Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Phantom Still Haunts: 'Love Never Dies' But It Just Doesn't Thrill at Coney Island -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Love Never Dies
a Phantom of the Opera sequel
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru March 4

There is no stage musical for which my fondness, or lack thereof, has been more of a roller coaster than Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.

When I first saw it, in 1993, on a national tour stop at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre before I was heavily into musicals, I was quite dazzled.

But after becoming an avid fan of the idiom, touring versions in 2004 and 2007 had me perceiving the show as a load of dreck.

Yet a revamped tour in 2014 wowed me from the get-go and I bestowed an effusive @@@@@ review.

My interest repiqued, this past December I opted to see Phantom for the first time on Broadway, in the Majestic Theatre, where it has run for 30 consecutive years.

I found it to have many great elements, but short of being one of the very best musicals. Its hokey shortcomings and inherent misogyny were apparent, and qualitatively the show just doesn't rival the similarly storied Les Miserables.

Given all these ups & downs, I guess it's fitting that Webber's somewhat ill-fated Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, is set at New York's Coney Island amusement park.

And seeing it for the first time, Tuesday night via upgraded seats at the undersold Cadillac Palace,
was again roller coasterish.

Far less a commercial success than Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies received a critical drubbing when it opened in London in March 2010. And even with a vastly reworked Melbourne version now the touring template, there has yet to be a Broadway production.

Despite some lingering under-the-weatherness, I was fairly excited to see LND, especially with my Phantom-loving pal Paolo alongside. Separately, he too had recently seen the original blockbuster on Broadway.

But not having found time to fully ingest the Melbourne Cast Recording, and not having been instantly beguiled by what I had heard, I had my reservations.

So I can say that I was pleasantly surprised to find the music--including several different songs--to be rather nice. Not Phantom good, nor certainly Les Miz, at least on an initial exploration, but well-written (Glenn Slater is the credited lyricist though Charles Hart wrote some as well, with Lloyd Webber the composer) and, in Chicago, quite well-performed.

I won't take the time to regurgitate the storyline of Phantom of the Opera, but set in Paris in 1881, that show's masked title character serves as creepy Svengali to a chorus girl named Christine Dyer. Also factoring in are Raoul (an old/new paramour of Christine's), a shadowy opera matron named Madame Giry and her daughter, Meg, part of the troupe.

Along with the addition of Christine's son Gustav, in Love Never Dies this quintet finds themselves in New York's Coney Island in 1907, though we are supposed to simply accept that only 10 years have passed since Phantom.

And as the man in the mask, a swell singer named Gardar Thor Cortes begins LND by belting out a tune called "'Til I Hear You Sing" about his--yes, undying--love for Christine.

Let me say here that while the Phantom was--while back haunting the opera--seemingly to be seen as a tragic, Beast-like figure sweeping up Christine and her Beauty, even in more likable renditions of POTO I perceived him more as an obsessive stalker.

Hence, while there continue to be some fine songs--including Meg's "Only for You"--before and
throughout the weird rekindling of the Phantom and his prey, the first act narrative is disjointed, confusing and didn't cause me to much care. ("Once Upon Another Time" and "Dear Old Friends" are a couple other noteworthy first act tunes.)

Act II makes more dramatic sense, with the ever-present love triangle among the Phantom, Christine (a superbly-sung Meghan Picerno) and Raoul (Sean Thompson), some self-centered manipulations by the Girys (veteran Chicago cabaret star Karen Mason as Madame; Mary Mitchell Patterson as Meg) and the really likable Casey Lyons as young Gustav, whose father is for you to guess.

But though not an awful song, "Bathing Beauty" led by Meg early in Act II felt all too much like someone suggested to ALW that a rousing chorus number was needed, somewhat akin to the great "Masquerade" in Phantom of the Opera.

And ultimately, that's the biggest problem with Love Never Dies, whose title song is wonderfully delivered by Picerno, but had me jotting down "not as good as "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," "Memory," "You Must Love Me"" or other prime Sir Andy ballads.

It's not wretched, and far from the worst 150-minutes I've spent in a theater. But it's nowhere near as good as Phantom of the Opera, which isn't even that awesome itself.

For what it is, it's well-done on this tour, which theoretically could have Broadway aspirations.

It just doesn't seem to much matter, or to justify its existence.

I've now seen Love Never Dies. If you want to, go ahead.

I just kinda doubt either of us will be eternally smitten. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Playing His 'Greatest Hits Live,' Steve Winwood Looks Back, Selectively -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Steve Winwood 
w/ opening act Lilly Winwood
Chicago Theatre
February 22, 2017

I doubt I'm the only one who thinks of Steve Winwood in terms of his early and late periods.

"Early Winwood"--roughly covering 1963-74--comprises his stints in the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith, culminating when the the singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist was just 25.

Loosely from 1977 to 1990, the British wunderkind had a number of high-charting solo albums and hit singles. Like many I imagine, I'm not too familiar with the three studio albums he released after that, meaning that at least in terms of peak popularity, the "Late Winwood" period ended by the age of 42.

In May, Steve Winwood will turn 70.

Presumably, few on hand Thursday evening at a packed Chicago Theatre for a tour openly promoted as "Greatest Hits Live," much cared that--as Winwood sounded strong vocally and instrumentally alongside four other excellent musicians--he didn't focus much on his work since the late period. 

Yes, for the first time ever, he played a song called "Domingo Morning" from his 2003 album About Time.

And there was also "Them Changes," a cover of a 1970 Buddy Miles song that Winwood played on his 2009 tour with Eric Clapton; if it was previously part of his repertoire, I'm not aware. 

But classics from the Spencer Davis Group (the opening "I'm a Man" and closing "Gimme Some Lovin'), Traffic ("Pearly Queen," "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys," "Empty Pages," "John Barleycorn," "Dear Mr. Fantasy") and Blind Faith ("Can't Find My Way Home," "Had to Cry Today") well represented "Early Winwood" in the 13-song, 90-minute show. (See the setlist on

Quite admittedly, I was a bit under the weather at the show, having stayed in bed all day and dragging myself down to the Chicago Theatre because I had a ticket and, well, one never knows how many more opportunities may exist to see the living legends. (It wasn't lost on me that I'd seen Winwood opening for Tom Petty in both 2008 and 2014. I'd also seen him back in 1986 and in-tandem with Clapton in 2009.)

So, acutely, I appreciated the relative brevity of Winwood's set, following a nice opening performance by his daughter Lilly, a rather fine singer.

And although my take on the concert was roughly congruent with a friend who attended separately--that several classic songs, most notably "Can't Find My Way Home" and "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," were well-performed, making for fine show with nothing that quite elevated it to an phenomenal one--it's certainly possible that my own fevered headspace impacted my enjoyment. 

But strictly from a critical standpoint, even if the omissions got me back to bed 20 minutes earlier, I think the setlist shortchanged the "Late Winwood" period I cited above.

With Lilly joining her dad and band at the end of the main set, only "Roll With It" and "Higher Love" represented Winwood's hit laden, MTV rotation years, with the former perhaps the nadir that prompts some fans to dismiss this era.

But I--at least theoretically--would love to have heard "While You See a Chance," "Arc of a Diver," "Valerie," "Back in the High Life Again" and/or "The Finer Things."

Along with "Higher Love," I think these are genuinely some of Steve Winwood's greatest hits and could have well-accompanied, or even replaced, a few of the other selections. 

And, again, perhaps due to my somewhat addled perception--and seat near the top of the Chicago, rather neatly next to a blind man soaking in just the music itself--I felt the concert needed a bit more oomph. 

And not just in terms of pumping up the volume a bit. 

Content to let the music do the talking, Winwood said almost nothing to the crowd. And with such a rich history to reflect upon, I think this would heightened the sense of connection I value in the very best concerts.

Whether in sharing a bit of context about the songs, or his old bands, or how proud he was to have his daughter opening the show for him, or any recollections of Chicago--which he made this tour's first stop--I would have liked the star to have engaged a bit more with the audience. 

But obviously, I got out of my sick bed for the music, and all of it was good, some of it thrilling. 

"Empty Pages" stands among the highlights and along with still being an excellent singer, Winwood reminded on "Them Changes" that he isn't just a legendary keyboardist, but a truly first-rate guitarist. (I was surprised to have read somewhere that in circa 1967 London, Winwood--not Page, Beck, Townsend, Richards and preceding Hendrix--was considered second-best to Clapton.)

Truth be told, had I known exactly the show I would get, I might have opted to stay in bed. It wasn't that special.

But once I'm fully recovered--I'm getting there--I'll be happy to have seen one of the all-time greats yet again. 

Even if some of his greatest hits were regrettably missing.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

House of the Holy: Robert Plant Delivers Another Sensational Space Shifting Show at the Riv -- Chicago Concert Review

Photos by Seth Arkin
Concert Review

Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters
w/ opening act Seth Lakeman
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
February 20, 2018

Can lightning strike twice in the same place?

That was the question--and hope--on my mind as I ventured to the 2,500-seat Riviera Theatre on a rainy Tuesday night to see a rock god whose legacy is far larger than the venue he filled.

For in October 2014, Robert Plant--the iconic lead singer of Led Zeppelin, who in recent years has repeatedly eschewed clamoring for a reunion tour by the legendary band--had played the Riv with a group of dexterous musicians dubbed the Sensational Space Shifters.

That show--far from the first time I'd seen Plant--stands out among the 700+ concerts I've attended as not just one of my favorites, but palpably "religious," as hearing classics from the Zeppelin canon repeatedly gave me goosebumps.

Tuesday night, if the songs didn't all remain quite the same, the basic outline did: a mix of Plant's fine, rootsy, recent material--now culled from 2017's Carry Fire album as well as 2014's lullaby and... the Ceaseless Roar--with a handful of somewhat reconfigured Zeppelin tracks, plus some potpourri (other solo Plant songs, tunes that inspired him, etc.).

And at 69, Plant remains in good voice, hair and spirits, seemingly quite content to be creating new music that beguiles him while playing relatively intimate venues, rather than reaping untold millions with a far-more pressurized Led Zeppelin reprise.

After a nice solo opening set by the well-named Seth Lakeman, who also plays violin within the Space Shifters, the British legend took the stage for what would be a roughly 100-minute performance, a bit longer than in 2014 or at a 2015 show at the Northerly Island pavilion.

Unlike 2014, when two great Zep cuts--"No Quarter," "Ramble On"--brought instant chills and convusions as songs #1 & 3 on the setlist, this time 'round Plant opened with four recent solo songs ("New World...," "Turn It Up," "May Queen," "Rainbow") before a fine take on the low-key "That's the Way" from Led Zeppelin III.

Of 15 songs played Tuesday, five hearkened back to Zeppelin, but only two--"Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Whole Lotta Love," carryovers from 2014--sent spiritual spasms down my spine.

That I still found it to be a @@@@1/2 show (out of 5) speaks to the quality of Plant's current music, band and performance.

After the first four songs mentioned above and "That's the Way," set the tone, also fitting in nicely were 2005's "All the King's Horses" and "Please Read the Letter," a song Plant originally recorded with Zep mate Jimmy Page for their 1998 collaboration, Walking Into Clarksdale, but re-did--as referenced onstage--with Alison Krauss for the Grammy-winning Raising Sand album. (Notably, Plant never mentioned Page or Led Zeppelin on Tuesday.)

Though enjoyable, the Space Shifters' takes on Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole" (actually an old Leadbelly song) and "Misty Mountain Hop" reworked the famed versions enough not to feel quite as monumental.

The band--most notably guitarists Skin Adams and Justin Adams--also shined on the late bluesman Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die" (revved up to feel Zeppelinesque) and Plant's early solo hit, "In the Mood."

The Chicago setlist echoed what has been played at other tour stops, and while well-curated at face value, given the heavy rain all-day Tuesday I thought Plant should've slyly pulled out "When the Levee Breaks," with its "I'm going to Chicago" line.

I know it may sound a bit askew to admire Plant for not cravenly mining his past yet rueing that there wasn't enough Zeppelin featured in a concert 38 years after that band's demise.

So I want to be clear: This was an excellent show. Plant and Co. sounded great, and any evening spent alongside three dear friends watching an all-time legend wail away counts as a special one.

Especially as "Whole Lotta Love" sent us off into the night, where it continued to rain.

But while there was a good deal of thunder to savor within the erstwhile Riviera--along with the pleasure of seeing Robert Plant happily chart his own course--bolts of truly electrifying lightning just didn't strike quite like they had before.

In the same place.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Together as One: Copious Characterizations by Dionne Addis Power Gripping 'Liberty City' at Fleetwood-Jourdain -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Liberty City
by April Yvette Thompson
directed by Jonathan Wilson
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
Noyes Cultural Arts Center
Through February 24
Free admission

One of the things I love most about theater is the way it can shock you.

I don't mean--in this case--being surprised by plot twists in a particular play, or having your jaw dropped open by imaginative originality or astonishing talent in a musical.

What I'm referencing is the life-enhancing experience of being absolutely floored out of the blue.

Over the past month, I've seen 8 non-musical plays.

Presented by several of the most esteemed theaters in the Chicago area--Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Court, Northlight, Writers--these have included classic works (All My Sons, A Moon for the Misbegotten), a recent Tony Award winner (The Humans) and other dramas crafted by acclaimed writers and directors (You Got Older, Breach, Skeleton Crew, Blind Date).

Most I attended via Press Night invitations, with a palpable air of excitement accompanying first-rate casts (often including familiar faces), impressive set designs and large crowds.

And as you can read via my hyperlinked reviews, to varying extents I liked almost all of them.

On Saturday night, I attended a played called Liberty City, which I had only learned about on Thursday, via a Facebook post by the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre.

FJT focuses on works reflecting the African-American experience, and in recent years I've seen and enjoyed several of their shows.

In commemoration of Black History Month, Fleetwood-Jourdain is organizing a number of programs throughout February, with Liberty City being just one of them.

The 90-minute play was written by April Yvette Thompson--a name unfamiliar to me--who seems to have initially performed it solo, off-Broadway, in 2008.

At FJT, it is running for just 3 performances, the last coming up this Saturday evening. Under the direction of Jonathan Wilson, the stage is adorned with simply a table and chair. Starring as April--and essentially chronicling the experiences of the author--is a young actress I haven't knowingly seen before, named Dionne Addis.

Beyond the three people with me, I don't think there were more than 15 patrons in the theater.

And Liberty City wound up providing the best piece--and performance--of dramatic theater I've yet experienced in 2018. 

This isn't to say that it's a better play than Arthur Miller's All My Sons; that's one of the best ever and Court Theatre did a nice job with it.

But whereas I found that production a tad imperfect, Liberty City was awesome for being so surprisingly terrific.

Particularly as Addis gives a tour de force performance, vocally characterizing at least 10 different people, rotating through accents deftly enough to alleviate any confusion.

With young April, a resident of Miami's diverse Liberty City, serving as the core narrator, Addis embodies her along with her mother, father, grandmother (dubbed Aunt Caroline), aunt, brother, teacher, hairdresser and more.

April's father Saul is a Black Power activist and city councilman, so along with chronicling family matters and school interactions, the memoir-like narrative has a racial justice bent, culminating in a rather harrowing episode all the more resonant due to contemporary parallels.

Fleetwood-Jourdain Artistic Director Tim Rhoze with
Liberty City star Dionne Addis and director Jonathan Wilson
Much of April's recollections are quite gripping, including the means by which her dad tried to teach her about slavery, and the descent of a beloved relative into addiction, but there are also several humorous moments and some fun shout-outs to Earth, Wind and Fire.

Generally speaking, individually-performed plays don't grab me quite like those with full casts, but it bespeaks Thompson's script, Addis' performance and Wilson's direction that Liberty City was finely-paced to not just hold my attention, but truly keep me riveted.

I doubt my review will bring the masses to the Noyes Cultural Arts Center this Saturday for the final, free performance of Liberty City by Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, but it's a shame you don't have more opportunities to catch it.

Yes, FJT Artistic Director Tim Rhoze ruminated about giving the play one of the troupe's standard summer slots in upcoming seasons, but even that would likely only be for 6 performances.

So if it's possible to catch the CTA Purple Line to Noyes, or just drive there--free parking is available in a dedicated lot--I strongly suggest you do.

By virtue of having read my rave review, you may not be quite as surprised as I was.

But you should be just as captivated.

Despite Some Excellent Writing and Characters, Antoinette Nwandu's 'Breach' Doesn't Fully Congeal -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Breach: a manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate
written by Antoinette Nwandu
directed by Lisa Portes
Thru March 11
Victory Gardens Theater
Thru March 11

Last year, Pass Over, a play by Antoinette Nwandu, caused quite a stir in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

The play itself--imaginatively reworking Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot with a similar scenario taking place on an urban Chicago block--boldly broaches issues of racial inequality and the brutalization & murder of African-Americans at the hands of police officers.

But, within Chicago theater circles and associated social media communities, an even greater commotion revolved around comments Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss made in her review of Pass Over.

After some internal debate, I went to see that play, largely liked it and recapped some of the matters mentioned above in my review. And as of just a couple weeks ago--not clearly tied to last summer's hubbub--Weiss is no longer working for the Sun-Times. None of which directly factors into another Nwandu play, Breach, which newly opened at Victory Gardens Theater (in the famed Biograph on Lincoln Ave.).

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Though I assume there was some tinkering as director Lisa Portes prepped Breach for its world premiere, the play was actually written six years prior to Pass Over.

And, at least on the surface, despite being subtitled "a manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate," Breach is a far less politically-charged play.

It focuses on Margaret (the stellar Caren Blackmore), a single urban woman who teaches English composition at a community college.

The two men in her life are Nate (Keith D. Gallagher), a very rich white douchebag she has long dated, and Rasheed (Al'Jaleel McGhee), a black ex-con who has become upstanding to the point of getting the job Margaret wanted, and is now her boss.

One of these men gets Margaret pregnant. I won't say which, but I believe Breach could be far more interesting--and incisive--had it been the other guy.

As it stands, the play has much great writing--concerning a woman in labor (not Margaret), the line "she was screaming like a white woman in a horror film" made everyone LOL--and some wonderful characters, suggesting Nwandu should have her pick of sitcoms to join as a staff writer.

In this production, Linda Bright Clay is a delight as Margaret's acerbic but bighearted great aunt Sylvia, with whom she lives, and Karen Rodriguez is a hoot as Carolina, a cleaning lady at the college that befriends Margaret, in part due to their mutual pregnancies.

So simply as an evening's entertainment about a likable woman sorting through the complexities of her career, relationships (including with her great aunt) and unexpected pregnancy, Breach should do quite nicely.

And as Margaret is a black woman, brought to life by an increasingly important African-American writer, there are certainly racial insights in the play that make it valuable for anyone to observe on a socially commentative level.

But I saw it much more as a human dramedy than a "manifesto on race in America," and a self-referential line late in the play seems to note that this aspect isn't overt.

There are some really nice scenes, including a touching interaction between Rasheed and Aunt Sylvia, and a strong use of music that adds to the entertainment value.

Yet some of what occurs feels a bit too theatrically contrived, and while Linda Buchanan's functional set design works well, I found the blaring lights between scene changes to be overblown.

Nwandu is a writer who deserves your attention, and I'm glad I availed myself of the opportunity to see Breach.

As always when I don't quite love a show, I hope others are far more smitten. I just didn't cross the breach from like to love in watching this one.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Of Cheers and Booze: Strong Performances Power 'A Moon For the Misbegotten' at Writers Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Moon for the Misbegotten 
by Eugene O'Neill
directed by William Brown
Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Thru March 18

It's always good for me to see a Eugene O'Neill play, as--along with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams--he is considered one of the holy trinity of American playwriting. (I'd add David Mamet and August Wilson to my starting five.)

Over the past two decades, I'd seen five of the famed New Englander's works--Long Day's Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, Desire Under the Elms, Ah, Wilderness! and The Hairy Ape--none more than once.

I remember really liking Iceman and Long Day's Journey, but have been less drawn in by O'Neill than the other towering figures above.

The eloquence of his dialogue is readily apparent, but his plays tend to be dark, dense and looooong. 

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
My sense of appreciation for the quality of Eugene O'Neill's domestic dramas, and the value in seeing them--though usually short of overt captivation--was reiterated Wednesday night with a fine new production of A Moon for the Misbegotten at Writers Theatre.

I can't compare it with any past renditions, but director William Brown's decision to cast African-American actors to embody the play's three members of the Hogan family--traditionally caucasian Irish-Americans--feels rather deft.

Especially as Bethany Thomas as Josie and A.C. Smith as her father, Phil Hogan, are terrific. (Cole Sebastian Pierre is also stellar as Josie's brother Mike, but it's a rather brief role.)

That there is essentially a full-size ramshackle house onstage is also rather impressive, in showcasing the gifts of set designer Todd Rosenthal while bespeaking the quality of the production values at Writers in their beautiful home of just a couple years.

Act I crackles with terrific acting and often LOL dialogue as first Josie and Mike, and then she and her papa Phil, throw verbal haymakers at one another.

But--and I feel compelled to confess that watching a play in the north suburbs after a workday downtown had my eyelids occasionally drooping, though only during the first hour of three--not that much of narrative consequence seems to happen in Act I.

And while it's probably critically amateurish to whine about a play's length, especially by the venerated Eugene O'Neill--and Moon is considerably shorter than The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night--it seemed to me that the same essence could be conveyed more efficiently, without sacrificing much of the character depth as it stands.

The play's other main character, Jim Tyrone (played by Jim DeVita), was one of the two sons in Long Day's Journey Into Night, making Moon for the Misbegotten ostensibly a sequel.

His parents dead and brother elsewhere, Jim owns the Connecticut farm where the Hogans live and work. Haunted by his mother's addictions, he is an alcoholic seemingly past the point of no return.

Phil and Josie catch wind of Jim's intention to sell the farm to another neighbor (Eric Parks), and they devise a seduction scheme that--in a way not entirely clear to me--will presumably force Jim to sell it instead to Phil, for far less.

As Josie has feelings for Jim anyway, she's open to pursuing this angle, which drives the increasingly powerful second and third acts.

There is considerable pathos in both characters, and true tenderness between them, but while Thomas and DeVita are both excellent in their roles, I rarely sensed much actual chemistry between them.

So at the end of the long play's journey into night, I was again glad to add an O'Neill classic to my bank of shows seen, and I was impressed and entertained on multiple levels.

This is clearly a quality staging of an estimable play.

But even compared to Court Theatre's just-ended top notch rendition of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, my first gaze upon A Moon for the Misbegotten didn't leave me all that lovestruck.

Not even on Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 12, 2018

New Holocaust Museum Exhibit and Kerry Kennedy -- in Person at the Opening -- 'Speak Truth to Power'

Photos by Seth Arkin except as noted.
Exhibition Overview
& Opening Event Recap

Speak Truth To Power:
Human Rights Defenders Who
Are Changing Our World

based on the book by
Kerry Kennedy, featuring
photographs by Eddie Adams
Illinois Holocaust Museum
& Education Center
Thru June 24

Feb. 4 Exhibit Opening
featured a public presentation
and press tour by
Kerry Kennedy

The Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie stands as a testament to men and women who--as children--survived the worst horrors imaginable and opted to share their anguished past in hopes of creating a more positive future.

While the museum has told the survivors' stories since 1981--and since 2009 in the impressive structure at Woods Drive & Golf Road--the museum's new Take a Stand Center (which I explored in November and wrote about here) highlights several "Upstanders" who, in various ways and places, have improved the world amid considerable challenge.

Well-complementing the Take a Stand Center, the IHMEC's new temporary exhibit, Speak Truth to Power, similarly highlights many admirable "Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World."

And it exists because Kerry Kennedy had the resiliency to overcome her own childhood tragedies--the quite public assassinations of her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, and father Robert F. Kennedy--and devote herself to doing great good in the world, while spotlighting those who have done likewise.

Speak Truth to Power, the exhibit that will run at the Illinois Holocaust Museum through June 24, is based on a book Kerry Kennedy published in 1998--it was reissued with a Students' Guide in 2016--and likewise features photographs by Eddie Adams and brief biographies derived from interviews Kennedy conducted over 2-1/2 years.

Adams passed away in 2004, but had extensively covered the Vietnam War and won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon 50 years ago this month. His work was also featured in numerous prestigious publications.

Kennedy, the 7th child of RFK and his wife Ethel, was at the museum on Sunday, Feb. 4 for a public presentation about the new exhibit, and a press tour on which I participated.

Now 58, Kerry is the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, which engages in a variety of activist causes reflecting the late Senator & Attorney General's principles of "compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer."

Also central to the Speak Truth to Power book, and Kerry Kennedy's overall stated mission, is the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," which was adopted following the Holocaust and is prominently featured in the temporary exhibit, as well as within the permanent Take A Stand Center.

Though the Speak Truth to Power exhibit also highlights well-known subjects such as Holocaust survivor & author Elie Wiesel, poet turned Czech president Vaclav Havel, the Dalai Lama and Sister Helen Prejean (author of Dead Man Walking), the vast majority of the Human Rights Defenders showcased were names unfamiliar to me.

In both her speech to a large gathering of museum visitors and during her tour for a few journalists, Kennedy showcased Digna Ochoa and Gabor Gambos.

Kennedy relayed how Ochoa--a nun turned human rights lawyer in Mexico--told her about learning that a local woman's husband had disappeared.

This prompted the lawyer to sneak into a military hospital to find him, order two armed guards out of his room, sign the man up as her client and stand her ground amid subsequent threats from the guards.

"What gave you the courage?" Kennedy had asked Ochoa, expecting her to speak of love or dignity or justice, but instead had Digna tell her:

"I was just so angry."

Sadly, Digna Ochoa was killed in 2001.

Gabor Gambos--who you can read about here on the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights website, along with several others, including many individuals added since Speak Truth to Power was initially published--is a Hungarian astrophysicist and mental health advocate.

Photo by Eddie Adams
Kennedy shared how at a Speak Truth to Power event in Romania, where Gambos was being honored, he courageously spoke of his schizophrenia.

Noting the irony of being held in esteem alongside the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when if not for his medication most would think him "crazy," Gambos movingly told the crowd and organizers (per Kennedy): 

"But because you gave me this podium, you're listening to me."

Besides listening to Kennedy in both milieus, I spent some time perusing the Speak Truth to Power exhibit on my own.

And though, like presumably many a patron, I didn't read every word about every person chronicled, the photographs are highly evocative in their own right. And rather than ingest every last detail about each Defender, I believe the point is to get a sense of the numerous--often unsung--people around the world who turn struggle into inspiration for positive change.

As I noted at top, this dovetails quite well with the Take A Stand Center and the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center as a whole, which was founded by survivors and escapees of the Nazi genocide who wound up living in America, and in large numbers, Skokie.

"We're proud to bring the Speak Truth to Power exhibit to the Chicagoland community," IHMEC CEO Susan Abrams told me, while also noting the powerful juxtaposition with the Take A Stand Center and its focus on Upstanders.

Referencing how the permanent and temporary additions forcefully complement the museum's longstanding core--the Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition--by helping visitors, including many schoolkids, grasp how lessons of a horrific past can spur ways to improve the future, Abrams noted:

"There's a need for all of us to be activists and Defenders."

Although Kerry Kennedy was quite gracious with her time, I didn't get a chance to ask her how the Human Rights Defenders featured in her book--and the exhibit--were chosen, beyond their being alive circa 1998 (when she interviewed them and Adams took the photo portraits).

As I maintain a highlights people who have made significant contributions to history, I happened to know that the Sunday of my museum visit, February 4, was the birthdate of Rosa Parks (1913-2005).

Parks--and undoubtedly hundreds of other worthy humanitarians--is not to be found in the Speak Truth to Power exhibit (or the Upstander gallery of the Take a Stand Center) so I was just curious if any specific criteria was adhered to, or if it's just impossible to include everyone deserving.

Regardless, the Speak Truth to Power exhibit is certainly well-worth a good 40-60 minutes or more to peruse, perfectly complementing a visit to the new Take a Stand Center, and--for first-time visitors--a thorough exploration of the museum's primary collection.

Much as the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center's exterior design represents both dark and light, that its latest exhibit provides an uplifting look at those who represent the best of humanity serves to somewhat counteract the very worst of it.

All the more so for representing Kerry Kennedy's steadfast resolve to shed light on the good in the world, long past the horribly dark days of her youth.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Oh, Daddy: Despite Imperfect Pacing, 'You Got Older' Offers Nice Perceptivity and Poignancy -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

You Got Older
a recent play by Clare Barron
directed by Jonathan Berry
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 10

You Got Older is a play centered around a woman named Mae, seemingly in her late 20s or early 30s and well-played at Steppenwolf by Caroline Neff.

Mae is a Minneapolis lawyer who--before the action onstage begins--has broken up with her boyfriend, who was also her boss, so she is also out of a job.

Her widowed father, back home on the outskirts of Seattle, is badly ravaged by cancer, so she moves in with him (as embodied here by the always marvelous Francis Guinan).

Except for Mae's occupation, this scenario reflects real-life situations faced by the playwright, Clare Barron, who was 27 when she authored You Got Older, largely based on these experiences.

It isn't vital to know this genesis--revealed in an interview with Barron in the Steppenwolf program--but since I did, the grim reality of watching a loved one battle cancer was all the more poignant, especially coming just days after the death of the beloved Steppenwolf ensemble member, John Mahoney, of complications from throat cancer. (See my tribute to Mahoney here.)

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Especially as acted by Neff and Guinan, I found the reconnecting between Mae and her dad to be quite authentic and moving.

The play doesn't much delve into the circumstances around the death of Mae's mom, who was still married to her dad at the time, or how long it had been since father and daughter were in regular contact.

So despite presumably many phone conversations over the years, Mae's interactions with her father are understandably rather aloof and stilted at the beginning.

But while their freshly evolving relationship remains the most central--and compelling--aspect of You Got Older, Barron fleshes out her script in ways that diminish the power of the play's primary strengths.

Certainly, a career woman like Mae, coming back to her childhood hometown after many years away, beset by intertwining personal & professional disappointments--and a nasty rash on her back to boot--provides much for the author, actors and director Jonathan Berry to explore. (I couldn't help perceive parallels with the Charlize Theron film, Young Adult.)

As such, Mae's sexual longings are boldly broached, not only via Mac (Glenn Davis), an old schoolmate--actually of her sister--she encounters in a bar, but with the personification of a Marlboro Mannish cowboy (Gabriel Ruiz) Mae repeatedly conjures in masturbatory fantasies.

Along with some frank adult dialogue, the cowboy adds some LOL moments to the proceedings, with Ruiz clearly having fun in the role.

And Davis adroitly imbues just enough awkwardness to make Mac not seem quite so predatory in pursuing Mae while her primary concern is her father's health.

Barron won a playwriting Obie Award for You Got Older, so my issues with perceived imperfections may not matter to everyone.

But while I understand the dramatic impetus for not devoting the entire piece to wistful conversations between Mae and her dad, many of the other scenes--including just one in which Mae's three siblings show up--run way too long.

Per a post-show discussion, perhaps the theatrical stalling is reflective of Mae wanting or needing to separate herself from her father's reality for prolonged stretches, but not only did multiple episodes seem to drag on in their own right, they sapped the play of its core absorbing forcefulness.

And I also can't say I gained much insight into Mae's life and psyche before she returned home, nor--other than an anguished but sweet rekindling of a connection with her dad--any acute sense of how her future may be affected due to the difficult stretch caring for her dad.

There were also literally four different times in You Got Older where I thought Guinan's character had died, and I won't even reveal his eventual outcome.

So as with all three plays I saw over a 6-day span--including Skeleton Crew and The Humans--this is a quality work with several nice elements, but not one likely to stick with me as scintillating as I get older.

But hats off, not just to Barron, Berry, Neff and everyone involved, but especially longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member Guinan, who had co-starred in many shows with John Mahoney, including The Rembrandt just last fall.

For him to take the stage on Wednesday couldn't have been easy--Monday's performance of You Got Older was canceled due to Mahoney's passing, and none was scheduled on Tuesday--but he was terrific, and even joined the post-show discussion and was quite warmly engaging.

So my condolences to him and everyone at Steppenwolf and beyond who knew and loved Mr. Mahoney. He was truly a treasure.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Home, Not-So-Sweet, Home: Back Where It Began, 'The Humans' Remains Believable, If Not "Unbelievable!" -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Humans
a play by Stephen Karam
directed by Joe Mantello
National tour
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru February 11

At the very end of 2014, I saw a world premiere play called The Humans at Chicago's American Theater Co. in North Center.

Written by Stephen Karam and directed by ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli--who would tragically die just months later in a car accident in Scotland--the play received strong raves, most profusely from Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones.

And I think when I saw it, plans were already underway for it to be produced on Broadway under the direction of Tony-winner Joe Mantello.

As I wrote in my @@@@ (out of 5) review, I found the play to be excellent--well-written, well-paced, well-acted--but in its depiction of a family bickering over a relatively intimate Thanksgiving dinner in a Manhattan apartment, not quite phenomenal.

Since then, The Humans ran on Broadway for nearly a year--after bowing Off-Broadway--and won four 2016 Tony awards, including Best Play.

Photo credit on all: Julieta Cervantes
It's now on the highest-profile national tour for a non-musical play since War Horse more than 5 years ago.

And, through Sunday, back in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace.

Based on my seat being upgraded, for free, from near the back of the upper balcony to the very first row on the main floor, it seems that The Humans isn't quite filling the cavernous theaters.

But there were more than enough humans present in the second week of the Chicago tour stop to be rather impressive.

Just that a play with local origins went on to such high-profile success, on Broadway and nationally, makes me happy and proud as an avid supporter of the Windy City's arts community. And it's also nice to note how The Humans carries on the legacy of Paparelli, though oddly his name can't be found anywhere in the Playbill for the touring edition, directed as on Broadway by Mantello.

As with the ATC production, Chris Jones gave this rendition 4 stars (out of 4 on the Tribune's scale), and I was hoping I would be more enchanted that I had previously been.

But I wasn't. 

Which perhaps unnecessarily puts a negative-seeming slant on a play I very much enjoyed.

Maybe even more than I appreciated--as The Humans has a somewhat mysterious, even supernatural bent beyond what I clearly comprehended--the 90-minute one-act dramedy is deftly scripted by Karam.

As Brigid Blake (Daisy Eagan) welcomes her Scranton, PA family to a rather modest Thanksgiving dinner in the lower Manhattan duplex apartment she shares with boyfriend Rich (Luis Vega), the familial circumstances and conversations are certainly charged enough to hold one's interest.

Brigid's parents, Erik and Deirdre (Richard Thomas, once famed as John Boy Walton, and Pamela Reed, who I recognized from the Schwarzenegger film Kindergarten Cop) are initially a bit tight-lipped about the specifics, but one instantly senses some unrest about their economic well-being and other aspects later revealed.

Aimee (Therese Plaehn) is Brigid's sister, a lesbian and lawyer with a concerning health issue and problems in both her romantic and professional life.

The Blakes also bring with them Erik's wheelchair-bound and largely incoherent, Alzheimer's-striken mom, affectionately called Momo (Lauren Klein). That she is sheathed in a Philadelphia Eagles blanket made for a sight-gag presumably never before so nifty, coming--in real-life--just two days after the team won its first Super Bowl.

Neither Brigid nor Rich are robustly employed yet have fairly recently moved into an apartment that--even just as scaled upon the Palace stage--seems as if it would rent for more than $3,000/mo. (based an a quick check on units near Manhattan's Chinatown, as the play purports it to be).

Revelations about Richard's finances, which I won't delve into, make for a compelling part of the dialogue, especially given the contrast with Erik, long the equipment manager at a high school.

With Deirdre chiding Brigid about not being married, and some other family sparring as Rich prepares the meal, The Humans walks that line of feeling too much like real-life to seem a brilliantly incisive play, and featuring too many overtly dramatic moments to feel like a real family, especially on just one given day.

There's considerable quality--including in how it's staged and performed here--but whatever it is that has enormously smitten Chris Jones, repeatedly, as well as Tony Award voters, seems not to have connected quite so powerfully with me.

Given that, for my Chicago readers, there are few performances left to catch it here, this would seem a fine play to see nicely rendered a few years down the road at one of our myriad marvelous local theaters.

Such as where The Humans first came into existence.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Elegy to the Outgoing Tide: Remembering the Remarkable John Mahoney (1940-2018)

On Monday evening, when news broke about the passing of actor John Mahoney--at age 77, of complications from throat cancer--reports and tweets from national news outlets and widespread fans primarily referenced his role on the NBC sitcom, Frasier.

This is certainly understandable, as the 11 years Mahoney spent starring as the lovably irascible Martin Crane--father to Kelsey Grammer's title character and his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce)--undoubtedly represent his highest profile acting credit.

And he was great in the role.

But truth be told, I never watched Frasier all that much. I loved Cheers, from which Grammer's pompous psychiatrist was spun off onto his own show. Yet while I liked the characters of Frasier, Niles and Martin, I just wasn't compelled to tune in with regularity. Even in reruns.

Nonetheless, my admiration and appreciation for Mahoney could hardly be higher, and my sorrow over his passing feels considerably more acute than for most celebrities.

Before he was on Frasier, I enjoyed his work in the movie Say Anything with John Cusack and Ione Skye. I think this was the first I was aware of him.

He was also excellent on film in Barton Fink, Primal Fear, She's the One and more. 

Though I never had the pleasure of meeting Mahoney, I firmly believe the many wonderful things people have said--long before his passing, and profusely since--about what a nice man he was. 

And the story of his life, far beyond the success he found on Frasier, is rather remarkable. 

Per Wikipedia, Mahoney was born in Blackpool, Lancashire, England on June 20, 1940 and opted to move to the United States while still a young man.

He studied at Quincy University, in Illinois, before joining the United States Army to speed up the U.S. citizenship process, and received citizenship in 1959.

In the early 1970s, he taught English at Western Illinois University before settling in the Chicago suburbs of Forest Park and then Oak Park and serving as editor of a medical journal through much of the decade.

Dissatisfied with his career, he took acting classes at St. Nicholas Theatre, and soon decided to pursue acting full-time. After a production in Chicago in 1977, John Malkovich encouraged him to join the Steppenwolf Theatre, where he would receive raves in a play called Orphans, among several performances.

In 1986, Mahoney won a Tony Award for his performance in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway.

Frasier began in 1993, and after its highly successful run ended in 2004, Mahoney continued to occasionally act in TV & film.

John Mahoney in The Outgoing Tide, Northlight Theatre
But he returned to live in Oak Park and quite prolifically resumed his theater careeer on Chicago area stages.

I first saw him at Steppenwolf--where he had remained in the esteemed ensemble--in 2004, in both I Never Sang for My Father and The Dresser. I would also see him there in The Seafarer (2009), The Birthday Party (2013) and The Herd (2015).

He also appeared at Northlight Theatre in my hometown of Skokie, where 2011's The Outgoing Tide--about an aging man facing Alzheimer's and the end of his life--was one of the best plays I've ever seen anywhere.

I also really loved him in Chapatti (2014), got a kick out of seeing him act alongside the wondrous Mike Nussbaum in Better Late (2008) and enjoyed him in 2010's A Life.

Mahoney was part of Ravinia's 2005 concert staging of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Anyone Can Whistle, and in 2014 served as emcee as the Auditorium Theatre celebrated his 125th year with a showcase called Living the History.

So that makes 11 times I saw John Mahoney onstage, and every time was a treat, as I commonly shared in reviews (note the hyperlinks above).

At some points during the past decade, he appeared alarmingly frail--yet always acted terrifically--and it was heartwarming to note him being far more hale in more recent shows, though I last saw him in 2015.

Per this article, Mahoney fought cancer 20 years ago, and overcame a Stage 3 bout three years back, sharing in October 2017 that "according to my doctors, I’m clear of it now."

John Mahoney in Chapatti, Northlight Theatre
And indeed, from September to November of last year, the actor starred at Steppenwolf in The Rembrandt.

Regretfully, I didn't get to it.

Reviews of the play weren't outstanding and Cubs playoff action and various other shows kept me busy enough to not make it a priority.

Obviously, I now wish I had.

Reports are that he died on Sunday in hospice care due to complications from throat cancer. He had no direct survivors, but based on the outpouring of love, far and wide, myriad admirers.

Friends of mine from Oak Park have even shared personal anecdotes about Mahoney's accessibility and kindness.

I will acutely miss him and will always think of him fondly, not just for his good nature but for--at age 37--deciding he wanted to be an actor, and soon becoming great it.

Chase your dreams, no matter where the starting point.

And while I can't tell you what The Rembrandt was about, from all my observations it seems rather obvious that John Mahoney himself was quite a masterpiece.