Review: Pride

Pride

It is not at all surprising that this movie is already being adapted into a stage musical. For one thing, Matilda‘s Matthew Warchus directed it (with great feeling and nimbleness, I might add). Also, it’s the latest in a line of British movies that highlight a transforming encounter between working-class heart and queer fabulousness: The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, etc. All of which have gone on to be highly successful as musicals. It doesn’t hurt that Pride, to my mind anyway, is the best of the lot.

Pride is inspired by a true story: In the summer of 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s government was brutally facing down the striking National Union of Mineworkers – also the background of Billy Elliot. In Pride, we follow a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists who raise money to support the strikers’ families. Specifically they set their sights on the tiny mining village of Ollwyn, Wales and set off to make their donation in person.

The story is told through the eyes of Joe (George MacKay), a closeted barely-not-legal photographer, who falls in with the group almost by accident on London Gay Pride 1984. The leader of the group, Mark Ashton, cuts a passionately romantic figure, especially as played by the almost-too-pretty Ben Schnetzer. The combination of music and politics makes me very emotional, and the idea of solidarity between labor and queers really hits me where I live.

Bill Nighy is as restrained as I’ve ever seen him as Ollwyn labor elder Cliff, which makes the one time he lets his eccentricity peep out all the more effective. But this is also no place for a star turn – in keeping with the collectivist spirit of labor, this is decidedly an ensemble film, with a very large ensemble indeed, and all the better for it. I’ll just say it: Pride is simply one of the best films I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Love Letters

Love Letters Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow 2 photo by Carol Rosegg

Sentimental but often acerbic, minimalist but very rooted in realism, Love Letters portrays two friends, the artistic Melissa Gardner and the eloquent Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, who exchange notes, cards and letters with each other for over 50 years. It’s designed to be performed by two actors reading the letters from their seats, which makes it incredibly simple to produce – no set, two actors who don’t even have to memorize their lines – and as such has been incredibly popular in regional theatres. Hire two stars, hold just a handful of rehearsals, and start selling tickets!

It doesn’t hurt that this deceptively simple play is actually pretty darn good, a detailed look at two very different WASPs falling in and out of love. This is a world that Gurney knows well, and has chronicled better than any other playwright this side of Thornton Wilder.

For the first stretch of this Broadway run, Melissa is played by Mia Farrow, Andrew by Brian Dennehy. Farrow emphasizes the flightier side of this wild child – a choice that doesn’t really work for me, but I have to admit that Farrow commits to it and plays it for all its worth. Dennehy’s interpretation suits me much better; in his hands, Andrew’s love of writing (letters and otherwise) comes across as deeply sincere. No stuffed shirt he, but rather a sensitive and smart soul.

Love Letters is a rewarding evening of theatre, but I wouldn’t call it a deeply satisfying one. Worth seeing with these two, anyway.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Mighty Real

Mighty Real

This show takes electrifying flight When Anthony Wayne is singing, channeling “The Queen of Disco” Sylvester. And since there is more singing than talking in this show, Mighty Real spends most of its time soaring through disco heaven.

Wayne is a phenomenal singer and a magnetic performer, both of which you have to be if you want to even come close to the spirit of Sylvester. His back-up singers Martha Wash (played by Jacqueline B. Arnold) and Izora Armstead (played by Anastacia McCleskey), were just as charismatic and vocally gifted as Sylvester, and Arnold and McCleskey definitely live up to that.

It should be said that none of the cast physically resembles their models (Wash and McCleskey were both so large they took on the name Two Tons O’ Fun). However, this hardly matters when they all live up to the energy and prowess of the originals on stage, which they certainly do.

As with the great majority of musicals, what problems Mighty Real has are in the book (also by Wayne). The book is without a doubt a heartfelt tribute to Sylvester, trying to get at what drove this fabulous artist, and its sincerity and depth of feeling is definitely a help.

But Wayne plays fast and loose with the timeline of Sylvester’s life, most egregiously having the teenage Sylvester watching a medley of “Respect”, “Lady Marmalade” and “Proud Mary” on TV, when all three songs were released many years after Sylvester left his childhood home.

You could make an equally fabulous medley of songs that he realistically might have seen, even by the same artists: Ike & Tina Turner’s “The Gong-Gong Song”, Patti LaBelle’s “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” and “Something’s Got A Hold on Me” by Etta James (who Sylvester actually knew at the time). It bears saying that the medley as is does feel emotionally right, and is highly theatrical. But, still…

Perhaps even more seriously, the book has problems of tone, focusing as it does on the pain that Sylvester went through. Sylvester always wanted to project love and joy though his performances, and would probably have not been thrilled at Wayne taking this angle. Most disconcertingly, Wayne portrays Sylvester’s youthful relationship with an older man in his church as sexual molestation, when Sylvester himself always strenuously insisted that the relationship was consensual.

But again, the book takes up relatively little stage time, and in the final analysis does little to hold back the propulsive vitality of Mighty Real. This makes this fun show something I can easily recommend, just not as wholeheartedly as I might have hoped.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christine Ebersole

christine-ebersole_original 2014

For her first long cabaret run in two years, Christine Ebersole returns to 54 Below with a glorious new show. What really distinguishes this show from her previous cabaret turns (they’ve all been glorious) is the touch of Musical Director Bette Sussman, who brings with her a big, rock-ish band and a jazz-pop polish reminiscent of arranger William S. Fischer’s work on the classic Bette Midler album The Divine Miss M (Sussman has collaborated with Midler herself on more than one occasion). In any event, and in case you didn’t know, I am here to tell you that Christine Ebersole is faaaaaabulous!

Though Ebersole is primarily known as a Broadway diva, and her most recent CD was a very jazzy affair, this is her most rock and roll act to date. This time, you’re more likely to run into a Fleetwood Mac or Burt Bacharach tune than a Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer standard (though she does a beautiful rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Good”). She even does a breathtaking turn on a classic Diana Ross song, and I am not going to spoil your surprise by telling you which one. Because you are going to see this show, you know!

Ebersole absolutely brings to pop-rock the same elegant power she brings to musical theater and jazz. When she sings “Woodstock” it is far more than just a cabaret singer singing a Joni Mitchell song. The song itself has only grown in power over the years, overtaking the event it describes in its ability to evoke yearning idealism. Christine imbues it with a searing emotion and intelligence that communicates so much: a sense of history that includes the Vietnam War and 9/11, and a passionate sense that we mustn’t allow history to extinguish that idealism. Fiery and profound, all in one go.

All that, plus an insane version of “Revolutionary Costume for Today” from Grey Gardens (for which Ebersole won her second Tony) that is simultaneously hilarious and roof-raising. Another cabaret act from this lady that just sparkles like the finest champagne – Faaaaaabulous!

For tickets, click here. Seriously, go back, click the link and buy your tickets now.

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