Broadway

Weekend Birthday Bash

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Our friends from Richmond came up to spend a very special birthday weekend with us in NYC. They were supposed arrive at our apartment by 10am on Friday. That didn’t happen. There were significant snow flurries in NYC (nothing stuck), and the navigation system on the airplane was unable to make an instrument landing at LaGuardia, so while they were descending in NY, they we rerouted to Philadelphia.

I was tracking the flight in real-time and saw that it landed safely. I just didn’t realize it wasn’t anywhere near us… They ended up catching a 12:05pm flight from Philadelphia to LaGuardia, which got in at around 1pm, but that was enough for us to have rejigger Friday’s plans.

We had a blowout lunch scheduled for Rock-N-Sake. I have only eaten there once before, and loved it. I was really looking forward to introducing them to it. We ended up having to cancel that reservation (because they close at 2:30pm and reopen at 5:30pm). Instead, we went up to see Laura at her office and grabbed a light (and very fresh) lunch at Chop’t (a place I was interested in trying after hearing Laura speak highly of it).

(It’s been a long while since I’ve mentioned that clicking on any photo in any of my posts will display a larger image in a separate window/tab, so I’ll mention it again, now.) πŸ™‚

Chop't

Chop't

We walked back to the apartment after lunch and relaxed for a bit. Not too long thereafter, we headed up toward Lincoln Center for dinner. We had tickets to South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theater for an 8pm show and we wanted to eat in the neighborhood. I searched the web and read a ton of reviews, and settled on an Indian restaurant called Sapphire.

We met Laura there. Unfortunately, Chris got hung up at work, and ended up joining us just as we ordered dessert. The food at Sapphire was simply extraordinary. The four of us who ate the Tandoori lamb all claimed that it was the best lamb we ever had. All of the other dishes were superb as well. As much as we were all looking forward to Rock-N-Sake for lunch, if we had eaten there, we would have opted for a very light dinner, and would not have discovered this jewel!

Saffron Shrimp

Saffron Shrimp

Sapphire Indian Cuisine

Sapphire Indian Cuisine

From there we walked over to see South Pacific. Laura thought of this as a special birthday gift for her dad, given his love for this show. She made a perfect choice, because love it he did! The two leads are exceptional. Interestingly, neither of the leads that we saw are the Tony winning actors. Kelli O’Hara left the show on March 7th and Paulo Szot took two month-long leaves, the second of which occurred during our show. Laura Osnes played Nellie Forbush, and David Pittsinger played Emile de Becque.

South Pacific

South Pacific

I suspect that Bob loved this show more than Wicked. As much as I enjoyed South Pacific, for me personally, there’s little comparison to Wicked. Since this was Bob’s birthday bash and not mine, South Pacific was the perfect choice! πŸ™‚

When we got back, Lois and I conked out while the rest of them stayed up way too late watching the NCAA tournament.

Saturday morning we had breakfast outside on our deck. It was chilly, but the sun helped make it not-too-unpleasant. This was our first meal outside in 2009, so it was very special in that respect as well. As much as I love restaurant dining, there are few more special places to have a meal than our deck at the apartment, so I’m glad that the season is finally underway. πŸ˜‰

Deck Breakfast

Deck Breakfast

After letting the food settle, Sally, Bob, Chris and I went for a long walk. Lois took care of things around the apartment, and Laura baked her magical Apple Pie for a birthday dessert. After walking roughly 2.5 miles, the three of them broke off and headed back to the apartment, making for a five mile walk in total. I continued on my normal walk, roughly 8.25 miles in total.

Mid-afternoon, we decided to foist our presents on Bob. He opened a bunch, one-by-one, but he had no idea what was in store for him as his special gift. After he thought it was all over, we broke out a package of gifts, specially created by his family and friends. In fact, it’s so cool that I will be devoting an entire post to it later on (could be as much as a week from now), but I’ll describe it briefly here as well.

We took a song by Colin Hay called What Would Bob Do, and seven of us wrote our own verses about our Bob. We then had it recorded by Jack Kapanka over a simple background acoustic guitar. We sent 100’s of photos to Jack, who put together a wonderful video synchronized to the words and music. He then produced a DVD of the movie/music. The song is 10 minutes long (we wrote lots of verses), and the result was phenomenal.

The six of us watched the DVD at least five times between Saturday and Sunday, and got a huge kick of out of it each and every time. In addition to the video, Lois created a book with the lyrics and photos, and some song-sheets with the lyrics as well. The full package was a wonderfully creative custom gift for a very special person, celebrating his life (to date) and his amazing accomplishments.

Watching the DVD

Watching the DVD

Like I said, more on this specific topic in about a week. πŸ™‚

Right after viewing the DVD a number of times, we walked up to our favorite restaurant, the Peking Duck House. We had a fabulous meal (as always), and waddled back to the apartment.

Duck House

Duck House

We all gathered in Laura and Chris’ apartment to watch the Duke game, and couldn’t wait for half time to dig in to the Apple Pie. Again, Lois and I called it an early night, and the rest of them continued on with more NCAA action.

Apple Pie

Apple Pie

On Sunday morning, the four of them had breakfast out, and then walked up to attend church services. We then all met up outside of Joe’s Pub at 12:45pm. We had tickets for a 2pm show for Eden Espinosa. This was her solo debut in NYC. Of the many Elphaba’s we’ve seen in Wicked, Eden was by far our favorite, so we were really looking forward to see her at our favorite club.

We had a nice lunch before the show, and she came on, with a five-piece band at about 2:05pm. She has a fantastic voice, with a surprising range (she hits incredibly high notes, with amazing power, and sustains them, even though you think, or at least I think, she’ll miss them). It was a real treat to see her, though I have some small nits to pick with the show.

Eden Espinosa

Eden Espinosa

The volume on the band was too high. They are superb musicians, and there was no distortion, but the place is too small to play that many pieces at that volume. While you could make out Eden’s voice even at the maximum volume of the group, that’s sheerly a testimony to how hard she was belting it out (and sweating as a result, even though it was on the cool side in the club).

Thankfully, she also did quite a number of songs with only the electric piano or acoustic guitar for accompaniment, so it wasn’t all top-of-the-lungs all the time. That brings me to my second nit. Song selection. While she’s great at the full range of songs she sang, I so much more enjoyed the ones with solo accompaniment (not just because of the volume). I don’t think she needs to prove her rock capabilities, at least not in a place as small as Joe’s.

She had a surprise guest, Katie Thompson. She came out and did a solo number, accompanying herself on the electric piano, called What Turns You On (available on the MySpace page linked above). She has one of the better voices we’ve heard, and she plays the piano marvelously as well. It was a real treat. After that, she played another of her songs, and Eden sang along with her, a bit of harmony (beautiful), but mostly alternating verses.

Katie Thompson

Katie Thompson

They played a third song together (with the rest of the band accompanying them as well), and then Katie left the stage.

Eden closed the show with an encore, singing Defying Gravity. We would have been disappointed to miss this one, so we were grateful that she came back out and gave us a taste of Wicked. πŸ™‚

Even with the nits, I was very glad to see her (and discover Katie), and I suspect that I was more critical of the show than the rest of our guests, which is also a good thing!

Lois Eden Laura

Lois Eden Laura

Bob Eden Espinosa

Bob Eden Espinosa

Katie Bob Hadar Lois

Katie Bob Hadar Lois

Laura Bob Sally Chris Hadar

Laura Bob Sally Chris Hadar

Three of us headed back to the apartment to relax, and three more headed to B&H for some browsing (in anticipation of future camera shopping). We all met up at the apartment for a little more snacking on Apple Pie and Cupcakes (and two people even had some shrimp), watched the DVD again, and then we headed out.

We dropped Bob and Sally back at LaGuardia, then headed up to the house. Other than being colder than predicted, and the nuisance of being routed to Philadelphia at the beginning of the trip, it was a picture-perfect weekend, and we hope Bob enjoyed his birthday blowout a fraction as much as we did!

Happy Birthday Bob!

Puppet Masters

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We’re spending the long weekend in Birmingham, AL with our godson. We picked up a mutual friend of ours (Wes) in Durham on our way down here on Wednesday. Yesterday was one of our godson’s typical on call days, where he is in the hospital for 30+ hours in a row. As sad as we were to miss time with him, the three of us decided to turn lemons into lemonade and create an adventure for ourselves.

We drove to Atlanta mid-morning. We headed straight to a friend’s house and arrived at around 1pm (Atlanta and Birmingham are not in the same time zone). We had an amazing lunch in a local eatery, Ria’s Bluebird. Wes did something I have never seen before, and it was really cool. After the waitress described two incredible specials (the omelet of the day and a chicken special), Wes asked her to surprise him with one of them. I was impressed that she didn’t hem and haw, and just said “OK”.

I ordered the chicken special (stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and topped with a blackberry sauce!) and Wes ended up with that as well. We both couldn’t stop talking about how good it was, after not being able to stop enjoying it in the moment… As you can see, it looks as good as it tasted!

Rias Bluebird

Rias Bluebird

We then headed over to the main attraction of the day, seeing a Puppet Show! Yes folks, we were really looking forward to it. The show was performed at The Center for Puppetry Arts. It’s called Sam the Lovesick Snowman. Our tickets were waiting for us, as one of the puppeteers is a friend of the person we were visiting in Atanta.

If you are paying too much attention, then you will have noticed that I tagged this post (and categorized it) with Broadway. Obviously, this puppet show wasn’t on Broadway. That said, Broadway signifies the epitome of live performances (or at least they want to convey that), and this show qualifies as an incredible live performance.

Even a normal puppet show is filled with real acting. In this case, in addition to the puppet acting, the two puppeteers had a fair amount of time on stage as themselves. But even when a puppeteer is behind the scenes, they are voice acting (don’t laugh, Angelina Jolie doesn’t get the big bucks for doing a voice in Kung Fu Panda because she’s beautiful!), manipulating the puppets in a manner that is acting in the sense of transporting the audience somewhere, etc. In this show, they sang a bit too (reasonably well), including harmony.

There was a very good-sized audience yesterday. While there were many kids (no, really?), the kids didn’t get themselves there, so there were many adults (probably more than the number of kids. In addition, there were also people like us (four adults) who were there without kids, unabashedly. If you are an adult who isn’t comfortable going without a kid, do your friends or family a favor, and take their kids so that you can enjoy the show. πŸ˜‰

The best kids entertainment has enough in it to entertain an adult. If it doesn’t, the adults won’t want to take the kids. Sometimes, it’s on a different level, where the kids have no idea why the adults are laughing. Sometimes it’s on the same level that the kids get. Sam the Lovesick Snowman has both. Everything that the kids loved we loved, for the same reasons the kids did. Yet, quite a number of times, there was a line that was just for adults (and no, I don’t mean adult content, but rather adult context for a particularly funny line).

The show is clever, heartwarming, funny, moves along at a good clip, etc. Everything you could want in 45 minutes of entertainment. When the show was over, the two puppeteers (Dolph Amick and Amy Rush) came out and explained how much of the show is performed. They show how some of the puppets work (rod puppets, hand puppets, etc.) and show how they use carts to move around the stage very quickly and be able to spin, etc.

I can only imagine the wonder in the kids’ eyes, because they were in our eyes as well. Not only doesn’t telling us how they did it spoil it in any way, it enhances the experience materially, as your mind boggles at how talented these puppeteers are to choreograph such a dance with so many characters in it, and only two of them working the magic.

If you don’t believe me, you can read an equally glowing review by a professional, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, written the same day we were enjoying the show! See, I’m not exaggerating about how good the show is. πŸ™‚

Since Amy Rush is our friend’s friend, we were invited to hang around until the theater cleared, and we got a more detailed look at the behind the scenes happenings (Dolph was kind enough to come out and say hi to us as well, and to explain the magic). It’s not that we saw anything much more mysterious than everyone else did, but we got to ask questions, hold a few of the puppets (some are significantly heavier than you would think!), and we got to look at the actual staging from behind.

Wannabe Puppeteers

Wannabe Puppeteers

After that, Amy gave us a personal tour of the puppet museum (which is open to everyone, and well worth visiting). Having a passionate puppeteer give you a tour is an extra special treat, because you can get insight and details that would otherwise escape you. Thanks Amy!

Fraggle Rock Puppets

Fraggle Rock Puppets

We topped off a wonderful day with an amazing meal at Watershed. We’ve heard about Watershed a number of times from our friend, so we were really looking forward to the experience. Not only didn’t it disappoint, it exceeded our expectations! Starting with the drinks, it was obvious that this restaurant doesn’t aim to duplicate any other, but rather looks to blaze its own trail. I had a fig martini (I love figs, but have never seen a fig martini before). The ladies had beet martinis (I took a taste, it was fantastic).

All three appetizers were terrific, but the Shrimp Grits were so heavenly that Lois ordered an extra one to go, and she served it as a side to our godson this afternoon when he came home from a 30+ hour on call shift at the hospital. I was a little nervous as to whether it would taste even 1/2 as good reheated the next day, but he said it was awesome, so we now know the grits travel well! πŸ™‚

We were warned that the Georgia Pecan Tart with Shortbread Crust was indescribably delicious. After getting assurance from Wes that he would share some of his, I ordered the Carrot Cake. We each took 1/4 of the others dessert. The Carrot Cake was very good, but my oh my, the Pecan Tart was indeed indescribably delicious, so I won’t try. πŸ˜‰

The service at both Ria’s Bluebird and Watershed was exceptional. In fact, everyone we interacted with in Atlanta was very nice and warm. Not to put anyone else down, but it’s possible that our waitress at Watershed is just moonlighting from her normal job, which is likely an Angel! πŸ™‚

After excellent hugs all around, we trekked the 2.5 hours back to Birmingham in the rain the whole way, but the high never wore off. It was a fantastic day, with fantastic people. We are all very thankful (on this weekend in particular) to get to call Amy Rush a friend as well, giving us another reason for getting back to Atlanta sooner rather than later!

Sneaky Wicked Surprise

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Our Richmond friends have had a very busy year, and it’s hardly over. In addition to graduating both of the kids (already reported) they have an upcoming wedding to produce.

Immediately after the wedding, the new couple is moving up to NYC (well, immediately after the honeymoon). πŸ˜‰

That should be enough to keep anyone busy, but not our friends! πŸ˜‰

Before the wedding date was set, they had a big family trip planned. It’s possible that this will be the last annual family trip where they can all be together, given where the kids are headed (geographically and career-wise). So, they will be spending 10 days in Thailand and Singapore.

Their flight to Singapore is from JFK, so they came up early to spend some time in NYC with us. Once we were sure what their flight info was, I decided to be sneaky and pull off a surprise. As reported a number of times in these pages, we had an aborted attempt to take them (the parents) to see Wicked with us.

I also reported that we weren’t likely to go again, unless they could make it too. You can read the three reasons that would get us to go again at the bottom of this post. Given that there were going to be three other guests, two of whom had seen the show (one of them, twice), coupled with the fact that I really wanted to get great seats for the parents (and it would be tough to get seven seats together at this late date), we decided to shoot for just two tickets.

I checked every day for a week, including places like StubHub, and finally, after no good choices for days, snagged two great seats toward the front of the orchestra. We said nothing until our guests arrived. After having a nice lunch together, we sent the parents on their way to enjoy the show. There is little doubt that they were surprised, but we were still nervous as to whether they would enjoy it.

While they were at the show, the rest of us went to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It was mindless fun, with the key word being mindless. Seriously, one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever seen, but if you’ve enjoyed any of them before, you’ll probably want to see this one too, just for completeness sake. It still amazes me when the talent associated with making this kind of movie can spend this much time and money, and create something so unbelievably stupid.

We all met back at the apartment, and the parents got home shortly after we did, and they said that they loved the show. Whew! πŸ™‚

We asked them to bring back a Playbill, so we could know who they saw. Elphaba was played by Stephanie J. Block. I reviewed the performance that we saw her in the post linked above. She was good, but not great in any way. Glinda was played by Kendra Kassebaum. We had seen her before too, and I just assumed (incorrectly) that we saw her with Stephanie J. Block. So, I raved about her to our friends, telling them that they saw someone really special.

Unfortunately, it gnawed at me for a bit, and this morning, I just checked my own blog, and I realized that it was Annaleigh Ashford who we saw twice, once with Stephanie, who was brilliant in the role. Kendra Kassebaum was not so good, as I reported in this post.

Oh well, now there are three possibilities:

  1. Our friends were being polite, and didn’t think highly of her
  2. They don’t have a frame of reference, and thoroughly enjoyed her performance
  3. She got better πŸ˜‰

I still find the show awesome, even when the leads are clearly inferior to the great ones, so I can easily believe that our friends loved it as well.

In a small word irony, on the same weekend that our VA friends came to NYC on their way to Thailand, on Friday, I got an email from our friends who live in Thailand that they were passing through NYC on their way to a trade show. Reasonably amazing that they would all be in the city at the same time.

Avenue Q

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The young folks spent the day running around NYC, riding the Staten Island Ferry, and spending time in Central Park. The old folks spent the day tethered to their laptops.

We met up at the apartment and walked up to our favorite restaurant, the Peking Duck House in mid-town. We had a fantastic meal there (no surprise), including having the one person in our group who was previously not a fan of seafood taking seconds.

We got there extremely early (Lois is always the overly cautious one), and that worked out. It was an unusually leisurely meal for the Duck House (which typically serves more quickly) and it all worked out perfectly. You can see how satisfied we all looked at the end of the meal:

Duck House Meal Before Avenue Q

They called for rain starting early evening, but it held off. That worked out too, since we got to walk from the Duck House to the theater, with no precipitation.

We had tickets to see Avenue Q at the Golden Theater on 45th Street. We got there at about 7:52 and were comfortably seated long before the curtain went up (or rather the lights went down, since there was no curtain) at 8:05 like most Broadway shows.

Setting the record straight, I exaggerated by saying comfortably seated. There’s nothing wrong with the Golden Theater, but we’re pretty spoiled by the Gershwin Theater (where we’ve seen Wicked seven times!), which is so much more comfortable, so much more spacious (leg room), and so many more seats…

Our goddaughter saw Avenue Q a number of years ago. She enjoyed it, but warned us that it was off color. That’s code for Lois should stay away! Both my godson and I were more than a little worried about her reaction, even though neither of knew exactly how off color the show would be.

The very first number is cute, but also sets some expectations in that regard. The words it sucks to be me are repeated too many times to count. It didn’t offend me, but I was already a tad worried about Lois. Completely due to chance, Lois and I ended up at opposite ends of our seven seat block, so we caught each other’s eye a few times, but didn’t talk about the show until it was over.

Without giving away anything material (trust me), Avenue Q is essentially an adult version of Sesame Street. In other words, it is done in the style of Sesame Street, and is meant to educate, while being playful (only this time, in an adult sense). The education is meant to teach some life lessons, but they use other techniques that are more traditional Sesame Street (as in teaching the meaning of some words).

As with Sesame Street, some of the characters are puppets, and some are honest-to-goodness humans. Different than Sesame Street, the puppets are controlled by humans who are on the stage acting alongside the puppet they are controlling, and singing and speaking without trying to pretend to be ventriloquists. It works perfectly well, so even if my description sounds cheesy, fear not!

Every single actor on the stage was excellent. There wasn’t a weak voice or performance among the group. The two leads, Howie Michael Smith and Sarah Stiles are fantastic. Great voices, great acting and great range (they each control multiple characters). That said, to repeat, the entire cast is superb, and you should check each of them out on the cast page.

Here are the two leads, then a photo of some other cast members:

Avenue Q Lead ActorsPhoto of some cast members of Avenue Q

The humor in the show is largely tongue-in-cheek, and goes over well with the audience. Lots of bursts of uncontrollable laughter from people all around us. But, an over-the-top focus on sex and sexual themes. Not innuendo, but rather explicit stuff. Keep in mind that they can do things with puppets on the stage that actors couldn’t get away with. Nuff said.

That kind of stuff doesn’t bug me, in any way, even when it’s completely gratuitous. I love comedy/humor in most forms. I believe I’ve said in the past that I like it even when it isn’t funny, as long as I can project where they were heading, if the unrealized destination would have been funny.

In this case, it also didn’t bug me at all. But, it was more than just over-the-top. It was actually vulgar at times, and I imagine that it offended a number of people (including Lois) though many (not including Lois) wouldn’t be comfortable admitting their discomfort. Even the vulgarity was good for cheap laughs, and the audience as a whole most definitely laughed heartily even at those jokes!

I tried not to look around too much, but I heard some people say something about kids being in the audience. I hope there weren’t too many (or rather any!). If parents brought young children to this show, thinking it’s only a puppet show with singing, they were sadly mistaken, and abrogated their parental responsibility to investigate the show in advance of bringing their kids. Of course, if they did, and still brought their kids, their judgment needs to be checked in other matters as well (in my opinion).

From very early on, it was entirely obvious that this was not going to be a PC (Politically Correct) show. For that, I applaud them completely. In my opinion, the PC in this country is out of control. Not wanting to offend entire groups of people is laudable. But, the same people that feel it’s verboten to say something against this particular group, have no shame in knocking something else (oh, let’s say Republicans or Christians).

Avenue Q takes no prisoners, and shouldn’t!

That said, they also take the obligatory shot at President Bush (only one, which was in itself impressive restraint!). The crowd whooped it up like they had just heard the funniest joke in their life! It’s fine, and wasn’t over-the-top in any sense.

That said, I found it incredibly ironic. Basically, the complaint is that life under W’s rule is horrible, and we simply can’t wait to get out from under it. I realize that at a minimum, at least half of the country feels this way, perhaps even more. So, it’s a legitimate point of view, right or wrong. But, in this case, it’s written by people who have a very successful Broadway hit on their hands (a Tony winner!), it’s being delivered by actors who are starring in a Broadway hit, and being received by people who can afford to take their dates/families/friends to a Broadway show, all in the midst of these horrible economic times.

Yes, the lives of all of those that shared this very clever joke all seem terribly in shambles at this time, entirely due to W’s iron-fisted madness!

Unfortunately, I really worry about the half of the country that thinks their lives will be immeasurably better when either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama become President. The magical thinking that goes on, that a President exerts such power to change things (in either direction) simply discounts what our government and economy have become and how they work. Oh well…

In and around all of the jokes, there are actually some very deep insights about life, and the plight we all experience as we grow up and make our own way. I’m impressed with the way the writers deliver those lessons (to those who are paying attention) in a subtle and lighthearted manner.

Bottom line: A very clever show, wittily written, with good songs, great singing, excellent harmonies, lots of funny dialog, top-notch acting and great puppeteering. If you don’t mind vulgarity (at times), and lots of focus on sex (even when it’s not vulgar), and you aren’t offended by non-PC jokes, you will really enjoy this show. I did, even though I can totally understand why some others might not.

When we got out it was raining. It was coming down reasonably steadily, but it wasn’t too cold, and it wasn’t windy (so the rain was coming straight down rather than blowing in your face), so we walked home (cutting through Grand Central as we did the night before). Given all of the weather predictions, so far, it’s held up remarkably well.

Another excellent day! πŸ™‚

A Wicked Surprise

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For the past few weeks, Lois and I have mentioned to each other that we were itching to see Wicked again. This was probably more true for me, but I think she wouldn’t have minded too much. That said, we did nothing about that itch. I didn’t even check for ticket availability online, even just for fun.

Over the weekend, good friends of ours called to say that they were finally ready to take the Wicked plunge (we had been telling them for a while what lunatics we are with regard to this show). They asked us what might work in our crazy schedule. We offered up the upcoming Wednesday (last night) as the only day we could do it in the next month or so. They said that amazingly enough, that night worked for them too.

So, while we were still on the phone, I hopped on to Ticketmaster to see if there were any seats available. No regular seats, but they had premium seats (fifth or sixth row, center orchestra) available. I offered to grab them right then. They said that they were very friendly with a ticket broker, and they wanted the opportunity to contact him first.

They called back 30 minutes later and told us that they could get the tickets cheaper than the premium seat price, so we locked in the date.

We met for dinner at a restaurant we had never been to (or heard of), one block away from the theater, called Vice Versa. Beautiful place, extremely nice staff. The tables are crowded together, but offset like an interesting jigsaw puzzle, so there’s still a sense of privacy, even though there are lots of people right around you.

The food was superb, and for mid-town, theater district, reasonably priced (not cheap, but cheaper than most restaurants of this caliber). I feel the need to highlight the $10 lentil and chickpea soup that I had. Very generous portion, and wonderfully delicious. Everyone enjoyed their meal thoroughly.

We tried to split the bill. We tried hard. At one point, I even thought we succeeded, since the other couple took my credit card. But, when the waiter came with the bill, the husband only gave his card, returned mine to me, and promised that we’ll split it “next time”. Oh well, we suffered with a great meal that didn’t cost us anything. Thanks guys, we loved the place and the food, and you’re not getting away with treating next time! πŸ™‚

The tickets that they got were simply incredible. Third row, dead center orchestra. Wow. I have to get me a friend who is a ticket broker too. πŸ˜‰ We paid less than the cost of premium seats (which is exactly what this row is considered), so I’m a little suspicious that our friends underwrote part of our ticket price, but I’m hoping that wasn’t the case!

For those who don’t regularly read this blog, this was our seventh time seeing Wicked, and I’ve written about it many times. The most recent writeup was here, which summarizes our general feelings about Wicked as a show, and specific cast members.

In that show, we saw Annaleigh Ashford for the first time. She was awesome. For regular readers, you know I can be particularly tough/harsh on the two lead roles. We missed Stephanie J. Block that night, as she off getting married to the then Fiyero (Sebastian Arcelus).

So, when we walked into the theater last night, both Lois and I were anxious to rip into the playbill to see if there were any critical understudies filling in. There were two: Jan Neuberger was playing Madame Morrible and Briana Yacavone was playing the Midwife. The Midwife is on stage for a few minutes, so I wasn’t nervous. Madame Morrible has a large role, so there was a twinge, but as long as the two leads are good, it would be hard to ruin the magic. It turns out that Jan did a wonderful job as Madame Morrible, so no worries there.

After their marriage, Sebastian Arcelus left the Broadway cast fairly quickly. Luckily for us, we had seen him once (before Stephanie joined the cast), and he was terrific. The understudy who covered for him while he was away getting married was wonderful too. We’ve been very happy with every Fiyero we’ve seen.

Last night was a new one, David Burham. He’s as cute as they come, looks the role and plays the spoken parts well. He isn’t as good as the others at the dancing parts (not that he’s bad), and he’s inconsistent (though never bad) in the singing parts. He was OK (nothing special) in his opening (signature!) number (Dancing Through Life), but was fantastic in the duet with Elphaba (As Long As You’re Mine). So, he has the voice, just not the consistency. We liked him though, so again, no problem.

On to the leads. Annaleigh was awesome, again. Aside from having a spectacular voice, to repeat my last post, her comedic timing is impeccable (that includes facial expressions, which can easily be seen from the third row). The only number that she didn’t shine in (this time, since she did it better last time) was the normally spine tingling For Good. She was flat in that number (not bad), and it’s possible that it was the interplay between her and Stephanie, but who knows what the real reason is.

Now the one that I was particularly nervous about, Stephanie J. Block. All-in-all, a good performance. She was notable in the acting parts of the role. She was more expressive than the previous Elphabas, and handled all of the speaking parts as well as one could hope for.

Vocally, nothing in her performance was disappointing (other than wanting every note to be perfect), but there was a vast difference between her and Idina Menzel or Eden Espinosa. Even Ana Gasteyer did a better job singing the role.

What was surprising to me though was that the hardest notes to hit, she hit flawlessly each time, and with wonderful controlled power. Specifically (but not exclusively) during the last few stanzas of Defying Gravity (perhaps the most challenging number for Elphaba), Stephanie completely nailed it. The same chills that run up and down your spine for the other great Elphabas appear for Stephanie here as well.

But, for the majority of the normal parts of the rest of the songs, she sings a little flatly. She hits all the notes, but with less power and clarity. So, she has all of the ingredients of being a great Elphaba, but it doesn’t all hang together (for me). I wasn’t disappointed, and most certainly didn’t feel like I have with the bad Elphabas we’ve seen, but she didn’t inspire like the great ones have.

As always, the crowd was nuts about the show. The applause were thunderous. The one (marginally) surprising thing was that while the crowd gave Annaleigh and Stephanie a very rousing standing ovation, they didn’t stand until those two came on the stage. In other words, they were very enthusiastic for the rest of the cast, but didn’t stand for them. At the majority of the shows we’ve been to before, the crowd typically stood up once someone like Madame Morrible came out, and stood from then on.

At this point, there are only a few things that will get us to the show again:

  1. Our Richmond friends finally setting a date to come see the show πŸ˜‰
  2. Someone else that we’re close to begging us to go with them πŸ˜‰
  3. The leads changing again, to someone that I have reason to believe might bring back the thrills and chills of seeing them perform the roles.

Other than that, we’re probably satiated at this point.

If you still haven’t seen Wicked, just go and do it already! πŸ™‚

Andy McKee with Antoine Dufour and Craig D’Andrea

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Last night, Lois and I went to Canal Room to hear three amazing acoustic guitarists, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour and Craig D’Andrea.

I have written about all three before, as well as their label Candyrat Records in this post. I also posted about Andy McKee (including how I discovered him) in this post. I owned all seven albums that the three artists had out between them (or so I thought). πŸ˜‰

It was my instinct to cover the bad parts about last night first, and then end on a high note. Lois intuited that I was leaning that way, and asked me to cover the good parts first. Since Lois is always right, I am acceding to her wishes. πŸ˜‰

Even though Andy McKee was the clear headliner, he came out first, and introduced the other two guys. Well, aside from saying who they both were, he actually introduced Craig D’Andrea, who opened the show. Here is a photo of Andy during the intro (click on any photo for a larger version). I’ll describe more about the place and the stage and other things you will see in the photos, in the bad section of the post. πŸ˜‰

Andy McKee

Craig had an instant rapport with the crowd. Perhaps that was partially because his parents were there as well (two tables over from us). Just kidding, since we didn’t know it was his parents until near the end of the show. He’s a superb guitarist, who entertained both with his music, and his self-deprecating humor, which he worked well. He played for roughly 25 minutes.

He opened the show with Morrison County. Here is a YouTube video of him opening his show at CMU with the same song (therefore live, and close to the experience we had last night). He’s being introduced by Antoine Dufour, so you can get a sense of his gentleness on stage as well. You can also get a sense of the pacing of this type of concert. The song itself doesn’t start until nearly the two minute mark, but watch the whole thing, it’s most definitely worth it!

Next up was Antoine Dufour. In my Candyrat post, I mentioned that while I love all of them (that includes Don Ross, Kaki King and Peter Ciluzzi as well), I probably have an ever-so-slight preference for Antoine. The rest are brilliant, so I feel silly sharing such a razor-sharp distinction, but, if I didn’t say it, I wouldn’t be sharing my complete thoughts.

Antoine was a little slow to engage the crowd with banter, but when he got going, he was quite hysterical. He is a soft-spoken Canadian (I covered that fact in a short Canada Rocks post) with a French accent. Completely entertaining in every way, including his amazing guitar playing.

So, earlier I mentioned that I owned all of the albums that the three had between them. It turns out that Antoine released a new album last week. I bought it at the end of the show, and got to shake his hand and tell him how awesome he is, so now, again, I own every album that they have released. πŸ˜‰

Antoine played half of the songs from the new album, so when I listened to it today at home, it was comfortable and familiar. Here is a YouTube video from the same CMU concert of Spiritual Groove, which is off of his Development album (not the newest, which is Existence).

Antoine played for roughly 35 minutes. Here is a fuzzy photo of him. I like to think it’s fuzzy because his hands are moving at the speed of light while he’s playing. πŸ˜‰

Antoine Dufour

After an intermission (there was no break between Craig and Antoine), Andy McKee took the stage. He too is completely personable, and when he tells a story, you hang on his every word. He too is a genius with the guitar.

Here is a YouTube video of him playing Art of Motion at the same CMU concert. The music starts at the one minute mark, and he tells a story about how the song came to be named, which he also told last night.

Andy played for roughly 70 minutes. When he was done, he called Antoine and Craig up to the stage, and they played one of Antoine’s new songs, A Hiding Place for the Moon. The only word to describe it is Wow! Here is a YouTube video of them playing it together. While it’s incredible, it really doesn’t match the quality of sound or experience that we enjoyed last night. The CMU recordings are better quality…

Here is a still photo of them during our show last night:

Andy McKee with Antoine Dufour and Craig D’Andrea

After the trio played that song, Andy stayed on the stage for one final solo. Between the trio and the solo, the encore was roughly 20 minutes, and was awesome.

The crowd was nuts about all three of them, with ovations lasting a pretty long time after each number.

That ends the good part of the post, and if you are spiritually averse to negativity, this would be a very good time to close your browser.

Last night was far from perfect (though the music was as close to perfect as you could hope for in a live show!). Let’s start with the one part that was entirely my fault. πŸ™

We have never been to Canal Room before, so I committed the cardinal sin of assuming I knew where it was. From the website, I just zoned in on Canal and Broadway. I know where that is. Given that I cut it way too close on Thursday for the Al Jarreau and Najee concert, I decided to grab a cab rather than risk another bus ride. It was raining, but not too badly.

We got to the corner of Canal and Broadway at 7:15pm, and the doors were scheduled to open at 7:30pm. Perfect. Except for the fact that from the addresses, it was obvious we were in the wrong place. Oops. I used Google Maps on my Treo to see that it was on West Broadway. I knew it was close, so I didn’t panic, but I didn’t know exactly where. Again, Google Maps with Directions, led the way. It was a three block walk, and we got there at 7:34.

The doors were open, but the line was still outside, as only a few people at a time could get in. It’s completely unclear whether we would have been near the front of the line if we had gotten there 10 minutes earlier, but it’s possible, and might have made a world of difference.

Canal Room is not a full-time concert venue (like Joe’s Pub, BB King, Blue Note, etc.). As an example, there are only three nights in the next 11 days in February that have a show listed, and 10 dates in March. Perhaps because of that, it’s a complete waste of space as far as concerts are concerned. If you click on the link to their site (at the top of this post), you can see an automatically rotating slide-show of photos of the place. It’s beautiful, and comfortable, but not oriented to maximum quality seating for a concert.

So, comfy leather chairs and booths, but spread out for their bar/lounge business. By the time we got in, there were no seats left on the lower level, near the stage. You could stand there, but we weren’t interested in standing for hours on end. We went upstairs, where most of the seats were taken as well, but one round booth that comfortably seats six, and could easily accommodate eight (though more snugly), was empty.

The two end seats on one side had a reasonably good view of the stage (you can judge for yourself, as all of the photos that Lois took were from that seat). I would say that we were between 30-50 feet from the stage (so not far), and elevated (which was good), so they weren’t awful seats. The acoustics turned out to be excellent, so hearing the subtleties of their guitar playing was not a problem.

That ends my contribution to the bad parts. While our seats were fine, it was still very annoying that there was a ton of wasted space right near the stage. On the top level (as can be seen in all of our photos) there was a glass divider. You could easily see through it, but it also often cut the performers at the neck, meaning, part of them was above the glass, part below. It was mildly irritating.

Much more irritating were the gigantic columns that obscured the view of many people on the upper level. While it didn’t obscure ours at all, it affected where people wanted to stand, sit, etc., and possibly caused some people to talk more than they otherwise would have, if they had a clear view of the stage.

Next, the service. Most people started off walking to the bar (downstairs) and bringing back their own drinks. Neither of us was in a hurry to drink, so we just relaxed at our table. After a bit, a waitress came over and asked if we wanted drinks. I asked for a chocolate martini (surprise!) πŸ˜‰ and Lois asked for club soda (because, at the time, we just assumed that there was some kind of drink minimum).

The waitress asked me what the ingredients were for the chocolate martini (which didn’t bode well), but, when it showed up, it was perfect, so no complaints there. Lois’ club soda came completely flat (which I guess, technically makes it water). The waitress knew it in advance, telling Lois that the machine lost it’s compression, but that she would bring her another one when they fixed it.

At that point Lois asked if there was a drink minimum, and we were told no, so she just canceled the drink. Now it got weird, very weird. The waitress asked me if I wanted to run a tab. I said yes. She asked me for my credit card (for her to keep until the tab was closed), and for my driver’s license. When I showed her my license (should I have been flattered that I was being carded, or was it just to check photo id to match to my credit card?), she said “I need to take it with me.”

What? We were incredulous. We’re no youngsters, and this has never happened to us at any restaurant, bar, club, concert, etc. Perhaps when renting a car. She said she needed to photocopy the license because of credit card fraud. Wow, Canal Room must attract some type of crowd for this to be such a problem there, and not at our other haunts. I’ve gone on too long about this, but suffice it to say, it was weird at best…

More peeves on the way. The show was scheduled for 8pm. No announcements of any sort were made. Andy McKee walked on to the stage at exactly 8:30pm. No apologies or explanations for the late start. At best, it’s rude. Why not just print 8:30pm on the tickets and be done with it?

I’ve already covered the show, which was simply awesome, so in the midst of these complaints, I need to reiterate that point! πŸ™‚

Craig D’Andrea’s set was relatively unmarred, in other words, completely enjoyable. One other couple was sitting at our booth (and they got there just minutes after we did). The booth is a large semi-circle. We were at the left edge and had a clear view. The right edge had an obstructed view. So, the couple slid in, but not entirely to the middle. We all seemed OK with our situation.

When Antoine started his set, a bunch more people started drifting upstairs, looking for seats. I feel like dragging this part out, because it completely annoyed us, but I’ll cut to the chase. An extremely rude couple ending up sitting back-to-back with us (meaning, they were the right edge of the next booth over). The people at their table warned them when they asked if the seats were available that they would provide little-to-no view. They sat down anyway.

They then proceeded to talk to each other, rather loudly, nearly non-stop. Stares did nothing. This continued into Andy McKee’s set as well. When Andy was playing a song he wrote for his father, who had passed away (a clearly emotional part of the show), finally, someone shushed them. They looked around angrily, to see who might have been so rude as to interrupt their conversation.

Listen up folks. There are a million places in NYC to sit and chat, with and without drinks, with and without food, with and without music. A concert, where people specifically pay to see a specific artist is not once of those places. Thankfully, due to their annoyance at being shushed, they moved far enough away from us that we were able to enjoy the rest of the show without having to hear them on their date.

Anyway, we’re old folks, and this is the third night this week that we’ve been out later than we’re usually awake. Last night was 30 minutes later than it needed to be, just because they started late.

I’m probably leaving out a number of additional nuisances. We basically don’t like the place, even though it’s reasonably beautiful on some levels. We are hoping that these (and other) Candyrat artists discover the joys of playing a place like Joe’s Pub, where you hear zero conversations during the performances, ever. We also hope that no one else that we love ends up playing Canal Room. We’d likely go, with eyes wide open this time, but prefer not to find out if this was unusual or not…

Enjoying Repetition

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We have company staying with us this weekend. Yesterday morning, while they were eating a late breakfast in the apartment, I wandered out on my own to TKTS. I listened to another The Business podcast (from KCRW) on the way, and to part of the new Celine Dion CD (Taking Chances) on the way back.

There were quite a number of shows available at TKTS. When I called, the guests were interested in seeing Curtains The Musical. Lois and I had already seen it (and enjoyed it, as discussed in this post), so I only got three tickets. Row J (not necessarily exactly the 10th row), center orchestra, for 1/2 price. Not too shabby.

They enjoyed the show (as did we). We later met up at the Peking Duck House. We had dinner there nine days earlier as well, but you can never have too much of their food. Two of our guests don’t eat duck (neither does Lois), so this was one of the rare trips where we didn’t order duck. That permitted a wider sampling of their main dishes, and all were delectable, as always.

We did something we almost never do, we drove to the duck house. Normally, we walk. Rarely, we take the bus or a taxi. We drove last night because we intended to go to Filli Ponte after dinner, to hang out in the bar. It’s a long trek to get there, and five of us would have required two cabs.

In this post, I discussed what a wonderful time we had the last (and first) time we went to Filli Ponte. That was a relatively quiet Wednesday night. Last night was a holiday Saturday night, and the bar was much more active, and the restaurant was doing a great business as well. We were still able to snag seats right next to the piano on ultra-comfortable couches, as most of the bar crowd sat around the bar itself, waiting to be seated for dinner.

Jonathan Pytell was exceptional on the piano. He played a mixture of holiday classics, more traditional bar classics, and some of his own compositions, which were very impressive! The chocolate martinis were as perfect as always (thanks Natalia!) πŸ™‚ and I think I converted a few new fans to this wonderful drink.

A good time was had by all, as can be seen in the following photo (click for a larger version):

Jonathan Pytell and our Gang

My iPod Nano Teaches Me New Tricks

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Mostly, I listen to music on my iPod. On occasion, I have listened to an audio book or two, while exercising. One thing I have never done is watch a video. My old iPod 30GB probably could do it as well (it certainly could display photos), but I never even tried (not even a photo).

Up until very recently, I never subscribed to a podcast either. I have listened to a dozen podcasts directly from their authors’ websites, mostly poker podcasts, but never on the iPod, or through iTunes.

Two months ago, Lois sent me a link to a podcast from KCRW’s The Business, where they interviewed the producer of the show Wicked, Marc Platt. She didn’t listen to it, but asked me to check it out. I found it extremely informative, and I ended up subscribing to The Business podcast through iTunes.

I still hadn’t listened to any of the additional six episodes that automatically downloaded to my iTunes and then sync’ed to my iPod, but I knew that one day I would.

For 10 years, Lois and I commuted daily on the Metro-North railroad to NYC. I can’t recall the last time I’ve been on that train, but it has been years, for sure. Last night, a good friend was in town from Minnesota. We agreed to have dinner in Grand Central and I took the train in and back.

At first, I thought I’d bring along my Grado SR80’s and really enjoy some music on the train. Then I realized that the rumble of the train would cut into my enjoyment, since the Grado’s are not noise canceling, and my Sony and Bose NC’s were both in the city.

So, I realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to listen to a podcast or two. I already had episodes of The Business loaded up, but it occurred to me that this was a unique and ideal opportunity to see if there were some interesting video podcasts available. Clearly, I can’t watch video when I’m driving in the car (or can I?). πŸ˜‰

So, I used iTunes to search for some video podcasts, specifically concentrating on comedy first. I read reviews of the Comedy Central stand-up excerpts, and most people were really disappointed with them. Then I read glowing reviews of a podcast by scantily clad women doing the news. People swore it was hysterical, and pleasing on the eyes as well.

How could I resist? So, I downloaded a dozen episodes (they average roughly three minutes each). I then downloaded 10 episodes of the Onion video podcast (I have read a few of their mock news articles online, and usually enjoyed them thoroughly!).

On to the train, turned on the Nano, and started watching the ladies doing the news. They are indeed easy on the eyes, even on a tiny Nano screen. That said, 95% of their material is mind-numbingly boring. You can see where they are aiming (on occasion), but it’s really tedious. Hard to imagine something three minutes long can get tedious, but they achieve it brilliantly!

So, while they beg (on every episode) for bloggers to link to them, I just can’t bring myself to throw them a link. I’m unsubscribing from them.

Of course, since they are so short, I watched them all…

Then I moved on to the Onion. Way more professional (meaning, superb fakes of real shows, like their spoof of the Today Show). The comedy though is very up and down. All of the ideas are clever, but some of the execution is not only tedious, but feels like watching a train wreck. Others though, are delightful and brilliant. So, I’m not unsubscribing the Onion just yet.

The real point is that the experiment worked. I could use my crappy ear buds, on a raucous train ride, since high fidelity was not necessary. The video made the focus of attention easy, and the ride in both directions quick. That said, I finished the ride with another audio-only episode of The Business. Even though I had no video to keep me entertained, the content was way more interesting, and therefore kept me much more engaged. I am most definitely going to continue listening to future podcasts from them. They average close to 30 minutes in length, so it’s a commitment.

Wicked Business

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A friend of ours emailed us a link to an NPR interview with the producer of Wicked. Not only entertaining, but for me, extremely informative (lots of background and tidbits that I had no idea about). It’s well worth a listen, if you have any interest in Wicked at all.

Stream or download a podcast from KCRW here.

Wicked Serendipity

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The last time I wrote about Wicked, we were close to calling it our last time, given the disappointing performances of the two leads.

Two people whom I don’t know commented on my blog (one is rare enough), and one, Vickie, pointed out that the Elphaba lead was going to change to Stephanie J. Block. I did a quick search, and sure enough, on October 9th, 2007, both Elphaba and Glinda were to be replaced. Glinda would be played by Annaleigh Ashford.

We were scheduled to return to NY late on the 11th, so I searched for tickets starting the following week. Sure enough, there were two tickets for the 16th at 7pm. I don’t know what made me hesitate, but I figured I should give us a little wiggle room in case we ended up staying at Zope a little longer. So, when I found two tickets available for the following Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007, I snagged them.

I considered writing a long blog entry yesterday about using an American Express card with Rewards Points on it for this purchase, but I changed my mind. The bottom line is that we got one of the tickets for free, which was way cool! Awesome tickets: fifth row, dead center.

So serendipity number one, a stranger comments on my blog, and I discover that we might be able to wash away the memory of the last two leads in one gulp, without waiting too long. Serendipity number two, that amazing tickets are available for the night we prefer (Tuesday’s are 7pm, instead of 8pm, and we’re old folk), and we end up getting one of them for free.

We got there plenty early, and relaxed and read the playbill. The Gershwin Theater is one of the best, so it’s not uncomfortable to sit in their seats for an extended period.

In this post, I mentioned that our long-lost friends were going to see Wicked on Saturday. I also mentioned that we were likely to see them again for brunch on Sunday, which we did. They told us that they loved Wicked, but that Elphaba was played by an understudy in the matinee. They loved her, but we both instantly got a severe chill (recalling that our worst experience was with an Elphaba understudy!). We were hopeful that by Tuesday night, whatever caused Stephanie J. Block to miss Saturday, would be taken care of.

Then on Sunday, Local One (the stagehands union) authorized a strike against the theater owners. Oh oh… I was feeling unlucky that we hadn’t grabbed the tickets for the 16th, avoided the strike, and gotten to see Stephanie (assuming she wasn’t sub’ed for then as well).

Serendipity number three, the strike vote turned out to be authorization only. They intend to strike during the peak holiday season, if they don’t reach a compromise before that.

When we walked into the theater yesterday, Lois jokingly asked the usher whether there were any understudies that night. He said: “All of them”, and didn’t appear to be joking at all! In fact, when he handed us the playbill, the insert called out four understudies! Elphaba, Fiyero, Boq and Chistery. Ugh, another Elphaba understudy. While our friends loved her, we also know that a majority of the audience loved the one we know was horrible. When you don’t have a reference, it’s hard to judge…

On the pleasant surprise front, the original Madame Morrible has returned for another round, Carole Shelley. We really liked Carol Kane a lot (we saw her four times), and Jayne Houdyshell who replaced her (who we saw twice). That said, Carole Shelley plays the role much darker, and sings much better than either of them, so it was a real treat to see the person we’ve listened to on the CD so many times.

Glinda is the first solo voice that you hear right after the introduction. The very first song that she sings has so many high notes that only a true soprano can hit them unwaveringly and cleanly. That’s how we knew that the last Glinda would be disappointing, immediately. Annaleigh Ashford was instantly impressive. For the remainder of the show, she didn’t disappoint in a single note, or her acting either. We loved Kate Reinders in the role, but Annaleigh is at least as good. Her voice is stupendous, and she didn’t fool around with the songs in the least! Annaleigh’s face shares some features with Kristin Chenoweth, and they both have a great sense of comedic timing.

Elphaba doesn’t appear until the second song, and doesn’t sing until the third. She was played by Caissie Levy. Without the green makeup/body suit, she reminds me of a blond Melina Kanakaredes. She’s very attractive. πŸ˜‰

So, can she sing? Yes, and no. She started her first solo with a tad more styling than I would have cared for, but she didn’t overdo it. She did a good job in general, but the one complaint is that her voice (on occasion) tends to be a bit thin. Her acting was excellent, and she had good chemistry with Annaleigh and the others.

As the show went on, and she had to do more physical work (running around on the stage, etc.), her voice got a little more powerful, as she had to push harder. All-in-all, while she’s no superstar (in this specific role!), she dropped the styling after the first song (with one tiny exception), and she hit every single note (so she’s in general a talented singer). In other words, I enjoyed her performance, and was pleasantly relieved given our previous experience with an understudy in this role. I can now accept our friends’ future endorsements as well. πŸ˜‰

Lois was slightly more critical of Caissie, notably on the thinness of her voice, and that she looked a little too innocent on stage (in other words, she seems like a very sweet person).

The Fiyero understudy was excellent (though we saw the main person last time, and he was excellent as well), and the Boq understudy was excellent too, so no disappointments there at all!

It was another magical night seeing Wicked, and we’re both very glad we did it again. We’re unlikely to go again, until we can finally get our friends from Richmond up to see it, which we hope happens while Annaleigh is still in it, and perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to catch Stephanie J. Block (assuming she’s as good as some reviews claim).