Review: Paramour

Photo: PARAMOUR on Broadway - A Cirque du Soleil Musical; Cast: Indigo: Ruby Lewis A.J.: Jeremy Kushnier Joey: Ryan Vona B-Roll video shoot photographed: Monday, May 2, 2016; 10:30 AM at the Lyric Theatre/Broadway, New York; Photograph: © 2016 RICHARD TERMINE PHOTO CREDIT - RICHARD TERMINE

Even though Paramour is billed as a tribute to the golden age of Hollywood, it actually harks back to something much older, that great predecessor to musical comedy the “extravaganza.” A hundred years ago and more, these variety shows veiled with the thinnest of plots were thick on the ground, with titles like A Yankee Circus on Mars. One of the biggest hits of this kind was a version of The Wizard of Oz that had as much to do with Frank Baum’s books as – well, as Paramour has to do with Orson Welles.

And, judged as an extravaganza, Paramour is a marvelous success! The quality and daring of the circus acts that are the show’s real raison d’être are light years beyond anything that could even be imagined in those extravaganzas of old. The show’s design elements are truly eye-filling and -pleasing, combining state of the art technology with tricks that were old when A Yankee Circus on Mars hit the boards in 1905.

If anything I feel like the plot of Paramour should have been thinner. It tells the story of a love triangle between a Svengali director, a young starlet-in-the-making and her piano player. The only purpose of the plot is to provide a frame for Hollywood-inspired spectacle, but every so often, Paramour‘s writers seem to take the whole thing too seriously, which lands us in some of the evening’s most leaden moments.

Paramour is at it its best when taking spectacular flight, and thankfully that’s most of the time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Lena Hall

Lena Hall photo credit David Andrako

In some ways I’m the ideal target audience for Lena Hall’s current cabaret show. I don’t know how many other people would be so delighted that she chose to do the Sex Pistols’ nihilistic masterpiece “Holidays in the Sun” in that high society boîte, the Cafe Carlyle. And sing it more beautifully than Johnny Rotten could ever hope to, while still preserving the sense of gleeful, feral rage that is so essential to the song.

When Hall is singing full-throated rock and roll, which is most of the show, she is an unquestionable fierce ruling diva. The subject matter of this show, titled “Oh! You Pretty Things”, is a thumb-sketch of Hall’s love life from her teenage years to today. Hall walks though this gallery of ex-boyfriends with her head held high, though I found myself wanting to hear more about her and less about them.

In any event, these tales of past romances are mostly mere springboards to some truly passionate singing. Most memorable are Hall’s rendition’s of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and a handful of obscure Bowie ballads towards evening’s end. While it was its own kind of fun to see what was basically a rock concert in the Carlyle, I did sometimes feel that we lost lyrics, and Hall is a terrific actor-singer, so that aspect of the act was less than totally satisfying. Overall, though, the show was a genuine pleasure, and Hall an immensely engaging performer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Charles Busch

Charles Busch_2016

Legendary playwright and drag performer Charles Busch has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. Busch’s main line is comically complex hard-boiled dames, and while he doesn’t leave that behind entirely, this act is in general more sentimental and sincere. The most time he spends in “brassy-land” is when he’s portraying the character Miriam Passman, an under-talented, over-egotistical cabaret dilettante.

When not giving us Ms. Passman, this act is more of a “big sing” than previous presentations. Busch has a pleasantly throaty, not terribly strong, high tenor singing voice – but you don’t come to one of his acts for musical virtuosity. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song.

The songbook for this show ranges from Jerome Kern to Paul Williams. For each song, Busch takes pains to clearly delineate the details of every image and event, with just a dash of his “dame” persona to give it all an elegantly wry air. He does a clutch of Sondheim songs, and it’s telling that most of them are from the quirky flop Anyone Can Whistle – sweetly off-kilter is the target, and Busch hits it with artful precision.

Busch sincerely loves artifice and invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style – and a discreetly dishy side, as well. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and there’s only one Charles Busch.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Shuffle Along

Joshua Henry, Brandon Victor Dixon, Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell, with Richard Riaz Yoder in Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, featuring music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, with a new book and direction by George C. Wolfe and choreography by Savion Glover, at The Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street). © Julieta Cervantes

The first act of Shuffle Along is like 42nd Street on steroids – smaller chorus, perhaps, but even more aggressive tap dancing. Then the second act is like an Art Deco version of Dreamgirls‘s second act. Shuffle Along has both the advantage and disadvantage over those shows, in that it is the kind of real story that they both imitate. Because, you see, this is in no way a revival of the groundbreaking 1921 musical Shuffle Along, it’s more like a “making of” coupled with “whatever happened to.”

The original 1921 Shuffle Along was the first Broadway musical to combine a jazz-heavy score with an entirely black creative team. The choreographer of that production, one Lawrence Deas, doesn’t appear as a character in this show, but the highly syncopated dances he created were much commented upon in reviews of the original. Likewise, the most exciting thing about this version is the roof-raising choreography of Savion Glover.

Glover and director/bookwriter George C. Wolfe made the smart decision to punctuate the “history lesson” book of Shuffle Along with blazing song and dance set pieces whose primary reason for existence is electrifying entertainment and pure fun. Sure, maybe sometimes they advance the story, but never in a heavy-handed way.

Wolfe’s book “tells” us about people and events just about as often as it “shows” us – there is a lot of unvarnished narration going on here. That’s usually a theatrical no-no, but Wolfe carries it off with such panache and lightness of touch that it really doesn’t matter.

The cast of this show is populated with some of the most talented performers on Broadway. Each of them is given a moment to shine, but Wolfe has also struck such a perfect balance that none of them really dominates – he has crafted a truly remarkable ensemble piece for a truly remarkable ensemble. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

Part of the joy of listening to really good jazz is the exciting spontaneity of improvisation. A rhythm that jumps out of nowhere, a melody that turns in an unexpected direction. In the cabaret show they are doing at the Cafe Carlyle, trumpeter Herb Alpert, his singer wife Lani Hall and the expert players behind them – the trio of Bill Cantos (piano), Hussain Jiffry (bass), Michael Shapiro (drums) – this thrilling spontaneity is on truly outlandish display.

I can’t overstate the impressive and exciting musicianship in this act. Alpert structures the songs in intricate ways that leave abundant room for improvisation. A rhythmic twist that starts in the drums finds its way to the bass and then into Alpert’s trumpet line – or the other way around! Herb and the band may play the same songs from night to night, but musically every performance is utterly different. Alpert is a breathtakingly soulful player, and Hall has that kind of liquid crystal voice that haunts songwriters’ dreams.

Alpert is most associated with his group the Tijuana Brass, and was also a recording industry executive – he is the “A” of A&M Records, which he founded with business partner Jerry Moss. Hall sang with A&M artist Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, most famously on their hit version of “Mas Que Nada”. In the act at the Carlyle they perform selections from Alpert’s latest album Come Fly with Me, as well as the two albums they’ve recently recorded together, plus medleys of Tijuana Brass and Brasil ’66 hits.

Really, this is pure musical pleasure. During a particularly frisky version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, pianist Bill Cantos soared off into a vocal scat that mirrored his vigorous and playful improvisations on the keyboard. Stunning, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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