Review: Magic/Bird

Playwright Eric Simonson has a real gift for bringing out the human side of sports stories. His 2010 play Lombardi let us in on legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi’s deep, sincere affection for both the game and his players. Now, his Magic/Bird follows one of the fiercest rivalries in sports history, sprawling over decades as Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, two of the all-time great basketball players, battle for championships, MVP awards, and dominance of their sport.

This was less of a surprise to me than Lombardi. Having seen that other play, I knew that I wasn’t in for an evening of stats and machismo. Stats are referred to but never laid out, and macho shit talk is played almost entirely for laughs.

Magic/Bird is both more epic and human-scale than Lombardi. Where the earlier play asked interesting questions about all kinds of ethical issues, this one straightforwardly tells the engaging story of an intense rivalry developing into an equally intense friendship. On the other hand, Lombardi focused on a single incident, whereas Magic/Bird follows our heroes through the golden days of their careers, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Johnson was also one of the first prominent American heterosexuals to admit to contracting HIV, and that is dealt with quite sensitively.

Kevin Daniels is Magic and Tug Coker is Bird, and both are rock-solid. The real acting treat of the show, though, are stage veterans Deirdre O’Connell and Peter Scolari tearing up the stage in series of mostly comic smaller roles. Director Thomas Kail is once again Simonson’s creative partner, and his inventive staging makes creative, restrained use of projections and turntables – all purposeful, never just spectacle for spectacle’s sake. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy Magic/Bird, just a fan of good storytelling and solid entertainment.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Best Man

The current production of The Best Man by literary queer elder statesman Gore Vidal snaps along at a terrific pace – a very good thing for a three-act political drama to do. The play is set in Philadelphia at heavily fictionalized 1960 Democratic convention (Vidal wrote the piece in advance of the actual convention). In it, smart and honest candidate William Russell (based very loosely on Adlai Stevenson), mixes it up in backrooms at a highly contested convention with the smooth but unethically ruthless Joe Cantwell.

I’m in many ways a great idealist when it comes to politics, but at the same time totally compelled by the dirty intrigues of realpolitik. So Vidal’s play is total catnip to me just on the face of it. The fact that director Michael Wilson has put together such an incredible cast to put the play over, made this show a real joy to watch.

John Larroquette brings surprising gravitas, as well as his expected wit, to the role of William Russell. Eric McCormack is appropriately oily and snake-eyed as political snake-oil salesman Cantwell. James Earl Jones, in a very fine piece of color-blind casting, brings out a wicked pleasure in gamesmanship as ailing former president Artie Hockstader.

Angela Lansbury gives us a delightful combination of steely-eyed determination and dotty charm as “Women’s Division” leader Mrs. Gamadge. Candice Bergen is ideally cast as Russell’s long-suffering, acerbic wife Alice. Michael McKean and Kerry Butler are wonderful in smaller roles, and Jefferson Mays almost steals the show as Sheldon, a shlubby ex-serviceman with some salacious dirt on Cantwell.

While having a candidate as genuinely liberal and ethical as Russell may be an exercise in fantasy these days, it is undeniably pleasant to reflect on that brief early 1960s moment when such fantasies had an air of reality. Overall, this production is an intelligent pleasure, certainly not to be missed.

For tickets, click here.

Review: End of the Rainbow

Another show about the declining years of Judy Garland? I’m sorry, that response may be just me. It’s an occupational hazard of covering the New York theatre from a gay angle for as long as I have. Any time Judy pops up in a cabaret act or play I’m more or less obligated to cover it. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a burden; even though I’m not the most committed fan, I do like Garland quite a lot.

But, for me, at this point, it has become valid to ask what new insight or angle any new “Judy” show has to offer. End of the Rainbow isn’t particularly insightful, but it does have a pretty good “reason to be” – a stunning, firecracker performance by Tracie Bennett. Her speaking voice sometimes wanders into territory that’s more Katherine Hepburn or Tallulah Bankhead, but when she does get Judy right, it’s positively eerie.

Its the singing where she really nails Garland; its only partly in the vocals, which emulate Judy’s singing style quite well, and only partly in the mannerisms, which are even closer. The magic of Bennett’s performance is in the way she truly captures the incandescent fire and drive behind the vocals and the gestures. Judy rarely gave less than 150%, and Bennett’s singing performances are just as committed and passionate.

We are catching Judy at the very end, December 1968, in the midst of yet another attempted comeback. When we aren’t at London’s Talk of the Town, we’re in a hotel room where she’s preparing for a series of concerts, with both her new young fiancé Mickey (Tom Pelphrey) and her gay accompanist Anthony (played with quiet dignity by Michael Cumpsty).

Peter Quilter’s script has all of the flaws typical of Judy bio-plays – most irritatingly some anti-gay remarks. It’s at least a plus that in End those remarks come from Mickey rather than Judy, and Quilter does have the savvy to have Anthony furiously respond to them. There’s nothing in the script – aside from a certain voyeuristic tension – that you couldn’t get just as well from any number of biographies. End of the Rainbow is nothing more or less than a moderately successful star vehicle – without Bennett blazing away at the center of it, it wouldn’t be nearly as good.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Newsies

Newsies has the Twinkiest. Chorus. Ever. On the top of that, it also features one of the sexiest young leading men to come along in years, Broadway-star-in-the-making Jeremy Jordan, who plays Jack Kelly, a charismatic newsboy in late 19th Century New York. Newsies is inspired by the real-life “Newsboy Strike of 1899,” in which one Kid Blink led a band of orphan and runaway newsies on a two-week-long strike against powerful newspaper publishers like Pulitzer and Hearst.

While there’s a lot about this show that is very traditional, even a bit formulaic (Jack Kelly isn’t nearly as eccentric as Kid Blink was), its heart is subtly subversive. I mean, this is a Disney musical aimed at tweens and teens that celebrates labor unions, for goodness sake. And I don’t know whether it was conscious or not, but director Jeff Calhoun’s staging and designer’s Tobin Ost’s set are very reminiscent of German director Erwin Piscator, who was one of the most passionate unionists the theatre has ever known.

And, while I might not be in any way the show’s target audience, Newsies still really hits home for me. Piscator is one of my biggest role models as a director, and, like gay rights pioneer Harry Hay (another role model), the combination of music and politics makes me emotional, even a bit weepy. It was hard for me to keep it together for the rousing cry to strike “The World Will Know” – this song in particular is Menken at his very best.

Kara Lindsay is terrific as Kelly’s love interest Katherine, especially in her soliloquy number “Watch What Happens”. I never saw the cult Disney film on which Newsies is based, but the stage version certainly stands sturdily on its own. Plus, all that twink eye candy doesn’t hurt one bit, especially as they spend what seem like minutes in midair executing Christopher Gattelli’s acrobatic choreography!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Gregory Charles

I’m thinking that the Cafe Carlyle booked Gregory Charles in an attempt to take late Carlyle legend Bobby Short’s claim that he was “just a saloon singer” to a new place. Short was sincere in that claim – his earliest experiences as a performer were in the last days of vaudeville, and his brassy interpretations of standards owe great amounts to the “saloon”/vaudeville tradition of giving audiences the songs they wanted, with that something extra they didn’t know they wanted until the singer sang it.

To Short’s approach, Charles adds the more recent traditions of the piano bar “piano man” and the rock and roll “bar band,” featuring journeyman musicians with giant “fakebooks” of every song in existence. Only in Charles’s case, that “fakebook” is entirely in his head, and the band is a cut or two above “journeymen,” able to follow Charles wherever his nimble musical imagination goes, following his lead on songs they may not know that well, even adding witty improvisational cherries on top of this delicious musical sundae.

Gregory Charles is best known as a television personality and concert star in Canada; in addition to starring on the most-watched show on Canadian television (the reality talent show Star Académie), Charles is well-known in Canada for his unique summer music festival in Laval Quebec that draws a half-million spectators every year. In fact, it was on Canadian television that he introduced this audience request format, when he hosted his own popular Jimmy Fallon-style television talk show. He has since perfected it in front of audiences big and small around the world (including 5,000-seat arenas).

The videos you find on YouTube and his website – showcasing his French-language singer-songwriter side – do not give you an accurate picture of what you would see at the Carlyle. As a matter of fact that is probably impossible as the show is 90% requests from the audience. In the first few song of any set, he starts out with what amounts to a sophisticated version of “today in music history,” which on opening night included songs by George Gershwin, Cab Calloway and Louis Prima.

After that, Charles draws audience requests at random from a box. On the night I was there, the requests had a surprisingly “classic rock” bent that Gregory cheerfully and cleverly weaved into standards that were also requested. Since every show is unique, I don’t think I’ll be giving anything away by saying that Guns & Roses “Sweet Child of Mine” blends surprisingly well with Hoagy Charmichael’s “The Nearness of You” and Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, as Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Água de Beber” does with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. Less surprising, but equally delightful, were mash-ups of “I’m Easy Like Sunday Morning” with “You are So Beautiful to Me” and “Stand By Your Man” with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.

If the phrase “saloon singer” means anything in the 21st Century, it’s probably this kind of show. Highly recommended, and a whole lot of fun.

For tickets, click here.