Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Back from the Desert

I was in Chicago this past weekend, but it was more like a visit to the desert. Northern Illinois hasn't had rain in weeks, and the foliage is definitely showing it. There is a ban on all watering in some areas, so the lawns are barren, tan wastelands, and even the trees and bushes are looking peaked. in the outer areas, the farmers stare at their dry, dusty fields, knowing that they won't be able to coax out a crop this year. The heat feels like a blast furnace, since there is so little moisture in the air. With temperatures in the 90s, Chicagoans are quickly learning that the old saying "Dry heat isn't so bad" is a myth. Hot is hot, no matter what.

Apparently I've gotten used to high humidity, as I found the dry heat much less tolerable. My body has adapted to the Floridian steam bath; I used to gasp for a breath in the hot, heavy air, but now I bask in it. My husband has always loved it, and I thought he was crazy, but now it's my preference too.

Of course, like all my fellow Floridians, I stay inside during the hottest part of the day. We're a state of vampires, hiding from the worst part of the relentless summer sun and venturing out in the "coolness" of the evening.

My trip to Chicago was a quickie, taken only to see "The Lion King" and to get together with friends. My husband and I flew out on Friday afternoon, and on Saturday night, we went out to dinner with friends from the western 'burbs. Traditionally, we would all go out to eat and then head out to our favorite comedy club, which featured he luxury of a non-smoking showroom. Unfortunately, the club has moved, and smoking is now allowed. Despite assurances from the reservation taker that "It's well ventilated," we took a pass. My friend is even more sensitive to smoke than I am, and she didn't relish the idea of spending the evening sucking in her inhaler.

Instead, we ate at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Luigi's House (it's owned by Portillo's, although that won't mean anything to anyone but my fellow Chicago natives). Then, we headed to our friends' house for dessert. They had purchased a tempting selection of little cakes and streudels from Panera Bread...mmmm! We enjoyed our goodies and coffee sitting on their patio; not quite the comedy club, but still a fun interlude.

On Sunday, we picked up my brother and sister-in-law and headed to the Loop to see "Lion King." It was the third time for my husband and I, but a first for our companions. Despite being a tall, skinny, tatooed truck driver with "Pollack/redneck" practically written on his forehead, my brother has a secret passion for Broadway. One of his favorite satellite radio channels plays nothing but show tunes, and he immerses himself in them for hours on the road.

Having been underwhelmed by "Wicked" after my brother's glowing reviews (based on radio descriptions), I was anxious to show him what a real production was all about. Even he had admitted that "Wicked" was a disapointment; his expectations had been based on the Broadway version, and the special effects are not up to par in the touring company.

The show was held at the Cadillac Palace, my favorite restored theater in Chicago's burgeoning theater district. I think GM footed the bill (hence the name), and they apparently spared no expense in returning the building to its former glory. We also have a Ford Theater (shades of Abraham Lincoln) and the non-creatively named Chicago Theater. Disney restored the Chicago Theater a few years back, but their shows are always at one of the others. I saw a few plays there right after the restoration ("Joseph" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"), but now it mainly hosts concerts.

My husband had snared fifth row tickets using a Disney Visa online booking code. According to the seating chart, they should have been prime seats. Unfortunately, they were so far off to the side that we couldn't see a whole section of the stage. I was not a happy camper, as we'd paid full premium price for what amounted to an obstructed view. The Disney Visa code was "PRIDE" but it should have been "SUCKER." It wasn't so bad for us because we'd seen the show before from two prime locations (eighth row center and second row balcony). But I felt sorry for my sister-in-law and brother, who were experiencing it for the first time. From our terrible angle, they'd be missing the impact of most of the special effects.

I guess we should have gone the VIP package route; it's $30 a ticket more, but well worth every penny. That's how we got our eighth row center tickets. You also get the use of a VIP lounge and private restrooms, but that part is totally worthless. The lounge doesn't have nearly enough tables and chairs, and the restrooms are literally two toilets for dozens and dozens of people. I learned that it was quicker to use the main facilities with the rest of the hoi polloi. You get snacks and drinks, too, but it's not worth the $30. Basically, you're ponying up the extra cash to get the prime seats.

Hindsight is 20/20, but meanwhile we were stuck in our corner. At least the show was as good as I remembered it; several of the cast members we had seen previously were still in the touring company. Scar was absolutely the best; I love his sneering Shakespearean haughtiness. The kids (young Simba and Nala) were different than last time, and a little weaker, but not enough to lessen our enjoyment of the show. Timon and Pumbaa were played by different actors, too, and these two played it very close to the movie characterizations.

"Lion King" is hard to describe. If you think that it's people in animal costumes, you're technically correct, but that doesn't even come close to conveying what the show is like. The costumes and puppetry are breathtaking. It starts off with a bang, just as the movie did, with the "presentation of baby Simba" scene. The stage teems with every sort of creature you can imagine, from stilt-walking giraffes to a full-sized elephant that enters down the theater aisle.

The show is nearly three hours long, but it never bores me. Well, okay, "never" is too strong of a word. There are two sequences that I absolutely hate, and both involve new songs by Elton John. Normally, I love his music, but these two numbers grate on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. The first, "Morning Report," is a stupid slapstick chain of puns sung by Zazu as Mufasa teaches Simba to stalk him. The second, "Chow Down," is a "humorous" (I use the term lightly) song sung by the hyenas as they prepare to eat Simba and Nala in the elephant graveyard.

Most of the music that was added to the play is African-esque and fits in seemlessly. There are two new songs that give me goosebumps (the one sung by Nala when she leaves the Pridelands and Simba's treatise to his father's spirit). I have no idea why the writers, producers, or whoever felt they had to add two piles of annoying, not-funny dreck.

The additions also surprise me because a lot of people believe this is a show for kids; why stretch it so it pushes the three hour mark? Halfway through, the little ones are already fidgeting like they have ants in their pants. Their parents might appreciate the majesty of people dressed like grass while dancing lionesses stalk their pray, but it goes right over Junior's head. Every time we've seen the show, several families have bailed during the intermession, never to return. This time, there was a little girl in front of us who was obviously bored out of her skull. She kept squirming, and her parents kept whispering to her. No doubt they were saying, "We paid $85 a head for this show, so you'd better sit still, shut up, and damn well LOVE IT!"

My brother claimed he was bored, too. While the rest of us watched in rapt fascination, he was thinking about how much he wanted a cigarette. He did admit that it was better than "Wicked," and he claimed to enjoy the second half, but he declared that "The Producers" is a much better show. Granted, I liked "The Producers," but it doesn't even begin to compare to "Lion King." As for "Wicked," their big special effect consisted of the witch flying up into the air, holding her broom. In "Lion King," during one sequence here are four people flying around and doing acrobatics. Nuff said.

After the show, we went to Lawry's for prime rib. Since it's the one restaurant that has no equivalent in Florida, it's the place I always drag poor hubby. While 99% of their menu consists of prime rib served i various cuts, they do have a fish special every day. It happened to be tuna, so he didn't suffer too badly. He got yellowfin served nearly raw, just the way he likes it, while I indulged in prime rib slathered in heavenly whipped cream/horseradish sauce.

Monday morning came all too quickly. I'm always anxious to return to Florida, but with a 7 a.m. flight, I had to be up and functioning by 4:30. Ugh! Worse yet, I realized just how much my body has adapted to Florida. The pre-dawn temperature was 75 degrees; I was wearing shorts and freezing my butt off! I've gone swimming in colder temperatures than that, but apparently now I'm a wimpy, heat-loving Floridian who gets a chill in anything below 80.

My husband was remaining in Chicago for the week, so he drove me to the airport and left his car in the commuter lot where he could pick it up after work. The security line seemed to go on for miles; I thought I'd be one of the last at the gate, but I ended up being first in the A line. For those who don't fly Southwest, this is important because there are no assigned seats. It's first come, first served; thus, you need to get an A boarding pass and then be among the first in the A line to get the seat of your choice.

I watched two families try to pass off an 8 year old and 11 year old, respectively, as young enough for the pre-board (which is for kids age 4 and under). Both of them were rebuffed and sent to the end of their lettered lines, mumbled curses under their breath. Then the As were let onto the plane, and I managed to grab my favorite exit row. I grabbed a pillow and blanket and made myself a little nest against the window, where I promptly fell asleep. I spent most of the flight in a state of semi-consciousness, catching up on some sorely needed zzzzz's.

The people sitting next to me lived in Florida, too. I had dragged myself back to the world of the living in time to watch the landing, and one of them commented to me, "Isn't it nice to see all that green?" I realized what a contrast it was to the brown, dying plant life in Chicago. Too bad we can't send them a few of our afternoon thundrstorms.

Now, all our play tickets are used up, so I won't be returning to the Windy City until it's time for our next outing with friends, sometime in August. That doesn't phaze me at all; I'm content in hot, humid, stormy Florida. I'll take it over the Chicago desert any day.

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