Review: Lackawanna Blues

In this solo play, Ruben Santiago-Hudson celebrates the woman who raised him in her boarding house in Lackawanna (just outside Buffalo) who is known variously as Nanny, Mother and Miss Rachel. He not only portrays himself and Miss Rachel, but also some 20 other boarders who passed through the house throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when Ruben was growing up.

I’m usually suspicious of shows that are written and directed by the same person; usually they’re much better at one job than the other. Here Santiago-Hudson does both, as well as playing every part. Based on the tour-de-force result, I’d say the man has earned his bona fides – then again, he has worked with the likes of playwright August Wilson as director and actor, and acted for legendary directors like George C. Wolfe and Lloyd Richards.

Miss Rachel would take care of anybody who needed it, which is why everybody called her “Mother.” In mid-century Lackawanna, this led to a motley collection of misfits and crazies passing through her doors, all of whom Santiago-Hudson portrays with great sensitivity. Many were harmless, but many were violent, and Ruben doesn’t shy away from this. Nanny herself fearlessly stood up to these toughs and abusers, which leads to some of the show’s most dramatic moments, as Santiago-Hudson contrasts their toxic rantings with Miss Rachel’s terrifyingly steely calm.

This show isn’t called a blues for nothing: Almost the entirety of the play is accompanied by blues guitar-playing from Junion Mack, recreating the score created by long-time Santiago-Hudson collaborator, the late Bill Sims Jr. Ruben himself is a talent ed harmonica player, and pipes in with his “harp” at judiciously selected moments. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Is This A Room

Is this a play? It certainly is a transcript of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner (played here by Emily Davis), a 25-year-old former Air Force linguist charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in U.S elections. On June 3, 2017, Winner was surprised at her home by the FBI. In Is This A Room, we witness that interaction, filtered through the lens of conceiver and director Tina Satter’s staging.

That filter is of very mixed quality. Some of Satter’s staging is quite elegant, especially the way she indicates redactions in the transcript through freezes, lighting shifts and blackouts. But some is decidedly heavy handed, creating Pinteresque menace where the transcript doesn’t suggest it.

Some moments do feel like TV cop procedural tropes, but that’s largely because those tropes are rooted in truth. There’s Agent Garrick (Pete Simpson), the “good cop” (but who is also clearly a skilled interrogator); Agent Taylor (Will Cobbs), the “bad cop” (but mostly just the strong, silent, sometimes kind cop) and the name-unknown grunt cop (Becca Blackwell). The cast is uniformly terrific with Davis and Simpson skillfully carrying most of the show’s weight.

I’ll allow that the course of the interrogation has significant innate drama, but ultimately isn’t very insightful. The most significantly dramatic thing about Winner’s story is that she received an inordinately long prison sentence for what was ultimately a minor security leak. But that’s a story that isn’t told here, save for brief voice over by the real life Winner at the end. That’s the story I’d be much more interested in seeing.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chicken & Biscuits

The best way to see Chicken & Biscuits is to arrange to be in front of an enthusiastic church lady. By happy accident I was seated in front of just such a lady, who was definitely not shy with the occasional “Amen!!” and “Tell it!!” – it very much added to the fun of this already quite entertaining show.

The play focuses on the rivalry between the late pastor’s two daughters, the “holier-than-thou” Baneatta (Cleo King) and the flashily vulgar Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). Baneatta’s husband – and the church’s new pastor – Reginald (the magnificent as always Norm Lewis) tries to keep the peace while preparing the eulogy. There’s also a gay subplot involving Baneatta’s son Kenny (Devere Rogers) and his nebbishy Jewish boyfriend Logan (the ever-hilarious Michael Urie). Baneatta barely tolerates Logan, and Logan is terrified of Baneatta.

Director Zhailon Livingston (the youngest Black director in Broadway history) has assembled a first-rate group of physical comedians who deliver playwright Douglas Lyon’s zesty comic lines with flawless timing. Lewis in particular wonderfully manages a eulogy which begins with very awkward homilies, but eventually finds its way to barnstorming spirit and zeal (church lady loved that part too). The play deals with themes of forgiveness and kindness in well-tread ways, but since the world is in profound need of both qualities you won’t find me raising a strong objection. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

News: The Simsinz TONIGHT ONLY! (Friday 9/24)

One of New York’s best, most insane, drag shows returns for one night only, tonight, Friday September 24. The Simsinz is an unauthorized drag parody lipsynch tribute to The Simpsons which comes from the inventive mind of up and coming drag star Cissy Walken. In it Marge huffs ammonia and has hallucinations, while the rest of the family turns queer. A large portion of the lipsynch material comes from episodes that deal with gay themes. Even more, however, comes from pop songs and showtunes, and even some original material in which Walken sings in a perfect Marge Simpson voice (Walken has a reputation as a talented mimic, particularly for her Amy Winehouse).

Walken is a 2019 MAC Award nominee, and reigning Miss Stonewall. She stars as Marge, joined by Coco Taylor (host of Members Only Boylesque), Aria Derci, Pussy Willow and Andy Starling as a bevy of characters.

Even the male characters have exaggerated eyelashes and high heels. It’s shocking at first, but it is impossible to resist the charm of this loving tribute, especially from such a skilled company of lipsynchers. To say nothing of its sheer giddy comic loopiness – I mean the 11 O’Clock number goes to Ralph Wiggums for goodness sake!

The costume changes are truly dizzying, and the staging sophisticated and energetic. The last time I saw it, this joyous romp left me with a lasting grin on my face. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Pass Over

The simple fact offbeing back in a Broadway theatre, especially one as beautiful as the August Wilson, was a moving experience in and of itself. The play at that theatre, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, is several things. For one thing, this black-themed surrealist drama is an opening bell for the Broadway community’s commitment to being more diverse going forward. The play itself certainly has its heart in the right place, but the realization of its high ideals is a mixed bag.

The play mostly draws its inspiration from Waiting for Godot. As in Beckett’s play, we have two protagonists trapped in their situation, in this case a desolate urban street-corner in place of Beckett’s country road. As in Beckett, one, Moses (Jon Michael Hill), is a pontificating top dog, the other, Kitch (Namir Smallwood), a goofy wild card.

My issue: the play works too hard to hew to the outline of Godot. The moments where it deviates the most from Beckett’s model are its most effective, and I wish there were more of them. In fact the best part of the play is its conclusion, where Nwandu abandons Godot for a rapturously strange evocation of the Book of Exodus (not to leer, but it also features nudity, and the actors have clearly been working on their assets).

Also, Moses exhibits traits of toxic masculinity, and while Nwandu has clearly made that character decision intentionally, she offers no coherent criticism of that syndrome – and this in a play jam-packed with coherent criticisms. This just puzzles me. Hill makes the best of it however, sensitively playing to the wounds that led Moses to construct this fiercely defensive emotional armor. In spite of its flaws, Pass Over is an exciting and dynamic return for Broadway, and I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Michael Feinstein

I am so happy that this show was my return to live performance. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Feinstein for a very long time, and much of the show was made up of songs I’d heard him do several times before. Michael being the sensitive interpreter he is, however, gave every song new layers in keeping with changed times. He gave a warm but wistful twist to this line in his opening song “It’s A Most Unusual Day” : “There are people meeting people / There is sunshine everywhere / There are people greeting people.”

Michael talked about how “The Great American Songbook” – that assortment of timeless songs he is so associated with – is an ever-evolving thing, as he introduced “You and Me Against the World.” Famous from a sentimental hit version by Helen Reddy, Michael really dug into the pain behind the song, which paradoxically made it more comforting.

Sometimes when Feinstein has done Marshall Barer’s Gay Pride-inspired “The Time Has Come” in the past it had something of a dreamy quality. This time there was a new firmness and confidence to it, allowing no doubt that, indeed, “The time has come / to heed a different drum.” Potent.

The show is entitled “Summertime Swing,” and it never swings harder than when Michael tears into Louis Jordan’s jump blues classic “Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” with a vengeance. As always, Michael gives you the story behind the song, which took composer Billy Austin from janitor to successful songwriter.

Michael closed with a stunning medley of songs sung by Frank Sinatra – who had been a help to Feinstein early in his career – ending with a vigorous, rousing version of “Theme from New York, New York” which clearly read as a celebration of the city’s culture returning to something resembling life. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

News: Nasty Nellie is an April Fool

Best known as TV’s brattiest prankster, the acid-tongued, pre-Midol meanie Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie, Alison Arngrim presents Nasty Nellie is an April Fool, a special April Fool’s Day themed edition of her critically acclaimed solo show Confessions of a Prairie B.i.t.c.h. In it she offers a wickedly funny blend of storytelling and stand-up about life as everyone’s favorite toxic pre-teen brat, complete with petticoats and ringlets. Never afraid to dish the dirt on TV behind the scenes, she lets all the Little House on the Prairie secrets loose, verifies Hollywood gossip, reveals tales about her showbiz family, and much more. Fans are invited to ask questions and interact with one another as well. Running time is 30 minutes. May include language inappropriate for children under 13.

Nasty Nellie is an April Fool will be presented live at StageIt.com on Thursday, April 1 at 8pm EST / 5pm PST. Tickets are $10, available at www.SpinCycleNYC.com.

Review: A Love Letter to Liza

An online evening of songs, stories, and tributes, A Love Letter to Liza celebrates storied triple-threat superstar Liza Minnelli’s 75th Birthday. Well-wishes and remembrances make up the great majority of the evening, delivered with varying levels of eloquence and duration. Jason Alexander’s is probably the most insightful and touching, Jim Caruso’s the most packed with stories. Many of them are quite funny – John Waters wishing he had taken a spontaneous travel suggestion from her, Charles Busch on her amazing understanding of lighting. A personal favorite was Lily Tomlin’s; in addition to her personal tribute, she allows several of her most famous character to greet Liza as well.

There were also performances throughout, most notably Kristen Chenoweth’s rousing, roaring “Maybe This Time” and a tender “Old Friends” from Michael Feinstein. The evening concludes with eye-popping video of cabaret singer Seth Sikes’s très très gay rendition of Minnelli’s hit “Ring Them Bells.” By turns sweet, moving and entertaining, A Love Letter to Liza ends up creating a multidimensional portrait of a performer whose tremendous talent is matched by her enormous generosity. Recommended.

THERE IS ONLY ONE AIRING LEFT, 7 PM ON SUNDAY MARCH 14. For tickets, click here.

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

Drama Queen is back!!!!

I’m bringing this blog back to life! A year ago, I thought, as live performance went quiet, I’d have nothing to cover. Then as live streaming of theatrical performance became a thing, I’d occasionally think of posting, especially about queer-related events. But I was held back by the listlessness many of us felt (more on that in a moment).

As the anniversary of my last post (and the day live performance stopped) approached, it seemed like an appropriate time to make myself resume. Reviews will not be the order of the day for the moment. I’ll mostly promote events that I think will be interesting to the people who have been following this blog. I’m happy to be back!

Now about that listlessness. Awhile back a friend of mine posted on Facebook an article about a malaise felt by medieval monks and hermits,. Back then they called it acedia. Here is an excerpt from the article (and link to the full article below that) which makes clear the relevance of acedia to the situation we find ourselves in:

“With some communities in rebooted lockdown conditions and movement restricted everywhere else, no one (well, almost no one) is posting pictures of their sourdough. Zoom cocktail parties have lost their novelty, Netflix can only release so many new series. The news seems worse every day, yet we compulsively scroll through it.

“We get distracted by social media, yet have a pile of books unread. We keep meaning to go outside but somehow never find the time. We’re bored, listless, afraid and uncertain.

“What is this feeling?

“…acedia arose directly out [of] the spatial and social constrictions that a solitary monastic life necessitates. These conditions generate a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Together these make up the paradoxical emotion of acedia.”

Full article: https://theconversation.com/acedia-the-lost-name-for-the-emotion-were-all-feeling-right-now-144058

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

Review: John Pizzarelli & His Quartet

John Pizzarelli always scales the heights of cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing musicianship and elan. This remains true whether he’s leading a big band or a small combo. His current engagement at Birdland is billed as the John Pizzarelli Quartet, but when John did a head count at the top of the show, he counted five musicians, and then decided to call it “John Pizzarelli and his Quartet.”

Pizzarelli works with a profound musical intelligence. John has a particular genius is in his chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Only this evening isn’t about standards in the way most of John’s shows are. Instead Pizzarelli focuses on pop / rock singer /songwriters starting with less well known songs like Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and Broce Spingteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and moving to bigger hits like Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” and Elton John’s “Honky Cat.”

For previous cabaret acts, John had often subtly framed songs “in the style of” a particular jazzman. Here, however, he is commits to doing these pop songs in a jazzy Pizzarelli family style, saying early on that “we’ll play lots of different songs, but they will all sound something like that – and that’s the way we like it!!!”

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everbody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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