Saturday, July 2, 2011

This Broadway Theatre Brought to You by the Letter 'A'

Letter grade for Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

One final thought before calling it a night. Starting this month all Broadway Theatres will be subject to the city Health Department's letter grades since they have bars and concession stands. Tonight I just happened to notice the grade A at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre where I saw 'The Book of Mormon'.

The Health Department's spokesperson has indicated in the press that even with the limited food and drinks found at theatres, there is a risk of food-borne illness if food safety practices are not followed. All theatres will have a grade and be required to post them by fall.

Theatres that do not post signs prominently face fines of up $1,000. Broadway theatres, like restaurants, can earn A, B or C grades but can post "grade pending" if an inspector's mark is being disputed. Of the 24,000 eateries and bars, 15,000 have been inspected as of this month and half of them have earned an A.

I asked my friends in New York if they would dine at a restaurant that did not achieve a grade of A and their answer was an emphatic yes. It appears that if the Health Department allows the eatery to remain open and they've come to trust the place, they feel why be alarmed by a letter B.

Visit for more info about the restaurant inspection by the New York City Department of Health.

Stage Door at 'The Book of Mormon'

'The Book of Mormon' marquee
Andrew Rannells plays Elder Price in 'The Book of Mormon'
Josh Gad plays Elder Cunningham in 'The Book of Mormon'
(all photos: TheHopefulTraveler)
More than thirty minutes since the performance ended at 10:30pm and after picking up a late-night cup of coffee nearby a patient crowd still remained outside of the stage door at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre waiting for the stars of 'The Book of Mormon'. Since I had no other plans other than to call it a night and return to my hotel, I decided to finish my coffee here and watch the actors who were still backstage exit the theatre and meet fans. I managed to snap a few candid shots between sips of coffee that are included in this post.

Andrew Rannells
Because of the throngs of audience members that normally seek an autograph or photo-op with the performers of a show on Broadway, I for the most part just avoid doing the same. With so many people waiting, there is always the opportunity that you may not get that signature or photo and in addition the wait can be long as the performers decompress after a strenuous show or meet personal guests backstage. For the faithful and persistent the reward is a unique momento from their visit to a Broadway show.

If you choose to seek out the performers after a show just remember to bring your own pen and be patient. Naturally you would want to jockey for a prime position near the stage door or along the barricade often set up by security to allow safe exit for everyone exiting the theatre. The actors are usually gracious and happy to meet fans after a show but keep in mind depending on the number of people waiting outside expect that you may get both an autograph and photo, just one or neither. Be prepared that some performers may leave the theater at an alternate exit to avoid the crowd. Always be gracious to the performers and considerate of others also waiting alongside you.

The crowd descend upon Nikki M. James (obscured) who plays Nabulungi
in 'The Book of Mormon'

Review: 'The Book of Mormon' Believes at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad with the company.
Rema Webb. Andrew RAnnells, Josh Gad
(production photos credit: Joan Marcus)
I’m probably not much the wiser about members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after seeing ‘The Book of Mormon’ on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. It probably doesn't matter anyhow as probably many others will be unable to separate the jokes from elements the creators have pulled from official Mormon dogma in this irreverent and hilarious Tony winner for best musical.

Andrew Rannells
Story follows Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) as an unlikely pair of Mormon Missionaries sent to Uganda to find converts in a village beset by disease, poverty and a local warlord. They find the other missionaries in this part of Africa, led by Elder McKinley (Rory O’Malley), have been unsuccessful in the same quest. Along the way Price and Cunningham embark on their own journeys of discovery.

With a subject as sacred as religion, the musical is indeed one of the most apolitically correct ever to grace a Broadway stage. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of “South Park”, have added other targets to the mix from the female circumcision, AIDS and homosexuality. But with no pretensions whatsoever other than to entertain, they have crafted a musical that is currently the mega hit of the year and likely many more to come.

Parker and Stone with Robert Lopez (‘Avenue Q’) have composed some of the most sinfully tuneful songs lacking the grandiosity that plagues many musicals. Sixteen memorable songs brim and overflow with hilarity from the start with the introduction of the two elders in “Hello!’ reckoning the audience with experiences of white shirt, black slacks wearing missionaries knocking on their front doors and “Two by Two” as each missionary is assigned a destination to find converts, the songs are immediately accessible and catchy. Perhaps their ultimate feat was crafting a successful Broadway musical not adapted from another source material.

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad 
Josh Gad, Nikki M. James and Andrew Rannells
The musical is also an homage to Broadway. Rather than riduciling the medium, the show pays tribute to the likes of 'The Sound of Music,' 'Fiddler on the Roof,' 'The King and I' and of more recent vintage 'The Lion King.' The song “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (translated as “F**k You God) recalls “Hakuna Matata” from ‘Lion’ and used by the African villagers to make light of their downtrodden existence which the missionaries embrace until they learn its actual meaning.

Gad makes the dimwitted slob Cunningham into a lovable character. Like a teddy bear he completely charms the audience with his innocence in a role that could have easily fallen into an incessantly insufferable portrayal (think John Candy in “Planes, Trains and Automibiles”). He even maintains the humor of a running gag of mispronouncing the name of a young village woman named Nabulungi (Nikki M. James). Gad imbues sweetness when singing praises to his co-missionary in “I Am Here For You” then rocks the house later in act one with “Man Up” as he summons the courage to lead the Ugandan followers in the Mormon teachings.

Many critics have compared Rannells to a Ken Doll and it would be hard to differ. From a perfectly coiffed haircut, shiny bright teeth and exuberance it’s a role that that requires a transformation from egotistical follower to disullionsed disciple that builds to his definitive and inspirinig moment of self-affirmation in the song “I Believe” which Rannells performs with a sincere gusto.

Josh Gad (left) the company 
The company
 Among supporting players standouts include O’Malley who leads the missionaries in “Turn It Off” as he reveals the key to living the Mormon life is to repress any ungodly thoughts especially about those of the same sex. James as Nabulungi is the emotional heart of the musical. She gives an earnest performance as she finds faith in the Mormon religion and is most tender when expressing her dreams of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”.

Sets by Scott Pask and costumes by Ann Roth add their flair to the fun. Pask has deisigned a proscenium complete with rotating angel statue that recalls the most austere of Mormon temples and adds touches of a dead animal to a composite Disney-centric image of Orlando as backdrop for the proceedings. Beyond the shirts and slacks for the missionaries, Roth gives us a “Lion King” Rafiki look-a-like and pushes the limit in the devlish costumes in the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicolaw expertly stages the entire endeavor from the precision choregraphy of the missionaries to the play-within-play retelling of the first Mormons that echoes “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from “The King and I”. Completely trusting the material he ably showcases the gags that permeate the production.

Some of those more devout of religion can say the production is sacrilegious. However the musical does contain themes of finding one's hopes and dreams which if not fully inspirational are still uplifting. Combined with its broad appeal, those lucky enough to snag a ticket to “The Book of the Mormon” will be spreading the word for a long time to come.

Josh Gad, Nikki M. James and Andrew Rannells

Where: Eugene O'Neill Theatre
Location: 230 West 49th Street, New York City
When: Tue-Thu 7pm; Fri & Sat 8pm; Sun 7pm; Sat & Sun 2pm
Running Time: 2 hrs 30 min
Ticket Prices: $69-$155
Opening: Mar 24, 2011 (previews from Feb 24, 2011)
Closing: Open Ended Run
Book Online:
Book by Phone: 1-800-432-7250
Cast Recording: The Book of Mormon - Original Broadway Cast

Video: 'The Book of Mormon' on Broadway

Video highlights from the Broadway hit musical 'The Book of Mormon' now playing at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York City. Visit for more videos from the musical.

The Venue: Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway Believes in 'The Book of Mormon'

(except where noted, all photos by TheHopefulTraveler)
The venue that now houses 'The Book of Mormon' has gone through a few name changes over its lifetime. It originally opened in 1925 as the Forrest Theatre named for Edwin Forrest, a classical actor of the time and then in 1945 renamed the Coronet Theatre by its new owners. The Eugene O'Neill Theatre came to be in 1959 when the venue was renamed in honor of one of America's greatest playwrights.

Besides 'The Book of Mormon' which I will be seeing tonight, other productions I've witnessed at the Eugene O'Neill are a revival of 'Grease' (1994); a revival of 'Nine' (2003) starring Antonio Banderas and Jane Krakowski; and 'Spring Awakening' (2006) starring Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele.

Some notable productions to open at the O'Neill include: 'The Full Monty' (2000), 'M. Butterfly' (1988), and 'Big River' (1985).

The versatile theater is popular to host both plays (with a seating capacity of 1,102) and musicals (1,065 seats). Though sight lines are good from most seats, this is one venue where I always immediately walk outside during intermission. There is no lobby so all the aisles become traffic jams and the orchestra bar and restrooms are down narrow steps to the basement. The venue is one of five houses owned by Jujamcyn Theatres.

Theatre interior
(image credit: unknown)

Renaissance New York Times Square Hotel: Common Areas

Above: photos of the lounging area on the main lobby level.
(Except where noted all photos: TheHopefulTraveler)
I have nothing against sky lobbies at hotels. The New York Marriott Marquis hotel a block down the street offers one of the extreme examples with the main lobby located on the eighth floor. These lobbies offers some sort of privacy or exclusivity for hotel guests. On the other hand it offers an unnecessary stop during the check-in process when guests are likely most eager to head straight to their room after entering the hotel entrance especially with bags in tow.

Unlike the Marquis where the elevators take guests to any floor from the ground level, the Renaissance New York Times Square has a set of two elevators that takes guests from the ground level to the main lobby at which point a few feet away are the main elevators to the guest room floors. Check-in used to be on the main level until three years ago when the it was moved to the ground level. I found this change convenient.

Hotel Check-in Desk
(image credit: Renaissance Hotels)
Arrival lobby level.
The main level lobby is sectioned off with the R Lounge at Two Times Square on one end and the Vivid Lounge (which serves only breakfast from 6:30am-11am after which it becomes an available meeting room) at the other. The concierge desk is just off the elevators. In between is a sophisticated lounge area with cushy couches and chairs in blue and acid washed copper walls making it an inviting place to relax or to meet up for drinks; and main lobby bar with it's long communal table. The lighting changes once evening sets giving it more of a lounge feeling rather than lobby. This level can get busy depending on the time of day but if offers but it offers an escape when you've found the frenzy of Times Square enough.

This is one of a series of posts in review of the Renaissance New York Times Square Hotel.

Above and below: Main lobby bar.

Main level lobby changes once evening arrives.
Nook with computer monitors.

The View from the R Lounge at Two Times Square

The view is quite dazzling from the R Lounge at Two Times Square located in the Renaissance New York Times Square Hotel. It feels like you're right in the center of the vibrant theatre district without having to deal with the noise and crowds. The view of the sea of people gives one a perspective of how many people converge into the Times Square District. The billboard at this end of Times Square that would hover above when viewed from ground level now appear up close. The views here will make for some picture postcard moments.

See the previous post for a review of the R Lounge at Two Times Square. This is one of a series of posts in review of the Renaissance New York Times Square Hotel.

R Lounge at Two Times Square

The sign just off the elevator directing guests to the R Lounge.
Restaurant interior.
View of Times Square from my table.
(All photos: TheHopefulTraveler)
The R Lounge at Two Times Square is the primary restaurant for the Renaissance New York Times Square Hotel and has one of the best views of Broadway. However it appears the hotel is searching for a concept to make it one of the popular hangouts in Times Square.

Before a multi-million dollar renovation of the hotel, the venue was the expensive Foley's Fish House specializing in seafood and tradtional American cuisine. New York magazine reported: "The dining room is relatively quiet and formal. Still, the name is a bit of misnomer. If you shun shellfish your options are limited. The fish is fresh and high-quality but prepared in a heavy-handed way, thick with sweet sauces and salty fry-ups."

Glass of Pinot Grigio
Chop Suey replaced Foley's in 2008 once the modern design of the renovation was completed and permeated every corner of the new Renaissance. From a New York Times review: "Chop Suey, which mingles Korean and other Asian traditions, is an uneven mash of inspiration and clumsiness. The reddish-organge leather funiture inside the restauarant is so amusingly retro cool you expect to see Austin Powers canoodlilng on the banquette."

Chop Suey did not last. By 2009, the restaurant was now called Two Times Square. The decor remained and the menu overhauled highlighted by Blue Plate Specials Monday through Thursdays. Dinner specials included Chicken Pot Pie on Tuesdays and Ravioli Pomodor on Thursdays.

Returning to the Renaissance in 2010, the concept has again changed and it appears the hotel has found one that may last longer than its most recent incarnatons. Officially called the R Lounge at Two Times Square, some menu items from Two Times Square survive but the interior was completely overhauled. Dispensing with the traditional dinner tables, there is now plenty of cushy and comfy seating including chairs swathed in zebra patterns and low tables that allow the room to transition from restaurant to club to bar to lounge depending on the time of day or occasion. Just outside of the R Lounge, the hotel's main bar with its communal table now easily transitions into the restaurant space.

The last of the three BBQ Sliders.
Crispy Calamari
But what has remained the distinctive and constant feature in each of these restaurant concepts is the spectacular view (See the next post for more photos of the view). No wonder on this late afternoon, all the tables along the windows were full and reserved signs place on the few couple of unoccupied window tables. A refreshing glass of Pinot Grigio ($12, Kris, Italian) was the perfect pairing to sip while soaking in the view of Times Square. The BBQ Sliders ($10 for three, with shredded lettuce on brioche roll) from their Blue Ribbon Classics menu oozed with flavor if a bit too sweet; and the Crispy Calamari ($9, with pomodoro sauce) from their Bar Bites selection had a light and crispy coating but needed a gentle more sprinkling of seasoning. Service was efficient and the experience relaxing as the dinner crowd only to began to descend onto the R Lounge.

More info at The R Lounge at Two Times Square is open Sun-Mon 11am-12am; Tue-Wed 11am-1am; Thu-Sat 11am-2am and located on the upper lobby level of the Renaissance Times Square New York Hotel.

This is one of a series of posts in review of the Renaissance New York Times Square Hotel.

The restaurant's bar. The hotel's main bar is located just outside of the R Lounge.
The restaurant interior when the venue was called Chop Suey and then
Two Times Square.
The Vivid Lounge is also located on the main lobby level and open only for breakfast from 6:30am-11:00am. For the remainder of the day, the lounge can be reserved for special events of meetings.
Vivid Lounge (image credit: Renaissance Hotels)

Review: 'Sister Act' Reborn at the Broadway Theatre

Patina Miller and the company
Alena Watters, Rashidra Scott and Patina Miller
Victoria Clark and Patina Miller
When I viewed the London production of ‘Sister Act’ last year, I was extremely disappointed as the matinee progressed (click HERE for that review) and couldn’t wait for the show to end. There was very little to like and it appeared a transfer to Broadway unlikely.

Behold a miracle. Not that the show is in perfect shape but that producers had enough faith to bring it to the Broadway Theatre this spring. They did have some reservations with the London version as Jerry Zaks was brought in as the new director and Douglas Carter Beane (‘Little Dog Laughed,’ ‘Xanadu’) added to make improvements to the book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellener.

The story about Deloris Van Cartier (Patina Miller), an aspiring club singer on-the-run, has been transplanted for the stage to the 1980s and a score of disco songs. When Deloris witnesses a murder she is placed in protective custody in the one place the police are sure she won’t be found: a convent. Disguised as a nun, she finds herself at odds with the rigid lifestyle and the uptight Mother Superior (Victoria Clark). Using her fabulous disco-sense, Deloris inspires the off-key choir that includes the shy Sister Mary Robert (Marla Mindelle) and jolly Sister Mary Patrick (Sarah Bolt) and brings new life to the church which may blow her cover. Hot on her heels is her mobster boyfriend Curtis (Kingsley Leggs) and his partners in crime (John Tracey Egan, Caesar Samayoa, Demond Green).

Demond Green, Caesar Samayoa, Kingsley Leggs and John Treacy Egan
Chester Gregory and Patina Miller
Whoopi Goldberg, star of the "Sister Act" film, is such a unique talent and with her name plastered all over ad copy as a producer for the Broadway production, it makes it that far more difficult for Miller to make the role of Deloris her own. But Miller is indeed game. She definitely has the vocal chops to carry her disco songs especially her two opening numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby”; and is still touching when she performs the title-song ballad. She is helped with the tighter direction of Zaks and book from Beane but the shadow of Goldberg remains looming large over the show.

The score has grown on me since London and I much adore the big finale song “Spread the Love Around.” Though the score was Tony nominated, the nomination slot could have easily gone to “Catch Me If You Can” which was locked out of the field. It was a choice between an inconsistent field of eligible musicals. (The score for the superior ‘The Book of Mormon” was the eventual winner). Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater did tweak the numbers and added a new song (“Haven’t Got a Prayer”) for the Mother Superior to display the talents of actress Clark. She in turn elevates the supporting role for Broadway.

Sarah Bolt, Marla Mindelle and Patina Miller
The 'Sister Act' Broadway company
The nuns especially Mindelle and Bolt appear too eager to please which is a symptom of the characterization that was not solved in the transfer from London. Among the men, bad guys Egan, Green and Samayoa have some decent comedic moments and Fred Applegate as the Monsignor steps in now and then to punch up several scenes while Chester Gregory as the cop in love with Deloris fades into the background. Because the musical is a family show, Leggs’s mobster role is watered down and never seems as threatening as his character should be.

Some improvements have been made to the garish production design compared to the London production. However the overly bedazzled costumes for the nuns keep the show a full arm’s length from anything believable.

Perhaps two saving graces is the finale which gives the audience an upbeat note before leaving the theater and that joke involving the Pope. It’s simple but still quite funny. One thing I noticed at the Broadway Theatre is the confessional in the lobby where patrons are encouraged to share their love for the show. Should I confess that I found the show more engaging and entertaining if still imperfect this second time around. It didn't matter. It appeared there were more than enough patrons to keep the confessional occupied well after the matinee ended.

Patina Miller

  • Website:
  • Where: Broadway Theatre, New York City
  • Location: 1681 Broadway (between West 52nd & 53rd Streets)
  • When: Tue 7pm; Wed-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 30 min
  • Ticket Prices: $51.50-$129
  • Opening: Apr 20, 2011 (previews from Mar 24, 2011)
  • Closing: Open Ended Run
  • Book Online:
  • Book by Phone: 1-800-432-7250
  • Cast Recording: Sister Act - Original London Cast (Broadway Cast Recording unavailable)
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