By Ken Trainor
What do Mary Poppins, Jazz and Ben Vereen have in common? Well, they made for a couple of entertaining weekends in the first half of March as winter refused to relinquish its grip, driving me indoors and giving all of us an extra reason to partake of local culture offerings.
The stage version of Mary Poppins is different enough from the film to freshen it. And in the ambitious hands of the OPRF Theater Department, it also proved a technical tour de force. The audience for these annual late winter/early spring musical extravaganzas still seem to comprise mostly family and friends, which is a missed opportunity for theater, and specifically musical, buffs.
The voices were strong, the showstopper dance numbers ("Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Step in Time") were spectacular, and the special effects breathtaking (especially for the parents of the actors, particularly Bert the chimney sweep, who at one point walks up one wall then loped upside down across the stage before spinning head over heels several times safely down to the stage boards).
This was one time I was glad to be able to see the wires. I'll bet his parents were, too.
Bert (Jonas Talandis) and Mary Poppins (Lizzie Maguire) were top-notch. Even the bird woman, Lucy Economos ("Feed the Birds") had a strong voice. Year after year, the talent keeps coming, and it's remarkable that they can get more than 100 student actors involved in these productions, with plenty of boys and plenty of diversity represented.
It was certainly worth the price of admission, and it's also a good way to stick your head inside the high school that you're paying taxes for, not to mention seeing the good use to which those tax dollars are put.
The third year Jazz Thaw, an innovative promotion that brings plenty of potential customers into Downtown Oak Park restaurants by offering live jazz, looked to be quite successful. Customers are encouraged to move from restaurant to restaurant, sampling both the jazz and the food and drink.
Some establishments seem better able to handle the influx. La Notte, a small space and in its first year of business, seemed a bit overwhelmed. Lake Street Kitchen + Bar was more capacious and accommodating, no doubt because they've been through the drill twice before. WDCB-FM's Barry Winograd was on hand playing baritone sax accompanied by Jim Ryan on keyboard. WDCB is a co-sponsor of the event and, judging by the response to Winograd, Oak Parkers are loyal listeners.
Sushi House was a revelation. They've got a cozy, old-fashioned bar and jazz venue tucked away in their lower level, featuring the Darwin Noguera Latin Jazz Trio. Felt like something right out of New York or La La Land.
Mancini's featured vocalist Petra Van Nuis, accompanied by her husband, Andy Pratt on guitar. The place was packed, but restaurant staff and patrons amicably took it all in stride. We eventually got a table and had dinner during Van Nuis' second set.
We turned it into a progressive dinner, not a bad way to see a Saturday afternoon into the evening.
The following Saturday afternoon into evening found us at Lund Auditorium on the campus of Dominican University for the 37th Annual Trustee Benefit and Gala Concert. Dominican draws big-name performers for this event and Ben Vereen answered the call this time around. Vereen, now in his early 70s, used to be considered a "triple threat," i.e. singing, dancing and acting. Unlike Fred Astaire, who famously (according to an early agent) couldn't sing or act but sure could dance a little, Vereen no longer has the voice he once had and didn't dance (he looked somewhat frail, in fact), but he sure can act, and he still moves, bringing his considerable charisma to bear in every line of his songs, even managing to inject new life into that tired old cliché, "My Way," which takes enormous chutzpah even to attempt. But he pulled it off.
It's pretty much impossible not to like Ben Vereen and this evening was no exception. The concert had a valedictory feel, as if it might be his last tour, and indeed he made it clear he was doing it as a thank-you to his fans. He also made it an unabashed promotion of the arts and arts education, getting the entire crowd on its feet to sing "Stand for the arts" to the tune of "Stand By Me."
He connected with his audience, sold every song, and his performance was a testament to old pros.
Here's to the ones whose dreams came true.