Review: The Glass Menagerie

Originally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

Finally I’ve actually seen a Glass Menagerie that resembles the wonderful, wistful Tennessee Williams play I’ve read so many times. Director Gordon Edelstein has blown decades of dust off the play by simply treating it as if it were a brilliant new play, by an author whose other works we don’t know. This is Tennessee Williams without any attempt to play a generalized “Tennessee Williams style,” which is so damn refreshing.

For one thing, Tom Wingfield (played with warm humility by Patch Darragh) finally appears onstage as a repressed young gay man. That dimension of the character has been hiding in plain sight on the page for over 60 years, observed by any gay man that read it. Darragh plays that, but with enough subtlety that it never overpowers the central story of Tom’s concern for his beloved sister Laura (Keira Keeley), but rather makes it richer and deeper.

Best of all though, is Judith Ivey’s compassionate but unsentimental interpretation of Tom’s mother Amanda. She’s terrified that her fragile children will be crushed by the hardness of late 1930s St. Louis, Missouri.  She does her best to toughen them up, but ends up damaging them even more.

Amanda is often played as either a monster or as tragically misguided. Ivey has none of that: This Amanda is dysfunctional, to be sure, but no more than any other overbearing, overprotective, loving mother. This Amanda, in the end, is just as fragile as Tom or Laura, maybe even more so — and that’s perhaps the most moving revelation Ivey offers us.

This is how Williams should be done, with no sheen of weepy lyricism, but with clear eyes. Tennessee Williams played without “Tennessee Williams style” but with profound attention to the details of the very specific story and character he introduces us to in the play at hand. This is Tennessee Williams not as a museum piece, but as vibrant, gripping theatre!

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: KT Sullivan & Mark Nadler

Originally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

10 years ago, Soprano KT Sullivan and pianist/entertainer extraordinaire Mark Nadler, starred in a very smart revue of Gershwin songs called American Rhapsody. The two of them packed the stage of the Triad Theatre with more talent than many a Broadway musical, and the show ran for nine months. Now, ten years later, they’re playing an entirely new Gershwin show at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room, titled Gershwin… Here to Stay, and it’s every bit as engaging as American Rhapsody.

Nadler is the showier of the two talents: At one point during American Rhapsody he leapt from floor to piano bench, tap-dancing madly, singing and keeping steady eye contact with the audience—all this while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. He does play, sing and tap dance in the new show, but only two at a time. The result is still pretty stunning.

Stunning, too, is Sullivan’s singing; classically trained, she has also become a master of pop phrasing, bringing the best of both worlds to the Gershwin’s songs. And of course the songs are stunning: I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?

Nadler also does most of the musical arrangements and theatrical conception for the duo’s shows, and he has truly outdone himself here. There’s always some unspoken subtext to the shows that Mark puts together, which actually does give them extra oomph.

Here there seems to be something about angels and demons going on, which beautifully suits Nadler’s manic energy and Sullivan’s smoothly gliding physicality and vocals. He and Sullivan also make excellent use of the Oak Room’s notoriously difficult long and narrow layout, exiting and entering from opposite ends, playing to — and in — every nook and cranny.

For fairly long stretches of the show, Nadler leaves the piano playing to the terrific Jon Weber. In one of the shows most exhilarating moments the two of them do a four-handed piano transcription of George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.” Once again, stunning.

So far 2010 has been a spectacular year for cabaret, with glittering shows like Christine Ebersole knockin’ us flat at the Carlyle, and major talent Marilyn Maye returning to the major rooms with a run at Feinstein’s. GershwinHere to Stay is in that same, electrifying league.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Lea Salonga

Origingally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

I first saw Lea Salonga in the Broadway “revisal” of Flower Drum Song, which gave her some great acting opportunities but gave a lot of the best songs to other performers — though Salonga did turn it out on “A Hundred Thousand Miracles” and “Love, Look Away”. And of course I knew her voice from Princess Jasmine’s limited singing in the Disney animated film Aladdin (Linda Larkin did the lines for Jasmine in that film). I have to admit that I haven’t yet seen Mulan, where Salonga had more to sing.

So I knew this woman could sing, but that’s about all I knew — truth be told, I heard her sing more in her New York cabaret debut at Café Carlyle than I had heard her sing before. And I was suitably impressed! Salonga is a big star in her native Philippines, where she lives now, and her full-throated yet emotionally subtle singing style is surely the reason.

Her Carlyle act is best when Salonga tells her unique story, the path she took in transforming her success in Filipino musical theatre into international stardom as Kim in Miss Saigon on the West End and then Broadway. Included along the way are traditional Filipino songs like “Salamat, Salamat Musica” and “Waray Waray” (the latter, Salonga notes, was sung on the Carlyle stage by Eartha Kitt), as well as “Too Much for One Heart”, a lovely ballad cut from Saigon, and “Reflection”, a big number from Mulan.

She even does a goofy version of “A Whole New World” in which the band members sing Aladdin’s part, comically pointing up how he keeps interrupting Jasmine throughout the song. Salonga dips into the Great American Songbook a couple of times, with Rodgers & Hart’s “My Romance” and the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me”. She has a knack for going to the heart of these songs — I personally would have liked more along these lines. Not the greatest cabaret act ever, but an entertaining way to frame Salonga’s undeniably gorgeous voice.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Temperamentals

Originally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you must see this. Not just because it’s an excellent gay-themed production. Not just because it’s a chance to see Michael Urie of Ugly Betty fame in a live theatre setting, showing some very strong acting chops. No, you must see this because it brings to life an essential but too-little known part of gay history, in a surprisingly moving and engaging way.

The Temperamentals is, more than anything else, the story of two men in love in the early 1950s: sometime actor and constant activist Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan) and the fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Urie). Above and beyond their mutual sexual attraction and romantic feelings, they both passionately commit to building the first gay rights organization in American history, the Mattachine Society.

Urie is winsome and whip-smart as Gernreich, but the performance that most elevates this production is Ryan as Hay. Hay is one of my very few personal heroes, and Ryan vibrantly portrays everything that I found admirable about him: his lightly borne erudition, his love of revolution, his spiritual sense of the place of gays in the world, his puckish humor and his habit of tearing up when politics and music mix (happens all the time to me too).

The Temperamentals is the little show that could. It started in 40-seat black box for a sold out run, and promptly moved to a larger Off-Off-Broadway house. Now, after a bit of a break, it has moved to the New World Stages Off-Broadway complex. Director Jonathan Silverstein has managed to preserve the “you are there” intimacy of the original black box.

Perhaps the most noticeable upgrade is in designer Clint Ramos’s costumes. Several key moments involve Hay discovering his “plumage” — clothes that leave no doubt that the wearer is gay — at first a flamboyant woman’s shawl. In the original production, near the end, Hay put on some vaguely genderfucking outfit that signified his evolution into the founder of the Radical Faeries. It was moving, but now Ryan dons an even more colorful outfit that identifiably resembles clothes Hay actually wore, which deepens the impact.

I repeat – you must see this! This lovely and rewarding show needs to be seen by the broadest audience possible, but for gay men, it is required viewing!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Marilyn Maye

Originally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

Ella Fitzgerald once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world”. I saw her for the first time in her latest club act at Feinstein’s, and I can tell you that’s no exaggeration. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices. However, I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and, yes, vocal range (at 81, her voice may not be what it once was, but it’s certainly still the envy of just about any singer 20 years her junior).

Her new show, “In Love Again” — created exclusively for Feinstein’s — features her signature hits “I Love You Today” by her mentor Steve Allen and one of her most requested songs, “Guess Who I Saw Today.” This is a classic act in every sense of the phrase. Maye is a jazz-pop singer worthy of being included in the company of Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn or Blossom Dearie, and her phrasing is the finest I’ve heard in that style from a living singer.

Her repertoire for the evening ranges from Marlene Dietrich’s signature song “Falling in Love Again” and a dazzling Cole Porter medley to Sondheim, and even Lionel Richie’s “Hello”. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. She’s been enjoying a New York renaissance recently, making critically acclaimed appearances at the Cabaret Convention and the Metropolitan Room.

Her run at Feinstein’s brings her back into “Café Society” and there couldn’t be a more magical marriage of singer and venue. If you love classic songs sung like they’re meant to be sung, it doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Mr. & Mrs. Fitch

Originally reviewed by GaySocialites.com.

I like Douglas Carter Beane a lot, so I’ll try to be kind about Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, a comedy I really wanted to like, but couldn’t. Mostly, I have a lot of questions.

Right off the bat, I want to know: Douglas Carter Beane, do you talk like your two titular gossip columnists at home? Mr. Beane and I are neither that far from being Mr. (or Mrs.) Fitch — urbane New Yorkers reporting on pop culture, trying to find witty ways to respond to often witless stimuli. So I ask again: Douglas, do you talk like these overeducated name-droppers at home? Cuz, overeducated as I might be, I sure as hell don’t.

If Beane’s trying to create a cartoon version of an urbane couple fighting to bar the barbarians from the gate, well, it’s not cartoonish enough. In the very first scene, we feel that we’re in a realistically represented Manhattan apartment, and the too-clever banter rings awfully false. Does Beane mean for us to find them as hollow as they appear? And then expect us to give a damn what happens to them over the course of two acts?

There’s evidence that this wasn’t Beane’s plan. The only part of the play that truly held my attention was the final scene, in which the Fitches experience an epiphany, and find the courage of their convictions, both moral and artistic. The Fitches I glimpse in that final scene were people I wanted to get to know better. That they arrive at such an admirable point suggests that Beane wanted us in some way to identify with them. And because of those hollow first impressions, I never did.

Douglas Carter Beane, I know you are capable of creating characters that are vapid (Sonny in Xanadu) or perhaps even a bit evil (Hollywood agent Diane in Little Dog Laughed), whom the audience somehow still cares about and follow through your plots. My biggest question: How did you fail to do that here?

For tickets, click here.

Review: Yank!

Originally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

Set during World War II, the new musical Yank! follows a young serviceman named Stu (Bobby Steggart) as he nervously explores his attraction to men. Bookwriter David Zellnik has created a compelling voyage of discovery for Stu, as he finds true love, promiscuous sex and underground gay culture in ways that overlap and conflict. Cutie-pie Steggart imbues Stu with a very winning combination of sweet good humor and tender longing.

In fact, this is one of those musicals where the book is often more interesting than the music. The energetic and functional score by Joseph Zellnik (David’s brother) captures the general flavor of 1940s pop, but something’s missing. This is a show that practically begs for music that is jazzy, breaks out and swings, and that rarely happens. I don’t know whether it’s Zellnik’s songs themselves, or the way that they’re arranged and played, but the underlying musical rhythm here is decidedly, and unfortunately, “square.”

One song that does successfully swing is “Click,” in which Artie (Jeffery Denman), a gay reporter for Yank magazine (which gives the show its title) shows Stu the ropes of how one gets laid in this man’s army, through the metaphor of tap dancing. Denman, who’s great fun in the role, also choreographed Yank! and gets points for the lively tap routine. He needs them, because he also gets some demerits for the pretty but pointless dream ballet in Act II. It does indeed stop the show, but in all the wrong ways.

Director Igor Goldin does a marvelous job of keeping the action brisk and fluid. Nancy Anderson playfully portrays a series of radio chanteuses — and a very cagey lesbian army officer. Yank! is amusing and occasionally though provoking; I just have the nagging feeling that there’s a better show in there that hasn’t quite found its way out yet.

For tickets, click here.