KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 17, 1998
MUSIC: “Take Me Back to Manhattan”
Okay, so by now, after all my time on KPBS, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a native Noo Yawkah (Yo! wanna make somethin’ of it??). But I’ve been here for 20 years, and it had been way too long since I visited my old stomping grounds. So my husband and I took a bite out of the Big Apple.
I want to tell you about the theater, of course, but first I have to tell you about New York. I barely recognized it. For one thing, it’s clean. Yup, that’s right. There’s no garbage on the street. And no homeless people, either. I don’t know what Mayor Giuliani did to get rid of both of those eyesores, but the thought of where they might be made me a little nervous. The crime rate is also down, so locals actually feel safe on the streets. And this has created another shocking change.
New Yorkers are actually…. dare I say it?– nice. They still push by you, but now they say ‘excuse me,’ even when the streets are so crowded you’d think they were giving something away on the next block.
Another thing that’s changed is how people look. New Yorkers were always known for haute couture, everyone now dresses like… well, San Diego. Sneakers, shorts, warmups, schmattas. I didn’t see one person who looked really cool, hip or high-style. Not even in the theater. They came in looking like they were fresh from the beach or the ballfield. I guess people feel that, if they’re plunking down up to 85 bucks to see a play, they can dress however they damn please. Now that’s a New York attitude.
I’d forgotten what the City’s like at night — teeming with people, even at 1 a.m. It’s so electric and energizing. And there’s late-night international eating; we went from Spanish one night to Burmese the next. But the food was only preamble to the theater.
MUSIC: “Lullaby of Broadway”
This has been one of the most active and successful theater seasons on Broadway, and I chose to see the best of the best; five plays which together garnered a total of 30 Tony Award nominations.
But I have to say, in all honesty, with all the hoopla about Broadway productions, there was nothing of a caliber that we couldn’t and don’t see here in San Diego. The difference is when we’ll see these theater works, and who’ll be in them. We always ultimately get the plays, sometimes in fine local productions, but the biggies we won’t see for a long time, often years after L.A. and usually performed by second or third-string road company casts.
That’s partly due to the available theater spaces here, but also heavily attributable to local audiences, which just don’t support the arts nearly as much as they should, given the size and wealth of our community. Much smaller cities like Boston or San Francisco beat us out every time. But we do often send homegrown work to New York, though not this season.
Still, there were some serious San Diego links, not the least of which was our native son, Brian Stokes-Mitchell, who was up for Best actor in a musical, and who, in my estimation, should have won — for his dynamic, nuanced, charismatic portrayal of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in “Ragtime.”
The one who beat him out was pretty terrific, though — Alan Cumming in the superb and disturbing “Cabaret.” The production won for best musical revival, which was justly deserved; its haunting stage pictures and shocking ending were unforgettable.
MUSIC: “Can You Feel the Love”
Of course, I saw “The Lion King.” That was the first question everyone asked. Well, what can I say? It’s a jaw-dropping visual extravaganza, as is everything directed by the Tony-winning Julie Taymor. Outrageously imaginative costumes (also by Taymor), and spectacular lighting and scenic design, but beyond that, nothing. The production had no emotion, or character development. In sum, a big, beautiful, lush, lavish disappointment.
But the year on Broadway was not only marked by mega-musicals; this was an especially strong season for straight plays, and I couldn’t wait to catch three of the four ‘Best Play’ Tony Award nominees: “Art,” “Freak” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
The ensemble acting in “Art” and “Beauty Queen” was breathtaking. The plays themselves were a bit less satisfying, but Yazmina Reza’s “Art” won for Best Play and “Beauty Queen,” by 27 year-old Irish wunderkind, Martin McDonagh, took home most of the acting awards. But my favorite New York theater outing was a visit with that hilariously talented Mambo-mouth, John Leguizamo, in “Freak,” his touching, poignant, brutally honest and very, very funny autobiographical one-man, multi-character tour de force.
The other contender for most moving experience was a trip to Ellis Island. It was a foggy day, and as the ferry rounded the bend, the Statue of Liberty loomed up out of the haze. It was a chilling moment, linking me to all those tempest-toss’d who’d come before. I was surprised to find out that 40% of today’s U.S. population — more than 100 million people — can trace their roots to an immigrant ancestor who came through Ellis Island. So, New York isn’t just my home town; it’s everyone’s.
MUSIC, under and out: “New York, New York It’s a Helluva Town”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.