Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hamilton in Chicago: Review

Shirt for Hamilton Chicago
(for the uninitiated: That's the Chicago flag)
Like many others, I've been obsessed with Hamilton: An American Musical since the cast recording was released last year. (Actually, I was obsessed with it even before the recording was released; there just wasn't as much to listen to.)

A few months after the show opened on Broadway, my parents gave me my birthday gift: a trip for my mom and me to fly to New York and see the show! Sadly, we had underestimated how expensive tickets would be. (We knew they would be a lot, but didn't realize we'd literally need to sell a body part.) Shortly after postponing the New York trip until "sometime later," plans were announced for the opening of the show in Chicago. It meant we'd have to wait for it, but it would likely be less expensive, especially since travel would only require the cost of gas and parking, no hotel or flights necessary.

When tickets for Hamilton Chicago went on sale back in June, I dedicated the whole morning to getting some. I sat there with my phone, my iPad, and my computer (with two different browsers open) desperate to snag some tickets. I wound up scoring two seats for a couple days before my birthday.

On November 22, my mom and I headed into the city to finally catch the show!

I had been worried about two things: 1) That after having listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times, the show itself wouldn't be as exciting as it would have been otherwise, and 2) That I wouldn't like the performers in Chicago as much as I liked the voices of the original cast.

I needn't have worried. As to worry #1: There is so much more to the show than just the music. I had read about things like the rotating stage and the dramatic death scene (spoiler alert: Hamilton dies), and both really brought the story to life, so to speak. Even just the body language and facial expressions of the actors added so much to the music. Although there are funny/amusing parts to the soundtrack, the humor comes through much more in person, as does the drama. The show was amazing, and everything I had hoped it would be.

As to worry #2, the cast was fantastic. There were a couple parts I didn't enjoy quite as much as the originals, and a couple that I thought were better. Mostly the cast members were different, but just as enjoyable. I'll explore that a little more, and keep in mind that I'm mainly basing my opinions against the cast recording, which means I'm not really comparing apples to apples. It's my only basis for comparison, though.

Now, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius. A true genius. I would have loved to have seen him perform in New York. But (I know this is sacrilegious) I don't love his voice/singing. Miguel Cervantes, who plays the lead role in Chicago, was probably better technically. Cervantes didn't blow me away (so to speak) but his performance was solid.

Angelica (Karen Olivo) and Laurens/Phillip (José Ramos) were also comparable to their New York counterparts. They didn't stand out as being significantly more or less impressive.

Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry) really grew on me. My initial reaction was that he was fine. I had nothing to complain about, but I didn't think he really stood out. Over the course of the show, though, he impressed me more. The pinnacle for him (in my opinion) was in "The Room Where it Happens." I've always liked that song, but Henry's phenomenal performance made me love it even more. When it ended I even thought to myself, "Good god." It was stunning.

There were two actors who stood out immediately, from the opening number, as something special. The first was Jonathan Kirkland as George Washington. I'm not going to say he was better than Christopher Jackson because I love Christopher Jackson, but Kirkland's voice was deep and rich and he played the role beautifully.

The second was Ari Afsar, who plays Eliza. Now, I'll admit, Eliza is probably my least favorite character (just from a vocal standpoint) on the original soundtrack. I've always felt like Phillipa Soo was a bit shrill, and it made me think of her parts as kind of whiny. In contrast, I found Afsar's voice to be lovely and compelling, and I enjoyed listening to her. Her performance of "Burn" was powerful and moving, and (again, sacrilegious to admit) it was the first time I truly enjoyed that song.

In Chicago King George is played by Alexander Gemignani. Now, I can't really compare his version to Jonathan Groff's because so much of King George involves body language and expressions, but I can say that he was immensely enjoyable. His voice and (singing) style were quite different from Groff's, but hilarious nonetheless. We loved him.

As I mentioned, there were a couple roles I didn't enjoy as much. Lafayette/Jefferson (Chris De'Sean Lee) was good. His acting and expressions were great, but his voice and overall character paled compared to Daveed Diggs (based on the soundtrack and the clips I've seen). Mulligan/Madison (Wallace Smith) also didn't quite live up to expectations. Even though the parts are relatively small, I really enjoy Okieriete Onaodowan's performances on the soundtrack. As Mulligan, his voice is deep and gravelly. As Madison, it's deep and refined. Smith, on the other hand, was sort of unremarkable. He wasn't bad at all; he just didn't stand out for me. I felt like Madison got a bit lost in the whole thing.

But even with the couple roles that seemed a bit underwhelming, I have no complaints at all. Seeing the show on stage was an enthralling experience, and I recommend it to everyone. (Duh, right?) Don't take out a second mortgage to get tickets, but if you have the chance don't throw away your shot at seeing this show.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Presidentress Gift Guide 2016

If this November hadn't been such a crappy, hectic month I would have had this post up and ready in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday and whatnot. Sorry. But better late than never, right? If you're looking for the perfect gift for the history nerd in your life, you've come to the right place. (You might also want to check out last year's gift guide, as most of it is still relevant.)

The Amazon links contained here are affiliate links. Shopping through them helps support this blog, so please do me a solid and use them. The other links are not affiliate links, so if you don't like me you can still feel good about clicking on them because they won't support me in any way.

Without further ado, here are my 2016 Holiday Picks:

If you don't already have the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, you should really get it. Really. And if you already have it, your next purchase should be the Hamilton Mixtape. It puts a new spin on those "old" beloved favorites from the show, with artists like Ja Rule, Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys, and Jimmy Fallon & The Roots. You can preorder it right now (some tracks are already available) but the whole album will be released next week.

Do you want to act out the musical while listening to the soundtrack? Then why not pick up some Hamilton, Jefferson, and Washington finger puppets?

We also have the Lincoln and Poe ones. (The Poe can represent John Wilkes Booth if you want to do any other theater reenactments.)

Or get a little radical with an Emma Goldman finger puppet. Think of all the fun you can have!

Maybe you're looking for something a little more sophisticated? Perhaps a nice, world-leader-scented candle to set the mood? Then you definitely need to check out JD and Kate Industries' shop on etsy. They're the folks behind Hottest Heads of State, and they've recently expanded their expertise into the candle-making business. You can select from candles that smell like Justin Trudeau, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump.

I have the Justin Trudeau-scented one, and it smells just like a warm, tender, Canadian hug. Also, it comes with a Justin Trudeau temporary tattoo!

If you like supporting independent artisans, and if you also like presidents overrun by rodents, this next item might be perfect for you.

I got this Andrew Jackson-hamster magnet last year from The Atomic 50s Housewife shop on etsy. I don't see it listed there anymore, but if you really, really want one, maybe you can contact her and she'd make one?

Next up are some great shirts from Amorphia Apparel. They have a ton of nerdy/geeky/funny shirts, but my favorite series are their History League shirts, which take historic people/events and turn them into pseudo-sports logos, and the Hirsute History shirts, which feature famous historical hair.

I couldn't decide which History League shirt I wanted, so I have two. The nice thing is that you can get a single logo or you can get two on a shirt to represent a "matchup." I have one shirt for the Muckrakers of the 4th Estate, and the other shirt is a matchup between the Roosevelt Trustbusters and the Robber Barons.

I don't yet have any Hirsute History shirts, but Chester Arthur is high on my list.

Or if you really want to stick with that Justin Trudeau theme, they've got him covered, too.

They also have the hair of actors, musicians, authors, philosophers, and more. Shirts are available in unisex and women's cuts.

If you're looking to support some non-profits, here are some ideas for you.

This year's White House Historical Association Christmas ornament honors Herbert Hoover and the four-alarm fire that occurred at the White House on Christmas Eve 1929. I'm planning on picking mine up at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, but you can order one online.

And while we're talking about Chester Arthur (we were, a minute ago), last year I created a picture of Chestnut A. Arthur. I had kind of forgotten about him until I recently read that the chestnuts we eat in America have been imported ever since a blight wiped out American chestnut trees in 1904. The American Chestnut Foundation is trying to reintroduce blight-resistant chestnut trees, and for a $10 donation, they'll plant one in honor of a person of your choice. It seemed fitting that I should have a tree planted in honor of Chestnut A. Arthur, and you can, too. (Or pick someone else...Chestnut A. Arthur won't be offended. In any case, help make American chestnuts great again.)

Oh, and if you want a presidential ring for that special someone? Let's talk.

Happy shopping!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Separated at Birth, Pt. 15

Rudy Giuliani and the alien from Alien.

A Tale of Two Podcasts

A few weeks ago I decided to try listening to some podcasts instead of playing the Hamilton soundtrack for the 34,000th time (not that there's anything wrong with that). I'd never listened to podcasts before, mainly because I didn't think I could. I'm more of a visual person than an auditory one, and I've never done well with audiobooks because my mind wanders too much. But I'd heard about the Presidential podcast from the Washington Post, and I rarely pass up an opportunity to engage in presidential stuff. Obviously.

The Presidential podcast started back in January with the goal of exploring one president per week leading up to the election. Because I didn't start listening until September I had a lot of catching up to do, but thanks to a few long drives and a couple long flights, I finished just a few days before the election. Whew!

Presidential looks at each president in chronological order. I know of several people whose goal is to read a biography of every president, and I commend them for that because I could never do it. There are some presidents I just don't find interesting enough to devote that kind of time to (I'm looking at you, James Monroe). But I could easily and happily devote 45 minutes of drive-time to learning about them.

Host Lillian Cunningham interviews experts from the Library of Congress, award-winning biographers, journalists, staff members (for more recent presidents), and even some family members to help give listeners insight into the presidents' lives, their terms, and their legacies. Although the episodes are largely serious, they're not at all stodgy. I think the podcast would feel approachable to presidential history newcomers and long-term aficionados alike.

Best of all, the episodes I thought would be the most boring often turned out to be the most interesting, particularly the ones about William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.

As I said, I finished that podcast (other than the post-election wrap-up episode) just days before the election. After the election, I desperately needed something to cheer me up, and that's where the next podcast entered my life.

The DC Improv has a podcast called The Other Side, and one of their features this year is something called Headliner of State, a search for the funniest president of all time.

Like Presidential, Headliner of State devotes an episode to each president, but not in chronological order. There's actually not any order I can discern, but that's okay. I like mixing things up.

Despite being produced by a comedic entity, the episodes are educational and often serious, but with a good dose of humor thrown in. I especially like the formal introduction given to each president by the announcer, who plays it very straight. I laughed out loud several times and almost drove off the road during the William Howard Taft introduction.

The people interviewed for Headliner of State include a wide range of experts. Sometimes the host, Chris White, speaks with biographers or staff members at presidential sites. Sometimes he talks with television humor writers who devoted time to a particular president (like a writer for Futurama who spent a lot of time on Nixon jokes, or the woman who wrote the "William Henry Harrison" episode of Parks and Recreation). For the Chester Arthur episode, he interviews facial hair historian (there is such a thing). For more recent presidents, he interviews the presidents' official joke writers, a position I didn't even know existed and led me to wish I had taken a different path in life.

The episodes always give an overview of the presidents' lives and administrations in a scholarly way, but also spend a lot of time (as one might expect) looking at the lighter side of their personalities.

I'm only about halfway through the series right now and they're still working on more episodes, so I can't tell you yet who is eventually deemed the funniest president of all time. Lincoln certainly seems to be the frontrunner right now, and unless there's a huge upset somewhere, Andrew Johnson will likely be crowned least funny.

If you're looking for a great way to pass the time on a road trip or just running around town, I highly recommend both of these podcasts. If anyone has recommendations for other good ones, please let me know. I have no problem going back to Hamilton but I'd like some other options, too.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Don't Blame Me. I Voted for Kodos

If you don't know The Simpsons, this might not make a lot of sense. Also, if you don't know The Simpsons, I feel very bad for you.

A while back I stumbled upon some election signs reddit user potmat had created for his yard. They're signs featuring Kang and Kodos, the aliens who make an appearance in every "Treehouse of Terror" episode, including one in which they impersonate Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in an attempt to win the 1996 election and take over the earth.

Obsessed with the idea of having these signs in my yard, I asked potmat if he was okay with my stealing the idea, and he said sure. So I sent the picture to my friend Heather and asked her to create a file with quality high enough for a yard sign. She did, and then I let it sit in my inbox for several months.

Finally the other day I sent the files to Office Max to be printed on heavy poster paper, which I then planned to glue onto an existing yard sign. Unfortunately, I guess someone at Office Max knows The Simpsons well enough to know that Kang and Kodos are, technically, copyrighted characters, and they wouldn't print them.

I resigned myself to not having awesome election signs.

Then, yesterday afternoon, inspiration struck: I could just paint them myself! But then I flashed back to junior high art class and having to make a grid over a comic strip and a grid on poster board, and having to freehand each part of the grid onto its corresponding square and how deathly boring that was, and I gave up. But then my brain remembered that I have a portable projector I use for showing videos in some classes I teach, and I realized I could use that to project the image onto a blank yard sign and trace it. Of course there would also be a lot of painting (and more and more tracing) involved, but at least I'd have my signs.

I hit the craft store (with lots of coupons, thankfully) for some acrylic paint, some paint pens, and some sealer. Mr. Presidentressor had already purchased a blank sign, probably at some man-store. (Sarcasm, people. I know women like Home Depot, too.) (Except I really don't. I always worry that one of those giant saws or a coil of wire balanced on a high shelf is going to fall on me.)

I set up the projector, hooked it up to my phone, and taped my blank sign to the wall. My 7-year-old "helped" me by talking incessantly about my tracing (which I did in pencil, by the way). I did Kang on one side, Kodos on the other.

Next I headed to the kitchen table and outlined the aliens in Sharpie. I wound up painting over Kang's name because the pencil showed through the paint and I figured it would be easier to go over them in white paint than to try painting around the blank parts with red.

Then we painted the red and blue background on the first side. I wasn't happy with how splotchy the paint looked at first, but a second coat of each made them better. Filling in the alien was actually lots of fun, although I did need to go back over some of the lines with Sharpie again once the paint had dried, just to keep them bold.

For the Kodos side, I decided to change up the color scheme. Instead of blue on top and red on the bottom, I left it white on top and went with blue on the bottom. That was partially because I'm impatient, and not painting something is quicker than painting it. But it's also because the white paint pen I got for doing the large letters wasn't working very well and I didn't want to deal with it anymore. As for the blue, it just covered better than the red.

From the beginning I had planned on going back and doing the smaller lettering at the end, I just wasn't sure how. I didn't want to freehand it, but I also didn't want to project it up against a wall, especially because I wasn't sure if the paint pens would even work that way. Ultimately, I wound up using the projector, but I rigged it (with a step stool and my kitchen table) to project down onto the floor.

When it was all done, I added a few coats of varnish. Unfortunately, there were a few places where the varnish (or more likely my brush) took off a bit of the acrylic paint, most notably on Kodos. Oops. Overall I'm happy with the results. It wound up costing less than getting the signs printed (although it also cost me about six hours of my life).

Since I wound up doing these on my own, I could have customized them to be different (or more different) than the ones the reddit user created. And had I started sooner than 72 hours before the election, I probably would have. (Heather pointed out that both aliens are Kodos---I could have used a different image for Kang.) Luckily we have four years before we have to go through this again, so I've got time to work on the next one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Teddy Roosepig

I tried finding a good presidential Halloween costume this year, but I came up short. You'd think with it being an election year there would be tons of options, but I just wasn't feeling any of them. I considered dressing up as Sexy Abraham Lincoln again and recruiting friends to go as Sexy Jefferson, Sexy TR, and Sexy Washington so we could collectively go as Sexy Mount Rushmore, but surprisingly few friends (read: none) wanted to join me. Their loss.

It's okay, though. The strange-presidential-costume theme continues in the Presidentress household thanks to my 5-year-old son insisting on being Teddy Roosepig.

I need to state here, emphatically, that this was not my idea. I'm not sure if I'm giving him all the credit or all the blame; I'm just saying.

It started when I showed my kids the Teddy Roosevelt costume I found on Amazon. They all rebuffed me, so I let it go. But then a few weeks later, my youngest came up with this pig thing and decided that he needed to morph it with Teddy Roosevelt.

At first I thought it would be disrespectful (unlike that classy Lincoln costume of mine), but I asked on Facebook and Twitter, and everyone who responded said that it was a great idea. A couple even said that Teddy himself would find it hilarious. So it happened. 

I bought the costume from Amazon, but when it came I saw that it didn't include the boots. So I found some kids costume boots on Amazon, too. (When I bought them, they were $10 with free Prime Shipping. They've gone up since then, which is unfortunate because you could buy some real kids' cowboy boots for the current price, I imagine.) Then I found a "pig kit" with a nose, clip-on tail, and ear headband. 

I cut the ears off the headband and hot-glued them to the hat, and I hot-glued the mustache to the snout. (I also trimmed the mustache a bit because it was far too bushy for TR.)

Because of my affinity for aardvarks, I know that the word "aardvark" comes from the Afrikaans (South African Dutch) words for land (aard) and pig (vark). Hence this costume should really be called Teddy Roosevark. Plus Roosevelt is a Dutch name, so it's even more appropriate. ("Roosevelt" apparently means "rose field," so Roosevark would, I suppose, mean rose-pig, and pigs are pink, after all. It's perfect.)

Maybe I'll reuse my Lincoln costume from last year so my kid and I can comprise half of a very dystopian Mount Rushmore this Halloween. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Cubs, Trump, and Armageddon

The Chicago Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908 and haven't even appeared in a World Series since 1945. It's not exactly a novel joke to suggest that the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series would result in armageddon. I've heard that joke all my life and have alluded to it on numerous occasions. And that's all it is: A joke...or is it?

The Cubs have made it into the postseason a few times in recent years, and each time I've been reminded of a particular short story by W. P. Kinsella. For those of you who aren't fans of baseball literature, Kinsella is a Canadian writer known in the U.S. for his stories about baseball, and his plots often involve at least a slight supernatural element. (His best known work is a novel called Shoeless Joe, the basis for the movie Field of Dreams.)

The short story in question is called "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon" from the collection The Thrill of the Grass. The premise is that the Cubs are having an unbelievably good year, but their manager has been receiving messages from God in the form of recurring dreams in which various people (including Al Capone and longtime Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley) plead with God to let the Cubs win. God tells them that the Cubs will win the last pennant before armageddon. Finally, with the team on the verge of clinching the pennant, international tensions between the United States and USSR have reached a critical level, and the Cubs' starting pitcher is showing signs of fatigue. The manager needs to decide whether to leave his starter in, which might cause the Cubs to lose but would also keep the world from ending, or whether he should pull his starter and bring in his reliable closer, thus winning the pennant but leading to a nuclear war that would wipe out civilization. (I won't tell you what happens.)

Even though that story is about the Cubs winning the National League championship, not the World Series,  I've always considered this a creative look at the typical "The Cubs winning the World Series will lead to armageddon!" joke. In the past it was just amusing but this year, just a few days after the end of the World Series, America will vote for a new president. That president might be Donald Trump, which could very well lead to the end of the world.

As I write this, the Cubs have won their Division Series and are headed to the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. (It should be noted that in Kinsella's story, the championship series is against...the Dodgers!)

Now, I'd love to see the Cubs in the World Series. I'm not exactly a Cubs fan, per se, but they've always been my favorite National League team. I spent good chunks of my childhood in Chicago and live in the Chicago 'burbs now. (It would be even better---though possibly more damning---if they face the Cleveland Indians, another perennial loser that hasn't won the World Series since 1948. I grew up an Indians fan in Northeast Ohio and have been waiting my whole life for them to finally win the whole thing. There's no doubt that a Cubs-Indians matchup would signal an apocalypse.)

Over the past few days, Donald Trump's campaign has taken a nosedive, so it seems less likely that he can win. Does that also mean the Cubs will lose? We'll have to wait and see.

Back in 2003, the Chicago Tribune ran an article about Kinsella's story. The Cubs were in the playoffs that year as were the Boston Red Sox, who hadn't won a World Series since 1918. In that article, Kinsella said that he wasn't rooting for either team to win because he likes them more as lovable losers. Neither team made it to the World Series that year. The Red Sox did wind up winning the World Series the following season and the world did not end, which is further proof that armageddon is dependent on the Cubs and not any other team.

In that 2003 article, Kinsella was asked what would happen if the Cubs won. He said, "You never know. We'll just have to see." Sadly, Kinsella won't know how it turns out this year because he died last month, which seems like a classically Kinsella-esque twist to this whole scenario.

Am I being melodramatic and superstitious? Yes, absolutely, and hopefully that's all it is. But if the Cubs and Donald Trump both win, there's no way you'll convince me it was just a coincidence.