Manhattan theaters to love: Armory, New Amsterdam, Pershing Square, Lyceum

The New Amsterdam Theatre opens for a press

The New Amsterdam Theatre opens for a press preview of its newly restored interior Wednesday, April 2, 1997 in New York. The Walt Disney Company preserved the Times Square landmark with funding from New York City and New York State. (Credit: AP / Mark Lennihan)

Linda Winer

Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer. Linda Winer

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday,

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Theaters are so much more than just rooms and buildings. Theaters have walls that know endless stories. Even if these walls could talk, I'd like to believe they would not.

Things happen to us in theaters that can have little to do with whatever is happening right then onstage. There are theaters I love because I have had marvelous, even perception-shaking times in them. I'm thinking especially about the three spaces of Lincoln Center Theater and the five downtown at the Public Theater.

And there are theaters I resent -- I'm talking to you, Cort Theatre -- because the ladies' room is so insultingly inadequate that the line snakes up the stairs and into the lobby. There is something very wrong about having a transcendent theatrical experience -- Denzel Washington in "Fences," Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in "Waiting for Godot" -- only to be reduced by the indignities of the Shubert Organization trying to accommodate a theater full of women with three stalls.

Of course, I'm incredulous that there hasn't been an audience mutiny over the ever-tinier seats for which ever-growing humans are expected to pay ever-more- enormous prices -- even though, as a critic, I am spoiled with the best seats in the house.

Lately, however, I've been thinking about theaters I love just for themselves. These are places I look forward to entering because they feel so good to be around.

PARK AVENUE ARMORY 643 Park Ave., between 66th and 67th streets, armoryonpark.org

In 2000, the World Monuments Fund listed this 1881 architectural wonderland as one of 100 most endangered historical sites in the world. There it was, practically hiding in plain sight on one of the world's most desirable land parcels.

Now it is gorgeous. Better still, it's ours. That is, thanks to an ongoing $200 million revitalization plan, the Gilded Age treasure has been undergoing restorations since 2006 into one of the most adventurous nonprofit cultural centers in the city.

The centerpiece is the gigantic 55,000-square-foot drill hall, a hangar with vaulting iron arches where soldiers practiced military drills and the "silk stocking" Seventh Regiment of the National Guard -- the Roosevelts and Harrimanns -- held balls. This is the city's prime location for nontraditional immersive events too big and ambitious for conventional theaters.

Every time I have been there, the place has been radically reconfigured into what feels like a different universe. Rebecca Robertson, president and executive producer of the Armory, talks of pushing "the boundaries of what our spaces can achieve -- and how connected our audiences and artists can become -- further than ever before."

Off the hallways and upstairs are rooms that, according to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, represent "the single most important collection of 19th century interiors to survive intact in one building." Although the original regiment was the first militia to answer Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers in 1861, subsequent posh members hired decorators from their own mansions to design individual rooms.

Probably my favorite is the Veterans Room, with windows and lights by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The renovated Board of Officers Room, now the home of a major recital series, was designed by the same Herter Brothers who did the long-gone Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue. And -- imagine the fun -- each member of an artist-in-residence program gets individual space in the period rooms to develop new work.

Reservations are required for guided tours, which don't resume until mid-September. Or you can buy a ticket to one of the shows and feel free to just wander.

NEW AMSTERDAM THEATRE 214 W. 42nd St., nwsdy.li/amsterdam

Don't recognize the name? You probably just call it the Disney and, if you're not the audience for family shows, you may well not call it anything at all.

But this building is the thing that completely turned me around about the much-dreaded Disney corporate takeover of Times Square in the '90s.

Instead of gutting this crumbling 1903 theater palace on grimy 42nd Street and turning it into a theme park, the Disney people did something wonderful. They embarked on an exquisite, painstaking $36 million restoration of the once-legendary home of the Ziegfeld Follies (OK, with more than a little help from state and city grants and low-interest government loans.) And they didn't even change the historic name to scream Disney.

The result briefly opened in May 1997 with a laughably solemn "King David" cantata, but really opened that November with the astonishing and audacious "The Lion King." By taking a huge risk and digging far into the theater's parallel universe to hire director Julie Taymor, a visionary of rarefied folkloric extravaganzas, Disney dispelled all fears of corporate infantilization and sterilization of Broadway. But you know that.

What you may not know is the enchanting art nouveau home around the show. And though nothing has risen to the level of "Lion King" inspiration, I actually look forward to each Disney opening because I get to spend time in the theater.

Embraced by the soft forest colors and the nonstop florid ornamentation in the 1,800-seat playhouse, I renew my faith in enlightened urban renewal, grand theatrical intimacy and fabulous fantasy. Each time I go, I see new bits of lovable imagination. Beyond the foyer with the restored Shakespeare and Wagner murals, there is a staircase that, if you look closely enough, has a beautiful carved squirrel nestled in the spindles. That's my squirrel. Find your own.

Tours are offered, but only if you are a group of 15 or more and you've bought tickets to one of three Disney shows currently sprinkled around Times Square. "Aladdin" is the long-term tenant now.

PERSHING SQUARE SIGNATURE CENTER 480 W. 42nd St., signaturetheatre.org

I originally resented having to slap the words Pershing Square on the name of the Signature's remarkable theater complex. But the investment firm's foundation gave a $25 million grant that, for the next 20 years, lets the theater sell all tickets for the scheduled run of each play for $25. This is a splendid thing. So Pershing Square it is.

Since 1991, the Signature and artistic director James Houghton have devoted entire seasons to the plays of a single playwright. Over the years, the operation has moved and expanded its mission to multiple playwrights. Today's column is not about the extraordinary work.

We are talking here about the theater itself, really three intimate and distinctive theaters, two studios, a cafe and a bookstore all designed by no less a creative brand than Frank Gehry. When the 75,000-square-foot dream-space of wavy plywood, concrete and glass opened in January 2012, hopes were high for what Houghton described as the "largest new theater complex in New York since Lincoln Center."

But the selling point for this extraordinary space is the vaulted and welcoming lobby, which has quickly become a meeting place for theatergoers and artists from all along Off-Broadway's theater row on 42nd Street. Each of the Signature's own theaters open onto the lobby and have no back doors from which artists can escape. All evening curtains are at 7:30, which promotes mingling. Houghton promised "orchestrated collisions." Promise fulfilled.

THE LYCEUM THEATRE 149 W. 45th St., nwsdy.li/lyceum

This jewel-box is one of Broadway's smallest (922 seats) and oldest (1903). What statistics won't tell you is that its soft mauve colors make everyone in the audience look dewy. I think I want to live there.