Review: Bright Star

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Affable and inoffensive – those are the adjectives that leap to mind when thinking about the Steve Martin / Edie Brickell bluegrass musical Bright Star. It’s a perfectly pleasant evening in the theatre, but on a Broadway musical landscape populated by big, brassy entertainments on one hand, and fresh, innovate think pieces on the other, it may have a difficult time keeping it’s darling little head held high.

Bright Star tells the story of Alice Murphy, a North Carolina literary editor. When she encounters an aspiring young author – a small town soldier just home from World War II – a chain of events is set in motion that take Alice back to the best and worst moments of her own youth.

The best thing about Bright Star is the lovely, delicate and even sometimes sophisticated bluegrass music. As with Sting’s The Last Ship, there’s a rich vein of melody here that is often missed in shows by composers devoted to musicals.

Credit for this must go mostly to Martin – he may best known as a comic actor and writer, but he’s been a master of bluegrass banjo just as long as he’s been a comedian. Over the last decade or so, he’s devoted a lot of energy to composing progressive bluegrass songs (often with Brickell) and almost instantly gained recognition as one of the leading practitioners of the form.

The words – both Martin’s book and his and Brickell’s lyrics – are not nearly as successful. The plot is predictable, but Martin is a sly enough comic writer to play to both the part of the audience that is ahead of the story and that part which is surprised by it. In fact, the revelation of a key happening late in the show is written and played for comedy, since playing it totally straight would be maudlin and laughable in all the wrong ways. Still, a bit too predictable.

I had a decent enough time at Bright Star. I recommend it to you mostly because its charms, though not insignificant, might be easy to miss on today’s Broadway.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Blackbird

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I have very mixed feelings about this play. I often look at shows through the lens of my work as a stage director – I ask myself, would I want to spend several weeks of rehearsal in the world of this play. Blackbird is a play I would never want to direct, I decidedly would not want to spend all that time with Ray and Una, who had a sexual relationship when he was an adult and she was 12. That said, I do recognize Blackbird as a powerful piece of theatre, and this production as an accomplished one.

It’s definitely a juicy meal of “actor meat” for two adventurous performers, and the leads in this production, Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, tear into it with gusto. Jeff Daniels plays Ray, a man in late middle age, who’s initial impulse when Una tracks him down at work is to get her the hell out of there. As they hash out the lingering aftereffects of their relationship, Daniels draws a remarkable portrait of a damaged man trying to be honest with himself and Una, not always successfully.

Williams gives just as potent a performance as the brittle, bristling Una. This is particularly true of a long monologue in which she relives their last moment together before a parting that will destroy both of their lives for years to come. Both the character and Williams’s portrayal are complex – she alternately plays the victim and refuses the role, reviles Ray for what he did to her and then shows an unexpected longing for him.

Director Joe Mantello – the man who has taken the daunting task of spending so much time with these damaged souls – keeps things white hot, which is appropriate, if a bit exhausting. Do I recommend Blackbird? Well, it gives no answers for the questions it raises, but the questions themselves are very provocative. So, on balance it’s worth seeing – fun, it isn’t.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Steven Page

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Steven Page chooses his words carefully. I mean this in a couple of ways: the former Barenaked Ladies frontman is a real craftsman as a songwriter – his lyrics surprise and conjure evocative images. But he also doesn’t say much in between songs; maybe a few pithy comments about the next song, nothing that you could really call “patter.” So his current show at the Café Carlyle is not your typical cabaret show. It more closely resembles a concert of laconically funny folk rock. And that’s fine, because this is sophisticated folk rock of a high caliber.

The show leans heavily on Page’s new album Heal Thyself, Pt. 1: Instinct, which deals with themes of love, loss and healing, with a rich vein of sardonic wit, as signified by song titles like “Linda Ronstadt in the ’70s” and lyrics like “You’re talking to a Manchild, / Speak slowly.” They’re all delivered by Page’s powerful, ringing tenor, itself a real pleasure. He’s accompanied by guitarist Craig Northey and Kevin Fox on cello; although that sounds like sparse backing, the three of them manage to make a surprisingly lush sound.

There’s a tension in all of his songs between a surface mischievousness and raw pain not far underneath – a very productive tension, which he works for all it’s worth. Mostly the songs break towards hope, but with a rueful awareness of the difficulties life puts in your way. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Old Hats

Signature Theatre presents OLD HATS Created and Performed by Bill Irwin and David Shiner Music and Lyrics by and Featuring Shaina Taub Directed by Tina Landau Pictured: Bill Irwin

Rubber-limbed clown Bill Irwin was one of the biggest successes to come out of the “New Vaudeville” of the ’70s & ’80s. Around the time he joined forces with fellow clown David Shiner in the early ’90s for Fool Moon, the “New Vaudevillians” had done their work, and you could do straight-up vaudeville (no “New”) – much as has happened with burlesque since. So in Old Hats, Irwin and Shiner combine bits with roots going back to the 19th Century to a brand-spanking-new routine involving an iPad for Irwin. Seems Irwin’s image on his device sometimes gets the better of the real person!

Long gone are any pretensions to High Art. This is not to say Old Hats is brainless – the iPad sequence and one involving a political debate have whip-smart satiric bite. Rather, it’s not required that a routine have anything serious about it to be included; but it is mandatory that it be somehow entertaining and fun. Particularly goofy is the act one closer in which Shiner plays a smarmy, incompetent magician and Irwin plays his always-grinning female assistant. Irwin as a Vegas blonde brings a dimension to drag I’d never seen before, and that’s not easy!

What makes this comparatively light-weight evening consistently compelling is the total mastery “old hats” Irwin and Shiner have over their craft. Ghosts of clown masters past are everywhere (which is a good thing) – I especially felt the presence of Chaplin’s “little tramp” in a sad-funny routine by Shiner about a depressed hobo. Plus there are plenty of bits that have been associated specifically with these two for a long time, most notably Irwin as a hapless waiter and Shiner corraling several audience members into “shooting” a whacky silent western. Wickedly entertaining, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: She Loves Me

SHE LOVES ME 2 0162_Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi, photo by Joan Marcus 2016

This always was and always will be an utterly charming musical. It is much loved in certain corners, and deservedly so. The score by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) beautifully demonstrates how to be simultaneously sophisticated and light-hearted – this is my kind of sugar sweet show.

She Loves Me follows Georg and Amalia, two parfumerie clerks in 1930s Budapest who get off on the wrong foot and are constantly sparring. Amalia, however, has been writing to a “lonely hearts” pen pal who sought correspondence in a newspaper ad…but, unbeknowst to both of them, that pen pal is Georg.

Director Scott Ellis’s nimble staging flows like champagne out of a bottle: shimmering and effervescent. David Rockwell’s candy-colored jewel-box set design is packed with surprises. Laura Benanti is perfectly cast as Amalia, capturing both the character’s charm and the steely determination underneath. In the vocal department Benanti finds just the right balance between operetta-like pyrotechnics and musical comedy expressiveness.

But we knew Benanti had this in her. The bigger surprise is Zachary Levi as Georg – he’s well known as an affable and good-looking comic actor. He’s proven he can do musicals with the Disney movie Tangled and his Broadway debut First Date. But both those pieces are in a more contemporary pop/rock vein; She Loves Me is as classic musical comedy as it gets, and he handles this arguably more difficult genre with effortless aplomb. This is particularly true in the title song – he finds and lands all the emotional beats and comic bits in it, and even gives us a cartwheel to boot!

The leads’ work is made all the easier by the sterling supporting cast. To me the names Byron Jennings, Peter Bartlett, Michael McGrath, Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel all symbolize a joyful professionalism and they do not disappoint here (they never do). This is first class fun and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Latrice Royale


Latrice Sings! And she’s actually pretty damn good at it! There’s no attempt at giving you “girl singer” – “Barry White in drag” is how she describes her basso stylings – but she clearly models her approach to song interpretation on the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin. She may not have the pristine vocal instrument of those titans, but she certainly understands their lessons in musicality and expression. And her take on cabaret standard “Here’s to Life” (also the name of the show and her CD) marks the first time I’ve heard it as a determined look at the future rather than a wistful look back.

Here’s to Life is solidly in the mold of traditional autobiographical cabarets. It’s more talk than song, and the large and in charge diva’s story-telling is well served by her warm authenticity and infectious positivity. Latrice traces her tale from growing up gay in Compton, to finding her drag vision in Miami, and ultimately to the trail of tribulations that led up to the “unfortunate incarceration” she sometimes referred to when she was on Season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Latrice Royale is backed by a very able jazz trio led by her boyfriend Christopher Hamblin on the piano. Here’s to Life feels more polished than the cabaret acts I’ve seen from other Drag Race alumni, while still running a bit on the long side. There were precious few backstage stories from Drag Race, but her humor, soulfulness and candor more than make up for it. Latrice is the real thing, and I want to hear much more from her as a singer. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Disaster!

DISASTER! 3 6525_Faith Prince, Kevin Chamberlin, Kerry Butler, photo by Jeremy Daniel Photography, 2016

When the willfully silly Disaster! is funny, it’s one of the funniest shows in town. Plus, 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. Broadway musician and comedian 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 thick layer of camp, making Disaster! musically to 1970s pop 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 JoAnn M. Hunter. Rudetsky and Plotnick are both beloved in the Broadway community, so it’s hardly surprising that they put together a stunning cast, particularly Faith Prince 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.

Designers Tobin Ost (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes) combine the necessarily over-the-top tackiness of the subject with theatrical cleverness and a certain glee. Disaster is plenty of fun – at its best, close to comedy heaven – and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see