Aahhh….I’m very happy and relaxed this morning as I type away at Eat Here Now, an Upper East Side diner with sentimental value for me. I ate here alone on Christmas Day, 2000, in frigid temperatures I haven’t felt in New York in three years of year-round visits. I always get two poached eggs with toast, tomato juice and coffee, a steal (particular in this area) at 6.99. It’s a darling little space, too, with sweet servers who’ve been there forever.
I flew in Christmas Eve that year to meet Richard Eldridge, my external Orals committee member and chair of the philosophy department at Swarthmore, to discuss my upcoming qualifying exam. Eat Here Now was the only place walkable in the snow and in those days I was not proficient on the subway, having been away from the East Coast a decade.
In 1992-93, when I stayed most weekends in the city (sophomore year) in a large duplex on 88th and 1st owned by my father’s workaholic colleague, I didn’t take the subway or venture out much beyond the hood formerly known as Germantown and now called Yorkville. It’s much different up there now than it was during my early college years. Mostly I came to study in peace and luxury near good food and Central Park. My true adult life in New York began just three years ago.
Happily, my neighbor saga seems to be drawing to a close and the psycho chick (other C words leap to mind) on the 5th floor has been instructed not to harass me further. Out of respect and love for my kind and generous landlords, I have agreed to smoke only e-cigs in the apartment, though it’s not a non-smoking building and there have been cigar and cigarette smoking tenants for years.
The woman has mental issues, for which I’m deeply sorry, but pounding on my door screaming like a raving lunatic about imagined smoke at all hours of the night—most recently at 4AM the day of my departure for LA on November 2nd—is harassment. It’s gotten progressively worse but I think we have it under control and I doubt she’ll keep renting a place she can ill afford much longer.
And unlike the unfortunate Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Hooker Maria,” this wacko isn’t my landlord; she’s just a neighbor. You’re not a real New Yorker unless you’ve had at least one psychotic neighbor or landlord, so I’m almost grateful for the experience, aside from the major mileage I’ve gotten on Facebook verbally decimating this vicious, delusional woman who thinks she can smell e-cigs and carbon monoxide (which is of course odorless) through 1897 walls in a brownstone.
And I had such a perfect, first weekend of musical theater: It’s a Wonderful Life (a community production in Long Island in which a teacher friend performed), Sierra Boggess at 54 Below (after my first trip ever to a Russian bath), and N’Kenge at the Triad. After the Boggess show, I met a writer friend at Bill’s on 54th (formerly the Gay Nineties, a speakeasy opened in 1924, the year my father was born) where a friend of his was playing piano and singing duets with his talented wife. That is where my iPhone charger has resided (I hope!) for the last 36 hours because Bill’s is closed Sundays.
After the show Friday in Babylon, my friend took me to a great diner in Islip. We don’t have diners like this in Southern California and it reminded me of a similar place on Chapel Street in New Haven circa 1990, a few blocks down from the Yale Rep. If I believed in past lives, I was without question a New Yorker or at least East Coaster because I always feel so at-home here.
I. Sublime Sierra Boggess (Wayne Dyer Interludes Notwithstanding).
Boggess far exceeded my expectations. I discovered that I prefer solo opera singers to full productions last year, when I saw Angela Ghiorghiu in D.C at the Kennedy Center in her Washington National Opera debut. Boggess has astonishing range and versatility, along with a musical passion she conveys in every phrase, whether she’s singing a standard like “Smoke Gets in your Eyes,” a song from a classic musical like “I Have Confidence” (a spectacular interpretation with which she opened), or a medley like “Inspiration: Gillian Lynne, Hal Prince, Andrew Lloyd Webber,” with a devastating parody of Britney Spears which left the adoring audience gasping for air.
I confess I only knew Boggess by name. When I Googled her, I saw a YouTube clip about her “inspirations” (she’s big on inspiration). Anyone who reads me knows I’m deeply hostile to what I call Woo Woo or New Age thinking. I had to steel myself when Boggess walked onstage with a Wayne Dyer book and referred to it several times in the show she calls “Awakening.”
In the wake of the Rebecca scandal, Boggess immersed herself in self-help literature (which perplexes me, as surely a Broadway star could afford a nice Jewish analyst on the Upper East or West Side or even a regular Ph.D. who caters to stars, corporate people and academics). But in person, she’s sharper than she is in interviews, and her sweetness and talent make it possible to overlook what would ordinarily drive me up a wall.
Boggess signed my CD with her mantra, “You are enough.” Oy. I’m a big fan of Despair, Inc., the anti-inspirational website with hilariously deflating memes. I guess the site has corrupted me because when she gave her spiel about enough-ness, all I could think was that “You are woefully inadequate” sounded much better. But as I wrote on Facebook, when you have a voice and stage presence like Boggess’, you can spout that Oprah Winfrey claptrap 24/7.
Boggess’ musical heroine and influence is Barbra Streisand. I know I’m in the minority, but I can think of a dozen female singers in 40 years I prefer (and it’s less her politics than her demeanor, plus I remember Howard Stern’s hilarious send-up of Mirror Has Two Faces and the bit about her shooting the whole movie from the good side of her face). I was therefore surprised to enjoy the (brief) Streisand part of the show and her story about meeting her idol, but pleased it didn’t go on any longer than it did.
And I fairly wept throughout her number with her father, who recently turned 60. Boggess grew up in a musical family in Denver and her father made the guitar on which he played, with Boggess’ sister playing the cello like a virtuoso (which she may very well be). Boggess noted that she’s played a lot of women with daddy issues but that her father was terrific, something I had no trouble believing when he walked onstage. I live with my parents part-time to keep my nearly 89-year-old father company as well as drive him wherever he has to go, but I’m realistic and know that while he could be around another five years, he could be gone a lot sooner than that. So I’m always a big mush about father/daughter stuff.
If you haven’t seen Boggess in a cabaret setting, I highly recommend checking her out periodically on Twitter to see where she’s performing. (I won’t follow her because it’s one thing to hear about positive thinking live in the presence of a tremendous talent and quite another to see that clutter up your feed). The pianist alone is worth the price of the ticket: I will try to find out if he performs on his own in New York, because I would go anywhere in the city to hear him play.
II. N’Kenge’s Sparkling “Holiday Magic.
“Divaa N’Kenge,” as she calls herself, is actually not diva-like at all if one associates the term with standoffishness or poor behavior. I met the beautiful, multi-talented N’Kenge at Ben Cameron’s Broadway Sessions, his brainchild at the Laurie Beechman Theater every Thursday night at 10:30. It’s the best musical theater deal in town: 5 dollars and a 15 dollar food or drink minimum, which is basically one great glass of wine or specialty cocktail or a side order and modest glass of wine or well drink. I think West Bank Cafe has among the best food in the cabaret circuit (see my Yelp review and update) and it’s priced considerably under 54 Below, except for the stray fish entree which will be in the high 20s.
Cameron or “Ben D” as he’s known, formerly in Wicked, is a great talent with an ebullient personality that makes you feel good in his presence (and not because he spouts platitudes about enough-ness; in fact, he’s as much standup comedian as Broadway performer: edgy and bawdy, with an underlying sweetness tempered by sarcasm). He invites the cast of a Broadway show to sing songs they love, not generally the ones they perform eight times a week, and the night I went in October, the Motown cast made their way over after the show.
N’Kenge performed “Defying Gravity,” a song I love and have twice seen Ben Vereen perform in his show, Steppin’ Out, honored at the February Broadway World awards I was lucky to see at the Metropolitan Room. I had met Ben once before at Luigi Jazz Centre and was so happy to see him (and say that we still didn’t get the picture from the Broad Stage in Santa Monica of me giving him a Luigi t-shirt from Luigi and Francis, in spite of Mom’s clout with one of the influential ladies her age at the Broad, roughly her age and also a lawyer!). The show was different at 54 Below: smaller and more intimate, without a large screen on which to project clips. The shows were both phenomenal, just different as you’d expect in a show which runs both in LA and New York.
That mild October night, I went up to the approachable N’Kenge, who currently plays Mary Wells in the Broadway hit, Motown, and bought her CD. She told me about the upcoming holiday show and I said I would come. It’s a Christmas show, but everyone has gotten so nutty about “Merry Christmas,” she understandably calls it a holiday show on the flyer. Like Boggess without the mumbo jumbo, N’Kenge has opera training and her range is considerable as a result.
As an entirely secular Jew who loves Christmas–a “Christmas Tree Jew” (a phrase I stole from a writer I knew two decades ago when he was at the Yale School of Drama and I was in college)–I consider the debate over what to call the end-of-year holiday in a nation where some 80% of the population self-identifies as Christians, pure and utter nonsense. Unless I know someone is Jewish, I say Merry Christmas. To me, the phrase has nothing at all to do with Christ or Christianity: Christmas is an American cultural tradition and we have movies and music to prove it.
There were no fat men in red suits and silly proto-ZZ Top beards eating chocolate chip cookies and milk when the (historical) Jesus was in a basket and a manger (or if you buy Denis Leary’s version in probably my favorite Christmas movie ever, The Ref, whiskey). And I’m no geographer or Middle Eastern botanist, but I don’t think Noble or Douglas Firs grow freely in Bethlehem. Certainly, I don’t think houses in Jesus’ time had chimneys which Santa managed to squeeze into so that he could leave presents under the tree. Chestnuts did not roast over open fires in Bethlehem any more than they do in Brentwood, and I highly doubt that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were dreaming of a white Christmas.
Who doesn’t (or wouldn’t) love decorations at Balthazar in SoHo or pretty periwinkle trees on Park above 65th or the Bryant Park tree and skating rink (generously funded by Citibank, of course)? If you can look at a lavishly decked out red-and-green tree in a Madison Avenue window and not say, “Aww,” I think you’re at the very least unsentimental and aesthetically-challenged. By the same token, I think if you have a Hanukah bush, you need therapy. In New York, Christmas is a very big deal. Some people get morose because isolation at Christmas sucks more than it does at other times of year, but generally, I notice an even greater conviviality and buoyancy at Christmastime.
Bob Schiller, a writer of I Love Lucy, All in the Family, and Maude, as well as a carpool dad at St. Augustine, is still alive and kicking in Pacific Palisades where he and his wife, Sabrina, have lived for over 40 years. Every December, they threw a giant bash featuring Sabrina’s world-class chili and challah and Bob would joke: “They have ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘Silent Night,’ and what do we have? ‘Dreidel , dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay.’” (This from the man whose Catholic (second) wife not only converted to marry him, but became president of Kehillath Israel, a reconstructionist temple in the Palisades. Sabrina never did anything by half measures.)
N’Kenge (thank God) spares us Hanukah songs (“His name was Judah, the Maccabee/He fought for his people so that they could be free-ee”). She seamlessly moves between traditional carols like “Angels We Have Heard on High” to non-holiday standards like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which she performs in a breathtaking duet with her Motown costar, Charl Brown. Here is her set:
1. Give love on Christmas, 2. Peter Go Ring Dem Bells, 3. The Christmas Song, 4. From a Distance, 5. A Child is Born, 6. God Bless the Child, 7. All I Want for Christmas is You, 8. Santa Baby/Dirty Diana, 9. Man with the Bag, 10. Jesus What a Wonderful Child, 11. Don’t Save it All For Christmas Day, 12. It’s Raining Men, 13. Angels We Have Heard on High.
N’Kenge transitions smoothly from classical to pop to R & B, ably assisted by two elves, played by Samantha Baine and Tiffany Duck and a 7th grade skating sensation from Great Neck, Ilana Sedaka. N’Kenge changes for nearly every song into staggeringly beautiful and unique gowns by Stephanie Chernick, a USFSA Gold Medalist with an undergraduate degree in consumer economics and an Masters in health and physical education. Founder of Glitz Entertainment, she has created her own winter accessory line at Trump Rink and been active in corporate work and various industrials. Her band was outstanding but sax/flute player Todd Scheffling and guitarist Joe Etzine truly stood out.
I was fortunate to be able to sit near the front, among N’Kenge’s friends and other performers, past and present, and had precisely the feeling I did at Broadway Sessions, which provides a girl like me–on some level always wanted to be a musical theater actress–with the experience of camaraderie you don’t get outside of theater. As I regularly point out, I grew up on the fringes of the industry in Los Angeles because I went to Crossroads Elementary (St. Augustine) when Gary Goldberg, Steven Bochco, Bruce Paltrow, Richard Levinson, Lionel Stander, Bob Schiller were parents. And when you grow up in Pacific Palisades or Brentwood, Malibu or (north of Montana) Santa Monica, the industry is all around you.
I chose academia over the arts early in the game, going to Westlake School for Girls (with a significant but at that time not overwhelming industry presence) and studying dance exclusively because the drama at Westlake was downright embarrassing my first three years there, by which point I was on another path.
By the time got to New Haven, where in 1990 jazz dance was nonexistent and musical theater far less prevalent than straight drama, I would never have dared to try out for a play, even a little residential college production, much less anything at the Dramat. Those were serious actors who had devoted all the time I did in school to debate to performing. But the theater bug which bit me in elementary school and intensified over two summers after graduation, when I did “production camp” with Davida Wills-Hurwin, never left me.
Davida was our dance teacher at St. Augustine but soon taught only drama, becoming something of a guru at Crossroads from what I hear through my jazz teacher in LA, Jill Strauss, who teaches Advanced Jazz there. I wrote about the influence of these early experiences in my recent review for The Patch in Los Angeles: Suburban Showgirl, Malibu Patch review.
The camaraderie I felt both at N’Kenge’s show and at Broadway Sessions the night we met is precisely what Charl Brown described in an unusually good Huffington Post interview ( Charl Brown HuffPo Interview). When asked how he felt after Matilda‘s Geoffrey Ebert won the Tony for which he was nominated, Brown–a native of SB and graduate of USC– gave the best possible answer:
I always dreamed of going to the Tonys. I don’t know how many kids around the country really watch the Tonys or know of the Tonys, but for me going to a performing arts school, it was something I paid close attention to all my life. You can earn an Oscar or Grammy nomination anywhere in the world, but you can only earn a Tony in New York. I just wanted to be a part of the community, so to be recognized by the community was irreplaceable.
I even posted excerpts from the interview on my wall last night to explain why I adore New York and why my current happiness in life depends upon living here no fewer than three months a year. I can’t really afford Broadway (well, I could but would have to start cooking my own food and drinking entirely at home, which is never going to happen), but I go to a lot of cabaret when in the city.
People in CA still ask me, “What do you do in New York?” This is particularly true in Santa Barbara, which for some unknown reason many residents consider the best place in the universe to live full-time. (I’ll grant it’s up there among second and third residences). But aside from my parents, my boyfriend and a few friends (two of whom are new), most of my social life is in the Tri-State area.
In New York, people ask a different question. They know why a person would elect to spend time here, but are curious about what precisely brings me here. I explain my three-city rotation and say that I like to take jazz classes, hastening to add that I’m not a professional. At venues like 54 Below, tourists and locals (but not professionals) invariably ask me if I’m a performer because I do take care of myself and I’m animated and voluble (read: blabbermouth) with an unusual command of names and bios.
I needed a quiet night at home tonight, but would have seen N’Kenge again if I’d been up to it. The technical difficulties last night, which were never fully resolved (the feedback problem persisted) led to a nearly one-hour delay. I didn’t care as I had nothing much to do today and I got to chat with a current Broadway star, considerably more miffed by the delay than I was. We chatted about dance and dance class and he said that I had an “insider view” of things, which pleased me.
Two hours left to showtime, so if you’re anywhere near the Upper West Side, hop on the 1, 2 or 3 and enjoy the show. It’s rare to see Broadway stars in a cabaret setting this intimate for just 25 dollars and a two drink minimum. It’s 30 at the door.