Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Looking Back Locally: Recapping Recent Visits to the Evanston History Center / Dawes House and Wilmette Historical Museum

Charles Gates Dawes House, Evanston, IL
Museum Visit Recaps

Evanston History Center
in the Charles G. Dawes House
House Tour, Permanent Collection
and Special Exhibit to March 16: Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad

Wilmette Historical Museum
Permanent Collection, Special Event: Lecture by Former Major Leaguer Mike Huff (held on n Feb. 12) and Special Exhibit to May 7: Sox vs. Cubs: The Chicago Civil Wars

I live in a condominium in Skokie, Illinois, but am so close to the town of Wilmette that Google Maps and Yahoo Weather often think I live there.

Now, and for a good part of my life--as I grew up just five minutes from where I presently live--the city of Evanston has also been just a few feet away, much closer than most of my hometown of Skokie.

Wilmette Historical Museum
I like and appreciate Skokie but have also made considerable use of the neighboring towns, including their libraries, movie theaters, CTA stations, parks, restaurants, beaches, fireworks displays and much more. 

Because of its size, diverse cosmopolitan feel and being home to Northwestern University, Evanston has been particularly enriching in cultural opportunities, including musical performances by NU students, and a variety of theater troops and venues.

I've long known of the orange-bricked Charles G. Dawes home near the beach north of Dempster Street, once the residence of an early 20th Century U.S. Vice President and now a tourable mansion housing the Evanston History Center (EHC).

But I was never inspired to visit it until the other week.

Dawes House
Mind you, in recent years, I'd visited the Skokie Heritage Center, Niles Historical Museum, Lake County Discovery Center and the Wilmette Historical Museum, which I had cause to revisit the other day (more on this in a moment).

And its not like I haven't made a point of visiting hundreds of museums, mansions, churches and other intriguing attractions, globally and locally.

Heck, before finally venturing to the Dawes House, I even discovered and visited the American Toby Jug Museum in Evanston.
But on a recent afternoon, I cajoled my mom into joining me for a history and architecture lesson, and we both enjoyed the multifaceted visit.

Tours of the house are conducted every day that it's open, and an informative docent named Bill pointed out key features of the impressive house, while giving some background about Charles Gates Dawes.

Dawes--whose Wikipedia entry is fairly intriguing--wasn't an Evanston native. He was born (in 1865) and raised in Marietta, Ohio, graduated from Marietta College and Cincinnati Law School, and practiced law in Lincoln, Nebraska from 1887-1894, where he met both William Jennings Bryan and John Pershing, the latter becoming a lifelong friend.

Married to Caro Blymer, Dawes' business interests included Midwestern gas plants, including Northwestern Light & Gas Co. in Evanston.

The home that is now a museum was designed by H. Edwards Ficken and built in 1895 for a Northwestern University Treasurer named Robert Sheppard, who our docent noted had unrealized ambitions to be become the school's president.

He put the Chateauesque style house on the market in 1908 for $150,000 and sold it to the Dawes family for half of that. Charles Dawes would live there until his death in 1951, and following his wife's passing in 1957, the home was donated to Northwestern University to house the Evanston Historical Society, which it has since 1960.

In 2009, the mansion was donated by Northwestern to the organization now known as Evanston History Center.

For a $10 admission, one can take a tour of the house--largely in the way Dawes left it, but with additional artifacts and information pertaining to him--and see permanent collections relating to Evanston's history, plus Special Exhibits (currently one of photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales along the Civil War's Underground Railroad).

Dawes worked on William McKinley's 1896 Presidential campaign--in which he beat William Jennings Bryan--and as Comptroller of the U.S. Treasury until McKinley's assassination in 1901. (Bill pointed out that after Lincoln in 1865 and Garfield in 1881, this meant three U.S. Presidents had been killed in office over the course of just 36 years.)

In 1917, in his 50s, Dawes enlisted in the Army to aid in World War I, and under his old pal General Pershing, served as Brigadier General.

Hence, prominent in the house, there are busts of Pershing, French Prime Minister Georges
Clemenceau and other WWI leaders, though notably not U.S. President at the time, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.

A hardcore Republican, Dawes was the 1924 running mate of Calvin Coolidge, the sitting President after the 1923 death of Warren G. Harding.

Dawes served as U.S. Vice President from 1925-1929, co-won the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on World War I reparations and was the United States' Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1929-32.

He was also a self-taught pianist and composer, and in 1912 wrote "Melody in A Major," a popular instrumental to which lyrics were added by Carl Sigman in 1951, transforming the song into "It's All in the Game." Tommy Edwards' recording of "It's All in the Game" was a #1 hit on in the fall of 1958, posthumously making Dawes the only vice president to be credited with a No. 1 pop hit.

Learning about all this, and seeing the nicely appointed house--including a kitchen with a somewhat odd ceiling--would have made for a rewarding visit in itself, with thanks again to the docent, Bill.

But the next hour at the house was just as intriguing, with exhibits on Evanston covering everything from the city's rise around Northwestern University, to the 1860 crash of a passenger steamer that took 300 lives and led to the building of the Gross Pointe Lighthouse, to a chair Abraham Lincoln is said to have sat in, to displays on Evanstonians of note.

Though I've long known of famed suffragist Frances Willard (of the Women's Christian Temperance Union) and modern acting families like the Cusacks and Pivens, I was intrigued to learn that Evanston has also been home to Tinker Toys, Orange Crush, Pelouze postage scales and Marvin Glass, inventor of toys such as Operation, Lite-Brite and Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots.

As a lover of old theaters, I enjoyed a display of artifacts from the Varsity, which still stands on Sherman Ave., although it now contains storefronts, including The Gap.

And appreciating that Evanston has long been a highly integrated suburb, I valued reading about various African-American pioneers, politicians and community leaders, such as William H. Twiggs, Dr. Isabella Garnett Butler, Edwin B. Jourdain Jr., Fred Hutcherson Jr. and the Hon. Lorrain Hairston Morton, among others.

There is also, rather chillingly--in a display with artifacts pertaining to Abraham Lincoln--a shackle from a slave ship.  

This could help but add resonance to the single gallery containing recent photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales of Underground Railroad locales and buildings employed to help escaped slaves.

Several photos are quite compelling and the small exhibit is inherently important.

But with several pictures being intentionally underlit, and rather little accompanying text provided, the Special Exhibit, Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad, isn't as extensive or informative as I had hoped.

It's worth a look for anyone who makes their way to the EHC by March 16 but perhaps not reason enough for a special visit.  

I'll post a few more photos from the Evanston History Center/Dawes House below, but also want to loop in a visit I made the same week to the Wilmette Historical Museum on Ridge Rd., a few blocks south of Lake Street.

Familiar with the museum from a nice program I attended in 2015 by a retired architect who wrote a book called 999: A History of Chicago in Ten Stories, the impetus this time was a talk by Mike Huff, a Wilmette resident who played in the major leagues for parts of 7 seasons, including the White Sox in 1991-93.

It was fun hearing Huff reminisce about his days playing at Roemer Park--a spiffy Little League field quite close to where I live and (as a museum photo shows; see below) somewhere Bill Murray also once played--and attending New Trier, where he also played QB on the football team, as well as basketball.

Currently a VP of the Bulls Sox Academy, he encouraged parents to let their kids play multiple sports, not just the one with the seemingly brightest prospects.

Huff was quite proud of having attended Northwestern--he played alongside Joe Girardi--where his education and perceived business income potential persuaded him to turn down his first pro ball offer.

Subsequently he was drafted by the Dodgers in 16th round and--per funny stories he shared--endured some grueling bus trips in the minors, for relatively measly pay, before his tendency to hit .300 and steal 30+ bases earned him a chance in "the show."

With great detail, Huff proudly recalled getting a hit in his first at bat, against future Hall of Famer, Tom Glavine.

Huff's appearance on February 12 was tied to an ongoing Special Exhibit,  Sox vs. Cubs: The Chicago Civil Wars, which was created by the Elmhurst Historical Museum and in Wilmette until May 12.

The museum, exhibit and program I attended were all free, so well worth the time and effort for me. (Note that this upcoming baseball program has a $5 fee for non-members.)

Though the exhibit has some nice memorabilia, and interactive opportunities to hear famed broadcasters, I can't say it's unique or extensive enough to be worth a really long drive. (It should pair well with writer Richard Rothschild's March 12 lecture on The Sox vs. Cubs Rivalry.)

But along with a nice but limited permanent collection--I liked the photo of Bill Murray's baseball team and artifacts from long-gone parts of the Plaza del Lago shopping area, including Teatro del Lago--the Cubs & Sox display makes more an engaging visit for those of us who live in the area.

And along with the Evanston History Center/Dawes House, the Wilmette Historical Museum reiterated the value in surveying the past within lovingly curated--and often volunteer staffed--institutions.

Rather close to home.

As promised, here are a few more photos, all from the Evanston History Center, except as noted:


Abraham Lincoln supposedly sat in this chair during a visit to Evanston.

Artifacts from extinct businesses at Wilmette's extant Plaza del Lago
Photo of a Wilmette Little League team from 1962; Bill Murray is second from the right in the back row.
Sox vs. Cubs: The Chicago Civil Wars Special Exhibit, Wilmette Historical Museum

Monday, February 27, 2017

As a Sesquipedalian Excogitation of Consanquinity, 'Eleemosynary' is Enjoyably Perspicacious -- Chicago Theater Review

(Headline = As a big word-heavy study of kinship, 'Eleemosynary' is enjoyably astutely perceptive.)

Chicago Theater Review

a play by Lee Blessing
directed by Jeremiah Barr & Derek Bertelsen
Aston Rep Theatre Company
at The Frontier, Chicago
Thru March 12

After recently seeing the fine new play, Faceless, still running at Northlight Theatre, I saw its author speak at two related events.

Though that drama quite topically focuses on a white teenage American girl joining ISIS and being prosecuted by a Muslim attorney, Selina Fillinger twice noted that she didn't think of herself as a "political playwright."

And that she sees all plays as political, even seemingly "light and fluffy" works, for they reflect how one chooses to spend an evening and the requisite money, while eliciting a range of responses, thoughts and emotions.

Though I found this to be an astute observation, it didn't stick with me in any active sense but came instantly to mind on the Thorndale CTA platform as I considered Eleemosynary, a three-woman, 70-minute play I had just seen by Aston Rep (at The Frontier, not their usual home at The Raven).

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Written by Lee Blessing in 1985, the show focuses on Dorothea, an intellectual, eccentric grandmother (well-played by Debra Rodkin), Artie, her research scientist daughter with a photographic memory and impassive maternal instincts (the always excellent Alexandra Bennett) and Artie's daughter, Echo (Sarah Lo, giving a truly terrific performance), a spelling bee champion--hence all the big words--that Dorothea primarily raised.

I had never heard of the play before being invited to see it, and it doesn't appear to ever have run on Broadway. (Blessing is best known for A Walk in the Woods, which did.)

In speaking briefly to Aston Rep artistic director Robert Tobin, he shared that company members Derek Bertelsen and Jeremiah Barr--who co-direct here--had worked on the play elsewhere and recommended it. And with the troupe wanting to stage a winter production for the first time, the available space at The Frontier lent itself well to a small cast and intimate staging.

Hence, Eleemosynary--which essentially means "relating to alms or charity" and is one of many big words adorning Samantha Barr's beguiling set design;  believe me, I had to look up paronymous, charivari, favonian, sortilege and more--isn't a play overtly tied to current times.

But that's, in good part, what I liked about it.

Only once did a trifling reference make me think of our current president, and it was nice to be immersed in a universal drama ostensibly about the interpersonal distances that can develop among those closest to us, not a contemporary sociopolitical polemic.

With just three characters, the pacing is brisk and dialogue intriguing, as the play begins with Echo caring for Dorothea after the latter has suffered a stroke.

And in ways likely much more politically relevant than may seem obvious, it was interesting to note the dynamic between three generations of women who seem to have both a lot and not much in common.

Teen girls clashing with their mothers may not seem all that revelatory, but imagine if yours tried to get you to fly--literally, with self-made wings--as Dorothea does here to Artie, in a flashback.

This is just the most visceral moment of disconnect in the play, but throughout the point seems to be made--of no small relevance today--that the most important communication may be with those it seems most difficult.

Dorothea, Artie and Echo appear to be quite different within the play itself--some of the reasons for which Blessing's script smartly addresses--but that no one would likely imagine these three actresses to be related, without it mattering in the slightest, not only furthers the overarching themes of the play, but subtly makes it more "political."

And rather directly resonant.

I can't quite call Eleemosynary sensational--or some fancier synonym for it--as I don't think I was ever quite moved to the degree I should have been.

But it's yet another example of stellar work I've regularly seen from Aston Rep and/or director Bertelsen. And for a rather small investment of time and money (check HotTix), you can see an interesting play and--so close to the "L" you hear the trains rattle--three rather elevated performances.

I've liked Bennett quite a bit previously--particularly in Aston Rep's Wit, a play I raved about long before The Hypocrites' version recently received similar praise--and though I haven't knowingly seen Rodkin, she's clearly a pro with the dexterity to make Dorothea outrageously exasperating yet subtly lovable.

So it is with no slight to the other two women that I say appreciatively, the work here by Lo is really something to behold.

Not only does the young actress hold her own with a pair of stalwarts, her ability to balance the tricky multifaceted emotionality of Echo--callous Spelling Bee hyper-competitiveness in one scene, crying on command tenderness in the next--is, ultimately, what makes Eleemosynary most coruscant. (Just click to look it up.)

And for me, appreciating the arts, our differences, similarities, challenges and simply one another, is just about the most important--and impactful--thing we can do in these political times.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Feel Free to Consider These Oscar Predictions Blah Blah Bland -- The 89th Academy Awards, Feb. 26, 2017

I love musicals, both live on stage and on celluloid (or DVD, Blu Ray or streaming digital code).

As I write this, three feet away is a rack containing over 75 prime film musicals, including classics like Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, On the Town, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Oliver and The Fiddler on the Roof, lesser-known oldies like The Pirate, The Band Wagon, Funny Face and Cover Girl, atypical musicals such as A Hard Day's Night, Moulin Rouge and 8 Mile, and anything recent & worthwhile, such as Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables and Into the Woods.

I also own, digitally, Jacques Demy's wondrous The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and have seen and enjoyed, though a bit less, its successor The Young Girls of Rochefort.

And from the time I first heard about it, and saw its trailer, there was no 2016 movie I anticipated more than La La Land, which was clearly influenced by many of the above. 

In Chicago, it was released on the same weekend as Rogue One, the latest Star Wars film. I wound up seeing both the same day, but La La Land first and more eagerly.

Having heard good things from critics I respect and friends with whom I often concur, I wanted and expected to love the film, and thought the opening sequence--as hokey as a massive traffic jam singalong may sound to some--was brilliant.

Emma Stone is absolutely beguiling and her chemistry with the likewise superb Ryan Gosling is terrific.

I admire the chutzpah it took for Damien Chazelle to get such a labor of love made--still just 32, the clearly gifted writer/director had to find success with Whiplash (which I also didn't love as much as some) before getting backing for La La Land, which he had written earlier.

And I like what I had previously heard from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who had written music & lyrics for A Christmas Story: The Musical and current Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen, though here just the lyrics.

Justin Hurwitz, a Harvard classmate of Chazelle's composed the music for La La Land, and before I went to see the film, I made a point of listening to the soundtrack on Spotify a few times. There are some nice tunes on it.

And you know what? I really liked La La Land and look forward to seeing it again, probably even buying the Blu-ray when it's released. 

But I don't think it's anywhere near the best movie of 2016 or on par with some of the truly great movie musicals of the past.

And though it's the favorite and likely will win Best Picture at the Oscars tonight, I don't think it should.

Except for Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, I've seen all the other Best Picture nominees, and many films up for awards in other major categories.

Though I don't really care who wins the Oscars, it's fun as sport for film buffs, and thus I'll once again devote a blog post to suggesting who I think will and should win, and who else I would've nominated. 

Those who may care what I think will probably have seen my Best Movies of 2016 post at year end, and I'll note that since I wrote it, I've seen Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures, Best Foreign Language Film Nominee The Salesman and Best Documentary nominee I Am Not Your Negro. All were excellent.

I did not see every movie in every category--particularly the Shorts--so in some cases I'll refrain from any forecasting or note my limited purview. To see all the nominees, you can click the nearby ballot image to enlarge it, or download it from TheGoldKnight.com

Best Picture
Will win: La La Land
Should win: Manchester by the Sea
Deserved a nomination: Loving, Sing Street
Didn't see among nominees: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Director
Will win: Damien Chazelle - La La Land
Should win: Kenneth Lonergan - Manchester by the Sea

Best Actor
Will and should win: Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea
Deserved a nomination: Joel Edgerton - Loving
Didn't see: Andrew Garfield, Viggo Mortensen

Best Actress
Will and should win: Emma Stone - La La Land
Deserved a nomination: Amy Adams - Arrival or Nocturnal Animals
Didn't see: Meryl Street, Isabelle Huppert, Annette Bening (not nominated for 20th Century Women)

Best Supporting Actor
Will and should win: Mahershala Ali - Moonlight
Deserved a nomination: Ben Foster - Hell or High Water, Jack Reynor - Sing Street

Best Supporting Actress
Will and should win: Viola Davis - Fences
Deserved a nomination: Sarah Gadon - Indignation

Best Original Screenplay
Will and should win: Manchester by the Sea

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will and should win: Moonlight
Deserved a nomination: Indignation

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: O.J.: Made in America
Should win of those I saw: I Am Not Your Negro
Didn't see: O.J.: Made in America, Life, Animated, Fire at Sea

Best Foreign Language Film
Will and should win: The Salesman
Didn't see any other nominees

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Zootopia
Should win: Kubo and the Two Strings
Didn't see: My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle

Best Cinematography
Will win: La La Land
Should win (of those I saw): Arrival
Didn't see: Silence
Deserved a nomination: Nocturnal Animals, Hell or High Water

Best Costume Design
Will and should win: Jackie
Didn't see: Fantastic Beasts..., Allied, Florence Foster Jenkins
Deserved a nomination: Sing Street

Best Film Editing
Will win: La La Land
Should win: Moonlight 
Didn't see: Hacksaw Ridge
Deserved a nomination: Manchester by the Sea, Jackie
Best Original Score
Will and should win: La La Land
Deserved a nomination: Sing Street
Didn't see: Passengers

Best Original Song
Will and should win: "How Far I'll Go" from Moana
Will be excited to see Lin-Manuel Miranda win; would give him a career EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) at the age of 37.
Deserved a nomination: "Brown Shoes" from Sing Street

Best Production Design
Will and should win: La La Land
Deserved a nomination: Rogue One
Didn't see: Fantastic Beasts..., Passengers

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Will win: Star Trek Beyond
Didn't see any of the nominees

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Rogue One
Should win (of those I saw): Kubo and the Two Strings
Didn't see the other 3 nominees

Best Sound Editing
Will and should win: La La Land
Didn't see: Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, Sully
Best Sound Mixing
Will and should win: La La Land
Didn't see: Hacksaw Ridge, 13 Hours... 

Friday, February 24, 2017

First Ever Full Show by Wilco at the Chicago Theatre Feels Quite Homey -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act The Flat Five
Chicago Theatre
February 22, 2017
(Also playing 2/23, 25, 26)

Some--whether regular readers of my reviews who know my tendencies on a @@@@@ scale, or those who attended Wednesday's Wilco concert and found it absolutely phenomenal--might see my @@@@ rating above and perceive that while I liked the show more than not, I have some gripes about it.

This wouldn't be a crazy thought, especially when it comes to the erstwhile Chicago folk-rock combo, who I've now seen as a headline act 11 times over the past 15 years and more often than not bestow @@@@ for their proclivity to keep their setlists more mellow and esoteric than I would prefer.

And such is pretty much the case once again.

Yet while @@@@@ or @@@@1/2 denotes a concert (or musical, play, opera, etc.) I loved to the point of urging others to attend at the next opportunity, per my Reviews Key at right @@@@ = Excellent, which I think of as a show I enjoyed and am entirely glad to have attended, just not one of the very best of dozens I see. 

This seems to be where Wilco fits in for me as a live act and--though I have more robustly rated and raved about shows where they've rocked out rigorously--I wouldn't want this taken as anything but a positive review. 

And I wouldn't even dare suggest Wilco should change anything to please me more.

By a band I very much like, this was an excellent concert, just to a @@@@ level rather than beyond. 

It was, however, made all the more special by being at the Chicago Theatre, my favorite local concert venue, with a good main floor seat at that (though I stood through Wilco's set with everyone else). 

Oddly, the quintessential Chicago band--though I prefer the Smashing Pumpkins at their peak--had only once previously played the glorious, 3,600-seat former movie palace on State Street, where they would seem to fit perfectly.

And that was just a guest slot on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in May 2006, where the evening's first guest on the visiting NBC show was a junior U.S. Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

No, I didn't remember that, but Tweedy did and mentioned it from the stage, in between genial appreciation for being "back home" and some mild, then harsher comments about our new President.

In his longest harangue on Wednesday, the singer and guitarist, who had gotten some online flack for remarks supporting basic human decency and dignity--seen by some as anti-Trump--said:

"If you voted for Trump, and don't want me to say anything about him, just remember, you voted for a reality TV star.

I'm going to say whatever the fuck I want to. We're going to persist and we're going to resist."

Formed by Tweedy 23 years ago, from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo (with Jay Farrar), Wilco continues to sell every ticket they put on sale in Chicago.

Wednesday was their first show of 2017, and the opening of a 4-gig Wilco Winterlude at the Chicago.

Tweedy joked that the band had to relearn songs they had last played "in a simpler time."

Opening the evening were The Flat Five, whose easygoing stylings were largely ruined by two dumb-asses behind me conversing loudly throughout their 40-minute set.

Then at 8:30pm, six months and a day since I had last seen them, on a February evening nearly as temperate as that August night under the stars at Millennium Park--accompanied now by a friend named Alison who happens to share my last name and is therefore a homonym with sister, who was with me then--the six members of Wilco took the stage.

I didn't give much thought to their opening song, "Ashes of American Flags" at the time, but given Tweedy's subsequent remarks about the times in which we now find ourselves, I doubt the selection was coincidental.

As referenced above, Wilco has a tendency to slow-groove for awhile, and though everything they played sounded good, the first half of the 24-song set was dominated by newer and/or lesser known songs, including from 2016's Schmilco album.

A couple of gems from 1996's Being There and 1999's Summerteeth--"Misunderstood" and "Via Chicago," the night's only representatives from my two favorite Wilco albums--were mixed in early, with the cacophonous thunder bursts of the latter soon leading to greater sonic excitement.

Some great guitar leads from Nels Cline powered a blistering end to "Impossible Germany," and it was great to hear "Box Full of Letters" from Wilco's 1995 debut A.M., "Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and "Hummingbird," among others.

Though I've heard them plenty of times, I was hoping for "Shot in the Arm," "Monday," "Outtasite (Outta Mind)," "I'm Always in Love" or some other early rockers in the encores, but I realize these are probably being spread out over the residency.

A terrific 10-minute romp through "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" seemed to end the evening, but I was delighted to see the band come back onstage for a closing "California Stars."

And even more so was my friend Alison, who had gotten married to the song Wilco composed with Billy Bragg to previously unheard music by Woody Guthrie.

That legendary folk troubadour never shied from mixing his social and political beliefs into his music, and Wilco seems content to travel a similar road.

Perhaps particularly when it brings them back home.

Wilco's show at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday, February 25, will be broadcast on WXRT and streamed worldwide on 93XRT.com.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Does 'Mamma Mia!' Retain All Its Joys in Marriott's Intimate, In-the-Round Setting? Abba-solutely! -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mamma Mia
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru April 16

I've seen dozens of musicals at Marriott Theatre over the years, and can't think of one I didn't enjoy, with many I truly relished.

Part of the Marriott Resort in Lincolnshire, IL, featuring in-the-round seating and attracting what's been purported as the largest subscriber base in the country, the theater began operations in 1980.

When I first started attending at the beginning of this century, indoctrinated to musical theater as a kid but not having seen many shows in adulthood, the Marriott served as a great venue to catch fine renditions of classics of the canon.

These included Damn Yankees, 1776, Funny Girl and The Pajama Game, none of which I've seen produced elsewhere, even as I became a vociferous musical theater attendee across Chicago and occasionally in New York, London and elsewhere.

But now, much of what I see at Marriott--aside from their bold, original commissions like Hero and October Sky--are musicals I've seen elsewhere, typically in much larger venues.

As I'm typically relegated to nosebleed seats at, for instance, the Loop's cavernous Oriental and Palace Theatres, the intimacy at Marriott is always welcome.

And part of the fun of going there is noting how well talented directors, choreographers, set & costume designers, musicians and actors are able to replicate the essence of musicals that once had far more grandiose scenery.

To the credit of everyone involved, I'm usually exuberantly impressed; Marriott's takes on Les Misérables, La Cage Aux Folles, Spring Awakening and Man of La Mancha still stand out as particularly remarkable, among many other fine productions.

But especially in writing reviews, I often wonder if Marriott's excellent distillations of shows I've seen on a larger scale are providing holistic introductions to the source material; i.e. are patrons seeing musicals for the first time in-the-round--where no scenery can block the view of audience members on all sides--getting the full effect?

More so than possibly ever, with the ebullient current rendition of Mamma Mia!, I would say, "Yes!"

Certainly it helps that the musical in which songs by Sweden's legendary ABBA quartet are employed to tell an original story--still describable as "slight" but far better than those of myriad "jukebox musicals" to follow--has always delighted me and still does.

Loosely defined, jukebox musicals--which use pre-existing and typically popular songs, rather than those newly composed for the stage--have long been around, with classic tunes by the likes of George Gershwin and Cole Porter being compiled into "new" musicals.

But in terms of those using rock or pop music, Mamma Mia!--which debuted in London in 1999--can be regarded as the first (excepting perhaps The Who's Tommy, which turned a recorded rock opera into a stage musical).

I first saw it on tour in Chicago in 2001--well before it hit Broadway--and soon after in Melbourne, Australia, as well three other times before now. 

Though quite popular and beloved from the get-go, the ABBA musical--with a book by Catherine Johnson weaving together songs written by the group's two male "B" members, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus--has generally garnered comments along the lines of "It's not Shakespeare" about its storyline.

But the narrative about a 20-year-old girl living in the Greek Islands with her mother--having never been told who her father is among three possible candidates and impulsively inviting them to her upcoming wedding behind mom's back--incorporates the title song, "Chiquitita," "One of Us," "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All" and other ABBA tunes so well that oblivious audience members would likely not suspect they weren't specifically written for this show.

And with the single mom, Donna Sheridan (nicely played here by Danni Smith) having been a former singer in a trio with pals who arrive for the wedding, high energy ABBA hits like "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trouper" are also wonderfully worked in without feeling shoehorned.

In Lincolnshire, the soon-to-be-wed Sophie is delightfully embodied by Tiffany Tatreau, a young actress who has become one of my favorites in Chicagoland over the past 15 months, beginning with Ride the Cyclone--a new musical staged at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre under the direction of Rachel Rockwell, who helms this Mamma Mia!--and continuing with a string of shows at Marriott (Spring Awakening, Sister Act) and elsewhere (Griffin Theatre's Bat Boy).

So I found it rather fun that when Mamma Mia! begins with two of Sophie's BFFs arriving for her wedding, one of them is played by Lillian Castillo, who I fondly recall alongside Tatreau in both Ride the Cyclone and Sister Act.

The redheaded Tatreau makes for a rather spirited Sophie, and amiably handles interactions with her mom, "dads" (Derek Hasenstab as Bill Austin, Karl Hamilton as Harry Bright and Peter Saide as Sam Carmichael) and fiance Sky (Russell Mernagh).

I was again reminded how often funny, and occasionally risque, Mamma Mia! is, with Donna's old singing partners, Tanya (Meghan Murphy) and Rosie (Cassie Slater), making for wonderful comic relief.

The unseen band hits all the right notes, the almost entirely Equity cast is excellent throughout, costume designer Theresa Ham works in some dazzling hues, choreographer Ericka Mac makes good use of the square stage and, under the always dynamic direction of Rockwell, set designer Scott Davis clever compensates for Marriott's spatial considerations, which precluded the typical white & blue Greek taverna (which Donna owns) as a central stage piece, but smartly works it in nonetheless.

I last saw a "downtown" Mamma Mia! in November 2015, and it likewise reiterated just how much I like this show.

But there was something about finally seeing this "island musical" up close that made it especially buoyant, and though I could quibble about a couple of the primary vocal timbres or point to a few of the cast members seeming notably young for their parts, the truth is that I had a smile on my face throughout the whole thing and couldn't wait to dance in the aisles during the "encore."

"You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life," goes ABBA's quintessential "Dancing Queen," and with my mom alongside, indeed I was.

If you've seen and loved Mamma Mia! before, you should certainly be smitten by this rendition, and if you've never taken a chance on this once newly-cheeky but now nearly-classic musical, the answer to "Voulez-Vouz" (do you want (to)?) should be rather apparent by now.

"I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do."