November 24, 2017

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.

Bastille Day on July 14th

Bastille Day is celebrated in France in much the same manner as our 4th of July in the United States. Fireworks, picnics and parades are part of both countries festivities for this patriotic holiday, but the French have some interesting customs I think we should adopt.
Petanques, boules or bocce are all names for the beloved game where the goal is to toss hollow metal balls as close as possible to the smaller wooden ball called a piglet or jack. Any backyard or park with a flat grass or dirt surface can be an instant petanques or bocce court. Many French Bastille parties feature endless rounds of this game that dates from the early 1900s. Luckily, I have found friends and neighbors in Chicago that play this game, too.

Firehouses throughout Paris and environs are filled with revelers enjoying beverages, dancing and music on July 13 and 14th. From 9 pm to 4 am, these festive Firemen’s balls raise money for the community’s fearless fire fighters while providing a blow-out of a party for Bastille celebrants. Cover charges and donations fill the Fire Department’s coffers.

How about talking Chicago firehouses into doing something similar on the 3rd of July? The fire fighters could regale party-goers with their favorite recipes, music and dance steps while raising money for the Chicago Fire Department!

Singing the national anthem and wearing red, white and blue are other things French and Americans share in July. To be honest, La Marseillaise is much easier to sing than The Star Spangled Banner! Vive la France!

Lonesome Losers of the Night at Theo Ubique

Put Theo Ubique’s excellent chamber revue, Lonesome Losers of the Night on your must-see theater list.

The songs of Jacques Brel burst onto the American scene with a Broadway revue called Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris which opened in 1968. Lyric writer and translator Arnie Johnston has taken on the task of translating Brel songs that are unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, as well as re-translating well-known Brel songs with lyrics that skew closer to the images in the original French versions.

A wonderful collaboration between Theo Ubique and Johnston began in 2006 with Songs of Love and War, the theater’s first Brel revue. This is the second go-round for Lonesome Losers which was previously produced by Theo Ubique in 2008-2009.

The new production features stunning ensemble singing, inventive choreography and blocking, a realistic set, plus the excellent music direction and piano skills of company member, Jeremy Ramey. Theo Ubique lynchpin, Fred Anzevino masterfully directs this 110 minute intermission-less revue. No words are needed as the singing actors segue from solos, duets, trios and quartet numbers. We are drawn into the drama of a seaport speakeasy as we observe the bartender, two sailors and a “girl for sale.” All four performers are skillful, but I was especially impressed with Randolph Johnson as the world-weary bartender and Jill Sesso as the provocative female of the cast.

A few of the songs may sound familiar but the lyrics will be fresh to your ears, such as Don’t Leave Me which is better known as Ne Me Quitte Pas/If You Go Away. Not all of the material is angst-laden, such as Beer, Rosa and the Song of Jacky, but neither is it a laugh riot with the second to last number being the thematically apt, Alone. Emotional depth is the raison-d’etre of this revue.

Cabaret theater like this usually flourishes in small venues such as Rogers Park’s No Exit, allowing the audience to enjoy food, and especially drink during the show. Word comes that the theater company will be moving to Evanston in the near future. Let us hope they recreate this intimate theater environment that requires no mikes and has the actors literally a breath away from their audience.

Get your Brel on before Theo Ubique’s marvelous production, Lonesome Losers of the Night closes on August 6, 2017.

French television shows available on streaming services

Anyone who wants to begin learning a language or freshen their knowledge of current dialogue in a foreign language may consider checking out television programs in that language.

My emphasis in this blog post is on French programs that have legible sub-titles on internet streaming platforms.

Even if you aren’t trying to learn a language, you will delight in Gallic crime shows, dramas and comedies.

MHZ has a large collection of French tv shows, but Netflix also has some very interesting selections. You can add the MHZ service to your Amazon Prime account, or add the app to your Apple TV line-up. Please consult the link below to see how else you can access MHZ. Hulu is adding a few more French programs so check them out as well.

I will continue to search for more French television series on streaming services. If you run across anything good in French, please send me your French tv recommendations and where you found them.

Bonne chance!

French television shows available on streaming services:

Braquo – MHZ – A brutal but well-made police procedural.

The Break (La Treve) – Netflix – An unsettling Belgian psychological crime series.

Bureau of Sexist Affairs – MHZ – Comedy shorts on various topics.

Cain – MHZ – A charming cop show starring Bruno Debrandt.

Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent) – Netflix – A comedy about stars and their agents in France.

The Churchmen (Ainsi Soient-Ils) – MHZ – A thoughtful drama about young men studying to become Catholic priests.

Detectives – MHZ – A light, entertaining detective series.

Dolmen – MHZ – A ridiculously romantic series if you are in the mood for such fare.

Frank Riva – MHZ – The iconic Alain Delon plays an ex-detective who returns to the fray.

A French Village (Un Village Francais) – MHZ & Hulu – Historical fiction about World War II in a small town in France.

Kaboul Kitchen – MHZ – Comedy set in Afghanistan. Not my cup of kefir, but some like it.

Maigret – MHZ – Simenon novels are depicted on the small screen. Very popular, but not one of my favorite series.

Maison Close – Hulu –  Quite raunchy story about a bordello in France. Only if you are not easily offended.

Marseille – Netflix – Fair to middling political intrigue in Marseille. Tune in to see the marvelous Gerard Depardieu and Benoit Magimell who goes toe to toe with him.

Paris – MHZ – Off-beat series about Parisians whose paths cross in surprising ways.

Pigalle, la Nuit – Hulu – A dramatic series set in Paris’ Pigalle area depicting tawdry doings.

The Returned (Les Revenants) – Netflix – The dead return. Season 1 was mesmerizing; Season 2 bored me to … tears.

Spiral (Engrenages) – MHZ & Hulu – Voted best 2015 tv show in the world and rightly so. Crime, legal and political skullduggery.

The Witnesses (Les Temoins) – Netflix – Decent detective series starring Thierry Lhermitte.

And for short clips for the beginning French student:

Oh La La, Hollywood Speaks French (two French sisters in the U. S.) – youtube

Jean Echenoz: current French novelist

Although very little known in the U. S., Jean Echenoz may be one of France’s best living fiction writers. Being interested in World War I novels, I came upon “1914,” Echenoz’s slim but elegantly incisive novel on the vagaries of life during the war of trenches, mustard gas and “No Man’s Land.”

As a musician, I was next drawn to his diminutive book entitled “Ravel, loosely based on the composer’s visit to America and his head injury incurred in a taxi accident.

The comedy novel “Piano” is about a fictional concert pianist with debilitating stage fright and rampant alcoholism which alleviates it. Purgatory and banishment to the “urban zone” figure into the pianist’s journey as Echenoz fashions a modern day nod to Dante in this spare novella.

The winner of ten literary prizes, Echenoz has 12 books listed in his wikipedia biography so I have nine more chances to enjoy his distinctive and amusing prose.





All written by Jean Echenoz and published by The New Press

Renoir: Father and Son


Just in time for Valentine’s Day, treat yourself to the ravishingly beautiful movie “Renoir” currently available on Netflix. Director Gilles Bourdos creates a world that is straight out of one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Impressionist paintings. The story takes place at the famed painter’s home on the Riviera in 1915. His soldier son Jean is home on medical leave from World War I and begins a passionate affair with his father’s current (and last) model, Catherine Hessling. This is the same Jean Renoir who will become the highly respected French cinema auteur of such films as “Rules of the Game” and “Grand Illusion.” Most of his first silent films will star the seductive Hessling, the object of his summer’s passion and later his first wife.
You can continue your personal Jean Renoir film festival with seven of his works on Hulu Plus in their Criterion movie collection.

If you don’t have time to go to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris or the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. where many of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings reside, you may want to check out a list of virtual galleries featuring his work.

As a side note, grandson Claude Renoir became a successful cinematographer for movies such as his uncle Jean’s “The River” and Vadim’s “Barbarella.”

Hulu Plus’ Criterion Collection:

Renoir” on Netflix:


“The Returned,” a French TV Series on Sundance

Many of my friends have stated that “they just don’t do subtitles.” They would be missing on out this intriguing French TV series currently being shown on the Sundance  channel. Reminding me of a melange of “Twin Peaks” and “The Walking Dead,” we are introduced to a small town group of people that live near a dam in the Haute-Savoie region of France. As we progress through the eight episodes, new information is added,
connections are made and characters reveal their true identities. You may need to adjust to the slower pace of this European thriller, but look at it this way: it gives you more time to read the subtitles.

“Braquo” on Hulu

Although Hulu has been dragging its feet in getting many acclaimed foreign television shows, they just got a gold star from me for finally featuring “Braquo,” a French TV crime drama that is reminiscent of both “The Shield” and “The Wire.” A tight-knit team of flics (French cops) straddle the line between being the good guys and the bad in this heart-pumping show involving drug lords, murder, corruption and cringe-inducing torture. Unlike Netflix who made all of the episodes of “House of Cards” immediately available, Hulu is making the viewers wait for one new “Braquo” installment every Tuesday, torture of a gentler variety.

“The Paris Wife”

Ernest and Hadley Hemingway on their wedding day, 1921

Several people had recommended “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain to me. Lo and behold, my sister sent me her hard back copy of the book leaving me no excuse not to check it out. The author is also a poet so the word choice is quite beautiful in this based- on-fact fictional account of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. My husband derisively said it looked like a chick lit book, but I countered by saying that literature lovers, fans of the movie “Midnight In Paris” as well as Paris aficionados will find much to delight in this best seller.

Hugo in 3D

I see very few movies in theaters these days, but Martin Scorsese’s movie, “Hugo” in 3D may have drawn me back to the group viewing experience. Wow. What a visual difference the glasses make!

The movie is based on a popular book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” about an orphan who sets the clocks in a Paris train station. The boy’s story line may be fiction, but the character arc of Georges Melies, one of the pioneers of film is based on real fact. He was given a career retrospective at Salle Pleyel in Paris after having spent years in virtual eclipse running a toy and candy shop.

I was engaged with the story, but the use of three dimensional imaging was the real delight for me. A vicious Doberman feels like he is in front of your face. When Hugo is on a high ledge, I felt vertigo. Paris panoramas make you feel you are looking out a window with the incredible sensation of depth. Trailers for 3D versions of “Titanic,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Star Wars” whetted my appetite for more three dimensional viewing. Can “Blade Runner” in 3D be far behind?!