Actor Nigel Planer on why Chicago is America’s greatest city

Yes, it’s my kind of town: Nigel Planer appeared in the original London production of Chicago… now he declares it’s America’s greatest city

  • Actor Nigel Planer gives his eight great reasons to visit the Windy City
  • The Chicago Shakespeare Theater is the ‘jewel of the city’s theatres’, he says 
  • He first visited in 1997 and reflects on why he feels so at home here 

Sherry, a charming woman in her 70s, tells me: ‘There are 3,200 pieces of glass in that dome. It’s the largest glass dome in the world — of its type.’

‘What type would that be?’ I ask, which seems to throw her for a moment. She replies falteringly — something about metal struts and cubic volume. I don’t mean to be giving her a hard time; she’s a lovely, enthusiastic volunteer who refuses tips, and she has a bad knee today, which should perhaps be keeping her from this job as a walking-tour guide.

We are in the old Chicago library, admiring some of the mosaic work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, which can be found in many of the downtown landmark buildings.

Gleaming: The Windy City’s downtown skyline

Earlier, we had visited the Frank Gehry-designed open-air concert space, which is home to ‘the longest-running free classical concert season in America’, and is situated in Millennium Park — ‘the largest green-roof garden on top of an underground car park in the world,’ as Sherry calls it.

She is by no means the only person infected with this need to use unnecessary superlatives.

The whole city seems to have a massive chip on its shoulder — perhaps the largest chip in all the northern states of the U.S., I would say. Which is strange because there is so much of interest and beauty in Chicago, Illinois, it doesn’t need to big itself up.

‘It’s because we got tired of being known as the “Flyover” city,’ Sherry explains. ‘As in: “Ya fly over Chicago to get from New York to Los Angeles”.’

My reason for being here is that this is officially the Year of Chicago Theatre, but basically, it’s just great to be back.

Playing tourist: Nigel first visited Chicago in1997

The last time I was in town was 1997, when I was about to appear in the original London cast of the musical Chicago. On that occasion, I visited Cook County Jail, where the show is set — taking the actor research thing a bit too far. I was given a tour around all of the blocks, the court house and the murderer’s wing.

It felt like something from an episode of Homicide or NYPD. The only thing missing was the unsteady camera work. By the end of my visit, I felt more ready to tackle a day’s shooting opposite Harvey Keitel or Tim Roth than sing in a West End show.

Chicago suits me fine. In fact, I’d go further and say that it’s my favourite place in the whole of the U.S. And I think a lot of British people would agree with me.

First, there’s the Chicagoans themselves. They have quieter voices than most Americans and they understand what you’re saying if you make a deadpan remark.

Then there’s their overriding subject of conversation: the weather. Yes, the weather in Chicago is even more changeable than in the UK. In one week I experience baking sun, blizzards, torrential rain, beautiful cold pellucid skies, and a lot of wind.

Wind so strong you have to push your whole weight against doors to open them. Chicago earns its moniker, the Windy City (although some say that refers to the hot air spouted by the residents).

The famous Chicago Theatre, above. Nigel appeared in the original London production of Chicago

Then there’s the Chicagoan sense of humour — dark and sarcastic and more, well, English. Their top comedy club is called The Second City, and it has been named with a certain bitterness. I’m not able to establish whether Chicago is known as the Second City because of the 1871 fire, after which it all had to be rebuilt, or because it’s not the First City (New York).

Nevertheless, The Second City comedy club has impressive alumni. If I list a small portion of them, you’ll get the idea of what the Chicago sense of humour is all about: Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Mike Myers, John Candy. There are a lot of comedy venues in Chicago, but there are a lot more theatres. There are more than 250 of them — everything from ‘storefront’ theatres in disused High Street shops and railway arches, to multi-stage venues and old-fashioned, proscenium-arch giants.

EIGHT GREAT REASONS TO VISIT THE WINDY CITY

BEST FOR BRUNCH

Don’t miss the marvellous all-you-can-eat Sunday Gospel Brunch (10am-12.30pm) at the Chicago House of Blues. Join the stage for a dance, if you get into the swing of it. Tickets are £32.50 (houseofblues.com/chicago).

BEST FOR ART

The Art Institute of Chicago is a world-class gallery. Highlights include iconic American works such as Nighthawks by Edward Hopper and American Gothic by Grant Wood — plus paintings by Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. The restaurant, Terzo Piano, is first rate (artic.edu; terzopianochicago.com).

BEST FOR PIZZA

Chicago is famous for its deep-pan pizzas — and there are many great places to get a slice. Lou Malnati’s is a chain with 56 branches — just pick the one closest to your hotel. Prices are reasonable: a Malnati Chicago Classic with sausage and extra cheese is £13 for two (loumalnatis.com).

BEST FOR ARCHITECTURE

Architecture River Tours provide what amounts to a complete history of buildings over the past two centuries. A 75-minute tour is £29 (shorelinesightseeing.com).

BEST FOR VIEWS

The 360 Chicago observation deck is at the top of the iconic John Hancock Building — 1,000 feet up — with magnificent views over the city and Lake Michigan. Try the terrifying TILT thrill ride there, if you dare. Observation deck tickets £20; TILT ticket £6 extra (360chicago.com).

BEST HOUSE TOUR

Take the overground train for half an hour to Oak Park and visit the home of Frank Lloyd Wright, creator of the ‘Prairie’ style that had such a big influence on 20th-century U.S. architecture.

BEST FOR A WALK

It’s a pleasant hour-long walk from Navy Pier to Lincoln Zoo along the Lakefront Trail, passing beaches along the way. The entire trail is 18.5 miles (chicagoparkdistrict.com).

BEST FOR CLASSICAL FANS

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which plays in the marvellously ornate Orchestra Hall, is renowned across America — see if you can book a ticket to coincide with your visit (cso.org).

The most famous Chicago company is Steppenwolf, an ensemble that creates work within its own ranks. Many of its members, who went on to become stars, returned to live and work here: Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Tracy Letts, John Mahoney from Frasier.

But the jewel of the city’s theatres, is the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

Barbara Gaines started this company in the mid-Eighties with a production of Henry V on the roof of a pub, and it has grown into an international theatre hub.

I sit in on the exciting rehearsals for their latest show, Six, a musical about the six wives of Henry VIII, which has come via London’s West End and Edinburgh.

Edinburgh, that’s it. I’ve been trying to think why it is that I feel so at home in Chicago. You get that same awake feeling; the buzzy people, the challenging weather and the historic architecture. Chicago reminds me of Edinburgh — and there’s just so much going on.

Credit: Actor Nigel Planer on why Chicago is America’s greatest city