Wednesday, July 1, 2015

34 (2015-2016): Review of THE TOUR (seen June 30, 2015)

“It's a Helluva Town”
Stars range from 5-1.

I’m a native New Yorker from one of the outer boroughs; I even drove a cab in my senior year of college, back in the early 60s, so I think I know the city—at least its best-known hotspots—about as well as anyone. I’ve taken bus tours of major international cities, but I’ve never felt the need to do so in my home town. Even though there’s always stuff to learn, my mindset was that these tours were strictly for the tourist trade, or for parochial local yokels who don’t get out much, and did all I could to avoid them. Three years ago, however, shortly after I became a Drama Desk Awards Nominator, the opportunity to take a Manhattan bus tour landed in my lap when a venture called The Ride invited the committee to consider its version of a New York bus tour in the category of Unique Theatrical Experience. Guess what? The Ride was actually nominated!

Recently, the company that produces The Ride has begun a new offshoor, The Tour, which makes three daily trips, at 12:00, 2:00 p.m., and 4:00 p.m. Invited to experience it I brought along my 23-year-old granddaughter, a Long Island native with only limited experience of Manhattan. Not quite a tourist, of course, she nonetheless stood to gain a great deal from an educational journey around town on a big, comfortable bus snaking its way through midtown Manhattan, pointing out all the sights. Unfortunately, The Tour, which accommodates 49 sightseers, is nowhere near as much fun as The Ride (or as expensive: adults are $45 on The Tour vs. $74 on The Ride)--and, despite the hype, isn’t that much different from its ubiquitous rivals, most of which also have well-trained guides whose amplified voices point out the major landmarks accompanied by background information, peppered now and then with amusing commentary.

Unlike most of the other tours, which have an exposed upper deck, The Tour, like The Ride, places everyone inside, on “stadium”-type bleachers built from front to rear; facing to the left, you watch the passing parade of buildings, cars, taxis, trucks, and people through large glass windows. A windowed roof allows you to look straight up at the towering skyscrapers as well as at the traffic lights and signs that nearly scrape the top of the bus, whose height makes it the tallest allowable vehicle in town.

Although this configuration works for The Ride, where the guides are essentially singing comedians and the seating helps focus on them as well as on what’s outside, The Tour, lacking the need for such focus, makes you aware you’re missing what’s on the side behind you. So you see only one half of any street, missing some of New York’s best features by this forced perspective. I wonder if a more flexible arrangement, with the customers seated facing forward on swivel seats, might improve the situation. At any rate, those who sit in the open air on more conventional buses have a much greater view of what’s around them than do those experiencing The Tour.

Our tour was guided by the friendly, enthusiastic, fully licensed Charlotte, who kept up a nonstop lecture—written by the Ride’s founder and CEO, Richard Humphre--on what the bus was passing. Beginning from its base on W. 45th Street near Broadway, outside the Minskoff Theatre’s breezeway, it traveled up Eighth Avenue through Hell’s Kitchen (now Clinton), circled Columbus Circle, drove north on Broadway, hung a right onto W. 72nd Street, hung another right at Central Park West, maneuvered downtown again, going east on Central Park South, south on Fifth, meandered around the Times Square and Garment District areas, and finally returned to home base. Much of the same is also part of the Ride’s itinerary, as are some of the anecdotes, like the way a theatre on 42nd Street was moved down the street from one spot to another. (Neither Charlotte nor the guides on the Ride mentioned that the same feat had been done with a huge theatre in Brooklyn early in the 20th century.)

What do you actually get a quick glimpse of? You pass several Broadway theatres, the Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle, Lincoln Center, the Dakota, the west side of Central Park, the statues and horse-drawn carriages along Central Park South, some hotels, the stores on Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, the Garment Center, the New York Public Library, and Bryant Park. I later realized that a few items on the list of planned sights, like the area around Herald Square, were skipped.

The guide makes a few modest attempts at humor, and engages in some repartee with a disembodied voice identified as The Ride himself (my granddaughter thought it corny). There’s also a special effect when the noise of the subway is replicated, with the bus lurching to a stop as the imaginary train ride ends. Despite the publicity’s emphasis on a multimedia experience, the only example of anything like it is the presence of multiple video screens, some, placed below eyelevel so they don’t obscure the window view, about the size of the kind you see on airplane seatbacks; others, set overhead, are no bigger than those attached to airplane ceilings. I found myself only rarely looking at the sometimes hard-to-see videos, which showed such things as historical images of what the bus was passing, or film clips, like a sequence inspired by the King Kong movies to accompany anecdotes about the building of the Empire State Building.

The streets were abuzz with out-of-town gawkers and native New Yawkers (many of them waving to us), the famous glories were glorious (when, like the Dakota or the statue at Grand Army Plaza, they weren’t covered for renovations), and the time passed in 90 New York minutes. I enjoyed sharing a chunk of our great city on this beautiful day with my granddaughter, but, if I had my touristy druthers for a New York state of mind, I'd take a ride on The Ride.