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, though not necessarily to sing holiday songs. This year’s edition is somewhat bittersweet, since it will be the last at the Regency Hotel, as Michael and company look for a new venue.

Titled “A Gershwin Holiday”, this show features Feinstein singing only songs by George and Ira Gershwin, without any actual holiday songs until the encore (George Gershwin had passed away before Christmas songs came into vogue). Michael draws on his recently released book The Gershwins and Me, which itself draws on his six years (1977-1983) working as an archivist for Ira.

Unusually for cabaret, Feinstein has an opening act, the 16-year-old Nick Ziobro, the winner of the Michael Feinstein Initiative’s 2012 Great American Songbook High School Competition. Ziobro’s an astonishingly assured young singer, with a high tenor reminiscent of Feinstein and Fred Astaire – and even Harry Connick, Jr. when he really gets going.

Michael’s show is both shorter (to make room for Ziobro, of course) and more understated than past holiday offerings. That’s not to say that it doesn’t swing: Musical Director Alan Broadbent leads a 5-piece ensemble of tasteful jazz players who play elegantly but never for a moment lose sight of the rhythmic vitality and invention that was one of Gershwin’s hallmarks.

The only song in the show that doesn’t have music by George Gershwin is one that Ira co-wrote with Kurt Weill, “Tchaikovsky”, which Michael includes as a salute to Danny Kaye, who celebrates his centenary this year. Feinstein executes that song’s brutally difficult lyrics quite well, but the evening’s most musically stunning moment is a sort of “Gershwin fugue” built around “Embraceable You,” which features Michael singing that song, while he and the band play tidbits of not one but 15 other Gershwin songs. Dazzling.

For tickets, click here.


Review: The Sound of Music

Elena Shaddow so owns the role of Maria in The Sound of Music that I never once thought of Julie Andrews while enjoying Paper Mill Playhouse’s opulently traditional revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. In the musical, set near Salzburg, Austria just before World War II, a postulant nun, Maria Rainer, is sent by her Mother Abbess to be the governess to the seven children of widower Captain Georg von Trapp. She teaches them the basics of music, starting a path that will lead them to becoming the world-famous Trapp Family Singers.

Shaddow plays Maria as much more of a nun than Andrews did, making the story of her falling in love with the children (and not incidentally the Captain) all the more poignant. Ben Davis is just as terrific as the Captain, splendidly conveying the loneliness and romanticism that bubble just beneath his stern exterior. Davis also excels at conveying the Captain’s deep patriotism as Austria faces a forced unification with Nazi Germany. The way Davis sings “Edelweiss”, there is no doubt that the Captain sings this paean to the Alpine flower as a deeply felt gesture of defiance.

The biggest star in this production, Frasier‘s Edward Hibbert, turns the opportunistic Max Detweiler into a charming Austrian version of Noël Coward. In general director and choreographer James Brennan has paid scrupulous attention to the way in which Rodgers and Hammerstein simply – and therefore powerfully – underlined the importance of music in nourishing the human soul.

James Fouchard’s set design is also a noteworthy achievement; at once lush and simple, it cannily marries realistic details with operatic, non-realistic frames. This is a more than successful revival, that not only communicates what’s wonderful about this show, but also vividly expresses its ongoing importance.

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Review: Scandalous

Kathie Lee Gifford has spoken and written with some eloquence about issues of faith, whether it be in defense of her own born-again Christian beliefs, or someone else’s faith, be they Jewish, Buddhist or what have you. That eloquence shows up sometimes in her musical, Scandalous – based on the life of Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), the world’s first media celebrity evangelist. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show up reliably in this wildly uneven show.

Gifford is an above average lyricist, though certainly not a great one – her imagery is evocative, but her rhyming’s often awkward, especially in an embarrassing approximation of an Irish jig. Set in the 1920s, mostly in Los Angeles, Scandalous traces McPherson’s rise to fame, and the scandal that dogs her once she’s achieved it. Gifford has McPherson onstage for the vast majority of the show, making it a genuine star turn for Carolee Carmello, who walks the fine line between genuine charisma and out-and-out camp, much as McPherson did.

Though McPherson was a fascinating personality, that personality only comes across in Scandalous in fits and starts. Gifford’s bookwriting is just this side of formulaic, not empty of insight, but not deeply revelatory, either. Composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman put in journeyman work here – nothing really memorable, but several numbers are rousing, and their songs mostly find the appropriate tone for the moment. It bears saying that they don’t even attempt 1920s style, opting instead for a vaguely contemporary musical theatre style.

Scandalous isn’t quite mediocre, it’s better-made and smarter than that. It’s consistently disappointing – you can see the potential for a really great show here, and perhaps even the talent to make that show. It just isn’t actually that show.

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Review: Annie

This is my first time seeing Annie, and liked both the show and director James Lapine’s production well enough, in spite of intensely disliking the show’s big hit, “Tomorrow”. The musical is probably better known today than its source material, Little Orphan Annie, a daily American comic strip created by Harold Gray in 1924.

The musical sets the young orphan girl’s adventures in the early 1930s – the height of the strip’s popularity – in Depression-era New York. Annie ends up with Republican billionaire (with a heart of gold) Oliver Warbucks (though the musicals creators are clearly fonder of the politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who plays a pivotal role in the show). What little plot there is revolves around Warbucks’s attempts to find Annie’s parents, despite secretly wanting to adopt her himself.

Anthony Warlow is marvelous as Warbucks, playing his emotional story with more detail and seriousness than many musical comedy performers would think to do, to good effect. Warbucks could easily be a stereotypical rich humbug, but not in Warlow’s hands. Lilla Crawford is as feisty as the role of Annie requires, sings brassily (sometimes too much so), but she only intermittently gets Annie’s sincere ache and joy right.

Katie Finneran seems like she would be an ideal Miss Hannigan to me, and she mostly is. Something is slightly amiss with her performance, though – this actress, who is a master of sharp comic timing, plays some moments too broadly. Is this due to some conceptual twist from Lapine? His direction is mostly as brisk and fun as it needs to be, but there is a nagging sense that he is taking all of this more seriously than he ought, which might be what’s affecting Finneran. In any event, everybody seems to being rowing in the same largely lighthearted direction, which makes for a diverting evening of theatre.

For tickets, click here.

Review: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey

I have previously described the gifted husband and wife team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey as using a very satisfying“fire and ice” approach. In their current cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle, however, the pair meld these opposites even more seamlessly, emulating the cool heat of a bourbon on the rocks. The Pizzarellis long ago reached very height of cabaret’s jazzier side, and just keep climbing higher, with John’s profound musical intelligence and nonpareil guitar playing and Jessica’s dazzling lyrical wit and increasingly soulful singing aiding their ascent.

The Pizzarellis compound their musical elements with the utmost elegance. Their new show focuses on the theme of “home”, and indeed their version of Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” is the best I’ve ever heard, with more raw emotion and brisker musicianship than the original – there’s that cool heat again! As is their wont, they mix familiar standards and contemporary pop-rock tunes, often pairing the old with the new in ingenious medleys and intricate combinations that are too complex and sophisticated to be called mash-ups.

Their band is one of the best in the business: when they launch into Al Jolson’s “Avalon”, John and the band solo with a vigor, verve and virtuosity that’s truly breathtaking to behold – Jessica uses comic understatement when she comments that this number is “just a little showy.” The Pizzarellis sing so smartly, swing so deftly and generally create a truly sparkling atmosphere – cabaret rarely gets much better than this.

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Review: The Heiress

The Heiress, based on Washington Square, the 1880 novel by Henry James, tells the story of Catherine Sloper, the shy and sheltered daughter of a prominent New York doctor in 1850. Caught between the demands of her emotionally abusive father and the attentions of a passionate young suitor of dubious intentions, Catherine struggles to find her own place in the world.

Much has been made of the fact that Jessica Chastain is too beautiful to play Catherine Sloper. That misses the point of The Heiress – the problem isn’t that Catherine is plain, but that she has been made to feel inferior and socially inept, a very queer theme indeed. Paul Huntley’s wig and hair design, together with Ashley Ryan’s savvy make-up design, tell this story very clearly, as Catherine goes from unflattering but period-correct hairstyles to looser but more confident and genuinely “handsomer” looks.

Chastain herself plays Catherine’s journey smartly with solid attention to detail, even if she doesn’t quite succeed in finding the depths of Catherine’s transformation into a formidable and intelligent women with her own powerful will. In any event, Chastain does locate Catherine’s interior dignity from beginning to end, never cheating her character’s feelings for the sake of a comic moment.

David Strathairn wisely plays Catherine’s father Dr. Sloper as deeply damaged goods rather than the embodiment of evil. The not-so-good doctor, in Strathairn’s approach, does love his daughter, but totally lacks the tools to know how to express that feeling. This effectively points up the society-wide failings of mid-19th Century America, rather than isolating one aberrant man – a far closer approach to the insights of Henry James than previous interpretations.

Downtown Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens is adequate as Morris Townsend, Catherine’s suitor, handsome and milksopy enough to reflect both the admiration and doubt that comes Morris’s way. As so often happens, Judith Ivey is probably the best thing in the production as the giddy and romantic Aunt Lavinia – we are with her sentimental thoughts until the very last moments of the play. A solid production of a period piece that has aged very well.

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Review: Sue Raney

It’s entirely fitting that one of singer Sue Raney’s recent albums was a tribute to Doris Day. Like Day, Raney is a blonde creature of sunlight. She may be a more sophisticated stylist today than she was in her 1960s heydey, but her main attraction is still the warm golden glow of her phrasing and tone.

Time has added jazziness and a gentle melancholy, but the result is more romantically autumnal than truly dark. Raney’s interpretation of Day’s career-making hit “Sentimental Journey” speaks volumes about both singers. Raney’s reading is jazzier and tells more of a story, but still celebrates sentiment and travel in the same way Day’s original did.

For her first New York nightclub engagement in 25 years, Raney is accompanied by her longtime colleague Alan Broadbent on piano, whose approach is kissed by that same sunset warmth. Broadbent and Raney both interpret from a personal, emotional place, erasing the distance some jazz performers place between themselves and the material. Their approach to songs is never merely polite.

Her take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” would no doubt have pleased the composers immensely, since she nails both the song’s essential optimism and the wry wink that goes with it. She doesn’t commit the cabaret sin of singing too many ballads, but, it must be said, she never really lets loose or swings either.

Indeed, sometimes she and Broadbent are almost too warmly emotional, giving songs an almost easy listening sheen. No danger of that, however, in Raney’s slowed-down interpretation of “Que Sera Sera”, which really pays attention to the lyrics and their cautious, almost rueful edge. Raney is always a very expressive singer, never descending into the quietly reverent. Overall, a lovely, soothing show.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Mark Nadler

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. However, in his latest at 54 Below, I’m A Stranger Here Myself, he takes a somewhat more low-key approach – the abundant theatrics and virtuosity are still there, but applied in a different way.

For this show, Nadler performs songs by German and French songwriters who were active between 1919 and 1933, the years of Germany’s Wiemar Republic (though not all the songs are from that period). Nadler examines these composers’ lives as well as those of ordinary German citizens caught up in that politically and emotionally charged period, leading his audience into some surprising corners.

There’s usually at least a gay subtext to Mark’s shows, but gayness is all out in the open on this one, where he spends much time reflecting on the place of gays and Jews in the socially progressive Wiemar era. As open an era as it was, though, homosexuality was still illegal, and Nadler highlights the bravery of lyricist Kurt Schwabach and composer Mischa Spoliansky who wrote the totally astonishing “Lavender Song (Das Lila Lied)” – as defiant an anthem for gay rights as I’ve ever heard – in 1920.

I’m always referring to the titles of Mark’s shows and talking about them as theatrical pieces. That’s because, more than any other cabaret artist I’m aware of, Nadler puts his shows together with passionate intelligence and careful structuring – to truly stunning results. His shows are truly theatre pieces and truly cabaret, all at once. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious, to the unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show. This one has an even more profound emotional pull, and is truly not to be missed.

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Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

This revival of Edward Albee’s masterwork is perhaps the most lucid and clear production of the play I’ve ever seen, and I’m ambivalent about that. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very accomplished production of a great play, with exceptionally intelligent acting and directing choices. I enjoyed it a great deal, and think it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s just that, upon reflection, it’s not totally to my own personal taste.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is set on the campus of a small New England college in the early 1960s, a milieu so boozy that it makes Mad Men look like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Middle-aged history professor George and his loving yet vicious wife Martha invite a young new professor and his wife home for a nightcap, and the psychological damage mounts as the bottles rapidly empty. I grew up in an academic family, and the stories I heard of 1960s faculty parties were particularly hair-raising. Perhaps this production doesn’t feel messy enough to have the texture of reality for me.

Or perhaps it’s too realistic for me. Albee was very influenced by both the French Absurdists and Tennessee Williams. As someone who’s been reading and directing a lot of Jean Genet and late period Williams, I miss the willful sense of unreality and distortion that has made for Woolfs that I liked better than this one. Again, not a big problem, but it kept this fan of Surrealism from enjoying it as much as he might have.

Tracy Letts’s masterful portrayal of George is the one irreproachably strong thing about this production. Here is a great actor who also happens to be a great and sensitive playwright, and we can see in a very direct way how this play leads to Lett’s own August: Osage County.

In any event, this Woolf demands to be seen on its own terms. If you are a fan of mainstream realism, this is really one of the better examples of that approach out there.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

In the Roundabout revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, you can almost smell and taste the texture of mid-17th Century France, and I think that’s wonderful. I have recently become fascinated with figuring out how to express on stage the million ways in which the past is a different and alien planet from the one we live on now. I find this way of approaching a period piece makes moments of simple, unchanging humanity vibrate with incredible intensity and poignancy, and that certainly happens in director Jamie Lloyd’s earthy, lusty and rambunctious approach to Cyrano.

Playwright Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano is based on a real-life nobleman of that name, who like Rostand’s character was a master of both language and the sword. The historic Cyrano had a prominent nose, which Rostand has exaggerated into a thing out of legend. The play only tangentially deals with the facts of the historical Bergerac’s life, focusing instead on his love for a woman named Roxane.

Many previous Cyranos have taken their cue from the central love story and created a world that is elegant and romantic – something that couldn’t be further from the rough-and-tumble world in which Cyrano actually lived. Lloyd’s historical approach is perhaps best expressed in costumes of designer Soutra Gilmour (who also did the impressive sets); you can see the line of dirt on the ends of Cyrano’s red cloak, and that one detail speaks volumes about this earlier time when standards of hygiene were entirely different than they are today. Gilmour’s designs are jam packed with such telling details.

Douglas Hodge plays Cyrano, attacking the role like the full and hearty meal it is. Patrick Page is also quite good as the show’s villain, Comte de Guiche, in a performance that brings Vincent Price to mind (in a good way). Ranjit Bolt’s tangy translation works in the French original’s rhyme scheme, while generally feeling natural, no small feat. This is a big, full-bodied revival of a classic that hits almost every note in this complex piece. That doesn’t happen that often, and for that reason alone this Cyrano is well worth seeing.

For tickets, click here.