Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas in New York




We spent the holidays in New York, visiting with Rod's daughter (aka my adored stepdaughter). She's going through a rough patch right now, so I think our presence was especially welcome. The city, as always, was wonderful: Central Park still shimmered from the recent snow fall, and the stores glittered with lights. New York is fabulous year-round, but at Christmas it's just sensational.

Tuesday evening we ate with Megan at a Cuban restaurant in midtown called Victor's Cafe. It's been around forever and could easily double as the set for an episode of I Love Lucy. The food was nicely seasoned, but the lackluster service resulted in food arriving lukewarm to our table, a pet peeve (see previous posts). I wouldn't return.

Afterwards we saw Roundabout's new revival of Pal Joey at Studio 54. The production is very good indeed, with a terrific combo backing the singers and slick, professional staging; indeed, the scene changes were the best I've seen in a long time, due partly to the brilliant design of the set and partly to the professionalism of the stage hands. Fluid, seamless, and, best of all, quiet, the set magically transformed from a thirties nightclub to a Fifth Avenue penthouse.

Stockard Channing is well cast as Vera Simpson, the older society dame who falls hard for Joey. She doesn't have a great voice, but her rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" is perhaps the most poignant I've ever heard. In the tradition of great Broadway chanteuses, diction and emotion more than compensated for limited range. Martha Plimpton, playing the tough chorine Gladys Bumps, nearly walks away with the show and reminds everyone why she's a perennial favorite on Broadway these days. Jenny Fellner does a nice turn as the ingenue, and she has a crystalline soprano perfect for the role.

Excellent performances by the women are not enough, though: the role of Joey makes or breaks the show. Matthew Risch, who was thrust into the lead halfway through rehearsals, taking over from Christian Hoff, is a superb song and dance man. He has a great, old-fashioned voice, slightly redolent of Frank Sinatra, and like ole' blue eyes, he knows just how to hold a note that extra half-second to create interesting phrasing. Risch's polished performance, though, doesn't get at the heart of Joey--his demons or his sexuality. This is a man, after all, who manages to seduce an upright virgin and a knowing socialite. The book also makes evident his prior involvement with Gladys, the embittered, used up chorine. At least two of these characters are women who have been around the block; clearly, they should avoid Joey, who has "trouble" emblazoned on his forehead, but they fall anyway. The actor playing Joey needs to convey the heat, the danger, and the thrill that would encourage otherwise worldly women to throw caution to the wind. Alas, Risch just doesn't have "it."

Still, this is a show I recommend if you like (as I do) classic American musicals. The book has always been considered problematic, but the revisions do a good job of smoothing out some of the rough patches that dogged previous productions. And as much as I hate to admit it, Pal Joey reminded me why Broadway shows still have that polish one rarely finds in even very good Washington theatre. The difference shows more in the staging than the acting.

We spent Christmas Eve at the Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the former we saw a special exhibit on the horse, which is very good indeed (and soon to close); at the latter, we saw a show on love and art in Renaissance Italy, again quite good, and another exhibit showcasing acquisitions made by the outgoing curator, which was so-so. Truly I think the Met is one of the great museums in the world, if not the greatest. I never tire of going there. As for the Natural History Museum, it made me sad to see the shabby building and woefully outdated dioramas, with moth-eaten birds and other sad examples of taxidermy. Only the dinosaur wing has been recently updated; everything else looks old and neglected. I found myself wondering if the entire concept of a natural history museum might not be outmoded in our virtual world. Certainly, much of it needs to be overhauled. Interactive screens would help, as would interactive video.

I'm afraid we crashed on Christmas Eve, exhausted from the crowds and hours of walking. We watched Woody Allen's new movie, "Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona" in our hotel room, a low-key and pleasant end to a frenetic day.

Christmas day we celebrated with Megan and our friends Donna and Mike (who had carpooled with us from Annapolis) at Remi, a glorious Northern Italian restaurant in midtown. Megan had a superb lobster risotto; I had equally fine seared tuna. We ate, visited, and drank for hours, enjoying the leisure and the company. In the late afternoon, we wandered over to the half-price ticket booth off Times Square, hoping to nab tickets to Gypsy or one of the other shows playing on Christmas day, but half of New York had the same idea. The wait was upward of 90 minutes; dejected, we hiked over to the large (24 screen) cinema complex on 42nd Street with the intent of seeing Slum Dog Millionaire, but again crowds defeated us. Unbelievably, every show was sold out until 10.00 p.m. Vanquished, we ended our Christmas sojourn in the bar at the Hotel W, where I had my first ever lychee martini, a weird but surprisingly good drink.

1 comment:

vcarson1 said...

I see we frequent some of the same Manhattan restaurants. Sad to see the quality of Victor's service decline. It used to be one of my all-time favorites, and my last visit a year ago was disappointing as well (although the red-wine sangria and Bartolito appetizer were still wonderful).

Remi is spectacular - a beautiful restaurant with beautiful food and great wine. Last time I was there, it was restaurant week, and I got a fabulous meal for a great price. I highly recommend it.

Next time you go, head over to the East Side and try Zarela, on 2nd Ave. between 50th and 51st for some "haute" Mexican cuisine and delicious Margaritas.

Next time you are at the Metropolitan Museum, you might like to try my favorite apres-museum place: Payard Patisserie on Lexington near 73rd. Francois Payard's is the ultimate place an afternoon pastry break. The tasting menu in the dining room is also divine.