Going bi (coastal)

2 weeks, 2 cities, 2 coasts! Part 1 of our U.S. winter east-to-west tour: NYC

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BERN THE FLOOR | Bernadette Peters returns to B’way for more Sondheim in the smash revival of ‘Follies.’ (Photo courtesy Joan Marcus)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

What’s it like to, in one week, clock time on both major coasts in America’s two largest cities? For New York in winter, it’s all about theater; in Hollywood, it’s about the movies (and the weather, a welcome break from the cold). And both have great places to eat.
First up: NYC. This time of year, the wind bites through you there, so a trip has to be based on the theater season, which is at its midpoint. Some of the hits have become apparent and new ones promise something great in the spring.

Follies isn’t the not-to-miss Sondheim experience that A Little Night Music was last year — at least after Bernadette Peters took over for Catherine Zeta-Jones — but it is all Bernadette, without replacement — though she shares the limelight with Jan Maxwell, who almost steals the show. Seldom staged because of its huge cast, elaborate costumes and sets, Follies is a nostalgic take on the fate of musical theater as viewed from 40 years ago; little has changed.

But it also crystallized Sondheim’s peculiar thematic preoccupation with nostalgia. See it, and you instantly realize how many of his shows are about the wistful, bittersweet resignation from looking back on one’s youth: In Follies, the younger selves of the ageing chorus girls; in Sweeney Todd, a life lost to a corrupt judge; the rekindling of a long-dead romance in Night Music; the simplicity (or not?) of the fairy tale world of Into the Woods. This production is a wonderful reminder of that and much more, beautifully performed by an exceptional cast.

Follies closes this weekend; not so Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which officially opened last week. The quintessential American opera, set along Charleston’s Catfish Row, it evokes rural life through the sound of the spiritual mixed with honkytonk abandon. This new production, with the incomparable Audra McDonald in the lead and Dallas’ own Cedric Neal among the company, was the only show every employee at the TKTS booth unconditionally recommended … and for good reason. Get up and see it.

Both of those shows are revivals; original musicals are in short supply this season — at least those with any staying power. Bonnie & Clyde and the Dallas-bred Lysistrata Jones died quickly (the latter despite a rave in the New York Times; still, look for Liz Mikel a possible Tony nominee in May). Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark continues to draw crowds in amounts equal to the contempt held by the theater community, but it has been around since 2010 thanks to a record-setting six months of previews.

The big new musicals of the season have yet to open: Rebecca, Once, Newsies, Ghost and the pastiche Nice Work if You Can Get It (more Gershwin). So go up now for some plays, which are significantly less expensive to see and good seats are more readily available.

Another revival, Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, isn’t totally successful, although its tight second act — featuring a tremendously devilish performance by Jim Dale as a sleazy preacher in South Africa trying to trick an old lady into giving up her house — nearly vindicates the logy first act, which prattled on endlessly and without seeming point. By the end, though, you realize the message of faith versus religion versus spirituality, plus you get to see a classic theater actor, Rosemary Harris, onstage right next door to Spider-Man (she played Aunt Mae in the film versions — how’s that for coincidence?).

The best new plays now running should be on any theatergoer’s list. Seminar is Theresa Rebeck’s smart, fast-paced comedy about a pompous but oh-so-perceptive writing teacher instructing four aspiring novelists about how bad they really are … and how they could be great. As the sardonic anti-hero, the magnificent Alan Rickman commands the stage. At a climactic point, he delivers a monologue that could have seemed trite and mawkish, except that Rebeck’s writing is so strong and he’s such an accomplished actor it works wonderfully. Hamish Linklater provides a terrific foil, and Lily Rabe, as a tart upper-class dilettante, handles Sam Gold’s bullet direction masterfully. No one even pauses for the laughs. That’s a good way to get audiences back  — so they can hear the jokes they missed this first time.

David Henry Hwang returns to Broadway with his best play since the gender-bending M. Butterfly. Chinglish(which closes Jan. 29) pits a plainspoken Midwesterner against the opaque business customs and complex social rules of China, but the point is broader. The problem of communication is not just between two cultures, but between men and women, and business-folk trying to gain an edge. Intelligently plotted and sharply directed by Leigh Silverman (the use of supertitles projected on the dazzlingly versatile set is inspired), it benefits from a memorable performance by Jennifer Lim as a canny Chinese functionary.

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GRADE A | Public, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Nolita, offers great food in a high school themed setting. (Photo courtesy Public)

Of course, a theater trip to New York necessarily includes more than theater: You have to eat while you’re there, and the tradition of the pre- and post-theater meal is as honored as the show itself. It’s easy to get stuck along the stand-bys around Times Square (I always stop by John’s Pizzeria), but two newish restaurants — one far uptown, one far down — make for inventive off-the-beaten-path dining experiences.

Public, a Michelin-starred resto in Nolita, boasts something few Midtown restaurants can: space. Inspired by a public high school: Its dining rooms are lined with card catalogues, its security-glass doored bathrooms so authentic you expect to get a swirly, its menus presented on clipboards in a style that calls an exam paper (for a minute, I worried the waiter would grade me on how well I ordered). If it were all gimmick and no follow-through, these conceits would probably seem annoyingly twee, but they take a backseat to the food.

Its fusion dining from chef Brad Farmerie, with diverse dishes like roasted foie gras on a buttered brioche that’s richly flavorful, both fruity and salty; the scallops, while not fully caramelized, were so well-dressed with a miso salsa as to make you forgive that. For entrees, the Chatham cod’s fleshy, moist but well-charred preparation is not to miss, nor are the medallions of rare venison on a chewy blue cheese mash evocative of gnocchi. Add a great wine list, and Public is the perfect out-of-the-way find that makes a New York trip fun.

Red Rooster from celebrichef Marcus Samuelsson is out of the way in a different direction. Born in Africa but adopted by Swedes, Samuelsson gained fame at Aquavit, which made Scandinavian food hip. Now, he’s embraced the food of the African-American community.

He dropped Red Rooster, which opened about a year ago, in the middle of Harlem at the famed intersection of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street (the Apollo Theater is around the corner), giving neighbors, savvy downtowners and adventurous out-of-towners a polished (if slightly pricey) take on down-home cooking.

Samuelsson offers up droll reinventions of soul food classic like must-have “yard bird” (that’s just chicken — $24) fried in a crisp batter that has hints of cinnamon, perched on a bed of cheesy mashed potatoes and with a spicy-spicy house sauce that could bring out the secret flavors in a rice cake.

His Helga’s meatballs ($24) are equally delish, a kind of strange take on Thanksgiving with a lingonberry relish and paper-thin but crunchy housemade pickles, served alongside dill potatoes. It’s remarkable, how this comfort food warms you even though you’d never had it before. Hint: Start your meal with a side of mini tacos and tostadas ($9), four bite-sized bits of ceviche that are the perfect way to whet your appetite.

The bar is exceptional both in appearance (a bulbous horseshoe, topped in shiny copper) and substance — a drink menu worth repeated visits. Try the flight of craft beers ($9), or the Brownstoner ($12), a dazzling modification of the Manhattan. There’s even live music some evenings, giving you the true Harlem experience without having to brave a pub-and-club crawl in the frigid cold.

You don’t have to worry about the cold in Los Angeles … which will be the upcoming part 2.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 20, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Teenage wasteland

P.R. FLEX | Disenfranchised Puerto Ricans Anita (Michelle Aravena) and Bernardo (German Santiago) burn the floor in a re-imagined revival of ‘West Side Story.’ (Photo courtesy Joan Marcus)

Hormonal youth meet fatal consequences in ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Awakening’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

There aren’t many musicals that are about things. Andrew Lloyd Webber, with his bombastic shows concerning felines and toy trains, may have lowered the bar, but the “serious” musical has always been an uphill battle. Even a show like Hairspray, which touches on racism, is more concerned with a punchy ‘60s-pop sound than social change.

Two musicals that break the mold are West Side Story and Spring Awakening. There’s very little hope in either one. But the message of teenagers crazed by hormones, and the tragedy that results, have made them classics, even coming 50 years apart. Seldom has the reality of adolescence been more acutely wrought.

The new production of West Side, at the State Fair courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals, was re-imagined by the show’s original writer, Arthur Laurents, with the addition of Spanish dialogue and lyrics (from Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the Puerto Rican street gang the Sharks, as well as a timely design: Although a product of the ‘50s — especially evident in Leonard Bernstein’s still-relevant jazz score and dialogue resplendent with daddios talk of hoodlums — this version could just as easily take place today. The Jets, usually so easy to mock for their balletic street fighting, are by-and-large beefier here, more threatening. They may plie like Nureyev, but you sense they’d beat the living crap out of you for making fun of ‘em.

This West Side also has something sorely lacking in almost every prior production: A Tony with true sex appeal. You believe the spark between him (Ross Lekites) and Maria (Evy Ortiz, whose soprano is astonishing) as they Romeo-and-Juliet it on the balc… er, fire escape. Young love onstage usually seems hokey; here, it feels primal.

There’s power in this doomed romance, from the haunting, bloody finales of both Act 1 and 2 to the near rape of Anita (Michelle Aravena) that elevates it — not just to the realm of tragedy, but to the scope of a true American opera.

At least, that’s the sensibility conveyed by this production, the best yet in DSM’s 2011 season. West Side Story hasn’t felt so fresh in ages, abounding with energy (although some of the dancers aren’t in perfect step) and a new air of sexual ambiguity (especially with tomboy Jet wannabe Anybodys and some gang members that seem a little too chummy). This has never been a feel-good musical, but its dark outlook feels earned this time.

THE BITCH OF LIVING | Sexually repressed teens give motion to their libidos with John de los Santos’ choreography in WaterTower’s production of ‘Spring Awakening.’ (Photo courtesy Mark Oristano)

We live in a state whose governor preaches abstinence-only sex education while the teen pregnancy rate is among the highest in the nation. If that kind of dunderheadedness infuriates you, you’re in for a frustrating two hours with Spring Awakening. Based on a German play written more than a century ago, this rock musical explodes with paternalistic hypocrisy, as parents and teachers scrupulously avoid their responsibilities toward children in order to preserve some mythical idea of “proper” society. Teenaged girls wanna know where babies come from and are given a non-cock-not-bull story about storks — is it any wonder they wind up pregnant and on Jerry Springer?

From the first haunting strains of Duncan Sheik’s plaintive rock score, Spring Awakening oozes sex. And not just pure, puppy-love romantic sex. These kids fantasize about their tutors and their classmates; they jerk off to poetry; they explore sado-masochism and fetishes and drug use. Welcome to the real world of teenhood, Gov. Perry.

WaterTower Theatre is mounting the first local production, and if you haven’t seen it, do. The show itself is arrestingly modern, even though set generations ago, and the music and lyrics (by Steven Stater) are wonderful both for their abstract imagery and the immediacy of the emotions.

But there’s also something slightly off. Maybe it’s the sound, which was spotty on opening night, but it feels more like the singers themselves. Mind you, the cast — made up largely of young comparative newcomers — all sing well, but you want them to do more: You want them to get loose.

Director Terry Martin gives them the opportunity, with onstage masturbation, same-sex kissing and dark discussions of sex sure to make a few blue-hairs squirm. John de los Santos’ stylized choreography gives them a lot to do, bringing a sense of motion to the internality of libidos gone mad, but they need to shout a little. It’s impossible to be too loud doing Spring Awakening — it is a rock musical, after all. With songs titled the likes of “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk” and “Totally Fucked,” this stage is no place to play it safe.

Among the cast, Adam Garst as the tortured Moritz is a standout, as is Kayla Carlyle as the free-spirited Ilse, but each of them embodies an aspect of adolescence that rings true. Spring Awakening resonates not because it feels so remote, but because it lives inside the mind of everyone who recalls first lust.

—  John Wright