Review: Stick Fly

Back in the late 1970s Ashford & Simpson wrote a classic, elegant instrumental disco song “Bourgie Bourgie”, to which they later added lyrics for Gladys Knight. The vocal version of the song is an anthem of African-American upper mobility, celebrating aspirations to leave “the street” to join the bourgeoisie or even higher echelons of society.

Playwright Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly immediately brought “Bourgie Bourgie” to mind for me; Diamond has a lot of intelligent points to make about the very complicated relationship between race and class in America. She has to stretch her plot to make these points – the points remain true and insightful, but the plot has a hard time recovering from the stretching. Set at the elegant Martha’s Vineyard summer home of the well-to-do LeVay family, Stick Fly begins when two adult sons independently choose to introduce their girlfriends to the parents on the same weekend (do you feel the stretch yet?).

Stick Fly‘s production team includes a talented successor to Ashford and Simpson in Alicia Keys, who both partially funded the play’s move to Broadway and wrote new incidental music for the Broadway production. Her music, which recalls Phillip Glass just as often as it recalls Valerie Simpson, is indeed quite lovely, but director Kenny Leon gives it a little too much weight, often stopping the action dead in its tracks.

The cast gives uniformly solid performances under Leon’s steady hand, with two major stand outs: Condola Rashad as the young domestic Cheryl and Tracie Thoms as Taylor, an intellectual oddball from a working class background. Stick Fly is at its best when these smart African-American people debate what it means for Cheryl to work for the LeVays and Taylor to “marry up” to them.

It’s at its worst when it threatens to become a sexual soap opera. Sure, this does allow Diamond to make equally sharp observations about how gender and sex intersect with race and class, but once again with costs to the coherence of the plot. Overall Stick Fly is an intelligent and mostly engaging comedy of manners, but as entertainment, I’m not sure that it’s worth those bourgie Broadway prices.

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Review: Mark Nadler

Out cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, capable of leaping 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’s done it in more than one of his shows. In his latest “Crazy 1961” he doesn’t tap dance, but he does play and sing with his usual virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with his usual passionate intelligence. The result, tap dancing or no, is still pretty stunning.

Nadler packs over 61 songs and 61 newsworthy events into “Crazy 1961,” a celebration of the year of his birth. But Nadler doesn’t just shower us with random facts. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show.

It doesn’t hurt that 1961 was, in fact, crazy: “The Music Man” and “Gypsy” ended long runs on Broadway while the Supremes made their first recording, Streisand her first television appearance, and Garland her legendary comeback at Carnegie Hall – Nadler points out that, for many of those reasons, it was a great year to be gay. This being one of Mark’s shows, that off-handed quip ends up reverberating in surprising ways.

The show evolves into a complex portrait of the exact place and time that Nadler was born, in exciting and ultimately moving ways. Every single song in the show is from 1961, and he finishes with a truly insane medley of fifty songs from the year. This is as giddily entertaining – and breathtakingly smart – as cabaret gets.

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Review: Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway

What can you say? The man is almost supernaturally good-looking, has the charisma of a sun god, can sing and dance like Gene Kelly – so much so that he has become this generation’s definition of a song and dance man, like Kelly was for his. So, of course a show built solely with the intention of showcasing his talent can hardly miss – and it doesn’t miss. Jackman hits the showbiz bullseye with delirious panache.

As other people have observed, this isn’t a show that anyone else could do. The medleys that dominate the show are so individually tailored to Jackman, they would seem hackneyed in the hands of a lesser talent – in his hands they positively soar. Accompanied by an 18-piece orchestra, Hugh Jackman sings the songs he wants to sings, dances the steps Warren Carlyle has crafted for him, and tells the stories he wants to tell, whether they’re about Australia, Hollywood or New York.

And there’s obviously a lot for gay men here. First of all there’s the simple fact of seeing this unreal hunk live and in the flesh. Also, Jackman doesn’t shy away from camp; in fact he has immense fun camping it up whenever he can. His biggest opportunity for that comes at the top of the second act, where he channels gay showman/songwriter Peter Allen, like he did in The Boy From Oz. His Allen act is even gayer here than it was in Boy, if that’s possible.

There’s a reason this concert is one of the hottest tickets of the Broadway season. You’ll be doubly lucky if you can get a ticket: lucky to get that precious commodity in the first place, and lucky to see one of the theatre’s greatest entertainers at the peak of his form. This. Is. Legendary. 10s across the board.

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Review: Seminar

I’ve been following playwright Teresa Rebeck for a very long time, and I’ve always been impressed with her ability to create sparkling, cutting dialogue that actually gets to the heart of important issues with a truly provocative level of insight. The plays she wraps around this dialogue are of varying quality, but lately they’ve been quite good. Seminar continues that trend, taking us on a wild ride through the emotional lives of five writers.

Four aspiring young writers are accepted for a private seminar with Leonard (Alan Rickman), a respected novelist. He teaches them with ruthless, often unkind honesty, which also includes, under pressure, honesty about his own unethical behavior. Sex comes into play, but isn’t the thematic center of the play (at one point Leonard pushes the subject aside with something along the lines of “enough of the soap opera”). Gradually Martin (Hamish Linklater) emerges as the central character and his professional love/hate relationship with Leonard the spine of the play.

Rebeck is remarkable for the way she combines a realistic style with sharp-eyed satire (all her plays are satirical on some level). This is her most engaging comedy in quite some time; she is not immune to the occasional plot hole, but it’s all in the service of telling the often funny truth about the difficult, bruising life of a writer.

Rickman delivers his usual excellence as Leonard, portraying a man whose charisma and love for his craft more often than not overcome his genuinely heinous character flaws. Linklater is at the zenith of his geeky hotness here (particularly in one all-to-brief shirtless moment) and gives a detailed, appropriately twitchy performance that more than stands up to Rickman’s. Director Sam Gold, making his Broadway debut, connects with Rebeck’s hard edges and gives the play’s zing full reign.

If writers are important to you like they are to me – I’ve been working with them since I was 18 – then Seminar might be just the cup of sweet-tart poison for you.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Michael Feinstein and Barbara Cook

This is a great match: the vocal styles of Barbara Cook and Michael Feinstein pair perfectly. They both have smooth, warm voices with a creamy, even vibrato, and both veer towards the lightly romantic in the way they interpret lyrics. And this sort of double act is nothing new: over the last few years Feinstein has had great success doing duet shows with Broadway stars, and here, as usual, it’s a winning situation all around.

While the show has a vague underlying theme – something to do with singers and songwriters that have inspired the two – mostly this show simply testifies to their ability, separately and together, to dig into a song and tell its story with detail and feeling. Cook finds some rich shadings in Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in His Arms” that most other singers miss. She also fully plays both the ruefulness and the celebration in “Here’s to Life”, where most singers would pick only one angle and stick with it.

Feinstein’s been truly blossoming as a singer in recent years. In the evening’s most moving moment, he delivers a passionate rendition of “Fifty Percent” that the lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman have altered slightly to change the character in the song from a newly widowed woman to a gay man. His heartfelt, textured reading of this clear-eyed yet ardent song goes from a gorgeously restrained, romantic beginning to rattling the rafters with an open-throated declaration of love at all costs. What can I say, it made me kvell. Go, Michael go!

This may not be particularly holiday themed, as Feinstein’s shows around this time of year have sometimes been. But this is, nonetheless, about as luscious as cabaret gets. Highly recommended.

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CD Review: Follies

Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is revered in the theater community, and I think rightly so. It contains some of the best musical comedy songs ever written – funny and poignant, often at the same time. Thank goodness, then, that the new Broadway cast recording is beautifully recorded. It’s also the fullest recording of the complete Follies score to date, including pieces of cross-over and incidental music, played by a 28-piece orchestra. Jayne Houdyshell is extraordinary singing “Broadway Baby”, giving that song a roaring, teary-eyed joy I don’t think I’ve ever heard in it before. And Elaine Paige tears “I’m Still Here” a new one, mining a profound rage that underlies that famous song’s bravado. A Follies recording that gets this much right is musical comedy heaven.

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Review: Private Lives

I’m a big fan of Noël Coward – here’s a gay playwright who married queer wit to a penetrating understanding of human emotions. Director Richard Eyre’s breezy new production of his Private Lives largely does right by my boy Noël, although his cast sometimes plays the darker side a touch too heavily, which throws Coward’s glittering balance off a bit.

Glamorous Brits Amanda (Kim Cattrall) and Elyot (Paul Gross) have been divorced from each other for five years. Now, on honeymoons with new spouses in the South of France, they meet again on neighboring hotel balconies, rekindling their powerful love and lust for each other…and then, slowly, the things that drove them apart originally begin to creep back in.

For the most part, Catrall and Gross do a solid job of keeping the pace quick, the quips delivered with sharp timing. One trick to playing Coward, though, is not letting his incisive insight into human psychology shade too dark. He is making gimlet-eyed fun of human folly, and much of its charge comes from the tension between glittering surfaces and murky depths. Put those depths too much on display, and the energy goes slack. That happens particularly in Act III of this production. By the very end though, Catrall and Gross are back on track, and finish off the evening on an appropriately light-hearted note.

Rob Howell’s set is the production’s biggest misstep – I get the idea behind the art deco apartment in the second half, but it is so poorly executed that it undercuts the elegance that is such a crucial part of Coward’s world. This is a minor hindrance, however, and most of the time this featherweight production glides by swiftly and effervescently, just like it should.

For tickets, click here.