring members of the Muslim community to Chicago Dramatists, where Malik (herself a Muslim) is a Resident Playwright.

And it isn't hard to imagine this roughly 90-minute one-act play being produced in many locales with large populations of Muslims--or simply open-minded theater lovers.

For to say that The Mecca Tales should appeal mainly to Muslims is to suggest that one needs to be a math genius to recognize the family dynamics presented in Proof or a Catholic to identify with moral quandaries posed in Doubt or related to a road-worn peddler to appreciate Death of a Salesman or an African-American to rue the inhumanity depicted in A Raisin in the Sun.

A great play is about far more than its sound-bite description. And though The Mecca Tales is ostensibly about the spiritual journey taken by women of a particular faith--and valuable for its insights into Islam and common misconceptions about Muslims--I don't think anyone who sees it would be unable to identify with what the characters share about themselves and their reasons for embarking on the Hajj.

These include matters involving love, longing, spouses, parents, children, career paths, aspirations, regrets, death, depression, remorse and more.

Helping Malik's universal themes resonate is an excellent cast under the direction of Rachel Edwards Harvith.

Morgan McCabe poignantly plays Grace, a guide leading four other women to Mecca--though I should note that this isn't overtly an "on the road" play.

Anita Chandwaney (as Bina), Celeste M. Cooper (Malika), Stephanie Diaz (Alma) and Susaan Jamshidi (Maya) are all quite believable in their readily distinguishable roles. It is a tribute to the actresses, as well to the deftness of Malik's dialogue, that the audience should leave the theater clearly familiar with the backstory and individuality of each of the characters.

I recently enjoyed Lisa D'Amour's headed-to-Broadway play Airline Highway at Steppenwolf, in large part because I felt it opened my eyes to the uniqueness--but also the universality--of individuals society often overlooks or lumps together with crude generalizations.

That The Mecca Tales does much the same with "five Muslim women," four of roughly the same age, is all the more impressive. Considerable credit in this regard likely also goes to costume designer Courtney Schum.

As the sole male in the cast aside from an onstage musician (Coren Warden), Derek Garza is superb in embodying a number of men in addition to his primary role as Reza, a local tour liaison. 

Within the relatively intimate confines of the Chicago Dramatists' theater--in which it was nice to see most of the 70 or so seats filled on Sunday afternoon--Regina Garcia's static, somewhat interpretive set design is satisfying. Future troupes that may stage this work should be able to do so on a smallish footprint given that it succeeds largely through the characterizations.

That said, I think The Mecca Tales is a play that could benefit from more literal scenery a good bit grander, especially as the metaphorical sense of a pilgrimage is somewhat abridged by the tight stage.

But having spoken with Rohina Malik just two days before I saw The Mecca Tales, I imagine that in addition to being deservedly proud of this play and production, she would embrace the idea that her work--whether in the micro or macro sense--will only improve as she continues to develop her craft and presumably sees The Mecca Tales presented and interpreted by other theatrical bodies.

Which isn't at all to knock Chicago Dramatists. Through a friend, I've long been familiar with the theatrical training organization that has been nurturing playwrights for 36 years, and am delighted that after a spell of somewhat sporadic public productions, The Mecca Tales does proud everyone involved.

I hope anyone thinking of seeing it makes the pilgrimage to the intersection of Chicago & Milwaukee Avenues before April 12--and I can't help thinking that venturing to The Mecca Tales may be most valuable to those who presume it not to be for them.

Especially endearing to me given what I heard from Rohina Malik and shared in my profile of her, the drama sharply addresses how the actions of a few have misconstrued the tenets of Islam as practiced by billions of peaceful followers.

It was thus powerful to hear such lines as:

"The actions of the extremists contradicts the faith"


"Judgment is for God alone"

...as well as nuggets of more universal wisdom, like:  

"Life is a gift, open it"


"We decide if they crush our spirits, not them."

But The Mecca Tales also has quite a bit of humor, and perhaps best proving the reach of its ecumenical appeal is likely my favorite line--the context of which I'll leave for you to encounter:

"Bagels make me fall asleep."

Whatever you consider holy, or holey, I'd like to believe you will find The Mecca Tales wholly worthwhile.

Monday, March 16, 2015

This Much is True: Dear John Hughes is Good, Fun...For What It Is -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dear John Hughes
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Run Ended

To say that the John Hughes movies of the 1980s hit close to home for me is more accurate geographically than emotionally or artistically.

Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Some Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Uncle Buck, Home Alone and other films written and/or directed by Hughes--who moved to Northbrook in his early teens and attended Glenbrook North High School--were filmed within 20 minutes of my home in Skokie...or at least based nearby (as in the case of Pretty in Pink, which was filmed in L.A.).

I don't recall knowing all this at the time, but the house that served as the family home in Sixteen Candles is in Evanston, about 3 minutes from where I grew up, some interior scenes were filmed at Niles North High School while I was a student there and much else of that movie was filmed at Niles East, another, but by-then-closed Skokie high school. 

Despite this, I only saw a few of the aforementioned films upon their release, and none any more than a few times each--at most--in the years since. And even with a rather vast DVD collection, I own none of these movies. (The only John Hughes movie I do own is Career Opportunities, decidedly more because Jennifer Connelly starred in it than because he wrote it.)

This said, I have no aversion to Hughes' teen comedies and appreciate their--and his--place in movie history ...and the '80s zeitgeist. 

So with the added specter of Evan Rachel Wood being added to the cast--replacing Rumer Willis--for Week 2 of For The Record: Dear John Hughes' run at the Broadway Playhouse, my friend Paolo and I decided to check out the show despite it not being part of our Broadway in Chicago subscription series. (The show has now left town.)

I understood going in that Dear John Hughes is not a book musical with a narrative thread throughout, but rather a collection of songs that featured prominently in Hughes' films, accompanied in many cases by iconic movie dialogue being acted out onstage.

Though never designed to delight me as much as a first-rate original musical likely would, given the recent proliferation of disappointing stage musicals based on popular movies and/or featuring famous songs with flimsy books, I applaud Dear John Hughes for being a straightforward, well-done, crowd-pleasing affair--especially to the far more avid Hughes acolytes--rather than some misguided attempt in the vein of First Wives Club, Ghost, American Idiot or We Will Rock You.  

I thought the production values and singing--including by Wood--were first rate, and while not grand theater, it doesn't aim to be. In fact, in Los Angeles Dear John Hughes (and similar For the Record nostalgic songfests highlighting a famed director for whom music is integral: Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann, Quentin Tarantino) is performed in a West Hollywood bar, with actors intermingling with patrons.

However, given how the show includes bits of dialogue, acted out largely (though a tad loosely) in costume and character, and features five thematic "chapters"--The Princess & The Athlete, A Criminal & A Basket Case, The Geek, Prom, Detention--Dear John Hughes also isn't simply analogous to a tribute concert or musical revue.

Whatever the hybrid, the show makes for a fun evening of entertainment--particularly to those of us who remember the 80s even if not all the movies--that hints at the possibility of becoming something much more artistically holistic and substantive.

Per the first three chapters I just mentioned, and the last one, DJH uses The Breakfast Club characters and scenario as its thematic core, but--especially to those of us fuzzy on the film details--illustrates how the three Molly Ringwald movies (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club) and Some Kind of Wonderful revolve around many of the same tropes.

Popularity, geekiness, wealth or lack thereof, misfits, outcasts, friendships, crushes, romances, hurt feelings, insecurities, self-esteem issues, bullying, personal style, etc., don't really need a defined point of reference to resonate, and I liked how Olivia Harris embodied The Princess (a.k.a. Ringwald) scenes, even if at the end I asked Paolo if "Andie and Blane" were in Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink.

He replied the former, but was quickly corrected by a better-versed fan nearby. (For the record, I had recently watched The Breakfast Club upon the 30th anniversary of its Feb. 1985 release, and since seeing Dear John Hughes last Thursday have viewed Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. I'm also pretty familiar with Ferris Bueller, and to a lesser degree, Weird Science, the two other films that factor into the show.)

The crowd seemed to have fun--we were allowed to take photos and encouraged to shout out our favorite movie lines; I thought the cast also should've insisted we stand and dance at certain parts--and as the Chicago run is over, my quibbles are largely moot.

But why let that stop me?

Guessing that some song selections and omissions had as much to do with rights clearances as anything else, some still seemed a bit odd--even more so now that I've watched the films--such as David Bowie's "Changes" and "Young Americans." (The latter is heard in Sixteen Candles, but not in a high-profile manner; I don't know where "Changes" was used by Hughes.)

I certainly wouldn't have minded if the show honored Hughes by reaching beyond the six key teen angst films for say, Tone Loc's Wild Thing, used wonderfully in Uncle Buck (also partially shot in Skokie).

And while Wood was delightful--fitting into the ensemble cast without any Hollywood star aura--it seemed like she was channeling Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful much more so than Ally Sheedy's Breakfast Club "Basket Case," as whom she is technically cast.

This last note is especially a trifle, as everyone rotated through various roles, but it gets at why I think Dear John Hughes--with some shrewd writing--could be turned into something considerably better than what it is.

I was reminded of Snapshots, a show that pays tribute to Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippen, Godspell) by using existing songs from his catalog to tell a new story, making for something more artistically rewarding than most typical revues. (Across the Universe, a Julie Taylor film that weaves Beatles songs into a story and, coincidentally, also stars Evan Rachel Wood, likewise sprang to mind.)

Given the similarity between characters and situations in various Hughes films, it's not inconceivable skilled creatives could weave the songs, and even the iconic scenes, into a cohesive new--yet still joyfully nostalgic--stage-based narrative. (It's possible Hughes' estate would have to grant different permissions for something like this; Paolo and I are both surprised The Breakfast Club has yet to be turned into a Broadway musical and would be happy to produce one.)

Still, for whatever it isn't, I'm glad I saw Dear John Hughes for what it is.

The entire cast was excellent,
including not only Wood, Harris, Payson Lewis, Michael Thomas Grant and James Byous as the five Breakfast Clubbers plus characters such as Ferris, Cameron, Watts, Duckie and the Weird Science guys, but also a pair of host-duty singers, Chicago natives Patrick Mulvey and Jackie Seiden.

Mulvey did a nifty job addressing the crowd and personifying authority figures such as Mr. Vernon from The Breakfast Club and the Principal from Ferris Bueller, while Seiden sang terrifically and made for a sexy ersatz Kelly LeBrock (Weird Science) among other characterizations.

Many of the songs those with even minor Hughes devotion might assume to be included, were. And while I can be a stickler when it comes to cover versions, "Pretty in Pink" (The Psychedelic Furs), "True" (Spandau Ballet), "Twist and Shout" (The Beatles), "If You Were Here" (The Thompson Twins) and "If You Leave" (OMD) were all given rather satisfying renditions within a 25+ deep songlist.

Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" from The Breakfast Club was played, rousingly, both at the beginning and end. While the song will likely continue to have more staying power for me than this 2-hour melange of movies, music and theater, Dear John Hughes is a nice love letter to the late filmmaker who helped define not only the 80s, but the high school experience in a far more universal and eternal manner.

While I can't describe For the Record: Dear John Hughes as being "Like, totally awesome"--a somewhat askew 80s' reference--I also can't knock it as being less than true to its intent. Or to the late music-punctuating pop-film auteur to whom it pays reverent homage.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

An Enlightening Conversation with Playwright Rohina Malik about Muslims, Misconceptions and What Led Her to 'Mecca Tales'

(Note: This is not a review of The Mecca Tales, a play I will see soon and review separately. Rather it is a preview and profile piece about its writer, Rohina Malik, based on an interview I conducted.)

Sometimes the most gratifying surprises in life are the ones that shouldn't be all that surprising.

Before I encountered Rohina Malik--first through Unveiled, a 5-woman, one actress play that she wrote and performed, then in an excellent hourlong conversation centered around her latest work, The Mecca Tales, opening this weekend at Chicago Dramatists with a 7-member cast--I held no enmity for Muslims, nor anyone who opts to wear cultural garb or pretty much anybody who hasn't provided an overt reason why they shouldn't be treated with anything but respect & dignity.

But as tolerant, ethnologically-curious and embracing of multiculturalism as I like to believe I am, I can't deny that Rohina--from the stage and in-person--opened my eyes and broadened my mind considerably...about Islam, women, humanity, commonality, hatred and much more.

In Unveiled--which I saw at the Skokie Public Library in January as part of my hometown's Coming Together: Voices of Race program--Rohina expertly voices five Muslim women with greatly differing individuality and places of origin, largely to address post-9/11 backlash against Islam. She elucidates on why headcoverings are worn--in her own case, a hijab covering the hair due to a belief in modesty--and portrays the hardship, honor and pride of each woman. Particularly withering is when she embodies a character who is scornfully told, "Take that shit off your head."

A scene from The Mecca Tales at Chicago Dramatists
Just as powerful as the 2009 play, which Rohina continues to perform across the country, was a post-show discussion in which she forcibly imparted that "Murder is forbidden in Islam; what the extremists are doing is not in the name of Islam."

World premiering at Chicago Dramatists, where Rohina is a Resident Playwright, The Mecca Tales also features five disparate Muslim women, but is entirely its own work, not an ensemble-cast evolution of Unveiled.

"I felt free to tell a story, as a playwright who is Muslim, but not simply as a "Muslim playwright." I addressed specific aspects of the culture in Unveiled and didn't feel I needed to explain in this piece why the women wear veils; they just do.

"I think this is a more universal narrative that examines concerns that are common to everyone, as the women reveal what brought them to Mecca, often having little to do directly with religion.

"The Mecca Tales will smash stereotypes about Muslims."

Born in London to a mother from Pakistan and father from India, Rohina moved to the Chicago area with her family when she was 15.

She graduated from my alma mater, Niles North High School--several years after my class of '86--where a short play she wrote earned lavish praise from a drama teacher. Yet at DePaul University, she majored in Comparative Religion rather than Theater.

It wasn't until after she was married, a mother and into her 30s that "I noticed a void in my soul" and soon wound up taking a writing class at Victory Gardens.

"I finally followed my heart and listened to my inner voice--and I've never been happier. We all have an inner light others try to blow out, but you always have to believe in yourself."

She is now an Artistic Associate at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn and initially developed The Mecca Tales during a residency at Goodman Theatre, where she was a member of the Playwrights Unit.

Speaking with me within the theater at Chicago Dramatists where previews of The Mecca Tales "have been going wonderfully," Rohina was effusive about how the organization noted for nurturing Resident Playwrights has brought her vision to the stage.

Lavishing praise on Rachel Edwards Harvith, the show's director, Rohina credited her with being a wonderful collaborator who is willing to try things the playwright suggests, and is "great with actors" because "she calms, listens and guides."

Sharing that The Mecca Tales is about "the spiritual journeys we take in life," as it revolves around the five women who travel to Mecca for Hajj, Rohina expounded when I asked what she would like audiences to take away from the play.

"I hope that everyone might take a pilgrimage in their own life, regardless of any religious faith or beliefs. We need to slow down as a society, to sometimes get away from it all.

"The women in the play find a connection with Earth and sky, which allows them to ask--as we all should--'What is the purpose of my life?'"

Another motivating desire is that individuals come to have a better understanding of her faith, which she notes one-fourth of the world's population follows.

"Don't put Muslims in a box. The largest Muslim country is Indonesia; second is Pakistan. Yet many people think only of Arabs in regards to Islam.

"Muslims are like everyone else. We have morals and values, we care about love, loss, family and friends and we value human life."

Rohina was also quite illuminating when I asked about perceptions some may have about Islam, given not only terrorist acts but how the media can portray Muslims as intolerant and--noting the Charlie Hebdo massacre that happened shortly before I attended Unveiled--extremely sensitive and humorless.

"The Koran is clear about [responding to] mockery. It says, 'Don't sit with them,' not 'Go kill them,'" she stressed.

"Muslims are against killing, and Islamic scholars have written open letters to ISIS condemning their actions, but that doesn't get covered enough by the media. Contrary to what may be portrayed, the Muslim community does speak out against terrorism.

"A key Islamic belief is that God will not forgive the taking of another human life. And the word Jihad means struggle, not holy war, nothing to do with violence. Its meaning has been hijacked and, in truth, terrorists are often ignorant of Islam."

As this was, to my recollection, the first in-depth discussion of its kind I've ever had with a Muslim--not due to any aversion as much as a lack of opportunity and effort--I was fascinated with how Rohina educated me about the truths of the religion that is clearly intrinsic to her being.

But as I've long been leery of any religion, including my own--Judaism--that seems to force rituals upon its followers and shame those who opt for personal choice, I applauded Rohina espousing that "Nothing should be mandated.

"The Koran says that there is no compulsion in religion."

She also corroborated my assumption that, as with Jews, there are Muslims at many differing levels of orthodoxy, whose customs and even beliefs may vary.

According to her, most Muslims felt the media brouhaha over Michelle Obama not wearing a headscarf in Saudi Arabia was silly, especially given all the far more serious issues being faced, but she did note that Saudi Arabia is the most vigilant country in insisting Muslim women cover their heads.

As much as I enjoyed Rohina furthering my understanding of Islam and the vast majority of Muslims for whom peace, security, life and love are as important as to anyone else, what resonated just as loudly was how congruent her sensibilities are with mine regarding matters that have nothing to do with religion or faith-based spirituality.

Only posing about half of my planned questions because of how much I simply enjoyed talking with her--and because she had a subsequent interview scheduled in conjunction with The Mecca Tales--I ended by asking what change she would like to see in the world.

"I pray that people stop stereotyping Muslims," was her first response, to which I'm 100% empathetic.

Yet even more acutely aligned with what I try to champion is what she said next.

"Please support live theater; without audiences there is no theater.

"It's the arts that will change the world."

Anyone who peruses this blog with any regularity should know how much I believe the same, and I shared with Rohina my dream of somehow helping teens and others realize the wonders of cultural & artistic exploration, not only as a matter of entertainment, but for emotional nourishment and therapeutic sustenance.

Clearly proud of what she's accomplished and any effect her work might have, Rohina Malik ended our talk by revealing how people have come up to her, crying, after seeing Unveiled--I imagine The Mecca Tales will prompt similar reactions--and said:

"I now know what I thought was wrong. Your play really opened my eyes."

Which left me tremendously impressed by how both of the changes this talented, thoughtful, entirely personable woman most wants to see in the world--involving cultural understanding and the impact of culture--are inextricably linked, not only in who she is, but in who we should all aim to be.

The Mecca Tales runs at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., through April 12. For tickets, click here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Abracadabra: For the Rare Magic Show, 'The Illusionists' Do the Trick -- Chicago Theater / Magic Review

Theater / Magic Review

The Illusionists - Witness the Impossible
featuring Andrew Basso, Aaron Crow, Jeff Hobson, Yu Ho-Jin, Kevin James, Dan Sperry, Adam Trent
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru March 22

Of all the performing arts, I don't think there are any I've attended less than magic. (Except perhaps mime if Blue Man Group doesn't count.)

I remember seeing Doug Henning at the old Mill Run Theater as a kid in the '70s, and I once saw Penn & Teller in Las Vegas.

That's it.

No other Vegas headliner magicians. No David Copperfield. Never a trip to the Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

And the thing is, I don't dislike magic; in fact, I enjoy it.

Any halfway decent magician can adequately fool me, even dazzle me. 

But I rarely even see any magic on TV, and it's not like I get invited to kids' birthday parties, where local magicians might occasionally appear.

So although I wouldn't want magic shows--or much else beyond the mainstay musicals--to proliferate as part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription, I have no urge to dis The Illusionists appearing on BIC's spring slate. 

It was nice to see the Cadillac Palace filled for the first night of the Chicago run, and while the second-to-last row in the upper balcony of a huge downtown theater probably isn't the optimal perch for appreciate the nimble artistry of top-notch magicians--even with a video screen onstage--the 2-1/2 hour Witness the Impossible production was sufficiently worth my while. 

I wasn't familiar, even merely by name, with any of the 7 magicians that are part of this touring show--following a brief Broadway run--but one has to presume all are very well-regarded to be selected for such a showcase, with bookings well into next year. 

Each magician had a distinct persona--The Escapologist (Adam Basso), The Warrior (Aaron Crow), The Trickster (Jeff Hobson), The Manipulator (Yu Ho-Jin), The Inventor (Kevin James), The Anti-Conjuror (Dan Sperry), The Futurist (Adam Trent)--and frequent audience participation bits with good-natured folks added to the fun.

The magic, to my easily-deceived eyes, was first-rate, including a Houdiniesque water torture escape by Basso, a strange trick involving a Life-Saver and dental floss by Sperry, a William Tell-inspired apple + arrow illusion by Crow, and a particularly head-scratching man split in two bit by James. 

Though there were few audible gasps from the audience, even the multiple card tricks were impressive. The best of these were by Yu Ho-Jin, who was named Magician of the Year in 2014 and won the preeminent magic competition at age 19. 

He brought a unique elegance and gracefulness to his two tricks, and I would've liked to see him do more. Of all the magicians, he's the one I would be most interested to see do his own show. 

Both Trent and Hobson were engaging in quasi-Emcee roles, while also doing tricks of their own. A 20-minute trick by Sperry after the intermission was way too long and not correspondingly awe-inspiring enough, but all seven magicians were clearly well-heeled as entertainers, not merely tricksters. 

That said, this magic show was much better for the magic than the show. Despite a stellar live band onstage--called Z--it seemed any consistent excitement was a rather muted and pacing a bit less than ideal. 

If you're one who loves magic--or have kids who do, as several children were in the house and a few cutely
chosen to participate in tricks--The Illusionists - Witness the Impossible provides a rather rare chance to see Vegas-type magical talents in a large Loop venue. (Check HotTix and Goldstar for discounts before springing for full price ducats.)

But whereas a rare recent trip to the ballet, and somewhat infrequent symphony and opera performances, acutely interested me in increasing my exposure to those art forms, as much as I was adequately entertained--and frequently impressed--by The Illusionists, I really can't say it left me longing to anytime soon see what other magicians may have up their sleeve. 

Monday, March 09, 2015

An Illuminating 'Reed' to Never Forget: Survivor Shares Harrowing, Heroic Tale at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

Throughout my life, I have learned about the Holocaust in a variety of ways.

Growing up in Skokie, IL, home to a large number of Holocaust survivors and momentous protests over planned Neo-Nazi marches in the late 1970s, the horrific history was always close at hand.

I specifically remember one Hebrew school teacher--himself a survivor--railing against the marches...35+ years ago.

Parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, rabbis and others have aided my understanding, as have various books, articles and movies, including not only Schindler's List, but--offering a variety of perspectives--The Pianist, The Pawnbroker, Life Is Beautiful, The Counterfeiters, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Defiance, Marathon Man, Ida, Remembrance, The Reader and others.

In addition to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie--whose opening ceremony (for the current building) I attended in 2009 to hear Bill Clinton and Elie Wiesel speak--I've been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the former Oskar Schindler Factory (which is now a museum in Krakow), various other museums & memorials and decimated Jewish Quarters in cities such as Budapest, Prague, Venice and Krakow.

In 2013, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, which I mentioned in my previous blog post, a rave review of The Passenger, an opera concerning the Holocaust that I saw last week at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

I have met a few survivors at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and elsewhere, but other than Wiesel at the Grand Opening--who I heard through a video feed outdoors on a bitterly cold day--I don't recall ever hearing a Holocaust survivor directly relay his or her experience in person. (A few years back, I very much valued hearing the now-deceased Abner Ganet speak at the Glen Ellyn Library from the perspective of a U.S. soldier who helped to liberate Buchenwald--including Elie Wiesel, who had been slated for the gas chamber on the day Ganet’s unit arrived and the camp’s guards fled.)

So despite awaking on Sunday with an inexplicably stiff & sore right leg, I was determined--especially in light of the infinitesimally-minor relative nuisance--not to miss the first of a series of Survivor Talks at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center that will take place on the second Sunday of each month.

And while I imagine every such speaker--most presumably part of the IHMEC's Speakers' Bureau--will be solemnly illuminating about the atrocities they experienced and witnessed, it's hard to envision many being substantively more eloquent and enlightening than Walter Reed.

At 91, Reed--born Werner Rindsberg in Würzburg, Germany--remains remarkably spry and articulate (with virtually no trace of an accent). And, having spent his professional life in PR doing much public speaking, his lecture was nearly as impressive for the acumen with which it was delivered as for the content it conveyed.

Now a resident of Wilmette, Reed spent World War II not in a concentration camp--he noted at the outset of his speech that Holocaust "survivors" have more varied experiences than people presume--but in a Nazi jail (briefly), in a children's refugee colony in Brussels, in a barn in the south of Vichy France, covertly thanks to the Swiss Children's Aid Society at a dilapidated chateau in La Hille near the French/Spanish border, in Brooklyn, within a Tool & Die shop, in the U.S. Army and in Normandy, initially just a week after the D-Day invasion.

This was all before he had turned 21.

Tragically, Reed's parents and two younger brothers died during the Holocaust, and several youths he had befriended in his various hiding places wound up losing their lives in concentration camps, on battlefields or on treacherous routes to seek safety.

Resonantly, he made a point of conveying that the Holocaust shouldn't be thought of as an event that saw 6-1/2 million Jews--and {my note, not his} roughly as many individuals of many other persuasions--killed by the Nazis, but rather that one person was murdered 6-1/2 million times.

Walter Reed as a child in Germany, circled at top left
With apologies for anything I don't get exactly correct, and hopes that Mr. Reed doesn't mind me incorporating photos he used in his presentation--he graciously OK'd me writing about his speech--here is a synopsis of what I learned:

● Though born in Würzburg, Reed--then known as Werner Rindsberg--was raised in a much smaller nearby village.

● His father was a wine merchant, as was his grandfather and many other Jews in the region.

● He had a "happy childhood" and played in local soccer leagues. (Reed is the boy circled at top left in the nearby photo.)

● In 1933, when he was 9, the Nazis came to power; his soccer teammates soon began taunting him as a "dirty Jew" and many would wind up joining the Hitler Youth.

● On November 9-10, 1938, in what would later be known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis destroyed Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues, and arrested approximately 30,000 Jews, who were deported to concentration camps.

● During, or immediately after, Kristallnacht, Walter and his father were grabbed from their family home and put in jail in the nearby town of Kitzingen; Reed was 14 years old at the time.

● Walter was released after 3 days because kids weren't routinely being incarcerated at the time, but his
father was sent to the Dachau concentration camp.

● His father was allowed to return home after 5 months at Dachau, but "looked 20 years older," which Reed credits for his own survival since it conveyed how grim the situation was and that things would only get worse.

The barn near Toulouse, France, where Walter Reed
stayed as part of a children's rescue colony
● As a result of Kristallnacht, England began to let in children refugees, and--though to a lesser and lesser-known extent--so did Belgium, who allowed 800 Jewish kids to enter.

● In June 1939, at 15, Walter was sent by his parents to Brussels as part of a children's rescue program. For reasons he still doesn't truly understand, his 11- and 13-year-old brothers weren't. He never saw them or his parents again.

● After Germany conquered Poland in September 1939, they marched into Brussels 48 hours later. In the time between, approximately 100 children--including Walter--were led out and transported across France, winding up in a barn near Toulouse. The barn still stands today, in almost exactly the same shape, including drawings some girls had made on the walls.

● Although Switzerland was neutral during the war, several young Swiss came to Vichy to run refugee camps. The Swiss Children's Aid Society took over the colony at the barn, and each child was assigned a Swiss godparent with which they would correspond.

● Along with numerous other difficulties--including food rationing, body sores, illness, etc.--the Winter of 1940 in south France was especially brutal; Reed made the analogy to Chicago of 2015.

Walter Reed, third from right in the front row, at the chateau in La Hille, France,
where a smaller group of children were transferred from the barn near Toulouse
● The Swiss caretakers decided to move the kids from the barn to an empty, dilapidated chateau in La Hille, further south near the Spanish border. Walter was one of those sent in advance to help get the chateau in shape.

● In his own words, through a process he didn't really describe, in 1941 Walter Reed "won the lottery big time" by getting a U.S. Immigration Visa.

● He arrived in Brooklyn, still just 17 years old, 90 days prior to Pearl Harbor being attacked.

● He lived in a cramped apartment with relatives of other refugees, became an apprentice Tool & Die maker and attended high school at night, where his English teacher was Bernard Malamud, who whould become famous for writing The Fixer and The Natural.

● He later learned that his parents and brothers had been deported to concentration camps, where they were murdered, shortly after the Nazis' Wannsee Conference in January 1942, which fully implemented "The Final Solution"--i.e. mass deportation and extermination of Jews throughout Europe.

Walter Reed with a close friend who would
perish not long thereafter
● Reed was drafted into the U.S. Army and landed in Normandy a week after the Allied Invasion in June 1944; since he spoke German, he was enlisted to interrogate Nazi POWs.

● Thanks to the heroism--and brave guile--of the Swiss, most of his friends at the chateau were spared the grim fate faced by several other rescue colonies in France, but many of the youths had to precariously cross into Switzerland or Spain, many on foot over the Pyrenees mountains.

● Of the approximately 100 kids who were part of the rescue colony at the barn near Toulouse, only 11 were eventually caught and deported. Still, as Walter showed in photographs, he lost a number of dear friends to the Holocaust and war.

● After the war, Werner Rindsberg changed his name to Walter Reed due to common anti-Semitism in the U.S. at the time, as well as hazing and hate-speech among soldiers in the military against various immigrants and minorities.

● Thanks to the GI Bill, Reed earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri. His career in Public Relations initially entailed extensive travel throughout the United States, but a job with the American Vending Machine industry brought him to the Chicago area in 1958.

● Though long motivated to tell his story due in part to lingering regret over being unable to save his parents or brothers--Reed has been an active part of the Speakers' Bureau since the Holocaust Museum's days in an office block on Main St. in Skokie--he shared that at age 17 he made the mental decision to put the Holocaust behind him as best he could, and not let it destroy his future.

● Even in having lost those closest to him and many others to the death camps, Reed intimated that the 6-10 years he and other Jews were vilified, dehumanized, terrorized and grievously-relocated by the Nazis prior to "The Final Solution" were essentially "worse" than one's last moments before execution.

● At 91, Reed isn't just lucid and articulate, he is animated, amiable and incredibly active. This summer he plans to go hiking and boating on a trip to Belgium with his wife.

● Walter Reed has written a book about the rescue colony at the chateau--which is now a museum--paying tribute to the children, Swiss aid workers and other valiant souls. It is titled The Heroes of La Hille and will be published by Syracuse University Press at a date to be determined.

● There is no connection between this Walter Reed and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. More often in earlier years, his adopted name elicited comments about the Walter Reade theater chain and actor Wallace Reid.

● While given the topic, it sounds odd to say I greatly "enjoyed" his speech, even given the dark remembrances there is much that was life-affirming about Walter Reed and what he shared with a nice-sized crowd on Sunday afternoon. 

● During a Q&A session after his prepared remarks, an audience member praised his heroism, to which Walter Reed remarked:

"I'm not a hero; I'm just an everyday person."

● I begged to differ.

Please do not republish any photographs without seeking permission. All historic photographs are the property of Walter Reed and included without implying custody nor intending infringement upon Mr. Reed or any other parties.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

From Darkest Depths of Inhumanity, Lyric's 'The Passenger' Reaches a Place of Beauty and Light -- Chicago Opera Review

Opera Review

The Passenger
by Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Libretto by Alexander Medvedev
Based on the book by Zofia Posmysz
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Thru March 15 (Perfs 3/9, 12, 15)

In the summer of 2013, I went to Auschwitz.

This was part of a European vacation that saw me spend a wonderful few days in nearby Krakow--as well as London, Vienna, Budapest and Paris--but touring the worst place on Earth was far from a tertiary objective.

I am Jewish, although I am not observant, nor do I have any known relatives who died in the Holocaust--or directly survived it.

And while I grew up in and live in Skokie, which has been home to many Holocaust survivors--a group of whom created the Illinois Holocaust Museum in the village--I have never personally known any.

Yet for whatever confluence of stimuli provided the impetus, I acutely wanted to visit Auschwitz, perhaps to somehow pay respects to those who had perished there, but also to possibly further my sense of understanding--impossible though it may be--and perspective, given how the German concentration camp represents the deepest depravity mankind has ever known.

While, as I wrote here, I actually found the tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau to be less troubling than I imagined--due in part to the rigor marole of being rushed through buildings between other tour groups--seeing collections of victims' shoes, eyeglasses, hair and ashes was certainly devastating, especially as the personal belongings looked essentially familiar to those seen more nowadays.

It reminded me that what happened was--all things considered--rather recent, and many of the victims
similar in age to my own relatives.

Yet despite how harrowing it was to visit such a horrible place, I'm glad I did. 

And I'm also glad I attended--especially with a Lyric Opera discount offer that put me in a seat on the main floor for just $32--a performance of The Passenger, an opera about the Holocaust.

It might sound semantically incredulous to describe such an opera--which features singing in multiple languages--as enjoyable, but along with being challenged, saddened, angered and enlightened, I was genuinely entertained.

I have now seen nearly 50 operas, including many of the most famed and acclaimed--La Bohème, La Traviata, The Magic Flute, Carmen, Aida, The Merry Widow, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Don Giovanni and more--and my de facto comment is usually this:

I appreciate opera as an art form, immensely admire its practitioners and acknowledge its beauty. I have liked most of the operas I've seen, but have rarely loved them or--perhaps more tellingly--have never really "felt" opera as I do a great rock concert or Broadway musical.

Truth be told, I likely struggle with the language barrier posed by most operas--despite English translations being provided on supertitles and my having no problems with foreign films--but despite the musical splendors invariably offered by the likes of Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, et. al., the librettos of "great operas" often tend to be slight, silly, farcical and/or not all that compelling as narrative.

Photo credit: E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune
Thus, despite the unavoidable darkness of The Passenger--albeit intermingled with light and hope--I actually appreciated an opera with rather substantive characters and storytelling.

Based on a novella of the same name by Zofia Posmysz, a still-living non-Jewish Pole who spent 3 years at Auschwitz, the opera composed by Mieczyslaw Weinberg with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev echoes Posmysz' remembrances, albeit with a dramatic twist she had incorporated into her storytelling. (See this Chicago Tribune article by Howard Reich for an excellent account of Posmysz' experiences and the development of The Passenger as an opera.) 

Reversing a real-life episode in which Posmysz feared a casual encounter with an Auschwitz overseer named Annaliese Franz years after the war--it turned out the eerily recognizable voice she heard belonged to someone else--the opera opens its story with a similar scenario, but from the overseer's perspective.

The overseer's real name is kept in the opera, but primarily shortened to Liese (performed by Daveda Karanas). In the early 1960s, Liese is sailing to Brazil with her husband Walter (Brandon Jovanovich), a German diplomat who has been newly stationed there.

On the ship's deck, she sees a veiled woman she believes to be Marta (wonderfully played by Amanda
Majeski), a Polish prisoner who had not only be under her watch at Auschwitz, but whom she thought to have been killed at her command. (Marta is essentially the characterization of Zofia Posmysz, albeit with some fictionalization.)

Utilizing a brilliant design by Johan Engels--created for the opera's 2010 premiere in Austria--which represents the cruise ship on top and Auschwitz underneath, The Passenger proceeds to portray Marta's grim experience in the camp, including unpleasant interactions with Liese, and even graver destinies of many of the women she befriends there, Jewish and otherwise.

While far from upbeat, the death camp scenes aren't as macabre or maudlin as one might presume, as the prisoners' courage, camaraderie, solidarity, support and aplomb is front and center, with arias of conviction and dignity featuring prominently in Weinberg's fine score.

Though lost on my "anything other than English is equally non-understood" ears, a nice touch is how the opera has the inmates sing in their native tongues, including Russian, German, Polish, Yiddish, French and Czech. (I presume Liese & Walter sing in German.)

This was my first encounter with the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. In the 1960s, Weinberg was encouraged to write The Passenger after his friend, famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, had read Pozmysz' novella.

The opera was set to debut in Russia in 1968, but for political reasons, this didn't happen.

As you're hopefully gleaning, the backstory of The Passenger opera is nearly as intriguing as the piece itself, and along with Reich's terrific Tribune story on Posmysz, I'm glad I attended the pre-performance talk conducted by Jesse Gram, the Audience Education Manager for Lyric Unlimited, an entity that aims to widen opera's cultural reach through various initiatives.

It seems quite likely that without the pre-show briefer, the press I read and the synopsis printed in the Lyric program, I may have been rather confused about some of the details transpiring onstage.

For example--while opting to remain somewhat vague--late in Act II, Tadeuz (Joshua Hopkins), an Auschwitz inmate who is Marta's fiance, is ordered by the Commandant to play a piece on violin. Though it should be obvious to classical aficionados of any rank, I well may have missed that Tadeuz played a composition other than requested--and the significance of it.

Photo of author Zofia Posmysz at the Civic Opera House,
by Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Also, while Weinberg's score seemed excellent to me, with some nice variances in sonic styles--including a Greek chorus of sorts singing in English, for which director David Pountney likely deserves considerable credit--even to my untrained ear, this isn't an opera with musical delights on par with Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, Richard Strauss or likely others.

In other words, with relative modernity in terms of style and story, and probably music as well, The Passenger isn't the grandest of operas in the traditional sense.

But I think that's why I liked it so much.

As of this writing, three performances remain, this Monday, Thursday and next Sunday, March 15. Discount tickets have been popping up on HotTix, but you should probably also check the Lyric Opera box office.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Isn't It Bliss: Porchlight's Take on 'Sondheim On Sondheim' is Ever the Genius' Tale to Attend -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sondheim on Sondheim
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru March 15

Not only is Stephen Sondheim--in my estimation but also many others'--the greatest composer/lyricist in musical theater history, he is also the most eloquent and insightful artist I've ever heard discuss their creative process.

Thus, over roughly the past 15 years--I often consider my embracing of Sondheim musicals as the demarcation of my adulthood, even though I was past 30 at the time--I have not only seen numerous productions of most of his shows, but I have greatly enjoyed hearing him speak.

I had this pleasure twice at Ravinia, where Sondheim spoke in the Martin Theatre before wondrous concert productions of Passion in 2003 and Anyone Can Whistle in 2005--and likely on other occasions I didn't witness--and in ticketed downtown Chicago conversations, with director Gary Griffin in 2010 and with Tribune theater critic Chris Jones in 2011.

Sondheim's artistic articulateness is also amply illustrated in HBO's excellent 2013 Six by Sondheim documentary, which I just watched again the other day.

And I also love perusing the twin compendiums, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, in which Sondheim provides detailed notes about each of his shows and song lyrics.

So while it would seem a no-brainer that I would relish Sondheim on Sondheim, a show conceived by longtime collaborator James Lapine that features several standout songs accompanied by video of Sondheim providing musical and/or biographical anecdotes, I was pleasantly surprised by how much it amplified my understanding of its subject.

Sure, I had heard many of the same stories--about how the great Oscar Hammerstein became Sondheim's mentor during childhood, about Sondheim not wanting to write only lyrics (rather than the music as well) for both West Side Story and Gypsy but being persuaded to do so, etc., etc.--through various other forums, not to mention most of the songs within their natural habitats, yet I found Porchlight Music Theatre's Chicago premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim a complete delight.

And newly and truly insightful as well.

Sondheim on Sondheim is especially poignant in portraying how the composer/lyricist's sour relationship with his mother, including a particularly grievous comment she made late in her life, worked its way into his art, most notably through Into the Woods and songs such as "Children Will Listen."

Hence, though musical revues and tribute concert performances can often be delightful simply due to the abundance of wonderful songs--and I've seen fine showcases of Sondheim, Rogers & Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber and others--as presented here under the direction of Nick Bowling, Sondheim on Sondheim is also an illuminating piece of theater.

Though the music is obviously different, it feels more akin to Jersey Boys--a first-rate musical biography of the Four Seasons--than merely a superb selection of songs well-sung.

Which isn't to imply that the songs themselves, and the excellent performances by a mostly non-Equity Chicago cast, isn't still the primary reason to see and love Sondheim by Sondheim.

At the literal center of Porchlight's superb Stage 773-housed production of a show that got mixed reviews on Broadway when it premiered in 2010 is pianist Austin Cook, who looks suitably like a mid-career Sondheim and plays beautifully.

With Cook representing Sondheim more than ever portraying him, the basic staging conceit reflects the age-old tradition of a Broadway tunesmith entertaining guests within a home setting.

As Sondheim is niftily projected onto various sections above the stage, the 8-member cast makes terrific use of the space and often loosely acts out scenes from which songs originated.

This doesn't simply add entertainment value, but reflects that Sondheim wrote almost entirely for characters and scenarios a librettist had developed, rather than creating songs out of thin air, simply for their own sake.

Each performer within the diverse and perfectly-cast ensemble--Emily Berman, Rebecca Finnegan, Amelia Hefferon, James Earl Jones II, Matthew Keffer, Yando Lopez, Stephen Rader, Adrienne Walker--has ample opportunities to embody characters from Sondheim shows and expertly sing to Cook's accompaniment, whether alone, in pairs, among larger groups or all together.

I could easily name 20+ songs that were scintillating, including the choral "Sunday," Keffer's exquisite "Finishing the Hat," Lopez & Berman alternating then dueting on the beautiful ballads "Losing My Mind"/"Not a Day Goes By" and Finnegan & Jones delivering a super "Send in the Clowns," which Sondheim noted as his only hit single, one that hit the charts via Judy Collins two years after Frank Sinatra recorded it following inclusion in A Little Night Music.

I've now learned that James Earl Jones II is not the son of the famed actor but rather a third cousin, yet he has a similarly resonant--if not quite as deep--voice and I particularly enjoyed his renditions of various roles, including imbuing Merrily We Roll Along's Franklin Shepard with haughty humor (alongside Rader) and Passion's Giorgio with a believable pathos, although Walker undoubtedly made for a much lovelier Fosca than the character Sondheim described with numerous cackle-inducing adjectives.

My guess is that this is a show that will largely be attended by Sondheim devotees, of which there are many, although not nearly as many as there should be.

Yet while almost anywhere is a good place to start with Sondheim, or to further your appreciation--including the recent Into the Woods movie, a library DVD of Sunday in the Park with George, Drury Lane Oakbrook's excellent current staging of West Side Story or the Six by Sondheim documentary, still available on HBO On-Demand--I emphatically recommend Sondheim on Sondheim for acolytes and neophytes alike.

Congruent with my common prattling on about the therapeutic importance of cultural enlightenment, Sondheim is shown speaking about how his life, career and success were largely fueled by role models (especially Hammerstein), teachers, contemporaries and creative collaborators, making--along with other verbal insights and much else--this a show I wish everyone could and would see, including those who have never heard of and/or cared about the turning-85-this-month living legend.

And though many of the same video clips, and thus stories--including a great one about a potty-mouthed Ethel Merman--can be seen/heard in Six by Sondheim, not only do the musical performances overall make Sondheim on Sondheim an utterly mirthful Porchlight delight, Sondheim-o-philes should revel in the rarities.

The show's songlist includes the first song Sondheim ever wrote in a musical theater vein, a tune from his failed first musical, Saturday Night, songs cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies and Company, and "God," a quirky new song accompanied by a cute video clip put together for his pal Lapine's tribute to him.

As I lather praise on Sondheim on Sondheim, and the genius that it's about, it isn't lost on me that I likely love this show more than perhaps anyone who might read this.

I would say that if my review inspires just a single person to see the show--currently slated to end on March 15, with discounts to some performances possible on HotTix and/or Goldstar--it would be worth the few hours I've spent writing it.

But the truth is, it's worth it already.

As Mr. Sondheim notes at one point during the show, "Everybody has troubles, nobody goes through life unscathed.

"But I do believe in the joy of life."

His work, and his wisdom, are joys that I am glad to have come to know in my life.

And Porchlight's remarkable production of Sondheim on Sondheim only adds to it.

Appreciably, in every sense of the word.

"So many people in the world
Don't know what they've missed
They'd never believe
Such joy could exist"

-- Stephen Sondheim
"So Many People," Saturday Night, 1954


Despite the length of this review, I haven't really elaborated on why I so admire Sondheim's work, and having written about him & his shows numerous times, I won't delve into it trying to explain it here.

But I thought the following remark made by host David Hyde Pierce--on behalf of actors specifically, but also just fans--during Sondheim 80th Birthday Concert in 2010 (excellent and available on DVD & Blu-ray) is a pretty good summation:

"We owe him so much for giving us roles and songs and shows that have complexity, sophistication, beauty and wit."


Below is a Spotify Playlist of some of my favorite songs written by Stephen Sondheim. That only 5 of them are included in Sondheim on Sondheim says a lot of the quality of his output.