Scene Last Night: In Battle of the Galas, One Triumph

Welcome to a battle of the galas.

In one corner: New York City Center, for 70 years a Midtown theater with two stages and Moorish decor left over from its original tenant, the Shriners, who built the place in the 1920s.

In the other corner, Park Avenue Armory, for seven years an ever-morphing stage and arts space inside an Upper East Side building created circa 1880 for the Seventh Regiment of the New York militia.

Both organizations present theater, dance and music, and did so at their galas this week. Both run education programs for school children, which were highlighted at their galas. Both have leaders in finance on their boards and as patrons, who came out for the galas. Only one will win this battle.

Who was there: At the Park Avenue Armory were Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital, Dan Stern of Reservoir Capital, Thomas H. Lee of Lee Equity Partners, Alexander Navab of KKR, Len Blavatnik, Lyor Cohen, Mortimer Zuckerman, and so many more so spread out in that vast drill hall it was hard to keep track.

At City Center were Peter J. Solomon, Mark Kingdon of Kingdon Capital, Stacy Bash-Polley of Goldman Sachs, and Nancy Peretsman of Allen & Co. Pablo Salame, who’s on the management committee at Goldman Sachs, was a bit self-conscious about wearing a tuxedo when everyone else was in suits (poor guy, he had to wear a tux the next night too to Elton John’s AIDS foundation gala).

SpongeBill Ackman

Eric Mindich of Eton Park Capital sat with theater producers Robert and Mindy Rich, who are bringing the new musical “Honeymoon in Vegas” to Broadway, and his wife, Stacey Mindich, co-chairman of City Center, whose credits include “Annie.” (By the way, their three sons loved “Annie” and spent a lot of time with Sandy the dog, she said.)

I’d call this a draw -- as props must be given to all people who go to galas, period, including the 500 guests at City Center and 800 at the Armory -- but I am giving the point to the Armory. The reason: Ackman’s hoot of a disclosure that he once dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants to a Halloween street party with his kids. According to his wife, the kids ran away in embarrassment.

Ackman also gets a point for generosity: Pershing Square Capital and the Pershing Square Foundation signed on as a sponsor of the Armory for the next three seasons, a $1.5 million commitment.

Paint Your Life

On the matter of showcasing arts education: Director Peter Sellars, who was honored by the Park Avenue Armory, spoke of meeting kids from Brooklyn who’ve attended his performances at the venue. He also spoke of the importance of art education in a rather grand manner.

“Art is about basic empowerment,” Sellars said. “Picasso didn’t sit in a corner of the bar getting really drunk and complaining that that painting needs more red. The idea is, pick up a tube of red paint, squeeze it out and start putting red where there needs to be red, start putting blue where there needs to be blue, start putting your life anywhere there needs to be change.”

Yes, sir. Actually, I’m no Picasso.

At City Center, a video shown before the concert captured kids in elementary school and high school classrooms learning with City Center teaching artists. A boy demonstrated a dance move he said he’d invented, which he called the “pointflex.” There was also a girl who said she became more comfortable speaking in class after performing musical theater.

Masked Waiters

There’s nothing like hearing about arts education from the people directly affected by it. City Center gets the point.

As for what actually happened at the events:

During the cocktail hour at the Armory last night, the waiters wore masks and capes and various actors in period dress roamed about.

Then came an immersive form of dinner theater, which started after the main course of salmon and beef. As black and gold plates were swept away from tables covered in eggplants, grapes and gilded apples, masked dancers arrived tableside. Then the National Broadway Chorus appeared on a very high platform at one end of the room, bringing in a church vibe.

From the platforms on the sides came strange musical interludes featuring strange instruments: glass armonica, an earth harp, whose strings stretched to the rafters, and a hand-built traveling organ.

Speechless Guests

There were also dancers on pillars shrouded in fabric, whose movements were seen in shadows. In the finale, the fabric came down and all eyes turned on the central pillar, where a muscular dancer in angelic white costume quivered.

During dessert, the organist Cameron Carpenter, wearing a silver-sequined hoodie, performed his arrangement of Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination,” a fitting sum for this fantastical, elaborate evening orchestrated with ambition and beauty by event impresario David Monn and Desmond Richardson, co-founder of Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

Afterward, many guests exclaimed they had never seen anything like it. Others were left speechless.

Not an unusual reaction after some of the performances that Park Avenue Armory presents. But what I wanted to be reminded of was being a few feet from Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth, an Armory experience I had earlier this year.

City Center, on Monday, called on its Encores! program, which revives musicals, to orchestrate a one-night-only concert devoted to the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Hart. This was a shining example of what it does both in musical theater and dance, a Cliff’s Notes of several years of “Encores!” and maybe some to come -- a very valuable thing indeed.

The Winner Is…

There were songs of romance (“People Will Say We’re in Love” from 1943’s “Oklahoma!”), a spoof of New York society (“The Lady is a Tramp” from “Babes in Arms,” 1937) and a rumination of a man on the cusp of fatherhood (“Soliloquy,” from “Carousel,” 1945) performed by Brian Stokes Mitchell, which was the number everyone was talking about after.

One of the reasons Mitchell made such an impression is that the imagined boy and girl of his song floated past him as he finished -- the most ethereal dancers Chase Finlay and Lauren Lovette, in a pas de deux from “Carousel.” It was an example of the spare yet purposeful direction of the show by Warren Carlyle, who won a Tony for “After Midnight.”

In sum, it was “Some Enchanted Evening,” to borrow the “South Pacific” song which ended the concert in the hands of Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot, who starred in the Lincoln Center Theater revival. O’Hara will next be seen there in a revival of “The King and I.”

Point to City Center.

The Tie Breaker: It comes down to the swag.

At the Armory, guests were free to take home their masquerade masks. But at City Center, guests took home a roomy Coach canvas and leather tote, printed with an image of City Center’s facade and the date of the gala, thanks to honoree Lew Frankfort, retiring chairman of the luxury leather-goods brand. It’s a souvenir to carry around every day, and it allows City Center to take the last point -- earning victory in the battle of the galas.

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