New York City, Part 3: Hello, Dolly!

On the second night of our trip to New York City we saw “Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theater on West 44th Street. This was the first time I’d seen a play in the Broadway theater district. It struck me that most of the theaters are not actually on Broadway, but instead are located on the cross streets near Times Square.

Around six o’clock in the evening the area is teeming with people trying to get to the theater on time. The show we attended had a sign saying late arrivals will not be seated until intermission, so there is a sense of anxious urgency, especially when you’ve paid a lot of money for your tickets. Some people don’t like cities because they don’t like crowds. If that’s you, avoid Times Square. Myself being someone who likes cities and crowds, getting to the theater was chaotic and invigorating, being among all those thousands of people sharing a similar experience. To me, the place had a warm, joyous energy.

There were two long lines of people waiting to get into the theater and, being new, we didn’t know if which line we were in made any difference. We asked people standing next to us and they said they were wondering the same thing. It turned out there was no difference and once the lines started moving, they moved quickly.

Once inside there is a bit of a jumble in the lobby, which felt cramped. This was ameliorated to a large degree by the excellent staff at the theater, who were very helpful and pleasant. Real pros. I went to coat check and they charge a dollar to hold your stuff. I forgot to bring cash with me and the staff person said I could pay him at the end of the performance. When I went back I still didn’t have any cash and he gave me my stuff anyway, and was nice and understanding. I felt bad because I tip most everyone; I think that’s an important part of the economy.

So now we get to the part of this post where I “review” the play. Reader beware: I consider myself a novice observer of live dramatic arts. I’ve seen about twenty live dramatic performances, including six musicals, so understand this is my subjective opinion as someone who witnessed this particular performance on Saturday, April 1, 2017. I don’t present myself as someone you should take seriously as an expert on Broadway musicals. But maybe you have about the same level of experience. With that in mind…

I’d never seen “Hello, Dolly!” before, except for the film adaptation starring Barbara Streisand, which I own on Blu-Ray. Those who’ve never seen the film or dramatic version of “Hello, Dolly!” might have a meta-level introduction to it, if they’ve seen the Pixar film, “WALL-E,” which cameos scenes from “Hello, Dolly!” via an old video tape that the robot in “WALL-E” plays over and over. In the weeks between when I bought the tickets and when I saw the show, I was wondering how the play would compare to the film I know so well. For the uninitiated, “Hello, Dolly” is a romantic comedy set in early 20th century New York City. The main character, Dolly Levi, is a widowed matchmaker who wants to marry a semi-wealthy bachelor, Horace Vendergelder, owner of a grain and feed store. The comedy revolves around Dolly’s efforts to fix up Horace’s store clerk’s, Cornelius and Barnaby, with two women that work in a hat shop, including one to whom Horace intends to propose marriage.

There was an added level of charm conveyed by the setting of the musical. What could be better than seeing a musical in New York City when the setting is…New York City!

One question in my mind about this performance involves the casting of Bette Midler in the lead role of Dolly Levi. She did a great job, in my opinion. She may not be the best singer, or the best actress, but she is a great entertainer, with loads of star power. Indeed, it was the star power that had me questioning whether the quality of the overall performance relied too much on Midler’s cult of personality. For example, some of the best songs in “Hello, Dolly!” are performed by secondary cast members. I noted that those songs didn’t get the same level of reaction from the audience. In particular, the great love song “It Only Takes A Moment” received what I thought was tepid applause, as did the song “Elegance.” On the other hand, Midler got a standing ovation when she first appeared on the stage, before she sang a note. It would be interesting to see the musical again with the role of Dolly Levi played by the understudy, a woman named Donna Murphy, who will take over the lead role in a limited capacity starting in June.

Aside from Midler, my favorite performance was by David Hyde Pierce in the lead male role of Horace Vandergelder. He managed to wring out every ounce of humor from his lines, with incredible comic timing and physicality. His performance was subtle and I was impressed by his artistry. In fact, the whole cast was great. I also enjoyed the comic interplay of the two bachelors, Cornelius and Barnaby, played by Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch. The Barnaby character did this funny thing where he would imply slyly that he has a man-crush on Cornelius. Like, what are those guys doing down there in the basement of the grain and feed store? And why is Cornelius 30 years old and vows to not go back to Yonkers from New York City “until we kiss a girl?”

Another stand out was Beanie Feldstein in the role of Minnie Faye, the secondary character from the hat shop. Beanie has, shall we say, an atypical “look” for an actress. Short, a bit on the heavy side, etc. Nonetheless, her acting, dancing, and singing were delicate and polished. She stole every seen she was in.

For me, the two highlights were the songs “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By.” The title song, “Hello, Dolly!” was great, as well, but Midler really cut lose on “Parade.” The tone of her vocals on that number exuded a melancholy world weariness at the beginning, then, as though her character was not going to give in to life that easily, built to a rousing finish.

But for me, the best of all was “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” Starting with that famous line sung by Cornelius:

Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There’s a slick town, Barnaby!

A had a huge grin plastered on my face through that whole number. The only thing is that I love the show stopping dance sequence from the film. The stage at the Shubert was a bit too small to attempt to replicate that.

Then, of course, the theme song, preceded by the centerpiece dance routine performed by the waiters at the fictional restaurant, Harmonia Gardens. It was over the top, and by the end the dancers were breathing heavily from their exertions.

I recommend seeing “Hello, Dolly!” if you’re in New York. It’s the first Broadway revival of this particular musical since the original run, according to Broadway.com. The tickets are expensive if you’re not able to avoid after-market ticketing services, but it’s a throughly entertaining, extremely charming Broadway experience.

 

 

 

New York City, Part II, 9/11 Memorial

My daughter was born a couple of weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She’s 15 now, and this was her first trip to New York City. In the back of my mind I was thinking it would be good to hold off visiting the city with her until the site at ground zero had been repaired and the new tower completed.

On the first full day of our trip we took the subway to lower Manhattan and walked to ground zero. One thing that seemed odd to me is that even though the new tower is the tallest structure in Manhattan, you can’t see it as you approach. I was looking for it as a visual clue on how to get there, but the view of it is blocked by other tall buildings, so I had to use the map application on my phone for navigation.

Finally, you round a corner and there it is. Another odd thing is that it doesn’t look that tall when you’re right up near it. I think there must be an optical illusion at play related to the tower’s wide footprint and narrowing shape as it rises skyward. When you see the tower from a distance (e.g., from the Brooklyn Bridge), it is very impressive and there is a direct correlation between how far away you are and how tall the tower appears in relation to the rest of the skyline.

I remember visiting New York as a child and seeing the twin towers. By comparison, the new tower struck me as kind of an only child; somewhat lonely. The choice to build one tower instead of two probably had to do with the building site. The tower competes for space with the footprints of the twin towers, which incorporate the memorial and the museum, so my guess is building two towers was never a possibility. That said, they did a nice job of the fitting the new tower into the site without creating a shoe-horned feel; it looks like it belongs there.

If you plan to visit the 9/11 memorial, I recommend that you visit the museum first, before contemplating the fountain memorials inscribed with the names of those lost. The effect of the fountains will be much more profound that way.

Kudos to the people involved in creating the memorial and museum. I can’t imagine the difficulty of conveying the experience New Yorkers went through that day, while respecting the sanctity of the site itself, which is, in effect, the final resting place of those whose remains were vaporized in the collapse of the towers and could never be recovered. So, here is my subjective perspective on the memorial and museum.

To me, the most important aspect is that the footprints of the twin towers are incorporated into the museum experience. By that I mean there is an above ground structure that you enter, and after passing through security you go through an introductory exhibit that leads down into the ground to an overlook. When you get to the overlook you instantly realize that you are looking at the actual excavated area below where the towers stood; you recognize it from the innumerable television broadcasts that showed the workers digging out the debris. When I walked to the edge and looked down, my breath caught in my throat and my eyes moistened.

Care has been taken to retain features of the footprints; there are still pieces of metal supports sticking out the sides of the walls. The space hasn’t been prettied up at all, except for removal of the debris. A sloped walkway leads you down, down, into the ground, past a sign that says here is the epicenter of where the truck bomb exploded in the first terrorist attack on the towers back in the 90’s. You continue going down the sloped walkway until you are at the bottom, which is decorated sparsely with a few items: a crushed fire truck; a huge steel beam bent back on itself like a pretzel; a display case of personal items recovered from the debris field. There is also the so called “last column,” a rectangular monolith of steel and concrete that is covered with the names of various fire companies and other memories of the first responders. It’s devastating. There is nothing they could have created in that space more impactful than the simple space that was left when the debris was removed; it is unique, haunting, a bit claustrophobic, and evocative of the experience of those who died there, and of those who toiled there in the aftermath.

But nothing can prepare one for the museum within the museum; a structure that you enter through glass doors, and which contains a comprehensive multi-media recitation of everything that happened on 9/11. Through the use of video, news reports, photographs, sound recordings, recovered personal items, and projections, the museum re-creates the events of that day. I can’t imagine that someone can walk through it without reacting emotionally. For me, there were moments when I felt like I was going to lose it completely and I had a strong urge a couple of times to run and get outside. I imagine different people will react to certain things more strongly than others. For example, they have sound recordings of goodbye messages from the doomed left on voicemail and answering machines – the final calls to loved ones from the airplanes and the buildings. They also have children’s pajamas, toys, and blankets from the airplanes that somehow escaped destruction.

All of the people I met on the trip who live in New York, when I told them I had visited the memorial, said that they couldn’t go. They lived through it once already. I think the point of the place is for people who were not there on that day. While people who were not there have their own memories, visiting the memorial connects them more closely to the terrible events; something approaching but never matching the experience of those who were there.

Visiting the memorial is not a “fun” experience, but, I think, essential for anyone who wants more than a superficial understanding of what happened. People will react to it in their own way. For some, it will be cathartic; for others, painful; for others, life affirming; and, I think, for most everyone, a reminder of the best and worst of humankind.

 

 

New York City Part One: LaGuardia

We flew into LaGuardia because the airline I use doesn’t fly into JFK, which is a bummer. You know how a certain candidate for president kept saying during the campaign that some of our airports are like what you’d find in a third world country? He surely must have been thinking of LaGuardia. The place is, to put it mildly, an anachronistic dump. I took a trip to Costa Rica a couple of years ago and the flight was not direct; it had a stop in El Salvador. The airport there is much nicer than LaGuardia.

I live in northern California and most of the time I fly out of the airport in Oakland, which is an OK facility. I mean, we’re not talking Inchon in Seoul, by any means, but it’s fine. It’s shocking to report that the airport in Oakland is like Inchon as compared to LaGuardia.

We got off the plane at the B gates, which has like 28 some odd separate gates for departures and arrivals. 28 gates, and one restroom, with a sad sign posted letting you know that it is the only restroom for the B gates. Go inside the men’s restroom and there are three stalls and four urinals. The handicapped stall was “temporarily unavailable” so the one restroom was not even ADA compliant. Another stall had overflowed and there was some poor sap with a mop and bucket trying to clean it up. You have to go outside the security cordon to get to another restroom, so if you’re waiting for your flight to depart out of the B gates, or you just arrived at the B gates, you’ll be waiting in line should nature call.

You know how most gates have a “this side” and a “that side?” At LaGuardia B gates, there is no this side and that side. Instead, the concourse is so narrow, there is only “here we all are in the middle,” with no bump outs for the modest concessions. For arrivals, there is a sign directing you to the baggage claim, and when you get there you’ll see the lone carousel, so you don’t have to guess which one. When it starts up there is a high, thin, screeching sound like the guy playing the one string Chinese orchestra instrument at the farmers’ market in Old Oakland.

After we collected our luggage (my daughter’s bag was somehow ripped badly in transit), we went outside to a scene of absolute chaos. We tried to get a Lyft cab. Our driver was calling us and texting with apologies that the airport security forced him to drive right by us so as not to block traffic. The security people were out in the middle of the road screaming at the top of their lungs. I don’t really blame them, because the traffic was so bad and it was raining. To top it off, the cover over the waiting area leaked, so we were getting soaked while waiting for the cab to cycle around again.

There is no direct subway connection to LaGuardia; you have to take a bus from the airport to the nearest subway station.

The good news is that my trip to New York City was great, despite the awful, horrible experience at LaGuardia. If you can possibly avoid this airport you’re doing yourself a real favor, at least until they complete the $4 billion renovation.

Road Trip, Part 3

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This is a cliff in southern Alberta, Canada that is called the Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump. It is a bit off the main highway and I never would have thought of going there but for the nice lady at the visitors center in Cardston, Alberta. We had stopped there to ask about roadside attractions and a fellow traveler and her husband recommended it. By the way, Cardston has it’s own attraction near the visitors center called the Remington Carriage Museum that houses a fine collection of meticulously restored horse drawn conveyances of every size and description. It’s worth a stop if you’re driving through. But the buffalo jump is on a whole other level, seeing as how it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The native people (or what the Canadians refer to as aboriginals) who inhabited the area before the arrival of Europeans used the cliff to harvest buffalo as an alternative to hunting them. There is a great museum built into the side of the cliff and your visit starts with a short film that explains how they did it. It turns out that buffalo have poor eyesight, which, combined with their tendency to protect the youngest of the herd and to stampede when faced with a perceived threat, allowed the aboriginals to trick the herd into running over the cliff.

The methods used by the aboriginals were precise and involved a fair amount of danger to the participants due to the necessary proximity to the stampeding herd. The preparation started with the construction of lanes made of rocks and plants to form a visual barrier that would guide the herd toward the cliff when the stampede began. The tribe would stand outside of the lanes to reinforce the barrier by making noise. Two braves would dress in animal skins; one disguised as a calf and one as a wolf. The “calf” would stray from the herd in the direction of the cliff while the “wolf” would approach from the other direction. The herd would move toward the calf as a protective measure and stampede when frightened by the wolf approaching from behind. This worked because buffalo have poor eyesight, but also because the braves disguised their scent.

Once the stampede began the brave dressed as a calf would jump outside the lane to safety, but as you can imagine the timing wasn’t always perfect and a brave would get trampled to death on occasion. But that’s not how the place got its name. The name comes from a story of a particular brave who waited at the base of the cliff during one of the harvests, thinking that he could view the event in safety behind the waterfall of buffalo. But as the animals piled up at the bottom he was crushed and later found with his head smashed in.

The museum is dedicated to the pre-European culture of the aboriginals who inhabited the region, which existed for thousands of years. It is the one museum I’ve attended with my child that held her attention longer than it held mine. Learning occurred. For me, the most profound insight is that the aboriginal culture was based entirely on the buffalo. Almost everything used by the people was made out of buffalo, including clothing, housing, weapons, ornaments, you name it. Of course, the buffalo also provided the primary source of food. Once the herds of buffalo disappeared after the arrival of the Europeans, the culture of the aboriginals was destroyed. The saddest part of the story is that most of the buffalo killed by Europeans were killed for sport and hides. Most of the buffalo was wasted, in direct contradiction to the aboriginal way.

I recommend visiting Head Smashed-In if you happen to be in Alberta. It’s well worth leaving the main highway.

Speaking of stampedes, our next stop is the greatest rodeo on earth, the Calgary Stampede.