One Singular Sensation...

Contrary to the signs gracing our fair city for the past month, I don’t think A Chorus Line is the best musical of all time. I do, however, think it is pretty high up there. If pressed to rank my top five musicals of all time, I don’t think it would make the cut, considering I'm such a loyal disciple to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and messieurs Schoenberg and Boublil. Still, I have been listening to the soundtrack as long as I can remember, and I was eagerly anticipating the show’s arrival in Chicago this spring.

Last night, we went as a family to go see it at the Oriental Theater as a sort of early Mother’s Day celebration, complete with a delicious pre-theater dinner at Trattoria No. 10. I must say, despite my initial enthusiasm, I left the theater with mixed feelings. It’s undeniable that the show has an incredible collection of songs. Even if you aren’t a dancer, there is a song to speak to you at every stage in your life. Who doesn't want to be loved ("At the Ballet")? Who hasn't felt confused about the changes in their life ("Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love")? Who hasn't just wanted a chance ("Music and the Mirror")? I defy you to listen from beginning to end and not be touched at least once.

That said, I was still a little disappointed by this particular production. After years and years of listening to the original Broadway cast, their renditions of the songs are burned into my mind as the definitive versions. I just couldn't wrap my mind around some of the casting choices in the current revival. The actress playing Sheila might have looked the part, and was fully possessive of the requisite sass for the role, but her nasal singing voice ruined "At the Ballet," my favorite number. The actress playing Val was not voluptuous enough to be believable as the proud owner of newly enhanced T&A. Cassie, at least, had a fairly strong voice, and danced her heart out during "Music and the Mirror" but I didn't sense any of the necessary star quality in her to support Zach's disappointment in her willingness to lower herself to dancing in the chorus. The star of the show for me was the actress playing Morales, even though "Nothing" and "What I Did for Love" aren't my favorite songs.

Ultimately, I left the theater with a sad realization: I only like the soundtrack. I'm not sure what I was expecting from a story that covers only an audition, but I found the bare stage a little tedious, despite the creative use of mirrors. I should have anticipated the long intervals of dancers learning and rehearsing choreography, yet I had difficulty maintaining my interest. Paul's lengthy soliloquy regarding his homosexuality was impeccably acted and very moving, but I found myself wondering when it would end so there would be another song.

That's the problem with having inflexible expectations in life -- reality can seldom measure up. Don't get me wrong; A Chorus Line provided a great night of theater. By no means was it a poor production, or unentertaining. Try as it might, it just wasn't the "One" I was looking for, and there's no way it could have been.


Culture Has Its Price...

This morning I read an article in the Tribune about the impending opening of the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute, and it really rankled my feathers. In it, the author touts the new addition as a hopeful sign “that temporary economic conditions can't thwart Chicago's ambition and commitment to its cultural life.” He paints a picture of the museum’s directors as brave souls who pursued their vision in the face of tremendous economic hardship. The truth is, as the author acknowledges in the article, the project began back in 1999. By the time the economy started to tank last year, the Art Institute was too far into the project to scuttle the new wing – it was already near completion. It simply would not have made economic sense to leave the new building empty.

More irksome, however, is the incessant negative attention that the Art Institute is receiving for its decision to raise its admission price from $12 to $18. Today’s article does a good job of pointing out that the new price is a flat fee, inclusive of special exhibit admission and coat check services. At the $12 price point, admission to special exhibitions cost an extra $8. Plus, the Art Institute offers free admission to children under the age of 12, and they join the Chicago History Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in offering regularly scheduled free admission days (even if theirs is limited to a few hours).

On the other hand, many of Chicago’s most prestigious cultural institutions, including the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry schedule their free days seemingly at random, which has the effect of minimizing the number of visitors who can take advantage of them. Furthermore, all of these institutions have entrance fees that eclipse that of the Art Institute:

  • Basic admission to the Field Museum is $15, but to see just one special exhibit is $23. Seeing both special exhibits sets you back a whopping $29.
  • The Shedd Aquarium comes in at $17.95, a mere five cents cheaper than the proposed price of admission at the Art Institute, but the Shedd also charges $13.95 for children between the ages of 3 and 11 – a major segment of their audience.
  • The basic admission at the Museum of Science and Industry costs $13, but to see an Omnimax movie the cost bumps up to $20. If you want to see the new Harry Potter exhibit that’s about to open, you’ll have to shell out $26, and should you want to see the special exhibit and an Omnimax movie, get ready to pay $33!

Outside of Chicago, comparable museums are charging similar prices:

  • It costs $20 to get into the door at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  • The Guggenheim in New York costs $18.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art requests a “suggested donation” of $20.
  • Atlanta’s High Museum of Art charges a flat fee of $18, just like the Art Institute.

Vice President Biden is in town today as the keynote speaker at the Global Town Forum at UIC. If Chicago is indeed a “global city,” and the Art Institute a world-class museum, then why all the public outrage over its price of admission? I have no love for Adam Smith, but in this case, I say, let the market decide. If the Art Institute is going to compete nationally for tourist dollars, then let it charge the same prices that the market is supporting elsewhere. Admission numbers don’t lie; if the cost of entry is too high, visitors will let the Art Institute know by staying home.

Click here for a great article on the fiscal situation at Chicago museums published in the Chicago Reader this January. The information is a little out of date by now, but it’s still a good read if you are interested in the state of our cultural institutions.


In Search of Perfection...

What could possibly be more appropriate as an inaugural blog post, than a missive regarding cookies? Everyone who knows me knows that I love to bake, and I love baking cookies above all else. My reasons are endless: the ingredients come together quickly; if you skip the stand mixer, almost everything can go in the dish washer; if you use parchment paper, you don’t have to wash the cookie sheet; cookies are easily portable for giving away to people at work to prevent you from eating the entire 2-3 dozen batch; cookies are just plain delicious, etc., etc., etc.

My track record with other baked goods is spotty at best. I’ve made a great number of mediocre cakes, with the exception of one fool-proof, mind-numbingly delicious chocolate cake recipe that I have come across, but that is a whole ‘nother post unto itself. In fact, my attempts to make Grandma Betsy’s Texas Cake have been so disastrous that Mom told me I should just give it up. But there is one thing that I seemingly can’t give up, and that is the pursuit of the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

Personally, I feel like a person’s attitude toward recipes says a lot about their outlook on life. Some people find one thing that they like, and they make it that way for the rest of their life. Generally, this is my attitude toward recipes. I will never try a new snickerdoodle recipe, I will always want Texas Cake made from the original recipe (even if I seem challenged in reproducing it myself), and I will be making spaghetti with meat sauce the same way Mom does, for the rest of my life. Yet when it comes to the chocolate chip cookie, I find myself on a perpetual quest for perfection, trying recipe after recipe.

I may have inherited that trait from Grandma Betsy. Goodness knows she’s tried to fix enough recipes that weren’t broken to begin with. This used to drive me crazy, until I recognized the same tendency within myself. Now it still drives me crazy, but at least I can understand where she’s coming from. Mom is always saying that I’m turning into Grandma a little more every day, and I say, I could do a lot worse. But I digress; this post is about the cookies I made this week:

I had previously come to the conclusion that last year’s recipe from the NY Times was the ne plus ultra of the genre, yet when I saw the new recipe in Cook’s Illustrated this month, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. What if it was better than the chewy, salty/sweet, toffee-flavored perfection of my beloved recipe? Initially, the idea of browning the butter and using a part of an egg (for whatever reason, I generally shy away from separating eggs for recipes) kept me away, but eventually, I couldn’t deny the
recipe’s siren song.

I made them Wednesday night, fully cognizant of the irony of baking cookies while watching an evening full of America’s Next Top Model and Make Me a Supermodel. The verdict? Disappointing. The cookies did not spread very much, and as a result there was no delicious interplay between the crispy exterior and chewy interior like there is in the NY Times cookies. And while the fleur de sel sprinkling on the top has it’s critics (Mom), I really like the salty/sweet thing. Plus, without the 36-hour rest period, they just couldn’t match the complexity of flavor from my old favorites. I mean, just look at how sad they were:
For comparison purposes, here is a photo of some of the NY Times cookies from a few months ago:
So what lesson is there to be learned from this whole escapade? Should I give up the quest, and accept the perfection of the recipe I already have? For the time being, I say yes, but don’t hold me to that. I think Grandma might be on to something. Nothing makes you appreciate the greatness of what you already have like realizing that something exotic and new just can’t compare.

For those of you who are curious, here is the recipe for the NY Times cookies. I make mine 2 5/8 of an ounce, and they are plenty large. Also, don't feel compelled to hunt down the $30 Valrhona feves; the Ghiradelli semisweet chips from the grocery store work just fine.


Live From Chicago...

Well, I decided it was time to jump on the bandwagon. I mean, if my cousins can juggle childrearing and blogging, then what is my excuse? If this is how we are going to keep in touch as a family, then I think it’s time for me to get with the times, and stop lurking as a commenter on other people’s blogs. I mean, I may not have any cute children to offer pictures of, but maybe my single, urban life can offer some nugget of amusement for those of you who have moved on with your adult lives.

Not that this is my first attempt at blogging. At various points in my life I have tried to start a blog, only to fall prey to my natural shyness. I never let anyone read any of my previous efforts, and I think that was ultimately what brought me down – lack of accountability. With no audience besides myself, there was nobody to make me feel guilty for failing to post.

So there it is. May you find some entertainment value to my abundant social awkwardness, my travails on public transportation, my adventures in the kitchen, and my random musings on life in general.

(And for the record, I took the title of my blog from a song by Belle and Sebastian, my favorite band. You should check them out.)