Review: John Standing

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On one of the funnier episodes of Will & Grace Lorraine said to Will: “You’re a natty dresser. Are you English?” To which Will responded: “Oh, no, I’m gay.” “Well, it’s the same thing.” Playwright, songwriter and singer Noël Coward, being both English and gay, was very English and very gay.

John Standing, currently performing Coward songs at the Café Carlyle, may not be gay, but he is himself so incredibly English that he is more than comfortable with Coward’s gayness. On the night that I was there, Standing got a testimonial from no less than Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York — that’s right, kids, the original Fergie. That’s how damn English Standing is.

Standing has no problem putting Coward’s gayest lyrics up front and center. He opens the show speaking the lyrics of “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party,” all of them; several of the less often heard ones are homoerotic double entendres (or even single entendres). Standing delivers them with panache almost equal to Coward’s own. He seems very nearly as racy, worldly and sophisticated as Noël, whom John first met at the age of ten (Standing’s mother, Kay Hammond, played Elvira in the original Broadway production of Blithe Spirit).

Standing readily admits that he has “a voice like a shoe”. That’s not really a problem, however, since he acts every lyric with great style and intelligence (Coward himself had only a serviceable, if expressive, voice). Wit flows and sparkles like champagne in this show and Standing’s deep affection for both Coward and his songs shines through. Fun just doesn’t get more chic than this.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Boys in the Band

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The Boys in the Band for a long time had an unfair reputation as being the worst kind of gay play: full of self-hating homos, representing a whole spectrum of stereotypes. It gained this reputation largely because it was among the first commercially successful gay-themed plays. It was the late sixties, and at the time the more forward-thinking gays in the theatre wanted the general audience to see self-possessed, healthy gay characters. The characters in The Boys in the Band may show flashes of self-possession, but they are neurotic (and alcoholic) as hell.

Now, after 40 years which have seen a wide variety of successful gay-themed American plays, The Boys plays a bit differently. It’s actually an intelligent, even penetrating, examination of internalized homophobia. Even that makes it sound less interesting than it actually is. Some smart theatre person once observed that Chekhov’s The Three Sisters isn’t about three moping women who never get to Moscow, it’s about three exciting, vibrant women fighting like hell to get there. Similarly, Boys is, at its root, about a group of exciting, vibrant men fighting like hell for self-respect and love.

Michael, a recovering alcoholic, hosts a birthday party for his friend Harold in his Upper East Side apartment, with six of their closest friends. The evening begins with this group of friends celebrating, singing and dancing — when left to their own devices these guys are happy. But when the world comes knocking in the form of Michael’s straight college friend Alan — or the form of dysfunctional toxicity between Michael and Harold that emerges when Michael falls off the wagon — staying happy seems like a steeper climb.

Director Jack Cummings III has staged the play in an actual penthouse loft, transformed into Michael’s 1960s apartment. The audience sits on all sides, creating an intimate, three-dimensional environment. This was a very effective choice; being that close to these men allows you to get a really strong read on precisely when the jokes are kind, and when they’re cruel. It’s a solid production that casts an insightful eye toward both gay history and plain old human psychology.

For tickets, click here.

Review: When Joey Married Bobby

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What a startlingly entertaining comedy this is! Sweetly bland gay hunk Joey (Matthew Pender) decides to marry the never-seen Bobby. But, title to one side, that’s not the real story here.

Joey’s Southern socialite mother Sarah Edwards is the real central character, a fantastic comic creation of the Atlanta-based playwrighting team that goes by the name “William Wyatt.” It isn’t that Sarah opposes the wedding as such — she’s glad to see her son happy — but she does have an overwhelming desire to keep up appearances, and that’s the engine that drives most of the play’s comedy.

When Joey Married Bobby is a tasty vehicle for the actress playing Sarah, a well-intentioned slightly-off-her-beam snob, and the diminutive, fast-talking Tina McKissick plays the living daylights out of the part. Her firecracker performance alone is worth the cost of admission.

But Sarah’s not the only comic showpiece that William Wyatt has devised. None other than legendary drag queen Lady Bunny plays the powerful but clueless Baptist Minister’s Wife, Charity Divine (interestingly enough, Charity doesn’t oppose the wedding either, mostly because she’s incredibly self-centered and flighty). Bunny’s been hamming the hell out of her song parodies for ages, and I am delighted to report that she is just as riotously funny milking Wyatt’s dialogue for every possible laugh.

But even though the William Wyatt team has certainly created a satisfying comic entertainment, they haven’t created a play where all of the parts fit well, or every joke lands. There’s plenty that could, no, should be cut here, not because the play is too long (it isn’t), but because they’re laugh lines that just aren’t funny and don’t get laughs.

I recommend that the guys behind When Joey Married Bobby go on what the great director Jack O’Brien calls a “clam hunt”. During the show keep a script in hand and make a mark next to what gets a laugh; the bigger the laugh the bigger the mark. Repeat for several performances to counteract odd audiences. If something you wrote for a laugh has only tiny marks next to it, ditch the sucker. Then, When Joey Married Bobby will not only be a lot of fun (which it already is) it’ll also be airtight.  

For tickets, click here.

Review: Christine Ebersole

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Undiluted pleasure. A major cabaret event, cabaret history, even. So supreme, the very finest entertainment that New York has to offer. Faaaabulous!

All of those would be apt descriptions of Christine Ebersole’s dazzling new show at the Café Carlyle. She has a high mark to live up to: The act that she did in late 2001 at the much-missed cabaret Arci’s Place is the stuff of cabaret legend. It caused me to write that she is “one of those talents that comes along just a handful of times every generation,” something she proved in spades in her Tony-winning run as Little Edie Beale in the Broadway musical Grey Gardens.

I’m delighted to report that this show is in the same league as the Arci’s Place act. First off, Christine is working with the magnificent John Oddo, like she did last year at the Carlyle. Oddo was musical director for the late, great Rosemary Clooney and he worked with jazz legends like Woody Herman, and it shows in the tight, elegant and powerful arrangements and piano playing he brings to the table.

This also finds her reuniting with director Scott Wittman, who has his own Tony for co-writing the score of Hairspray, and who directed that magical Arci’s Place act. Ebersole, Oddo and Wittman are all working at the top of their powers here, and the results are dumbfoundingly fantastic.

The show opens with the band tearing their way through a pounding rendition of “Hawaiian War Chant” effectively building the excitement for Christine’s entrance. Looking gorgeous and glamorous, she raises the temperature further, with, appropriately enough, “Too Darn Hot”.

She then goes into the witty patter that Wittman is so brilliant at helping singers to develop (though few deliver it with the sparkling élan that comes so naturally to Ebersole), letting us know that we are in for a show on hot topics like “sex, politics, religion…and weather!” The comment about weather gets a laugh, but one of the undeniable high points of the evening is a truly thunderous rendition of “Stormy Weather” that goes miles beyond any other rendition I’ve ever heard.

Ebersole also did a wonderful performance in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit on Broadway last season, and ever since has been working on an album (soon to be released) of Coward songs. She does a handful of his songs in the act, including the lyrical “Matelot” and the sentimental “I’ll See You Again”. If this is any indication of how good the album will be, I can hardly wait.

You absolutely, positively must see this; I’m simply not giving you any other option.

For tickets, click here. Seriously. Now.

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Review: Betty Buckley

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It’s no accident that Betty Buckley’s doing a lot of Broadway in her latest cabaret act — “For The Love Of Broadway!” — she says that Feinstein’s got complaints about the jazzier slant of her earlier acts at the club. “We came to see Betty Buckley; we want to hear Broadway, dammit!” She even comically complains about the situation in a very funny specialty number called “When I Belt” written especially for this act by John McDaniel and Eric Kornfeld.

Whether that’s all true or not (it certainly makes for funny patter), it’s a real pleasure to hear her tear into songs as varied as Pal Joey’s “Bewitched,” Avenue Q’s  “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and The Wiz’s “Home.” Musical director Kenny Werner’s arrangements are original and dynamic, and Buckley’s delivery smart, big and powerful. Particularly touching was her take on Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” in which you could almost sense the lover addressed in the song slowly turning away.

The act, however, is a bit on the ballad-heavy side. This breaks what I consider to be one of the few rules about building a solid cabaret act: go easy on the ballads (you want an audience that is in love, not asleep). You can’t fault her often-riveting interpretations, though, and there’s just enough spicy up-tempo stuff to make this a generally enjoyable evening.

For tickets, click here.

Review: A View from the Bridge

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For once, finding homophobia in a play doesn’t offend me. When Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone, the protagonist of A View from the Bridge, says that Rodolpho, a fresh-off-the-boat Italian immigrant, “isn’t right” or is a “punk,” he’s certainly insinuating something about his sexuality.

Clearly, though, the homophobia we’re seeing isn’t a reflection of playwright Arthur Miller’s own attitude toward homosexuality (whatever that might have been). Eddie is covering up the real reason he doesn’t like Rodolpho, namely that the newcomer has very heterosexual intentions towards Eddie’s 17-year-old niece Catherine — to whom Eddie has himself developed an uncomfortably possessive attachment. Also, Miller wrote the play in 1955, a long time before anybody knew what the word homophobia even meant.

It also doesn’t hurt that Eddie is being played with great sensitivity by one of the most intelligent and talented hunks of the American stage and screen, Liev Schreiber. Catherine is being played with equal grace by Scarlett Johansson. Most gratifying is her complete commitment — we feel we’re watching a seasoned stage pro disappear in the part, with not even the slightest hint of a movie star slumming on Broadway.

In fact the entire production is a class act, which director Gregory Mosher has helmed with modest dignity and subtle power. This is my first encounter with this particular Miller play, and I feel like I’ve seen a production that advocates for it very well. It didn’t suddenly become my favorite Miller, but this production is rock-solid theater that I can highly recommend.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: The Orphan’s Home Cycle, Part Two

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Horton Foote’s The Orphan’s Home Cycle follows a modest, honest Texan soul, Horace Robedaux (played with quiet dignity by the handsome Bill Heck), from childhood through adulthood, over the course of nine one-acts spread out over three evenings. Part Two takes place just under 100 years ago, and focuses on Horace’s married life.

The late Foote focused on genuinely humane individuals trying to make worthwhile lives in the face of attacks from the many human monsters that small-town Texas begets. The monsters in this part are less obvious than in the more desolate Part One, but our hero Horace certainly isn’t getting any kind of free ride. No onstage deaths from alcoholism this time, but we hear of a few, and see a few booze addled creatures come and go.

In The Widow Claire, Horace loves the titular lady, but is stymied at every turn — even beaten up at one point —by Val, a violent, whiskey-guzzling moron who is also “courting” Claire. Claire finally agrees to marry a third, older man, leaving Horace in the lurch.

Luckily, he falls even more deeply in love with one Elizabeth Vaughn in Courtship but comes up against her overprotective father (played with great subtlety by James DeMarse). In Valentine’s Day the couple, who had to elope, reconcile with Elizabeth’s father, while Horace finally has enough security to really feel the loss of his father, and abandonment by his mother. The strongest of the three plays, Valentine’s Day brings into sharper focus the themes of the cycle as a whole.

The Orphan’s Home Cycle is emerging as one of the more interesting events of the season — I’ve enjoyed the first two, and am very curious to see how the whole thing comes to a close in Part Three.

For tickets, click here.

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