Review: Dames at Sea

DAMES AT SEA John Bolton and Lesli Margherita in photo by Jeremy Daniel, 2015

Goofy, giddy, silly, old-fashioned fun – this show’s got tons of it. If you find it funny the the male romantic lead is named Dick, then you’ll have a good time. If you get why it’s funny that the female lead is named Ruby, then you are Dames at Sea‘s target audience, and will have a great time. If you know who they’re talking about when they say “That’s not a fat man, that’s Elsa Maxwell,” you’ll have a blast!

Plot? Dames at Sea makes a comic point of it’s gossamer-thin plot. There are sailors and chorus girls, of course. Our chorus girl heroine faints, but is caught by a sailor who just walked in the stage door, and instantly they launch into a love duet. It’s a celebration of the pure unserious entertainment offered on Broadway and in the movies in the middle of the last century, nothing more or less than that.

Director-choreographer Randy Skinner is the perfect person to helm this charmer. His tap numbers from the 2001 revival of 42nd Street still thunder in my brain, and he serves up the same tap-happy madness here, on a smaller scale. He gets the tone almost exactly right.

My only real complaint being that it’s not as gay as it could be. Dames at Sea was first performed at the tiny, way gay “birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway” Caffe Cino. Skinner’s production is appropriately campy, but more in a “summer stock” kind of way than a “gay cafe” kind of way. It’s a fine distinction, but one that matters to me, anyway.

Not a big deal – I still find plenty to enjoy in Dames at Sea. Particularly fun is Lesli Margherita’s over-the-top portrayal of diva Mona Kent. Now here’s a performance that hits that “gay cafe” tone I alluded to above, bigger and broader than many a drag queen. Fun, fun, fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Tannhäuser

Tannhauser

Although it’s always a pleasure to hear maestro James Levine lead the Met Opera orchestra – and Tannhäuser features some of composer Richard Wagner’s most gorgeous music – I don’t think I will ever love this opera. It’s a battle between pagan goddess of love Venus and a clutch of goody-goody Christians over the soul of the titular minstrel, and the Christians win. I’m on Venus’s side, so this is just a plain old bummer for me.

Still, almost all of the best music goes to Venus and her minions – granted, the Christians’ “Pilgrim Chorus” is the most beautiful thing in the show, but everything else good is in pagan-land. Oh, there’s one exception, the young shepherd’s song (divinely delivered here by Ying Fang), which is positioned with delicately balanced naivete between Tannhäuser’s time with Venus and his return to Christian Wartburg.

I can envision a production that follows Wagner’s musical cues, in which the Christian morality would be militaristically enforced but insincere, and the Venusian sensuality voluptuous but dangerously wild. But that is not this production, by a long shot.

Director Otto Schenk’s production is very conservative, but in the best possible way. I’m not personally compelled by his vision of Venus’s realm, but it is arguably very close to Wagner’s own vision. When it comes to Wartburg, however, Schenk has absolutely nailed the feel of that place in Tannhäuser’s time (the early 13th Century).

This is traditional opera at its most sturdy and compulsively watchable, really a vehicle for the singers to shine. My personal favorites on the night I went were Michelle DeYoung as a deeply sensual Venus, and Günther Groissböck as truly noble Landgraf Hermann – largely because they were easily the best actors in an ensemble of uniformly impressive vocal power.

How to put this; I recommend this as highly as I ever could recommend traditionally staged Wagner. Yep, this is as good as that kind of thing gets.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Gin Game

Gin Game 3945

It’s a vehicle, nothing more, nothing less. The Gin Game is a light-weight comedy with just enough emotional fuel in it to ignite when you get two great actors in it. James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson are undeniably great actors, and this Gin Game does indeed ignite, even if it doesn’t quite satisfy.

But that lack of satisfaction is no fault of the actors – this play doesn’t so much wrap up as simply stop. Plus, while playwright D. L. Coburn does dig deep enough to find his character’s darker sides, he really doesn’t have anything meaningful to show us about those parts of their personalities.

Weller Martin (Jones) and Fonsia Dorsey (Tyson) meet on the porch of their dilapidated nursing home and they become friends as Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin. Fonsia wins every hand, leading to a battle of wills that reveals what makes each of them tick. By the end of the play the gloves are off and they are really letting each other have it, and Tyson and Jones execute the verbal boxing with expert skill.

Jones uses that famous deep voice of his mostly to have Weller reassure Fonsia of his basically benign intent. But in an instant that rumble can turn into an authoritative roar, which works very well to communicate Weller’s hair-trigger temper.

On the surface Tyson’s Fonsia seems to be a warmly charming grandmother. However, Tyson has always had a biting sharpness just underneath her elegantly beautiful surface, and that fits the subtly manipulative Fonsia to a “T”.

Director Leonard Foglia has wisely kept things as light as possible – The Gin Game is at its best when we can enjoy the humor of the duo’s repartee. This just isn’t substantial enough material to lean heavily on the more painful truths Coburn every so often dredges up. An enjoyable, diverting evening spent with two expert performers, nothing more, nothing less.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: BenDeLaCreme

BenDeLaCreme_Cosmos

Talk about the evolution of drag! BenDeLaCreme may start off with goofy song parodies and wisecracking comedy like other drag queens, but that’s just to soften your senses for something far more sophisticated – her seductive strangeness creeps up on you, and gives you a lot more to chew on than your typical drag cabaret.

Her latest show, Cosmos, plays on both senses of the title: “the universe as a whole” and “an abbreviation for two or more Cosmopolitan cocktails”. It’s a boozy, pun-packed trek through the stars that aims to answer questions like “Why Planets?” and “How Does Science?”

It’s typical of the queen otherwise known as Ben Putnam that these intentionally silly starting points end up taking us to places more profound than the most chin-strokingly serious straight play, without ever being less than belly-laugh hilarious. I’ve gotten very frustrated recently with some of my colleagues in the theatre who look down on the arts of clowning, drag, circus and burlesque as being somehow less, somehow stupid. This is the show they need to see: Putnam takes the best of all those forms and whips them into something new, fascinating and intensely intelligent.

Not only that, BenDeLa uses these popular forms to probe the very biggest questions, switching from deep existential angst to spiritual lightness in the space of a minute – in between double entendres about sex and booze.

BenDeLaCreme is all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately really about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things, like science and our place in the universe. She delivers a show that’s equal parts cheeky fun and insightful art, no small feat. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening

In many ways this is better than the original production, something that’s always good to hear about a revival. Above all, director Michael Arden and his team have made sure this tale of teenagers discovering their sexuality in hyper-repressed 1891 Germany is much more clearly told and played than before.

In the original, the creative team favored highly poetic ambiguity, certainly not a bad choice for this symbol-laden work. However, by focusing more concretely on the moment-to-moment psychological nuances of the story, Arden has amped up its emotional pull considerably.

Arden finds his own way into the musical’s innate sensuality, with incense actually being burnt at an appropriate point in the show. He has also given designer Dane Laffery free reign to create a multifaceted set with lots of crannies and surprises, which gives solid support to the ensemble.

One thing that makes me very happy is the way Arden has turned up the heat on the homosexual romance between Hanschen (Andy Mientus) and Ernst (Joshua Castille). While Hanschen is unavoidably arrogant, Mientus successfully plays the hunger for companionship and physical comfort hiding behind his haughty mask. Plus, the sexual component of Ernst’s longing for Hanschen is now much more up front. When these two make out, it’s hot!

The adult woman are marvelously played by Camryn Manheim and Marlee Matlin, giving us a fascinating window into what drives these women to repress sexuality, in themselves and their children. They are also therefore more formidable, giving the teens a bigger obstacle to rebel against. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Turandot

Turandot

In opera, nothing succeeds like excess! Few operas are as deliriously excessive as Puccini’s Turnadot, and Franco Zeffirelli’s deliciously over-the-top production matches it to a T.

There are many in the past who have maligned this production for being vulgar in its eye-filling grandeur. To them I say: you understand we are at the opera, right? There might have been a brief time 250 or more years ago when Italian opera aimed at high art restraint and refinement, but that was really an aberration in opera’s gilded, gaudy, giddy, glorious history. Turandot and Zeffirelli’s production represent, if anything, the mainstream of this habitually outsized and outrageous form of entertainment. And I love them for it!

Now I’m not saying there aren’t problems with this tale of an icy Chinese princess pursued by a mysterious prince. The opera has many moments of stereotypical Orientalism, and is being produced in “yellowface” on a scale that truly dwarfs the practice of having Otello in Verdi’s opera of the same name in blackface (a practice the Met recently dropped).

That aside, this kind of spectacle married to lush, colorful and varied music is exactly what attracts me about opera. The music of Turandot is a massive bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, with heavy traffic in both directions. In the current Met revival, conductor Paolo Carignani corrals this wild, galloping beast into some sort of luminescent order. The stand-out performance was undoubtedly Christine Goerke in the title role, bringing to this broadly drawn archetype all kinds of musical and psychological colors. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Buster Poindexter

Buster Poindexter

I was surprised at how thrilling it was when David Johanson, arguably the king of early 1970s New York rock, took to the stage of Manhattan cabaret institution Cafe Carlyle. Of course, he’s doing it under the name of Buster Poindexter, his martini sipping, jacket required alter ego. At this point, after retiring and returning to the persona multiple times, it essentially signifies that Johanson will be singing the Poindexter repertoire, while wearing a pompadour. When he talks about himself in the act, he calls himself David.

And there’s nothing particularly ironic about the act, either – this is light years away from, for example, Bill Murray’s campy Nick the lounge singer. The closest he comes to that kind of schtick are the Vegas jokes he tells between songs, and even these gems of bad taste feel somehow lovingly curated.

Johanson clearly has real affection for the pop standards and early r&b that form the backbone of this act. The fun here is hearing these songs given new life with a combination of excellent musicianship and gutbucket energy worthy of Johanson’s original band, glam punk legends the New York Dolls.

Johanson is at his best when assaying international material – a rattling version of calypso standard “Zombie Jamboree” is one of the high points, as is a ragged boogie take on Italo-pop classic “Volare” (made famous by Dean Martin). Sometimes the act veers even closer to pure rock-and-roll, as with his interpretation of “Piece of My Heart” that owes its arrangement to the hit Janis Joplin version (for the record, that’s a very good thing).

Lyrics are occasionally glossed over in the high-octane rush, but these are songs that are all about the groove, so this isn’t even really a concern. This act is a hard swinging good time, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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