All Things Entertaining and Cultural

News from the Avenue — Mary Poppins Visits Walnut

Making Shakespeare more Philadelphian by substituting the Avenue of the Arts for the Rialto, “News from the Avenue” will be a regularly updated page that reports matters of interest about theater, movies, dance, opera, music, and all things entertaining and cultural. It will also include commentary. Please send any news items to I like to know everything, and what I know, I tell.


      The Walnut Street Theatre is opting mostly for popular works by famous writers for its 2014-15 season.

      The Walnut has the largest subscription base of any theater in the world, so you can see why it would want to get an early start on renewals.

       Dolly Parton is the first well-known name to be represented. Her “9 to 5” kicks off the Walnut season in early September.

       P.L. Travers, getting lots of attention as portrayed by Emma Thompson in “Saving Mr. Banks,” might approve more of of the stage version of “Mary Poppins.” It is closer to the tone and ideas in her books.  As usual, the Walnut is quick to do one of the first, and possibly the first, regional production of the show. It runs from November to January.

      Noel Coward claims the January slot with a production of “Private Lives” a chestnut that never wears out its welcome.

      Agatha Christie turns the Walnut audience into detectives searching for clues in “And Then There Were None” (a.k.a. “Ten Little Indians”), in which guests to an isolated country estate are killed in sequence, but by whom? There’s the mystery that will occupy people in March and April.

      The closest to a major name associated with the 2010 Tony-winning musical, “Memphis,” is David Bryan from Bon Jovi. The show, which runs from May to early July, is about a DJ who wants to integrate the music heard on commercial radio. It gives actors several opportunities to shine.


     Marilu Henner, who is involved with radio  and health matters as much as theater these days, comes to New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse in Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”   This production puts Durang’s show in the area where it set, a cottage in Central Bucks Country. Henner plays Masha.

     It is one of two shows booked for BCP so far. The other is Ira Levin’s thriller with comic overtones, “Deathtrap.”

      “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” will also be produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company from March 21 to April 20.


      Shakespeare will be joined by Ken Ludwig, Tina Packer, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick when the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University convenes for its 23rd season in June.

       The Bard is represented by a rarely performed comedy, “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and this season’s popular choice, “Macbeth.” Packer, the longtime head of Lenox, Massachusetts’s Shakespeare & Company, draws on Shakespeare for her program, “Women of Will,” included in PSF’s 2014 schedule from July 20 to August 3.

      Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” has had fine showings in productions at Act II Playhouse and the Delaware Theatre Company. PSF adds its take from July 9 to August 3.

       The mention of Bock, Harnick, and Stein starts me humming “biddie biddie biddie, biddie biddie biddie bum” as I think of “Fiddler on the Roof,” this year’s musical, on the PSF stage from June 11 to June 29.

       “TGV” runs from June 18 to July 13. “Macbeth” terrorizes Scotland from July 17 to August 3.

        PSF features two children’s shows, “Cinderella,” from May 30 to August 2, and “Shakespeare for Kids,” from July 23 to August 2.

        Of course, PSF will do is pre-theater “Green Show” for audiences taking in the Center Valley country air while waiting to enter the theater complex.


     Both sides of the Atlantic have productions of Shakepeare’s “King Lear” to look forward to.

     Frank Langella leads the American staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) from January 7 to February 9. The production derives from Britain’s Chichester Festival.  Angus Jackson is the director.

     Simon Russell Beale, like Langella one of the top actors of our time, assays the role for the National Theatre in London from January 14 to March 25. The production will appear on local movie screens throughout the US in May as part of the National Theatre Live series. Performing with Russell Beale are some of London’s finest actors — Anna Maxwell Martin, Kate Fleetwood, Olivia Vinall, a superb Desdemona to Adrian Lester’s Othello last season, and Stephen Boxer.

     Also at BAM this month, Isabella Rossellini makes a rare stage appearance, in “Green Porno,” a piece that derives from the series on The Sundance Channel and “reveals the kinky and confounding mating rituals of insects and marine life.”


      It’s always a delight to see the name of a Philadelphia regular in a Broadway program.

      Danielle Herbert, who made a memorable debut as Lutiebelle in “Purlie” decades ago and who was cited for her turn in the Walnut Street Theatre’s “Good People” in the Philadelphia Theater Critic’s Award’s Top 20 for 2013, is a swing in the smart, sleek “After Midnight” at New York’s Brooks Atkinson Theater. (You can read a NealsPaper review in the Broadway Roundup.)


      The Avenue of the Arts is indisputably a hub of entertainment and culture in Philadelphia. Its blocks between Locust and South Streets contain several theaters — the Academy of Music, the Kimmel Center, the Wilma, the Merriam, the Suzanne Roberts, the Arts Bank, and various venues owned by the University of the Arts. Just west of Chestnut Street is the revitalized Prince Music Theatre, and on Sansom Street is Chris’s Jazz Café, one of the few consistent music venues  in a town chocked with musical performance.

      These theaters and Chris’s can attract as many as 6,000 people to Broad Street on days when all the venues are active.

      Such occupancy and such activity should  nominate the Avenue of the Arts as a roaring success.

      I deem the Avenue, as a project and as a thoroughfare a failure that needs rethinking and redirection.

      My opinion is based on seeing what happens in other cities with entertainment centers and clusters and my personal frequent experience as a visitor to the Avenue.

      The problem is one of variety that touches on liveliness and overall convenience.

      Sure, the Avenue of the Arts boasts wonderful theaters and a wide range of attraction. This is to be lauded but it also must be understood as a matter of real estate and the booking instinct of theater managers at the Wilma, Philadelphia Theatre Company (housed in the Roberts), and the Kimmel Center.

       Broad Street, with the Academy of Music and large plots of land already in place was a natural home for an Avenue of the Arts. It is and should be the centerpiece of the city, at least the blocks south of City Hall. The Avenue movement, started in the Rendell years (as if a mayor since Rendell could make anything happen), and it probably encouraged the Wilma and PTC to make South Broad Street their homes while the Arden brought luster to more advantageous real estate in Old City.

      Once you have theaters, they have to be booked. The Wilma and PTC want to stay in business as thriving entities. They do their part. The Kimmel Center controls must real estate and books oodles of show, again according to their purview as a producers and bookers. Besides theater, the Kimmel offers a variety of music events and is home to Opera Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and various Academy of Vocal Arts and Curtis Opera productions.

      The Avenue does a good job in providing audiences something to see, but it does so because separate institutions that happen to be on the Avenue look out wisely for their own interest and survival and keep their stages and box offices busy.

       What about other elements that make an area thrive? What about Broad Street when relatively few attractions are playing, e.g. the summer or the holiday period when the Wilma and PTC are relatively dormant?

      The Avenue of the Arts offers virtually nothing then. It doesn’t give people even a tiny inkling that they should venture to Broad Street to find something going on.

      The Avenue hits its mark when it comes to events that will happen anyhow. But what about an ongoing presence? What about a street that is truly and constantly vibrant?

      No such animal. Walnut Street and N. 2nd Street can boast as much liveliness as the Avenue of the Arts.

      The street offers culture, but it missed the boat entirely in three important categories. Food, fun, and frolic!

      Neal, you say, Broad Street is filled with restaurants. There’s at least one on every block where there’s a theater.

      True. But did you ever want to go to one of those restaurants after the theater?

      Try it. See how far you get. Most of the eateries along South Broad Street close at 10 p.m. Isn’t that a wonderful idea when theaters tend to let out at 10 and after? Philadelphia, and the Avenue, have trained audiences to get right back in their cars or to head home on foot to find a snack or meal after seeing a show. Groups that came in separate cars often have to break up because there’s no restaurant to accommodate them. If I had the capital, I would open a Viennese pastry café on Broad Street for after the theater. Unfortunately, I don’t have the capital so people on Broad Street will have to starve after 10 or seek victuals elsewhere.

      There is The Palm, you say. Really? Have you been to The Palm? The food is mediocre. Unless you’re a regular, the service is condescending or surly. And the prices aren’t worth paying for the crappy meal and the I’d-like-to-punch-you-in-the-kisser rudeness that masks as waiting.

      Things are better before the theater. Perch Pub and Varalli’s provide good food at a range of prices. McCormick and Schmick, though pricey if you’re on a budget, features a wonderful Happy Hour that can score you a great burger and fine glass of wine for $10 before taxes and tip. Bliss is reliable and has the most interesting of the Broad Street menus. The Capital Grille is serviceable. Ruth’s Chris has established itself as fixture on Broad Street. Sbraga is garnering national attention for its gourmet cuisine. There are restaurants besides The Palm in the Hyatt at the Bellevue and at the Ritz Carlton. A group of chain restaurants from Brazilian to the Italian line the block of Chestnut Street between Juniper and Broad. Vallani’s on Spruce Street is fun and has a good, dependable menu. Pine Street offers a few places between 11th Street and Broad. Vegetarians can always stop into Govinda on South Street. Starbuck’s has outlet at 15th and Latimer and Broad and Lombard.

     So you can eat. But early and for a price. Even the Starbuck’s outlets close at 9.  At 9! In Center City while there’s still foot traffic passing both closed stores.

      Price is the real culprit. South Broad Street has restaurants, but it is hard to escape from any of them without at least a $30 tab before taxes and tip, especially if alcohol is involved. The average meal is probably more in the $50 to $60 range. That is not outrageous, but it doesn’t encourage frequent dining.

      Perch Pub is the only venue that is reasonable in the way a diner or café might be. You can do well there, with wine, for $25 including tax and tip. Ovations, in the Doubletree is also reasonable, but the menu is limited, and the place is shoddy.

      What’s missing is restaurants of different kinds. Once upon a time, Broad Street had a Harvey House or Horn & Hardart’s for people who wanted something decent but light. Ted’s Montana Grill, once situated at Broad and Spruce, is a great loss, particularly because no business has leased its former location. Ted’s left because of rentals, not because it wasn’t doing adequate business to survive.

     If the Avenue of the Arts knew its business, it would promote various kinds of eating, from the fine but expensive places that exist to the kinds of spots you find in New York, Chicago, Toronto, or L.A. where people can breeze in for a meal that doesn’t dent their budget.

     Also, places that are cheaper tend to keep liveliness going. Broad Street is dead when nothing is playing in its theaters. The University of the Arts has not helped matters by selfishly closing storefronts and creating a series of blocks where there is no open business of any kind. (For that reason alone, I would not give a donation to Uarts.)

     I don’t know that an institution such as Avenue of the Arts can control who leases or rents or changes a landscape, but if planning is involved, there must be some mechanism to encourage a better variety of places to eat and to arrange promotions that may make it worthwhile for existing venues to stay open later, at least until 11:30. (You really can’t demand or ask a business owner to remain open if he or she cannot expect to make the money to make that profitable.)

      The Kimmel Center will have a new restaurant in the coming weeks. Volver, Spanish for “return” and the name of an enjoyable 2006 Spanish movie with Penelope Cruz, is by Jose Garces, whose restaurants usually have high quality.

      Volver is a vast improvement over the tschotchke shop the Kimmel originally had on its ground floor, but it compounds the Avenue eating dilemma. At least in terms of reasonable cost and relaxing atmosphere. It will be one more high-price, low-volume joint (in terms of seating; I don’t know yet about noise) in the area. The territory around the Walnut and Lantern are much more late-night and pocketbook-friendly with Coco’s, Jones, and Moriarty’s in their midst. Stella Rossa is also a good new addition. The ideal solution for South Broad Street would be something along the lines of the old H.A. Winston or one of the early Poses restaurants, The Commissary.

     The shame is the Kimmel Center can’t use its upper space, once reserved for a restaurant, to approximate the kind of café that is a welcome staple at London’s National Theatre complex. The National offers a couple of cafeterias where people can order small plates, full meals, or sweets at reasonable cost. The café becomes as much a meeting place and a social gathering spot as it is a restaurant.

      A gathering spot, some place that is just lively, fun, and accommodating, is another thing absent from the Avenue of the Arts. It’s a dull, dull place when nothing is playing or when performances are in progress. Arts areas in other cities have venues that draw people to the area. Philadelphia has not been canny about doing that. A couple of good bars or something akin to the Darling Diner in Northern Liberties may be advisable. On a higher plane, and with later hours, a restaurant like the Montgomery Tavern in Bala Cynwyd would also be welcome.

     I would love to join in with the majority that boasts how wonderful the Avenue of the Arts is.

     Sorry, I cannot agree. I see a missed opportunity and an area that is only vibrant with activity when theaters are lit, something that would have happened with or without the Avenue.

       And remember, my criticism is leveled at the area between City Hall and South Street. North  Broad Street, and the moat that is the disheveled City Hall Courtyard is a total shambles.

        See you on the Avenue.

One comment on “News from the Avenue — Mary Poppins Visits Walnut

    August 27, 2014

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