Monday, October 08, 2018

A Visit to the Windy City and the Goodman Theatre

We spent a pleasant and busy day in Chicago on Broderick Crawford Day. That’s  October 4th or 
10-4 for those old enough to remember the TV show Highway Patrol. Our train was spot on time and a brisk walk from Union Station took us to the Art Institute. After a cup of tea in the member's lounge, we walked through the classic sculpture gallery and admired the life size figure carrying a nicely detailed theatre mask.

Then it was off to the American Collection.  We had not been in these galleries for some time and  were pleased with their reorganization. The furniture, especially the Arts and Crafts material, is graciously displayed and interspersed with some nice paintings including some iconic Winslow Homers. the most.  Another  (new to us) room displayed several pieces of American Western  painting and sculpture including this old favorite  cowboy masterpiece by Frederic Remington.

We lunched with old friends (the Kirk’s) at the Walnut Room in Marshall Fields (now Macy’s of course). The Jagerschitzel and red cabbage hit the appetite spot perfectly while the view out of the seventh floor window captured an early fall cityscape with glowing  if somewhat incongruous charm.

After lunch it was  only a short walk to the Goodman Theatre for a performance of a solo performance piece titled We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time. It was written and performed by David Cale.

The show, unfortunately was a bit like Chinese takeaway --enjoyable in the moment but not all that enduring in impact.  I had nothing but admiration for writer-actor-singer Cale, who managed to hold the stage and our attention for a full hour and a half without a break,  yet there was nothing in the sequence of autobiographical moments that seemed to require a performance without intermission. The positive side was that we were out by 3:30 and had ample time to dawdle over drinks before catching our train back to Galesburg. 

Mr. Cale is unquestionably an accomplished monologist and he narrates his often moving tale of growing up as a sensitive bird loving boy held down by his residence in a back water suburb of London with conviction.  A violent episode takes over and what had seemed like a  sad but generally  not out of the ordinary childhood veers off into  traumatic violence.  Cale shifts back and forth between his own persona and the members of his family while punctuating the stories with songs.  I must admit to being more  impressed with his vocal characterizations than his singing.  His movements were slow and appropriately subtle until he spread his arms and self-consciously tried to mirror  flying in an airplane. Early on some English  local color mentions  like Luton, the Kray Brothers,  and a reference to Joe Orton's plays appeared to be lost on the Chicago audience. Luckily they were kept to a minimum. 
Robert Falls proves again that he is as adept as a director of  one-handers as he is with large casts. He moves Cale around the capacious Goodman stage with subtlety and variety. All areas and  possible vertical positions were utilized. The lighting was subdued and followed the action with slow cross fades. Especially impressive was the way the musicians were pulled out of the coal black background like wispy apparitions.  The musical score mostly underscored the emotional tenor of the moment, though it did on occasion drown the actor out.     

All in all it was a worthy afternoon that reaffirmed the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of young people to survive and even prosper in spite of  enormous headwinds.  Yet I was not moved to leap to my feet and join some members of the audience in their standing ovation.      

Homeward bound in a newly refurbished car on the Illinois Zephyr. It was a smooth ride and we were back in Galesburg right on time.  We love our trips to Chicago. The city's  culture and ambiance overpowers at least some of the harsh underbelly of violence that also exists there. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Monmouth, IL Rotary Club celebrates its Centennial

The Monmouth, IL Rotary Club celebrated its 100th Anniversary last Saturday evening. Good food, good drink, and a fine message from a former Rotary International president. He reviewed the organization's remarkable progress on eradicating polio and ended with a quote from Helen Keller. When asked if there was anything worse than being blind, Ms. Keller said, "Yes, being able to see and having no vision." This is an organization I am proud to be a member of.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A CHORUS LINE revisited

In the past month I have had the opportunity to revisit the Broadway blockbuster musical A Chorus Line. I have seen it at least three times before—one of them in Chicago during its first post Broadway national tour. My most recent viewing was at a top notch community theatre. It was a fine evening in the theatre, full of energy as befits an amateur effort and  in spite of the occasionally uneven casting, pleased me and those around me. Yet as I left the theatre, I experienced some of the same misgivings I have had for a number of years about this show—and let me emphasize not the production of it but the show itself.
A Chorus Line is aptly titled to emphasize that this chorus represents all chorus lines. Broadway Musicals, by definition, have groups like this who labor in relative theatrical anonymity at minimal wages. One item that troubles me is the final image of the show. As the cast dons their identical golden costumes to become “the chorus” , there is a simultaneous feeling of exhilaration and depression. The finale seals the wannabes into the group,  but you can’t forget that those who were cut earlier will not really get to  don the golden regalia. They will have to start the same dehumanizing and demoralizing audition process all over again at the next call.

Watching A Chorus Line from the vantage point of 2018 also feels a bit like watching a live feed from a hurricane site just before it hits. The natural aura of self congratulation about how hard young hopefuls work for a nibble at the sugar cube of success now pales in our sad acknowledgement that the destructive and poisonous scourge of AIDS was just around the corner. That disease will shortly decimate the ranks of this show, Broadway, and the gay community in general and it unfortunately  can't rewrite history.  
In spite of the unrecognized specter on the horizon, I cannot deny the appeal of this award winning musical. Dreams of stardom are hard to kill and even local actors find it alluring to strut their duel singing and dancing chops.  Clearly the show will likely survive my doubts.  

However none of the above manages to change the reality of its shaky plot. A Broadway director is choosing the chorus for a show. The dancers are assigned to execute a few songs wedded to a series of standard jazz and tap routines. Zach, the director, seems to function more as a manipulative narrator than a real life director holding auditions for a show. You must remember that the final production will cost him personally if he casts it based on nepotism or sympathy.  For unexplained reasons Zach spends most of his time questioning the auditionees about their pasts in an effort to tease out their sad life stories. The only problem is this is a standard musical and it is looking for singer/dancers not Stanislavskian actors. The back stories of the performers have no real import on their selection; only their vocal and dance capabilities are up for measure.  I struggle with this point even though I do realize that plenty of shows have been quite successful in spite of a straw man plot device. 
There is also the simple fact of length.  Most productions of the show I have seen have gone on longer than they need to. Many of the single turns (especially Paul’s in Act II) could easily be trimmed without hurting their emotional punch. 

Finally there is the aura of self congratulation in the show that masks the essential cruelty and sexism that pervades it. The “T and A” song is not the only part of A Chorus Line that has not aged well in the age of Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves,  and the “Me too” movement. Too much of it remains mired in the pre-feminism 1970’s. I grant you this is a typical disease of fiction. There comes a time when history outruns content and what was cutting edge begins to look dated,  uninformed, and stupidly out of touch.  From my point of view A Chorus Line sits in that uneasy compartment now. I love a lot of it, but it makes me uncomfortable.  In a few more years it may earn the label of a classic (eg. Showboat) , but for now it might be wiser to give the show a rest.   


Sunday, September 02, 2018

Day in Chicago with Grandson

We had a visit from our grandson over the weekend. He is finishing up his certification as a Paramedic next semester.  He had not been to Chicago in a while and wanted to see the new dinosaur at the Field Museum.

So we hopped on our handy dandy Illinois Zephyr in Galesburg and right on time we were treated to the remarkable Chicago skyline.

Then is was a short cab ride to the Field Museum. and a walk up those impressive stairs.

The Main Hall was waiting

We meandered through the mummies and the tomb replica, then hit the Asian Galleries.for some peace and serenity.

It was then time for a trip through the evolution of the world.  That finished off with a peek at the re-assembly of the famous Sue dinosaur skeleton and  a final look at her even bigger replacement in the Main Hall. .

Our next stop was the Art Institute--which our grandson had never visited.  We thought the  Impressionism collection  would be a good introduction for him and he was particularly moved by  Monet's colorful garden pictures and his painting of London's Westminster Bridge.

It was a warm day so liquid refreshment was then taken in the cool confines of one of our favorite Chicago stops--Millers Pub.  From there it was a pleasant walk up Adams and back to Union Station in time for the train back to Galesburg. 

Even with some long signal delays, our journey was pleasant because of a group of Amish folks who were traveling to visit relatives in Missouri.  While we were sitting motionless  outside of Princeton conversations were struck up and  there was even some group singing.  One woman with striking red hair who was traveling to her sister's outside of Galesburg  said that had she known traveling on this train was so much fun she would ride it every week.  We all shared life experiences and leaned quite a bit about Amish life and customs.

It was after 10 pm before we got back to Monmouth. We were all tired but glad we went.