Review: John Pizzarelli and Daniel Jobim

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The duo of John Pizzarelli and Daniel Jobim playing and singing bossa nova are the ultimate in cool. Pizzarelli represents the very height of cabaret’s jazzier side, with profound musical intelligence at work. Jobim is part of a legendary Brazilian musical dynasty: his grandfather was Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of Brazil’s all-time greatest songwriters and composers, and one of the original architects of bossa nova.

This act, entitled “Strictly Bossa Nova II” is supremely laid back, in true bossa nova spirit. Laid back, yes, but also full of panache and musical elegance. Even the patter isn’t really patter, just a couple of very witty friends sharing stories and jokes.

They apply bossa nova style, not only to songs originally written in that style, but to great North American songs like the Gershwins’ “’S Wonderful”, which responds beautifully to the bossa nova treatment. That particular idea isn’t original with these two – “’S Wonderful” was the opening track on Brazilian guitarist/vocalist João Gilberto’s 1977 album Amoroso, and Pizzarelli is very explicit about the debt both this cabaret act and he personally owe to that album.

The most sparkling parts of the evening are songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Most moving is the pairing of Stephen Sondheim’s “I Remember” with Jobim’s bristlingly poetic “Waters of March”. Pizzarelli said before the songs that the transition between the two made him inexplicably cry. I expected not to respond that way, and yet I did. And I think I know why: “I Remember” is a song of immense longing for absent things, and “Waters of March” makes you strongly feel the presence of all the objects it catalogues. Very, very intense. The whole evening, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: An American in Paris

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How do you say de-gorgeous!!! Divine! Ooh-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la! This sumptuous and very inventive adaptation of the 1951 film of the same name is one of the most boldly beautiful musicals to arrive on Broadway this or any other season. An American In Paris follows a young American soldier as he pursues a beautiful French girl as he’s making a new home in Paris in the aftermath of World War II.

Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is having his first go at directing a Broadway musical with An American in Paris and he hits it out of the ballpark. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that someone from the world of ballet should have a knack for musical-theater structure – that world has been dealing with long-form theatrical storytelling for longer than the American musical has existed.

Wheeldon sets a brisk pace, and while there is copious and sophisticated dancing in the show, it never eclipses the story or Gershwin’s glorious music. Part of what makes this show so very beautiful is the elegant way that design elements dance with each other. Projection design firm 59 Productions can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. They set the highly-innovative gold standard for projections, and their work on American in Paris is their most fluid, varied and ravishing yet.

Set and costume designer Bob Crowley plays along very gamely along with Wheeldon and 59; his sets move with the fluidity of Wheeldon’s dances, and provide a perfect canvas for 59 to paint upon. This is the height of collaboration, and a brilliant testament to the glories that collaboration can produce. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Gigi

Gigi 3435

Bottom line: Vanessa Hudgens doesn’t embarrass herself. She’s perfectly fine as a beautiful girl coming of age in the glamorous and morally ambiguous wold of belle epoque Paris (though honestly at Broadway prices, “perfectly fine” isn’t quite enough). The best thing about this production, however, is Victoria Clark as her youngish grandmother Mamita.

When acting the role of Mamita, Clark gives the evening’s most shaded performance – we see her stern concern for Gigi, but always colored with a warm feeling of deep love. But it is when Clarke sings that Gigi really takes flight, her solo “Say A Prayer” being the one moment in the show with undeniable emotional pull and musical theater magic.

The show does have other virtues: Dee Hoty delights as Gigi’s courtesan aunt, who tries to persuade the girl to follow in her footsteps. Joshua Bergasse’s elegant and vivacious choreography continues his winning streak, giving the show a shot of exuberance that it doesn’t otherwise possess. I’ll even give an odd moment of anachronistic Fosse-esque jazziness a pass since the rest of Bergasse’s work is just so darn good. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are deliciously sensual, reminding us in detail just what was so belle about that epoque.

As to the score, it’s by those “golden age of musicals” masters Lerner & Loewe. It definitely isn’t their best work, but it nonetheless has all the virtues of classic Broadway, and there’s no denying the pleasure of hearing it sung by the likes of Clark, Hoty and Howard McGillin.

In the end, though, this is more of a diverting musical than one that’s deeply satisfying in any way. This bon bon really left me wanting something more substantial.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

The reign of English king Henry VIII (1509-1547) – full of palace intrigue and illicit lust – is the stuff of soap opera. It has already produced several popular television series, including the early 1970s miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the even more popular late 2000s Showtime drama The Tudors. Most recently, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels about Henry’s political representative Thomas Cromwell have become very popular indeed, inspiring both a miniseries and this stage adaptation. At its best, this version carries you along like the trashiest soap.

Thank goodness that Wolf Hall sustains that suspenseful, brisk pace for much of its long running time. Those moments when the pace slackens are truly dangerous, as one may be lulled into an exhausted sleep. But this Wolf Hall is surely more galloping than many of Shakespeare’s history plays, no small achievement.

Director Jeremy Herrin’s fluid staging ably assists in keeping boredom at bay. Designer Christopher Oram’s ground plan is a part of that, but unfortunately Oram has a tendency to wrap his flexible ground plans in stately but drab walls. This is another set design in that line – so not my thing. However, there’s no denying the beauty of Oram’s costume design, which is a lush marvel of period detail.

As Cromwell, Ben Miles gives us a cautious and enigmatic man, in a performance that is surprisingly vivid and charismatic. Also terrific is Paul Jesson as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, giving this showy statesman an appropriately flamboyant portrayal.

This production has certainly whetted my appetite for the miniseries, especially since one of the greatest actors of the day, Mark Rylance, plays Cromwell in that version. Ben Miles is very good indeed, but let’s be honest, it’s like competing with Meryl Streep. Also, the material seems more suited to the kind of context that long-form television is much better at providing. So, recommended, but by no means essential theater-going.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Hand to God

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To my mind, this raucous comedy is the best new American play in many a moon (the only one this decade I liked more is Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance). Playwright Robert Askins shows us what happens when a teenage boy’s puppet at a Texas Christian Puppet Ministry starts revealing his darkest urges.

What comes across most profoundly is the price one pays for repressing one’s feelings – especially the way they inevitably return in other, even darker, forms. In Hand to God that form is the foul-mouthed puppet Tyrone. While he may be nothing more or less than the way the unconscious mind of teen Jason (Steven Boyer) expresses its hungers for sex and revenge, it’s clear that Jason experiences Tyrone as nothing short of a virulent, unwanted demonic possession.

Askins has created something truly hilarious, terrifying and memorable in Tyrone. Wily, possessed of razor-tongued eloquence and guttural rage, Tyrone shocks and scandalizes because he constantly speaks the dangerous truths that the Midwestern American mind is at such great pains to avoid.

Boyer gives an undeniable tour de force performance. He intertwines with painful precision Tyrone’s witty venom and Jason’s quiet desperation, and the show as a whole benefits immensely from his prodigious skill as a puppeteer

Geneva Carr, as proud nerd Margery, is the evening’s other great puppeteering talent. When one of her creations distracts Tyrone with puppet sex – so that she can talk to Jason without having to go through Tyrone – the result is more skillful (and filthier) physical comedy than you would have thought two arms could create.

Through the medium of bawdy, bloody comedy, Askins engages with deeply serious issues, such as the costs of giving into the demands of society and organized religion. This is one of my favorite things to find in the theatre: belly laughs and serious thought happening simultaneously. Highly, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: The Heidi Chronicles

Heidi Chronicles, The Music Box Theatre

Wendy Wasserstein’s feminist drama has aged surprisingly well. Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss plays Heidi Holland, an art historian who has, broadly speaking, been more successful in her career than her life. From the perspective of 1989, she looks back on bright promises of her generation, the “baby boomers”, with mixed feelings.

The feminism Wasserstein expresses in The Heidi Chronicles isn’t particularly radical – Heidi makes a point several times throughout the show that she never burned a bra. Rather, the play examines the hopes and dreams made possible by the “consciousness raising” and political protest of the ’60s and ’70s.

Moss is ideally cast as Heidi, who’s sort of a more intellectual younger cousin to Peggy Olsen, Moss’s Mad Men character. Moss’s performance ranges from wryly engaging – especially when speaking about the women artists who are Heidi’s specialty – to achingly touching.

I’ve been following rising star Tracee Chimo since her early off-off-Broadway work, and it’s really a joy to follow her going from strength to strength. Chimo plays four sharply distinct characters; I particularly enjoyed her portrayals of both the play’s most radical character (a ’60s lesbian activist) and its most mainstream (an ’80s talk show maven). She’s one of the real treasures of New York theatre.

Also terrific are Jason Biggs as the smart but patriarchal Scoop – the man Heidi can’t quite shake – and Bryce Pinkham as her gay best friend Peter – the man Heidi couldn’t ever have, but truly loves. Pam MacKinnon’s direction is penetrating and precise, bracing and brisk, with a very small number of missteps where playing things broader would have been better. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Ernani

Ernani

Viva Verdi! I had forgotten what a swashbuckling bodice ripper Ernani is – and how much fun that aspect of it is. Ernani is based on Victor Hugo’s 1830 play of the same name, which was arguably the original theatrical bodice ripper. It’s a tangle of 16th Century Spanish politics and three men vying for the affections of the beautiful Elvira of Aragon.

The Met’s current revival gives a lush account of this galloping 1844 opera, with star turns from the great Placido Domingo as Don Carlo (loosely based on Spanish king Charles V), and rising star Angela Meade as Elvira, with Maestro James Levine at the baton. Domingo, known for many years as a great tenor, has been gamely performing baritone roles of late. While his voice may be a bit of a rough fit on the lower range, Domingo is one of the finest actors in opera, and he brings rich shades of ambivalence to Don Carlo.

Meade, on the other hand, is singing a role much better suited for her voice, and she sings Elvira with dazzling power, luxurious vibrato and trills galore. This is my first exposure to Meade, and I look forward to much more. Late designer/director PierLuigi Samaritani’s production is solid, if a bit grim and unimaginative (aside from a colorfully grand chamber for Elvira). It doesn’t exactly help tell the story, but doesn’t get in the way, either.

Giuseppe Verdi is one of my very favorite opera composers, this is my first Verdi at the Met and I was definitely not disappointed. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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