Review: Mighty Real

Mighty Real

This show takes electrifying flight When Anthony Wayne is singing, channeling “The Queen of Disco” Sylvester. And since there is more singing than talking in this show, Mighty Real spends most of its time soaring through disco heaven.

Wayne is a phenomenal singer and a magnetic performer, both of which you have to be if you want to even come close to the spirit of Sylvester. His back-up singers Martha Wash (played by Jacqueline B. Arnold) and Izora Armstead (played by Anastacia McCleskey), were just as charismatic and vocally gifted as Sylvester, and Arnold and McCleskey definitely live up to that.

It should be said that none of the cast physically resembles their models (Wash and McCleskey were both so large they took on the name Two Tons O’ Fun). However, this hardly matters when they all live up to the energy and prowess of the originals on stage, which they certainly do.

As with the great majority of musicals, what problems Mighty Real has are in the book (also by Wayne). The book is without a doubt a heartfelt tribute to Sylvester, trying to get at what drove this fabulous artist, and its sincerity and depth of feeling is definitely a help.

But Wayne plays fast and loose with the timeline of Sylvester’s life, most egregiously having the teenage Sylvester watching a medley of “Respect”, “Lady Marmalade” and “Proud Mary” on TV, when all three songs were released many years after Sylvester left his childhood home.

You could make an equally fabulous medley of songs that he realistically might have seen, even by the same artists: Ike & Tina Turner’s “The Gong-Gong Song”, Patti LaBelle’s “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” and “Something’s Got A Hold on Me” by Etta James (who Sylvester actually knew at the time). It bears saying that the medley as is does feel emotionally right, and is highly theatrical. But, still…

Perhaps even more seriously, the book has problems of tone, focusing as it does on the pain that Sylvester went through. Sylvester always wanted to project love and joy though his performances, and would probably have not been thrilled at Wayne taking this angle. Most disconcertingly, Wayne portrays Sylvester’s youthful relationship with an older man in his church as sexual molestation, when Sylvester himself always strenuously insisted that the relationship was consensual.

But again, the book takes up relatively little stage time, and in the final analysis does little to hold back the propulsive vitality of Mighty Real. This makes this fun show something I can easily recommend, just not as wholeheartedly as I might have hoped.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Christine Ebersole

christine-ebersole_original 2014

For her first long cabaret run in two years, Christine Ebersole returns to 54 Below with a glorious new show. What really distinguishes this show from her previous cabaret turns (they’ve all been glorious) is the touch of Musical Director Bette Sussman, who brings with her a big, rock-ish band and a jazz-pop polish reminiscent of arranger William S. Fischer’s work on the classic Bette Midler album The Divine Miss M (Sussman has collaborated with Midler herself on more than one occasion). In any event, and in case you didn’t know, I am here to tell you that Christine Ebersole is faaaaaabulous!

Though Ebersole is primarily known as a Broadway diva, and her most recent CD was a very jazzy affair, this is her most rock and roll act to date. This time, you’re more likely to run into a Fleetwood Mac or Burt Bacharach tune than a Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer standard (though she does a beautiful rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Good”). She even does a breathtaking turn on a classic Diana Ross song, and I am not going to spoil your surprise by telling you which one. Because you are going to see this show, you know!

Ebersole absolutely brings to pop-rock the same elegant power she brings to musical theater and jazz. When she sings “Woodstock” it is far more than just a cabaret singer singing a Joni Mitchell song. The song itself has only grown in power over the years, overtaking the event it describes in its ability to evoke yearning idealism. Christine imbues it with a searing emotion and intelligence that communicates so much: a sense of history that includes the Vietnam War and 9/11, and a passionate sense that we mustn’t allow history to extinguish that idealism. Fiery and profound, all in one go.

All that, plus an insane version of “Revolutionary Costume for Today” from Grey Gardens (for which Ebersole won her second Tony) that is simultaneously hilarious and roof-raising. Another cabaret act from this lady that just sparkles like the finest champagne – Faaaaaabulous!

For tickets, click here. Seriously, go back, click the link and buy your tickets now.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

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Review: BenDeLaCreme

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A little bit Lypsinka, a little bit Mummenchanz – certainly not what I expected when going to see a cabaret act from Drag Race alum BenDeLaCreme. Oh sure, there was plenty of other stuff in line with other drag cabarets I’ve seen: goofy song parodies, wisecracking comedy and so forth. But DeLa has something more sophisticated to offer, in a show with a seductive strangeness that creeps up on you.

The Lypsika-y moment comes when DeLa – not known on Drag Race for her lip-synching talent – delivers a number that involves a skipping CD and warped speed changes. It’s incredibly complicated (and hilarious) and involves a level of synching technique close to the legendary Lyp.

The Mummenchanz-y stuff comes in the midst of a spectacular sequence that draws on performance art, modern dance, burlesque (where DeLa got her start) and all kinds of other art forms. Very exciting and very, very strange (in a good way). Burlesque also features in several sections of the show, including an ingenious display of twirling pasties on an assortment of fake boobs.

This act, titled Terminally Delightful, is every bit as carefully structured as Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales’s Vaudevillians, and in some ways just as ambitious. There is an autobiographical element to this show, but it’s cleverly refracted through diverse performance styles.

BenDeLaCreme is all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately really about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things. She delivers a show that’s equal parts clubby fun and insightful art, no small feat. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Nellie McKay

Nellie-McKay-dragon-Rick-Gonzalez-copy

Nellie McKay is a highly individual talent, a supreme stylist, with wild, crazy creativity and substantial musical intelligence to match her razor-like interpretive ability. McKay has become something of a specialist in biographical cabarets – experimental performance art meets high society cabaret – and has put together another such special show about Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist who was discovered to have been a woman after his death.

The key word in that last sentence is “special” – A Girl Named Bill is cabaret as only Nellie McKay could do it. She does the entire act while literally playing the role of Tipton, right down to period-accurate costumes and props. And period-accurate music and speaking styles as well. A perfectionist sense of history on complete display.

Sometimes McKay’s complex acts can seem under-rehearsed. Not here. While she is certainly stretching the abilities of herself and her immensely talented band to their limits, these is a sense of ease. It’s swimmingly successful, no small achievement. McKay doesn’t narrate, so you might be well advised to look at the Wikipedia biography of Tipton before you see the show.

Instead, she presents us with loosely sketched vignettes of Tipton’s life, mostly letting the music do the story-telling. Tipton did impersonations in his shows, which gives McKay license to do songs by Jimmy Durante, Elvis Presley, Liberace and Bob Dylan.

The gender-bending element of the show gives McKay plenty of opportunities for humor, which she is all too willing to take. Most enjoyable of all is a running gag in which McKay’s hirsute band titter like schoolgirls, to which she scoffs, “Ladies, please!” But she also gets very serious about gender identity, especially in a hair-raising version of Jelly Roll Morton’s very sexually explicit “Whinin’ Boy Blues.”

McKay ties together all of the thematic and musical aspects of the show in a whimsically rousing rendition of “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?,” from My Fair Lady. McKay’s combination of irony and heart-on-sleeve sincerity is utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to see and hear her take such exciting risks in such an intimate setting.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Courtney Act

COURTNEY ACT

I was Team Bianca before the season even started, but Miss Courtney Act was one of the more charming discoveries in the latest season of Drag Race. In her cabaret act Boys Like Me, Act reaffirms the perception that she is a real pro of a performer, a real pleasure to spend some time with, even if she’s not an innovator like Jinkx Monsoon, or a crazed genius like Bianca del Rio.

In Boys Like Me, Act sings songs and tells stories focusing on the sometimes provocative, sometimes absurd dirty laundry list that is his sex life. There’s that angry text from a straight boy’s girlfriend, the twins in Montreal, and the US Marine, and that’s just the beginning. The show is at its best in the spoken sections, as Courtney insightfully observes what happens when straddling the gender divide, when boys like “her.”

There’s no denying that Act is one of the most successfully “fishy” of drag queens – a cute boy to be sure, but truly gorgeous as a woman. That said, my personal taste in drag runs less to this kind of prettiness, and more to the fantastic and ridiculous. Thankfully, Act is more than a pretty face and nice bod: she has an appealing voice which she applies expressively to a wide variety of songs.

Most interestingly, she sings an ambitious version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. She sings the hell out of it, and acts it in such a way that it comments on her life story. Still, I felt like she was going for something in this song that she didn’t quite reach. She needs to work more on sitting calmly in the emotional center of a song, and rely less on her admittedly solid technical chops.

These are quibbles, however. Act definitely delivers a fun and smart cabaret show that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

For tickets, click here.

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CD Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

CD Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

How much you enjoy this album depends very much you enjoy the very last phase of jazz legend Billie Holliday’s career. Her voice became very weathered, but more expressive than ever. Her interpretations of her songs became more heartbreakingly honest than ever. Not the rich-toned singer of years before, perhaps, but still an overpowering interpretive talent. And Audra McDonald absolutely nails everything about that voice. This two-CD set also includes the scenes from the show, which features a lot of harrowing life stories, detailing how that voice came to be so weathered. Intense stuff, but finally rewarding, especially in this format.

To purchase, click here.

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Review: Pageant

Pageant

Not knowing the history of the musical comedy Pageant, when I first heard about it I thought it was about drag pageants, like the 2008 documentary of the same name. But no, Pageant was a Off-Broadway hit in the early 1990s, essentially an ordinary, kinda low-rent beauty pageant in which the female contestants are all played by men. Judging by the current revival, the show is a charming, featherweight bit of fun, without much serious to say about gender: an irreverent but essentially innocent tribute to kitschy Americana. Which is just fine as far as I’m concerned.

This is the Miss Glamouresse competition, a televised event sponsored by “Glamouresse Cosmetics”, makers of Smooth-as-Marble Facial Spackle and other similarly absurd products. There’s a tiny bit of audience participation, in that a panel of judges is selected from the audience; this is handled pretty painlessly and involves little more than giving the “contestants” a numbered score from 1-10. These judges choose between contestants who represent different areas of the United States – much of the evening’s humor comes from caricaturing regional variations on the pageant-queen stereotype.

Our host is the sweetly smarmy Frankie Cavalier (played with great relish by John Bolton), and the troupe of “ladies” are all in some way genuinely appealing – the sharpest barbs are reserved for the inherent sadism and cynicism of pageants themselves. Costume designer Stephen Yearick’s creations successfully tread a fine line between satire and glimpses of genuine glamour.

The humor in Pageant doesn’t cut very deep, and tends towards obvious truisms. That said, the show is cute in a kittenish kind of way, and just as hard to dislike as it is to take seriously.

For tickets, click here.

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