Review: Colin Quinn Unconstitutional

Colin Quinn Unconstitutional

Colin Quinn is one of the better comics doing political satire – he communicates highly complicated ideas through the most mundane and absurdly funny examples. I thoroughly enjoyed his Broadway hit Long Story Short, which told the history of the world, brought wittily down to a comprehensible human scale.

So I got excited when I heard about Unconstitutional, his new show about the American constitution, a document he mostly uses as a springboard for canny observations about our national character. For example, he hilariously makes clear that the Kardashians’ story is a quintessentially American one, a disgusting one to be sure, but very American.

Quinn’s manner is engagingly off-hand – this is bigger and smarter than your usual stand-up, but it never totally leaves that sphere. He makes artful use of recurring images, the most potent being the 1787 Constitutional Convention as one big drinking party, which rings true in many surprising ways.

He’s a sharp-eyed satirist, his take decidedly coming from a working class point of view, or at least from the point of view that’s been formed by being around working class people; Quinn self-deprecatingly jokes that he’s been jabbering all his life to avoid manual labor. Also, Quinn generally avoids stereotyping ethnic humor from the bad old days, but deftly scores points against the paradoxical racism of a politically correct media that avoids making jokes about an American president just because he’s black.

I’m seeing this show a lot earlier in its trajectory than I saw Long Story Short, so its not a shock that it’s still pretty rough around the edges. But it’s jaunty and fun with a dark edge, a thought-provoking good time that I can easily recommend.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: I’ll Eat You Last

One of Broadway's biggest stars is back — as one of Hollywood's biggest star-makers! BETTE MIDLER returns to Broadway as the legendary Hollywood superagent in I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A Chat with Sue Mengers.  For over 20 years, Sue's clients were the talk o

What a great way to end the Broadway season! I’m definitely a fan of Bette Midler, and, somewhat more randomly, a fan of the real-life woman she’s portraying, Sue Mengers, the first female Hollywood superagent, who dominated the town during the wild and woolly 1970s. So I had a great time simply being in the presence of Midler and Mengers, as squired onto the Broadway stage by a writer and director who are among the best and brightest Broadway has to offer (John Logan and Joe Mantello, respectively).

As is related early on in I’ll Eat You Last, Mengers was a childhood refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and worked her way up the agenting business through a little bit of charm and a ton of chutzpah. Midler and Logan have very successfully channeled both those qualities, resulting in one of the most generously entertaining one-person shows in some time.

Midler, it bears saying, has never been only a pop singer and screen actor. She began her career in 1960s New York in the plays of off-off-Broadway legend Tom Eyen (who would go on to co-conceive and write the book for Dreamgirls), went on to replace one of the daughters in the original Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof, and headline highly theatrical stage shows from gay bathhouses to cabarets to arenas. So it’s no surprise that she easily holds the stage with chops and charisma to spare.

That’s even though she remains seated throughout the great majority of the show, as many have noted. Although Mengers could work a phone with the vigor of a prizefighter, she was notoriously physically inactive, so I don’t know why some people expect a realistic representation of her to suddenly start walking all over the place. Grow up, kiddies.

Mengers was one of Hollywood’s favorite party hostesses, a smart and funny woman who made those around her feel their smartest and funniest. In the production’s most effective bit of alchemy, Midler has brought that feeling into the Booth Theatre, and it’s a truly wonderful feeling in which to bathe.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Pippin

Pippin 1946

I really enjoyed the circus acts that populate director Diane Paulus’s revival of Pippin. They did nothing, however, to make me reevaluate my lukewarm feeling toward the show as a whole.

Pippin is definitely an important show – it was the first American musical to successfully combine pop-rock with traditional musical comedy structure (the earlier Hair had a looser, more experimental format). And composer Stephen Schwartz’s score is exceptionally tuneful and memorable.

However, I just can’t get behind the show’s message that becoming part of a heterosexual nuclear family (albeit an adoptive one) is ultimately more satisfying than chasing big dreams. A very conservative message for a show that looks adventurous on the surface.

In Pippin, a mysterious group of performers tell the story of Charlemagne’s heir Pippin, spurring the performer playing him to find his “corner of the sky.” Paulus certainly did a terrific job of casting her troupe. As the troupe’s Leading Player, Patina Miller is sexy in a tough and brawny way, although she tends to let the character’s angsty side take a little too much prominence, not only in emotionally wrought scenes, but throughout. In the title role, the lithe Michael James Thomas is appropriately winsome and naïve, and his pale svelte form will no doubt have its share of admirers.

The real news here is Andrea Martin as Pippin’s grandmother – I have never seen somebody truly stop the show with thunderous applause the way she does with her big number “No Time At All”. This performance alone makes this entire production worthwhile, and is worth the price of admission all by itself. It’s that good; it’s legendary, in fact.

Gypsy Snider’s Montreal-based Les 7 doigts de le main circus troupe provides the circus acts, and they are a great choice – their performers project quirky personality in addition to their specialties, which dovetails nicely with the skill sets of the musical theatre actors. All in all, a spectacular and largely entertaining evening of musical theatre.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: I’m A Stranger Here Myself

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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, 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. Stranger was originally a cabaret show, but Mark has worked with director David Schweizer to craft it into an even more thoughtful multimedia theatre piece.

For this show, Nadler performs songs by German, French and Russian 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 A Stranger Here Myself was already ripe for adaptation into a more theatrical piece. 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, this has just shifted the emphasis even further towards theatre. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious, to the unspoken subtext; this one has an even more profound emotional pull, and is truly not to be missed.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Testament of Mary

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If you you know Fiona Shaw only from her film work, then you don’t know Fiona Shaw. Her overpoweringly impressive solo performance in The Testament of Mary is – I’ll just say it – searingly brilliant. I’ve quipped to people who enthuse about “searing” performances that I’d rather theatre not burn me. However, if it’s done as expertly as Shaw does it, I truly have no complaints.

The Testament of Mary takes place many years after the Crucifixion. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is in the city of Ephesus where two men, presumably St. Paul and St. Peter, both guard and protect her. Resisting the too-unearthly shape they are giving to her son’s story, Mary tells her own version.

Playwright Colm Tóibín has crafted a very human Mary who is more disturbed than moved by her son’s faith healing, and is even more disturbed by the thought of what’s going to happen to him when the Roman occupiers get wind of his revolutionary spiritual teachings. This Mary is emphatically a concerned mother, and as such takes a very dim view of her son’s oversized claims and ambitions.

It’s a very provocative take, that might even be considered blasphemous in some more conservative corners. Shaw leans into the humanity of this woman, throwing chairs and ladders about to underline her frustrated fury and rage.

The most interesting description I ever heard of postmodernism was from writer Umberto Eco, something to effect that a good faith postmodernist feels that they have history under their belt – rather than weighing down on their backs, as it did for modernists like Samuel Beckett. Well, taking it a degree further, I’d say Mary director Deborah Warner has theatrical postmodernism under her belt rather than weighing on her back – her staging owes much to postmodernists like Robert Wilson or Heiner Müller, but she and Shaw wear it much more lightly than their predecessors, and use it in a way that is much more expressive.

I might not recommend this to the more hidebound variety of Christian, but anybody outside of that group will find a great deal to appreciate in this daring and exquisitely executed portrait of a woman dealing with more than any person should have to face.

For tickets, click here.