Theatre and Dance Highlights from NYC in 2016

Last year offered so many options of new works and old favorites that I missed quite a few performances that I wanted to see, such as Othello, The Front Page, Heisenberg, Michael C. Hall in David Bowie’s Lazarus, and more. I also missed Alvin Ailey’s annual dance season as well. Last year my work schedule was hectic and I spent a bit of time in Africa, which made seeing short runs of Broadway and off Broadway performances difficult. Most of what I managed to attend was fantastic.
Alan Cumming is one of my favorite actors, so when it was announced that he was taking his cabaret show on the road, I had to buy a ticket for his Carnegie Hall show. Whether acting or singing, he is ever the entertainer. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs was a charming evening of musical theater with a few contemporary songs thrown in, witty banter and surprise guests: Kristin Chenoweth, Darren Criss and Ricki Lake. The set had a little something for everyone and was long enough to make me feel content but also desiring a little more.
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Eclipsed – this performance would make a good short or behind the scenes PBS performance. The play centered on life in Liberia, Africa in 2003. It depicted the difficulties that women faced during that time, specifically the reality of life in a region under rebel control. Eclipsed was poignant, sad and funny. The acting was fantastic and the ensemble was balanced and well cast. The female cast included Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, Zainab Jah, Lupita Nyong’o, and Saycon Sengbloh. The men were also good, but not standouts. Perhaps it resonated so strongly with me because I work in peacebuilding and spent time in Liberia last year, but honestly, I think it had more to do with the storytelling by Danai Gurira and acting from a superb ensemble.
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The newest incarnation of Arthur Miller’s the Crucible felt like a dark and eerie film noir. The play featured a star-studded cast familiar to theater, film and television audiences including Ciarán Hinds, Sophie Okonedo, Ben Winshaw, Saoirse Ronan and a large ensemble. Though many reviewers complained of Ivo van Hove’s staging, noting that it didn’t offer enough context, I didn’t need a roadmap of period associations to understand exactly what was happening. The young actors brought the play to life with their scary and at times vulnerable portrayals of young girls accused being witches, while the rest of the cast embodied a community stirring up fear and looking for answers that didn’t exist.
Most people are aware of the hilarious musical The Book of Mormon; it’s irreverent storyline and potty mouth dialogue. I first experienced this show during its first national tour and couldn’t get some of lyrics out of my head for months. Typically, I don’t see productions more than once, aside from dance performances that often rotate the pieces performed, but one of my Uncles came to NY for a visit and I couldn’t find reasonably priced tickets to Hamilton…He hadn’t seen The Book of Mormon, which I figured he would like as he is a little cheeky himself, so that was that. Now, it’s been a few years but the lines were just as funny as the first go around and the writers have updated a few cultural references, which provided unexpected laughs as well.
The last play of the bunch – Blackbird by David Harrower, featured Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams. I really wanted to like this play, but I just didn’t. It is about a pedophile and his victim, she was 12 and he was 40 at the time. In the present — Williams character 27 years old, confronts Daniels character at his workplace to relive the past. I didn’t see the original casting of this play when it was off-Broadway, perhaps I would have enjoyed that version more. The monologues were too frenzied and for most of the play I found the acting unbelievable. They can’t all be winners…
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One of my favorite performances of the year was Swan Lake by the American Ballet Theatre. I know, I know – most ballet companies perform Swan Lake, and yes, I’ve seen it before. Though I won’t divulge how many times. But…I was determined to see Misty Copeland dance. Copeland is the first African American female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in NY and that’s a huge deal. When I was young, I practiced ballet, tap and modern dance. Let’s just say there wasn’t much diversity in my ballet world. I could watch Copeland solo for hours, her amazing lines, fluidity and graceful movement on stage is stunning. When I read that she would dance the role of Odile/Odette l in Swan Lake last season, I had to go because I didn’t want to run the risk of her never dancing that role again, and missing it. She was spectacular. It was a little emotional to look around and see so many beautifully dressed young girls watching an older image of themselves onstage in one of the most famous ballet roles in history. Copeland is an example that hard work and perseverance leads to dreams coming true.
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Winter Adventures in New York

This was the first winter in several years spent mostly in New York. Typically December and early January are full of travel to visit with my family, the significant other’s family and a final quiet place to decompress and gear up for a new year of constant work, travel for work, and hardly any time off.

This year was a little different partially because my long-term work project finished at the end of the summer, which permitted a bit of a break. So it seemed like a good year to enjoy the New York holiday festivities. We spent a few days in Indy with family and then returned to New York for a bit of a staycation.

One day while a friend and I were museum hopping, we headed out to the Met Cloisters. The museum sits atop Fort Tryon Park and overlooks the Hudson River. We arrived almost at closing so we quickly ran through the museum and then went outside to take pictures of the gorgeous view.

It seems that I am forever taking photographs in Central Park but the familiar spots always seem different depending on the weather, season or time of day.

A few days before Christmas we decided to brave the crowds at Rockefeller Center to see the famous annual Christmas Tree. I’m not big on holiday traditions. You won’t find me standing outside all day, unable to eat, drink or use the WC — waiting for the infamous ball to drop in New York, ever. But for a fleeting moment going to look at the tree seemed like a good idea.

As I grow older, navigating large crowds becomes less tolerable. Let’s just say, visiting two days before Christmas wasn’t my best idea ever but we made it through the crazy blocks and blocks of crowds to the tree, we took our pictures, and checked it off the bucket list. Trying to leave was even more difficult. Glad we did it; can’t imagine going again.

On one of the coldest days of the year, we took the Harlem line to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. Why, when almost none of the flowers are blooming would we visit in winter? Well, I love fall/winter foliage colors – and I needed to secure my year-long-free admission before the end of December…The gardens are gorgeous. The Bronx River, complete with waterfall, flows through a section of trails that is more park than garden. We spent a while walking around but left right before it started to snow.

It’s amazing to find so many green outdoor spaces in New York, whether in Manhattan or in the boroughs. Looking forward to visiting the Cloisters and Fort Tryon again soon, and heading to the Bronx Botanical gardens in the spring, summer and next fall.

New York touristy attractions for the local and visitor

Last month my uncle Ken visited me in New York, which presented an opportunity to explore the city in new ways.

Normally, I spend a lot of time walking in Central Park, but had never taken a pedicab before. Our driver was very knowledgeable of the statues and other landmarks in the park. It’s a great way to see the park, especially for those who cannot walk long distances. My recommendation is to pay cash at the park, instead of purchasing tickets online, and haggle over the price.

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There were several bus tours on our itinerary. First, we took a Brooklyn tour, which was okay but as someone who spends time in Brooklyn, I recommend just taking the subway over and walking around the neighborhoods that you want to see. We also took a bus tour through Harlem and Queens. It’s a good tour and worth checking out, it even stops at Yankee stadium for a photo op. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain the day we went, which made it much harder to see from the bus, and taking good pictures was impossible. On a sunny day, it would be great though.

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During this visit we also went on a few harbor cruises. This is actually the main touristy go-to item on my list when I travel to places along a coast, near a river or lake. We settled on a full loop harbor cruise. For the architecture and bridge lovers – this is your tour. This 2.5-hour tour also offers a great historical journey of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn skylines.

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We took the boat tour to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Honestly, my photos of lady liberty were much better from the boat than the island. It is definitely worth doing but with limited time, I’d take photos from the boat and go straight to Ellis Island, otherwise plan on this as your all day experience. The museum on Ellis Island is fantastic; many of the people who passed through the island have donated personal items to the museum. There is also a computer area where visitors can pay a nominal fee and look up and print or email their family records. We had limited time to spend looking up records but luckily the public can access these records from the comfort of their home as well, which is on my list of my new projects.

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For those who appreciate architecture, take the Ellis Island hard hat tour. It’s a 90 minute guided tour of the abandoned immigrant hospital buildings; the proceeds are going toward renovation.

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I love architectural photography, especially abandoned urban structures and old houses. The buildings are amazing and the history of the hospital was fascinating. A word of warning — it’s hot in summer and there isn’t anywhere to sit, so make sure you are up to doing the tour. I’ll probably go again so that I can take more photos.

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We visited the 9/11 Memorial and took the walking tour of the neighborhood. Our guide told her own personal story about her experiences on that day as well as describing how the tragedy unfolded in the neighborhood and throughout the city. Our group walked to the small church that was the only building in the neighborhood without damage, we went to the memorial pools, and then the museum. It’s a somber tour but part of our history that should be talked about and remembered. The memorial pools include the nearly 3000 names of the victims of 9/11. Every day a single white rose is placed next to the names of those with birthdays on that day.

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One night we went to see the Book Mormon on Broadway. I had seen it before, but it has been a few years. There were even a few references that had been updated since I watched it the first time. Another night we checked out Terra Blues club. It was my fist visit and definitely not my last.

I can’t seem to write a blog without talking about food. Here are a few highlights of restaurants with a little something to satisfy a carnivore and vegan. Benares Indian near central park in midtown has a great lunch buffet, Yum Yum Thai in Hells Kitchen is a great post-Theater spot, Pelligrino is classic Italian in Little Italy, New Malaysia is my favorite hidden gem in China town, and Maz Mezcal Mexican, Bangkok Thai, and Agora Turkish are local Upper East Side staples. Finally, a couple of cocktail spots — Gotham west market is a popular artisan food court on the West Side near the Hudson river (think Pike’s Place in Seattle) – inside, GENUINE Roadside serves food and great cocktails. The Penrose, a hidden treasure on the Upper East Side makes a splendid pickle martini.

Final Thoughts on 2015 New York Theatre and Dance Performances

This has been one of my favorite Theatre seasons in New York, though it’s possible that I say those words every year. Let’s face it – there are winners, losers and those where the cast is great but the writing is so-so, and vice versa. Nothing was a loser but there was some in between.

 

Many of the plays on the top of my list were Round About Theatre productions.

 

Lost Girls was my favorite off-Broadway play of the season. Piper Perabo known for her turn as a spy in the TV show Covert Affairs drew me to the play but the well-rounded cast held my attention. The story revolves around a struggling mom and three generations of women who haven’t always made the best choices – and there’s a whole lot of potty mouth.

 

The Roundabout Theatre Company produced Ugly Lies the Bone in their black box theatre. Though not my favorite play of the season, the performance by Mamie Gummer as the wounded war veteran suffering from intense chronic pain and emotional distress was a standout performance. Gummer’s fiery portrayal of this resolute young woman struggling to piece her life together after war was captivating.

 

The play Old Times, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company made me want to read the entire Harold Pinter catalog of plays. The performances by Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best are fantastic. Riley and Best are former roommates who haven’t seen each other in 20 years. There is a tension and an underlying sense of discomfort that the characters exude while telling different versions of past experiences. Owen finally reveals that he had his own past with Best’s character. The reminiscing captivated the audience but at times the changes in the set were a distraction.

 

Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge is a must see classic. It has a fantastic cast — Nicola Walker and Mark Strong lead a strong ensemble. This reimagined version has a stark set and relies solely on the actors to tell the story of a Brooklyn longshoreman trying to keep his inner demons at bay while housing illegal Italian immigrants related to his wife. It’s an intense two-hour play but the time passed quickly.

 

Thérèse Raquin is a gothic melodrama about a woman who is resigned to her fate. She is quiet and faraway for the first half of the play until she enters into an affair. She is only happy momentarily though, because the man she has an affair with murders her husband. When they try to build a life after her husband’s death, he haunts them and she plunges into misery again. Keira Knightley, Matt Ryan, Gabriel Ebert, Judith Light and more make up this fantastic ensemble.

 

My guilty pleasure of 2015 – Chicago – featured Amra-faye Wright and Rumer Willis. Ever since watching Willis dance on DWTS, I’ve wanted to see her in something else – she didn’t disappoint. Along with being a dancer, she also has a fantastic voice. Chicago is a classic, which I’ve seen before but it’s a fun show — fairly long though, so prepare to settle in if you want to see it.

 

Closing out 2015, is one of my top three dance companies – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Normally, I attend three different nights so that I can catch all of the premieres and also watch other pieces that I’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend one night this season but the line up was all work I had never seen before. I’m so happy I finally saw Polish Pieces (1996). No Longer Silent (Ailey premiere 2015) was fantastic, but Untitled America: First Movement (2015) and Exodus (2015) were just stunning.

A King, Sparkly Boots and Disgrace

As a grad student I often feel that my life is not my own — as in — I do not have much time to allocate toward much beyond studying. This past semester was my final full-time semester of classes and I started an internship at GNWP (Global Network of Women Peacebuilders. Needless to say, it was quite busy, which also accounts for my lack of blogging.

In order to break up the reading, research and writing I attended a few theatre shows, well as it turns out, more than a few…leading to a two-part blog.

FullSizeRender-2 It had been a while since I had seen Shakespeare on stage, so I was excited when my university (NYU) – announced that the Globe Theatre would perform King Lear at NYU Skirball. I will say…that I had forgotten how long Shakespeare’s plays are but it had a solid cast. The only actor I was familiar with was Joseph Marcell as King Lear; he played the butler in the television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He was a great, crazy King Lear.

FullSizeRender-3Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar was on the top of my list of plays to see and it didn’t disappoint. The well-balanced cast included Gretchen Mol, Hari Dhillon and Josh Radnor. The Pulizer Prize-Winning Disgraced is a provocative story about identity that culminates in a dinner party that goes horribly wrong. The play culminates with an alcohol-fueled discussion that turns argumentative, actions and reactions that make audience members uncomfortable, and a subsequent divorce.

 

 

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I also went to see a few musicals in 2014, which were all fantastic in their own way.

When it was announced that Alan Cumming would return to Broadway and reprise his role as Emcee in Cabaret, I knew I had to go. A group of us went and we sat on the floor at a table, pricey but definitely worth it. We went early in the run, when Michelle Williams was playing Sally Bowles. She was okay as Bowles but at times a little awkward. Cumming and the rest of the cast were fantastic.

FullSizeRender-1The second musical I attended was with my sister when she came to New York for a visit — we ventured out to see Kinky Boots. Harvey Fierstein wrote the book, with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. Billy Porter plays Lola and is the shining star of the show. The show is over the top — fabulous entertainment. The story is heartfelt, sad and hopeful. There is one particular moment when Porter stands on a pitch-black stage, alone, spot lit, in a white gown singing “Hold Me in Your Heart.” It’s a moving, gorgeous, spellbinding scene.

It seems like another lifetime, but I worked in music for a good part of my career, before my back-to-school adventure. During that time the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch came out. My friends and I loved the film and soundtrack, so much in fact, that the music could often be heard at my shows. Fast forward to 2014 – Hedwig comes to Broadway. It brought me back to a carefree time with friends during my youth. Michael C. Hall was amazing in drag and crazy heels jumping off a car and other props on stage, singing his heart out — he was brilliant, funny and tragic — fantastic!

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Summertime theatre and art in New York

photo I went to see the play Phoenix at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on its second night of previews. It’s a charming little theatre tucked away on a tree-lined cul-de-sac. At first it seemed as if the interaction between Julia Stiles and James Wirt was awkward but really that is the underlying them of the play –- how awkward the characters are with each other. The two characters have a one-night stand; don’t speak for a month, and then Stiles character Sue invites James (character) out to tell him she cannot see him again. And, oh, by the way — she’s pregnant. The rest of the story revolves around the fears of two people who do not know each other very well, how they cope with their situation and what comes next. At the end of the play they make proper introductions including last names. Sue gives James her telephone number (she only had his) and they decide to go bowling. It is a dark tale with moments of humor. It wasn’t Cabaret amazing but the acting was good, its not too long and it’s an affordable ticket. I’m glad I went.

 

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Recently, I also went to the Metropolitan Museum with a friend to check out the Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibit. It was a fascinating exhibit. The gowns were exquisite. Each gown had its own interactive screen that showed all the different parts of the dress. It included materials used, how a bustle is made, and how all of the one-dimensional geometric shapes of fabric become a beautiful work of art.

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Next we went to the photography exhibit of work by Garry Winogrand, who photographed people in New York as well as everyday life in America from 1950 to the early 1980s. There were a lot of candid black and whites from galas, beaches and on the street. Then we checked out the exhibit –Now You See It: Photography and Concealment. It’s a small black and white exhibit in an area with other photography; it’s worth a peek.

Unique by Design Contemporary Jewelry in the Donna Schneier Collection, was the final exhibit we stopped at. It is a small exhibit based on 1960s counterculture. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but if you enjoy that era—check it out before it disappears in the end of August. We ended our afternoon at the museum by wandering around some of the main collection to look at some of our favorite pieces by Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec and others.

One of the great things about the Met museum is having Central Park as a backdrop. In front of the museum there are street food vendors. A few streets over, there are numerous restaurants, stores and delis. We picked up food and had a lovely alfresco dinner in Central Park. Great way to spend a summer day in New York.

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Spring Break Non-Trad Style

What’s a non-traditional student to do on spring break in New York? Sleep, homework and take in a little culture.

I had so much homework to do over spring break but I was determined to leave the house once or twice. I must admit — spring break in New York wasn’t exactly warm and sunny. It was more of a continuation of months of depressing gray skies, a serious chill, snow and even some rain. We’ll just call that incentive to stay in my warm home and study.

photo 4My first outing took place with some girlfriends at the start of the break. A groups of us made weekend plans around attending Raisin In the Sun on Broadway. Pre-show we caught up on life, work, school, etc…at Bar Centrale, a hidden gem in the crazy theatre district. Then we made the short walk over to the theatre, where Denzel Washington is currently playing Walter Lee Younger. Traditionally, someone much younger portrays this character so it was an interesting experiment with Washington in the lead. He was good; it was just a little odd if you are familiar with the story. He got four out of five ladies approval. The shining star for me though, was Sophie Okonedo who plays his wife Ruth. I did not even know she was in the play until she walked out on stage, but I am a fan of her work, so it was a pleasant surprise. Afterward, we had a late dinner at Pigalle – we closed the place down. The next day, we went to brunch at Upstairs at The Kimberly. Whether you are a local or visiting, it’s a great spot for brunch with an amazing view!

 

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My pop culture moment came when I went to see the kickstarter funded Veronica Mars movie. I’ll admit, I didn’t watch the television series while it was on the air. I found it in syndication a few years ago and basically binge watched it. Kristin Bell’s character is my kid of girl. Anyhow, though the film probably won’t win any Oscars, it was definitely a nice distraction from writing research papers.

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I also attended an evening of Paul Taylor Dance – The Diamond Anniversary program. My last Paul Taylor Dance experience was about a year ago when the company was on tour in Charlotte, NC. I caught a new and old piece during that run. For the night I attended in New York, the company performed: Perpetual Dawn, Fibers, Black Tuesday, and Troilus and Cressida. The great thing about companies such as Paul Taylor is they usually have varied nightly programs during their seasons, especially anniversary seasons. It’s great for me because I can pick nights where it’s all-new to me or maybe it’s a piece that I have previously seen and loved, and its great for the company because they can get more people in seats every night. The dancing and choreography was fabulous as always, but it was also wonderful to see Paul Taylor onstage to take a well-deserved bow.

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Oh, I have a thing for Martha Graham’s choreography. Most of it is dark, serious and a little melancholy. Often melodramatic, which in these modern times can be perceived as absurd, and one time, uproarious. That one time occurred during a night I recently attended – the company performed the charming and silly Maple Leaf Rag. Also performed that night,Clytemnestra, with Katherine Crockett as the principal dancer. What I was most taken by was the Premiere of Echo by Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis featuring soloist PeiJu Chien-Pott, and new dancers Lloyd Mayor and Lorenzo Pagano. There were other dancers in this amazing piece as well and the choreography was gorgeous. But there is something otherworldly about PeiJu Chien-Pott. She is so fluid and her lines are extraordinary and breathtaking. Though, a newspaper that shall not be named whole-heartedly disagrees with me. Eye of the beholder…