Sunday, July 21, 2019

Music Man Gets Four Stars

We took the train into Chicago on Thursday to finish out our 2018-19 Goodman Theatre season tickets with Meridith Willson’s  The Music Man.  I have seen the show a number of times over the years in high shool, college, community and professional productions.  I have also seen the film with its reprise of Robert Preston’s iconic original  cast performance.  This Mary Zimmerman directed production  was a very good but not quite great revival of this now venerable  “old school” musical comedy.
I say “Old school”  because we are treated to fully instrumented act overtures in front of a nicely painted  show curtain.  Then, it is on to plenty of catchy now standard tunes  like “Ya Got Trouble” and “Shipoopie.” They are given rousing performances by this clearly talented company.  They also dance their way through some of the most sparkling, acrobatic, and inventive choreography I’ve seen in some time. Their use of simple props like steps, tables, and library stacks on wheels was both cativating and ingenious. 

This brings me to the dynamic scene design that was replete with a number of Zimmerman touches like a miniature Wells Fargo wagon rolling along the corn field ground rows at the back of the stage.  The scenes flowed quickly into one another as the cast moved set pieces on silent castors and larger pieces dropped on motorized lines.  Money does talk here and only upscale spaces can afford this kind of technical equipment. 
The energetic and racially diverse cast is on the top of its game.  Pulling out minor players for special notice is challenging when the full ensemble is so talented. If pressed I would nominate Matt Crowle for his back breaking turn as the Anvil Salesman and Mary Ernster as the all Irish Mrs. Paroo.  Of course you can’t forget the youngsters who come close to stealing every scene they are in.
I leave the two leads to the last because I am afraid that they are the reason I found the show just short of a gold star.  Harold Hill and Marian Paroo are one of many opposite pairs that run through traditional musical comedy.  Think of The King and I, The Sound of Music, Porgy and Bess, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, etc.  Unfortunately there was just something missing in the two leads. Geoff Packard as Hill was  handsome and engaging  he could really sing unlike Robert Preston.  But  somehow I would also like to get from him a bit more of a hint that he is aware he is a charlatan.  His final apology to Winthrop still seemed  too off the cuff and cursory.  Monica West’s Marian may be even more of an issue.  Her voice is pure and strong but brittle in the higher ranges. This does support her coldness of manner in the early going.  Yet she seemed too stiff for too long. I was looking for more hints  earlier that she was finding interest in Hill while fighting her more conservative instincts.  To be fair this may also be because the  romance songs  (Goodnight My Someone and My White Knight just aren’t quite as good as they might be.

At the top of the production chain sits the talented directorial hand of director Mary Zimmerman.  She orchestrates so smoothly that the average viewer probably misses how much her baton adds to each and every effect. She is a master orchestrator of movement, visual palette, sound, and emotion.  Her choo choo curtain call is almost  worth the price of admission alone.

So should you see this production?  Definitely!  Anything that Mary Zimmerman touches is worth seeing and learning from. And anything done with the overall quality of a Goodman Theatre production is worth attending.   

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Spying on the South

Tony Horwitz's Spying on the South is funny, thought provoking, and ultimately a bit frightening book. He has been a writer for the New Yorker and a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, but this "road" story puts me more in the stylistic realm of Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson.  Thematically though it falls into a basket with some things I've read recently like J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and David McCullough's Pioneers.

The book is built on a modern re-tracing of the Southern travels of Frederick Law Olmsted just before the Civil War.  Olmsted, you may remember, went on in later years to become the superlative landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City and many other public spaces. Olmsted's travels took him through through the deep South by steamboat, wagon, horseback, and on foot and though  Horwitz cheats a bit by sometimes using a rental car he does sample the rails, a river barge, and even a mule. Olmsted, says Horwitz,  starts off with a desire to write about the South as objectively as possible, but by the end of his journeys he has become a fairly committed abolitionist. What is truly frightening though is that Olmsted's reports on the actions of slaveholders and viciousness of their their fight to retain slavery are revealed by Horwitz to be still current if now more submerged today. This sad note is salvaged somewhat by Horwitz's lively and humorous depictions of the folks he meets in eateries, bars, and businesses along the way. 

I enjoyed the coverage of all the aorta clogging southern food and precise portraits of people like a woman of German and Mexican heritage who described herself as a "beaner schnitzel."  Small town talk is often both humorous and  revealing. For instance one local small town resident comments,  "You don't really belong (in this town)  unless you have a park or street named after you."  Horwitz also has the knack of  breaking into the natural suspicion of strangers and getting them to talk. There are delightful stories about Huey Long, Mud Festivals replete with monster trucks, and even mule wrangling. Olmsted  often had to stay in  horrible inns with poor food and Horwitz  often approximates this by finding his subjects in seedy motels and dark rundown bars. He asked one denizen "What do people do here?"  The reply was "Meth and some Opioids."  In another tavern he asked a patron, "What's your occupation?"  The sad response, after a long pause, was, "I'm a barfly."

Unfortunately these tales stop being funny or entertaining after a while. There is just too much   cynicism and despair in too many of these folks. Their future is either bleak or non-existent. Drink, drugs, and lack of education are endemic. Olmsted's journey ultimately ended with similar irony. His visions of agrarian bounty punctuated by bucolic parklands and grassy meadows have now been eroded by cookie cutter suburbs and malls. The budding cities that Olmsted toured so long ago are now disorganized concrete jungles with little connection between their cores and their surroundings and the many small communities that once dotted the landscape are now dispiriting decaying shells of habitation.  How did all those sturdy pioneers miss the boat on all parts of the scale. We now are facing a societal and personal loss that may not be solvable by our technology. One worker interviewed by Horwitz laments the days of his father whose stated code was "All you need is what you need, not what you want. . . If you had too much you took it to your neighbors."  That world may indeed be gone in the Trumpian landscape, but the lack of respect for diversity and the environment,  approval of fraud, and outright worship of naked power and nastiness over knowledge and empathy makes me tremble along with Mr. Horwitz for our future.   

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Chief Justices by Daniel Cotter

Dan Cotter is a Monmouth College graduate and former student who is a Past President of the Chicago Bar Association and remains a top tier lawyer in Chicago. His new book, The Chief Justices, is a compendium of the lives and legal decisions of the seventeen men who have occupied the center chair at the Supreme Court since the beginning of the Republic.  I was initially a bit fearful that the volume would  pile up the legalese and put it out of touch for the lay reader, but I could not have been more wrong.  I am pleased to report that Dan stays out of the weeds and writes with a declarative precision and clarity that makes his work perfectly accessible to the general public.  It may not be a summer beach diversion, but it does give anyone with an interest in the political history of our country plenty of facts and ideas to chew on.

The organizational pattern is crystal clear. Each Chief Justice receives a short bio, an historical analysis of the era in which his appointment was made, and an outline of the noteworthy decisions reached during his years in office.

Although some of the men are now pretty obscure, the treatment of John Marshall, Earl Warren, and John Roberts stood out for me.  Marshall retains the honor of the longest tenure as Chief and Cotter outlines clearly how he literally established the court, built its image, and solidified its acceptance as the ultimate arbiter of law for our country.  One interesting thing Marshall said in 1835 caught my eye. "In the excitement produced by ardent controversy gentlemen view the same object through such different media, that minds not unfrequently receive precisely opposite impressions."  This syntax is rather masculine for our era, but the observation that intelligent people can process the same facts and arrive at totally different conclusions is as true today as it was when uttered. We can ignore this truism only at our peril. 

The chapter on Chief Earl Warren was full of information.  Even though I lived through it, I don't really remember the long and complicated background of Brown v Board of Education or that there were actually two Brown decisions and that there are still cases dealing with Brown working their way through the courts today. A prescient observation from the Warren chapter was a quote cited from just before Warren's death in 1974. In referring to the Nixon crisis, he said  "No man, not even a King, can put himself above the law. I am confident that the Court will do its duty and so will the nation." All I can say to this is, "Well, we can hope."

Each chapter contains at least one nugget. The details surrounding the impeachment of Andrew Johnson under Chief Salmon Chase were new to me. And did you know that the question of whether "corporations are people?" has been around since at least the 1870's. There are also comments on the still controversial  Roe v Wade. Cotter points out that the decision did not really legalize abortion; it did not "grant a right to anything, but a right against something, the right not to be prosecuted for performing an abortion or obtaining one."

The final chapter deals with the still running term of Chief John Roberts. He could easily pass the tenure record of Justice Marshall as he is now only in his sixties. Cotter sees the Roberts Court as still evolving, but definitely the most conservative in several generations. The current five conservative members seldom if ever decide against their political party and the influence of the Federalist Society cannot be underestimated.

There is a lot more that I could mention, but the space does have limits. Cotter's conclusion is that although the Court in the past has had a measured impact on the country by generally slowing down the speed of most major changes, the politicization of the current Court is an established fact. Time  will tell whether the future will be different in a system that now depends on clear political vetting of all nominated candidates to the Court.

As I think you can tell by now, I enjoyed and would recommend this book and not just because it is from an alum of the college I taught at for 39 years. It told me some things I did not know or did not remember about the history of my country in an even handed and non-partisan way. And to top it off it followed a rock solid organizing principle of telling us what will be told,  then telling us, and finally telling us what was told to us. Kudos Dan!

p.s. Any errors in trying to summarize Dan's book are mine alone and others may certainly settle on different ideas from the many represented.  

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Short Chicago Trip to See Old Friends

Why is it that the days seem shorter and more frantically full here in Monmouth?  Or is it the daily familiar grind doesn't appear to merit notice?   I am thus moved to make a brief entry that sustains the thought that change attracts attention and is more apt to be memorialized.   We start with last week's magnificent sunset that we appreciated from our front porch.

For more summer delight we had to take the train to Chicago where a magnificent exhibit of Manet's paintings at the Art Institute. This one just seems always to catch the spirit of how the world ought to be in everlasting sun with a love at your side and the blue water trickling bye.

Lunch in the Art Institute's fabulous courtyard with a mama duck and her charges.

 I am always brought up short when I see something that says theatre.  This lifesize statue  no longer has a head but the ancient mask remains at his side to declare that this is an actor. 

A special Art Institute treat was to discover just before we left that there was a lovely exhibit of London Underground Posters on view.  This exhibit was put together by the British Museum, but we had seen many examples of these charming, colorful, and skillful ads at the London Transport Museum in previous visits to our favorite city in the world. Without a car and never quite flush enough to take a taxi, Jan and I were constant users of the tube and buses.

We have seen literally hundreds of plays in our many visits and traveled to most of them on the tube.

I loved this one as it delved below the surface to show you the complexity of tunnels that exist beneath your feet as you travel.  Oxford Circus was a maze when it opened as it was a crossover between the Bakerloo and Central Lines.  Today it is even more complicated because it is now also a Victoria Line stop. 

We loved this one for its colors and the fact that we spent time in London during the spring on several of our trips.  And also because Kew was my mother's favorite spot when she visited us in 1971-72 while we were living there.

Later that day we had a lovely dinner with two of my now also retired Monmouth College colleagues
and their spouses.  We are so blessed to have made so many close friends during our working years and that we  have been able to continue sharing their lives even though many of them are dispersed around the country now.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Book Review of BUILT by Roma Agrawal

Built by Roma Agrawal

Built is a lucid well written book on a subject that would frighten most folks—i.e. the complicated high end world of engineering with its dependence on math, physics, chemistry, computers, and history.  Undaunted into this subject comes Roma Agrawal, a woman in a traditionally male profession,  who has a remarkable gift for explaining the most complicated things using clear prose and simple examples. The scope of her discussions covers literally the entire history of structures from the Stone Age to modern skyscrapers.

Did you know the complex history of the simple brick, the structure of the arch, or the creation of  bridge spans, sewers, and skyscrapers?  Roma covers them all with supreme ease and a nice sense of humor about her position in conference rooms the world over as the only female in large groups of men.  

If you have done any kind of world traveling, you can truly enjoy this book because you’ve seen a lot of the structures she talks about like the Pyramids, the Pantheon, the Eiffel Tower, the great Cistern in Istanbul,  and the Gherkin and the Shard (which she helped design) in London.  But mainly it was her lucid explanations and wry humor that appealed to me.  I mean what author can get away with a whole chapter devoted to the “Turd Trade” and can put it to rest by simply noting “That’s probably enough of poo.”

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Lost City of the Monkey Gods Book Review

 Preston, Douglas    Lost City of the Monkey Gods                            

Archaeology and Anthropology have been in my blood since college. The theatre kind of sidetracked me for some forty years, but I remain today an avid consumer of the life and lore of ancient societies.  The cover of the Lost City of the Monkey Gods jumped at me and almost immediately I was immersed in the  search for a hidden city lost for five hundred in the tropical jungle of Honduras. The early chapters of the book recount early legends and the search for this city over the last hundred years. Then with the introduction of new ground coverage penetrating radar and satellite imagery enough evidence was produced to set up a ground expedition to visit it.  

Then came chapters devoted to the expedition itself.  We learned about the difficulties of securing the necessary permissions and permits and then about the logistics for establishing a camp in an area of unexplored jungle that was deemed to be filled with poisonous snakes, predatory mammals, and hordes of nasty insects.  The city was there and there were even undisturbed artifacts to preserve.  

As the public and other scholars learned about the discovery efforts were made to attack the scientific credentials of the explorers, but they persevered. Unfortunately, while fighting the public relations battle, a number of members of the team came down with a dangerous and life threatening tropical parasitical disease. The affliction has been traced all the way back to the dinosaurs and is still a scourge in many jungle environments.  A complete cure has not been found even today.  

At this point the book shifts to a discussion of pandemics in human history and how they spread. The prime exemplar was the decimation of New World populations by Old World conquerors carrying diseases which the New World population had no immunity to. Preston feels that our new problem is that the current First World is faced by a potential attack by Third World diseases. He observes that as the climate warms tropical diseases will begin to infect more and more northern latitudes. Aids, Zica, West Nile, etc. are increasing as the climate warms. The sand flea that carries the Leish parasite (which infected the expedition members) has now been recorded as far north as Oklahoma.  

While starting as a thrilling story of archaeological discovery the book turns into a scary trope on the next possible threat to world population. Fascinating.   


Saturday, March 16, 2019

Yume Japanese Garden--Tucson

My wife and I took advantage of a pleasant sunny Saturday to pay a visit to the Yume Japanese Garden in Tucson.  It has a couple of interior galleries and an open air garden that is full of delightful Japanese spaces that just plain invite you to sit and contemplate or to take photos.  Enjoy!
There are Zen gardens
Complete with warnings for the uninitiated .
There are pleasant spaces with tantalizing views into other areas via circular cubby holes. 

One section has a lovely dry stream. My friend Harlow Blum will appreciate this.

Another corner gives onto a traditional koi pond


compete with hungry koi
A quiet nook gives you a chance to refresh

You can then resume your walk to look at some large rocks hauled all the way from the Santa Catalina mountains and now arranged in a henge like ring.

Everywhere you stroll you come across simple but powerful arrangements.



Seated in one little nook you can look through a bamboo screen into another part of the garden.  I really enjoyed this space.


My wife took a liking to some of the artifact exhibits.

Since our long time friends, the Waltershausens, love
Tetsubins (iron Japanese teapots, I had to take a shot of these two just for them.


Thanks for taking a trip through the Yume Japanese Garden at
2130 N. Alvernon in Tucson, AZ.  Their tiny little parking lot is just two turns after the Tucson Botanical Garden.  Check their website for hours etc. 



Thursday, March 14, 2019

My take on If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk, (a film by director Barry Jenkins, who also directed Moonlight).

The film was nominated for three Oscars and Regina King did win best supporting actress for her portrayal of Tish’s mother. The movie, based on a novel by James Baldwin, definitely takes viewers on two different paths depending on their racial background. For many African-Americans a belief in the endemic racism of our criminal justice system overrides all. The young lovers Fonny and Tish, like Romeo and Juliet, are doomed and no efforts to stop the tragedy will be successful.  As a white male I still empathized with the lover’s plight, but did find that I was asking a few more questions about why certain things could not be altered in spite of the racial divide and why some continuity gaps seemed so bothersome. Both groups (and most critics) agree that the film features excellent acting, interesting cinematography, and a compelling musical score. But I am still in the camp that would like to know why certain issues were left unresolved.  


For instance, what happened to Fonny’s friend?  Did the alibi he was to provide stand up or did he renege under pressure from the DA? I am still wondering why Tish’s mother and not the lawyer was dispatched to Puerto Rico to talk to the rape accuser. As one reviewer noted that scene simply pitted two aggrieved women against each other in a conflict that neither one could win. Tish appears to be living at home during her pregnancy, then all of a sudden she is back at the love nest to have a water birth in the scummy tub. Not sure I can explain that continuity jump. The fathers resort to thievery to help raise money for the lawyer raising the old question of does one wrong justify further wrongs.  This may just emphasize the difference between Baldwin and Martin Luther King. In the last scene Fonny and Tish’s son seems at least five or six and Fonny is clearly still in jail. Did he plead?  Was he tried and convicted?  Was he still waiting to go to trial?


In spite of my minor reservations, the film admirably portrays the broken relationship between the justice system in America and the African American community. It certainly resonates as much today as it did when Baldwin wrote the novel.  I give it four stars out of five.


Monday, March 11, 2019

REVIEW: Mary Zimmerman's The Secret in the Wings


Mary Zimmerman’s The Secret in the Wings is the latest offering at Tucson’s Rogue Theatre. What is not a secret is that hiding in the wings is a Rogue company that is a superlatively talented and well-oiled theatre making machine.  They give and get with never a sense that someone must be the star. And always they exude an absolute joy in working together. This is a true ensemble of players whose composite is far more than any individual within. They are also the ideal set of actors to generate the milieu needed for a show like this. Kudos to Cynthia Meier for her outstanding work in bringing this early Zimmerman piece to the stage.

I believe The Secret in the Wings was first performed professionally in 1991 in Chicago by the Looking Glass Theatre with Zimmerman herself doing the directing.  The plot retells a series of fairly unfamiliar fairy tales that are truncated near their climaxes in order to start telling another one. The conclusions to the tales occur as the show winds down.  A frame story also tracks through the piece.  It features a Beauty and the Beast narrative in which two parents leave their daughter with a neighbor to babysit while they go out. The beastly neighbor is an ogre who has a real tail and fills the young girl with terror as he continually asks for her hand in marriage. Director Meier notes in her excellent program comments that “This structure makes the stories seem even more dream-like as we in the audience try to piece the different elements together.”

We could go on from here to muse on the cultural significance of “fairy tales” and how they have tapped  the deep unconscious feelings of all humans for hundreds of years, but suffice it to say that those thoughts only occur after the fact and never bubble up during the performance of the show. I was thoroughly held by the stories, the beautiful piano accompaniment, and the swirling activity of the players as they metamorphosed from character to character simply by donning a new crown or dress or cloak.  The tales are a bit “Grimm” at times, but there is plenty of humor to balance out the scary parts. e.g. the beheadings are managed with black hoods, a phony knife, and semi-deflated bright red balls. 

I have implied that there is no pressing need to label outstanding performances in this beautiful ensemble piece.  If I applaud any individuals it would be Patty Gallagher and Joe McGrath for their ability to match the physical energy levels of the younger folks in the cast.

Technically the show is lovingly smooth. The lighting is subtle and colorful. Most interesting to me was the razor sharp square on the floor that the young woman in the "Two Pennies" story clawed at several times. The costumes were often drawn deliberately from past Rogue productions.  I was particularly pleased to see the snake puppets from the company's last Zimmerman production getting an encore.  Mr. McGrath’s set was full of earth tones and pointed nicely to the world of dreams and the unconscious by putting us in a basement reached by a long set of stairs. The space  was filled with the detritus of an attic which became the props and costumes used in the show. There were buckets, old clothes, a model ship, dress forms, and a striking set of elaborate practical old floor lamps. 

The show only runs for another week and if yesterday’s full house was any indication, there will not be many seats left for the rest of the run.   See it if you can.