Category Archives: Tex and the City

Tex and the City: Spider-Man’s Tangled Web

Today on Tex and the City: Jon Paul wishes there was a little more magic up Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man sleeve.

UPDATE 1.14.10: The producers of Spider-Man announced a delayed opening until March 15, saying the creative team needed more time to perfect a new ending.  Unfortunately, a spokesperson said that Bono was NOT writing any additional songs—which is very much needed.

There were touches of brilliance lighting up yesterday’s preview performance of the much buzzed about Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark at Foxwoods Theatre.  The aerial sequences over the audience of the superhero vs. nemesis Green Goblin were exhilarating—and not just because we were worried about safety.  Julie Taymor’s comic book inspired mask creations for the first villains that Spider-Man fights and citizens he saves were thrilling.  George Tsypin’s scenic design with a moving Chrysler building and Brooklyn Bridge were captivating.  Unfortunately, none of those good deeds could overcome the battle with a tangled plot web and mediocre score to help Spider-Man rise to the heights.

Let me get a few things out of the way.  First, I adore Julie Taymor and think she’s one of the most visually arresting artists working today—I’m not one of those people anxious for her to fail.  Second, I appreciate that she is trying to take an enormous risk—both artistically and financially—to mount a different type of show on Broadway—I’m not one of those naysayers about spending $65 million.  Third, I don’t think my thoughts on the show are nearly as critical as an official review in the New York Times so I don’t think it’s too early to share my view—when I am given official status as a critic perhaps I’ll change my tune.  But let me encourage Broadway producers and veterans to embrace the new age of social media like other brands—see it as a way to interact with customers and understand their reactions, rather than rail against them.  Enough said.  So let’s get to it.

Overall, the show is a muddled mess, which didn’t seem to bother the legion of young fans packed into the audience who cheered Spider-Man at every turn.  But for me, I had hoped for something a little loftier.  Indeed, Julie Taymor’s book with Glen Berger is clearly striving for something more—opening Act I with a complicated back story of a female weaver named Arachne (T.V. Carpio taking over for Natalie Mendoza) who was turned into a spider by the jealous Greek God Athena—told to us by a quartet of hipsters who are evidently writing their own Spider-Man storyline we’re about to see.  If it sounds complicated, it is.  And slows things down tremendously.  We’re nearly three quarters of the way through the first half before Peter (Broadway newcomer Reeve Carney) is finally himself transformed—and then the show flies, literally with the clever song “Bouncing Off the Walls,” that captures Peter’s pent up frustrations and new powers, followed by the song “Rise Above” that gives us Spider-Man’s true crime fighting persona.  That song was the first whisper of a catchy anthem, but yet didn’t quite gel overshadowed by all the flying action.

Therein lies the second biggest problem with the show: the music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge.  If this is going to be a rock musical filled with teenage angst, it’s going to have to work a lot harder to convey those passionate feelings.  The music felt very one note—U2.  That’s fine for the male characters, but doesn’t at all suit Mary Jane, played by Jennifer Damiano, whom I loved in her Tony-nominated role in Next to Normal.  Mary Jane is always a tough character to pull off—she has to be captivating to Peter but also lack self-confidence.  Here, Taymor has given her an intriguing back story with an alcoholic and abusive father—glimpsed briefly in a quick cut scene reminiscent of reading a comic book—a terrific staging device which unfortunately never appears again.  Poor Mary Jane never really gets a star number.  A duet with Peter called “Picture This” about dreaming of a better future turns into an oddball quartet with the soon-to-be-villain Green Goblin (Patrick Page) and his wife.  Sure, we’re supposed to see that villains have their reasons, too—but at the expense of Mary Jane and Peter?  Thankfully, I’ve read that Bono is back from a brief tour and focusing on the music—including a new closing number, which this show desperately needs.

The plot becomes even more confusing in Act II when our hipsters transform into a Greek Chorus and begin interacting at times with Peter Parker.  Odd, and hard to follow.  But wait, there are six new villains to fight—some of them sprung from Taymor’s imagination including the Grace Jones dominatrix-inspired Swiss Miss! And Arachne returns—more important than ever before!  Wait, a weird plot twist, Spider-Man has to defeat all the villains for the second time!  Holy complications Batman, what’s going on?!

Before the show, Chef and I took bets on how many times they might have to halt the production for technical glitches.  I was optimistic with “none.”  Chef argued for “two.”  And when the flying sequences began we watched closely for any hard landings—I could see why there were some broken ankles.  All seemed relatively smooth until the final moments when just before the finale some type of web is supposed to rise up as a backdrop.  After a stage manager announced pause, the show went on without the web, which must have played a crucial role in the final scene—I’m guessing that Mary Jane was supposed to be tangled in it—otherwise I’m not sure why Peter was pantomiming action to something that didn’t exist.

But, oh those aerial sequences.  They are spectacular.  On the one hand, I wanted more of them—perhaps to keep my mind off the sticky quagmire of a plot.  On the other, I couldn’t help thinking—is that all I really what I want from a live performance—tricks?  For many in the audience, the tricks were more than enough—and hopefully a spectacle like this will bring even more attendees to Broadway.  Chef reminded me that a young kid seeing Spider-Man fly overhead for the first time probably would be hooked on the theatre for life.  I just hope that young kid learns to hunger for more—like at least one hummable song that can be performed on the Today Show and Macy’s Thanskgiving Day Parade.

I longed for a magically richer tale up Julie Taymor’s sleeve.  Here’s hoping that by the official opening on February 7th, she’s able to untangle Spider-Man’s complicated web.

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Tex and the City: Maudlin Maupin

Today on Tex and the City: Jon Paul checks in on gal pal Mary Ann Singleton in Armistead Maupin’s new Tales of the City novel.

In addition to Mary Tyler Moore, another triple named gal, Mary Ann Singleton, has eased me through some of life’s sharpest moments.  Driving in a U-Haul to Alphabet City nearly 15 years ago, I kept awake listening to my friend Martin read aloud the latest antics of the fallible heroine of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.  Indelibly inked in my imagination as the actress Laura Linney who played in her in the PBS mini-series, the girl is back in the 8th book in the collection, Mary Ann in Autumn.  The books have always been a cleverly composed and punchy commentary on pop-culture, vaguely hiding Maupin’s own worldview and life experiences, with hilariously constructed plots.  This one is no different—minus the hysteria.  There aren’t many laughs here.  As the title would suggest, Mary Ann’s light is dimming at the age of 57 which leaves her feeling a little blue, perhaps a reflection of Maupin’s own maudlin mood.

Laura Linney (center) as Mary Ann Singleton

A personal tragedy has lead Mary Ann to escape her New York life—where she fled in earlier episodes—to return to San Francisco to seek comfort from lovable characters she had left behind, including best gay friend Michael and the indomitable Mrs. Madrigal, played to TV perfection by Olympia Dukakis.  Like Mary Ann, Michael has aged and now has a much younger husband, giving Maupin the opportunity to explore monogamy in gay relationships, along with a titillating discussion of male vs. female sexual desires.  A supporting cast of characters includes the transgender Jake who provides a real insight into the psyche of gender identity issues that Maupin didn’t necessarily explore earlier with Mrs. Madrigal.

But really, the story here is all for Mary Ann, as one would expect from the book’s opening dedication to Laura Linney.  I couldn’t help  imagining that captivating actress reading some of the lines here—as if Maupin was channeling her current character on Showtime’s The Big C (a program I’m wildly ambivalent about).   Typical of Mary Ann’s sorry state of mind:

“It all goes so fast, she thought.  We dole out our lives in dinner parties and plane flights, and it’s over before we know it.  We lose everyone we love, if they don’t lose us first, and every single thing we do is intended to distract us from that reality.”

Maupin and his muse

Sounds like a Sondheim lyric if you ask me—and something Chef said to me on second date, sweet, right?  Only Laura Linney could give this thought a lift that would keep me from hitting the bottle to drown my sorrows.

Maupin has been a big influence in my own writing.  His clever integration of historical references and pop culture items will no doubt make the books an important cultural historical relic.  I took cues from Maupin in writing Alphabet City trying to capture the feel of a specific time period—the late ‘90s—with stories about early gay dating on the Internet—hearing the modem connect with static, for example.  A line that always earned laughs from gay boys when I was on book tour.  Here, Maupin hones his craft using Facebook as an important plot point.  Similarly, Mormons and their Prop 8 fight in California are crucial to the development of a few other characters.

Honestly, I was excited but nervous when I first learned that the next book in the Tales of the City series was forthcoming.  Similar feelings to a class reunion, I suppose.  While you might look forward to catching up with the people you remember liking—meet their new spouses and lovers—it’s always the signs of aging that are  worrisome.  Maybe it’s that you don’t want to see those reflections in yourself.  On the whole, I’m glad I attended (read) the Mary Ann in Autumn reunion.

It gets better at a gay pride event

But it didn’t perk me up.  Instead, it left me feeling, well, maudlin.  And if that’s how Maupin is feeling, then by all means, the next time I see him, I want to give him a hug.  Because after autumn, it gets a little worse in winter, but then there’s spring.  As the phrase of the moment says, it gets better.

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Tex and the City: Living a Neiman Marcus Fortnight Life

Today on Tex and the City: Jon Paul realizes the influence luxury retailer Neiman Marcus has had on his world view, and Big Apple life.  Tips on Dosa Garden restaurant, NYC Christmas lights, and Batali’s Eataly.

Poster for the first Neiman Marcus Fortnight, 1957

Growing up in the shopping Mecca of Dallas, I looked forward to early November with the same nervous anticipation that most kids reserve for Christmas morning.  The reason was simple—Neiman Marcus’ Fortnight.  For two splendid weeks, the luxury retailer transformed their downtown flagship store into a celebration of an exotic country with special displays, food, costumes, wares.  Forget Santa’s lap, Sophia Loren was supposedly making an appearance for the 1975 Italian Fortnight.  What little gay kid could resist that?

It’s hard to understate the importance of the annual event to Dallas.  The concept of Fortnight was created in 1957 by the retailer’s mastermind founder Stanley Marcus as a way to combat the lagging pre-Christmas sales.  That first year’s celebration of France landed in the pages of Time magazine detailing visits by Coco Chanel, and the landing of Dallas’ first international flight at Love Field—an Air France jet filled with Gallic dignitaries and press.

Over the years, I begged my mothers and sisters to take me multiple times to the downtown palace of wonders as I ate and shopped and gawked my way through countries like Japan, Brazil, Greece, Germany, Spain.  It’s no wonder as a travel writer I often pre-judge destinations based upon a Fortnight reference point.  In my mind, Ireland always seemed uninteresting to me based upon a flat 1976 Fortnight, but a quick trip as an adult to bustling Dublin corrected that notion.  In 1986, the retailer hosted the final extravaganza—Australia, probably the beginnings of my Down Under love affair that has ended up indelibly inked on my arm.

Perhaps moving to New York City helped ease the sadness over the passing of Fortnight.  After all, living in the Big Apple means there’s a different ethnic fortnight around each corner.  This weekend, Chef popped my Staten Island Ferry cherry by escorting me to a neighborhood in the one borough I hadn’t visited in 14 years.  Our destination?  Little Sri Lanka.  The Dosa Garden restaurant had recently been written up in the New York Times, and its Southern Indian food delivered on a large scale.  Literally.  The tasty rice-lentil crepe like dosa spilled over the cafeteria-style tray.  Besides the delicious dal doughnuts dipped in spicy sauces, the standout for me was ennai katherikai, a baby eggplant pan-fried cooked in a tamarind and chili infused sauce that cleared my sinuses.

potato filling in the enormous dosa helped balance the spicy dipping sauce

the addictive doughnuts

On our walk back to the ferry terminal, within a block we had left Southern India and passed quickly into Little Mexico.  Chef’s eyes brightened at the number of South of the Border markets selling some of his favorite delicacies.  I watched and smiled as he picked out some Mexican sweet bread known as conchas, and an addictive white Oaxacan cheese.  I realized my life is turning out to be one big authentic international fortnight.

Yes, you can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t take Neimans out of the girl.

Tex and the City Top of the Week Tips:

New York City may not have the organized glamour of Neiman Marcus’ fortnight, but for building that holiday shopping spirit and centralized international experience here are my Top of the Week Tips:

  • Lord & Taylor unveils their Christmas windows Monday evening at 5:30pm with a performance by Kristin Chenoweth (Frida’s voice if she were an animated character).  I’ve always had a soft spot for Lord & Taylor, mostly because in Dallas they were located in Northpark Mall right across from the Magic Pan restaurant.  Oh how I miss watching the crepe pans travel around a conveyor belt.
  • Eataly, Mario Batali’s shopping homage to all-things Italian, feels like a Fortnight done by a more mid-range retailer like Dillard’s.  While it’s not my favorite because of the crowds, vegetarians are raving about its no-reservation restaurant Le Verdure, which as the name might suggest, serves only vegetables.

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Tex and the City: Lambs Flop

Today on Tex and the City: JP’s meal at The Lambs Club is saved by a very tan designer.  Guest star: Michael Kors.

The Lambs Club Broadway-like set

It was an over zealously gingerized take on a traditional Pims Cup that was the most memorable part of last night’s meal at The Lambs Club, Geoffrey Zakarian’s buzzy 44th street eatery plopped down at the back of the Chatwal Hotel.  Well, that, and the fact that Michael Kors’ over zealously tanned skin looked right at home in the back banquette.  Speaking of, anyone notice how the “CFDA lifetime achievement award” designer and our soon-to-be new Speaker of the House share the same skin tone?  Oops, sorry about that.  I got distracted.  Which might be the perfect word to describe everything about The Lambs Club.

Arriving early for my reservation, the host seemed distracted—uninterested—in offering to check my coat, or suggest I have a drink at the bar while waiting for my party to arrive.  Because I had spoken to others who dined here, I knew the main bar is up some weird staircase to the 2nd floor—completely disconnected from the rest of the restaurant.  But I prodded, and he revealed, indeed I could go up the stairs.  As if it’s some secret wonderland.  Hardly.  The most interesting thing about the upstairs is the light fixtures sort of made to look like a faux Chrysler-Empire State building.  On first glance, they seem cute, but on closer inspection they look like the kind of thing you might find at an upscale tourist vendor around the corner.

In fact, the entire restaurant and bar design felt like a set of a Broadway show from just down the street—everything’s a little too loud and showy—like the red banquettes and red glowing lights.  The perfect thing to distract you from the just okay food.

only one of the "clams"

Granted, I knew going in this wasn’t going to be one of the best meals of my life.  Both The New York Times’ Sam Sifton and New York Magazine’s Adam Platt gave it reasonably good reviews for basically what it is—a hotel restaurant headed by a well-regarded Chef.  So I ordered up the items they raved about—Heritage Pork Ravioli and the Chatham Cod Cheeks.  Both of them were much less interesting than any review led me to believe.  The broccoli rabe paired with the over salted ravioli was cooked into mush.  The cod was dry and included only one clam despite the menu’s pronouncement of “clams” plural.  I’m a sucker for a citrus dessert, and the Deep Dish Lemon Meringue Tart didn’t disappoint.  Although it came flying out of the kitchen within seconds of ordering—odd since everything else took forever at the table.  Perhaps that meringue hadn’t been torched to order? Maybe it’s the curse of mediocre reviews—what’s the point in trying too hard if no one coming in is expecting too much?  Just when I started to feel bad about subjecting my out-of-town companions to less than stellar meal, in walked the faux sunkissed Michael Kors and his entourage.  We all perked up, and began discussing our feelings that Mondo had been robbed on Project Runway.  We were thankful for the distraction.

Tex and the City Bottom Line: Because it was easy to score a reservation on OpenTable, The Lambs Club is a perfectly acceptable spot for pre/post theater.  Just hope there’s some tanned eye candy to distract from the less than stellar main course.

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Tex and the City: Pass the Valium

Today on Tex and the City: Jon Paul needs a valium to recover from the mess of Broadway’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

At times on Saturday night, I felt like the ladies of Broadway’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown were warming up for the New York Marathon.  What with all the choreographed pacing back and forth and up and down the non-stop moving set.  Unfortunately, no amount of movement could breathe authentic energy into this show.  It’s like their coach, er director Bartlett Sher, was too worried about distracting gadgets like colorful projections and flying set pieces, and lost site of the fundamentals like character development and interaction.  Granted, it’s never easy to adapt a beloved classic, but I was on the edge of my seat wondering what in the world Pedro Almodóvar thought of the mess this production had made of his lovably funny and tender film.  Like the women on stage, I needed a valium to stay calm—and get by.

The problem starts from the opening scene setting number “Madrid” which is supposed to paint a picture of an exciting capital city in 1987 undergoing rapid changes after a decade of democracy.  Much of the audience is probably unfamiliar with the history and pulse of Madrid—and this number certainly doesn’t rectify that.  The city conjured up here feels dull and lifeless.  It’s not like it’s impossible to create an electrifying opening number about an unfamiliar Latino ‘hood—think the first pulsating moments of In the Heights.

What happens next is a weird back-to-back montage of musical numbers with almost no character interaction.  One of the things that made the movie so heart warming was the relationships—good and bad—amongst the women.  We get none of that here.  Which is tragic since the talent assembled here is near legendary Broadway proportions.

Sherie Rene Scott in one, fleeting captivating moment

Sherie Rene Scott, who normally dazzles, seems like she’s in an entirely different production from the rest.  As Pepa, the centerpiece, she plays the whole thing straight, and sad, yet not pathetic enough for us to think she’s funny or even interesting.  Patti LuPone—I mean, hello, if there’s anyone that could nail the crazy diva of Lucia it would be this icon—but she’s not given anything to work with in either the book or the score.  Both of her big numbers have no real ending so the audience couldn’t even applaud.  What?!

Laura Benanti dazzles

The only bright spot—and she shone, thank god—is adorable Laura Benanti.  She lit up the stage and overcame all the overplayed set pieces around her when she pranced about.  I turned to Chef and uttered, “Thank god she’s here.”  Her turn as Candela, the model who has fallen for a terrorist, is the only one that comes close to nailing the comic nature of the original film role, and yet made it all her own.  Her big number “Model Behavior” brought down the house—I think we were all relieved that at least someone was worth watching.  When she left the stage, I nearly had a breakdown.

For the most part, this is a musical that relies on a mixed bag of special effects tricks to keep us from noticing the lack of character development or story.  Not to say that some of the tricks don’t work.  Some of them are splendid.  When Pepa and her recently ex-lover Ivan (played by an oddly smarmy not sexy Brian Stokes Mitchell) dub a love song into a re-enacted movie projected onscreen, it’s truly stunning and heartbreaking.  And then my heart breaks that the trick never shows up again—it’s the only time that an effect merged with character and storytelling device.  Nope, once a trick is finished—we move swiftly onto the next one.  Like a real onstage burning bed (an iconic image from the movie) which made everyone around me nervous that it was a mistake.  Not to mention that it completely upstaged poor Sheri Rene Scott having to sing some unforgettable song next to it.  Unforgettable, except that’s the one song that kept being reprised.  And it’s not nearly interesting enough for that.

I could go on and on about a million other quibbles.  How the taxi—another centerpiece from the movie—comes off as campy and sad.  How many throw away one-liners are included at the expense of real character development.  How the accents seem to come and go at will and are all over the map—some seem Cuban while others seem Argentine.  The only consistency is when anyone says “gazpacho” with a slight lisp.  It’s the one thing delivered over and over again with just the right blend of humor and zest.

Believe me, I wanted so much to love and embrace this show.  It had so much talent going for it, which made it even more nerve wracking to watch it go so wrong.  Someone pass me a little blue pill.

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Tex and the City: Lela & BA Café

Today on Alphabet City: When a friend’s mom visits NYC, Tex and the City helps out with a visit to the BA Café.  Guest star: MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts.

Susan, JP, Shannon, Thomas, Marc

When my mother from Texas makes the trek to the Big Apple, I’m always in a panic about how to fill her dance card.  Too much two-stepping together time can get us into trouble, which means that I’m always pressing into service others around me to relieve some of the burden.  So I immediately RSVP’d yes when my friend Sam—the graphic design whiz responsible for the cover of Alphabet City and also an art director at Bon Appétit magazine—sent out an invite to a little get together with his mom visiting from Iowa.  The request had me intrigued on multiple levels:

  • His mother’s name “Lela” is the same as my very fancy next door neighbor growing up—the one whose husband at their annual Christmas party put out an automatically opening and closing mirrored treasure chest that displayed an expensive piece of jewelry he gave to his wife that year.  Classy.
  • Lela was coming with her friend Gayle—as Sam said, “that’s right, just like Oprah!”  Maybe a trip to Australia was in my future.
  • It was all going down at the BA Café—a pop-up dining spot in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall next to the NY Fashion Week tents.

Even though I think Lincoln Center is a bit of a cold mess, when I do visit I am warmed remembering All My Children’s Erica Kane prancing about the fountain in the ‘70s shooting a fashion portfolio.  Next to Mary Tyler Moore, that scene is one of the reasons I moved to NYC.  So how great that the BA Café has a view of that esplanade, as well as the fashion tents across the way.  Who needs a ticket inside for the runway when you can watch the free parade of fashionistas and Euro tourists from a banquette while sipping a Terrazas Malbec?  Even better, you can do all that and snack on Daniel Boulud’s terrines or Mario Batali’s cheese plate?  During the day, the BA Café serves a fuller menu of breakfast and lunch items—today’s the last day, though.

Sam standing, Lela on his left, Gayle on his right

Lela and Gayle were, of course, a delight—dishing on how a certain actress was fumbling lines in the matinee of A Little Night Music.  But who cares?  Gayle and Bernadette share a hairdresser it turns out—they both went to the same spot when Bernadette was traveling through the Midwest!

My friend Marc, who works at ABC News down the street, arrived with the impossibly handsome news anchor Thomas Roberts in-tow.  Now, Alphabet City readers might recognize Marc as the guy who brought Graham Norton to one of my East Village soirees, having been hoodwinked into believing from the invite that my apartment was actually the site of an underground nightclub.  Well, this time I had nothing to do with the fact that Marc thought the BA Café might be behind-the-scenes of one of the fashion tents.

The two got over their slight disappointment quickly and settled in with the crowd.  I gave Thomas some tips on his next day interview with ice skater Johnny Weir—I suggested he inquire about the truth behind the mysterious break-up with best friend Paris (don’t ask, I admit to watching his show on Sundance).  Thomas countered by showing us a picture he took of his Middle Eastern cab driver’s name—and I am NOT making this up—Ram Amandeep.

Even Lela and Gayle laughed at that one.

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Tex and the City: East Side Girls

Today on Alphabet City: Thanks to Frida, Jon Paul celebrates Chef’s 40th Birthday on the Upper East Side.

Schlepping to the East Side

New York City may be the crossroads of the world—practically every ethnicity is represented in the metropolis—but many of Gotham’s residents never venture outside their comfort zone.  For the most part, my days are spent navigating the sidewalks between where I live—the spicy rhythms of Washington Heights—and where I work—the sexy pecs of Chelsea.  But Chef enjoys breaking out of that bubble, especially when food is involved.  He complains I don’t take him to Astoria enough for Greek delicacies, or any number of stops in Jackson Heights.

With Chef’s 40th birthday barreling down the tracks, I figured it was time to break out of our routine, and see what it was like in one of New York’s most storied neighborhoods—the Upper East Side.   Granted, Chef has a glimpse inside this world thanks to his work in the kitchens of some well-to-do-families in this tony ‘hood.  But I thought I’d treat him to something that didn’t require him to walk through a door marked “Service Entrance.”

A few weeks ago, the lovely folks at Loews Hotels reached out to me—well, to Frida, let’s be honest—with an offer to escape the heat of the city by enjoying a “Dog Days of Summer Package” at the Loews Regency Hotel.  From my first days in the Big Apple, I have enjoyed special moments at that property—Angela and I dined often with an important client at the hotel’s famous Power Breakfasts where I was introduced to some of New York’s important players.  Later, they opened an intimate cabaret Feinstein’s at the Regency, and I was lucky enough to interview/drool over its namesake Michael Feinstein.

Looking a little "ruff" at check-in

With the temperature nearing 100 degrees and our poor A/C working overtime, the hotel didn’t have to offer twice.  And despite Chef’s insistence that we do nothing big for his birthday after a fiesta in Mexico, a plan took shape for a mini-break.

When you’re on a budget, it’s not easy to get to the lower Upper East Side from the upper, upper West Side of Manhattan.  So we must have looked like quite a site stepping into the Loews Regency on Sunday, sticky and wet from a late afternoon thunderstorm that soaked us as we dragged our bags and dog across Central Park from the 59th Street subway stop.  But like a caring Aunt welcoming us to her grand apartment, the staff at the Regency didn’t bat an eye, and instead rolled out the red carpet for Frida, including a special gift bag from the cast of Cats and Dogs staying in the hotel.  Frida wagged her tail and added an extra kick in her step as she ran down the hallway to our room.  We’ve raised a spoiled little girl who loves a hotel—much like her Papa.  Once inside, she surveyed the other doggie goodies—special bowls, charms for her collar—demanded one of the Loews supplied treats, then jumped into bed for a well-deserved nap.  Meanwhile, Chef popped open the champagne and started in on the chocolate covered strawberries—this was life on the Upper East, indeed.

For dinner, I chose The Mark Restaurant by Jean Georges, mostly because Sam Sifton’s New York Times review suggested it was a great neighborhood addition, so I thought we’d see the natives in action.  As we walked up Madison Ave towards the hotel, we marveled at how empty the streets were—not a soul in sight.  I wasn’t sure what to make of the crowd at The Mark as we sipped a cocktail before dinner.  Every woman seemed to either be in a black cocktail dress or a dangerously short swimsuit cover-up, and every one was texting and shouting at each other simultaneously.  The conversation at the table next to us:

“Jessica, you look terrific.”

“Right?  Look at my back.  You can see my spine.  Mother thinks I should go to an eating disorder clinic.”

“You should.  I hear they’re a great getaway.”

I’m just going to leave it at that, no comment needed, right?

Through a sleek wine tunnel, the dining room is a world away from the crassness of the bar.  Bathed in shades of red and beige with beautiful lighting, everything looks so elegant and comfortable.  We had read up on the menu before our arrival, and weren’t disappointed by our choices of a Warm Shrimp and Avocado Salad in Champagne Dressing, Black Truffle Pizza, Linguini and Clams.  The “simply” prepared Veal Chop was nicely done but served with a foamy sauce with a fiery kick  that the waiter couldn’t explain.  And therein was the problem.  Although the food was just about up to Jean Georges expectations, the service was not.  An amuse bouche was placed in front of us that no one explained—a particular annoyance to me.  What if I’m allergic to what’s in it?  After flagging down the waiter, he called it a “Lime Gazpacho,” with no explanation.  After we tasted it, he came back to tell us it was a “Honeydew Gazpacho,” which made more sense.  But really?  The sommelier pointed to the most expensive selection on the half-bottle list not offering any alternatives until Chef suggested we needed a few more reasonable choices.  The waiter stumbled through the dessert tray needing a reminder for the word for “kiwi.”  And although they were told of Chef’s birthday, there was no special item or thank-you or best wishes.  All in all, the food scored highly, but unless I’m in the neighborhood, I’m not rushing back.

The next morning, we took advantage of our Upper East Side adopted address for a morning trip to the Guggenheim for Haunted—an exploration of artists have explored memory and thoughts through the use of photography and performance art.  It was an intriguing and thoughtful, if not exactly uplifting, beginning to celebrating Chef’s actual birthday.  Afterwards, we managed to rouse Frida from her lazy slumber in the Loews Regency and convince her our time on the East Side was drawing to an end.  She pranced her way back through the lobby and into Central Park where we paused for a special picnic.

One of Chef’s favorite pastimes is experiencing Central Park and he keeps count every year of how many times I take him there.  Once again, we must have looked like silly tourists as we dragged a rolling bag through gravel and shouted at Frida to keep up.  Once we took up a spot in the Great Lawn, we all relaxed.  And like a teenager who has spent too much time with her parents, Frida laid down as far away from her Papas as she could.  With the skyline of New York as a backdrop, we talked about dreams and goals and what more we wanted to accomplish.  We marveled that 10 years ago, Chef was despondent at turning 30, never believing he’d find true love.  And that less than a month later, an Internet chat changed all that.

Over the years together, life has taken twists and turns, been up and down, and we’ve celebrated Chef’s birthday in fancy restaurants like Alain Ducasse, at concerts by Madonna, in exotic locales like the hills of Portugal, and closer gay getaways like Provincetown and Fire Island.  But at the end of the day, what really matters, is not that we’re traveling the world or staying close to home, but that we’re together.

Happy birthday, Chef.  You’re truly my passport to love.

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Tex and the City: Fresh Meat

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s new Aussie friend turns the talk show table on him; a special Tex and the City.

When I first moved to Manhattan, folks told me that you may start calling yourself a “true New Yorker” only after living here 10 years.  It was always said with such conviction that I never questioned it.  As a newbie, I just assumed it was a given fact that everyone understood.  I imagined that upon my 10th Anniversary there might be some ceremony in Tompkins Square Park where the local homeless guy/artiste awarded me a special accomplishment badge from the Girl Scouts (now Foursquare).  That’s when I would have enough Big Apple experience under my belt to share common ground with my fellow citizens.  But recently, I’m not so sure I buy the decade argument after all.

Any time I meet a recent immigrant come to set-up shop near the Great White Way, I’m reminded that it’s that energy, enthusiasm and passion for this city that makes it buzz with excitement.  It’s that shared sense of awe for all that is possible in New York that bonds us.

Last night’s New York fresh meat was Jono from Australia, whom I e-met through our dear mutual friend Katie.  He moved here to open Hyatt’s new property Andaz on 5th Avenue, and since I have an instant crush on anyone with an accent from Down Under (I have the Sydney Opera House tattooed on my arm, after all), it wasn’t a hard sell to arrange for get-to-know-you drinks.

you've never seen Manhattan quite like this, unless you live in NJ

The rooftop bar at Kimpton’s new ink48 property on 11th Avenue and 48th street was the perfect place to exchange observations on Manhattan.  Sometimes, I worry about spots overlooking the Hudson River because once the sun sets, you’re stuck looking at, well, New Jersey.  But ink48’s locale, a tad bit off the beaten path, gives it a spectacular new perspective on the city—the bar looks back fondly with unobstructed views over the Midtown Manhattan skyline.  Unless you own an apartment on the West Side highway, you probably haven’t seen this view.  There’s indoor and outdoor seating, and floor-to-ceiling windows letting you take it all in.  Just know the hotel strictly controls the number allowed up to the 16th floor, but you can always wait in the groovy lobby lounge.

Poor Jono, when I meet someone new, I have a habit of behaving as if I have my own talk show.  I think at first he was a little overwhelmed by the amount of questions I peppered him with about life in New York and at the hotel.

“Has your family come to visit?” is one of my favorite questions, the answer revealing a multitude of sins—everything from how the subject gets along with their parents to what they showcase to visiting relatives.

And then quickly the tables turned.

“What do you love about New York?  What keeps you passionate about this city?” Jono asked.

I sat looking at him awed at his ability to take the upper hand in my interview.  Like a terrible guest, I was silent, stumped.  But like a good host, Jono vamped to fill in the gaps.

“You either love New York or you hate it.  And if you hate it, you get out.  For people who have stayed, like you, there must be a passion for it.  What’s yours?”

I smiled.  As a caring and helpful host, he had given me a wide opening to plug my book.

“Well, Jono, as I wrote in Alphabet City, New York is a place where anyone can move and follow a dream.  You can leave your baggage behind, and with ambition and talent, you can reinvent yourself.”

He nodded in agreement.  I smiled pleased to have hit my message point, and remembered one more.

“I like to think there’s a little bit of Mary Tyler Moore in all adopted New Yorkers.”

With that, we raised a glass to MTM, and toasted all the opportunities in the Big Apple.  And I decided that it’s not the amount of time you spend in New York that determines if you can call it home, it’s your attitude that earns you that right.

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Tex and the City: Love, Jackson Style

Viewer Programming Note: enjoy the “branded” debut of a new spin-off series ‘Tex and the City’—JP’s cultural reviews.

Today on Alphabet City: Tex and the City discovers his writing roots thanks to a maniac onstage at the Public Theatre.

Perfectly descriptive prose from an 11 year-old

Last Friday, I fell in love all over again with a man some are calling the American Hitler.  I first became infatuated with him when I was 11, while visiting his Tennessee home.  In fact, he could possibly be responsible for my eventual career as a travel writer—I recently unearthed a detailed diary of the trip to The Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson, 7th President of these United States.

Describing his estate as “real pretty” and clearly impressed because “I got postcards of it,” I was obviously more struck by a town down the road of Gatlinburg that “had at least 15 hotels (underlined 6 times) & 10 (underlined 7 times) putt-putt golf courses.”  With observations like that, my writing path was clear.

But nothing on that trip prepared me for the explosion on stage at the Public Theater’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, now extended through May 30.  If anyone can make you swoon for a homicidal maniac, it’s Benjamin Walker who swaggers onstage like sex on a stick.  Boy was I hooked.  Walker’s mix of hunky attitude balanced every so often by boyish defeat is a winning combination that makes you root for Jackson.  Even though what you are rooting for is, ultimately, decimation of the Native Americans.  The play’s meditation on Jackson’s charm as channeled by Walker is a wonderful reminder that populism has deeper roots—and often disasterous consequences—for America than just the latest incarnation of the Tea Party or our current sometimes popular/ist Obama.

Maria Elena Ramirez is outstanding as Jackson’s bigamist wife Rachel, the only real female role in the President’s entourage.  Ramirez has a star turn in her duet with Walker where they lather blood on each other, an homage to the belief in the health benefits of bleeding.  It’s probably more gruesomely captivating than anything the Adams Family is serving up.  But I thought Ramirez deserved a better “second act” number to show off her talents, and give the show some more female power—how about a song of betrayal for Jackson’s decision to run for President after his first time was stolen from him by a dirty electoral scheme?  It sounds like the 2000 election for good reason—history in America tends to repeat itself.  It’s the citizens that forget.

As the fey Van Buren, Lucas Near-Vergrugghe (how’s that for a mouthful) nearly steals the show in a completely silent scene of Jackson’s censure after illegally removing Indians and Spaniards from Florida.  Lucas’ facial expressions, antics, and clever ability to simultaneously eat and not eat a twinkie, are like watching a classic Second City Improv sketch—I didn’t want it to end.

Packed into a small space, Donyale Werle does wonders with the scenic design.  The entire theater is transformed into a New Orleans-style bordello.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the tiny stage has a few tricks in store—recreating a famous tableau of the Indians’ trail of tears.  Danny Mefford’s choreography keeps things pumping along with modern moves straight from a Justin Timberlake concert.

Some might be bothered with writer/director Alex Timbers playing a little fast and loose with some historical facts, and a decidedly un-PC bent.  But hell, not me.  Shooting a wheel-chair bound narrator?  That’s genius.  Besides, I like that all the bad guys—Calhoun, Adams—are just jealous queens.  They’d fit right in at Fire Islands’ Pines.

Travel words to live by

This electricity charged brand of entertainment is just what theater—and history—needs to excite a new generation.  After all, not everyone can get their start as a pre-teen travel writer like me.

My early hotel review should have left no doubt of my future, “We stayed at the Holiday Inn 5 min. before checking in at the Hyatt.  Lesson: Don’t judge a hotel by how tired you are! Or You can’t judge a hotel by the lobby exept (sp) if the hotel has plastic flowers.”  Now come on, those are words to live by.

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Tex and the City: La Cage—Aces & Deuces

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul returns to review La Cage Aux Folles and gets flustered running into a legend.  Guest Star: Harvey Fierstein.

For the last two weeks at the gym, I have been training for an important moment that happened this past Sunday.  If you saw my intensity and enthusiasm running on the treadmill at New York Sports Club, you would have been impressed, and irritated by my occasional shouting of lyrics.  You see, my iPod has been cranking out the original Broadway cast recording of La Cage aux Folles.  That’s how big a queen fan of the show I am.

In Texas in the late ‘80s, I marveled at two touring productions starring Hollywood Square’s Peter Marshall (better than you imagine, and better than Robert Goulet in the ’04 revival).  As an out teenager on the precipice of gay adulthood, just learning to be comfortable with my sexuality, I will never forget my reaction at the end of the opening number “We Are What We Are.”  The seemingly all-female impersonator chorus, known as Les Cagelles, sing,

Look under our frocks, girdles and jocks, proving we are what we are.

A combination of the sheer over-the-top production values, tap dancing and clever lyrics worked me into a frenzy.  And then Les Cagelles strip off their wigs, and for the first time I found out the group was indeed a mix of real and pretend women.  And I gasped out loud.  Gasping at campy gay stage theatrics had become a trademark of mine since I was nine, and my mother took me to see a Vegas-style review at the State Fair Music Hall that began when a gigantic neon sign lit the stage with the star’s name—Ann-Margret.  Wow.

My original audition for Les Cagelles

My love runs deep for this campy show about a long time gay couple, Georges, the owner of a Saint-Tropez nightclub, and his partner and star drag queen Albin who face a slew of obstacles when their son Jean-Michel announces his marriage the daughter of a conservative politician.  It’s about love and family and being true to yourself.  And I vowed that when I was 60 and retired and returned to my community theatre roots, I would play Albin just so I could sing the lyrics from the show-stopping closing Act I number “I Am What I Am”

I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck sometimes the aces sometimes the deuces
It’s one life and there’s no return and no deposit
One life so it’s time to open up your closet
Life’s not worth a dam till you can shout out
I am what I am

Talk about a life anthem.  Thanks Gloria Gaynor.

Before Sunday evening’s performance at the Longacre Theatre, my nervous anticipation was comically heightened by running into Harvey Fierstein at a park bench across the street.  Although he may not know it specifically, Harvey helped me come out as teen as the author of Torch Song Trilogy and later the book of La Cage.  I adore him like a crazy, lovable uncle, although I become a complete noodle in his presence—always unable to muster any sort of courage to speak with him.  And I couldn’t decide if it was a good sign or not that he was there to see the show—could it be in trouble and they wanted Doc Harvey’s prognosis?

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