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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.

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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: 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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Review: Lucie Arnaz

Lucie-Arnaz-photo-by-Agustus-Butera

The daughter of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, Lucie Arnaz has forged a career of her own, including originating the role of Sonia Walsk in the hit Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song. In “Spring Is Here”, her new cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle, Arnaz focuses on love in all its shades and phases, from light to dark, from promiscuity to devotion.

She covers the promiscuous side wonderfully with a sensuous take on “When in Rome”. Arnaz strikes me as a saloon singer, which is a good fit for the Carlyle – the performer most associated with the Carlyle, the late Bobby Short, always described himself as just that.

One of the most entertaining moments in the show is a song for which Arnaz herself wrote the lyrics, about a time when she was single, during the run of They’re Playing Our Song, and dating two dashingly handsome men of the theatre. Well, turns out they’re both gay and closeted! Arnaz found this out just as she was going away for the weekend with one of them, and on the train trip she wrote the bitingly funny “I Don’t Like It Already”. After the song she commented that over time she dated so many closeted men that she felt like she was wearing cedar chips.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening is Arnaz’s rendition of “Just a Housewife” from the musical Working. The song is an emotional powerhouse in the first place, and Arnaz gives it extra dignity and ruefulness. Really lovely.

Arnaz got winded about two thirds of the way through, not, I think, because she lacks stamina, but because the show itself is several songs too long – perhaps 20 minutes worth. Small quibble, that, when you’re spending that time with such a talented and witty host. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

 

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Interview: “The Fifth Beatle” tells story of Beatles gay manager

FIFTHB PG 077crop

Brian Epstein, the man who brought the Beatles to the world, was gay when it was a felony to be so in the U.K., Jewish in an anti-Semitic time, and from Liverpool when it was just a dingy port town. The Fifth Beatle (Vivek J. Tiwary, writer, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker, artists) is a critically acclaimed, #1 best selling New York Times graphic novel and forthcoming feature film recounting the untold true story of Epstein, the brilliant visionary who discovered the Beatles in a cellar in Liverpool, nurtured, protected, and guided them to international stardom, and died extremely successful and painfully lonely at the age of 32. I chatted with Tiwary recently about the queerer elements of Brian’s life and The Fifth Beatle

I hear The Fifth Beatle is associated with a particular charitable cause.

The Fifth Beatle is associated with Freedom to Marry (www.freedomtomarry.org). I’ve been researching the Brian Epstein story for 21 years, literally more than half my life, but I’ve been working on the Fifth Beatle for about seven years. My wife and I got married nine years ago, and during our engagement, we decide to align ourselves with Freedom to Marry. We were very excited to have found each other and be getting married – surprisingly so, since we’re both fairly nontraditional people. We never thought that marriage would mean that much to us, but we were surprised to find out it meant a great deal to us.

But it was also difficult, because we have a lot of gay and lesbian friends who were being told they couldn’t be married. Many of them were people who had been together longer than my wife and I had. So it was important for us to get involved in that fight. In lieu of wedding presents we made a large donation to Freedom to Marry, we highlighted them in our first toast as a couple. We made sure that the organization was an important part of our married lives together. So my history with Freedom to Marry goes back before I even started working on the Fifth Beatle. It’s an organization I have a deep and emotional connection to, and that feels very right for the Fifth Beatle.

There’s a line in the book, during a television interview where Brian’s being asked about the Beatles’ romantic lives, and Brian said “I think Beatles ought never to be married, but they will be one day and someday I might too.” It was viewed as a throwaway joke at the time, but really it was a pretty heavy thing that he said – people who knew him well realized he was saying something quite dangerous for that time. Because forget about getting married, he was worried about staying out of jail, should his sexuality be discovered – that’s the way things were in 1960s England. If there had been marriage equality in the 1960s, it would clearly have made a huge difference in Brian’s life, it might have even saved his life.

Was it well know to people close to Brian that he was gay, and when did it become generally known?

It was really only known to people in his inner circle – the Beatles, other clients, his family, his closest friends (some of whom were gay themselves). Brian didn’t have a lot of friends, Nat Weiss (who became the Beatles U.S. legal representative) was certainly his closest friend and confidant. So it was a very small inner circle. People who worked with him day in and day out at his family’s Liverpool record store NEMS, didn’t know, for example.

It really was that dangerous at the time, I think today it’s hard to imagine what it was like. A junior person at NEMS could have reported him to the police and he would have gone to jail! The matador analogy that runs through the book, represents that dance with danger and even death. By pursuing a career that pushed him so far into the public eye, he was really playing a dangerous game.

He died in 1967, there were major steps toward repealing England’s anti-homosexuality laws in that very same year. But it was only many years later that it became widely know than he was gay, close to decade after his death before it became common knowledge.

How important a source was Nat Weiss for that side of Brian’s life?

Without question he was the number one source, he knew the gay side of Brian’s life best. Nat passed away just a few months ago. He was very aware of the book, and the screenplay for the film, but didn’t live to actually see it on newsstands. He was a huge source to me, as well as a great friend. He was a New Yorker, and so I had the good fortune of meeting Nat some 10-15 years ago, he was at my wedding, we spent a lot of social time together. I really miss him.

Brian’s lover Dizz, is he representative of a real person or is he a composite?

No, he’s definitely a real person, his name was John Gillespie, and his friends called him Dizz as a play on the similar name of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Yeah he was a real personal, a real hustler, a real blackmailer – everything Dizz does in the novel, he does in real life. I show the blackmail as happening during a television interview, when really it happened at a party. Other than that, though, he’s a very real character, I’m sorry to say.

One of my favorite lines in the book, comes when Brian is having the Beatles try on their collarless Edwardian suits and he says “The Beatles are in trouble if queers have no place in rock and roll”. Is that truly from the mouth of Brian Epstein?

John Lennon remembered Brian saying that, according to my research – though obviously at this point neither of them are around to verify it.

Many of the captions in the graphic novel illustrate scenes with lyric by the Beatles, but many others use lyrics from the American Songbook. And British Songbook for that matter – I was particularly moved by the use of Noël Coward’s “If Love Were All”, which alludes to similar life experiences between Coward (who was also gay) and Brian. For you, what’s behind the use of those Songbook songs?

Well the Coward song serves, among other functions, as a counterpoint to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” providing a very contrasting view on the same subject. Above all, those Songbook songs were songs that Brian loved. Ironically Brian was not a huge fan of contemporary pop music – he liked showtunes and classical music. So those songs were really more in line with his personal taste. The truth is, he viewed the Beatles as great composers, on a par with the music he loved: Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Irving Berlin.

What’s in the future for The Fifth Beatle?

We’re working on a film version, I’ve written the screenplay, we announced at the end of last year that Peyton Reed (Yes Man, Bring It On, Down with Love) and Bruce Cohen is co-producing (Milk, Big Fish, Silver Linings Playbook, Oscar winner for American Beauty). The most exciting thing is that Apple Corp. on behalf of the Beatles have signed off on the project and allowed us to do a deal with Sony TV who control Beatles music. We are literally the first and only film about the band in history to be granted full access to their music catalog, and we are very proud of that.

To purchase, click here.

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Review: A Raisin in the Sun

A RAISIN IN THE SUN cap 1431_B

This play is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of the American theatre, and director Kenny Leon has given a solid, understated account of it. Set on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, A Raisin in the Sun follows the conflicting dreams among three generations of the Younger family: son Walter Lee (Denzel Washington), his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo), his sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) and matriarch Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). When Lena’s deceased husband’s life insurance money comes through, everybody has different plans for it, which makes for much of the show’s dramatic conflict.

As I said above, this is a very strong production, and would make a great introduction to this important play. To my personal taste, it’s a little too understated. Sometimes this is a good thing, as with the manner in which Denzel plays Walter’s defeated retreat into alcohol. More often, though, it’s just playing something quietly instead of with the percolating energy so evident in this play.

Denzel, while being the biggest underplayer in the bunch, does deliver a remarkably nuanced reading of Walter Lee, finding his hurt and frustration where other actors have just found braggadocio. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Lena follows a laudable modern trend of playing Lena as something of a dynamic force of nature, rather than the “mama on the couch” that became a stereotype of early productions of Raisin.

Anika Noni Rose is perhaps a bit too resentful as the intelligent and rebellious Beneatha, but when the script calls for her to explode in Afro-centric celebration, she does so with great panache. Sophie Okonedo gives perhaps the most remarkable performance of the evening as Walter’s stoic wife, Ruth, showing layers of desire and compassion that make her character the most dimensional one on stage. A masterpiece, masterfully done, if a bit too quietly. Recommended.

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Review: Kung Fu

Kung Fu The Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage

Full disclosure, I am a big fan of Bruce Lee – I’m drawn to his charisma, his incredible physical precision, and, oh yeah, that smokin’ hot bod. So it’s not surprising that David Henry Hwang’s bioplay about Lee, Kung Fu, doesn’t really tell me anything about Bruce I didn’t already know. As Hwang usually does, however, he’s managed to find compelling ways to meditate on the sociological and artistic dimensions of Lee’s story.

Originally begun as the book of a projected Bruce Lee musical that never materialized, Kung Fu tells much the same story as the Lee biopic Dragon. More emphasis is placed on Bruce’s relationship with his father Hoi-Chuen, played with rock-solid gravitas by the great Francis Jue. Hoi-Chuen was an actor in Jyut kek, also known as Cantonese opera. Hwang used Cantonese opera’s northern cousin Jīngjù, or Peking opera, in his revision of Flower Drum Song. As he did there, he has incorporated several dance numbers in the traditional Chinese form, to great visual and emotional effect.

In general, Hwang has replaced what would have been musical numbers with fight or Jyut kek numbers, with original instrumental music by Du Yun. Kung Fu is, above all other things, a choreographic spectacle – Emmanuel Brown’s fights, Sonya Tayeh’s dances and Jamie Guan’s Jyut kek are all eye-filling and thoroughly exciting.

Cole Horibe, best known for his appearance in TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”, dazzles with the precision and power of his moves, as anybody who portrays Lee should. He also has Lee’s accent down cold – not some random Chinese accent, but Bruce Lee’s exact accent. And he has the demeanor down too: a confident spiritual seeker, but always with a steely, cocky, even thuggish core.

This isn’t the most definitive telling of Lee’s life story, nor is it Hwang’s most insightful work. It is a mildly thoughtful, visually exciting object lesson on overcoming adversity with grace and determination. On that level, I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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