Thursday, May 18, 2017

No Holds Barred: Wow Factor

by Blair Sabol

I came to NYC in search of the “Wow Factor” — and I don’t mean the bling and ka-ching of Vegas or the soul searching “ah-ha’s” of India — I just wanted to be razzle-dazzled after months of cultural vulgarity and basic profanity.

Who better than New York City to deliver something spectacular — if I even remember what that is anymore.  After all, there were still telltale iron railings lining parts of 5th Ave. — “Trump Barriers” in case he arrived.  He did, but nowhere near Fifth Ave. And he left immediately.

A year ago my lawyer got two tickets to “Hello Dolly” starring Bette Midler (or just say “two tickets to Bette” — she gets top billing over the show title). The problem was — would I live that long to make it. I did and I went opening week! Everyone I know had seen this show within its first month — as if Midler wouldn’t make it past June. Some of my friends went to previews and though they loved the show, were concerned with Midler’s hoarse voice, breathlessness, and certain send-ups on lines (after all she is 72 and every other past Dolly was in her late 40s to late 50s ... Carol Channing was 46!). So the “early word” was that Midler was just “okay” and fun. No wows! 
My biggest concern was whether or not I would make it through the wrap-around-the-block lineup of “e-ticket” holders.  This is now a typical Broadway scene.  45th Street with three major shows colliding in a human snake line around the block.
The second problem (don’t mention it) is the lack of bathroom facilities in these tiny historic theaters.  Once you get to your seat — forget an intermission “pee-break” (another upstairs-to-downstairs line). I was fearful I would miss Act 2 of any show!  Some friends suggested I wear a diaper (that alone could be a fashion story).  Instead, an actor/friend suggested all bathroom visits should be done in any nearby hotel before you arrive at the box office.  Also, I stopped drinking fluids an hour before.  “Broadway bladder” is a much-discussed joke.

Ironically, at the Shubert Theater there were security guys who collected all plastic water bottles at the entry. Apparently, the bottles make too much “crackling” noise during the performance. 
The "scene" in Shubert Alley.
Like some older theatregoers, I was fortunate enough to see Carol Channing in the original production over 40 years ago.  She was breathtaking in her largesse and Amazonian approach to the role. Dolly for me will always be Channing!

I remember she came out to the audience and practically grabbed us and brought everyone into the show experience. She was a true force of nature. Also there was a large stage apron that seemed to have extended way out into the orchestra seats with lights all along the edge.  The actual orchestra was in a pit way behind this.  That was not the case for this “Bette” version. Midler’s was smaller and unlit (maybe because Bette herself is smaller). 
When Channing did her famous seesaw arm strut to “Hello Dolly” she was practically in our laps. The same was true of the giant red staircase entry into the Harmonia Gardens scene.  In Bette’s production the stairs seemed smaller and the costumes and scenery seemed more faded.  Maybe that’s what happens when you age — people and places look so much smaller on revisiting.

You can’t deny the contagiousness of Jerry Herman’s full throttle score. If Stephen Sondheim is the originator of pseudo-intellectual musicals, Herman is THE creator of traditional “Boffo” Broadway songs that actually “stay with” you for hours, if not years. The script and the high prance of Gower Champion’s original choreography make it a classic musical.
It seemed everyone in our audience sang along to every song.  I am sure most of them appeared in their own high school “Dolly” productions.  Plus, I have never sat in an audience that was more amped and excited in anticipation before the show started.  It felt electric!  This wasn’t a Rolling Stones concert — this was something else.  They even stood and applauded the overture! They clapped effusively when the red curtain went up. When Bette appeared in her first scene seated diminutively on the train/trolley I thought the entire theatre would explode.  What a crowd reaction — and why not?  Bette Midler is an adored New Yorker entertainer.  Lately she has become a major NYC philanthropist with her New York Restoration project and more than 20 other major charities.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Then you have the memories of her “Divine Miss M” and “Clams on a Half Shell” live shows and her movies — and on and on. Nostalgia rules here.  She is at THE prime of her life — having the time of her life in this show.  Midler can do no wrong.

The Shubert Theatre is intimate enough so you can see and feel her wonderful smile and graceful hand gestures and observe her famous skittering walk across the stage.  She even has that slight Sophie Tucker lilt in her voice that she made so famous. Bette isn’t Dolly (like Channing was); she is BETTE “playing Dolly.” And that is just fine.

What I noticed most was how small she appeared on stage.  Some scenes she almost disappeared — and unlike Channing who “came to” the audience, Bette doesn’t have to — the audience went screaming and clapping right to her ... in every song.
And she loved it, and loves performing it all. I would imagine that the thrill of that intense audience connection is what will get her through the lengthy run (to the end of the year?) I can’t imagine how she is doing 8 performances a week on that opening week “high.”  Everyone wants to know ... what drugs is she on?

So nostalgia is the name of the “Wow factor” here when we need it the most. Our memory of Bette and this amazing musical — when musicals were musicals.  But I must say the star of this show was the NYC theatregoers. They were like sports fans.  On their feet at every turn, and with her all the way.  I never felt a “room” more alive.  I loved looking at their amazed faces lite up the stage for her!
Everyone left the theatre more than satisfied (as they should, since some people paid from $185 to $1800 a ticket) and actually singing a tune! Who does that anymore (I actually iTuned the original cast album onto my iPod as soon as I got back to the hotel .... I needed to hear “Before the Parade Passes By” daily since it is the anthem to aging).

After the show, as I walked up the ecstatic aisle in the theatre, the talk was about who could replace Bette at the end of her run.  I loved the idea of Queen Latifah (after all, Pearl Bailey was considered one of the best “Dolly’s” who ever lived). Even Caitlyn Jenner was mentioned as a hoot! Huh? Can she sing? It remains to be seen who can follow Bette’s audience adoration.
So this was a real “Wow” explosion and theatregoers said to me they were happy and bouncy for the first time in months. And it lasted for a while.  Perhaps the only other woman that got New York theatre goers roused to their feet recently was Hillary Clinton — when she came down the aisle at the performance of “Color Purple” and “In Transit.”

One other aspect of Bette as Dolly is that this is a rare live appearance for her.  Unlike Barbra Streisand, who was appearing the same week at Brooklyn Barclay Center in her supposedly final “Goodbye Tour.”  How many Goodbye Streisand concerts can we handle?  And naturally, Hillary and Bill Clinton attended (no “wowees” there) her show.  Rumors have been circulated that Streisand would like to direct and appear as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” On stage?  Screen?  One wonders.

The great thing about Bette and The Shubert Theater is the intimacy of seeing her up close and personal and not in some huge stadium looking up at 5 giant projection screens.  Streisand is another tiny performer who you have to Love just to go see as she vanishes in these giant venues singing “oldies.”
What could I do to follow Bette’s Dolly?  I actually went to two more shows — I “binge watched” Broadway in two days!  I saw “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away.” These shows were terrific — no doubt Evan Hansen star Ben Platt will win a Tony and “Come From Away” will win Best Musical.  So the question of what comes after “Hamilton” has been answered.

The problem is I really didn’t see either as an upbeat “Spectacle” musical.  “Evan Hansen” is a drama with music about isolation and teenage suicide and social media.  My entire row at the end of the show dissolved into tears!  They were a group of parents of teenage suicide. Evan Hansen is not a day at the beach, but Platt is a showstopper and gives a memorable (not musical) gut wrenching “Wow” performance. 
“Come From Away” is a true story about an L.A. to New York flight being diverted to Newfoundland on 9/11.  The cast was outstanding and it is all sung (operatic) for 100 minutes (no bathroom break — wear a diaper).  There wasn’t a song I remembered and I didn’t come out bouncing but maybe hopeful. Also, the title is very hard to remember, I kept calling it “Come Fly, With Me.” It was hardly that.
“Come From Away” is celebrating their 300th performance in North America.
I have to mention the other unexpected “Wow” spectacle — it was during my brief “drive by” in Philadelphia at the NFL Draft — held on the “Rocky Steps” of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  They had the Real steps, and then the NFL fabricated a set of the same steps for all the new Draftees to run up and be inducted (their own “Hello Dolly” moment). I seem to remember the original NFL Drafts as being horribly boring experiences in giant hotel ballrooms.  Nobody cared, and nobody covered it. 
But this 2017 Draft was bigger than the Pope’s appearance on the same steps 2 years ago.  It seemed bigger than any Super Bowl “NFL Experience” event and 1000 fans got to actually go to the Draft free of charge.  NFL needed some positive PR of late, and they did it for 3 days.  Everyone seemed to have forgotten the players concussions, greedy NFL owners and Commissioner Goodell’s lack of sensitivity.  There was a true feeling of hope for the new players and team optimism in the thousands of fans who came.  It outdid the snarling traffic and the Museum’s dismay at having to change its hours.  Philadelphia reveled in a major celebration – and it was a big surprise.
As for a “Wowee” dining experience, I would have to say Majorelle, Charles Masson’s new reincarnation, is something truly unique. I am not a foodie, and frankly wouldn’t know if the menu was great.  But the theme is based on Yves St. Laurent’s’ Moroccan garden called Majorelle and the beauty of the room is exquisite — even the smell of the place is transporting. Masson is known for his magnificent flowers and décor at La Grenouille — but this is a more stunning jewel.  Huge cherry blossom pink trees in a lean, small room located off the lobby at the renovated Lowell Hotel.  All I remember are the gorgeous Fred Astaire waiters, the incredible table service and the Moroccan blue cut glassware.  My couscous was sensational and the desserts were complicatedly light. It was memorable in a city where dining is no longer an “experience,” but a scene. Naturally it is booked a month in advance, but worth the wait. 
Finally ... the last day of my quick trip highlighted the supposed spectacle of the season — the Met Gala — hosted by Anna Wintour.  The press coverage brought me down to the current cultural disgust. The pictures that were published during the event were horrendous.  The best description I read was from Taki Theodoracopulos the genius social commentator who writes for Quest magazine and Specator, and who knows from where he speaks:

Let’s start with the horror near the park: cranial atrophy, unrelenting grossness, overarched and overgrown eyebrows, posterior-baring bondage outfits, and de haut en bas attitudes were the order of the night.  Never has a museum site been more desecrated by a freak show, and the Met — maybe the best museum in the whole wide world — should be ashamed of itself.  A great institution such as the Met always needs funds, but allowing a freak show of publicity-starved clowns is not the answer.  Let’s take it from the top.
The Metropolitan Museum gala ball used to be a chic affair, where social-climbing millionaires could buy a table for the evening and invite their betters. Mrs. William Buckley was chairman and ran it as she ran her own house. With elegance and discretion.Twenty or so years ago, Anna Wintour took over, and it’s been downhill ever since. Sourpusses ruled the day. The unsmiling (except for the camera) crowd’s attitude is one and the same the world over:  how dare you; do you know who I am?  And they are an ugly bunch, these mega-celebrity types the la Wintour invites – Lady Gaga, Madonna, Maria Sharapova, the ubiquitous Kardashians, the horror of Kanye West in ripped jeans for a black-tie affair ... I could go on.

I used to attend the fashion gala regularly back in the good old days. The place was full of friends, with lotsa models and the odd actress thrown into the mix. It was a fun party until NY society collided with new money. Now even the new money hides when faced with celebrity trash.
He could go on, and does in his spectacular High Life column in the British Spectator.  He ends his column saying, The unrelenting grossness of the celebrity-fashion tribe is depressing as hell, but such are the joys of the modern world.

By the way, I hear Rei Kawakuba’s creations make the actual Met show intriguing.  Honestly though, the gala event turned me off of seeing that show. My loss.

But there is a park event that DID make a “Wow” spark in my heart held the same day as the Met Gala — “The Hat” Luncheon hosted by The Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy — The 35th annual Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon.  Honestly, I’ve never actually attended, but I love Central Park so much. Who doesn’t?  Everybody who visits New York is often “saved” by a run or a walk there, so I applaud this organization. 
But it is NYSD’s annual colorful coverage (and Bill Cunningham’s display in past years) that brings such happiness and incredible creativity to a simple charity event! All the women come and really “bring it” with their own hats and outfits. These ladies are not debased freaks. This is a beautiful giant spring observance for an unbelievable cause. And the coverage always reflects this high standard — “The Hats” always give me hope!  They all look so joyous and innovative and are totally invested in something other than money and fame and paparazzi.  It feels like “girls just wanna have fun.”  And I say good for them ... and good for us!

When I arrived home in Arizona fully charged from being a “spectacle seeker” in NYC, I was relieved to read about some hopeful signs of the future; Rupaul’s DragCon (huge drag debut convention in LA) got rave reviews. While the Kardashian Bravo TV shows have drastically dumped in the current ratings and Caitlyn Jenner’s new book “The Secrets of my Life” is a bust in sales!

There is a “Wow” God!