Whether you are a fan of Lady Gaga or simply curious about the walking-tour-as-theatre concept, A Gaga Guide to the Lower East Side is an entertaining jaunt around a neighborhood steeped in social and cultural history. Writer Ron Lasko has invented a former reality-show character as the tour guide for this immersive outdoor piece, melding the story of Lady Gaga’s rise to fame via points on the LES with that of our celebrity-obsessed culture to ingenious effect. If that sounds a bit confusing, well, it is, especially for those whose grasp of recent reality shows is sketchy at best. But while the tour guide’s back story sometimes interrupts the sightseeing patter, it successfully encourages the suspension of disbelief–all while earning audience members their daily step quotient without them even noticing.*
It all starts at 1 Extra Place, once the back alley behind former live music joint CBGB, where Gaga performed in bygone days. Here, participants meet up with tour guide “Phil,” played at the performance I saw by Lynwood McLeod (who alternates with Taylor Hilliard in the role). Phil reveals that this is his real name, but we may know him better as the drag-queen star of the reality show Let’s Make Up (the title should be a giveaway, but some may feel the need to do a quick Google search to see if this is real or make believe). Phil’s monologue about his TV past and his being hazed on social media for doing a tour of the LES is interspersed with more traditional tour patter–such as pointing out the former home of the Gershwin brothers or the alleged current home of a member of the Village People.
All the while, we pound the pavements of the LES, taking in graffiti, murals, the site of the demolished Sunshine Theater—now a soulless glass box—haunts real and imagined of Lady Gaga, and a Lenin statue (more about that in a moment). Phil engagingly describes the vibrant Yiddish theater scene of the early twentieth century. He points out numerous eating and drinking establishments including obvious ones like Katz’s Deli and more obscure watering holes that Gaga allegedly frequented. For some of our group, the focus seemed to be too much history and not enough Gaga, and they melted away halfway along Houston Street. Or they may have balked at the stop/start nature of the walk and the subplot revolving around Phil’s past. This story slowly builds throughout the tour, with frequent phone interruptions from Phil’s agent, friends, and fellow drag queens. McLeod, with his flowing pre-Raphaelite locks, is completely plausible as the bitchy, snitty, resentful minor celebrity, who ultimately confesses that he was on screen for exactly 8 minutes and 42 seconds across six episodes of the show. McLeod gamely fielded questions from gullible audience members about the reality show without missing a beat, and then skillfully reverted to the more standard fare of the tour.
Even resident New Yorkers will find much to enjoy on this meander around the neighborhood. That Lenin statue, which you may or may not have spied from a CitiBike ride along Houston, is the real thing from the former Soviet Union. It was a gobsmacking discovery for two members of my tour group who hailed from Lithuania. Diehard Gaga fans who knew probably a good deal more about the songstress than our guide, they were shocked to see the Communist leader pointing toward the Hudson from on-high. “That’s disgusting,” they said. “It’s like having a statue of Hitler and thinking it’s cool.” Phil/McLeod kept the tone generally light and had a winning way of saying, “Onward we go” between landmarks and political commentary.
The final few blocks take in Gaga’s onetime apartment building; some photos are helpfully provided via a QR code to see what the locations looked like then rather than now. And that is one of the biggest takeaways from this tour: the LES is an ever-changing landscape; an intersection that at one time had more liquor licenses than anywhere else in the city now has six smoke shops lined up on facing corners. While Phil’s monologue on his TV appearances draws to a conclusion, the tour ends on a painted map of the streets we have just traveled–the layout of the thoroughfares more constant than almost anything else.
- The tour covers about fourteen blocks; comfortable walking shoes are advised.