Review: Jinkx Moonsoon & Major Scales

Picture a maniac Jinkx Monsoon being psychoanalyzed by her musical counterpart, pianist / composer / raconteur Major Scales. This show features almost entirely original music, all from her album The Ginger Snapped, also the title of the show. This is a return engagement, and the show has definitely grown into something more hilarious and special.

Their first New York cabaret show, The Vaudevillians, was such a runaway success that it’s become a running joke in their shows that “I think the audience was expecting The Vaudevillians. Oops!” While good for a laugh, that self-deprecation isn’t necessary, since this show is equally accomplished – certainly it digs into deeper themes.

Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition. The material from the album is heavily influenced by New Wave (heck the B-52’s Fred Schneider even guests on one track). They’ve traded the glam medical smocks they wore during the show’s first run (pictured above) for simpler, chicer outfits. Simple yet fabulous.

The Ginger Snapped is light years more thoughtful, tuneful and original than your typical cabaret drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. Very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress set out to do a nondescript cabaret show with what she thought was the rather generic name of “Sets in the City.” But as so often happens when putting a good cabaret act together, a show name or a group of songs reveal more than you intended. Liz Callaway has ended up with a show that deals with some pretty serious themes of nostalgia, New York, and the changing landscape of urbanism – with some grand belting, emoting and storytelling in the process. Not very nondescript, is it?

Callaway has a muscular Broadway soprano, and she can deliver both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted song interpretation. She opens with Cole Porter’s heartfelt “I Happen to Like New York” – or at least she reveals how truly heartfelt the song is. Then she launches into Ed Kleban’s masterfully written “Better” and Bacharach and David’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” – for no better reason than they’re great songs, she sounds great singing them, and music director Alex Rybeck has devised glittering, inventive arrangements for them.

Touching on the theme of nostalgia, she sings Irving Berlin’s “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” cuz she sang it in a review at Rainbow and Stars. More personally she sings Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Something Beautiful” because she discovered that the song is about a photograph Lynn Ahrens’s father had taken of a tree – a tree that happened to be in Central Park (back, inevitably, to “the city”). There’s more to the song, and the way Liz sings it, but I can’t give everything away.

But the definitive tear-jerker comes – as it often does with Liz – totally from left field. Callaway embraces the lost masterpiece that is Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe” with an ebullience, joy and hope that cut to the heart of what makes the song great. I can’t convey to you the way this made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and brought a tear to my I eye; I mean “Oh my god you guys Liz Callaway is totally singing ‘Land of Make Believe’!!!” really isn’t saying it right. It might give a clue to this magic, that this song was an anthem at 1970s multicultural queer club The Loft, one of the touchstones of that ineffable, indescribable something that has made this city special from time immemorial. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Everett Quinton in “Galas”

I have had the great pleasure of directing Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton twice, in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea. The Williams play got some terrific reviews, which you can read here (and you can see some lovely photos here). Charles Ludlam was perhaps the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement, and Everett was his partner in art and life.

Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Ludlam’s fictionalized tribute to opera diva Maria Callas, entitled Galas, in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run. I sat down with this humble genius to talk about it.

So how did this revival of Galas come about?

It was suggested last fall. I’ve been working with the Yorick Theatre Company. Chris Johnson, who is the Artistic Director of Yorick, talked with Pastor Mark Erson who is the Artistic Director of Theatre at St. John’s Church on Christoper Street, where Yorick performs. They came up with the idea of doing Galas – because of the Stonewall 50th anniversary and World Pride – suggested it to me and I said “good.”

Is this a role you’ve wanted to do?

Yeah, people over the years have suggested it, but there was never the opportunity to do it. Now that it has, I’d be a fool to say no; its a terrific part. I’m having fun with it. When you’re directing it and you’re in it, like I am with this, there are so many pots on the stove. But now me and the other actors are starting to cook! [Laughs] I love the actors in this group, they’re a wonderful group and we’re finding our way.

There’s humor in everything Charles wrote, but am I right in thinking this is one of his more serious plays?

It does play as more serious, yes. That’s the beauty of it. It starts out one way and it flips midway, which is not accidental on Charles’s part. You carefully study the script and he sets up the flip early on. I’m really enjoying exploring that. When I was in the original production, for which I also did the costumes, I didn’t worry about the big picture. So that’s a joy of this production for me. It’s around this time that Charles blossoms from a good writer into a really fabulous one, so skillful. We all improve as we go along, right?

Funny thing is, this big play was originally supposed to be a two-hander for me and him, about an actress and her maid. I don’t know what was going on at the time that provoked him to turn it into a life of Maria Callas. Because usually that’s the way he worked, something in the air tweaked him.

I know this is fictionalized – she’s named Galas not Callas – but I recall that it actually tracks pretty closely with Callas’s life.

Pretty closely, except there’s a couple of things I couldn’t make sense of and then I realized that’s the fictionalized part. I thought I knew from the original production that the last act takes place in Paris – and it doesn’t [Laughs], that’s the fictional part. But it is a close tribute, and I’m using her speaking voice. All of the scene changes are her singing.

I love that Callas demanded a dollar more than all her contemporaries – she would say “so-and-so’s getting so much so I want a dollar more.” I love her arrogance, and when you realize who those contemporaries were, you realize oh my God she had cojones, she had ovaries. [Laughs]

Are you an opera fan yourself?

A fan, yeah. I have no intellectual conceptions about it, I just love it. Tony Randall called it the greatest of art forms, which is arguable. Those singers just do so many wonderful things. I mean I walk around the apartment pretending to be one. When I got the costumes for the original production, I had a decent budget and I found this beautiful green dress for Charles to wear as Galas. But when I first got it home, I wore it and went around the apartment pretending I was soprano Shirley Verrett [Laughs]. So I’m a lip synch opera queen. Charles liked opera but there were bigger opera queens in the company and our chatter could annoy him. I called it “gay baseball,” we talk about opera and musicals like straight guys talk about baseball.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mark Nadler

Cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, leaping from floor to piano bench, keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all the while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. In “The Old Razzle Dazzle,” his new show about lies, lying and liars, Nadler plays and sings with his usual virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with his usual passionate intelligence. And as usual, the show is stunning, perhaps among his best.

Also, a Mark Nadler show is always working on at least 3 or 4 tracks of thought. With the subject being lies, it’s pretty obvious that the current occupant of the White House is the ultimate target. But Nadler takes his time getting there. He starts out with the white lie, enumerated in Dave Frishberg’s “Blizzard of Lies” – which already starts getting political with lines like “I didn’t inhale” and “I am not a crook.”

Then he launches into the lies we say to children with a tellingly long medley – he starts with “Wishing on a Star” and ends with the thought of “if all else fails scare the bejesus out of them” before launching into “Oogie Boogie’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Early in the show, Nadler says “everything in this show is a lie” but it pretty quickly becomes clear that itself is a lie. Oh there are plenty of outrageous lies in the show, but the most important parts are true, and many of the worst lies are delivered with heavy sarcasm. The line, however, does have the positive effect of encouraging a skeptical frame of mind.

I don’t want to give everything away, but I’ll say that some of the most affecting moments deal with romantic self-deception – especially “The Lies of Handsome Men” and the Alan Menken rarity “Lie to Me” – and when Nadler does finally get to the egregious lies of the current administration, he does it with a tap dance. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Shuga Cain

Who knew that Drag Race alum Shuga Cain named herself after Shug Avery, the juke joint singer from The Color Purple! Just to make the point crystal clear, in her cabaret act Sweet Dreams Shuga does numbers from not one but two different versions of The Color Purple.

From the movie – which she identifies as the film that most inpired her personally and artistically – she does Shug’s love song to Miss Celie “Sister.” It’s the only song Cain sings live (all the others are lip synchs), and she’s very self-depricating about the quality of her singing. She doesn’t have to be: she’s better than a lot of ladymen from the show, and could definitely do more of it in her act. The other Color Purple song she does is a lip synch of “I’m Here” as sung by Cynthia Erivo in the stage musical. She nails this one to the ceiling, making it a fitting climax to her act.

Her show, called Sweet Dreams, is very much in the autobiographical mode of many solo drag shows. What sets Shuga apart though, is the chatty just-between-us-gurls tone that makes you feel that she’s talking to just you. It’s clear that she primarily considers herself a comedy queen – she attributes her allegedly sub-par singing to “too much tequila and dick” – and she is indeed a laugh and a half. Cain also happily identifies herself as an “80s baby” and does a megamix by divas such as Janet, Whitney, Mariah and the like, which she delivers with high-energy bounce. The whole evening is boisterous fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Unitard

Hard-hitting, R-rated, queer as fuck sketch comedy is what this trio does. I mean their new show is called Badassy which kind of tells you what you need to know. They all have other careers, Mike Albo as a writer, Nora Burns and David Ilku as actors, but there’s a special, danagerous alchemy that happens when they come together as Unitard.

The opening salvos in Badassy are a “hanky code” parody whose targets range far and wide, followed by a sketch about a pair of New Yorkers (Burns and Albo) complaining about the Donald’s vile capers, while their waiter (Ilku) is playing a darker game only revealed at the end. Later in the show, all three participate in a “name that school shooting” sketch that breaks down in a very meta way, as the trio speaks in their voices about the limits of comedy.

While group sketches make up most of the show, some of the best moments are solo moments. Burns is hilarious as a particularly preening version of Ann Coulter. When Albo faces some credit card problems, he is subjected to an increasingly embarrasing accounting of his spending (in a voice-over by Ilku) in which the card company rep has insight into his most mortifying motives.

I think my favorite though is when Ilku, as an older but still hopping club kid, let’s you know in ballroom lingo all the things he hates and loves. He hates being co-opted by Pose, for one. But then, in the bit’s climax, he joyously namechecks all the greats of New York drag, performance art and music who are still at it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chita Rivera

This lady never falters. Her latest act at 54 Below is largely songs and stories from Rivera’s epic Broadway career. She opens with a snippet of “Nowadays” (which she gives a fuller reading later on) before lauching full force into “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Then it’s dancing Chita – still incredibly limber at 86 – for “A Lot of Living to Do.” The song wasn’t hers in Bye Bye Birdie but boy does she make it her own.

Chita was always at her best playing “existential musical comedy” and thus became the muse for people with that aesthetic, first Bob Fosse, but then, more deeply, Fred Ebb and John Kander. No shock then that the majority of songs in the show come from a collaboration with either Fosse or Kander & Ebb.

Rivera has tons of razzle dazzle that amplifies her already great theatrical presence. She holds nothing back in this act. This diva is cutting loose as only she can. When she sings “Where Am Going” from Sweet Charity, she sheds new light not only on that song, but on all of Sweet Charity. She plays it as a philosophical awakening for an already worldly woman, making the song as profound as the Fellini film that inspired the musical.

She almost launches into “All That Jazz,” the most spectacular of her many signature Kander & Ebb numbers, at the top of the show. When she finally does it as her finale, it’s more than satisfying, it’s positively gratifying. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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