Review: Jenna Esposito Sings Connie Francis

 

JennaEspositoSingsConnieFrancis-BConnie Francis is perhaps best known for the song “Where The Boys Are,” a perennial favorite among gay men for obvious reasons—who doesn’t want to know where the boys are! But she was a truly multi-talented and versatile performer equally capable of growling blues and down-home country, and she’s still in the top echelon of the best selling female recording artists of all time. She also had an ongoing love affair with the pop and folk music of Europe, and was rightly known for her landmark albums in languages such as Italian, Yiddish and German.

Jenna Esposito, a great young belter, rummages though both Francis’s hits, such as “Stupid Cupid” and “Who’s Sorry Now,” and some terrific obscurities. The show combines the best of a rock concert (a five piece band and backup singers, complete with period vocal arrangements) and the intelligence, elegance and detail one expects from the best cabaret.

In her between-song patter Esposito enthusiastically  tells the story of Francis’s life, exploring the ups and downs, her hidden love with fellow teen idol Bobby Darin, Jenna’s touching personal story of meeting the great lady herself and much else besides. “Jenna Esposito Sings Connie Francis” is a winning throwback to Francis’s late 50s-early 60s heyday, sung by an engaging singer with some serious pipes!

For tickets click here.

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Review: Thank You for Being a Friend

thankyoupre460There’s a cute show somewhere in “Thank You for Being a Friend,” an unauthorized musical parody of “The Golden Girls.” That show would have the same cast and a trimmed version of the same script, but these crazy kids would have to bust their butts rehearsing to transform the uneven mess currently on the stage of the Kraine Theatre into that “cute show.”

In “Thank You,” four women who closely resemble those cheesecake-lovin’ Miami-livin’ sitcom gals get all wound up when gay pop superstar Lance Bass moves next door—his loud outdoor sex parties keep them awake at night! So, you see, the underlying concept is goofy but has potential.

“Thank You” creators Nick Brennan (book) and Luke Jones (lyrics) are quite simply spread too thin. Brennan also plays “Roz” and Jones “Dorothea” and they do a respectable job of imitating the originals. They would be spread much less thin if they didn’t direct (Brennan) and design (Jones). They generally have the right ideas in these areas, but the execution falls far short.

Brennan has structured suspense into the script, but he can’t see from the inside that the pacing is very often lax. When you can’t hear Roz’s lyrics, there’s no-one to tell Brennan “louder.” And Jones’s design is clever and often funny, but it just as often gets in the way—there are so many time-consuming prop and costume bits that actually kill the payoff they should be helping. Jones should definitely leave more to the audience’s imagination.

Plus the warm and noisy Kraine doesn’t feel like the right venue for “Thank You.” The much-missed Fez would have been great—it definitely should be in a quiet, cool place that serves drinks. So perhaps the best way to get pleasure from this intermittently enjoyable spoof would be to have a couple cocktails beforehand at Boiler Room or one of the Second Avenue boy bars, and bring a fan.

For tickets click here.

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Review: The 39 Steps

39 Steps

Thank goodness the small and charming 39 Steps is now playing at the small and charming Helen Hayes Theatre. The first time I saw it at the American Airlines  Theatre, I felt like I was just seeing it in the wrong theater. That’s decidedly the case with this very physical British comic import. Based on John Buchan’s spicy 1915 spy novel and Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film version, it’s meant to be a gag, a giggle, a giddy good time. Its small-scale charms are easily found at the Helen Hayes.

This version of “Steps” is a likable beast, in many ways quite admirable. All the many characters from the film are portrayed by only four actors, who also create all of the film’s settings and effects with great virtuosity and astonishingly minimal means. My recommendation: Get seats as close as you can, and have a cocktail or two beforehand. Enforced intimacy and a couple cups of kindness may allow you to enjoy this sweet, fleet-footed thing the way its creators intended.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com

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Review: Twelfth Night

twelfth night“Twelfth Night” has long been my favorite of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. In it, Shakespeare takes love between people of the same sex very seriously — all you have to do is look at the character names.

The play follows the romantic adventures of Viola (Anne Hathaway) and her identical twin Sebastian (Stark Sands), both shipwrecked in the enchanted dukedom of Illyria. Viola is a poetic name for the violet flower, which Sappho was known to have woven into her garlands; they were also an important part of the religion of the ancient Earth goddess Cybele. Sebastian alludes to St. Sebastian, a martyr who had by Shakespeare’s time appeared in very homoerotic paintings by Botticelli and Titian, among others. Shakespeare was familiar with all these things; using one of those names might have been a coincidence, but using both suggests conscious design.

Director Daniel Sullivan’s production, however, doesn’t dig anywhere near that deep. The more explicit gay content of the play — the baldly declared love of the sailor Antonio for Sebastian, the mix-ups Viola falls into by disguising herself as a boy named Cesario — are dealt with in a refreshingly clear-cut manner. Indeed, for better or worse this is the most straightforward “Twelfth Night” I’ve ever seen.

It’s also one of the most exquisitely cast I’ve ever seen. Hathaway is transcendent as Viola, playing every doubt and surprise (and Viola has many of both) with great detail. David Pittu is magnificent as the wise clown Feste (his performance is the only one that successfully brings out the play’s richer colors of mysticism and melancholy). And the musical settings by folk group Hem are gorgeous — one trio between Pittu, Hathaway and Raul Esparza (as Duke Orsino) is very moving indeed.

I can recommend that you see it for Hathaway’s performance, but I can’t recommend it as “definitive.” Pittu and Hem aside, it’s simply missing the danger, exhilaration and ache this play should have.

Tickets: www.publictheater.org

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

Interview: Euan Morton

EuanMortonFrom June 2009:

Most famous for playing Boy George in Broadway’s “Taboo,” transplanted Scotsman Euan Morton is homesick, and in true show biz fashion, he’s doing a cabaret act to deal with it! 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous songwriter and poet. To celebrate, Scotland is calling ’09 the Year of the Homecoming.

To mark this great occasion and to bring a wee piece of home to New York City, Euan is performing his new Scottish-themed one man show, “Caledonia: Songs for the Homecoming” through the last few weeks in June. I caught up with Euan to ask a few questions about the show and what he’s been up to.

How did this act come about?

It’s a departure from the other cabaret concerts I’ve done. I used to sing all of these Scottish folk songs as a kid — my mum’s a singer and she taught us — but I’ve never done this stuff in public. I’m doing a lot of traditional Scottish music, as well as modern stuff like Annie Lennox’s “Why” and “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. We did it for the first time last night and people really seem to enjoy it. It wasn’t even my idea: I was hanging out with Dessie Moynihan from the Shubert Organization. I told her it was the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth, and Dessie suggested the idea of a Scottish celebration concert — I owe it all to her.

You’re known for playing good-hearted but scandalously outrageous characters — is any of that on display in “Caledonia”?

I can’t go as crazy in cabaret as I can when I’m playing Caligula or Boy George or any of those other riotous men. But the part of me that goes into those characters is definitely something I enjoy playing with onstage. My director Lee Armitage and I are much more organized with this show than other concerts I’ve done before. We’ve actually written a script out, which I haven’t done often before. It’s a really good thing, because my mind sometimes wanders and I say stupid things and repeat myself just before, you know, a tender ballad. Plus, it gives us a chance to consciously draw out those parts of my personality you mentioned, which definitely contrast me with a more traditional cabaret performer.

You’re missing Scotland?

Not just Scotland! I haven’t left the USA since March 2005 — for me that’s strange because from London or Scotland it’s so easy to travel. You can get to Spain for $120 round trip, Amsterdam $80, France $40 and I used to leave the UK four to six times a year. So I miss all those places. I have a reason to go home next year. My little sister is getting married in June 2010; by that time it’ll be six and a half years.

Any dream projects in the works?

I’ve talked about writing my own musical. I’ve always loved the Carpenters. And I’m even more fascinated by the darkness and addictions that come with success. I wanted to write a show about a boy who was obsessed with the Carpenters and ended up living like Karen did. Because no one ever talks about male anorexia. It’s actually much more common than we think. Then I realized he didn’t need to be a Carpenters fan, that in fact that cheapened both the boy’s problem and the memory of Karen. You could just do a show about male eating disorders. People have pooh-poohed the idea but now comes “Next to Normal,” bringing bipolarity to Broadway, so perhaps that’s something I’ll get back into. Writing-wise now I’m working on writing a movie — it’s about a woman who was a fighter in the French Resistance in World War II, who became a leader in it. There were a handful of women like her in the Resistance, but they are rarely recognized. She’s now 105 and she practices the art of the “healing hands.” I’m also involved in two new musicals, leading roles. “Behind the Limelight,” which is the life of Charlie Chaplin and the other is “Caligula,” which I did in the first season of NYMF. Both of those are definitely dream projects, even though, like “Caledonia,” they weren’t necessarily an original idea of mine.

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

Review: The Marvelous Wonderettes

marvelous wonderettesIn “The Marvelous Wonderettes” the 1958 Springfield High School prom — and the 10-year reunion in 1968 — provides the title quartet of choirgirls the opportunity to harmonize to the great hits of those respective eras. You can tell going in that this is pure fluff, strictly intended as entertainment, and on that level it succeeds fairly well.

The hits come non-stop, from “Mister Sandman” to “Son of a Preacher Man” and everything in between, and the singers are terrific with a strong sense of style to match their powerful voices. The crepe-paper-thin plot serves mostly to frame the songs — at best it gives them a bit more oomph, at worst said “plot” is inane nonsense.

It’s all quite contrived, which, given the show’s light-hearted aims, is perfectly fine. At times, however, the show seems cynically calculated, which is less forgivable and dampens the fun. For example, the audience is asked to vote for their favorite girl as prom queen. That seems like a harmlessly amusing way of drawing the audience in and engaging them, right?

Wrong! Those votes are swiftly tossed away, and the prom queen that the plot calls for is promptly crowned. Why did we bother to vote? That borders on contempt for the audience that the creative team otherwise seems so bent on entertaining. That, and a handful of other similar things, isn’t really that big a bummer, but collectively they do mean that “Wonderettes” is merely diverting, rather than the true delight it could so easily have been.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com

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Review: 9 to 5

9to5bway030r_smI had a perfectly good time at “9 to 5,” but it’s not what I might have hoped from the first Dolly Parton musical — there will be others, right? I hope so, because I know so many musical theater queens who are also big Dolly fans. As a matter of fact I’m often struck by how many gays I know, of every stripe, from club kids to alterna-queers, are huge Dolly followers.

And indeed Parton’s score is quite tuneful, with a handful of winners like “Backwoods Barbie” and “Shine Like the Sun,” and a clutch of the best sort of soaring anthems near show’s end. Very few of the songs, though, are anywhere near as instantly memorable as the title tune. This is especially noticeable in a season with such instantly catchy stuff as “Solidarity Forever” from “Billy Elliot” or “I’m Alive” from “Next to Normal.”

Following very closely the plot of the movie on which it’s based, “9 to 5” follows a trio of overworked and undervalue office workers as they hatch a plan to get even with their boss, a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” It’s mostly the performances which make the evening as much fun as it is. Marc Kudisch is much sexier as evil boss Franklin Hart than the film’s Dabney Coleman was, but he’s every bit as deliciously oily and reprehensible.

Megan Hilty successfully channels Parton herself as sexy executive secretary Doralee Rhodes. Stephanie J. Block’s portrayal of newbie Judy Bernly is the biggest departure from the film, giving Judy an extra bit of vulnerability that underlines her place in the story as the woman who undergoes the greatest transformation.

Allison Janney has a bit of a handicap as office manager Violet Newstead — Hilty and Block are both phenomenal singers, and Janney, while strong, is clearly more an actor-singer than the other way round. That said, she’s got the sheer charisma to sell the hell out of a number, and knocks her big number, “One of the Boys,” clear out of the ballpark. “9 to 5” isn’t going to make theater history, but it’s a highly enjoyable ride that I hope has a successful run.

Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com

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