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.

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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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MacDill Foodies Crawl

Last week I was lucky enough to “crawl” up MacDill Ave, Tampa, with the Tampa Bay Bloggers to some of the best gastropubs/eateries in town!

The Datz family has introduced both Dough, a dessert place, and Roux, a Cajun & Creole Restaurant – and all three come highly recommended — by me!

Hosting a group of bloggers is a great way to try out new menu items and get honest and varied opinions. Here’s what I thought of the great dishes we got to try:

DSC_1817We started at Roux for drinks and appys. I hadn’t been to Roux since a sneak preview before they completed their walls and bar, and I enjoyed looking around first to see the great decor. I’m a big fan of fleur de lis and NOLA, so it is always fun for me to see bits of New Orleans in the Tampa Bay area.

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We had three appetizers to try and three drinks to choose from. I loved the Abita beer-battered Crab Beignets, which had 4 different flavors of remoulades to dip them in, but they were divine plain. The had just the right fried beignets crunch on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth center. Not too seafood tasting.

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I split a Boudin Ball, which was served over creole mustard crema. They are a little larger than a golf ball, smaller than a lemon, but I knew there was a lot of food to come so I only ate half. I could have easily eaten 4-6 with a small cup of gumbo as a meal!

There were also Char-Grilled Oysters. They was so much better than the raw on-the-half-shell oyster I had eaten years ago (which was my first and, up till now, last oyster.)

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IMG_0198As far as drinks go, they have a refreshing hurricane served over mounds of crushed ice:
Kraken Dark, Siesta Key white, orange juice, passion fruit purée, pineapple, lime and bitters. There’s the traditional NOLA Sazerac made from Rittenhouse Rye, Pernod Absinthe, Peychauds, bitters and lemon peel. And last but not least is my light, girly favorite the French 75 (shown): The Botanist, lemon, champagne and lemon zest served in a champagne flute.

Then 8 bloggers piled in my mommy-van to zip up the road to Datz.

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This self proclaimed Foodie’s Theme Park is going to up their shock value this year with more “stunt food”, foods with layers upon layers of goodness that take them over the top. Read on to see the sneak peek that we got!

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IMG_0203We were greeted with some house-made, flavored popcorn and what Sandbookwich.com calls “2015’s first new food trend”, Buffalo Cauliflower. The whole head of cauliflower was roasted, then lightly battered and fried, then tossed in buffalo sauce and served with blue cheese dressing. I’m not much for blue cheese, but the rest of this dish was amazing! We kept it on the table and I kept taking more nibbles throughout the night when there was a lull in food-stuffs.

There were two drinks specially prepared for us that night. “#HotSex” pronounced “hashtag hot sex” was a blend of dry gin and something-something with a chili pepper on top. Some tried the “Love Stinks“, which was Bombay sapphire, raspberry liquor and a dirty cherry dropped inside. I didn’t try either since at some point mentioned above I became the driver.

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IMG_0207When we were settled with drinks, our server (Chops) told us about two dishes that were not on the menu that they were featuring that night. One was the Cheesy Todd: a cheese burger with your basic pickle-tomato toppings, but instead of a bun it is served between two mac&cheese patties. Yes, fried mac and cheese with beef and cheese in between. And a side of house made chips with blue cheese drizzle. I decided to volunteer as tribute and ordered this dish for the table. I left the bottom mac&cheese patty intact to bring home to DD1, then cut the top “bun” and burger into 4 pieces to pass around. The burger was expertly prepared, and the mac and cheese patty did not fall apart into separate noodles when we bit into it, which was my concern.

inside the cheesy todd

inside the cheesy todd

IMG_0211The 2nd item not on the menu was the Hungryman 2.0: two pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy topped with bacon.

Denise, a Datz regular, introduced me to the Desi Arnaz Cuban Salad: iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, swiss cheese, ham, spanish olives, spanish vinaigrette- “It’s a gluten free cuban sandwich on top of a salad” she said. I liked it even though I don’t like olives. It was NOT skimping on the toppings for one bite. It even had two delicious pieces of pressed Cuban bread on the side. The bread was soft and full of amazing grill flavor!

Outdoorsydiva.com was on my right, and she ordered “on the lam(b)“, grilled maple soy glazed lamb chops over roasted butternut squash. Let me tell you, that squash was the tastiest thing I have eaten in 2015! Flavored by the braised lamb drippings and lord knows what other Datz magic, I could have eaten just a bowl of that for dinner. Maybe with a piece of that pressed Cuban bread to scoop it up with… mmmmm….

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IMG_0216After mixing and matching and trying each others yummies, we went next door to Dough for boozy shakes and dessert. Boozy shakes are just what they sound like – adult milk shakes. Like a chocolate peanut butter shake with kahlua and whipped cream. It actually tasted more like Butterfinger to me, but the one I tasted had only half the booze added, by request. But they add their own secret twists to these, and they taste like no creamy goodness you’ve ever had before. They also make all of their gelato in house with fresh ingredients. TIP: If you come with the kids for just gelato, come in the back door and they won’t see all the donuts, cupcakes and chocolates first.

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They said more stunt food is coming, and I’m guessing that soon the brownies will do their own tricks. Someone ordered the last bacon brownie of the day while we were there.

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My dessert was a raspberry cheesecake donut. I think it was a housemade donut, and the hole was stuffed with cheese cake flavored cream filling, and on top was a blob of raspberry pink sticky glaze stuff.

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I brought home dessert for my girls too. A raspberry macaron for DD1 in honor of her upcoming France trip:

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And a Funfetti cupcake for my rainbow girl, DD2:

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See inside Dough’s chocolate cheesecake dome here.

Ending the night with a hug from RunDMT

Ending the night with a hug from RunDMT

I’m pretty sure I rolled home on my new belly tire.

Next time you are asked for a restaurant recommendation, you have three readily available on the tip of your tongue! Datz, Dough and Roux!

Disclaimer: I was invited to dinner by these three establishments and provided with food and drinks in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own. Thanks to the Tampa Bay Bloggers for organizing this wonderful night!

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The Phantom and Human Nature

phantomposter203879610470_nEven if you have not seen The Phantom of the Opera, you know there is a man in a mask, and a woman who sings, and that something creepy is going on.

As a tween, I listened to the original Sarah Brightman recording on cassette in the car a lot when someone gave it to my mother as a gift, trying to encourage her to go see the production with my father. Close to 20 years ago, I was lucky enough to see Phantom on Broadway with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. When we were offered the chance to see it again last week with the Tampa Bay Bloggers at the Straz Center in Tampa, we jumped.

But now I think of the story differently. What was once a spooky nightmare-ish musical, and later a steamy love triangle, is now a show I think speaks about our nature as humans.

Today, I was working with a friend on ads for our daughters’ senior yearbook. Trying to find fitting photos to sum up 18 years of life means truly thinking about a person and all her facets. Do I show a photo of dancing school here, of track running there? Hugging her sister? Swimming with Grandma on vacation? Little by little you weed out the unlucky images until you are left with 8×10 inches of what might tell you a bit about someone as she grows up.

Phantom of the opera has this same reveal. Is the phantom a genius architect? An angel of music? A misshapen member of a carnival freakshow? Can he truly know how to love? Has he been taught compassion?

These burning questions, along with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mesmerizing score, jaw-dropping scenery and breathtaking special effects, magically combine to let you find the answers for yourself.

In fact, Gaston Leroux wrote in the original novel of The Phantom “None will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrow and one of sadness, boredom or indifference over his inward joy… In Paris, our lives are one masked ball…”

One person seeking these answers — Katie Travis. She played lead female Christine Daaé in the production we just saw of Phantom. She also runs and teaches art in Africa. She is certainly seeking answers, and you can follow along on her adorable website.

Some History:

In 1984 Lloyd Webber contacted Cameron Mackintosh, co-producer of Cats (which I had the record album of), to propose a new musical. Now, The Phantom of the Opera, has come to Tampa as part of a brand new North American Tour. Critics say this breathtaking production is “bigger and better than ever before.” This Phantom features new scenic design by Paul Brown, over 280 costumes designed by the Tony winning Maria Björnson, lighting design by Tony Award-winner Paule Constable, new choreography by Scott Ambler and a new staging by director Laurence Connor.

And Mackintosh is still involved! He’s not new to makeovers – he has also revived and updated productions of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. This new production of Phantom, directed by Laurence Connor, has been on tour for a year following a sold-out run in the UK. It’s designed to travel easier and with less expense.

The Story (only minor spoilers):

Beneath the majesty and splendor of the Paris Opera House, hides the Phantom in a shadowy existence, shamed by his physical appearance and feared by all. He loves performer Christine Daaé, and wants to help her rise to the top. They cross a lake to his secret lair beneath the opera house, where he enchants her with his own sublime voice. She trusts him because her late father, a violinist, spoke of an angel of music.

The Opera House ownership has just changed hands, and one of the new men involved knew Christine as a child. They fall in love. The Phantom is jealous and angry. Shit hits the fan… or the chandelier as the case may be. Evil lair, angry mob, lots of singing.

I was excited to see this production had the beautiful chandelier, a working papier-mâché music box opening up to reveal a monkey, a few unexpected set twists and turns, and the Phantom’s boat which crosses down the misty lake. The opening auction scene was superb!

It also boasts great use of shadow and fire, as well as Katie Travis’s beautiful voice which out of nowhere becomes an air-filling powerhouse during “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.”

Fun Facts:

The Phantom’s make-up takes two hours to put on and 30 minutes to take off. The face is moisturized, closely shaved and the prosthetics are fitted, setting immediately, before two wigs, two radio mics and two contact lenses (one white and one clouded) are placed. Look for him hiding all over the stage throughout the production.

Currently, the Phantom is played by Chris Mann (on tour). A classically trained singer, he was the third runner-up in the second season of NBC’s singing competition “The Voice”.

Although The Phantom of the Opera was written in 1911, it takes place in the Victorian Period, some ten years prior.

The musical opened in the UK on October 9, 1986, with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in the leading roles, and there have been dozens of productions worldwide since then. Now in its 25th record-breaking year, The Phantom of the Opera continues to captivate audiences at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End, after more than 10,000 performances.

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The girl in front of me took this photo from our Balcony 2 seats. She posted it to Instagram (only her 3rd photo ever posted), and during intermission got a comment from Storm Lineberger, the actor playing Raoul (Christine’s love interest).

At Home:

Listen to score snippets here: http://www.thephantomoftheopera.com/music_player/index2.html

To celebration its 25 anniversary, The Phantom of the Opera marked the occasion with 3 sell-out performances at the Royal Albert Hall, currently available to view on Netflix.

Tampa Bay Times interview with Cameron Mackintosh: http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/stage/interview-with-cameron-mackintosh-why-phantom-needed-to-change/2209683

Phantom opened Wednesday and runs through Jan. 4 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. The New Years Eve performance is billed as “The Phantom of the Opera New Year’s Eve Masquerade Party“: Join members of the Phantom Company immediately following the performance as we convene on the Straz Center Riverwalk for hors d’oeuvres, music by Late Night Brass, desserts, coffee, a champagne toast at midnight and a special keepsake of the night. Tickets to attend the party only, are $75. Party tickets for existing The Phantom of the Opera ticket holders are $50 plus handling and must be purchased by calling the Ticket Sales Office at 813.229.7827. I can’t imagine a more spectacular Christmas gift surprise for a loved one!

Tickets are $83.50 – $153.50. Call (813) 229-7827 or visit strazcenter.org. I received 2 complimentary balcony seats, and the opinions here are my own.

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