Saturday, November 30, 2019

Do I Believe?: A Fun Night, Abetted by Chic Dance Grooves, Could've Used More Cher Emotion -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Chic feat. Nile Rodgers
United Center, Chicago 
November 27, 2019
@@@@ (just for Cher)

I think it's been well-established that there's almost nobody I wouldn't see live in concert, especially given the right confluence of opportunity, location and cost.

Obviously I'll never see everyone or anywhere close to it, but I love the art of live entertainment and--particularly given my unabashed affinity for musical theater--I don't feel much provincialism, peer pressure or concern over possible perceptions.

In other words, if--last year--I saw The Cher Show as part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, and enjoyed the music, why wouldn't I want to see the real thing at least once.

Especially, as following Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand--who I likewise saw for the first time just since July--Cher fits into the category of famed female singers with decades of staying power.

For the record, I won't be seeing Celine Dion Monday night at the United Center, and I was pretty much oblivious to Cher playing here in February.

So be it.

In October, when my pal Paolo was visiting his girlfriend in Glasgow, I noticed Cher was performing there and suggested they go. They did, and reported that Cher was fantastic. So given her return to Chicago, I wanted to see her.

Especially with Chic, featuring its original mastermind Nile Rodgers, opening the show.

I had seen Chic in an opening slot for Duran Duran a few years back and pretty much knew what to expect.

With Rodgers and crew--I don't think anyone else in the current incarnation was an original member--replicating Chic disco classics like "Everybody Dance," "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)," "Everybody Dance," "Le Freak" and "Good Times," they quite delectably got the party started.

And with Rodgers not only reminding the crowd that he's a musical genius who co-wrote or produced many gems beyond Chic--Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out" and "Upside Down," Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer" and "We Are Family," Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and to my goosebumping delight, David Bowie's "Let's Dance" (with drummer Ralph Rolle on lead vocals), were all worked into the nearly hourlong set--he also spoke of overcoming, with a currently clean bill of health, a rather grim cancer diagnosis within the past decade.

So even before Cher took the stage--and she cheekily peeked out from the behind the curtain a few minutes before she did--the "Good Times" were apparent.

I would give Chic @@@@@ for their delectable set, which even saw Rodgers rapping the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" as that early hip-hop classic famously incorporated "Good Times."

Vocalist Kimberly Davis was also demonstrably sensational, as part of the impressively Chic contingent. 

Between sets, an attractive young woman sitting next to me (alongside two friends of hers) engaged me in a conversation that was somewhat fun, but also somewhat odd. Sharing that I didn't drink, smoke or take drugs, I was told that I needed to be more wild and uninhibited.

While I didn't rebuke or blatantly dismiss the psychological assessment of a 24-year-old stranger who spent virtually every moment of the show texting, I suggested that in being a 51-year-old straight man attending a Cher show alone and posting about it on Facebook, I was comfortable enough in my own skin without needing to repeatedly buy two overpriced mixed drinks at a time like she did.

But I digress (and perhaps protesteth too much).

After a video montage showing the woman born Cherilyn Sarkisian throughout her 73 years--she proudly shared her age with the crowd; it felt like something of a theme given my conversation with Aneela (or however she might spell it)--adorned in long blue wig and a bejeweled leotard, Cher began by singing "Woman's World."

"Strong Enough" followed and not only could that aptly describe her voice, Cher clearly looked great for a person of any age.

Still in the blue wig, Cher began addressing the nearly full crowd--though enough tickets had remained unsold that I bought my balcony seat after a price drop just the day before the show--as her cadre of dancers left the stage.

It felt like a nice, non-diva-ish touch, and Cher engagingly told of rebuking both a Hollywood scumbag who demeaned her and, initially, David Letterman.

At the time it was kinda cool that the star seemed unconcerned about how long her stage patter dragged on, but it was proven odder given that Cher barely said another word all night, not even "Thank you" or "Goodnight." (She did say something briefly before "I Got You Babe," though didn't directly mention Sonny Bono.)

I felt the concert, which was fun and well-done but overly slick like a Las Vegas production, would've been better with more personal touches throughout.

Sure, in good part I wanted to see a Cher show because I had seen The Cher Show, and I get that constantly changing into different spectacular Bob Mackie costumes is part of her act.

I liked most of the songs she sang, including a ABBA trio--"Waterloo," "SOS," "Fernando"--given Cher having co-starred in the Mamma Mia sequel, whose subtitle, Here We Go Again, is also the moniker for this tour.

"I Found Someone" and "If I Could Turn Back Time" are decent rock songs, and though still auto-tuned to the point of shrill aggravation, "Believe" was an uplifting belter to end Cher's 90 minutes or so. 

I'm really not sure if the elephant Cher rode at one point was real--supposedly not, from what I've read--but the production values were impressive and @@@@ (out of 5) feels like a fair assessment of the performance.

Yet in respecting that Cher does this same show every night--on this tour from Sept. 2018 through next May--I think it would be better if she would "share" a bit more, not to imply she doesn't give her all, physically.

Besides "I Got You Babe," the most poignant, heartfelt songs heard on the evening--"You Haven't See the Last of Me," "Lie To Me"--are played on tape during costume changes.

Why not sing it live with just a pianist?

Slow things down a bit while ratcheting up the pathos. Maybe even talk a bit more, around some ballads.

Also, while I had no problem with Cher avoiding political banter so as not to irk any portion of her audience--though Streisand didn't care--it's clear in following her on Twitter which way she leans.

So given the social climate over immigrants, minorities, etc., if Cher had opted to sing "Half-Breed," it not only would've allowed for another of her best songs, it could've spoken volumes.

I'm also not sure why, after a video interlude in which she tells of her love for Elvis Presley and the importance he had on her diversified showbiz career, Cher opts to sing Mark Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" rather than an actual tune by the King.

Yes, it's a fine song, referencing Elvis and his hometown, and she handles it nicely, but anything from "Don't Be Cruel" to "Suspicious Minds" would've seemed a lot more fun.

Anyway, I finally decided to see Cher in concert, and I'm honestly glad I did.

She remains an excellent entertainer, and the terrific Chic set added to an enjoyable night well-worth what I paid. 

But I think a little less "show" might have made it even better, to the point of making me want to see her again.

As it stands, I don't really "Believe" I need to.

See the setlist here; though it doesn't indicate the Chicago show, it's what was played, with the proper delineations.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Watch Your Step: In Mining His Prodigious Past, Elvis Costello Strays From the Beaten Path -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Elvis Costello and the Imposters
Chicago Theatre
November 22, 2019

A variety of engaging still images, typically shown as a matching or complementary trio, formed the backdrop for Elvis Costello's concert with the Imposters Friday night at the ornate Chicago Theatre.

Some were rather abstract graphics, others found Costello cheekily playing up his look on the cover of 1978’s This Year’s Model and, during “Watching the Detectives,” there were dozens of classic film noir posters, many in languages besides English.

All of these made for fun visuals to accompany the music; some were presumably new while others had also been part of the last Chicago show I saw Costello do, outside on Northerly Island in 2017, also with the Imposters.

My favorite of these images was shown repeatedly, but only before Elvis and the three musicians who comprise the Imposters took the stage. It's style was unlike any of the other graphics.

It was simply an ad promoting the first Chicago show by Elvis Costello and the Attractions--from which drummer Pete Thomas and pianist Steve Nieve remain in the Imposters--on December 2, 1977, in tandem with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

As shown on the ad, the price to get into a show featuring two of the greatest acts in rock history--though both still nascent at the time--was $3.00.

I was only 9 years old then and unaware of the show or either artist.

But just 3-1/2 years later, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers would be the first rock concert attended of my own volition--though accompanied by my dad--at a "free" show at the Rosemont Horizon, for which The Loop radio station gave away all the tickets.

The late TP remained one of my favorites, and I'd see him with the Heartbreakers several more times over the years.

It took a few more years for me to really know and appreciate Elvis Costello, but I was a fan by the mid-'80s and while living in Los Angeles in the early-'90s, I not only saw him live for the first time, I bought all of his then-available CDs in one fell swoop (beyond The Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions compilation I already had).

Friday night was the 10th time I saw Costello onstage, mostly with the Imposters--who feature Danny Faragher on bass--including once opening for the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field on a freezing October night in 2006, as well as what was mostly a discussion & book signing (as part of the CHicago Humanities Festival), though he also played a few songs.

I wouldn't say I needed to see Elvis again at this just juncture, and didn't jump at tickets when they went on sale.

But enough seats remained available that--with the kind help of a friend willing to go to the Chicago Theatre box office on his lunch break even though he didn't attend--I was able to get a balcony seat for $38.50, without any Ticketmaster fees.

Costello is calling this the Just Trust Tour, explained as:

“The tour is entitled, ‘Just Trust’ in answer to the musical questions: ‘Will they play my favorite song?,’ or, ‘Are they going to frighten the horses with a lot of excellent songs that are rarely performed?,’ not to mention, ‘Can I expect the hits of yesteryear and those of tomorrow?’ To which we say: Just Trust Elvis Costello and The Imposters.” 

So--particularly in having seen via that their performances this fall were fairly lengthy and included several songs I love--I trusted.

And was, almost entirely, richly rewarded.

Sure, I rued not hearing one of my EC favorites, "Brilliant Mistake," which was done the night before
in Ann Arbor.

"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Radio, Radio" are a couple others I wish hadn't been eschewed on this night.

But Elvis Costello, now 65--he was born Declan MacManus--has released 30 studio albums, most of which have several stellar songs.

So there's no way he's gonna play everything everyone hopes to hear. (This was the Chicago setlist.)

And he noted early on that the tour's two female backing vocalists--who also serve as a visual foil for the four male musicians--were both out of commission with the flu, so the band was going to play some things they often don't. (The women being gone seemingly put the kibbosh on material from 2018's fine Look Now album, as only "He's Given Me Things" was played from it.)

Starting with opening song "Strict Time," I heard several familiar tunes that I quite enjoyed, including a cherished rarity like "Big Tears," a great take on "Accidents Will Happen" powered by sublime piano from Nieve, likewise a truly wistful "Almost Blue"--though of course, some assholes couldn't help chatter during this most delicate of songs--and a blissfully extended "I Want You."

There were several other recognizable gems from throughout Costello's vast oeuvre--"Watch Your Step," "Mystery Dance," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Veronica," "This Year's Girl," "High Fidelity" and the aforementioned, "Watching the Detectives."

Encores of "Pump It Up," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Alison" were as blissful as one could want.

And including a few pairing just Costello and Nieve, songs I didn't readily know--such as "Stations of the Cross," "I Still Have That Other Girl," "A Face in the Crowd" and "Blood and Hot Sauce"--routinely sounded terrific.

So it was certainly a great show, clocking in at nearly 135 minutes.

But whereas I had awarded Costello gigs in 2017, 2014 and 2013 a full @@@@@ on my Seth Saith rating scale, this one felt somewhat disjointed and uneven at times--perhaps due to changes resulting from the missing vocalists--despite all the sensational music and some fun storytelling from Costello.

Hence, the 1/2@ deduction.

Certainly this is critical trifling, and with the singer seemingly in good stead and great voice after he had to cancel some summer 2018 shows due to cancer--from which he's seemingly fully recovered--I'm happy to report that some 42 years after first playing in Chicago* on a bill with the dearly departed Tom Petty, one can trust in the ever-enduring greatness of Elvis Costello.

His aim is still true.

*Per, Elvis Costello's first Chicago area concert seemingly came at B'Ginnings in suburban Schaumburg, two days before the show at the Riv that I referenced above, which was the first in Chicago proper. It was followed by another gig at the Riv the next night, apparently without Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. The 12/2/77 show was not Petty's first in Chicago.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

"Where Are You From?": Sara Abou Rashed Movingly Addresses Past, Present and Future in 'A Map of Myself' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

A Map of Myself
written & performed by Sara Abou Rashed
directed by Larry Smith
Single performance on November 16
Stage 773, Chicago 

In the coming days, I will begin a barrage of Seth Saith “Best Of” posts, chronicling my choices for the “Best of 2019” as well as—separately--“Best of the Decade: 2010-19.”

In the realm of theater, for the decade, categories will include not only “Best New Musicals” and “Best New Plays,” but also “Best Solo Theatrical Performances.”

My selections (and other shows considered) for the latter list won’t be exactly parallel, as some will represent individuals embodying a famous person—Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Simon Wiesenthal—while others may be biographical about those lesser known, or purely fictional. 

Some pieces will have written by the performer and some not; perhaps as personal memoirs but not always.

I won’t give away my choices or rankings, as I have yet to make them, but just within the last few weeks, I’ve loved John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons (essentially a comedic educational monologue), a play called Every Brilliant Thing featuring a single actress and, if not quite fantastic, seeing Ed Asner elaborate on A Man and His Prostate allowed me to see the great Ed Asner onstage, in a show someone else wrote about his own prostate.

Since 2010—so not including Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, which I saw and loved twice in the prior decade—I have seen five noteworthy solo shows in which the performer primarily chronicled their own personal experiences.

One was by Bruce Springsteen, my favorite musician. (I am generally not looping in solo musical concerts nor stand-up comedians, but Springsteen on Broadway was a scripted theatrical piece.)

Another was by the late, great Carrie Fisher; a show titled Wishful Drinking.

Though I wasn’t much familiar with him previously, in seeing David Cale perform We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time at the Goodman Theatre, I learned that Cale was a rather esteemed monologuist.

Two others happen to be by Muslim women.

In early 2015, at the Skokie Public Library, I was delighted to see Rohina Malik perform Unveiled, and have been pleased that she’s found subsequent success with some excellent, full-cast plays.

And on Saturday night at Stage 773, I saw a 20-year-old college student named Sara Abou Rashed, who came to the United States six years ago without knowing any English, deliver the highly eloquent and poignant, A Map of Myself, which she wrote.

I opened this review the way I did to reflect my appreciation for solo performances and establish that I’ve seen enough to think I have a sense of what can make one scintillating.

While I won’t suggest that Abou Rashed—an untrained actor and as a writer, primarily heretofore a poet—delivered a solo show that quite rivaled Springsteen, Fisher, Crystal, Leguizamo, Stacy Keach (as Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona) or some others in terms of reach, timing and entertainment value, her poise, natural grace, varied tonality, messaging and thematic poignancy were rather astonishing.

This is especially impressive in noting that it was just her 14th performance of A Map of Myself--subtitled A 70-Minute, One-Woman Revolution on War, Immigration, Language, Home, History and Everything in Between--and the first outside her current hometown of Columbus, OH. (She's now a student at nearby Denison University.)

Interestingly, although I attend dozens of stageworks in a given year by press invitation, subscription or being enticed by marketing, reviews or word of mouth, I only heard of the one-off performance of A Map of Myself because my friend Ken Stasiak is acquainted with the director, Larry Smith, via his Six-Word Memoirs website and books.

Ken has been a regular contributor to for years—my own site is an unaffiliated, non-income offshoot to which Smith gave his blessing—and has been included in two compilation tomes to date.

So when Larry alerted Ken that he would be bringing Sara and A Map of Myself to Chicago, Ken not only got us tickets, he conducted an interview with Larry that I recently published on Seth Saith.

As Smith explained, he became aware of Abou Rashed through her own, rather compelling Six-Word Memoir--"Escaped war; war didn't escape me."--and A Map of Myself evolved out of gifts she showcased at live speaking engagements Smith organized.

As Ken had noted in his preview piece, Sara's monologue has gotten considerable commendations, but I was nonetheless surprised by how smoothly she covered personal--and sometimes quite troubling--ground, even in seamlessly restoring full power to her headset mic the few times it fluttered.

She told how she grew up in Syria--a country she continues to love for its beauty and its people--but that her grandmother was Palestinian, and as established by a DNA test, a whole lot of other ethnicities, including Italian, Greek, Jewish and more.

Encouraged by her Uncle Sam--the coincidence of whose name Sara glibly noted--a U.S. resident for nearly 40 years, Sara and her mom moved to Columbus on the 4th of July, 2013. (Mrs. Abou Rashed was in the audience on Saturday; I don't recall any mention of Sara's father in the monologue or Q&A that followed.)

Sara spoke with pride about her mom (a teacher), her own choice to wear an Islamic head covering known as a hijab, and recalled how on her first school day in America, without yet knowing any English, she was a tad bewildered when the class assignment was to read Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey, which runs about 600 pages.

The absorbing recollections were punctuated by Abou Rashed's recitation of her poetry, at times in Arabic but also in English. In sharing that she also speaks French, Sara incisively commented that "Language decides who you are, who gets to belong."

In saying this she was reflecting upon the preconceptions--and sometimes outright hate--people can experience due to being heard speaking Arabic in the U.S., or maybe just accented English.

So it was particularly powerful when during a poem called "I Am America," Sara stated:

"No one can define me." 

Soon followed by:

"America, they do not know you like I do."

From the 70 or so minutes she was onstage and a few moments of conversation I had with her after, I'm left with no doubt that Sara Abou Rashed is a woman worth knowing, perhaps most so by those otherwise inclined to scorn, ignore or pre-judge her.

And her show is definitely worth seeing, at whatever point you might be able to. In addition to returning to Chicago, Smith hopes for A Map of Myself to wind up on Netflix. I agree that it's certainly worthy, and though it's a distinct, self-contained piece, I believe it would pair well with Malik's Unveiled.

As I tried to imply at top, it can't be easy being onstage alone. Perhaps particularly as a 20-year-old immigrant who has never studied acting or theater (she's majoring in Creative Writing at Denison).

But if you went to a middle school that was shaken by bombs, if you left your beloved home country expecting to return but were told that would be untenable, if you arrived in the United States as a young teenager and subsequently opted to write about your experiences at a time when the President himself has stoked anti-Muslim sentiment, well, it would seem acting courageously might well come naturally.

As such, as performed by its writer, A Map of Myself is truly something for us all to behold. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Both Sides Now: I Generally Have Good Things to Say About 'The Niceties' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Niceties
a recent play by Eleanor Burgess
Directed by Marti Lyons
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 8

A smart, thought-provoking play can almost always feel relevant, even decades after being written.

Perhaps this is particularly true for a “two-hander,” a play with just two characters, whose dialogue often inherently constitutes an argument or debate, which ideally can have audience members taking, but then changing, sides, sometimes by the sentence.

Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties is a two-hander, which deftly—if at times a bit too calculatedly—feels like a closely-contested tennis or boxing match.

Chronicling a conversation that becomes confrontational between a well-regarded mature, white, female, feminist, left-leaning history professor and a politicized millennial student who feels her perspective as a young African-American woman isn’t being properly respected, the work theoretically should retain its resonance for many years to come.

But it is a new play, one that Burgess first wrote in the Spring of 2016, and in finalizing it after the election of Donald Trump that November, decided to keep it set earlier in 2016, before the successor to Barack Obama had been determined.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
But while I would say he’s exacerbated it, President Trump did not create the racial divide in this country, and with some knowing winks to what has transpired since 2016, The Niceties—which was first staged in 2018—certainly does feel topical.

Even more so for me given that—without knowing the subject matter of the play, which I would see Wednesday night at Glencoe’s stellar Writers Theatre—just this week I had done some Googling to learn more about the “OK Boomer” memes that has members of Generation Y (which comes after the Millennial Generation) razzing older folks for disparaging or belittling them.

Certainly the concerns Zoe (well-played here by Ayanna Bria Bakari) raises to Janine (the typically excellent Mary Beth Fisher) are more substantive than generational disconnect, but it was interesting to see the play just days after I became more tuned into the schism. (I happen to be a white, suburban Gen Xer, in many ways more in concert with those my age and older, but hoping to understand younger generations and deferential to those of differing backgrounds.)

And while theatrically, The Niceties reminded me of David Mamet’s professor-student two-hander, Oleanna, and Thomas Gibbons’ fine Permanent Collection, which also focuses on race-hinged misunderstandings among seemingly decent, sensitive, open-minded people, it mostly made me think of John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons.

In that incisive one-man show, Leguizamo shrewdly notes how the preponderance of U.S. History having been written by white men has substantially shortchanged the contributions and vantage points of Latinos and other minorities.

So in having read reviews of the play’s past stagings—initially in Boston, NYC and L.A. under the direction of Kimberly Senior, who has helmed many Chicago shows including at Writers, though the current production is directed by Marti Lyons—and then perusing the substantive articles surrounding The Niceties in the current production’s program, I was really quite eager to take in what it had to say.

Which, at the very least, was perceptive and penetrating.

The set-up is that Zoe, a pupil in Janine’s class focusing on historical revolutions (presumably at Yale, though it’s never quite specified) has come during office hours to discuss a term paper she has written.

I don’t believe it’s a “thesis,” per se, as Zoe is an undergrad, but that word is tossed around.

As best I understood, Zoe’s supposition is that rather than representing a radical movement toward democracy, the American Revolution was less universal an upheaval as it kept whites in power while blacks remained slaves.

I will be discreet about detailing their discussion, but in being initially dismissive of Zoe’s gist, Janine—supposedly a progressive thinker whose office walls (in a nice set design by Courtney O’Neill) includes posters depicting Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Emilio Zapata and George Washington—comes across as a mouthpiece for the patriarchal establishment, unwilling to hear near ideas challenging past slights. 

But as the discussion continues, Janine’s objections become more—understandingly, to a degree—academic.

She wants Zoe to incorporate sources supporting her arguments, and not just websites based in conjecture. To which Zoe counters that voices of the marginalized and oppressed weren’t often recorded for history.

This, like many of the points Zoe makes, seems valid. And while I felt Janine--through the words of writer Burgess, which didn't always seem to me what an experienced and savvy professor might say--comes of less sympathetically in the macro, she largely holds her own.

Artfully if imperfectly, The Niceties feels like a heated discussion and an argument, not a smackdown and surrender.

To the credit of Burgess, director Lyons and the two actresses, my attention was strongly held across nearly two hours, minus intermission.

And not only is much of the conversation shrewd, it's also--admirably--discomfiting, even to an avowed liberal like me, and those who appreciate, study and/or teach history.

Given that someone--Native Americans, women, indigenous people of many lands, immigrants from everywhere, African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, etc., etc., etc.--has always suffered under the boot heel of somebody else, with it being either supported, condoned or conveniently ignored, it's hard to celebrate anyone in American or world history without, as Janine notes in the play, running through an untenable stream of disclaimers.

So as I said at top, The Niceties is certainly a smart play. And a good one.

But while truly admiring much of Burgess conceit and writing, I think there are times when what both characters do and say seems unrealistic.

Zoe arrives at Janine's office expecting positive feedback so the vitriol she works up so eloquently and expeditiously seems a bit extreme, and even in being put on the defensive, the character of Janine says things I'm not sure such a person might. Not to imply that anyone, no matter how seemingly admirable and progressive, can't have ugly moments and aspects, but The Niceties occasionally feels too much like a dramatic encounter and not a real one.

Still, it's timely, relevant, quite good and well-worth your attention. If nothing else, it should make you think about how "history" becomes so.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Unfolding 'A Map of Myself': Ahead of Sara Abou Rashed's Solo Performance, an Interview with Director Larry Smith -- by Ken Stasiak

Theater Preview and Interview

A Map of Myself: A 70-Minute, One-Woman Revolution on War, Immigration, Language, Home, History and Everything in Between
written by and starring Sara Abou Rashed
Stage 773, Chicago
November 16, 2019 | 7:30PM
Info and Tickets

Interview with play director Larry Smith conducted and written by Seth Saith contributor, Ken Stasiak

Larry Smith (Wikipedia bio) founded Smith magazine in 2006 and is the creator of Six Word Memoirs.

Not only a publisher, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, Men’s Health, Salon, Slate and other popular outlets.

He’s also my editor, having established the Six Word Memoirs website and books including The Best Advice in Six Words and Six Words Fresh Off The Boat, to which I have contributed.

So it was with some surprise I found out he was directing a new play, A Map of Myself, written and
performed by a 19-year-old Syrian poet named Sara Abou Rashed.

Not only that, but the play has received rave reviews.

Seeking to satisfy my curiosity ahead of seeing A Map of Myself at Chicago's Stage 773 this Saturday, I reached out to Larry who graciously granted me the following interview.

I was really impressed with Sara. She is mature beyond her years with a true poet’s sensibilities. How did you meet her? 
I first met Sara Abou Rashed in 2015 at the Thurber House, a nonprofit writing and literary center in Columbus, Ohio. Our storytelling connection started in a familiar way: with her Six-Word Memoir:
“Escaped war; war never escaped me.” 
I wanted to know more, and have been fortunate both to work with Sara to shape the story behind those six words, and get to know her as a person and an artist. Even at the age of 17, speaking in a new language, Sara was most talented natural storyteller I had ever met. She took part in a few of my Six Words Live shows in which storytellers start with a Six-Word Memoir and then share the backstory in about 10 minutes.

After a show at the Tenement Museum in New York City in December 2018, we went out for Sara’s first slice of New York pizza. I asked her if she thought she could do a whole hour about her life. She told me that was a dream of hers. We got to work, and now our show at Stage 773 will be our thirteenth performance of A Map of Myself.

I knew about your writing background but never knew you had a background in theater. Tell me more. Have you ever directed a play before? 
I don’t have anything approaching a formal background in theater. But I’ve worked with hundreds of storytellers to get them ready to share a story in 5 to 20 minutes, without notes, on many stages over the past decade. As I coach them, we work on elements of live storytelling like presence and body language. But for sure, a 70-minute play with lights and visuals was a whole new ballgame. I was lucky to have great theater mentors in Columbus, and many others who were helpful ears and eyes along the way

What did you find most challenging about directing and staging a one person show? 
Mostly time. Sara is a full-time student at Denison University and I have many hats running the Six-Word Memoir project, doing workshops with companies and in schools, and being a father and a husband. You need time to do anything, of course, but when it’s something like theater that was largely new to me, I needed both time and a lot of quiet among life’s daily chaos to figure out how to be a producer and director. You find the time for the things that matter; and so Sara and I both did.

Did you edit A Map of Myself? 
I worked with Sara on every part of the play — in person, on Google Docs, and via lots of hours on
Facetime. In terms of the writing, she wrote the play and I was her very involved and vocal editor. Sometimes we would talk for an hour and decide to change just two or three words of the script. I we both loved every minute of it.

What part of Map of Myself is most memorable for you and why? 
The talkbacks and audience discussion after each performance. Every one is different, every one is inspiring.

What has your directorial debut taught you? Would you like to do more theater? 
These three words: trust the process. And two more: trust yourself. In many ways everything I’ve been learning about storytelling my whole life led to directing Map. It was often scary and challenging, but, again, the generosity of the theater community kept me going and believing in myself and in Sara. I hope to be part of more theater experiences in the future.

In a sense this play is a follow up to Fresh Off the Boat. What fascinates you about the immigrant experience? 
Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America was a book that I wanted to do long before this current administration. It came out a few months into the Trump presidency and of course took on a new urgency and importance. But the themes the book addresses six words at a time and that Sara digs into in her poetry and in A Map of Myself are timeless:
Who are we as a nation? How does my family’s journey to America tell the story of this country as a whole? What kind of America do we want to be?
Both Fresh Off the Boat (my book and ABC TV show I partnered with to make it) and A Map of Myself answer these questions — and many more — through great storytelling.

What’s next for A Map of Myself? 
We’re back to Ohio for a show at Otterbein University and then working on bringing it to more venues across America.

What’s next for you? 
Bringing A Map of Myself to more venues across the country so as many people as possible can experience it; working on a new Six-Word Memoir book around life at every age; continuing to do talks at conferences and leading workshops at companies and in classrooms.

As always, thanks so much for your time and support Larry. 

Sara Abou Rashed has provided us with an eye opening vision as to the immigrant experience. Come share it with her this Saturday and witness the performance of someone I think we’re going to see a lot more of in the future.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

A Rather Fine Twist: Marriott's 'Oliver' Will -- for the Most Part -- Have You Asking for More -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru December 29

Despite a magnificent score featuring several of the most delightful songs ever written for musical theater—“Food Glorious Food,” “Oliver,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “It’s a Fine Life,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Reviewing the Situation”—Oliver resides, in my mind, a notch or two below other brilliant classics of the Broadway canon.

This is in part due to somewhat ponderous pacing early on—more pronounced in the 1968 movie version, which actually won the Oscar for Best Picture—but primarily due to one other song by Lionel Bart, who wrote the show’s music, lyrics and book, based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Coming early in Act II is a song sung by Nancy, a young woman who is part of Fagin’s gang that the orphaned child Oliver falls in with in London.

While warm, even maternal towards Oliver, she is the girlfriend of the malevolent Bill Sikes, a particularly nasty but criminally successful confederate of Fagin’s. After Bill hits Nancy, she sings—and at Marriott, as delivered by Lucy Godinez, exceptionally well—a Stand By Your Mannish tune called “As Long As He Needs Me.”

Perhaps in 1830’s London (when Dickens wrote and set Oliver Twist) or even 1960 London (when the musical premiered in the West End), mores were somewhat different.

But I've hated that song since I saw a touring version of the show in 2004, and amid the #MeToo movement, it really feels ugly and obtuse (though musically, it’s beautiful).

So that—and the whole Bill/Nancy relationship, which actually devolves from there—is why I’ve never absolutely loved Oliver, even as I relished most of the songs.

This holds for a remarkably good production at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, under the direction of Nick Bowling.

A terrific cast—headed by young Kai Edgar in the title role at Wednesday’s Press Night; he alternates with Kayden Koshelev—wonderfully delivers all of the aforementioned songs and more, including “Where Is Love?” on which the 8-year-old Edgar shows formidable vocal chops.

William Brown makes for a fine Fagin, even if the gentleman sitting next to me didn’t find him menacing enough. I truly enjoyed his take on “Reviewing the Situation.”

The seemingly teenage Patrick Scott McDermott is a rather nifty Artful Dodger, and along with Godinez as Nancy, I really liked Ziare Paul-Emile as her friend Bet.

Marriott vets Bethany Thomas and Terry Hamilton are strong as Mrs. Corney and Mr. Brownlow, while Dan Waller is good as bad Bill Sikes.

And with at least a dozen young boys delivering a delectable “Food Glorious Food” to open the show, the vast ensemble cast comprised of kids and grown-ups is demonstrably superb.

In sum, even in a well-staged production that makes fine use of Marriott’s intimate, in-the-round Oliver still has its inherent issues. Along with “As Long As He Needs Me”—though Godinez’ rendition and reprise merited the lavish applause bestowed, including by me—I could also do without an early “flirtation” scene between the orphanage’s Mr. Bumble (Matthew R. Jones) and Mrs. Corney, which doesn’t do much besides hamper the pacing.

But so many of Bart’s songs are absolute delights—“Consider Yourself” and “I’ll Do Anything” especially had me humming along happily.

And how can you not like a show with so many talented kids?

So although Bowling’s production doesn’t overcome or circumvent the points of aversion I entered with, it renders them what they are: troublesome moments in an otherwise fantastic musical.

Consider yourself advised. Oliver isn’t perfect, but this excellent iteration at Marriott Theatre should provide young and old with a Dickens of a good time.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Muy Bueno: John Leguizamo Turns 'Latin History for Morons' Into a Compelling Contemporary Lesson -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

John Leguizamo
Latin History for Morons
Cadillac Palace Theater, Chicago
Run Ended (tour schedule)

"Latin history is American history," said John Leguizamo early in his latest one-man show--which I saw on Saturday night--and it rightfully garnered considerable applause.

Understandably, there was an appreciable Latinx turnout among the almost-full crowd, but even to someone without any Latin blood--you can tell by my dancing skills, or lack thereof--Leguizamo's history lesson hit home.

I have always enjoyed the 55-year-old actor, comedian and writer but haven't seen any of his one-man shows--Freak, Sexaholix, Ghetto Klown, Spic-O-Rama, Mambo Mouth--not even on TV.

So although Latin History for Morons--which ran on Broadway for a few months beginning in November 2015--wasn't part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, nor a show for which I got a press invite, I was happy to get a balcony seat for $26 (which Ticketmaster fees somehow turned into $46).

And it was really good, not just because Leguizamo is a likable performer or because the substance of what he imparts powerfully combats the moronic wall-building sentiments and shameful kids-in-cages realities of our times.

Although I was aware of some of the truths he shared--such as the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs having once had vast, enlightened and longstanding empires decimated by European colonialism--the Columbian-born, multi-ethnic star enveloped his teachings in plenty of humor, pathos and poignancy.

The framework for much of Latin History for Morons has Leguizamo trying to illuminate his son to help ward off bullies and succeed on middle school projects.

And it's clear that in writing this show, John has clearly done his homework, well-beyond all that he has likely long known well.

References are made onstage to several books--including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States--often serving to establish that U.S. history textbooks have long been created by (and to serve) a white, patriarchal culture.

I won't reveal too much of Leguizamo's "lesson," as even though the brief Chicago run has ended, this shrewd show will conceivably make its way to TV at some point after the tour concludes, but just in terms of colonialism I appreciated his insights about how many European conquests could be ascribed far more to the spreading of disease than to military might.

And yes, some of the syphilis jokes made for some raunchy hilarity.

It also bespeaks Leguizamo's savvy that one of my favorite lines of the show had nothing to do with Latin history but rather how stealing music once meant waiting all day to tape an album off the radio and hoping the DJ wouldn't talk over much of it.

Though the two hours without an intermission went fast and were well-paced, I felt the end--in which Leguizamo cites U.S. military heroes of Latin descent and other notables--was a bit rushed.

Carlos Santana had been briefly name-dropped early on, but I wish more time was devoted to the
contributions of Latinos in entertainment, government and industry, among other fields.

Props to the New Yorker, however, for mentioning the Cubs' Javier Baez, along with icons like Frida Kahlo, Cesar Chavez and Sonia Sotomayor. 

And not only is Latin History for Morons a terrifically entertaining show, it's an important one.

Including, sadly, for those prone to ignore or deride it.

While folks adorned in "Make America Great Again" caps would undoubtedly find much to hate about this show--which does at times mock the president--they will, if open-minded, find a whole lot more to learn from it.

Late in the show, about those of Latin descent, Leguizamo imparts with palpable anguish, "We're so American it hurts."

Which is why it's so painful to realize the "cultural apartheid" he references exists merely due to ignorance (or xenophobia), which could be remedied if we all bothered to learn some Latin history.