Review: On the Twentieth Century

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Witnessing Kristen Chenoweth at the top of her form and perfectly cast is the whole reason to see this revival. The show’s creators, composer Cy Coleman and wordsmiths Betty Comden and Adolph Green, were all masters of musical theatre, but On the Twentieth Century is nobody’s best work. Don’t get me wrong, the musical is very entertaining and quite well-crafted, but it finally works best as a star vehicle. And, thank goodness, Chenoweth is one hell of a star!

Chenoweth plays bawdy and chic Hollywood star Lily Garland, whom bankrupt theater producer Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher) wants to cajole into playing the lead in his new, yet-unwritten epic drama. This madcap pursuit takes place aboard the Twentieth Century, a luxury train travelling from Chicago to New York City. Chenoweth is truly incandescent here, her frisky comic chops ideally matched to Comden and Green’s smartalecky wit.

Gallagher is far nuttier and better looking than David Belasco, the fading impresario on whom Jaffee’s based. Not to mention hammier, in a good way (although he would be hard pressed to out-ham Andy Karl as vain, muscle-bound movie leading man Bruce Granit)! Director Scott Ellis is having a lot of success this season combining fearless comic actors with suitably over-the-top characters, both here and in You Can’t Take It With You. His staging also imparts a much needed impish energy to the show.

There’s also an adorable quartet of train porters – who execute some of the best moves I’ve seen from choreographer Warren Carlyle. They even get a showstopping number of their own, the Act II opener “Life’s a Train”. The whole show is never less thans a giddy good time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Lucia di Lammermoor

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I actually liked this! My first bel canto dramma tragico – that is, early-19th Century Italian tragic opera – and I enjoyed it very much! I say that with surprise since my previous experiences with bel canto were comic operas, which left me unimpressed. Just way too lightweight for me, even though I generally prefer comedy to tragedy. Lucia di Lammermoor, though, is a full meal, packed with strong emotions and suitably soaring music.

Especially that famous “mad scene,” which I recognize from the fragment sung in the film The Fifth Element. Here, Albina Shagimuratova plays the unwilling, unhinged Scottish bride Lucia, and she delivers the mad scene’s high coloratura fireworks with ease and great expressiveness.

Director Mary Zimmerman’s production sets the action in the late 19th Century, a little under 100 years later than the actual setting of the opera. There has been a trend recently toward setting opera in this kind of vaguely Victorian style, and I have to say I’m pretty bored with it. Early 18th Century Scotland is a visually interesting environment; plus given that England and Scotland united in 1707, it’s historically interesting as well. I just don’t see the value in this particular transposition. That said, the physical production is full of beautiful tableaus – it doesn’t detract from the story too much, but it doesn’t really add anything either.

Flamboyant Australian soprano Nellie Melba (now famous for having her name attached to peaches and toast) would conclude her early 20th Century Met performances of Lucia with the mad scene – and I think she had the right idea. The opera’s final “tomb scene” finds her innamorato Edgardo lamenting over her fate and commiting suicide. He has a lovely aria “Tombe degli avi miei”, which this production’s Joseph Calleja excuted beautifully. Still, anything after that mad scene is bound to be anticlimactic.

Bel canto, you might finally have your hooks in me! I’ll just stop paying attention to you when you think you’re being funny! Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Audience

Audience

Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth II in a script by Peter Morgan is some kind of magic formula. It worked wonders in the film The Queen, and that alchemy works equally well in the new stage production The Audience.

The Audience is based on the fact that British Prime Ministers have a weekly audience, or private meeting, with the monarch. The play imagines a series of pivotal audiences from Winston Churchill to David Cameron, as each Prime Minister uses these confidential conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.

The play’s chronology is non-linear, starting with John Major (1990-1997) and following a trail of themes and memories that make sense of both monarch and monarchy. Slowly, a central conflict emerges between the Ministers’ necessarily narrow focus on British problems, and the queen’s broader responsibility to the international organization she heads, the Commonwealth of Nations. It’s a wider conflict than the crisis of Lady Diana’s death portrayed in The Queen, but no less powerful and engaging.

Stephen Daldry directs the piece with equal parts grace and vigor. He makes sure the intellectual complexities are clear and easily understood, but he also provides pure theatrical splash where needed.

This is Mirren’s show above all, and she peels off the years as easily as her dressers peel off her wigs and dress (often in on-stage slight of hand). The Audience in particular shines a light on the less-remembered Labour PM Harold Wilson (1964-1970, 1974-1976), with whom Elizabeth seemed to share a particularly easy rapport. Richard McCabe portrays Wilson with a mix of bluster, smarts, and wry good humor. Judith Ivey also scores bringing Margaret Thatcher to terrifying life (in an equally terrifying, high-flying wig). Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Mark Nadler

Mark Nadler Addicted

Cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, capable of leaping from floor to piano bench, tap-dancing madly, singing and keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all this while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. His last few shows have been a little more subtle, but in his latest “Addicted to the Spotlight”, the taps shoes are on and all bets are off.

In this show, Nadler interweaves stories from his more than four decades in show business with those of two other guys who were addicted to the spotlight — Al Jolson and Danny Kaye. The songs in this act are all numbers that those two supreme show-offs did.

In addition to the hoofing, he plays and sings with virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with the passionate intelligence I’ve come to expect from him. The result is pretty stunning. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show.

The show evolves into a complex portrait of Nadler, Kaye and Jolson, capturing both the bright joys and dark nights that a life devoted to show business brings. There are occassional moments that flirt with schmaltzy sentiment, perhaps not inappropriate in a show about performers who express themselves in bold strokes. Even with that, this is as giddily entertaining – and breathtakingly smart – as cabaret gets. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall

Herb Alpert & Lani Hall-47_0T7A563320150310L copy

Pure musical pleasure. But not just that. By the second song of their latest Cafe Carlyle gig, Herb, Lani and the boys are already improvizing into the stratosphere with outlandish zest, in a version of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” which features the most tasteful, sophisticated and syncopated use of synthisizers and drum machines I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, come on!

Trumpeter Herb Alpert is most associated with his group the Tijuana Brass, and was also a recording industry executive – he is the “A” of A&M Records, which he founded with business partner Jerry Moss. His wife Lani Hall sang with A&M artist Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, most famously on their hit version of “Mas Que Nada”. In the act at the Carlyle they perform selections from Alpert’s latest album In the Mood (which features that groovy “Choo Choo”), as well as the two albums they’ve recently recorded together, plus medleys of Tijuana Brass and Brasil ’66 hits.

I can’t overstate the impressive and exciting musicianship in this act. Alpert has structured the songs in intricate ways that leave abundant room for improvisation. They may play the same songs from night to night, but musically every performance will be utterly different. Alpert is a breathtakingly soulful player, and Lani has that kind of liquid crystal voice that songwriters dream of.

For example, Alpert dropped the melody from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” into brilliant Brazilian songwriter Edu Lobo’s “Viola Fora de Moda”, provoking appreciative smirks from Lani and pianist Bill Cantos, and inspiring several minutes that lifted the gorgeously melancholy Lobo song into something more playful and sun-kissed. Stunning.

For tickets, click here.

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

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News: “NAFTA comedy” I’m directing opens TONIGHT!

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Quit the Road, Jack, a new comedy by Jerry Polner, directed by GaySocialites contributor Jonathan Warman, about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), premieres tonight, Thursday March 5 as a guest production of TheaterLab in Manhattan.

When the son of a divorced and miserable couple of burnt-out ex-musicians runs away from home to join up with the immigrant worker rights movement, mom and dad are forced to travel across North America together to find their boy. Directed by Jonathan Warman, acclaimed for his work by the New York Times, Backstage, TimeOut NY and Theatermania. Quit plays Thursday to Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM through March 22. TheaterLab is at 357 West 36th Street, 3rd floor in Manhattan (between 8th-9th Avenue; Subway A,C,E to 34th Street), and $18 tickets are available ($12 student discounts for advance sales, using promotional code STU; discounts for groups of 10 or more ­ use promotional code BIG) at OvationTix at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/941428 .

Jerry Polner (“I saw a lot of terrific shows at The Planet Connections Festivity, but nothing made me laugh louder, longer, or more pleasurably than the first scene of Jerry Polner’s Fix Number Six”­ Martin Denton, nytheatre.com), is a writer of sketches, parodies, and stage comedies, many taking skewed looks at serious issues. Recently, his How Do You Want it, a romantic comedy about the Federal Reserve System, won the Planet Connections Award for Outstanding Production of a Staged Reading, and his Fix Number Six, nominated for six Planet Connections awards, was also published by Next Stage Press and Indie Theater Now. His other short plays have been produced by the Workshop Theater Company, Brooklyn Playwrights Collective, Manhattan Theatre Source, and NY Madness; and Weatherman, a comedy about the weather bureau, was published by Samuel French. Jerry’s comedy sketch script Fugitive Math Teachers was one of the winners of Break Media¹s Break.com Video Contest. Online, he has written for Political Subversities and McSweeney’s.

Quit the Road, Jack, produced by Radical Gags Theatrics, is co-presented by ALIGN (Alliance For A Greater New York), Community Voices Heard. The Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, and New York Immigration Coalition. In connection with the subject matter of the play, the co-presenting organizations will join in Fair Work, an onstage panel discussion about immigration and worker rights, immediately after the Thursday March 12 performance.

Jonathan Warman’s New York work includes the premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, starring Mink Stole and Everett Quinton (“Outrageously entertaining, thanks to the imagination of the director”­ Backstage; “His surehanded staging provokes both laughs and thought” ­ Theatermania) and the new musical Me and Caesar Lee with two-time Tony nominee Ernestine Jackson. For more information on his directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

The cast of Quit the Road, Jack, features Cynthia Bastidas; RJ Batlle; Jes Dugger (Fancy Nancy, “Homeland”,  “One Tree Hill”); Rosemary Howard (“The Wolf Of Wall Street”); Connor Johnston; Jorge Marcos (“The Good Wife”, “White Collar”), Jaime Puerta (El Quijote, La Isla Desnuda) Jay Reum and Rob Skolits (The Normal Heart, Lincoln Center Theater). Set design is by Eric Marchetta, costume design is by Maddie Peterson, lighting design is by Yuriy Nayer, and choreography is by Liz Piccoli. The production is stage managed by Vanna Richardson.

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Review: Constellations

Constellations Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

I love how this show manages to quickly shift genres, from farce to tragedy, without feeling forced. Constellations turns on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which suggests that a potentially infinite number of parallel universes exist simultanteously. British playwright Nick Payne has applied this brain-teasing idea to the most basic of stories, a love story.

It all starts out quite comically, showing how this relationship doesn’t get started in several universes, as one or the other of the couple is married, or expresses no interest in getting together. In a decidedly non-linear fashion, we build to an extended tragic scene in which the couple faces disease and mortality. And then we end up with what is perhaps the most sweetly romantic of the scenes.

This flexibility makes for a very satisfying evening of theatre, giving us a more that usual portion of the things we look for in stories. Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal play the lovers at the heart of this puzzle, and both prove to have impressive stage chops. They enchant with their easy chemistry, and impress by conquering the sheer technical difficulty of executing subtle but revealing shifts in an often repetative and circular script. Plus, Gyllenhaal has an English accent every bit as solid as his sister Maggie’s in the BBC mini-series The Honourable Woman.

Scenic designer Tom Scutt keeps it simple but evocative. The stage is bare of furniture or large set pieces, it’s populated only by an extensive collection of white balloons of various sizes, which, depending on how lighting designer Lee Curran frames them, suggest subatomic particles, neurons, lamps, planets or whole universes. Director Michael Longhurst manages the complex proceedings with great precision and clarity. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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