Review: La Cage Aux Folles

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Nobody covers drag queens like I do! For well over 10 years, I’ve been to every nook and cranny of this dirty town to see all kinds of drag acts. All I needed from them was a press release that let me know that they’d done something with their act to bring it to the level of a cabaret performance or a theatrical evening, and I’d be there. And like any show queen worth their salt, I’ve also seen plenty of plain old drag shows in bars from the glitzy to the grimy. Often enough, I’d find the greatest geniuses lip-synching in the bars, and the biggest fakes charging legit prices for their wares in Midtown.

So when I heard that Brit director Terry Johnson had concocted a production of La Cage aux Folles that had more to do with grimy gay bar geniuses than Vegas glitter, I was deeply intrigued. That production, originally at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, has made it to Broadway, and I have to say that it’s the most authentic, fun and touching version of this drag-centric story I’ve ever even heard of.

Georges (Kelsey Grammer) is the impresario of a trashy but charming drag club in St. Tropez on the French Riviera, where his husband, high-strung drag performer Albin (Douglas Hodge), is the star. They lead a happy existence, until their son announces his engagement to the daughter of a conservative right-wing politician — who’s coming to dinner.

This production announces its intentions right away, with its drag chorus, Les Cagelles. They’re not the collection of drag chorines you see in other productions of La Cage. They are six individual drag queens corralled into performing together. The casting of such distinctive performers as Terry Lavell, Nick Adams and Sean Patrick Doyle signals right away that any of the girls they play could headline. I’m not as familiar with the other Cagelles, but they make just as sharp an impression.

I also don’t think I’ve seen an Albin that’s as believably a drag diva as the one Hodge gives us. He doesn’t just add a fey layer to the songs he sings, as some Albins do. He sings this line as Piaf, this line as Dietrich, and his line readings are every bit as delicately over-the-top as, say, Charles Busch. Grammer has a surprising sweetness and warmth as Georges, and together they are a truly endearing couple.

Johnson has also taken great care to create the world of 1970s St. Tropez, the better to make sense of the place that Albin and George have in it. There are certain locals who “get” them, some others not quite so much. Johnson has brought a level of realism and detail that La Cage has never had before, making it more poignant, stirring and tender — and more entertaining — than ever before.

For tickets, click here.

Review: My Trip Down the Pink Carpet

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This blog has the tag line “What’s Good and What’s Gay in New York Theatre and Cabaret.” Well, queens, it doesn’t get much better — or much gayer — than Leslie Jordan’s one-man show My Trip Down the Pink Carpet. Leslie, who describes himself as “the gayest man I know,” also claims that he was put on this Earth to be a comic scene-stealer (who met his only match playing opposite Megan Mullally on Will & Grace). This innate gift gives the fey, diminutive Jordan more than enough power to thoroughly command a stage all by himself.

Pink Carpet isn’t just a laugh-so-hard-you-cry look at the world through ultra-gay eyes (though it is that in spades), it’s also an often moving look at the very best and worst of what gay culture has to offer. Every so often loud disco music interrupts and Leslie gleefully yelps “Gay Bar Music!!!!” as he launches into some first-class disco dancing. There’s a particularly funny bit where Jordan demonstrates “how we dance,” making hilarious distinctions between “butch queens” and “just queens — because honey, they’re all queens!”

He also looks at the profound self-doubt that comes with growing up and gay and hyper-effeminate in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the booze and drugs he used to overcome that doubt. As emotional as things might get, though, a laugh is never far off in this show, whether it’s about Jordan’s active fantasy life that he shares with his diary, or outlandish reports of “how I got that role.” Mostly there’s a lot of dish about Hollywood: No outing, but we definitely get the lowdown on who is truly crushworthy in person — and who is nothing but a mean, nasty bitch.

I can’t think of another autobiographical show that is more pure, unadulterated fun than Pink Carpet — it makes a convincing case for Jordan being one of the very greatest gay comic talents of our time.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Red

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Alfred Molina, playing great American abstract painter Mark Rothko in Red, makes you feel that the act of painting is the noblest thing one could possibly do, the only thing really worth doing. You feel like you should be painting, and asking the same questions about painting that Rothko does, demanding as much from art as he does.

Playwright John Logan shows us Rothko in 1958, having received an immense commission: he is to create a series of murals for the then-new Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue. Rothko hires a young assistant, Ken (played by Eddie Redmayne) to help him finish this immense task.

At the heart of the play are exchanges, often heated ones, between Rothko and Ken, about art. It is to Logan’s great credit that these conversations never become dry or academic; art is vitally important to both Ken and Rothko, and we are made to feel their passion in a very immediate way.

Rothko’s high seriousness is both inspiring and challenging to anyone involved in the arts. At times Rothko asks too much of both art and people; Logan has wisely used the character of Ken to give articulate voice to criticisms a person could validly level at Rothko — a person who cares as deeply about art as Rothko does, but thinks differently about it. Rothko, in his turn, is allowed to defend himself, sometime intelligently, sometimes irrationally.

Personally, I find art and intellect very hot, and Red is very sexy indeed in the fervent hands of Molina (all weighty, glowering intensity) and Redmayne (all wiry, youthful zeal). Director Michael Grandage keeps the ball bouncing with great concentration, never letting the pace lag for a second. I haven’t been as stimulated in a Broadway theatre, in all different kinds of ways, for quite some time.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Lend Me a Tenor

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Playwright Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor has been a favorite of community theatre since its original Broadway production closed some 20 years ago. It’s light, funny and set in 1930s Middle America (Cleveland to be exact). Its operatic subject matter may give it a sheen of highbrow snob appeal, but most of the time Ludwig aims for big, lowbrow laughs.

Tito Merelli (Anthony LaPaglia), a flamboyant Italian divo, arrives in Cleveland, Ohio to sing a benefit performance of Verdi’s Otello with the local opera. He’s not feeling well, and, through a series of blunders, he takes too many sleeping pills and can’t be roused in time for the performance.  Local impresario Saunders (Tony Shaloub) conspires with his ambitious assistant Max (Justin Bartha) to cover for Tito’s absence. This is farce, so chaos reigns supreme by Act II.

Stanley Tucci, making his Broadway directorial debut, has put together a very game and fun-loving cast who are plainly having a great time hamming this silliness up. Tony Shaloub may be having just a little too much fun, as he has a tendency here to milk his comic moments, getting laughs for himself, sure, but slowing down the frantic pace that is the soul of successful farce. On the other hand, Jan Maxwell, as Merelli’s hot-headed wife Maria, shows us all how it’s done, going way over the top as she zooms through the long-suffering woman’s jealous hysteria.

Justin Bartha does a fine job as the good hearted guy caught in the middle. Max is the sentimental center of the play, and Bartha plays even his goofiest moments with great charm and warmth. LaPaglia plays Merelli with a raffish charisma, lending credence to both his philandering and his generosity.

This isn’t deep. It’s easygoing fun, and Tucci’s production plays to those virtues. Now if only he could get Shaloub to just pick it up a little…

For tickets, click here.

Review: Come Fly Away

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It’s not entirely random that Twyla Tharp would follow her successful Billy Joel “dance musical” (Movin’ Out) and her unsuccessful Bob Dylan show (The Times They Are A-Changing), with another evening-length Broadway dance extravaganza to the music of Frank Sinatra. She’s been choreographing to Sinatra’s music since the late ‘70s, both short dances and evening-length works.

I’d have been happier with a collection of those pieces, with no attempt at connecting them, than sit through the ultimately pointless and boring narrative — about four couples falling in and out of love at a crowded nightclub — of Come Fly Away. I’m not a big fan of Sinatra’s work, so I’m a little surprised that music, not dance, was the most exciting part of the evening for me.

A few of the dances are done to the recorded versions of Frank’s songs that we’re familiar with. But most feature his vocals (or that of a live female singer) with new arrangements played by a crack onstage band. You could close your eyes, and experience the evening as an extraordinary musical celebration of vocal jazz and the Great American Songbook.

I’m not say the dancing isn’t great — it is in fact really, really good. Choreographically, this is as much a tribute to jazz music and jazz dancing in general as it is to Sinatra personally. Tharp quotes and gently parodies the great innovators of jazz dance like Hermes Pan, Katherine Dunham, Jack Cole and Gower Champion, throwing her own modern dance moves into to the mix to create technically dazzling dances, which are performed by an equally stunning company of dancers.

But Come Fly Away is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. By forcing these set pieces into a very loose narrative, she dissipates what power they have on their own. The story is unclear and awkward; there should either be a lot more of it, or much, much less. It’s an impressive evening, but only intermittently rewarding in any way.

For tickets, click here.