Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Trip to Harlem

The first time I went to Harlem it was by accident. My roommate at the time, James, and I got on a 2 train as opposed to a 1/9 train to go home to our sublet on 107th & Amsterdam. We got off at 110th street, just barely inside Harlem's boundaries. The outskirts. What did we know? Two newly transplanted southern boys. We didn't want to pull out our map. Being two white boys in Harlem after dark scared the bejesus out of us. We'd been in New York City roughly 4 weeks at the time. We just kept our heads down and walked fast and got back to an area we recognized. Again, what did we know?

Yesterday's trip to Harlem was intentional and planned.

First stop - Sylvia's.

My co-worker, Michael, and I met at 5:30pm and made our way to the subway station. An uptown 1 local, with a transfer to the 2 express, was just what we needed to take us to Harlem and the soul food restaurant Sylvia's. Located at Lenox and 127th Street, you could easily call Sylvia's a New York treasure. I can't remember a time in my 12 years of living in NYC that I didn't know about Sylvia's. I've even eaten her prepared foods available in the grocery store. I'm sad it took me so long to get to the restaurant to try the food first hand, but happy that it finally happened. Being a southern boy myself, I was very familiar with everything on the menu. It was just a matter of what I was going to eat. I'll get right to the point. There was lots of crazy good stuff to choose from: fried chicken, smothered chicken, fried pork chops, smothered pork chops, chicken livers, grilled catfish, fried catfish, b-b-q salmon, fried shrimp. The arteries might start clogging, but you just gotta give in and eat it. Much to the chagrin of my companions, I chose the chicken livers, sauteed with onions and peppers, smothered in gravy. I was a little hesitant of too much gravy, but it was just enough. Oh. My. Lord. It was so good. The entrees came with two sides. I only had to decide on one because no trip to Sylvia's would be complete for me with out having her collard greens. I chose garlic mashed potatoes as my second side. There was so much good food on that plate that I couldn't finish it all. I managed to finish the greens, but I had to make myself do that. I hated wasting the left over food, but I wasn't in a position to take it with me. It would have been so good warmed up today for lunch too. My only disappointment in the entire Sylvia's experience was the red velvet cake. I just couldn't imagine it not being spectacular considering, to me, it's such a southern dessert. I have eaten better. I have made better. Oh well, next time I'll have to try the peach cobbler. BTW, Michael got the smothered pork chops.

Pit stop - H&M

When we left Sylvia's we had about thirty minutes to kill before heading to the Apollo so we headed into the H&M on 125th. One H&M is just like another. I looked around. I tried on several hats and one fabulous grey coat. I bought nothing.

Last stop - Dreamgirls at the Apollo

This was the whole reason for the trip to Harlem. Dreamgirls is playing a month long engagement at the world famous Apollo Theater before heading out on a national tour. Before the movie helped Jennifer Hudson win an Academy Award and brought the musical back into public consciousness, Dreamgirls was a Tony Award Winning Broadway musical that premiered at the Imperial Theater in NYC on December 20, 1981. The musical was directed, produced, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, known for the hugely successful musical, A Chorus Line. Last night was my first time to see Dreamgirls on stage and to visit the Apollo.

I am a fanatic of the work of two director/choreographers: Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. My friend Stephen who lives in Boston actually worked with Michael Bennett in the Los Angeles production of Dreamgirls back in its original heyday. I love it when I get to hear first hand stories from the people who were there. Today we don't seem to have the same kind of theatre magicians. There's still amazing theatre. It's just different.

I've always heard about the set and direction of the original production of Dreamgirls. How it was so cinematic. How light towers were used to create locations. This new production uses LED screens to astounding effect. There is one costume change that I always wished I could have seen. The moment when Effie's audition in Act 2 singing "I Am Changing" becomes Effie singing the same song as the club's hired singer. Guess what! Last night I got to see that moment. Dowdy and slightly unsure, a women who has been through the ringer stands and sings for a man who doesn't "have the time" to listen. She sings her heart out. Facing the audience, the spotlight on her gets smaller and smaller until it's just on her face. Key change, spotlight widens and there she is in a whole new costume performing the song for the club's patrons. I got chills. The brilliance of that idea. I can't imagine it wasn't mind-blowing back in 1981 because it was mind-blowing and applause ridden last night. Such a simple trick done in the dark is part of the magic of live theatre.

To be able to see Dreamgirls for the first time on stage at the Apollo was amazing. Listen to me when I tell you that just to be able to sit in the theatre and hear the music live, to see the songs come to life in front of me, was breathtaking. I can't imagine it ever being better than hearing it in that sacred church of Tragedy and Comedy. It is a memory that I will always cherish. The musical's opening sequence is set during an amateur night competition at the Apollo. Surrounded by that Apollo crowd was also an experience I won't soon forget. It brings a smile to my face any time the memory of any scene floods back into my mind. It was an event.

Does it get any better than seeing a groundbreaking show back on the boards at a historic theatre? Nope!