Spectrum – Departing Is Such Sweet … Nothing

After searching in futility through the various circular navigation lines at Spectrum.com, I finally found a phone number to call regarding the disconnection of our service in conjunction with our forthcoming move from New York City.

The answering system informed me that, surprise, Spectrum was getting an unusually high volume of calls but could call me back if I left a phone number. I did. They did. I spoke at some length with a young man, explaining, as he demanded, why I was moving, that Spectrum was not available where I was moving (sorry, not sorry), that I needed to terminate my service on the last day in our apartment that was also the last day of the lease. Thus, it was essential that Spectrum pick up the equipment it had installed. I didn’t have my last bill so I couldn’t provide the security code that is apparently essential for every oral communication with Spectrum but whose absence never stops the calls from going through. The young man texted a new code to me that I dutifully read aloud. Victory! We could now address the reasons for my call. We are at about 20 to 25 minutes into the process at this point.

The young man eventually told me he needed to leave the line briefly. I said ‘fine.’

Silence. More silence. Growing concern that something was amiss. More silence. Then…music and the traditional “on hold message.” Eventually, as I now feared, another person came on the line and asked if she could help me. I explained what had transpired. She was the usual apologetic self that one gets on such calls. She texted another code that I dutifully repeated. I then re-explained in detail why I had called.

Uh oh. So sorry, but Spectrum doesn’t pick up the equipment it previous installed. The customer, in whom Spectrum no longer has any interest in making happy, must return it within 12 days of service termination or owe Spectrum an indeterminate amount of money for the equipment. After what can only be described as a hostile exchange (me hostile, she apologizing), we moved on to the next problem.

That problem, it turned out, was that Spectrum could not accept my request to terminate service until 30 days, or less, before the requested termination date. Since the day in question was October 26 and the service is to be terminated on, exactly, November 30 … well, you can see what a problem this would be for Spectrum. I said I would call back on October 30, at which point I could reasonably expect to repeat the entire fiasco conversation with some other hapless employee of Spectrum unlucky enough to pick up my call in the rotation.

I conclude this tale of woe by wondering aloud, so to speak, what the rationale might be for the policy that one cannot terminate service on more than 30-days’ notice. Did Spectrum experience a rash of cancellation notices only to have the customers suddenly decide not to cancel after all, causing some huge crush of cancellations of cancellations? I am at a loss.

But I’ve made myself a promise. Even though this entire experience resembles a story I read in my long-lost youth (Alice in Wonderland, I think), I am foresworn to shrug off the bizarre and inexplicable features of modern life and focus on something I can control. What is that mantra: give me the strength to accept what I cannot change …. I think we may be doomed.

PostNote: I did call Spectrum, on October 30 and it took two different tech support people and 22 minutes to successfully terminate our service. Went through the same hocus pocus of telling my needs to one person who left the line “for just a minute or two,” never to return, then music, then a new person: “How may I help you….”

PostNote PostNote: To assure we had wi-fi throughout the moving-out day (November 30), I had asked that the “service” be ended on December 1, knowing that we would return the equipment later the prior day. Skipping details regarding the move-out, we walked to the UPS store on West 57th that I had previously confirmed was an acceptable depository for the Spectrum equipment. We exchanged the boxes and cables for a receipt, walked to the rental car site down the street and left New York City.

When, some days later, we collected our forwarded mail in Washington, what to my wondering eyes did appear but a bill from Spectrum, dated December 3. The bill said we had not returned the equipment and therefore owed Spectrum $223, among other charges. Not good. I called Spectrum on a Saturday, acquired a representative on the line and explained my concern. In a voice suggestive that the entire problem was my fault for not understanding how Spectrum works, she explained that we had canceled the service precisely at the moment when Spectrum was generating our last bill and that Spectrum was unaware of my delivery to UPS at that time, but if I exercised appropriate patience, a new statement would arrive clarifying everything.

I asked whether I could expect that statement to arrive while I was still alive. She responded that she understood me to be making a humorous statement (though obviously she was not amused by it) and that the bill would arrive when it arrived, and she hoped I would be alive to receive. So, I admit, do I. Time will, as always, tell.

So it was written and so it was done. The final bill arrived December 10 and while it did not mention that the equipment had been returned, it at least had removed the charges related to unreturned equipment. Thus, after much unnecessary ado, our life with Spectrum is finished.

Summer in Central Park

Summer this year did not begin for us until June 1. We had been in lockdown from March 13 and did not venture out except to pick up packages a few times a week from our concierge desk. There were also a couple of short walks for medical tests, which, in my case, were denied. Readers probably know that my wife was very ill with COVID for a good two really horrible weeks. My experience was comparatively mild though the taste/smell issues have lingered to this day.

So, when June 1 arrived, we were relatively healthy again and the city was beginning to “re-open” in stages. Governor Cuomo was, and remains, very cautious to avoid restarting the horrors that New York City in particular experienced. Good for him and us. Central Park, which has always been a key attraction for us, become an “essential fix.” We started walking every day and most times visited the park. I took my camera sometimes to record the evolution of re-opening as New Yorkers came out to recover. This post reflects a partial synthesis of what we have seen.

We start with July 4, when the city promised fireworks from the top of, among others, the Empire State Building of which we have a direct view from our 50th floor aerie. The result was an overblown dud, but given the circumstances, we were fortunate to see anything at all. Here, then, are a few shots of that experience:

There are quite a few animals in Central Park, although sightings are relatively rare. I suspect none of these will surprise you:

The Park attracts a diverse audience for diverse purposes. Various forms of relaxation abound, often leading to visitors nodding off:

There are, of course, many more active pursuits, some of which are surprisingly common, though not all:

And there are plenty of just plain “scenes” that capture the eye and the imagination:

Finally, saving the best for last, there are the birds. We have learned that, during the course of a year, the Park attracts some 200 species of birds. Many are “tropical” birds that traverse the United States when flying to and from feeding/nesting grounds in the far north and the tropics. These can be seen by astute observers during their stopovers in the woods, lakes and streams in this oasis within the metropolis. Some of them are so gloriously beautiful that we have become involuntary “birders,” that more than a bit obsessive clan of people you often see carrying long lenses and binoculars/note pads peering into the trees and bushes for the sight of something small and cautious or studying the waters for the stunning sight of the Great Egrets that fish there. There are predatory hawks and tiny thrushes. Happily, my wife has a very sharp eye for animals in the wild and I take an occasional nice photo, so, birders we have become, for better or worse. We have watched the stunning documentary entitled “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” available through Amazon Prime. As birthday presents this year, I now own the “Birds of Central Park,” a gorgeous book of bird photos, as well as “Seeing Central Park,” a beautiful guide to the varied and fascinating places of interest.

So with that background, here are some of the results of our partial summer in the Park:

And, finally, wait for it ….



Storm King Arts Center

On the last day of our break from NYC, reported in the prior post, Escape from Gotham, we drove north again to the Storm King Art Center which is near Cornwall, NY. It is described on its website as,

Storm King Art Center is a 500-acre outdoor museum located in New York’s Hudson Valley, where visitors experience large-scale sculpture and site-specific commissions under open sky. Since 1960, Storm King has been dedicated to stewarding the hills, meadows, and forests of its site and surrounding landscape. Building on the visionary thinking of its founders, Storm King supports artists and some of their most ambitious works. Changing exhibitions, programming, and seasons offer discoveries with every visit.

I can add nothing meaningful to that, so I won’t try. I don’t understand modern art and certainly did not grasp the concepts behind many of the pieces at Storm King. Trust this, though. Five hundred acres of rolling hills is a lot of acres and hills, so if you visit, be prepared to do a lot of walking and climbing. The terrain is beautiful if you are attracted to verdant hills and forest. The selection of photos below will give you an indication of what to expect but there is much more to Storm King than this.

Escape from Gotham

Desperate to get my wife a break from work and to free ourselves of the mental taint of post-COVID recovery, NYC lockdown and semi-lockdown and so on, we located Troutbeck in Amenia, NY (Dutchess County) and decided to go for it.

The apparent advantages were that it was in New York State, less than two hours’ drive away, car rental was available in our neighborhood and it looked pastoral and quiet. Just what we needed. The plan was to drive up on Sunday and stay for three nights, return but keep the car for some closer-in  day-trips for a couple of days. More on that in a later post.

Troutbeck had other elements that attracted us in the circumstance of the pandemic. In what could be a model for other businesses, the resort sent us a detailed set of instructions and rules governing arrival and our stay. For example only,

    • Signage will direct you to pull up to the Manor House front door where you will be met by our guest services agent. Please do not leave your car.
    • We will ask that you and your companion(s) please submit to a mandatory temperature check.
    • You will receive your sanitized guestroom key card and visual direction to your guestroom.
    • Please print the copy of your itinerary sent to you prior to your arrival. Our staff will not provide you with a printed version unless requested by you and, only once you have checked in.
    • We will confirm your itinerary and answer any initial questions you may have for us.
    • Luggage service is suspended temporarily. You may be invited to leave your luggage in a convenient location while you park your car, as directed.

Regarding dining, the “rules” were,

Led by Chef Gabe McMackin our exceptional culinary team will carefully plan all of your meals. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner all feature the most exciting things we can find in the moment. Our field-to-fork approach is strongly influenced by both the abundance and the scarcity inherent in sourcing only what is seasonal and what is best. Such is the nature and the pleasure in living close to the land.

We are now offering indoor dining at 50% of our permitted full capacity. All tables are spaced at a minimum distance of 6ft between the next. Up to 10 guests of the same traveling party may be seated together. All public areas at Troutbeck are fitted with HEPA/UV air filtration. All tables are sanitized between seatings. None of our services are open to the public at this time.

Should you choose to dine indoors a face mask is required to and from your table. Our service staff will wear gloves and a facemask at all times. At no time will you be presented with a check or a printed menu. Please help us to plan your meals below. Be sure to state your dietary restrictions – especially allergies – but also particular likes and dislikes as our team will keep these in mind. We will send our menus to you for the weekend prior to your arrival.

We appreciated the clarity and detail; clearly, Troutbeck had thought through its re-opening in detail and with respect for the obvious health implications. Here are a few photos of the residential buildings, our room (standard double) and some of the common areas.

This is the perhaps the best place to also reveal some of the harsh realities of the early reopening of resorts/restaurants during the pandemic. We understood that changes might occur. Indeed, we did not receive the menu in advance and were surprised to learn that the dinner menu (priced at $75 per person) was the same for each night of our stay and included only four appetizers and four entrees. The first night I ordered “Roasted Pork Belly with White Nectarines” and “Smoked Beef Short Rib with Fingerling Potatoes, Spring Onions & Deciccio Broccoli.” Disclosure: I am not a foodie. That said, my wife liked the Nettle Cavatelli

and the deserts were delicious.

The Pork Belly was almost all fat:

and the Short Rib, with which I am very acquainted, appeared to be semi-tough flank steak. It certainly was not Short Rib:

I soldiered on. The next night, confronted with the identical menu, we both opted for the Steelhead Trout but asked that it be grilled rather than poached as stated on the menu. For those not familiar with this fish, it is more like salmon than trout. My wife’s fish came undercooked. The second try was better, but her appetite was ruined. I found multiple bones in mine and just placed them on the side of the plate without comment, but the waiter took notice on his own.

To Troutbeck’s great credit under the stressful conditions of reopening jitters and bad economics, and without our asking or complaining, the waiter removed the entire meal from our bill. We had a very nice and respectful discussion of the need for disclosure and the issues surrounding responsible reopening. When I explained that I planned to do a blog post, he asked that I send them a copy, which I will do. I hope they find it fair and balanced. I have tried.

The only other observation I will make is about breakfast. The advance notice explained that the culinary team would be planning the meals. In practice, this meant that breakfast was crafted in the kitchen and delivered all at once on a large tray.

No coffee while you wait. [Parenthetically, we are both coffee addicts but there were no coffee machines in the rooms or in the central areas of the lodge buildings (removed due to the pandemic). We tried once to order room service coffee, as proffered, but it took 75 minutes and 3 or 4 calls to get this done.] The food was plentiful and quite excellent. My only gripe was that the last day there was no meat; a large and ugly mushroom on a bed of spinach instead. As I revealed above, I am no foodie and this did not sit well. However, the bacon the first two days was crisp and plentiful, just the way I like it. There was fresh squeezed juice and homemade pastries every day.

The other good side of the dining experience was that we were able to eat outside each morning and evening, while appropriately separated from the few other guests.

But, enough about food. Let’s get to the really great parts of the Troutbeck experience. Yes, there is a nice swimming pool if you’re so inclined, but we were impressed by the “sitting areas” established around the property. These consist of reservation-only areas that include two Adirondack chairs, two hammocks and a fire pit, most of which overlook the stream that runs through the property.

Each area is well-separated from the others, so we never felt crowded.

We found that sitting by the burbling brook was delightfully stress-reducing. Lying in the hammock did nothing for my planned reading as it produced a powerful soporific effect in minutes.

Unfortunately, the proffered lunch that was delivered to our spot on the first day consisted of very greasy fried chicken that we thought was an odd choice in the circumstances.

We spent the last evening after dinner (elsewhere) at another of the sites; a waiter brings a pre-arranged beverage and lights the fire.

This was a very relaxing way to close out our stay.

Troutbeck is quite close to Amenia, NY, a very small town with little to see or do. The surrounding country is extremely lush, very hilly and mostly beautiful. Our day-drive took us to Rhinebeck for lunch at Pete’s Famous

and eventually to Hyde Park (FDR home closed) and then to the Vanderbilt mansion (also closed, but the grounds could be walked):

We recognize that our mixed experience at Troutbeck was not “normal,” although the staff was very pleasant in all interactions The grounds of the property are lovely and interesting.

We think in better times we’d have an even better experience. This is not to say that you should not go there now. Just do it with your eyes open and be generous in your reaction to what may be a few struggles for perfection. Preparation is nine-tenths of a good time. Bring some good instant coffee to make in the common room microwave and some snacks. You can get a small refrigerator for the room on request. We do expect we will return another time, by which time the pandemic, hopefully, will be behind us.



New York Philharmonic Orchestra Pandemic Performances

Everyone knows by now that all live music and dance performances on Broadway, jazz clubs, Lincoln Center and elsewhere in New York City are on indefinite pause. For those of us who can’t get enough of these extraordinary “gifts” of this city, this is a particularly dark time on top of the, obviously more serious, general lockdown that has necessarily been imposed.

But, thanks to human ingenuity and determination, all is not lost. Among the many arts institutions offering online streaming of past performances is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Every Thursday at 7:30 pm on the NYPO Facebook page, one can link to a truly amazing experience. Last night, for example, the NYPO showed a May 1994 performance conducted by Kurt Masur that was “attended” electronically by people all over the world. Three Beethoven masterpieces were performed: the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by the orchestra, the Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Emanuel Ax on piano) and, finally and oh so remarkably, Symphony No. 5. You can see the performance at: https://www.facebook.com/nyphilharmonic/videos/525953654947771/ and also at https://nyphil.org/playson

[As an aside, check out https://www.facebook.com/nyphilharmonic/videos/630361074485568/ where cellists of NYPO perform J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello in G major]

In May 1994, Masur, then the music director of NYPO, was approaching 67 years of age and Ax was just 44. They “brought the house down.”

The program actually began with an introduction by Hugh Downs followed by an interview in present time, with Alec Baldwin engaging Ax from another location where he was holed up. The two artists from different disciplines shared some of their similar feelings of nervous tension experienced before performances, with Baldwin wisely noting that “I would never compare what I do to what you do.” It’s fair, I think, to say Ax is a “genial genius” whose talents were shortly on full display in his execution of the Piano Concerto.

Masur, the more mature of the two in 1994, is described in Wikipedia as “one of the last old-style maestros.” I am not qualified to comment on that but watching Masur conduct is an extraordinary sight. He speaks to the orchestra with his hands, of course, but also a lot with his eyes and facial expressions. He goes from an apparent passivity to what reminded me of lightning in a storm. His passion transfers to the musicians, each of whom is surely a virtuoso in his/her own right. He stood on the riser for all three pieces with no sheet music, an imposing presence at 6 feet 3 inches height and in full command of the music and the orchestra.

Again, I am not qualified to judge but Emanuel Ax’s performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 is breathtaking to watch and hear. You can see him “talking” to himself as he blasts through some of the faster passages, fingers moving through muscle memory alone over dozens of notes in seconds. He too has no sheet music.

A unique aspect of these presentations is that there are multiple cameras that are regularly used by the unseen director to capture closeups of the musicians, lingering briefly and moving on to another section of the orchestra. Even from the best seats in the house, you could not see these details of what the musicians are doing at any time.

The concert closed with a remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The playing was preceded by a talk of a number of musicians who explained some of the features of the symphony that everyone experiences without actually understanding why. It was like auditing an advanced class in music theory and practice. The concert itself was supernatural, all the more so because of new insights gathered beforehand.

Finally, note that on April 3 the Philharmonic did a special presentation of Ravel’s Balero as a tribute to healthcare workers everywhere. Not only were the music and musicianship extraordinary, but the musicians were each playing from home using Zoom. You can see/hear it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3UW218_zPo For a similar experience, by a flash-mob in Spain (2013 when public gatherings were still possible), see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsF53JpBMlk complete with cymbals and kettle drums.

How glorious it is that these masterpieces can be shared this way and enjoyed over and over. I can’t wait for the day when we can return to a live concert hall, theater or club to experience the unbelievable skill and creativity that will once again, one fine day, be on display.


Adult Guide to Attending Broadway Shows

Based on a ghastly experience last night at the St. James Theater showing of Frozen the Musical, I thought this guide might be useful, especially if it were forwarded far and wide to people who might actually need the information provided.

When buying tickets for a show, be sure you understand the seating, restroom and stairs/elevator situation in the theater you’re going to attend. Many New York theaters were built many years ago when people with physical limitations never attended shows or if they did, their interests were ignored in the design. Most of the older theaters have chosen not to spend the resources to update their facilities; apparently, the law does not require them to do so.

It is, therefore, common to find that tiny restrooms are not anywhere near your seats or indeed on the same level as your seats. This can be disconcerting during what are sometimes short breaks relative to the lines that form even at the men’s facilities. By way of example only, our balcony seats at the St. James involved a 77- step climb from the entry level, and the men’s room up there had two urinals. There are no elevators. The extent of the climb is not covered on the ticketing website, www.frozenthemusical.com but only in the Accessibility section of the website for the theater where no tickets may be purchased and that took some searching to find. https://www.jujamcyn.com/shows/frozen/

Note carefully whether your show has intermissions. Many Broadway shows run two hours or more without an intermission. This can be challenging for … well, you know.

When considering a show to see, think carefully about the likely makeup of the audience. Frozen’s website says it is “intended for ages 8+ and is not recommended for anyone under the age of 4. If you have already purchased a ticket for a child under 4, please contact Disney Theatrical Guest Services.” All well and good, but there were many children under 4 in the audience on Saturday night. However, candor compels me to note that by-and-large the children were better behaved than some of the “adults.” More on that later.

One of the consequences of a show like this is that many children need booster seats to see over the heads of adults in front of them. This was not so much as issue for most of the small kids, but once the “adults” saw what was happening, they too asked for booster cushions. This led to a cascading effect as people in higher rows were confronted with tall adults now even taller and they too asked for cushions. And so on.

Another consequence of such a show is that many audience members have seen the movie, know the story and react viscerally to events. This led to considerable hooting and hollering at various developments in the show. While audience enthusiasm should be encouraged, it can be disconcerting and overshadow what is happening on the stage. It seems more important to these guests to make noise than to hear what is happening next. Be prepared.

Now, for some rules of “adult behavior.” These are based on observed behavior at musicals, shows and even ballet performances at Lincoln Center.

  1. Do not make out with your partner.
  2. Do not lean on your partner, then shift your body far away, then later back, then ….
  3. Do not talk to your partner when the show is underway. Save it for the break or the end.
  4. Absent a genuine physical emergency, do not leave your seat for the restroom or bar while the show is underway. If you do, you should NOT return to the theater until the intermission.
  5. Keep your shoes on and your feet on the floor. Do NOT put your bare feet on the seat.
  6. During intermissions, do not sit in your seat obsessively taking selfies.

Last night, the young woman seated next to my wife did this during the break, taking photo after photo as she adjusted her hair, changed the tilt of her head, made “sexy” shapes of her mouth and so on. It was distracting and obnoxious.

  1. Do NOT get out of your seat until the intermission.

Last night there was an unexpected break in the show, when a prop malfunctioned. An announcement was made but no directive to remain seated. Two stage staff struggled to fix the problem. Numerous “adults” now decided to go to the restroom or to the bar, then returned after the show started, struggling to return to their seats in the dark. The theater personnel should have prevented this, but regardless, act like an adult and have some respect for the other guests and for the performers.

  1. Do NOT treat the theater as if you’re at a baseball game. This is not the venue for rustling plastic wrappers, sharing candy and nuts and slurping drinks.
  2. The seats in many older theaters are quite narrow and there is little room between rows. Either check your coats or keep your coat and other belongings within the area of your seat.


I Love the Sound of a Symphony in the Morning

I have once again had the opportunity to attend a New York City Ballet orchestra rehearsal of for both Stravinky’s Firebird and Tschaikovsky’s Allegro Brillante starting tonight. It started at 10 am with a volunteer’s explanation of the background of Stravinsky’s composition of the music for Firebird, after which the group of attendees (perhaps 25 in number) was ushered into the seating area as the rehearsal began. The seating area is near the front of the orchestra, the best seats I’m likely to ever have. And the price ($0) was right.

Even more right was the music itself. While we were told that the rehearsal was not a performance but only a practice that would likely be interrupted by the conductor, the reality was that they orchestra initially played the entire music through from beginning to end before the conductor took them through the changes. Our membership thus earned an opportunity to hear what amounted to a full concert. The music, even without the dancers, is simply stunning. Conductor Andrew Litton clearly knows the score in great depth. After running through the entire piece, Litton worked through many sections he wanted to be done differently, covering all of the iconic sections as well as less well-known parts that tie everything together.

One of the most amazing aspects of a professional orchestra is that the conductor can call on it to start anywhere in the lengthy score and they can immediately pick up the music at that place at the proper pace and volume. Their knowledge of the music is total.

After a short break, the orchestra moved into Allegro Brillante, again playing, I believe, the entire piece before going back to clean up a few details that only the conductor heard.

As I sat there, I thought “how lucky I am that on this frigid January morning, I am able to sit in this beautiful classically-styled concert hall and listen to some of the most extraordinary music ever composed being performed by a world-class orchestra.” Every time this happens, I believe I am permanently changed into a slightly better person. It’s analogous, I suppose, to being sick and receiving a super medicine that makes you well again immediately. It may not work forever but while it’s magic is happening, it is sublime.

Fotografiska New York

Yesterday we visited Fotografiska New York, a Swedish transplant museum dedicated to photography. The museum is housed in the old Church Missions House that resembles an old-Europe church from the outside, situated at Park Avenue South and 22nd Street. The building dates to 1894, squarely within the Gilded Age. Inside, it’s all modern, with a coffee shop in the lobby and five upper floors, four of which contain the exhibits. If not disposed to climb a lot of stairs, you can take the very modest (maybe six passengers) elevator to Floor Six and then walk down.

On Sunday there were two particularly compelling exhibits. A one-woman show by Ellen von Unwerth entitled “Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women” contained some extraordinary photographs. Be advised, however, that some of these photos are very explicit and not for most young children’s eyes. We were also impressed especially by Tawny Chatmon’s “Inheritance” show, consisting of stunning shots of Black women and children enhanced with elaborate ornamentation added by hand to the photographs. The result are powerful portrayals of people not normally found in museums that tend to feature extensive historical portraits of white people in room after room.

Helene Schmitz’s “Thinking like a Mountain” is a series of large frame shots of natural formations that dramatically illustrate the impact of man’s rapacious reshaping of the natural landscape of even the most resistant zones of pure rock.

Fotografiska is not a large museum – you can see everything in less than an hour. And it’s open early (9 am daily) and stays late, really late, as in 11 pm except for Thursday through Sunday when it’s midnight.

Finally, my one serious beef with the place and this is not unique to Fotografiska. The labels explaining the titles of photographs and some, usually limited, information in small type-face were typically placed at the lower corner so that a person of six-foot height would have to bend way down to read them, often in limited light. This was not only uncomfortable but in many cases I simply could not make out what the labels said. I can’t understand what the thinking was behind the decision to place the labels so low and in dim light or full shadow, particularly in a museum clearly focused on an adult audience. If the positioning is intended to assist visitors in wheelchairs, wonderful, but then why not (1) put some light on the labels and (2) have a second label at roughly eye-level for average walking visitors so that everyone can read them.

That gripe notwithstanding,, Fotografiska New York is well worth a visit.


Disappointment and Exultation

It’s always especially disappointing when you build up hopes about something that, in the reality, doesn’t live up to your expectations.

So it was with the revamped musical West Side Story. We snatched up tickets as soon as they became available. I had seen the musical performed several times over the years in Washington and had watched the movie (1961) many times. Those experiences framed what I was hoping to see in the new production, though I recognized that it had been “updated” for a more modern vibe. I avoided reviews for the most part and thus was unaware of what I quickly came to regard as a catastrophically bad decision: the cast appears on stage in front of what amounts to a stage-sized movie screen as a backdrop. In many scenes, including important ensemble dances, a “film” of the performers appears behind them as they perform on the stage, a multi-media event rather than a play that relies on stagecraft to create its context imagery. Using film for background buildings would be fine but showing a solo singer on the street with the camera viewpoint in the background slowly advancing and shadowy figures moving in the rear was just bizarre.

We found this novelty severely distracting. In addition to dance scenes, there were movies playing behind the performers inside apartments and in the drug store that is a main hang-out scene for the gangs. Sometimes only the movie was playing, while at others there was also action visible on the stage with the movie playing behind.

If I had wanted to see the movie again, I could have done so for less than the $109 we paid for last-row orchestra seats.

There were other less dramatic problems, the most prominent for me being that the director (I assume) moved the “Gee, Officer Krupke” piece, a humorous play on the foibles of sociological and legal thinking about juvenile delinquency, into late in the “second day” of the show when bad and ominous things have already happened and are portended. I understand it was that way in the original musical and was moved forward in the movie, to some controversy. See https://bit.ly/35m41o1 Nonetheless, it is a strikingly discordant note late in the show and I cannot accept the reasoning behind putting the song there.

All that said, there are many positives. You know a show is great when, despite knowing precisely how it’s going to end, you are still moved by it. Such is true with West Side Story. The ultimate moral idea – that hate breeds destruction and little else – is as powerful, maybe more so, now than when the show debuted in 1957. It is, as Yogi Berra famously said, déjà vu all over again. Shereen Pimentel, who plays Maria, has a Julliard-educated voice that could shake the rafters loose. Probably the star dancer was Yesenia Ayala who plays Bernardo’s girlfriend. It was hard to take your eyes off of her in the ensemble numbers, especially the highlight of the evening (for me), America.

The dancing overall was extraordinary, despite a lot of talk about changing the more ballet-driven originals by Jerome Robbins to a more modern style. We didn’t notice a real difference. The set pieces were very complex, involving both gangs and a lot of separate parts all well-integrated. If only they hadn’t also played the dancing on the movie screen background.

As a final observation, and this is not so much criticism as recognition of the difficulties of “updating” a classic like this, we had expected more “modern” motifs for the dialogue and, possibly, a more contemporary perspective on gang life. Instead, it’s the old Jets and Sharks going at each other for dominance of the neighborhood and using language like “daddy-o” and “buddy boy.” It’s also true, I suspect, that too much modernity would have made the story too dark and the romance at the heart of the morality play too unreal to capture the imagination.

In the end it’s still a great show and should be seen.



Murdering “Cats”

The critics have apparently done it again. Sneering snidely, they have likely sunk any chance of success for the movie Cats, the film version of the long-running Broadway musical. Having seen and enjoyed the musical a few times, we decided to ignore the critics and went to the movies. After battling our way through throngs of people there for the twenty-third running of the Star Wars quintology (not a real word but it fits), also slammed by some critics, we sat in a nearly empty theater as the opening scene appeared.

To be clear, the movie version of Cats has some serious flaws; I about to tell you what they are. But to say that the movie is a “disaster,” etc. as some critics have exclaimed, is, I think ridiculous.

First, one must recognize that the Cats story is a fantasy intended to entertain. It is not a serious thing, except perhaps in one way I’ll come to. It was, after all, a musical based on some poems about cats. If you want to taste the kind of over-analyzed attempts to give some profound meaning to the story, you have many choices but a good one is https://screenrant.com/cats-movie-ending-explained-grizabella-heaviside-layer/ It’s a spoiler in many ways, however, so you may want to avoid it and the others if you’re considering watching the movie (it likely will be “free” on some Internet service soon since it’s being massacred at the box office). I am, frankly, tired of critics condemning works of art because they don’t fit some pre-conceived narrative of what “should” have been done.

Second, the musical is recognized even by the critics (however grudgingly) as much-loved by audiences. According to Wikipedia, the “London production ran for 21 years and 8,949 performances, while the Broadway production ran for 18 years and 7,485 performances, making Cats the longest-running musical in both theatre districts for a number of years.” That doesn’t count the many other performances (like Washington DC where I first saw it). Not bad for a fluffy piece of fiction with a somewhat puzzling story line and no dialogue.

Third, all that notwithstanding, the movie version has some serious flaws. They detract from the heft of the music and special effects, sometimes in major ways. First, and most serious for me, is the modern practice of having the camera viewpoint constantly shifting from one vantage point to another every few seconds. Rather than letting you see a dance scene as a whole, the director, or whomever, has the camera viewpoint constantly changing.

One moment it’s on the lead dancer, Victoria, played by the stunning Francesca Hayward, who in real life is a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet at London’s Covent Garden. Then it shifts to a group of cats dancing, then back to Victoria, then to another cat doing something different, then to the entire scene from a different vantage than the first one, and so on and so on. Why, I have to ask, when you have a talent as beautiful and skilled as Francesca Hayward as a main character do you not just show her dancing as the center of attention in the larger frame? If you were watching a live ballet you likely would focus most of your attention on her. But, no, the director, or whoever makes these decisions, wants us to see everything from a constantly changing viewpoint.

This practice is commonplace in music videos I have seen (rarely to completion) but I suggest it does not belong in the staging of a musical as movie.

Fourth, there are several “episodes” in the movie version that occupy an inordinate amount of space/time seemingly to accommodate the actors chosen for the roles. These include James Corden, Rebel Wilson and Jason Derulo. I was struck that at the end of the movie, when the credits roll, Corden was given top billing. I lack the imagination to understand how that could be warranted by anything related to the movie.

Fifth, the most iconic music from the stage version is, of course, Memory. It is sung by the aged and defeated Grizabella, played in the movie by the powerful Jennifer Hudson. Unfortunately, her rendition is an over-wrought downer, over-acted and overwhelmed. I don’t fault Hudson. This had to be the director’s choice and it was a bad one.

Finally, the handling of Macavity, played, inexplicably, by Idris Elba, was a major error. In the story he is a malevolent creature with magical powers and the presentation seems discordant with the rest of the story, albeit that it contains many fantasy elements throughout.

Well, then, with all those flaws, how did the critics go wrong? The answer, I think, is in condemning the whole because of a few defects, unhappy ones, to be sure, but hardly fatal to the overall concept. In the end the story is about redemption, goodwill and generosity triumphing over evil and selfishness. It is a fantasy, a divertissement that should not be taken seriously. It is intended to amuse you and, in the end, lift you up. I thought that, flaws notwithstanding, it did that. It’s a movie, after all, not a major philosophical dissertation.

I suspect it’s too late for a “market correction” that might save this movie from the dust heap where severe criticism tends to push productions that the true critics don’t like. Too bad. Many people who would enjoy the spectacle will now miss it because self-important and self-appointed “experts” have decided that the movie is a “debacle.” Debacles do happen in Hollywood as elsewhere, but I don’t think this Cats is fairly condemned.

P.S. — I had a similar response to the critics’ treatment of Bohemian Rhapsody [see https://autumninnewyork.net/2018/11/04/bohemian-rhapsody-ignore-critics/] that, according to Wikipedia, grossed over $903 million worldwide on a production budget of about $50 million, making it the sixth-highest-grossing film of 2018 worldwide and setting the all-time box office records for the biopic and drama genres. The film earned 4 Oscars and was Best Motion Picture – Drama at the 76th Golden Globe Awards, among other awards and nominations. Just saying. Since the Bohemian Rhapsody post was in the AutumnInNewYork.net blog, I am simultaneously posting the Cats piece in both blogs.