Everyone’s a star on The Ride, the bus tour of Midtown New York that doubles as an improv show – even the bus itself. Created by Michael Counts, written by John Bobey and directed by Daniel Goldstein, this experience is an unusual and unique combination of urban planning and theater.
Passengers on The Ride board a bus with three rows of stadium seats facing large windows on one side and are taken on a 75 minute tour throughout Times Square, Midtown East and up to Columbus Circle and past Central Park. They are joined by two tour guides who, in between offering historical facts and inside information about the various sites the bus passes, engage in banter with the passengers.
But The Ride is not simply a bus tour the West 40s and 50s; it is also a show. As the bus passes by the sidewalks, pieces of performance art are executed. Outside the Bank of America building at 6th Avenue, a man (Sean Bohan) was so moved by hearing “We’re in the Money” from the musical 42nd Street that he burst into a tap routine, briefcase and all. A man in Hell’s Kitchen (Doron Lev) rapped about New York, and a saxophonist Andrew Gould) outside of Carnegie Hall was advised by one of the tour guides to play something more modern. After a few bars of “Empire State of Mind,” a singer (Fabiola Franck) walking by on the sidewalk joined in. And near Columbus Circle, two ballet dancers (Alejandra Iannone and Nolan McKew) performed a lovely routine while wearing light bulbs to illuminate their performance.
The idea of being part of the show is part of The Ride’s appeal, and even the bus itself is a character. At various points throughout the trip, a voice provides commentary or asks questions, such as, “Are you kidding me?” or lamenting, “Nobody pays attention.” The two guides (Leslie Meise and Daryl Embry) are also performing, bantering with each other and the audience and asking various questions as part of The Ride trivia. The Ride also serves as a history lesson, providing information about New York to the passengers. This information was very interesting (I, for one, did not know that there are 237 theaters or 18,696 restaurants in the city).
Some of these performances serve as an affectionate tribute to the stuff that old-fashioned MGM musicals are made of, when people do burst into song while walking down the street, but some of it – and call me a jaded New Yorker if you like – but the artifice of it overrode the beauty. The Ride had clearly set up in advance for its patrons, pretending, with a wink, that the tour was giving us a glimpse of eccentric New York street life. The guides commented on the obvious placement of the performers, saying things like, “Wow, what a coincidence!” and “What are the chances? Only in New York!” I found the sarcasm of their commentary more appealing than their enthusiasm, such as when they mentioned “Ronald McDonald the Musical” while driving past the enormous McDonalds on 42nd Street.
I’m not sure what was more entertaining to me throughout The Ride – the performances or the clearly surprised and confused expressions of passer-bys as they witnessed them. And while I have lived in New York for several years, and some of the gimmicks of The Ride felt heavy handed, the combination of performance and tourism, of information and entertainment, is charming. While I felt self-conscious pulling into Times Square on a bus that was blasting the song “New York, New York” at full volume, the enthusiasm of the out-of-towners was endearing. And I do wish the MTA would change all of its buses to have stadium-style seating like The Ride.