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Review: Tommy Tune

Tommy Tune photo credit David Andrako 2016_01_12_CafeCarlyle_15

This cabaret act is a testament to what a good director Tommy Tune is – and before you ask, yes, I do mean that as a compliment. Singing was never his leading talent, although he’s just fine at it, thank you. No, this club act makes it clear that it’s more about how he frames things.

And the frames are many: his angular shoulders and elbows, eccentric lighting cues which were clearly designed according to his specifications, the song selection (not a single ballad thank you), his tap dancing in almost every number. The songs are all familiar standards, but Tune’s long-time music director Michael Biagi drops in quotations from other music – a little “Rhapsody in Blue” here, a little Chicago there – that comment on the familiar songs like footnotes.

This also means that no one song stood out as a particularly effective interpretation. Rather, they were all effective numbers in a one-man musical about his career in showbiz. The genre is light-hearted backstage comedy, packed with joy and a little bit of rueful melancholy. He’s completely at ease and whimsical, which suits him very well.

At one point, he pays tribute to Charles “Honi” Coles his colleague in My One and Only, who had been a pioneer in tap dance and soft shoe since his youth in the early 20th Century. Tune recalls some private tap lessons with Coles, in which the master dancer instructed Tune to get progressively more “non-chalant.” And that accidentally points up this show’s one real problem – certain gestures, moments and ideas are so soft-pedaled that they don’t quite tell the story Tune likely wants them to. It’s not a major problem to have, and doesn’t prevent the evening from being quite entertaining. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Color Purple

COLOR PURPLE 1685_Cynthia Erivo photo by Matthew Murphy, 2015

Jennifer Hudson may be the big name, but Cynthia Erivo is the event! More on that in a moment. On the off chance you haven’t read Alice Walker’s novel, seen the 1986 Steven Spielberg movie, or seen the original Broadway production of this musical here’s the gist: The Color Purple follows a poor African American woman in Georgia named Celie from her male-oppressed childhood in the 1900s through many tribulations to a kind of hopeful self-knowledge sometime in the 1930s – a great rip-roaring story, full of despair, joy and, finally, redemption.

The central role, Celie, is profoundly juicy – Whoopi Goldberg won a Golden Globe for portraying her in the movie, LaChanze a Tony for the original Broadway showing, and if Cynthia Erivo isn’t at least nominated for a Tony this time around, it’d be a crime. In some ways, she gives the biggest, most expansive reading of Celie yet. When she sings the 11 O’Clock number “I’m Here”, it’s like the sun coming out. And when she sings the final reprise of the title song, it’s the blazing light of high noon. Celie has a huge character arc, and Erivo rides it for all its worth.

Jennifer Hudson is the familiar star name in this production, playing charismatic blues singer Shug Avery. She doesn’t enter with quite the fiery bang that Shug should, but once she starts to sing, as you would expect, it’s pure pleasure. And once she gets rolling acting-wise, she makes you believe that Shug is the irresistible hunk of sensuality and life the other character’s describe.

This revival of The Color Purple started at small but mighty London theatre company Menier Chocolate Factory, and is directed by John Doyle. Both Doyle and Menier have a knack for finding soul in human-scale productions of big musicals, and this exciting production is exactly in that vein. Doyle’s stripped-down staging follows Celie’s story with laser focus, which frames Erivo’s performance perfectly.

As happens distressingly often with Broadway musicals these days, unbalanced sound design often makes it difficult to get all of the lyrics – when Erivo is getting drowned out by a flute, there’s a problem! That said, this still ends up being possibly the most satisfying version of The Color Purple yet. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Allegiance

ALLEGIANCE_BROADWAY_10_27_15_2238_v002

To quote another Star Trek luminary, Allegiance is utterly “fascinating.” It’s also far more engaging and even entertaining than I expected – this is after all, a musical about Japanese-Americans being interred in camps during World War II. George Takei, known equally for being Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek and being something of a social media Oscar Wilde, was himself interred in these camps as a child. He inspired the creative team of Allegiance, and also stars in a dual role.

Takei is terrific as both Sam Kimura – a man looking back on his years both in the camp, and eventually as a soldier in the war – and Ojii-chan, Sam’s doting grandfather. He spends more time playing Ojii-chan, which works well; that character is much closer to Takei’s own optimism and quick good humor.

Telly Leung plays the young Sam as an All-American Japanese boy, and is suitability driven, dashing and golden-voiced. Lea Salonga is in equally dazzling voice as Sammy’s more traditionally-inclined sister Kei.

The core of composer Jay Kuo’s score is in the style of pop operas like Les Mis or Phantom, but I like it more than those because it’s size and earnestness is totally earned. The creative team’s commitment shines through, and it helps the show’s integrity that many people involved have a sincere emotional connection to Takei’s – and, by extension, Sam’s – story.

Kuo actually incorporates an admirable amount of variety around that core, using the traditional Japanese melody “Sakura” as a counter-melody at one point, and diving headlong into boogie woogie at another. The book, which Kuo co-authored with Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione, deals with enormous issues, skillfully using the prism of one family’s trials to tell the story of a community of 120,000 in crisis. Allegiance succeeds because of its heartfelt earnestness, not in spite of it, and is intelligent, well-structured and moving to boot. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: On Your Feet!

on your feet10

This is a solidly made, adequately entertaining jukebox musical. The Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine songbook is sturdier than I realized, and is more than enough to fill a musical, even to slightly over-stuff a musical (we hear all the verses of only a handful of songs, mostly ballads). Not only does On Your Feet follow the romantic and musical partnership of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, it also gives a peek into the energetic and glamorous music and dance of Miami’s Cuban-American subculture.

It certainly helps that the show has been crafted by some of Broadway’s steadiest hands. Director Jerry Mitchell’s already impressive ability to calibrate the perfect pace for a show grows more precise each time out, and On Your Feet is another step in that trend.

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo is also known for that jukebox juggernaut Jersey Boys, and his work here is even more soulful and energetic, injecting a whole lot of hot salsa into the mix. It doesn’t hurt that the band is incredibly tight – not surprising given that about half of it is made up of long-time members of Miami Sound Machine.

Bookwriter Alexander Dinelaris faces the biggest challenge. While the Estefan’s rise to fame did involve a lot of struggle, it’s a fairly familiar kind of struggle: fighting the system, trying to balance family and ambition, working hard until the big break happens, and then going from strength to strength. To Dinelaris’s credit, he makes these problems feel fresh, largely by focusing on the details and the emotional truths behind individual moments. And the one major unusual problem they did face – Gloria being horribly injured in a traffic accident – Dinelaris narrates in a way that respects the trauma it caused, but doesn’t descend into melodrama.

Just as Jersey Boys requires a charismatic and convincing Frankie Valli, so this show needs a powerful Gloria, and Ana Villafane more than fits the bill. She sounds eerily like Gloria, and is a compelling triple threat in her own right. Broadway has collectively figured out the way biographical jukebox musicals ought be done, and On Your Feet is a thoroughly satisfying example of the form.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: King Charles III

King Charles III Music Box Theatre Production Credits: Rupert Goold (director) Tom Scutt (design) Jon Clark (lighting) Paul Arditti (sound) Other Credits: Written by: Mike Bartlett - See more at: http://www.playbill.com/events/event_detail/king-charles-iii-at-music-box-theatre-346670#sthash.t55FWIA1.dpuf

This is an engaging, thought-provoking play, that falls a bit short of the goals it sets for itself. King Charles III is set in an indeterminate “near future” just after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, as Prince Charles prepares to take the throne. But is he truly prepared?

On the upside, playwright Mike Bartlett delves very intelligently into the paradoxes of being a monarch in a 21st Century constitutional monarchy. He thoroughly probes the question of how a monarch can wield power at all now, without seeming like – or actually being – a dictator.

The problem is, Bartlett has to really push credibility to make his points. The first bill for the new king to sign is a significant curb on freedom of the press, submitted by a Prime Minister from the Labour party – not a likely scenario, no matter how skeevy the British press is. And the MacGuffins just pile on from there.

I’m not complaining a lot, I’m actually happy to be generous in suspending disbelief to look into the very interesting problems that Bartlett poses. It would be a lot easier to do if Bartlett had set the story in a fictional country, with a fictional royal family. That, however, would probably not sell nearly as many tickets.

Director Rupert Goold has done a good job of evoking these familiar personages, particularly in the work he has done with Tim Piggott-Smith, who captures both the world-weary Charles that we’re familiar with, and the firebrand Bartlett imagines him becoming (or more accurately requires him to become to pose the pertinent questions). All in all, King Charles III is expertly put together, and well worth seeing.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Gin Game

Gin Game 3945

It’s a vehicle, nothing more, nothing less. The Gin Game is a light-weight comedy with just enough emotional fuel in it to ignite when you get two great actors in it. James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson are undeniably great actors, and this Gin Game does indeed ignite, even if it doesn’t quite satisfy.

But that lack of satisfaction is no fault of the actors – this play doesn’t so much wrap up as simply stop. Plus, while playwright D. L. Coburn does dig deep enough to find his character’s darker sides, he really doesn’t have anything meaningful to show us about those parts of their personalities.

Weller Martin (Jones) and Fonsia Dorsey (Tyson) meet on the porch of their dilapidated nursing home and they become friends as Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin. Fonsia wins every hand, leading to a battle of wills that reveals what makes each of them tick. By the end of the play the gloves are off and they are really letting each other have it, and Tyson and Jones execute the verbal boxing with expert skill.

Jones uses that famous deep voice of his mostly to have Weller reassure Fonsia of his basically benign intent. But in an instant that rumble can turn into an authoritative roar, which works very well to communicate Weller’s hair-trigger temper.

On the surface Tyson’s Fonsia seems to be a warmly charming grandmother. However, Tyson has always had a biting sharpness just underneath her elegantly beautiful surface, and that fits the subtly manipulative Fonsia to a “T”.

Director Leonard Foglia has wisely kept things as light as possible – The Gin Game is at its best when we can enjoy the humor of the duo’s repartee. This just isn’t substantial enough material to lean heavily on the more painful truths Coburn every so often dredges up. An enjoyable, diverting evening spent with two expert performers, nothing more, nothing less.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Alaska Thunderfuck 5000

alaska-5000

This girl is big!!! I mean for one thing, Alaska’s just very, very tall!! For another thing, her greatest gift as a performer is a knack for imaginative exaggeration. One would hope so: her full drag name is Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 from the Planet Glamtron, and that’s a lot to fill out. More than anything else, Alaska T5ftPG is a talented caricaturist.

Not to say that’s she’s amateurish or sloppy – not remotely! Caricature has room for precision, wit, intelligence and creativity, and Alaska displays all of this and more. She’s entitled her latest cabaret “The Gayest Show You’ve Ever Seen”, and though she admits that the truth of that title depends on the viewer, it certainly strives valiantly to earn it. (For the record, it’s probably not the gayest show I’ve seen – I’d have to think long and hard about what that would be).

As befits a caricaturist who goes for size, Alaska goes for suitably exaggerated (not to mention way gay) targets: Cher, Bette Davis and Liberace, among others. Alaska has a pretty good voice, but she’s well aware that she’s not what you would call a song stylist. Indeed, her pianist Handsome Jeremy – actually more like girlishly pretty Jeremy – introduces her using the phrase “song-like stylings”, which is pretty spot-on.

Plus, the show was snappy and short! That never happens in drag cabaret! I’m almost tempted to say she should flesh it out a bit and make it longer, but that seems like tempting the fates – and there was at least one song that went on too long. Very gay, a lot of fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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