Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Bird Lives, but Without All That Jazz, 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird' Opera Only Somewhat Soars -- Chicago Opera / Jazz Review

Opera / Jazz Review

Charlie Parker's Yardbird
an opera by Lyric Unlimited
followed by a performance by
The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic
Harris Theater, Chicago
Friday, March 24, 2017
(Also, Sunday, March 26)
@@@1/2 (rating for opera only)

Even as an only mildly-cultivated jazz lover, the name Charlie Parker is eminently hallowed.

Although in terms of legendary saxophone players, I'm more inclined to listen to John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon--and recently learned of Hank Mobley and bought his excellent Soul Station album--I have nothing but the utmost appreciation for "Bird" (a nickname shortened from another, "Yardbird") and how he revolutionized jazz and helped create bebop.

So when I heard about a show called Charlie Parker's Yardbird some time ago, I instantly took note.

Though it was only a few days before attending that I actually read much about it, realized that although presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago--under their Lyric Unlimited banner--it was taking place at the Harris Theater, and bought myself a ticket.

With music by Daniel Schnyder and libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly, Charlie Parker's Yardbird was first produced at Opera Philadelphia and subsequently in New York City and Madison, WI, before a 2-performance run in Chicago.

And rather than loosely interpreting "opera" with a score heavily reflecting the type of jazz made by Parker--who died in 1955 at just age 34--the 90-minute work is sung in traditional opera style.

Certainly, the vocal caliber of Lawrence Brownlee as Parker--and those of Angela Brown (as his mom, Addie), Rachel Sterrenberg (as one of his wives, Chan), Will Liverman (as Bird's famed collaborator, Dizzy Gillespie, Julie Miller (as his patron & friend Baroness Nica, in whose residence he died) and others--sounded impressive to me.

With an attractive backdrop (by set designer Riccardo Hernandez) spelling out BIRDLAND, its letters filled with images of other jazz icons, I had no reason to discern that the opera as written--and as directed by Ron Daniels--was not performed exceptionally well.

I enjoyed it at face value, and especially as it was followed by a terrific performance by the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic of works recorded and popularized by Charlie Parker, I was glad to have snagged a relatively inexpensive ticket.

But while I liked Charlie Parker's Yardbird, I didn't love it. And though this would keep with my usual stipulation about opera--that I don't feel it like I do rock 'n roll, Broadway or even great jazz--here I felt the biographical narrative about Parker was just far too sketchy.

Scenes segued in a way that those coming to this show without prior familiarity could really be confused about just who Chan, Nica and others were--and what they meant to Bird.

And while we saw Charlie together with Dizzy, and struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, no real insights were provided about Bird's jazz innovations, or the underpinings of the heroin addiction that would lead to his premature passing.

But most, or simplest, of all, there just wasn't enough jazz in this show for my tastes.

Yes, the score by the Swiss-American Schnyder wove in traces of bebop, but they were never front and center (or ever performed by anyone onstage).

I don't know if rights clearance issues dictated some of the musical decisions, but rather than being the jazz opera I had hoped, this was a straightforward--if short and English-sung--classical music opera that happens to be about a jazz legend.

I have absolutely no issue with modern yet stylistically traditional operas about unique subjects. Just last month, I loved Chicago Opera Theater's The Invention of Morel, composed by Stewart Copeland of The Police, and Lyric's 2015 The Passenger, regarding the Holocaust, was one of the best things I've ever seen there.

Other reviews I've seen of Charlie Parker's Yardbird--of this production and past ones--seem qualitatively aligned with mine, which is more positive than not, even if not a rave.

So it isn't that I'm downgrading this opera simply for not hewing closer to my desires. But yes, I would have enjoyed far more (pronounced) jazz and some deeper insights into what made Bird chirp.

As it stands--and this review is moot for most reading it as the Chicago run is done, though future stagings are likely around the country and world--the subject was sufficient to pull me in and generally keep me interested.

And the performers were excellent.

...including, quite notably, in the brief post-opera concert, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic saxophonist Rajim Halim Orozco, trumpeter Chris Davis, pianist Darwin Noguera, drummer Clif Wallace and bassist Junius Paul.

But with much due respect to those in and involved with Charlie Parker's Yardbird, I think I honestly would have better enjoyed 90 more minutes of live Bird-bred jazz from the CJP.

And simply watching/hearing this Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie clip on YouTube (and others like it), while reading the Wikipedia entry on Parker, probably provides a clearer understanding as to why--62 years after the legend's death--jazz aficionados still like to enthuse:

"Bird Lives!"

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Excellent Exhibition Spiritually Showcases the Abstract Passion of Terry Firkins

Art Exhibition Spotlight

The Saddest Happy Ending
The Passion Through the Eyes of Peter
Mixed media abstracts by Terry Firkins
The Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, Chicago
Thru April 2

As much as I love art, and not just at the museum level, I rarely visit art galleries and have almost never attended opening receptions of gallery exhibitions.

But then, I don't recall ever being invited.

So when I was, to an exhibition by Terry Firkins, a friend of a friend, I was happy to be able to get to it last Friday evening.

Dubbed The Saddest Happy Ending and subtitled "The Passion Through the Eyes of Peter," the exhibit--running through next Sunday--features a few dozen mixed media abstracts.

Most of these--per the gallery promo card--"study the final drama in the life of Jesus from the imaginary perspective of his closest disciple. Each work, drawn from Biblical as well as historical references, humanizes an individual event from The Passion."

Crucifixion by Terry Firkins
All of this, and other spiritual influences, may well abet your appreciation of the paintings, but even as a Jew with no clue about the allusions being drawn, I simply liked the dynamism of what I saw at face value.

My sense as I told Firkins, who voiced some validity, was of a catfight on canvas between Kandinsky and de Kooning.

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to buy one of Terry's paintings--even as they seem reasonably priced for an artist long exhibited in Chicago, New York and Milwaukee galleries, and held in collections worldwide--but if I could have I would have.

Though always happy to support the artistic endeavors of friends and not above giving them a plug, I can honestly say these paintings are of a style and quality I would take note of anywhere--from art fairs to major museums (and I've been to well over 150 of the latter).

Accompanying "The Passion" pieces was a smaller selection of smaller works figuratively crucifying our current president--abstractly and rather drolly--with titles such as Donald J. Trump Takes the Oath of Office as a Crazy Rabbit and Donald J. Trump Takes the Oath of Office as a Jackalope (as shown left to right).

The exhibition took place in the gallery space of a beautiful building at 1012 N. Dearborn housing the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, which has existed since 1895.

As seems to be standard per the gallery openings I've seen on TV, a selection of wine and cheese was served.

But I found it to be a rather low key, decidedly unpretentious affair, and enjoyed the chance to speak to Terry about his paintings.

I'll include a few more of the paintings below, but especially with no admission fee--or pushy gallery personnel--it certainly can be worth your while to stop by and take a gander.

The gallery is open weekdays from 11am-7pm and Terry Firkins will be on hand next Saturday & Sunday from 11am-3pm.

You can also see his work--though not yet the current exhibition--on his website, which showcases paintings in a variety of mediums and styles, including several landscapes and city street scenes.

Terry Firkins with The Unforgiven
Detail from Descent from the Cross by Terry Firkins
Palm Sunday by Terry Firkins
Crow by Terry Firkins
Mount of Olives by Terry Firkins

Friday, March 24, 2017

Fairly Melodramatic: Fun 'Destiny of Desire' Turns Telenovelas Into Theater -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Destiny of Desire
a recent play by Karen Zacarías
directed by José Luis Valenzuela
Goodman Theatre, Chicago 
Thru April 16

I appreciate myriad art forms across numerous idioms and genres.

Yet I have never watched what is possibly the world's most popular type of entertainment:

The telenovela.

I would say this is in large part because I don't speak or understand Spanish, yet I am completely comfortable watching subtitled movies of any foreign language.

But neither do I watch daytime American soap operas, which--except for continuing for decades rather than concluding after a couple hundred episodes--are said to be stylistically similar to telenovelas, hugely popular in Latin America and many other parts of the world.

Always happy for new experiences--especially those furthering my cultural awareness--and eager to see live theater broaden its demographic reach, I applaud Chicago's Goodman Theatre for staging Karen Zacarías' Destiny of Desire, essentially a 2-1/2 hour telenovela live on stage.

Photo Credit on all: Liz Lauren
Albeit with only a cursory concept of the televised form, I believe Zacarías, director José Luis Valenzuela and a Latinx cast--largely repeating their roles in Chicago after a co-production by the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA--have done a fine and fun job of translating the telenovela into an enjoyable piece of English-language theater.

The Prince and the Pauper-type premise involves baby daughters being switched at birth among rich and poor families in the fictional town of Bellarica, Mexico.

After the actors leisurely take the stage with the houselights up, early scenes involve scheming by one of the mothers, Fabiola (Ruth Livier)--who is married to powerful casino owner Armando Castillo (Castulo Guerra) and unwilling to reveal that her infant was born with some frailties--aided by Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza (Ricardo Gutierrez) and a begrudgingly complicit nun, Sister Sonia (Evelina Fernandez).

The other parents, Ernesto and Hortencia (Maurico Mendoza and Elisa Bocanegra) are unaware of the baby swap, and most of the play takes place after the two girls--Victoria (Ella Saldana North) and Pilar (Esperanza America)--have turned 18.

Dr. Mendoza's son Diego (Fidel Gomez), who is also a doctor, and Armando's son Sebastian (Eduardo Enrikez) round out the 11-person cast of characters, aside from onstage pianist Rosino Serrano--this isn't a musical but there is a good amount of live music--who also has a small speaking role.

Even if I could accurately tell you more of the plotline machinations, I wouldn't as there is a considerable amount of humor in all the entanglements--and even a fair amount of mystery.

Far more than not I enjoyed Destiny of Desire, which makes for a robust evening of entertainment while presenting something a bit different upon the Goodman stage.

Although I tend to imagine that true telenovela aficionados would prefer prime examples on TV more than this theatrical interpretation, it's certainly possible that others--of any cultural background, but particularly those familiar with sources for Zacarías' shrewd satire--could like this show considerably more than me.

For while it made for enjoyable entertainment, with a good dollop of cultural enlightenment, it felt rather transient and even forgettable. (Without meaning to insult anyone's tastes, this is basically my perception of soap operas in general.)

And I probably would have enjoyed Destiny of Desire just as much--if not more so--if it was an hour shorter. 

For the right price on the right night (or afternoon), this unique, well-executed presentation should make for a good time.

If it brings people to the Goodman who don't often attend theater, that's even better.

But were a continuation of Destiny of Desire to be mounted in the coming months, I don't think I'd feel much need to tune in anew.

And since seeing it on Sunday afternoon, I've felt no inclination to seek out any actual telenovelas.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Forever Wild: Happily Paying Homage to Heroes, Willie Nile Has Readily Become One -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile
w/ opening act Nicholas Tremulis
SPACE, Evanston, IL
March 17, 2017

Chances are, if you're reading this you already know of Willie Nile--whether as a long-time fan of an artist active for decades, someone like me who came to know of him more recently via his friendship with Bruce Springsteen, or because of me, as this is the fifth rave concert review I've written about him since 2011. (I also loved him the first time I saw him in 2009, before I was blogging regularly.)

But if you are a complete Nile neophyte, perhaps the best way I can describe him in shorthand is to note the first songs played Friday night at SPACE in Evanston, IL. (I posted this setlist to

Though good, and hailing from 2016's World Wide Willie album, these are neither his best nor most emblematic songs.

But "Forever Wild" sees the rock 'n roll survivor--who was poised to be a "next big thing" after his stellar 1980 debut album but never quite became one--looking back with wistfulness yet ahead with buoyancy.

And "Grandpa Rocks" amply denotes that even as a doting grandfather of four, the 68-year-old Nile--who Uncut Magazine once called "a one-man Clash"--is far from ready to go gently into any night.

Nile is an excellent songwriter who has had a succession of strong albums in recent years--2006's Streets of New York was my starting point and still my favorite--and almost anything he plays live with his crack 4-piece band comes off well.

Particularly so from just a few feet away, as I was in the comfortable quarters of SPACE, where I have seen Nile the last three times.

After the opening two songs, the Buffalo, NY native played "Life on Bleecker Street," reflecting his current Manhattan residence but also--indirectly--celebrating that roadway's importance on arts & music, including venues in Greenwich Village and the former CBGBs club at the center of the New York punk scene.

With Matt Hogan often dazzling on guitar, other Nile originals came off sumptuously, including "The Innocent Ones," "Heaven Help the Lonely" and "Give Me Tomorrow," on which Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis--who had opened the show with a nice hourlong solo set ending with a beautiful cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy"--joined Nile's band.

(In years past, I've seen the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra serve as Nile's backing band, but along with Hogan, bassist Johnny Pisano and a drummer I can't cite beyond a first name of John now seem rather constant as the touring band.)

The Irish-tinged "Beautiful Wreck of the World" was a treat on St. Patrick's Day, and after Willie played the poignant "The Crossing" solo on piano, an extended "Love is a Train" was one of the show's highlights.

Along with the music, it's always fun to hear Willie Nile tell stories about his interactions with more famous friends, admirers and collaborators (without ever feeling like braggadocio or brazen name dropping).

Friday night he mentioned U2 a couple times, and Martin Scorsese.

And he's never shy about paying overt homage to musical heroes--of his, and typically mine, too, though in Nile's case he can call some of them actual friends.

Preceded by saying he was working on an album of Bob Dylan cover songs, first came a rocking version of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," which you may recognize more as "everybody must get stoned."

And a few songs later, with Tremulis back onstage, a version of Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane"--which closes out World War Willie--was a blistering, blissful delight that, stunningly, got even better as it segued into David Bowie's "Heroes."

These tributes to Lou Reed and Bowie nearly made me cry, and I caught much of it on video. (See below.)

After his own anthemic "One Guitar," Nile ended the night with a romp though The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night."

Though, as usual, I said hello to Willie after the show and had a photo taken, I don't pretend to know him or the psychology that has accompanied his long career.

Back in 1980, Nile was heralded by Pete Townshend and hand-picked to open for The Who, but not only did his career never truly take off, he had long hiatuses between albums and I only learned of him less than 10 years ago.

But though far from the household name of some of his chums and contemporaries, Nile not only still puts on a scintillating rock show, he seems happy to keep doing so as long as he's able whenever a few hundred enthusiastic fans show up, as they did at SPACE.

So while I sometimes wish that this blog could have a greater audience and influence, so that smaller acts I repeatedly rave about--like Willie Nile--might perhaps play, deservedly, to thousands at a time, during Friday's show he spoke of never having much taste or need for fame.

He just seems to love writing and performing his music, unconcerned with the levels of stardom he never attained.

Hence, while I don't expect yet another sparkling Seth Saith review will generate tons of new Willie Nile fans, I enjoyed seeing him once again, and writing about him anew.

That's enough, and even more than enough.

And between his own music and that of hallowed performers we both love, Willie Nile--though small of stature and unlikely to be recognized by much of the public--doesn't just intertwine with some of the all-time greats, for me he rightfully stands among them.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Novel Insights: Colson Whitehead Speaks About 'The Underground Railroad,' Inspiring Me to Read It

Lecture Recap / Book Discussion

Colson Whitehead
Author of The Underground Railroad
Speaking February 27, 2017
at Evanston Township High School

Thursday morning on Facebook, I expressed consternation about President Trump's proposed budget eliminating all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Although the annual budgets of these organizations represent 0.001 of the President's 2018 budget--which adds $54 billion in defense spending--and in sum would cost about a third of the silly border wall that I thought "Mexico will pay for," their existence, and those they help and inspire, are clearly irrelevant to Trump.

If there is one underlying theme to the Seth Saith blog, it is a testament to the importance of arts and culture--for me personally in myriad ways, for society as a whole and for the entirety of human endeavor.

In stark contrast to President Trump's position on the arts and government programs that support them, a friend surfaced a meme noting that during World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts.

To which he replied, "Then what are we fighting for?"

While I hope city, state, corporate, foundation and private funding of the arts will mushroom as Humpty Trumpty sits on his wall, it isn't hard to imagine the crushing consequences on artists of all idioms and ilks if the federal government indeed closes its checkbook on benevolent and developmental cultural resources.

Although I saw the author Colson Whitehead deliver a public lecture at Evanston Township High School three weeks ago--which was presented by the Family Action Network, a community-based organization working with ETHS and New Trier High School that appears supported by a mix of public and private sponsors--as I prepared to write this piece I couldn't help but think of the relevancy of Trump's aims to defund the arts, and how detrimental such actions could be to writers like Whitehead and those who may follow in his footsteps.

The 47-year-old Whitehead has been, by various measures and degrees, a "successful writer" since graduating from Harvard in 1991.

He initially wrote for The Village Voice and earned high praise for his first novel, 1999's The Intuitionist.

Per Wikipedia, he's written several other novels, non-fiction books, essays and articles for prestigious magazines, has taught at Princeton, Columbia, NYU and other top institutions, and received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships plus numerous other awards.

His latest novel, The Underground Railroad, was a selection of Oprah's Book Club 2.0, cited by President Obama as a book he was reading last summer, became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016.

And yet, I had never heard of Whitehead or The Underground Railroad until my friend Dave--a much more voracious reader than I--mentioned that the author would be doing some local speaking appearances.

I wasn't initially inclined to seek more details, but took note when I happened to see a flyer--as shown at top--in the window of Northfield's Taco Nano (more on them in an upcoming blog post) on the day of Whitehead's ETHS engagement.

The event was open to the public and free of charge, and was being held in the auditorium of Evanston High School, a renowned campus on which I had never stepped foot. (I imagined ETHS alums like John & Joan Cusack, Jeremy Piven, Michael Shannon and others may have cut their acting teeth in that very room, but the auditorium seemed quite new, so perhaps not.)

Just the previous week, I had seen a small exhibit of photographs on the Underground Railroad--a safe-passage route for escaped slaves during the Civil War--at the Evanston History Center (which I wrote about in this piece).

Although a quick bit of Googling revealed Whitehead's book to be a work of fiction--it imagines an interstate subway-like network of actual trains used by runaway slaves--it felt well worth my time to hear a renowned writer speak close to my home.

Before attending I watched a few minutes of a Talks at Google video in which Whitehead said things similar to what he discussed in Evanston, so if this piece prompts your curiosity, check it out.

And at the event, I bought a copy of The Underground Railroad from Winnetka's The Book Stall. Colson Whitehead had signed a few before heading into his presentation, and this saved me waiting in a long line afterwards.

I've now read the book, so although I'll mainly focus on aspects of the author's speech, I can also (somewhat) intelligently make reference to the novel.

Whitehead had read a couple excerpts as part of his prepared remarks and Q&A that lasted a bit over an hour.

This was on Monday, February 27 and the next day, Whitehead would speak twice at New Trier, at the Loyola University School of Law and at Francis Parker School in Chicago.

The vast ETHS auditorium was nearly full, and Whitehead was supposedly heard by over 5,000 people at his Chicagoland stops.

Preceded and warmly introduced by local dignitaries and educators, Whitehead opened by observing:

"I usually spend Monday nights at home in my apartment weeping over my regrets."

This was obviously a self-deprecating line that elicited laughter, but in the Talks at Google video he had mentioned "nursing a depression" when inspiration struck for The Underground Railroad.

This latter part was referencing 17 years ago and I won't surmise anyone's psychological being based on a couple of brief statements, but the combination of these remarks ignited my pathos for the life of a writer, even one as clearly gifted as Whitehead, who lives with his wife and kids in Brooklyn but noted that his job essentially entails sitting in a room by himself for hours on end.

And as a descendant of slaves, putting his heart and soul into The Underground Railroad--which begins by vividly describing the excruciating existence of slaves on a Georgia plantation--was presumably emotionally draining for Whitehead, who mentioned that "Melatonin helps" when asked how he got to sleep each night while writing it.

Yet while candid, the author's speech was more enlightening, humorous and uplifting than it was maudlin.

Sharing that as a child who loved to stay indoors and devoured the works of many authors, including Stephen King, Whitehead joked that he once planned on writing "The Black Shining," while also expressing a fascination with Samuel Beckett.

He conveyed that he "learned to be a writer" while at The Village Voice from 1991-97, while glibly describing how the weekly New York paper perpetually "went downhill after I left" in the eyes of ex-staffers throughout its history.

But plum assignments certainly didn't come instantly, as Whitehead's first piece--after cajoling and impressing editors--was about season finales of the Growing Pains and Who's the Boss sitcoms.

Whitehead went on to reflect on some of his early novels, how daunting it was to pursue a career as a writer when an "average book of literary fiction sells 5,000 copies...if you're lucky" and that as a "skinny black man with slender wrists and feminine fingers" he was heartened when another such individual became President.

I can't exactly explain the segue, but one of the evening's coolest moments came when Whitehead pontificated about the Donna Summer song, "MacArthur Park." (Written by Jimmy Webb, it was also famously sung by Richard Harris and others.)

While others have often derided the song's melodramatic lyrics, such as:

Someone left the cake out in the rain 
I don't think that I can take it 
'Cause it took so long to bake it 
And I'll never have that recipe again

...Whitehead expressed non-ironic affinity while identifying with "MacArthur Park" as an "investigation of the artist's journey," representing to him the reality of rejection letters, disinterest and caustic treatment by publishers.

He even played a recording of the song on a tablet, prompting a hearty singalong:

It was only later in his talk that Colson Whitehead spoke of The Underground Railroad with any depth, before reading passages from it.

He noted that the conceit of an actual underground railroad train, transporting escaped slaves from state-to-state--each representing a different experience for 19th Century African-Americans--was something he had thought about as a kid and initially considered as a book subject 17 years ago.

But he didn't feel ready, believing he needed to hone his skills writing other novels first.

Three years ago, Whitehead told his idea--which draws structural inspiration from Gulliver's Travels--to his editor, shrink and wife, the latter convincing him it was more worth pursuing than a novel about a "Brooklyn writer going through a midlife crisis."

Per the author, his editor enthused in shorthand, "Giddy-up motherfucker!"

He began by doing research, including of WPA stories on slavery available in the public domain, and went on a Plantation Tour, noting that he was "the only black guy on the bus."

Incredulously, he came upon a plantation offering lodging accommodations in the present day, with a ghastly slogan along the lines of, "If you want to escape from hotel chains..."

The book itself centers around a teenage slave named Cora, who is convinced to run away from the Georgia plantation--and abusive overseers--by a young male slave named Caesar.

Given that it is far from the disposable page turners I typically read, that I finished the 306-page Underground Railroad in just over two weeks--not extraordinarily fast, but an accomplishment for me--bespeaks the quality of Whitehead's writing.

And while I would describe it as important, gripping and enlightening more than spellbinding or overly surprising in its narrative, it is undoubtedly a fine work of historical fiction.

And art.

The kind we should always celebrate, support and--to individual tastes--seek out.

I should note that Colson Whitehead did not explicitly speak about the current administration or its policies, except for expressing that: "Oppression is the same, whether of blacks, Jews, Muslims or Mexicans."

Yet he was quite inspiring, from an artistic and social consciousness standpoint.

And if took to this point in his career, through numerous undertakings, experiences, observations, obstacles, etc., before writing what will presumably be considered his masterpiece--though Dave speaks well of earlier work--it seems essential that we continue to fund the development of artistic talent.

"I keep trying to keep myself amused and challenged," Whitehead responded to a question about what he might write next, and it's voices like his that will eternally rise above the ephemeral din.

May they never be quieted or quelled, regardless of the whims of whomever may be in power.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Second Opinion: Is 'Hamilton' Just As Good on a Repeat Encounter? -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The PrivateBank Theatre, Chicago
Open Run
(previously reviewed here; also @@@@@)

On Tuesday, October 4, 2016, I saw Hamilton for the first time, at Chicago's PrivateBank (a.k.a. Shubert) Theatre.

This was after it became, on Broadway--where I did not get to see it--the hottest live entertainment phenomenon of which I have ever been aware, with its success based almost entirely on its brilliance (rather than big-name stars or a well-known title).

Sure, at a certain point, the hype and mania begat much more of it, but the musical written & composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda earned ravishing reviews, wonderful word-of-mouth, completely sold out houses and ridiculously expensive secondary market tickets as soon as it appeared Off-Broadway at New York's Public Theater in February 2015.

Hamilton would move to Broadway that July and win 11 Tony Awards in June 2016, with the Chicago run going on-sale rather soon thereafter. 

Fortunately, I was already promised a good seat for under $30 as part of my longtime Broadway in Chicago Balcony Club subscription. October 4 was the start of Hamilton's second week in Chicago, and technically still a preview performance.

The weight of anticipation was rather heavy--even more so more widely, with the Cubs about to begin a playoff run that ended joyously and the homestretch of a Presidential campaign that didn't.

That day, my mind was also occupied by a relative's transplant operation, which fortunately was reported to have gone well before I went to the theater.

So it is quite a testament to the quality of the show--and the casting and preparation of the Chicago production--that I found Hamilton to be every bit as good as it was purported to be.

In my rave review that soon followed, I bestowed @@@@@ and suggested that to get the most out of Hamilton, one should thoroughly familiarize themselves with the storyline, music, lyrics, historical references, hip-hop allusions and whatever else can be gleaned ahead of time (via Spotify,, Hamilton: The Revolution book, the Hamilton's America PBS documentary and YouTube, including rather enlightening interviews of Lin-Manuel Miranda by Emma Watson and the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones).

Certainly, this can diminish some of the real-time surprise of a first encounter with Hamilton, which is good enough to thoroughly enjoy without doing homework, but given the density of the lyrical references and the speed at which many are sung (or rapped), I believe some advance prep is beneficial.

Even before seeing Hamilton the first time, I imagined I would want to see it again (and, eventually, again and again).

I've occasionally entered the daily online $10 ticket lottery--to no avail--but last June when tickets for the first block of Chicago shows went on-sale and people were reporting being shut out, I randomly tried for a balcony seat (at the lowest price tier) for Saturday, March 11 at 2pm.

And I got one.

(Single seats can be a godsend, even for couples wishing to attend the same performance.)

So, unaware that I'd be riding the CTA downtown with a bunch of rowdy folks dressed in green--some with cans of beer in their hands--heading to St. Patrick's festivities, on Saturday I went to see Hamilton again. (I also stopped at the Art Institute of Chicago to see Whistler's Mother on loan from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.)

And devoid of all the expectation and anticipation and--though it's still entirely sold out and exorbitantly priced on StubHub for the forseeable future--with a bit less theatergoing frenzy and commotion, I liked it just as much.

If not more.

In reality, there probably wasn't much substantial difference in the performances I saw, and nothing I had found deficient in October.

So I can't really say if back then the Chicago cast was more overtly trying to match the Broadway performances of Miranda (as Alexander Hamilton), Leslie Odom, Jr. (as Aaron Burr) and others, or if I was just more so comparing them to what I'd heard on the cast recording and seen on YouTube, etc.

But in one way or another, real or imagined, I sensed things were a bit freer this time around.

It's rather cliché to say, but the performers--including Miguel Cervantes (Hamilton), Ari Asfar (Eliza Hamilton), Karen Olivo (Angelica), Alexander Gemignani (King George), Jonathan Kirkland (George Washington) and Chris De'Sean Lee (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson)--seem to have settled more into their roles, and Chicago itself, without any need to look back or East.

Or perhaps I just stopped caring about comparisons and was able to even more so enjoy the immense talent at face value.

The one major cast change since October comes in the role of Aaron Burr, which is as significant as that of Hamilton. (Odom won the Tony for best actor in a musical over Miranda.)

Joshua Henry opened the role in Chicago, and was outstanding, but in January he moved onto the San Francisco production that has just now begun.

TV star Wayne Brady took over the role, slated until April 9, and was said to be rather good.

But he didn't perform Saturday afternoon, and a friend who turned out to also be in attendance said he'd heard Brady had several absences.

Whatever the case, an understudy named Jin Ha--who somewhat amazingly understudies Burr, Hamilton and King George--was outstanding.

If Brady is significantly better, I'm not sure how, and though it theoretically would have been nice to see him, I didn't acutely miss him.

Besides Hamilton proving itself to be a truly brilliant, groundbreaking musical that I was able to take in with a bit more tranquility, I was struck anew that sound-bytes denoting it as a "hip-hop musical" really shortchange its genius.

Yes, Miranda is a rap aficionado, and the way he tells the tale of an immigrant founding father with a modern soundscape and diverse cast is nothing short of brilliant.

But LMM is also deeply rooted in Broadway, and his first musical--In the Heights--was likewise daring, groundbreaking, fresh, Tony Award-winning and yet, like Hamilton, far more traditional than some may readily imagine.

The writer/composer/lyricist/star clearly learned from West Side Story, Les Miserables and other classics of the musical theater canon, and is said to have sought input from the legendary Stephen Sondheim while crafting Hamilton.

Hence, while the show's distinctiveness is largely defined within the first 15 minutes--with the rap-infused "Alexander Hamilton" and anthemic "My Shot"--its greatness is even more robustly reiterated by late-Act 2 ballads like "Burn" and "It's Quiet Uptown."

Karen Olivo (Angelica), collecting donations
post-show for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS

The diversity of Hamilton's almost entirely non-white cast may make more headlines, but it is the diversity of the show's nearly entirely sung-through score that really earmarks it as one of the best musicals of all-time.

Though The Producers remains my personal favorite, I've regularly cited Les Miz as the greatest work of musical theater ever created. (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Cabaret and The Music Man are also up there.)

As I watched Hamilton, I was struck by similarities to Les Misérables, not just due to soldiers, swords and revolutions, but because of the way musical motifs keep reoccurring, but not too often.

And also due to the sheer depth of the score.

Like Les Miz, Hamilton runs nearly 3 full hours with almost no spoken dialogue. Though even by intermission, it's easy to imagine one has heard all of the great songs, more keep coming.

All the way to the (bittersweet) end.

Anyway, to answer my own question in the headline, "Yes," Hamilton is just as good a second time.

Perhaps even better.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Walk on the Beguiled Side: Exploring Albany Park (on foot) and Nelson Algren (on film)


Albany Park Walking Tour
Conducted by Patti Swanson
Sunday, March 5, 2017
Albany Park Neighbors

Algren: The Movie
Directed by Michael Caplan
Presented at Tortuga's Latin Kitchen
Followed by a panel discussion | Facebook Page

If you gave me a map of the Chicago metropolitan area devoid of place names and asked me to cite the names and approximate location of all the suburbs I knew, I'm guessing I might tally well over 50.

If asked to do likewise with Chicago neighborhoods (and/or official community areas, which are different), I likely couldn't get much more than 10.

West Rogers Park, Pilsen, Hyde Park, North Center, Wrigleyville, Andersonville, Edgewater, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Logan Square, Bridgeport, Uptown and I think I'm tapped out.

Realizing that friends and relatives of a certain age likely know dozens of city neighborhoods, perhaps well more than suburbs, this may be what earmarks me not an actual Chicagoan.

Though I've lived in the area for all but three of my 48 years, have occasionally worked downtown going back to age 15 and have abundantly visited Chicago restaurants, theaters, stadiums and even a good variety of "neighborhoods," I've never resided within the city limits.

And while I've long known the names of a good handful or two of neighborhoods or community areas, I don't readily think about nor reference them beyond a few of the most commonplace (such as Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Wrigleyville and Uptown).

Even then, I certainly don't know the borders of specific areas.

But it seems that city dwellers, past and present, can be quite precise and proud of the neighborhood(s) in which they grew up and/or now live.

Which brings me, as it did last Sunday afternoon, to Albany Park, on Chicago's north side.

I had certainly heard of Albany Park--which unlike many similarly monikered areas, isn't named for an actual park--and have even been in its environs occasionally over the years, but had you asked me to identify it on a map...

No way.

Not even with a margin of error of several centimeters.

But now--though still without claiming any degree of expertise--I know a bit of Albany Park, having traversed a few miles of it as part of an excellent walking tour conducted by Patti Swanson, a Texas transplant who founded a nifty little organization called Chicago For Chicagoans.

From their website:
Chicago for Chicagoans is a pay-what-you-can walking tour service, designed to give locals a fresh perspective on their Chicago neighborhoods. We believe in educating residents about the history of the places and spaces that they inhabit. Each month, a new walking tour takes place in a different Chicago neighborhood.
Upcoming walking tours include Roscoe Village, Uptown and Albany Park, Part 2.

I only came to know about the Albany Park tour on the day before I went on it.

Initially, my friend Ken--a big fan of the late Chicago author Nelson Algren and contributor of this related Seth Saith guest post--alerted me to the screening of a new documentary being held on Sunday night.

Rather than at a movie theater, library or school, the movie was shown at a restaurant called Tortuga's Latin Kitchen, at 3224 W. Lawrence in, yes, Albany Park. (Running east-west at 4800 North, Lawrence Avenue is seemingly the main artery of the neighborhood, one of the most diverse in Chicago.)

I've yet to read Algren's Chicago: A City on the Make, The Man With the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side--yes, it inspired Lou Reed--or Mary Wisniewski's new biography, Algren: A Life.

But thanks in large part to Ken's enthusiasm, I've come to appreciate Algren's lore as a "bard of the bordello," empathetic chronicler of hardscrabble Chicagoans, supremely talented award-winning novelist, streetwise paramour of famed French feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir--even as she was in a relationship with esteemed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre--and drinking buddy of Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Roger Ebert and other such hard-boiled-yet-brilliant Chicago characters (the "gritterati"?) that no longer seem to exist.

Per Wikipedia, Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham, to Jewish parents in Detroit in 1909. The family moved to Chicago's south side when he was 3 years old, and to an Albany Park apartment at 4834 N. Troy when he was 8. (The building wasn't part of the walking tour, but Ken and I made a point of driving past and I snapped the included photo.)

With the Algren documentary--which has yet to be publicly released, but whose development Ken had followed and supported--being presented just two blocks from where he grew up, I came across a Facebook posting for the Albany Park Walking Tour, which was not only a perfect accompaniment, but for whose participants seats were held at Tortuga's.

Armed with an obviously substantial amount of research, a binder full of old photographs and the pride of being an Albany Park resident, Patti Swanson led a rather insightful tour for 20-some people over the course of several blocks and nearly 2 hours.

The tour began at the Kimball CTA station, which is the northern end of the Brown Line. I noted the rather cool pillars outside, but Patti ruefully shared that in 1973--undoubtedly before she was born--the current station replaced a much smaller and prettier one, which dated to 1907 when Albany Park was largely farmland.

In an informative introduction offering interesting factoids that would continue throughout the tour, Patti noted that Albany Park is one of 77 officially-defined "community areas," but that Chicago also has 228 neighborhoods, such as Ravenswood Manor which sits within Albany Park.

While walking west on Lawrence from Kedzie to Kimball to meet the tour, Ken and I had been struck by a beautiful Art Deco building with a fish motif to its exterior design. (Just days before, I had been dazzled upon driving by this gorgeous Art Deco building on Western north of Devon, and am trying to learn more about its origins.)

So I was delighted when the building (on Lawrence & Christiana) became the first stop on the walking tour. Patti revealed that the building--which now has a blood bank occupying the bottom floor--was built in the early 1930s to house the L. Fish Furniture store, hence the fishy carvings. (I've now found that the L. Fish company has an interesting history going back to 1858--and still exists--and have learned a bit more about the building from "Ask Geoffrey" Baer of Chicago Tonight.)

I'm not going to retrace every step of the walking tour--though will include more photos at bottom--but I appreciated Patti pointing out a variety of interesting structures, parks and more, as well as places that no longer exist, such as the Terminal Theater that once stood just east of the Kimball Station. (Old movie palaces are another of my fascinations.)

The tour took us north of Lawrence, nearly to the North Park University campus, and east to--and through a Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary right alongside--the North Branch of the Chicago River where it intersects with the North Shore Channel, before bringing us to Tortuga's Latin Kitchen.

Hence it did not take me past Roosevelt High School, alma mater of my mom and Nelson Algren--the latter when it was called Hibbard High School--that is on Kimball a block south of Lawrence.

But we did stop at the splendidly ornamented Von Steuben High School, from which my dad and at least two aunts had graduated.

Patti shared that Von Steuben is now a CPS magnet school and--from her binder--showed that it was pictured on a 45-single sleeve for Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" in 1958. (The song was recorded in Chicago at Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan, albeit relatively far from Albany Park.)

In taking the group to River Park, Patti spoke about an architect named Clarence Hatzfeld, who had once designed several Chicago Park District field houses with considerable flair.

Along the river, we were told--demurely--about several sewage treatment projects over the years, and Patti pointed out the "only waterfall in Chicago."

We also learned that one of the founders of Albany Park, a streetcar magnate named DeLancy Louderback, had named the enclave after his hometown of Albany, New York, and was seemingly poisoned to death by his mistress, after she had likewise done in two husbands.

Throughout the tour, Patti spoke about the diverse demographics of Albany Park, initially inhabited predominantly by Swedish and German farmers, but now with a large Korean population--among many other ethnicities--with respect to which Lawrence Avenue was christened "Honorary Seoul Drive" in 1993.

With the sun setting, we were led to Tortuga's Latin Kitchen for the Algren documentary screening, but not before Patti pointed out a couple of beautiful old buildings along Lawrence.

One, now housing Richard's Body Shop, had been built as an automobile showroom in 1925, when this stretch of Lawrence was something of a Motor Row. (A piece on gives a glimpse of the ornate interior. Patti noted that the original owners, the Burnstines, were also responsible for this similar masterpiece on Broadway near Thorndale.)

At 6:30pm, Ken and I joined a near capacity crowd at Tortuga's, where we ordered some dinner and heard from a few speakers before the film, including Patti Swanson, the documentary's director Michael Caplan, representatives of Albany Park Neighbors and 2nd Story, a woman who read excerpts from Nelson Algren's Chicago: A City on the Make and a local poet who recited a couple of his works. (Apologies for not knowing all the names.)

The documentary was rather informative, giving a good overview of Algren's writing, rise to fame, empathetic perspectives on junkies, prostitutes and others that he chronicled, romance with Simone de Beauvoir and aversion to Otto Preminger's movie version of The Man With the Golden Arm.

Whatever your degree of inherent interest in its subject, Algren: The Movie should be well-worth 80 minutes of your time, if you can find it. (See my website and Facebook links at top for updates.)

You might be surprised to learn that Algren was once one of the most famous writers in America but wound up living several years in near obscurity, scrambling for work.

The film is rather well-paced and I liked that Caplan weaves in plenty of on-camera commentary from Algren friends, associates, lovers and admirers, hearty praise the author received from contemporaries like Ernest Hemingway & Richard Wright and considerable humor, including Algren's whimsical "3 Rules of Life."

One gets a good sense of Algren as a truly insightful writer of remarkable craft, but also a somewhat cantankerous "take no bullshit" Chicagoan, who spent his last 20 years living away from the city.

Though not actually Polish, Nelson Algren became something of a hero to Chicago Polonia, and some years after his death of a heart attack in 1981--while living on Long Island--he was honored with a fountain at the Polish Triangle (where Division, Ashland & Milwaukee intersect).

Following the film--which hails Algren for championing those who "otherwise wouldn't have a voice"--came a brief panel discussion and Q&A session.

Along with the director Michael Caplan, Algren's biographer Mary Wisniewski and an editor & educator named Bill Savage answered questions from the moderator--a woman named Lauren from 2nd Story, a storytelling organization based in Albany Park--and from the audience.

The engaging and astute conversation made for a nice culmination of five or so enlightening hours in Albany Park, getting to know about Nelson Algren, the neighborhood in which he was raised and the city & people--of all stations--that he loved.