Review: A Christmas Carol

There have been a lot of stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. The best I have ever seen was a very warm and spectacular version on Broadway in 2019, which had the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience before the show. This season’s Broadway version is second only to that one, but takes an opposite approach, leaning into the Gothic elements of what is essentially a ghost story.

In fact it’s so Gothic that in place of those clementines there are eerie sounds in the house, and a dimly lit ornate coffin on the stage. A sudden total blackout accompanied by a loud thud of a sound cue reconfirms the chilly, ominous tone. When the lights come back on, the brilliant Jefferson Mays begins narrating a version of the story closely adapted from an abridged version Dickens himself took on many a reading tour. Not for nothing Jefferson Mays is listed in the program simply as “The Mourner.”

But this is certainly not just a reading. The work of all the designers, especially Projection Designer Lucy Mackinnon, transmit the spectral atmosphere with great ingenuity – as spectacular as that 2019 production in an entirely different way.

Mays, long since known to be the master of playing multiple characters, plays no less than 50 here. Most effective: a Jacob Marley who truly appears to have cold dead eyes, a Bob Crachit who is genuinely warmly self-effacing, and of course Scrooge himself, whose arc of redemption Mays gives real heft. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Hot Sardines

This band brought me back to life! I was a bit between blue and – as Blanche says in The Golden Girls – magenta, and The Hot Sardines gave me a solid kick in the ass. They’re on a mission to put the “hot” back into “hot jazz.” Think Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven combos, with a pinch of the gutbucket grit of swing revivalists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Their repertoire tends to pre-1930 songs, popularized by the likes of Sophie Tucker and Mamie Smith, but they also expand into reinterpreting songs from other eras in that style.

Lead singer Elizabeth Bougerol and pianist / bandleader Evan Palazzo met in 2007 after they both answered a Craigslist ad about a jazz jam session above a Manhattan noodle shop. Palazzo passed her litmus test – he knew Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” and could play it off the top of his head. Since then they have been increasing the size of the ensemble; it’s presently a hot eight-piece. Perhaps most inventively, the band includes a rotating cast of tap dancers, who intentionally play the part of a percussionist more than a dancer.

Bougerol was born in France and injects the occasional French-language vocal into the mix, regardless of whether the song was originally in French or not. This sort of playful irreverence forms a central part of the band’s aesthetic, showing up in Palazzo’s frisky fugue-like intro to “Comes Love,” and in Bougerol’s elaborating on the “single-entendre” metaphors that blues singers used for dirty or “hokum” songs. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey

This man and wife duo are doing a fabulous new show at the Cafe Carlyle, called “East Side After Dark” perhaps in tribute to Carlyle mainstay Bobby Short’s classic 1960 live album “On The East Side” (which by the way was actually not recorded at the Carlyle). John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey start with “Cheerful Little Earful”, a charmer which was first made famous by Fanny Brice.

After that, the East Side theme to one side, the pair launched into a pair of songs that praise the city more generally, the relatively obscure “When You’re Far Away from New York Town” and the song that made Rodgers and Hart’s names “Manhattan”. John gets all the jokes in the song – which is a loving satire of a bustling, smelly city – and communicates them elegantly to the audience.

The act is intended as a tribute to Upper East Side clubs of yore. The comically named Upstairs at the Downstairs is mentioned several times. There is also a loving tribute to John’s late father, jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli, who was ironically requested to play “Pick Yourself Up” at a funeral. Jessica gets her own “after dark” spotlight with a mellifluous rendition of Blossom Dearie’s “Moonlight Savings Time”.

The continue the theme with late night cabaret legend Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Hip” which Molaskey puts her own parody lyric spin singing in a second pass, which is all about her recent hip surgery. Pizzarelli then concludes with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s biting take on racism “Carefully Taught”. Upon which Molaskey adds that they will close all of their shows “until it no longer applies” (unfortunately probably not anytime soon). Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Cabaret doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

Here we have the songs of Johnny Mercer, one of the greatest writers of “The Great American Songbook,” sung by Marilyn Maye, one of greatest interpreters of that Songbook. That sounds like a great combination, doesn’t it? And indeed it is! Many years ago Ella Fitzgerald – who released a Mercer Songbook album in 1964 – called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.”All these years later Ella’s remark is still no exaggeration.

I can think of no other living singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range. Maye is a jazz-pop singer worthy of being included in the company of Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn or Blossom Dearie, and her phrasing is the finest I’ve heard in that style from a living singer.

This show – as always is the case with the marvelous Miss Maye – is heavy on the medleys. Here, they’re divided into themes that Mercer liked to write about, such as “Angels,” “Women’s Names,” “Autumn,” “Dream,” and even “Revenge.” Again as always, Maye and her music director Tedd Firth handle medleys with thoughtful storytelling and sophisticated jazz musicianship. Maye exquisitely tailors her singing style to the individual Mercer song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the up-tempos, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. She almost growls for his “Blues In the Night”.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. If you love classic songs like Mercer’s sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Highly Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

The Village: A Disco Musical

Extended through Saturday October 22, The Village is at its most charmingwhen writing love letters to disco. Nora Burns’s comedy is subtitled A Disco Musical, and while it’s not technically a musical (precious little live singing) the constant flow of recorded disco – and really good disco at that – is what really propels it.

Set in 1979 New York City, The Village centers around Trade (Antony Cherrie), a hustler living in the apartment of an older gentleman, George (Cluck Blasius). He brings home his latest trick, Steve (Ever Chavez) a charming NYU student – a cute “twink,” though at the time the word was “chicken” – and the story is nominally about them falling into bed and then love. But, as the title suggests, this is really more the story of a community, the vibrant gay scene of the time, set against the grit and glamour of the Manhattan of that era. One of the stronger elements is Robin Carrigan’s lively choreography, reflecting with verve and musicality the show’s disco soundtrack.

While Burns’s script is packed with her usual acidly sarcastic humor, the structure is a bit, well, lumpy. There’s a lot of “fourth wall breaking” and much of it is clever, but in the end there’s way too much of it. It’s as though every character in a Deadpool movie were talking to the camera most of the time. It can get a little wearying. Also, while the initial idea of creating an Our Town for 1970s NYC was an ingenious one, like many “inspired by” shows, The Village stumbles when it hews too closely to its model, and gets a real lift when it leans into being its own frisky self.

Mostly, though, The Village is a sexy, goofy lark, executed by an attractive, energetic, committed and talented ensemble cast. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tony Danza

Since his TV career descended from the stratospheric heights of hit after hit, namely Taxi and Who’s the Boss, Tony Danza has made an art of being an Italian-American boy from Brooklyn song-and-dance man. You know, in the tradition of guys named Crocetti and Benedetto. Ooops, I mean their stage names Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, and I forgot the one who didn’t change his last name, Sinatra. To be fair, only Bennett is the only one who comes close to Danza’s NYC bona fides. Even Sinatra was from, ahem, Hoboken.

Danza sings the songs that these goombahs made famous, but he really has Sinatra bona fides. He gained his love of “The Chairman of the Board” from his mother, who was one of the original “bobbysoxer” girls who first screamed for Frankie in New York’s Paramount Theatre in the early 1940s (think BTS stans today). Plus, in his Taxi days (late 1970s) one of Sinatra’s favorite songwriters Sammy Cahn took Danza under his wing and mentored him.

Now all of this is a long time ago, and Danza is frank (see what I did there?) about this – he says there are three stages of life: youth, middle age and “You look good!” And he does look good, and not just for that bracket. He does a Cahn medley that has real warmth to it. And that’s part of his charm overall – warmth and sincerity. Also special is his embrace of a lesser-known song, Artie Butler’s “I Don’t Remember Ever Growing Up”; what person past early middle age doesn’t understand that? Plus the fact that he peppers his Rat Pack-style crooning with above average tap dancing and ukulele playing…the guy has the spirit of a classic all-around entertainer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Betty Buckley

From beginning to end, Betty Buckley interprets every song with the subtle nuance born of long experience, both in song and life. She had wanted to center her return to the Cafe Carlyle on the Rodgers & Hart classic “My Romance”, but then ruefully (and comically) noted that if she worked solely from her own experience “that would be too dark for this lovely room.” So with that she decided on doing a more general show about “romantic notions, although it will go dark a little.” More on that shortly.

In accordance with Buckley’s sophisticated, multifaceted approach to the concept of romance, musical director Christian Jacob’s arrangements are complex and lush. Before she’s even introduced the subject of romance, they’ve rendered a gorgeous version of Sting’s meditation on human impermanence, “Fragile”.

But she does indeed keep the front part of the show light, with a super-jazzy rendition of the aforementioned Rodgers & Hart standard, and a story about how thrilled she was to be cast in the original production of Pippin. She had always wanted to be a Fosse show – and then disappointingly discovered she would only be doing one very simple piece of choreography. Which of course leads to Jerome Kern’s “I Won’t Dance”.

She shades darker with Sondheim’s passionate “Not a Day Goes By” but only does the more youthful less-heartbroken lyrics. Then she does Dylan’s break-up song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” which is more philosophical than sad. The real darkness comes when she covers young singer-songwriter Jensen McRae’s harrowing but beautiful #MeToo ballad “Wolves” which Betty performs with a delicacy that makes the song even more poignant.

She buoys us up with with Abbey Lincoln’s worldly-wise account of the ups and downs of romance “Throw It Away”. I’ve long seen Betty Buckley’s voice as one more instrument (a very powerful one) in an ultra-tight jazz ensemble, and that is as true as ever, in the best way. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Peter Cincotti

“Killer On The Keys” is the title song of Peter Cincotti’s upcoming album, and that phrase is an apt description of this wildly talented pianist-singer-songwriter. The first song in his act at the Cafe Carlyle is “Raise the Roof” and that he and his band do time and again. He’s a New Yorker through and through, and has been playing clubs here since he was a high schooler, some 20 years ago. By 18 he was working with legendary producer Phil Ramone on his first album, and getting raves playing the legendary Oak Room cabaret at the Algonquin Hotel.

How I haven’t seen Cincotti before now escapes me, he’s just the kind of jazzy cabaret artist I love – just think John Pizzarelli or Marilyn Maye (search for them on this site if you don’t already know). He’s backed by a very talented band; young for the most part (not for nothing, like he was when he started), save for tenor saxophonist Scott Kreitzer, who’s been working with him since the Oak Room.

It’s not all uptempo ravers, though there is a lot of that. While he does a good number of standards, both of the numbers mentioned above are Cincotti originals, and he is premiering a new one at the Carlyle, from his upcoming album. Called “Ghost of My Father” it details how his father, who died when his career was just taking off, has literally haunted him (mostly in a good way) ever since. A pensive ballad, accompanied only by himself on piano, it is as moving as the rest of the set is rousing.

He covers a great range of styles and material from Nat King Cole’s “Sweet Lorraine” to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”; his excellent jazzy version of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” – which he himself described as a McCoy Tyner / Herbie Hancock influenced arrangement – truly has to be heard to be believed. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tammie Brown

Lady Bunny once talked about working with Valentina – she of the “french vanilla latte fantasy” – saying something to the effect of “She’s just like Tammie Brown or Alyssa Edwards, they all really are like that, all the time!” Surrealist drag queen Brown’s artistic core is, more than anything, as a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what they found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her as some kind of national treasure!

Brown also proudly owns her South Texas origins, singing a couple of songs with some Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie struts sexily about the stage, singing to the actual tracks from her discography. The doubling of her recorded voice and her live voice is pleasantly freaky – and solid proof she always sings on tune.

Her songs remind me of an ’80s synthpop cover of a ’60s song – think Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” or Bananarama’s “Venus” – but as written and performed on the legendary “good LSD” of the time when the songs were written. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Kite Runner

I am one of the few people who hasn’t read Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, so I came to Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation with fresh eyes. And to me, it is a profoundly moving story, deftly told. Many have said the novel is better – but isn’t it always? Novels have time to linger on an image or a thought, and in the compressed world of theatre, you can’t do as much of that. You tell me the novel is better, and I tell you the adaptation, taken by itself, is one of the most powerful plays I have seen in recent memory. The story remains lucidly expessed, the emotional undertow, deeply poingant.

For one thing, director Giles Croft staging is satisfyingly fluid and compelling. For another, Amir Arison (The Blacklist) gives a profoundly emotional performance as narrator and central character Amir, so good that I hope he is remembered when Tony nominations come around. Amir grew up in Kabul, back when it was peaceful and prosperous, the son of a wealthy Pashtun merchant. He becomes close to Hassan (a very expressive Eric Sirakian), the son of his father’s servant, who is Hazara, an ethnic group much discriminated against by Pashtuns.

At a vital moment, Amir betrays Hassan, and the remainder of the tale follows his guilt and eventual redemption. It also tells of the travails of the Afghan nation since Amir’s 1970s youth. He and his father Baba (Faran Tahir) become refugees when the Soviets invade, and settle into a working class life in Northern California. Events compel Amir to go to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where he is horrified by the deterioration and violence visited on his homeland.

I can’t say it enough, this is powerful, cathartic theatre, truly a must-see. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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