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Indian Restaurants

Vegetarian Dining in New York
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Theater Reviews

Cool Gift: CityPass New York

!    We love City Pass!

Do you know somebody who's planning to come to New York? Sure you do. Every week! We love to watch your eyes go boingggg boingggg when they see our tall buildings and sense the excellence and intelligence of America's only truely international, grown-up city. We love to watch your auras explode when you taste our gorgeous food.

But what New Yorker wants to take a big-eyed, breathless first-time visitor up the Empire State Building for the 37th time at 8:00 a.m.? No, no, no, no, no. No more!

So here's what you do: you buy your friend a CityPass. And when you take your friends for din-dins that evening they can tell you all about the rubber King Kong pencils they bought up there at the tippy top. No waiting on line either...with CityPass, your guests just waltz right in. Well, most of the time, anyway. The Empire State Building's a special case. It gets crowded up there, and King Kong's got a CityPass too. Your CityPass will get also you free admission to the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Guggenheim Museum & MoMA, and more! So do it.

Click here for the CityPass website.

New York Tourist Tip:
    Eat in neighbourhood coffee shops, (in midtown, East side, close to the United Nations, these are on First and Second Avenues, where breakfast is $3 for two eggs, potatoes and toast, not $12 or more in the hotel tourist traps. There's a 24 hour supermarket on the corner. Walk to First Avenue between 53rd and 54th Street and you'll find all the Sutton Place regulars tucked into the comforting diner booths at the  

all nighter Madison coffee shop, or a few clicks down at Tal Bagel, where the tofu scallion spread on an Everything Bagel is actually just as delicious as the cream cheese. And so good  for you.

New York's Secret Hotels . . .
and the Neighborhoods Are Fabulous 

You don't want to stay in a cheap cheap hotel in New York. Ever. But if you can be clean, safe and private, in an excellent neighbourhood, why pay more? Three of the best are here, and they're gems.


The Pickwick Arms Hotel 
A great clean, recently renovated cheap hotel on the East Side (230 East 51st Street) in a snazzy midtown residential neighbourhood. Walk home, singing and dancing, from the Broadway shows. The rooms won't win any design awards, but it's all immaculate, safe, and you've got a TV and a sink in the room. High rollers can book the rooms with private baths or showers. Budgeteers can use the sparkling showers just steps down the hall. More Pickwick info?


The Excelsior Hotel
We have a big soft soft for the old Excelsior Hotel. It's on Central Park, so there's air there, too. What a concept! Unsurprisingly, Jerry Seinfeld, Tony Randall, and lots of celebrities, if you care about that sort of thing, live nearby. The Excelsior is located directly across 81st street, opoosite the new Planetarium, which looks stunning and awesome on the outside and is crushing and horrible on the inside (more on that disappointing debacle later). Just stay in celestial splendour at the historic Excelsior, where galaxies of wonderful sweet space scientists wander around in circles, jabbering to themselves, gawping at the beautiful blue ball glow eerily at night. There's a good coffee shop, and a subway and bus stops on the corner.
Righteous, and still under 200 clams per night! 
More info here


The Y
You get more than a room when you stay at the Y. You'll find recreation, a concierge /tourist desk, swimming pools, and fitness facilities. And a cheap hotel. In New York City: Yes! Y not? 
Wise guys use Ys.
You can stay at the Y in Hong Kong, Delhi, Athens, Bangkok, London and even New York.
Get a free brochure by writing to:
The Y's Way International 
224 East 47th St.
New York, NY 10017
tel 212 308 2899. And lest we forget, click here

About  Indian Restaurants 

Sixth Street (aka Little India)

If you haven't yet run the gauntlet, you really must take a walk along Sixth Street from Second Avenue to First Avenue, Manhattan's “Little India.” Peer into the restaurants, as you are “invited” by the many restaurant owners to step inside their wildly lighted establishments.

The food's pretty much the same — better than average, at least — in all of them. Some folks favour Ghandi, some prefer the always reliable Mitali East. And those who don't know any better get sucked into Banjara, perhaps because it's more expensive, and many people in this country (including, unfortunately, the  Zagat and New York magazine reviewers) don't know Indian food very well and can't tell good from the average.

If you want a thoroughly delightful Sixth Street experience, turn to the right when you reach First Avenue, and walk a few steps, where now you will see four - count them, four! - Indian restaurants, two up, two down, all good, and festooned with the wildest flashing lights of all, some of them, winking, blinking red chilli peppers in endless rows.

And four men will be standing outside, smiling, calling, egging you on, egging you in, aggressively waving you into their doors. You probably haven't felt so sought-after since you took your shirt off on the balcony on Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras. Well, you're going to have to break three hearts. And the food's lovely  in all these places. But one place has a hidden surprise:  

The Royal Bangladesh Indian Restaurant
93 First Avenue (between 5th and 6th Streets)
Ny NY 10003

Surprise, surprise...this one features a cool, sparkling, lighted, canopied, mysterious, magical secret garden, so pretty - and funky, too - it will transport you instantly into a romantic, gentler world. A great place to delight your friends, have a party, or throw one of those buy-your-own-damn-dinner parties that are becoming increasingly popular these days. The vegetable main dishes are $4.95 and $5.95, and you'll be spoilt for choice. Coconut soup is $1.25! And the food's lovely.

       Lunch special, noon to 4 pm will get you a pappadum, soup, samosa, banana pakora bhujia, eggplant  pakora, a vegetable curry, rice, dhal, and dessert!

Another Must-See, Must-Do New York Indian Experience:

Curry in a Hurry
119 Lexington Avenue
NY NY 10016
tel 212 683 0900 and 683 0904 and 683 5856 and 683 5944
fax 212 685 6385

This world famous pit stop (since 1976) for taxi drivers, film stars, Indians families, homesick diplomats and obsessed nutcases like your reviewers who once in awhile wake up and must have the full smorgasbord of   Indian dishes for breakfast at 10 o'clock in the morning  is not to be missed. In you come, look at the Big Board above, and point to all you want. They load it all onto a tray and then you teeter up the narrow stairs, where, waiting for you is a room full of tables and another buffet. We're not talking high gourmet dining here, but the pakoras are stunning and the dishes are the real thing, home cooking, perhaps, just like Rama used to make.

Travel tip: Get take-away samosas for a picnic on the plane, or to stash in your mini bar for a jet-lag snack.

Luxury Indian Dining

Northern Indian Cuisine

Bombay Palace 
30 West 52nd Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
NY NY 10019

BP on the Web

You can always count on Bombay Palace to serve you a delicious, superior excellent almost guarantees excellence in every dish. If you need to take someone to a special lunch at a moment's notice, the cooking will never let you down .The rooms are constantly being renovated and glitzed up and convey a casual sense of occasion. People feel flattered to be asked to join you here. Bombay Palace is an international chain. The up side to this is it has extremely high standards.

Nice stop for Fifth Avenue shoppers or midtown execs. I like to "test" Indian restuarants by ordering difficult, variable dishes: Mattar Paneer is a case in point. The peas should be bright green, not army coloured. The paneer should be large, plump, rectangular, soft and taste of rosewater. Bombay Palace's always passes the paneer test, where hardly anyone else does. They sell their own cookbook: a must have.

      Unlike Madjhur Jaffery's and other 'earth toned' flavours,  the Bombay Palace's approach has a brightness and confidence and gourmet swagger, a genuine polish that makes you want to eat these foods every day. We've got three copies, and whenever we go into the hinterlands, the book goes with us. (Want to buy the book?) Go here.

Pricey a la carte and at night, your  best bet is  the glorious (but limited, compared to Diwan's sumptuous lunchtime spread) seven days a week lunch buffet. The good old BP has been in business for ever, and perhaps the only complaints we might have about it are the ever-changing three selections of vegetarian dishes on the daily buffet. They don't always think about how it must feel having a choice of three dishes that are lentils, peas and potatoes, and chick peas: beans, bean, beans! To be fair, they will offer to bring you another dish, but this always embarrasses us. We don’t like to make a fuss. Phone before you go and ask what's on today. If you're lucky it might be mattar or sag paneer, cauliflower, and black dhal, or kofta, or veg jalfrezi. 

Baluchi's (a chain)

If you've got to have an Indian meal right away, you could do worse. The cooking has a harshness to it, and some dishes are too oily.

Two tricks here: 1) Diners are entitled to a free basket of pappadums, but you have to know to ask for them, or you're out of luck. 2) At lunch everything on the menu is 50% off the listed price. This seems a silly practise - why bother going there for dinner? Tips: Paneer Tikka makes a great starter, The veg kurma tastes good, though the sauce is thin and runny; the veg jalfrezi is too sharp. Veg kofta is terrific, and those pappadums are worth fighting for...they're very nice, washed down with a salt lassi.

Please don't waste your time with:
Pretty room, disappointing and, at times,  lukewarm food,  frosty service. The rich people in the Lincoln Center area will think it's swell; they're all on diets, anyway.

Unexceptional food and unfriendly service.  Huge bright room, full of suits.

Bay Leaf
Above average. Nice room. And then our two reviewers went home and were violently sick. 

Jewel in the Crown
A zircon not worth going out of your way for.



  New York Vegetarians are celebrating the arrival of a new hang-out: Veg City Diner. 

It looks like a normal diner. It even almost smells like a normal diner. But there are no disgusting cards pushing Buffalo burgers in the booths, and the rooms don't stink of old grease. That's because these diners serve clean food---vegetarian and also vegan only. You can get Jell-O that isn't gelatin based. They have fries, pot pies, organic eggs and tofu club sandwiches. In other words, normal food...without the meat. Be patient here: the service is wildly erratic: the main dish came first, followed by the salad. Much later, bread arrived. But give them a little time. It's worth a trip just to get Scorned Beef Hash for breakfast. 
55 W. 14th St. at Sixth Ave. 212.490.6266
Open seven days a week.6 AM-1AM


Best American Vegetarian 
Food in Town:
Organic Harvest Cafe

Well, it's a hole in the wall. But it's a light, bright, clean, cheerful , airy little space, a few steps up and opposite the bland, desultory salad bar fare at Bunchberries. There are only three tables here Sit down anyway. The food is fresh and bursting with flavour; you can practically taste the vitamins jumping into you.

If you must eat your vegetables,---and there are always good daily dark greens somewhere on the big menu---they will steam them or jazz them with garlic for you. They char-grill your vegeburgers, tofu, seitan, etc. Our fave is the Big Daddy Seitan Steak Dinner ( $10.50), with mashed potatoes and gravy and veg. Excellent salad dressings and juices are a sure sign that the chef takes great care over every detail of the simple but righteous fare. You can choose from a selection of sides, too, if you prefer to keep things simple: soba noodles, cornbread, brown rice, carmelized onions, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, grilled tempeh, grilled or steamed tofu, garlic bread, etc. Because it's so small, they do a huge business in deliveries to the nearby Citicorp and Lipstick buildings. Time Out and Zagat missed this place...again. Which is a shame on them, because this place has some of the best vegetarian food in town...and none of the stingy portions, cramped conditions or passive-aggressive New Agey 'tude of the uncomfortably metallic and draggy Candle Cafe uptown. You can eat vegan or macrobiotic here too. But we'll take the exquisite, simple Vegetarian Dumplings with ginger shoyu sauce ($5.95) anytime. 

Organic Harvest Cafe 
235 East 53rd Street
 (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues) 
New York, NY 10022
Phone: 212 421 6444 Fax: 212 421 5255


 Theater Reviews By Fern Siegel

           Never Gonna Dance

          What do you get when you marry Jerome Kern’s music to a lighthearted comic confection? A splashy, sassy Broadway hit. Now playing at the Broadhurst Theater, "Never Gonna Dance" is like watching an Astaire-Rodgers movie on stage. It’s breezy and funny and utterly American.   The time is 1936, and the country is in the grips of the Great Depression. But does that grim news get our hero — Lucky (Noah Racey) or our heroine — Penny (Nancy Lemenager) down? Heck, no. When the going gets tough, the tough go dancing. After all, the original point of the MGM musicals was to lift the spirits of a frightened public. Times were hard, and we needed a break. Times are still hard; we still need theatrical escape. Happily, "Never Gonna Dance," with an utterly charming ensemble, two attractive leads, Robin Wagner’s sublime deco delight sets, and a glorious score, obliges. 

          The premise is simple: Lucky, a professional hoofer, wants to marry a girl back in Punxsutawney, Pa. To do so, he’s got to earn $25,000. That means heading for the bright lights, big city in search of fame and fortune. Lucky just happens to meet a dancing instructor, Penny. And before you can say Major Bowes Dance Contest, our dashing duo suddenly teams up to win a grand prize of $25,000!

          Of course, Lucky falls for Penny, but he can’t express his true feelings — he made a promise to another. Penny is equally enamoured of Lucky, but is dating over-the-top singer Ricardo Romero (David Pittu). What’s a star-crossed couple to do? They just gotta dance. And their dancing is dazzling. Two scenes are particularly stunning: A Grand Central number that celebrates the music and rhythms of ordinary life and a stunning piece atop the newly constructed Vanderventer (read Rockefeller) Center that’s joyous.

           "Never Gonna Dance" is a musical meringue that marries all the MGM conventions — love conquers all, happy endings abound, the poor can become rich — into a joyful musical comedy. When former broker turned bum (Peter Gerety) woos his beloved Mabel (Karen Ziemba) in the Horn & Hardart automat, we know that anything is possible. What’s economic despair next to a snappy score? Augmenting this funfest of aspiration and occasional intrigue (Will Lucky’s real status be revealed?) is a supporting cast, including Peter Bartlett as a deliciously fey dance school owner, that sparkles. Besides, Racey and Lemenager make it all look so easy. They play plucky like nobody’s business and together, they are magic.

          "Never Gonna Dance" is not only an homage to 1930s black-and-white musicals and the enduring elegance of art deco, but it’s a reminder, thanks to Jerry Mitchell’s exquisite choreography, that dance is a joyous art. And that while dreams don’t always come true in real life, it’s comforting to know they can on stage. —Fern Siegel


          Nothing But the Truth

          Crime and punishment, truth and reconciliation are massive subjects. They are most accessible as drama when they are personalized. Throw family secrets and sibling rivalry into the mix, and the pot reaches its boiling point. It takes a steady hand to balance such explosive material, and South African playwright John Kani has both the talent and the vision to carry it off.

          Now playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, "Nothing But the Truth" is a searing, intimate drama that personalizes the struggle of South African blacks and, at the same time, explores the divisions between them as they confronted their apartheid past.

          The year is 2000. The place is Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The players — Sipho Makhaya (John Kani), his daughter, Thando (Warona Seane), and his English niece Mandisa (Esmeralda Bihl). Sipho’s estranged brother Timbo has died, and Mandisa has brought him back to his homeland for burial. The funeral serves as a backdrop to the larger issues that confront the Makhaya family. Indeed, as the country deals with the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission — the public hearings set up by President Mandela for victims of the apartheid era), the Makhayas deal with the truth about Timbo.

          Kani says he wrote the play "to bring closure in my heart to the death of my brother, Xofile Kani." Xxofile, killed by police in 1985, is mirrored by Timbo, who fled into exile because he feared police reprisals. But Timbo, who appears as a hero to Mandisa, is a flawed, selfish man in the eyes of Sipho. And therein lies the brilliance of "Nothing But the Truth." It raises provocative questions about the nature of existence: Who is a hero? Those who stay and fight or those who flee? Do we tell the truth about ourselves? Can reconciliation ever be achieved? Is it right to grant amnesty to killers in the guise of national healing?

          An assistant chief librarian, Sipho is a soft-spoken, highly responsible man who, at 63, can still recall the pains of childhood. His was a life of service and care. Timbo encouraged others to strike, but he relied on Sipho to feed and clothe, house and educate him. Timbo is the charismatic speaker, Sipho is the ordinary man who fights the good fight - without applause. Sipho is as critical of resistance leaders who hijacked his life as he is of the white police who brutalized his people. Which makes his moment of political reckoning so powerful.

          And it comes vis-à-vis his niece, the catalyst for his awakening. Mandisa is English, modern, opinionated and demanding. Thando is quiet, accommodating, the good daughter who respects the traditions of her elders. Yet it is Thando and Sipho who garner our respect. Their quiet dignity, their love for each other, is touching. We can agree or disagree with their politics, but we are struck by the depth of their experiences.

          These three people engage in a fierce battle for truth that is at once upsetting and liberating. "Nothing But the Truth" is carefully modulated to build to a stunning crescendo. Kani is a gifted writer/actor who quietly commands our respect. He’s ably served by his co-stars. Each hits her stride, although Seane is especially adept at seizing our attention. Janice Honeyman’s direction is impassioned and fluid. Here is a drama that engages our hearts and minds, one you’ll discuss long after you leave the theater. —Fern Siegel 


Anna in the Tropics

          "I let myself be taken." So says Marela, a Cuban cigar factory worker whose heart is as big as the island’s sky. She’s not talking about sexual transport, although she longs for romantic release. Hers is the salvation of literature — and such is the transcendence of art, that the mind-numbing task of rolling tobacco is forgotten: The story is all.

          As "Anna in the Tropics," a gentle, compelling drama now playing at the Royal Theatre makes clear, novels can ennoble us. They reach into our souls and allow us to dream; for factory workers, many of whom are illiterate, the chance to participate in a world beyond their own is intoxicating.    It’s 1929 Tampa, and Marela (an amazing Vanessa Aspillaga), her sister, Conchita (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and mother, Ofelia (Priscilla Lopez), have sent for a Cuban lecturer, Juan Julian (Jimmy Smits). His job is to read to the workers, a Cuban tradition that dates back hundreds of years. He, of course, is handsome and poetic — and his presence will alter everyone’s life. Thus, his choice of novel is telling: "Anna Karenina."

          Indeed, Anna is the unofficial lead in the play. It is her life, her marriage, her love affair and her fate that will parallel the ensemble’s. Whatever role they are cast — lonely wife, sultry lover, wayward husband — the story of Anna and the fate of Marela, Conchita, Juan and Chechi (David Zayas), a distraught relative, will cross.

          This clever device, the brainchild of Pulizer-Prize winning playwright Nilo Cruz, is the essence of "Anna in the Tropics," a paean to momentary pleasures. Cruz paints a portrait of yearning and desire both pure and messy. The human heart is complicated, and Anna Karenina’s heirs are no more equipped to conquer its torment that she was. What they can learn to value is a sunset or the aroma of a handmade cigar or those golden moments when desire engulfs us.

          But desire, "Anna Karenina" warns us, can be costly. Conchita and her husband (John Ortiz) are troubled; into their marriage walks Juan Julian. Like Veronsky in "Karenina" he is dashing; like Anna, she longs for love and passion. Conchita is not alone. Marela’s yearnings are equally intense, alas, they are comic because they are so sincere. Love comes in many shades.

          What makes the play work is that Cruz engages us in their lives, their hopes, their tragedies. He’s equally adept at a meditation on modernity vs. tradition. In fact, the chronicle of eight Cuban-Americans during one sweltering summer in Florida is cause for celebration. It’s not often Tolstoy is saluted on Broadway. Nor, in our 24/7 world, do we make time for elongated pleasures, the sheer delight in reveling in a tale well told.

          Like "A Man of No Importance," in which a Dublin bus driver is besotted with Oscar Wilde’s plays, "Anna in the Tropics" uses Tolstoy’s classic to underscore a similar point: Literature is not a luxury; it is a necessity. It enlarges us. It transports our imaginations. In essence, it allows us to fully experience the depth of our own humanity.

          "Anna in the Tropics" offers a gifted, emotionally calibrated ensemble, sets and lighting that enhance the story and lyrical direction. It is a quiet triumph. —Fern Siegel




          Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

If it's the alcohol-soaked South and the scent of sexuality hangs in the air — real or suppressed — it’s probably a Tennessee Williams play. The latest revival to hit Broadway, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," is dripping with the kind of raw truth and venomous verbal ejaculation that works in a plantation bedroom — but would send audiences primal screaming if staged anywhere else.

          Now at the Music Box Theatre, "Cat" comes with a big-name cast, including Ashley Judd as Maggie, Jason Patric as Brick and Ned Beatty as Big Daddy, and the weight of expectation. This version, says director Anthony Page, has franker language and additions to the gay confessional call. In 1955, the gay elements were seen as shocking; today, Broadway is nonplussed.  Still, the ambivalence of the story — a marriage on the rocks, a bombastic patriarch who must appoint an heir, the guilt about homosexuality — did he or didn’t he? — remains potent.

          When the play opens, Maggie is screaming about the "no-neck monsters" her brother-in-law has produced. Brick, her husband, is indifferent. Since his best friend Skipper died, he prefers the bottle to the bedroom. He and Maggie no longer sleep together, and the lack of heirs is a genuine problem. Big Daddy is making out a will and must decide between his sons — Brick or Gooper (Michael Mastro), the hardworking attorney who, with his wife Sister Woman (Amy Hohn), hanker after those prime acres. This is Delta country; land is money and money is power.

          Williams is fascinated by both family pathology and its power plays: Brick and Maggie don’t connect, neither do Big Daddy and Big Mama (Margo Martindale.) Both women profess love for their husbands; both husbands are dismissive of their mates. Ironically, only Gooper, known as Brother Man, and his wife, click. Ironic because they are an odious couple, however attached they may be.

          Indeed, marriage is a tricky business in "Cat." Big Daddy is frank about his sexual needs and his marital disappointments — that he shares it with his son only underscores the sorry state of family affairs. Brick, for his part, misses Skipper dreadfully. He cannot reconcile his own part in Skipper’s demise: Did he turn away from a man he loved out of fear? Heartbreaking, indeed. For Brick, Skipper was that one true thing: a pure love.

          Brick waxes rhapsodic about his deceased friend; something he cannot do for his devoted wife. Maggie, for her part, is sympathetic and, though it takes Judd some time to find her voice, she is compelling. Clearly, Williams is sympathetic toward her — and his Big Mama. a likable sort. Women rarely fare well in Williams’ plays — they are either too hard or too vulnerable.

          In the Williams canon, "Cat" may not be his strongest suit, but it is noteworthy. Ned Beatty is a magnificent Big Daddy, he captures his frustration, his pathos and his humanity with ease. Plus, his scenes with Patric are particularly moving. Patric has a difficult task, but he acquits himself well. In fact, each family member — Martindale, Mastro, Hohn — hits just the right note. All seize that drippy Southern sassiness and make it their own.

          "Cat" ends as it begins — on a battlefield. Who emerges victorious is anyone’s guess. When Maggie complains that she feels like a cat on a hot tin roof, Brick advises her to jump. One wishes he’d take his own advice. At heart, "Cat" is a meditation on emotional paralysis. The inability to change, even when we know the cost. Willams is an able architect of despair. His refusal to tie up loose ends may emulate real life, but here it leaves the audience wanting. —Fern Siegel



          "Wicked" is wicked cool. It is one of those big, bold Broadway shows that wraps a provocative theme inside a visual treat. "Wicked," now playing at the Gershwin Theatre, is a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz." Inhabited by wizards and talking goats and magical spells, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Ironically, Kansas is still with us. The conceit of "Wicked" is that the fantasy world resembles our own - it’s filled with love and kindness, as well as jealousy, oppression and deceit. They just have better costumes.

          "Wicked" is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, better known as the nasty crone who wants to do away with poor Dorothy. The "Wizard of Oz" makes a stark contrast between good and evil; "Wicked" is more nuanced. It neatly tackles the nature vs. nurture argument and discovers that the witch (whose real name is Elphaba) got a bad rap. "Are they born wicked or do they have wicked thrust upon them?" the musical asks. In a world where spin substitutes for truth, and propaganda doubles as principle, "Wicked" is unabashedly on the side of the victim.

          The witch as victim? You bet. Elphaba (Idina Menzel) is a victim of circumstance. The eldest daughter of the governor of Munchkin Land, she has the misfortune to be born green. Shunned by parents and her peers, she relies on her sister, Nessarose (Michelle Federer), and the kindess of strangers. Sent to a school to learn sorcery, Elphaba discovers she has real talent (shades of "Harry Potter.") Madame Morrible (Carole Shelley) takes young Elphaba under her wing, much to the consternation of Glinda (Kristin Chenoweth), the perky, popular blonde. Initially snippy, Glinda and Elphaba become friends - and therein lies the first of several truths: Look beneath the surface. In fact, one of the charms of "Wicked" is the bonding between the women — a positive message about female friendship. And they stay friends, even when a dashing young man (Norbert Leo Butz), "it’s painlesss to be brainless" he croons, enters the picture. 

          But all is not happy in the land of Oz. The animals, which walk and talk, are being persecuted. The Wizard of Oz (Joel Grey), who seems so benign at first, has a scary agenda. It falls to Elphaba to oppose him. And we all know what happens to dissidents who challenge the status quo. Those who defend civil liberties are often painted as lunatics; those who cheerfully oppress are cast as pillars of society. We witnessed the wizard’s feet of clay in "The Wizard of Oz." Here, his machinations and manipulations are pronounced; his smear tactics worthy of J. Edgar Hoover.

          Kudos to Winnie Holzman who wrote the book and Gregory Macguire, author of the original novel, for mining such depth in a tale that cannot be told enough. They are aided in their efforts by Eugene Lee’s inspired, eye-popping sets, a clever blend of Victorian whimsy and machinery, Susan Hilferty’s costumes, which are endlessly theatrical, and Kenneth Posner’s exquisite lighting. Their craftsmanship highlights the considerable talents of the cast: Chenoweth and Menzel have genuine chemistry, each is exemplary in their roles; together, they are magic. Butz never puts a foot wrong, Shelley’s vocal delivery alone is a winner and Grey’s avuncular demeanor believes the evil within. The one drawback — and it’s a biggie — is the music. The talented Stephen Schwartz, who gave us "Pippin" and  "Godspell," has fashioned an unmemorable score. There are a few fun songs, but they don’t gel as a whole. A shame, because "Wicked" is a worthy production.

          If you’ve ever wondered how the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion came to be, "Wicked" is a must. It revisits a classic, but adds context. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There is no such thing as a random event. Often, the back story is the main event. 


Retreat From Moscow

          The title of the play, "Retreat From Moscow" is borrowed from history. Napoleon entered Russia with 400,000 troops; he decamped with 20,000. Not only was the slaughter massive, but even the wounded were unceremoniously dumped. Napoleon viewed his men with a take-no-prisoners mentality. That same harshness sums up the sad state of Alice and Edward’s marriage. Or rather, it evokes Edward’s sensibility — and therein lies the horror.

          "Retreat From Moscow," now playing at the Booth Theatre, addresses the dissolution of a 33-year marriage. It ends without explanation or apology. Edward (John Lithgow), a monument to passive-aggressive behavior, announces to Alice (the extraordinary Eileen Atkins) that he is leaving her. She is understandably crushed and enraged. This is an English couple, so emotions, at least from his point of view, are pointless.

          That jarring scenario serves as a backdrop to explore her reaction, their son Jamie’s (Ben Chaplin) emotional paralysis and the psychic violence a destroyed marriage wreaks on a family. What’s most infuriating is that Edward’s indifference rings true. His monstrous disregard for his behavior is pitted against Alice’s gigantic sense of betrayal. After all, she’s been telling him for years that they need to kick-start their relationship. She is smart, sassy, insightful and, in his words, always "at him." Which is to say, she wants him to talk.

          Like Harold Pinter, playwright William Nicholson understands that language is finite. Rather than connect people, it often fails them. Alice, an accomplished poetry editor, is supremely articulate — to no avail - since Edward sees any encroachment on his turf as suspect. His survival is paramount and, like Napoleon, he is prepared to sacrifice his wife and son to achieve his own ends. He is a man supremely out-of-touch with the civilities of marriage; his misogyny is his armor.

          So what brought these two together? A fateful meeting. Why did they stay together? That’s the tricky bit. "Retreat From Moscow" underscores a more primal worry: No two partners view a marriage alike. And the failure to bond affects not only the principles, but their offspring. Jamie, who is enlisted as his mother’s emissary, is curiously unmoved by her suffering. He cares, but only so much. That he, too, is unable to form a lasting union is proof positive that family pathology defines us.

          Atkins delivers a tour-de-force performance of great weight and sympathy. Her rage and anguish is like a latter-day Medea. Lithgow, fresh from his vitriolic role in "Sweet Smell of Success," embarks on a subtler form of torment. He is an actor of remarkable shading. The odd man out is Chaplin. His lack of response is unnerving; but it’s hard to discern whether that fault lies with him or Daniel Sullivan’s direction, which is nicely modulated for most of the production. Of special note is John Lee Beatty’s set; it’s cold, distant and evocative of the winter of this couple’s discontent. "Retreat From Moscow" is, at heart, a middle-aged man’s view of divorce. And not a very nice man at that. —Fern Siegel


The Violet Hour


If you knew what would happen in the future, would you try to prevent a tragedy? That’s the question that befalls John Seavering (Robert Sean Leonard), a Maxwell Perkins-styled publisher.

          In "The Violet Hour," now playing at the Biltmore Theatre, Seavering, an old-money scion, has just enough money to publish one book. Will it be authored by his black mistress Jessie Brewster (Robin Miles), the Josephine Baker stand-in? Or will his debut effort be penned by his best friend Denis, the F. Scott Fitzgerald character (Scott Foley), who comes with his own Zelda, dubbed Rosamund (Dagmara Dominczyk), a meat-packing heiress with a manic/depressive streak?  Brewster needs the book to validate her life as a black woman in a segregated world. Denis can’t marry his beloved without a publishing contract. What’s a pull-in-both-directions publisher to do?

          It’s a provocative question and sadly, playwright Richard Greenberg drops the ball. The ability to affect events is a clever gimmick, but it’s what you do with it that counts. The play opens in 1919. Seavering and his secretary Ginger (a hilarious Mario Cantone) are discussing the latest Broadway show. "And we all know what hit rhythms with," Ginger oozes. His one-liners are punctuated by an amazing discovery: A mysterious machine is spitting out a book that details all the events of the 20th century! Which means that Seavering and Ginger know about World War II and television and, not coincidentally, what will happen to Brewster and Denis and Rosamund.

          Now, as every Fitzgerald fan knows, the union of Scott and Zelda was a disaster on all fronts. Without the publication of "This Side of Paradise," they would never have married. Similarly, without a bona fide book, Brewster’s fate is equally tenuous. Having the power to decide someone’s fate is an awesome responsibility, which Seavering abdicates. And that’s a problem — both for Greenburg and his audience. He tantalizes without follow-through.

          Set designer Christopher Barreca has created a skewed stage that neatly distorts our perspective. And it’s awash in paper. Seavering is literally buried in the facts of the century. He is surrounded by data and, much like his fellow Americans nearly 90 years later, he is overloaded. He is simply unable to process the information age. Admittedly, there are some lovely monologues and Greenberg’s homage to Fitzgerald is lyrical. And as an ensemble, the actors acquit themselves well. The failure of "The Violet Hour" is Greenberg’s. "Take Me Out," his inspired Tony-award winner last season, marks him as a gifted writer, but "Violet" is not his finest hour. —Fern Siegel 


The Boy From Oz

"I’m not the boy next store," croons Peter Allen. Not unless that boy has a passion for Hawaiian shirts, high camp and hot bods. Then again, it’s all a matter of perspective. Allen, of course, was the lauded singer/songwriter who married Liza Minnelli, won an Oscar for "Arthur’s Theme" and was the first man to dance with the Rockettes in his sold-out Radio City extravaganza. Plus, Frank Sinatra, Olivia Newton-John and Melissa Manchester parlayed his pop tunes into memorable hits.

That, you might think, would be enough for any mortal. But Peter Allen, nee Woolnough, is a talented, relentlessly upbeat guy with insatiable ambition. He wants to be a star — and his single-minded focus (and a nifty plug from Judy Garland) — deliver the goods. His rags-to-riches tale is the stuff of which dreams are made — almost. But in "The Boy From Oz," now playing at the Imperial Theatre, Allen’s story is sanitized and the emotional tensions that defined that fateful journey from Tenterfield, Australia, to New York are noticeably absent.

Which is not to say the "The Boy From Oz" doesn’t have its moments. It does. Hugh Jackman as Allen is loaded with charm, charisma and pizzazz. We like him from the moment we meet him — as a youngster in the Outback. Though his father (Michael Mulheren) is a brute, his mother (Beth Fowler) is a winner. Sure, she worries about her son, but she never fails to encourage him — or to accept his life (and lifestyle).

Indeed, young Peter is on the fast track to success in Australia when he’s done in by indiscretion. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump into a Hong Kong nightclub and providence, read: Judy Garland (Isabel Keating). Proving that timing-is-everything, Peter and Judy click. And while she warns him to "butter his ambition," she scoops him up and sets him down in glorious Gotham.

"The Boy From Oz" charts Allen’s marriage to Minnelli (Stephanie J. Bock), his career starts and stops, his triumphs and his final hubris, an over-the-top slammed musical called "Legs Diamond." Strangely, Allen, who was capable of great insight and poignancy in his songs, is emotionally distant. That gaping abyss is never confronted in "Oz"; instead, there is far too much exposition. Surface proclamations are substituted for the dramatic tension necessary to transform his story into irony. The man so anxious to escape his small town only succeeded in escaping himself. Those who loved him could never fundamentally connect with him — and when we learn why — in the show’s last 10 minutes — it’s too little, too late.

A second quibble is Robin Wagner’s sets; economical to say the least. He’s clearly saved his budget for the second, spashier act. Finally, Philip Wm. McKinley’s direction is too overwrought. Allen was a showman. He might have needed our applause, but I doubt he’d beg for it.

Still, there are plusses. Peter Allen’s music is as fresh and moving today as when it was first recorded. Keating and Block are uncanny as Garland and Minnelli. From vocals to body flourishes, these two are on target. And Jackman, aside from being handsome and endearing, is also a wonderful singer and dancer who moves like a lynx. Indeed, the entire cast is sound. "The Boy From Oz" needs more weight to lend this musical promise. I’m all for spectacle; but a little substance wouldn’t hurt. —Fern Siegel




Little Shop of Horrors

Seymour Krelbourn has a secret. Make that two secrets. First, he is in love with Audrey, a ditzy blonde with a good heart, and second, his botanical mutation, Audrey II, has a nasty habit: She craves blood. To feed her — and to sustain the subsequent fame that results from the press coverage — mild-mannered Seymour makes a Faustian bargain. Today, a nebbish working at Mushnik’s Skid Row flower shop, tomorrow the world. 

Now playing at the Virginia Theater, "Little Shop of Horrors," a revived 21-year-old morality play with the stellar Ashman-Menken pop/rock score, pushes all the right buttons. How far will Seymour (Hunter Foster) go in search of fortune? Can you ever satisfy a greedy appetite? Apparently, not. Be it Mr. Mushnik’s (Rob Bartlett) sudden paternalism, Seymour’s passion for Audrey (Kerry Butler) or Orin (Douglas Sills), Audrey’s boyfriend’s, sadistic urges, the beast within must be must be    fed. Literally. 

Naturally, the fun of "Little Shop" —from its quirky moments and memorable musical numbers, including the theme song, "Somewhere That’s Green" and "Suddenly Seymour" — is its strangely sympathetic quality. We root for the underdog. Yet sympathy has its limits.  So does humor. Audiences have grown more sensitive to domestic violence since its debut — and jokes about abuse just aren’t funny. Moreover, human behavior — not to mention nature’s incessant whining — is anything but laudable. When not succumbing to baser instincts, we are punished for our occasional goodness. Indeed, "feed me!" — Audrey II’s battle cry — eerily echoes the White House’s ongoing postwar demands. "Little Shop" is a user-friendly cautionary tale; it is not optimistic and uplifting.

What is notable is Scott Pask’s Ashcan School-inspired sets, Jerry Zaks’ zippy direction, a slick Jim Henson Company puppet and a cast that gels. Foster and Butler, coming from acclaimed runs in "Urinetown" and "Hairspray" respectively, click, while Sills, of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," is over-the-top fun. There is even a modern-day Greek chorus —Chiffon (DeQuina Moore), Crystal (Trisha Jeffrey) and Ronnette (Carla J. Hargrove) — who keep the joint jumpin’.

The question is — does the show’s craving for a Broadway venue make sense? Sure, the lighting and sound quality have improved in the ensuring decades, but the intimacy off-Broadway’s Orpheum stage once evoked, cannot be replicated."Little Shop" has a big message, but it may best be served on a smaller scale. 


       photo by Paul Kolnik

Cupid and Psyche 

Ever since “Metamorphosis,” theatergoers have been open — and eager — to experience mythology. Though sans the pool and the powerful metaphors, “Cupid and Psyche,” now playing at the John Houseman Studio, offers its share of fun. This round, the gods get a musical, some nifty lyrics to sing and a chance to remind mere mortals that we are all swimming in Freud’s pool. This round, neurosis and obsession are the gods’ battle cry, particularly Venus (Laura Marie Duncan). She, the goddess of love and beauty and mother to Cupid, is lovely but narcissistic.

Upset that Elyria hasn’t remembered her festival day, she orders her son, Cupid (Barret Foa), to wreak havoc. Venus commands him to shoot his arrow into Psyche (Deborah Lew), causing her to fall in love with a cyclops. Psyche (Deborah Lew), the daughter of Elyria’s king, is beautiful, and Venus is unnerved by competition. But when Cupid, accompanied by his faithful pal Mars (Logan Lipton), spies the stunning royal, he falls in love. And now the fun begins: Venus is a “goddess who thrives on submission,” while Cupid, mindful that gods are forbidden to fall for humans, does what any adolescent would do: ignores his elders.

Aided by Mars, Cupid whisks Psyche to his palace. But the tricky bit is she can’t see him. He’s got to woo her emotionally — so when they connect, it is the ultimate love story. She loves him for who he is (or who she thinks he is); he is comforted by the thought that he is loved for himself and not the spoils of Olympus. Is ignorance bliss? You bet. Of course, it is only a matter of time before they are found — and the sparks fly.

Staged without intermission, the musical “Cupid and Psyche” is an entertaining, upbeat tale of maternal indulgence, youthful romance and the value of commitment. David Swayze doesn’t have much space, but he makes his set works. Sean Hartley’s lyrics and Jihwan Kim’s music are lively and eclectic: Pop/rock and traditional show music underscore the theatrical journey – Mom lets son grow up, son learns responsibility, Psyche fights for what she wants and sidekick Mars discovers he needs a life of his own. While the ensemble works well, Duncan and Lipton are standouts. Duncan is adroit at musical comedy; Lipton is especially good at accents, and he seems tailor-made for sitcoms.

“Cupid and Psyche” is a humorous reminder that we are all prone to jealousy and willfulness. Sometimes, the best way of coping is a musical. 




Nostalgia is hip. And nowhere is retro hipper than Broadway. First came “The Producers,” an homage to cynicism, then “Urinetown,” a sendup of Thirties agitprop, now comes “Hairspray,” a funny, tender, endearing musical that’s period with punch. Can you say Tony? "Hairspray" should sweep the awards – proving that behind the beehives and the pop beat is a naïve sincerity that’s downright deep. “Hairspray” is more than a staged version of John Waters’ cult classic; it’s a rousing, toe-tapping antidote to our troubled times. A reminder that sometimes, ethics are black and white.

            In “Hairspray,” now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, that notion is taken literally. The musical, the handiwork of Marc Shaiman (music) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), a gifted duo, takes place in 1962 Baltimore. Tracey Turnblad, an overweight teen, just wants to dance on Corny Collins hit show, promote racial equality and secure rights for fatties. Oh yeah, she’d like to date heartthrob Link Larkin (a play-it-to-the-hilt Matthew Morrison) and trump Amber Von Tussle (a perfect Laura Bell Bundy) her blonde nemesis, too. Tracey’s agenda seems subversive to the status quo, but her mission is so basic, so decent, you can’t help but love her. And her friends. And her parents. Tracey, a divine Marissa Jaret Winokur, should do for offbeat kids what Elvis did for the twist. And she’s aided by a cast any producer would envy – from Velma Von Tussle (Linda Hart), resident white supremacist and talented comic actress, to Seaweed (Corey Reynolds), Tracey’s first black friend, an amazing dancer and ultra-cool guy.

          Of course, integration and racial tolerance, forbidden love and the price of fame are a heady brew. “Hairspray” wraps its celebratory thesis in a ’60s musical score that hits the right genre notes, aided by standout songs. Social revolution, coupled with a rock ’n’ roll, rhythm-and-blues chaser, goes down easy. And that’s the point. The book, by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan plays it straight – and gets both the laughs and its message across. “Hairspray” is good, clean fun without being campy, adorable without being kitschy.  

Kerry Butler,  Laura Bell Bundy, Marissa Jaret Winokur
with members of the cast photo
© 2002                                                                                                                

That’s why the deft touch counts, starting with David Rockwell’s superbly evocative set, economical but playful. It’s the true supporting player to a production that captures a polarized, yet explosive time in American history. Racism was a fact of life – and the punishment for challenging authority was severe, for blacks and whites alike. “Hairspray” isn’t preachy; instead, it relies on the heartfelt Motormouth Maybelle (Mary Bond Davis), the black version of Corny Collins, to tell it like it is. And because the pacing is so sharp and Jack O’Brien’s direction so fluid, it scores with audiences.

“Hairspray” is a feel-good, stand-up-and-cheer musical that touts a serious theme. Its fashions may be dated, its casual cruelties may seem arcane, but bigotry and prejudice, of whatever sort, never go out of style. And neither do ordinary heroes. Like Tracey’s parents, Edna, her agoraphobic mom, played by Harvey Fierstein with tenderness and with his trademark panache. Wilber, her jokester dad, Dick Latessa, a quiet marvel, and Penny (Kerry Butler) dorky best friend and trailblazer and ideal counterpoint to Winokur. “Hairspray” salutes simplicity and what used to be called good old American values: hard work, fair play and common sense. Bravo. 
Above photo 
© 2002, Paul Kolnik

  Cast Glows in "Chicago."
(Note: Some cast members may have changed since review originally appeared.)

Chicago Ambassador Theatre. EN00515A.gif (1017 bytes) - 219 W. 49 St.

    "Nobody’s got no class. There’s no decency left." If you credit this sentiment as another of William Bennett’s digs at society, think again. These immortal words are uttered by a 1920s murderer and her prison warden in the sassy, brassy, Tony-award winning musical "Chicago," now playing at the Ambassador Theatre. EN00515A.gif (1017 bytes)

    When this deliciously satiric Kander and Ebb musical opened in the ’70s, it was deemed too dark and cynical for such feel-good times. A murderer as a star? A slick lawyer playing fast and loose with the truth? Audiences shuddered. Well, it’s ’90s America now, and in a post-OJ world, "Chicago" (with a new cast) is brilliantly on target.

    The plot concerns one Roxy Hart (Karen Ziemba), who took her lover’s rejection to heart. Some women would just write the bum off; Roxy prefers a good old-fashioned shootout. Luckily, her hapless husband can raise the money for a smarmy, read successful lawyer. While attorney Billy Flynn (Alan Thicke) is busy concocting an outrageous scenario to free his client, the women who keeping Roxy company in Cook County prison, namely one Velma Kelly (played by the divine Ute Lemper) and matron (Marcia Lewis), shower us with a jazzy, razzle-dazzle of sight, sound and motion.

    Staged in a Brechtian manner, complete with hard-chiseled dancers whose bodies provide all the scenery we need, "Chicago" explores the unholy alliance between crime and celebrity with sinister glee. The story is hugely entertaining, the dancing is first rate and the score is fantastic. Lemper, who plays her role with "Cabaret"-esque precision, boasts a sultry voice and singular style. Thicke is both slick and seductive as Flynn, while Ziemba, an accomplished singer and dancer, lacks thaEN00515A.gif (1017 bytes)t aggressive, in-your-face quality Ann Reinking originally brought to the role.

    Still, the ensemble, one of the hardest working on Broadway, is riveting. Sure, criminals may be the flavor of the month, but who says we can’t enjoy their antics? "Chicago" reminds us that deception is as American as apple pie. —Fern Siegel


New York For Families By Fern Siegel

Many visitors to New York assume it’s an adult playground. That’s true, but that’s also a myopic view of America’s most interesting city. Manhattan is a wonderland for kids. You can take the family to the usual sites—the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and the Empire State Building—but for a truly family vacation, branch out. The choices are infinite, but here are a few to spice up your itinerary.


No city in the world has better theater than New York. So head straight for Broadway musical "The Lion King" at the New Amsterdam Theater, 42nd and Broadway.  "The King" is an artistic triumph, the music, set design and costumes are a feast for the eyes and ears. It’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything like it. 


After the theater, treat your kids to a New York staple: ethnic food. Most cuisines—from Ethiopian to Greek—are available, but Chinatown is of special note. Once you find Mott and Canal Streets, just walk. There are hundreds of restaurants, shops and an active street life. Chinatown bursts with an energy all its own. Once you’ve had lunch or dinner, head across Canal Street to Mulberry Street and Little Italy. Here, you’ll find cafes with desserts to die for


Of course, no visit is complete without a visit to a museum. The Children’s Museum of Manhattan, 212 West 83rd Street, 212/721-1234, has a TV studio, courtesy of Time-Warner, and a wealth of interactive exhibitions, while the Forbes Magazine Galleries, 62 Fifth Avenue, 206-5549, has a fleet of over 500 toy boats and an army of 12,000 toy soldiers. Admission is free, and since it’s in Greenwich Village, you can introduce your kids to the city’s bohemian section. Older kids will appreciate the Anne Frank Center USA, on Broadway between Houston and Prince Sts. 212/431-7993. If the weather is clement, head to the South Street Seaport. Board the clipper ship, the Peking, and the Ambrose, a former light ship, to appreciate what life at sea was like.—Fern Siegel