Marie Sassi and Don't Tell Mama

Marie Sassi at Don't Tell Mama 
The comfortable and comfortably-priced Don’t Tell Mama has been hosting rare and beautiful cabaret shows for 30 years. Singers present in one of two showrooms and guests sometimes participate in an open mic at the piano bar.  Surprise appearances are the norm: Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler and Kristin Chenoweth to name a few.

We came to hear the classy and funny Marie Sassi sing a compilation of love songs that are rarely performed or usually done quite differently. Sassi is candid and bold, as she seamlessly flows from one song to witty banter to the next song, convincing us that she’s not giving up on love and inspiring us in the process. Some standouts:  I Wanted To Change Him, by Comden and Green, Shakespeare Lied, from How Now, Dow Jones, and a new rendition of Carol King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. Sassi has a gorgeous voice and looks sensational in black lace.   

The style of Don't Tell Mama's next-door restaurant is eclectic, with something for everyone but a lack of focus. Dishes range all over the map and include a very good guacamole. Our favorites were the nicely presented mini crabcakes with lemon-cilantro aïoli and chorizo couscous risotto. 

Prune and Helen Mirren in The Audience

Pilgrimage to Prune
Located near the Bowery in a vintage storefront, restaurant Prune is known for the haute cuisine of bone marrows served with little spoons and classic simplicity of perfect radishes with butter and salt. Prune has a number of signature fruit juice cocktails, a small bar tucked in the corner, and only thirty seats.

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, who wrote the brilliant memoir Blood, Bones and Butter, is great at textures. The duck on grilled watercress is crispy. Rhubarb crisp is crunchy. Salmon is baked just until it’s flaky. Homemade tofu served warm, with edamame, is silky. The wait staff is down-to-earth. They don’t act like they work in a cult restaurant often billed among foodies as a religious experience.

Its weekend brunch is famous. It’s not, however, a great pre-theatre restaurant. Theatre Row has to judge eating establishments on their snappiness and ability to get us to the box office on time. Prune is about slow food—but they’ll wrap up that dessert or main course you didn’t get a chance to dig your little spoon into.

Helen Mirren in The Audience

For sixty years Queen Elizabeth II has had tea with twelve prime ministers on a weekly basis, through every kind of crisis. Most of the PMs are depicted in The Audience, including a totally unsympathetic Margaret Thatcher (as played by Haydn Gwynne), whom the Queen met with over a hundred times, in rooms that look chilly and cold. The one at Buckingham Palace is described in full by a footman, including the reupholstery of the chairs. The Balmoral set includes tartan, a glowing heater, and the misty mountains in the distance.

People speak of Elizabeth as being witty and sensitive, and how could she not be, played by Dame Helen Mirren. The playwright’s vision of the Queen is also athletic, outdoorsy, and a dog lover—a couple of trained Welsh Corgis are included in several scenes. She tells Gordon Brown (a miscast Nathaniel Parker) that her dream is to live full-time in the Scottish countryside.

The Queen’s hairstyle and costume evolve constantly, and even the handbag dangling from her arm. In one scene she clicks open the bag to offer a distraught Harold Wilson (played by Richard McCabe, probably a lot more charming than the original Wilson) a handkerchief, and flinches when he uses it and tries to return it to her.

Helen Mirren’s voice and body language change with great nuance to every age, including twenty-five, the year of the coronation. She says young Elizabeth had to curtsy to her parents at home. The current-age Elizabeth remarks to David Cameron that the future child of Kate and William, whether girl or boy, will one day be queen or king, bringing things right up to date. Long live the Queen.

This West End performance by “live” HD telecast was shown at the new NYU Skirball Center. At times the audience applauded, as though we were watching it onstage, as were people in 20 countries, at 700 cinemas.

The Nance and the Leopard at des Artistes

Risqué variety theatre known as burlesque is making a comeback at clubs like the Box in New York City. Imported from Victorian London, one of its stock characters was a so-called nancy man whose lines could be more outrageous than that of other performers. (In NYC burlesque theatre, an actress in drag, Murray Hill, currently plays this part.) Embodied by the great Nathan Lane, Chauncey Miles can’t stop himself from being increasingly outrageous the more he needs to tone down his act for his own protection.

In a new play by Douglas Carter Beane, The Nance, set in an era when gay behavior outside of the theatre could land you in jail, the entertaining Chauncey Miles is played by Nathan Lane as painfully in the closet. He goes so far as to be Republican and anti-Pinko, and feels that he must turn down a wonderful young man (Jonny Orsini), who loves him, in favor of easier-to-conceal chance hookups at the Automat. Cady Huffman plays an exotic dancer and fellow comedienne who can foresee change for society. Interspersing scenes of Chauncey’s struggle with onstage “cooch” acts like hers keeps the drama from feeling too tragic.

The ending isn’t tragic at all, and in it, Nathan Lane is at his most riveting. There’s an authentic period feel to the costumes and to a masterful set by John Lee Beatty that revolves to show the burlesque theatre stage, back stage and Chauncey’s arty apartment. The Automat set is very Edward Hopper.
Prix fixe at the old Café des Artistes

Portions aren’t huge at the three-course pre-theatre menu at the Leopard at des Artistes. But it’s incredible that you can now afford to eat at all in this art-filled palace on Central Park West! Be willing to eat very early or very late for the $35 pre- and post-theatre prix fixe, and make reservations.

Formerly bohemian hangout Café des Artistes, and once French, it became Italian when it changed hands and serves a specialty of grilled fish deboned at your table with waiterly flare. Risotto and ravioli were too al dente for our tastes, but that can be prevented next time by a word to the kitchen to overcook them.

The new back bar has a homey feel, with stacks of books and objets d’art and flattering lighting. We miss the murkier old L-shaped bar that served complimentary snacks of hard-boiled eggs, Ritz crackers and Liptauer cheeseball. The people who took over (Il Gattopardo is their other restaurant) made some improvements, such as a strategic mirror to better reflect the 1920s murals out front by Howard Chandler Christy. Surely a few of the models who posed without a stitch for Christy were stage soubrettes back in the day of The Nance.

Here Lies Love and Grill 21

Imelda and Ferdinand wait for nuptials to resume
She didn’t inspire loyalty, even among her close associates, and yet it seemed the world embraced the singing, butterfly-sleeved Imelda Marcos as a cultural icon. In Here Lies Love, a musical based on her life by David Byrne, with music and lyrics by Byrne, additional music by Fatboy Slim, Ruthie Ann Miles is a fantastic singer, dancer and actress, with sexy Jose Llana as Marcos. There are no seats – the audience is meant to dance and at times to follow synchronized dance steps. (Super choreography by Annie-B Parson.) During the marriage of Ferdinand and Imelda, everything came to a halt as an audience member was carried out, no doubt overcome by the smoke machines and throbbing disco music.

Here Lies Love is danceable, but too much time is spent making I.M. sympathetic or too stupid to know any better. Her shoe collection is left out, a debatable omission, but she is depicted as outraged when Ferdinand has an affair, while her own affair with actor George Hamilton isn’t mentioned. Still, we left the Public Theater humming the tunes.

Grill 21, on 21st St. near First Avenue is one of only two Filipino restaurants in the city that we know of and serves amazing adobo chicken, pork, or shrimp, is so much better than the adobo chickens at Gourmet Garage (apologies to non-New Yorkers unfamiliar with their adobo chicken), as well as grilled milkfish, a specialty. Filipino cuisine is also known for exotic purple ube (yam) desserts, which are bright purple without food coloring. At the bakery down the block you can get a purple ube cake made by pastry chef Violet.

Room Service and Pippin

Fancy Pad Thai at Room Service
Room Service is here to serve you the haute Thai cuisine that you might find in an upscale hotel in Bangkok. Slate walls and enormous chandeliers suggest a swanky hotel lobby, the menus have room numbers, and waiters are dressed as bellboys. There is a steady lunchtime flow. This reviewer not long ago honeymooned in Thailand so was curious to see if the food compared. Pad Thai noodles (the classic) had pink coconut-beet sauce and tamarind juice, sprinkled with mango spears. Very fancy! The $12 Room Service VIP drink was a jumble of fruit and alcohol that tastes sweet and potent. I remembered these potent cocktails from my honeymoon. The menu includes traditional dishes as well as chef creations using lotus seeds, raisins, lychees. Thai pumpkin flan is not to be missed.

The musical Pippin hasn’t been on Broadway for 40 years, a hiatus that is due perhaps to its adult storybook nature. The audience was all abuzz and applauding as the lights were lowered. I then rethought bringing my 7 year-old to the show, anticipating the sexual undertones that would be over her head. There were many.

Prince Pippin, son of the conqueror Charlemagne, is on a quest for meaning and answers (“Corner of the World”), who finds answers and yet more questions. The current production courageously entwines Bob Fosse choreography with surreal circus acts created by Gypsy Snider. It works. Costume designer Dominique Lemieux shows us that every woman looks sensational in an acrobat costume with fringe.

Comedian Andrea Martin plays Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, and her “No Time at All” is a showstopper. I have two words: Hot Mama. Go see Pippin!