Saturday, April 2, 2016

Spring Geocaching

It's spring, the trees are budding, things are greening up, and that means it is time for me to have my annual burst of geocaching energy. Between some finds in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania in the last couple of weeks, I have reached 1172 finds, and have now filled in 295 dates on the 366 date calendar. Sure, most of this was accomplished in 2010-2011, but hey, I'm making progress. Slowly.

More often than not, I get a few caches these days when either further from home, or when one or both of my girls are willing to go out and get a few with me. Julia is sitting at 225, and Grace is now at about 220 (give or take a few).
LittleCacherG up in a tree

The things that makes me want to grab a few caches more than anything is the desire to get out in the woods for a walk now that the weather has warmed up. My favorite kind of caches are the ones that will force me to get my lazy butt out onto a trail (however modest) and put a little effort into finding them. Or at least a short walk anyway...

Goals for 2016...modest. Get past 1200, maybe even 1250. Cross another 15-20 dates off the calendar. Clear out the newer ones that have cropped up near home. Have fun doing it. In other words, simple but achievable goals.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter Weekend

The kids had the week off, and I'd accumulated a lot of vacation time already, so we took the Thursday and Friday off and headed up to visit the in laws in northern New Jersey. We just got back almost exactly three days later, and we crammed a lot of good stuff in those three days.

Geocaching - The main thing for Thursday was for Amp, Julia and I to go into New York City, have dinner, and see a show on Broadway. But that left a few hours in the morning before we needed to go, and there are still a lot of geocaches not far from their house that need getting. So Grace, Ines and I went out and walked for about a mile and a half in the woods, picking up three caches along the way, including one really nice one in a tree. It was a good thing we had Grace along for that one. It was an easily climbable tree, and Grace enjoyed it, except for a minor touch of apprehension when she looked down from the top for the first time...
Little monkey in a tree

Saks Fifth Avenue Windows - Costumes from Outlander. Having left home at around 2 and gotten into the city by 3, we had time to kill before taking Julia to Ellen's Stardust Diner for dinner. We knew one thing that we were going to do - check out the temporary window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue, which had about a dozen costumes from Amp's favorite show - Outlander. Between her love of the show (and books) and her experience over the last few years doing costume design for the high school musical productions, this was something she really wanted to see. While not 100% my cup of tea, I have to admit that the costumes were pretty cool.
Outlander costumes

St Patrick's Cathedral - right across the street from Saks is St Patrick's Cathedral. I'm not catholic in particular, or religious in general, but I do appreciate art and architecture, and churches, especially the big opulent ones, have magnificent detail in abundance. St Patrick's did not disappoint in that regard, as you could probably spend days if not weeks studying the ridiculous amount of detail in that massive space.
St Patrick's Cathedral

Heading from Saks and St Patrick's toward Broadway, we passed through Rockefeller Center, which was nicely decorated for the Easter season. We stopped to watch ice skaters on the rink for a little while.
Easter in Rockefeller Center

We got to the Stardust Diner at around 4pm, and there was a line halfway down the block. We got in line to wait, as this was an experience we wanted Julia to have. This is the place where the waitstaff all sing throughout your stay. I've been there once and Amp has been there a couple of times, and we knew Julia would love it. A 65 minute wait later, we were seated, and it did end up being worth it. Julia was enthralled. At one point, one of the guys was singing a song, and made extended eye contact with Julia, pointing at her as he sang. Afterwards, Julia said "I think he likes me...but I'm way out of his league". Amp and I almost fell out of our chairs we were laughing so hard.

The real highlight of the day (and trip) was Something Rotten at the St James Theater. We had great seats 5 rows back in the center of the mezzanine, very close to the stage. The St James is an ~1,100 seat theater, medium-smallish by Broadway standards, but was comfortable. The show itself, about the creation of the world's first musical (in Shakespeare's time, and in competition with Shakespeare), was absolutely hilarious, and well worth the hefty price of admission. Heartily recommended.
Something Rotten at the St James Theater

The last major part of the trip was a private horseback riding "party" for Julia, Grace, Isa and Ines. Isabel and Ines do horseback riding at a local farm, and they also specialize in therapeutic riding for handicapped kids. We had 5 or 6 people, 3 ponies and a horse, and an hour in the indoor riding ring for the girls to enjoy. To say they loved it would be an understatement.
Grace on Junie

Julia was a little apprehensive at first, but became comfortable enough pretty quickly, and had a wonderful time. This will probably be something that we try to arrange again in the future when we are up there. Grace is also asking about riding at some of the local farms near us in the Brandywine valley.
Julia on Vanessa

Even with some time to relax around the house, and sleeping in some, it still seems like we had a pretty full three days. Which we did. Now we are back home, and tomorrow, we have Easter dinner with Dave and his gang, along with Mom and Chris, which is something else to look forward to.

Friday, February 5, 2016


Last weekend, after getting back from a week-long national sales meeting at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel complex in Nashville, I was able to finish the runestone project begun a week or so earlier. To recap, the runestones were carved from foam insulation board, painted a medium gray color, runes were scribed with a dull pencil point, and then colored in with a fine point black Sharpie.
In process

The next step was to dry brush the pieces with a light gray color (Folk Art craft paint in Dove Gray).
First light gray dry brush coat

The last step was to pick out a few bits of detail with a medium brown color and a tan color. The final pieces shouldn't be too monotone, and the bits of brown and tan coloring break up the all gray color scheme.

The pieces, when complete, are simple but effective. They can be used as Underdark pieces (which they will be...(spoiler)...or as outdoor pieces.
Runestones (again)

All in all, this was a nice simple project that took perhaps an hour and a half in total, and resulted in ten pieces of scatter terrain that can have multiple uses. Total cost, with the materials already in hand, was basically nothing. Allocated cost of the actual materials used would be less than $10. Not bad for a handful of multi-use pieces.

Christmas Tidbits

Brother Dave always does a good job of paying attention to whatever my interests-du-jour are, and getting Christmas or birthday presents that tie into those interests. This Christmas was no different, and Dave and his Darling Wife got me (among other things) a couple of books that I have devoured.

The first was the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, a brief paperback (121 pages) containing a variety of essays from a bunch of different people with a lot of collective experience in the fantasy role playing game and related industries. I liked this book a lot, and my only complaint, if any, was that it wasn't long enough. There were chapters on design methodology and a variety of different aspects of fantasy world creation. While none of these essays was extensive in length or scope, they were all filled with good advice on things to consider, approaches to take, and the like. Given my...ok, let's call it an obsession...with creating the world we are playing D&D in, this little book gets a solid "A-".
World building, and Fantasy Maps

The second of the two books was How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps, by Jared Blando. As we have gotten back into playing D&D after all these years, one of the things it has gotten me interested in doing is to get back into sketching and drawing. I have bought a few books on basics of drawing and sketching, and this is a good complement to those, focusing specifically on fantasy map cartography.
Sketching a piece of our World (in progress), 11 by 14 inches

In a couple of spare hours over the course of the past few evenings, I have made a beginning effort at turning a piece of the players' world into a basic (beginner) hand drawn map. The picture above is what I have so far. More to come as this progresses. Sketching in some forested areas comes next, which will be time consuming. So we'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, thanks to Brother Dave and his family for giving me a few Christmas gifts that do indeed keep on giving.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cavern Pillars

Interesting what two feet of snow will do. I've now posted more blog entries today than I did in the last 4 months of 2015 combined. Hmmm... of the things I have noted in our first few sessions of using my new Underdark terrain set is that there are a few kinds of pieces that were not in my initial build that would be very useful to have. A few of those, begun over the last week or so, and completed today are:

90 degree pieces of 2 inch tall cavern wall for forming passage entries into larger caverns. I had been using simple gaps in the walls, and while these new pieces are not really necessary, they look nice and work well.
Cavern passage entries (at left)

A few more pieces of rocky scatter terrain which character models could climb up on.
Rocky scatter terrain

A few pieces of floor-to-ceiling 2 inch terrain. This would serve to break up larger caverns, and represent areas where the rock goes from floor to ceiling. In my terrain pieces, this is represented by the black painted centers. Our rule is that if there is enough gray for a miniature to stand on, then a character can climb to that spot (and claim the high ground, for whatever purpose). If there isn't enough gray painted area for a miniature, then it represents sheer wall. The picture below shows two new "floor to ceiling" pieces for breaking up larger spaces.
Cavern with entry, scatter and floor-to-ceiling pieces

I also took a few pictures today as I made the new floor-to-ceiling pieces. The process detailed below is consistent with every piece of terrain-making in my Underdark collection (as well as most of my dungeon terrain as well...).

Step 1 - Carve the basic shape out of the appropriate sized foam, in this case 2 inch soft blue insulation board. The blue board is softer than the pink, which is grainier and stiffer. I just had some blue scraps, so I used them. When in doubt, use what you already have (and have paid for...). It took me maybe one minute each to carve these pieces.
Step 1 - Carve simple shapes with a knife

Step 2 - Base coat the pieces with your gray base color. I use Behr "Iron Mountain" as my base (from Home Depot). A quart of interior flat is maybe $12 (US). It took perhaps 2 minutes each to base coat these pieces.
Step 2 - Paint gray

Step 3 - Dry brush with a lighter gray (in this case, I use Folk Art brand craft paint from Michael's, specifically "dove gray"). On terrain pieces this size, I use a large semi-stiff artist's brush (shown). Pay particular attention to dry brushing "top to bottom" so that you make a point to catch the top edges of the pieces, as these will be the most visible to the viewer. Once the base coat was dry, it took about 30 seconds to dry brush each piece.
Step 3 - Light gray dry brush

Step 4 - Add a couple spots of tan and/or white dry brush to break up the monotony of all gray. And another 30 seconds for this step.
Step 4 - A little tan and white

Step 5 - Add black paint to mark out of play areas. As noted above, in our games, if there isn't enough gray area to fit a miniature on, the area is unplayable, and represents vertical walls. In the case of these two pieces, no miniature can fit anywhere on the top surfaces... And a minute each for these. In all, paint drying time is longer than the time spent in doing the different steps.
Step 5 - Add "theater black" to mark out of play areas

The finished product - the picture below shows the two new pieces, along with the 90 degree passage entry pieces and the new scatter terrain, making a large cavern with some interesting features. A large open area is never as interesting for an encounter area as one with a variety of features that the characters can interact with.
Finished product

So that's pretty much how I have made all of the stuff in the last few posts. Easy. Readily available. Cheap. All good things. A sheet of nominal 1 inch thick foam insulation board (4 foot by 8 foot by 3/4 inch thick) is about $15. A 2 foot by 8 foot sheet of 2 inch thick foam is about $18. A quart of paint, which can coat dozens of pieces, is about $12. Craft paints for highlighting are maybe $1.69 each. Add a couple of paint brushes and a knife, and you have all you need. Other than a place to store this big pile of foam...

I'm not aiming for fine art, which this is clearly not. And I am not aiming to make diorama quality detailed pieces. I want to make simple but effective pieces that enhance our gameplay, and these certainly seem to do that.

Runestones and Pools

A post on a couple of the small projects I have in the works.

First, some old and crumbling rune-carved pillars. These could be found above ground or below, and I do not have any specific plan in mind for them. Pillars are carved from foam and painted gray. A dull pencil is then used to etch runes lightly into the surface. The recessed etchings are then "painted" with a black Sharpie. After the rest of the basing is done, (piles of rubble, glued and then painted) a final dry brush highlight of light gray will be applied. I applied the highlight to the top surface of the one piece lying down just to see the final effect. All the rocks, whether on the rune pieces or the little pieces of scatter terrain by themselves, will be painted black, and then successively dry brushed with shades of gray.
Rune carved pillars - in process

For more complex areas of smaller caverns and passages, I have another set of modular pieces. These can be laid out as the adventurers explore. Making these kind of cave warrens in the way detailed in the prior post would be difficult. I would call this method a negative space way of doing it. Passages and caverns shown are hollow spots in the ground, everything else is solid. This is the same method I used for my linear dungeon pieces (squares, rectangles and regular hallways). [Which started all this, and which I will show sometime soon]
Caverns and passages - Negative Space

I saw a YouTube crafter's video recently about making recessed pool areas in foam pieces using nail polish (Black Magic Craft I believe it was). The chemicals in the nail polish melt the foam a little bit, before the melting stops. Judicious use of the polish gives you a controlled melt, which can then be painted and filled in (blues for water, oranges for lava pools, green for slime, brown for mud, etc).
Testing the nail polish melt method

To add cavern pieces of interest, I am going to make some that have pools of various kinds. The first such piece is shown below. Nail polish has melted three areas, which have subsequently been painted black. The rest of the painting will be done later. They will be water pools on this piece. After the painting is done, a bit of clear two part resin epoxy (like Envirotex) will be used to fill the pools.
Cavern piece with pool areas

And a close up of the larger of the melted pool areas. This is a nice technique that will have lots of uses in a fantasy world terrain set.
Nail polish melted pools

I will post pictures of the finished pieces, but that will likely be next weekend at the earliest.

In the meantime, I may be able to get some photos up of the dungeon terrain.

Dungeons and Dragons - Underdark Encounters

As I noted earlier, we have had a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons game going since October of 2014. We play sporadically, every other week when we can manage it, but sometimes 3-5 weeks between sessions. We have seven total players, and typically have between 4 and 6 at any given session. Plus me. It's kind of odd, but in the entire time we have been playing, we have never had all 7 players at a game at the same time. We planned to a few times, but something always happens for somebody. This actually works out fairly well, as running a group of seven 4th and 5th level characters would be quite large, and a typical group of 5 is almost ideal purely from a game-management and encounter building perspective.

Anyway, the point of this post was just to show some pictures, as promised earlier, of the new modular Underdark terrain we have been using. The new terrain (and related binge miniatures purchasing) has really added a terrific dimension to the game.

For Underdark encounters in passages or caverns, I have a "stone" painted sheet of foam insulation board approximately 3 feet by 4 feet. This serves as the generic base for whatever needs to go on top of it. There are other custom pieces, but this is our starting point.

Passage walls, when needed, are typically laid out from a collection of 1-inch thick modular pieces of foam (cut from the remainder of the base sheet). These have been bevelled on one side (45 degrees or a little steeper), carved up (simply) on the bevelled edge to give texture, and then painted. The same colors are used on the modular walls as are on the base board. A medium-darkish gray flat interior latex house paint (Behr "Iron Mountain" in this case) is the base coat, over which "dove gray" craft paint is sponged and dry brushed. Small bits get a white or tan dry brush just to break up the monotony. The solid rock areas are given a coat of "theater black" paint to denote them as "off stage."

The scene below was a night's rest in an alcove off a passage, interrupted by a giant spider.
Resting for the Night, with a Giant Spider

For larger caverns, I have made an assortment of modular pieces from 2-inch thick insulation board, using the exact same process as for the thinner pieces.
2 inch foam cavern and passage walls

The larger pieces, laid out over the same baseboard, provided the scene for an encounter in a large cavern. In addition to the walls and floors, a number of foam chunks have been spread around as scatter terrain, marking rises in the floor of the cavern as well as serving as stalagmites and other rocky protrusions jutting up from the floor.
Large Cavern Encounter

The combat between our party and some bugbears and gridlock slaves is shown below.
Combat Closeup - Bugbears and Grimlocks

It doesn't take much effort (or skill) to make these pieces, just time and a few basic and cheap materials. They serve to make a multitude of different configurations, and the basic pieces, in conjunction with a few special pieces, can make a huge difference in the visual appeal of the game.

I'll show some of those special pieces and some current works in progress soon.

Blizzard of 2016 - Winter Storm Jonas

Stuck in the house with 12-18 inches of snow down and a little more to come between now and midnight, so I might as well see if I remember how to do a blog post. It is blowing hard and the snow is still coming down, so I have no real idea of how much we do have. Depending on where you look on the deck and in the yard, we have a couple of feet or nothing. Whatever the truth is, it's a lot, and with more to come over the next 12 hours.
18 inches or nothing? Hard to tell...

Everyone is safe and warm, and we have power (and internet), so all is good with the world. Tomorrow (Sunday) will be the day to dig out, or more accurately, pay someone else to dig out. In the meantime, there is nothing to do but lounge around, do some hobby stuff and spend time with the family, and wonder if the business trip I am supposed to fly out for on Monday morning will happen. I guess I should say, the trip will happen at some point early this week, but will it be Monday morning or some time after?...
Garage roof glacier

The kids are bummed that we had this big storm on a Saturday. I can understand that.

Oh, and I guess sometime before dark I should go out into the side yard and get that piece of my chimney siding I see laying out there and stick it in the garage before it blows away entirely...

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Our Games Have Come a Long Way

So the beginning of my downfall was when Lee, who plays our wood elf Druid, brought this one little miniature to one of our D&D games.
Wood Elf Druid

Earlier in our campaign (October 2014 through about October 2015), adventuring encounters and dungeon crawling were done with large sheets of paper with outlines of terrain or rooms, and little markers for characters and monsters.
Drawing Dungeons on Big Paper

Being a miniature gamer on the historical side, I had been interested in doing some basic miniatures for this as well, but hadn't found a source of fantasy figures that struck my fancy for buying and painting. There are pre-painted plastic D&D branded figures available (in great variety released over the last several years), but I figured they would be not very good painting quality and on the expensive side.

Following Lee's first nudge down the slippery slope, I purchased plastic D&D figures on eBay that were suitable for each of our player characters. These characters marched around on their paper dungeons, and fought little markers for monsters. That didn't seem very satisfying.

The next thing was to figure out how to make some modular dungeon terrain; something that I could construct fairly easily, and which would look convincing enough to create a nice enough illusion to allow the players to get immersed. Buying something pre-cast, or even pre-painted, such as Dwarven Forge (beautiful but pricy products), was considered and dismissed. I'd rather have the fun of making it myself.

So I made some carved foam modular dungeon tiles. Lots actually. Rooms of various sizes and passages of different widths and lengths. And doors. And Grace made me some Sculpey (baked clay) slime pits, and water pools, and other "dungeon dressing" items. Which of course then made me go out to eBay and buy a bunch more dungeon dressing items, like altars, and wells, and campfires, and all sorts of nice little inexpensive goodies. We used these dungeon tiles for a couple of sessions in October and November (game time has been hard to come by), and the improvement in the feel of the games was dramatic. At this point, I am unrecoverably down the slippery slope, and completely committed to a quality visual game.

Which means we need figures for monsters. eBay to the rescue on that one as well, and over the past month or so, a steady trickle of little boxes have been arriving in the mail with one or two or five or twenty figures. It turns out the plastic D&D figures are pretty nice, and shopped for judiciously on eBay, can be pretty reasonable (in some cases, downright cheap).

The last step in phase 1 (basic functionality build) of a terrain set was the carving of modular foam pieces for the Underdark. This would require pieces from which could be shown passages and caverns, rifts and gorges, underground lakes and streams, etc. Grace and I knocked out the basics of that over the last couple of weeks.

With all of our group being off a good bit around the holidays, six out of our seven players got together for a long session on Monday (3pm-11:30pm with dinner and breaks). It was a blast. They finished up a small dungeon, spent a little time in town, and then ended up descending into the Underdark for their first foray deep underground for an extended period (and distance from the surface).
Monday's Troll Fight

The session was a lot of fun, and for the first time, we had a total visual experience of terrain, characters, and monsters, and it was fabulous. Pictured above is a simple two foot by two foot small battle board laid out to represent a crossing over a chasm of indeterminate depth. It uses two modular side pieces laid overtop a two foot square black painted "rift" base. A few other small cavern wall and bridge pieces complete the simple but effective scene. And a troll of course. [The pink foam baseboard still needs its "theater black" edge painting...but I still have some work to do.]

More to follow on the construction of the pieces, as well as some better pictures of the results.

Plus catching up on three months worth of unwritten blog posts, but that's a whole different story.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to everyone/anyone out there!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Paul Prudhomme (1940 - 2015)

I love to cook, and it was with great sadness that I saw that one of my foodie idols died today. Paul Prudhomme died in New Orleans at the age of 75 following a brief illness.
Paul Prudhomme. later years

Credited with mainstreaming and popularizing cajun food in the 1970s and 1980s, Prudhomme was a larger than life character (literally and figuratively). Before there was a Food Network and a Cooking Channel, the only way to see cooking on TV was PBS (Public Broadcasting System) channels. One of the early people that I remember vividly was Prudhomme (who appeared on some other shows, but didn't have his own series runs until the 1990's).
Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen

Sometime in the 1990s, I was in New Orleans on a business trip with a few others, and we tried to get into K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen but could not. Back in those days, the place didn't take reservations, and the lines routinely stretched down the block.
Prudhomme's Fiery Foods...

I have three of his ten cookbooks; Louisiana Kitchen (1984, his first), Seasoned America (1991, his fourth) and Fiery Foods That I Love (1995, his seventh).

Louisiana Kitchen is a treasure trove of classic cajun and creole cooking. Fiery Foods contains some of my favorite recipes of all time, including two fantastic chicken recipes, Tomato Cream Chicken (page 182), and Chicken Dippin' (page 172). Tomato Cream Chicken is perhaps my single favorite recipe. Of any kind. Ever.
Browning for Chicken Dippin'

Grace and I made Chicken Dippin' this past weekend: (it was delicious)
Grace Making Chicken Dippin'

Rest in Peace, Paul.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Plans Foiled, Plans Made (ish)

This weekend was supposed to be a three-day guys' camping trip. We were going to leave Friday, drive the 3+ hours to Assateague Island (Maryland/Virginia), where we would camp, hike, fish and relax at the oceanside campground, returning late Sunday. Then tropical storm/hurricane Joaquin showed up and washed us out.

In lieu of the planned trip, we had to settle for talking about planning another trip.
Half Dome, Yosemite NP

The four of us (Leo, Ted, brother Dave and myself) gathered at Ted's place in Philly Saturday evening, had a very nice dinner of grilled rib-eye steaks and the accoutrements, and pondered the question "what should we do for our 2016 trip?"

Basic parameters fell into place fairly quickly. Nobody had any major family-related travel plans for next year, so the option of a big trip, with flying as opposed to driving, was in play. Driving trips are generally for those years when people have a 5-day weekend or so to spare, and the timing (and expense) prohibits flying (not enough bang for your buck, too much transit time, etc). Driving trips span the realistically viable range from the Great Smoky Mountains in the south to upstate New York or southern New England in the north.

Flying trips, on the other hand, basically open anything in the entire continental US as possible destinations, especially the West. Like the Dakotas trip of 2011, this could mean 8-9 days, airplanes, big rental minivan, hotels at the ends of the trip and possibly motels in the middle if driving from place to place. A big trip. Still surprisingly reasonable when split between four people, but a big trip nonetheless.

Seems like 2016 is headed toward Big Trip.

The basics of a possible plan, formulated off the cuff over steaks and wine could be as follows:

Things are far from settled, and we are nearly a year from the roughly proposed September trip, but it sure looks good on paper. More to come...

Sunday, September 27, 2015

An American in Paris

25th Anniversary - Saturday - Part 2.

Having gotten out of Wicked a little before 5pm, we had some time to kill (and an errand to run) before seeing an evening show of An American in Paris at 8pm.

Amp had bought the tickets for AAiP through Stub Hub a few days earlier, with the requirement that we had to physically pick them up at a Stub Hub store front a few blocks south of Times Square. I didn't even know that such a thing existed. But sure enough, after wading through the absolute freak show that is Times Square, we found the store front and got our tickets.

With a good two and a half hours still to go before the show, we decided to head a couple blocks west of  Broadway and try to find a place to eat, preferably an ethnic place of some sort. After fighting our way back through Times Square (and passing the evening's theater, the Palace, right on the Square), we found a Thai place named Qi on 8th Avenue. We weren't all that hungry (or so we thought), but we would be busy from 7:30 until about 11, and it was now-or-never for dinner. As it turned out, the food was fabulous, and we split a fried sesame-crusted tofu appetizer. Amp followed up with a marinated citrus chicken dish of some sort, and I had a Massaman chicken curry, one of my favorites. Both were terrific, and again surprisingly-not-ridiculously-expensive. I guess that I had been expecting to spend a fortune on basic meals in the city, and got off better than I expected.
Fried Sesame Crusted Tofu

We were back in Times Square by maybe 7pm, and spent some time wandering through the street festival du jour, which was a "get to know France" themed event. This was basically a two block long tourism advertisement, with live music and food samples. Odd but interesting was the display of the successful attempt at breaking the Guinness Book of World Records mark for largest one piece butter sculpture. As we say around the kitchen at home, butter makes everything better...
World Record Butter Sculpture

Having finished with the Paris skyline in butter, and all things French, we headed into the Palace Theater. The first and most obvious thing that struck us was that this was an older (or less well renovated) and smaller theater than the Gershwin. It was narrow, tight, and tall. Having watched a show in the spaciousness of the Gershwin mere hours before, this felt a bit like watching a show from the top of an elevator shaft. That notwithstanding, our seats were OK, and we had a good top-down look at the stage.
An American in Paris - Palace Theater Stage

An American In Paris is a stage production/adaptation of the Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron movie from 1951, with music by George and Ira Gershwin. I had vague memories of the movie, but know the music very well, playing it at home from time to time. Anyone who watches TV and has ever seen a car commercial will know some of the music.

The show was excellent, but couldn't have been much more different than Wicked, in that it revolved completely around dance. There was acting, there was singing, but the dancing was the focal point. Amp had read up on the production, and the leads were apparently played by professional ballet dancers who could also act and sing very well. Amp's main interest in the show was becauseof the ballet, which I went into with a little bit of trepidation, but I really ended up enjoying it. The cast was great, the music was terrific, and the staging and dance numbers were amazing.

The show was done by about 10:45, we were back at the car by 11:00 or so, and out of the city and back at our in-laws' house by a little before 12:30am.

What a fabulous day, and thanks to the in-laws for watching the kids for us.


25th Anniversary - Saturday - Part 1

After a late night Friday, we had the luxury of being able to sleep in a bit before getting ready and heading into New York for our day without the kids. The first half of the day would be lunch and a matinee showing of Wicked, a show that I have been wanting to see for a long time. I know many people that have seen it, and nobody has ever had anything bad to say about it.
Wicked - Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel

We got into the city around 11:30am or so, with no leftover traffic from the Pope leaving that morning (heading to Philly!) that we could tell. We parked relatively near the Gershwin Theater, and looked for a place for lunch. We settled for an obvious choice a block or so away from the theater: the Stardust Diner. This is the place where all the waitstaff are Broadway wannabe's, and sing throughout the restaurant while serving. It was cliche, and touristy, and terrific. The food was good, not grossly overpriced for New York (a rarity), and the entertainment was very good. It might be cliche, but it's cliche for a reason.
Gershwin Theater Marquee

As for Wicked, I can't say enough good about it. I have the soundtrack, and know the music pretty well, but without having seen the show (or read the book by Gregory Maguire), the gaps between some of the songs didn't make much sense. Now they do. The Gershwin Theater, where the show has been running for about 12 years, was a really nice theater - fairly modern (at least in its renovation), spacious, with comfortable seats and good leg room. Sight lines were good and the stage was huge (both tall and wide). The stage was so wide that they had room for purely gratuitous decoration flanking both sides of the wide stage.
Wicked, Gershwin Theater Stage

For the show itself, the music was great, singing was fantastic, acting was good, and the effects were terrific. The show was very cleverly written to tie backwards into The Wizard of Oz in so many different ways, but to also turn all of the old story on its head. It was funny, engaging, and moving. We loved it. Rachel Turner, apparently relatively new to the cast, was fabulous as Elphaba. Kara Lindsay was beyond great as Galinda/Glinda. I couldn't help but thinking throughout the show that she was doing an over the top impression of Kristen Chenoweth (she probably was, like they mostly all probably do), but it was great.

A few clips:
  • Defying Gravity at the 2004 (?) Tony awards, with original cast members Kristin Chenoweth (Galinda/Glinda, the "Good" Witch) and Idina Menzel (Elphaba, the "Wicked" Witch). Simply brilliant. One of my favorite songs from a musical.
  • Popular - Kristin Chenoweth's last performance with Idina Menzel before Chenoweth left the show. Interesting due to all the ad-libs added in the middle that aren't in the scene, including Chenoweth telling Menzel she's beautiful. They can't stop cracking up...

Overall, I would say that this has might have become my second favorite musical, taking everything into account. Les Miserables is the best, of course. For pure non-stop unrelenting entertainment, Aladdin is tops. For innovation and spectacle, it's hard to beat Lion King. But this is very very good in every aspect.

Next...Saturday part 2.

Chick Corea and Bela Fleck

This past weekend we celebrated our upcoming 25th wedding anniversary by going up to north Jersey to leave the kids with my inlaws, and then going off on our own to so some things without them. The original plan was to go into New York city Saturday morning, see a show, eat a good meal, spend the night, do something Sunday and then pick up the kids and drive home. We ended up deciding to spend more money on shows and less on hotel, but more on that later.

The first part of the weekend was to get to north Jersey Friday afternoon (avoiding the Pope's visit to Philly that weekend, and the resulting mismanagement by the mayor with regards to shutting the whole city down for 4 days, but that's also another story...). We would leave the kids with a babysitter, and us, my sister in law and her husband, and another couple would go to the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown NJ to see a jazz concert by Chick Corea (piano) and Bela Fleck (banjo). I like jazz very much, and have quite a bit of it on CD, but I am no expert by any means, and there are a great many people whose names I recognize but know little about. These were two of those.
Bela Fleck and Chick Corea

A clip from last year is here:
  • Mountain - Chick Corea and Bela Fleck, 2014, Los Angeles.

The short version of the story is that we had a nice (but very rushed) bite to eat before the concert at an Irish pub across the street, a fabulous concert, and a nice drink and snack at another nearby place after.

As for the concert itself, it was a mix of "classic" style jazz, bluegrass influenced stuff, classical influenced stuff, and a whole lot else in between. Taking out an intermission, they played for about an hour and forty minutes. Not tremendously long, but certainly long enough to get your money's worth. Both were amazing musicians, and they played off of each other very well (as can be seen in the clip linked above). Corea was amazing, all the more so considering that he is 74 years old, and Fleck was a blur on banjo. His was lightning fast, and unbelievably clean. They seemed to enjoy themselves on stage, and had good banter and rapport with the crowd.

I would give this show the highest possible marks, even more so considering that the tickets were about $28 each after all fees and taxes. Hard to believe. Perhaps the best thing I could say about the show is that I have every intention of picking up the two albums that these guys have done together (one studio, one live), and looking into their other stuff as well.

A great start to a great weekend...