Review: Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein takes up residence in the New York nightclub that bears his name every year in December, to celebrate the holidays, more specifically to celebrate holiday songs. In this year’s edition, titled “Swinging in the Holidays”, Michael artfully blends holiday favorites and classic standards, sometimes in medleys, sometimes by giving a classic holiday song a fresh take.

And Feinstein’s serious about “swinging”: his longtime Musical Director John Oddo leads a 12-piece ensemble called the Winter Wonderland Big Band, upping the excitement that is always present in Oddo’s arrangements, without ever abandoning the elegant and tasteful restraint that’s his hallmark.

The show opens with a medley of songs by legendary Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman, who will celebrate his 80th birthday next year. Never one to go for the obvious, Michael opens with the non-holiday Herman classic “Before the Parade Passes By” before launching into the more timely “We Need a Little Christmas” and “The Best Christmas of All”.

Ingenious: by starting with “Parade” Feinstein places emphasis on savoring the time we get to spend with loved ones at this time of year. That emphasis runs thematically throughout the entire show, in a sophisticated way that steers clear of easy sentimentality, in favor of an awareness that being with them is by no means a given (a rueful medley of “For All We Know” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” towards the end brings this idea powerfully home).

All this, and it’s also a genuinely swinging good time. Feinstein and company playfully swing “The Dreidel Song” in the style of Sinatra at his most swaggering (Michael Solves the Swinging Chanukah Riddle?). And he sounds fabulous doing it: Feinstein is without a doubt in the best voice of his career. Vocally, he’s gone from strength to strength, and now he’s really soaring and belting with the best of them, holding some ridiculously long high notes at the evening’s climax. Above all, this seasonal gathering simply put on a really engaging show that adds both heartfelt warmth and chic fun to the holiday season.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Elf

As often happens with screen to stage adaptations, I haven’t seen the movie on which Elf, the musical is based. I may see it now, because I certainly like the underlying story, and the wry but sweet sensibility at work. That underlying story follows Buddy (Sebastian Arcelas), one of Santa’s elves who discovers that he is in fact not an elf but a human. Buddy goes to New York City to find his father – who turns out to be a jerk-faced mid-level publishing exec. Sentimental holiday-themed transformations ensue as sure as winter follows autumn.

David Rockwell’s sets are an angular love letter to Manhattan, with a dash more panache than other stage skylines we’ve seen. Arcelas works overtime to live up to Buddy’s explosively cheerful naivete. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with particularly hilarious work from Michael Mandell as a busybody Macy’s Santaland manager.

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw has successfully balanced the tricky tone of the show; with the first couple of numbers, I was a little concerned about going into sugar shock from the overweening sweetness. As the show progressed, though, I realized this was necessary for building a contrast between smiley Christmas-town and cynical NYC. The score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin is sturdy and bouncy, if only intermittently memorable – though the melody of “The Story of Buddy the Elf” will stay in you head for days.

Elf doesn’t rework its cinematic source material as effortlessly as, say, Hairspray or The Producers, but it does manage to wring some real warmth out of what have could have been a very by-the-numbers operation. And it also bears saying the kids in the audience seemed to be having a ball, which is what really matters with a show like this. No musical theatre history being made here – and not likely many awards to be won – but Elf is solid, workmanlike family entertainment.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Long Story Short

Colin Quinn starts out Long Story Short in off-hand, stand-up mode, with smart, slightly off-center observational humor. He relates some of the jokes to cavemen, and slides effortlessly into humor that observes not only how we behave in the supermarket, but the entirety of human history from the aforementioned caveman onwards.

Long Story Short is bigger and smarter than your usual stand-up, but it never totally leaves that sphere; no virtuoso character comedy a la Lily Tomlin or Jonny McGovern here. Just lots of jokes and quips that aim to bring the rise and fall of empires down to a comprehensible human scale.

In going for the joke, the always funny Quinn sometimes fudges the details, but never misses the essence of the time or place he’s examining. For example, the Ancient Greeks may not have been the first self-aware people as he suggests – he doesn’t give the Ancient Indians or Egyptians their due, as far as I’m concerned – but they unquestionably took that awareness to new heights.

Quinn is a sharp-eyes satirist, looking at what undermined each new nation’s ambitions for world domination. His take on history decidedly comes from a tough guy point of view, or at least from the point of view that’s been formed by being around tough guys. That said, his construction of history as an ongoing wrangling between tough guys and smart guys for the upper hand rings true.

Quinn sometimes veers dangerously close to stereotyping ethnic humor from the bad old days, but generally gets at the truth behind that humor. While world history is the shtick here, Quinn’s sharpest observations are about the Iraq war, which he describes as a scuffle in the parking lot outside the imperial main event that gets out of hand. I’m not sure that I would pay full Broadway prices for this jaunty, slight show, but it’s enough of a thought-provoking good time to justify getting a bargain ticket.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Pee-Wee Herman Show

What a load of fun! In the late 1970s, comedian Paul Reubens created the Pee-Wee Herman character, a man-child comedian, throwing 1950s-inspired visuals together with equal parts sophisticated adult humor and plain old innocent silly fun. After many years away from the character (and nearly as many years teasingly suggesting he would return to the character), Reubens has weaved together the story of his genuinely risque early 1980s stage production The Pee-Wee Herman Show with elements from the kid-friendly Pee-Wee’s Playhouse TV show from later in that decade, as well as topical 21st century humor.

This retooled Pee-Wee Herman Show is received almost like a rock concert, with Reubens and company doing the equivalent of Pee-Wee’s “Greatest Hits”. The cheering when Pee-Wee first appears goes on for about a minute, and when he launches into his signature dance to “Tequila” by The Champs the crowd goes wild, eating it up.

This is easily the most good-natured fun on all of Broadway, and the fans’ joy is infectious. Reubens “surfs” that energy like the seasoned pro he is, and he and director Alex Timbers have crafted a fast-moving vehicle that looks like a gaudily painted go kart, but purrs like a Lamborghini.

While not as bawdy and occasionally dark as the original Show was, this new version is far more rife with double entendres than the Playhouse. The entendres climax, if you will, when Pee-Wee accidentally causes a blackout by pulling a cable out of the wall. Many of the “blackout” lines are just goofy, aimed right at the kids, but just try explaining all of those things that “aren’t a flashlight” and just how the dancing bear, hunky fireman and magic screen got into that weird position they’re in when the lights come up…

For tickets, click here.