Monday, November 19, 2012

A Spoonful of New York

The eventual success of the previous year’s New York birthday adventure, and our daughter being ready for her first Broadway show convinced us to have another jaunt to the Big Apple for her fourth grade birthday.  We planned a trip to the Empire State Building followed by a Saturday matinee of Mary Poppins.

My wife had everything set up for a get up and go early departure, and I knew exactly where I needed to drive in Hoboken to park near the PATH station that would take us to Manhattan… 

Following a delayed late start and parking in, and then leaving, a pre-pay garage on the wrong side of town, (the less said about either the better) we got into the city around eleven AM to start the good part of the birthday.

Exiting the Manhattan Mall above the PATH station we walked the one long block west over to the Empire State building.  We had prepaid tickets, but didn’t bother with the extra cost for the prepaid “express” tickets.  Thanks to information from other family members, and the overstatement of crowds on-line for the previous year’s Statue of Liberty trip, we were only mildly concerned with the express ticket scalpers up the block from the entry doors who were yelling, “Skip the hour and a half wait!”

I remembered visiting the Empire State as a kid, shortly after it wasn’t the tallest building in the city any more.  Even though the observation deck was closed due to fog the day we went, I recalled the inside the building itself being very cool.  The feeling returned entering the impressive lobby, filled with art deco architecture and a giant plaque of the edifice we had entered.  It felt like walking into the 1940’s.  That’s pretty much where the feeling of entering a building ended.  Security is extremely tight and controlled now, making the rest of the visit feel like we were photograph taking cattle, guided from one point to another.

Across screening stations, down hallways, packed to the brim into elevators, and through the occasional gift shop, we were herded along on a fixed unchanging path.  The first elevator left us on a floor containing the elevators up to the observation decks which had an exhibit on the history, architecture and significance of the building. Unfortunately, we were also forced to experience this floor through Disney/bank line style velvet ropes, speeding us along to our next destination.  Some of the displays looked very cool, but aside from having the time to yell,
there isn’t much else I can report on them.

Once we got out on the observation deck, while cattle crowding conditions still prevailed, the overall impressiveness of the view took center stage.  My daughter talked continuously about how we could “jump down onto that building, then onto that building…” as ways for us to get across town quickly. 
So, an “A” for imagination, with a slightly lower grade for physics.

Being that high above so many famous landmarks can be pretty surreal.  There were multiple conversations overheard that started with:
“Madison Square Garden is over there…the round building,”
and going generally downhill from there.  I found it very weird to be looking down on the famous New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square.  

Once we’d made it all the way around the deck, we cattled our way down the elevator, through the hall of pictures of famous visitors and into the obligatory gift shop.  We picked up our obligatory magnet, and of course, our obligatory green screen picture.  Seriously, those things are at every possible attraction in New York now. I’m pretty sure I saw a photo purchase booth set up outside the Men’s room at Grand Central Station.

We crossed back over to Broadway, stopping for lunch on our way up to the theater district at Pronto’s Pizza, which I believe is where I’ve eaten before every play I’ve seen.  My daughter now understands what I mean by New York Pizza, and fully agreed that the stuff from the “New York Pizzeria” she ate in Colorado was mislabeled.  She also learned another important lesson, stated in her own words:
“New York Pizza is good, but also EXPENSIVE!”
After discovering that our three slices and a Diet Coke cost the same as New Jersey would charge for an entire pie...

And a Camaro.

In a break from tradition with our normal scheduling and planning, we made it to the theater with time to spare.  This allowed us to pick up our pre ordered program and settle in.  The program came with a five dollar souvenir coupon, coupled with a two for one deal that made both of the cheap trinkets we bought sell for ten bucks. This is why we purchased anything, as one little trinket for fifteen bucks wasn’t flying no matter how magical Mary Poppins was.

The grandeur of the theater was mind boggling, and a little bit sad.  The sadness came from comparing it to what passes for a “theater” in multiplexes today.  Even the ones with all the amenities and stadium seating are cookie cutter replications of all the other high end movie venues.  True old fashioned theaters have personalities, art and architecture all their own that enhance the experience well before the curtain rises.

The show was phenomenal fun for all of us. (Bonus points for Bert being the originator of the role in both London’s West End and Broadway.)  Mary Poppins is a Disney movie I’ve come to appreciate more as I’ve aged for two reasons.

1) Mary Poppins is basically the “anti Peter Pan.” Instead of encouraging kids to not grow up, she provides encouragement on how to grow up properly while still maintaining a sense of magic and fun.

2) Mr. Banks’ journey is an important one for all parents.  I think if you have children and aren’t concerned that you sometimes behave like Mr. Banks does at the start of the film, it probably means you behave like him all too often.

They made some very clever adaptations to transfer the famous film onto the legitimate stage. 

For starters, they added “Practically Perfect” and “Anything Can Happen if You Let It” as Mary Poppins’ signature solo songs.  Some of the movie’s songs were dropped entirely, while some that need to be there were altered in presentation.   Part of the reason for this was done to make the show’s music feel more Broadwayish. This was not needed in the plays based on the films from the Disney Animation Renaissance (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Lion King) because those had music written as if they were stage spectaculars already.   There were other important reasons for the changes in this one as well.

Walt’ Disney’s favorite “Feed the Birds” was made a duet.  Similarly, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Spoon Full of Sugar” became more group pieces than showcases for Mary Poppins.  Giving the star of the show new songs to truly leave her mark on was very important, because no matter how good of an actress they chose, and how great her vocal abilities were, she simply wouldn’t be Julie Andrews.

The story line got some tweaks. Both original and from the books, as well.  Some of them – exchanging living statues for the chalk drawn fair adventure – were done to accommodate the special effects’ differences between stage and screen.  Other items – Jane and Michael taking longer to learn the lessons being shown – were there to expand the story a bit to fit in the run time of a play.  There was one switch which tied in to the reasons I like this story to begin with though, the journey of Mr. and Mrs. Banks.

The movie has no real villain. In effect, it is Mr. Banks, and the near ruin of his own career is due to his own narrow focus. He becomes a better person through a last minute epiphany, and has his job saved because he killed the bank president in an entertaining manner.

The play deepens things up a bit, partially by throwing in an emotional story arc for Mrs. Banks as well, and also a real villain for a little bit, Mr. Banks’ old Nanny.  However the key differences are in Banks himself.  For one, it’s learned he had creative dreams in childhood that he left behind.  He worked his way back to the old dreams, more gradually than his change in the film, showing that the magic doesn’t have to be lost completely when one grows up.

Also the threat to his career came from the fact that he valued “a good man more than a good idea”.  And the vindication comes from that choice being the right one after all. The decision came following a question his kids ask when they are brought to visit him at the bank, making their appearance at his job the cause for his success, not his ruination.

I could probably keep going about deep psychological and personal growth ideas in this play until even I am bored to tears. However, I’m going to stop now, because the whole key point to the show is the wonderful fun it provides for all ages, and that’s all anyone really needs to know.

It isn’t a spoiler anymore to point out that Mary Poppins does fly, and it is a truly breathtaking moment when it happens.  However, there was another moment, with another character, during another production number that was just as breathtaking, and possibly even more fun.

That one, I won’t spoil, to allow future viewers to experience the same “Whoah!” factor that I did.

After the show we walked around the block to the very clearly marked and labeled stage door.  A couple of the players and dancers came out to sign autographs including the lead statue, followed by Mary Poppins herself.  Seeing her as a twenty something casually dressed blonde caused my mind to shift gears painfully, but my daughter took it in stride and was thrilled with her autograph and the others as well.

It was nice to see one of the actresses from the play, who came out solely for a rest and not to deal with fans, was given her privacy and distance by all the theater goers assembled out there. This was despite the fact that it was obvious who she was, and that she played a larger role than most of the others who were signing.  Gotta love politeness in New York!

We then walked up to Times Square for the full New York experience. Now that many of the streets are pedestrian only, this includes hordes of people in cheap character costumes. I think there are more Elmos than Starbucks in that area now, which is quite a feat anywhere, but particularly in Manhattan.  Some were OK, some were overly creepy, and watching Bumblebee (the Transformer) hit on Catwoman was severely odd…

At least I hope it was Catwoman, she was a vaguely ethnic woman in skin tight leather with a short whip and a bag that said, “tips” over her shoulder.  If those weren’t ears on her headband, maybe she was wearing a 42nd street throwback uniform.

No we don’t have any pictures. They charge for that, the fur on many of them looked far mangier than anything I’d care to touch, and somehow I doubt my wife would approve of any interaction with Catwoman’s tips.

There was also a guy leaning on a burrito trailer trying to get someone to play chess with him and bet on the game.  Gotta love New York intellectuals.

We thought about stopping in a Starbucks, but didn’t, and then immediately regretted it. Luckily – SURPRISE - there was another one a block and a half away (just past three Elmos).  My wife and I each got a small (or whatever the heck they call small) of the same drink.  I realize it would probably be easier and cheaper to get an extra-large (or whatever the heck they call extra-large) instead.  However, she likes the cold drink and I like the hot one. This means if we share, either I have to wait till her Frappuccino warms up to where she doesn’t like it, or she has to wait till my coffee cools down to where I don’t like it.  The two cup method is much safer in the long run.

My daughter wanted a “cake pop”, basically cake on a stick.  She asked me what flavors there were, and I wasn’t sure. Fortunately, Super Starbucks Shopper was on line ahead of us. She rattled off the whole menu in a blink, before getting her order from a team that not only knew her “usual”, but how she wanted it, what allergies she had, and what other branch locations usually screwed up her order.

There is such a thing as too much coffee, people.

Happy with our Manhattan (if generic) snack and beverages, we strolled back down to the PATH station, dodging the occasional Elmo, pausing briefly to look at shoes that resembled medieval torture devices,
and returned to New Jersey to pick up the car. 

Birthday dinner was in my daughter’s favorite Mexican restaurant, On the Border. (Discounting Colorado restaurants. A footnote that needs to be added after our latest Denver trip.)  The wait wasn’t too bad for a Saturday night, and we had a fun, tasty and festive meal topped off with an over the top (but not very Mexican) happy birthday song. 

The day was definitely a success as she’s decided she would much prefer to see a show and then have only a couple friends over for her birthday instead of big show offy style location shindig.

This means instead of my baby girl wanting me to shell out a pile of dough for a gang of kids to jump and scream around a collection of questionable inflatable objects or gymnastic equipment, I get to spend a Broadway adventure in Manhattan with her and my wife.

That’s my Spoonful of Sugar right there.

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