Happy Patti LuPone Day!

Today's post is dedicated to Patti LuPone, who I love, and to Ravinia Bob, who I also love and who I met because of Patti LuPone and who owes his nickname to both me and Patti LuPone (and Ravinia, I guess, which is where we met. He's lucky I didn't decide to call him Patti Bob, although knowing Ravinia Bob and his own love for Patti LuPone, perhaps he would consider it a step up! Who can say, life is short and I only have so many nicknames to throw around [jk: I am a bottomless source of amazing nicknames]).

>>> Let's yank this buggy back on track <<<

Isn't that a nice way to meet somebody, at a Patti LuPone concert at Ravinia of all places? You know whoever ends up at an event like that at a place like that didn't just wander in off the street: they are where they were always meant to be. I used to consider Ravinia a sort of urban wonderland, although I suspect it has since gone to the dogs (aka "the richies" as Andie would call them in "Pretty in Pink"), and it's technically located in a suburb. But no matter! I have the best memories of driving out there on long, hot, muggy summer days and being so excited about what was coming. It is the dictionary definition of "a pain in the ass to get to," which of course is no small part of its charm. You drive for a thousand years down dodgy two-lane back roads and eventually you hit this section of Highland Park where everything turns to tall trees and wildly expensive two-story homes peeking through the leaves, and that part of the drive was such a clear marker for me of what I wanted my life to be and how it had actually turned out just right for once. 

And surely the best thing I ever found at the end of that drive was Ravinia Bob, a total stranger who happened to be seated next to me during the Patti LuPone concert one random evening at the end of August when the gentleman on the other side of me turned to ask who wrote the song "I Was Here," which closed the first half of the program, and to which Ravinia Bob and I shouted "Ahrens and Flaherty!" at the same time. (I think. I'm old now and some of these details are fuzzy, which is a tragedy I'm happy to say will eventually visit you all.) And god knows I don't believe in god ("God") or fate or unicorns or magic, but I do know a lucky break when I see one, and I knew it that night. I knew that I was lucky.

TL;DR (too late, suckers): SarahB and I are seeing Patti LuPone at Symphony Space tonight. Tonight! Lucky again.

Sunday in the Park with George @ Ravinia

White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities...

—Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

Ah, details, details....

The pre-show interview: Stephen Sondheim on stage. Reason enough to live in Chicago, to love the audience that attends and listens. Posterity, he says, does not interest him. But who will be here in twenty years? Nobody. There is nobody to take his place. What he has given, what he stands for, the intelligence, the care, the craft, the light and the weight of it, it's all dying. Pay attention. Be present. Be grateful.

What we learn: they chose Seurat because his life history is a blank ("with Van Gogh, you would have to do the ear"); they could fashion any fiction they liked from the painting. Forty-eight people and not one of them is looking at anybody else. The only figure missing is the artist.

Act I: 1884. Costumes in coffees and creams, a neutral palette; you cannot compete with the colors in the painting, so why try? The effect is the same.

Audra McDonald is gorgeous but somehow too strong—too confident from the start, which hampers the evolution of her character: she is what she is the whole way through. Her voice is strong, glorious, but she frequently drowns out Michael Cerveris in their duets. He is better on his own, and freer, especially with “The Day Off,” a number I’ve always skipped on the CD. (He barks like a dog? He barks like a dog!) Some 14 years after I first heard this music, it is new for me again. A small treasure I’ve been overlooking all along. Shame on me. And as for my dear Patti: she is magic. One brief song, one brief scene, when Yvonne confesses to Dot that her husband will not paint her—“Too flat. Too...angular.”—you glimpse the inside of something.

And throughout: Seurat’s sketches projected against a blank white screen, as we see what he sees in his pad. The making of art. Staccato beats, refrains and echoes, the color, the light, the hat. The extraordinary cost of it all.

Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat.
Mapping out a sky,
What you feel like, planning a sky,
What you feel when voices that come
through the window
go
until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky.

The end of the act is thrilling as always, the characters align and shift, pause and shift again, reach their final positions and freeze—a breath, a heartbeat, a shiver—as “the Seurats” sweep the white canvas away and you see it in full for the first time. A masterpiece. Here the presence of the orchestra onstage is obtrusive; it effectively cuts the painting in half. But that moment is enough. It is what lasts.

People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday...

Act II: The characters resume their places in the painting. A long pause as the orchestra waits, as the audience waits—time suspended—for the spell to be broken. Immortality stifles. It's hot up there, and dull. They did not ask for this. The figures unfreeze, bicker and fidget and begin to break apart. The ladies lower their parasols. Seurat is "no longer," they tell us. One by one they leave the stage. Everything changes.

1984. Michael Cerveris: I can’t be the first person who sees Mike Myers doing Dr. Evil? A minor distraction, but all those poor Seurats, forced to shave their heads; goodness, that is dedication for a three-performance concert. (Note that Patti’s son was spared.) “Putting It Together”: the lyrics are a bit muddied, but it is a difficult scene, navigating levels, fixing his doubles in their places, pulling them back as they threaten to drift away. Audra as Marie is magnificent—warm, funny, calming. Here is the character, not the actress. “Children and Art” is by far her best number. In “Move On,” we revert somewhat, but her confidence fits. Dot has become the teacher.

And the finale: The characters, ghosts now, return once more to take up their poses (and again, it is thrilling), but the background rehearsal film playing over the final chords diminishes the whole. The intent is clear (and powerful: there is one shot of the actors standing in their characters’ places on the grounds of the Ravinia park, trees towering behind them; it fades to white as an image of Sondheim and James Lapine fades in), but where should my attention be? Here or there? An odd staging choice that makes what should be resonant feel rushed.

But complaints are trivial. The summer ends as all summers should, and I am reminded.

Lesson: Ask yourself every day, again and again and again, in the midst of all this deep, unknowing darkness: what is your greatest joy in life? And then find an answer.

This is mine.

Meeting Patti LuPone

I've loved Patti since the beginning of time, or at least since I was 17. It's been 17 years since I was 17, so I'll let you do the math, but I think that's saying something. Everybody needs a diva and she's my diva, the one I never grew out of. She's in town for Sunday in the Park with George but also a two-night gig of her "Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda" show, which was like Patti cocaine to this aging Patti fan. Oh my God, she did all the top hits, including "Meadowlark" and "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," "Don't Rain on My Parade," and my favorite, "I Was Here." That last number led to an intermission discussion with two dudes sitting next to me who I then forced to stagedoor with me. Where I got to meet Patti LuPone. PATTI LUPONE. She's wearing stage makeup, btw, she's not a clown. Nor am I a boy. Good guess, though!

Don't cry for me, Argentina

1987: On a high school road trip to Florida with Kris and Meredith, Trixie hears Evita and Patti LuPone (and Mandy Patinkin!) for the first time (i.e., sigh. Once a dorkl, always a dorkl.). She is transfixed.

1998: On a roundabout (and around and around and around) drive to Rosemont for PubTech, poor Chips is forced to listen to both Evita and Sunset Boulevard ad nauseam. Amazingly, she does not A) throw herself into oncoming traffic, or B) cut Trixie out of her life forever. However, she has since refused to sign up for any long rides with Trixie at the wheel.

2002: On The Night That Would Not End, CV and Mrs. Smith suffer through floods, fog, hunger, and exhaustion so Trixie can see Patti LuPone perform live in a real Sondheim show.

2004: Well, it only took seventeen years. (But lucky for all of you, Trixie has finally learned to go it alone.)

Setting the stage: Ah, chilly chilly night. Chilly. Chilly. Night. In other words, positively gorgeous. Ravinia is Trixie's very own version of Wonderland.

Highlights: Hmmm. Difficult to choose when every moment is a highlight. #1 for Trixie: "Don't Rain on My Parade." #2: "Easy to Be Hard." #3: "I Was Here." Special note: "A Boy Like That/I Had a Love," a duet from West Side Story in which our fearless Miss Patti plays both roles. Really, you had to be there.

Lowlights: Oh, that the evening had an ending.

Again: Ravinia

Ahem: As Chips forgoes a hot & buggy night with the BoDeans in favor of learning (learning!), Salsa and Trixie make the trek to Ravinia alone.

Although the weather threatens its usual downpour/storm/flood (a la "The Night That Would Not End," circa 2002)  it quickly becomes clear that any so-called "Ravinia Travel and/or Dining Curse" has, in fact, been perpetrated by Mrs. Smith all along. Any blame previously directed toward CV is therefore regretted and withdrawn.

To wit: Trixie arrives downtown via Metra train without incident; she and Salsa and drive to Highland Park in record time; diverted from the main parking corral, they find a free lot just blocks away from the festival.

Hmmm.

Two rented lawnchairs and a side table later, Trixie somehow manage to insult a group of four strangers by kindly asking them to please make sure no one wanders off with said rentals. Whatever; strangers like these are the reason she hates strangers. The carry-out dinner, while expensive by normal-eating standards, also goes off without a hitch: a prime rib sandwich, the garlic/parmesan fries she has long coveted (bacon & cheddar-loaded for Salsa), and a nice cold beer all go down smoothly. The poor suckers at the Buffets-from-the-World tables look on with longing and regret.

Darkness falls. The bugs arrive. The Deep Woods Off! seems to work (fingers crossed -- no sign of West Nile yet). The BoDeans play in their mellow, inoffensive BoDeans way. There is random dancing on the lawn but the niceties of personal space and picnic boundaries are observed; the Tweeter Center should take a lesson. Candles flicker and sparklers sparkle. Children frolic unobtrusively along the sidelines, the ice cream is good as ever. The rain waits. The crowd is friendly. All is politeness.

And afterward? A Saugatuck-like stroll back to the free lot, where intuition and a little blind faith lead Salsa to the Best Accidental Detour ever, allowing him to circumvent the dreaded Lake-Cook post-show traffic jam for a quick, clean getaway.

Lesson learned? Mrs. Smith will be invited back next year, but she's no longer allowed to A) drive or B) direct. It simply isn’t worth the pain.

Next up: Patti LuPone. Woo hoo!

A little night music, pt III

Observations, for posterity:

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Ravinia Festival

Gala Benefit Concert: Night of the Century

Setting the stage: 

All is as it should be. Flawless weather, clear blue sky, a meandering breeze, towering white tents, ladies in jewel-colored floor-length gowns, men in tuxedos, row after row of blankets and regular people stretched across the bright green expanse of the lawn.

Highlights: 

* Strauss, Trio and finale from Der Rosenkavalier (Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Heidi Grant Murphy): three glorious soprano voices twining and rising together, sheer perfection marred only by an unfortunate staging decision that leads the audience to laugh over the finale's most famous (and not at all funny) line. Shameful!

* Ravel, Bolero (Chicago Symphony Orchestra): predictable and done almost to death, but stirring against one’s own better judgment. Of special note is the conductor electing to stand motionless for the first 11 or 12 minutes of the piece, leaving only a slight, bald man surrounded by instruments, waiting patiently while they pass the repetition from woodwind to woodwind, from string to string, from brass to brass—thereby creating the illusion that he is silently conjuring the music

Lowlights: 

* Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 (Lang Lang): sorry, but slow slow and too damn long long … and while I acknowledge that he may be a genius, I am no great lover of the piano (heretic!), and the incessant orgiastic head swaying is more than a little disconcerting

* Cicadas. One word: blech.

* A three-hour concert with no scheduled intermission? A crime against humanity.

Sunday, August 1, 2004

Ravinia Festival

An Evening with Renée Fleming

Setting the stage: 

Three words: (seriously fucking) H. O. T.

Highlights:

* The operatic portion of the evening: signature after crowd-pleasing signature giving full reign to that rich, soaring voice. In particular, “Ebben, ne andro lontana,” "Merci jeunes amies," and “Cacilie.” Spectacular evidence of a gifted artist in her prime.

* "The Water Is Wide/Shenandoah." Soulful and jazzy.

* Bernstein, Overture to Candide (CSO): bright, sparkling, and lively

* Um, a small but not insignificant thing we like to call “A Backstage Pass to Meet Renée Fleming.” Who proves to be gracious, well-mannered, welcoming, strikingly unpretentious, a little mom-like, and short.

Lowlights:

* Alas, the showtunes portion of the evening is considerably less effective than the rest. Here the voice is simply too big and sounds both overwrought and shrill…displaying an excess of frilly plumage, if you will. Certainly I empathize with the impulse (woo hoo! showtunes!), but the result is forced and ultimately unflattering. And yet it’s heartening somehow to know that even Official Divas can’t do everything.

* Once again: (too fucking) H. O. T.