Saturday, December 29, 2012

It’s a Wonderful Life during Christmas at the Omni Bedford Springs Hotel

Omni Bedford Springs Hotel in Winter
 I’m so glad I arrived at the Omni Bedford Springs Hotel at early evening on Christmas Eve. Leaving the Pennsylvania Turnpike and driving about three miles into the snow-covered hills of south-central Pennsylvania gave me a chance to decompress and get in the mood for an old-fashioned Christmas..

Turning the corner of a winding road, the hotel came into view, its long majestic building popped into view, adorned with soft white lights and dominated by a towering 40-foot tall Christmas tree that sat on the lawn. Falling snow added its bit of holiday romance and it, indeed, was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Inside, another big tree decorated the lobby, and nearby, a couple sat warming themselves in front of the fireplace, logs crackling merrily. There were nutcrackers galore filling cabinets and tabletops and even a gingerbread house displayed in the lobby. In the library, instead of glass ornaments, another tree sported paper silhouettes of U.S. presidents (Over the years, ten U. S. presidents stayed at the hotel, including James Buchanan, who made it his summer White House).

Dinner in the Crystal Room that evening proved a feast of seared scallops, lobster salad and Pekin Paradise Duck, elegant courses that also included very memorable lemon lavender scones. After a couple glasses of wine, I slept soundly, visions of sugar plums dancing in my head.

Christmas morning started with coffee in bed, an opening of gifts and a tour of the historic hotel with a truly remarkable man named Scott Mallow, who, for a small fee, shares his extensive knowledge of the 216-room hotel during a fascinating ,hour long expedition into history and architecture.

Way before White traders arrived in the area, Native Americans frequented the area’s seven springs hoping their purported therapeutic properties would ease their ailments. Foreseeing the economic potential of the site, one of the early White settlers, John Anderson, purchased 200 acres and began building the original stone section of the resort starting in 1808 as a place to stay for those coming to "take the waters." One of the first notables to visit was Aaron Burr, who came to be with his niece, who brought along her sickly child.

As word spread, Bedford Springs began to draw wealthy Southerners and, later in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, the elite of cities like New York and Philadelphia. By 1905, a series of new additions had increased the number of guests the hotel could accommodate, and the nation’s first indoor Olympic-size pool was added, complete with an elevated opera box from which musicians could entertain the swimmers.

If you take Mallow’s tour, ask him to point out the guest ledgers that date back to the 1840s displayed under glass cases as well as President Buchanan’s desk, the copy of the first transatlantic telegraph message sent to him at the hotel on August 12, 1858 by Queen Victoria and the silhouettes in the First Ladies Parlor of the US presidents and their wives who stayed at the resort.

In the Duke of Bedford Library, have him identify the windows that bear witness to the custom of newlywed brides supposedly testing the authenticity of their diamond rings by inscribing their name in the glass panes.
With history around every corner, the hotel is surprisingly in very good shape, thanks to a $120 million renovation project completed in 2007. WiFi, a state-of-the-art fitness center open 24 -7 and the Springs Eternal Spa complete with all the latest treatments are just as home here as the old copper kettles, the massive earthenware cask and display cases of implements like antique axes and other tools located outside the rustic 1796 Restaurant.

Inside the upscale steak and chop house, check out the case of antique Pennsylvania long rifles and the wonderful series of antique coverlets hung behind glass along one wall.

If You’re Going

For things to do, the resort has 25 miles of hiking trails, an outdoor stone fire pit for making S’mores in clement weather, an elegant afternoon tea presided over by host David Weir, and one of North America’s oldest golf courses, laid out in 1875 by Spencer Oldham. In 1912, the old course was changed from an 18 to a 9-hole course by golf course legend, A.W. Tillinghast.

In 1923, Donald Ross recreated the 18-hole course that was both challenging yet one with its natural landscape and was hailed as one of the best in the state. Currently the new course is the result of an $8 million restoration, which includes new greens, tees, fairways and an irrigation system overseen by golf architect, Ron Force.

The contemporary course preserves the historic holes and features designed by each of its famous golf architects, including Tillinghast’s "Tiny Tim, a par three that has served as the model for over 100 holes in various courses across the nation.

Bedford Springs Resort is located at 2138 Business Route 220 in Bedford, Pa. 15522. Phone 866-623-8176 or visit www.omnihotels.com.

Lamb Chop Dinner in 1796  Restaurant: Photo by Bill Rockwell

Hotel Ezxterior: Photo by Bill Rockwell




Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s "Nutcracker" a Visual Holiday Confection


The Nutcracker

Sitting through a Saturday evening performance of "The Nutcracker" at Pittsburgh’s ornate Benedum Center jostled my memory of the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s unforgettable "Send in the Clowns." "Isn’t it rich." Indeed!
A lush musical score by Tchaikovsky fit for a czar, Zack Brown’s gorgeous sets and regal costumes and the superb dancing by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s wonderful soloists and corps de ballet combine to conspire a magical, aesthetic experience.
And speaking of magical, artistic director, Terrence S. Orr enlivened the Nutcracker’s usually static first act with several enchanting flourishes that enrich the story line. Godfather Drosselmeyer (danced by tall and commanding Nurlan Abougaliev) and his nephew (the muscular yet supple and light-footed Alexandre Silva) unload huge colorfully wrapped presents from a van, stack them nicely on top one another, twirl them around and, presto, out jumps a swashbuckling Pirate.
In the background, a large stage-wide, stage-high scrim represents the young Marie’s home, so stately and Victorian I initially mistook it for the Frick mansion in Point Breeze. I later discovered it was actually the McKee house, which once fronted Fifth Avenue in Shadyside, but was sadly demolished years ago.
Pittsburgh enthusiasts like myself might like to know that Mr. Orr sets his Nutcracker in the Steel City with several other allusions to the ‘Berg, including a large clock face that dominates the stage from the proscenium (a reminder of the famous Kaufmann clock on Fifth and Smithfield Downtown).
As I said before, I usually find the first act of "The Nutcracker" somewhat sedate, (even Tchaikovsky seems to hold back his best music for Act Two), but Orr manages to draw in my attention and hold it with a number of interesting elements, including the way the scrim dissolves when the back stage area is lit to reveal Marie’s bedroom and a parlor full of merry people enjoying a party.
The obligatory battle between the rat and mice army and the Nutcracker’s allies seems as fatuous as ever, but the silly skirmish segues into a sensuous finale with the Dance of the Snowflakes in which the corps de ballet, outfitted in glistening tiaras, glide like perfectly synchronized swans over the stage as snow falls in copious amounts from the rafters. After all, ballet is, as I like to call it, the dressage of the arts.
Before setting off to the Land of Enchantment on an equally enchanting sleigh, Marie (Christine Schwaner) and her Prince (Alexandre Silva) dance a gorgeous pas de deux in which Silva almost miraculously supports the young ballerina with some dazzling aerial choreography.
The real sugar plum of the production comes in Act Two when the series of international-themed dances kicks off an expressive, finely honed solo by Schwaner. The ensemble that dances across the stage as the dragon in the Chinese dance, the lyrical choreography of Shepherdesses, the amazing duet of Julia Erickson and Robert Moore in the Arabian, the spirited, high-leaping virtuosity of the Russian and the splendid visual seductiveness of the Grand Pas de Deux (danced by Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski, wife and husband in real life) combine to make for an evening of terpsichorean eloquence.
Particularly noteworthy is one of the boys in the children’s ensemble who animates Act One with some playful antics. In Act Two, other children (all members of the PBT School) dressed as bumblebees and sheep add a welcome bit of humor and whimsy to the adult solemnity of the dancers who perform under a huge canopy that opens and closes as with a pulse of its own.
The entire production seems infused by a warm and enchanted glow stifled to some degree by the absence of a live orchestra, which is replaced by a recording lacking to some degree in immediacy and emotional intimacy.
The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of "The Nutcracker" is at the Benedum Center, 237 Sixth Street Avenue, through December 30. Tickets are $22.75 to $95.75. Phone 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gruesome Playground Injuries - Not Your Usual Way to Romance


Erika Cuenca and Tony Bingham Star in  "Gruesome Playground Injuries"


Known for its challenging productions, Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie continues its 2012-2013 season with a provocative staging of "Gruesome Playground Injuries." Prior to its opening, director Maggie Balsley expounded on the play in a Q and A that provides a bit more insight into this challenging work.

Q: "Gruesome Playground Injuries" follows the lives of two people over the course of three decades after their initial encounter at the age of eight in a nurse’s office at school. In this two-character play in which Doug and Kayleen are bonded through a series of injuries and mental illness, how did you go about selecting the actors and how do you show how they age from preteens to mid-life adults from scene to scene?

A: The basic talent and ability of the actors was paramount. The combination of their gift and that of the dialogue allowed for the age progression to work with relative ease. Of course, costuming also plays a part.

Q: Playwright Rajiv Joseph was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo." What can you say about his dialogue, plot structure and the way he balances humor in "Gruesome Playground Injuries" with the play’s more serious issues?

A: I am impressed with his ability to convey age through dialogue. His portrayal of the psychological pain of the characters is done with sensitivity but no romanticism.

Q: The play is anchored by the fact that both characters have a predilection for physical calamity and accidents. Does this require a lot of makeup artistry to try to replicate some of the plot’s references to blood and gore?

A: Make up plays an important part in the staging. The application is done in full view of the audience as part of the transitions from scene to scene.

Q: Have you seen the play live and, if so, where? If not what was your initial take after a first reading of the script?

A: I was completely taken with the script on first reading. It provoked images and feelings immediately.

Q: As the director, what are some of the most difficult challenges you’ve faced working on this production?

A: The transitions from scene to scene. Each scene either moves forward fifteen years or backward ten years requiring costume and set changes. Our playwright is very specific that all the changes be done in full view of the audience and done at a leisurely pace to convey the large passage of time for the characters. The challenge is to have the audience engaged in the activity which should be more than watching stage crews moving furniture in a black out. Our obligation is to justify to the audience why they are watching these changes.

Q: What reasons would you give to people for them to come to see the show?

A: The compelling story and superb performances.

Q: Would you care to comment on the overall message or theme of the play and your insights as to what major ideas the playwright is trying to address?

A: I usually prefer that the audiences find their own insights and discover the major ideas that a
playwright is attempting. 
                                                                               

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Seeing Seattle - From a Number of Vantage Points

On a Kenmore Floaqtplane Tour of Seattle; Photo by Michael Bertrand Photography
During a recent visit to Seattle, I got a good look at this bustling Pacific Rim city from a number of different vantage points. Let’s start with from the water.
I got my touristic feet wet, metaphorically speaking, by taking an Argosy Locks cruise, a 2-1/2 hour narrated experience that starts with a ride through Puget Sound from Pier 56 near the city’s iconic Pike Street Market, past the Seattle’s impressive cluster of skyscrapers, around West Point and into the Chittenden Locks.
It’s slow going through the locks and the Lake Washington Shipping Canal as the boat makes its way from salt water to fresh, but the narrator and passing scenery make the ride interesting and enjoyable. Things get even better when you enter Lake Union, home to several fishing communities and the floating houseboat "villages" made famous by the film "Sleepless in Seattle." After docking on Seattle’s north shore, the rest of the trip back to the starting point is by motorcoach..
Another splashy way (literally) to see Seattle is by a Ride the Ducks tour on board open air amphibious landing craft developed by the U.S. during World War Two. "It’s party time," yelled out our driver, part comedian, part tour guide, revving up. Everyone gets a duck whistle, and the passengers quack their way through downtown, seeing many of the major sights, intermittent pop music blaring between narrations and jokes. Then it’s into the drink at Lake Union for a look at Glassworks Park and a rear view look at the city’s impressive skyline.
Reminiscent of London’s Great Wheel, Seattle’s own version of a high-tech Ferris wheel opened this past summer at the end of Pier 57, a long-anticipated dream of restaurateur Hal Griffith. Passengers board one of 42 glass-enclosed gondolas, which can seat eight, then rotate up 175-feet to the top. Each of the gondolas are air-conditioned and heated, and one VIP gondola has four leather bucket seats and a glass floor for better downward visibility.
The view from the top is exhilarating, and each rider enjoys a minimum of three revolutions, plus stops along the way, including the very top. Be sure to take your camera.
An even loftier vantage point, the landmark Space Needle has been around since the 1962 World’s Fair but still feels new despite its golden anniversary status in 2012. It takes 41 seconds to reach the observation deck 520 feet above ground level via one of the elevators, which rise and descend at the rate of 10 m.p.h. At the top visitors get a 360-degree panoramic look of everything from Mt. Rainier to the south to the Cascades in the east to the Olympics to the West. Awesome is the word the first comes to mind.
If you’d like to get even higher, the Kenmore Air seaplane tour of the city and beyond may last only 20-minutes, but it was 20-minutes I’ll never forget. After a gentle ascent from the water at Lake Union, we were airborne in seconds, flying high over the University of Washington campus, out over Puget Sound for a look at the islands and climaxing with an upclose look at the Space Needle.
Kenmore Air, the largest full-service seaplane service in the world, has a fleet of 25 planes which log an annual total of more than two million miles and carry more than two million passengers.
From ultra high, I next headed low beneath the streets of the Pioneer Square neighborhood on a 90-minute guided Underground tour. Like many other cities, Seattle experienced a great fire (in 1889) which destroyed much of the then wooden city. Reconstruction with brick and mortar topped the ruined infrastructure, still accessible beneath the existing streets.
Guides try their best to be informative, entertaining and anecdotal, but they have to compete with the eerie, subterranean detritus that gives the tours a unique, if macabre flavor.
While you’re in the area, stop in for a look around Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park, a free museum that explains Seattle’s role as a gateway during the 1890s gold rush for some 70,000 prospectors. Interestingly, the second half of the museum is located all the way north in Ketchikan, Alaska.
If You’re Going
For more information on all these sites and more, phone 206-461-5800 or www.vivitseattle.com.
For a place to dine, Toulouse Petit comes very highly rated; I first noticed it on Trip Advisor whose readers listed it as their fifth favorite restaurant in the U.S. Fun, lively, comfortable, with a young, dedicated service staff, Toulouse Petit has a huge menu that offers everything from a prix fixe menu to chilled seafood, charcuterie, pastas, specialty steak preparations, a page of "Curiosities" and French Quarter Seafood Standards. To pair the right wine with your culinary choices, let the sommelier guide you through the global carte du vins, which has a Wine Spectator "Award of Excellence" rating for 2012. Phone 206-432-9069 or toulousepetit.com.
Diners at Toulouse Petit: Phoito by Bill Rockwell