Potted Potter at the Straz

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Attention all Muggles! If you act fast, you can catch a great show for the whole family this week at the Straz (in Ferguson Hall, so every seat is a good seat). It’s a more than a summer camp skit, better than your college improv class, but not quite the next Broadway blockbuster… It’s Potted Potter!

Are we a family of Potter fans? Let’s just say when we took our daughter on her very first college tour, we asked her at the end of 2+ hours what she though of Dad’s alma mater and she replied, “They had me at quidditch.” Yes, St. Louis University has a quidditch team! And my nephew’s name happens to be Harry. We might have a couple of fake Hogwarts house ties. But I digress into my geekdom…

In this show you’ll get all 7 Harry Potter books in 70 hilarious minutes. Some scripted, some on the fly and some audience participation scramble together and abra-cadabra – Poof! Potted Potter!

Now, it’s fast… they talk and sing and fight and play and your head is trying to keep up – but it will, and so will the brain of the wizard lovin’ 10 year old next to you who wore a cape and brought a light-up wand from Toys R Ollivander’s. References to other kids movies may slip in and add to the giggles, and political or timely news quips will make you wonder how often they update the script – or if there is a script at all.

There’s a bit of a set, as many props as I have in my tub of Halloween costume accessories, and just 2 funny guys on stage having a good time at the expense of a rather dull boy-wizard, his arch nemesis, some mighty good friends, a gay mentor with a long beard who for some reason decided to go in to teaching, and little critters like owls, house elves and Scabbers – musn’t forget Scabbers!

(For those of you who know the funny side of Brian, he could TOTALLY be in this show and pull it off.)

The whole audience (made up of all ages) was rowdy and made for a fun crowd. Sometimes they cheered or heckled, and if you’re lucky enough to sit in the front row you may get pulled into some of the action!

This comedy really is fun for the whole family if you enjoy Harry Potter. If you haven’t read the books and your friend is begging you to go, you will probably still find it funny and learn a little something. If your child has been too young for the books or movies, this is too fast-paced for an initial introduction to the lore and lingo of Hogwarts. I will say the show is SO MUCH BETTER than playing Harry Potter Scene It! (Don’t buy that game.)

I’m so happy Tampa Bay Bloggers got us in to this show. They’re like my own Gryffindor cheering section. The opinions and laughs noted here are my own, though my 2 tickets were free. To see what others had to say, look at the #pottedpotter #straztweetseats comments from last night on Twitter!

No photography allowed at #PottedPotter but here’s a drawing via @aviaviana

pottedpotterAROTkShout out to Miabella!

P.S. you don’t have to come in costume, but don’t laugh at those who do!

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College Tour Done Right

collegetourIf you are the parent of a high school junior or senior, you may start to receive invitations to special informational events on college campuses. Perhaps your child is vying for a scholarship, a spot in a prestigious honors program, or they just want to get to know a potential school better.

Although you can attend local seminars in high schools, in hotel conference rooms on random evenings, or at college fairs, you learn more by attending events on a campus if you can make it there.

alicenhsRecently my daughter was invited to one event that was wrapped up with such a nice scholarship offer that we decided to fly out of state to attend. We figured she could get questions answered, get a feel for the campus, understand how to travel there from home with me by her side the first time – and possibly end up with a free college education. Good ROI.

I contacted the university about 6 weeks before the event. College counselors will often tell your child to contact schools on their own, but I had something up my sleeve this time. Instead of contacting the local area rep, like my daughter would do, I contacted the Honors department of the school who was offering the prestigious scholarship. They were kind of recruiting my daughter, letting her know all the great things she could accomplish in their program. I wanted them to know all the great reasons why they wanted my daughter on their list for sure.

I called the right contact, let her know we’re scheduled for the event on campus, and that it would be our first time in the area. Then I asked if we could come a day early so my daughter could spend the day before the event seeing what it would be like to be a student on their campus. I told them that she has friends in college, but when they come home they don’t chat about classes, they chat about sororities, football games and parties. My daughter makes a point of studying and getting good grades, and she wants to know that other students around her will be doing the same thing. (Not everyone gets drunk every weekend at college. I know because I didn’t. I went out and had fun, I went to bars, and parties, and comedy clubs. Sometimes I even had a drink, but I never got wasted. I never threw up or passed out. And I was able to keep my place on the Dean’s List. My husband wasn’t a big partier, and neither is my daughter’s boyfriend.)

The woman at the college was VERY receptive. She sounded thrilled over the phone. She asked me to email a list of what DD1 was interested in and exactly when we would be there.

There was some passing back and forth of duties in her office, and I had to follow up a couple of times and resend an email once, but a couple days before our flight out I was emailed an itinerary and it was just what we wanted.

While at this school my daughter spent Friday:

  • seeing the Honors College office
  • learning about the special program they were inviting her to apply for
  • meeting with a professor in her intended major department
  • going on a campus tour – which I did with her
  • having lunch with a friendly Honors student (on their dime) in one of their dining halls, who invited her to a genetics class
  • seeing the digital media center because I told them my daughter was editor of the school newspaper (turns out journalism was not in the same place, but it was a cool tour and she got to see behind the scenes of where they broadcast football games)
  • taking an Honors Bio class with a teacher who DD1 thought was both brilliant and hysterical
  • meeting the bowling club
  • meeting an advisor in her major department
  • having dinner with a sorority girl to learn about Greek life on campus (friend of a friend)
  • learning where the Honors college would be taking her out of the country for special projects.

Everything was prearranged and they gave her a schedule with who to see when, and what their phone number was, along with a highlighted campus map.

On the 2nd day we were together the whole time for the event that about 600 other people came in town for. We learned about residence halls, financial stuff, had a mock Honors Seminar class, had lunch in a different dining hall, heard a panel of engineering professors, and she spoke with the professor who would probably run the research she’d get to be a part of in 10 months.

So she had a day that was completely personalized – and got to feel like a college kid behind the scenes without mom. Then she had a day with mom acting like a tourist and getting a sales pitch. After both days she was completely exhausted. Not only is she often an introvert, she felt like everyone she spoke to was kind of interviewing her, so she was trying to be her best self constantly. But if we had only had that 2nd sales pitch day, we would have just scratched the surface. The extra day really let my daughter see beneath the veneer.

That’s all I can say for now. Perhaps when she has made a final decision I can share with you how we came to that decision. It will probably be another 6 weeks before that happens. Applying to college these days has a lot more steps then when I went through the process! My daughter spent about 4 months writing essays for colleges, scholarships and special programs within those colleges. Hopefully her decision will be the best one for her!

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Standardized College Entrance Tests

If you are the parent of a junior or senior in high school, encourage your child to take practice tests before their standardized tests. You can get a book full of them. Is it worth the $25?? Well… if your student gets one more scholarship because of one better test score, it will pay for itself. Be sure to buy the most recent version, because the way these tests are handled keeps getting altered. For 2 months leading up to each test, I ask my kids to take a practice test every 2 weeks.

You can also sign up on both the ACT and SAT website for practice questions. See SAT Question of the Day.

My daughter took the SAT and ACT. She did significantly better on the ACT, so she focused on bringing that score up. She did practice tests and could see where she was lacking. On her first real ACT she got a 30 (out of 36). Then she got a 30. Then she got a 30. She begged me to take it “just one more time” because she thought a 31 would really make a big difference with college entrances. She took the 4th one and came home exhausted. She didn’t save any energy for the essay – no one really seems to care about your essay score anyway – she just focused so hard on that damn test. She got a 33!

Some schools accept an SAT or ACT superscore. This is when they look at all of your tests and pull your highest math, your highest reading comprehension, etc, to make your best test score possible from a variety of tests. Her ACT superscore was a 34!

(Not every college superscores, and some will take SAT but not ACT or vice versa… that’s why it’s a good idea to have a list of schools in mind early.)

When my daughter’s test score took a jump, she was suddenly on the mail list for Princeton and Brandeis. It only took one test score for her to be considered a different type of student, the type of conscientious, hard working, brainiac student we knew she was all along. Because she was honest about our financial situation on her test (they usually ask if you’ll be applying for financial aid, not your household income), she got a letter from Princeton telling her step by step what to do by what date in order to get their top scholarships. (Obviously her grades and letters of recommendation would matter too, but it was a reminder that many big name schools aren’t necessarily out of reach if you are smart with low funds, because they have the backing to give big scholarships.)

She is also working her butt off even during senior year. She stresses less, but her grades are even higher – so getting into college honors programs may be easier. She wishes she could rewind and work harder FRESHMAN year. Many colleges base your entrance on your 9th-11th grade GPA, and don’t look much at senior year, so it is actually more important to maintain a high GPA earlier on.

Another early tip – the PSAT is taken junior year. This is the test score that determines a lot of scholarships like National Achievement and National Merit Scholars. Start practice SATs before the PSAT for more great opportunities! Good luck!

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APUSH Annie

That title is not a typo. If you have a high school junior or senior, you might be all-too-familiar with the phrase “APUSH”. It stands for Advanced Placement U.S. History, a course and examination offered by College Board as part of the Advanced Placement Program. My daughter took APUSH last year. It was a nightmare for her, because she hates history and thought her teacher was dry and boring. She ended up finding another teacher in a different state who put all of his lessons online in video format, and watched those to get a good grade in the class.

I guess it worked, because last night we went to see Annie, and she understood all of the political satire in the show.

I’ll rewind now…

Picture 4 year old me. Dark, little curls around my head, love for song and dance, Shirley Temple’s greatest hits double record album set on continuous replay. My parents made a cassette copy to play in my bedroom so they didn’t have to keep listening to the record in the living room.

SJP as Annie5 year old me… Touring Broadway production of Annie came to town. My mom took me and I was riveted! (The original 1977 Broadway production ran for 2,377 performances and won 7 Tony Awards. I was 2 years old when it hit big. Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker and Allison Smith starred in the title role during the original Broadway run. My record had Andrea McArdle singing. Guess who else has been in Annie??? Molly Ringwald, Alyssa Milano, Jamie Lynn Seigler, Debbie Gibson, Nell Carter, Sutton Foster, Sally Struthers, and Catherine Zeta Jones!)

Now Shirley Temple got played less and less in the house, and the Annie album was on — a LOT. I got the red dress, soon I got the wig. I had little dolls with a plastic Daddy Warbucks limo. I wanted a mutt. I drank Ovaltine. I got a book of some of the original comic strips. I’m pretty sure I had a coloring book too. (I can’t believe I don’t have an addictive personality as an adult!)

anniequinnAnnie was first made into a movie in 1982. It starred Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Tim Curry, Ann Reinking and Aileen Quinn as Annie. At some point my mom entered me in a look-alike contest because I had the same round face, some freckles, but my curls were black. My grandmother had the movie soundtrack at her house, so now I had new Annie songs to learn and dance around the house to.

Skip ahead 20 years (past the Annie version with the girl from Growing Pains) to when I had two daughters… A made-for-TV movie, produced by The Walt Disney Company, was broadcast in 1999 and starred Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, Kristen Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, and Alicia Morton as Annie. I watched it a few times with my girls. They enjoyed it, but not like I loved MY Annie.

Skip ahead a few more years – my daughter’s middle school held auditions for Annie. DD2 was interested. She watched some clips from the 1982 movie version online and decided she likes the orphan who wants to punch everyone, Pepper. Not many girls come to an Annie audition hoping to be Pepper! She got the part, and I emailed a heartfelt note to the Director about how I would love to help but don’t want to be in the way, and just call on me when necessary. I helped a LOT backstage and designing T-shirts, and loved seeing my daughter in a show that had been in my heart for years!

(far right, green shirt)

(far right, green shirt – Wendy as Pepper in a final rehearsal for Hard Knock Life)

Maybe I should have taken my girls to the 2000 tour and they are just too old now (they had no desire to see the 2014 movie release), but this week I was given the opportunity to see the touring version of the Broadway revival of Annie at the Straz Center with the Tampa Bay Bloggers for free. I brought an adult friend, DD1, and our French exchange student (she’s 15 with fairly good English). We were tired, it was rainy out, but we walked into the Straz and a spring popped in our step! There was a buzz all around. Lots of people came wearing red, the signature Annie color. Little girls were singing “Hard Knock Life” in the ladies room, and tip-tapping their party shoes. I hugged a bunch of members of the Tampa Bay Bloggers. We took our seats and settled in.

I have to say, this wasn’t my favorite production of Annie. Some of the orphans were awesome (Molly) while others were very nasal (Annie). Some of the adults had me cracking up (Miss Hannigan), while others seemed distant without connecting to the material or the audience (Rooster). The pacing wasn’t the same as when I had last seen it. The sets were fantastic, and the blocking made it easy to see everyone all the time. But what happened that brings me back around to APUSH Annie, was that my 17 year old daughter explained the lyrics of “A New Deal for Christmas” and FDR in a wheelchair (and polio) to our French exchange student. She could see history come to life in songs like “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover.” And as we were finding our car in the parking garage, she mentioned that she wanted to send her APUSH teacher from last year to see Annie at the Straz.

Beware: this show runs long. It’s a great story with many songs for children and a live dog as Sandy – which kids usually love, but with a 7:30pm start time and 2 Hours, 34 Minutes run time including intermission, you better fit in a nap first!

If you are going to Annie The Musical at David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, donations of primary school uniforms and other children’s clothing will be accepted. The drive benefits Metropolitan Ministries who serve families in need in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties. ‪#‎passlove‬

Watch some highlights from the show before you get your tickets here:

I received 4 complementary tickets. All run-on-sentences and opinions are my own.

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Ulele: Unveiling a Princess

Ulele Tampa Best Restaurant

I was super excited to be selected to try Ulele with the Tampa Bay Bloggers. I had heard about the new Tampa restaurant through social media right when it opened up last August, and from the reputation of the family behind it figured I would be in for quite a treat! Then they were named One of the Top 100 Restaurants in the U.S. by Open Table and One of the Best New Restaurants in Florida by Florida Trend. I knew I had to get over there!

From their website: Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee) celebrates the vibrant fusion of ingredients from Florida waters and land once home to many Native Americans, including the young princess Ulele. Expect intricately flavored, visually appealing dishes prepared on the 10′ diameter barbacoa grill.

Tampa Waterworks district

Brian and Raffi at Ulele

With my husband waiting for our table

When I arrived on the scene, I was treated to beautiful water views (luckily the sun hadn’t set yet, so I could see the surrounding area). I was a bit confused by the front doors though, because the handle is a heavy chain and I thought they were closed with the doors chained shut!

While waiting to be seated I simply took in the eclectic art hanging everywhere. There was great energy, lots of scents and sounds, and wonderful things to look at!

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The TBBloggers were taken upstairs to a special long table prepared to seat 20. To wet our whistle we were offered tastings of 2 house-made beers:

  • Honeymoon Beer, a cold fermented unfiltered lager infused with fresh Plant City strawberries. It displays a strawberry nose and a fruity, honeysuckle finish.
  • Buckhorn’s Black Lager, named for the Mayor of Tampa Bob Buckhorn. A chocolate rye oatmeal cold-fermented black lager. Watch the premier of this brew from Ulele Spring Brewery here.

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We toured their in-house brewery, and I’ll tell you about that after the meal. But here’s what was important for me. I don’t like beer. I don’t like the smell or the taste, and I tell my husband that when he drinks it I think of rotten rice. I’ve toured the Busch brewery, since I grew up in St. Louis, and that was not fun for me. But they handed me that double shotglass of Honeymoon Beer to taste, and I sniffed it. It totally smelled like my 1980 Strawberry Shortcake doll. So I took a little sip, and the beer flavor was light. And before I knew it, I had finished the glass! I have never finished a beer. Now, granted, I didn’t want a pint of it, but I did sip on that all evening and didn’t hate it once. Next to me, Lora ordered the pretty, ombre Water Works Sunset from their menu of cocktails.

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Along with our beer choices, we were given starters to taste. They had their award winning mac and cheese and chili, which won cookoffs before the restaurant was even open, as well as the house salad. The mac and cheese was served with mix-ins of crab, duck bacon, scallions, and more. The Florida Native chili was smokey, chunky and not too spicy. And it only had a few beans. (I found out later it was called Florida Native chili because it contained boar, gator, venison, duck, ground chuck, cranberry beans and local spices.) The mac and cheese had great flavor but was creamier than I would have liked. I prefer my Mac thickened or baked.

Next we had 2 rounds of oysters: raw on the half shell with lavash crisps and chargrilled with Parmesan served with crusty French bread. The chargrilled oysters were great, with the savory cheese adding just an extra bite! DSC_1948oysters DSC_1946

Soon after, Alligator Hush Puppies arrived. Their fluffy, beignet-like consistency had chunks of alligator, country ham, duck bacon, fresh corn, jalapeño – and a drizzle of honey datil pepper sauce and fresh-ground horseradish aioli.

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Along with that we tried the Squash gratin, which thankfully was more about the trio of squash than the manchengo cheese. I like my cheese, don’t get me wrong, but I also really enjoy veggies that taste like veggies.

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Those were our appetizer tastings. I didn’t bother with raw oysters or salad, and saved room for items I knew I’d enjoy more.

To quote blogger Nichole from Casa De Crews:Each dish was prettier than the last, and I couldn’t tell you which plate I enjoyed eating the most. Yes, I can. I lied to you; a perfectly cooked filet mignon, from Strickland Farms in Myakka City.”

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This dish was a 10oz Filet with White Cheddar Popcorn Mashed Potatoes [Russet potatoes with white cheddar, roasted garlic and leeks, topped with popcorn], and a few spears of asparagus. It was literally the best piece of red meat I have ever eaten in my life. You have to be a master to get the crispiness on the outside and maintain a soft, red center. Red meat is not my go-to, but this was perfection!

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Next we all tasted the Florida Pompano: Lightly dredged, Pan-seared pompano fillet over nutty brown rice, sundried tomato shallot cream topped with fried carrot ribbons. Those carrot ribbons could be a side dish unto themselves – I munched on quite a few of those!

The vegetarian dish we tried was Native vegetable sauté in a ginger soy reduction over nutty wild rice. It had delicious, meaty mushrooms and crisp asparagus on top. I could easily eat this for dinner over and over!

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Then it was back to meat with the Ulele Burger: A blend of ground short rib, brisket and chuck chargrilled and topped with house steak sauce, Wisconsin sharp cheddar, a portobello mushroom, fire-roasted red peppers and fried leeks. Now, the portobello mushroom would have made a fine burger on its own, but this meaty blend was divine. I took a slice on a side plate – I’m not sure how one would eat it without a fork! The fries were just OK, but they weren’t really the point. The fried leeks on top, on the other hand, were a fun touch. Oddly, the following weekend I saw a burger on a menu topped with fried leeks down in Siesta Key at The Hub. I hadn’t heard of that before this month, and now I had come across it twice in 2 weeks. DSC_1957insideburger

Next came more meat. To quote blogger Marissa:

The final main dish was the infamous “KILO Porterhouse”! Lions, tigers and steaks oh my!? This is one huge hunk of meat. The porterhouse is the ‘best of both worlds’ because it includes the filet mignon (seen earlier) and the new york strip steak. This baby was dry-aged to perfection for 24 days and is served chef-carved off the bone.

I couldn’t eat any more meat at that point, so I left that for the others to try. I wanted to save room for the promised house-made ice cream. They said they would serve us their Award winning dessert and I asked to try their strawberry ice cream, because I had been craving that for a few days. Little did I know what was coming…

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First – the award winning specialty – Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream. (Try saying that 10 times fast!) Vanilla ice cream with cinnamon corn flake crust, drizzled with caramel, topped with candied duck bacon and sweet potato Pizzelle crisp floating on Knob Creek crème anglaise. To. Die. For. This dessert had a whole spread in TBT when it won its award!

But then they let us try every flavor of their ice creams in precious coconut shells! Valhrona Chocolate, Ugandan Vanilla Bean, mocha, fresh local strawberry and toasted coconut. The basic chocolate was my favorite, but because I had been craving strawberry and begged for it, that’s what got photographed.

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Throughout the evening, we learned history of the area, the family running the restaurant and Princess Ulele herself. There are fewer than 15 restaurants in the country over 100 years old still owned by same family. The Columbia is one of them, and the same family started Ulele (after an $8mill renovation.) The location was a former waterworks pumping station. Water from Ulele Spring provided Tampa with water. Now it is used to make their beer on site. When they say their food is Native American, they mean fresh and local. The beef is local. There are no freezers, only coolers. Even all the art is local, minus the French stained glass from the 1790s. The glass bottles the water was served in were water bottles from the original Columbia restaurant over 100 years old.

Here are some of the details I saw on my trip to the ladies room:

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Ulele Ceiling Canoe hanging over ulele ulele light fixture

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Marketing Director Michael told us, “Ulele was a Native American princess who lived in what is now Philippe Park, Safety Harbor (about 25 minutes away), 80 years before the story of Pocahontas. Her father was going to kill Spanish deckhand Juan Ortiz and she asked to spare his life. We’re not sure if this is where the Pocahontas story originated, or if they were in love. Her statue is soon to be unveiled, and is waiting patiently in the back.” (Don’t worry, I got a picture!)

Just when I thought I might not be able to walk, I was asked to head on over to their in-house brewery to meet Head Brewmaster, Timothy Shackton.

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Timothy said the Ulele Spring Brewery is on a site predating western man. The Native Americans here ate manatee, dolphin and scallops. His impassioned voice told the whole story of how much he loves to make beer that’s balanced, up front and all natural. Most have just six ingredients and are animal free. “That’s not just a trend, but a way of life.” He uses a simple process starting with barley and hops from all over the world. The spent grain mash is fed to Strickland farms cows, where they get their meat. The beer is served exclusively at Ulele and the Gasparilla races.

Recently, Ulele commissioned a statue of their namesake. Out of 20 artists vying for the job, only one was female and she drew the princess standing, in a pose of power. Everyone else had her sitting or reclining. It was the commanding and energetic stance of a woman with her arm outstretched in protest that won the job!

The menu:

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Ulele is turning over about 1000 tables at lunch and dinner, so if you plan to go I suggest you make a reservation online or calling 813-999-4952.

Ulele’s most recent achievement was the #7 spot for Top 50 Restaurants in Tampa Bay as scored by Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times. I can’t imagine her meal was as awesome as mine!

I was treated to a meal, dessert and drinks with the help of Tampa Bay Bloggers, but the opinions are always my own.

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