August 20, 2019

Pose on FX and Netflix

Show creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals have an unusual hit on their hands, a dramatic tv series about African-American and Latino gay and gender-bending individuals who take part in the New York Ballroom scene of the 1980s.

Men, dressed as women, compete for trophies in club fashion and beauty contests. Actor Billy Porter has created an indelible character as the emcee of these pageants. Competitors band together in different “houses” with “mothers” who head the households. AIDS and discrimination are scourges of this community in Season 1.

The world of real estate, Trump and high finance of the era also figures into the story as a buttoned-up businessman consorts with Angel, (heartbreakingly played by India Moore), a prostitute she-male who participates in this competitive underworld.

There are some tv regulars in the cast like Kate Mara (House of Cards, American Horror Story), Christopher Meloni, Kathryn Erbe and James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek), plus Sandra Bernhard in Season 2, but it is the lesser known actors that bring real heart to the show.

MJ Rodriguez as Blanca, the mother of the House of Evangelista and Dominique Jackson as Elektra, the rival mother of the House of Abundance have a love/hate relationship that keeps the viewer riveted. Damon Richards, an aspiring dancer (played by Ryan Jamaal Swain), is a homeless kid who becomes the first member of the House of Evenaglista.

Even though these are characters you have never seen on tv before, the writers, actors and directors instantly bring you into this rarified scene, if you are open to it. This might not be to everyone’s taste, but I for one love the over-the-top clothing as well as the raw emotion and high production values. Critics and a host of awards second that opinion.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre

If you have time for just one piece of live performance this holiday season, you may want to strongly consider The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theater. Billed as a Christmas pantomime, the 60-minute almost wordless presentation is based on the famous Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name.

Acclaimed director Mary Zimmerman has created a gorgeous short work that depends primarily on wordless physical expression by very accomplished actors. By turns heart-wrenching and hilarious, this play should entertain both young and old alike.

The theater is located in Chicago’s iconic Pumping Station across the street from the old Water Tower and the similarly-named shopping mall. No small wonder that there were lots of out-of-towners speaking other languages the night I saw Steadfast. There were also many adults with kids and even some three generation families taking photos in the lobby.

Get there early so you can see fantastical creatures periodically open the small windows of a gigantic Advent calendar. We also see four powdered-wig musicians take up their instruments in the small pit in front of the stage.

The only point of discussion concerned a final song that for some broke the spell of the pantomime. I surmise that Lookingglass wanted to end the show on a positive note and thought an uplifting ditty would do the trick. I thought the song functioned well but my viewing partner disagreed.

Still and all, for a memorable 2018 holiday experience that may give you a rest from The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, The Steadfast Tin Soldier might be just the ticket.
Lovely instrumental music, creative costumes, an inventive period set, brilliant physical acting and a timeless tale curated by Mary Zimmerman. Who could ask for anything more during a cold December?

Billy Elliot, Porchlight’s musical at the Ruth Page Center For the Arts

Have I the perfect evening out for you, that is if you like musical theater and want to hang out in Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Porchlight Theater has mounted a bang-up production of the musical, Billy Elliot at the Ruth Page Center. Based on the hit movie of the same name with music by Sir Elton John, this is perfect family or date night theater fare.

Two talented young boys alternate playing the title role (I saw both sing at Monday Night Live at Petterino’s). Jacob Kaiser was Billy the night I attended and he surely sang, acted and danced his way into the audience members hearts. Another endearing character is Iris Lieberman playing Billy’s spunky, but addled grandmother. Other stand-outs are Sean Fortunato as his gruff father and Shanesia Davis playing his outspoken dance teacher.

The cast is augmented with young dancers, some who are making their theatrical debuts. If you have any fledgling dancers in your home, you may want to consider taking them to Billy Elliot in lieu of The Nutcracker. Their dance sequences are tutu cute. Excuse me, I just couldn’t resist the pun.

I parked at the public LAZ lot next to Hotel Indigo at 1250 N. Dearborn Street. The Ruth Page Center validated my ticket rendering the parking $12 for 6 hours.

You may consider having a light bite at the Three Arts Club Cafe in the Restoration Hardware store at 1300 N. Dearborn Street. Just be forewarned that they don’t take reservations and their kitchen closes at 8 pm most nights, with a 6 pm closing on Sundays.

The theater, parking and cafe are on the same street just blocks apart so the six hour parking window is just right.

Billy Elliot has been extended to December 31, 2017.
I can’t think of a more uplifting Chicago production to see this holiday season.

https://porchlightmusictheatre.org

http://3artsclubcafe.com/food/

http://www.ruthpage.org/

An American In Paris at the Oriental Theater

I had heard about this charming musical ever since it premiered on Broadway to great acclaim in 2015, so it was with great anticipation that I caught this national tour version of An American In Paris.

The production has several things going for it. Ballet sequences are breath-taking as conceived by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.  George Gershwin’s music provides the lush soundtrack for the whole show. Not only do we hear permutations of his famous An American In Paris orchestral work, but we are treated to portions of his classical Second Prelude, his Concerto in F, his Second Rhapsody and his Cuban Overture. Beloved songs like I Got Rhythm and The Man I Love are sung by cast members, but lesser known tunes like Fidgety Feet, Who Cares and Liza shed new light on Gershwin’s song catalogue.
The technical aspects of the show dazzle with creative use of screen images on the electronic back drop and moving screens. Parisian buildings, paintings and other famous sights delight the eye throughout the show. A recurring view of the river Seine is most amusing as two boats are depicted by different artistic techniques.

The plot harkens back to the basic romantic formula found in black and white movies. Three men who are friends are all in love with the same ballerina. Boy and boy and boy meet girl. Only one boy gets girl.

The action takes place in Paris right after World War II in 1945 so the frothy doings are sprinkled with references to the German Occupation, the Resistance, and the Holocaust making this a work of both light and dark.

For me the orchestral music, the dance sequences, the stage images and Craig Lucas’ snappy dialogue outshine the singing, but this is a quibble when the over-all effect of the production is to know that one has spent a delightful evening at the theater.  Broadway In Chicago will be running An American In Paris at the Oriental Theater through August 13, 2017.

http://www.broadwayinchicago.com/show/an-american-in-paris/

La La Land: Oscar-worthy

I finally had the opportunity to see La La Land this past week. In short, I was delighted from start to finish. Imagine my surprise when the two men who accompanied me to the cinema proclaimed this to be “a terrible movie” and “boring,” respectively.
Another friend disliked the opening sequence with a traffic jam resulting in people getting out of their cars and singing and dancing.
As for me, I loved the opening for quickly putting the viewer into the world of Hollywood where every other person seems to be grasping for a toe hold into the world of entertainment. Although they may get to sing, dance, act, write, direct or design for TV and movies, all of these people have to keep on scrambling to pay bills and keep their cars running. The scene also has the principal characters “meeting cute” with an angry flipped finger at one another.

The use of bright colors throughout the movie whether it be with clothing, furniture, signage or scenery absolutely delighted my eyes. The score was tuneful and lyrics well-crafted. The song “City of Stars” is still going through my head. The orchestration found so many different ways of presenting the simple but potent melodies. The script dialogue is reminiscent of the rapid bantering of 1930’s screwball comedies.

Now a word about the stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. She can actually sing pretty expressively. Gosling’s singing is serviceable, but I was really impressed with his ability to simulate playing the piano really well. He reportedly sang and played piano, guitar, bass and cello in a group in 2009 so he came to the film with some musical skills. His dancing is pretty impressive, too, especially since he is six feet tall and gracefully manages his long legs. Stone and Gosling were cast for their box office names and their acting chops, but their musical and dancing skills are most entertaining.

One of the men who dissed the movie did sheepishly note the large number of Oscar nominations for this “terrible movie.” Let me compare this to the political climate. We definitely see the world through our own filters, be it for movie-watching or political opinions. Some of us just have better taste!

Mana Contemporary Chicago, a Pilsen art center

I have often visited art galleries in River North, but my brother-in-law let me know about another Pilsen venue that seems to be attracting many creative types. Mana Contemporary at  2233 South Throop Street is an art center housed in a landmark building designed by Chicago architect George Nimmons, in a decidedly urban and industrial setting.

Mana Chicago features studios, offices and performing spaces where art is created, including painting, sculpture, photography, dance, film, sound and performance work.

We were fortunate enough to attend the Summer Open Studios on June 18 so we could browse dozens of artist work spaces on the 4th, 5th and 6th floors of the complex. We also encountered a cafe serving light bites and beverages, a performance space that featured dance and a live art studio with two partially clothed women with parasols creating an ever-changing tableau.

Some of my favorite studios: Dana Major with her magical installations featuring wire, lenses, glass, mineral optics and LEDS; Ava Grey, a creative agency and production house that creates art using materials from urban American sub-culture, and Olea Nova, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia whose work includes painting, drawing, sound and video.

At times, the unusually-garbed artists and art viewers rivaled the art on the walls. The unobstructed views from the studio windows were breath-taking with stunning sunset hues and cityscape vistas.

There are two other Mana art centers, the Mana Wynwood in Miami and the Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, NJ.

The Mana Contemporary Chicago web site indicates that tours are available during business hours. For more information, visit:
http://www.manacontemporarychicago.com/