Sunday, April 24, 2011






NEW YORK—“Momma Africa” is a powerful documentary which recounts the life and times of the legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. It charts her early beginnings as a street singer in the slums of Johannesburg, through her fledgling career as a soloist in local “girl groups” modeled after the early rhythm and blues groups that would become the Motown Sound. It continued to her exile and subsequent meteoric rise to international fame that would bring South Africa’s dirty little secret of Apartheid front and center on the world stage, exposing it under the floodlight of international scrutiny. Little did the South African government know that a skinny black singer from the bowels of Soweto would sing the glass shattering note that would ring down the evil empire of Apartheid.

Born Zenzile Miriam Makeba in Johannesburg in 1932, her life quickly became entwined with the racial strife and injustice of her native country. She spent the first six months of her life in jail when her mother was imprisoned by the government for selling homemade herbal remedies. In her youth, she sang with a local pop group, the Manhattans. She gained international fame when she appeared as the subject of an anti-apartheid film, Come Back Africa by independent American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. When she went with him to Italy to enter the film in the Venice Film Festival in 1959, where the film won the prestigious Critic’s Award, the South African government told her not to come back home and she would spend the majority of her remaining years in exile. Not until the triumphant release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 would she return to the shores of her beloved homeland.

The narrative to Momma Africa is told through the words of those who were with her throughout her tumultuous life and fantastic career.

We see and hear voices from her earliest days in South Africa, through her discovery in America by Harry Belafonte and her overnight rise to international fame. Her marriage to Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael brought an abrupt end to her career and forced her into voluntary exile in Guinea, where she would spend the next 15 years of her life. She would become close with then-President Sekou Toure and would become that country’s official delegate to the United Nations. From that bully pulpit on the world platform, her voice would become like the trumpet of Jerico, that would ring down the walls of Apartheid.

Winner of the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize and the UNESCO Grand Prix, she woiuld go on the help shape the newly free South Africa, and support the struggle against HIV/AIDS. In spite of her international triumphs, her life was not without personal tragedy.

Perhaps the most painful moments in her life were misfortunes suffered by those closest to her; the sudden and mysterious death of a grandson and the painful loss of her daughter and muse Bongi, who died in childbirth at the tender age of 35.

“That really changed her,” ex-husband Masekela said. “She never recovered from that. Above everything else that happened, that really broke her. That, and the fact that she knew her dream of African Unity was never to be.”

Among the voices we hear in the film, perhaps the most telling are those who were closest to her. Her grandson, Nelson Lumumba Lee, first husband, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and the musicians who worked with her and who were influenced by her. Perhaps the most telling words, and those which ground the documentary, are those of Grammy Award-winning Beninoise singer-songwriter and activist Angelique Kidjo, who curated the 2009 tribute show on her life and music, from which the film draws its name.

Miriam Makeba died as she lived, a performer dedicated to exposing injustice and fighting for human rights in song. She died, suffering a heart attack after singing her signature hit, “Pata Pata” at a benefit concert in Caserta, Italy. As one band member noted in the film, “she seemed to turn to me and say ‘I Love You’, the she turned away, walked just a couple of meters and collapsed.”

The words of one of her closest friends provides the epithet to the film. “She was a healer, just like her mother,” said singer Abigail Kubheka, who sang with Makeba in those early Manhattan Brothers days. “She was healer, not with herbs, like her mother, but with her music. She used her music to heal.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Story and photos for Dwight Casimere

Scenes from the Red Carpet and from the film screening and concert at the North Cove of the World Financial Center, New York City

New York—The North Cove harbor along the Hudson River behind the World Financial Center and Ground Zero provided the dramatic backdrop for the World Premiere of Cameron Crowe’s film “The Union”, an engrossing and uplifting look at the creative collaboration between Elton John and his musical mentor Leon Russell. The film, which opened the 10 year anniversary edition of the TRIBECA Film Festival was an intimate look at their musical kinship, forged in the early year’s of Sir Elton’s explosive career, and their subsequent reunion some 38 years later. It is a poignant reunion that pulls at both the heart and instrumental strings.

The documentary screening was anteceded by an electrifying live concert of Sir Elton solo at the piano and with his distinctive vocals of his legendary hits. It was an historic evening that will live long in memory. The plaza along the North Cove harbor was jammed with Sir Elton and Russell’s fans, many who brought their children, out of school for Easter Break, to witness the historic moment. At times, they seemed more like worshippers at a Revival as they swayed and sang along with the music that had become steeped into their souls over the generations that spanned the Summer of Love, the anti-Viet Nam War years, the ascendancy of Rock and its nadir, and the fusion of R & B and jazz. In the film, there are appearances by T Bone Burnett, who produced both the film and the album, Sir Elton’s lifelong lyricist Bernie Taupin, music icons Neil Young and Brian Wilson, and soul organ legend Booker T. Jones. Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks, Jeff Bridges and Grace Jones all make cameo appearances to pay homage to the songwriting legends.

There are some particularly telling moments in the film, such as when a 10-voice gospel choir is brought into the recording session. Russell sits supine, covered in blankets and dreamily listens to the choir sing through the background charts he has written for them. Their delivery is crisp and musically accurate, but Russell wants more from them. With a wave of his hand, combing through his famous flowing white locks; he begins to singsong in falsetto the way he wants the phrase to sound. The gospel choir tries it again, and it is transfixing.

In another, Sir Elton recounts how deeply Russell and his creative genius have informed his life and music over the years. “We haven’t talked in 38 years. I regret not having reached out to him to tell him how important he has been to me. Somehow, when you get older, your memory begins to speak out to you with such clarity and you remember the people and events that molded you and made you who they are. Sometimes their voices speak out to you as if they are in the room with you. That’s what came to me about Leon and how much he means to me. And that’s why I decided to reach out to him and to do this album.”

The audience witnesses the creative process of making a musical album in The Union. How all the bits and pieces, stops and starts, musical “pop-ins” by guest soloists and background musicians are all seamless put together and sweetened by producer T Bone Walker and his editing team to create a final product that is sweet as Memphis pecan pie.

The album completed, the film then moves on to the release concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre. It is a glorious and triumphant moment. Sir Elton brings his good friend and mentor onstage with great fanfare and the opening strains are mesmerizing. Russell’s supple fingers and hands, surprisingly smooth and youthful looking in spite of the ravages of time, began to caress the keys of his piano, which emitted ethereal tones. The notes he plays are more like Ravel or Debussy than a blues pianist. But then comes that distinctive, gravelly, time-worn voice: “I’ve been so many places in my life and times, I’ve sung so many songs, I’ve made some bad rhymes,” he sings. But the words are less like singing, than speaking. They are the hushed tones of a lover in the still of night, laying his soul bare and revealing his deepest darkest secrets. “We are alone now,” he intones, “and I’m singing this song to you.” Indeed!

Sir Elton John concluded the night’s festivities with a rousing solo performance on his signature piano. Starting with his signature hit Tiny Dancer; he quickly swept into a stratospheric reading of Rocket Man that se the nighttime sky ablaze with musical fireworks.

I would like to see “The Union” again in the quietude of a theatre or on my home screen. I’m afraid much of the dialogue between Sir Elton, with his British accent and Russell, with his deep, Memphis twang, got lost in the ambient crowd noise and stiff Northeasterly wind off the chilly Hudson River. I’m sure it is one of those films that takes on more meaning and reveals more new content with each viewing.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Tribute to Miles Davis: Sketches of a Jazz Legend

Miles Davis Festival: Orbert Davis Honors Miles Davis in Auditorium Theatre Concert

By Entertainment Reporter Phyllis Dreazen


1. Orbert Davis

2. The many moods and seasons of Miles Davis

Chicago-It’s as wonderful as it is rare when a multi-generational and multi-cultural audience comes together to celebrate. The occasion was the second of three tribute performances presented by the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University to honor the 85th anniversary of Miles Davis’ birth. Thursday night’s performance featured the Orbert Davis Sextet and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble in Sketches of Blue: An Orbert Davis Tribute to Miles.

Miles Davis and Orbert Davis are not related, but they have many things in common beyond masterful trumpet playing. Both were born and reared in Illinois. Both are musically schooled: Juilliard (Miles) and DePaul/Northwestern (Orbert). Both are composers. Both put together stellar groups. Additionally, Orbert is a music educator in the el Sistema (Dudamel) tradition, using music to transform the lives and futures of at-risk students. He started MusicAlive! for younger children and Chicago Jazz Philharmonic for junior high and above. And, Orbert has both performed Miles’ works and “played the role” of Miles to better comprehend his creative genius.

Act I of the Auditorium evening was a recreation of Kind of Blue, the best selling jazz record ever; it is quadruple platinum, having sold more than 4-million copies since its 1959 release. The Sextet recreating So What, Freddie Freeloader, Blue in Green, All Blues and Flamenco Sketches included Orbert Davis, trumpet and flugelhorn, Ari Brown, tenor sax, and Ernest Dawkins, alto sax, and a rhythm section made up of Ryan Cohan, piano, Stewart Miller, bass, and Ernie Adams, drums. The guys had as good a time playing as the audience had listening. That the audience knew and loved and appreciated what they were doing only enhanced everyone’s enjoyment.

Act II was Sketches of Spain—“Revisited.” Though essentially a studio work, one of a group Miles wrote with pianist Gil Evans, the original Sketches did have its first complete performance at Chicago’s Park West in 1995. This performance by the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, featuring Orbert Davis, solo trumpet, was the world premiere of his composition revisiting, adapting and arranging Miles’ Sketches (from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez).

The sophisticated orchestration was unexpectedly spectacular. The ensemble was so good it is hard to single anyone out. It included Nicole Mitchell (flutes and piccolo), Steve Eisen (flutes and tenor sax), Amy Barwan (oboe), Anna Najoom (clarinet), Michael Salter (bass clarinet), David Spencer (trumpet, flugelhorn), Beth Mazur-Johnson (French horn), Henry Salgado (trombone), Charlie Schuchat (tuba), Talia Pavia and Sylvia de la Cerna (violins), Lynn LaPlante-Allaway (viola), Ann Hendrickson-Griffin (cello), Sarah Allen (tympani, snare drum, percussion), Suzanne Osman (doumbec, djembe, oud, percussion), and members of the sextet: Ryan Cohan (piano), Steward Miller (bass), Ernie Adams (drums). The brass, especially the tuba, enriched the sound tapestry, and the oud, djembe and doumbec transported the listener to far distant environs.

Richard Steele, WBEZ, was a charming emcee. Orbert Davis’ evening ending comments sent people home feeling happy on many levels.

Dianne Reeves honors women composers in Chicago Symphony Center Jazz


1-2. The many moods of Dianne Reeves

3. A teenaged Dianne Reeves with the great Joe Williams of Count Basie orchestra fame, with her uncle, bassist Charles Burrell and members of the Denver Symphony Orchestra

4. Dianne Reeves in the George Clooney produced and directed film “Good Night and Good Luck”

5. Dianne Reeves and her Grammy Award

Photo credits: Christian Lantry,, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami, CBS Television

Guest Reviewer: Michael Handy

Chicago--Of all the contemporary jazz vocalists who claim to have been influenced by the late Sarah Vaughan, none wears her mantle more deservedly than Dianne Reeves. In a short, but powerful set in the Symphony Center Presents Jazz series at Chicago Symphony Center, she paid tribute, not only to the Divine One, but other women songwriters and performers who are both her forebears and contemporaries.

With her nimble quartet,consisting of Peter Martin, Musical Director & Piano, Romero Lubambo, Guitar,Reginald Veal, Bass and Terreon Gully, Drums, she wove a multifaceted musical tapestry out of songs that spanned musical genres and generations.

Her play list featured songs by influential female singer-songwriters, including Joan Armatrading, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell. While honoring each for their respective genius, she couched each song's performance in a musical nomenclature uniquely her own.

The Grammy-award-winning artist was born with a chromatic DNA lineage. Her father, who died when she was two years old, was also a singer. Her mother, Vada Swanson, played trumpet. A cousin, George Duke, is a well known piano and keyboard player and producer. As a child, Dianne took piano lessons and sang at every opportunity. Her uncle, Charles Burrell, a bass player with the

Denver Symphony Orchestra, introduced her to the vocal stylings of Sarah Vaughan. The rest, as they say, is music history.

Post-concert, Ms. Reeves stayed behind to greet fans and sign copies of her most recent CD, When You Know, a collection of love songs, on Blue Note.

Photos 1-3, the many moods of Dianne Reeves
4. Dianne Reeves in the George Clooney film "Good Night and Good Luck"
5. Dianne Reeves and her Grammy Award

Guest Reviewer: Michael Handy

Photo credits: Christian Lantry, Jazz, Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami

Chicago--Of all the contemporary jazz vocalists who claim to have been influenced by the late Sarah Vaughan, none wears her mantle more deservedly than Dianne Reeves. In a short, but powerful set in the Jazz series at Chicago Symphony Center, she paid tribute, not only to the Divine One, but other women songwriters and performers who are both her forebears and contemporaries.

With her nimble quartet,consisting of Peter Martin, Musical Director & Piano, Romero Lubambo, Guitar,Reginald Veal, Bass and Terreon Gully, Drums, she wove a multifaceted musical tapestry out of songs that spanned musical genres and generations.

Her play list featured songs by influential female singer-songwriters, including Joan Armatrading, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell. While honoring each for their respective genius, she couched each song's performance in a musical nomenclature uniquely her own.

The Grammy-award-winning artist was born with a chromatic DNA lineage. Her father, who died when she was two years old, was also a singer. Her mother, Vada Swanson, played trumpet. A cousin, George Duke, is a well known piano and keyboard player and producer. As a child, Dianne took piano lessons and sang at every opportunity. Her uncle, Charles Burrell, a bass player with the

Denver Symphony Orchestra, introduced her to the vocal stylings of Sarah Vaughan. The rest, as they say, is music history.

Post-concert, Ms. Reeves stayed behind to greet fans and sign copies of her most recent CD, When You Know, a collection of love songs, on Blue Note.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chicago Opera Theater's Death and The Powers (The Robots' Opera) raises troubling questions of humanity and technology

by Contributing Reporter Phyllis Dreazen


1. Sara Heaton as Miranda and Hal Cazalet as Nicholas and the Robots-Jonathan Williams

2. James Madalena as Simon Power as he is transformed into a System inin

Chicago Opera Theater opened its current season at the Harris Theater with Tod Machover's latest opera, Death and the Powers (The Robots' Opera). Robert Pinsky, a former Poet Laureate, wrote the libretto to a story of his and Randy Weiner’s.

True to his name, Machover "makes over" the opera form, extending it to where mechanics become equal to the music. He worked with a large team at the MIT Media Lab on a commission from Monaco's Association Futurum to develop the concept. The current production is a collaboration between MIT, the American Repertory Theater and Chicago Opera Theater. Those credits alone attest to the seamless fusion of technology and art, which, in itself, is a controversial concept. That the lovers and haters of this groundbreaking work take such passionate sides indicates its importance.

Audiences have already experienced the virtual takeover of the film industry by computer-generated technology. The success of Machover’s work almost assures a similar hijacking in the world of live opera and theater. Witness the current pyro-technics now on Broadway, as evidenced by the new Spiderman production (“Turn Off The Dark”) by Julie Taymor, in which the orchestra pit has been turned into a bank of computer screens and servers more akin to a NASA control room.

In Death and the Powers, the one act opera opens and ends with robots discussing humans, death and suffering. The concepts are hard for them to understand. Is death entropy? (Here, the word has a double meaning. In science, it means a measure of energy, in which all matter in the universe is at a uniform temperature, or heat death. In sociology, it refers to a doctrine of inevitable social decline and degeneration.) Or could it be data rearranged? A dream of something lost? All excellent questions, approves the head robot.

In seven scenes, the four principals--James Maddalena (Simon Power), Sara Heaton (Miranda), Hal Cazalet (Nicholas) and Emily Albrink (Evvy)--sing their hearts out. However, it is the robots and the technical innovations Machover employs that anchor the philosophical underpinnings of this spellbinding work.

The story of the opera follows the final days in the life of Simon Power, a powerful businessman and inventor who wants to reach beyond the bounds of humanity to preserve his legacy. He asks himself the question” When I die, what will I leave behind and how can I perpetuate that legacy?” As he approaches death, he begins conducting the final, and most important experiment of his life. He develops the means to transport himself from one form of existence to another, in an effort to project into the future.

Simon Power thus transforms into a System. Whether he is actually still alive, in the traditional sense, is still a question that is asked throughout the opera. Dramatic tension ensues because his family, friends and associates must decide whether what they perceive is real and if it is wise for them to follow. “Death and Power” gives the preamble to the old Star Trek TV series “to boldly go where no man has gone before” a new, and profound meaning.

Credits for software (Peter Torpey), Media (Matt Checkowski), sound technology (Benjamin Bloomberg) and sound design (Chris Full) are equal to those of conductor (Gil Rose), director (Diane Paulus), costume designer (David C. Woolard), production designer (Alex McDowell) and lighting designer (Don Holder). Operabots (who control the robots) outnumber the human singers.

“Death and the Powers” is an unsettling opera, both because of the questions it raises and the technologies it employs. Beware opera lovers; the invasion of the Operabots is imminent!

Riccardo Muti returns to CSO in triumphant Otello

1. Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello at the Salzburg Festival-Silvia Lelli
2. Riccardo Muti at the CSO podium-Todd Rosenberg

Muti Otello: A vigorous Verdi return

By Entertainment Reporter Phyllis Dreazen

A concert version of Verdi's Otello was conducted, in his eagerly awaited return, by a healthy, vigorous Riccardo Muti. He silenced the sold-out audience's welcome back roar--when it was about to become a standing ovation--by plunging into the music.

This performance of Otello was only Maestro Muti’s 12th appearance at the podium in his first season as CSO Music Director, which has been twice interrupted by illness. The first, on the night of a Gala Performance, from which he withdrew at the last minute due to a lingering illness , the second, when he fell from the podium during a rehearsal in February. There was no evidence of the ill effects of either as he conducted with vigor.

If there is such a thing as musical mind-meld, it was in double evidence: Muti and Verdi; and Muti and the forces of CSO orchestra and chorus, both of which played their hearts out for him. At their worst, they are better than most; at their best, they are better than a dream.

Verdi’s writing in Otello melded words and music into one continuous fabric. There were none of the frivolous orchestrations or scene-delaying arias that were the fashion of his time. In fact, his writing seemed to be evolving; becoming more transparent and modern.

Arrigo Boito wrote the libretto from Shakespeare's play, Othello. It is a tragic tale that charts the arrival of Othello, a black man from Morocco in northern Africa, known as a Moor, who is a general in the Venetian Army. As General, Othello has been defending the Italian nation and its colonization of Cyprus against the Turks. When Othello arrives in Venice, Italy, an envious nobleman named Roderigo informs Iago, a high-ranking soldier, that Othello has secretly married the daughter of the Senator, Brabantio, Desdemona. Not only is Iago outraged by the thought of the mixed-race marriage, he is further offended by the fact that he had previously asked the senator for Desdemona’s hand in marriage and was refused. He is boiling over with resentment. Adding insult to injury, Othello has also promoted a younger, inexperienced soldier, over him.

Iago is seething, but his crafty intelligence takes over. He convinces Roderigo to awaken Senator Brabantio to tell him of his daughter’s elopement with the Moor. Iago then tells Othello that his father-in-law has come gunning for him.

Thus the cogs of jealousy and racism interlock and the wheels of tragedy are set in gear. Iago’s deceit leads Othello to condemn his virtuous wife, accusing her of being unfaithful with his friend, Cassio. The story is now in full forward motion, careening toward the inevitable.

In Verdi’s music for the opera, tension is paced in long lines, ensuring that the sum is greater than the parts. From the opening stormy scene, which Maestro Muti does more convincingly than anyone these days or in my memory, through Otello's suicide, the underlying tension never lets up.

Maestro Muti's well- respected fidelity to Verdi's written wishes extended to his substitution of Verdi's 1894 (Paris) revision of the Act 3 finale and to his choice of soloists, which submerged their egos to serve the demands of the music. The result; dramatic clarity replaced musical splendor.

All of the soloists were making their CSO debuts, with the exception of bass-baritone Eric Owens (Lodovico, Venetian ambassador).

Young Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko has grown exponentially since he debuted as Otello in Maestro Muti's Salzburg production (2008). His singing has more nuance and greater emotional scope.

Many opine that the opera should be called Iago because he is the puppet master of the proceedings. I don't know whether the originally scheduled baritone Nicola Alaimo would have made that so. What his substitute, Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi, lacked in power he made up for with meticulous finesse. He grew stronger as the opera progressed. Hearing a later performance would be instructive.

Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova sang Desdemona, Otello's wronged wife. She was vocally glorious. The smoothness of the voice from top to bottom in the Willow Song and Ave Maria was a miracle. Scott Hostetler's English horn accompaniment, equally awesome, rated a solo bow-the only one among the orchestra.

The other principals--Argentinean tenor Juan Franciso Gatell (Cassio), Italian mezzo Barbara Di Castri (Emilia), American tenor Michael Spyres (Roderigo) and Italian bass Paolo Battaglia (Montano)-were excellent as well.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Met Live in HD: Rossini's Le Comte Ory

Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

1. Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato in their title roles

2. Juan Diego Florez as the Comte Ory

3. Stephane Degout as Raimbaud

4. Michele Pertusi as Tutor

5. Renee Fleming in the title role of Strauss's Capriccio

Producer Bartlett Shear

Set designer Michael Yeargan

Costume designer Catherine Zuber





Starring Juan Diego Flórez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato

by Jessica Tinianow

Combine Italian lyricism with French farce and you get the Metropolitan Opera's wonderful first ever production of Rossini's Le Comte Ory. The staging by Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sherfeatures three extraordinary bel canto stars-Juan Diego Flórez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato. Maurizio Benini conducts. ThisMetropolitan Opera production of Le Comte Ory is set in an 18th-century theater designed to look just like the ones where audiences might've watched a production like this in Rossini's time. The scheming young count (Juan Diego Flórez) vies with Isolier (Joyce DiDonato), in a trouser role) for the love of the lonely Countess Adèle (Diana Damrau) . It is quite light, silly and filled with many comical moments.

Set in the Middle Ages, the stage set is charming. Almost all of the scenes occur on a platform with the world revolving around it. The stage machinery and other theatrical dervicves are in full view of the audience.

The focus is really on the fast-paced acting, singing and theatrics. It is a stage set for quick timing and singing.

Rossini's vocal line, saturated with high C's and above, is mastered exquisitely by the bel canto specialists. Though quite challenged, singers reached the high ranges in a relaxed manner and had fun with it. Their chemistry lent believability to the often unbelievable silliness.

The singers, simply put, were amazing. The costumes were varied and over 194 were used in this production. They reflected different time periods. Also of note, was the interesting headgear, which reflected the regional dress and traditional costumes of France. The score, conducted by Maurizio Benini, provided a beautiful framework for this masterful production.

An encore screening will be shown in select theaters in the U.S. on Wednesday, April 27th, 2011 at 6:30 PM (local time).

Met Opera super star Renee Fleming revisits her title role in Strauss’s Capriccio, live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, Saturday, April 23 at 1pm Eastern Time, 12 Noon, Central. Ms. Fleming captivated audiences when she sang the final scene from the opera during the 2008 Gala Opening Night, which was transmitted Live In HD, worldwide. Lyric Opera of Chicago Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, is Guest Conductor for this spectacular production. For tickets and information, visit or

Steppenwolf Theatre's Hot L Baltimore a tribute to hope

Steppenwolf Theater presents "The Hot L Baltimore by Lanford Wilson

Photos by Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

1. (left to right) Allison Torem with ensemble member Jon Michael Hill

2. (left to right) Ensemble member Kate Arrington with de’Adre Aziza

3. (left to right) Namir Smallwood with ensemble member Alana Arenas

By Entertainment Reporter Jessica Tinianow

The play begins on Memorial Day 1973. The war in Vietnam has just ended. The Paris Peace Accords are signed. Nixon is President.

The air hangs heavy in a decaying, run-down Hotel Baltimore. Once the swankiest place in town, it is now slated for demolition.

Time has not been kind to the Hotel Baltimore. Signs of decay are everywhere. The "e" is missing from the hotel's neon sign. This small detail is critical. It signifies the beginning of the end for both the hotel and its residents.

As decayed as the physical structure of the hotel is, the stories and the lives of the people inside are rich in color and contradiction. Inside lives a community of society's marginal characters. They are a group of misfits, down on their luck, who dare to dream.

Eviction notices are issued, signaling an end to the Hotel Baltimore and their cozy little cocoon. This is where Lanford shines. He transforms an ordinary tale into an epic that resonates with truths about the human condition.

Hot L Baltimore is playwright Lanford Wilson's masterwork. The fact that he passed away just a few weeks before opening night makes Steppenwolf’s production a tribute to the greatness of his works.

The cast of 13 colorful characters and one" ghost', are in perpetual verbal and physical motion. The simultaneous action and dialogue takes place in the hotel lobby and its upstairs rooms, which are all made visible thanks to the staging wizardry of director Tina Landau and the artful scenic design of James Schuette. There is never a dull moment.

The director remains faithful to Landon's original writing, which uses overlapping dialogue and musical interludes. The resulting audio "babble" is hard at times to decipher, but the seeming chaos works perfectly within the context of the play’s story line. It reflects the chaos and uncertainty of the character's lives. It is therefore up to the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.

At time comedic. At others tragic, Hotel L Baltimore gives the audience a ‘fly on the wall’ view of the pathetic, yet heroic lives of its inhabitants. At times evoking laughter, at others, pity, the play ultimately leaves the audience empathizing with their circumstance. In a “there but the Grace of God” kind of way, the twists and turns of Wilson’s character’s lives are not that far removed from the lives of anyone else. The audience is left feeling a profound sense of pity, knowing none of the characters will ever reach their utopia.

Among the hotel residents are two prostitutes, one sweet and innocent, the other hardened and bitter. Kate Arrington shines as Suzy, the most optimistic of the pair. de"Adre Aziza is a standout as the vibrant April.

The other characters run the emotional gamut. Molly Regan plays an elderly, forlorn woman who is consumed by her memories. Yasen Peyankov is a classic curmudgeon. Alana Arenas is a grifter who, paradoxically, eats organic.

All this is overseen by two apathetic hotel managers played with smarmy brilliance by James Vincent Meredith and TaRon Patton, who protect their own emotions by distancing themselves with witty barbs and biting innuendo.

A ghostly figure, known only as The Man (Sean Krill), wears a low brim hat and lurks upstairs, in the shadows. He roams from room to room rifling through the tenant's personal affects and randomly moving their furnishings while singing nostalgic 1930's songs. One wonders what he represents.

Is he the playwright’s muse or a symbol of the randomness and fragility of the protagonists’ lives?

April, the cynical prostitute, is the emotional counterpoint to the other character’s optimism.

As the theater goes dark, the play causes one to ask the question: is the past is really the past or is it only a different version of the present?

For that lingering thought alone, Steppenwolf's Hot L Baltimore is a worthwhile production not to be missed.

For more information, visit