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Chicago's Kartemquin Films announces $150,000 grant initiative for Midwestern filmmakers

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Not since “Hoop Dreams” in 1994 has Kartemquin Films, Chicago’s venerable nonprofit documentary powerhouse, enjoyed this kind of national profile.

“America to Me,” director Steve James’ 10-part nonfiction series about a year in the life of Oak Park and River Forest High School, continues on the Starz network through Oct. 28. One of that project’s three segment directors, Bing Liu, came through Kartemquin’s Diverse Voices in Docs mentorship program four years ago. Earlier this summer, Liu’s Rockford-focused documentary feature, “Minding the Gap,” opened to exceptional reviews and is currently streaming on the Hulu network.

On the heels of those two projects: On Nov. 1 at the downtown Chicago Union League Club, Kartemquin will hold a fundraising luncheon presentation featuring James, Liu and a host of Midwestern filmmakers whose projects are receiving Kartemquin financing.

The $150,000 initiative is backed by the Sage Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Voqal Fund and the Forum Fund, Part of the money goes to Kartemquin’s Diverse Voices program; the rest of it supports first-time or emerging directors who are among Kartemquin’s rangy network of nearly 500 filmmaking alums.

For tickets ($250) to the Nov. 1 “Empowering Truth Benefit Luncheon,” go to ktqbenefit.com. The Union League Club of Chicago is located at 65 W. Jackson Blvd.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

MORE COVERAGE: In ‘Minding the Gap,’ a filmmaker goes home again for a personal triumph of nonfiction inquiry »

‘America to Me’ at Sundance and Starz: a review »


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CSO and Muti review: A shattering 'Babi Yar' sends a message

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Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” looms large in the orchestral repertory of the 20th century and in the art of Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti.

He first conducted the 1962 epic in Rome, in 1970, marking its Western European premiere at a time when few orchestras anywhere were playing Shostakovich’s shattering indictment of anti-Semitism, genocide and the despair of life in the Soviet Union.

So by opening the CSO’s subscription season Friday night in Orchestra Hall with the same work, Muti was sending a message. For anyone who doubted it, he prefaced the performance of “Babi Yar” with a few well-chosen words.

After acknowledging the presence of Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s widow, Muti told the audience that in July he had been to Babi Yar, the ravine outside Kiev where 33,771 Jews were executed by machine gun on Sept. 29 and 30, 1941. The toll had continued in coming months, with about 100,000 Jews and other Nazi targets murdered there by German troops and their collaborators.

Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony – based on Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s searing poems – addressed head-on both the Holocaust’s bloodshed and the moral culpability of Soviets who later denied or ignored it.

The work “will remain eternal not only because it’s a great piece of music,” Muti told the audience, “but because it’s a deep warning, a document that’s important for us and the next generation that … every form of dictatorship should be banned. … It’s about time that we find peace in this tragic world.”

Then Muti urged listeners to follow the text’s translation in the program book and proceeded to lead the orchestra, the men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and bass Alexey Tikhomirov in the work’s solemn opening pages.

“There is no memorial above Babi Yar,” the choristers sang, their pitches low and dark, the orchestral accompaniment spare and ominous. “The steep ravine is like a crude tombstone.”

As this first movement unfolded, the sorrow of the scene and the anger of poem’s protagonist deepened.

“I am behind bars, I am encircled/persecuted, spat on, slandered,” sang Tikhomirov, robustly, to the accompaniment of Shostakovich’s slashing strings.

“They guffaw ‘Kill the Yids! Save Russia!’” sang the choristers, the orchestra snarling in the background.

Before long, the symphonic passages built to a crescendo, Shostakovich’s outcry given volcanic force by Muti and the CSO.

As this opening movement reached its climax, vocalists and instrumentalists joined forces in passages both tragic and heroic.

“There is no Jewish blood in my blood,” Tikhomirov sang, soon joined by the chorus, “but I feel the loathsome hatred/of all anti-Semites as though I were a Jew/and that is why I am a true Russian!”

This movement alone would have been enough to ensure the immortality of Yevtushenko’s words and Shostakovich’s embodiment of them, but the Symphony No. 13 expands upon both men’s unblinking criticism of life in the U.S.S.R. The acidic dissonance, mocking character and circus-like passages of the “Humor” movement suggested that sarcasm offered Soviet dissidents their only defense against state oppression.

The bleakness and rage that coursed through “In the Store” (a poignant portrait of long-suffering Russian women), the terror that radiated from “Fears” (menacingly evoking life in a police state) and the indictment of lies that can propel “A Career” (which salutes persecuted truth-tellers) were sharply drawn by Muti and colleagues.

And yet after all this anguish, the score ended with a slender ray of light, not only via Yevtushenko’s final lines but Shostakovich’s serene writing for strings. Muti brought extraordinary tenderness to these last pages, in effect giving listeners a desperately needed reason to hope.

In all, a probing performance of a work Muti rightly termed “a masterpiece.”

The all-Russian evening began with the CSO’s first performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonietta, Op. 5/48, an embryonic piece most valuable for the ways in which it foreshadowed the breakthroughs of his beloved “Classical” Symphony. As such, the Sinfonietta offered a gentle prelude to the ordeals yet to come.

The program will be repeated on select dates through Tuesday in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-294-3000 or www.cso.org.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.

hreich@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

MORE COVERAGE: Why Muti opens CSO season with Shostakovich’s ‘Babi Yar’ »

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Color brings new perspective to classic photos. But, why do it?

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This picture of the Chicago Theatre on a rainy State Street was shot by Stanley Kubrick. He was 21 at the time, a young staff photographer for Look magazine, the somewhat stodgier answer to Life magazine. It was 1949, and Kubrick was still decades away from directing “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Spartacus,” “The Shining.” He made a series of images published as “Chicago — City of Extremes,” with an essay by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet. His pictures, of wrestling matches and expensive dinners at the Pump Room, schoolchildren and commodities traders, meat packers and overcrowded tenements, were stark, very high-contrast black-and-whites.

But other than the photographer, the theater and that postwar sleekness, not much about this Chicago Theatre image proved especially enduring — “John Loves Mary,” the stage show playing at the time, is better remembered as a forgettable Ronald Reagan movie, and not even Look magazine, which folded in 1971, retains the romance of Life.

Still, that color.

That’s recent. It was added painstakingly, after considerable research, by Jordan Lloyd, a professional image colorizer from London. He said in an email that, to work the color into Kubrick’s picture, to approximate a 1949 Loop scene as closely as possible, ’40s Pontiacs and Chevrolets were studied, comparative images of the theater at the time were examined, even the colors inside of each wet reflection required a careful consideration of the light sources. All of which was “challenging, because the lighting conditions and subject matter are slightly overblown, clipped and out of focus, particularly on the street.”

Kubrick was a better filmmaker.

The photo, however, opens “History as They Saw It: Iconic Moments from the Past in Color,” a fascinating new book that sounds, frankly, like a bad idea: a compilation of vintage black-and-whites, some classic, many less so — only colorized. Golden Gate Bridge construction in 1934, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill in 1885, the 1865 hanging of Lincoln assassination conspirators, even Honest Abe himself in 1846 — all of it in color, as if discovered in an alt-universe where Kodachrome was invented in the 19th century.

It was the dream of Wolfgang Wild, an Oxford, England-based art curator who founded the blog Retronaut, which collects unusual, little-seen images from the past to reframe familiar moments from history. He told me: “I had never had an aesthetic issue with the concept of colorization — it dates back to the invention of photography — but it has only been recently that artists have been able to execute it convincingly.” He said that “Jordan’s work was the first I had seen that achieved that degree of verisimilitude.”

A typical day for Lloyd is colorizing private and commercial commissions. A client wants a World War I photo of his great-great-grandfather colorized — Lloyd teases out details about the image from relatives, from research, then aims to color it as close to reality as possible. He said it’s a smattering detective work, and a lot of history, with the goal of capturing what the photographer saw through the viewfinder when the image was taken.

“It’s helpful to know the exact location and direction the photograph was taken in, which helps me determine a time of day. Are the shadows sharp or soft? That helps me determine if it’s a sunny day or it’s overcast, which have very different looks. The date also helps — it gives me a (time frame) to begin locating objects and clothing styles. I’ll look at advertising, street signage and just about every detail to help me begin hunting the correct — or at least, authentic — color references.” He trawls auction sites, contacts food and beverage manufacturers and interviews experts on socio-ethnographic wardrobes.

Whatever helps.

The result, in “History as They Saw It,” is at turns revelatory, striking and disorienting. Dorothea Lange’s canonized portrait of a Depression-era mother breast-feeding her child — only now her dress is red checkerboard and the child has knitted green slippers. Portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island, initially published in National Geographic in 1907 — only the yellowed hues and drab clothing of the originals are gone, replaced with ocean blue smocks, dresses kept impeccably white, teal necklaces.

And yet, why do it?

For much of its history, black-and-white photography was not solely a stylistic convention or financial consideration, but an aesthetic choice. Using black-and-white stock was to interpret. It was a way of looking at the world. Part of the reason you rarely hear people complaining anymore about the colorizing of old Hollywood films — which reached a fevered peak in the mid-’80s when Ted Turner crowed that as owner of a large number of black-and white classics, he would do what he wanted with them — is because there are fewer colorized movies broadcast today. Colorized work has always looked a little distracting. Something always felt wrong. Lloyd’s work carries a whiff of that brazenness — he is, in a way, painting his own ideas on the work of others.

One can only guess how many times the famously controlling Kubrick has rolled in his grave.

Lloyd said that unease isn’t entirely gone. He said some viewers “find my images uncomfortable. They have to double-check and make sure they’re looking at a colorized image, rather than the original.” On the other hand, he regards that as a compliment.

Certainly, his heart is in the right place.

The best known and widely reviled uses of colorization were often justified on the grounds of marketability, on the assumption that people now can’t relate to images of people then. But Wild said that colorization in the right, thoughtful hands offers a lesson: “The past is not inherently different from the present.” He said “color collapses time, removes the barrier between past and present, like polish removing tarnish from a ring.” Asked if he learned more about the past by seeing it in color, he pointed to an image in the book, of a Philadelphia man in 1839. It’s the world’s first selfie, a somewhat dark, faded self-portrait. But there’s a cranberry coat, a bit of flush in his cheeks — the man looks confident, skeptical and entirely contemporary. Wild said that picture, with color, “showed me that colorists are not adding color to black-and-white reality. They’re removing a black-and-white filter from our perception of the past.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

MORE COVERAGE: America, the confused — how identity and politics weigh into the new fall arts season »


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Yas! Chicago gets its first youth arts festival

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Just when you thought festival season was over … Chicago is adding another to its roster — the Yas! Fest, a celebration of young artists.

The culminating event of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Year of Creative Youth initiative, the festival will feature hundreds of local creatives showcasing their talents (dance, fashion, theater, music, spoken word, the visual arts, among others) throughout the Millennium Park campus on Saturday. Workshops, pop-up performances, DJs, mural painting and a variety of interactive activities, including performances from the likes of Young Chicago Authors’ Louder Than a Bomb squad, Chicago Children’s Choir and the Hiplet Ballerinas are scheduled.

This celebration of creativity is both a welcome addition to the city landscape and an opportunity for many to glimpse the next generation of area artists.

“I think having an actual standalone festival is really, really cool instead of having a random tent in the corner of somebody else’s festival, which I’m just saying that’s kind of how it goes,” said Nia Parker, Bronzeville resident and Hiplet dance captain. “Having a broader festival gives more artists a chance to showcase their art, it gives people an opportunity to see more. I think it would have been cooler if they had it before, but I’m not mad that they’re having it now.”

The spotlight will shine on 12 performance spaces throughout the Millennium campus from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. — the Cultural Center, Maggie Daley Park, the Art Institute and the Pritzker Pavilion, where performers Ravyn Lenae and Desiigner will close out the event.

“There’s been many articles written about the amazing young talent coming out of Chicago,” said city cultural Commissioner Mark Kelly. “Chicago has become such a hothouse of creative talent, but it’s not just Chance and Lena Waithe. The list goes on and on, and that creative youth is being nurtured and supported by these creative organizations in Chicago. This is a citywide celebration of our youth. I think anyone who cares about our city, about its youth and its future wants to be there.”

Nine months in planning, reaching out to the many city organizations that provide youth programming, Kelly is hoping the Yas! Fest will be embraced by the city and continue past its maiden voyage.

“My hope is this becomes an annual event at the beginning of the school year where we bring into, if you will, our living room to Millennium Park, this festival celebration of our youth and their creative work.”

Matthew Williams, a junior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prepatory Academy, is excited to be performing at the Yas! Fest as a member of the South Shore Drill Team. With his sights set on a double major of fashion and computer science at Syracuse University, he thinks a festival like this adds to the positive vibe of the city.

“I feel like there is positivity in Chicago, you just have to find it,” he said. “Some people think it’s all negative (shootings and killings), but its actually young African-American males and females out here doing something positive in the community.”

Parker hopes to inspire more with her art during the event, as does National Youth Poet Laureate Patricia Frazier. Frazier will be doing a set at Yas! and speaking about becoming a youth facilitator and what it means for youth to be facilitators of things. The 19-year-old hopes people walk away having had a good time but also with some new ideas and maybe some ideas that challenge the ones they already had.

“I think that what’s cool about this is most of the speakers are going to be young people, which is very unheard of, so I’m hoping adults actually get some things that get them moving and going to their spaces and starting programs that mimic this festival,” she said. “I hope it inspires adults to put youth at the forefront when they leave the festival or try to start doing that work. I’ve been asking for a long time that we put youth — not only give them a seat at the table, but put them at the front of the table, and I think this festival has done a really good job of that.”

drockett@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DarcelTribune

MORE COVERAGE: Yas! Fest to celebrate Chicago’s Year of Creative Youth »

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'Life Itself' review: Hate, actually, via 'This Is Us' creator

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Not to be confused with Roger Ebert’s autobiography, or anything good, actually, “Life Itself” is an emotional mugging, not a movie. Writer-director Dan Fogelman, creator of NBC-TV’s warm bath of feels “This is Us,” tells his story in five chapters and a million platitudes. When a key character admits he’s “smothering,” it’s not just his fictional self he’s acknowledging; it’s the entire greezy script. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, Fogelman exploits “Make You Feel My Love” (from “Time Out of Mind”) with such ruthless sensitivity, when Bob Dylan’s song is reprised in Spanish, the movie becomes a convicted pathos felon in two languages.

Briefly, because life (itself) beckons:

The valiant Oscar Isaac plays Will, a recently institutionalized writer who is seeing a therapist (Annette Bening, gravely outclassing her material). Olivia Wilde portrays Abby, the blessing of Will’s existence, frequently the subject of adoring montages. Will and Abby are no longer together. No spoilers here, but we’ll note that three times in “Life Itself,” a character steps into a Manhattan street and either avoids a fatal collision with an oncoming vehicle, or doesn’t.

Other storylines include a romantic triangle in Andalusia, Spain, featuring Antonio Banderas as a wealthy olive farmer in love with the saintly wife (Laia Costa) of his salt-of-the-earth foreman (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). The child born into this chapter follows his destiny and, relocating to New York, meets his heart’s desire, a young woman introduced in a separate chapter. Criss-cross! “Babel”! “Crash”! Why are these puzzle movies so infernally contrived?

No need to detail the screenplay’s ornately fancy architecture. Actor after actor takes on “Life Itself” and cannot win, including Mandy Patinkin (who feels all the feels so you don’t have to) and Olivia Cooke as Will and Abby’s brooding daughter, a walking, nattering Bob Dylan reference named, yes, Dylan. Fogelman’s tone isn’t all over the place; it’s all over several places, throwing jocular asides regarding mental illness and child molestation up against gauzy, golden nonverbal vignettes depicting frolicking couples and soulful pre-teens staring at the camera. Too many stray touches here belong to a Fidelity Investments ad, or a pushy yet empathetic marketing campaign for a pain reliever. “Life Itself” delivers the pain and the pain relief.

More than once the voiceover narration — near the end it’s revealed who, exactly, is speaking — sticks up for the “unabashedly populist” appeal of that recurring Dylan song and, by inference, the film itself. The intended appeal of “Life Itself” is not so far from “This is Us.” The result is closer to “Honestly, It’s Not.”

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

“Life Itself” — 1 star

MPAA rating: R (for language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use)

Running time: 1:58

Opens: Friday

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The biggest snubs and surprises of the 2018 Emmy Awards

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The Television Academy voters have crowned the winners of the 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, and despite the diverse crop of nominees, a few shoes dominated the ceremony (hello, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). Which shows and stars made for the biggest snubs and surprises of the night?

SNUB: “Atlanta” — Even with HBO political comedy juggernaut “Veep” sitting out this year’s race, the FX auteur series from Donald Glover could not push through to take the comedy series category (Amazon’s freshman “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” won instead). But this year “Atlanta” was also shut out of the other big categories for which it was nominated, including comedy actor, comedy writing, comedy directing and supporting comedy actress.

SURPRISE: Bill Hader won the lead comedy actor trophy in his first time nominated in the category. His hitman-turned-wannabe-actor titular role on HBO’s “Barry” won over Academy voters — enough so that he beat last year’s winner “Atlanta’s” Donald Glover, as well as Emmy darling Ted Danson, who was nominated in the category for the first time since his run on “Cheers.”

RELATED: Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, John Mulaney among the Chicago-area Emmy winners

SNUB: “The Handmaid’s Tale” — What a difference a year makes. Last year’s drama series winner racked up a number of acting trophies, too, but this year it lost the major categories — from drama series on down through the lead and supporting acting categories. Elisabeth Moss lost lead drama actress to “The Crown’s” Claire Foy, while Joseph Fiennes was nominated for supporting actor but lost to “Game of Thrones'” Peter Dinklage. For supporting actress, maybe it was case of splitting the vote, but none of the three women of Gilead took home the trophy, despite two of them winning Emmys last year. Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd and Yvonne Strahovski were nominated but lost to “Westworld’s” Thandie Newton. Bledel won the guest drama actress award in 2017, while Dowd won supporting then.

SURPRISE: Matthew Rhys — “The Americans” star was nominated for his last time as Soviet spy Philip Jennings. While the FX drama was critically beloved, it hadn’t picked up as much traction with the Academy voters through the years. Maybe it was the Jon Hamm effect, but Rhys pulled out the win, even against last year’s winner in the category, “This Is Us” star Sterling K. Brown.

SURPRISE: Love is in the air — Glenn Weiss, who won the variety special directing award, used his time on stage to propose — with the ring his father gave his mother more than six decades ago. Presenter Sterling K. Brown stood off to one side of the stage, and his jaw dropped, while nominee Leslie Jones stood up in the audience pointing at Weiss’ girlfriend. It was clearly planned on Weiss’ part, but it threw everyone else, including his new fiancee, for a loop.

SNUB: “Versace’s” supporting cast — The Ryan Murphy-produced limited series took only some of the awards it was expected to, notably limited series, limited series/TV movie directing (for Murphy himself) and limited series/TV movie lead actor (for Darren Criss). But despite having five more actors nominated across the supporting categories (Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin and Finn Wittrock for the men; Judith Light and Penelope Cruz for the women), it did not take either of those categories.

SURPRISE: “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — In only its second nomination in the reality competition series category, the VH1 drag queen program toppled “The Voice,” which had dominated for the past three years. It’s also a history-making moment for RuPaul himself, who won the series and reality host awards this year.

SNUB: “The Tale” -The HBO television movie from Jennifer Fox lost the TV movie category at the Creative Arts awards last weekend, and during the primetime awards its star Laura Dern also lost out on the lead actress trophy.

SURPRISE: Alex Borstein won supporting comedy actress for her work on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” this year, topping an incredibly competitive category of eight nominees total, including last year’s winner Kate McKinnon, who was predicted to win again.

SURPRISE: Amy Sherman-Palladino not only won comedy writing, which many expected, but also comedy directing. In the latter category, she faced off against, but ultimately overcame, frontrunners last year’s winner “Atlanta’s” Donald Glover and Hiro Murai, who was nominated for the much-talked about stylized standalone episode of “Atlanta” entitled “Teddy Perkins.” This made her the first woman to win in both categories.

SURPRISE: Merritt Wever won the supporting actress in a limited series or TV movie category, and although she was a prior winner — in 2013 for “Nurse Jackie” — this one was unexpected for her. She was up against two heavy-hitters from “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” which made more noise during awards season.

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Rahm Emanuel to announce 2019 as the Year of Chicago Theatre

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel is to make it official on Monday: 2019 is to be the Year of Chicago Theatre.

A citywide initiative dreamed up and spearheaded by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the designation will result, said DCASE Commissioner Mark Kelly, in a variety of benefits for local theaters, including extensive new advertising at O’Hare and Midway airports, international promotion by the city tourism agency Choose Chicago, a variety of fresh public events at venues like Millennium Park and at least $200,000 in new city grants.

Emanuel, who has announced he will not stand for re-election in 2019, described assuring the long-term health of the performing arts in Chicago as a “personal passion” and said the Year of Chicago Theater was something he “very much wanted to get done” prior to his exit from his office.

“The Chicago theater is exciting and vital,” Kelly said, “but it also is fragile and needs to be supported.”

Kelly said he’d been struck by reading tourism reports on why visitors come to the the city and finding many of them unaware of the city’s illustrious theater scene with its scores of vibrant companies, typically nonprofit and located in the neighborhoods. “The Chicago theater has never been sufficiently branded,” Kelly said. “This is an attempt to put that right.”

The new endeavor — similar to the 2018 designation as the Year of Creative Youth in Chicago — is being promoted as the first of its kind.

In other major theater cities, such as New York City or London, the commercial operators long have branded terms like “Broadway” and “West End,” making those words synonymous in the public’s mind with top-tier live entertainment and turning them into primary tourist draws for those cities. The Chicago theater, though, is a much more complex and diverse sector. Variously defined, it consists of everything from multimillion-dollar productions like “Hamilton” in the Loop to internationally known and fiscally stable nonprofits like the Chicago Shakespeare, Goodman or Steppenwolf theaters, to community-oriented companies operating on dramatic shoestrings and often throwing metaphoric stones at the Emanuel administration, which strives to be their benefactor. Historically, this mix of some 250 for-profit and mission-based neighborhood players has been hard for the public outside Chicago to grasp.

Although the dominant public rhetoric is one of cooperation and community — by contrast, it invariably is said, with those other cities — Chicago arts organizations can also be contentious and highly competitive with one another behind the scenes. Precisely how the goodies will be divvied up among the various disparate players with their various disparate agendas has yet to be fully decided, Kelly said, but he also said the intent was to benefit everyone without prejudice or regard to for-profit or nonprofit status, from the Lyric Opera to local improv troops and from major dance companies to local puppeteers.

“This great cultural form lives in Chicago in a way that’s unlike any other city,” he said. “We’re asking everyone to offer their support.”

The level of city marketing investment clearly will be unlike anything that has been afforded the industry in the past. But in practical terms, given the state of city finances, the designation may be most useful as a clarifying form of political leverage, putting pressure on business leaders and foundations to get behind new initiatives for Chicago theater. Nonetheless, such components as the city airports promotion and the tourism initiative represent support worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.

According to the city, the marketing agency FCB Chicago has come up with a new slogan: “Chicago theater is the fearless soul of Chicago.”

Other plans to be announced Monday include a theatrical redesign of the League of Chicago Theatre’s Hot Tix office on Randolph Street and other “pop-up” versions of the last-minute-ticket outlet appearing at McCormick Place convention center and elsewhere; theater-themed exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center; city-sponsored performances and promotions in a variety of parks; and a concerted new effort just to get regular Chicago residents to better understand their famous hometown theaters.

League of Chicago Theatres Executive Director Deb Clapp said she was “thrilled” to get Kelly’s approach and that one of her organization’s goals was to get “every single Chicagoan inside a theater” in 2019.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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At the Marriott, the key to 'Sweet Charity' is to have this dancer rely on herself

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Those we see every day usually know us best. In the case of Charity Hope Valentine — the Candide of the dance hall — that means her colleagues, the ones who get right to the point while stubbornly refusing to pop their corks for every guy they see. “You run your heart like it’s a hotel,” the exasperated Nickie tells Sweet Charity, pretty much stating the central theme of this 1966 Broadway musical, singularly chic and racy for its day. “You’ve always got people checking in and out.”

That’s a funny line, of course. The late Neil Simon wrote the book that accompanies a Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields score of such incomparable excellence that virtually every song therein was covered by a recording star: Shirley Bassey did “Big Spender”; Sammy Davis Jr. kept “The Rhythm of Life” in his stage shows for decades. On Wednesday night, when director Alex Sanchez’s new production of “Sweet Charity” opened at the Marriott Theatre, I kept scribbling down as many lines as I could, in Simon’s honor.

“Norman Mailer’s not having a poetry reading tonight. Nobody showed up.” (Ah, 1966! When our public intellectuals had name recognition.)

“Why do you believe in love? … I don’t know. You have to have some religion.”

Simon even had the guts to stick a gag right in the middle of the emotional climax of the musical, when the guy, Oscar, who seems to finally be right for the perpetually single and hopeful Charity reveals that he has some kind of purity fetish, telling the poor heroine that he has secretly observed her in the company of other men at work. “I didn’t stay long,” he says, “well, maybe an hour or so.”

That line is the key that “Sweet Charity,” while very much a creature of its day and not devoid of lines and themes that now make you wince, loves and believes in Charity, not Oscar, thus deviating from the contemporaneous rules of musical comedy, which previously dictated that a woman who believed in love had to find a man, not herself.

You only have to listen carefully to Fields’ stunning lyrics to see how shrewdly she was critiquing that patriarchal notion: “I’m the bravest individual I have ever met,” Charity sings, doing all that she can to be a modern woman despite having neither an education nor resources. The show embraced female sexual freedom like few musicals ever have dared, and it leaves you with the sense that the main peril faced by any liberated but lonely heterosexual woman of the 1960s was that the male fish in the pond were all either hypocrites or bores. Or both.

This is a quest musical, and it’s crucial that Charity wins your heart, as Anne Horak, the young Broadway actress in the role at the Marriott, clearly understands. This isn’t by any means a bravura vocal performance (although Horak does fine), but it is beautifully acted — assertive, vulnerable and richly connected — and courageously danced. Charity, a dancer kinda by trade, has to dance — often with no one else on the stage, and Sanchez, who also choreographs, and Horak really make the best of these moments, especially in “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” The pair of them cleverly exploit the intimacy of the in-the-round setting, sculpting Charity so that it feels like she is trying to find the wind of forward motion, while fighting off the kinds of self-objectifying moves that she has been taught that men prefer. It’s a fabulous solo.

And all a very tricky balance, especially given that “Sweet Charity,” which always starts awkwardly, is a musical comedy, but then the very funny Alex Goodrich is on hand as Oscar, a dweeb who is just nice enough to make us all hope he might come through for our heroine. Sanchez also was smart enough to surround Horak with great singers like Dani Spieler, Adam Jacobs and, as Daddy Brubeck, Kenny Ingram. If you’re going for a groovy, Austin Powers-like satirical experience, you won’t leave disappointed. Those sections weren’t all for me, but they were fun.

More serious students of this masterwork will, I think, exit with the feeling that everyone here, especially Horak, wrestled constantly with the blend of classic Broadway objectification and proto-feminist self-actualization present in the material. I think this very distinctive performance took real guts for reasons both obvious and not so obvious; Charity Hope Valentine would surely have approved of her 2018 self.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Sweet Charity” (3 stars)

When: Through Oct. 28

Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Tickets: $50-$60 at 847-634-0200 or www.marriotttheatre.com

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