Review: Kung Fu

Kung Fu The Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage

Full disclosure, I am a big fan of Bruce Lee – I’m drawn to his charisma, his incredible physical precision, and, oh yeah, that smokin’ hot bod. So it’s not surprising that David Henry Hwang’s bioplay about Lee, Kung Fu, doesn’t really tell me anything about Bruce I didn’t already know. As Hwang usually does, however, he’s managed to find compelling ways to meditate on the sociological and artistic dimensions of Lee’s story.

Originally begun as the book of a projected Bruce Lee musical that never materialized, Kung Fu tells much the same story as the Lee biopic Dragon. More emphasis is placed on Bruce’s relationship with his father Hoi-Chuen, played with rock-solid gravitas by the great Francis Jue. Hoi-Chuen was an actor in Jyut kek, also known as Cantonese opera. Hwang used Cantonese opera’s northern cousin Jīngjù, or Peking opera, in his revision of Flower Drum Song. As he did there, he has incorporated several dance numbers in the traditional Chinese form, to great visual and emotional effect.

In general, Hwang has replaced what would have been musical numbers with fight or Jyut kek numbers, with original instrumental music by Du Yun. Kung Fu is, above all other things, a choreographic spectacle – Emmanuel Brown’s fights, Sonya Tayeh’s dances and Jamie Guan’s Jyut kek are all eye-filling and thoroughly exciting.

Cole Horibe, best known for his appearance in TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”, dazzles with the precision and power of his moves, as anybody who portrays Lee should. He also has Lee’s accent down cold – not some random Chinese accent, but Bruce Lee’s exact accent. And he has the demeanor down too: a confident spiritual seeker, but always with a steely, cocky, even thuggish core.

This isn’t the most definitive telling of Lee’s life story, nor is it Hwang’s most insightful work. It is a mildly thoughtful, visually exciting object lesson on overcoming adversity with grace and determination. On that level, I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Prince Igor

Prince Igor

I’m new to Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin, which isn’t a big surprise since it hasn’t been at the Met for 97 years. I quite like the music, it’s arresting and sweeping stuff. And I find the story – of a 12th Century Slavic prince who faces great adversity in war with Turkic Polovtsians – quite compelling. I have my doubts, however, about the uneven new Metropolitan production directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov.

My first issue is with setting the action in a milieu that vaguely resembles late 19th Century Russia. I’d rather they set it in outer space, than this. I think it’s an incredibly wishy-washy choice, revealing exactly nothing about either medieval Slavs, or the piece’s more universal ramifications.

He’s also placed what is usually the opera’s second act immediately after a prologue, making it the first act. Tcherniakov has some foundation for switching the acts: Borodin left Prince Igor unfinished and very disorganized at the time of his death. His colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov decided to, in his own words, “orchestrate, finish composing, and systematize all the rest that had been left unfinished and unorchestrated by Borodin.” Rimsky-Korsakov was the one who made the decision to order the acts the way they have been traditionally performed.

However, some notes in Borodin’s own hand have come to light, suggesting that his original intention was to order the acts in the way Tcherniakov has. I think, though, that Rimsky-Korsakov (who had written several operas of his own by the time he took on Prince Igor) had the right idea. The plot events of the opera are explained much more clearly in the (traditional) Act I than they are in the more atmospheric (traditional) Act II. Reversing them, while perhaps “truer” to Borodin’s intent, seriously confuses the storytelling

Beyond that, Tcherniakov sets this “new” first act, after Igor suffers a major military setback, in an enormous field of poppies. It’s visually stunning, but makes the already messy state of the opera’s story even more opaque.

All that said, musically speaking this is a truly delicious account of Prince Igor, largely thanks to conductor Gianandrea Noseda. The famous “Polovtsian Dances” – which gave us the melody for the pop song “Stranger In Paradise” – are truly electrifying here, with sensuous choreography by Itzik Galili. Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, as Igor’s long-suffering wife Yaroslavna, stands out among a uniformly strong, mostly Eastern European cast.

I still don’t feel that I have properly seen this opera. I’ve certainly heard it, though, and it sounds just tremendous!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Dinner With Friends

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Oy, it’s like “Heteros in the Mist”! Okay, I’m kinda kidding, Dinner with Friends does depict straight married couples with a great deal of insight and sensitivity. And there are a few things in this vivid portrait that ring true for long-term gay relationships and marriages. But a lot of it is mostly of, well, anthropological interest to me – I feel like a gay Jane Goodall…

Karen (Marin Hinkle) and Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) played matchmaker with their friends Beth (Heather Burns) and Tom (Darren Pettie), and the two couples have been inseparable ever since. But when Beth and Tom’s marriage disintegrates, the couples’ friendships are also put in jeopardy.

Like I said, there are moments in the play that address those truths of marriage that transcend gay or straight. But the main heft of the plot is driven by something that in my experience is much more a straight thing: doing things in your life and marriage because it’s what’s expected of you, either by society in general, or your small circle of friends. Us gay marrieds start out by doing the unexpected, so it’s a bit hard to relate or really be moved.

I can’t deny that playwright Donald Margulies is at his best here. The characters are complex, full human beings, especially the play’s flawed moral center Gabe (play with great warmth by Shamos), and their interactions pull you along rather than push. This is very nuanced stuff, and director Pam MacKinnon does not ignore a single detail. So all in all, a worthy, smart, well-done effort, but not anything that speaks to me personally.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Nellie McKay

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Nellie McKay is a supreme stylist, with broad, substantial musical intelligence behind every single flourish. She combines heart-on-sleeve sincerity with supremely arch, dry wit; she’s utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable, drawing ideas from extremely diverse eras and genres.

Her Cafe Carlyle debut, nuttily entitled “Nellie with a Z”, is as edgy as anything I’ve seen at that rarefied venue – she sings something about “motherfuckers” at one point – all the while displaying musical taste and restraint so impeccable you dare not take issue with her cabaret bona fides. It’s 100% a solo act, just Nellie in a sophisticated, spangled dress accompanying herself on piano, and exceptionally expressive, um, ukulele (I’d go so far as to call her a virtuoso of the uke).

She becomes one with the piano, placing a knowing distance between herself and the audience, forcing you to focus on the nuances of both the music and the lyrics. She dives deep into Johnny Mercer lyrics in “Midnight Sun” and “Skylark”, locating the ache in those songs and peering wistfully out from there. She even sings “Moon River” in Portuguese, giving that chestnut a tinge of bossa novaelegance and fatalism. Yup,bossa nova ukelele, that’s the kind of juxtaposition that McKay – and perhaps only McKay – has the chops to do, without a hint of irony.

She raps about bigots at Sochi (“something for you whippersnappers” she quips), and dedicates a song to her “arch-nemesis Barbara Cook”. These are part of a lightly-worn conceit that she is “the world’s oldest cabaret artist”; she even uses a prop cane to add detail to this character.

McKay’s a highly individual talent, with wildly crazy creativity to match her razor-like interpretive ability. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to hear her in such an intimate setting.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Bronx Bombers

Bronx Bombers Circle in the Square Theatre

Playwright Eric Simonson has a real gift for bringing out the human side of sports stories. With Bronx Bombers he completes what could be thought of as a Major American Sports Trilogy: he covered football with the 2010 Lombardi, basketball with the 2012 Magic/Bird and now finally baseball – in the persons of the New York Yankees – gets its inning with Bombers.

Having seen those other plays, I knew that I wasn’t in for an evening of stats and nonstop machismo. Stats are referred to but never laid out, and macho shit talk is played mostly for laughs – although any play that features Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson as characters would have to have some of that nonsense bullshit, or it just wouldn’t be accurate.

Bombers is much more epic and ambitious than the other two. Completely understandable: baseball has been America’s sport of choice much, much longer than the other two, going back to the 19th Century at least, maybe back to the 18th.

And a play about the Yankees – well, no matter what team you prefer, there’s no denying that the Yankees has the longest list of big personalities of perhaps any sports team, in perpetuity throughout the universe. Most of them make at least a cameo appearance here, which makes for moments that are easily the most moving and insightful in the trilogy. It does not make for consistently gripping storytelling, though; outside of those moments, Bronx Bombers can wander a bit.

This diffuse play comes into it’s clearest focus when dealing with Yogi Berra. Peter Scolari plays Berra, and he all but disappears into his portrayal of the beloved Yankees coach, nailing Berra’s skittish New Yawker demeanor, as well as his sly, surprising wit. A magnificent, award-worthy piece of acting.

While definitely a heartfelt and intelligent tribute to a team clearly near and dear to Simonson’s heart, this is perhaps the weakest of the three plays. Still, I can recommend it, on the basis of a handful of great moments and Scolari’s masterful performance. Undoubtedly, if you love the Yankees, you will love this.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Tribute Artist

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Charles Busch is definitely on a roll. While the hilarious Tribute Artist isn’t the non-stop laugh riot that The Divine Sister was, it’s not far behind it in terms of total laughs, and it’s arguably his best drawing-room comedy to date – and, yes, that means I’m saying it’s at least as good as his Broadway hit Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. I really enjoyed it!

Busch himself plays out-of-work female impersonator Jimmy (whom we never see fully out of drag) who takes on his late landlady Adriana’s identity in order to sell her townhouse, beautifully rendered by set designer Anna Louizos. Of course, it couldn’t possibly be that simple, but, this being a Busch comedy, things eventually work themselves to a blissful and very queer ending.

I think my favorite thing about The Tribute Artist is the way it joyfully celebrates queer and working-class folk without making anybody a saint. The person who is closest to pure goodness is transgender FTM teen Oliver (played with aching sweetness by Keira Keeley), and it’s kinda great that she’s the best human being of the lot.

The person that’s closest to pure evil is Adriana’s long-ago boy toy Rodney (Jonathan Walker), who shows up with his own get rich quick angle, but even he has brief moments of human kindness. I think Busch is having a blast using Rodney to poke fun at the gratuitously gritty, macho and damaged heroes of playwrights like Mamet and LaBute, especially in his absurdly fulminating final monologue, and that was definitely fun for me as well.

Busch is terrific as Jimmy, taking full advantage of a role that uses both his love of old Hollywood glamour and his own charmingly self-deprecating personality. Even better is Julie Halston as Jimmy’s New Yawker lesbian real estate broker buddy Rita, a classic wise-cracking broad.

The marvelous Mary Bacon is ideally cast as highly neurotic midwesterner Christina, who against all odds blossoms as the play progresses. We even get a glimpse of the real Adriana in the first scene, and Cynthia Harris is clearly having a ball playing this imperious and intimidating woman

I know there are people out there who prefer their Busch ridiculous and over-the-top, and his Divine Sister totally proved he is beyond brilliant at delivering that. But there’s always been a really warmly humane quality running though his work, and The Tribute Artist displays this side of him better than ever. Highly, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Christopher Sieber

Christopher Sieber

I don’t think I’ve seen many cabaret shows that are more charming than Chris Sieber’s 54 Below debut “Minnesota Boy Does Well”. As is fitting for a cabaret debut from a Broadway baby like Sieber, this act is all about growing up theatrical, with memories of childhood lip-synching segueing seamlessly into regional shows, then into his Broadway debut (the cult favorite flop Triumph of Love) and beyond.

The act is dishy without being bitchy, insider-y without being insular, rueful without being resentful. Part of his charm comes from his corn-fed good looks and golden voice, but a larger part of it comes from the palpable and infectious joy he has in performing. When he invites the audience to sing along with “Daydream Believer” it is completely unforced, and we are effortlessly drawn into whistling along with Spamalot‘s “The Bright Side of Life” without his even asking.

Sieber has an extended sequence about the injuries he’s suffered on the boards – an occupational hazard he addresses with good humor and witty self-deprecation. He has another, decidedly more positive, extended sequence about the many people he has replaced on Broadway, which climaxes with his playing George opposite Harvey Fierstein’s Albin in La Cage Aux Folles.

Now, Sieber was the first George that has filled the La Cage line “plain old homosexual” with deep sincerity, and therein lies the key to the genius of his performance and his chemistry with Harvey. I have never felt the reality of that couple’s love as I did with them. Sieber’s George loved Albin so much that the audience was reduced to moved silence whenever Sieber expressed that love. His rendition of La Cage‘s “Song on the Sand” in this cabaret act was full of that feeling.

What I didn’t know, though, was that Sieber had played Albin on tour with George Hamilton as his George, and he closes this act with a highly emotional version of “I Am What I Am” that is easily the equal of George Hearn’s towering original or even Harvey’s. If you (like me) didn’t see Sieber sing this on tour, you absolutely can’t miss this – or, really, any of this act. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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