Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Our ongoing arts coverage takes a meta turn with a play called Art.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The other Super Bowl

My buds in the advertising world call the Oscars "the Super Bowl for women."

Of course, there are plenty of women who watch the Super Bowl, and men who watch the Oscars, but their point is well taken. Advertisers consider the Academy Awards the best way to reach a huge female audience. All those Clairol ads aren't aimed at me; my hair has long since achieved maximum fabulosity.

The Oscars and the Super Bowl are two peas in a pod. They're
  • annual American traditions
  • with the two most massive television audiences of the year,
  • featuring women in revealing clothing and hunky leading men,
  • breathlessly promoted for weeks in advance by a dutiful press,
  • handicapped exhaustively by experts and
  • wagered on in living rooms, with
  • tickets unavailable to the general public and
  • industry insiders seated according to clout; in each case,
  • the whole thing is a profit-driven promotional exercise
  • dressed up as a competition
  • whose winners then earn more money; each event, though
  • considered glamorous and
  • surrounded by exclusive parties like a cruise liner's tugboats,
  • rarely lives up to the hype but
  • occasionally pulls off a memorable surprise and
  • provides water cooler chitchat for the few of us who still have jobs.

Me, I'll be enjoying the telecast in my signature "1995 Lands' End sweatpants" couture, but many will be getting even more dressy and toasting the occasion in style.

If you're a Chicagoan looking for an upbeat Oscar party, here's one.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Oh your God

Mainstream American life is supposed to be secular, but it's suffused with a creeping religiosity that's hard to overlook.

Our country was of course founded by religious pilgrims, and although they did provide for the separation of church and state via the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, they were also cool with printing "In God We Trust" on our currency. A visitor from another planet might ask why; visitors from other nations certainly have.

Centuries later, an indignant Congress added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance during our Cold War rivalry with the "godless" Russians, a mistake that has become so ingrained over time that attempting to correct it would now be political suicide.

Cities and states have long erected big religious displays in public spaces around holiday time. Why exactly? Just because my religion is generally included doesn't mean I don't find the whole exercise weird, unnecessary and wrongheaded. You say "Grinch," I say "American."

Offended yet? I'm almost done.

To me, your religion is not unlike your politics or your sex life: do whatever makes you happy, do me the courtesy of keeping it out of my face, and I'll return the favor.

Yes, I acknowledge the apparent hypocrisy of proclaiming this on my blog (where, for that matter, I've also ranted about politics), but you came here, I didn't send this to you, so I don't consider it an uninvited polemic. Plus, this isn't really about religious views, it's about how we express them. Call it a metarant.

I was heartened by President Obama's acknowledgment of nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. It was a healthy reminder that there are those among us who don't believe, and they're every bit as American as the pious, and as human. Maybe even as blessed.

Whether you're a believer or not, surely you can see the merits of this idea, and now that today's sermon is over, here's why the topic is on my mind.

Buzzed-about comedian Jamie Kilstein is playing the Lakeshore Theater, tomorrow through Saturday. An avowed atheist who once entitled a show "There Is No God and It's Okay," Kilstein is defiant and opinionated, not to mention funny, all useful traits for a standup comic.

Get on down to Broadway and Belmont and check him out. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Metarant over.

p.s. Does a sermon on secular humanism qualify as ironic?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Going to the movies, Jersey style

"Just buy a ticket, pal. Then we'll tell you which one it is."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rod Blagojevich Superstar!

Last night I caught the opening of the Second City's new musical spoof, Rod Blagojevich Superstar!, in which a nationally renowned comedy theater systematically dismantles a nationally scorned laughingstock.

The disgraced governor's travails have been the stuff of high drama, low motivations and middlebrow speechifying, but with most of the public wrangling behind us (on the civil side, anyway), it's time to salvage a little fun from a six-year political catastrophe.

A Second City parody was probably inevitable. They're known for their political currency, and having offered their takes on Hillary, Barack and McCain, they now turn to a man I'll call, for lack of a more apt national equivalent, the George W. Bush of Illinois.

The show's press release says, "Rod Blagojevich Superstar! is what happens when talent and producers drink too much at the Second City holiday party, begin to brainstorm ideas and decide to write, compose and open a show in 2 weeks."  

I like the casual self-deprecation, but just because the show was assembled quickly doesn't mean it feels thrown together.  With all the last-minute corporate gigs they get, the Pipers Alley crew is used to working fast, and given such a sacrificial lamb ("Milorad Blagojevich" being Serbian for "comedy gold"), they skewer him as surely as they usually do the middle management at the local Fortune 500.

Rod Blagojevich Superstar! is energetic and entertaining, and at 55 minutes briskly and efficiently takes its subject apart piece by piece. The ambition, the arrogance, the certitude, the nepotism, the defiance, the delusion, the self-pity, the inevitable fall from grace, they're all in there. (Wait, why did I call the Bush thing inapt?) It's the public flogging we've all been yearning for.

Book writer Ed Furman and composer-lyricist T.J. Shanoff find room for every major Blagojevich headline (read: debacle). Still, it's not just a recitation of leadership gone awry; there are solid jokes here. A boastful Rod declares, "I'm the greatest Serbian politician! Outside of Serbia. And Ohio." He tells Roland Burris, "Being black to court the African-American vote, that was genius on your part."

Some jokes, meanwhile, write themselves; Patti Blagojevich could only be cast as a profane Lady Macbeth. Her coarse argot is a one-note gag, but the note is amusing enough and she demonstrates an estimable vocabulary.

As for her husband, the show reminds us that he's risen far past his station. After graduating "in the top 100 percent" of his class at Pepperdine, a "party law school," Rod marries Patti Mell and accepts her father's invitation to join the Chicago Democratic political machine. Thus begins the ride.

Rod Blagojevich is neither a skilled politician nor, by all appearances, a well-adjusted person. He's some guy who married the daughter of a powerful Chicago alderman. Without Dick Mell as his political godfather, he never gets Dan Rostenkowski's old seat in the U.S. Congress, and without that entry-level job (!), never ascends to the Governor's Mansion. The show delivers these hard truths.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich's deep denial plays for laughs. He muses, "Since when is breaking a few laws illegal?" Told he's out of control, a rampaging Rod retorts, "Control is out of me!" Confronted with a litany of his misdeeds, he offers in defense, "Those are your words."

Burris, no angel himself, serves as Blago's comic foil; other supporting players include Attorney General Lisa Madigan, "U.S. State's Attorney" Patrick Fitzgerald, and the father-in-law scorned, Ald. Richard Mell. The songs are peppy and generally funny, Lisa McQueen's choreography economical and appealing.

Bottom line, Superstar serves up exactly what its ticket buyers will be looking for: a big fat helping of whole roast Blagojevich.

A Second City opening night crowd generally reflects Chicago's theatrical and critical establishment: reviewers from major press outlets, friends and colleagues of the home team, and the occasional Hollywood notable. While the usual suspects were in attendance, so were such members of the media-political complex as Carol Marin of "Chicago Tonight," WBBM-TV political reporter Mike Flannery, and the Honorable Lisa Madigan herself (accompanied by her husband, New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes). I asked her what she thought of her own depiction and she was a good sport, saying she could have come off worse.

My sense was that the pols and newshounds, having served with and covered Blagojevich, were there to make sure Second City really dismembered the guy. There was so much schadenfreude in the room I was waiting for a tap on the shoulder from Justin Kaufmann.

I saw Superstar hours after returning to Chicago from a trip to Will Ferrell's Bush roast on Broadway.  The Blago show was oddly reminiscent of the national version.  It was like writing checks at tax time, state and federal variations on a theme.

My Flavorpill preview will surface in the next week or so, looking something like this:

The freshly ousted governor of Illinois exploited its top job, squandered its treasure, hamstrung its legislature and tarnished its reputation. Rod Blagojevich is a big fish in a shallow barrel, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't fire away. If laughter is the best medicine, Second City's cathartic swipe at America's easiest target should help Illinois recover from a chronic hemorrhage of statesmanship, and since we can't get back those millions Blago illegally spent on FDA-rejected foreign vaccines, satire may be our only cure. This show is billed as a takeoff of '70s rock musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar; in that spirit, it amounts to a public crucifixion.

You can find more information and buy tickets here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

They call this the Garden State?

Journal Square, Jersey City, N.J.,
home of the smallest garden in the world

Sunday, February 8, 2009

This must be Broadway

I was walking along West 47th Street yesterday afternoon en route to a matinee performance of "August: Osage County" (which was excellent, by the way) when I happened by an odd tableau: a huge iron stage door open to the sidewalk and, there on the pavement, a pile of about fifteen day-glo hot pink flamingos, replete with wispy feathers.

Their essential frivolity stood out from the prosaic, gritty sidewalk scene, but fit into the internal logic of a showbiz neighborhood. A frantic, harried-looking woman was supervising the several stagehands who were picking them up a few at a time and bringing them into the theater.

Speaking of harried people, I had about twenty minutes left in which to run an errand at the Barrymore Theater, find myself a slice of pizza and get into my seat at the Music Box Theater before my show started at 2 p.m. (all missions accomplished, plus the procurement of a Saturday New York Times for crossword purposes, with time to spare; it's the small victories in life), so I didn't even pause to try to figure out what show was using all the flamingos.

All I can do is make an educated guess. The first two candidates off the top of my head are the Boy George memoir "Taboo," which closed years ago, and "South Pacific," which is playing up at Lincoln Center. Do they even have flamingos in the South Pacific?

I'm going to guess "The Little Mermaid." It's playing at the Lunt-Fontanne on the north side of 46th Street, which would be consistent with a backstage door on the south side of 47th. Also, I'm pretty sure they cut the flamingos out of "Hedda Gabler" during previews.

I'd neglected to carry a camera, unfortunate since a snapshot of the flamingo pile would have fit right in this space under the title "This must be Broadway." They say a picture is worth a thousand words; I don't need that many, so if you'll do me the favor of imagining a bunch of stage flamingos piled on a sidewalk, my work is done here.

The critics have spoken

...and they love the Ferrell show too.

Their opinions are so much trivia at this point since "You're Welcome America" is pretty much sold out, but it's still nice to see that, e.g., Ben Brantley likes the show even though Ferrell-as-Bush doesn't think much of the New York Times.

Still, for the record, below are links to reviews from some leading press outlets. (I'd say David Rooney of Variety pretty much nailed it.)

New York Times
"The Comedy of Ineptitude, Political Division"
by Ben Brantley

"You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush"
by David Rooney

Washington Post
"Doin' a Heck of a Job, Willie: Ferrell's Frat-Boy Bush Freshens Broadway Show"
by Peter Marks

Associated Press
"Will Ferrell relives 8 years of George W. Bush"
by Michael Kuchwara

New York Daily News
"Mission Accomplished! Will Ferrell is stupid good as former president George W. Bush on Broadway"
by Joe Dziemianowicz

New York Post
by Frank Scheck

"Ferrell's Bush Lap-Dances With Condi, Digs War"
by Jeremy Gerard

Ben Bass and Beyond
"Loved It!"
by some knucklehead

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Thank You, Seth Traxler: A First Night with Will Ferrell"

I was fortunate to attend last night's premiere of Will Ferrell's red-hot Broadway play "You're Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush."

Having been equally fortunate to catch a rehearsal a few weeks ago, I laughed just as hard the second time around. It's a rock-solid, hilarious, cathartic show. The run ends in March and tickets are just about sold out, but scattered singles and premium seats remain. You can also catch it on HBO live from the Cort Theater on the evening of Saturday, March 14.

The afterparty was a star-studded affair, with the likes of Lorne Michaels (or as Tracy Morgan calls him, "Lornie Mikes"), Jimmy Fallon, Ana Gasteyer, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Westfeldt, Paul Rudd, Brooke Shields, James Lipton, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jack McBrayer and Demetri Martin joining Ferrell and director Adam McKay to celebrate the opening night.

But what piqued my interest was the unlikely presence of one Salman Rushdie.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Only for now

I recently wrote about the Avenue Q "For Now" lyrics contest, in which the long-running Broadway hit invited fans to suggest a replacement line for the then-almost-obsolete lyric "George Bush is only for now."

A judging panel including co-creators Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx and the show's producers weighed the over 2000 submissions, ultimately selecting these four finalists:
  • "Recession"
  • "Prop 8"
  • "This show"
  • "Your mother-in-law"
"Recession" debuted on Inauguration Day, appropriately, and the other three finalists will soon rotate in. After the people have spoken (i.e., laughed, or failed to), the creative team will settle on a winner. Read all about it here, or a longer version here.

My submission ("Gas cars") didn't make the cut, but since my college buddy Jeff Marx gave me a backstage tour and let me play with the puppets shortly after the show opened on Broadway, I've already had my fun. Besides, my line wasn't really a laugher, more of a thinker.

Further evidencing the "only for now" thing, just one member of the original Broadway lineup pictured above is still in the cast.

If you haven't seen Avenue Q yet, heed the advice of #3 above and check it out while you still can. It's a great, great show.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The secret thoughts of Gen. David Petraeus

"If I had all these roided-up 300-pound monsters working for me, the war would have been over two years ago."