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It's All About The Blues
Rick Stone The Blues Man hits the right note at the Black Ensemble Theater 
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  HIGHLAND PARK native Lauren Tom has come a long way since, at 17, she first dabbled in show business as a dancer in A Chorus Line, a performance that prompted her to study acting. 
   That decision has helped her climb the Hollywood ladder and become one of the industry’s most respected entertainers, carving out a 30-year career that has highlighted her multiple skills on Broadway, television and movies. Currently, she is one of the lead characters in the Disney Channel’s No. 1 series Andi Mack, where Tom stars as a Chinese-American grandmother who is the family’s matriarch.
​   Recently, the former co-star of “Facts of Life,” “The Middle” and “Grey’s Anatomy” returned to Chicago to motivate nearly 400 students in association with the U.S. Asia Institute’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a period of recognition to pay tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success. Her message to the students? “It’s OK to be who you are, and you’re not alone,” she said. “At the end of the day, what people want is to connect and belong.”
   It didn’t take long for the Obie Award-winning actress to prove that she belonged in Hollywood, and her résumé has included films such as The Joy Luck ClubBad SantaWhen A Man Loves A Woman and Mr. Jones, with TV roles from "The Newsroom" to "Supernatural" to "Pretty Little Liars." But perhaps her most notable TV role has been a brief stint as
​Ross’ (David Schwimmer) girlfriend on “Friends.” During seven episodes on the show, Tom was kind of a lightning rod for fans of the show, some who didn’t like the fact that she had taken Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) place in Ross’ heart. “Fans still get angry about that,” she says. “There was a live audience [during filming of the show], and they would boo me when I came on because they really wanted Ross to be with Rachel.”
   Not to be discouraged, Tom moved on and exhibited even more of her talents, using her voice in popular animated series such as "Futurama," "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," "Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness," "Pound Puppies," "Teacher’s Pet," "Batman Beyond" and "Mulan 2." 
   Now, it’s all about Andi Mack, the much talked-about series, where Andi, played by 13-year-old Peyton Elizabeth Lee, was abandoned by her teenaged mother. Enter Lauren Tom as Celia Mack, Andi’s grandmother who made her believe that she and Andi’s grandfather were her parents––and her real mom was her sister.
   There will be more to this continuing story when Andi Mack returns to the Disney Channel on Mondays in June.
Photography courtesy of Disney Channel
   WHETHER they admit it or not, many people in the Goodman Theatre audience had come to the opening-night production of Pamplona to see just how well Stacy Keach had recovered from a mild heart attack (one that he suffered in May during the show’s previews) and to see if now he was up to the challenge of doing a 90-minute, one-man show.
   The minutes leading up to Keach’s appearance on the Goodman’s Owen Theatre stage were ripe with anticipation, verging on a bit of tension among those who waited a bit impatiently to see what was about to come. Keach didn’t disappoint. Within a few minutes after the lignts came up to reveal him sitting at a typewriter, the audience’s concerns had dissipated as Keach slowly and convincingly morphed into celebrated writer Ernest Hemingway, struggling to write a story about the bullfights in Pamplona. He was dramatic. He was humorous. He commanded the moment. He was back. 
   Being back, however, meant Keach had returned to the place where he was the star of every actor’s worst nightmare––not being able to remember the next line. Worst, he found out he had been the victim of a heart attack. His, he says, was not the typical heart attack with chest pains, but on stage he “felt like a fog rolled in over my brain cells,” and he just couldn’t remember his next line. Doctors at Northwestern Hospital assessed his condition and a triple-bypass later the 77-year-old actor was ready to finish what he started. 
   In Jim McGrath’s Pamplona, directed by Robert Falls, Keach portrays Hemingway at a time after he has won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, and now, holed up in a Spanish hotel facing an approaching deadline, he frustratingly can’t come up with the words to describe the matadors and their expertise inside the bullfighting arena. 
   Throughout the presentation, Keach’s Hemingway character tells some engaging stories about people and incidents in his life––a life that now finds him in poor health, troubled by the preoccupation with his problematic fourth marriage and anguished by the fallout of past glories. All have combined to land the author of masterpieces such as The Old Man and the Seas and For Whom the Bell Tolls on the verge of being consumed by despair.
   Regarding Keach himself, though, his return was characterized by all the grit and determination he previously exhibited in various TV, stage and film projects that have shaped his long and impressive career. Considered by many observers to be the foremost American interpreter of Shakespeare after putting his signature on roles in HamletMacbeth and King Lear, Keach, a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame, has been honored with multiple prestigious awards, including a Golden Globe, three OBIEs, three Vernon Rice Awards, a Hollywood Film Award, two Drama Desk Awards, three Helen Hayes Awards and the 2016 Best Narrator Award from the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences.
   While Pamplona represents a new beginning for Keach, it isn’t the first time the renowned actor has portrayed Hemingway, with the first portrayal earning him a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nomination for his work in the 1988 television mini-series "Hemingway." 
   In retrospect, perhaps Keach’s biggest victory is his resilience and dedication to his craft that put him back in the game. He is to be commended for returning to the stage so soon after such devastating events that would have crushed a lesser actor. But leading up to his dramatic re-emergence, it’s likely he had some jitters. At the end, when he took a bow, it was as if his huge smile was screaming “I did it!” Not surprisingly, there was relief for those in the audience as well, all of whom were pulling for him, and with sustained applause, celebrated this triumphant comeback with him.
For more information and tickets to Pamplona, which runs through August 19, go to www.goodmantheatre.org.
"[I] felt like a fog rolled in over my brain cells." 
                                  ––Stacy Keach
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  THE customary and friendly “Welcome to the Black Ensemble Theater” that theatergoers are normally greeted with temporarily has given way to “Welcome to Ricky’s Place” during the theater's production of Rick Stone The Blues Man through September 9.
   In connection with this show, the greeting is the first thing that’s different; the second becomes apparent when audiences walk inside the theater and immediately view the work of set designer Bekki Lambrecht, who––using tables, a bar and “VIPs” from the audience––has turned the stage into an appealing space that resembles a real-life nightspot. 
   Ricky’s Place is the hottest nightclub in the neighborhood, featuring the blues at a spot where people come to see and be seen. In the role of blues man Rick Stone is the real Rick Stone, an actual childhood friend of Black Ensemble founder Jackie Taylor, who directed the show and wrote it with Stone in mind. Stone doesn’t disappoint in his portrayal of a club owner, performer, adviser, confidant and sometimes comedian. He’s the absolute heart and soul of the club, and he treasures his loyal clientele and the regular performers who have become like members of his family.

   In the popular club where music is played, relationships developed, friendships enjoyed and a marriage is on the brink of collapsing, an outstanding collection of blues classics perfectly fit the situations highlighted in this emotional roller coaster. Along with Stone, cast members Dwight Neal, Theo Huff, Rhonda Peterson, Cynthia F. Carter, Kelvin Davis and Lamont (“Harmonica Man”) Harris perform––individually and together––a 33-song repertoire, including timeless tunes such as “My Babe,” “You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess with My Man),” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” “Members Only,” “Misty Blue” and “Got My Mojo Working.” 
   In reality, Ricky’s Place represents a slice of what one might experience at this kind of nightclub on a Friday or Saturday night. And it’s all brought to life in a delightful and entertaining way. The cast is talented and engaging; the musicians (Robert Reddrick, Mark Miller, Gary Baker and Adam Sherrod) are exceptional; and the story is amusing. But Rick Stone The Blues Man is Rick Stone’s show, and he delivers in gratifying ways that leave a lasting, feel-good impression.  
Tickets are available at the Black Ensemble box office, by phone at 773/769-4451 or online at www.blackensemble.org. A 10 percent discount is available for students, seniors and groups.
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"Ricky's Place is the kind of place where everybody gets along with everybody."
                                 –– Rick Stone
Photography by Alan Davis
–– Walter Leavy