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Breakfast with Barnard, and other off-stage Broadway outings

This historic pizza restaurant, which has been in business for more than a century, was included in a walking tour of New York’s Little Italy that Broadway tour-goers from Arizona visited.

Seeing five plays in four days, with plenty for political junkies and featuring some of the entertainment world’s biggest names, is just some of what a Broadway experience is all about.

Phoenix Theatre’s Broadway Bound tour in May 2012 offered a plateful of premier Broadway productions. While the plays certainly were the centerpiece of the package, supplemental tours provided a taste of New York nostalgia, not to mention some great food, with three sumptuous breakfasts featuring chit-chat appearances by Broadway actors with Arizona ties.

At the final group breakfast — the morning before we were to see the much-ballyhooed “The Book of Mormon” — Michael Barnard, Phoenix Theatre’s producing artistic director, issued a cautionary word about the shock value of the blasphemous title of a song the African natives were chanting. Two Mormon missionaries, the lead characters, were shocked as well, and it’s something to be aware of if “Mormon” ever plays in the Phoenix area. The religious satire won nine Tony Awards in 2011.

Another “Mormon” character, a marauding general, shocked some whenever anyone mentioned his name, which it turns out was strikingly similar to a feared warlord during Liberia’s 14-year civil war — known affectionately as General Butt Naked. An expletive was inserted in the name of the play’s general.

The most emotionally moving play was a matinee performance of Tony-nominated “Other Desert Cities,” starring Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach and Judith Light. This highly charged drama involves a well-to-do, retired, conservative Republican couple in Palm Springs and a daughter who wants to write a book about the dark side of the family. From our vantage point in the second row, it was like watching a family in turmoil, not a stage production. The actors shed real tears.

At one point, the Judith Light character, a free-wheeling aunt, was asleep on a sofa barely five feet from us. She didn’t budge for several minutes until her nose twitched a little. Was it an uncontrollable itch? No. She popped up and said, “I smell pot!” Light won the 2012 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Featured Role.

That evening we saw Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” a political drama featuring a world-class cast of James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen and Eric McCormick of “Will and Grace” fame. A lineup like that only plays on Broadway. Jones, with that booming voice, portrayed a former president whose endorsement is sought by two presidential contenders. It seemed like interesting casting, having an African-American play a former president. Of course, that was before President Obama won re-election last November.

“The Best Man” was not part of the package, but through Phoenix Theatre we were able to get great discounted tickets.

Other plays in the package were two dynamic musicals: “Porgy and Bess,” which won a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical (Audra McDonald won for Best Leading Actress in a Musical) and “Memphis,” which is loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s. “Memphis,” which won the Tony for Best Musical, plus three other Tony awards, in 2010, was performed last month at ASU Gammage. The touring company’s Tempe performance was easily as polished as the Broadway version.

A non-theater part of the Phoenix Theatre package included a walking tour of Soho with its high-end designer shops; Little Italy, home of more than 50 aromatic restaurants, and Chinatown, considered a great place for discount shopping. Our guide supplied us with pizza and other treats as we strolled through these iconic neighborhoods.

Later that day we visited the 9/11 Memorial featuring a Survivor Tree and two huge pools — where the World Trade Center twin towers stood until terrorists brought them down in 2001 — with nearly 3,000 names of the victims inscribed in bronze around the pools’ perimeters. Tickets to enter the memorial park are free and the line was long. You pass through a security checkpoint before getting to the memorial itself. The mood was somber. The memorial is adjacent to One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, a 104-story 1,776-foot high skyscraper scheduled for completion this year.

On another day we ventured into a subway where we saw an injured young man who was bleeding, but otherwise not attracting much attention. Only in New York! This tour took us to High Line Park, an abandoned elevated track that has been converted from an eyesore into a pleasant park-like walkway that extends for more than a mile.

We visited the all-but abandoned meatpacking district, where celebrities now live in high-rises, and the Chelsea Market, where our guide touted “the best hotdogs in the world.” It was a bit of hyperbole. He was encouraged to visit Chicago for the No. 1 dog. Also included was a daylong excursion up the picturesque Hudson River to historic West Point, where some of the nation’s greatest military leaders launched their careers.

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