Review: Lucie Arnaz

The daughter of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, Lucie Arnaz has forged a career of her own, including originating the role of Sonia Walsk in the hit Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song. In “I Got The Job: Songs From My Musical Past,” her new cabaret act at the newly opened Birdland Theater, Arnaz returns to her theater roots and looks back at some of the roles she has created on stages throughout the world, from her first roles in the Los Angeles area’s best high school for theatre, to a grandmother hanging upside down on a trapeze.

She opens with a mashup of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun and “Got a Lot of Living to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie – she cleverly avoids the chorus of “Show Business.” She does a lot of numbers from Annie Get Your Gun, clearly a favorite role of hers to sing. Same goes for Playing Our Song; she does the title song like gangbusters, and also the 11 O’Clock number “I Still Believe in Love” which she preface’s with a hilarious story about the rewrites it went through.

I wish she’d given even more detail about The Witches of Eastwick, which clearly had some juicy backstage stories she wasn’t telling. She does have a wickedly great time singing the hell out of the devil’s big number “Who’s the Man.” The entire show has a party-like feel, with such a talented and witty host. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Django Festival AllStars

Even though Django Reinhardt, the man who invented “gypsy jazz,” was a full-blooded gypsy himself, the genre has always felt more French than “gypsy” to me; the only things that it takes from traditional gypsy are the use of string instruments (bass, guitar) to create rhythmic effects, and a love of arpeggios. The use of violin and accordion is more redolent of bal-musette, an instrumental variety of Parisian cabaret music. Coming out of a festival of gypsy jazz named for the genre’s founder, The Django Festival AllStars play a particularly vigorous version of the music that incorporates elements of bebop and even jazz fusion, without ever leaving behind the distinctive sound that Reinhardt invented.

Gypsy jazz originated in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when “hot” was a byword for playing jazz hard, fast and fiery. And boy do these AllStars know how to turn on exactly that kind of heat! In particular button-accordionist Ludovic Beier improvises with a blazing intensity and swirling dexterity more often associated with horn players. Violinist Pierre Blanchard knew and was directly influenced by Stéphane Grappelli, Django’s own violin player; once again though, the playing is hotter and more fierce than Grappelli’s, even at times soulful.

Lead guitarist Samson Schmitt comes from a family of gypsy jazz guitarists with connections to Reinhardt (his father played with Django’s son), and while he can effortlessly play with the precision and flash of Beier or Blanchard, he is better thought of as the rock-solid center of this assemblage. Rhythm guitarist DouDou Cuillerier provides the genre-defining beat – provocatively called la pompe – and is also the genial goofball of the group, and proves a skillful vocalist on his single solo turn. Bassist Antonio Licusati has probably the least ostentatious role in this dazzling ensemble, but he supports Cuillerier’s pompe with subtle harmonic inventiveness. Le jazz hot, indeed! Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ravi Coltrane

In performance, jazz saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and his Quartet wander effortlessly across genres, sometimes within a piece, sometimes within moments. Influences from classical, rock and more experimental genres abound. But they never entirely depart from the tradition of avant-garde jazz with a spiritual element, which was his mother Alice Coltrane’s style as well (on the piano, organ and harp). And Ravi is part of a dynasty of forward-looking jazz going back over 70 years, since his father was none other than John Coltrane, arguably the most influential and adventurous saxophonists of the 20th Century.

Coltrane plays jazz of great intensity and density, but with a dexterity and expressiveness that not all such music achieves. This is music that flows like a river, sometimes in a ripple, more often in a overwhelming polyrhythmic torrent. In the case of the quartet’s very faithful rendition of Alice Coltrane’s “Los Cabollos,” that flow keeps accelerating to breathtaking breakneck speeds, while never being less that exactingly precise.

Of Coltrane’s uniformly superior sidemen, drummer Nate Smith was the one who stood out for me the most. It’s easy for a bass or piano to work quotes of other music into their improvisations, but much trickier for untuned percussion. Smith achieves this effect with astonishing frequency – and wit! Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Carmen Jones

Once Anika Noni Rose starts her sultry take on “Dat’s Love” (to the melody of “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera Carmen), you know at least one thing: this Classic Stage Company revival of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones is going to be an evening of beautiful music, beautifully sung. Not in a purely operatic way, but in that style sometimes called “legit,” somewhere between opera and musical comedy.

In adapting Bizet’s opera for the Broadway stage, Hammerstein moved the action from early 19th Century Spain to the American South during World War II. In Hammerstein’s version, Carmen (Rose) is a passionate but fickle and reckless parachute factory worker who desires – and is desired by – many men, including an airman and a prizefighter.

While I’m a great aficionado of opera, I’ve always been ill at ease with the pervasive misogyny and toxic masculinity in the repertoire. Carmen is a big offender in this area, with men vying to possess Carmen, and Carmen herself being portrayed as a “man-eater.” Hammerstein, one of the most humane writers in American literature, helps matters greatly with his more sympathetic portrayal of all involved, but that only makes her murder by the one she loved most all the more senseless, and not “tragic” in any larger sense. Still, the music is irresistible, and it’s hard not to be charmed by Hammerstein’s warmth and wit.

John Doyle’s direction is well within his minimalist, story-centric approach. Sometimes things get a little too still for my taste, but that also means when Bill T. Jones choreography bursts through it’s all the more powerful. It’s finally Rose’s show, though, and she is magnificent. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Paulo Szot

Mr. Showbiz, that’s Paulo Szot! And I mean this as the highest compliment. The man who has always been a master musician – and can hold a note for days – is also a master showman, which makes for a massively entertaining evening.

The openly gay Szot’s voice is a seductive, luscious instrument, a large part of the reason he won a Tony his first time in a Broadway musical (South Pacific) – by the way, it seems like a serious oversight that he hasn’t been back on Broadway since. Never mind, though, he’s doing tours of a Hal Prince-directed Evita in Australia, and playing the lead in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, and as a by-product of that, we get to hear an Evita medley and Bernstein’s “Lonely Town.”

He has incredibly solid musical taste, and real wit about the way he uses it. He talks about his fellow Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim’s collaborations with Frank Sinatra, and then weaves the single showtune Sinatra and Jobim did together, “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” into a South Pacific medley. The absolute high points of this Broadway-centric evening were a reading of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” that is perhaps the most rawly emotion interpretation I’ve ever heard, and the song from South Pacific that has rightly become a signature for Szot, “This Nearly Was Mine.”

Szot is now definitively the total package! So when are we going to get another Broadway appearance, or even some studio albums? Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming became an American citizen in 2008 and his new club act “Legal Immigrant,” happening at both Joe’s Pub and the Café Carlyle, is a pointed response to the current political drama over immigration. He makes clear every song he sings that was written by an immigrant – and it’s most of them, over a wide variety of genres.

Cumming is easily one of the most charismatic performers in America today, his take on songs – by composers ranging from Sondheim to Adele – so very original and fresh, his singing as bold, big and beautiful as can be.

Cumming’s patter is nothing if not frank, and the show as a whole is very emotionally direct, which makes for an experience that is both intimate and expansive. Oh, and did I mention really, really funny? It was his naughty sense of humor as much as anything else that made his Tony-winning turn in the revival of Cabaret a “star-making” one.

He’s just as sassy and silly here, singing a Sondheim medley with a teasing restraint that crescendoes into a roar of heartbreak in “Not A Day Goes By” only to snap back to flirtatious fun with “Old Friends.” Cumming can be hilarious and heartbreaking in the very same moment, no small gift. What a perfect and posh choice for Pride Week. Highly recommended.

For tickets to the Joe’s Pub performances, click here.

For tickets to the Café Carlyle performances, click here.

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

Review: This Was The End

Full disclosure: I’d consider two of the performers in Mabou Mines’s This Was The End an artistic aunt and uncle (even though I’ve never met them). Paul Zimet was in the Open Theatre with my artistic mentors Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman. Black-Eyed Susan was in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, whose one-time Artistic Director, Everett Quinton, I have directed (and been very inspired by) on a couple of occasions. This Was The End is closer to the Open Theatre’s work: abstract, highly visual, experimental, more concerned with theme and image than story.

There are fragments of a story here, the story of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In the play, Vanya asks, “What if I live to be 60?” In This Was The End, director Mallory Catlett probes for answers to that question, along with four luminaries of avant-garde theater all over the age of 60. This Was The End explores themes of loss, memory and aging in a deconstructed yet visceral way.

Zimet, as Vanya, is every bit as amazing as I remember him being (in videos of the Open Theatre’s early 1970s work). In one particularly breathtaking monologue he interacts with onstage sound designer / audio-visual manipulator G. Lucas Crane, imitating the way Crane distorts Zimet’s recorded voice with uncanny precision and accuracy. Sometimes he urges a rhythm to Crane with a spontaneity that feels like jazz improvisation.

Black-Eyed Susan brings whimsy and emotion to the proceedings, while never veering too far from the show’s bittersweet tone. She, like Sonya, the character she plays, injects a ray of hope into Vanya’s dark world. The other actors, Jim Himelsbach and Rae C. Wright are virtuoso actors on a par with Zimet and Susan. If you have a taste for challenging, somewhat abstract avant-garde theater, it doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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