Monday, May 28, 2018

The Glamorous Life: Sondheim's 'A Little Night Music' is Sublimely Delivered by BoHo Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Little Night Music
BoHo Theatre at the
Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago
Thru July 8

Indulge and forgive me for opening this review with a bit of self-pride.

Last week I attended two concerts by the Irish rock band, U2, at Chicago's United Center, alongside 17,000 or so fans each night.

I have loved U2 since I was 15 and did once--er, twice--again.

It took until I was in my early 30s to develop a similar passion for Stephen Sondheim and the musicals he created.

And on Friday night--two days after the 2nd U2 show--among about 100 people at the Greenhouse Theater Center, I saw BoHo Theatre deliver a smashing opening night rendition of Sondheim's A Little Night Music

It was just as enriching, gratifying and consequential, as a component of my live entertainment diet and to my overall existence.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
And, a few months from turning 50, this is one of the things I most like about myself--and my life. 

Heck, in between seeing A Little Night Music and writing this review, I rather abruptly took note of and attended a Northwestern University Symphony concert.

Free of charge, featuring works by Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff and including--with two choruses--a couple hundred people onstage, it too was fantastic. 

So a little night music--and cultural enlightenment--can come in myriad magnficent forms.

Though not quite as often as I've seen U2--22 shows now--I've seen A Little Night Music onstage several times, and have always been enchanted. 

With Sondheim and book writer, Hugh Wheeler, inspired by the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, the musical about love and marriage--which opened on Broadway in 1973, just three years after the maestro's Company covered similar themes, differently--features many phenomenal songs. 

And with a delightful set design by Evan Frank, allowing for four musicians to fit in rather naturally onstage, BoHo's production under the direction of Linda Fortunato is really rather exquisite. 

In fact, the only reason I considered giving it less than @@@@@ (out of 5) is because a couple of the vocal timbres didn't quite match what I would expect on Broadway or a cast recording. But not by much and maybe because they were a tad undermiked. 

Given that this is a relatively intimate, low-budget rendition, that seemed a silly detraction, given how demonstrably good virtually all of the performers are. 

Peter Robel well enacts the role of Frederik Egerman, an aging Swedish lawyer now married to an 18-year-old beauty, Anne (a delightful Rachel Guff, soon to graduate from Northwestern), who isn't ready to have sex with him. 

So when the couple see Frederik's former lover, Desiree (Kelli Harrington, who is fantastic), an actress appearing in a touring play, he seeks to resurrect relations.

This in turn angers Desiree's lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Christopher Davis, owner of a phenomenal singing voice on "In Praise of Women"), whose wife Charlotte (the charming Stephanie Stockstill) commiserates with Anne on the incredibly poignant "Every Day a Little Death."

Also factoring in are Frederik's son, Henrik (embodied with a nice smolder by Jordan Dell Harris), his maid Petra (Teressa LaGamba, delivering a strong take on "The Miller's Son"), Desiree's mother Mme. Armfeldt (an elegant Marguerite Mariama) and daughter Fredrika (Isabelle Roberts).

The cast, and most of the singing, is truly superb all the way through to five ensemble vocalists, most prominently Emily Goldberg, who factors into the narrative as well.

So individual songs--such as "Now" (by Frederik), "Later" (by Henrik) and "Liaisons" (by Mme. Armfeldt)--are a joy, and even more so, choral numbers like "The Glamorous Life," "Remember" and the especially droll, "A Weekend in the Country."

As usual, Sondheim's lyrics are brilliantly insightful and incisive, and the waltz-based music a delight.

And Harrington deftly reminds why "Send in the Clowns" isn't just one of the composer's most famous songs--it was a hit for Judy Collins--but also one of his best.

Every time I see a production of one of Sondheim's shows, I'm reminded anew of the breadth and depth of his genius.

And I feel not only culturally enriched yet again, but--at least for a moment--that much smarter.

So far in 2018, I've seen nice local renditions of Merrily We Roll Along and Company. Both were satisfying if not quite superlative.

But this rendition is really sublime, and deserves a rave recommendation--even to those who take in shows of many genres and price points. (Via Goldstar, you can see this great show for just $17.50 + service fees.)

It may just be A Little Night Music, but when done really right--as here--it's sheer delight music.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Two Nights of Love and Light: Even Without Some of Their Best Songs, U2 Delivers a Wonderful Experience -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Experience + Innocence Tour
May 22 & 23, 2018 (both shows seen)
United Center, Chicago

Bono has been one of the world's most famous people for decades, arriving on the public stage with U2's debut album, Boy, when he was just 20.

Not long after that came rock stardom, superstardom, mega-stardom and--eventually--hobnobbing with world leaders.

U2 continues to sell-out stadiums worldwide, 42 years after the band's formation in Dublin, with the original members--Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.--still intact, so the singer's life has likely seemed quite enviable.

Success, acclaim, vast riches, philanthropy, social activism and his childhood friends forever alongside.

When people use the term "rock star" as a glorified acclimation, Bono--albeit with seemingly a single woman (his wife, Ali, whom he dated as a teen and married in 1982) and without known chemical excesses--is essentially the archetype.

But when he was just 14, Bono--then still known by his birth name of Paul Hewson--saw his mom die suddenly, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while attending her father's funeral.

Various U2 songs over the years--including first single "I Will Follow"--have touched on this grim reality, but none more acutely than "Iris (Hold Me Close)" from 2014's Songs of Innocence album.

That song, and the same record's "Cedarwood Road"--about Bono's childhood residence--forged the emotional heart of the following year's technologically inventive Innocence + Experience tour.

And even after U2 put out the companion Songs of Experience album late last year--ostensibly chronicling the band's maturation--"Iris (Hold Me Close)" and "Cedarwood Road" are prominently reprised on the current Experience + Innocence tour, which I attended both Tuesday and Wednesday at Chicago's United Center.

Speaking prior to former song, Bono even called the evening(s), "a boy's search for his mother."

Candidly, those two songs, and the several SOI/SOE "love" and/or "light" tunes, seemingly about Bono's mom, healing himself and/or healing the world--the opening "Love Is All That We Have Left," "The Blackout" (with a "when the lights go out" refrain), "Lights of Home," "Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way" and the closing "13 (There Is a Light)"--are not the show's musical highlights.

But they aren't terrible, and Bono apparently needs to sing them, and given all the rock 'n roll therapy he and his band have provided me for 35 years, I'm happy to give him that.

And while the floor length screen that the quartet can play within, under and/or use for accompanying imagery isn't quite as ingeniously woven through the show as in 2015, the concerts were visually dazzling and demonstrably proved that as the members approach 60, they can still rock.

Sans any sidemen, touring musicians, background vocalists, etc., U2 blitzed through "I Will Follow,""Gloria" (Tuesday only) and "Beautiful Day" with the vigor of punks in a garage.

A stripped down "Sunday Bloody Sunday," with its opening couplet of  "I can't believe the news today / I can't close my eyes and make it go away" was particularly powerful on the heels of the Santa Fe, Texas high school shootings.

And especially given my Night 1 proximity to the "B-Stage," romps through "Elevation" and "Vertigo" were positively thrilling.

Much of the "news" about this tour comes in what U2 isn't playing.

After their 2017 stadium tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, no songs from that bandmark album are showing up this year--i.e. no "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" or "With or Without You"--nor are live staples such as "New Year's Day" or "Bad."

As these were my 21st & 22nd U2 concerts, across 32 years, I didn't mind some of the tent poles being eschewed.

The Irishmen have always been good at amping up even their more mediocre material--in this case "The Blackout" and "American Soul"--while "You're the Best Thing About Me" and "Get Out of Your Own Way" are genuinely solid new songs.

So in the parlance of an evening's entertainment within the eroding rock music idiom by a band that has meant a whole lot to me for much of my life, I honestly feel that U2 did enough--musically, visually, emotionally--for me to call these shows fantastic.

@@@@@ isn't a gift. 

That said, as discussion among U2 acolytes, I feel the structure of these shows hews too closely to those of 2015.

Though it sounds great, "Until the End of the World" could probably be well replaced, and while meaning about what I said above about granting Bono leeway, as narrative the Iris/Cedarwood combo feels a bit "been there/done that."

Anything I was supposed to glean about U2--and all of us--gaining "experience" was largely lost on me, and I will take great songs over thematic ones any day.

"Pride (in the Name of Love)" was fantastic, but--particularly on Night 2--I could have left the building after it without missing much.

Of the 6 songs following it, only "One" is truly among U2's best, and the closing couplet of "Love is Bigger than Anything in Its Way" and "13 (There is a Light)" felt redundant and overly low-key to end the night(s).

While on one hand admiring the band for resisting "Where the Streets Have No Name," I thought the anthemic song--my U2 favorite--would've fit in rather naturally after "One" or at the very end.

Obviously, no one mandates my U2-fer repeat attendance, and even with only one setlist change on Wednesday--the new "Red Flag Day" for the old "Gloria"--I'm still glad to have gone to both shows.

Tuesday I saw the band up close, but given my vantage point, not the screen. Wednesday I got the full A/V effect, though not the thrilling intimacy. 

But one consistent complaint I have about U2 in concert is that they don't audible enough, or make each performance unique.

I know that unlike favorites such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, who change things up considerably every show, the band--in part due to technical considerations--stays pretty locked into a structure and set list.

And as they should delight anyone attending any one show, this isn't a major deficiency.

But at this point, U2 has fans who follow them around, who see them at least twice per tour, who ravenously read the setlists and who seek out clips of rarities on YouTube.

Especially given what they're typically leaving out of this tour, why not trot out "New Year's Day" one night, or even "Walk On," "Exit," "Spanish Eyes" or something that would really elicit a "Wow!"

They did play "Desire"--complete with a return of Bono's MacPhisto devilish alter ego--"Acrobat" and "Staring at the Sun," which haven't been heard in years, and all sounded great. 

But Wednesday was the day before Bob Dylan turned 77, so why not surprise with their cover of "All Along the Watchtower" from Rattle & Hum, or even "Hawkmoon 269," which they wrote with him.

This may sound like a bit of whining, but though I doubt U2 will ever see this review, I really mean it constructively.

The band, and this show, are great, but would be even better if loosened up a tad.

While I really can't rue Bono ending each night with a plaintive ode to his long-lost mom, why not an ebullient rocker to follow the darkness?

Perhaps it might not have made perfect sense given the narrative thread, but I doubt anyone would've been unhappy to sing along with "Where the Streets Have No Name" before heading to their cars.

And this even includes Bono.

"I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside."

Sure sounds like a song of experience to me.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Quite a Curveball: Sharp and Tuneful 'Striking Out: A Gay Baseball Musical' Has the Makings of a Hit -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Striking Out
A Gay Baseball Musical
Annoyance Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 16

Although recent years have seen a few current, aspiring and former professional athletes publicly come out as gay, at least per anecdotal evidence the world of American team sports is far from a bastion of LGBTQ acceptance.

Though it seems likely that there must be some, there are currently no openly gay players in major league baseball.

The shrewd premise of the fine new musical, Striking Out: A Gay Baseball Musical, turns this reality on its head.

Written and directed by Adam Levin & Ryan Ford--including the music & lyrics of several fine songs--Striking Out imagines professional baseball as exclusively the province of homosexuals.

As the show opens, with a prelude espousing that "everyone in baseball must be gay," the Chicago Otters' dreams of a successful season--nicely voiced in "Maybe This Year"--hit a snag in Spring Training as their superstar, Lance Valentine (normally played by Jordan Wilson, but with Adam Levin pinch hitting at the performance I attended) goes down with a season-ending injury.

Borrowing a page from Damn Yankees--which the show knowingly references within--and The Natural, an unknown farmhand with preternatural talents seemingly comes to the rescue.

Problem is, the Joe Hardy or Roy Hobbs of this story--Jimmy Roberts (Ryan Cashman)--is straight.

But though his girlfriend, Penny (Laurel Zoff Pelton)--who aspires to become "the Al Roker" of sports television--accompanies him to Chicago, she pretends to be Jimmy's sister so he can pass himself off as gay.

No need for me to reveal any more that happens, and some of it is fairly predictable.

But along with well making its point about inclusion, openness, tolerance, acceptance, etc.--although despite the Otters having a female manager (Shelby Quinn) and two women providing over-the-top ESPNish analysis (Elizabeth Andrews, Susan Winters), all the baseball players are men--Striking Out is a winning enterprise largely due to its fine songs.

"Goodbye-Owa"--Jimmy Roberts' ode to his home state--is quite clever, and Penny and Lance nicely share the spotlight on "Left Behind."

While there is ostensibly some improvising happening in Striking Out, and the nearby Cubs--and their historic 2016 success--aren't far from anyone's minds, I'd have to guess that repeated references to The Lion King on Saturday night were more coincidental than directly tied to Joe Maddon also speaking of the musical/movie in a press conference that day, if only because few in the audience would've been aware of the Cubs manager's comments.

Supposedly revamped after an Annoyance run last fall (which I did not see), this still isn't a perfect show.

The limited run--Saturdays only, through June 16--in a shared space means virtually no scenery. With just a 3-piece band, the drumbeat tends to overpower. Hanging mics aren't ideal for some of the vocal timbres, particularly Cashman's, who was a bit hard to hear in the back of a small room. Though the performers were clearly having fun, there was certainly a bit of overacting. And there is an oddly pre-recorded song near the end, accompanying the interaction between Jimmy Roberts and a hallowed baseball legend, who probably should be but isn't Jackie Robinson.

Yet song after song--including Act II's "Baseball Husbands," "We're F*cked" and "Love Tonight"--brought a smile to my face.

So did Sarah Porter's take on devilish agent Chester Wiesel, conjuring thoughts of Ray Walston as Applegate in the Damn Yankees movie. (Another clear point of reference for this show seems to be Richard Greenberg's 2002 Tony winning play, Take Me Out, about a major leaguer who reveals that he is gay.)

Striking Out can probably use some adjustments to its mechanics, and I'm not suggesting it's presently ready for a transfer to the big leagues of Broadway, or even Off-Broadway.

But especially for just $20, there's no reason it can't make for a fun Saturday night for those who love baseball, musicals and the rights of everyone to live with respect, dignity and acceptance.

And with some financial backing to bolster the production values, there's really no reason Striking Out: A Gay Baseball Musical couldn't become a regional hit, along the lines of Ride the Cyclone.

As it is, it's already better--at least musically, if you accept that it isn't fully orchestrated--than many a show I've seen coming from or heading to Broadway.

Partway through its current Annoyance run, it was nice to see a good-sized crowd, and even if you don't connect with it in the coming weeks, Striking Out will ideally get more turns at bat somewhere down the road.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Oh, Baby: Northlight's 'Cry It Out' Smartly Gets to the Heart of a New Mother's Dilemma -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Cry It Out
by Molly Smith Metzler
directed by Jessica Fisch
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 17

Without ever having been a husband or father, I've never been acutely involved in child rearing discussions or decisions.

Though an uncle of three, I also wouldn't purport to have any real understanding of early childhood development and what might be "best" for a baby, his/her mother or father--or why--on any level.

I also appreciate--as astutely explored in Molly Smith Metzler's excellent 100-minute play, Cry It Out, now in a stellar production at Northlight--that the "choice" about whether a new mother will stay at home with her child or return to the workforce is multifaceted, and likely never easy.

Whether highly successful in a career she's worked years to ascend within, or in a job that may not be wonderful but which provides essential income, any mom--and dad--with each child seemingly must weigh not only financial matters, but parameters pertaining to insurance coverage, maternity leave stipulations, future employment marketability, day care options/quality/cost and more.

Without getting too specific, I've observed a relative--quite accomplished in her rather specialized field, and with the blessing of in-laws quite willing to regularly watch the baby--return to her job, only to fairly soon then decide to be a full-time mom, prompted in part by heartbreakingly hearing her son call his grandma "Mommy."

So even though it's not a dilemma I've personally had to deal with, I'm quite empathetic to its complexity, difficulty and innate unfairness--whether societal, classist, sexist or simply biological.

Neither wanting to be with your child nor wishing to continue your career--or just earn a paycheck--seems wrong to me, and I would never judge anyone for the decision they make, especially given all the mitigating factors.

Metzler's play, nicely directed by Jessica Finch, centers around a first-time mom named Jessie (an excellent Darci Nalepa), who is a seasoned, partner-track lawyer on maternity leave from a big-name Manhattan law firm.

She and her unseen husband Nate--well-to-do himself and the son of quite wealthy parents who live nearby--have relocated from NYC to the quaint Port Washington on Long Island, much as Metzler and her husband actually did when she was pregnant.

As the play opens, Jessie is joined in her backyard by a neighboring, likewise baby-monitor-wielding new mom named Lina (Laura Lapidus, who is truly wonderful).

The two had recently met at a local store, and their ongoing "mommy meetups" over a matter of weeks form the structural heart of Cry It Out.

There is considerable candid, and occasionally explicit, discussion of maternal biology matters, with Lina being a rather sassy hoot.

Though not married, she is living with the baby's father in his mother's house. Money is clearly much tighter than for Jessie's family, and--without giving anything much away--Lina has already decided that she will soon return to work, while Jessie is intending not to.

Two other characters factor into the one-act play: a very wealthy but discordant husband and wife named Mitchell (the always great Gabriel Ruiz) and Adrienne (Kristina Valada-Viars, who does a fine job with a harsh characterization), herself also a new mom.

I've often said that any play, regardless of its subject matter or how closely it relates to one's own life, can be excellent, insightful and enlightening.

Cry It Out proves this, and--without being qualitatively definitive--I liked it far more than Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child, which I had seen well-staged at Writers Theatre just two nights earlier. 

From the get-go, Cry It Out just feels fresh, with Metzler's script deftly mixing poignancy and humor, and Lapidus and Nalepa especially seeming perfectly cast.

Forming the play's core, Jessie's and Lina's conversations, developing friendship, concerns and candor feel quite real and believable, and the crux of their "should I stay (home) or should I go (back to work)?" dilemma is eminently empathetic.

Though the characters of Gabriel and Adrienne are well-enacted, they're not quite as convincing, and a couple of late scenes involving one or the other--notably, they're never onstage together--feel like they were reached, perhaps still imperfectly, after numerous rewrites and adjustments. (This isn't a world premiere play, but rather recent.)

Yet--while I'll avoid any narrative details--Adrienne does add significantly to the considerations addressed in Cry It Out. 

Even for new parents who have the financial luxury not to have to return to work anytime soon, the choice isn't automatic, and shouldn't be seen by others as obvious.

And obviously, I won't reveal more about how this smart play unfolds, but the course it takes--in sometimes realistically ambiguous ways--only enhances my appreciation and recommendation.

For whether it's about this specific topic or many others, there seems to be a universal truth in choices not always being entirely up to us, and that sometimes there really isn't a right or wrong answer.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

40 Years On in the Heartless Heartland: At Writers Theatre, Sam Shepard's 'Buried Child' Offers More Symbolism Than Scintillation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Buried Child
by Sam Shepard
directed by Kimberly Senior
Writers Theatre, Glencoe
Thru June 17

In writing theater reviews, all I can fairly do is try to reflect my own perception, enjoyment, understanding and appreciation of a certain show--and actually, a certain production and performance of that show--in the time and place that I saw it.

While I have now seen and reviewed enough works--over 500 different titles--to feel comfortable in forming and sharing opinions in a way that might help others decide how to allot their theater-going time and money, I do not purport to be the most studied of critics.

I am no more right or wrong than anyone else, be it an esteemed critic or random audience member, but I tell it like I see it, not how I'm supposed to see it.

In eagerly attending the opening night of Buried Child at Glencoe's beautiful Writers Theatre, I knew that it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the legendary Sam Shepard--who died last July--first staged in 1978.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
I'd never seen it, but did once read it, and was somewhat aware of descriptions such as this, from Wikipedia:

"The postmodern style that Shepard uses incorporates surrealism and symbolism in the realistic framework of a family drama."

And in watching it, alongside my pal Ken who doesn't regularly attend theater, I was able to appreciate that the nearly 3-hour, 3-act play takes its time, staying at a solid simmer, unhurried in its exposition until the last 30 minutes or so, by which time my eyelids were starting to droop.

Clearly the acting is excellent, led by Chicago stalwart Larry Yando as Dodge, an old, curmudgeonly alcoholic.

As he sits on his couch--somewhere in downstate Illinois--drinking, smoking and hacking, his banter with Shannon Cochran as his wife Hallie, while she remains unseen in an upstairs bedroom, is delightful, even as it takes its time driving things forward.

By the end of Act I, we learn--if not entirely explicitly--that Dodge and Hallie have three sons: mentally-addled Tilden (Mark Montgomery), crippled & ornery Bradley (Timothy Edward Kane) and previously passed Ansel.

The second act brings their grandson (and Tilden's son) Vince (Shane Kenyon) to the house--well-designed by Jack Magaw--along with Shelly (a terrific Arti Ishak), who is easily the most likable character in this strange show.

I've seen several prior shows directed by Kimberly Senior, and trust that she got the essence out of Shepard's script, which covers a lot on its surface--dysfunctional families, dreams that don't come true--and probably even more beneath it.

Buried Child, whose third act features a charged monologue by Kenyon--that I admittedly didn't catch every word of--is definitely an estimable work, and it provided fodder for considerable post-show discussion between Ken and me.

Any show that slyly addresses disillusionment with the American dream, the antiquated attitudes of a white rural patriarchy and the downturn of family farming clearly has some substance--and this leaves unstated the grim revelation referenced by the play's title.

But it would be disingenuous to imply that I loved this play, one that multiple sources have dubbed a

I just didn't.

At least on my first live encounter. With a production that itself seems quite strong. 

And even Ken, who seemed to get a bit more from Buried Child than I did, really only saw this stellar production as meriting @@@@ (out of 5) at best.

My aim is never to dissuade anyone from seeing a show they are intending to, and that certainly shouldn't be the case here. Writers Theatre regularly does stellar work, and no one should construe that I thought this highly-acclaimed play was "bad."

I just didn't find it as great as I had hoped. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Art Lover Paints a Socially Realistic Portrait of a Young Man in 'Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse' -- Book Review

Book Review

Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse
a novel by Arthur D. Hittner
published by Apple Ridge Fine Arts

Amazon product page (Kindle version)

Although it involves many subjects that interest me--American art of the 1930s, baseball, New York City, Judaism, questions of faith, beautiful women, romantic dilemmas, racial divides, social stridency, cultural enlightenment and more--I only learned of the historical fiction novel, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse, because the author himself asked me to read it.

Clearly an art lover, collector and historian in addition to being a writer--and retired attorney--Arthur Hittner contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago after coming across a review/recap I had written about a 2016 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition titled America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s.

Some of the included artists that I cited in my review--Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood, Stuart Davis--factor into Hittner's book, and also noting my baseball fandom, the Massachusetts & Arizona resident surmised I might enjoy reading and reviewing his novel.

After advising him that I can be an intermittent and dispassionate reader, who might realistically not complete his book for several months, I found myself rather feverishly digesting the 301-page Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse--via a Kindle app--in less than a week.

So I clearly enjoyed the book, and especially if at least a few of the topics above interest you, I strongly recommend it.

Not quite as a masterpiece, but a very engaging and informative read.

Below I will share more about the book's storyline and inspiration--including aspects Hittner cited to entice me to read it--but if you're already thinking it sounds like something you may wish to check out, it may be prudent to STOP READING THIS REVIEW NOW (and return AFTER you've read the book).


Knowing any of the following shouldn't really ruin the experience of reading Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse--and may well enhance it--but I somewhat wish I was a bit less initiated beforehand.

For the novel grew out of a non-fiction book Hittner wrote called At the Threshold of Brilliance: The Brief But Splendid Career of Harold J. Rabinovitz.

Rabinovitz was a transplant to the NYC art scene, whose work in the 1930s earned a good deal of acclaim, if not lasting fame. (I had never heard of him until now.)

Although Hittner fictionalizes some aspects of his protagonist in Artist, Soldier, Love, Muse, the character of Henry Kapler is, like the real Rabinovitz, a Jewish alum of Yale who moves from Springfield, MA to New York City.

Hittner even imagines Kapler painting works that were really created by Rabinovitz (I could only find a few online, including one I'll included below and the self-portrait adorning Hittner's biography; I imagine more are within).

There's nothing wrong with drawing quite direct inspiration from a fine artist of the era, largely lost to history, and I'm fascinated to learn of Harold Rabinovitz (reminding me of my discovery of a little-known but terrific Impressionist named Federico Zandomeneghi).

But knowing the title of Hittner's Rabinovitz biography--and the author spelled out a bit more in his email to me--can clue you in a bit too robustly about what will happen in the novel.

One of my minor quibbles with Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse (whose title is even a tad too revelatory for my tastes) is that the fine narrative Hittner develops--which along with considerable artistic exposition involves two attractive women Henry Kapler befriends, one of whom is dating a notorious New York Yankee (who really existed)--doesn't unwind the way I thought it should have.

Obviously, the author is entitled to make whatever choices he feels proper--and this doesn't change my overall impression of the book--but I feel the end is too tied to fact, rather than following the fiction in a more intriguing direction.

Eventide, by Harold Rabinovitz, 
As noted above, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse addresses a number of topics, and while Hittner interweaves them artfully, some--including commentary on racial discrimination and references to art luminaries of the times--get relatively short shrift.

But in saying that, I must admit that while detailed descriptions of Kapler's--and, probably, really Rabinovitz's paintings--engaged me, the parts about his romantic entanglements kept me turning the pages a bit more profusely.

So while a sound-byte summary of this book would likely reference a young, social realist painter bucking his Jewish father's wishes to make his way in the New York art scene of the 1930s--and this certainly did intrigue me--it also has more universal elements that, if not quite as educational, are fun to ingest.

While Hittner demonstrates considerable deftness in his writing, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse doesn't quite have the depth to call it a stroke of genius.

But it definitely paints an intriguing picture of a certain time, place, talented artist, coming-of-age story and more, rather realistically.

Perhaps even a touch too much so. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Long, Storied Lives: Centenarian Sisters Speak Volumes in 'Having Our Say' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 10

Theatrically speaking, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years is a rather simple affair.

Two actresses--at Goodman, the terrific tandem of Marie Thomas and Ella Joyce--embody centenarian sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany, respectively, as they regale the audience about their lives.

The sisters--who lived together for most of their lives, in their native Raleigh, NC, Harlem and Mount Vernon, NY--speak of their parents, siblings and numerous acquaintances, but while projected photos adorn Linda Buchanan's beautiful set, there are no other characters onstage.

So while calling it a play isn't inaccurate, Having Our Say is more like a spoken autobiography, times two.

I had first encountered this piece--written for the stage by Emily Mann, based on a New York Times article and then book by Amy Hill Hearth--in a 2014 production by Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater.

Given the much smaller budget of FJT, that rendition was far more visually spartan, but the essence was largely similar, and acting also stellar. 

Even on a grander scale at Goodman--where it is clearly lovingly directed by Chuck Smith--Having Our Say is more an enjoyable piece than a riveting one, but it would be wrong to suggest that it lacks depth. 

Now passed--their stories were originally chronicled by Hearth in 1991--the Delany sisters were African-American, and their recollections include many examples of facing bigotry. 

Their father, Henry, who was born a slave in 1858, became an Episcopalian bishop, educator and Vice-Principal of St. Augustine's college in Raleigh, where the sisters--and 8 other siblings--were raised.

This was initially before Jim Crow laws were enacted, but such indignities as "whites only" restrooms, drinking fountains and lunch counters eventually prompted Sadie and Bessie to move to Harlem. 

There, after each earned educations atypical for African-American women at the time, the elder Sadie became a high school teacher and Bessie--two years younger--a dentist. 

Though each had dalliances with men, neither married nor had children. 

As shared in the play, Sadie's personality was more "sugar," while the more direct Bessie was "spice." 

Yet they clearly valued each other's company, and over decades observed both progress and the lack thereof, while intersecting with the likes of WEB DuBois, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and more. 

Much is made of the sisters' generosity to others in their family and the African-American community, and--countering prejudicial assumptions that ignore the socioeconomic truth about many middle-class blacks--at one point Bessie exhorts, "I never accepted a handout."

So clearly, there is much to learn, appreciate and consider in the sisters' remembrances and observations, covering most of the 20th century. 

And though some of the references in Mann's 1995 adaptation of Hearth's book (including "Dan Quayle") have become somewhat dated, the themes of the play--both familial and societal--remain largely resonant today. 

It's unlikely anyone who sees a good deal of theater will consider Having Our Say among the very best shows ever seen. 

But it's also unlikely that anyone who sees Having Our Say won't find themselves moved, delighted and enlightened. 

And for a biographical show 200+ years in the making, that's really is saying something. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Tennessee Williams' 'Suddenly Last Summer' Doesn't Feel Quite So Fraught, for Good and Bad -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Suddenly Last Summer
by Tennessee Williams
directed by Jason Gerace
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 17

Last month, at Chicago's Raven Theatre, I saw and reviewed a world premiere play by Philip Dawkins called The Gentleman Caller.

Still running at Raven and recently mounted Off-Broadway, the play set in 1944 dramatizes possible trysts between playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge, when neither was yet famous but Williams was soon to become Broadway royalty for The Glass Menagerie.

If the historical-yet-fictionalized script--and the actors' embodiments--are to be believed, Williams was publicly and privately comfortable with his homosexuality, while Inge was secretive and repressed.

Interestingly, the next play on the Raven slate--so now running concurrently with The Gentleman Caller--is Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams himself.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
It had debuted off-Broadway in early 1958, after the writer had achieved great success with Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Based in New Orleans in 1936, Suddenly Last Summer--especially when seen today--serves to remind, as does The Gentleman Caller, just how demonized, scorned and, thus, clandestine gay people once were (which isn't to suggest they have yet to achieve full acceptance).

I certainly understand that homosexuality was considered a crime in many places, and don't doubt the disheartening lengths gay individuals--and their families--were compelled to go to keep such a "lifestyle" unknown.

And despite Williams' seemingly confident openness, something dreadful in his experiences must have prompted the scenario he created in Suddenly Last Summer.

In the 90-minute, one-act play, a cold, callous woman named Violet Venable (Mary K. Nigohosian) tries to convince a doctor (Wardell Julius Clark) to lobotomize her niece Catherine (a terrific Grayson Hayl) so as to keep her from talking about seeing Violet's son Sebastian get killed--rather violently and suddenly--last summer.

Though it isn't explicitly stated until near the end of the play, the gist from the very beginning is that Sebastian was gay, and this reality sadly led to his death.

Given the era of the play, one could conceivably give Violet props for wanting to protect her son's--and her family's--reputation.

But she is so vile in how she seeks to quiet Catherine--who is afforded no compassion, even by her inheritance-seeking mother (Ann James) and brother (Andrew Rathgeber), for quite traumatically witnessing her cousin's brutal murder--that I could really only see Violet as reprehensible.

Perhaps it says something good about today's much wider embrace of the LGBTQ community that I had trouble being much engaged by--or tolerant of--Violet's icy manipulation of the doctor, or her cruel intimidation of her niece.

Maybe in 1936 or 1958, I would have better understood her going to such lengths, but though old works can be quite valuable in highlighting how things have--and haven't--changed over time, as an evening's entertainment in 2018, Suddenly Last Summer just didn't greatly enthrall or enlighten me.

Directed by Jason Gerace on a nicely steamy NOLA set by Joanna Iwanicka, the show is well-acted, with Hayl delivering a particularly bristling monologue with poignant gusto.

There's certainly quality to be found, but beyond being a pointed illustration of a woman so loathe to accept the truth about her otherwise beloved son--which feels a bit over-the-top in its baseness, at least today, which isn't a bad thing--this seems like a solid production of a decent play (which also isn't a bad thing).

On the heels of The Gentleman Caller, I'm glad I saw Suddenly Last Summer, adding it to the Tennessee Williams plays I've seen: the three most famous ones already mentioned, plus Sweet Bird of Youth, Night of the Iguana and Camino Real, the only one I really disliked.

But if you were to tell me you have a free night and might want to see something at Raven--a comfortable north side venue with easy parking that regularly does estimable work--even if you professed a fondness for Tennessee Williams, I would advise you to choose The Gentleman Caller, any day of the week.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

We Welcome Live Over There: 'A Home on the Lake' Provides an Insightful Evanston, and Racial, History Lesson -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Home on the Lake
a world premiere play by Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze
directed by Tim Rhoze
Piven Theatre, Evanston
in collaboration with Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
Thru June 3

Growing up on the north end of Skokie--where I still reside, in a different home--the city of Evanston was, in part, just a couple blocks away.

Situated between Skokie and Lake Michigan, Evanston--home to the prestigious Northwestern University--always felt like a larger, hipper and, in my youth, far more diverse suburb.

Whereas the populace of Skokie, circa 1980 or so, was predominantly white and Jewish, Evanston was known--as opposed not only to Skokie but most nearby suburbs of Chicago--for its heavy mix of black and white. (Skokie has now become quite multi-culturally diverse, albeit with seemingly relatively few African-Americans.)

I won't say I was raised to be completely colorblind, but I was never taught to hate or feel superior, and as a sports fan couldn't help but admire the success of Evanston High School, which--with a trio of future college stars--would beat my alma mater, Niles North, in a memorable sectional basketball game.

I knew there were areas of Evanston that were heavily black, but quite regularly rode through one of them--east along Emerson Ave. to the downtown district--and never gave much thought to the town's literal racial divisions or why they existed.

As I'll turn 50 in a few months, I've had many years to better understand the--often quite ugly--ways of the world, including the extremely harmful impact of "redlining."

Per my understanding, largely in the 1930s-1950s, many U.S. banks--at the behest of the Federal Housing Administration--systematically denied mortgages to black families seeking to buy or build homes in white neighborhoods.

Largely keeping the races segregated, relegating African-Americans to inferior schools and hence, employment opportunities, and denying them the kind of generational wealth many white families were able multiply thanks to real estate holdings, redlining--essentially discriminatory housing practices exacerbated by bigoted white folks--has impacted the racial divide very much still felt today.

Lorraine Hansberry's brilliant 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, broached this topic quite forcefully, and 50+ years later, Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park also reflected on it as a sequel of sorts. Both are Chicago-based.

I won't say A Home on the Lake--written by Fleetwood-Jourdain artistic director Tim Rhoze and Piven Theatre Workshop literary manager Stephen Fedo--is quite on par with those two plays, and it focuses on housing discrimination that preceded the era of redlining, but it adds powerful insights, even (for me) a bit more locally.

Let me clearly state that A Home on the Lake--in a world premiere collaborative production between Fleetwood-Jourdain and Piven, both resident companies within Evanston's Noyes Cultural Arts Center--is dramatically strong enough to be staged, seen and appreciated anywhere.

Like A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park, it's themes are universal enough that one needn't know the exact geography it references.

But for residents of Evanston, and those who grew up nearby, it is an especially potent piece of theater, not just because it mentions local establishments like Hecky's BBQ.

Although all the characters in A Home on the Lake are fictional, and it is as much a play about families as it is about Evanston history and racial divides, Fedo and Rhoze clearly did their research, and openly give credit to oral histories collected by Nina Kavin and Dear Evanston.

The action in the play takes place in both the early-1920s and the modern day, intermingled, with the same actors playing roles in both eras.

Yet while this might sound wrought for confusion, it's to the great credit of the script, the performances and director Rhoze that the narrative runs rather seamlessly and coherently.

Unfortunately, the actors are not depicted in the few photos of the show I could find online, but Sean Blake and Christopher M. Walsh play black and white businessmen, respectively, who strike a deal to build new home communities in Evanston for thousands of African-Americans relocating from the American south during the Great Migration.

At least per what the play purports--and it seems rather legitimate--Evanston, more than other suburbs, openly welcomed blacks because it needed cheap labor for the rapid expanding university town.

But--even well before the rise of redlining--African-Americans were not able to obtain mortgages for homes on or near the lake, or close to Evanston's central business district, east of Green Bay Road.

Blake's character of Leland Fowler realizes this, and while not exactly accepting of it--particularly when his own family's dream of "a home on the lake" is put in jeopardy--he seeks to build a "negro colony" between west of Green Bay Rd. to the North Shore Channel, a.k.a. the "stinky" sanitation canal, where the white folks don't want to live. Walsh's Case Milburn provides Fowler with vital financial backing, but with some unkind strings attached.

Fowler's wife Isabelle (a terrific Nicholia Q. Aguirre) is friends with Milburn's wife Florence (the likewise superb Abigail Boucher), and in the modern day their great-granddaughters (played by the same actresses) are a married couple. 

In both eras, Jelani Pitcher and Rachel Shapiro, are teenage companions--in the 1920s as interracial friends, in 2018 as a brother & sister who create music together--and both add to the story. 

As noted above, A Home on the Lake is just as much a play about family as it is about housing, race and Evanston. Yet while this makes it quite compelling, sometimes all the elements seem to be a bit much, and certain characters go missing for awhile.

I purposely won't divulge much about the modern-day dilemma faced by Aguirre's and Boucher's married characters of Cynthia and Florence, but something about a financial aspect puzzled me.

So while much work, and presumably refining, has made A Home on the Lake a truly fantastic world premiere--i.e. creating a multifaceted, dual-era narrative this gripping and cogent is no small feat--there probably could be some more tightening of the various threads.

But this is one of the best plays I've seen in 2018--and should stay that way no matter what I see--one whose insights truly hit home.

No matter where you may live.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The Racial Divide: Dael Orlandersmith Powerfully Focuses on Ferguson in 'Until the Flood' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Until the Flood
a new play written & performed by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Neel Keller
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 12

Great theater often empowers us to consider things from a variety of angles and perspectives.

It can do this in a variety of ways, but over the last few months and years, I've seen three one-woman plays in which the author--or, in one case, an actress playing the author--has embodied numerous characters onstage to highlight multiple viewpoints.

Unveiled, by Rohina Malik, keenly explores what being Muslim and wearing a hijab--or choosing not to--means to five women of vastly different backgrounds.

Liberty City, by April Yvette Thompson--with Dionne Addis in her stead in the outstanding production I saw at Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre earlier this year; Thompson performed in the original New York production--recounts the author's upbringing, most potently regarding a riot that engulfed the Miami neighborhood in which her family lived.

Dael Orlandersmith's Until the Flood, newly opened in the Owen Theater at Goodman, is another terrific example.

Commissioned by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where the play debuted, Orlandersmith addresses the killing of African-American teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson, one of that suburb's almost entirely white police force.

At Goodman, as in St. Louis, Orlandersmith performs Until the Flood entirely by herself, and with her acting as strong as her writing, she works in array of characters that she acts out.

Before she takes the stage, we hear the 9-1-1 call pertaining to the incidents that left Michael Brown dead at 18, shot down on a Ferguson street by Wilson for reasons much debated.

Orlandersmith begins her performance in the guise of a 75-year-old black woman, a former teacher who speaks of African-Americans' "legacy of self-hate," and says that "Michael Brown was made to see himself as a n----r."

The author clearly had many conversations with those in and around Ferguson, but in an interview printed in the program shares that the people she personifies are "composite figures."

Directed by Neel Keller on a poignant set designed by Takeshi Kata, Orlandersmith deftly cycles through insightful personifications of individuals black and white, young and old, representing a variety of perspectives.

All of which I valued.

Though I highly recommend Until the Flood--which you should be able to catch for under $20; discounts can be found on HotTix, Goldstar and TodayTix--some more surprising commentaries from those being characterized might have made it a trifle more compelling.

As one might expect, there was outrage and sorrow expressed for the killing of Brown, and some empathy, compassion, forgiveness and/or blamelessness put forth about the young policeman, Wilson.

But the attitudes Orlandersmith chose to embody in her show are largely divided along racial--and
sometimes age--lines, in fairly predictable ways.

Without wanting to reveal in whose voice the author/actress said what, I might have preferred hearing some insights I didn't see coming.

For while the writer is seemingly reflecting truthful--and often painful and scornful--realities, great theater not only can provide incisive perspectives, but perhaps amplify them with some dramatic misdirection.

But this quibble really only serves to explain why I can't quite give Until the Flood a full @@@@@.

Still, I can forthrightly say that no matter who you are, this powerful one-woman tour de force is well-worth your time and attention.