Review: Nellie McKay

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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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News: I’m directing a new R&B musical

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I’m directing the new musical Me & Caesar Lee by Pat Holley, set in the world of 1980s R&B. A 43 year old former pop diva hopes to make a comeback by writing songs for a teen age singing group. Infatuated with the group and deeply infatuated with their 22 year old manager, she journeys through the resulting heartaches and betrayals, leading her to confront the haunting legacy of her mother’s suicide and her own desire to live. The cast includes Robyn Payne (The Lion King, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Kismet @ Encores!), Two-time Tony nominee Ernestine Jackson (Raisin, Guys & Dolls), Raun Ruffin (The Civil War, Randy Newman’s Faust), up-and-coming R&B singer Amanda Holley, Nick Mara (“America’s Best Dance Crew”), Joshua Scarlett and Sadat Waddy. For tickets, click here.

For more about Jonathan Warman’s directing,  see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Just Jim Dale

Just Jim Dale Laura Pels Theatre

Brilliant actor-dancer-singer Jim Dale started out in the last days of British music hall. Just Jim Dale, his retrospective one man show, has the earthy yet somehow breezy quality of music hall at its best. In the show, Jim gives us only the most entertaining highlights of an amazingly diverse life in show business. From music hall he went to rock and roll singing and songwriting – he wrote the lyrics to the huge hit “Georgy Girl” – to film and stage acting, to doing hundreds of voices for all seven Harry Potter audiobooks.

Just Jim Dale is very much a club act writ large, but having the full size of the Laura Pels stage certainly helps in his more dance oriented moments: at 78, Dale is still amazingly capable of the rubber-limbed “eccentric” dancing he learned as a young man. He’s best known in the Broadway world for his Tony-winning turn in the title role of Barnum, and indeed the songs he sings from that hit, “There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” and “The Colors of My Life”, are the most effective and affecting of the evening.

He also regales us with some less well-remembered shows, such as a very physical Scapino. Of the more dramatic parts of the evening, the most memorable moment is a monologue Dale does from Noël Coward’s Fumed Oak. It’s not clear whether his ever performed the play it’s excerpted from, but it’s so good that it really makes me want to see him take on more Coward roles.

Dale, every the optimist and the entertainer, doesn’t dig terribly deep in this show. What he’s here to do – what he’s apparently always been here to do – is dazzle and get a laugh, and he does that more successfully than the great majority of performers out there. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Cripple of Inishmaan

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN by MARTIN McDONAGH

When Martin McDonagh is at his best, he’s one of the greatest comic playwrights alive, and he’s at his best, unquestionably, with The Cripple of Inishmaan. Set in 1934 – decades earlier than most of McDonagh’s plays – Cripple finds filmmaker Robert Flaherty (whom we never see) arriving on the island of Inishmore to film his movie The Man of Aran. On the neighboring island of Inishmaan, where the entire play is set, crippled, orphaned Billy Claven (Daniel Radcliffe) longs to be in the film. And, in a series of hilarious reversals that are too good to give away, he actually gets his chance.

McDonagh joyfully skewers all the stereotypes about Ireland that were prevalent in the 1930s (and even today), that Flaherty’s heavily scripted “documentary” did little to change. Director Michael Grandage hits exactly the right notes of unsentimental affection, terse humor and brooding boredom, rendering McDonagh’s colorful picture of long-ago Inishmaan all too present and real.

Daniel Radcliffe may be a touch too inescapably handsome for this role, but he roughs up pretty well. It’s a physically demanding role, that requires you to move about with serious impairments of the arms and legs, and Radcliffe handles that masterfully. Add to that the sensitivity and nuance with which he renders all of Billy’s dreams and anxieties, and it may be his best stage work to date.

Other standout performers include the snappy Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna as the dotty shopkeeping Osbourne Sisters who look after Billy, and the bouncy Pat Shortt as Johnnypateenmike, the town news conveyer (and gossip). Best of all, though, may be June Watson as Johnnypateenmike’s scabrous and unrepentantly alcoholic Mammy. It may be the show’s smallest role, but Watson dives into it like a big juicy peach.

Finally, in Inishmaan McDonagh offers a guardedly hopeful and redemptive vision for pathetic “feckers” and hardnosed bitches, and, really, isn’t that most of us?

For tickets, click here.

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