New York City remains one of the great mysteries of our nation: too expensive, too noisy, too crowded, too everything.
Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli have both sung the city's praises, assuring us that anyone who can ''make it there, can make it anywhere.'' That is often true, and yet the giant city has worn many a person out and torn many a spirit apart.
There was a time when I bent every effort to go to New York three or four times per year, in order to feel I had at least some connection to what was happening in the arts. Yet, skyrocketing prices and miserable travel conditions which seem to get worse, day by day, have caused me to retreat considerably from that pace.
Actor Adam Danheisser and the cast of the Broadway show “Rock of Ages” enact a plot in which a nightclub which has launched many careers for rock singers is threatened by shady businessmen.
So, when a recent wedding in the family of a close friend beckoned me to make the effort once again, I found myself once more, walking the streets and riding the subways. There is still a lot of glamour and a siren's song in the old metropolis, yet.
I used to have a very special place in my heart for air travel. In a car, a bus, or a train, one seemed to drag the ''here and now'' along on any trip. In a plane, one left one reality and persona behind and found oneself in new ones.
If the wicked people of September 11 have succeeded in one thing, it has been in making American air travel unpleasant, expensive, and often embarrassing.
I love travel by rail, but my past several trips by train have been badly damaged by people who used a cell phone to persecute everyone around them, along with the person to whom they were directing their words. (No, Miss, I don't care what you drank, nor how many times you threw up.)
I have never enjoyed driving, and the cost of parking a car in Manhattan can often be more than the cost of renting a motel room in a normal locale. But the need to get around to rehearsal dinner and wedding and reception, etc. in suburban Long Island where buses and taxis don't help enough, cried out for a car, and I headed off across our beautiful state, finding gas prices stunning, though usually not as high as around home.
More and more hotels and motels which are near airports and train stations are finding their parking lots to be a larger attraction for paying customers than health clubs or swimming pools.
In return for spending two nights in a Long Island motel, near the various wedding sites, I found I could leave my car without additional charge, walk across their parking lot, and board the Long Island Railroad for a relatively pleasant trip to the center of Manhattan at Penn Station. I was even able to pack work clothes for helping our daughter with some chores on my way to the city, mountain climbing togs for spending a day with a college buddy in Vermont, formal clothes for the wedding, the leave them all in the trunk and don city clothes for the city, without any comments about the amount of luggage or the weight of my bags. This is not to mention luggage charges, which are contributing to the unpleasant nature of air travel.
I am to some degree sympathetic with the costs of the city. The majority of New York destinations are on a relatively small island. Unlike a city such as Toronto, which can spread out in three directions, New York is compelled to either grow up into the air, or down into the earth beneath them.
One of the good features of planning travel with computers is that there are numerous sites at which you can find out the cost of staying at various hotels and motels, compare their locations to each other, and make reservations which have always turned out to be dependable in my experience.
This trip, for example, I decided to accept a location south of Penn Station, which wasn't near the subway and required a lot of time swaying on cross town buses, in return for saving more than $50 per night, and getting a larger room with it.
If you are comfortable in travelling around in the city, you can save a lot of money by seeking out locations which aren't as close by where you might be going. One thing which New York has mastered is relatively convenient and well marked public transportation. I wish we came closer to that goal.
The city is very hot, in the summer, and people who live in the city do their best to get out to places which are cooler and have more greenery and open space. Most new shows in the city open in the autumn, and run through the colder months, and many close in the late spring. Mostly what stays open during summer in the city are the big tourist trap blockbusters.
While those can be fun, virtually all of them can be seen on tour in places such as Shea's Performing Arts Center, in Buffalo, and touring productions come closer in quality and size to the original productions, all the time. They're usually less expensive, too.
Also, actors have relatively normal lives off stage. Like any of us, they need time to do their grocery shopping, do their laundry, and tasks of a conventional nature. Virtually all contracts in the performing arts provide for one day off per week. Until recently, it was common that nearly every show in New York used one of two schedules: Either they were open Monday evening through Saturday evening, and the cast and crew got Sundays off, or else they were open Tuesday evening through Sunday matinee, and the cast and crew got Sunday evening and all day Monday off.
No one would be surprised to learn that actors and technical staffs preferred the second schedule. A day and a half off is better than a single day, and business offices are open on Mondays, where one can deal with the gas bill or get their teeth cleaned, while Sunday finds most services closed.
Sadly, try as I might, it was summer, and I only had two nights to spend in New York, one of which was a Monday.
If you're planning a visit to New York, and you want to attend public performances, try to avoid Sunday evenings and Mondays, especially during the summer.
Still, the city had 73 productions open, while I was there, and a few of them were playing on Monday, so I got to spend my days living with the visual arts, in a way not possible any other place except possibly Paris, and my evenings in theaters. Let me tell you about what I saw.
ROCK OF AGES
I always encourage readers to experiment with things which don't normally attract them, and Monday in New York gave me that opportunity for myself.
One of the shows which was performing was ''Rock of Ages,'' a juke box musical celebrating glam metal rock hits from the 1980s. It struck me as something which might be just the different point of view which I needed.
A juke box musical is one which puts together a number of songs which are already successful and well known, and cobbles a plot which at least remotely makes them appropriate. Probably the best of these shows is ''Mamma Mia,'' which uses the songs of the Swedish quartet ABBA.
''Rock of Ages'' has a plot which is so obvious that within the first few minutes, you can guess everything which is going to happen and the ending, almost for certain. Still, you get to hear hits by Styx,Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, and many others, and you get to see attractive people who sing on pitch and who actually know how to dance, performing live in the same room with you.
The book is by Chris D'Arienzo. You might already know that a feature film of the show has been announced by Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema. It has already started filming, with a cast which includes Russell Brand, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Mary J. Blige, Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
It's release has been announced for late spring of 2012.
The live cast wasn't nearly as famous as the film makers. The only name I recognized was Mitchell Jarvis, whose current claim to fame is that he plays the super cool Keith Stone in television ads for a popular brand of beer.
Except that the performance was entirely - no surprise - too loud for human endurance, it was a light hearted and most enjoyable evening.
The plot is set on the Sunset Strip, in Los Angeles, in a small club called The Bourbon Room. Owner Dennis Dupree has become something of a legend among rock lovers, for the large number of top name rockers who got their start at his legendary club.
Our hero is a busboy at the club, named Drew Boley. Drew dreams of hitting it big as a singer/composer of rock songs, but he needs that big break. Into the club comes an attractive young blonde woman with one of those cement head hairdos made famous by Fox News anchorwomen.
Her name is Sherrie Christian and she's just off the bus from Kansas, ready to become the next big movie star. Drew talks Dennis into hiring her as a waitress, but their relationship is awkward and they keep coming off as friends, to both of their dissatisfaction.
Eventually Drew is discovered and gets to open for an established band named Arsenal, headed by major name Stacee Jax. Soon Drew is being wooed by major recording labels, while Sherrie falls for Stacee, who enjoys her company once, then demands that she be fired and tossed out of the club. She ends up dancing in a strip joint, operated by a wise but hard-bitten lady who calls herself Justice.
While all this is going on, a German developer has decided to ''clean up'' the strip by putting apartment complexes where rock and roll clubs are now located. He and his mousy son, Franz try to bring down the Bourbon Room, while activist Regina and her sign waving crowd, does their best to save it. After all, they built that city on rock and... Oh, you get it.
It's a show which certainly won't stress your intellect, but it's entertaining, and if you like the music of the 80s, you get to hear it done and done well.
HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES
New York was once a site where experienced and educated audiences made a habit of attending theater which stimulated their minds and set them talking, during intermissions and after the play ended, with the people around them about the realities of life.
Right now, theater tickets are so expensive that most of the theaters are filled with big, expensive musical shows, which cost more than $100 per ticket. Few people can afford to attend them regularly, so the seats are packed with tourists who are only in the city for a few days, and who are prepared to shell out much more money than they would normally spend in their home towns, so they can go to their friends - or text message them, right during the performance - and tell them about the blockbuster hits they saw in their three or four days in the big city.
That's why I decided to spend my Tuesday in New York at one of the rare serious plays. For one thing, it was in sharp contrast to my first show.
In this case, it was the revival of one I've seen once before. Its survival in the brutal New York City theater scene was made possible by the presence of a number of well known actors.
''The House of Blue Leaves'' by John Guare, takes place mostly in a small apartment in the borough of Queens, in the autumn of 1965, on the day when Pope Paul VI made his famous visit to the city, celebrating mass in Yankee Stadium.
Artie Shaughnessy is a man in his mid-40s. He earns his living as a zoo keeper at the Bronx Zoo, but he dreams of making it big as a singer and songwriter. Unlike Drew in ''Rock of Ages,'' Artie composes ''good old tunes.'' His favorite is a number called ''Who Put the Devil in Evelyn?'' He has another song which he thinks is even better, but everyone who hears it tells him that the song has already been written by Irving Berlin, so he won't get anywhere with it.
Artie has been married for decades to a schizophrenic woman who is afraid of almost everyone and everything. Her name is Bananas. Artie has found a girlfriend to do the things Bananas can no longer do, but she is shrill and vacuous. Even her name proclaims her absurdity - it's Bunny Flingus. Somewhere inside, Artie knows that his marriage is a failure, his musical career isn't going to happen, and his girlfriend is not a trophy, but he clings to the idea that if he works hard enough and sells himself to the right people, he can make it happen.
Because the windows of their living room look directly onto the street down which the Pope will be passing on his way to Yankee Stadium, the Shaughnessies receive a number of visitors on the day when the play takes place. A trio of aggressive and somewhat zany nuns force their way into the apartment, to get a better look at the boss.
A famous blonde movie star who is the girlfriend of one of Artie's childhood friends who has made it big in Hollywood and whose career has kept Artie's hopes alive for himself, despite all the signs to the contrary, arrives. The friend has told her that the Shaughnessies will offer a refuge where the press wouldn't think of looking, if the fans get too persistent.
Artie's son, Ronnie, who has joined the army and is about to be sent to Vietnam, has decided to plant a bomb and win his own fame by killing the Pontiff.
Obviously, this is an exaggerated and often very funny look at the American value system. Artie feels entitled to be the self-made man, even if he lacks the raw materials to make the man he wants to make himself into.
Ben Stiller had the leading role of Artie. His family has become well connected with the play, as Stiller's mother, Anne Meara, played one of the nuns in the original production in 1971. Stiller himself played the bomb making son in the 1986 revival, and now he has the lead.
His performance of Artie as beaten down and bursting with frustration was perfect, but I never felt the hope and spirit which buoyed him back up for the next contest. He got the dark side of the character as well as I've seen it done, but on the light side, he fell well below John Mahoney, better known as Frasier Crane's father in the television series, who played the role when I first saw it.
Actress Edie Falco, best known for acting in ''The Sopranos'' and ''Nurse Jackie'' was wonderful as Bananas. Her Tony-winning portrayal made us care for this lost woman, yet understand that she was lost and was not going to be found.
Jennifer Jason Leigh had fun with the grating Bunny, but settled for being comic relief and didn't really interject herself into the central plot. Other familiar names, including Mary Beth Hurt and Allison Pill, were also in the cast.
This play is art, far more than it is entertainment. It's funny in many places, but things happen - as they do in real life - which may mean several different things, and which leave the observer pondering what they could and should mean. That's what makes it better than just a giggle and on with the same. If it takes star power to put art on Broadway, then three cheers for star power. And, thanks to the stars.
Buffalo's Subversive Theatre Company will present a production of the play ''Marat/Sade,'' from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, with performances Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. Rehearsals will begin in August.
If you would like to audition for the cast, you may e-mail email@example.com, for an appointment. Most auditions will be heard tomorrow, between noon and 4 p.m. You should prepare two short monologues, or be prepared to read from scripts of the actual play. If you cannot attend tomorrow, some special appointments will be made for other dates.
The play concerns the production of a play within a mental institution by the famous Marquis De Sade, dealing with the murdered French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Cast members may be asked to sing, dance, or act outside the box of normal activities.
Visit the company's web site at www.subversivetheatre.org.
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The Station Dinner Theater, in Erie, will be performing ''Elvis Presley: All the King's Women'' through July 23, featuring the popular music of the 1950s and 60s.
Tickets include a full dinner, as well as the show. Beverages and gratuities are additional. Cost is $29 for the general public and $25 for senior citizens and students. The full schedule and show description are available at the company's web site, www.canterburyfeast.com. Phone them at (866) 848-2022, toll free.
July 12 through Sept. 14, the company will perform the comic play ''Rounding Third,'' about a Little League coach who is willing to do anything to win and an assistant coach who thinks everyone is there to get exercise and have some fun. Again, dinner comes with the play.
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Friday, from noon to 1 p.m., Squeaky Wheel, the Buffalo organization created to encourage and instruct filmmakers, will present a showing of short films created at their previous outdoor animation festivals. The showing will be at the Buffalo and Erie County Library, at 1 Lafayette Square in downtown Buffalo.
Phone for additional information at 884-7172.