Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia

The main focus of my birthday trip to Philadelphia was to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house in the city.  We decided to walk there from the Independence Hall area since it was a lovely Autumn day and it was only about a half hour walk.  The only snag was that we had to cross a major road but we did so safely since the traffic was moving slowly.  Still, we returned by a different route.  When Poe had lived in that property, it had actually been outside the city limits so it was interesting to think how much the city has sprawled since then.

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Poe’s house is one of three in which he lived in Philly but the only one still standing.  The property has been administered by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site since the 1970s and has been expanded to include two adjacent properties – which I think post-date Poe having lived there – so that one provides space for the museum and one for an additional staircase with fire doors.  Nevertheless, this Poe house was modest but much bigger than his Baltimore home, which we had visited in August.  A Ranger explained that he had been able to afford a year’s rent there after winning a literary prize.  The rooms were much more light and spacious than they had been in the dark and cramped Baltimore home and the staircases, while steep and narrow, were not as claustrophobic as in that property either.

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The house is kept in a state of “arrested decay”.  The spaces, therefore, give an impression of how Poe, his wife-cousin, and aunt-mother-in-law would have lived but they have not been furnished and there are no personal Poe family possessions on display.  I liked all of the walls covered in layers of peeled paint and the boys loved all of the closets.

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A highlight of the house was the cellar.  Since Poe is associated with all things eerie and creepy, it was fun to be in a dark and dingy cellar in one of his houses.  The Ranger had also sparked the boys’ imaginations by asking them where in the cellar they would stash a corpse.  Worryingly, they identified several possibilities.  Perhaps I should just be glad they are problem-solvers.  It is apparently possible that the cellar inspired the one described in ‘The Black Cat’ which appealed to my cat-obsessed 8 year old.

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In the museum area of the site, in one of the houses that would have neighboured Poe’s one, there was a room set up as a reading room and a book case full of Poe’s works, books directly inspired by his works, and some volumes of Poe criticism.  My youngest son settled at a table and read a picture book.  Outside the property, there was a metal raven statue that we all liked and we also spotted a Poe mural on the gable end of a row of houses nearby.  So that was Poe’s Philly house and now I only have his cottage in the Bronx left to visit.  It is on my travel bucket list.

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We departed Poe’s house and walked back towards the centre of the city.  We stopped in at Reading Terminal Market.  The only other time I have gone in there was also for my birthday trip, back in 2013 just after we had emigrated to America.  That was a bit of a disaster of a day and we had literally walked into one door of the market and immediately out of another because the kids were fizzing out due to the crowds.  It was definitely less crowded on that Saturday evening but the narrow rows between food stalls still made it feel a bit too bustling for me.  I really don’t do crowds.  My kids are mini foodies so their eyes lit up at the possibility of buying some special treat foods.  We came away with Cajun bacon, some fancy type of jerky, and some root beer – none of which are things I consume.  Then – because we were not done being foodies – we went to a restaurant named Indeblue that serves Indian cuisine.  All of we Picts love curries and Indian flavours so we ordered a selection of items from the menu to share as a smorgasbord.  It was all perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious and was the perfect way to end my celebratory day.

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Harry Potter Festival 2017

On Saturday we went along to Chestnut Hill’s annual Harry Potter Festival.  This was a make-or-break year for us: we had loved the first two years that we had gone but last year the crowds were just far too intense for us to enjoy the experience.  We had decided then that we would give it one more go to see if the organisers could make the required adaptations to accommodate the growing popularity of the festival and, if not, then it would be our last time going.  I do very much feel for the organisers.  They had come up with the brilliant idea of a themed local festival but its popularity had evidently snowballed faster than their ability to creatively problem solve.  I am, therefore, happy to report that they had done a sterling job of resolving last year’s aggravating problems.  There were far more portapotties than last year (though happily none of us ever had to use them); they had extended the stretch of Germantown Avenue that was pedestrianised;  there were more police officers on duty to enforce the road closures; there was pre-paid wristband entry to specified activities; and there were designated parking lots around the area, including some with shuttle buses.  As a result, it was a much smoother and pleasant experience than last year.

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We parked on the campus of a church and from there it was just a gentle stroll to the centre of Chestnut Hill and all of the Harry Potter themed activities.  We decided to start at the top of the Festival, the furthest point from where we had parked, and then work our way back down Germantown Avenue.  We arrived there just as Professor Dumbledore took the stage to officially open the day’s event though we could not get close enough for anyone other than Mr Pict to be able to see over the heads of the crowd gathered around the stage.  We did, however, bump into Lupin, Tonks, and Sirius Black who happily posed with my kids for photos.  That is one of the things we enjoy most about the Festival, seeing all the cosplayers, the visitors dressed in costumes, or the Potterphiles wearing themed clothing.  We saw even more dogs in costume than last year, including one dressed up as an acromantula and one dressed up as a golden snitch.  The common nerdiness generates a warm family friendly atmosphere and a feeling of camaraderie.

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We had decided not to buy the wristbands that would have given us access to certain activities.  Partly it was down to expense but it was also because my kids had “been there and done that” in previous festivals.  That did free up funds for indulging in butterbeer, chocolate frogs, and every flavour beans.  Mostly, however, we just enjoyed absorbing the atmosphere, browsing fun stalls full of Potterphile wares – my 10 year old was sorely tempted by pocket watches – looking at displays in shop windows, and enjoying all of the costumes.  The three younger boys did participate in some free activities too and came away with some goodie bags filled with freebies.  My 14 year old was accompanying us under an Imperius Curse so was refusing to engage with any activity beyond strolling and inadvertent people watching.

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There were on-street performances to watch too.  We arrived too late to get within eyeballing distance of some of them but we did stop to watch a man carve a block of ice into Dobby the House Elf, we watched some great breakdancers (the Potter connection being unclear), and an acrobat performing in Hogwarts uniform.  There was ample to see and do and this year we were not fighting through crowds or feeling like we were drowning in a sea of people.  After a few hours of ambling, perusing, and taking photographs, however, it was time to return to the car.  Aside from anything else, the younger boys were getting a bit crotchety from the heat and we needed a break from the glare of the sun.  Once we got back to the church campus, however, the younger boys got a second wind and decided to play in the shade of the trees.  They decided that the buildings could be Hogwarts and a wooden platform on the grass could be used as a stage for wizard dueling.  It was a chilled way to end a day of Harry Pottering.  The whole event passed our litmus test.  They had made enough changes to make the growth of the Festival function effectively again and we are very pleased as it means we can return again next year.

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My First Rodeo

A couple of weekends ago, Mr Pict decided we needing to do something fun and different and spontaneously got tickets for a rodeo.  Mr Pict had been to a rodeo before, when travelling in either Wyoming or Montana, but it was a first experience for the kids and me.  I am always up for trying new things but the kids were not sold on the idea, not even the horse daft 10 year old.  It has been grotesquely humid and stinking hot here in Pennsylvania lately so Mr Pict had opted for the evening rodeo.  Partly the kids were aggrieved that we were having to go out for the evening instead of them playing video games or watching a movie but I was glad that we had because it was still pretty steamy out even as darkness fell.  For me, the only downside to the evening show was that I didn’t have enough light to take decent photos.

We started our jaunt outside the arena where there was lots of food, drink, and paraphernalia to buy.  My youngest son had to be dissuaded from buying a cowboy hat.  The boys love fairground food so they leaped at the opportunity to gorge on funnel cake and my 11 year old bought himself a massive pickle on a stick.  What is it about sticks that makes the food more festive?  I cannot say that I can even guess the answer.

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We entered the arena and found a spot on the bleachers that gave us a decent view of the performance area.  Having never been to a rodeo, I had no notion of what to expect or how things worked.  I decided to treat the whole experience like an anthropological study since I knew I was going to be set apart from the action rather than being properly engaged in it.  The atmosphere reminded me a lot of the Redneck Festival we had found ourselves at three years ago.  I never even began to figure out how the events were scored.  Clearly an element of it was to do with time, how long each rider could stay on the horse or the bull, but otherwise it was all entirely obscure to me.

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The first event was the one I always associate with rodeos: folks wearing cowboy gear riding on horses that are desperately trying to throw them off.  Not a single rider lasted for very long.  Each one was “blink and you miss it” fast.  I couldn’t really follow what was going on in any great detail.  To my mind, most impressive were the chaps who were stationed on horses ready to get into the fray and rescue riders and lasso horses.  They had real skill.  The next event involved riding on bulls.  Bulls that were annoyed.  Completely crazy.  Why do people do this for sport? Again, no rider lasted very long.  It was over even quicker than the horse riding.  One bull fell on top of a rider, which made everyone in the audience gasp, but the bull got to its feet and the rider limped off as if it was just another day at the office.  Seriously, why do people do this for fun?  While the bucking horses and bulls were ridden by all male riders, there was an event that was all women.  That involved riding horses at high speed around barrels in a specific order.  Obviously the quickest horse and rider were the winners.  If you can imagine a horse doing a skidding handbrake turn, then that was what was happening as the horses pivoted around the barrels.  The angle of the horse to the ground was pretty shallow.  It was pretty impressive.

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There were “entertainments” between the events.  One of these was a Mexican cowboy who performed with a lasso while standing on a horse.  I don’t really understand how to make a lasso work at all so I couldn’t detect what was extra fancy or tricky about the things he was doing.  Folks in the crowd who did appear to understand, however, appeared to think his lasso jiggery-pokery was a bit special.  Then there was a clown who performed for the crowd within the arena.  There were clowns everywhere at the arena; it was teeming with them.  I have a lifelong clown phobia thanks to a dreadful early experience at a circus.  These clowns appeared to be members of the organisation holding the rodeo and fundraising for charity.  Despite their good deeds and honourable actions, they just made my flesh crawl.  My oldest son told me that rodeos are well known for having clowns and I should have expected it.  I hadn’t.  It was a shock.  Anyway, the clown doing the entertaining, however, was simply dreadful.  His patter was stilted and lame and from a bygone era, not one I am nostalgic for either.  My sons were aghast at the misogyny and xenophobia of the jokes.  At one point during a singing skit, my 10 year old had his head in his hands just willing it to end.

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I think we all felt that the rodeo was an interesting experience and that we were glad we went in order to have that experience.  However, none of us are likely to be eager to repeat the experience.  It just wasn’t us.  At least now we can all say, “This isn’t my first rodeo”.  That’s something.

Peach and Apple Picking

We have had such a momentously busy summer as a family that we were tempted to just let Labor Day weekend be a sludgy three day break of chilling and preparing for returning to school and work.  Obviously Mr Pict has worked throughout the summer months but the kids and I have been footloose and fancy free for the most part which means big adjustments and transitions.  So the plan was just to stay home, sort things out on the home front, prepare for the school year, and relax.  However, we could not let Summer depart without one last trip to bid it farewell.

We, therefore, decided to go fruit picking.  It is peach season here.  I adore peaches and scoff loads of them every season.  We have, therefore, established a new tradition since emigrating which involves going peach picking each year and then making all manner of peach desserts – in addition to eating them fresh.  Honeycrisp apples were also in season at the orchard.  I had to have some.  I had never had a honeycrisp apple before we moved to the US.  Indeed, a quick google tells me that it is a variety that was developed in Minnesota and has only been available for public consumption since 1991 so it is a fairly new variety.  I love them.  I was always someone who ate green apples as I like my apples to be a little tart and definitely firm.  I rarely ever ate red apples because I hate the floury, powdery texture that so many of them possess.  Honeycrisps are like the best of both worlds – firm and the right balance between tart and sweet.  So juicy too.  Yum.  But also very expensive when bought in grocery stores.  They are so expensive, in fact, that I rarely ever treat myself to honeycrisp apples as I cannot justify the chunk of our food budget.  My in-laws actually gifted me a box of honeycrisp apples for Christmas last year.  At the orchard, however, the apples were a fifth of the per pound price it would cost me in the store.  Yes!

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So we picked peaches and honeycrisp apples until we had full pails of each.  It was the perfect way to round of the summer – picking fresh fruit and baking cosy desserts.

The Barnes Foundation

While the youngest two Pictlings were vacationing with their grandparents, Mr Pict and I took (dragged) the oldest two into Philadelphia to visit the Barnes Foundation.  Our 11 year old and I love art and love to visit art galleries whereas Mr Pict and the 14 year old tolerate art galleries.  Somehow we all ended up united in not much enjoying our experience of the Barnes Foundation.

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The Barnes Foundation is essentially the large art collection of one particular individual, a pharmaceutical tycoon named Albert Barnes.  He wanted his collection to be educational so opened it to students and gradually, over the decades and through much controversy, it became open to the public.  Numbers entering the galleries are limited so when we arrived we expected to be given a timed ticket but instead we were told we could go right on in.  We were simply lucky, however, as when we left there was a long line of people waiting to gain admission.  I actually like the idea of limiting numbers as I have had dire experiences in overcrowded art museums, including the Louvre.

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Barnes, it appears, was a bit of a control freak.  I get that because I am one too. It would seem that a condition of his collection being available for public access was that the items be displayed exactly as he stipulated.  Therefore, each room of the gallery is presented exactly as he wanted – with decorative iron work being displayed alongside the paintings and drawings – which means it is organised according to his taste rather than any sort of curation based on art history or chronology or theme.  I found this frustrating.  Usually I engage my children in art galleries by having them draw studies of what they are viewing.  They really enjoy doing that.  Alas, the Barnes Foundation does not permit drawing.  Therefore, desperately trying to engage my children in what they were seeing, I was trying to discuss the art work with them, drawing comparisons, looking for the stylistic flourishes and techniques that made it easy to identify which artist’s work we were looking at.  This was made incredibly difficult by the somewhat haphazard way the paintings were organised.  They were also, in my opinion, all hung too closely together so that no piece had breathing room.  The paintings were not labelled – since there was no wall space between them for a label – but there were handy diagrammatic maps available in each room.  We saw a plethora of Renoirs, Cezannes, and Matisses.  There were also works by Modigliani, Picasso, Degas, Seurat and Van Gogh.  All of these were artists familiar to the children from me teaching them History of Art a couple of summers ago.  They were also introduced to less familiar artists such as Chaim Soutine, Charles Demuth, and the sculptures of Lipchitz.

Impressive as the collection was for its content, our whole experience at the Barnes was of feeling frustrated, stressed, and hassled.  This was made a whole lot worse by overly officious guides and docents.  Each room had a line built into the wooden floor.  This line designated a point that bodies were not permitted to cross.  Of course, we had to step across the line in order to pass through a doorway.  The occasional portal contained a work of art but heaven forfend if one should pause between rooms to catch a glimpse of the art work in question because, of course, then we were between lines.  At one point, my 11 year old raised his hand to gesture slightly towards a painting we were discussing and a docent leapt up to push his hand back behind the line as if he was about to poke the painting.  I found it off putting but to my sons it crippled any enjoyment they were getting from looking at work by prominent artists.  Furthermore, when I wanted to ascend the staircase to the second floor, a guide who was conducting a tour and who had positioned her group at the bottom of the stairs, was incredibly rude to me for daring to interrupt her talk by walking between her and her group in order to access the stairs.  I was fizzing with frustration at that juncture.  We consequently made quick work of the second floor since we were becoming increasingly annoyed with the entire experience.  What kept us entertained was my 11 year old’s idea that we should pick a painting and make up a narrative about it, the more outlandish the better.  We were all thoroughly amused.  Of course, we drew tuts from a po-faced docent.  Time to depart.

Before we left, however, we popped into a small gallery space for a temporary exhibit.  We almost did not go in because the kids were so hacked off by that point.  We were all glad that we did, however.  The exhibition was about a series of works by an artist named Mohamed Bourouissa inspired by time he spent with a community of horse riders in North Philadelphia.  I had no idea there were people riding horses in Philly for a start but I also found the works themselves to be fascinating and thought-provoking, sculptures made out of old car parts with photographs printed on to them.  It was a really positive end to what had otherwise been a disappointing visit to the Barnes Foundation.

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The Mercer Museum

This summer, in addition to our recent road trip, my in-laws decided to take the Pictlings on vacation in pairs.  For the first time in over ten years, therefore, I was left with just two children to care for and keep busy.  The youngest two went off on their grandparent vacation first so I had the 11 and 14 year old at home.  I decided, therefore, to take them to explore a place none of us had visited: the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

The Mercer Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and reflects his pursuits and hobbies.  He was a tile-maker, an avid collector, and an archaeologist and the museum showcases all of these interests.  The museum building is, in fact, one of his creations.  Mercer designed three poured concrete buildings, all in Doylestown: his Moravian Tile Works; his home, Fonthill; and the museum.  The building, therefore, is an exhibit in its own right and – in my opinion – it was the best thing about the museum.

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We started in a modern extension to the building where there was a special exhibition about one woman’s collection of quilts and a selection of marvelous dollhouses.  I have no ability with sewing and could never even dream of embarking on something like a quilt but I enjoyed seeing the variety of designs and styles.  All three of us liked the dollhouses for all the tiny details and the meticulous crafting of scaled household items.  Soon enough, however, it was time to enter the actual museum building and it was a wow moment to step out into the central area.  We were surrounded on all sides by spaces full of interesting collections but the real impact came from looking up.  The museum is six or seven floors (it gets confusing) and we could stand in that first atrium area and look up through all of the floors, up to where a collection of chairs were suspended from the ceiling, our eyes darting past buggies and boats and even a fire engine that were dangling from the walls.

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Walking around the Mercer Museum is like poking around in someone’s really organised attic. Each collection has its own designated nook within the space.  Mercer appears to have been interested in the tools, equipment, and workshops of a wide variety of trades so each display space was themed around some industry.  We saw, for example, a collection of hair combs made from tortoise shell along with the shells and the tools used to slice and carve them.  There was a room dedicated to shoemaking with a large collection of cobbler’s lasts hanging on one wall.  Another space was full of hats and hat-making equipment.  There was a woodworking shop, a blacksmith’s furnace, a room full of spindles and spinning wheels, medical and apothecary equipment, a huge collection of lanterns, musical instruments (my kids laughed when I said the word “hurdy gurdy” with my Scottish accent), moulds for making confectionery, whaling implements, and so much more.  I confess to being not very enthused by industrial history but I found this collection quite charming.  With it being organised the way it was, I could quickly skim and scan the collections that I was not fussed by – such as gunsmithing – and spend more time with the items I did find more engaging, such as the glassblowing workshop.

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Now, being honest, my sons were not really digging the museum.  They gave passing glances to most displays but were not overly interested in the contents or in hearing me tell them about domestic industries of times past.  They were, however, more interested in the large items on display.  Seeing a whaleboat up close gave them an appreciation for how dangerous and difficult the job of whaling was when sent out in a relatively small, narrow and shallow whaling boat into the midst of large sea mammals.  They also thought the Conestoga wagon and stagecoach were cool.  One narrow little entry way took us into an area that was set up to look like a general store and they found that pretty interesting, spotting familiar items in unfamiliar packaging.  Being macabre little souls (they take after me in that respect) they also liked seeing a set of gallows and implements linked to crime and punishment.  We also entertained ourselves with our usual museum quest to find the ugliest and/or most offensive items on display.  The various tobacco advert carvings easily won the contest.

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There was a dog theme running throughout the museum.  Apparently Mercer loved dogs, especially Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  We saw a statue of one on the way in and then, when we found ourselves in various children’s sections of the museum, there were a couple of cuddly dogs.  Best of all, however, were a set of paw prints, made by a dog named Rollo, imprinted into the concrete between two upper floors of the museum.  Finally, outside the museum, as we headed back to the car, we passed the grave markers for two pet pooches.

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For them and for me, however, the whole highlight of our visit was simply the building itself.  It was marvelously bonkers.  Each set of stairs brought us to another level lined with strange little nooks and crannies, there were weird doorways, steps that went up only to immediately go down again, and all manner of strangely shaped windows.  It was incredible to think that all of these shapes and forms and levels had been constructed by pouring concrete.  We really enjoyed the experience of wandering around and never quite knowing, despite having a map, where we were going to end up.  At one point, we took a staircase down to see a vast collection of stoveplates, entered an adjoining room showcasing tiles, and somehow found ourselves back in a room we had been in some time before and on a different floor altogether.  It made all three of us think of Hogwart’s Castle.  Thinking back to the dollhouses at the beginning of our visit, I could not help thinking about how much fun it would be to have unfettered access to the museum and play within its walls.  We will now have to visit Fonthill and the Moravian Tile Works some time.

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Jesus Christ Superstar in Bristol

When we emigrated to America in 2013, one of the things I was excited about regarding our new location was the access to the theatre.  We were in the suburbs of Philadelphia which gets lots of touring productions of big shows in addition to its in-house theatrical companies and we are an easy day trip away from New York city.  Ultimately, however, we have not been able to take advantage to all of these theatrical opportunities.  The thing that has thwarted us is the cost.  Even for the touring productions, the ticket prices are too far out of our budget – especially since, of course, we need six tickets.  Some day I hope we can go as a family to take in a Broadway show but for now, pity though it may be, that is out of reach.

We, therefore, have been looking at local, regional theatre.  When we saw that the Bristol Riverside Theatre had a production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, we leaped at the chance to take the kids to see it.  Mr Pict and I both love musicals and, though I am not generally a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work, I have loved ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ since I was a child and would borrow the vinyl album from the library.  Mr Pict and I can both sing all of the lyrics of the rock opera from beginning to end, we know it so well.  In addition to wanting the kids to experience a musical they know well live on stage, it felt like a very relevant musical to take the kids to see given that one of its most prominent themes is political activism and fighting for an agenda you believe in in adverse, hostile circumstances.

We arrived early to pick up the tickets from the box office and that was ideal as it then afforded the kids the opportunity to burn off energy just outside the theatre before we took our seats.

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We were blown away by the production.  From the instant the actor playing Judas starting singing the first song, we knew it was going to be a great experience.  Every single actor was fantastic, giving dynamic, emotional performances and belting out songs with really strong voices.  As with the other productions of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ that I have seen live, the staging was minimalist but very effective.  Costuming was contemporary, with Jesus something of a hipster being followed by trendy believers with selfie sticks.  There were sly but not overbearing or disruptive allusions to current affairs to drive the thematic relevance of the musical.  For instance, Pilate was dressed in a business suit and was ready to play golf during his meeting with Jesus, a follower was wielding a “Make Jerusalem Great Again” placard, and Mary Magdalene removed her wig of straight, ombre hair to reveal her natural curls beneath.  It may not have been Broadway and may have been on stage in a local theatre but it was the by far the best production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ that I have ever seen – including a production in London’s West End.  Further, I would say it is among the strongest productions of any musical I have seen on stage and I have seen a good few.

So we may not be able to access Broadway shows for now but we will definitely continue to explore what is available for us to see as a family through regional theatres and we won’t feel short-changed in doing so.