A “Multicultural” Weekend in NYC: The Yankees, City Center Encores!, and “The Lone Ranger” Movie

I use the term “multicultural” in a special sense here, not referring to different ethnicities but rather to different forms of our modern entertainment culture – major league baseball, musical theater, and major Hollywood motion pictures!  My Friday and Saturday this past weekend combined these three different cultural experiences.

First up: Major League Baseball.  As a delayed birthday present, my usual theater and concert-going companion arranged to buy skybox tickets at Yankee Stadium for Friday’s game between the Minnesota Twins and the Yankees.  I had never been in one of these privileged locations in the “new” Yankee Stadium. The Audi Yankees Club is perched high above left field, with a glass wall providing a striking view over the field from above, while along the back wall of the club buffet dinner is being served, included in the ticket price.  I wouldn’t characterize the food as “gourmet,” but it was definitely several cuts above what one buys from vendors in the Stadium, and it was possible to put together a good tasting, reasonably healthy meal – although I wouldn’t use the word “healthy” to charactize the desert selection, packed with all the sugar and cholesterol one could want.  (For the health-conscious, they did offer fresh fruit!!) 

Seeing the game from the Audi Yankees Club is a very different experience from sitting in the stands.  One is quite distant from the players, of course, so opera glasses came in handy.  But the view is unobstructed from the eating stations (but not from the tables for those who paid for sit-down meals, and I really didn’t understand the logic of that), and despite the distance, one adjusts and becomes involved in the game, even though the Club is sonically isolated from what’s happening on the field and in the stadium.  The roar of the crowd is only occasionally sensed at moments of high excitement (runs scoring, for example, or a crucial strike-out), and instead of hearing the stadium announcer, one gets the piped-in play-by-play on the game broadcast, loud enough to hear but not so loud as to be unduly obtrusive.  In other words, although the room gets rather loud with conversations among the fans, especially in the bar area, one can carry on a conversation without shouting, which is a pleasant difference from a seat outdoors.  Most importantly, one is sitting in air-conditioned comfort and out of the glare of sun or the drenching of rain – the latter more of an issue on Friday, when we experience a 77 minute rain delay during the 4th inning.

The game itself?  I got to see the Yankees win a game (they went on to lose the following two, and thus the series with the Twins), I got to see Kuroda pitch — one of their better starters in this difficult year — and, most importantly, I got to see Mariano Rivera close out the win with an excellent 9th inning of three up and three down. 

The price is high to see a game in this kind of comfort, but factoring in the course of a complete restaurant meal of this quality and comparing it to Broadway theater tickets or even the cost of such a dinner and a good seat at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, the cost is comparable.  Our tickets, acquired on-line as resales from a season ticket holder, were about $120 each, but $125 was printed on them.  I saw some used tickets lying on tables that said $150.  So it’s clear that the price varies depending where and when you buy them, but that seems to be the range.

But for a less expensive way to see classic great musical theater than the over-priced Broadway, check out City Center Encores!, the series devoted to reviving old musicals and presenting them in semi-staged format with a full theater orchestra on stage backing up the fully-professional casts, with top-flight direction, costuming, and, where needed, choreography.  Encores! normally presents three programs during the winter and spring, running from January or February through April or May, with 4 or 5 performances of each after brief rehearsal periods.  As an experiment this year, they decided to take advantage of the wonderfully refurbished and air-conditioned City Center auditorium by presenting an abbreviated summer edition, and my concert-going companion and I attended the Saturday matinee performance of the first offering on Saturday: “The Cradle Will Rock,” the classic Depression-era (1930s) musical by Marc Blitzstein (who wrote music, lyrics and book). 

Blitzstein was a complicated fellow with decidedly left-wing economic views, and “The Cradle Will Rock” was controversial from the get-go, as it depicts the abuses of capitalism through a caricature of a dominating business-owner in a small city, Mr. Mister, who seems to own every important institution, dominate the local goverment, and be strongly dedicated to prevent unionization of his industrial business – the steel mill.  Larry Foreman is working on organizing a union, Editor Daily is put in her place when Mr. Mister, who owns the newspaper, orders some censorship about the union demonstrations, President Prexy of the local university, financially supported by Mr. Mister, is summoned to provide professorial support for Mr. Mister’s projects…. you get the picture.  The entire thing is a bit heavy-handed, but very effective.  Blitzstein’s music sounds very much like the music of the group of fellow gay composers with whom he socialized – Copland, Bernstein, Diamond – but also with a big dollop of Kurt Weill. 

Chris Fenwick conducted a fast-paced performance with a highly proficient on-stage orchestra.  The starry cast sat in a row of chairs in front of the orchestra, working without sets and costumed in formal wear, adapted to some of the situations, getting up and moving around (yes, Chase Brock, was credited as choreographer and did a fine job).  The entire thing was run through ten scenes with no intermission.  Were it done with a piano instead of the orchestra, it could well resemble the original Broadway performance, which was held in defiance of a shut-down order by frightened federal bureaucrats in an empty theater with no orchestra, composer at the piano, and cast seated in the hall and standing to deliver their lines.  Sam Gold, the director, brought a real flare to the event, transcending the bare-bones presentation to create moving drama.

The entire cast was spectacularly good.  Danny Burstein as Mr. Mister, Raul Esparza as Larry Foreman, Judy Kuhn as Editor Daily, David Margulies as President Prexy, Matthew Saldivar as Reverend Salvation, and Michael Park as several characters were the standouts among the adults, but the one child in the cast – Aidan Gemme – stole every scene he was in, whether playing a policeman or a professor.  

Saturday evening I decided to throw over the idea of going to the office and instead went to see the new movie, “The Lone Ranger.”  I had been holding off on this, especially in light of the lousy reviews and the underwhelming box office from the opening weekend, but the pull of seeing Johnny Depp as “Tonto” could not be denied, and I was also curious about how Armie Hammer would do as the masked stranger, having so enjoyed his double performance in “The Social Network.” 

So, here’s the problem with “The Lone Ranger” – at least, my diagnosis.  I think they couldn’t make up their mind whether they were presenting a serious western drama, a spoof of western drama, or an outright comedy.  The original radio series and TV show were played straight as drama.  But this movie is full of self-conciously droll lines, ridiculous plot developments, and a rather absurd depiction of the Lone Ranger as a sort of all-purpose shlemiel who is constantly being bailed out by Tonto, the wierd Indian who knows all but manages to be both transparent and inscrutable at the same time.  The framing conceit is that this is a tall tale told by an elderly Indian in a circus exhibit to a credulous young boy who comes into the exhibit wearing the Lone Ranger mask and white hat.  The elderly Indian (c. 1933) purports to be Tonto, telling the tall tale of how he hooked up with the Lone Ranger and went through various adventures.  In some ways, this reminded me of the Hungarian fables of Hary Janos (memorably set to music by Zoltan Kodaly), telling his tall tales of derring do, which all listeners know to be fabrications because he sneezes loudly before telling them.  No sneeze here from Tonto, but the result is the same.

Armie Hammer’s character is only incidentally and briefly a Texas Ranger.  He is presented as a newly-minted lawyer, a Texan schooled back east, who has returned to his home state to be the county prosecutor, deputized by his brother, the local sheriff, when they set out after some no-goodniks who held up the railroad.  During the course of his adventures he meets Tonto and they become a team, albeit reluctantly at times.  Depp actually plays the character of Tonto pretty straight most of the time, while Hammer is responsible for most of the pratfalls.  The other central character, played by Tom Wilkinson, is the unscrupulous capitalist (shades of Blitzstein!) who turns out, naturally, to be the villain of the piece.

Bottom line – I found it entertaining for its two hours, but not an inspired film.  There was one of those musical anachronisms that I love to criticize: in one scene where they are purportedly re-enacting the ceremony at which the westbound and eastbound workers on the transcontinental railroad meet at Promontory Point, Utah, for the driving of the “golden spike” that will unite the span from coast to coast.  There is a band playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” at the ceremony.  Problem: Sousa didn’t write that march until several decades after the historical ceremony took place, so it couldn’t have been played at that time.  Solution: the story is a tall tale told by a circus Indian in 1933, so there is no need for authenticity as to anything in it, and any inaccuracies can be put down to his faulty memory and vivid imagination.  “Stars and Stripes Forever” is the greatest American march, so it should have been played at that event, even if it hadn’t been written yet.  Oh, and for the curious, repeated use is made of the final segment from the William Tell Overture by Rossini, invoking memories of the old TV and radio shows, but composer Hans Zimmer can’t keep his hands off of it, of course, so it gets stretched out with unnecessary repetitions.  Of course, Rossini’s copyright, if any, long since ran out, so they can do what they want…

It looks like Disney is going to lose money on this one, but it’s not a complete turkey.  If they could have made it less expensively, it might have been a modestly lucrative summer movie, but I suspect this one won’t make back its investment any time soon..  As it is, I doubt it will merit a sequel, and that’s where the real money would be on this kind of film – an investment in a “franchise” that would keep the studio in funds for years.  I don’t think that is going to happen.

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