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Buys and Dolls

The beautician spritzes Kit's hair with water and begins brushing out the tangled polyester mop. The braid is the most popular treatment ($20), but Kit's hair is too short for that so she's just having a good brushing and a nice new ribbon ($10). Tyrie rests her chin on the counter and ogles.

If a doll comes in with truly hopeless hair -- too tangled, too patchy, too full of Doublemint -- it goes to the doll hospital upstairs.

American Girl Place in New York features a doll-friendly restaurant. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

"They replace the hair?" I ask.

The stylist, Nashira Rice, turns away from Tyrie and whispers, "The whole head."

After Kit's day of beauty, we rush for the hot-ticket "American Girls Revue" in the 130-seat theater. Having heard the CD a few thousand times at home, I already know the show is more-than-passable Broadway fare: not quite Cole Porter but far better than any recent Disney soundtrack. The conceit is a meeting of a neighborhood American Girl club -- the musical numbers explain each doll's backstory to a newcomer.

There is an extra frisson in the audience when it's "Samantha's" turn to sing -- lots of mothers leaning over with big smiles and whispering "Samantha!" to their daughters in that way parents have of making sure their kids appreciate the obvious. The Samantha doll is a first among equals now that she's had a movie made about her. A TV movie, yes, and only on the WB network. But still, a movie.

By the time Kit takes the stage to sing about looking on the bright side of life during the Depression -- "Kit!" I whisper at Tyrie -- I am besotted myself. Even at $89 a doll and $30 a ticket, I'll take these can-do archetypes anytime over Barbie's body image or the junior slut mien of Bratz.

In the bright, fanciful restaurant after the show, moms, daughters and dolls fill most of the tables, but there are a few dads (many sipping champagne mimosas, the closest thing to a cocktail on the menu). We sit down to a platter of artichoke dip, breads and cheeses, the first course in the surprisingly good $20 prix fixe menu.

Dolls sit in booster seats before tiny cups and saucers. Many are in various states of undress, as eager little owners change them into just-bought togs. "Usually, the first thing people do is strip down their dolls," says our waitress, Jennifer Rosen.

I hate to admit it, but there's some quick changing going on at our table, too. In spite of my iron resolve, we had bought not one but two new American Girl ensembles: Kit's Christmas dress for Tyrie and Josefina's "weaving" outfit for her sister back home. We came to buy nothing -- and leave, inevitably, with $44 in tiny ready-to-wear.

But others leave with many, many more of the big red shopping bags. Tracy Craemer of Point of Rocks, Md., is impressively laden after a full day of shopping, shows and -- the highlight for her three girls -- high tea.

"The tea was amazing," Craemer says. The girls liked the little net bag of charms and bracelet-making goodies and they liked the vanilla pudding served in chocolate cups you could really eat. But they loved seeing the actors from the revue come into the cafe to sing carols. "Last year we went to the tea at the Plaza because our girls love Eloise, but they liked this much better."

Watch your back, Eloise. There are some new girls on the block.

Escape Keys

BEING THERE: American Girl Place (877-247-5223, www.americangirlplace.com) is across from Rockefeller Center at 609 Fifth Ave. in New York City. The 43,000-square-foot complex is open until 9 most nights in December (until 5:30 on Christmas Eve, closed Christmas Day). Regular hours resume in January: 10 a.m-7 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays and until 7 p.m. Sundays. The store is divided into several distinct boutiques, including the flagship historical dolls collection, the Bitty Baby line, American Girl Today and the Dress Like Your Doll hall. The 1950s-style beauty salon doesn't take reservations, but beauticians can style your doll's flip, braid or bun ($10 to $20) while you shop. The "hospital" is really a counter where you drop off a doll for repair and pick it up later -- complete with hospital gown and bracelet. Tickets for the "American Girl Revue" are $30 per person and officially restricted to kids ages 6 and older. There are five shows on Saturdays, four on Sundays, two evening shows on Thursdays and Fridays, and one on Wednesdays.

EATING THERE: With bold black-and-white stripes on the wall and fashion-sketch daisies on the booths, the American Girl Cafe is designed to give girls a white-glove dining experience with no gloves required. The cafe features a generous, fixed-menu brunch ($18 a person, plus tax), lunch ($20), afternoon tea ($20) and dinner ($23). Prices may increase in January. Make reservations (required) well in advance.

STAYING THERE: We made a bona-fide New York hotel discovery on our American Girl pilgrimage: a cluster of hotels you're more used to seeing along interstate exits than in deepest Manhattan, but priced and located to wow the city visitor. The self-styled Apple Core Hotels consist of a Comfort Inn, Super 8, La Quinta, Red Roof and Ramada (800-567-7720, www.applecorehotels.com). Prices start at $89 for basic double rooms with such amenities as continental breakfast, blow dryers, wireless Internet and daily newspapers. We found the Comfort Inn Midtown (129 W. 46th St.) a fine base for our Fifth Avenue wanderings.

INFO: NYC & Company, 212-484-1222, www.nycvisit.com.

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