Review: The Price

I’m a little odd when it comes to Arthur Miller. The big hits, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible leave me cold. Oh, I can appreciate that they are thoughtful, insightful and well made, but beyond that? My fave Miller is the almost-never produced Depression epic, The American Clock. And now I can count The Price, about the lingering effects of the Depression thirty years on, as my second favorite.

Part of the reason I’ve taken to The Price: the usually too-earnest Miller injects some welcome humor into the proceedings, in the person of Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito), an octogenarian furniture dealer. Solomon’s also a former vaudevillian, which is more than evident in the charm and by-play he brings to his negotiations. Solomon is hired by Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) to appraise his family’s furniture, all that is left of his father’s estate.

As Solomon, DeVito is impeccably cast. Imbuing Solomon with nearly inexhaustible spunk, DeVito makes sure that we know the man has a purpose for every word he says, though it is almost never just what’s on the surface. He puts him across as the kind of guy who will make you absolutely love him, even though he may be taking advantage of you. Victor does his best to resist his wiles, but can’t help admiring him.

Victor is the character on whom all the play’s action hinges, and Ruffalo does a terrific job of conveying how the trauma of the Depression has never ceased to haunt and petrify him. Jessica Hecht, who plays Victor’s wife Esther, is one of the most skilled interpreters of Miller around, and gives Esther a good deal more love of both her husband and life than is actually in the lines, to compelling effect. Tony Shalhoub plays Victor’s cynical doctor brother, and does a great job of projecting surface confidence, when really there’s a terror of the abyss below – just as affected by the Depression as Victor, in his own way. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Come from Away

First off I want to give director Christopher Ashley a warm welcome back to Broadway, where he hasn’t directed in many years. He directed many of my favorite Broadway shows – from musical hit Xanadu to unjustly maligned brilliant flop comedy The Smell of the Kill. His work on new musical Come from Away is among the most expertly executed and tightly paced I’ve seen from him, and that’s saying something. Welcome back, Mr. Ashley!

Come from Away tells the story of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. With U.S. airspace closed, 38 planes and 6,579 passengers were forced to land in Gander, which had an unusually large airport, a relic of pre-jet air travel. Ashley keeps things moving with grace and ease.

This remarkable story is told with compassion but isn’t mawkishly sentimental; it deals with a national trauma, but comes at it from an oblique angle. Anybody who was in New York that day doesn’t need to be reminded of what it looked like, and thankfully Come from Away doesn’t use those images.

The married team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein co-wrote the book and score. The well-constructed and engaging book is stronger than the Celtic-folk-inflected score, which is pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable, except for “Me and the Sky” which tells the story of Beverley Bass, the first woman to captain on commercial fights (Jenn Colella knocks it out of the ballpark). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Suzanne Vega

I’ve said before that New York-themed shows seem to make the best fit for the Café Carlyle. Suzanne Vega is one of those performers who is quintessentially New York without even trying, like David Johanson or Debbie Harry (both of whom have played the Carlyle). Her current show goes further: Its core is a bunch of songs from her new album and show called Lover, Beloved, which is about novelist Carson McCullers, a Southerner by birth, but a true New Yorker by choice. There’s even a song called “New York is My Destination.”

McCullers was disgusted by the intolerance she witnessed growing up in Georgia, arrived in New York in her early twenties and wrote with great compassion about outcasts. As far as I can tell Lover, Beloved alternates between monologue and song, all written in McCullers’s voice. The songs from this project are every bit as good as Vega’s older songs, which are among the sturdiest, most original and beautiful that the singer / songwriter tradition has produced.

Speaking of those older songs, she opens with “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” which has chillingly fresh resonance in the era of the El Cheeto. Vega later juxtaposes one of her classic misfit anthems “Left of Center” with an even more potent new one “I Never Wear White,” to great effect.

And when you come to her biggest hits, well, “Luka” is merely a good song – that became a massive hit – by someone who regularly wrote much better ones. It’s to Vega’s credit that she sings it simply and cleanly, without a hint of condescension to the song or the audience.

“Tom’s Diner,” by contrast, comes across as a real monster live, showing itself to be one of Vega’s very best. A big reason that this song comes across so well is Gerry Leonard, her musical director and guitarist. A self-professed “equipment geek” Leonard turns his electric guitar into a whole band, rhythm section included. Stunning, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Idomeneo

The first of Mozart’s operas written entirely during his adulthood, Idomeneo is a nod to an older, now unfairly ignored, operatic form, opera seria, that was undergoing intense reform at the time (1781). But it also includes innovations that point towards later Romanticism, a style that forms the core of the operatic standard repertoire as we know it today. It connects what was glorious about both ages of opera, and is a great musical glory itself. The gorgeous treatment it is currently being given at the Met under conductor James Levine’s still powerful baton – as well as the always-magnificent Met Chorus under Donald Palumbo – is a must-hear.

Is it a must-see? Well, the production by the late director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle is certainly impressive and handsome, with sepia-toned backdrops inspired by 18th Century etchings by Giambattista Piranesi of Roman ruins. But it has a whiff of the academic about it. Opera seria was an art form aimed at, and patronized by, European nobility, with Greek myths refashioned to give object lessons in good government. Sound a bit dry doesn’t it? And that’s the feel Ponnelle evokes, albeit with a grandeur befitting the Met. I prefer to think of opera seria as action-adventure stories where the action moves at a stately pace, sort of a more majestic Gaurdians of the Galaxy. At least I think that’s the best way to express the many but strange charms of opera seria to a 21st Century audience. In short, a fine production, but not exactly to my taste.

One of the more Romantic-feeling things in Idomeneo is Elettra’s mad scene ”D’Oreste, d’Aiace” and Elza van den Heever hits it with an exciting fury and precision, as well as gestures so wild they border on the comic. What fun! In the title role, Matthew Polenzani correctly pitched his performance toward the light elegance expected from tenors in opera seria (very different from the vocal heroics that fill most of the tenor repertoire), while also allowing Idomeneo’s most emotionally expressive passages full play.

Mezzo Alice Coote make a fine and strong impression as Idamante, Idomeneo’s son, a role originally written for a male castrato soprano. As Ilia, the Trojan princess, Nadine Sierra sang with a considered yet warm beauty closely comparable to Polenzani’s, with a confident strength that carried to the large house with no sign of strain. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

CD Review: “It’s About Time” – Karen Mason

Broadway and cabaret star Karen Mason isn’t kidding around with her new CD It’s About Time! More than 50 percent of the songs on the album are showstoppers – including “Fifty Percent” itself, with composer Billy Goldenberg on the piano. Several are drawn from the greatest hits of Judy Garland, one of the most showstopping performers of all time. Mason sticks closer to the melody of these songs than many contemporary Broadway performers. However, the aim here seems to be less about creating definitive versions, and more about showing how gifted Mason is at knocking these big numbers out of the ballpark. Her big, expressive voice is one of Broadway’s most under-utilized treasures, and this CD puts it on more impressive display than ever before. Highly recommended.

To purchase, click here.

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

Review: Trixie Mattel

The title of Drag Race fan favorite Trixie Mattel’s show, Ages 3 and Up, is clearly profoundly ironic. This stand-up act is filled to the gunnels with comedy that’s either perverse or dark, or sometimes both at once. Oh, and by the way this run is completely SOLD OUT, so keep a sharp eye on producer Spin Cycle’s website for her next engagement (and for that matter, a great variety of Drag Race-related entertainment).

This show is Trixie’s first full-length entry into stand-up, but she’s been honing it for a while, and she clearly has a natural aptitude for the form. Plus, either Trixie or her creative team is paying attention to how the best stand-up acts have been built for some time now – circling in from a highly topical and satirical beginning to a very personal and more thematically serious ending. Everybody from Alec Mapa to Colin Quinn does it like this, and there’s a good reason: it raises stand-up to a higher and much more satisfying plateau.

Trixie’s also very gifted at meta-comedy, getting a secondary laugh when she reads the room’s reaction – or freely admitting she loves a certain bit so she’s keeping it, audience reaction be damned! Though there’s a lot in the show that’s autobiographical, including an actually touching ballad she wrote about lost love, Trixie keeps Drag Race-related stories to a minimum. She plays off her being eliminated twice with a joking bitterness that feels more affected than real, and freely admits that the show profoundly changed her life. Recommended.

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