Broadway

A Wicked Birthday

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Today is Lois’ birthday (Happy Birthday Lois!).

We had expected to be in VA all of May. Unfortunately, a few details got in the way and we returned to NY this week and will remain here for the rest of the month.

If we were down in Richmond, we’d likely have gotten together with a bunch of people for dinner tonight, but that too will have to wait until later this summer.

So, what’s a couple to do to celebrate? We don’t exchange gifts, so I just asked Lois if there was anything she wanted to do. She wondered whether I’d be interested in seeing Wicked again.

Given that it’s been 1,207 days since we last saw it (but who’s counting?), it couldn’t have been a serious question. I immediately grabbed two tickets and we were both very excited to see it again.

For those of you who have lost count, Lois did too. 😉

For a couple that rarely disagrees, we were both sure we knew how many times we had previously seen Wicked. I said 13, Lois said 14. She has given me permission to officially call this one 14, since I blogged that it was 13 the last time we saw it. That doesn’t mean she believes that I was correct (then or now)…

Here’s a link to that blog. As you can see, we loved it then.

Today’s verdict?

Spectacular!

As always, some nits could be picked, but the two witches (both new to us) were fantastic:

Caroline Bowman as Elphaba

and

Kara Lindsay as Glinda.

One highlight (of many): the final song, For Good, has occasionally been a weak point (for me) even in otherwise terrific shows. It’s a trickier song to nail than it appears, especially to get both witches to perform it perfectly, individually and in harmony. Today: flawless and chill-inducing!

I’ll close with a series of three photos with a few words between them. (You can click on any image to see a larger version.)

I title the first Inviting. Here you see Caroline/Elphaba and Kara/Glinda inviting the rest of the cast to join them in what was a rousing standing ovation.


No matter how successful we are, individually or as a couple (in their case, individually and as a couple of witches), the achievement comes with the help of every single other person on and off the stage.

We should never forget to invite everyone who helped us, to join in whatever praise we may earn.

Next is titled Bowing. Receiving praise is wonderful, but we should never forget to give the most heartfelt thanks for that praise. Never forget that even if you deserve the praise, people (in this case an audience) don’t have to lend you their attention to begin with, so be grateful for their attention first, and for the opportunity to earn their praise.


Finally, Waving. You’ve been praised, you’ve returned thanks, now take one final moment to share in the joy collectively.


Lois and I never lose sight of these principles, even on the few days a year that are not either of our birthdays.

But, especially on a day like today, we invite everyone who helped create the wonderful life we live to hold our hands. Collectively, we offer our gratitude (via a bow) to everyone who has given us any amount of love.

We send out a smile and a wave to those who are still on the journey with us.

Wicked Season

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The title that sprang to mind was Season of the Witch(es). While clever (at least to me), given our recent cluster of attendances, I couldn’t bring myself to drop Wicked from the title.

Yes, we seem to be knee deep in Wicked Season. Yesterday we went for our 13th time. If only we could have pulled that off last week, on Friday the 13th, who knows what magic/wickedness would have occurred.

WickedPoster

There are two reasons for us to see Wicked over-and-over:

  1. It’s that awesome, and we enjoy it as much (truth be told, more) each time
  2. The shared experience of going with friends on their first time is joyous to us

#2 is the reason that gets us to the theater, as the opportunity to share it with friends makes us schedule it. But, #1 is what makes it the easiest decision in the world when our friends make their availability known to us. Smile

Such was the case yesterday, when two friends who are nearly impossible to schedule time with together both said “Let’s do it!”.

There was a real first for us. In the 12 previous times, Elphaba’s father was played by the same actor (pretty incredible, since our first time was in 2006!). Yesterday, someone else played that role (I think he was an understudy, and our guy will be back). The sub (Brian Munn) was excellent, but we both missed Michael DeVries.

The two leads were the same as the last few performances, Chandra Lee Schwartz and Jackie Burns as the witches. We love them, so that was great. I have been able to nitpick tiny parts of each of their performances in the past (more the singing than the acting) and that was true again. Their awesomeness so far outweighs the nits that I highly encourage everyone to see Wicked while they’re still in it, before the dice get rolled again.

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If you can watch Chandra’s performance and not laugh out loud, multiple times, then I fear that your soul was crushed at some point in your life and is badly in need of some loving and healing.

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We both continue to be charmed by Tom McGowan as The Wizard.

Another wonderfully successful outing to the Gershwin Theatre. Do I hear 14?!?

Not that we need signs to validate our decision to keep seeing Wicked, but we walked right by this place on way home from the theater. Winking smile

Wichcraft

A Wicked Christmas Weekend

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We love so many people that we consider family. However, there are a few full families that are truly our extended family in every possible way. One of those families lives in Leesburg, VA. They (parents plus three children) were supposed to spend Thanksgiving with us in NYC. Unfortunately, life intervened and they had more urgent business to attend. Thankfully, we were able to reschedule to get them up for Christmas.

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On Friday (when they arrived), after having a fantastic meal at Jackson Hole (probably still our favorite burger place in NYC, though there are so many spectacular ones), we did something unusual for us (and them as well). We split up completely!

AtJacksonHole

The parents took the 5-year-old girl to see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. They reported that it was fantastic and the girl was mesmerized throughout!

Lois took the 13-year-old to see the new Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Neither was too enamored with the movie. If a 13-year-old boy doesn’t come back raving about such a movie, that’s all I need to know about it. Winking smile

I took the 11-year-old to see Blue Man Group. It was my third time, his first. It’s been quite a while since I last saw it, so I was quite excited to go again. I was really pleased to see that while the basic show was the same, they created a few new acts, replacing some others, while keeping some real crowd pleasers. In other words, even I got to enjoy some new things (I enjoyed the original material as well).

Needless to say, the 11-year-old was thrilled and had many mind-blowing guffaws during the show. The toilet paper part (a staple) will probably live with him forever. Smile

All seven of us met up at our favorite NYC restaurant for dinner: The Peking Duck House. The parents had been there twice before, but this was a first for all three kids. The meal was a huge success (it never isn’t, but I feel compelled to report on it nonetheless). Even though everyone professed to be stuffed to the gills, when offered ice cream for dessert, amazingly, everyone found an extra spot to stick it in. Smile

TheKidsAtThePekingDuckHouse

Not to slight any other activity, because the weekend was 100% incredible, but the main event (and hence the title) was all seven of us going to see Wicked on Saturday afternoon. It was our (Lois and my) 12th time. It was a first for everyone else. I will admit to being a bit nervous as to whether the kids would like it.

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AtWicked

When we looked at our programs and saw that the two leads were the same ones we saw last time: Jackie Burns and Chandra Lee Schwartz, Lois and I knew that at a minimum, we would be enthralled. Thankfully, all seven of us loved the show.

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To be honest, the two ladies were even better this time than last time (and they were amazing last time). The only weakness in either of their performances came in the the last big number, For Good, which they had trouble with the previous time as well. This time it was better. Each had trouble with their solo, but they came together beautifully for their harmonies (not so last time). Otherwise, their acting and singing were pretty much flawless.

There were two other changes in significant characters. Madame Morrible was played by someone we hadn’t seen before. Neither Lois nor I liked her performance. In fact, Lois thought her acting threw Jackie Burns off a time or two (I think she might be right). She wasn’t bad, and if it was my first time I probably wouldn’t have known better. Still, practically every other Madame Morrible we’ve seen was better, including the last one, who we particularly liked.

Fiyero was new to us as well. I think that last time we saw an understudy for this one. I found his acting not quite as loose as some of the others (including the last one), but his singing was good. In particular, he nailed the difficult duet with Elphaba in the woods (As Long As You’re Mine). So much so, that Jackie Burns nailed her part. I dinged her a bit on that number the last time out.

The Wizard (Tom McGowan) was as wonderful as he has been each time we’ve seen him.

So, a huge success (like I said, every activity was, except for possibly Mission Impossible).

TheTimeDragonClock

We walked to the theater, having lunch at Z Deli around the corner. Afterward we walked back and headed straight to The Capital Grille. I like a lot of steak houses, The Capital Grille among them. While I’ve been there many times, this might have been my best meal there. It would be hard to imagine a more pleasant way to spend time with family on Christmas Eve!

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AtTheCapitalGrille

AfterDinner

After dinner I watched The Matrix with the boys (their first time). We paused a bunch of times early on to discuss the mind-bending plot. Once the real martial arts scenes kicked in, they were done discussing and were more intrigued by the acrobatics. Smile

We got to spend more quality time with everyone on Christmas morning, then they hit the road back to Leesburg. As sad as we were to see them go, our hearts were full from a literally perfect weekend with loved ones.

Rather than collapse, we continued the weekend festivities by meeting another good friend for lunch. I can’t speak for the ladies (each of whom ordered eggs), but my tuna melt was as good as it gets. So was our conversation, which we lingered over long after the meal was done.

P.S. The 11-year-old was enamored with my toy (my You Rock Guitar). He couldn’t put it down the entire weekend. Smile

YouRockGuitarYouRockGuitarContinued

The Book of Mormon on Broadway

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I’m a Scorpio, in practically every way. The most important way is that my birthday just recently passed. I love comedy in nearly every form. When we watch sitcoms on TV, and I laugh at everything truly groan-worthy, Lois always says: “You’re so easy!” It’s true, I am.

I don’t live under a rock (at least not any longer). I am aware that The Book of Mormon is the hottest ticket on Broadway (even hotter than my beloved Wicked). I was aware that it was by the creators of South Park. I was sure that it would be hysterical, irreverent and over-the-top (in particular in its use of foul language). I wanted to see it.

I knew that Lois couldn’t make it through the performance, so I never bothered to get tickets. Then Lois told me that I should get tickets for my birthday and take friends rather than her. Well, if I must (apparently, I must’ed, so I did). Winking smile

Three of us went last night. I went with an open mind, with no doubt that I would love it even more, without the guilt of thinking about Lois squirming in her seat next to me.

I was wrong. Not about everything. It is very funny (though not even close to hysterical or even consistent in the level of humor). It’s extremely irreverent, though not in the let’s poke fun at everything (but rather, let’s ridicule a group that isn’t likely to do/say anything in response). It’s over-the-top, but in making light of things that simply can’t be made light of (the very real, ongoing female genital mutilation in Africa is a non-stop riot in their opinion).

People laugh their heads off, even at those images. It feels to me like it’s more the shock value than an actual joke. When you see people around you laughing, and you’re at the hottest comedy for which you paid a small ransom to attend, you laugh too (or at least most people in the audience did).

To me, there were two separate shows (seamlessly integrated into one spectacle):

  1. A (very raw) comedy ridiculing every aspect of Mormonism. As a side dish, the plight of the poorest, most oppressed, AIDS stricken Ugandans is served up for our delight.
  2. A sendup (parody/skewering) of Broadway Musicals.

Let’s start with #2. I think The Book of Mormon nails it perfectly, in a funny way. Every single actor/singer is fantastic. The music is fine (nothing that I can remember even the next day, but it was all pleasant and professional throughout). The lyrics are often sophomoric, but they’re meant to be (or at least completely feel like that’s intentional). The dancers are very good and all of the exaggerated movements are precisely meant to parody the genre.

The sets are minimalistic on some level, but extremely creative. The transitions from one scene to another are simplistic, but work very well. In other words, the team that put this show together are incredible pros.

The female lead (character of Nabulungi) was a substitute last night (played by Asmeret Ghebremichael). She was amazing! That’s all the more impressive when I found out that the person she was subbing for, Nikki M. James, won the Tony for this role. If Nikki is better than Asmeret (and perhaps that’s true), I can only imagine how good she is!

The two male leads were perfect. Andrew Rannells reminded me of Jim Carrey at his best (physically as well as performance skills). Josh Gad was phenomenal.

To summarize, if #2 was the total target, then The Book of Mormon was as good as it gets.

The problem is that it was paired with #1. When I described it to Lois last night, she asked why they didn’t make up a religion, sprinkle in parts of every major belief system (including Mormonism)? Bingo (once again, Lois is typically more insightful than I am, even about things I’ve seen and she hasn’t!).

I’ve already said (twice) that the entire lighthearted treatment of the Ugandan people borders on the absurd (wow, Hadar, you finally get it, it’s supposed to be exaggerated to absurdity). Unfortunately, there’s no exaggeration, it’s happening, today, and it’s simply not funny.

How about Mormonism? Surely that’s fair game, right? Well, anything is fair game to the authors and that’s fine. They are equal opportunity skewerers. For that, I do applaud them (seriously), they’ve taken on some groups (at South Park) that got them heavily censored as well, so they don’t shy away from one group and only target another.

My problem is with the audiences (not just mine, but the ones who make this a runaway hit). First, let’s stipulate something that I had to check (I was not and obviously still am not an authority on Mormon doctrine). I looked on the official site of the Mormon Church where they describe the Book of Mormon on a single page. There is nothing in the show that contradicts what is on the official page.

In other words, the creators choose to present the material in a satirical manner, but from my perspective, they do not distort the teachings as far as I can tell. They deliver the words with a classic tongue-in-cheek and wink-wink nudge-nudge know-what-I-mean know-what-I-mean manner.

Does some of it sound unbelievable? Of course (to me!). But then are there any major religions that don’t have ample amount of hard-to-swallow stories that can’t be proven beyond the faith of their believers? If you’re not a disciple of the Judeo/Christian bible, do you really think the Garden of Eden existed and played out literally as the bible tells us? If you’re not a Muslim, do you believe that Muhammad memorized the Quran as told to him by an angel and then dictated to his followers from memory?

If you believe all of those things (or more importantly, any of those things), is the tale of Joseph Smith really so absurd? Yet, people have no trouble equating the beliefs of honest Mormons with raucous comedy. In fact, I would posit that in general Christians (of any ilk) are considered to be a fair target for any treatment in this country (unfairly and incorrectly, IMHO).

I further posit that if everything about this show were held constant, with the exception of swapping Mormonism for Islam, few (if any) would laugh at a single line, even devout atheists who think all religions are absurd. In fact, the show wouldn’t be made. On the off chance that I’m wrong about that, I’m sure it would close pretty quickly. In the end, some things aren’t funny (or aren’t allowed to be in our Politically Correct environment).

Thankfully, Mormons are a peaceful bunch who aren’t even likely to sue (unlike, say, Scientologists, when they are made fun of). So hey, let’s all take our best shot at Mormons, they’re obviously good sports!

It’s a funny thing about strongly held beliefs. Over time, they can change, either because they’re proven to be wrong, or because something else makes us rethink aspects of them.

The earth was flat, then it wasn’t (perhaps someday it will be again). Nothing can go faster than the speed of light, even in theory (except for warp speed in Star Trek). Oops, some neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light (man was Einstein a moron). Let’s not get started on our Food Pyramid (which minute of the day is it now, so I know which Pyramid to refer to?).

I started this out by mentioning that I’m a Scorpio. Well, am I? According to this article in Time Magazine (the most respected publication on our planet, can I get an amen?), I am no longer a Scorpio. In fact, Scorpio is now exactly a week-long phenomenon, and not a single person who was a Scorpio before is one now.

What? Is nothing sacred anymore? When you can’t trust your Zodiac Sign, it’s clearly an indication of end days, no?

I’ll finish this off by stating that it’s extremely rare that I agree with a review in The New York Times. Typically, when they love a show, I hate it. When they hate it, I at least enjoyed it, often loved it.

Ben Brantley wrote a very long and detailed review of The Book of Mormon in March 2011. I encourage you to read it fully. I think it’s actually very fair (at least 80% of it is), even though he’s clearly over-the-moon about the show. We don’t really differ in our description of most of it. We differ in the why of some parts (he loves it, and I believe that not everything that can be done should be done).

I still can’t wrap my head around some of his conclusions though:

Now you should probably know that this collaboration between the creators of television’s “South Park” (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and the composer of “Avenue Q” (Robert Lopez) is also blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak. But trust me when I tell you that its heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.

That last line, really? Really? He spends way too much time trying to prove the connection (to the Sound of Music and the King and I). When you can point out to me in either of those how Rodgers and Hammerstein work in anything even remotely pure of heart as repeating a single line that starts with F U, dozens of times in a row, I’ll stand corrected.

He ends another string of paragraphs that I felt like quoting in their entirety with this line:

And it uses this vocabulary with a mixture of reverence and ridicule in which, I would say, reverence has the upper hand.

If you saw this show and thought that reverence had the upper hand, then I want to shake your hand for having the sunniest disposition of anyone I can imagine. To be fair, since most of you who have seen the show (and read the review) will want to pinpoint Brantley’s comment as referring purely to their reverence of the Broadway Musical Genre, and not to their reverence of Mormonism, a true quibble/debate is possible on that.

I’ve rambled on long enough, so I’ll conclude with what happened after the show. Like with Friday night’s performance of Wicked, we’re still in the Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS (to repeat, twice a year, possibly lasting the entire year between the two times). The character of the shows comes through in the way they appeal for donations.

Wicked was represented by Glinda, who was charming in every way in making her appeal. The Book of Mormon was represented by Josh Gad, who was very funny, but at times downright vicious in his humor in trying to get people to donate. Aside from the mandatory F-bombs that he was required to throw (in particular at audience members who left while he was talking), he had to throw in the optional D-Bags to describe anyone who might not put money in the buckets. Nice!

I put money in the bucket last night as well, but I put four times more in the Wicked bucket. I’ll give Josh this. I might have put in zero, if he hadn’t pre-shamed me with the D-Bag comment, so mission accomplished Josh!

For the record, both of my friends loved the show, unconditionally. For the record, I love both of my friends just as much today as I did before I found that out. Winking smile

Wicked Continues to Rule

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On the 11th month, of the 11th year, (7 days after the 11th day), there is but one thing to do: See Wicked for the 11th time! Smile

We had friends in from out of town. We’ve been targeting one of them for three years now to see Wicked with us and we finally made it happen last night.

I’ve written about each other performance, so I won’t go into specific show details. Feel free to search for “Wicked” up top and find the other 10 write-ups.

Instead, I’ll just briefly review the performances of the main characters and explain an insight I had last night.

I always worry about the two leads (usually, unnecessarily). I typically check them out before buying tickets. Since we didn’t have leeway this time, I just bought without looking them up.

Both were new to us, which is exciting and frightening at the same time.

Jackie Burns as Elphaba. Jackie was nearly flawless. You can’t expect, nor even hope for flawless, so I was completely happy/satisfied with her performance.

Jackie’s acting was fantastic. I noticed a few nuances that I had either missed in earlier performances, or that Jackie brought a fresh take on. Her voice is extraordinary.

My nits were in a few of the harmonies and a tiny amount of styling (singing a song reasonably different than the original cast album version).

Chandra Lee Schwartz as Glinda. Chandra was fantastic, though a bit less flawless than Jackie. I was still completely happy with the performance.

Chandra’s acting was equal to Jackie’s. Her comedic timing and physical gestures were up there with the best Glinda’s we’ve seen, while never being too over-the-top (they’re supposed be somewhat over-the-top, by design).

She has a stunning voice, but it’s not completely consistent across all ranges. For the most part, the harmonies with Jackie were great, but there were a few notable exceptions, which I also counted against Jackie (in my mind).

In particular, the big finale with both of them, For Good, caused them a bit of a problem (probably unrecognizable to a first-timer). This song often seems to cause a problem. I don’t know if it’s trickier than the rest or whether they’re exhausted and it’s difficult to keep up the concentration and energy by then.

To be clear, it was still excellent, but with meaningfully noticeable issues.

They are paired well and I’d happily seem them again.

The rest of the cast was excellent with one very minor exception. Fiyero was a substitute last night (Constantine Rousouli). He was delightful throughout. The exception was in the forest scene with Elphaba where they sing together sitting on the stage. He struggled a bit when he was singing his solo parts and a bit when he sang harmony with Jackie.

Now my insight. I know that practically everyone who knows me thinks I’m crazy to have seen Wicked as often as I have. I would bet that the people that have seen it with me, even the ones who loved it, think that the most (meaning, they can’t imagine wanting to see it 11 times).

That wasn’t the insight. Winking smile

The insight is that the more often I see it, the easier it is to soak in the total majesty (and occasionally notice new things, which happens every time), because I know every note and every word. The point is that I don’t have to sit on the edge of my seat hoping to catch the next clever line (spoken or sung). I enjoy them (like they’re second nature), but can concentrate on anything else I want without missing the joke, the melody, the harmony, etc.

The first time around, you have to really pay attention to the dialog and the singing, so closely, or you will miss a key piece of the story, or a hysterical pun/joke.

OK, so it’s not deep, but it’s still accurate.

After the bows (to a standing ovation when Chandra and Jackie came out), the entire cast stayed on stage.

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Chandra came forward and announced that this was one of the two times a year that all of Broadway raises money for Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS.

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I gave money (as I always do) when we walked out. Our schedule must be predicable, because this is at least the 6th time in our 11 trips that it’s been one of the two times a year. I’m now suspicious that the two times are the first 180 days, and the second 180 days, or the two times are whenever Hadar is in the theater. Winking smile

Before the show, five of us ate at Bar Americain which is just two blocks from the theater. Everything about our meal was great. The food (appetizers, entrees and desserts), the company and the service. In fact, the banter and helpful recommendations from our waitress were a key part of the enjoyment.

That said, I’m not sure if I can explain why it wouldn’t be at the top of my list to return to (I don’t have a single complaint about any aspect of the evening!). Just a feeling that some other places that I’ve been to leave me more excited to return. Plus, there are the thousands of places I’ve never tried before either…

War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theater

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I didn’t particularly have an interest in seeing War Horse, even after it won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Play. We ended up seeing it last night (how that came to be, below), with extraordinary seats, in the second row.

I don’t go to the theater often enough for anyone to take my opinions to heart. When we make it out to Broadway, it’s more often for a musical than a play. Even then, often for the same musical (we’ve seen Wicked 10 times, already heave tickets for our 11th). Clearly, War Horse is a runaway winner, not just with critics/awards, but with audiences (tickets are very hard to come by).

With that out of the way, here is my opinion of the show, with no spoilers (not that there’s much to spoil to begin with).

The good:

  • The Puppetry is beyond brilliant. I like puppetry (I posted about a puppet show in Atlanta that we loved). This takes it to another level (more likely an order of magnitude).
  • Basically, it doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief to accept that you’re watching real horses on stage. This is a testament to both the puppets (and puppet makers) and to the puppeteers (3+ per horse!). The fact that you can ignore the puppeteers that you see working the horses is mind-boggling (yes, this is a continuation of the first point).
  • There is very little singing/music in the show, but what’s there is very well done.
  • Much of the acting is top notch, including a few exceptional performances (perhaps my favorite was Alyssa Bresnahan as the mother)
  • The staging is clever, in a very austere setting (more is done with less)
  • The second half (in particular the first 10-15 minutes) is filled with solid laughs. During the rest of the play, most of the laughs come from marveling at various puppets, not from clever lines.
  • The theater is beautiful and comfortable. Even though we had amazing seats, I imagine that the worst seat is pretty darn good.

The bad:

  • The story is actually trite. It’s a child’s story, drawn out in a series of ridiculous circumstances. The last scene was cringe-worthy for me (the writing and the acting).
  • The dialog is rarely engaging, bouncing back-and-forth between attempts at humor and overly serious philosophizing.
  • A small number of the actors overact so badly it’s almost laughable. Unfortunately, a few are in critical roles. I couldn’t tell whether they were poorly directed (and therefore possibly fine actors) or poorly cast. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

You can see more good than bad bullets above, and that’s ultimately how I felt about the show. I enjoyed it, and on a few levels am glad I went, but that this won the Tony Award for Best Play makes me sad to think about the state of Plays on Broadway. Perhaps there are too few to choose from to begin with.

To me, this should have won for the puppetry, in the same way that movies win Special Effects Oscars, without even being considered for Best Movie.

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The cast received a standing ovation (from me too). Many of them deserved it (especially the puppeteers), so I didn’t feel silly standing. The real point is that for probably most everyone else in the theater, they were standing because they loved the show in every respect.

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How we got there, which is one of the levels that I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

On July 6th, 2011, we met three young men who are attending the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary. They were up on a business trip and we all had dinner together followed by seeing two sets at Rockwood Music Hall. The first set (and a paragraph about the dinner) was covered in this post, which includes a photo of everyone who attended the dinner at the bottom.

One of those men is someone we’ll call John (because that’s his actual name). Winking smile John and I stayed in touch mostly through Twitter and he exchanged a few emails with Lois over the following months. John is in the Army, having served multiple tours in Iraq. In a recent email exchange, he told us that he was coming to NYC for a weekend with his wife, Alicia.

He mentioned that they were considering seeing War Horse. He has the obvious connection of being a soldier. Alicia is a horsewoman (a serious one at that), so she had independent reasons for wanting to see the show. I had a curiosity that came more from the musical side (I’ll conclude with that) so we suggested that the four of us see it together.

We also arranged to meet for dinner a few blocks away at Rosa Mexicano. Early yesterday morning we found out that in a couple of days, John will be promoted to Major. John was surprised that we knew when we congratulated him at dinner. We heard the news from our friend who introduced us back in July. We toasted his accomplishment and shared an incredible meal (well, at least mine was incredible). Smile

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Both John and Alicia raved about the show afterward. I think that bringing their own perspectives to the performance made them connect more deeply with it than I did. For example, one of the things that John talked about the second the show was over was how well they captured the feeling that individual soldiers on each side experience nearly identical feelings.

Alicia being a horsewoman, explained how every nuance of a real horse’s movements was captured to perfection by the puppeteers. I’ve been around thousands of horses in my life (you don’t want to know how much time I’ve spent at the racetrack, both thoroughbred and harness), so I wholeheartedly agree.

When the show was over, we tried to catch a cab together. Given the freak October snowstorm in NYC that day, it wasn’t going to happen. We parted ways and Lois and I walked a number of blocks over to Central Park West. We ended up sharing a cab with a couple who was in town from San Diego for the weekend. They too had just seen War Horse (and loved it!). We dropped them at their hotel and continued to our apartment.

Circling back to one of my personal curiosities about War Horse. On May 23rd, I saw two sets at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2.

Mighty Kate (Katy Pfaffl) was the first one (covered second in this post). While she was on stage, War Horse was winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play! She had a special guest star join her to sing a duet, Matt Doyle, who is also in the show.

So, I had a personal interest in seeing each of them.

Katy is listed in the Playbill as Kate Pfaffl. She is the primary singing voice throughout the show, in a visible/background/narrator way. In other words, she’s not part of the scenes, but she’s often somewhere on stage, singing while the play is going on.

She has a gorgeous voice. She sings in a Scottish accent throughout (an interesting surprise for me). It’s hard to concentrate on the lyrics, because quite often, there is action happening on stage, even dialog (which is independent of not being used to hearing a Scottish accent in song).

In addition to singing, Kate also plays the violin (one of her multi-instrumental talents) a number of times.

There is a male singer, Liam Robinson, who is on stage a bit less than Kate. Most of the time that he’s on, they are singing together. They sounded fantastic. He played accordion and harmonica.

What of Matt Doyle? He has CDs out and clearly has a wonderful voice (from the show we saw in May). To my surprise, he doesn’t sing a lick. He’s one of the lead actors in War Horse, playing Billy Narracott. He was one of the strongest performers.

So, both Kate and Matt impressed (if I added mightily, which was my instinct, we would have come full circle back to Mighty Kate).

Another Amazing Weekend

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This was our third consecutive weekend hosting out-of-town visitors. Since the last two were fantastic, the bar was set high for this one. Don’t worry, we cleared it.

When our friends (parents of our godchildren and our closest friends for nearly 30 years!) asked whether this weekend would be a good one for them to come up from VA, the automatic answer was of course! The only (minor) complication was our unmovable commitment to attending four sets of music on Saturday night.

I’ve already written about the music separately, but since this is a post about the entire weekend, I’ll link them here again. Rebecca Haviland: covered here. Matt Simons: covered here. Sierra Noble: covered here. Chris Ayer: covered here.

We had a small scare before everything got rolling. Our friends called from the airport to say that there was a mechanical problem on the plane. While it was (theoretically) simple to fix, they didn’t know how long it would take the mechanic to show up. There was a chance that they wouldn’t even get out that night (Friday, July 1st).

That’s exactly how the first of these three weekends began, with David and Rebecca (their son and daughter-in-law) not getting out until the next morning! This case turned out differently. Not 15 minutes later they called back to say they were boarding. I’m guessing the mechanic was on a smoke break. Winking smile

Shortly after they arrived at the apartment, nine of us (counting a 2-year-old as a full person) Winking smile walked up to the Peking Duck House for dinner. It’s been a while since we’ve been there (a minor crime against humanity). We had been talking about our need to correct that for the past two weeks, so this worked out perfectly.

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The meal was perfect. I never doubted it would be, but I report it here for the record.

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PekingDuckHouse

Given our music-filled night, we decided that Saturday would be a day of rest for us (conserving our energy). The parents, their daughter and son-in-law went to the Doughnut Plant (the site currently lists a Lower East Side address only, but there is one at 220 W. 23rd St. as well, which is where they went). Afterward, they walked the Highline Park.

They headed over to Broadway to see How to Succeed in Business. All four of them said it was terrific and they were sure both of us would love it. Something to add to the list. Smile

The six of us had a wonderful dinner at El Rio Grande (our favorite Mexican restaurant). In a complete shock, we bumped into a few good friends who were dining there outside. We were seated inside (our choice) on the other side of the window from them. Even though our chats with them were brief (before our meal and after theirs), it was a special delight.

After nearly falling asleep (due to the amazing frozen margaritas), I somehow gathered myself for the epic night of music and easily made it all the way through! I don’t know what the others did, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they didn’t fight the feeling of sleep and succumbed to it. Winking smile

On Sunday morning the four of them attended Church services at Redeemer. They spent some time at the Cooper Hewitt Museum then returned to the apartment to relax a bit. This week is both our and Laura and Chris’ anniversaries. We decided to celebrate at the Old Homestead steakhouse. All six of us couldn’t stop raving about the meal afterward. At least three (perhaps as many as five) counted this meal (and therefore this restaurant) as their favorite steakhouse meal (that includes Lois saying that her Lobster was the best she’s ever had).

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I loved my meal (thoroughly), but I admitted (out loud) that The Palm is still my favorite. I promise not to complain or hesitate to return to the Old Homestead though, should anyone suggest it again. Smile

After dinner, we all wanted (and needed) to walk off the calories (please don’t make me estimate the full damage). We walked the super-long block from the restaurant to the 14th Street entrance to the Highline Park. This was my first time seeing it in person. We walked from 14th St. until the end, currently 30th St. It’s spectacular. I highly recommend making the effort to get there, whether you’re a New Yorker or an out-of-towner here on a visit.

HighlinePark

We collapsed when we got back to the apartment (well, at least Lois and I collapsed, the others may have gone dancing for all I know).

On Monday morning (the venerable July 4th), Chris and I went for a long walk. When we’re in the city, I typically take long walks for exercise. For me, that means somewhere between five and eight miles, depending on my mood and my schedule. I do it 2-3 times a week, if I have the time. Amazingly, blogging is often the cause of me not having the time to walk. The things we do for our readers… Winking smile

Few of you who read this know Chris. He served six years in the Navy and remains in amazing shape by regularly working out. My only hesitation in walking with him, ever, is that he can keep up a grueling pace forever. He can walk backward, faster than I walk forward, and keep it up seemingly forever as well. I negotiated through an intermediary (Laura) that he would drop the drill-sergeant routine this time.

When we got to the Brooklyn Bridge (typically as far as I’d walk), that marked the 3.9 mile point. That would be just under an eight mile walk if we turned around. Chris looked at me and asked if I’d walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. I told him it had been over 30 years since I’d done that, but I was game. Instead, he suggested we just keep trucking further from the apartment. It had been a year since I’d done the loop I knew we were now committing to, but I (happily) agreed.

We continued south, past the Seaport, on to the Staten Island Ferry, where we headed north up the west side. At 34th Street we started the long trek over to the east side. When we arrived at the apartment, Chris was fresh as a daisy. I was a puddle of sweat who dreamt only of removing my sneakers from my feet. Total distance: 11.36 miles (I wear a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS watch that they all bought me for my birthday a couple of years ago). Total time was 3:14, but that included a stop in the World Financial Center to check out the progress at Ground Zero.

After a nice lunch out (Euro Diner if you’re keeping score) we veg’ed out all afternoon (I might have even slept a bit, shhh). All of that was to prepare for attending a July 4th party.

Up until three years ago, we used to host an annual 4th of July party on our deck. We had pretty good views of the Macy’s Fireworks when they had them on East River. This is the third year in a row that they were on the Hudson instead and we had no plans to fight the crowds to try and see them.

On Friday, we received an invitation to a party that claimed to have a spectacular view of the fireworks. Under normal circumstances, we would have said yes in a heartbeat, but we would have been adding four strangers to the party list, which felt wrong on our part. I politely declined, explaining why.

In a I’m not taking No for an answer reply, our host told us to bring our guests along. I only had one No in me, so this time I said Yes! We negotiated on what we could bring and settled on Sushi.

What a great plan, until we found out that our go-to Sushi restaurant was closed all weekend. Our backup Sushi place (also exceptional) was going to be closed on Monday as well. In a twist of fate (actually two twists), the first place was clearly marked as being closed all weekend. The backup place hadn’t updated their sign, so when Lois went in, she thought they’d be open on Monday.

Hiroshi Sushi is across the street from our apartment. I filled in our order before Lois walked over. When she started to say what time she wanted the order ready by, she found out that they were closed on Monday. As she was turning to leave, the person she was talking to called her back.

He told her that he remembered us from years earlier when we used to come in all the time with Lois’ mother to their former Japanese Restaurant (a few doors down, now closed for probably eight years!). He was our waiter many of those times. He asked Lois if he could call the owner (and head chef), who was also involved in the other restaurant, to ask if he’d come in just to prepare this order.

20 minutes later he called us and said that the owner would happily do this for us. Wow, we were so grateful. The order was ready to be picked up at exactly 5pm (as promised) and was fantastic (as evidenced by the oohs and aahs of the partiers). I couldn’t resist trying something called “peanut and avocado roll”. Yummy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

We also brought a white pizza (for those who might not like Sushi). I had the first two slices (and didn’t notice if anyone else did). Man, that was really good too. Finally, we brought a gigantic fresh fruit salad that was seemingly bottomless, but it got completely devoured (or so I heard), so it apparently had a bottom after all. That too was a big hit.

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On to the actual party (I have a tough time not talking or thinking about food though). Winking smile

When we first arrived at our friend’s apartment we were blown away by the view. But, he lives in a one bedroom (very high up) and we wondered how everyone would get to enjoy the fireworks while being crowded like sardines in the living room. Ah, I’m so naïve at times. That was never the plan.

There was a friend of our friend, who lived 15 floors down (still quite high!). He has a much larger apartment, but more importantly, a massive deck, facing the Hudson River. The two of them decided to combine their parties. In an additional act of generosity, the second host (the friend of our friend), allowed an entire party of his next door neighbors to attend the viewing of the fireworks on his deck, when they were done with their meal (and drinking) on their adjacent (but not facing the river!) deck.

I don’t need to describe the view or the fireworks to you. All of the photos above were taken by Lois, on her compact camera. She took a ton of photos last night too, but I don’t need to share them.

Our friend (Bob) from VA is a semi-professional photographer (with professional equipment). He set up his Nikon on a tripod and captured stunning photos. His daughter (Laura) is following in his footsteps. A few of her shots are included with his. Here’s a representative sample (I’m not compressing these photos, for those of you who want the full effect).

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Followed by the calm after the storm:

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Our friend (let’s call him Host #1) made two pitchers of exotic drinks. The first was green, looked like slime, and was called Key Lime Martini. The second was blue (and frothy) and had Blue Curacao, some coconut stuff and other secret ingredients. I tried the Key Lime first. It was amazing, but one sip was nearly lethal. I am putting my name on a list for when it’s time for me to go, this is the way I’d like to end it all. While I know at least two people who loved it, but purposely didn’t finish theirs (for fear of expiring), I was brave and downed my entire glass.

I later moved on to the Blue mixture. It tasted even better. So much so that I had a second glass (don’t tell Lois!). It didn’t feel as lethal, but for all I know, that’s part of it’s secret. I heard many people raving about this concoction (actually both). Our Host #1 can definitely fall back on Mixologist if his primary profession hits a brick wall. Wow!

Host #2 is a fascinating person who couldn’t have been kinder or more generous (as noted above). In fact, we met many friends of Host #1, each one was a complete delight to converse with. Without a doubt, we’ll be following up with a number of them!

We had to walk a number of blocks before finding the first of the two cabs that got us home and a bit further for the second one.

An absolutely incredible ending to an incredible weekend. I’m no longer annoyed that the fireworks have moved to the west side. I’ll need to be nice to Host #1 for the entire year, just in case Macy’s decides to do it there again next year. It will be hard to keep up the façade, but I’ll do my best. Winking smile

Thank you for including all six of us. It’s a night we’ll never forget!

Our Tenth Wicked is still the Charm

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Our godson (David) and his wife (Rebecca) were coming up to spend their first weekend with us as a married couple. They were to arrive on Friday night when the festivities were to begin. Unfortunately, the Wicked witch was in control on Friday, and after hearing every excuse in the book, their flight was canceled.

The Good witch took over (you can’t reverse a spell) and got them out the next morning (yesterday), but since the evil spell had been cast, they were forced to wake up at 3am to catch a 5:30 flight. It all went well and after an amazing lunch at the Palm West, we headed over to see Wicked across the street (their choice).

LunchAtThePalmWest

The last time we saw Wicked, I ended my post with the following:

At some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll hit double digits. It was roughly 11 months since the last time we saw Wicked, so it might not be right around the corner, but it’s coming, I can feel it. :-)

We wanted to make sure that David and Rebecca didn’t pick Wicked thinking we weren’t willing to see anything else, but they insisted that they were really interested, so no further arm twisting was necessary. We saw it with our mutual friends Wes and Jacklyn who came up from Philly for the weekend. We bought the tickets about a month ago, so we couldn’t get six together. Each couple sat together but we were clustered close enough to each other.

The last time we saw Wicked, Katie Rose Clarke played Glinda. She was in yesterday’s show again and was as spectacular this time as last. There was no letdown in the last number either, so this was actually a better performance (her comedy is still a touch over-the-top, but it really works, so perhaps I’ll stop saying that if we see her again). Smile

Teal Wicks as Elphaba. We made the mistake of watching a YouTube video of her singing Defying Gravity, on Broadway, from a February 2011 show. It was awful. Thankfully, that’s not the way she came across yesterday. I can easily quibble with a few things, particularly in her first number, The Wizard and I, but they were so minor and the rest of her performance was fantastic.

She hits the highest notes in Defying Gravity so crisply, cleanly and powerfully, it’s a thing to behold (and hear). My last quibble is that she’s not as forceful in a number of her duets, where it feels like she’s holding back in order to be generous to her co-star (both Glinda and Fiyero), but her voice gets a bit lost at those moments.

Nevertheless, I’d happily go see Teal again. She delivered the spoken parts of the show perfectly (including her acting).

Tom McGowan was The Wizard. I’m a big fan of his TV work. He was in 42 episodes of Frasier and 17 of Everybody Loves Raymond (and I’ve seen every one of them, probably at least twice). He did a marvelous job yesterday, including his singing.

Kathy Fitzgerald played Madame Morrible. Excellent!

The Governor of Munchkinland was the same actor we’ve seen all 10 times. That’s over a 4-year period and impresses the heck out of me. He’s great every single time.

Almost everyone in the ensemble has been the same (I can’t even believe how familiar they are to me, but I guess 10 times shouldn’t have me so surprised).

The rousing standing ovation from the sold-out crowd for the leads seemed to overwhelm them (in the positive sense), but then again, they’re both fine actresses, so who knows. Winking smile

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Lois scooted home in a cab to prepare for the continuing weekend festivities, while the five of us walked back leisurely (the weather was spectacular) and arrived just as all the food was being delivered. Perfect timing. The rest of the evening will be covered in the next post.

Edgewise at Walkerspace

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We don’t see plays that often, though 2010 is turning into somewhat of an exception. We typically go to see a friend perform. Last night, we went to see a friend of a friend (not sure we’d go to see a friend of a friend of a friend though).

Edgewise is a play written by Eliza Clark, directed by Trip Cullman and co-produced by PAGE 73 and The Play Company. It is being presented at Walkerspace.

I showed up knowing nothing about the play. Any expectations I had were more due to preconceived notions that kick in when one (or is it just me?) sees some off-Broadway spaces and sets. Before getting into some details, I am thrilled to report that I overwhelmingly liked the play and was extremely impressed by the actors (all of them) and the set, lighting and effects!

There are quite a number of reviews online already (the play officially opened the night before we saw it), reviewed by the AP, The New York Times, with the AP review being picked up widely (Yahoo!, ABC, etc.). Not a single bad review that I could spot, with the AP review quite positive. The New York Times review got it wrong (IMO), which is par for the course in my opinion.

If you want a professional review (rather than one of a rank amateur, me), read this instead of the rest of this post.

The play unfolds through the eyes of three teenagers who work in a fast food restaurant. Often, we (my wife and I) get annoyed at the gratuitous use of cursing (notably the overuse of the F-bomb). Last night, I cringed for the first minute and then realized that if the language had been sanitized, we would hardly be privy to the real conversations that are happening in every teenage-filled fast food restaurant in America. In other words, the dialog became incredibly authentic and integral to the story, very quickly.

What at first appears to be another telling of teen angst quickly switches gears. Something is very wrong in America and it is our job to piece it together through the eyes of these same angst-ridden teens. We’re told just enough to be able to draw quite a wide variety of opinions. The one thing that isn’t in doubt, it’s hellish existence out there on a number of levels.

There’s nothing absurd about the possibility of this becoming a reality in the not-too-distant future here. Just read the Twitter streams of ultra-{both wings}-doomsayers. Even the (supposed) absurdity of showing up to work at a fast food restaurant, or stopping in the drive-through for a burger, amidst the turmoil, is actually a well-placed setting for dealing with the inevitable absurdities in any new and difficult reality.

Rather than leave it 100% to our imaginations (are these pot-smoking teens simply fantasizing about what’s going on out there?), a creative set and terrific effects make the outside reality all too clear. Two additional characters are introduced to show the difference between theory/philosophy and the choices that must be made when faced with a specific situation.

The acting was excellent so I’d like to take the time to say a bit about each one, in the order that they appeared:

Tobias Segal as Marco. Tobias (Toby) was pitch-perfect in each scene. Of all the actors, he was called upon to display the widest range of emotions. His transformations were effective, believable and in the end, even devastating. He plays the shy, love-struck teen as well as he does the pushed-to-the-limit combatant.

Philip Ettinger as Ruckus. Philip had the most lines and was the vehicle for giving us glimpses as to what might be happening outside. His transformation from stoner/loser to in charge was much subtler than Marco’s character, but they were effective nonetheless. Philip needed to have us believe that someone who was stoned a minute ago was now making the toughest decisions of his life. One way that the playwright, director and most importantly Philip accomplished that is by layering what might have been paranoia into the transition until the story unfolds. I was impressed on all accounts.

Aja Naomi King as Emma. Another stellar performance. Aja had a difficult role (IMO). Not only did she have to transform as events unfolded, she had to convincingly show a different character to Ruckus and Marco in the same scene. Reacting to Ruckus one second with a steely resolve, then pivoting and showing a vulnerable side to Marco is tricky. Of the five actors, I wouldn’t be surprised if some in the audience felt that some of Aja’s lines were overacted, but I think she did a superb job of walking an extremely difficult line. She has one big scene where most of the dialog is hers and she completely nails it in my opinion.

Alfredo Narciso as Louis. Wow! I feel like anything else I say will detract from that one word, but here goes anyway. Alfredo might have delivered the best acting performance I’ve ever seen live. Given that 95% of it is delivered in a chair, making it all facial expressions and vocal modulations, is all the more impressive to me. He’s the mystery man in the show, a role that can easily be overplayed. I can’t imagine a better performance for his role.

Brandon Dirden as Paul. Brandon is the last to arrive on the scene but his role is critical to furthering the story. While he’s on stage less than the rest, he too does a wonderful job.

As I noted above, the set is very creative. The effects are excellent if a little overwhelming at times (loud, bright, but exactly to the point).

Of all the actors above, I suspect it’s not an accident that only Alfredo has his own website. I recommend that the others do as well, even if the site does nothing more than link to their IMDB pages. Stake out a home on the net for people to easily find you. I know we’ll be hearing a lot more about each and every one of you!

Finally, a hearty thanks to our friend who suggested we attend this show. It’s running through December 4th, and I recommend that anyone who wants to be challenged to think about the kinds of choices we might make if the world were to fracture just a bit more.

Here’s a photo Lois took of Toby and Philip after the show. We also got to tell Brandon what a great job he did. I wish I had told Alfredo how awesome he was when he walked right by me, but I didn’t react quickly enough.

TobiasSegalPhilipEttinger

The Downside Risk at Wings Theatre

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Last night we attended the opening of The Downside Risk at the Wings Theatre. Our friend Shannon Black was one of the actors in it, and we enjoyed her performance in Next Stop, Nightmare (written and directed by her husband, Jason Black). This is a limited run show, eight performances through September 11th, so you still have time to go see it.

On the page linked above is the following quote:

Bill Svanoe’s play has been labeled the “Death of a Salesman for the Computer Age.”

I would say that’s accurate. Bill totally captures the life (lives) of people who are on the road selling non-stop. Of course, there is a toll on everyone around them, families, friends, customers, acquaintances, etc.

At intermission, the three of us (we attended with a friend) predicted the two major plot twists. We were correct. I wasn’t even slightly disappointed to have been correct. In fact, those were two of the more interesting and poignant scenes in the play. I was glad not to be shocked by a trick, but rather moved by a well-written, well-acted realistic turn of events.

It was opening night, so there was some shakiness expected. While there were a few tiny flubs (quickly and well repaired), I was surprised by how few, so a shout-out to the cast for working so hard to get it right the first time out of the gate.

In general, that cast was pretty good, though there was noticeable variability between the best and worst of them. If you read my post about Next Stop, Nightmare, you already know how highly we think of Shannon, so let me call out a few of the other actors.

Both Lois and I agreed that the best performance was delivered by Zade O’Blenes. While Zade was on stage for quite a bit of the play, she was not a central character. Yet, whenever she was in the scene (one very dramatic one in particular), she was incredible.

Geoff Schuppert played the lead. Geoff was in nearly every scene, so his ability to maintain focus and passion throughout was extremely impressive. A very few times his role felt a tad over-acted, but given how long he was on stage, and what a powerful performance he gave, I feel a bit guilty sharing that.

Matt Klane played another central character and was believable throughout in a role that could be very tricky to play correctly.

There were a number of other good performances in supporting roles.

The play lasted 1:50, including a 10 minute intermission. We enjoyed it, but with some quality editing, it could probably be shortened by 10-15 minutes and be improved at the same time. Still, a very solid show, worth catching, if you want to be pulled into a world many of us see only peripherally.

Lois took very few shots because she didn’t want to distract the actors (it feels totally different to a musical performance). Here is one good shot of Shannon (we were very close to this part of the stage) and part of the long line of actors who took a well-deserved curtain call:

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The friend we went with lives a block away from the theater. When we suggested we grab dinner before the show, he recommended Malatesta Trattoria which happened to be exactly across the street from the theatre.

We had an incredible meal there and got to relax and catch up with a good friend. The only thing to be forewarned about (I was, so it wasn’t a problem for me) is that this place is cash only. The restaurant staff couldn’t be nicer or more helpful. Two of us had the Swordfish (which was one of the specials of the day) and was awesome. I also highly recommend the latte.