Friday, May 29, 2015

My 100 Favorite Cities on Earth, from a Tourist Perspective (of those seen so far)

Perhaps seeking some transcontinental inspiration, my sister Allison recently asked if I had written any blog posts ranking the favorite cities I've visited worldwide.

I cited such a post during a "Best of the Decade" blitz that jump started this blog--after years of dormancy--at the end of 2009.

My Favorite Cities Visited in the '00s listed my top U.S. and global cities separately, and related posts covered favorite museums and simply my favorite sights seen.

Over the past 5-1/2 years, I've been to some incredible places that would augment such lists.

But as challenging--and clearly imperfect--as it may be to compare regional U.S. cities with European capitals, to recall places I went to in the 1990s with acuity to match those I may have visited multiple times in recent years and to figure out where my hometown of Chicago should rank as a tourist destination, I've decided just to do a Top 50 ranking of cities I've most enjoyed as a tourist.

Splitting hairs as it may be, this is a "My Favorite" list, which may not be the same as a "The Best" list, even if drafted by me. Only covering cities I've visited and not those I may want to, my rankings factor in such aspects as tourist attractions, visual appeal, architecture, dining, etc., but also things I'm particularly partial to, such as theater, art museums and baseball stadiums.

Unlike many, including Allison, my travel proclivity is for visiting big cities, rather than beach resorts, quaint small towns or places of natural beauty, and thus this is a list of tourism-rich cities that doesn't include such scenic marvels I've enjoyed such as the Grand Canyon, Petra, Bryce Canyon, the Cliffs of Moher, etc., unless the scenery is in or rather near the city itself (such as the Great Pyramids of Giza in Cairo).

So take it with a grain of salt, and factor in your own preferences in using this as any sort of guide, but based both on my experiences and trying to consider each destination from the standpoint of a first-time visitor, here are:

My 100 Favorite Tourist Cities (of those I've visited)
Hyperlinks to travel guides, recaps or travelogues I've written

1. London (guide)
2. New York
3. Florence
4. Paris (recap) 
5. Venice
6. Chicago (guide) 
7. Krakow (recap) 
8. Barcelona
9. Rome 
10. Bilbao (Spain)

11. Vienna (recap) 
12. Washington, D.C. (guide) 
13. Buenos Aires (travelogue) 
14. Philadelphia
15. New Orleans
16. San Francisco (guide) 
17. Mexico City (travelogue) 
18. Budapest (travelogue) 
19. Rio de Janeiro (travelogue) 
20. Prague (part of this photoverview) 

21. Amsterdam
22. Boston
23. Cairo (travelogue) 
24. Dublin
25. Pisa
26. Liverpool
27. St. Petersburg (Russia) (travelogue) 
28. Melbourne (Australia)
29. Montreal
30. Siena (Italy)

31. Toronto
32. Seattle
33. Sydney
34. Toledo (Spain)
35. Denver
36. Pittsburgh
37. Stockholm 
38. Nashville
39. San Antonio
40. Helsinki

41. Memphis, TN
42. Madrid
43. Jerusalem
44. Copenhagen
45. Kansas City 
46. Austin 
47. Brussels 
48. Tel Aviv
49. Los Angeles
50. Detroit (guide)

51. Milwaukee
52. Las Vegas
53. Grand Rapids (guide)
54. Santa Fe
55. Vancouver

56. Cleveland
57. Louisville

58. Safed (Israel)

59. San Diego
60. Mason City/Clear Lake, IA

61. Indianapolis

Minneapolis/St. Paul
63. Phoenix/Scottsdale
64. Kilkenney (Ireland)
65. Victoria, BC

66. Niagara Falls

67. Dayton
68. Eilat (Israel)
69. St. Louis
Miami/Miami Beach

71. Springfield, IL
72. Atlanta
73. Oklahoma City 
74. Toledo, OH
75. Hannibal, MO
76. Cincinnati
77. Tulsa
78. Taos, NM
79. Dallas
80. Lake Havasu City, AZ

81. Cooperstown, NY
82. Cairns (Australia)
83. Albuquerque
84. Madison, WI
85. Rapid City, SD
86. Baltimore

87. Buffalo
88. Columbus, IN
89. Columbus, OH

90. Houston

91. Des Moines
92. Champaign/Urbana 
93. Ojai, CA
94. Tijuana
95. Atlantic City
96. Lake Geneva, WI
97. Daytona Beach, FL
98. Canton, OH
99. Green Bay
100. Branson, MO

(Note: List adjusted slightly on August 7, 2015 after trip to Miami; Santa Fe had mistakenly been listed twice so Miami was easily added with little re-slotting. Key West would also merit inclusion from #61-100, but I didn't wish to rearrange the prior rankings.)  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Signing Onto the Program: Spotlighting My Collection of Autographed Playbills

Les Miserables, Touring Cast, November 2012
Megalomaniacal as it assuredly sounds, I used to fantasize--facetiously, of course--about one day opening The Seth Museum.

This vast repository would display various creations I've made over the years--pun cartoon calendars, poetry, paintings, photography, photography books, greeting cards, music compilations, professional ads, blog posts and more.

Accompanying a library of CDs, DVDs, books and magazines I've collected over the years, The Seth Museum would also showcase to its plethora of visitors my vast stashes of shot glasses, ties, t-shirts, commemorative stamp panes, artworks, travel souvenirs, knickknacks, worldwide subway tickets, refrigerator magnets, ticket stubs, Playbills and a variety of autographed memorabilia.

This includes hundreds of autographed photos, as well as signed baseballs, books, CDs, Playbills and even a harmonica.

Now, with much of this and other junk cluttering my one bedroom condo, you may wonder why I'd need a museum.

Why not just invite people over? 

Which I actually do, with gatherings of friends and relatives multiple times per year. But while some of the stuff is quite visible, and much else viewable to anyone who wishes to look a bit deeper, a lot of things are within binders on shelves, put away in drawers, gathering dust in my storage locker (and mom's crawlspace), etc.

Accepting that there likely won't ever be a Seth Museum, I've decided to occasionally highlight some of my collections in blog posts.

Back in January I exhibited a good swath of my 300+ neckties, and having had to take hundreds of shot glasses off a bookcase when a cable guy needed to get behind it, I took photos in putting them back, so you'll one day have that beguiling blog post to look forward to.

Rent 2009 tour cast, including original
Broadway cast members Anthony Rapp
and Adam Pascal.
But having recently added to my collection of signed Playbills (and other theater programs), I thought I would post a number of those.

I actually don't actively collect signed Playbills, in terms of seeking out vintage and random cool ones on Ebay, or even regularly trying to gather autographs at the stage door of the dozens of plays, musicals and other performances I see each year.

But all of my autographed programs--a good majority of which are shown below; i.e. it's not that large a collection, contained in one 3-ring binder--represent shows I've seen, and are typically signed by rather notable performers that I've waited for at stage doors, requested & received by mail and in a few cases purchased on Ebay.

A few, like the two shown at top, are from cast ensembles, usually purchased to support Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a great charitable effort that most Broadway and touring productions participate in during a designated period each year.

So, saving us both the time and expense of a walkable Seth Museum, here is a good smattering of my signed Playbills (plus a few signed tickets that I had autographed instead of or in addition to programs). 

Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and others
from the The Producers,
Original Broadway Cast, 2001
Signed on the stage of the Shubert Theatre, 2003
Denzel Washington, Julius Caesar, Broadway, 2005.
Signed in person. See end of this article for cool story.
Billy Crystal, 700 Sundays, Broadway, 2005. Signed in person.
Chita Rivera, Antonio Banderas, Jane Krakowski
Nine - Broadway, 2003 - Signed in person.
I also have another program signed just by Chita.

Chita Rivera, George Hearn, Marc Jacoby.
The Visit, Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
2008 - Signed in person

Chita Rivera, Roger Rees, Mary Beth Peil
and cast of The Visit, Broadway, 2015

Hugh Jackman, The Boy from Oz, Broadway
2004. Signed in person.
Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, A Steady Rain.
Broadway, 2009. I also have a program signed
by the show's writer, Keith Huff.

John Lithgow, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,
Broadway, 2005. Signed in person.
I also have another Playbill signed by
3 other stars, including Norbert Leo Butz.
Diane Lane, Sweet Bird of Youth,
Goodman Theatre, Chicago. 2012.

John Tartaglia, Rick Lyon, Jennifer Barnhart.
Avenue Q, Original Broadway Cast, 2004.
Signed in person.

Josefina Scaglione, Karen Olivo. West Side Story.
Broadway, 2009. Signed in person.
Photo with Josefina.
Carey Mulligan, Skylight, Broadway, 2015
Patti LuPone, Gypsy, Broadway, 2008.
Alan Cumming, Sienna Miller and closing cast of Cabaret, Broadway, 2015.

Jessie Mueller, Sarah Siddons Society Gala.
Signed in person.
Program for Hunchback of Notre Dame,
Bailiwick Theatre, Chicago, 2008.
Signed by Dennis DeYoung, show composer,
lyricist and book writer. Signed in person.

Laura Osnes and Steven Pasquale, Carousel, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2015.
Sutton Foster, Thoroughly Modern Millie, 2003 and The Drowsy Chaperone, 2007
Laura Bell Bundy, Legally Blonde, Broadway, 2008.
Jeff Perry, Alan Wilder, Tim Hopper, Jim True-Frost,
Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble Members. Signed in person, 2006.
Stephen Sondheim, signed script book, Sunday in the Park with George.
Was sold at souvenir stand of 2008 Broadway Revival.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Admirable 'Shining Lives' Chronicles Toxic History, Tunefully, at Northlight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Shining Lives
a world premiere musical
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 14

Cursory consideration might suggest most musicals are upbeat, perhaps even trifling, affairs, but several of the greatest works of musical theater ever created involve rather tragic circumstances: Cabaret, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Misérables, Carousel, Evita, Rent and more.

So although it might sound a bit odd to note a new musical that chronicles a terrible true story about women who contracted terminal illnesses from the radium used in painting numbers on watches and clocks, it is admirable if not altogether extraordinary that writer/lyricist/director Jessica Thebus, composers Andre Pluess & Amanda Dehnert and an excellent cast have turned Shining Lives into a touching and tuneful chamber musical to close out Northlight Theatre's 40th season.

Back in the 1920s, Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, IL, boasted about the luminescent shine radium-based paint brought to watches and clocks, including a brand called Westclox.

If the world premiere musical is to be believed--Thebus adapted it from the play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich--the predominantly female factory workforce at Radium Dial was comparatively well-paid, gratified by their still relatively-rare employment (and resulting empowerment), proud of their handiwork and cherishing of the camaraderie with their co-workers.

Unfortunately--and the mostly-engaging musical would be better served by digging deeper into questions of corporate complicity--several of the workers would die prematurely as a result of radium poisoning while company doctors and execs dismissed or downplayed any correlation between the work being performed, crippling pain and deadly diseases.

Given what I've just shared, including where the show falls a bit short, one could likely imagine what takes place on stage, beginning with a young married woman named Catherine Donahue (played by Johanna McKenzie Miller) getting a job at Radium Dial.

Accompanied by quality songs whose titles are not provided in the program, Catherine faces skepticism from her husband Tom (Alex Goodrich) and meets, with varying degrees of initial acceptance, a trio of co-workers who demonstrate how to dab the paintbrush on one's lips, dip it into the radium powder and delicately paint the timepiece numbers.

With few ominous overtones beyond the historical information provided in the program, the first half of the 90-minute one-act show largely focuses on the friendship and sense of freedom enjoyed by the quartet of colleagues, all perfectly cast under Thebus' direction.

As the years tick by from 1921 to 1929, the kinship grows among the initially dubious Catherine--well-sung and believably embodied by Miller--and the brash Charlotte (Bri Sudia), apprehensive Frances (Jess Godwin) and always-ready-with-a-hokey-joke Pearl (Tiffany Topol).

With songs presumably called "Lip, Dip, Paint," "Things That Shine" and "Flying Away"--or something akin--it's pleasurable seeing the interaction among the four nicely-drawn characters, leading up to something of a liberation-from-expectation scene as the women enjoy a "perfect" day at the beach.

It is only then that Shining Lives takes the sharp turn audience members--at least those who read the background material--know is coming, as the women start noticing odd ailments, are told by the company doctor just to take aspirin, get fired, become sicker, take legal action and eventually lose their lives.

Pluess and Dehnert's pleasant songs are played onstage by a single pianist, Chuck Larkin, occasionally accompanied by male cast members (Goodrich, Erik Hellman and Matt Mueller) on acoustic guitar.

As such, Shining Lives is a chamber musical, not a large scale production that compares sonically or visually to the other tragic musical tales noted at top.

That said, I feel Cabaret is one of the best musicals ever written due to the way the foreboding sense of gloom, in light of the impending rise of the Nazis, is always present. As lively showtunes are performed with gusto, there is always a seething anger underneath.

Though Shining Lives is never less than entertaining while being poignant, touching and ultimately tragic, if anything it is a bit too pleasant, for way too long.

As with all of her vocals, Miller does an excellent job on a late-show song of dogged defiance, perhaps titled "Quiet," and the executives of Radium Dial--distilled into a single manager-type played by Matt Mueller, who oddly also enacts the women's lawyer, Leonard Grossman--are eventually villainized to a degree, but sheer outrage and indignation are never quite pronounced enough, the accusations far short of acutely pointed.

As shared in Northlight's background material, in real-life Donahue eventually won her case against Radium Dial, but only after her death and that of several other co-workers, and following years of vilification by the company, community and press.

So those of us who have tired of the "rich and powerful crushing the common folk" storyline--past, present and future--certainly couldn't be blamed for exiting Shining Lives with a sense that nothing much has changed.

Still, the courage and conviction of women like Catherine Donahue and her colleagues at Radium Dial did prompt changes in workplace safety laws.

That is admirable, and the worthwhile musical properly applauds their sacrifice and gumption, while celebrating not only camaraderie but commiseration and conviction.

Yet as all too often seems to happen, Thebus' narrative never really takes the culprits to task; who in the company knew the dangers of radium, and when, and how & why the repercussions were dismissed and then covered up, is left all too shadowy.

Which should be taken as a criticism, but not condemnation, of a new musical I admired, enjoyed and recommend to those looking for something fresh offering important historical perspective.

Powered by excellent performances, most of Shining Lives is rather pleasurable.

Perhaps even at some times when it should engender true rage, rather than more mutedly rueful chagrin.

For it's not only the noble that merit the shining of a light.

Even in a musical.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Think Judas Priest Too Old to Prove Their Metal? You've Got Another Thing Coming -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Judas Priest
w/ opening act Saxon
Rosemont Theatre
May 21, 2015

There are several acts I now realize I should have seen while in high school, including U2, R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, The Replacements and Talking Heads.

I would first see U2 just days after my graduation in 1986, R.E.M. just a few months later and both numerous times since.

I've also now seen The Replacements multiple times--including just a month ago--plus their lead singer and songwriter, Paul Westerberg, a few more times.

Due to their splintering in 1987 or 1988, I've only seen Hüsker Dü and Talking Heads represented by their singers/songwriters, Bob Mould & Grant Hart and David Byrne.  

But there was also a band I actively wanted to see while in high school, and theoretically had a chance to, but didn't.

And never would, or even again much wish to, as my fandom and interest subsequently waned.

Judas Priest.

Well, that omission has now been corrected, as after months of waffling on whether it would be worthwhile, I bought an inexpensive ticket to their show Thursday night at a nearly full but not sold-out Rosemont Theatre.

I'm glad I did, as the "Metal Gods" proved they could still pack a punch, even as most of their members are now well into their 60s (or recent replacements, as in the case of guitarist Richie Faulkner taking the spot long held by K.K. Downing).

Lead singer Rob Halford, who was out of the band for a stretch but back in front for a dozen years now, still sings as powerfully as I might have hoped in 1984. 

Although I liked Judas Priest back in high school, it was primarily through their relatively few radio hits like "Living After Midnight," "Breaking the Law" "Hell Bent for Leather" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming."

Beyond a greatest hits album I've rarely listened to, I've never dug deep in their catalog, and despite reading good things about their 2014 album, Redeemer of Souls, I can't say I had done more than check it out once or twice on Spotify.

The sparsity of songs I recognized on their recent setlists, which have been resolutely exact despite a vast catalog, was actually a big part why I remained lukewarm about going, despite some initial interest when I heard about the Rosemont show.

After my friend Jim Ryan, who runs the Chicago at Night music blog, posted a Facebook link to an interview he did with Judas Priest founding bassist Ian Hill that ran in the Daily Herald, my interest was peaked enough to find an under-face value balcony seat on StubHub.

A few days of fervent Spotifamiliarizing myself with the setlisted tunes made most of what I heard at the rather sterile Rosemont Theatre pretty recognizable, including early gems like "Metal Gods," "Love Bites," "Turbo Lover" and "Jawbreaker"--all triggering a bit of faded recollect--and new album songs "Dragonaut," "Halls of Valhalla" and "Redeemer of Souls." (See the Judas Priest Rosemont Theatre setlist on

But until the four quasi "hits" I mentioned above, along with "Electric Eye" and "Painkiller," made for a blistering sextet to close out the 105-minute show, I was more satisfactorily entertained than truly blown away.

Halford and other band members made some gracious remarks about Chicago always being quite welcoming over the band's long history, but perhaps because all the songs were inextricably tied to complex lighting and video cues, the show felt a bit too "by the numbers" for my tastes.

I expect that much more devout Judas Priest fans might wince at this, and it's my hope they enjoyed the entire concert more fervently than I did.

They can further deride me as a meatless metalhead when I admit that until I looked up Saxon on Wikipedia during their performance, I didn't realize that the opening act was a legitimately respected, influential and popular British metal band dating back to the mid-'70s--à la Judas Priest, with whom they first toured in 1980--and not a preening L.A. hair-metal band from the '80s.

As such, I was thoroughly surprised and impressed by Saxon, as long gray tressed lead singer Biff Byford and company blasted through songs such as "Power and the Glory," "Wheels of Steel," "Princess of the Night" and set-closing "Heavy Metal Thunder" to a rapturously receptive crowd.

Intimated by my opening paragraphs above, heavy metal has never been my sole, or even predominant musical taste--beyond the acts I didn't see in high school, I did catch The Kinks, Cheap Trick, Bruce Springsteen, Yes, Phil Collins, ZZ Top and John Cougar Mellencamp, though also Deep Purple, Ozzy Osbourne, Rush, Van Halen, Scorpions and, less proudly, Ratt--and metal marks an even smaller percentage of my concert mix now.

So rare as it may be, it was undeniably enjoyable to do a bit of latter-day headbanging, as both Judas Priest and Saxon aptly demonstrated that they not only were--but still are--extremely potent paragons of heavy metal power (chords).

My inner Beavis & Butthead gleefully fist-pumped, air guitared and screamed along during "Breaking the Law," "You've Got Another Thing Coming" and the show-closing "Livin' After Midnight."

And though in meeting up with Jim Ryan between Saxon and Judas Priest I joked that the crowd felt like a high school reunion full of people who wouldn't attend a high school reunion, I was speaking with admiration and self-identification. (Even if I was never part of the "smoking in the parking lot" crowd in high school, nor have ever had long hair, I still unabashedly love my black concert t-shirts).

It's certainly likely that I didn't love Judas Priest quite as much as some other concerts--including 6 within the past month--in part because my fandom and familiarity were a bit lesser going in.

Coming out, I was definitely glad I decided to go, as both the headliner and opening act made for 2-1/2 hours of loudly delectable heavy metal. Devoid of the cheesiness of hair metal, Judas Priest's (and Saxon's) British Steel remains rock solid.

But the very best concerts I see, including some by acts with whom I'm not thoroughly well-versed--such as a remarkable recent gig by Manic Street Preachers--make me actively want to see them again, sometimes almost immediately.

While I'm glad to have finally seen Judas Priest in concert, 30+ years since I initially wanted to, I think once may be sufficient.

But if you think that means that they're no longer the "Metal Gods" of their--and my--youth, well, "You've Got Another Thing Coming."

Here's a snippet I shot of the latter song: 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dave's of Our Lives: Reflecting on David Letterman's Retirement and Other Rued Endings

Later tonight--though already taped as I type--David Letterman will say good night to a brilliant run on late-night television stretching 33 years--initially on NBC and since 1993 on CBS.

If Variety is to be believed, when he signs off for good, the Indianapolis native will have presided over 6,028 broadcasts.

During Dave's time on the air, there has been no late night host I've liked more--save perhaps Johnny Carson at his best, and his Tonight Show was never on opposite Letterman--nor watched as often.

I exponentially preferred Letterman to Jay Leno, and attending a taping of The Late Show on January 25, 2007--an episode celebrating 25 years of Dave in late night, with frequent guest Bill Murray--is something I'll never forget. (As it was right before the Bears played Dave's hometown Colts in Super Bowl XLI, I submitted my own Top 10 List that I assume was roundly ignored.)

So it is not being disingenuous to say that I truly like David Letterman, his ingenuity, his irreverence, his wry monologues, his Top 10 lists, his patter with Paul Shaffer, his oft-bemused interviews, his taste in musical guests and his consistent presence.

And that I will miss him.

With the caveat that I didn't really watch him all that often.

Though I routinely enjoyed the shows I did catch, tuning into Letterman--whether at 11:30pm Central or 10:30pm since August '93--never really became habitual, at least not until the past month or so. 

And of 6,028 broadcasts, I would guesstimate that I've seen no more than 300 full shows, if that.

Yes, that's less than 5%.

Of course, since the advent of the internet and online video, I've also seen a good number of clips of Top 10 lists, newsworthy interviews and cherished or heralded musical guests.

But even if we're talking simply parts of shows, I'm guessing my intake has still been considerably less than 10% of Letterman's Late Night/Late Show output.

This relative sparsity has never been due to dislike, active disinterest, the late hour (especially after Dave moved to CBS and 10:30 Central) or preferring competitive programming with any consistency.

It would be too blanket a statement to say I haven't frequently cared about Dave's guests or whatever they were promoting--especially as part of his charm is that he often, quite obviously, didn't either--but for one reason or other, I only tuned in rather sporadically.

So while I will definitely miss having the option to watch The Late Show with David Letterman, and perhaps hearing about it the next morning, I can't forthrightly suggest my life will be acutely altered or my day-to-day enjoyment actively much diminished.

Incidentally, I have similar feelings about Jon Stewart, who will be exiting as host of The Daily Show on August 6. I think Stewart is brilliant, hilarious and almost universally "right on!" and have greatly relished each time I have caught him on the 10pm (Central) broadcast--or more often, snippets posted to Facebook the next day.

But he's been on The Daily Show for 4 nights per week since early 1999, and I've maybe seen 50 full episodes--which is again probably an overestimate.

I realize I may sound like a lummox who doesn't support the things I like, or just is lackadaisical about liking anything with a passion.

Hopefully those who peruse this blog with any frequency believe otherwise, but to share that since 1999 I've likely seen Bruce Springsteen live in concert--involving in places like New Jersey, London, St. Louis, Detroit, Columbus, etc.--more times than I've tuned into Jon Stewart from the comfort of my bed doesn't really abet my rebuttal.

Nor will my admission that I never really "got into"--beyond watching a handful of episodes each--universally acclaimed TV series that many hold sacrosanct, including The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

But I really do love entertainment and culture and television and those increasingly rare creations and artists and personalities that unite us in the ever-more-fractionalized "zeitgeist."

Like David Letterman.

And Jon Stewart for that matter.

Still, while I often write--or just verbally kvetch--about the seeming erosion of transcendent artistry that bridges demographics and provides common touchstones to the masses, I find myself pretty accepting when a treasured performer or practitioner decides to call it a day.

As George Harrison sang on the title song of the 1970 album he released in the wake of the Beatles' breakup, "all things must pass." And maybe I'm a "glass half full" kind of guy, but I find it better to appreciate what's been given than bemoan what's been taken away.

Or, looping into these thoughts on retirement the far grimmer finality of death--and gauchely quoting myself--"weep for all that's been lost, smile for all that's been gained" is a philosophy I try to espouse, especially when the deceased has clearly lived a long, estimable and memorable life.

Bringing this back to being strictly about retirement, I also admire when people are able to go out on their own terms. This was the gist of an article I wrote when Doug Sohn announced he would close his inordinately popular Chicago sausage emporium, Hot Doug's, last year. (Incidentally, though Hot Doug's has arisen in 2015 for two temporal special events, I haven't been interested in partaking, partly in the name of letting the past stay past.)

So in the same vein, I'm glad Dave is heading off into the sunset, whether to devote more time to his son Harry, become a competitive cliff diver or to pursue anything else he may wish to do.

Thank you, David Letterman, for all the years and all the laughs.

Even when I wasn't watching.  

There are articles galore about Letterman's denouement, but two I recommend are Paste's compilation of 25 Top Musical Moments from his shows and this Salon interview with R.E.M. Mike Mills, who memorably performed on the show and publicly broke the news of Dave's retirement.

Inspired by David Letterman, here is my list of the...

Top 10 Retirements and Other Endings I've Most Rued (Not Including Deaths)

Unlike the Late Show's Top 10s, this list isn't meant to be humorous, but rather to recall the artists and creations I've truly missed after they came to an end. This won't include reference to anyone I've known personally nor endings due to death (e.g. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Nirvana).

Citations include only people/things that I've acutely enjoyed in real-time during my lifetime, and which have ceased to exist, typically due to retirements, though in some cases because of breakups or cancellations.

And while I miss all of the following--notwithstanding reruns, YouTube, recordings, etc.--it may not quite be accurate to say I've "rued" their endings. This isn't just because of the outlook I cited a few paragraphs up, but because their "time" had appropriately run its course. (This logic is why I don't mind leaving off R.E.M., The Kinks, Cheers, etc.) 

10. Johnny Carson
9. Hot Doug's
8. Beavis & Butthead
7. Tower Records (and all large record stores)
6. The Replacements (though they've kinda come back) 
5. Seinfeld
4. Steve Dahl & Garry Meier as a radio duo
3. Michael Jordan, retirements #2, 1 & 3 in order
2. The Far Side - Gary Larsen 
1. Calvin & Hobbes - Bill Watterson

I obviously look forward to watching the last Late Show with David Letterman in less than 3 hours--with appreciation and wistfulness but not too much chagrin. Though the guest list hasn't been officially shared, it's been revealed that the Foo Fighters will be the last musical act, fitting as Dave loves them and had them play on the show following his return from heart surgery in 2000.

But as I'm all about the Boss, and as Bruce Springsteen was Letterman's hand-picked "most wanted guest" for his last NBC show in 1993, I'll end this with my favorite song about leaving the past behind...and looking forward. (From a concert I attended, to boot.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Goodman Production of 'The Little Foxes' Provides a Solid, If Not Especially Sly, Introduction to a Classic -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Little Foxes
a play by Lillian Hellman
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 7

Except for one lower-level Introduction to Theater college course nearly 30 years ago, I've never had any formal education to accompany, abet or amplify my theatergoing experience.

Thus in becoming something of an aficionado over the past 15 years, in addition to attending numerous musicals and contemporary plays, I've made some attempt to indoctrinate myself to many classic works and writers.

This has included seeing multiple plays each by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson and other playwriting legends, as well as Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Awake and Sing by Clifford Odets and Our Town by Thornton Wilder, among other canonical works. 

Although Lillian Hellman is seemingly of a stature to fit among those storied names, I've only now seen two of her plays, with the first--which was her first, 1934's The Children's Hour--coming just last year, after never having noted earlier opportunities.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
I greatly enjoyed that play, in part because of a terrific performance by a friend and others in the cast of a rather intimate production, but also because in revolving around two schoolteachers who are accused of lesbianism by a malicious student, it felt quite topical, even contemporary, 80 years after it was written.

I had similar hopes for The Little Foxes, seemingly Hellman's quintessential work, which is now being staged at Chicago's Goodman Theatre under the direction of Henry Wishcamper.

As part of my subscription series, the play--written in 1939, set in 1900--was worth my time, even in clocking in at a hefty 2:45 including 2 intermissions.

Particularly after having seen The Children's Hour, I was glad to expand my familiarity with Hellman. And as enacted by a fine cast within an exquisite set design by Todd Rosenthal encompassing the interior of a Southern mansion, the writer's tale of greed, heartlessness, manipulation, contrivance, malevolence, misogyny and worse--within the confines of a single family--certainly didn't feel entirely unfamiliar in 2015.

Shannon Cochran stars as Regina Giddens and seems to well-handle a role embodied by such luminaries as Talullah Bankhead (who originated it on Broadway), Bette Davis (who starred in the 1941 movie), Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing.

Regina is the wife of the infirm but genteel Horace Giddens (John Judd), mother of Alexandra (Rae Gray) and sister of her neighboring brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard (Larry Yando, Steve Pickering, both terrific), the latter married to Birdie (Mary Beth Fisher), with Leo (Dan Waller) being their son.

The Hubbard siblings, including Regina, are essentially a trio of rich assholes, who act atrociously to all around them--including each other--as they scheme to get richer through a lucrative business deal for which they need Horace's participation. Such hasn't been forthcoming, in part because Horace has been hospitalized at Johns Hopkins for months due to a grave heart condition, but he's eventually cajoled to return home.

On both a macro and micro level, the dexterity of Hellman's writing is apparent, with her scorn for avarice consistent with the leftist political leanings for which she would become well-known.

Yet while I applaud the underlying themes of The Little Foxes--whose title comes from a line in the Bible; see Wikipedia for details--and found the acting at Goodman to be typically first-rate, I appreciated the play mostly on an academic awareness level and would recommend it primarily to those seeking likewise, rather than truly riveting 21st century entertainment superior to myriad other local options.

For all of the drama's fine points, it essentially takes the better part of three hours to convey the notion that treating others like crap--from one's kin onward--is not only deplorable but ultimately non-fulfilling. 

And while it's a pleasure to watch Cochran, Pickering and especially Yando enact Hellman's script in costumes and accents of yore, their characters are so despicable--openly racist, classist, wife-beating and rather close to murderous, in addition to being just cold, greedy bastards--that watching a dated play revolve around them just isn't all that acutely enjoyable.

It seems silly to assail Hellman's legendary scenario--as The Little Foxes stands as one of America's greatest melodramas and morality plays, according to the Tribune's Chris Jones--but assuming the playwright meant for the characters of Horace, Alexandra, Birdie and servants Addie and Cal to counterbalance the vileness of Regina, Ben, Oscar and the wormy Leo, the former aren't given quite enough heft or stage time to make the polemic on good and evil feel properly weighted.

And the ending--which I won't reveal--isn't weighty enough in light of the considerable wait for it to arrive.

While Wishcamper's choice to bookend each scene with blasts of melodramatic classical music--such as in Golden Age B-movies--adds a bit of whimsy to the rather frosty proceedings, I predominantly found the obtuse strings to be excessively campy and unnecessary, even off-putting.

All told, I'm glad to have seen The Little Foxes and would be happy to discuss it with those who undoubtedly have derived much more from the hallowed piece.

But on a first viewing, I can't say I perceive it on par with Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day's Journey into Night or other staples of the theatrical universe, with all of those just cited also centered around imperfect familial interactions.

And among my still-sparse familiarity with Lillian Hellman, I continue to prefer my previous foray into her first play, The Children's Hour, a good deal more than my introduction to this, her most famous one.