Why do New Yorkers tolerate dirty, deafening streets and typically reside in tiny, pricey apartments that rival veal cages? A key reason is that Gotham City is Disneyland for grown-ups. America’s largest metropolis offers infinite options for world-class cultural and culinary enrichment among millions of others who relish these joys.
After more than 30 years as a New Yorker, I most recently girded myself for all of this last Friday, December 29. That’s when I rode my bicycle in shorts and a T-shirt through Temecula, Calif. I was concluding a delightful and sunny fortnight with my sainted parents and blessed sisters. My last day of vacation hit 86 degrees beneath sapphire skies and Vitamin D–rich rays.
Newark Liberty Airport the next morning couldn’t have been more jarringly different. Snow sprinkled from steel-gray clouds as the thermometer reached 20 degrees. The only bright note was what awaited me across the Hudson — an afternoon and evening I arranged to welcome myself back to America’s premier city.
At 2 p.m., a friend joined me at the Shubert Theatre for a matinee of Hello, Dolly! The wind beneath the wings of this widely acclaimed production is none other than multiple Emmy, Grammy, and Tony–winner Bette Midler. The show floats along on pure star power, from Midler’s surprising entrance amid a group of Manhattan commuters in 1885 to her final bow beneath a white hat the size of a small bathtub.
Hello, Dolly! won four Tony awards last year, including Best Musical Revival and for Midler’s leading role and Gavin Creel’s featured performance. Midler portrays a lovably meddlesome matchmaker (and Jill of all trades) who arranges romance for others while seeking love herself. It brims with witty songs and clever lyrics by Jerry Herman and, thanks to Santo Loquasto, its Tony-winning costumes are as colorful and appetizing as a Baskin-Robbins display case. Warren Carlyle’s choreography is exquisite, not least for a scene involving waiters who weave and whirl around each other while balancing trays of oysters and platters of pheasant.
Midler shines throughout. Too bad that she concludes her triumphant run on January 14. David Hyde Pierce as the leading man is most amusing, as are the supporting players and cast. A high-energy company of 37 talented people on stage makes Hello, Dolly! happen, as do scores of artists behind the scenes. These days, this is as big as Broadway gets.
We then retired for a very late lunch at Becco on West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, nicknamed Restaurant Row. The Swiss chard ravioli were tender and delicious, as was the thin swordfish steak with spaghetti squash. We finished with Caesar salad continental style, to close the meal.
After trekking through the frigid streets to Lincoln Center, we then sat down for an 8 p.m. visit with the New York Philharmonic. Beneath the cheerful and generous baton of guest maestro Bramwell Tovey — an absolutely hilarious man, when he addresses the audience — Bedřich Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride was fun, lively, and lilting. This Czech confection from 1863 was the perfect introduction for an evening at David Geffen Hall.
My last day of vacation hit 86 degrees beneath sapphire skies and Vitamin D–rich rays. Newark Liberty Airport the next morning couldn’t have been more jarringly different.
Alas, neither Tovey nor the NY Phil, one of America’s finest orchestras, could ease the pain of Hungarian Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
Don’t blame the band; hurl your tomatoes right at Bartók. His anti-melodic racket must be an acquired taste — like smiling as someone tosses a hot skillet on your flip-flopped foot. This 1931 work evokes an afternoon at Pep Boys. Imagine Manny, Moe, and Jack dodging the rusty parts of a jalopy as they tumble from the transmission and ricochet around the garage floor. Featured virtuoso Yefim Bronfman was clearly skillful on piano. But, like a first-rate mechanic, he displayed talent without giving pleasure. Overall, this jarring piece’s impact was severe enough to trigger an OSHA ear-damage inquiry. As for anyone who actually might enjoy such cacophony, let’s just say: “Less for me, more for you.”
After intermission, the main course was Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This Russian composition from 1874 began as a work for piano and was arranged for orchestra in 1922 by France’s Maurice Ravel. This popular piece was as powerful and evocative as one would expect. Its familiar “promenade” theme recurs throughout, as Mussorgsky strolls through St. Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of Arts and musically describes individual works by his recently deceased friend, artist Viktor Hartmann. The crescendo built with thunderous intensity, and its stirring conclusion inspired the audience to summon Tovey from the wings for four well-earned curtain calls.
More than any other conductor I remember, Tovey shares the limelight. He invited many individual players to stand and be recognized. This included a tubaist who played much of this piece with a muting device stuffed into his instrument’s wide bell. That accessory could have doubled as Earth’s largest champagne cork — most fitting for the night before New Year’s Eve.
A simple but pleasant dinner followed at Bareburger on West 57th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. A bison burger with cheddar, bacon, and no bun hit the spot. (My doctor and disappearing six-pack appreciated these forgone carbohydrates. I hope he forgives the two onion rings.) A space heater near the door failed to shield the front of the restaurant from the 22-degree temperatures outside. Luckily, the bar in back was warm and savory.
I soldiered on to Irving Plaza, near Union Square, to see a rock concert titled “Pink Talking Fish: Tied to the Whipping Post.” Scheduled for 11:30 p.m., the music did not start until 12:45 a.m. But the superb show indubitably merited the wait.
Pink Talking Fish is three cover bands rolled into one. They play the music of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, and Phish. This engagement featured additional songs by the Allman Brothers Band, including “Tied to the Whipping Post.” Like a 747 powered by four mighty jet engines, Pink Talking Fish climbed and soared.
The band opened with the Allmans’ “Wastin’ Time No More,” the Talking Heads’ “Life During War Time,” Pink Floyd’s “Time” (what a joy to hear a room full of music fans sing “Run, rabbit, run”), and Little Feat’s “Time Loves a Hero.” What a subtle, savvy tribute to Father Time, whose days were numbered on one finger.
Other highlights included the Allmans’ “Jessica” (exceptional) and “Sweet Melissa,” the Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” a rivet-popping “What a Day That Was,” Phish’s “Wilson,” and a total surprise: the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein.”
The band’s split-second transitions from one song into the next were head-spinningly efficient, much more than a sports car’s engine switching gears. One fan called this “totally on point.”
Guitarist Dave Brunyak, drummer Zack Burwick, bassist Eric Gould, and keyboardist Richard James play very hard and exceedingly well. They give justice to the original versions of these songs while adding their intense, high-voltage, jam-band flavor to each selection. Their considerable ability to perform is rivaled only by their incredible capacity to listen.
Irving Plaza swelled with extremely happy, wide-awake fans, nearly all of whom stayed until the 3 a.m. conclusion. The crowd’s diligence paralleled the band’s. Audience members unflaggingly danced, shimmied, jumped, and sang along for the two and a quarter hours that Pink Talking Fish played. The musicians trumped their fans in one vital respect: They took no break whatsoever, even as audience members availed themselves of the venue’s running water. For these gentlemen on stage to have given so much of themselves for so long, with no personal respite, is a small but simple confirmation of their professionalism and relentlessness.
As the curtain fell, and the lights came up, this highly sated crowd was all smiles early on the last morning of the year, deep in the heart of America’s principal amusement park for adults.