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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Review: Mark Nadler

Mark-Nadler-900x600

Out cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, capable of leaping from floor to piano bench, while keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. In “Runnin’ Wild”, his new show about the Roaring Twenties, Nadler plays and sings with his usual virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with his usual passionate intelligence. And as usual, the show is stunning.

I never walk out of a Mark Nadler show without leaning something. This one’s particularly fun in that I mostly learned what the twenties had to offer in the way of sex (gay and straight), drugs, booze – and drag queens! He mentions the queen that Mae West copied much her shtick from, Bert Savoy, and one so successful he had a theatre named after him, Julian Eltinge. But his best stories are about one of my personal favorites, Jean Malin. We can see Malin knocking gangsters on the floor and channeling Mae West and Sophie Tucker in this video.

Contrary to the caption of the video, we do know more than a little about Malin, and Mark sings and dances all about it. Great stuff! In between two bits of one of Malin’s signature numbers, he sandwiches Libby Holman’s lusty “Primitive Man”, and proceeds to take us on a roller coaster trip through the life and music of that irrepressible torch singer.

Nadler takes this boozy, tawdry journey around the world, from the opium dens of London in “Limehouse Blues”, to Berlin in an extended medley of Kurt Weill songs. And of course there’s a liberal dose of songs from perennial bad boy Cole Porter, who Nadler always does so brilliantly. I always love a Mark Nadler show, but as a plus with this one, I left feeling a little dirty. Highly recommended!

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Of Mice and Men

OF MICE AND MEN Franco, O'Dowd--_ Photo by Richard Phibbs

This play isn’t as relentlessly dark as I remembered it to be, there’s plenty of humor, and long stretches of camaraderie. Still, there’s no denying that Of Mice and Men belongs solidly in the genre of Tragedy. The play follows the unlikely pair of George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd), migrant workers in 1930s Salinas Valley of California, who dream of one day having land they can call their own. George is pugnacious and practical, Lennie mentally “slow”, sweet-tempered (but when he’s not, he’s not) and monstrously strong.

Of course the question on everyones mind is: how did James Franco do? He’s primarily known as a sexy movie star, albeit one of a very iconoclastic bent. Well, he’s actually pretty damn solid! The first scene was a little worrying – George was really raking Lennie over the coals when he should have just been scolding him with just a hint of annoyance. After that scene, though, Franco finds his groove, giving us the classic Depression “worried man” most of the time. He really catches fire, though. when George discovers his dreams just might be possible.

Chris O’Dowd, an actor known in the film world for his comic chops, is absolutely stunning, incredibly grounded in the role that could easily be all over the place. Sure there’s lots of comedy in Lennie’s part, but it only works if you play it with totally honesty and vulnerability. On that score, O’Dowd totally delivers. The marvelous Jim Norton is heartbreaking as the elderly and sentimental Candy.

Director Anna D. Shapiro skillfully navigates Steinbeck’s plot which is equal parts surprise and inevitability. The play is tightly constructed, but occasionally drifts into cliché. That only happens a few times, though, and overall this is a strong representation of a play that still resonates. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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