Thursday, October 22, 2015

I-A-Go on Broadway

This year, for our daughter’s twelfth birthday, we planned ahead instead of waiting until the last minute and trying to find discount theater tickets.  Not that that method hasn’t ended up working out astonishingly well for us in the past.

The combination of her love of the source material and her appearing in the Junior version last spring led us to choose Aladdin for our destination on the great white way.

In the spirit of preparation, I repeatedly checked the timing of the Pope’s visit, confirming that he was leaving New York the day before our tickets for the show.  I also poured over maps of Hoboken, using the Path station, road names, and Subway I remembered from last year to make sure I knew exactly how to get to the parking garage we always use without one of my patented mishaps.

Then I panicked on the drive down that I’d go through the Lincoln Tunnel and stayed on Route 3 instead of getting on 495.  A quick pull over, accompanied by some subdued swearing, got the GPS up and running to guide us to our location via a slightly altered route.  The swearing decreased in subtlety a bit since the route was more urban residential than the highway I’d planned.  However, since I budgeted an hour for each of the three legs of the journey, which is triple the actual time for any of them when the fates are smiling, I remained mostly calm.

That is, until we had Washington Street in sight.  I immediately figured out that we were close to the Path station, and therefore directly across the bar lined road from the garage on Hudson Street.  I also immediately figured out that my preparation missed the crucial element that most of Washington Street was closed for a music and food festival.

Therefore we had to drive parallel to Washington Street through Hoboken festival traffic in the wrong direction, before we could cross it and get to the point on Hudson Street where we would have ended up if I didn’t screw up the 3 / 495 choice and then drive parallel to Washington Street through Hoboken festival traffic in the right direction.  Yes, the subtlety of the swearing was pretty much nonexistent by that point.

Normally we choose the last of the three garages on Hudson, but due to stress and worry, I pulled into the second after seeing the first was full.  It would take the end of the night to remind me why we like the third. We documented the address in order to use it for the GPS, instead of the Path station, the next time I make a stupid mistake heading for Hoboken.

To add to the already intense drama of the morning, Rosa slipped down the stairs into the Path Station.  Fortunately, Anabelle was now strong enough that she was able to keep her mother from flying down the entire flight, probably taking me out and getting hurt much worse in the process.  Unfortunately, Rosa’s already problematic shoulder twisted into a severe sprain, insuring the “sound of one hand clapping” for the show, and a confirmed shortening of her tap lessons.

I don’t refill a Metro card often enough to insure remembering the step by step instructions. In fact this was a rare year that the thing wasn’t expired. After a bit of looking around and profanity by my wife and I (obviously in that order) we figured out the cost of tickets, and that you have to hit “Start” on the stupid little screen before the stupid little card slot opens.

Anabelle was shaken by her Mom’s fall, and needed reminders to stay calm and try to look like she knew where she was going in Manhattan. This proved difficult as we ended up wandering around in a big circle looking for lunch. 
There was a slew of construction on the Broadway sidewalks, as well as a French festival taking up the entire pedestrian section below Times Square.  We remembered “Pronto’s Pizza” was the place we always ate, and that it was on a corner.  We also remembered “Bravo Pizza” wasn’t the place we ate, but it was nearby. 
However, we (meaning I) forgot Pronto’s was down on 36th, shortly after emerging from the Path Station. With the confusion of everything else going on there, we didn’t notice it was gone until we reached Times Square without seeing it.

Now hungry and confused, instead of walking the couple of blocks back down to Bravo, we crossed in front of the theater and looked around on Seventh Ave, figuring the comic book geeks at Forbidden Planet had to get pizza somewhere.  A quick check in a “Dollar a Slice” hole in the wall confirmed, “You get what you pay for.”  More accurately it confirmed, “You get what you pay for, with added dinginess if you don’t pay for enough.”

Since it was on a cross street back to Broadway, we worked our way down to Bravo after all and enjoyed excellent New York Pizza.  I’m sure we’ll forget it’s on 38th next time and zip on by it.

The New Amsterdam Theater is where we saw Mary Poppins a few years back.  It’s also right across from the Lyric Theater where the On the Town signs remained, even though the show criminally closed after only a year.    We’re very concentrated play attendees.

Similar to our last visit to this location, the combination of Disney and Broadway awesome enhanced each other.  Disney always controls its awesome well, as evidenced by there being no sign of a generic "Playbill" but rather a Disney specific "Showbill" handed out by the ushers.

Do they count as Cast Members too?  The store employees do. 

Anyhoo- The Cast Ushers were extra friendly and excited, bubbling about Anabelle’s Aladdin Jr. shirt, and my Iago shirt, that Rosa made.  Theater experience and craftsmanship are definitely ways to get in with this crowd.  When we purchased our Program (because it’s what you do) and souvenirs (because it’s what we do) the Cast Clerk gave Anabelle a bonus picture of the Genie in a VIP envelope when she found out it was her birthday (because Disney!)

I’ve learned from a small but growing amount of experience that there really aren’t any bad seats at a Broadway show.   We’ve seen shows from far back or high up in the balcony. Those provide a big picture perspective on how all the sets work together to create the desired effect, and how the movements of the cast as a whole gel together.

This time we sat way over to stage right, but in the third row.  Granted, whenever anyone strode upstage for the moment of declaration of desire in a song it felt like they were talking to someone behind us.  However, sitting that close allowed catching all the little subtleties of the performers’ movements and facial expressions, an occasional personal recognition in the form of a wink or nod from an actor as they danced by, and the ability to stand up and wave to the orchestra.

The show itself was as fantastic as one would expect a long running Alan Menken Disney play to be. The “wish” theming finally helped me to organize my thoughts on the differences between movies and plays.  I’ve said movies are all about emotions, but I had a hard time not saying the theater is the same thing.  There is a subtle difference; plays are much more ephemeral and immediate, since every live performance is, to some extent, different.  The theater is more about dreams, both the fantasy and desire kind. 


What the heck do I know? I’m an engineer.

I do always enjoy seeing how stories get adapted from one medium to another and this was no exception.  What I found most interesting was the use of material written and cut from the film that was brought back to make the tale more Broadwayish.

Or as the Genie himself sang in the closing reprise of “Arabian Nights,”

“It's the plot that you knew, with a small twist or two.
But, the changes we made were slight.

So salam worthy friend come back soon, that's the end!
'Til another Arabian Night.”

Simultaneously admitting they altered the cartoon a bit, and inviting everyone to come back.

The use of Stage Magic to replace the Cartoon Genie Magic worked perfectly for the genre. In our close up seats we could see the mechanics some of the tricks which was pretty cool.  Jafar’s final double quick change at center stage was mind blowing even at that distance.  I had to wonder if he’s ever been accidentally sucked under the stage with his wardrobe.

Speaking of Stage Magic, the coupling of the cool effect and the addition of other emotion filled slower paced songs meant “Whole New World” didn’t grind the fun of the narrative to a screeching halt like it does in the cartoon.

The Genie is the proper place to start with any look at this show. All the reviews and accolades given this performance focus on James Monroe Iglehart, and frankly, filled with tributes as they are, they don’t do him justice.  The man who may well set the new standard for, “Moves well for a big guy” owns the room every scene he’s in, musical or otherwise.

Most of his praise comes from non-stop verbal and physical motion, therefore the most surprising display of his abilities were in his quiet moments.

His expression of hopeful dreams of freedom and quiet disappointment of Aladdin betraying his promise were as authentic and riveting as any of his big production numbers.

I’ll be jumping back and forth between the show and stage door, but considering they had another show of this magnitude in only a couple of hours, it was amazing, and amazingly cool that almost all of the principals came out to meet us.  Nearly all expressed excitement over Anabelle’s Aladdin Jr. shirt, and my Iago shirt. (With the odd exception of Iago.)  They were equally impressed by a fancy Arabian Nights book a woman next to us was getting signed…and pretty much everything else. Theater people never seem to be low on enthusiasm, even after a three hour show.  Lucky them.

Mr. Iglehart’s on stage persona of being gregarious, open and highly animated extended to real life.  He stopped to chat with everyone, recorded video messages for sick and absent friends, and generally entertained the masses.

We didn’t get to see Adam Jacobs as the title character, but that worked out well for us.  Based on videos and images (which admittedly are the wrong way to judge a live show) Jacobs has all the qualities of a lead in a Broadway play.  However, Rodney Ingram seemed a much better match to us for the cartoon version of Aladdin.  I don’t know if it’s his general state of being, or because he was excited about his opportunity, but he possessed much more of an “enthusiastic to be wherever he is” quality that matched the animated film.

This extended outside where he overflowed with gratitude.  He also was the only one I heard repeatedly asking permission to sign objects directly handed to him.  Hyperactive, always smiling, and polite- sounds like Aladdin to me. 

Anabelle pointed out that she preferred his version of “Proud of Your Boy,” her favorite song from this story.  I’m not sure how that happened as it wasn’t in the film or the Junior version. Looks like I’m not the only one in the family watching the DVD extras.

Although after seeing the show, she hasn’t stopped singing, “These Palace Walls,” her new favorite, in weeks. Considering how big of an Aladdin fan she was on our last Disney trip, that speaks volumes for Jasmine’s talent.

The Showbill stated CourtneyReed was thrilled to be playing her favorite Disney Princess. I need to stand back in awe of this moment of “dreams really do come true,” brought to you by Disney.  Not only is she the lead in a Broadway show (which is a dream come true for someone in her profession by itself) but she’s doing it (and doing it spectacularly well, might I add) as a childhood favorite character.

That would be like if I grew up to play Baloo on Broadway…except hairier, and with less talent and I never wanted to be on the stage… 

OK, so it’s nothing at all like it, but it’s still wicked cool to see someone who gets to make a living doing what they love in that many ways at that level of proficiency.  

She was also gracious and warm coming out to meet the crowd, and particularly receptive to Anabelle and other little girls who she is now serving as a “dream target” for.  I love the way show people dress.  There’s something about the styles they wear to protect their makeup and costumes when they come out the stage door that makes it look like they stepped off a movie lot in the 1940’s – Cool.

Jafar was Jafar. I mean- Jonathan Freeman is the guy who voiced Jafar in the films.  This had a really strange effect because he didn’t physically resemble Jafar, so he just looked like a guy in a costume with a bad, fake beard.  Then he opened his mouth and, “Holy Crap It’s Jafar!”

Getting to physically ham up the villainous role allowed him to bring a whole extra visual dimension to it in addition to the voice.  He came out of the stage door, but had something to do preventing him from spending time with the crowd.  Therefore he simply walked off into Manhattan unbothered by the large gathering …because theater fans are respectful and awesome.

The other “recognized” actor was in the role of the Sultan, except I didn’t recognize him until he came out afterwards.

The typical, goofy cartoon dad of the movie was replaced with the typical aloof theatrical dad of the stage.  It caught me completely off guard when he let loose with a powerful yet smooth reprise of “Prince Ali” late in the second act.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if I recognized him as Clifton Davis while he was still on stage.  I remembered him from sit coms and variety show appearances when I was a kid.  I also remember thinking, “There’s no way I will ever be as cool as that guy.”

After watching him interact with the crowd outside, consisting of fans of his current and past career, I realized, “There’s still no way I will ever be as cool as that guy.”

He was excited about the play, but also about scoring a recurring role in a series. I know this because he was talking to, and complementing the abilities of, the couple next to us.   She was a newscaster and he told Mr. Davis he was, “in your line of work.”  I don’t watch the news, meaning I have no idea what channel she was on.  The guy looked familiar, but at that range it’s nearly impossible to discern my “trying to figure out who you are” stare from my “I’m a crazed maniac stalker” stare, preventing me from trying too hard.  I do know their son had some awesome Batman sneakers.

One of the largest changes from the animated feature was the removal of animal characters. Considering the success a couple of blocks away with The Lion King, not to mention living, singing furniture and dinner ware in the first Disney Broadway show - Beauty and the Beast
I’m not sure what drove that decision. 

A picture of an albino Abu got a cameo in “Prince Ali” as a white Persian monkey, but otherwise it was an all human club.

Aladdin’s and Jasmine’s sidekicks were replaced by Arabian Nights versions of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies.

The three guys in Aladdin’s gang were Kassim (Steel Burkhardt): the almost as cool and commanding as Aladdin guy (Kenickie), Omar (Jonathan Schwarz): the overly sensitive guy (Doody) and Babkak (Brian Gonzales): the wise cracking guy with a food obsession (Roger).

Jasmine’s Rajah replacement group were less individual and more of a generic female chorus (Tia Altinay, Khori Michelle Petinaud) designed to agree with her, because the whole point of her character is that she is self-assured and confident.  Although one of the three (Kathryn Allison) was larger voiced to pair up better with Babkak.  She also played the fortune teller to get the “Still I think he’s rather tasty” line in its proper place at proper decibels and proper attitude.

Aladdin’s journey was about learning to be honest and open with others. Like most men, he benefited from having extra locations of advice, even goofy ones.

In addition, the groups added more voices, which are always helpful in a musical. Plus the three guys’ eleventh hour number “High Adventure” was catchy, mighty and fun all at the same time.

Actually it might be a little early for an eleventh hour number, the Genie and Aladdin’s “Somebody’s Got your Back” may be that. Perhaps it’s a tenth hour number? One thing is certain; I have nowhere near the theatrical experience or knowledge to write a real review of a play.

I do, however, know from funny, which leads to the last animal replacement.

Iago switched from a psychotic yet highly entertaining parrot sidekick to a psychotic yet highly entertaining little guy sidekick.  I’m a huge fan of Gilbert Gottfried, meaning Don Darryl Rivera had some mighty big shoes to fill in my mind…if parrots wore shoes.

But never mind that now.

The point is- he did it and then some.  I had no idea a combination of Joe Besser, Peter Lorre and Sam Kinison would be physically possible, never mind flat out hysterical and worthy of Gilbert’s character.

He had the same enthusiastic, happy to be there aura that many stage actors possess when he joined us outside, as well proudly showing his support for his hometown football team on his hat.

I learned that team had another supporter I was unaware of - Queen Elsa from Frozen.  At least that’s what the huge Seahawk tattoo on her back led me to believe when we passed her heading uptown to the Disney store.

Two quick diversions about the theater before we leave:

1) Disney proved again that it knows how to move people better than anyone in the world.  At halftime intermission, I walked Anabelle to the line for the ladies’ room. It extended up two flights of stairs and crossed the lower level side lobby. As I crossed the back of the orchestra section to get to the mens’ room, I heard ushers telling people the rest rooms upstairs were only for those seated in the Mezzanine and Balcony.  As per usual, my line was tiny, but as not per usual, Anabelle exited shortly after I got back to her side of the theater.  By the time the “Act Two is starting soon” chimes rang, the line was almost non-existent.

Disney Magic!

2)  When we did our pre show rest stops, and handed the coats back and forth, my hat got lost in the shuffle. My hat makes a habit of getting lost in shuffles, but somehow retains a boomerang like quality.  I didn’t notice it was gone until the mid-show break detailed above.  As we headed out toward the stage door once the show ended, I ran to the table where we waited for each other in the corner behind the orchestra section.  My hat hid itself in the central pylon of that table throughout all the attendees’ use of it during the show and intermission, allowing me to find it right before leaving.

Hat Magic!

Queen Elsa wasn’t alone in Times Square. In fact there were several “creepy big head” versions of her and Anna along with the tattooed “face character” monarch.  Minions and Superheroes made a substantial showing as well.  Spidey wanted us to take a photo with him.

However, because he was:

A) Wearing sneakers and a fanny pack.
B) Shorter than Anabelle.
C) Saying, “Choo wanna picshuure?”

We didn’t.

I do not know the story behind Gangia Backward Suit Vader, nor do I wish to.

The reason we walked further uptown was to visit the Times Square Disney store.  The year before, we went there after a non-Disney play. Certainly we wouldn’t miss it this time.  The Cast Members there are New York versions of classic Disney Awesome. That meant they had the same levels of personal attentiveness and friendliness, but louder and faster.

The new race generic manikins were a bit creepy, but overall the store was still beautiful.  Having its second floor filled with Marvel and Star Wars didn’t hurt the overall appeal of the joint.  On our way back downstairs we noticed Imperial Standees that looked perfect for a, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” joke.  Taking a round trip on the escalators proved that it was a trick of the architecture, and they were normal, imposing sized.  Or possibly we were bushed and getting loopy.

Walking downtown to the Path station led to a couple stops in the French festival.  Anabelle got a wooden spoon with the name of a chef on it.  If this was an Italian festival, people would have been running in fear from wooden spoons. We tried some excellent, if tiny, cookies. Rosa attempted to buy a bag, and after working our way through the woman’s limited English, we learned something.  Much like previous unhealthy, if far more illegal, items that used to be sold all over Broadway in the unsafe Seventies, the first bag was free.

We also stopped by the Laughing Cow booth for some free cheese and pretzels that served as a snack to carry us through to dinner without reaching crazy hungry land.

I realized my research on who was visiting the city might have been lacking when we came upon a giant police presence around the Gotham Hall event center on 36th and 6th.  Being one of the majority of the population who are unaware that moniker started out as a nickname for New York, Rosa thought a Batman movie might be filming.  Asking a cameraman taught us that President Obama was in town to address the UN the next day and was giving a speech in an hour.  Rosa flatly stated she wouldn’t wait that long for the President, but would have if it was the Pope. I flatly stated I wouldn’t wait that long for anyone EXCEPT Batman.

We only had a short wait for the Path, and got back to Hoboken just in time for the festival to conclude.  There were several women in painted on leather outfits ahead of us on the way to the garage. I think I set the Hudson County record for saying “No” to one’s daughter based on events she had nothing to do with.

The  festival traffic reminded me why we always use the third garage. It exited onto a largely empty cross street that pointed us in the direction we needed to go. The second garage emptied onto the normally busy, and festival overloaded, Hudson Street pointing us in the wrong direction.  The morning’s panic long dispelled by the wonderful day, my memory of Hoboken returned and I easily navigated us back to Route 3.

From there it was on to our usual post show dinner On the Border for a Mexican repast finale following another fun filled Broadway adventure.

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