Review: Pharoah Sanders

Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman once called Pharoah Sanders “probably the best tenor player in the world.” Tenor saxophone, that is, and based on what I experienced seeing him at Birdland, I’d have to agree. But he’s more than that: there’s something visionary about Sanders. When he begins to play, the room he’s playing in feels somehow different, lighter.

Sanders was an important player in the frequently dissonant free jazz scene of the early 1960s, but as he embarked on a career as a leader rather than a sideman, he reinterpreted what the “free” in free jazz meant. For him, it meant free and full expression using any and all means available, the tonal as well as the atonal, the sweet as well as the dissonant. It also meant exploring freedom in the political sense, and above all in a spiritual sense. One can easily interpret Sanders work from the late 1960s onward as one long exploration of what it means to be spiritually free – and how does one express that in music?

The first composition he performed began with the band playing a gentle, soothing pentatonic wash for several minutes. When Sanders joined in at first he went with that gentle flow, but then there was one of those angular, sharp, atonal runs that were a hallmark of Pharoah’s early avant-garde work, appearing with the speed, suddenness and uncanniness of lightning in a clear blue sky.

Some other astonishing moments: at the end of a yearning ballad, Sanders slows everything down in a short coda in which every note surprises and yet is exactly right, especially the breathtaking second to last note at the very bottom of his instrument’s range. After which he immediately bounces into a playful blues that finds this physically frail septuagenarian dancing around and hamming it up, strumming his sax as if it was a guitar. In this number each of the sidemen gets an extended solo; Nate Reeves’s solo stands as the single best jazz bass solo I have ever heard, jumping back and forth between virtuosic techniques with impossible nimbleness.

And at the very end, Sanders played a bit of his epic statement of purpose “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” singing in a strong warm voice, gently emphasizing one word, to powerful effect: “The creator makes but one demand / Happiness through all the land.” Then he launches into John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for a few soaring minutes before concluding with a return to “Creator.” Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress delivers both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted musical storytelling with her muscular Broadway soprano. She’s crafted her current act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below as a love letter to the women who have inspired her, calling it A Hymn to Her. Liz’s heroines come from all walks of life, and Callaway takes advantage of this to create an eclectic show.

She opens with The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, “Love Is All Around,” because who doesn’t love Mary Richards? Callaway marvelously captures the song’s feeling of youthful hope. The show then briefly heads in an autobiographical direction as she intersperses a low-key take on “Broadway Baby” with humorous tales of her exciting first days as a working actor in New York.

Liz points out that your heroes don’t have to be older than you, and gives high praise to Sara Bareilles before performing a moving rendition of “Everything Changes” from Bareilles’s Waitress. There’s also a heroine not actually mentioned but implied in Callaway’s pairing of Carole King’s “Being At War with Each Other” and her sister Ann Hampton Callaway’s “At the Same Time” – both songs have been sung by Barbra Streisand. That’s not the only reason they go well together: they are both heartfelt pleas for peace.

Callaway has a wonderful sense of humor, which produced two of my favorite moments in the show. She’s obsessed with Julia Child, and did a little known song of Leonard Bernstein’s called “Plum Pudding” which is simply a recipe for the titular dish, delivered as a tricky patter song. Callaway takes satirical aim at tricky patter in the show’s other comical highlight, one of Callaway’s signature songs “Another Hundred Lyrics.” Songwriter Lauren Mayer’s re-lyricizing of Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People,” it gently pokes fun at Sondheim’s willful complexity. It’s no less complicated than a Sondheim song – perhaps its even moreso – and Callaway executes it flawlessly. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chasing the New White Whale

There’s a visually impressive production of a impassioned new play about heroin abuse in the commercial fishing industry now playing at La MaMa ETC. Chasing the New White Whale uses the framework of Moby Dick to tell the story of New England fishing captain Robby Foerster, who is committed to old fashioned institutions of fishing – hook fishing, independent boats – but runs afoul of heroin addiction.

Both the play, by Michael Gorman, and the direction, by Arthur Adair are ambitious and aesthetically complex. A mysterious contingent of ghostly whale hunters and modern day commercial fishermen inspired by Ahab’s stowaway crew, “Fedallah and the Phantoms,” is a particularly effective device. Donald Eastman’s set makes very inventive use of boats that increase in size and height as the play progresses – later ones move on wheeled scaffolding.

While it is a compelling production, it’s not quite successful in what it sets out to do. The publicity material describe how Robbie “falls deeply into addiction after a fateful first encounter with heroin” – but we never see this “fateful” moment. There is a character called the Chaplain who recalls the long sermon in Moby Dick, baldy stating the plays themes in brief sermonettes. These little lectures are well performed and staged, but are simply not dramatically effective – too much telling, not enough showing.

The acting company, however, is uniformly strong. Alan Barnes Netherton’s portrayal of Foerster is intense and intelligent. Meredith Nicholaev is another standout in her soulful rendering of Robbie’s friend and sometime accountant Therese.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lady Bunny

Once upon a time, Lady Bunny lip-synched her own voice for her song parodies, both medleys and single-song versions but now she does them live. It’s skipping a step and she’s actually a somewhat soulful singer, so this arrangement works well. She’s even writing some original stuff, a jazz song, even! Okay, so it’s called “I Gave Head to Mr. Ed,” but still!

Of course for her famous, zany Laugh-In style routines, she still lip-synchs and there was a number where she performed the thoughts expressed in her voice-over, but didn’t actually mouth the words. This “Lady” doesn’t put limits on what she’s going to say or do in her new cabaret act “Pig In A Wig” – one of the great charms of this show is its spontaneity.

Bunny is one of the smartest drag queens ever, even if the majority of her act is a steady stream of dick and poop jokes. She’s a powerful presence who also posses a terrific sense of when to keep it light. Girl knows just how to milk it!

She never stays in one mode for too long, and while she might go all stream of consciousness at certain points, she never quite seems to ramble. The Lady isn’t afraid of sentiment, but she’s not sappy – It’s a terrific balance, and probably the only way you could tell these on the edge jokes in a way that’s funny rather that truly offensive. She’s an energetic, mostly-for-the-laughs winner – definitely the funniest gay show in town!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Prom

Brooks Ashmanskas is The Prom‘s shining star. After decades of being a comic scene-stealer in roles that ranged from ensemble to supporting, he finally has a lead role, and boy does he make the most of it. Oh, he’s still the comic scene-stealer, even up against such expert competition as Christopher Sieber and Beth Leavel (Leavel was out sick the night I went, her understudy Kate Marilley chewed the scenery with a fervor that would have made Beth proud – Marilley’s one to watch for sure). But in the character of Barry Glickman, the authors of The Prom have given Ashmanskas a role with a touch more depth, giving him a chance to show all his gifts.

As The Prom opens, Glickman is co-starring with diva Dee Dee Allen (Leavel / Marilley) in Eleanor! A musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. They find out at the opening night party that the reviews mean the show will close for sure, and they drown their sorrows with chorus gal Angie (Angie Schworer) and out-of-work pretentious Julliard grad Trent Oliver (Seiber). When these theater relics hear that young lesbian Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) is being excluded from a small-town Indiana prom – and the press is shining a spotlight on it – they know that it’s time to get involved, and grab a little of that spotlight for themselves while they’re at it. As a t-shirt available at the merch table says, they’re out to “kick-ball-change the world.”

The spine of The Prom is the growing friendship between Glickman and Emma, bonding over what being oppressed queers does to you – it’s a sweeter thing than that description suggests. Kinnunen is as grounded as Ashmanskas is flighty; with all these shameless hams in town, it’s Emma that gets the 11 O’Clock number, the achingly earnest “Unruly Heart,” which Kinnunen knocks out of the ballpark. Director / choreographer Casey Nicholaw is fresh off Mean Girls, so he knows his way around the high-school scene (he’s long known his way around Broadway!), and gives it his usual heart and pizzazz. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye. That’s the title of Maye’s 1965 debut album – but it’s also what I’m telling you to do if you haven’t already! This singer that Ella Fitzgerald called “the greatest white female singer in the world” sounds almost as amazing as she did back then. Maye has been rediscovered by New York audiences over the last few years, and the ever growing lovefest between fans old and new is palpable in the room, which only adds to the fun.

Her current show at 54 Below, “Marilyn Maye Gives Thanks” is a holiday affair, which I really haven’t heard her do before. Marilyn loves her medleys, and there are many here, all packed with songs not in her usual repertoire – like “Blessings and Dreams” (“Count Your Blessings” / “Dream is a Wish” / “Wrap You Troubles in Dreams”), “Autumn” (“Autumn in New York” / “Autumn Leaves”) and a holiday medley (“I Believe” / “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” / “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” / “Shalom”) which truly is marvelous. The only misstep is a patriotic sing-along medley which she doesn’t give any context for, and therefore feels awkward and tacked on.

Musical director Tedd Firth – a frequent foil for a great variety of artists such as Michael Feinstein, Christine Ebersole, John Pizzarelli and many more – is the perfect match for this approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers.

You really must go, I’m not giving you a choice. Before she gets into seasonal material, she does a medley of songs from My Fair Lady that climaxes in a stunning, hard-swinging rendition of “On the Street Where You Live.” There is simply nobody remotely like Maye, she’s an overpoweringly amazing cabaret singer. It might not be an exaggeration to call her the best jazz cabaret singer in the world. She’s certainly the last great performer in that style of her generation, still in astonishingly full command of her vocal powers. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: American Son

Regarding #BlackLivesMatter, this play hits every piece of information you need to know, and every raw nerve you need to know about. In American Son, in the middle of the night, black mother Kendra (Kerry Washington) is frantically trying to discover news of her missing son at a Miami-area police station.

Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, whose plays are frequently produced in Florida, is also a trial attorney in that state, so he writes from a direct knowledge of the issues. He offers no easy answers, but shows us every facet of this thorny situation, with great empathy. It’s very much an issue or “thesis” play, a kind of play originated by Alexandre Dumas fils with his Camille, and brought to maturity with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In that vein, American Son is as smart and gripping as they come.

Most thesis plays have characters that speak uncomfortable truths with great clarity, and in this play that is the late-appearing Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee). The part is relatively small, but Lee clearly knows what a plum it is, giving a performance that I sincerely hope is remembered at awards time.

The main draw here is of course Kerry Washington, and she is as good as I’ve ever seen her. Kendra is the largest and most complex role in the play, and Washington deftly navigates every turn. She and the remainder of the cast are ably aided by director Kenny Leon, who gets the tension high where it needs to be, while giving needed moments of breathing room in this tight coil of a play. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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