Baritones Unbound


Marc Kudisch, Nathan Gunn and Mark Delavan
Marc Kudisch, Nathan Gunn and Mark Delavan

For the theater critic as well as the general fan, three expectations are associated with a production bearing the label, “Hershey Felder Presents.” Beautiful music, a solid history lesson and the weave of these two elements into an engaging story — that’s the Felder brand. And in bestowing his signature blessing on “Baritones Unbound,” another worthy show enters the already competitive Chicago holiday theater market.

Conceived and written by three-time Tony Award nominee Marc Kudisch, who also performs in the production, “Baritones” is an unofficial response to the “Three Tenors” conversation. The popular and commercially successful operatic singing group exploded in the 1990s, boasting the star power of Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti. One of many imprints left by the trio was the elevation of the tenor vocal part to cultural primacy, somewhat at the expense of the baritone.

Observation of the recent past’s dearth of strong, new baritone parts is included in the show’s second half. Although the script creditably and diversely attributes the dive to the rise of stadium rock as much as any other influence, there is a pervasive, if amiable, defensiveness. The “Baritones Unbound” have something to prove. For slightly more than two hours, Kudisch, in partnership with fellow sonorous ones Mark Delavan and Nathan Gunn, as well as Musical Director Timothy Splain, takes audiences to school.

The history of the baritone begins with 10th Century variations on the original Gregorian chant and runs through “Miss Saigon” and beyond. I wouldn’t know this if Kudisch, Splain and writing partners Merwin Foard and Jeff Mattsey hadn’t done such painstaking research. Along with a varied assortment of storied musical numbers that run the gamut from Mozart, to Gilbert & Sullivan to Johnny Cash, the narrative unfolds with a delicate and insightful use of multi-media. This is another Felder staple and when I saw the Scenic Design attributed to the producer himself, there was no surprise.

In perusing the production’s press materials, I was amused to discover that among the highlights of Delavan’s and Gunn’s illustrious careers, the pair have been branded with fanboy/fangirl nicknames. “The Voice of God” and “Barihunk,” are the respective flags by which the two men are sometimes known. I can pronounce these pet monikers well-deserved.

Gunn handsomely transitions many of the segments with a deliberate walk center stage that stands in contrast to the more screwball antics of say, Kudisch. I’m a huge fan of screwball antics by the way, as was most of the adoring crowd at the press opening — and we are a difficult lot to impress. When Kudisch held a long, deep note while also maintaining a front split position, we were truly amazed. The man’s a middle-aged hero! Diversity of talent is the most special effect of all.

And Delevan’s “Voice of God” label is earned honestly. His impressive resume is chockablock with the finest and most popular in opera, and the years of training show. Delevan’s gorgeous, booming voice, so otherworldly and effortless, is humanized by self-effacing physical comedy skills.

Magnified by the intimacy of the Royal George’s individual theaters, the three baritones are captivating. Delavan, Gunn and Kudisch enjoy an aqueous chemistry united by individual gifts, niche experience and genuine love of the covered material.

However in lauding the talented and titular cast, it would be remiss to exclude Splain from the curtain call. By the time he steps out from behind the piano and grabs a mic, while Delevan and Kudisch pick up guitars, it’s the Beatles at the Ed Sullivan Theater all over again. Total rock stars.

Fans of music from all eras, who love the satisfying sound of strong, classically trained voices nimble enough to tackle just about anything: find room on your busy holiday schedule for a rousing history lesson. That’s the Hershey Felder brand. And “Baritone’s Unbound” delivers on its promise.

“Baritones Unbound” runs through Jan. 3, 2016 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-988-9000 or visit the Royal George Theatre website.

Hubbard Street’s Season 38 Winter Series: ‘Solo Echo’


To understate the situation, I’m no expert in the art of dance. Words are my artistic medium. I find a regular flight of stairs a terrific challenge to fine motor skills, and besides a beginner’s tap class I took last year, personal study ended in first grade with an underwhelming ballet recital. But oh how I love movement and envy the practitioners who devote their lives to the craft. Using one’s body to tell a story is a powerful thing.

And powerful is a fitting adjective for “Hubbard Street’s Season 38 Winter Series,” enjoying an all-too brief run at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Since 1977, one of the city’s finest dance institutions has been serving up provocative, gorgeous contemplations that have achieved worldwide recognition. Media force “The New York Times” famously observed of the company’s talent, “The list of choreographers who have worked with this immaculately technical group reads like an international who’s who of contemporary dance.”

Genius is on full display in the “Winter Series,” featuring the work of choreographers Yin Yue, Robyn Mineko Williams, Penny Saunders and Crystal Pite. The quartet of female voices calls forth a stunning four-part program with much to say. At the same time, the production overwhelmingly succeeds in leaving enough space for audience members to project individual experiences onto the stage. The series is both universal and singular. It’s a remarkable achievement.

All four routines — “A Glimpse inside a Shared Story” (Yue), “Waxing Moon,” (Williams), “Out of Keeping” (Saunders) and “Solo Echo” (Pite) — are sparsely contextualized in the production program. The most copy is devoted to “Waxing Moon,” described as a contemplation on “the process of becoming; its protagonist considers possibilities for his future through engagement with two forces we see as figures.” The choice to leave interpretation open-ended, as I have already suggested, is a win.

To continue the “Moon” example, the two figures moving onstage around the central character represent darkness and light. I saw the protagonist wrestle with the dusk, subsequently too exhausted to fully engage with the healthier light, and my own struggles with insomnia came to mind. The shorter days of winter can exacerbate the pain of long, sleepless nights. Beautifully danced by Andrew Murdock, Jaqueline Burnett and Jason Hortin, the compelling piece is still with me today.

The final offering of the production, “Solo Echo” features one of few overt wintertide images — a glittering display of falling snow. Lighting design from Tom Visser serves as an enchanting backdrop for a meditation on interconnectedness. Like the drifting flakes, blown about in communities, fortunes united by the whims of Mother Nature, the cast of seven dancers moves in intricate unison. My companion for the evening and I both suffer from motion sickness, and mutually reported that the troupe’s fluid meld was almost too effective for our respective equilibriums. Nausea be damned. I couldn’t look away from the stage.

This review’s focus on the second and fourth segments of “Hubbard Street’s Season 38 Winter Series” should in no way suggest a superiority to Yue and Saunders’ work. All four specimens are revelatory experiences. I’m still pondering the explosion of color, usage of sound and surface that is “Out of Keeping.” Is it a rumination on life’s tendency to be lived in shades of gray? I can’t be sure, but I revel in wonder. I’d love to see the performance again.

In fact I’d like to see them all encored — many times. As I collected my press passes for the evening, I questioned the choice to include two intermissions in a production that runs less than 120 minutes. In retrospect I’m grateful. The audience needs time to catch its breath and process the visceral reactions likely to stem from each fascinating, exquisitely danced piece.

This critic’s first Hubbard Street Dance Chicago experience won’t be the last. If there’s anything to bemoan, it’s that the “Winter Series” won’t survive until spring. Lovers of art, regardless of channel, are in for a thought-provoking treat this weekend.

“Hubbard Street’s Season 38 Winter Series” runs through Dec. 13 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-850-9744 or visit the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago website.


The Red-Stained Road to Remission

The Red Road to Remission

In public speeches, on this blog, and in daily life, I’ve spent two years talking about my struggles with pompholyx eczema, a little understood autoimmune disease. As a refresher, here are some basic facts about the mercurial condition, courtesy of DermNet:

“Pompholyx presents as recurrent crops of deep-seated blisters on the palms and soles. They cause intense itch and/or a burning sensation. The blisters peel off and the skin then appears red, dry and has painful fissures (cracks)….

Pompholyx is multifactorial. In many cases it appears to be related to sweating, as flares often occur during hot weather, humid conditions, or following emotional upset. Other contributing factors include:

  • Genetics
  • Contact with irritants such as water, detergents, solvents and friction
  • Association with contact allergy to nickel and other allergens
  • Inflammatory dermatophyte (tinea) infections
  • Adverse reaction to drugs, most often immunoglobulin therapy…

[Additional risks involve] secondary bacterial infection with Staphylococcus aureus and/or Streptococcus pyogenes…results in pain, swelling and pustules on the hands and feet.”

So yes, debilitating, painful and at times, humiliating. I’ve written about society’s tendency to treat another’s visible disfigurement as an acceptable conversation topic. Strangers ask rude, invasive questions – like “What happened to you? Did you get burned?” – that they wouldn’t dream of posing to someone in a wheelchair, for example. And very rarely was I in possession of answers.

The condition typically onsets during young adulthood. I was 34 years old – not a geezer, but past the blush of youth. There’s no pompholyx family history. I’m allergic to nickel as well as a number of medications. But that’s always been so, and reactions stop at vomiting and temporary hives. Also? My case exploded near the Thanksgiving holidays. I live in Chicago. So much for the hot, humid theory.

Emotional upset? That I can believe. When the initial outbreak occurred I was living in a studio apartment falling down around me, ending an 18-month relationship with a psychologically abusive alcoholic, the plaintiff in a lawsuit (ultimately resolved in my favor) and between jobs. I was a bit stressed, but for better or worse, my harrowing upbringing instilled excellent coping skills. Why now if not then? I’ll never know for sure what caused my autoimmune system to shift into hyper revolt.

Over 18 months ago, I wrote about being one of the lucky ones. Pompholyx has no known cure, and most patients endure interminable alternation between steroid therapy (which temporarily subdues the swelling and growth) and escalation. It’s miserable. I used to dream of happily cutting off fingers, a macabre but welcome relief. I’d often awake in tears when I realized all ten burning digits were still in place. Chronic pain is the enemy of rational thought.

But in one of those right place, right time, great mysteries of life, raw, organic beet juice presented itself as a solution when my medical team had just about exhausted available treatment options. Had I not discovered that disgusting, beautiful, natural, thick red elixir, I’d be on disability right now rather than climbing the corporate ladder, taking on new writing and leadership challenges, or preparing to teach my first collegiate course in the spring. I’d never have traveled to Alaska or fallen in love with Bob and our dogs. 20-30 ounces a shot, 5-7 days a week, and except for the part where every fluid emanating from my body was crimson tinged, I went on as I once was.

Beet juice was a part of life, was life itself. And then all of the sudden, toward the end of October, another miracle: the pompholyx went into remission. I’ve enjoyed nearly eight symptom, juice-free weeks and counting. In preparation for writing this post, I looked up the technical definition of that word: remission. These are the three explications offered by Google:

“1. the cancellation of a debt, charge, or penalty.

2. a diminution of the seriousness or intensity of disease or pain; a temporary recover

3. forgiveness of sins.”

Through sheer luck, I’m not in financial distress. And as an atheist, I don’t believe powers higher than myself and the needs of the global community are required to guide my moral code. Guilt and I are old, longtime friends. Yet when I look at the three varying definitions of “remission,” I relate to them all under present circumstances.

In the throes of acute physical suffering, it was easy (and romantic) to wonder if the bad juju I know I’ve put into the universe yielded deserved pain. I don’t need a god’s help to see that almost everything is connected. Somehow I’d asked for this. But if so, to whom could I plead for relief and absolution? It was too, chronically late.

I don’t know what led to this pause in physical torment any more than I can ascertain what led to it in the first place. Has existential debt been forgiven, or is it (a far more likely scenario) that my human body, with all its mysterious quirks, has finally caught up to the happiness, mental health and peace I experience through better life choices?

Remission. Rumination. Resolve. So many “R” words, so little certainty. Gray areas used to drive me batty. Now I can just be grateful for the calm, taking comfort in the knowledge that if symptoms return, there are beets.

Are Members Of Conservative Mass Media Ready For Gun Control Honesty?

Gun control

“It is sort of amazing to hear (or read) entrenched members of the right-wing media establishment drop the talking points in favor of honesty. In favor of speaking to the actual will of the people, rather than the NRA-purchased Congressional narrative about gun control. In short, we want it. Now.

Keep talking Geraldo. You have our attention.”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Potted Potter

True story: I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, nor seen any of the eight films from the wildly popular series. I’ll admit that in the Aughts, my resistance was that of a snotty, 20-something faux rebel. I wanted no part of common literature. I had two English degrees!

With time and the increasingly massive success of the pop cultural juggernaut, I started to feel a little foolish. Multiple critical exclamations over the quality of J.K. Rowling’s prose reinforced that I was probably missing something special. But at a certain point, the train had left and I figured it was too late to get onboard. One thing I do know about the Harry Potter series is that the sum total of pages is 4,224. And it takes 19 hours to watch the movies. That’s a serious investment.

So for many reasons I relished the opportunity to see “Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Potter Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff.” The production’s astute marketing position, per press materials, is a “condensing or ‘potting,’ of all seven Harry Potter books into 70 madcap minutes.” A broad, cheeky overview of a time-consuming leviathan. Who could resist that proposition?

I attended press night with a loved one who is my Potter opposite — a devoted fan. I figured if I got stuck on a reference, her presence would be handy indeed. It turns out I needn’t have been concerned. One of the greatest assets of the family-oriented show — beyond the excellence of the two performers — is its ability to appeal to all audiences. Rapid dialogue, song, dance, comedy, audience engagement, props and consumable brevity: quite literally, something for everyone.

BBC Television hosts Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who created “Potted Potter,” do a great job of involving everyone, not only in the story, but in themselves. And just as Rowling adroitly accomplished, the performers interest the adults while remembering the most excited lovers of magic: children.

The tone is set before the show starts when Clarkson walks through the audience, thanking families for attending. As he does, the tall man lowers himself to a kid’s level — in both stature and tone — and welcomes them into the Potter world. Though not part of the script, I enjoyed the delight of the little ones, giddy with the attention, every bit as much as the actual performance.

If you can’t have fun during “Potted Potter,” you’re just a Muggle. There’s a live Quidditch game in the middle of the production which involves good old-fashioned team rivalry, cute kids in wizard hats and Super Soakers. It’s been an extra cynical and painful few news weeks in Chicago. But I dare one to remain smile-immune in the face of so much merriment. It’s good natured and inviting.

Clarkson and Turner give so much of themselves, I’m sure they need a Gatorade and a long nap after the curtain drops. For 70 non-stop minutes they transition between many of the Potter world’s 772 characters. They whiz through the important plot points of seven novels, and they do it with little more than a slew of props and advanced ad-lib and physical comedy skills. The duo displays an endearing love for Potter and a completely admirable respect for children as audience members worthy of a quality experience. With both material and consumer, they get it.

“Potted Potter” is a show for which you want to root, because it’s an all-around joyful experience. It’s icing on the cake that the massive appeal of the institution it lovingly lampoons ensures success. Highly recommended for Potter novices and experts alike, crowds of all ages, and frankly humanity.

“Potted Potter” runs through Jan. 3, 2016 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E Chestnut, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway In Chicago website.


The Thanksgiving Revolutionary


Thanksgiving 2000

I’m a recent college graduate with my first corporate job – one that pays a living wage and provides health insurance. I have an apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago that I share with my sister, baby niece and a friend of ours. Adult life is beginning. I am independent.

Jenny is visiting an out-of-town pal for the holiday, taking KK with her. Pete has gone to his parents’ place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My sister and I have begun the process of estranging ourselves from our progenitors, and since my mother had it repossessed a year earlier, I no longer own a car to travel to extended family. So I spend Thanksgiving drinking cheap white wine, watching movies and taking naps.

Oh the pathetic, romantic misery of it all! Actually, not so much. At this stage of life, a break from society and the anguish, regret and pain that were regular side dishes on the childhood holiday plate is more than ok. I no longer have to do what is expected. I have my own job and place to live and can get soused while eating frozen food if I want. In almost every way possible, it’s a delicious experience. Jean-Paul Sartre nailed it in No Exit. Hell is other people, man.

I ignore the pangs of loneliness and isolation that accompany my solitary, holiday binge. I am breaking new ground and it feels somehow bold, radical to refuse the traditional mass consumerist, Hallmark-dictated rules. I’m 22. I am revolutionary. I can drink away the deeply rooted sense of rejection that gnaws at the corner of my private party.

Thanksgiving 2001 – 2014

When I reflect upon Thanksgiving 2000, I’m reminded of that scene from Say Anything after Diane Court breaks up with Lloyd Dobler. He’s hanging out in a convenience store parking lot with some slackers from school on a Saturday night, pained and desperate enough to solicit advice from almost any source. When it finally hits Lloyd that the drinking dudes don’t know anything more about love than he, the gang’s representative defensively declares that they are alone, “By choice.” But you can hear the dangling question mark, and can certainly feel the ambivalence. It’s funny, awkward and pitiful – and the scene serves as an accessible sketch of my own cognitive dissonance.

I’m still looking for my way. At times I’m downright disoriented. I make a lot of bad choices. Many of them stem from a self-imposed, internalized tension between doing things “right” by the standards of society, and making decisions that feel authentic and true for me.

Part of the problem – a huge fucking chunk – is that I’m not sure who I am. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’m not sure I have the courage to be who I am – an oversharing writer who works out her issues in public, an American who’s not sure she wants to be part of the ownership economy, a liberal, an overbearing but loving friend, sister and aunt, a crybaby, a stubborn, hardworking, ambitioned career woman who doesn’t want the responsibility of raising children. I want a family but my definition doesn’t fit the norm. As the title character says in the Toni Morrison novel, Sula, “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.” I spent long, sad co-dependent years living for others. Now I want to read. I want to see the world. I want to buy a scooter. I want a passionate relationship with a smart, strong, funny, unusual man who can celebrate my idiosyncrasy.

I’ve butted heads with people who demand more convention, but the least accepting of all of this is I. I will do anything to try to make the shoehorn work. The results? Two divorces, some Sid and Nancy-style breakups, family arguments, financial, career direction and health struggles. I also pass many despondent, confused holidays.

In 2014, I focus on my job, friends, familial rifts and sanity with regular Al-Anon meetings, weekly personal therapy, writing, travel. I don’t date much. I spend a lot of time on my own and it starts to feel good. I guard it jealously. The Say Anything scene fades. I’m alone by choice. It forces me to be honest with myself, consider my inclinations and follow the ones that feel healthy – without regret. On Thanksgiving Eve I spend the night at my sister’s house, watch a movie and have a slumber party with my nieces. It’s exactly what I want.

Thanksgiving 2015

At any point during the last 15 years, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be, I probably would have directed you to Carrie Bradshaw and Sex in the City. A fabulous, beautiful, urban writer with interesting friends and places to go. Unlucky in love and of course I loathe high heels, but close enough.

I have the life that’s necessary, and it’s better than the Bradshaw fantasy. It’s perfect by no means, and the direction evolves, but I trust myself now. I make leaps and take calculated risks – not dictated by external forces (beyond the basic food, clothing, shelter drivers), but by my truth. A set of principles I can now accept don’t work for everybody. They don’t need to.

I had the most satisfying holiday of my 37-year life last week. It involved almost everyone I love from both sides of the family I share with that unusual man who buys a new plastic wine cup when I accidentally launch mine three floors into the neighbor’s yard. He finishes my text messages when I’m too shaky with emotion, takes care of me when I’m sick and paid the highest compliment in likening my conversation to “Oscar Wilde at a cocktail party.”

Bob only raises his voice during sporting events or while stuck in traffic, and he tells the lamest jokes. He has this routine at the grocery store where every time we walk down the condiment aisle, he offers me an off-brand jar of some Miracle Whip-like substance. He enjoys watching my involuntary gag response. Sometimes when I’ve ignored a pun, he’ll force me to look at him while he repeats it. Then he cracks himself up anew. We have three pets, no kids and can go for long, comfortable stretches of time saying nothing while cuddling or holding hands. Bob cooks. I eat and pay for the cleaning service. I can’t tell you how well it all works.

We did the warm family gatherings this Thanksgiving. Then we retreated to a virtually-abandoned Michigan vacation spot for three days of wine, good food, wood burning fires and outdoor hot tub relaxation. A healthy, perfect for me mix of community and solitude. Bob and our dogs were there of course, but they’re extension of me rather than a situation to make work. I’m quiet and content inside. And that’s a revolution.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Must Be Impeached If Democracy Means Anything


“We are the city that reversed the flow of the mighty Chicago River in 1900 to rid ourselves of toxic filth. We can do it again. We must. If not, we are officially, if passively, surrendering to an Orwellian dystopia. And we can’t complain about anything else from here.”

Read the full post at Contemptor