Review: Ann Hampton Callaway

ann hampton callaway

Ann Hampton Callaway is one of the most powerful singers in cabaret, and she sustains that power throughout her entire new cabaret act, “Songs I Wish I’d Written”. A songwriter herself – best known for writing and singing the theme from the TV hit The Nanny, as well as three songs for Barbra Streisand – Callaway picked only the songs she feels “writer’s envy” for, which makes for a very exciting show indeed. (Ann is also an out lesbian, who gave me the honor of being the journalist to do her “coming out interview” – you can read that here).

Her rendition of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” raises the rafters, as does her gospel-tinged take on “Bridge over Troubled Water”. But she also uses that power for quieter moments, beautifully sustaining notes with breath control that would make an opera singer proud. Of these the most exquisite was Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”; elegantly accompanying herself on the piano, she takes great care to actually tell the story in that complex song, while also doing full credit to its beautiful melody.

Ann has remarked that Barbra Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald were the two greatest influences on her. So it’s completely natural that she should channel Ella’s sumptuous jazziness throughout the show. The very jazziest moment is her version of Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up” – completely inspired by Mel Torme’s approach to the song, but taking his classical-inspired scatting to even greater, truly dazzling heights.

Callaway always delivers shimmery, rich jazz-pop perfection, and this show is no exception. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: La Soirée

La Soiree

Oh dear lord, the man candy in La Soirée!!! I’ve seen plenty of circus shows with half-or-more naked men, but this one delivers more toned flesh per minute than any other I’ve seen. And, for such folk as like such things, female performer Ursula Martinez goes the full monty for a magic act that gives new meaning to “nothing up my sleeve” (even though the bit wasn’t sexy for me, it was still quite funny). But the boys!!!

There’s aerialist Stephen Williams (pictured, above) whose “bath boy” routine is ridiculously erotic – he wears nothing but a wet, and very tight, pair of 501s. Acrobatic act The English Gents run a close second with provocative positions and surprise after surprise. And if you go for the svelte type, clown/juggler Mario, Queen of the Circus is very tight indeed (and wickedly funny in a decidedly sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll style).

But La Soirée is above all a variety show, not just all boys all the time (though I wouldn’t necessarily complain if it was). It also features cabaret acts, including singing from one of the most respected cabaret performers in the world, Meow Meow, accompanied by composer Lance Horne. The above-mentioned Martinez sings and jokes in addition to her nudist illusionism.

The appropriately named Miss Behave combines oddball circus stunts with a sensibility that’s campier than Christmas. And comedienne Mooky Cornish does audience participation in the kindest, most generous way I’ve seen, with truly hilarious results.

This is one of the most well-paced and structured circus variety shows I’ve ever seen, as well. No individual act overstays its welcome, nor does the show as a whole. A highly recommended evening of sexy fun!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night Belasco Theatre

Two performances – Samuel Barnett as shipwrecked gentlewoman Viola and Mark Rylance as Lady Olivia – make this Twelfth Night essential viewing. Even people who aren’t particularly into Shakespeare are likely to enjoy Rylance’s multicolored and often hilarious portrayal (although most of his best stuff comes after the intermission, trust me). This Twelfth Night may not be as definitive as the Richard III it alternates with; the fact that it is the more enjoyable evening overall is a measure of how great the play itself is.

Twelfth Night has long been my favorite of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. In it, Shakespeare takes love between people of the same sex very seriously — all you have to do is look at the character names. The play follows the romantic adventures of Viola and her identical twin Sebastian, both shipwrecked in the enchanted dukedom of Illyria.

Viola is a poetic name for the violet flower, which Sappho was known to have woven into her garlands; they were also an important part of the religion of the ancient Earth goddess Cybele. Sebastian alludes to St. Sebastian, a martyr who had by Shakespeare’s time appeared in very homoerotic paintings by Botticelli and Titian, among others. Shakespeare was familiar with all these things; using one of those names might have been a coincidence, but using both suggests conscious design.

And indeed, director Tim Carroll has given the homoerotic core of the comedy full play. He makes the gruffly masculine character Antonio, whose oft-declared love for Sebastian is plainly of the achingly romantic variety, more of a constant presence on-stage than in any other production, even giving him a sweetly understated moment of ruefulness at the end when Sebastian has disappeared behind a closing door.

The one major drawback of this production is lax enunciation on the part of the show’s clowns. The heart of their humor is sexual wordplay, but if you can’t make out the words, the playful edge goes out the window, and a chunk of the show’s comic spirit with it. One clown who is consistently understandable, sharp and hilarious is Angus Wright as the foolish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek – I personally would put his performance next to Barnett’s and Rylance for strength and clarity of conception.

These issues are minor: this on the whole is the best Twelfth Night I’ve seen. It is not to be missed, especially for Shakespeare buffs.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Richard III

Richard III Belasco Theatre

I’ve never heard Shakespeare’s language spoken as lucidly as it is spoken in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Richard III. It is spoken so lucidly that I can now say with more assurance than ever that, while this play has an exciting beginning and an engrossing second half, the second quarter of the play is a deadly, over-plotted slog.

One of the greatest English-speaking actors of our time, Mark Rylance, makes a full meal of the title role, finding unexpected comedy throughout. This Richard isn’t the vicious moustache-twirler often seen in the role. Oh, he’s a villain, alright (which is probably unfair to the historical Richard, whose legal legacy actually included increased protections for the poor and free speech), but Rylance takes his cue from Richard’s description of his former behavior late in the play: “antic”.

This Richard is decidedly antic, taking everything from murder to war very lightly one minute, screaming and bellowing the next. This quality makes his tragic end more poignant than usual – when he uses the word antic, he’s actually lamenting that he no longer has the antic spirit he once had.

Samuel Barnett also makes a considerable impression as Elizabeth Woodville, consort to King Edward IV (Richard’s brother), in a scene late in the play where she answers Richard’s every attempt to get around her with bitter, eloquent sarcasm equal to his own. This scene, while a strong one, isn’t usually one of the play’s high points, but Barnett’s sharp performance makes it one.

If you are in any way inclined toward Shakespeare, this production does indeed come close to being definitive, and is unquestionably instantly legendary. If you love Shakespeare, don’t you dare miss it!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Disaster!

Disaster!

When Disaster! is funny, it’s as funny as any show in the city. And you will simply not hear the 1970s disco and pop rock songs that make up its score sung better anywhere – in some cases they outshine the original. That said, like most parodies Disaster! is quite uneven; a there are a bunch of jokes that don’t really land, and some scenes that definitely take too long to make their point.

Broadway musician, comedian and SiriusXM DJ Seth Rudetsky got together with director Jack Plotnick to write this loving tribute to disaster movies of the 1970s (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, etc.). They’ve added an extra layer of camp, making Disaster! musically to 1970s soft rock what Rock of Ages is to hair metal.

Rudetsky also plays “disaster expert” Ted, who everybody thinks is crazy for predicting Manhattan’s first floating casino and discotheque is destined for all kinds of trouble. “No,” says Ted, “I’ve asked a therapist and humorless and crazy are not the same thing!” It’s a funny line, but don’t you believe it – Rudetsky’s deadpan timing is actually pretty damn hilarious.

Plotnick’s direction is deft, dynamic and fluid, aided and abbeted by witty, driving work from choreographer Denis Jones. Rudetsky and Plotnick are both beloved in the Broadway community, so it’s hardly surprising that they put together a stunning cast, particularly Mary Testa as a Long Island housewife with a dark secret (with hilarious symptoms), and Jennifer Simard as a nun whose demeanor runs from comically repressed to manically released.

Plotnick would be well advised to go on what director Jack O’Brien calls a “clam hunt” – watching the show for several nights and measuring how big a laugh lines get. If a line is there strictly for laughs, but rarely gets more than a pity titter, out it goes. That would be if he wants Disaster closer to comedy heaven; it’s already on the high end of comedy purgatory and as such is plenty of fun.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Die Frau Ohne Schatten

die-frau-ohne-schatten-metropolitan-opera

This production features some of the most beautiful singing I’ve heard at the Met this season, but the real star is conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who took composer Richard Strauss’s already gorgeous orchestrations into new realms of sumptuousness and luminosity. The late Herbert Wernicke’s visually stunning production (restaged by J. Knighten Smit), does Hugo Hofmannsthal’s strange libretto many favors, but Die Frau Ohne Schatten is still a fundamentally problematic piece, even by the reality-optional standards of opera (those standards, by the way, is one of the reasons this surrealist is steadily gaining a taste for the form).

A daughter of the god Keikobad, now called the Empress, lives in a mystical realm: she was captured by a human hunter, now called the Emperor. They married, but she has no shadow. Keikobad decrees that she must acquire a shadow before a year passes, or he will reclaim her and turn the Emperor to stone. The Empress’s nurse offers the wife of a human fabric dyer untold pleasures if she will give up her shadow.

So far, so entertainingly odd, right? Here’s the problem: Hofmannsthal, in the early part of the libretto, does a terrific job of depicting the dyer’s wife as a woman wracked by psychologically realistic anxiety about bearing children, or about even being married in the first place. Later on, though, she only really falls for her husband when he threatens to kill her.

Now, there are plenty of operas where murderous jealousy and the like play out without being terribly offensive. What makes this one so problematic is that a woman who initially behaves in a way that is so believably, humanly fallible, suddenly turns into a caricature of the operatic martyr when her hubby starts acting like a caricature of a possessive jerk. If she had been more of a caricature in the first place, this would have been simple operatic plotiness and intrigue. But because of the set-up, it feels like we are being asked to accept her change of heart under these circumstances as realistic, even laudable. And that, is offensive.

If you can set that aside, this is a visually and musically gorgeous rendition of an opera that contains some of Richard Strauss’s best operatic composing. If you can set that aside.

For tickets, click here.

Interview: J. Stephen Brantley

pirira

Playwright/actor J. Stephen Brantley (pictured above, right) set his gay-themed play Pirira  during the July 20, 2011 riots in the African nation of Malawi. As that country erupts in riots, American aid workers Jack and Ericka take shelter in the storage room of a struggling NGO. Half a world away, Malawian student Gilbert and his gay co-worker Chad begin another day in the back room of a Manhattan florist. By the day’s end, they discover their lives are inextricably linked across continents, language, and time. I asked Brantley to provide some insight into this intriguing work.

What is Pirira about?

Pirira tracks two seemingly unrelated stories, separated by 7000 miles, simultaneously. It’s about the unexpected ways in which our lives are connected with, and our identities are tied to, people who may be very different from us. One of these stories is about American NGO workers in Malawi during the 2011 demonstrations. The other features a Malawian student in the states working in a wholesale florist’s with a gay New Yorker. Audiences see both unfold at once, in the same space, in real time.

You also act in Pirira. What’s that been like for you?
Really challenging. I’ve acted in my own work many times, and I’m writing a one-man thing for myself at the moment. But Pirira is different. Maybe because of the complex musical architecture of the piece, maybe because it all feels so personal…Jack is not an easy role to act anyway, but I find it nearly impossible to do so when I’m in my playwright head at all. It’s never been like that for me, but some nights it’s like going to battle with myself.
I know you’ve been thinking about writing plays about Africa for a long time. Is this the final result, or is this a subject you might continue to pursue in other plays?
Pirira is probably not my only Malawi play. I packed a lot into this one, but there is much more I want to say about that place and the people there. My big dream is to write something there, on African soil, and maybe work with some Malawian performers in putting it up.
You have long been concerned about the situation of gays in Africa. How can our readers help or get involved?
It’s tricky. Change comes slowly to Africa, and rarely at the demands of progressive-minded Americans. And yet, I know for sure that LGBT people in Malawi, in Uganda, and in the rest of the continent need and want our support. I’m a huge fan of Frank Mugisha and Sexual Minorities Uganda. Sign up for and share updates from the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission. And in Malawi, and organization called CEDEP is one of the few NGOs championing LGBT rights. Their office was smashed up a few weeks ago, and they could certainly use our support. Educate yourself. Sign the online petitions. Just cultivating an awareness that LGBT rights is a global issue, and a matter of life and death in much of the world, will get us closer to true equality and human dignity for all.
For tickets, click here.