Review: Miz Cracker

Drag as a feminist act – that’s what Drag Race alum Miz Cracker is aiming at in her new cabaret show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, “American Woman.” After appearing on the aforementioned reality show, Cracker noticed that her audience had shifted from mostly gay men to mostly women. This gave “her” pause – it makes sense to make jokes about gay sex if you’re speaking to gay men, but should you still be doing the same kind of act if your audience is women by more than half?

Cracker is “sorry / not sorry” for giving you a feminist TED talk with jokes, pop songs and choreography. Oh, and while we are on the subject, Le Miz gives you all of those New York drag traditions we love – Lypsinka-inspired lip-synch collage, cartwheels worthy of Candis Cayne (who was just at the Beechman last week), and even House of Ninja vogue moves – in ample supply. The “not sorry” comes with thought that “wouldn’t you have enjoyed algebra more if ‘teach’ threw in some costume changes?”

It’s not that drag queens can no longer do “funny pussy songs,” Cracker suggests, but they should maybe think a second about what it means to a woman to celebrate her pussy – and then does just such a number to illustrate what she has in mind. And so on through more and more serious feminist themes.

I saw her first performance of this show ever, and it still had some wrinkles. There’s an opening collage of beautiful powerful women of all types (wittily set to Smetana’s “My Fatherland”), but it’s overlong and doesn’t quite make sense, due to the fact we haven’t been clued into the feminist bent of the show yet. It would be more moving post-show, where it would make an effective crossover while Cracker changes outfits for the meet and greet. Plus, there are many repetitions that could easily be trimmed.

All in all, though, a remarkably intelligent and entertaining evening of drag. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Karen Mason

This diva’s big, expressive voice is one of Broadway’s most under-utilized treasures, and her new cabaret act “For The First Time” puts it on impressive display. She’s long been one of New York’s most beloved cabaret artists, but she’s been away for more than a year, touring North America in a first-class tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, playing – as she puts it – “the up for anything, party-loving Madame Giry.”

The new act marks her return to NYC, and pays tribute to “firsts” throughout Mason’s career. Above all it celebrates the songwriters she feels honored to have known personally. Some of these songs were written for her, some she was the person who sang the first demos. And some she includes just because she likes them. The “first” that truly unites all the songs in the show, however, is the fact that Mason has never sung any of them on a cabaret stage before.

Mason is a songwriter’s favorite, I think, because she generally sticks closer to the melody of songs than many contemporary Broadway performers. Its not because she’s trying to create any definitive version of these songs, but because she trusts the talent of the people she’s working with, and tells exactly the story the song sets out to tell.

Highlights include the little-known Barbra Streisand ballad “If I Close My Eyes,” by Billy Goldenberg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman; and two great comic numbers: Shelly Markham’s “Things I Learned Along the Way” (with specialty lyrics skewering the current occupant of the White House) and Sheldon Harnick’s priceless operetta pastiche “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” (hilariously detailing the geometry of a woman scorned). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

I’ve often referred to Judy Collins as a river of song – it just flows out of her in a gorgeous shimmering stream. Justin Vivian Bond is more like a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful and sometimes explosive. JVB’s current show “Under the Influence” is a tribute to Collins, part of Collins’ 2019 Vanguard Award and Residency at Joe’s Pub.

V considers Judy Collins to be v’s own spiritual baby sitter and music teacher. Collins significantly if indirectly educated Justin in music – all by the songs and songwriters Collins covered. So, with only a couple exceptions, Bond performs songs written by songwriters she discovered through Collins – but which Judy herself did not sing.

Bond’s taste in songs is impeccable, and v approaches them with the touch of a very careful curator. A curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it. V turns David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” into something more rawly emotional, and fiercely sharpens the danger in Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” (in probably the best version of that song I’ve ever heard). V’s climactic rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” truly burns down the house.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is v’s acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length, but not here). As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Candis Cayne

This transgender trailblazer – she was the first transgender actress playing a regular transgender character in television history – has also long been one of the most exciting performers on the drag scene. She’s probably one of the best dancers in the lip-synching world, so it’s altogether fitting that her show “Hi, Gorgeous!” has lots of fantastic lip-synching and dancing. She hits the stage like a fireball, doing not one but two high-energy Kay Thompson barnstormers (“Think Pink” and “Clap Yo’ Hands”), kicking so high that she almost kicks herself in the face.

The great pleasure for me, though, was discovering how much she’s polished her comedy. She always incorporated humor into her lip-synch, but her timing in her between-song storytelling has become something special. The show is a bit on the long side, but Candis is so engaging that you almost don’t want it to end.

While she is at heart a dancing showgirl, Candis shows some range in her song choices, from trip hop band Portishead’s “Give Me a Reason” (which was a great comfort to her when in the midst of her transition) to Heart’s “Alone” (in which she hilariously portrays a stalker). Cayne let us know she’s been out of it for a while, with sinus infections and neck injuries, but if she hadn’t mentioned it I wouldn’t have known; she always gives it her all. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

Although it has a gorgeous score by Steven Sondheim – with some songs that are among his very best – Merrily We Roll Along is nobody’s best work. Nor, to be completely fair, is it anybody’s worst. And it has always been thus. The 1934 Kaufman & Hart play on which the musical is loosely based received good notices but was not a commercial success, in marked contrast to their collaborations before and afterwards. The major stumbling block is the way both play and musical are structured – telling the story of broken friendships backwards, each scene taking place a few years before the previous one.

The unfortunate result of this approach is we first see the characters as cynical and a little bit nasty, which makes it hard to identify with them. On the other hand, the payoff for this approach is that, generally the show gets progressively more optimistic as it continues. This makes a lot of intriguing thematic points, but all told makes for very unsatisfying storytelling. Merrily We Roll Along is a problematic puzzle of a show, which does manage to enlighten and often entertain, while intractably evading solution.

The current Off-Broadway revival by Fiasco Theater and Roundabout gives a very lean and clear-eyed account of this story, and does well with the music, especially considering that some of the cast are more actor-singers than singer-actors. Noah Brody’s direction leans into Merrily‘s most dynamic element, which definitely helps. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tovah Feldshuh

A cabaret show performed in the cellar of Studio 54 about Manhattan real estate legend Leona Helmsley, as played by Tovah Feldshuh…it doesn’t get more NEW YORK than this! All this with a voice over introduction by New York Post columnist Cindy Adams…well, as Adams ends every column “Only in New York, kids!”

Feldshuh has put together a mad, fabulous cabaret act featuring highlights from the new “Broadway-bound” musical Queen of Mean, based on the New York Times best-selling biography by Piers Ransdell. It’s all very meta, with Tovah as Leona forcefully advising the show’s composers (Ron Passaro, music; David Lee, lyrics) about what should and should not be included in the musical. Basically, Leona’s retrying her various legal cases in the court of cabaret.

The spine of the act is songs from the musical, but Tovah throws in random verses and choruses from showtunes and pop songs to help tell the story in a more compact form. Helmsley comments on all that befell her, including some profoundly hypocritical shade from her real estate rival Donald Trump.

Feldshuh is as smart, skillful and sharp as always. This act features precious little shtick, but possesses lots of the heartfelt quality Tovah brings to everything she does, allowing us to see Helmsley in quite a different light. Passaro and Lee’s songs hold up well with the standards and hits Feldshuh mixes in, which is a very good sign.

Director Jeff Harnar has helped Tovah construct a very well-oiled machine, truly sophisticated in the way it attacks its subject matter. Almost without fail, the comedy is bitingly joyous and the moments of sentiment genuine and surprisingly touching. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

Review: Charles Busch

Legendary playwright and actor Charles Busch’s current cabaret act – titled “Native New Yorker” – is in some ways a sequel to his previous autobiographical club act “My Kinda ’60s.” As with that act, we again find Charles in boy drag – albeit with a subtle dash of rouge, wearing a patterned iridescent suit of crimson and purple. Here, again, the lack of wigs and dresses also signifies that Charles is expressing something more personal and vulnerable.

That’s because this act is about Busch’s journey to being the camp drag star we know today. Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the feeling of coming of age (as an artist) at a time when life felt like a non-stop party. As a matter of fact one of the definite high points of the show is a touching rendition of the titular disco song as an late night / early morning ballad.

The act isn’t all earnest sincerity, though there’s more of that than usual. There are still plenty of quoted classic movie star mannerisms. As always, he moves from one glittering camp archetype to another with effortless ease. It’s just the tone that has shifted. It’s fun, but the theme of seriously searching for your very own queer identity – which runs through all of his work – is much more explicit.

He has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. Busch has a pleasantly throaty high tenor voice. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song: He finds corners I didn’t know existed in Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning,” reinterpreting it as an older man letting go of a a younger lover.

Busch sincerely loves artifice, and he invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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