Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 18, My Favorite Rock Albums of the 1990s

Last night, I saw a band named Ash perform their album titled 1977--released in 1996--in its entirety.

A review of the show will be forthcoming, but the live rendering served to not only reiterate but enhance my regard for a disc I bought 20 years ago.

In a Facebook post, I called 1977 one of my favorite albums of the '90s--then and now--but it got me thinking about "just how favorite?"

Top 10? Top 20? Top 50?

So as best I could cull, I've put together the following list, with a Top 11 and several other albums deserving mention.

My 11 Favorite Albums of the '90s
(as of now, not necessarily reflecting my regard at the time, though largely so; studio albums only)

1. Nirvana - Nevermind 
2. Pearl Jam - Ten
3. Dinosaur Jr. - Green Mind
4. Green Day - Dookie 
5. Nirvana - In Utero
6. The Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
7. Radiohead - OK Computer
8. U2 - Achtung Baby
9. R.E.M. - Out of Time 
10. Foo Fighters - self-titled debut
11. Sugar - Copper Blue

And 22 more great ones, roughly in preference order: 

Stereophonics - Word Gets Around
Ash - 1977
Pearl Jam - Vs.
Garbage - self-titled debut
Blur - Parklife
Radiohead - The Bends
Manic Street Preachers - Everything Must Go
Liz Phair - Exile in Guyville
Soundgarden - Superunknown
Red Hot Sugar Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik 
Pulp - Different Class
Guns 'n Roses - Use Your Illusion II
Oasis - (What's the Story) Morning Glory
Material Issue - International Pop Overthrow
Weezer - the blue album
Depeche Mode - Violator
Midnight Oil - Earth and Sun and Moon
Wilco - Being There
The Flaming Lips - Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
Bruce Springsteen - Lucky Town
The Replacements - All Shook Down
Metallica - the black album

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Harlan Coben's 'Home' Adds New Twists to Familiar Territory, Characters -- Book Review

Book Review

by Harlan Coben
New in Hardcover

Last Wednesday, September 21, I was thrilled to be able to meet my favorite contemporary novelist, Harlan Coben, after he gave an insightful speech at the Skokie Public Library, in my hometown.

I wrote about Coben's stellar presentation just a couple posts ago, noting that it wasn't a book review for his just-released Home, but surmising that in having bought it--and being able to have Harlan sign it--that night, my reading and reviewing of his latest thriller likely wasn't far off.

I don't think that any of Coben's 25 previous page-turners--not counting three aimed at teen audiences, though the author suggested in person they are also worthwhile for adult fans--have taken me more than a week to read, and although I only had evenings to devote to Home, the same can now be said of it.

Although I theoretically love to read, the truth is that I don't read that many books, and certainly not quickly for the most part. Often I start reading something but give up before getting too far, and cannot call myself a great reader.

So the fact that I voraciously devour Coben's works--and the "Jack Reacher" novels by Lee Child, but all that much else--must speak to his gifts as a writer.

Yes, he's writing quick reads not high literature, but whatever that may connote, the truth is that I look forward to finishing them...and do, quickly, as again with Home.

And with 9 straight #1 New York Times Bestsellers--I assume Home will make 10--Coben, who was the first author to win the three top awards for mystery writing (Edgar, Shamus, Anthony), clearly isn't only to my liking.

So if you're a Harlan Coben fan who's come across this review, you can consider this a rather strong recommendation.

In Home, Coben has brought back the characters of Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood--a college basketball star turned sports agent-cum-detective and his preppy-yet-lethal best friend and partner-in-crime-solving--who were constants in his first seven published novels, but now intermittent among numerous "stand-alone" works.

The two pals, who as the book begins haven't seen each other in a year, have a rather fun rapport, and as always, Coben augments the mystery at hand with keen observations about modern life and human nature.

The writer's stories almost always involve people from New Jersey or New York and some sort of domestic disappearance; in Home, Myron and Win are on the trail of two teenagers who went missing a decade ago from affluent Jersey environs.

Without giving too much away, there are some new variations on the theme, as the narrative begins in London with Win speaking in the first-person (Myron usually serves as the narrator, but not unilaterally here).

There are a few aspects that stretch credulity, and the protagonists actions aren't entirely admirable, but for the most part Home is a typical Coben runaway train that you read fast, don't want to put down and finds you rooting for the dynamic duo.

But for those who haven't read Harlan Coben before, and particularly not any Myron & Win tales, Home isn't the book with which I recommend you start, not just because of the cost of hardcover.

Although it isn't crucial that one be deeply familiar with the recurring pair (and as always Coben provides some background), at least one (if not all) of the Myron Bolitar novels of the '90s--as well as the more recent Promise Me, Long Lost and Live Wire in which they're central--would probably be beneficial to readers' appreciation of the tandem's backstory and interactions.

Obviously, use of a recurring protagonist or two isn't native to Coben, and in general it's a bit less than idyllic to jump in uninitiated. Which isn't to say newbies can't still enjoy Home, which shouldn't take anyone too long to ingest, but I would more so suggest beginning with Myron & Win of old, or one of Coben's excellent stand-alone novels, which also cover similar ground. (Six Years is a fairly recent favorite, Tell No One an older top pick and the new-in-paperback Fool Me Once also worthwhile.)

It's to Harlan Coben's great credit that he continues to churn out stellar page-turners at least once a year. As he noted at the library, he ascribes to Elmore Leonard's aim to "leave out the parts reader will skip," and as such, one rarely gets bogged down reading his books.

Of which his latest, Home, is another fine example, even if at this point acolytes who dive right in should feel a bit more at, uh, home, than those first encountering Myron and Win.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Northlight's 'City of Conversation' Speaks To Just How Divisive Politics Can Be -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The City of Conversation
a recent play by Anthony Giardina
directed by Marti Lyons
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru October 23

Let's say you're a longtime Democrat, who is not only supporting Hillary Clinton but heavily involved in fieldwork and fundraising.

Your grown son, however, doesn't just intend to vote for Donald Trump, he actually works for his campaign in a rather high-level capacity.

Though obviously a bone of contention, this has not yet ruined your relationship.

But what if you, fully convinced that a Trump presidency would be hugely detrimental for the country and world, had the means to virtually ensure a Clinton victory.

Though there would be nothing illegal about your actions, as a fairly direct consequence your son would lose his job and--especially if your role was revealed--his reputation, standing and career.

And you would essentially lose your son. Plus the privilege of seeing your grandchildren.

This isn't specifically the setup of Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation, which was written and staged off-Broadway in 2014, before Donald Trump was a presidential candidate, but a dilemma somewhat akin forms the centerpiece of the play, now getting its Chicagoland premiere at Skokie's Northlight Theatre.

I doubt I was the only one watching who  made the mental leap to battle lines being drawn between relatives and friends on opposite sides of the political spectrum, particularly amid this highly-charged and especially polarized election campaign.

Heck, barely a day goes by when I don't see friends being fairly nasty to each other on Facebook for beliefs and positions espoused.

So whatever else I might say about The City of Conversation--which I enjoyed quite a bit but wouldn't call phenomenal--the crux of its most riveting moments are clearly quite resonant.

Which I don't think is coincidental, even if Giardina concocted it pre-Trump, as the scenarios onstage unfold across three presidential administrations: Carter, Reagan and Obama.

Lia Mortensen, excellent in Writers Theatre's Company where she delivered a terrific "Ladies Who Lunch," ostensibly plays one here in Hester Ferris, a left-leaning Washington, DC socialite virtually married to a Democratic Senator, if only he wasn't otherwise married.

As the 3-part (but 2-act) drama begins, Hester is preparing to host a dinner at her Georgetown home largely to enable her pal, Sen. Chandler Harris (Tim Decker), to cajole another senator, George Mallonee (Tim Monsion) into voting to demand federal judge nominees disavow membership in segregated country clubs.

The specifics of the political gamesmanship confused me a bit, but Giardina here mainly seems to be illustrating how politics were once much more genteel (at least outwardly), with rivals often finding common ground over cocktails and conversation in swanky parlors off the National Mall.

This was abetted by strong writing throughout, but I found The City of Conversation spoke much more powerfully when it intertwined family dynamics with politics.

Though entailing less overt dramatic tension than other relationships depicted, I found Hester's interactions with her older, politically like-minded but much considerably less suave sister Jean (Natalie West) rather notable.

But the show is mainly driven by Hester's interplay with son Colin (Greg Matthew Anderson), who still within the first scene arrives home from his studies at the London School of Economics with a striking classmate, Anna (Mattie Hawkinson), whom his mom is seemingly not only meeting but hearing about for the first time, even though she has become his fiancé.

Anna is ambitious--I appreciated Giardina's reference to All About Eve--and even more to Hester's chagrin, Republican (or at least a budding Reaganite).

Especially given the imagined scenario I outlined at top, I don't think it behooves me to reveal any more of the specifics that unfold, only to share that Colin & Anna--now with a son of their own named Ethan (Tyler Kaplan)--become even more adversarial with Hester in the play's Reagan-era part, with repercussions that continue into the Obama years.

Throughout the play, I felt that I was watching a quality, substantive work--as I almost always do at Northlight--with strong performances throughout and nice set design by Tom Burch, all under the direction of Marti Lyons.

And that I continue to think about it a few days later also bespeaks the merits of The City of Conversation, even if it only occasionally seemed to amplify itself into a show truly worth shouting about.

But when it comes to politics, perhaps getting away from too much in your face(book) rancor is a good thing.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Storied Evening as Harlan Coben Brings His Latest Thriller, 'Home,' To My Hometown Library

Speaker Recap

Harlan Coben, Author
Skokie Public Library
September 21, 2016

This isn't a book review. It's a recap of a promotional speaking appearance by my favorite contemporary author, Harlan Coben, at the Skokie Public Library in my hometown and current place of residence.

But if you were to click the "Book Reviews" link atop this blog--on the web version, not mobile--and scroll through those I have written and posted, you will see Coben represented more than any other author.

I think it was back in 2002, when in downtown Chicago on my way to the Lyric Opera I stopped into a now defunct bookstore named Brentano's--I'm pretty sure that was the name; it was near the Civic Opera House and wasn't called Kroch's & Brentano's--and asked the clerk to recommend a page-turning paperback.

He pointed me to Coben's Tell No One, which was published in 2001 and at that point relatively new in paperback. I had never heard of the author or book, which revolved around a man discovering that his wife--missing for 8 years--might still be alive.

Subsequently turned into a pretty good French movie, this was Coben's first book (of those then in print) not to revolve around recurring characters. (A couple early "stand-alone" efforts have since been released.)

Finding it to be a fantastic read, I next consumed the 2002 stand-alone Gone For Good when it came out in paperback.

I've since read all of Coben's novels, except 3 that are aimed at teen readers, and I should probably check those out too.

In addition to 15 stand-alone books, he's written ten--including his first seven to be published and his newest work, Home--thrillers featuring the crime-fighting, mystery-solving duo of Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood.

The former is an ex-Duke All-American basketball player that Coben admitted Wednesday is his own "wish fulfillment" alter ego, while the latter--a preppy multi-millionaire unsuspectingly adept in administering brutal force--is loosely based on an affluent college roommate who would admire himself in the mirror while saying, "It must suck to be ugly." (Coben's Wikipedia bio also notes that he was childhood friends with Chris Christie and a fraternity brother of The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown.)

While I don't proclaim Harlen Coben to be "the best current author"--he doesn't traipse in great literature--he is my favorite, as evidenced by my actually loving to read his books, and usually doing so in well less than a week. (I'm generally not a fast nor particularly avid reader.)

And as I first heard when the author guested on the Howard Stern Wrap-Up Show on Tuesday, and was reiterated Wednesday night, he has over 70 million books in print in 43 languages--and nine straight #1 New York Times Bestsellers.

Home was just released on Tuesday, and in an event facilitated by The Book Stall of Winnetka--which sold books at the library, one of which I got signed--Coben spoke to a packed auditorium at the Skokie Public Library on Wednesday, September 21.

Given how much I've enjoyed his work over the years, it was damn cool to see him speak in my hometown, especially as another commitment forced me to miss my other favorite suspense novelist, Lee Child, at a 2015 appearance within walking distance of my home.

Though his radio appearances reflected a genial glibness, I wasn't sure what shape Coben's SPL appearance would take. I've been to a good number of book signings, and a few library events with authors, but didn't know if he would read from Home, answer questions within an interview format or what.

But pretty terrifically, for nearly an hour, he just stood and spoke.

After being introduced as "The master of the hook" and the first author to win the three major awards for mystery writing (Edgar, Shamus and Anthony), Coben began by telling the crowd that he was born just east of Skokie.

In Newark, New Jersey.

Self-effacing throughout, he noted that upon seeing a New York Times ad for Home featuring his photo, his teenage daughter greeted him at breakfast by simply saying, "Ewwww."

The 54-year-old Coben spoke a bit about his wife and kids, and mentioned that losing his own parents before they could see their grandchildren has prompted him to creatively keep them alive in the guise of Myron Bolitar's folks.

Clearly comfortable in front of a crowd and no newcomer to giving book tour presentations, the novelist was not only engaging--a patron afterward compared him to a stand-up comedian--but quite insightful about writing and his approach to it.

He shared how the inspiration for his stories can come from anywhere--tabloid headlines, observances in a store, etc.--but that the key driving force is the question, "What if?"

Back when picking up printed photographs was much more commonplace, he was once shocked to note a picture in his packet he didn't recognize--turns out it was merely turned upside down--and then imagined a scenario around "What if a misplaced picture changed my entire life?" that begat the book Just One Look.

Giving a few similar examples, Coben conveyed that in hatching a thriller plot, he will often "know the beginning and end and nothing in between," which becomes what he works to figure out.

He emphasized this thought with his second favorite quote about writing, from E.L. Doctorow:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

...and followed it with his most cherished nugget about drafting compelling novels, which came from Elmore Leonard:

"I try to cut out all the parts readers normally skip."

While clearly proud of his success and continued ability to knock out at least one new book per year--for a total of now 30--Coben claimed that insecurity, desperation and the "inability to do anything else" are what drives him.

"Only bad writers think they're good," he offered, while also enthusing that he loves being a writer, "the single greatest profession in the world."

He didn't provide much in the way of direct advice to aspiring writers, but intimated that "only writing is writing," meaning that thinking about writing, preparing to write, getting positioned to write, etc., are negligible next to actually putting pen to paper, or words to screen.

In a similar vein, he noted that he isn't big on research--"It's called fiction for a reason"--and suggested that the time many devote to oodles of advance research could be better applied by simply writing.

Before signing a book for everyone who had bought or brought one, Coben took a few questions from the audience, including mine about how & when he decides if he'll be writing a stand-alone or Myron & Win book.

He said this is determined naturally--i.e. not prompted by the publisher's wishes or any obligatory sense of direction--as upon finding a story he wants to tell it, he then figures out the characters who need to tell it.

Hence, Home is only his third novel in the past 16 years to feature his primary pair of recurring characters.

And after getting my newly-purchased copy signed, chatting briefly with Coben about hearing him on the Wrap-up Show and asking if another New Jerseyan who has meant a lot to me, Bruce Springsteen, is often mentioned in his books--I couldn't recall, but Harlan assured me he is--and then having a photo taken (kudos to the Skokie Public Library for enlisting a staff member who could snap good pix quickly while keeping the line moving), I went home and began reading Home.

Look for that book review in just a few days.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Juicy Ode to the Big Apple: Mary Zimmerman's Take on 'Wonderful Town' Proves Quite Refreshing -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Wonderful Town
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 23

Wonderful Town was originally scheduled to end Goodman Theatre's 2015-16 subscription season rather than begin the 2016-17 slate.

I was ticketed to see it on a Sunday evening in July, but a pre-Broadway World Premiere of War Paint came about as a special presentation in Goodman's Albert Theatre and pushed the 1953 Tony winner a couple months down the road.

Had I enjoyed a midsummer's night with Leonard Bernstein's delightfully diverse score--with lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green--well-rendered by an 18-member orchestra, excellent cast and an imaginative take by director Mary Zimmerman, I'd have to assume I would have liked it just as much as I did this past Sunday afternoon.

But the postponement worked out well on multiple levels, including my very much valuing the chance to see Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in the good-but-needing-refinements War Paint.

Having switched to Sunday matinees for the new subscription season, I was able to see Wonderful Town--a show based in and largely celebrating New York City--on a beautiful day in Chicago, and appreciate how a classic ode to the Big Apple compared and contrasted with a more recent one, In the Heights.

Now perhaps billboarded as "Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical," prior to the phenomenon that Hamilton has become, In the Heights won the Best New Musical Tony Award in 2008--I saw it on Broadway that year--and is now being produced locally by Chicago's fine Porchlight Music Theatre.

I saw it on Friday and, as my review conveys, greatly enjoyed it--both the original source material anew and Porchlight's excellent rendition.

And the juxtaposition of In the Heights with Wonderful Town on my theatrical calendar made for a rather illuminating perspective from which to better appreciate both shows. (I'm also ticketed to see Hamilton for the first time on October 4 at Chicago's PrivateBank Theatre.)

While Miranda--who wrote the music & lyrics for both In the Heights and Hamilton--deserves heaps of praise for fusing contemporary sounds (rap/hip-hop, pop and more) into the traditional Broadway milieu, the brilliant brassiness of Bernstein's Wonderful Town score, exquisitely executed by Goodman's largest-ever orchestra, bespoke a similarly adventurous approach and visionary musical melange.

In 2007, I had seen a touring production of Wonderful Town based on a Broadway revival--in Champaign, Illinois; it never played Chicago--and though I can't recall much about it, my database rating of 7/10 for both the content and performance would seem to corroborate my current feeling about the show's book (by Joseph A. Fields and Chodorov) being somewhat creaky.

Though I was much more enamored with the whole affair this time around--Zimmerman, set designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer Ana Kuzmanic merit great commendation for an inspired vibrancy that greatly counteracts inherent datedness--occasional stalls and shortcomings in the narrative keep this from being a full @@@@@ review (though it wouldn't be unreasonable).

But, especially for those who love classic musicals, this is a rather robust recommendation, as musically, visually, humorously and with terrific performances, this Wonderful Town well merits encountering and exploring.

Complemented by Kuzmanic's colorful costumes, Rosenthal's strikingly imaginative set--featuring 2-dimensional Manhattan buildings  moved about by cast members and a basement apartment that brilliantly ascends to center stage--makes the show wonderful to behold from the get-go.

Quirky gags at the shrewd hand of Zimmerman--most demonstrably a human-sized cockroach--only add to the fun.

Based on short stories by Ruth McKenney originally published in the New Yorker and compiled in a 1938 book called My Sister Eileen, the musical initially set in the 1930s but now updated to the '50s focuses around sisters named Ruth and Eileen--surname fictionalized to Sherwood--who have just moved to New York City from Columbus, Ohio.

Ruth, played perfectly by Bri Sudia, who I've liked in supporting roles and well-justifies the leap to a high-profile lead, is a writer; Eileen, a delightful Lauren Molina, who brings Broadway credits and was in Goodman's 2010 Zimmerman-helmed production of Bernstein's Candide, a wanna-be actress.

Landing in Greenwich Village, whose somewhat archaic Bohemian archetypes are depicted in the dynamic opening number, "Christopher Street," the sisters find an apartment rather quickly, but encounter some hardships, such as the giant cockroach and occupational roadblocks.

But they attract a variety of friends and would-be paramours, such as football-playing Wreck (Jordan Brown), artist/landlord Appopoulos (Matt DeCaro), newspapermen Robert Baker (Karl Hamilton), Chick Clark (Steven Stratford), Walgreens worker Frank Lippincott (Wade Elkins) and assorted others, including a bunch of Brazilian sailors.

The storyline involves various interactions, situations, misunderstandings and the sisters' acclimation to the Big Apple, but this is a musical in which the music is the main driving force (and raison d'être, especially on a Chicago stage in 2016).

Few of the songs in Wonderful Town became staples on par with those from Bernstein's next muscial, West Side Story, but most are delightful, including "Ohio," "One Hundred Easy Ways"--which Sudia delivers superbly--"A Little Bit in Love," "Conga," "My Darlin' Eileen," "It's Love" and "The Wrong Note Rag."

Along with the demonstrably strong direction, scenery, costumes and performances noted above, the choreography by Alex Sanchez is also quite good, and the singing univerally strong.

There are numerous magnficent shows in the musical theater pantheon, and while I'm not convinced Wonderful Town ranks with the very best, Goodman's rendition is one that considerably elevates my regard for it.

It's pretty easy to imagine that most will have wonderful time at Wonderful Town, and in helping me better appreciate what Leonard Bernstein and pals brought to the Broadway table long before Lin-Manuel Miranda re-set it, I found this New York musical adventure--in the wonderful theater community of Chicago--all the more rewarding.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Porchlight's Well-Scaled 'In the Heights' Achieves Impressive Elevation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

In the Heights
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru October 23

On Friday night I saw Porchlight's local production of In the Heights, the 2008 Tony-winning musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who would go on to likewise conceive, compose and star in an even more successful show: Hamilton.

Though I had seen and loved In the Heights on Broadway with Miranda shortly after it garnered the Best New Musical Tony Award--and catching the first National Tour in Chicago in 2009 reiterated how good and groundbreaking the musical was even sans Miranda and the original cast--time had sufficiently eroded my memory for Porchlight's impressively-downsized take to be newly, and fully, enchanting.

Upon leaving the theater in the Stage 773 complex on Belmont Avenue, I was exuberant enough to feel a full @@@@@ rating was merited.

But between seeing the show and writing this review, three endeavors threatened to adjust just how highly I viewed this In the Heights:

1) I began a deep dive into exploring Hamilton, listening intently to the cast album while reading the lyrics, watching whatever clips I could find--from June's Tony Awards, where the show won 11 categories, as well as performances of select songs at the White House--and getting a better sense of just how brilliant that biographical musical is, which I haven't seen but am ticketed to attend on October 4 in Chicago (thanks to a longstanding Broadway in Chicago subscription).

2) I watched a Tony Awards performance and other clips of the original Broadway production of In the Heights featuring Miranda & co., the full-fledged set design, initial costumes and more

3) I attended, on Sunday afternoon, Goodman Theatre's excellent new, Mary Zimmerman-directed production of Wonderful Town, a classic musical dating to 1953 that, like In the Heights, celebrates New York City and its residents--including young, vibrant, talented-yet-uncertain ones--while featuring a brilliant, dynamic and fresh-for-the-time score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein.

Yet while I can't say the performances and production values of Porchlight's In the Heights uniformly matched what Broadway audiences saw, nor that Miranda's first Tony-winning musical is likely as mind-blowing as his second one, the comparisons and points of reference only "served to "heighten" my regard for the show--and this rendition.

With a top ticket price of $48 within Stage 773's 148-seat Thrust venue, patrons should well understand the inherent limitations tackled by director Brenda Didier, her crew and the mostly non-Equity cast.

But not only will the imaginative staging at Porchlight--with a clever bi-level set design by Greg Pinsoneault that well-conveys Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, including storefront signage closely hewing to that of the Broadway version--provide a fine introduction (or re-introduction) to In the Heights, this fine complement to the upcoming Chicago run of Hamilton makes for an economical entreé to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Hamilton has quite rightly received tons of praise for its highly diverse (i.e. predominantly African-Amercian and Latinx cast) and for bringing rap/hip-hop and Latin rhythms into the Broadway vernacular.

But In the Heights actually did all of this first, and its celebration of Washington Heights denizens largely from Caribbean islands remains refreshing to behold in a city as diverse as Chicago.

There was some controversy over Didier's casting of Jack DeCesare in the Miranda role of Usnavi, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

But DeCesare, who is of Italian descent, looked and played the part quite well, even if his rapping skills and overall being as the show's Emcee of sorts didn't quite equal the original.

And while his specific ethnic background, like that of the rest of the mostly Hispanic cast, isn't of my acute concern, I appreciated the group of gifted performers who in sum looked different than the ensembles of most musicals I see, while exclusively showcasing actors I don't recall seeing on local stages across hundreds of shows. (Usually any large cast includes at least a couple performers I've seen previously.)

I found the entire cast to be excellent, with three of the key actresses--Michelle Lauto, Lucia Godinez and Isabrl Quintero--particularly outstanding.

Lauto sizzles as Vanessa, who works in the local hair salon, dreams of moving down to the Village and is romantically pursued by Usnavi.

Her early delivery of "It Won't Be Long Now" not only demonstrates strong vocal talents, but is just one of many reminders that Miranda's compositional skills (in terms of both music & lyrics) go far beyond hip hop.

I've been saying this since I first saw & heard In the Heights, but anyone who is dismissive of this show (or Hamilton for that matter) because they're "not into rap" is short-changing Miranda's mastery and range.

Certainly, Miranda has a great affinity, familiarity and talent for rap/hip-hop, but it should also be apparent to anyone who sees In the Heights or Hamilton that he's indebted to both Eminem and Sondheim, and Rodgers & Hammerstein as much as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

Seemingly, Lin-Manuel's own preferred singing style is rapping, and whether as Usnavi or Alexander Hamilton, this is the mode of vocalizing his particular characters employ (even when not actually played by him).

But some of In the Heights' best songs are in a rather traditional Broadway or pop vein, such as "When You're Home," well-sung here by Godinez and Stephen Allen as Nina and Benny, a fledgling couple after the former returns from Stanford to the Heights, where the latter works for her parents' livery service.

Miranda gives several characters considerable depth, including Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Frankie Leo Bennett), the neighborhood's grandmother-figure Abuela Claudia (Isabel Quintero), Nina's parents Kevin and Camilia Rosario (Jordan DeBose and Keely Vasquez) and even a Piragua (flavored ice) vendor (Stan Decwikiel, Jr.).

As such, In the Heights--the origins of which date back to Miranda's sophomore year at Wesleyan University in 1999 but subsequently had its book re-developed by playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes--  reflects a rather strong sense of community through compelling individual stories, even as several residents are on the verge of relocation, in part due to gentrification.

It was fun for me to see it again, just a couple weeks before I get to see Hamilton, and from all I've discerned so far, I should love that show.

But Porchlight's stellar production reiterated that In the Heights is an exceptional musical in its own right, one that changed the look and sound of traditional Broadway while also reflecting the best of it.

With all the hoopla surrounding Hamilton and its unprecedented success, it may be that In the Heights forever more lives in its shadow, referenced primarily as Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical.

Yet while what Hamilton has done is astonishing, so too is having a musical first concocted before he was 20 go to Broadway and win the Best Musical Tony by the time Miranda hit 30.

And while those who can't yet score Hamilton tickets would do well to get to Stage 773 to see what LMM created first, In the Heights is far better--and better-staged here--than simply to be seen as a curiosity.

Despite its own considerable success, it never entered the zeitgeist like Hamilton has, but In the Heights was and remains a rather lofty artistic accomplishment, with many considerable merits to be appreciated on their own (though also as more of a companion piece than it may overtly seem).

And even in a rather intimate space away from the Loop, Porchlight does it right and takes it to the heights.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 17, My Favorite Art Museums

I love art.

Not just in the wider context of artistic creation, in terms of theater, film, music, etc., but specifically in terms of fine art.

Though the breadth and depth my appreciation has evolved over the years--and continues to--I enjoy art of many styles, eras, genres, countries and levels, from the world's most renowned museums to art fairs and student exhibitions.

On a recent trip to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, I explored 11 art museums (and/or sculpture galleries) over just 4 days, and have now visited nearly 160 museums plus a variety of churches, palaces, schools and other places where art is prominently displayed.

I certainly don't have a photographic memory about what paintings, sculptures and other art pieces I've seen and enjoyed at each museum, especially ones I was last at many years ago. So this list is something of an unscientific melange blending my (sometimes vague) recall of the quality of the collections and how much I enjoyed my visit(s)--including for reasons that could go beyond the art itself, such as the building, setting, cost, etc. (Although the art must be pretty incredible to merit inclusion, which is why the Guggenheim Bilbao isn't here despite the amazing architecture by Frank Gehry.)

Museums I've been to more often might naturally feel like favorites, even if their collections are perhaps lesser than those ranked lower or omitted, and those I've been to more recently are also likely to benefit. So it's quite possible this list would be ordered differently at another time, but to be taken with an inevitable grain of salt, these are:

My Favorite Art Museums Visited (not necessarily a "Best of" list) 

1. The Art Institute of Chicago
2. National Gallery, London
3. Pitti Palace, Florence
4. Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
5. Museum of Modern Art, New York
6. National Gallery, Washington, DC
7. Louvre, Paris
8. Prado, Madrid
9. Detroit Institute of Arts
10. Guggenheim Museum, New York
11. Secretaria de Educación Publico building, Mexico City (Diego Rivera murals)

And several more great ones: 

Cleveland Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
Tate Modern, London
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Courtauld Gallery, London
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
Milwaukee Art Museum
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Getty Center, Los Angeles
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Belvedere, Vienna
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio
Reina Sofia, Madrid
Vatican Museum, Vatican City
St. Louis Museum of Art
Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Picasso Museum, Barcelona
Centre Pompidou, Paris

Monday, September 12, 2016

Aston Rep's 'The Black Slot' Sufficiently Filled With Interesting Angles, Even If In Unexpected Directions -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Black Slot
a world premiere play by Warren Hoffman
AstonRep Theatre
at Raven Theatre Complex
Thru October 2

With considerable regard for the work of Aston Rep Theatre Co. and that of director Derek Bertelsen--both within and beyond the troupe--I was intrigued enough by the premise of The Black Slot to attend on Sunday afternoon, even if it meant missing the second half of the Bears' opener (and it turns out I didn't miss much).

Though I am a great fan of theater, I've never worked or trained in it, so the concept of a behind-the-scenes play about a Wisconsin theater company trying to set an upcoming season while hewing to having one, but just one, "black slot" sounded particularly appealing on multiple levels.

I have long noted that some highly-regarded Chicago theater companies I attend, whose audiences tend to be predominantly white--and typically rather mature--offer at least, but often at most, one play per season overtly aimed at minority audiences and/or with racially diverse themes.

While it seems gauche for anyone to openly refer to this as a "black slot" or to steadfastly limit offerings written by and/or largely featuring African-American, Latinx or Asian-American actors as though filling a quota, I believe it's important for theater companies to offer various perspectives, insights and outlooks--both to their existing audience base and ideally newly-attracted patrons--as well as to leverage the talents of writers, directors and performers of diverse backgrounds.

Yet while I felt playwright Warren Hoffman--who is Caucasian--drafted The Black Slot's Artistic Director character of Pat (played by Amy Kasper) a bit too cartoonishly in her brazen adherence to having just one representation of diversity in her fictionalized theater's subscription season, she also cited aspects that seemed worthy of legitimate consideration.

Rhetorically asking her young, idealistic dramaturg Beth (Brittany Stock), "What would our subscribers think if we did two black plays in the same season?" came across as ugly, even racist, but it's not hard to imagine her concerns about ticket sales, subscriber proclivities and the marketability of known titles/writers/actors vs. new/unfamiliar ones being regularly weighed and discussed at self-producing theaters across the country.

Not knowing much about "The Black Slot" before deciding to see it, though filled in a bit by other reviews that perhaps provided too much information--so consider this something of a SPOILER ALERT--I initially anticipated a play primarily focused around various facets of having a "black slot." Perhaps an Artistic Director arguing with a theater's Board of Directors reflecting differing viewpoints, or maybe a dilemma when (as could be the case in more rural Wisconsin) too few qualified African-Americans audition for a play featuring several characters of color.

Hoffman's narrative, however, takes a different path, and I initially found the proceedings somewhat slight, and credulity a bit stretched.

The theater company in the play already has scheduled The Piano Lesson by the late, great African-American playwright August Wilson  as part of their upcoming season.

For the one remaining slot, dramaturg Beth has read and recommended several worthy plays, most notably as The Black Slot begins, a new one by a young, never-before-produced black writer named Tim (Justin Wade Wilson, excellent for the second time in a show seen this year, following #LOVESTORIES at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre).

As audience members, we have no way of knowing how good Tim's play might be, but while we can take it on faith that Beth truly believes in it, she comes off somewhat pushy and naive, while fairly understandable objections Pat may have are undermined by a buffoonish and culturally insensitive characterization.

So rather than getting a riveting discourse and debate about black slots, what transpires involves Tim getting in touch with Beth, asking her out on a date, listening to Beth vent about Pat's unfairness in rejecting his script and Beth & Tim conspiring to purport his possession of an unproduced August Wilson play that Pat jumps at staging, with the unexpected blessing of Wilson's estate trustee (Linsey Falls).

This is essentially what I knew going in on Sunday afternoon, and I found what continued to unfold more dramatically worthwhile that I may have anticipated.

This isn't to say The Black Slot is a phenomenal play; it has a number of flaws, especially if one dissects it too closely. And though a conceit of having paper scripts "talk" to Beth throughout the play was imaginative and initially quite droll, it became a bit much and hampered the seriousness of the tone, even in what is promoted as a comedy. (I also couldn't help but be reminded of Avenue Q's bad idea bears, who would offer cheeky advice in sarcastic voices).

As I've tried to connote above, I think the basic premised could have been mined far more powerfully, even if in a more straightforward approach. (Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection covered somewhat similar ground in a way that has me recalling it quite fondly it more than a decade removed from seeing it at Northlight.)

But while The Black Slot becomes more about personal conniving, dishonesty and one's willingness to "play the game" than the multicultural conundrums inherent in planning theatrical subscription seasons, I saw value in it as a character study.

With fine pacing throughout, the two-hour two-act kept me sufficiently engaged and entertained, most acutely around the compelling dichotomy that emerges among Tim and Beth, who Wilson and Stock adroitly embody.

Afterward, I couldn't help but consider just how early Tim may have had his duplicitious but potentially career-advancing plan in mind.

Each of the play's four main characters engages in actions that are untoward or even underhanded, yet in a way that allows for considerable subjectivity in who to admire, forgive, admonish and/or deplore.

Pablo Picasso once said, "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," and after viewing The Black Slot--for which Bertelsen and his crew deserve credit for deftly conjuring several settings within a small space for a conceivably modest budget--I couldn't help wonder, "What if great art is created through a lie? Or several? Is it still worth admiring, and applauding?"

So although The Black Slot doesn't really pose the dramatic questions that I might have wanted explored, I still found it worth my time on a Sunday afternoon.

If nothing else, I assume it was better than the Bears' offense.

And though it really shouldn't be anything worth noting, it was nonetheless heartening to see considerably more of a mixed race audience at an Aston Rep production (in the Raven Theatre complex on north Clark St.) than I readily recall.

Motivational purity might be imprecise, even impossible, to discern, but bringing wider audiences to the theater is only ever a good thing.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

An East Coast Jaunt to the Heart of America -- Travelogue: Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia

In Fiddler on the Roof, the main character and family patriarch, Tevye, asks his longstanding but oft-bickering wife Golde if she loves him.

Rather than instantly replying, "Yes," she is taken aback at the question, retorting, "Do I what?"

But she subsequently reasons that having, for 25 years, washed his clothes, cooked his meals, cleaned his house, milked his cow, shared his bed, given him children, fought with him, starved with him, etc., etc., her considerable love has been abundantly demonstrated, if not frequently or vociferously vocalized.

Which may seem like a rather strange way to begin a recap of a 5-day trip over Labor Day Weekend that took me to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

But in the week prior, there had been considerable discussion about patriotism--and what constitutes it--surrounding the decision by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest police brutality (via which the deaths of many African-Americans have gone unpunished) by not standing up for the National Anthem.

I do not condemn Kaepernick, and largely support him. Not only is it fully within his rights to protest, there have been far too many egregious police killings--which doesn't mean the majority of cops aren't highly honorable and commendable--and that his stance and actions are controversial, even possibly detrimental to his career, make his courage and convictions more admirable.

Protest often needs to be unpopular to have any real effect.

And although it seems Thomas Jefferson never actually said it despite often being credited, I do believe in the sentiment that "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

But considered in the more conventional connotation, I have never considered myself particularly patriotic, at least not in terms of overt trappings.

While I have always proudly and gladly stood for the National Anthem, and greatly admire & appreciate all men & women who have served in the Armed Forces, I have never owned an American flag and usually cringe whenever I hear chants of "USA! USA!"

I'm not too concerned about being seen as patriotic, and believe being a humanitarian is more important. But in traveling to the capital of the United States, the city where the Star Spangled Banner was written and the country's birthplace, particularly amid the Kaepernick controversy, I couldn't help but think about patriotism and to what extent, and in what form, I embrace it.

And I think my trip reiterated, probably primarily just in my own mind, how much I love many aspects of the country in which I have always lived, without feeling any need to keep quiet about many problems and injustices.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines patriotism as love for or devotion to one's country.

Which to me, taking a cue from Golde, means something far beyond--and perhaps in lieu of--adorning one's car with mini-Stars & Stripes.

In Washington, DC, I went to another absolutely phenomenal concert by my favorite rock singer--and in my mind, an American hero, for his legacy of work, his dedication to promoting the common good in his music and, nearing age 67, performing non-stop for almost 4 hours with a similarly veteran band--Bruce Springsteen.

This was my 49th time seeing The Boss, my 5th this year and my second in the same week, after a Chicago show that went beyond awesome.

Outdoors, at Nationals Park in DC, he was even better.

I also made a point of scheduling tours of the White House and U.S. Capitol Building; the former was terrific; latter a little lacking because the Rotunda wasn't open (it should be now, with construction scheduled to finish after Labor Day).

I walked much of the National Mall and took hundreds of photos of the great buildings, memorials and monuments, as well as within the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, perhaps the most beautiful interior space in the U.S.

(I've been to Washington previously, so missed getting to the Vietnam War memorial and some others this time, as 2 days isn't nearly enough to do everything. Some may enjoy this Travel Guide I once wrote about DC.)

After getting to Washington on Thursday afternoon, the first thing I did was trek via subway to the Phillips Collection, a wonderful collection of modern art begun by Duncan & Marjorie Acker Phillips long before many knew, cared about or liked Impressionism, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Matisse, etc.

That the Phillips, as well as the Cone Sisters (who would donate their vast collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was my main reason for stop in that city), Henry Walters (who with an art collection started by his father formed Baltimore's fine Walters Art Museum) and Dr. Albert Barnes (an early champion of modern art who created Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation), devoted good chunks of their good fortune to championing art and beautifying America through it, also stands as something well-worth celebrating about the United States.

It also delighted me that I went to several other art museums--the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Sculpture Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the U.S., Rodin Museum (only saw the outdoor sculptures here)--all, including the ones mentioned above, without having to pay a dime.

That at a time of much national and municipal financial distress, the country and some major cities see the importance of providing locals and visitors with enlightening cultural opportunities free of charge (at least some of the time, in certain cases) is something to feel proud about.

On Friday night in Washington, before catching a train to Baltimore--I loved riding the rails between cities and seeing the stately train stations--I indulged one of my favorite American art forms: musical theater.

Unbeknownst to me in booking the trip, Friday was the first Washington performance of a musical headed to Broadway called Come From Away, which had played San Diego and Seattle last year. (A promotion for the first preview had all tickets given away by lottery through the TodayTix app; I was lucky to win one that very day.)

The show is about the town of Gander, Newfoundland and its warm acceptance of people from all over the world whose planes were forced to land there on Sept. 11, 2001.

With music, lyrics and book by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away admirably handles
challenging subject matter in a way that is respectful, not often maudlin and ultimately inspiring. On my Seth Saith rating scale, I would give it @@@@@ (out of 5). It was really phenomenal, and with the 15th anniversary of 9/11 just days a way, a way to remember the tragedy without feeling too morose.

Somewhat astonishingly, the quality of Come From Away itself at times almost made me forget that I was watching it within a historic venue where another tragic event occurred: Ford's Theatre, where on April 14, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

I guess it's cool that the Ford's remains a working theater--that also gives tours and has a museum in the basement I was able to visit pre-show--but the Presidential Box remains intact above the stage and there was something a bit eerie about watching a musical happen just a few feet from where a president was killed, just moments after I had seen Booth's gun as part of the museum.

But I was able to learn a bit more about Abraham Lincoln, and in Baltimore and Philadelphia, visited small museums dedicated to two other great Americans: Babe Ruth and Benjamin Franklin.

Beyond the Walters and BMA museums in Baltimore, I spent some time near Inner Harbor, watching a seemingly popular street performer dubbed the Unicycle Lady, seeing a pair of historic battleships--the main one being the U.S.S. Constellation--and eating crab cakes at a large, longstanding establishment called Phillips Seafood.

The food there was good though I can't say I get all the fuss about (somewhat pricey) crab cakes. Just as memorable, not necessarily in terms of the food but in reflecting the spirit of the America I love, was a small, non-descript restaurant I wandered into across from the Walters Art Museum.

It's called Cozy Corner and it seemed to have a single proprietor/employee, an Asian woman who was quite pleasant. The menu was somewhat culturally mixed, but seeking breakfast I simply got some scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.

Nothing particularly special, but the kind of sleepy little place with a hardworking owner (one presumes the woman working on a holiday weekend is the owner) that I really relish.

Of course, when it comes to America, one of the things I most relish is baseball, and Saturday night I went to see the Orioles beat the Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The second of the wave of new ballparks in the early '90s--after Chicago's Comiskey Park, now dubbed Guaranteed Rate Field--Camden Yards remains wonderfully retro and a cool place to watch a game.

Sandwiched between single nights at posh hotels in Washington (the Hyatt Regency near Capitol Hill) and Philadelphia (Doubletree City Center)--albeit at reasonable holiday weekend rates--I was happy to avail myself of a pair of inexpensive nights at Motel 6 in the heart of Baltimore.

Motel 6 has served me quite well over the years on myriad road trips, and though the North Avenue location wasn't much to look at, the room was comfortable and my needs were sufficiently satisfied for a bargain rate.

The Barnes Foundation was cornerstone in my desire to again visit Philadelphia. I had seen the
amazing Impressionism repository when it was located in suburban Merion, but it relocated to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in a big new building, but with all the paintings hanging exactly as Dr. Barnes had specified long ago.

With dozens of works by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Modigliani and many more practically hanging on-top of each other in intimate rooms--not typical museum galleries--it offers one of the more unique art-viewing experiences you'll ever encounter.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was also tremendous, though my ability to climb the "Rocky Steps" (and see the Rocky Sculpture) was precluded by the Made in America Festival--a bit oddly featuring the British band Coldplay and which I didn't choose to attend.

Though I had done so probably three times previously, it was still a thrill to see the Liberty Bell and to tour Independence Hall, including the room in which the Declaration of Independence was signed, and two others that served as the houses of Congress before the Capitol was built in Washington.

I also visited Benjamin Franklin Court, where only an outline of his house stands, and saw his grave before going to the National Constitution Center.

And after having had dinner at the nice--but nothing amazing--restaurant called Barbuzzo the night before, I savored a terrific Philly Cheesesteak from Sonny's as my last meal in town. Having to wait in line for 20 minutes actually made the experience even cooler.

I realize this all was a bit of a haphazard recap of my trip out east, but hopefully it conveyed most of
what I did, saw and ate, while trying to convey that "love of one's country" can be defined in many different ways.

I've been fortunate to travel to many parts of the world--much of Europe, Egypt, Israel, St. Petersburg, Russia, Australia, South America, etc.--but this year have stayed domestic.

While I hope to travel abroad again, what I've done, seen, experienced and enjoyed in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, St. Louis, Milwaukee, my beloved hometown of Chicago, and now Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, has been extraordinary enriching.

Music, art, history, musicals, monuments, memorials, baseball, food, planes, trains, automobiles (taxis & Uber), people--including witnessing some truly touching moments, such as cops cheering on runners in a 5K race, who profusely thanked them in return; a white cop giving some money to help out a woman in a hijab--all told made me proud of where I live, warts and all.

If that ain't love, what is?