I am directing “Hard Sparkle: The Short Plays of J. Stephen Brantley”

This October I will direct Hard Sparkle: The Short Plays of J. Stephen Brantley. Performances are for two nights only October 29 & 30 at The Duplex.

I have collaborated with J. Stephen more frequently than any other playwright. He is the most singular American playwrighting talent I’ve come across in any context, one of the most distinctive voices in the country. I am honored – astonished almost – to have worked with him as often as I have. He has rich reserves of humanity and compassion, and wry humor. His writing – which vibrates with rock and roll energy and yet possesses sweetness and aching psychological subtlety – is highly stimulating and challenging. He is very inspired by the voice of individual actors, and rehearsal (which he loves) especially fires his deeply theatrical imagination. I am thrilled to be pulling together some of his best work for this special, two-night-only showcase.

The plays are:

Nevertheless – After nearly stabbing her husband at the breakfast table, Iris walked out of her Park Avenue apartment bound for Nashville, Tennessee. Returning to the dingy barroom where she misspent her twenties, she hopes to recapture some of the excitement of a bygone era. What Iris finds is Trevor, a washed-up-before-he-started country crooner, the hard truth, and a new start.

Hard Sparkle – Actress Anne Eaton-Hart has taken to her bed. Swindled of millions and having lost an Emmy to Susan Lucci, Anne is convinced she’s dying. While her devoted accountant Eddie does his level best to lift her spirits, nothing less than divine intervention will resurrect the self-obsessed star.

Break – During the late hours of a summer night on the coast of Eastern Long Island, a displaced Englishman and the drug addict who breaks into his home confront their differences and, more importantly, discover their secret similarities.

Hard Sparkle runs October 29 & 30 at 7pm. The Duplex is located at 61 Christopher Street at Seventh Avenue. Tickets are $12 plus a 2 drink minimum. To purchase tickets, call (212) 255-5438 or visit www.theduplex.com.

For more about my  directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Chaplin

Without the charismatic and intelligent performance of Rob McClure as film legend Charlie Chaplin at the heart of Chaplin the Musical, there would be precious little reason for this show to exist. Christopher Curtis is an acceptable composer, capable of crafting melodies and harmonic progressions that are pleasant, if limited in stylistic range.

One thing Curtis for sure is not: a musical theatre lyricist. There isn’t a lyric in the entire show that isn’t at best cliched or at worst painfully awkward. He enlisted the help of veteran bookwriter Thomas Meehan to good effect – the book scenes are the best thing about the show, not brilliant, but brisk and engaging. If he had done the same thing with the lyrics and engaged a skilled and experienced musical theatre lyricist, Chaplin could have been a much better show.

Better, but, even with stronger lyrics, I still don’t see much of a reason for the show. We learn nothing about Charlie Chaplin that wasn’t more interestingly and soulfully expressed in Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic. And so I come back to McClure: he takes everything given to him – especially Chaplin’s cinematic mannerisms and private personality – and runs with it, with great energy and smarts. McClure’s performance holds the whole thing just barely together.

Director/choreogapher Warren Carlyle isn’t much help: his dances, as usual, are kinetic, even dynamic. But his decision to impose a black and white color palette on the show’s designers is truly deadly. Black and white film is the medium that Chaplin happened to have at his disposal, and over many years he became a master of it. By contract, Carlyle’s glib, too literal design choice undercuts all of the show’s comedy and much of its spectacle. It really sucks all the heat out of the piece.

It’s mediocre and overlong rather than truly heinous, and McClure’s stellar performance makes seeing Chaplin bearable. But I can’t really recommend you pay full price for a ticket to this one.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Forbidden Broadway Alive and Kicking

Forbidden Broadway has relentlessly and lovingly assaulted the Great White Way since 1982, when Gerard Alessandrini, then a struggling singer-actor, created the first edition for himself and his friends to perform. It lampooned the Broadway shows and stars of the day – to put things in perspective that was the year Cats (a top Alessandrini target) opened, and Ethel Merman (who has turned up frequently in the revue over the years) still had two years to live.

After a break between 2009 and now, Forbidden Broadway is back with a vengeance. The show, as always, is wickedly clever from early on: A quartet wanders around the theatre district, stumbling down the aisle, saying “isn’t this the theatre where Forbidden Broadway used to play?” and then break into music from Brigadoon – a distant chorus chanting “Broadway’s on the brink-of-doom, brink-of-doom.”

The revival of Evita is the first proper target, featuring Ricky Martin singing “Living Evita Loca” and Elena Rogers singing of her “total lack of star quality” to the tune of “Buenos Aires”. Next up is Nice Work if You Can Get It, with the sharpest barbs reserved for Matthew Broderick (too easy?). Alessandrini always has an obvious soft spot for certain shows, and this season it’s Newsies, which he mostly dishes for its almost-too-frenetic energy. Some of the harshest barbs go to Once, though there’s some affectionate spoofing of Steven Hoggett’s angular choreography.

Act Two has Julie Taymor and Bono engaging a superhero battle, the gals from Smash fretting over the future of their series, a sharp critique of Tracie Bennett from Judy Garland herself and a Mormon parody which is mostly about Parker and Stone counting their money. The finale, as often is the case for Forbidden Broadway, is a love note to the future of musical theater. Alessandrini seems to see plenty of hope (which he didn’t in 1982), and that’s a very good sign.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Michael Feinstein and Marilyn Maye

Not knowing Marilyn Maye is pop cultural ignorance on a par with not knowing Judy Garland or Ella Fitzgerald. Unfortunately it’s much more common than being unaware of the other two – even a hardcore culture vulture like me only discovered her a few years ago. She’s a great hidden national treasure; Fitzgerald herself once called Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” That was no exaggeration when Ella said it and it’s even truer today. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices, but I can think of no other living singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve and vocal range.

She is currently sharing the stage of Feinstein’s with Michael Feinstein himself. Feinstein has had great success doing duet shows for many years and here, as usual, it’s a winning situation all around. This particular match is especially good – Maye is still at the top of her game many, many decades into her career, and Feinstein just keeps getting better, marrying soaring vocal power with ever more detailed nuance in his interpretations.

The pair does several medleys, the best of which exploits Michael’s ongoing love affair with boogie-woogie, which suits the ever-swinging Maye just fine. They shine most, however, in solo moments: Feinstein pays tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch by wringing every last ounce of emotion out of Marvin’s “The Way We Were”, including some never-recorded extra lyrics from the song’s lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. And Marilyn rips up a vocal interpretation of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, which is easily the jazziest thing I’ve ever heard her do – which means that calling it legendary would be an understatement.

Musical director Tedd Firth brings a glossy, sophisticated jazz musicianship to the proceedings, providing a luscious frame for the pair’s multifarious artistry. If you love classic songs sung like they’re meant to be sung – and swung – it doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Bring It On!

What happens when you combine a cheesy, featherweight film franchise with a creative team packed with Broadway’s freshest talents? You get a cheesy, featherweight musical that also happens to be smart, tuneful and relentlessly entertaining. A great start to the new musical season!

Bring It On: The Musical tells the story of Campbell, the popular cheer captain of white bread Truman High, who is redistricted to multi-culti Jackson High, which doesn’t even have a cheer-leading squad, and she has to figure how to suddenly deal with being an outsider.

Those of you familiar with the film may note that this is clearly not an exact adaptation. I’m told it’s closer to one of the direct DVD sequels, Bring It On: All or Nothing, though it has even more in common, plot-wise, with a handful of black and white gay camp classics. Hell, there’s even a fierce teenage drag queen! Jeff Whitty, who wrote the book to Avenue Q, has crafted an appropriately propulsive original story that sneaks in more thoughtfulness than you would expect.

As far as the score goes, there’s plenty of composer Tom Kitt pop/rock tunefulness and lyricist Amanda Green’s gentle wit. Co-composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda goes even harder and deeper into hip-hop than he did with In the Heights. But this is really director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler’s vehicle, as he sends competing cheerleading teams flying across the stage and high into the air.

David Korins’s sparse set does what it needs to with no ostentation, ably aided by Jeff Sugg’s consistently clever video design. I predict this lightweight treat will be a huge success, and one that’s richly deserved!

For tickets, click here.