Sunday, November 27, 2011

Goodman A Christmas Carol delivers lean, poignant Holiday "punch"

Goodman A Christmas Carol a lean, poignant Holiday “punch”

By Dwight Casimere

Photos: Dean LaPraire/ Goodman Theatre

Larry Yando is back as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre’s 34th annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and all is right with the world. Or, as the character Tiny Tim (played charmingly by nine-year-old Roni Akurati), would say, “God Bless Us. Everyone!”

As conceived by Goodman Theatre Associate Producer Steve Scott, who makes his fourth turn at the helm since 2007, this is a leaner and more poignant “Carol” than years past. The set is minimal, with a bleak, snow-covered forest serving as the backdrop rather than the traditional hustle and bustle of a village square. The actors, fulcromed by Yando’s spot-on, eloquent performance, hone in on the sociological and psychological underpinnings of Dickens’s timeless preachments on self-righteous selfishness and the saving grace of love, kindness and goodwill toward all mankind.

The premise for “A Christmas Carol” is set out from the opening line. “Marley was dead,” the story begins, spoken from the mouth of a member of the street chorus at the opening curtain and repeated by Ebenezer Scrooge in the establishing scene between he and the hapless Bob Cratchit (Ron Rains, returning in his fifth year in the role). It is Marley’s Ghost (a nimble and frightful Nathan Hosner) that haunts Scrooge from the face of his doorknocker to the sanctity of his bedchamber. He is warned that he will be visited by three ghosts- the specters of his Christmases past, present and future. Of the three, it is Christmas Present (Penelope Walker) who proves to be the most luminous and telling in her portrayal. She is absolutely brilliant!

There are sterling performances throughout. Joe Minoso, with his eloquent manner and stentorian voice is compelling as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Ora Jones is effusive as Mrs. Fezziwig and Karen Janes Woditsch gives emotional depth to the long-suffering character of Mrs. Cratchit. Ron Rains is an expert at comedic timing in the role of Bob Cratchit.

The onstage musicians, particularly the nimble-fingered “fiddle” player, add a sparkle to the proceedings early on. One gem of a scene is the dance at Fezziwig’s warehouse. Production Stage Manager Alden Vasquez and Stage Manager Jamie Wolfe get deserved credit for the execution of this exceptional production with Set Design by Todd Rosenthal and excellent Costume Design by Heidi Sue McMath, who captured the taciturn look of the Dickens era exactly. Sound Design by Richard Woodbury and Lighting Design by Robert Christen worked hand-in-hand to emphasize the dramatic arc of the story with precision. Original Music Composed by Andrew Hansen told the story in concert with the superb dialogue in the story Adapted by Tom Creamer for the Goodman stage. This is a top-flight production that brings the social message of the Christmas Holiday home in an entertaining, yet truthful manner. In light of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that are sweeping the country and the uncertainty of the economy this Holiday Season, A Christmas Carol presents a sobering message in a wholly entertaining and delightful manner that has become a staple among Holiday family experiences. For tickets and information, visit

Broadway In Chicago: Memphis-a hi energy look at racism and good ol' Rock 'N Roll

Broadway in Chicago: Memphis-a look at race, sex through lens of good ol’ Rock N’ Roll

by Dwight Casimere

Photos courtesy Broadway In Chicago

Memphis is a high-stepping, high octane look at the Fabulous ‘50s world of Rock ‘N Roll and Race Music through the eyes of a hard-charging, take no prisoners white DJ, Huey (Bryan Fenkart), who becomes the host of a local Dick Clark American Bandstand-like dance show, only his show features primarily black dancers and “Race Music,” the moniker given to black rhythm and blues which white artists, such as Elvis, exploited to national prominence.

Huey falls in love with Felicia (Felicia Boswell), one of the singer/dancers on his show, and therein lies the heavy subtext to this otherwise light-hearted look at the seminal music of the”Memphis Sound” Rhythm and Blues era.

Memphis garnered a Tony Award for Best Musical last year, and it’s easy to see why. The music is infectious. It has you dancing in your seat and wishing you could kick your feet in the air and do cartwheels, just like the high-spirited Marge and Gower Champion-styled dancers.

Felicia Boswell is a tsunami of vocal talent. She begs the question, “why haven’t I heard of her before!?” Her voice is extraordinary. Her sensuality and earthiness make her an irresistible talent.

The Ensemble is electrifying as is the Memphis Band under Conductor/Keyboardist Alvin Hough, Jr. whose musicians sounds just like the legendary Stax Records studio (originally Satellite Records) band of old.

The show gets a little heavy with the melodrama at times, but the high-spirited music and dancing save the day. Through December 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago. Visit for tickets and show times.

Met Live HD Satyagraha a dazzling, epic spectacle


By Dwight Casimere
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Richard Croft as Gandhi with image of Dr. King in background
Mary Phillips as Mrs. Alexander
Satyagraha sets and puppets by Julian Crouch
Met Opera bass/baritone star Eric Owens as backstage host/interviewer
The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City

New York-Giant puppets that dwarf singers onstage. A mesmerizing score by a groundbreaking composer. Lyrics in an often-untranslatable “dead language,” with limited subtitles. Dazzling visuals that include flying Hindu gods and shadowy representations of historic icons such as Leo Tolstoy all played against the sweeping panorama of the fight against racial injustice in South Africa. That, in a paragraph is the synopsis of Satyagraha, Philip Glass’s epic recitative of Mohandas KJ. Gandhi’s, the Father of the Indian nation, and his fight against South Africa’s policies of racialism.

“This answers the question of ‘why do we do new productions?’” creator Philip Glass told backstage interviewer, rising Met star, bass/baritone Eric Owens, during the intermission of the Met’s recent Live in HD transmission in movie theatres around the globe. Owens will portray Alberich in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung in the Met Live HD transmission Saturday, February 11 at 12 noon Eastern Time. The performance runs 6 hours, 24 minutes. Many theatres are offering lunch/theatre ticket packages, so please check your local theatre listings or online for details.

An Encore Performance of Satyagraha will be shown in select theatres on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 6:30pm in all time zones. Please note that not all theatres that show Met Live HD transmissions will present an encore showing. Check local theatre listings or visit or

“The answer is that new productions give an existing opera new life,” Glass said emphatically.

"The last time we did a "new" production was in 1991, before the official end of apartheid. Now it's almost 2012, and a far different time altogether. We had to do something that not only looked at Gandhi's life through the long lens of history, but also in a way that would make it relevant to audiences today who may not have an immediate memory or familiarity with any of the events that transpired before."

Visually, Satyagraha is opulent. Sanskrit supertitles are projected onto the rear of the stage as the orchestra plays Glass’s hypnotic score, expertly conducted by Dante Anzolini. Supertitles and back-of-the-seat subtitles translations are discarded for Satyagraha. Instead, the text by Constance DeJong, as adapted from the Bhagavad-Gita -Gita, is sung entirely in Sanskrit, an ancient language that precedes Biblical times. Subtitles are projected only occasionally on the wood and corrugated iron sets, more as thematic punctuations rather than actual translations. Staging, as directed by Phelim McDermott with stunning sets and puppet designs by Julian Crouch underscore the opera’s setting as more an extension of Gandhi’s mind during prolonged meditation, rather than a recounting of historical fact.

Dazzling visual components, augmented by giant puppets, wall-sized video projections and streams of properties representing reams of newsprint and the undulating waves of water were all created by the Skills Ensemble team members Phil Eddolls, Carlie Folorunsho, Alex Harvey, Nick Haverson, Tina Koch, Charlie Llewllyn-Smith, Vic Llewellyn, Charlotte Mooney, Kumar Muniandy, Caroline Partridge, Rajha Shakiry and Rob Thirtle. Team mebers Rob Thrtle and Philip Eddolls discussed their efforts with backstage host Owens. "What we created, visually, were the touchstones of Ghandi's life, which are not necessarily referred to in the text of the opera, but are integral to the story of his life," Eddolls said. "We see representations of the major influences of Gandhi’s life, including his past present and future in terms of the god’s, as represented in the Bhagavad-Gita, Leo Tolstoy, the philosophical leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who channeled Gandhi’s theory of non-violent resistance into the marches of Civil Rights Movement."

These and other points were well brought out by Mr. Owens in his backstage interviews and commentary. Owens distinguished himself as a host and interviewer by his ability to think nimbly on his feet, not having to scramble through note cards or look over his subject’s shoulder for a teleprompter. He was able to ask insightful questions because of his innate knowledge of opera and he was also able to elicit illuminating responses from the singers due to his empathy toward his fellow Met opera artists.

All of the singers performed spectacularly, particularly tenor Richard Croft as Gandhi, who performed Glass’s demanding score with elegance and precision throughout. His feat was further magnified by the fact that he is virtually onstage throughout the opera. Maestro McDermott similarly distinguished himself along with the Met Opera Orchestra with their ability to navigate the shifting tempi and kaleidoscopic tonality and moods of Glass’s mesmerizing score.

An illuminating historical perspective on Gandhi’s life and work and the historical facts behind his struggle for racial equality and equitable treatment of Indian mine workers in South Africa, further sets the factual background of Glass’s epic work. The producers of the segment were Elena Park, Kathy Doughty and Doug Graves, who addressed the audience in a videotaped interview. These and other video segments and interviews are the exclusive purvey or Met Live in HD audiences and further amplify the value of the price of admission.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Haitink in impeccable performance of Haydn and Bruckner at NY Phil

Bernard Haitink brings dignity, restraint to Haydn and Bruckner at NY Philharmonic

By Dwight Casimere

Photo 1 Matthew Dine for the New York Philharmonic

New York-Guest Conductor Bernard Haitink received a rousing ovation as he approached the podium at Avery Fisher Hall to conduct a program of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 in D major and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maestro Haitink had not conducted the orchestra since 1978, so the pent up enthusiasm was warranted. Those who expressed it were certainly rewarded by a program that showed both dignity and restraint in a very polished performance. This was Haitink at his best; conducting a seasoned, world-class orchestra in works that have become cornerstones of his repertory.

Haydn was the Jay Zee of London when he presented his Symphony No. 96. It was nicknamed the “Miracle Symphony” because, supposedly, a chandelier crashed in the concert hall at the premiere and, miraculously, no one was injured. His arrival in London was associated with the kind of celebrity we see recorded on TMZ today. His publicist took him on rounds of the London newspapers for interviews and he was the toast of an endless string of parties and dinners. London’s megatropolis atmosphere, even in the 1790s, was a long way from the gentility of the Esterhazy court of Vienna. Even in those days, the court’s arts programs were subject to economic cutbacks caused by a budget crunch due to political successions, leaving Haydn footloose and fancy-free to explore other climes. Vienna’s loss was London’s gain!

Maestro Haitink showed this gem of a symphony in all its multi-faceted glory. A slimmed down “Classical” Philharmonic played the music under his direction as if it were intuitive. His every move elicited just the right tempo or shading of orchestral color. A lightness of being evinced from the Menuetto and Trio. The Finale: Vivace (assai) was a showcase for the sylvan strings and burnished cellos and violas.

It all came to a refreshing, precise conclusion that affirmed the intellectual crispness of thinking that went into Haitink’s measured interpretation of this beautifully conceived work.

The last time I heard Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, it was under Mr. Haitink’s baton, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a work he recently recorded with that esteemed body. (Haitink and the CSO won a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Orchestral Performances for Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4, while serving as the body’s Principal Conductor) To call his rendition of the Bruckner with the New York Philharmonic mesmerizing is an understatement.

His approach was transfixing from beginning to end. The Adagio, in particular, showed his unique ability to approach weighty subject matter with restraint. His precision elicited the type of dramatic buildup that made the ensuing Scherzo appear to dazzle like a shooting star. There were some exquisite solos from the flutes and oboes as well. The strings shimmered with intensity as the timpani rang mightily leading to the rapturous Finale.

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique explores Beethoven's "Heroic" ideals

Carnegie Hall tenure ends on "Heroic" note

By Dwight Casimere


Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts

An early French horn

A Baroque trumpet

New York---Sir John Eliot Gardiner is considered one of the guiding lights of the early music revival. As founder of both the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, and the English Baroque Soloists, his concerts and more than 250 recordings have earned him the highest honors. In addition to his knighthood, he is an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, London, and the Royal Academy of Music, which awarded him the prestigious Bach Prize in 2008.

In the last of two concerts at Carnegie Hall, he presented a program that probed the theoretical underpinnings of Beethoven’s music in the wake of his early, formative years. The Overture to Die Geschopfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) is a work he composed to accompany a ballet by choreographer Salvatore Vigano in 1800. The work depicts the story of the Greek Titan Prometheus, who creates humans out of clay and imbues them with knowledge of the arts and sciences. This idea fascinated Beethoven and informed his later theories on society and politics of his day.

The second work in the program, the Symphony No. 4 is, stylistically, one of the composer’s most refined. It employs a structure that he would use in several of its later works. The contrast between slow and fast passages, and the dark, minor modes that would emerge into bright, major-key finales would become Beethoven’s hallmark.

Finally, the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, the “Eroica” (Heroic), is among his most dazzling. Originally dedicated to Napoleon, the composer tore up the title page when he learned that Napoleon had declared himself “emperor.” Beethoven despaired that his fallen hero would “now trample on the rights of man” as did every despot before him.

It is this profound sense of history that Sir John Eliot Gardiner brought to the Perelman Stage as he conducted his energetic ensemble of period instrument players at Carnegie Hall.

The tempos he created for the Prometheus were aggressive, without being overly hurried. There was ample allowance for the trumpets to ring forth in the dramatic exclamation of the opening chords. Zeus’s ‘thunderstorm’ when he exacts punishment against Prometheus for stealing the gift of fire and giving it to the mortal beings he created, is one of the highlights of this stirring performance that showcased the superb partnering of the string sections and the ringing percussion, in the form of perfectly tuned timpani.

One of the evening’s great mysteries was the location of the timpani player and his instruments. It was revealed at intermission that he was seated rather low, behind the riser that held the violas and second violins. He eschewed the break enjoyed by the other musicians during the interval to tune his well-polished drums. The superb clarity of his sound affirmed the good result of his labors.

Horns and trumpets once again dominated the jubilant finale to the Symphony No. 4. However, it was the Eroica that showed the true mettle of this superb ensemble. Every member of the orchestra gave his or her all in a performance that matched in energy the ‘heroic’ title of the symphony. The elegiac Marcia funebre(funeral march): Adagio assai set up the dramatic contrast for the explosive Scherzo (fast movement) and the blazing finale, heralded by the flutes (here, truly made of wood or “woodwinds,” not the shiny silver and brass modern flutes we’re accustomed to seeing) and those incendiary valveless trumpets that are a marvel to behold. Similarly valveless horns also made their forceful presence known with some exquisite playing.

Beethoven ends the Eroica with a theme he had presented in the earlier “Prometheus” Overture. Maestro Gardiner emphasizes that point with great aplomb, giving a performance that showcased his and his orchestra’s versatility and mastery of the music that defined the turning point between Classic and Romantic music.

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique does Beethoven justice with period instruments

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique: Beethoven as he was meant to be heard

By Dwight Casimere

New York—John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique swept into the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall on Prometheus’s chariot in a two-day celebration of the genius of Ludwig von Beethoven. Playing period instruments, not unlike the ones the great Maestro would have encountered in his day, the orchestra injected new life into some of the most performed music of the modern concert stage with a vitality that made it seem as if the scores had just been written. This is Beethoven as he might have heard it, were it not for the advancing deafness that historians say he suffered from.

Gardiner modeled is ensemble after the French orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the primary proponents of Beethoven’s music after his death. Their sense of ‘divine mission’ permeates everything they play. Each of the instrumentalists plays as if his or her life depended upon it. Their fervor is best exemplified by the intense expression of rapture on the face and the stream of sweat from the tousle-haired brow of the lead cellist in the front row, who seemed to be in the throes of rapture with each furious stroke of his bow.

Overture to Egmont was part of a set of compositions written as incidental music for the 1787 play by Goethe, which tells the story of the Flemish Martyr Count Egmont, who sacrificed his life so that his fellow citizens might be spared genocide at the hands of the occupying Spanish. Gardiner and his eager ensemble, which contains quite a few exceptional female members, presented it with all of the heroic thunder it deserved. The horns, distinctive from their modern counterparts because they are valveless, made a stately declaration. There was one tiny flutter from one of the horns going into the eight bars leading to the finale, but the rest was spot on.

Symphony No. 7 was a study in exuberance. Maestro Gardiner took the dance-like rhythmic notations of the Allegro con brio to heart, making side-to-side steps approaching the Electric Slide.

His handling of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 made the case for the primacy of period instruments. From the opening bars, which contain the most familiar musical phrase of all time, the sense of exilaration permeated the air. The rounded, burnished sound of the brass and woodwinds made the phrasing of the Second Movement, Andante con moto, seem even more fraught with dramatic tension. Think the Royal Lipizzaner of the Spanish Riding School in perfect formation in a stately gait around the arena. The Allegro was full of fireworks as Gardiner dug his heels into their ribs, urging them to full gallop, the bracing wind flying through their collective mane.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bernard Haitink, New York Philharmonic paint vivid portraits of Strauss's Don Quixote and Beethoven's Pastorale

by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK- I last saw the esteemed conductor, Bernard Haitink in a two-week residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducting programs of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Haydn’s Creation. Both performances stand as monuments to his greatness.

With great anticipation, I rushed to Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center to hear him Guest Conduct the New York Philharmonic in Richard Strauss’s illustrious tone poem, Don Quixote (Introduction, Theme with Variations, and Finale) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Pastoral. The evening could not have been more sublime.

At 82 years of age, Maestro Haitink displays the type of economy of movement and interpretation that eschews the flashy and unnecessary. All pretenses are stripped away and only that which is essential to the mission at hand is introduced. Entrances and exits are clean and crisp. Tempos are precise and unhurried. Nuances in tonal color and balance are carefully observed and inner voices of instrumental embellishments and subtleties are brought to the fore with utmost clarity. In short, you become aware of things in the most often played symphonies, such as Beethoven’s Pastoral, that you had never noticed before.

Strauss’s Don Quixote started simply enough, with the orchestra’s Principal Cellist Carter Brey and Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps as soloists. Both the conductor and soloists gained intensity as the work recounted the misguided, but well-intentioned travails of Cervantes’s beloved knight-errant and his chivalrous missteps, along with his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza. Ms. Phelps and Mr. Brey indulged in a bracing point, counter-point, particularly in the bracing Variation IX (Fast and Stormy). The Wind Machine, used to depict Don Quixote and Sancho in imaginary flight across the sky in Variation VII (A Bit More Calm than the Preceding), is used sparingly, but effectively.

Maestro Haitink brings it all to a peaceful conclusion, with dreamlike serenity.

As energetic as the Don Quixote was at times, Maestro Haitink and the New York Philharmonic created an atmosphere of verdant hills and fertile valleys that belie what history tells us was the tumult of the composer’s personal life and the political and social upheaval of his time.

In 1808, when the majority of the Pastoral was composed, Beethoven was in the advanced stages of hearing loss and his beloved Vienna was a hotbed of unrest. The composer would escape often to the countryside to the homes of wealthy friends and benefactors. It was out of these forays into the peaceful refuge of nature that the Pastoral was born. Themes, like blossoming flowers appear and dissipate as new life emerges among the violas, cellos and woodwinds. Haitink carefully controlled the entrances and exits of these subtle voices, to achieve an exquisite equipoise of sound. A smoldering intensity dominated the Allegro: Thunderstorm. Flutes and trumpets played eloquently in the Allegretto: Shepherd’s Song.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Solti protege conducts CSO probe of 20th Century Masters

Solti protégé conducts CSO probe of early 20th Century Masters

By Dwight Casimere

Conductor Stephane Deneve photo by Drew Farrell

Leonadis Kavakos photo

© Nicolas Brodard

It’s hard to believe that music of the early 20th century is now a part of history and that the world’s major symphony orchestras are now involved in archival explorations of the music of that period, as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra continues its own one-hundred year retrospective.

Maurice Ravel conducted his musical portrait, Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe with the Chicago Symphony in 1928 as part of his whirlwind international tour. Originally commissioned as ballet music for the legendary Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, with the great Nijinsky as principal dancer and Pierre Monteux, who was later credited with molding both the San Francisco and Boston Symphony Orchestras.

Suite No. 2 opens with Daybreak. As written by Ravel, it is considered the most musically graphic and captivating depiction of the sounds of nature in its rustling awakenings. Ravel’s use of tonal color and dynamic variation is masterful. All of the instruments of the orchestra are used to create various shades of sound that reflect tonally like rays of light off the facets of diamonds.

All of the musicians responded with one of the most incandescent readings in this reviewer’s memory. Particularly so, the solo work of Principal Flute Mathieu Dufour.

Guest Conductor Stephane Deneve, a protégé of the late, legendary CSO Music Director Sir Georg Solti, brought much of his mentor’s sensibility to the podium when he conducted the recent subscription series program of the Ravel Suite, preceded by The Spider’s Feast, Symphonic Fragments by Ravel’s French contemporary Albert Roussel and Sergei Prokofiev’s Suite from the opera, The Love of Three Oranges, and his stunning Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor played by the dazzling young Athens-born violin sensation, Leonidas Kavakos.

Kavakos, winner of both the Sibelius and Paganini competitions, caused his Abergavenny Stradivarius to literally sing through the complex maze of pizzicato triplets that dominates the bombastic finale. Castanets, cymbals and snare drums accompanied by blazing trumpets soared in the background, but Kavakos’ ringing violin dominated the assemblage throughout the thundering conclusion.

Prokofiev’s Suite from The Love of Three Oranges similarly displayed the CSO’s virtuosity with showy, percussion and brass-heavy compositions. Conductor Deneve mined the extraordinary talents of the orchestra’s superior Brass and Percussion sections to achieve a searing performance that was full throttle from beginning to end. Principal Trumpet Christopher Martin made a commanding declaration of the symphony’s Main Theme. Principal Tuba Gene Pokorny and Trombone Jay Friedman provided urgent punctuation throughout.

Devene is quite an athletic conductor, with sweeping arcs for arm movements. So involved was he at one point in the finale, he nearly seemed to levitate off the podium. His massive mane of honey-blond hair also seemed to get into the act, Dudamel-style, with its own set of rhythmic movements.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program featuring Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and the luminous Labeque sisters in Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos Thursday and Friday, Nov. 17 & 18 at 8pm and Sun. Nov. 20 at 3pm. For tickets and information, visit

Ravi Coltrane-John Scofield recall Chicago South Side jazz "temples" in SCP Jazz sets

Ravi Coltrane Trio/John Scofield Quartet at Symphony Center SCP Jazz Series

by Dwight Casimere

There was a time in the 1950s through early 1970s when Chicago’s South Side was rife with lounges and nightclubs where ensemble jazz was king. Artists, such as Ahmad Jamal, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Charles Earland and Johnny Hartman were fixtures at places like McKee’s Show lounge, the Brown Derby (now undergoing a revival at the King Tut Room on the South Side with weekend-only performances by local artists such as Maggie Brown, daughter of Oscar Brown, Jr.) and the Apartment Lounge, the last remaining, with Tuesday night shows by renowned octogenarian jazz saxophonist Von Freeman.

Tenor Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and Guitarist John Scofield might have been channeling those hallowed days in their recent appearance at Chicago’s Symphony Center Presents SCP Jazz Series an intimate pair of sets more apt to be heard in the confine of a small nightclub rather than the cavernous expanse of a symphony hall. Coltrane, the son of jazz saxophone deity John Coltrane, eschewed his normal quartet configuration to appear with a trio, accompanied by Bassist Robert Hurst and Drummer Karriem Riggins.

Known for his fiery forays into musical frontiers bordering on Free Jazz, Coltrane offered a probing set that was most movingly capped by a poetic reading of the evergreen Vernon Duke song Autumn in New York and an emotional tribute to the late poet Zoe Anglesey entitled For Zoe. (Anglesey (1941-2003) was a poet, writer and jazz critic who championed Coltrane’s nascent career. The two remained close friends until her death from lounge cancer.)

John Scofield must have gotten the memo and delivered a set of chamber music jazz that similarly evoked the atmosphere of an intimate cabaret setting.

Unlike Coltrane, who learned of his father’s preeminence through his musician-mother Alice Coltrane, Scofield performed regularly with all of the jazz legends of that vaunted era. As soloist, front man, composer and arranger, he was immortalized on recordings with such jazz gurus s Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Charles Mingus. His 1980s recordings and world tour with Miles Davis are legend.

Scofield brought an untamed Rock sensibility to the jazz scene at a time when the music was threatened with extinction and sparked a renewed interest and revival among a younger, more eclectic audience.

It was the voice of legends that he was echoing from the Armour Stage in a set that reflected the musical attitude of his acoustic album Quiet (Verve, 1996) rather than his out-and-out Funk album A Go Go (1997) or Bump (2000). The most sublime moment of his entire effort was the Victor Young/Ned Washington song My Foolish Heart from the 1949 film of the same name. Scofield, best known for creating a searing, almost supernatural tone from his guitar, caressed the melody line and coaxed his strings to play lyrical lines that eerily recalled the vocal version by Billy Eckstine that became a million seller. Pianist Michael Eckroth lovingly recalled the genius of the late Bill Evans; another artist closely associated with the song, in his long, pensive ruminations on this emotionally charged classic.

Scofield further paid tribute to South Side Chicago Jazz with the Lionel Hampton tune My Little Red Top, which was popularized by saxophone powerhouse Gene Ammons in a 1947 recording. “Do you know this was recorded by Gene Ammons just a few blocks from here on the South Side?” Scofield told the crowd from the stage. (The Mercury recording lists Ammons as the composer.) After the brief history lesson, Scofield launched into a spirited rendition of “Green Tea” from the A Go Go album, recalling the hard-rocking John Scofield of old.

Roy Haynes and Fountain of Youth Band with Special Guest Roy Hargrove on trumpet, grace the Armour Stage Friday, December 9 at 8pm in the next installment of Symphony Center Presents SCP Jazz. For tickets and information, visit

Friday, November 11, 2011

Broadway In Chicago: Baby Boomer's Night Out


Photos courtesy Phoenix Entertainment

This weekend would be a great time to break out those old faded jeans that may be two sizes too small, and head on down to the Oriental Theatre for some steamy Rock ‘n Roll. The five-time Tony Award nominated musical slithers its way onto the stage for one weekend only, through Sunday, November 13, with the iconic songs of Whitesnake, Journey, Styx, Reo, Speedwagon, Foreigner and Pat Benatar. You’ll be happy you did it. The high-energy show is just the sort of last-minute rush you’ll need before the Holiday treacle starts to settle in!

Rock of Ages relives the Go-Go, Reagan-era of the late ‘80s, when Rock ‘n Roll reigned supreme. The action unfolds at a hardscrabble Hollywood Rock Club ‘cum strip joint called The Bourbon on Sunset Strip. With Book by Chris D’Arienzo and Direction Re-Created by Adam John Hunter from original Director Kristin Hangii and Choreography Re-Created by Marcos Santana from the original Choreography by Kelly Devine, the show bristles with raw energy.

Artistic Producer Michael McFadden and Set Design from Beowulf Borritt deserve

The plot is as thin as a wisp of Pat Benatar’s hair, but this is not Masterpiece Theatre. It’s all about the music, and there’s plenty of it provided by the high-energy Rock of Ages Band, conducted by Darren Ledbetter. The dancer numbers, especially the imaginative ‘lap dance’ scene in the second act, really set the decibel reading beyond the red line.

Rock of Ages tells the story of two star-struck kids from nowheresville, Drew (Dominique Scott) and Sherri Shannon Mullen), who decide to head to the bright lights of Tinsel Town and make it big on the Rock stage. The land on the Sunset Strip in 1987, in what was then L.A.’s most legendary rock club. They believe their dreams will finally realized until they suddenly learn that the club is about to be razed by the wrecker’s ball, because of the machinations of an evil German developer, Hertz (an uproarious Philip Peterson, with the world’s worst fake German accent, played for laughs) and his quasi-Gay son Franz (Stephen Michael Kane), who delivers the shows funniest line (I’m not Gay, I’m German!).

The plan to turn Sunset Strip into a replica of Times Square brings about the musical’s most rousing ensemble number, Starship’s We Built This City.” Justin Colombo as Lonny the narrator consistently keeps things moving along with his bright humor and deft sense of comedic timing. Amma Osei as Mother is the real show-stealer, however, with her rock the house, Gospel tinged voice. We could have heard a lot more from her. Matt Nolan is a blaze of sequins, skin and sexy-sweat bravado as Stacee Jaxx. There’s one hilarious ‘love’ scene that has he and Sherrie having a hookup in a bathroom stall that is one of the most imaginative bits of choreography ever. There's tons of raunchy humor and tongue in cheek (pardon the pun) sexual innuendo and a few off-color remarks about gays (it’s the ‘80s, remember!), but all of it is in good fun. It all climaxes with the full ensemble and the audience rockin’ out to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’. On that note, how can you possibly go wrong?

Did I mention that you can now get drinks served at your seat with a pre-paid ticket at the Oriental Theatre? It doesn’t get much better than that!

For tickets and showdtimes, visit

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Actor: well deserved Oscar buzz for a 'new' classic

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Actor James Cromwell with Dwight The Connoisseur

The Director and Cast of The Artist in a news conference at the New York Film Festival

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo star in The Artist/Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company

NEW YORK-The most delightful film to premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival is the black and white silent movie “The Artist” from The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros. That’s right, I said silent and black and white!

The film goes against the grain of modern day filmmaking techniques and that’s exactly where its charm and empirical stature lie. The film has already received a 5 star review from its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which also bestowed the Best Actor Award upon its star, French actor Jean Dujardin who plays the lead character, George Valentin, who bears and uncanny resemblance to William Powell of The Thin Man fame. (There’s even a cute Jack Russell terrier, which plays his sidekick, which bears a remarkable resemblance to Asta.) The film opens in theatres nationwide Wednesday, November 23.

French film Director Michel Hazanavicius (Nest, Lost in Rio, which also starred Dujardin) gets everything right in The Artist. The framing, in the box format typical of old movies, rather than the wide screen format of today’s films, and a warm black and white chroma that evokes the films 1920s Hollywood, gives the film an authentic feel without drawing attention itself. Add magnificent sets and costumes, a terrific cast, including luminous Argentinean actress Bernice Bejo and the U.S.’s terrific John Goodman and (my personal favorite) James Cromwell (Babe, LA Confidential) and you have the makings of a marvelous film experience.

“The care that went into this film is astounding,” Cromwell said in a post screening news conference at the Lincoln Center Film Society. “You can really see it frame by frame. It was a true delight to work on this film because of the level of care and professionalism.”

The Artist centers on George Valentin (Dujardin), a dashing, arrogant screen idol in the tradition of Douglas Fairbanks. Everything is going swimmingly as he battles secret agents in the spy films A German Affair and A Russian Affair, but he gets blind-sided with the sudden arrival of Talkies. Goodman plays the studio exec heavy, in the tradition of Jack Warner. He plays the character in all its oily bravado without going over the top.

The great thing about this film is that the acting is all done without dialogue. The actors convey the action, with the help of subtitles, but without the exaggerated movements that you would expect. That’s part of it. They ‘act’ in the truest sense of the word.

To further exemplify that ‘Glory Days of Hollywood” feel, there are some terrific Fred ‘n Ginger dance scenes between the Dujardin and Bejo characters that really clinches the charm factor of The Artist.

This is an out-and-out joyous film that celebrates not only the art of filmmaking, but also the enduring power of love in its truest sense. It may all sound really corny and sentimental, but it all works so beautifully that the director could have been describing himself when he named the film.

Monday, November 7, 2011



Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

1. Dennis Farina (Joe May) with Dwight Casimere

2. Jamie Anne Allman is Jenny

3. Gary Cole is Lenny

4. Joe May is played by Dennis Farina

5. A scene from The Last Rites of Joe May/Courtesy Tribeca Films

CHICAGO—Dennis Farina has played everything from an Irish mob boss in You Kill Me to a police detective in NBC’s Law and Order, which wasn’t too much of a stretch, since he actually was simultaneously a Chicago cop during the early days of his acting career.

He must have felt like a prizefighter parading his title-winning belt before more than 1,200 adoring fans as he strode the Red Carpet into the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance at Millennium Park for the Chicago Premiere of his most recent film, The Last Rites of Joy May at the Opening Night of the 47th Chicago International Film Festival along with his co-stars Jamie Anne Allman, Ian Barford, Gary Cole and Chelcie Rose, writer/director Joe Maggio and the film’s producers.

The Last Rites of Joe May begins showing in Chicago Friday, November 25 through Thursday, December 1 in a limited run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 North State Street, near State & Lake, across from the Chicago Theatre. Visit for tickets and showtimes.

For Farina, this was a victory lap of sorts for a Chicago-born actor who fought, and won a decision to bring the film project to his home town and create what many are calling a career-defining character performance as the down-and-out hustler seeking redemption, Joe May. “It was originally set in New York,” Farina confided in the heady afterglow of the film’s premiere night. “I brought Joe Maggio, our writer/director here, and persuaded him to shoot it in Chicago.”

The Last Rites of Joe May has writer Nelson Algren written all over it, or scenes from the 1949 Nicholas Ray Film, Knock on Any Door, which starred Humphrey Bogart and was based on the best-selling first novel of the same name by African American author Willard Motley. It is an elegiac, atmospheric look at the underbelly of society, only so much more. This is living Hell!

“We have our wonderful cinematographer Jay Silver (Persona Au Gratin-2011, War Against the Weak (documentary), 2009) to thank for that,” said co-star Gary Cole, who played the part of Lenny, the two-bit mob boss who sets the defeated Joe May on a wild goose chase that accelerates his downward spiral. “You can almost smell the garbage in those back alleys and taste the raw meat of the packing houses. We wanted to show that this is no place to be. In fact, its downright dangerous!”

In addition to the Ivan Albright-like frames of Jay Silver’s evocative cinematography, there’s the seamless editing of Seth Anderson, which provides the legato pacing that adds to the film’s gravitas.

About his character, Joe May, Farina says his upbringing in Chicago and his experience as a Chicago cop had a great deal to do with the background information that informs his character.

“We shot the film around my old neighborhood,” Farina emphasized. “So I was familiar with some of those streets and back alleys. It was mostly shot around West Grand Avenue-on May Street, Racine. All the streets I grew up on. And those characters. The guys who sit in the tavern all day long and in the back rooms of local diners and make deals; those are people I know. They remind of people, not just from my police days; they’re people I ran across my whole life!”

Joe May is a low life hustler who comes out after months of confinement in the hospital due to a serious illness. He undergoes a Shawshank-like experience. Substitute the infirmary for prison. May gets a rude awakening when he finds that, in his absence, everything in his life has dramatically changed. Strangers now occupy his apartment. All of his belongings have been tossed into the trash and his car has been towed away and sold. Not exactly a heroes’ welcome.

All that is precious and dear in Joe May’s life is seemingly destroyed, save for two things, which will later become key elements in the unfolding of the plot. His valued collection of old opera recordings of the great Enrico Caruso and Carlo Bergonzi singing the great operas of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini were squirreled away in a closet by the new tenant of his apartment. “I thought you might want them,” she says off- handedly. Touched, but still wounded, Joe exclaims, “A hell of a lot of good they are without my record player!” The records and a worn family photo he finds inside one of the record jackets are reminders of happier times. At night, their discovery evokes memories, sadness, and tears.

The other element is his rooftop pigeon coop, his haven away from the rigors of the mean streets. A neighbor has stolen his trained pigeons and the coop is a mess but, “just put in some new grass for them to nest and some feed and they’ll come back home!” Slowly, and with great psychic pain, he begins to rebuild the shattered shards of his life.

May starts to get his footing when he’s invited back to his old quarters to share them with the new tenants, a single mother named Jenny, (“Rapp, like the music, she says smarmily”, his retort, “mine’s May, like the month.”), who has a world-weary 10 year old, Angelina, played by Meredith Droeger, a newbie who is the younger sister of actress Abigail Droeger. Jamie Anne Allman (Six Feet Under, The Practice. The Shield), is Jenny.

“I was really glad that the director just let me and the character just sit and live in the moment. There were whole scenes that could have been just edited and cut short, but Joe (Maggio) allowed that character to live in that moment and allowed the audience to really feel her emotion. The movie raised the whole issue of the battered wife and I think the film really allowed the audience to feel what its like to live that. It also talks about inter-generational living, which a lot of people are living with now, especially with this economy. There are lots of people who suddenly find an elderly relative on their doorstep with nowhere to go or a friend who just lost their job who has no place to live. I didn’t really think about that until I’d seen the film a couple of times, but those issues are really there as part of the sub-plot.”

One of the criticisms of the movie is that it moves too slowly. That there’s not enough action. “I think it’s a matter of taste,” Allman said. “”If their taste isn’t toward sitting with someone for a while in a situation, then they’re not going to like it at all. They’re going to want the film to move on and get to the next situation. It’s not going to be to their taste.

“In a lot of movies, there’s explosions and things that might get your attention. It’s all for the eye. But this film is more meat for the soul (pardon the pun!).” She was referring to a scene where Joe is given a 50lb leg of lamb to boost as a backhanded tribute from mob boss Lenny. Frustrated that he’s unable to sell the meat, he finally discards it to a stray alley dog. “I’ve seen the film twice,” Allman said,” and each time I say to myself ‘why didn’t he just take that meat home and put it in the freezer. I’m sure Jenny and her kid would have liked to eat it. That 50 pounds of meat could have lasted them for months!”

The relationship between Joe May and the little girl, Angelina, are cemented as the two fly trained pigeons from Joe’s rooftop coop. “Racing pigeons is just like life,” he counsels in the film. “You’re flyin’ high one minute, and down in the crapper the next.”

Farina explained the odd couple relationship between his character and the girl this way; “We wanted Joe to talk to the little girl, just as if she were another adult, another 65 year old, because he really doesn’t know any other way. But Angelina, like a lot of kids like her today, grows up to be old very early. The kid sleeps with a knife under her bed, after all. It’s really sad.”

The film is rife with symbolism and metaphor. In addition to the life-lesson symbolized by the pigeons, there’s a scene at the very beginning and at the very end where Joe ceremoniously shaves and dresses himself. They occur first, as he’s leaving the hospital, and again as he prepares for his final reckoning.

It’s a conceit that’s often used by directors to telegraph the denouement of the plot. It was used most eloquently in the 1986 Claude Berri film Jean de Florette, in which the character played by Yves Montand prepares to atone for his complicity in the events that led to the titled character of the film’s demise. It was used most recently in the 2008 American film drama Gran Torino, in which the Clint Eastwood character, Korean veteran Walt Kowalski, prepares to exact revenge against the gang bullies who have been pressuring his young Hmong neighbor, to whom he has entrusted his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino.

There’s another ‘character’ in the Joe May film, which plays a pivotal, if not vital role- a rap of the knuckles on a mahogany tavern bar. “That knock on the bar was the director, Joe’s idea,” Farina explained. “I don’t want to give too much away about the film, but Joe said that was a thing his grandfather used to do. It meant that everything was ‘on the arm.’ Things were straight.”

Farina credits his old comrades at Steppenwolf Theatre with the success of the film. “It all really came together when Steppenwolf Films got involved. They brought a lot to the table with their people and their expertise. They let us borrow some of their actors and once they brought Gary (Cole) on board, it all coalesced.”

The Last Rites of Joe May is a film that demands your full attention. In fact, I recommend seeing it more than once, because there’s a lot that goes on that seems insignificant upon first viewing, that turns out to be vital to the plot’s development. The solitary piano in Lindsay Marcus’s sparse, but highly emotive score evokes the loneliness and isolation felt by Joe May. Even the opera arias selected for the film aren’t just there to impress. Sung mostly by the great Enrico Caruso, the words from Verdi’s Otello and Il Trovatore and Puccini’s La Boheme, tell the story concurrently with Silver’s stark images and Maggio’s poignant script. Case in point, the aria Ah Si Ben Mio, sung by Caruso in the opera Il Trovatore. It’s sung during the final scenes in which May prepares to face his destiny. It’s eerily reminiscent of the setup to the score-settling at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, only the blood-letting here is on a much smaller scale.

Tribeca Film has acquired The Last Rites of Joe May for distribution in the U.S. and Canada. Produced in association with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Films, it will be released nationwide October 28 on Video On Demand. It opens theatrically in New York November 4 at Quad Cinema and in Chicago November 25th at the Gene Siskel Film Center near State & Lake, across from the Chicago Theatre. I suggest ordering your tickets now and setting aside some time for discussion over dinner or cocktails afterward. This is a thought-provoking film that takes on a lot of hot-button issues such as battered women, homelessness, multi-generational living and the general disregard we have for our aging population. This is a film that will live in your conscience long after the final credits have rolled.