2015 Wrap-Up, Part III: Culture

OK – this post is a few days late!! But, in the rush of spending Christmas week in London, New Year’s Eve, and preparing to leave next Thursday for Buenos Aires, I fell a bit behind. I’m sure you’ll forgive my tardiness.

Ahem: As I was saying:

At this time of year, everyone seems to be publishing “best-of” lists. As I’ve only been blogging for barely 3 months, I thought I’d challenge myself to post 3 of these lists: one each for travel, culture, and cuisine.

My final year-end post highlights the cultural events that made a real impression on me in 2015.

In alphabetical order:

Apotheosis Opera – New York

“Hey, kids! Let’s put on an opera!!”

Let’s say that you’re 25 years old and you’re just out of school and it’s always been your dream to conduct and stage an opera. And you get together with a buddy of yours’ and you both agree to start from scratch and – to make it really interesting – you’re not going to produce just any old opera but – why the heck not? – you choose, as the 1st production of your fledgling opera company, Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

We’re talking about an opera in which the title role is so treacherous (à la Siegfried or Tristan) that there are probably less than a dozen tenors worldwide who regularly perform it.

Throwing caution to the wind, that’s exactly what Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz and Sam Bartlett did. They found themselves an orchestra and a talented group of young up-and-coming singers and a venue, the Museo del Barrio on upper Fifth Avenue and, for 3 performances last summer and at a top ticket price of $45.00, you could see a complete Wagnerian opera. IN ENGLISH (even with supertitles!)!! And it wasn’t half bad. In fact, the audacity of it made for one of the cultural highlights last summer in New York.

Welcome to Apotheosis Opera.

One of the best things about attending the performance was seeing the audience – a very diverse one at that – and how excited they were to be there. And, because the pit wasn’t lowered below the main floor as in most theaters and was fully visible to the audience, it was fascinating to watch the orchestra warm up. We were particularly obsessed with one young percussionist rehearsing a tambourine solo over and over again. These were, for the most part, young professional musicians performing Wagner, possibly for the 1st time.

And then there was our young conductor, Mr. Jaroszewicz, whose enthusiasm was palpable and infectious.

I won’t tell you that it was a perfect performance but it had the elements of something very special happening for the first time.

Apotheosis

Opening Night Tannhäuser Curtain Call

The Tannhäuser run was successful enough that, next summer, the Apotheosis guys will present their 2nd production, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, another opera not often performed and with its own special set of challenges.

Look for it next July.

CULTURE TIP: Apotheosis Opera

The New York Times on Apotheosis Opera

Awake & Sing! – The National Asian American Theatre Company 

Clifford Odets’ quintessential depression-era play about a Jewish family of dreamers and realists living in a cramped apartment in the Bronx had a brief run at the Public Theater last summer and it proved two things: first: NAATCO is a theater company of the 1st order; and second: you don’t have to be or look Jewish to make a compelling case for the play. In fact, it showed, once again, how an excellent production of a seminal play transcends any particular demographic community and becomes, instead, a story of any family that could take place anywhere and anytime.

Awake & Sing - 01
The Awake & Sing! Company

CULTURE TIP: National Asian American Theatre Company

The New York Times on Awake & Sing!

Gypsy – London

Performed on the West End for only the 2nd time, since Angela Lansbury’s spectacular 1973 turn as Rose, Gypsy returned in triumph, following a brief run at the Chichester Festival the previous fall. Starring Imelda Staunton as the indomitable Madame Rose, and directed by Jonathan Kent (both of whom collaborated on the 2012 production of Sweeney Todd), this Gypsy was a sensation, and particularly so for Ms. Staunton.

Her fearless and boldly unsympathetic performance is one for the ages: this Rose takes no prisoners. When she says at the end of the play: “I guess I did do it for me”, you know exactly what she means. Yes, she’s a mother and she’s a lover but her ambition lays waste to everything and everyone in her path. She plays the ruthless monster who, through circumstance (because she “was born too soon and started too late”), gets her comeuppance but fails to understand or to accept what has happened to her.

One of the best aspects of this production is that it has been reimagined after so many productions in New York directed by the original librettist, Arthur Laurents. It frees up all of the creatives and allows them to start fresh. Even the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography – except for the brilliant transition when the kids grow up in front of our eyes – is given a fresh coat of paint.

But the main reason to see this Gypsy was to see Staunton’s Rose. Every moment and every movement was completely thought out and yet retained complete spontaneity. Her specificity of thought and deed was riveting.

Fortunately for anyone unable to see the performance live in London may yet have a chance to see this production: It was filmed for BBC several months ago and will be televised in the UK during the holidays; perhaps it will cross the pond and eventually be shown here.

Gypsy - 01
Imelda Staunton takes on Madame Rose

Variety reviews Gypsy

Hamilton – New York

Is there anyone left who hasn’t heard of the juggernaut called Hamilton? Inconceivable! Playing its initial run at the Public Theater last winter, it arrived on Broadway in triumph this past summer.

And everything you’ve heard is true. It is a landmark musical and Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius.

Hamilton - 01
The insanely talented Lyn-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

Based on Ron Chernow’s 800+ page book, Alexander Hamilton, the musical is a faithful adaptation, performed in rap! Before Miranda’s previous musical – In the Heights – opened and proved me wrong that rap couldn’t succeed and flourish on the musical stage, I was a complete naysayer. But using rap to tell Hamilton’s story – and utilizing the talents of a supremely talented cast of diverse actors – turns out to be a brilliant conceit. Not only that, but the diversity of the cast which, if you look closely, resembles what America looks like today, draws a direct line from the late 18th century to the early 21st century. All of which contributes to the diverse audience clamoring for seats to this show for which tickets are nearly impossible to obtain, unless you have extremely deep pockets (and possibly not even then).

Hamilton - 02
The Hamilton Company

For those of you with long memories, you may recall that exactly 40 years ago another show opened at the Public Theater and, after a resoundingly successful run there, moved quickly to Broadway, where it swept all the theatre awards that season – and the Pulitzer Prize – and went on to run for 15 years. That show was A Chorus Line, and it’s entirely possible that history is about to repeat itself.

CULTURE TIP: Hamilton

The New York Times on Hamilton

The King and I – Lincoln Center Theater

Sometimes, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned musical to lift your spirits. But what’s even better is seeing a new production of a classic show that feels fresh and new. That’s how I felt about Gypsy on the West End and it’s exactly how I feel about Bart Sher’s production of The King and I, now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. Sher has a great talent in mining the texts and scores of well-loved shows, but always finding something new to say, while still respecting the original material. In The King and I, he’s managed to do it in two ways.

First, he’s swept away all of the “far East exotica” that seems highly theatrical but also, perhaps, inauthentic. Instead, Sher and his designers have created an austere and yet incredibly beautiful playing area that suggests Siam and inhabits every inch of the vast Beaumont stage. It is spare and, at the same time, sumptuous. There’s also a marvelous coup-de-theatre that opens the show – which I won’t spoil for you here – that, again, shows off what the Beaumont stage can do.

King and I - 01
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe – Act I Finale

Second: Sher has reexamined the text and understood, perhaps for the first time, that not only Mrs. Anna Leonowens, but also Lady Thiang and Tuptim, are strong powerful characters and he has directed them in just this way. In Lady Thiang’s case, she has always been presented as subordinate to the King, with little or no character of her own. Not this Lady Thiang, as played by Ruthie Ann Miles, in a Tony-winning performance. She is a prime mover and shaker at the Siamese court and a true power behind the throne. For the first time, I felt that “Something Wonderful” was played not as a plea by a weak woman to a strong woman but, rather, as drawing a line in the sand and daring Mrs. Anna to do what she knows is right.

King and I - 04
Ruthie Ann Miles – Something Wonderful

Ashley Park’s Tuptim is also made of sterner stuff. She knows what she wants and she goes after it. Unfortunately for her, it doesn’t end well.

King and I - 03
Ashley Parks and Ruthie Ann Miles

Ken Watanabe brought great stage presence and charisma to the stage but, unfortunately, he was almost unintelligible during most of the preview period and into the run. Although his diction markedly improved, he left the cast when his contract was up last summer and has been succeeded first by Jose Llana and now by Hoon Lee, both more experienced in the art of theatrical musical performance than Mr. Watanabe.

King and I - 02
The 11:00 Number

Finally, 6 must be the charm for Kelli O’Hara, who triumphantly won her 1st Tony award last Spring (and did her version of “The Worm” as part of her acceptance speech). While her Mrs. Anna was not to everyone’s taste – and she had to compete with Kristen Chenoweth’s brilliant and wacky Lily Garland in the revival of On the Twentieth Century – O’Hara brought dignity and a sumptuous voice to this classic role.

King and I - 05
Kelli O’Hara

CULTURE TIP: The King and I

LoftOpera – Brooklyn

I covered LoftOpera in a post earlier last month, but I want to reiterate what I said then. With slim resources, but with lots of imagination, talent and integrity, this young company is performing opera for the peeps. Since the venerable New York City Opera went under in 2013 (although it is making some kind of comeback in 2016), and with the unexpected loss of Gotham Opera last year, it will be interesting to see if LoftOpera can continue on its trajectory to becoming the new “People’s Opera”. For as little as $160, can purchase a membership to their 2016 season of 4 operas (beginning with Puccini’s Tosca and ending with Weill’s and Brecht’s Mahagonny) and I’m telling you that you won’t regret making that investment of time and money.

Loft Opera - 01
LoftOpera’s 2015 production of Lucrezia Borgia

Loft Opera - 02
The audience and the performers are one

CULTURE TIP: LoftOpera

Lyrics & Lyricists – the 92nd Street Y

This venerable subscription series, which has been in business for many years, turned its attention this past year to Sheldon Harnick and, arguably, his magnum opus, Fiddler on the Roof, to commemorate the musical’s 50th anniversary. While we all expected a Fiddler redux with Sheldon telling stories and hearing that wonderful score performed by a talented bunch of singers, what we actually got was something of an archeological dig. Mr. Harnick presented an intriguing evening of some 20 songs composed for Fiddler that, for a myriad of reasons, never made it into the finished show.

Harnick - 01
Sheldon Harnick gives us the skivvy

For instance, the original opening number for the show was intended to be We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet for Golde and her 5 daughters. It was an OK sort of number, but didn’t really set up the show for its audience. It took months of director Jerome Robbins haranguing the writers and producer Hal Prince: “What is the show ABOUT?” It took many meetings before one of them blurted out an exasperated something about the community’s traditions and how, over the course of the show, they began to disperse in the same way the characters would at the end of the play. “That’s it!!” Jerry cried, and continued: “But, if that’s what the show is about, then you have to write an opening number that tells the audience what they’re about to see.” And so Tradition, arguably one of the greatest opening numbers of any musical was born.

But I digress. The evening we spent at the 92nd Street Y and with Sheldon and his cast was full of discoveries. We heard incredibly good songs and lyrics that, for reasons explained by Sheldon, just didn’t make the cut. This was not untalented material, just not right for the show.

Harnick - 02
The cast performs the Fiddler songs we’ve never heard

And that was the most interesting aspect of the evening: how consummate theatre craftsman collaborate – “laden with happiness and tears” – and arrive at the right place to create one of the last great musicals of Broadway’s fabled Golden Age.

CULTURE TIP: Lyrics & Lyricists

Nutcracker Rouge – New York

Part ballet, part Cirque du Soleil, part cabaret, part burlesque, and part Marquis de Sade, Nutcracker Rouge will get your pulse racing in more ways than one. Presented as the middle production of Company XIV’s 2015-16 season, Nutcracker Rouge is the creation and inspiration of company Artistic Director and Founder, Austin McCormick. He and his extremely talented company of dancers/singers/actors presented one of the most raucously enjoyable evenings in New York last year.

Nutcracker - AAC
AAC CPA prepares to enjoy Nutcracker Rouge

I had expected an updated version of the Nutcracker that you and I remember from our childhoods. But, from the moment you entered the (faux) smoke-filled theater and saw all those red lights, you knew you were about to see something special and much more racy.

Nutcracker - JS-01

While you will most certainly recognize many familiar elements of the Nutcracker, the story takes many twists and turns, courtesy of the many novelty acts, none of which will I spoil for you here.

Your portal into this enterprise is Madame Drosselmeyer, who assumes many identities during the evening and changes costumes more times than Angela Lansbury in the original production of Mame. Think an extremely benign Emcee from Cabaret and you get the idea. Played with absolute insouciance by Shelly Watson, she has a fabulous voice and creates the perfect atmosphere through which the audience enters the delightful and demented world of Nutcracker Rouge. Oh, and she dances, too.

Nutcracker - 04
One of Madame Drosselmeyer’s many guises

Each cast member has his or her moment to shine, which they do as does the most brilliant precious stone. While time and space limits me from mentioning everyone, I would like to single out Laura Careless as Marie-Claire. In addition to her exquisite abilities as a prima ballerina, she is also a wonderful mime and comic. And she takes both her character and the audience on quite a journey towards enlightenment during the course of the evening.

Nutcracker - 03
Laura Careless (center)

Somehow, by the end of the evening and after all of the novelty acts, pole dancers, tricks and stunts, you will find yourself very moved when Marie-Claire’s Nutcracker Cavalier (charismatically portrayed by Steven Trumon Gray) emerges from the audience and takes the stage as the evening climaxes with their ecstatic pas de deux. The winning combination of Tchaikovsky’s irresistible music and the absolute commitment of the dancers make for a heartstopping moment.

Nutcracker - 05

If you can’t see Nutcracker Rouge, which plays through January 17th, I encourage you to see the company’s final production of the season, Snow White, which begins on January 26th and runs through March 12th.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what the company does to THAT fairy tale!

CULTURE TIP: Company XIV

A View From the Bridge – New York

Who would have thought that New York would have been ready for – or needed – another production of Arthur Miller’s 1956 play, A View from the Bridge, particularly after the 2010 revival, directed by Gregory Mosher and starring Liev Schreiber as Eddie Carbone?

View from the Bridge - 03
Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker

As it turns out, this galvanic new production, which originated at London’s Young Vic, presents one of the most intense theater-going experiences of my life. Directed by the controversial but intensely talented Ivo van Hove, I attended the last press preview, at which the audience sat spellbound and breathless for the two-hour intermissionless performance, at the end of which the audience was stunned into silence.

The company is led by Mark Strong’s galvanic performance as Eddie Carbone. I knew him only as an action figure in movies and had no idea of the depth of his acting chops. His tortured and confused but, somehow, very sexy Eddie doesn’t make a false move throughout the evening. Totally believable and heartbreaking at the same time, he held the audience in the palm of his hand.

View from the Bridge - 02
Russell Tovey, Mark Strong and Phoebe Fox

The entire company was exquisite, none of whom struck a false note.

Van Hove’s great talent – depending on your point of view – is to reimagine plays in ways you never considered. This View is presented inside a square box with no props, no scene changes, and with all the actors barefoot. It must be very challenging for the actors to work in such a space, but they do.

The climax of the play is stunningly staged, and you will be thinking about it for days afterwards.

If you care at all about great theatre, you have only until February 21st to see this remarkable production.

CULTURE TIP: A View From the Bridge

The New York Times on A View From the Bridge

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

 

 

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London Recap

Greetings and Salutations. And sorry to be MIA over the past few days – it’s been a very busy time and all that.

The last time you’d heard from me, we had just attended a performance of Funny Girl, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which was a real treat. If you’re planning a trip to London in the spring (and beyond), you can get tickets to see the production, which is transferring to the Savoy Theatre in March. Ticket sales are quite brisk, I’ve been told.

CULTURE TIP: Purchase Tickets to Funny Girl

Otherwise, our trip to London last week was a raving success. We had a blast and, rather than talking about it too much, I thought I’d share some photos with you to give you the flavor of the trip – you’ll get the idea.

On our 1st full day in London, we took afternoon tea at The Georgian at Harrod’s. The place was all gussied up for the holidays, of course.

Day 2 - HarrodsWorld famous Harrods

Day 2 - Harrods GeorgianIt’s the Georgian for your afternoon tea.

Day 2 - Harrods Tea - AAC
AAC CPA anticipates his afternoon tea

Day 2 - Harrods Rose Tea
Rose Tea made with actual Roses!!

Day 2 - Harrods Tea Tray
And all of the tea goodies.

CUISINE TIP: Take Tea at Harrods

Our first show in London was Terence Ratigan’s 1948 comedy, Harlequinade, starring and co-directed (with Rob Ashford) by Kenneth Branagh, preceded by Ratigan’s 1968 one-woman monologue, All On Her Own, starring Zoë Wanamaker. This double-bill is part of an ambitious six production season that the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company is presenting at the Garrick Theatre and is currently playing in rep with A Winter’s Tale, again starring Branagh alongside Judi Dench. The season culminates next summer and fall with Branagh taking on the touchstone role of Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. Needless to say, I already have my tickets for that one!

Day 2 - Harlequinade - AAC
AAC CPA does Harlequinade at the Garrick

CULTURE TIP: Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company

Following the performance, we had supper at one of our favorite London restaurants, the venerable J. Sheekey which serves, arguably, the best fish in town.

Day 2 - J Sheekey

Day 2 - J Sheekey Fish & Chips
AAC CPA had the fish and chips – enough for many

CUISINE TIP: J. Sheekey

Next day – typically cloudy but unusually mild for December – we were walking around our hood and snapped this pic of the Shard, where the Shangri-La is located:

Day 2 - Shard from a Distance

Following the Funny Girl matinee, we had dinner at another of our favorite London establishments, Hawksmoor, which is where you go for beef and great cocktails. There are several locations and we ate at the one just off Picadilly in Air Street:

Day 3 - Hawksmoor Exterior

Each Hawksmoor has its own distinct design and this one is Deco:

Day 3 - Hawksmoor Deco Detail
Fab Deco Chandelier

Day 3 - Hawksmoor AAC
AAC CPA anticipates his cocktail and dinner

The grub is really good here, too. In addition to amazing beef, this Hawksmoor has lots of fish on the menu. We shared the scallop appetizer:

Day 3 - Hawksmoor Scallops
Great presentation, right?

CUISINE TIP: Hawksmoor Air Street

We took an after dinner stroll and saw some fab sights on Picadilly:

Day 3 - Picadilly

Picadilly, itself

Day 3 - Burlington Arcade

Burlington Arcade

Day 3 - Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason all tarted up for the holidays

Next day, we woke up to a brilliantly sunny day. Look at the view from our room:

Day 4 - Shard Shadow over St. Paul's
Note the shadow of the Shard to the right of St. Paul’s

After breakfast at the hotel – by the way, a great deal when booking through the AmEx FHR program, because your breakfast is included – we checked out the lobby men’s room:

Day 4 - Bathroom with a View
A (Bath)Room with a View

Day 4 - Mens Room Amenity
The Shangri-La thinks of EVERYTHING!!

And, if you want a thrill, take note of how the hotel keeps its windows clean:

Day 4 - Window Cleaners
This photo was taken on the 35th floor, kids!

What trip to London would be complete without a visit to Covent Garden:

Day 4 - AAC - Covent Garden

That afternoon, we experienced our first Panto, a holiday tradition in which drag plays a prominent role and lots of audience participation is encouraged (and expected). Today’s Panto was Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Day 4 - Panto - AAC
AAC CPA does Panto!

Day 4 - Panto Show Curtain
The Panto show curtain

Following the Panto, we rushed back to the hotel to change for the evening performance of Guys and Dolls at the Savoy Theatre where, last Spring, we had seen Imelda Staunton’s star turn as Madame Rose in Gypsy.

Day 4 - Savoy Guys and Dolls - 02
Doesn’t this photo remind you of a publicity still from the film?

Day 4 - Savoy AAC
AAC CPA studies the Hot Box Cuties

Day 4 - Savoy Show Curtain
Opening image of the set

Needless to say, the show was aces. It’s such a great musical, definitely one of the 10 best of all time. Even when the show ground to a halt in the last few minutes – technical difficulties, they said – the audience was totally enthralled by the show, roaring its approval at the end.

On our way out – no pix, please, we’re British! – we noticed, sitting directly behind us, Jim Carter (Carson on Downton Abbey, and a former Big Jule himself) and his celebrated wife, the aforementioned Imelda Staunton. I couldn’t help myself and, in a very un-British-like manner, told them how much we’d enjoyed their performances and thanked them. They looked a bit startled (I guess that my outburst just isn’t done) but thanked me very graciously.

After humiliating myself, we strolled over to The Ivy, which is our favorite London haunt. As I reported when we were there earlier this year, the place had a makeover last spring and looks terrific, but the service and congeniality of the place remain unchanged.

Day 4 - The Ivy Exterior
The one and only Ivy

Day 4 - The Ivy - AAC
AAC CPA anticipates his Americano whilst perusing the menu

CUISINE TIP: The Ivy

Next day – Christmas Eve – was another double-header, starting with Jim Broadbent starring as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Noël Coward Theatre. Dickens’ story was adapted by Patrick Barlow (whose 4-actor adaptation of The 39 Steps played for years and years both in London and in New York) and was designed by Tom Pye and directed by Phelim McDermott. We initially wanted to see the show for Jim Broadbent, a fave actor of ours’ since the 1999 Mike Leigh film,  Topsy Turvy, in which Broadbent played W.S. Gilbert. As it turned out, we found the production imaginative, enchanting and surprisingly moving. I guess that Dickens knew what his was doing.

Day 5 - A Christmas Carol - Exterior
Marquee at the Noël Coward Theatre

Day 5 - A Christmas Carol - AAC
AAC CPA does Dickens

Day 5 - A Christmas Carol Show Curtain
A Christmas Carol show curtain

And, by the way, can I just put in a word about the London theatre-going audience and, in particular, the kids? We saw two matinees in which the audience was literally filled with children (as young as 4 or 5, I’d say). They were amazing! Respectful, attentive, and really into the experience. Dare I say that I prefer them to most of the audiences to be found on Broadway these day? OK, come and get me for that last remark.

Another rush back to the hotel to change for our Christmas Eve festivities. And look what we found in our room upon our return:

Day 5 - Christmas Tree
Our very own tree. AAC CPA thought it might be edible. It wasn’t.

That evening, we had a brand-new London experience, and long overdue! We attended the last performance of Carols By Candlelight at the famed Royal Albert Hall. This concert is an annual event and completely fills the 5,200 seat venue. It was a real thrill for us to be there.

Day 5 - RAH - Moon
World famous Royal Albert Hall with a full moon overhead

Day 5 - RAH - AAC
AAC CPA checks out the program pre-concert

Day 5 - RAH - Concert
The Mozart Festival Orchestra and Chorus in performance

Day 5 - RAH - Doris Day
For all you film buffs, AAC CPA has a Doris Day moment

We had a great time at the concert, although there was too much audience participation for my taste. I didn’t realize that we were expected to sing traditional carols!! Standing, no less, and I’d already had a long day. (Bah, humbug, you say?) And added to all that, most of the carols were sung to different tunes than their American counterparts. Who knew??

CULTURE TIP: Royal Albert Hall

After the concert, we had another magical view of the full moon over London:

Day 5 - Moon Over London

Merry Christmas, everyone!! Friday – our last full day in London – and did you know that the entire city shuts down?? We had thought we might go to a movie, or ride around, or something. Uh-uh!! No dice (as they’re currently saying at the Savoy Theatre). Fortunately for us, we were staying in a beautiful hotel with gorgeous views, so we didn’t mind hanging around our digs and relaxing after seeing 6 shows in the previous 4 days.

As we subsequently found out, Uber was available for getting around – whew!! We had decided to have our farewell dinner at another of our favorite London hotels, the Corinthia, and Uber got us there and back. Not only that, but Uber turned out to be cheaper than taking a cab (if we could have gotten one)!

Day 6 - Corinthia ExteriorThe gorgeous Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall Place

We started our evening at the Corinthia’s Bassoon Bar, one of our favorite watering holes in London.

Day 6 - Corinthia Bassoon AAC
AAC CPA chooses his cocktail from the iPad menu

We moved from the Bassoon to the Northall for our dinner. It’s a beautiful room and the food was delicious.

Day 6 - Corinthia Northall
My starter: Beef Tartare and it was yummy!

Day 6 - Corinthia Lobby
AAC CPA strolls through the Corinthia lobby after dinner

Ubering our way back to the Shangri-La from the Corinthia and look at what we saw:

Day 6 - Uber View of London Eye

By the way, did I mention that we ate on the early side so that we could get back to the hotel in time for – wait for it – the series finale of Downton Abbey? Yes, gentle readers, we had already seen all of season 6, save for the final holiday episode. How lucky are we? No spoilers here. Just know that we’ve seen it all, and mum’s the word.

Day 6 - Downton Finale
Opening Downton Abbey credits – for the very last time

All good things must come to an end and, on Saturday morning, we got into a taxi and made our way to Heathrow, where our BA flight was waiting to return us back home (and to reality).

Day 7 - BA Concorde Room - AAC
AAC CPA hanging out in the Concorde Room prior to boarding our flight

Day 7 - BA 177 - AAC
And settling in for the 8-hour flight home (with Mimosa)

Here’s our lunch menu:

Day 7 - BA 177 - Lunch Menu

I opted for the fillet of veal, which was pretty good:

Day 7 - BA 177 - Entree

And then, several hours later, it was time for afternoon tea, British-style:

Day 7 - BA 177 - Tea

Post-script: The flight landed a few minutes early but, due to some unexplained issue involving attaching the jetway to the plane, we were delayed for about 40 minutes!!

An imperfect end to a just-about-perfect trip.

Happy New Year, everyone!!

PS. Next week, we’re off to Buenos Aires and then, via Crystal Symphony, we’re sailing to Antarctica. More to follow!

From London: Funny Girl at the Chocolate Factory

Good evening, sports fans and greetings from an extremely windy London town.

We’ve just come from a matinee performance of the completely sold-out run of Funny Girl, starring Sheridan Smith, at the Menier Chocolate Factory. You may recall that I was able to obtain a pair of seats the day before the box office opened to the general public. Good thing I did, as the entire run sold out in something like two hours!

Funny Girl - 04

Before this production even started previews, a transfer to the Savoy Theatre on the West End was announced, and now tickets are available at least through the summer. (I was at the Savoy box office yesterday to pick up my tickets for tomorrow evening’s performance of Guys & Dolls and, apparently, tickets to Funny Girl are few and far between until next July!)

So, what did we think? Funny Girl hasn’t been seen onstage in London since Barbra Streisand brought the original production here in the mid-60’s. Since then, there’s been no first-class production either here or in the states. Part of the problem is that the iconic Streisand performance has been memorialized on film and it’s very difficult to compete with that. Also, the show had a very troubled gestation period and, only due to Jerry Robbins’ out-of-town doctoring – particularly working to get a performance out of Streisand – did the show succeed once it opened in New York. It is a flawed show with a great score. And it requires a star in the title role to make it work or even to contemplate a new production.

Funny Girl - 01
Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice

As it turns out, Sheridan Smith is that star. While no one will mistake her vocals for those of Streisand on stage or on film, one could say that, Smith is “the greatest star” in London at the moment. Diminutive in size, she is an oversized personality who brings her considerable skills to creating Fanny Brice. She is quirky, cute, gritty, and utterly believable, particularly in the early scenes of the play, when Fanny is on the ascent.

Funny Girl - 02
Don’t rain on her parade!

Our one reservation about this production was that it was being presented in a teeny-tiny theatre and Funny Girl is an exemplar of the big-scale Broadway musical. The original production boasted a huge cast, lavish sets and costumes and a full orchestra. None of that is possible in this incarnation. However, Michael Mayer’s production presents the material in a way that almost makes you forget that you’re seeing no more than 20 people on stage, accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra (with skillful new orchestrations) that makes the most from the least.

The show is very well cast. Fanny’s obsession with Nick Arnstein is no surprise, thanks to Darius Campbell’s performance. Towering over Fanny, he is both suave leading man and lost soul. And he gives the best vocal performance of the role of anyone I’ve seen or heard. In fact, a number that may have been cut from the original production (or was it written for and subsequently cut from the movie) – “Temporary Arrangement” – has been reinstated for Campbell. The supporting cast delivers the goods.

Funny Girl - 03
Darius Campbell and Sheridan Smith

It will be interesting to revisit the production when it lands at the Savoy to see if it is rethought on a much larger stage in a much larger theater. 

Finally, Funny Girl is a prime example of one of the last musicals of Broadway’s “golden age”. While not close to perfect, it boasts a great Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score and, in Sheridan Smith’s sensational performance, a case has been made for a new production of this almost lost musical.

 

 

Countdown to London

“As a foreigner in London, I like that there are so many other foreigners.”
David Sedaris

How lucky are AAC CPA and I?

For the 3rd time this year, we’re on our way to London. This trip came about thanks to a blog entry by The Points Guy a few months ago giving us the skivvy that fares were being slashed to Europe over the holidays. If you happened to be an AARP member (reminder: you don’t need to be 50 to join AARP, just sayin’) and, for instance, went through the AARP website to a dedicated British Airways link, you automatically got a $400 per person discount. Added to that, we cashed in some Avios miles to save even more money.

How could we not go?

TRAVEL TIP: The Points Guy

In the event, we’re leaving early Sunday morning, will arrive early evening local time, Heathrow Express our way into central London and be at the Shangri-La at the Shard in time for a late supper with our friends A & K, who will have arrived the day before. As I said, how lucky are we?

We also got lucky with a special promotion through the AmEx FHR program. Although we’d already booked a return visit to the Shangri-La, it turns out that, thanks to AmEx, you can pay for 2 nights and get the 3rd for free. Our awesome AmEx travel agent, Veronica, was happy to rebook the reservation so that we could take advantage of this offer. The only fly in the ointment is that we’re planning to be in London for 6 nights, and the hotel refused to let us use the promotion twice on this visit. Other hotels do it all the time but not the Shangri-La. Good thing it’s a really nice hotel or we’d be very miffed. (Well, maybe we are, just a wee bit.)

Shangri-LaTime for a return visit to the Shangri-La

TRAVEL TIP: AmEx FHR Program

TRAVEL TIP: Once you’ve booked your hotel reservation(s), go back every so often either to the hotel’s website or the AmEx FHR website and check for better deals. I’d say that there’s an excellent chance that you’ll find a lower rate or, even, a promotion like the one we’re taking advantage of next week. If you have the forbearance (and the time, of course), you may end up saving significantly on your hotel bill.

“In London they don’t like you if you’re still alive.”
Harvey Fierstein

Before we pulled the trigger on the airfare deal, I checked to see if we could score tickets to, arguably, the biggest theatre deal in London this fall: the revival of Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory. At the time, I went to the theatre’s website to check on availability and found that tickets didn’t go on sale to the general public until the following day. Call it my cultural sixth sense, but I decided that I had to get tickets right then so, for a modest donation to the Chocolate Factory, I was able to select prime seats (well, in a 188-seat theatre, I guess that ALL seats are prime), for a little more than tuppence. Having taken care of that task, we went ahead and booked the air tickets. Thank you, AARP; thank you, British Airways; thank you, Avios miles. (And thank you, Chocolate Factory!)

And, wouldn’t you know, when general public seating opened the following day, the entire engagement sold out within 2 hours!! The Chocolate Factory had never seen anything like it. Ever!!

So even if you can’t obtain tickets at the Chocolate Factory to see the show, don’t despair – before it even started previews, a transfer to the West End was announced! And, if you’ve never been to the Chocolate Factory, you really should pay a call. It’s a great space and some amazing productions have started there.

Chocolate Factory

CULTURE TIP: Menier Chocolate Factory

CULTURE TIP: Funny Girl at the Savoy

“London is too full of fogs and serious people. Whether the fogs produce the serious people, or whether the serious people produce the fogs, I don’t know.”
Oscar Wilde

As usual with our visits to London – I believe that this will be our 14th time there – we tend to book up heavily on the cultural side of things. This visit is no exception: 3 shows on the West End, the aforementioned FG at the Chocolate Factory, our first ever Panto (Cinderella at the Hammersmith), and another venue new to us: a Candlelight Christmas Eve Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (AAC CPA has promised not to scream at the climactic part of the concert a la Doris Day in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.)

Doris Day
Doris Day or AAC CPA? You be the judge.

Albert Hall
The Royal Albert Hall

“London is a roost for every bird.”
Benjamin Disraeli

In between all the culture, there’s the eating. We’ve booked some fun meals at some of our old haunts, and I’ll be reporting on them as merrily we roll along. We’ve also been invited to join A & K for a holiday dinner with A’s family, as they reside in Merry Olde. We’re very flattered to be part of their family for that special evening.

The other fun thing is that, on Christmas Night in London, the very final episode of Downton Abbey will be telecast and we’ll be there to see it. (Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve already seen the final season and it’s GOOD! Shhhhhhhh!) We’re a bit sorry to see the series go, but it seems to be ending on a high note.

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
What would Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham say?

I’ll try to post a couple of entries while we’re across the pond to let you know how it’s going.

In the meantime, I hope that all of you are enjoying a happy and healthy holiday season.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Greetings From 35,000 Feet and the Power of Tradition

Good afternoon, Ladies & Germs!

We’re currently at about 35,000 feet on our jetBlue flight from New York to Ft. Lauderdale (and the internet is FREE!!!). Tonight we’ll be staying at the Ritz-Carlton and, tomorrow at this very time, you may recall that AAC CPA and I will embark on Celebrity Silhouette for a 7-day cruise to and from the Caribbean. We’ve heard that it’s a gorgeous ship, so I’ll be blogging during the cruise to let you know all about it. Stay tuned.

JetBlue
Our winged chariot from New York to Ft. Lauderdale

So what’s been going on since my last post?

AAC CPA survived the packing process almost intact, bless him. We had no melt downs or hissy fits. Maybe he’s finally getting the hang of it. But wait: on the way to the airport, he started asking scary questions about packing for our trip to London in 4 weeks. Sigh.AAC at Airport    AAC CPA in the jetBlue lounge with a egg sandwich and a cuppa Peets

Fortunately, the packing had to be completed by last night, as we had tickets for the 1st preview of the new Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Broadway Theatre.

AAC Fiddler    AAC CPA at the 1st preview of Fiddler on the Roof last night

This new production is being directed by Bartlett Sher, who helmed the very successful productions of The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, Golden Boy and, most recently, The King & I. He’s one busy fellow and a superlative director. His great talent, I think, is to respect the material and to mine it in such a way that he is able to create wonderful relationships between the characters. Anyone who’s already seen The King & I, now at the Beaumont Theater, may recall how thoughtfully he’s developed the East vs. West puzzlement in a way that gives equal weight to both cultures. He’s also strengthened the role of Lady Thiang to a degree that I’ve not seen before. She’s no longer an appendage to the King but, rather, the power behind the throne. (Whether the King realizes it or not is another matter.)

For a 1st preview, Fiddler on the Roof was in fairly good shape. The cast is headed by Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as Golde, both of whom are extraordinary actors with long portfolios of memorable characters. Burstein is already giving a marvelous performance. He is, perhaps, the sweetest Tevye I’ve seen but, also, more conflicted than most when he has to deal with the breakdown of traditions happening all around him. Also, while Burstein has had a long and extremely distinguished career, I believe that this production marks the first time he has his name above the title and that’s more than well-deserved.

Burstein in Rehearsal
Danny Burstein in rehearsal

I had initially thought that Hecht was too luxuriously cast, and would be wasted in the role. Seemingly a bit tentative in the 1st act, she grew ever stronger over the course of the evening and created some very moving moments in the 2nd act. The remainder of the cast is uniformly excellent and seem to relish discovering their characters along with the audience, which is another tribute to Sher’s ability to put the right actor into the right role.

Fiddler      1st image of the Fiddler set (shhhh – don’t tell).

The original production was staged by Jerome Robbins and no one who saw it or its many revivals will be likely to forget his iconic choreography. This production, while respecting the original staging, chooses to go its own way. Bart Sher has brought in a different choreographer, Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter. His movement for the show seems to be an amalgam of folk dance, modern dance and homage to Robbins. Even at this early date, he’s getting great results from his company. As of now, only Tevye’s Dream didn’t land as well as it can and that’s probably just a matter of time. And, as usual, the Bottle Dance is a highlight of the performance. Shechter does Robbins one better by having 5 dancers for this sequence and it rocks!

Hofesh Shechter

Perhaps the best thing about this Fiddler is that, while faithful to the material, Sher has rethought every element to keep it fresh and timely. This production does not feel at all like a revival. There is a framing device, which I will not spoil for you, that makes this show feel more relevant than, perhaps, ever.

So, if you care about great Broadway musicals, I encourage you to treat yourself to this new production. It is one of the last great vestiges from the Golden Age of Broadway.

Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway

(Oh, and did I mention that it was a bit of a thrill to see Fiddler’s lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, sitting 2 rows in front of us? Even at 90+ years of age, he remains Broadway royalty.)

That’s all, folks. Next time you hear from me, I should be floating on the ocean.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Fantasy Memory – Bucket List Item: Flying Air France to Paris

It started like this in June, 2014:

You – in this case: AAC, CPA – see a poster on the street alerting you to an upcoming exhibit that’s right up your alley (and, best of all for AAC, is free!). And there it is:

AF is in the Air
Invitation to an exhibit

What a cool thing to do of a summer Saturday afternoon in Chelsea, right? So, after meeting friends for brunch, we head over to the far west side on a street full of interesting art galleries (who knew?) and then into a loft building.

An attractive young woman outfitted in a beautifully tailored Air France uniform greets us. In fact, as we move through the exhibit, there seem to be dozens of Air France uniforms all around us, smiling, helpful and very welcoming.

And what, exactly, is the exhibit? Throughout, you see Air France memorabilia: photographs, videos, samples of their beautiful crystal, china, silverware, etc.

AF Model

AF Cards

AF Concorde Dining

There’s also fun, silly stuff to walk through. Even a kids area where they can play and run around while their folks ogle the exhibit.

2014-06-28 13.55.46
AAC CPA attends an exhibit and has fun

But, mostly, as you work your way through, you can sample the various cabin classes on board, which is the real purpose of the exhibit. Air France wants to put butts in seats.

In fact, if you want to try out the seats, go for it!

We start in economy (meh) – looks like lots of seats pushed together.

AF Economy

Premium economy is next – getting better, as there’s a bit more legroom – 6 inches more pitch.

AF Premium Economy

Business? Now we’re getting warmer, the seats are comfortable but, also, angle-flat, not flatbeds – phooey!!

AF Business
See what I mean about “angle-flat”?

And then it happens, you go through a curtain and, suddenly, you’re in first class (a/k/a La Premiere). And you gasp just a little bit and your heart may skip a beat. It’s magic time.

AF - 1st - New Product
La Premiere – Pretty swank, huh?

Wouldn’t you just know? This is the one cabin of the plane where you can’t sit in the seat!! “Make ‘em beg for more, and then DON’T give it to them!” The creeps!

After seeing the first class cabin, there’s nowhere to go but down. Literally, that is, as it’s the end of the exhibit. But on the way out, those cute AF uniforms give you posters and the best ice cream sandwich ever. And both are yummy. So are the uniforms, come to think of it.

Cross cut: While all this is going on, we’re aware that a Broadway bound production of An American in Paris will be playing its out-of-town tryout at the Théâtre du Châtelet – IN PARIS!!!! So, in his ever-so-sweetly passive-aggressive way, AAC CPA just casually suggests “Wouldn’t it be fun if we could see An American in Paris (in Paris)?”

An American In Paris

Yes, gentle readers, AAC CPA knows how to push-my-buttons.

From there, I’m off and running (actually sitting at my laptop):

First thing: When, exactly, is the show playing in Paris? Easy enough to find out, just go to the Châtelet website and – wait for it – OMG: it’s playing over the holidays. Are seats even available? How about 10th row center on Christmas Eve?? Woo-hoo! Hold that thought.

Next: Take a big breath and head over to the Air France website and find out what’s available for a round-trip to Paris over Christmas week. It’s the holidays, so it’s going to be difficult to get seats, right?

What I see stuns me. Based on what we’ve heard, flying on Air France in first class (excusez moi – La Premiere) has been a bucket list fantasy dream for a long time. But we couldn’t possibly – the fares would be over-the-moon-too-expensive-out-of-our-budget-impossible.

But wait, for some unexplained reason, the fares over the holidays have been discounted by something like 70%. And, on top of all that, we’d get to fly on the new A380. Whaaaaat? Do my eyes deceive me? Apparently not. Now, I’m not going to lie and tell you that it wasn’t beaucoup bucks but, on the other hand, who doesn’t want to take advantage of a great deal, at least once?

AF A380
The new double-decker A380

Reminder to myself: How lucky are we that we could even consider such an indulgence?

So, then I call AAC CPA at work (yes, he was still doing THAT), and said: “OK, buster, you planted this seed – how would you like to go to Paris for Christmas and, oh by the way, fly over and back on Air France (traveling in La Premiere!, no less) and, yes, see An American in Paris on Christmas Eve?”

Yes, I called his bluff and what could he say but: “Well, OK, sure.”

And in a couple of mouse-clicks – I had windows open for both Air France and the Châtelet – we locked in our fantasy holiday trip: We were going to be two Americans in Paris, seeing An American in Paris on Christmas eve– IN PARIS!

Seriously, how lucky ARE we??

Next time: the Air France treatment (or, “Is there any way that you can make this flight LONGER?”)

Don’t miss VERITAS – presented by The Representatives

For those of you in New York who have time between now and Saturday, November 7th, you have 4 chances remaining to see The Representatives’ production of Veritas, by Stan Richardson, co-directed and co-produced by Richardson and Matt Steiner (who is also a member of the cast). I cannot recommend this production highly enough.

Veritas Cast
Cast of Veritas

Veritas deals with a shameful witch-hunt that occurred at Harvard University almost 100 years ago and destroyed the lives of a dozen students. The play was originally performed at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival, where it had the distinction of being the first Fringe production to sell out before it even opened.

The incident came to light only in 2002, when a researcher from the university’s undergraduate newspaper, The Crimson, discovered a box of files labeled “Secret Court”. The paper’s staff subsequently had to battle the university’s administration to make public the over 500 documents relating to the Court’s proceeding. Finally, on November 21, 2002 the Crimson published an article entitled Fifteen Minutes, which made public this shameful piece of history.

Attending a Representatives production is a unique event in itself. When we arrived at the Omsted Salon (a series of rooms at Calvary/St. George’s Church near Union Square), instead of tickets we were handed something akin to a baseball card with a photograph of one of the actors with his character’s name on it. We were told that he would eventually seat us in the first of two performance spaces in which the play would unfold. We were then invited to lubricate ourselves with our choice of complimentary wine or water.

Veritas
Our entry card into the performance

As we approached the beginning of the performance, “Edward Say” arrived to escort us to our seats. Along the way, he explained the mise en scene and told us a little bit about his character. And then he refilled our wine glasses! Thanks, Mr. Say.

The space for the first act was a long narrow room seating probably no more than 100 spectators, and probably a bit fewer. The staging took place in and all around us. You felt as if you were in the middle of the action.

At the conclusion of the first act, a 10-minute intermission was called and we were asked to move back into the space where we had started for more wine. It was there that the play resumed. Midway through the second act, we were directed back into the other room, which had been reconfigured and where we saw the remainder of the play.

Following the performance, we were invited to attend the “after-party”, so that we could hang out and mingle both with the audience and with the cast.

Since 2012, The Representatives has presented over a dozen new works, in site specific settings, many of which take place in apartments (yes, friends of the company “host” productions in their apartments!) to the Olmsted Salon, where we attended last night’s performance.

In their own words, “The Representatives’ dedication to presenting work as soon as it’s written – in people’s homes and other unconventional spaces – has created an underground following committed to hyper-intimate theatrical experiences. Committed to creating a community as much as making art, every performance of ours’ is followed by a party, creating a unique space for our increasingly diverse community to engage in enjoyable (if sometimes uncomfortable) conversations they might not find in their day-to-day lives.”

Tickets are priced at $20 and wine and the after-party is included. Get there if you can – you won’t regret it.

Buy Tickets to Veritas

NY Times Review