This ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Needs More Spirit

A disfigured genius falls in love with a chorus girl.  Taking her under his wing, he trains her voice so she can become the leading lady of the Opera Populaire.  When she falls in love with a childhood friend, the genius plots to keep her for himself at any cost.  This is the plot of The Phantom of the Opera, currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre.  It is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart, and based off of a novel by Gaston LeRoux.

Phantom has long been my favorite musical.  Its moving story and haunting music never fail to sweep me into another world.  Even after 8 viewings of this show, it has not lost a bit of its magic.  Cameron Mackintosh’s reimagined production helps breathe a bit of new wonder into the 30 year old show with new sets and a few surprises.

With that being said, it also breaks my heart to admit that this was also the weakest rendition of the show I have seen to date.

Not that the show is bad.  The music, singing, and choreography were as strong as ever.  But there was a lack of connection between many of the primary performers and their words making it feel like they were simply going through the motions.  The end result being that a show where every prior production ranked a superior from me gets a mere OK on this go-around.

Part of this problem is not the fault of the actors.  While the Orpheum is a beautiful, archaic theatre well suited to a play like Phantom, its acoustics are a black hole for sound.  Many of the performers did what they could to overcome this problem, but their efforts could only go so far.  Others needed to do a better job of projecting.

Laurence Connor’s direction is passable.  The scene changes are excellently executed and some of the staging is truly magical.  However, he failed to get the best performances out of his cast and his staging of the play’s climactic final scene utterly robbed it of its tragic beauty.

The Really Useful Theatre Group took a big risk in casting Chris Mann in the title role.  Best known for being a finalist on The Voice, Mann, if the program is correct, has no prior acting credits.  Mann truly makes an effort and, for an inexperienced actor, has a truly potent sense of body language.  But his inexperience shows in his inability to capture many of the subtle nuances of the character, though he does show a brilliant flash or two throughout the night.

His singing is absolutely fantastic and he clearly knows how to interpret a song.  His beautiful tenor nailed the emotional beats of The Music of the Night and he was utterly mesmerizing as he entranced Christine during his solo in Wandering Child.

Katie Travis was one of the few performers equally as strong on the acting side as on the singing side.  She understood that a musical is more than just the singing.  It’s about being able to act through the songs, as well.  Ms Travis has a very young look which lent itself well to the role of Christine Daae.  She is utterly believable as the young girl torn between her mysterious benefactor and her young lover.  Her simple hugging of the Phantom at the play’s climax nearly broke me in two.

Ms Travis also has a glorious soprano that is so pure and clean.  She nearly brought down the house in her first solo, Think of Me, and proceeded to do so in Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.  Ms Travis’ singing and accurate acting choices made for a well rounded performance.

Jordan Craig played Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, Christine’s love interest.  Craig is a very, very good singer.  His powerful, well measured baritone was a pleasure to listen to in his signature solo, All I Ask of You.  But his acting was almost non-existent.  I didn’t get the sense of any true emotional commitment to the role as Craig would appear on stage, sing, and then not have any sort of reactions to the events swirling around him, even in scenes where Raoul was in mortal peril.

David Foley and Edward Staudenmayer brought some welcome comedy relief in the roles of Firmin and Andre, the new owners of the Opera Populaire.  The roles are not huge, but each managed to create well developed characters with Foley’s business minded Firmin and Staudenmayer’s more artsy Andre.  These two men were arguably the strongest performers of the night with their deft comic timing and ability to overcome the difficulties of the Orpheum’s acoustics.  Staudenmayer does need to be careful with his humor as he went slightly over the top on a couple of occasions.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention several outstanding cameo performances in the evening’s production.  Victor Wallace stole his scenes as the uncouth Joseph Buquet who makes the fatal mistake of poking fun at the Phantom.  Morgan Cowling is a charmer as Christine’s loyal and gutsy friend, Meg Giry.  Michael Thomas Holmes was hysterical as the ill-tempered musical director, Monsieur Reyer.

Scott Ambler’s choreography was always a joy to watch especially in Masquerade.  Dale Rieling’s musical direction never failed to impress in a night of flawless instrumentation from his orchestra.  Paul Brown’s sets were pieces of artistic majesty from the stage of the Opera Populaire, to the graveyard where Christine’s father was buried, to the dank lair of the Phantom.  Maria Bjornsen’s costumes were extremely elegant with the flowing gowns for the ladies and the fine evening wear for the men.

There is a reason why The Phantom of the Opera still holds audiences in the palm of its hand even after 30 years.  The music and story are timeless with rich roles in which actors can sink their teeth.  While the night’s entertainment was pleasant enough, I have seen and will see better productions than this current run.  Ultimately, the failure to connect with their roles by many of the actors made this simply an average show.

The Phantom of the Opera plays at the Orpheum Theatre through May 1.  Performances are Tues-Thurs at 7:30pm.  Fri-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.  There are also matinees at 2pm on Sat and 1:30pm on Sunday.  Tickets range from $150 to $50 and can be obtained at TicketOmaha or by visiting the box office at 13th and Douglas Streets M-F from 10am-5pm and Sat from Noon-5pm.  The Orpheum Theatre is located at 409 S 16th St in Omaha, NE.

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Of Outlaws, Nature, and Elegance: Excelsior Springs & The Inn on Crescent Lake

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“The road is now calling and I must away.”—Billy Boyd

The presents were opened.  The cheer was shared.  And, once more, the road was calling me to a new destination.  So it was that I found myself heading southwards on a pleasant, but frosty, Sunday towards the spa town of Excelsior Springs in Missouri where I would visit the Inn on Crescent Lake.

Excelsior Springs was famed for its mineral waters once upon a time and people came from miles around to bathe and be cured of their myriad illnesses.  The town pays tribute to its past with its Hall of Water exhibition in the downtown area, but it is also known as a bit of a resort area thanks to the Inn on Crescent Lake and the Elms Hotel & Spa.

Excelsior Springs is also located near several historical towns such as Liberty and Kearney as well as being a suburb of Kansas City.  In short, it has all the elements for a nice little weekend away.

I arrived in town shortly after noon and immediately headed downtown to have a bit of lunch.  Unfortunately, my initial choice was not open on Sundays.  Luckily, I found the Mill Street Restaurant and proceeded to have an enjoyable meal.

The restaurant was bustling, but I managed to find a seat and perused the menu.  Opting for a patty melt and fries, I sat back and relaxed, reading my Christmas gift, The Last Confession of Sherlock Holmes.  Within a few minutes, a piping hot plate was set before me and I enjoyed a perfectly prepared melt as well as some crisp, crinkle cut French fries.

Once lunch was done, I made my way to the town of Kearney, MO so I could visit the Jesse James Farm & Museum.

The James farmhouse.

The James farmhouse.

Jesse James and his brother, Frank, were two of the most legendary, and notorious, outlaws of American history.  They planned the first daytime bank robbery in history and embarked on a 16 year crime spree before Jesse was shot in the back of his head by Robert Ford.  Frank had retired from crime to raise a family and ultimately surrendered himself to the Governor of Missouri after being promised a fair trial and protection.  Frank and Jesse had been bushwhackers, a term used to describe guerrilla Confederate troops who attacked in quick bursts and slipped away.  Bushwhackers were often mobbed and hung and were stripped of many citizen rights after the Civil War.  The James brothers were often lauded as heroes fighting the tyranny of the Union which contributed to their legend as Robin Hoods of the South.

The James Farm is a very interesting piece of history.  The original farmhouse still stands and carries many interesting tales as related by our tour guide.  The most notable tale was the story of the Pinkerton raid in which Pinkerton agents attempted to capture Frank and Jesse (who were not at the farm at the time of the attack).  The raid resulted in the bombing death of Frank and Jesse’s 8 year old half-brother, Archie Samuel, and the loss of the arm of the James matriarch, Zerelda.

Jesse was buried on the family farm, but the tombstone erected on site is not the original.  We were informed that it was the third replica of the original marker.  The first two had virtually been eradicated by souvenir hunters who had chipped the two into oblivion to gain a piece of Jesse James’ tombstone.  What is left of the original is housed in the museum.

The James’ family was nothing, if not entrepreneurial.  Zerelda gave tours of the farm until her death.  She sold the rocks covering Jesse’s graves as souvenirs for 25 cents apiece.  When she ran out of the original stones, Zerelda brought stones from the nearby creek and sold them as “originals”.  She also was known to protect the original tombstone by keeping a loaded shotgun by her bed which faced the tombstone so she could always discourage would be souvenir hunters.  At her death, Frank took over tours until his death.  Eventually the county bought the land from the James heirs to build the museum and continue the tours.

After my visit to the farm, I returned to Excelsior Springs to check into the Inn on Crescent Lake.

I admit that I was blown away when I laid eyes on the estate.  The Inn on Crescent Lake is the most beautiful and luxurious inn I have visited since I began this project.  The 100 year old (it still looks brand new) Georgian Colonial Mansion is seated on a 22 acre property encircled by two crescent shaped ponds known as Crescent Lake.  Aside from the mansion, there is also a swimming pool with a hot tub and pool house that holds a massage room and extra suite for guests.  The property also boasts a small walking trail.

I rang the doorbell, which was attached to an intercom.  It was answered by owner, Beverly Bohnert, who told me to enter the foyer where I would be greeted.  I was met by owner, Craig Bohnert, who gave me a quick tour of the place.

My jaw nearly dropped as I gazed at the beauty of the inn.  My personal favorite was the living room which had a Christmas tree and a beaut of a fireplace.  I still marvel at the fact that the house is 100 years old because it looks pristine and new both inside and out.

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Eventually, Craig led me to the McCleary room which would serve as my home for the next two days.  The room was massive with a king sized bed gracing the center of the room.  The soft blue of the walls began relaxing me from the moment I entered.  After giving me a list of restaurant recommendations, complete with directions, Craig left me to my own devices.  I settled into the room and began exploring the rest of the mansion.

The McCleary Room.

The McCleary Room.

The Solarium.  This also doubles as the breakfast room.

The Solarium. This also doubles as the breakfast room.

After exploring the inn (and enjoying a couple of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, courtesy of Beverly), it was time for supper so I decided to try El Maguey for a bit of Mexican fare.  I had a delicious quesadilla fajita and continued reading my latest adventure of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  My server forgot to tell me that I needed to head up front to pay the bill, so I spent a half hour wondering why he wasn’t picking up my check until I saw someone heading up front with their bill.  Well, at least, I got a lot of reading in.

I returned to Crescent Lake and enjoyed my whirlpool bathtub where I scraped off the beard I had been growing for the last few months and nearly took a nap in the hot, swirling waters.  Afterwards, I posted some pics while I watched an episode of A Touch of Frost.  When the show was over, I read myself to sleep on the nice firm mattress of my king sized bed.

The next morning I finished my novel and headed downstairs to the solarium for a hearty breakfast and I emphasize the word, hearty.  Craig presented me with a glass of orange juice and a meal fit for a king.  It consisted of two biscuits, a hash brown, two small sausage patties, a slice of orange, and a piece of casserole that contained sausage, egg, cheese, onions among other ingredients.  It was so tasty, but I ended up losing to the meal which bested me by a biscuit and an orange.  But, trust me, defeat never tasted so good.

After that wonderful meal, I hopped in my car and drove to Watson Mills State Park.  I had hoped to get a tour of the Watson House and the wool mill at the park, but found that those tours are only held during the weekend at this time of year.  It wasn’t a complete loss as I enjoyed a 4 mile hike around the lake which brought back memories of my walk through Azabu-Jaban in Tokyo several years prior.

With the completion of my constitutional, I returned to Crescent Lake where I began a new mystery novel featuring Frank Cannon and relaxed to the music of the night as I listened to Highlights from the Phantom of the Opera.

At 1pm, I headed down to the pool house for a 90 minute massage with LaVerne Gardiner.  If you stay at this inn, be certain to schedule some massage time with LaVerne.  It will be well worth your while.  This was one of the best massages I have ever received as I could feel muscles knots pop and dissolve under her ministrations.  I was loose, limber, and had full range of motion in my neck after that session.

I kicked back in my room for another couple of hours before taking another whirlpool bath and then went downtown for supper at Ventana’s Gourmet Grill, the personal favorite of Craig and Beverly.

As I went into the restaurant I was greeted by the smiling visage of a mannequin depicting a Victorian Santa Claus and another Christmas tree.  I entered the little eatery and sat down at a table.  The service was a little slow and a couple who entered after me had their orders taken before me.  But the quality of the meal made up for the misfires in the service.

I began my meal with an American salad with a slight drizzle of ranch dressing.  The vegetables were fresh and crisp.  For the main course I had the Garden Chicken plate which consisted of a lemon pepper chicken breast with grilled zucchini, mushrooms, and the fluffiest, tastiest mashed potatoes I had ever tasted.  I savored each delicious bite and polished off both my plate and my other novel.  From there, I returned to the inn, enjoying the Christmas decorations and lights along the way, to relax for a few hours before another blissful night of sleep.

The next morning, I was back in the solarium reading an old Reader’s Digest and enjoying another fabulous breakfast of honeydew and cantaloupe, bacon, and blueberry French toast.  I peered out over Crescent Lake and felt sorry that I would have to leave the inn.  I would definitely like to return to this inn, especially if they mount a mystery weekend which is something Craig and Beverly have been considering.

I give this place my highest recommendation for a visit.  If you want sweet seclusion, elegance, and fine dining then the Inn on Crescent Lake should be your lodging of choice if you find yourself in the city of Excelsior Springs.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I’ve compiled a large list of inns to visit for this project, but there are undoubtedly many, many more which I’ve yet to discover.  If there’s an inn that you think I absolutely must visit, feel free to comment on my B & B posts and I will add it to the visitation list.

Phenomenal “Phantom” Will Haunt Your Soul

Words nearly fail me as I attempt to describe the impressiveness of Phantom currently playing at Creighton University.  Simply put, this is the best play I have seen this season and this show will stand, at the very least, shoulder to shoulder with anything produced on the community theatre circuit this year.

Based off of Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, this musical tells the story of a disfigured musical genius who falls in love with a farm girl (Christine Daee) now living in Paris.  So enthralled is he with her voice, that he trains her to become the leading performer at the Paris Opera House.  When Christine is sabotaged by a jealous rival and recoils from the hideous face of her anonymous mentor, the deformed man resorts to vengeance.

Though this play is a musical, do not confuse it with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of this tale.  This musical was written by Arthur Kopit with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston around the same time as Lloyd Webber’s take.  Once Lloyd Webber’s musical exploded onto the scene, this show lost all of its financial backing and seemed doomed never to see the light of day.  It eventually was produced in 1991 and has been steadily produced since that time.

This show takes a number of liberties with the source material, but this, in no way, weakens the power of the story.  Thanks to expert direction from Alan Klem, what we get is a show that is guaranteed to move you to the depths of your soul.

Kudos need to be given to this entire cast.  Experienced performers could take a lesson from this troupe of college students as each and every individual always plays the moment and stays involved in the action of the story.  That being said, this show also contained a number of standout performances.

Ryan Malone is exceptionally well cast as Erik, the titular Phantom.  His Phantom is far more sympathetic than ones from the novel and other versions of the tale.  Malone imbues his Erik with an almost childlike quality.  He is darkly innocent in the sense that he has known nothing, but the bowels of the Opera House and the music that has salved his soul.  But he does rule the Opera and woe to anyone who violates his rules or his desires.  Malone smoothly reveals this menace early on when he justifies his killing of an intruder into his domain with a simple, “He broke the rules.”  Malone also has mastered the fine art of body language, using it to communicate his emotions such as anguish when Christine flees from his hideous face.  Malone possesses a fine baritone voice, excelling in such numbers as “Paris is a Tomb”, “You are Music” and “You are My Own”.

Chelsey Hill is astonishingly amazing as Christine Daee.  With a crystal clear soprano voice, Ms Hill delights the crowd with such tunes as “Melodie de Paris” and “My True Love”.  Her Christine has a beautiful sweetness and innocence about her.  Ms Hill also does a tremendous job handling the conflicted feelings of love she has for both The Count de Chandon, who helps get her into the Paris Opera House and the Phantom who develops the potential of her voice.  Her reaction at seeing the unmasked Erik says more than words ever will.

Colleen Kilcoyne sparkles in a delightfully hammy performance as Carlotta, one of the new owners of the Opera House and its leading lady.  Carlotta is a diva in every sense of the word and Ms Kilcoyne plays it to the hilt, exemplified in the song “This Place is Mine”.  She rules with an iron fist and fancies herself the world’s greatest singer when, in reality, she is a loud screecher.  She is also cold blooded and callous, cruelly sabotaging Christine to retain her bought position as the ingénue of the Opera.

Patrick Kilcoyne gives a haunting performance as Gerard Carriere, the former managing director of the Opera House who is forced out by Carlotta and her husband near the start of the play.  Carriere has a mysterious connection with the Phantom whom he has tried to protect over the years.  Blessed with a powerful and rich bass voice, Kilcoyne brilliantly essays emotions such as frustration, anger, tenderness, and love.  His duet with Erik, “You Are My Own”, nearly brought me to tears.

Also good were Matt Karasek as Philippe, the Count de Chandon and Michael Conroy as Inspector Ledoux.  Karasek has a natural charm well suited to Philippe who initially appears as a gadabout, but displays genuine love for Christine.  Conroy provided some terrific comedic moments as the chief of the Parisian police force.

Bill Van Deest is to be commended for his amazing set.  Taking us from the streets of Paris to the catacombs of the Phantom, I often forgot this was not a professional production.  Stephen Sheftz and his orchestra also deserve praise for their stellar musicianship.

Phantom plays for one more weekend at Creighton University’s Lied Education Center for the Arts (Mar 27-30).  Showtimes are 7:30 pm Mar 27-29 and 2pm on Mar 30.  Tickets are $5, $15, or $18.  Reservations can be made at boxoffice.creighton.edu or at 402-280-1448.  Creighton University is located at 2500 California Plaza, Omaha, NE  68178.

Last Exit To Vegas (For Now), Day 2: Where on Earth is His Luck?

As I watch a glorious sunset from my suite, I find myself at the keyboard once more to report on the adventures of the day.

As I suspected (and hoped), my headache was merely the result of exhaustion as a good night’s sleep cleared it up.  A long, hot bath in the morning cleared up any residual traces and I was ready for some breakfast.  Once more, I headed to the Gold Coast to enjoy their delicious (and affordable) breakfast buffet.  After a filling meal, I was hoping my peculiar luck was ready to surface and further pad my bank account.

As you may have gathered from the title, that most assuredly did NOT happen.

I could not get any serious runs going on any machine I tried.  I was frequently teased with bonuses that did not manifest, fried by Godzilla on Monster Island, haunted by The Phantom of the Opera, slimed by Ghostbusters, slapped around by Superman, and blasted by Back to the Future

Once I had taken enough of a beating, I decided to make use of the nice day and do some exploring.  I decided to actually go inside many casinos that I had never stepped inside or hadn’t stepped inside for years.  I made a further exploration of the Bellagio which is actually quite artistic.  Many of the ceilings are decorated with butterflies and they also have some elegant gardens in the resort. 

I also wandered about the Monte Carlo, New York New York, the Cosmopolitan, Harrah’s, and the Mirage.  And at the Mirage, some semblance of my luck managed to show its face as I found a kindly The Twilight Zone machine which allowed me to play steadily for a long while, but didn’t net me big bucks. 

After six hours of walking around, I was ready to return to the Rio and put my feet up for a bit.  Upon resting for a while, I decided to take my $1 bills and give it one final shot.  This was my luckiest moment as Judge Judy was quite benevolent.  I ended up earning 8x my investment.  It was a true pity that I only had put $5 into the machine.  Ah well.  A win is a win.

I ended up having my supper at the BK Whopper Bar at the Rio.  Whopper Bars began appearing a few years back.  Their menu is actually pretty limited as they only serve Whoppers or Double Whoppers, though they also have a traditional breakfast menu in the mornings.  The big difference is that you can get fixings that aren’t available at a regular Burger King and you can also get a beer if you desire.  I had a Whopper with the traditional fixings, but added pepper bacon and sautéed mushrooms.

Tonight I’ve decided to take it easy and perhaps watch the cult comedy, Kung Pow!:  Enter the Fist.  Tomorrow will be spent at Qua Baths and Spa, though this time I will be paying for it out of my own pocket.  However, I must take a moment and put it into perspective.  The Vegas casinos have been kind enough to pay for my spa visits the last three times.  Including tips, that means they have paid out somewhere between $800-$850 total.  They barely got a fraction of that back from me today, so I can still claim ultimate victory in the money wars.  Also, thanks to the free room upgrade, I’ve actually broken even and may even be slightly ahead asset wise.

Until the next time. . .

Last Exit To Vegas (For Now), Day 1: The Dynamic Uno

After nearly a decade of annual visits, I have begun what will be my final visit to Las Vegas for the foreseeable future.  For the first time ever, I am alone in this burg as my normal traveling companions, Mat and John, were unable to join me.  Mat is rebuilding his P.T.O. and John has simply wearied of coming here.  So my goal is to squeeze as much fun as I can out of this trip and prepare myself to explore new vistas in the future.

Now this trip started off right due to the fact that I was using Southwest Airlines.  This airline ranks at the top of my list when it comes to traveling and they routinely rank #1 in customer satisfaction each year.  Unlike nearly every other airline, Southwest still lets you check your bag for free (your first two, as a matter of fact).  You can also sit wherever you feel like on the plane without being charged an additional fee.  Even better, one can actually get a free beverage and snack on this flight instead of being nickeled and dimed to death.

Due to terrible winds, my flight out to Vegas ended up being delayed by 20 minutes. This ended up being negligible as those same winds gave the flight to Vegas a bit of an added boost and we ended up arriving at about the same time as originally promised.  The only two difficulties of the flight were that I realized I didn’t have my Kindle with me and there was a woman on the flight who sounded like she was well on her way to being three sheets to the wind.  She was quite obnoxious and spent most of the flight pestering some poor college student who was studying anatomy so she could have some time for fun while in Vegas.  I truly admired her patience.

Upon landing, my fabled luck appeared as I was able to immediately grab a shuttle for the Rio.  Though, if you haven’t driven through rush hour traffic on the Las Vegas Strip, let me assure you that it’s quite an experience.  It took nearly an hour to get from the airport to the hotel with all the stops and traffic, but I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride and have a chat with my best friend, Josh.

Once I reached the Rio, my luck remained as I was able to check in without a wait in line.  I’d also like to take a moment to thank Luis who checked me into the Rio and upgraded me to a Sambia Suite free of charge.  Because of that, I am now sitting on the 37th floor of the Rio enjoying a beautiful pool view and an amazing view of the city.

After I deposited my gear in my room, I wandered around the hotel a bit to see what had changed and what hadn’t.  The hotel still doesn’t seem as plentiful with guests as it once did, yet I must still assume that business must be up as their famed Seafood Buffet is now open every day and the Rio recently opened a Hash House a Go Go on the property.

Hash House a Go Go is known for “Farm Food done Freaky”.  The portions are humongous and will probably keep you full for a day or soon as the restaurant is known for serving one pound sandwiches, deep dish skillets, and pancakes the size of a garbage can lid.  However, one thing I did notice is that the prices are pretty high at this location, nearly double what you would pay at the restaurant’s location on Sahara.  While I would recommend a breakfast here, try to get to the Sahara restaurant to make use of the lower prices.

After wandering about a bit (and losing a couple bucks), I caught the shuttle to Bally’s so I could make the quick jaunt to Planet Hollywood and have another meal at Gordon Ramsay’s BURGR restaurant.  As a solo guest, I was able to get seated at the bar right away.  This time around, I enjoyed the American Burger (a more traditional hamburger, topped with butter lettuce, red onions, American cheese, pickles, and a thick slice of tomato).  As before, the presentation and taste were top notch.

Once I had finished my meal, I walked across the street to the Bellagio.  I had seen their fountain show on numerous occasions, but had never actually stepped inside of the casino.  It is quite elegant and I spent a while in there playing slot machines based on Clue, The Phantom of the Opera, and Back to the Future.

As of yet, my nearly mystical luck has only manifested itself in a great room, good seating, and good timing.  I couldn’t get any good runs going on any machine, though my luck did start to heat up towards the end of the night.  The day had taken it’s toll on me as I began to develop a whanging headache.  So I cut my evening short and returned to the Rio where I am getting ready to rest up for another adventurous day tomorrow.