If you're not willing to wait to see the Wicked Witch of the West melt at the Pantages, you can always skip down the Yellow Brick Road, click your heels three times and say: "There's no place like Chicago."
"Wicked," the Tony-award winning Oz-based musical is currently playing at the Oriental Theatre in downtown Chicago's opulent Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The company featuring Carol Kane will leave Chicago for Los Angeles on June 12. But immediately after the touring cast leaves, a permanent cast will take over with "Saturday Night Live" alum Ana Gasteyer headlining in the role of Elphaba, the green-skinned wicked witch. The permanent troupe is expected to play through until the end of September, possibly longer. So if you are unable to secure tickets for the Los Angeles production, which ends its run on July 31, consider a trip to Chi-town.
Thanks to more than 200 theatres, the City of Big Shoulders, as Carl Sandburg called it in his 1916 poem "Chicago," is fast becoming the City of Big Ticket Sales. Chicago features big-budget musicals like "The Lion King," "Cats" and "Little Shop of Horrors"; notable playhouses such as The Steppenwolf Theatre (created by John Malkovich and Gary Sinese); and long-running faves, like Second City, Blue Man Group, "Menopause: the Musical" and "Late Nite Catechism."
A song in "Wicked" describes an incredible day in the fictional Emerald City, but the same could be said of the Windy City: "One short day full of so much to do. Ev'ry way that you look in the city, there's something exquisite you'll want to visit before the day's through."
More than 2.77 million Chicagoans work, live and play in nearly 100 distinctive neighborhoods, divided by ethnicity, class and geography. Navigating the city can be a daunting, perplexing task. Luckily, Chicago Greeters (www.chicagogreeter.com) match visitors with a free city-wise guide who will take up to six people on a variety of different tours, such as theme tours -- Jewish Chicago, filming locations, gardens, food, fashion -- a neighborhood tour or a "greeters choice" tour, which features your guide's favorite sites. Chicago Neighborhood Tours (www.chgocitytours.com) offer two-dozen excursions throughout the year that allow visitors to explore these "cities within the city."
The heart of Jewish Chicago can be found in the neighborhood of West Rogers Park, and Devon Avenue is its main artery. Over the years the area has become ethnically and religiously diverse, featuring a plethora of Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants and shops. A large Orthodox community inhabits the area, which frequents the cleverly named kosher Chinese restaurant Mi Tsu Yun and more than 20 synagogues, most of which are Orthodox or Traditional.
The Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Michigan Avenue features something for children with the traveling exhibit, "Every Picture Tells a Story: Teaching Tolerance through Children's Picture Books" (www.spertus.edu). And if you find yourself downtown on a Saturday, one of the best Shabbat lunches can be found at Lake Shore Drive Synagogue at 70 East Elm Street.
Chicago is home to more than 29 miles of beaches along Lake Michigan, including the famous Oak Street Beach where the Magnificent Mile (aka North Michigan Avenue) meets Lake Shore Drive. But if sand isn't really your thing, find some blooming alternatives at the recently constructed 24.5-acre Millennium Park (www.millenniumpark.org), where outdoor concerts, gardens and an ice skating rink bring a sense of tranquility to the urban jungle.
While the views of the lakefront from the ground are incredible, nothing beats the view from the top. Visit the 150-foot Ferris Wheel overlooking Lake Michigan on Navy Pier (www.navypier.com). For more spectacular views, take the free trolley from the pier to Michigan Avenue and head north to the 94th-floor observation deck of the John Hancock Center (www.hancock-observatory.com). Of course, there's always the tallest building in North America (second-tallest in the world), the 110-story Sears Tower and its 103rd-floor skydeck (www.the-skydeck.com).
Only slightly smaller than the height of the Sears Tower is the length of time that has elapsed since the Cubs won the World Series (1908). Relive the majesty of the great American ballpark at Wrigley Field (just take the "L," Chicago's Elevated Train, to Wrigleyville), with its manually operated scoreboard and ivy-covered walls, Cubbie fans swear they can still hear the voice of late announcer Harry Carey during the seventh-inning stretch's "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
If baseball isn't your thing, high culture can be found in droves at the Art Institute (www.artic.edu/aic), which houses more than 300,000 works, including Grant Wood's "American Gothic." For interactive Americana, the Museum of Science and Industry (www.msichicago.org) takes the cake. The museum, which was built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, sports a five-story domed OMNIMAX theater, hatching chick exhibit, play areas for children and Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle, a miniature exhibit of particular interest to young girls and women who are young at heart.
The Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry are both fine examples of Chicago's amazing architectural heritage. To a closer look at the rest of what the city has to offer, hop on the 90-minute narrated Architecture River Cruise (www.architecture.org), which spotlights more than 50 of Chicago's most spectacular waterfront sites. Grab a snack on board the ship, or get something really unique to the city once you disembark.
The first rule of thumb when eating in Chi-town: If it ain't a Chicago dog, it ain't a dog. The steam-cooked all-beef dogs, which come in a kosher variety, are only authentic when eaten with yellow mustard, pickle relish, onions, tomatoes and celery salt on a poppy-seed bun -- never order ketchup.
The second rule of thumb when eating in Chi-town: Pizza isn't pizza if it can't be eaten with a knife and fork. For Chicago deep-dish, there's really no wrong way to go: Pizzeria Uno and its sister restaurant Pizzeria Due's (www.pizzeriauno.com -- call 45 minutes before you get there to order your pizza); Lou Malnati's (www.loumalnatis.com, which will ship anywhere in the country); and, if your lucky, you'll stumble into a little-known treasure like Joey Buona's (www.buona.com -- ask for Jimmy and order the toasted pound cake for dessert, you won't regret it).
For something a little classier, take afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, champagne and beautiful music at the landmark Drake Hotel (www.thedrakehotel.com), across from Oak Street Beach.
Turn the corner from the Drake and it's shopping heaven up and down the Mag Mile with stores like Neiman-Marcus, Niketown and the American Girl Place. Your nose will beckon you to make a stop at Garrett's Popcorn Shop at 670 N. Michigan (it's worth the occasional 45 minute wait).
Down the street is a piece of Chicago history -- the stone-built Old Chicago Water Tower, the only structure in the city to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. For another landmark, head over to State Street ("that great street") and spend some time (and money) at the flagship Marshall Field's department store, a city treasure for 150 years that spans an entire block and comes with its own audio tour.
At night, the city comes alive with its own vibe. Chicago is famous for its own style of the blues and some of the city's best can be heard at B.L.U.E.S. (www.chicagobluesbar.com) or Blue Chicago (www.bluechicago.com). Then toast your vacation with a breathtaking backdrop at the Hyatt Regency's BIG Bar (chicagoregency.hyatt.com), where patrons can indulge in an 48-ounce Cosmopolitan or a "Big" "Bigger" or "Biggest" beer on tap at the longest free-standing bar in North America.
With so much to do, don't expect a relaxing vacation in Chicago. But with its culture, cuisine and construction marvels, Chi-town just might make you feel like you're ended up somewhere over the rainbow.
For tickets to "Wicked," visit www.wickedthemusical.com/chicago. For more information about Chicago, visit www.choosechicago.com. For more information on Chicago's kosher options, visit www.jewishchicago.com.
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