Review: Mean Girls

One of my favorite things about the stage musical adaptation of the film Mean Girls is just how much gayer conceiver and bookwriter Tina Fey has made the character of Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson), who now enters wearing an Alyssa Edwards t-shirt emblazoned with the word “beast” (thank you costume designer Gregg Barnes, for always going the extra gay glam mile). The new dialogue Fey has given him gives teeth to the assertion by his goth gal pal Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) that Damien is “too gay to function.” He even gets to lead a showstopping tap number to open the second act!

Since Fey’s adapting her own screenplay – and since she is one of the canniest living writers of comedy – Damien’s increased luminosity is only one of several improvements on the film. Fey quite rightly adds social media elements to her tale of high-school status-seeking, to appropriately toxic effect. Casey Nicholaw is exactly the right director-choreographer for this material, with crack timing in the books scenes and bristling energy in the dance numbers.

Nicholaw also assembled a truly stellar design team: scenic designer Scott Pask delivered my favorite innovation: a enormous stage-spanning half-circle cyclorama exclusively devoted to providing a canvas for the vivid, imaginative video design of Finn Ross and Adam Young. There’s nothing about the “cyc” that says Mean Girls, that work is done entirely by projection. A similar setup would be really terrific for doing shows in rotating repertory – what a great idea!

This is a show where you do go out singing the book scenes, but not in a bad way – it’s just as entertaining and smart as the film. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Advertisements

Review: Frozen

Bringing to the stage something as spectacular as the Disney animated musical Frozen – an instant classic if there ever was one – is a singular challenge. Thank goodness that the film’s creative team created a very solid thematic and structural basis. There’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s earworm-packed music and lyrics (anybody wanna build a snowman…or just, let it go?). And then there’s Jennifer Lee’s imaginative screenplay, which very effectively satisfies expectations and defies them in equal measure.

For the stage version, thank goodness once again: the Lopezes and Lee have more than ably filled out their score and book. Lee has added detail to the relationship between royal sisters Elsa (a closeted ice sorceress) and Anna (a sheltered adventure seeker), and dimension to the imaginary Northern kingdom of Arendelle which they will one day rule.

In the new songs, the Lopezes have largely maintained the high quality of their film score. The biggest winner among the newbies is “Hygge,” the “charm song” / production number that opens the second act. It’s as delightfully loopy as any Mel Brooks showstopper, with sauna-centric choreography by Rob Ashford that gleefully recalls burlesque. Stephen Oremus works his usual magic with the orchestrations, giving this version a more specifically Scandinavian flair while pulling out all the stops when needed.

But any take on Frozen stands or falls on its Elsa. Caissie Levy is the one called to “Let It Go” in the glorious anthem of female self-empowerment that’s the show’s breakout hit. She’s got the high notes and the emotional heft needed, and she’s given a lift from an astonishing costume change from designer Christopher Oram and icily brilliant lighting from Natasha Katz. The rest of the cast are all just as excellent, especially Patti Murin who plays Anna with great warmth and comic ingenuity.

As always I have a smattering of issues. Does every major character have to have a heartfelt ballad in Act II? I mean it’s not a big enough problem to constitute proper “second act trouble” but it makes for some slight drag. Also, many of the theatrical tricks director Michael Grandage uses to make the Frozen magic are old-fashioned; which wouldn’t be a problem at all, really, except a small handful of them feel old-fashioned.

These are the merest of quibbles, and if you loved Frozen the film, you’ll find much to enjoy in Frozen: The Broadway Musical. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christine Ebersole

This is the very pinnacle of cabaret. I never miss a single cabaret show by Christine Ebersole, because they are almost guaranteed to be exceptional. One of her finest – and the first one I saw – she built around the theme of her becoming an adoptive mother. The current one, titled “After the Ball,” finds her on the other end of that journey, dealing with becoming an empty nester, but also looking forward “to my approaching dotage” (a phrase she utters with comically bright cheer). And wouldn’t you know it, this act nearly matches the excellence of that other one long ago. Truly stellar cabaret – you shouldn’t miss it.

One of the things that most astonishes me about Ebersole is her exquisite taste when it comes to vocal interpretation. She flawlessly senses when to give a song a semi-operatic vibrato, when to belt it, and when to speak-sing. For example, she assays “What Did You Do to Your Face” a folk song by Susan Werner about plastic surgery, with a spoken passage here, a slightly syncopated moment of doubt there. But when she sings Al Jolson’s hit “Toot, Toot Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” she gives it a shake-the-rafters belt that would probably intimidate Jolson himself.

The act takes a decisively rueful, reflective turn when she ruminates on the ways her children were never 100% from her. Her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” has real ache. But she also finds the humor in the situation, as when she comments on one child’s mathematical genius – “she didn’t get that from me,” she laughs, “the most she got from this cabaret singer was ‘snap on 2 and 4!’”

The final arc of the act finds Ebersole girding her loins to take on the future, most comically in Peggy Lee’s “Ready to Begin Again.” She takes inspiration from her own parents, and goes out on a high note. Very personal, and damned good. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Scott Thompson / Buddy Cole

“He was one of those faggots that made respectable gays so uncomfortable.” Thus said Buddy Cole, the fey martini-drinking creation of comedian Scott Thompson. This was from a monologue that Scott / Buddy did on Canadian sketch comedy show Kids in the Hall. It was about a friend of Buddy’s, but he could have been talking about himself. Now Thompson has revived Buddy for a tour called Aprés Le Dèluge which just had a sold out run at Joe’s Pub, a collection of about 10 monologues set in various years between 1995 (when Kids went off the air) and today.

In these monologues, buddy covers a variety of issues from straight men to having children – Buddy chose to have an imaginary child (“so much simpler!”) – to adventures with Uday Hussein while dressed in a burqa. Things get really hilarious when we get to the present day, when Buddy encourages trans kids to fight their corner, and observes “Thank goodness they changed the word for # from ‘pound sign’ to ‘hashtag’ because #MeToo would mean something completely different.”

The wild audience response at Joe’s Pub indicates there’s a real hunger for Cole’s scandalous super-gay brand of comedy; I certainly could use a lot more of it myself. To quote Buddy one last time “As Molière said to Guy de Maupassant at a café in Vienna, ‘That’s nice. You should write that down.’”

Aprés Le Dèluge upcoming tour dates:

April 5-7: Boston, ONCE Somerville

April 9: Denver, The Oriental Theater

April 19-21: Austin, Moontower Comedy Festival

April 28: Los Angeles, UCB Franklin

May 30-June 3: Chicago, The Onion Comedy and Arts Festival

For tickets to other Joe’s Pub events, click here.

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

Review: Three Tall Women

I’ll call it: chances are very good that Dame Glenda Jackson is going to get a Tony nomination for her spectacular performance in Three Tall Women. In the current Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s 1991 play, Jackson plays a wealthy widow looking back on her life, first to a captive audience – a 56-year-old caretaker and a 26-year-old legal professional – then in an impressionistic dialogue with herself at those women’s ages.

Jackson returns to the Broadway stage after a 30-year absence, giving a masterful performance that is by turns imperious, hilarious and mesmerizing. Laurie Metcalf also rivets your attention with her drolly nuanced take on the middle-aged role. Alison Pill has much less to work with in the remaining role, but she acquits herself well in this impressive company, no small feat.

Joe Mantello’s direction is supremely tidy. He’s cast the play with talent that’s beyond incredible, and he just lets the actors go about their work while keeping them out of each other’s way. Honestly I think that its really easy for Pill and Metcalf to throw their focus to Jackson – they’re as excited to see her do her stuff as we are.

Mantello’s work dovetails beautifully with Miriam Buether’s elegant and functional set design. The set suggests taking steps in and out of “reality” in a marvelously understated way. The production is exquisite in every possible way: visually, intellectually, emotionally, artistically and on and on. Very highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Rocktopia

As corny as this might be, there is no resisting the visceral power of an amplified symphony orchestra blasting the most crowd-pleasing classic rock out there. The concert opens with Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey and segues directly into The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which is tantamount to saying: “Yes, this is exactly what you expected it would be.” Which is a whole lot of cliched yet still powerful classic rock fun.

Rocktopia takes a slightly surprising turn when it pairs Handel’s aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” – which also appeared earlier this season as the thrilling finale of Farinelli and the King – with Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Less obvious and genuinely clever. The evening as a whole leans toward the pleasantly accessible.

The only real failure is a too-gentle version of Led Zeppelin powerhouse “Kashmir” accompanied by images, not of the region of India that gives the song its name and sound, but of Egypt. Wha? The only right-on element in this song was the gorgeous vocal of Pat Monahan from the band Train.

Which bring me to the most rock-solid part of the show: the vocals. Guest star Monahan makes several appearances, mostly covering Zeppelin which is perfect for his voice. The most consistently magnificent – and versatile – singer is Chloe Lowery, who pairs fantastic range with a flair for dramatic builds. Tony Vincent, a personal favorite, brings his soaring tenor vocals and incandescent glam-rock fire to lots of Freddie Mercury material, but also, most unexpectedly and thrillingly to Muse’s “Uprising.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Piramo e Tisbe

What a gorgeous piece of music from an unjustly forgotten composer! Johann Adolph Hasse was one of the most important opera composers between Handel and Mozart. He was a proponent of a style of music called galant or empfindsamer stil (“sensitive style”), more interested in melody than the earlier Baroque style, but more ornamented than the Classical style that would follow. By the time he wrote Piramo e Tisbe (1768) – based on an ancient tale of star-crossed lovers that inspired Romeo & Juliet – this style was falling out of fashion, but Hasse bucked prevailing trends to write an opera that was among the most melodically elaborate he ever wrote.

Director Phillip Shneidman sets the action in a vaguely contemporary setting to mixed effect; Alex Basco Koch’s subtle projection design gives the production some appropriately melancholy atmospherics. Musically, this luscious opera is being given a gorgeous account under the baton of New Vintage Baroque’s Elliot Figg.

Most of the vocal pyrotechnics go to the cross-dressed “pants role” Piramo, and mezzo Kristin Gornstein makes a musically brilliant and powerful impact in the role. Soprano Kelly Curtin’s role Tisbe is full of expressive passages, and she delivers them with elegance and strength. In the role of Tisbe’s father, known only as Padre, tenor Glenn Seven Allen deftly negotiates a role that demands a balance of galant lightness and a father’s stony fury. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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