Chen Family Quartet, Fourth Presbyterian Church, January 11, 2019; Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Symphony Hall, January 15, 2019; Phillppe Quint, Violin and Marta Aznavoorian, Piano, Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert, Chicago Cultural Center, January 16, 2019

While others listening to classical music may try to appreciate its finer points or focus on getting inside the composer’s head, I just like the way it sounds, which leaves my brain free to wander during concerts.

Some day I might pick up a copy of Classical Music for Dummies, cowritten by David Pogue, whom I usually only think about as Techno Claus on CBS Sunday Morning, when I think about him at all, but who also is a monthly columnist for Scientific American.

But, until then, I think about things like the different shades of varnish on the cellos used in the Chicago Civic Orchestra’s terrific concert, which led me to an applied physics article on ‘the importance of the vibro-mechanical properties of varnish, its chemical composition, thickness and penetration into wood.”

It wasn’t so much during Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Robert Chen’s brilliant violin solo at Fourth Presbyterian Church, but rather after, that I began thinking about the space itself, when Rush Hour Concerts Artistic Director Anthony Devroye, who filled in on viola with the Chen Family Quartet that day told a couple of us who had trouble seeing from the back that the quartet didn’t use the stage because the asymmetrically curved wall behind it caused acoustic problems – more science.

No science entered my head during the Dame Myra Hess concert, which featured the music of Charlie Chaplin. Quint and Aznavoorian closed with Chaplin’s Smile, from Modern Times, which reminded me of Jimmy Durante singing Make Someone Happy at the end of Sleepless in Seattle, which reminded me of its screenwriter and director Nora Ephron, who was an answer on Jeopardy this week.

In the immortal words of The Statler Brothers’ classic (not classical) Flowers on the Wall (I counted 12 on my guest bathroom wall), “Now don’t tell me I’ve nothin’ to do.”

 

Holiday Inn – Marriott Lincolnshire Theater – December 23, 2018

The real name of one of the ensemble members in Holiday Inn is Aaron Burr. Really. But nobody in the play gets shot. And while the depiction of the more famous Aaron Burr in Hamilton is interesting, this Burr’s tap dancing skills, along with those of his castmates, are more fun.

Marya Grandy goes so far as to combine the group’s tapping with moves from Stomp, as she dances with buckets on her feet during one of the numbers. And, in what seems to be becoming a trend, the dancers tapped while jumping rope during one song, akin to, though different from, the jump rope choreography used in Legally Blonde.

While the dancing is great, the cast’s skills go beyond that. Unlike the show Beautiful, where, I hate to break it to you, Jesse Mueller and her successors don’t actually play the piano (though faking it nicely while, as that show’s sound designer explains it, speakers in the piano pump out music supplied from the orchestra pit), Michael Mahler, in the Bing Crosby role in Holiday Inn, does play the piano on stage, and quite well. Seems that Mahler, also is a Jeff Award-winning composer (perhaps he’s related to Gustav).

And, while I have seen and enjoyed Mahler and his costar, Johanna McKenzie Miller, in other shows, I was, as always, relieved to also see one of the Moes, in this case Lorenzo Rush, Jr., who, in the last 15 months, I have heard in Little Shop of Horrors and seen in Five Guys Named Moe, Memphis, and They’re Playing Our Song.

Will Burton, who does a fine job as Ted Hanover, won’t make you forget Fred Astaire (who would?), and there’s no Thomas Jefferson or George Washington dancing with Burr in the ensemble, but I left the theater humming many of the (Irving Berlin) songs, which I didn’t do after Hamilton.

Santaland Diaries – Goodman Theater – December 18, 2018

Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris’s 1992 essay about working as an elf at Macy’s during the Christmas season, is supposed to be a comedy. Perhaps it was in 1992, but not anymore. The Goodman Theater would be better off just shutting down for the holidays. Its 2016 production, in concert with Second City, of Twist Your Dickens, was unwatchable. Santaland Diaries isn’t that bad, but it’s boring and out of step with the times. Even its mystifyingly good reviews admit that.

The Chicago Reader review of the 2006 Stage 773 production of the Santaland Diaries said “some of the script’s pop-culture references are beginning to show their age” and gave the show a “somewhat recommended”. Yet, interestingly, twelve years later, the Reader gave the Goodman production a “highly recommended”, even while acknowledging that “a few lines in the script have unintentionally traded their comedic weight for dramatic over the years. One antiquated reference to mentally handicapped people, for instance, landed like the proverbial turd in an otherwise tasty punchbowl; it was 15 minutes before [Matt] Crowle regained the trust of the audience.”

Fifteen minutes, out of a 65-minute performance! How can that be a description of a highly recommended show? I don’t know Macy’s return policy, but perhaps this dinosaur can be relegated to Jurassic World. Jokes about cash registers really don’t register anymore. The best line in the show was Crowle’s put down of an unruly audience member.

None of this is meant as a knock on Crowle, soon to star in Porchlight Music Theater’s production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (where he’ll play eight characters), and whom I’ve seen in other productions around town. He does a fine job. Most memorably for me, his Billie Holiday impression, which obviously transcends the written script, was terrific.  Maybe next year the Goodman should do a Holiday show instead of a holiday show.

The Nutcracker – Joffrey Ballet – Auditorium Theater – December 14, 2018

I broke my coat’s zipper while getting ready to leave for the theater. Coincidentally, though the term zipper didn’t come into use until 1923, Whitcomb Judson, who is sometimes given credit as the inventor of the zipper, debuted his clasp locker at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which provides the background for the Joffrey’s production.

“Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”

How times have changed. Plastic is now the devil (subtle reference to the Devil in the White City, which also is set at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair).

Chicago voters have expressed their desire to ban plastic straws. What about plastic wrappings at cultural events? I had to give the woman behind me my best death stare during the second act of The Nutcracker to get her to stop playing with her candy packaging. I wonder how Tchaikovsky felt about people eating M&Ms and checking their cell phones (woman in front of me) during performances.

He supposedly didn’t care that much for the Nutcracker story as adapted for the ballet. Picking up on that in the biography Tchaikovsky, David Brown writes “The Nutcracker is meaningless in the profoundest sense.” Nice juxtaposition.

And, as I agree, it’s not surprising that I enjoyed the second act a lot more than the first (during which I would have rather watched a Charlie Chaplin silent film synched to the music) because the second act was almost all about the wonderful music and, at times flexibility-defying, dancing.

But enough culture for one weekend. I’m planning on spending the next two days watching the ballet that is football. Also meaningless.

The Play That Goes Wrong – Oriental Theater – December 11, 2018

While the comparison to the play Noises Off is obvious, if it weren’t for all the farcical humor of The Play That Goes Wrong (The Play), one might think of Michael Crichton’s original Westworld, “the ultimate resort, where nothing can possibly go wrong, go wrong . . . .”, and yet everything does.

So, to paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as it might apply to the play, The Murder at Faversham Manor (The Murder) within The Play: How does thee go wrong? Let me count the ways.

Forget the occasional forgotten line, The Murder goes into full Brannon Braga, Star Trek; The Next Generation, Cause and Effect episode, time loop mode with the actors becoming increasingly irritated as they can’t find a way to stop repeating the same lines. If it weren’t so funny, I would have thought it was written into the show as filler.

And then there was the set, or what was left of it by the end of the show. The comic timing of The Play is not limited to the actors. So, while the actors in The Murder break the fourth wall, the walls in The Murder almost break the actors, creating the need for some deliciously funny stand-in work by the crew of The Murder. I would love a behind-the-scenes tour of The Play by its crew, not the dangerously inept crew of The Murder, to see how they manipulate everything.

Query, by the way, are the actors in The Play breaking the fourth wall when the actors in The Murder are speaking to their audience, which, of course, happens to be the same as The Play’s audience?

In the end, despite set deconstruction, doors banging into heads, and actors in The Murder engaging in foul play, the only real injuries are to the ribs of The Play’s audience members, who are bent over in laughter.

Big Red and the Boys – Venus Cabaret – December 9, 2018

Secretariat, widely considered the greatest race horse of all time, was nicknamed Big Red. He wasn’t part of the show at the Venus Cabaret.

But Meghan Murphy, also nicknamed Big Red, was. This was the first stop on what Murphy described as the act’s world tour – Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.

I love the Venus Cabaret, which opened this year adjoining the Mercury Theater (get it?). It’s an attractive space, with its own bar, and without a bad seat in the house, though there was some glare off the screens behind the stage, which I didn’t hesitate to tell management about when they sent me a survey after the show.

In honor of Big Red, the bar offered a couple of red drinks, one with vodka, one with whiskey. I wonder what they’d have at the bar if Michael Lee Aday (Meatloaf) were performing there.

Though there was some new material in this, their eighth annual show, Big Red and the Boys pleased the crowd by performing the group’s “standards”, like Get Your Holiday On, often encouraging the audience to sing along.

Big Red also broke out her holiday costume, complete with well-placed lights outlining her physical assets. The costume, along with the boys’ flashing bow ties, came in handy when Murphy occasionally had a hard time finding her spotlight, which just served as another excuse for some of her off-the-cuff, contagious humor. Murphy, whose website describes her as actor, singer, dancer, and badass, always seems to be having a good time on stage.

I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of perverse show could be created by combining Big Red’s with the play next door, Avenue Q, having Murphy as Lucy, who is described as “a vixenish vamp with a dangerous edge.”

EStrella Piano Duo (Svetlana Belsky and Elena Doubovitskaya) – Fourth Presbyterian Church – December 7, 2018

I was expecting two pianos (piano duo versus piano duet), but what I got instead was two women, playing selections from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, on one piano, at the same time, hands flying everywhere, occasionally crossing over each others’ hands, and bodies, with such grace and, at times, glorious frenzy, that one had to watch, not just listen, to fully appreciate the experience.

In exploring various combinations, I found four pianists playing two pianos, which I assume would be called a duet duo, or vice versa, and one pianist playing two pianos, whether the pianos be angled, or parallel to each other, including an interesting exhibition by a twelve-year-old girl stretching to use the pedals on both pianos simultaneously.

Speaking of pedals, when I asked the women after the performance how they determined who would play which side of the piano during their duets (it varied), Belsky told me she really likes to use the pedals and that that often affects their decision.

It hadn’t occurred to me watch their feet during the performance, though I did pay attention to who was turning the pages (it also varied, with one incident of an accidental double page turn that was quickly remedied without interruption to the music), so I don’t know if Belsky was pulling my leg. She had displayed a wonderful sense of humor during her introductions to the songs.

Both women in Estrella were born in Russia, so I have no idea why they chose a name that the Urban Dictionary defines as a totally cool Spanish girl (I also should have asked them that), though I concede that they seemed cool, even though their music was hot.

 

Christmas at the Fair: The Joffrey’s New Nutcracker – Newberry Library – December 4, 2018

The Newberry Library currently has on display Pictures from an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair, which is why it hosted an event about The Joffrey Ballet’s reimagined Nutcracker, which opened in 2016 and which uses the exposition as its background.

The Newberry also houses Ruth Page’s papers, which include choreography notes from that company’s Arie Crown production of The Nutcracker, which opened in 1965. Page’s notes include pictures, which Newberry curator Alison Hinderliter showed, of nails, staples, pins, and other such items that had to be cleaned from the stage each night after falling with the snow from the rafters.

Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater said his company has the same problem and uses a sieve when cleaning the snow off the stage to filter out such junk.

Speaking of snow, Wheater added that choreographer Christopher Wheeldon had assured him, in noting concerns about the acceptance of changes made to the classic, that the tree still will grow and the snow still will fall.

And, all this happens as a result of over 2000 production cues in the show, which is a lot of opportunities for something to go wrong, which could drive a person to drink. But if it did, not to worry. Wheater said they spray vodka on the costumes (including perhaps the rat king’s head, which is made up of two IKEA wastebaskets) to keep them fresh (a trick also used by figure skaters), so, “if you need vodka, come to the Joffrey”, they have a lot on hand.

Considering all of the above and more, WTTW critic Hedy Weiss quoted her own review of the production in saying that “[t]he whole event brought to mind Tom Stoppard’s observation from “Shakespeare in Love”: “The natural condition [of the theater business] is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster … but strangely enough it all turns out well.” I hope for the same miracle each time I write my blog.

Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert – Chicago Cultural Center – November 28, 2018

I missed Saint-Saens’ Romance. Op. 36, but got to the hall in time to hear sustained applause for Sophia Bacelar (cello) and Noreen Cassidy-Polera (piano), which got me thinking about the dynamics of audience applause. I found a study that spoke of it in terms of a disease, saying that “Individuals’ probability of starting clapping increased in proportion to the number of other audience members already ‘infected’ by this social contagion, regardless of their spatial proximity. The cessation of applause is similarly socially mediated, but is to a lesser degree controlled by the reluctance of individuals to clap too many times.”

Midway through the first movement of the second piece, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19, paramedics from the Chicago Fire Department showed up with a wheeled emergency stretcher, which they pushed up the middle aisle to a row near the front, where they loaded a man onto it, then reversed their course, pushed the cart back onto the elevator, and disappeared, all silently, in a matter of moments, and without causing the slightest interruption to the musicians, neither of whom lost concentration or looked up, perhaps so focused as to be unaware of what was transpiring 10 to 15 feet in front of them. Brava!

As for the man who was removed, from a distance he didn’t appear to be in any great discomfort. Perhaps he just needed a ride to a meeting (he had a briefcase with him) or perhaps, because I had arrived a few minutes late, I was unknowingly in the middle of the filming of an episode of Chicago Fire.

Or, as the sonata was, according to the program notes, among the first of Rachmaninov’s major pieces after he went through hypnotherapy to overcome writer’s block, perhaps the music itself has hypnotic qualities, and there were no paramedics. Is that Rod Serling I see in the corner?

Q Brothers Christmas Carol – Chicago Shakespeare Theater – November 27, 2018

I keep coming back for more of this hip-hop interpretation of the Dickens classic. But, after seeing it several years in a row, what could still surprise me? This time it was the brief interlude when JQ seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment and go into an improvised description of a dream he had. Scripted or not, it had not only the audience, but also one of his fellow cast members in hysterics.

Everyone knows the Dickens story, but it occurred to me that not everyone may have considered what the Q brothers and their Christmas Carol have in common with the character Q from Star Trek.

Patrick Stewart, who, as Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, had several encounters with Q, also for many years performed a one-man, award-winning show of A Christmas Carol, playing more than 30 characters. Coincidence? I think not.

Q, in Star Trek, is of unknown origin. The Q brothers are of known origin, the northern suburbs of Chicago. I know this because a couple years ago I met an usher at the show who was their high school drama teacher. She was very proud.

Q, in Star Trek, is an extra-dimensional being. The Q brothers are multidimensional, namely writing, singing, dancing, and acting.

Q, in Star Trek, possesses immeasurable power over time and space. The Q brothers, as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future in their Christmas Carol, possess power over time and space, constrained only by the music the live DJ spins and the 75-minute duration of the show.

Q, in Star Trek, used his powers to pass judgment on humanity.

The Q brothers use their powers in Christmas Carol to pass judgment on Scrooge and get him to have some humanity. Spoiler alert – it works.