Review: Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay is a highly individual talent, a supreme stylist, with wild, crazy creativity and substantial musical intelligence to match her razor-like interpretive ability. McKay has become something of a specialist in biographical cabarets – experimental performance art meets high society cabaret – and has put together another such special show about Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist who was discovered to have been a woman after his death.

The key word in that last sentence is “special” – A Girl Named Bill is cabaret as only Nellie McKay could do it. She does the entire act while literally playing the role of Tipton, right down to period-accurate costumes and props. And period-accurate music and speaking styles as well. A perfectionist sense of history on complete display.

Sometimes McKay’s complex acts can seem under-rehearsed. Not here. While she is certainly stretching the abilities of herself and her immensely talented band to their limits, these is a sense of ease. It’s swimmingly successful, no small achievement. McKay doesn’t narrate, so you might be well advised to look at the Wikipedia biography of Tipton before you see the show.

Instead, she presents us with loosely sketched vignettes of Tipton’s life, mostly letting the music do the story-telling. Tipton did impersonations in his shows, which gives McKay license to do songs by Jimmy Durante, Elvis Presley, Liberace and Bob Dylan.

The gender-bending element of the show gives McKay plenty of opportunities for humor, which she is all too willing to take. Most enjoyable of all is a running gag in which McKay’s hirsute band titter like schoolgirls, to which she scoffs, “Ladies, please!” But she also gets very serious about gender identity, especially in a hair-raising version of Jelly Roll Morton’s very sexually explicit “Whinin’ Boy Blues.”

McKay ties together all of the thematic and musical aspects of the show in a whimsically rousing rendition of “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?,” from My Fair Lady. McKay’s combination of irony and heart-on-sleeve sincerity is utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to see and hear her take such exciting risks in such an intimate setting.

For tickets, click here.

 

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Review: Candide

I’m biased here: I am a complete Leonard Bernstein nut. I’ve been very excited ever since I first heard about the New York City Opera revival of Candide. It’s not the unimpeachable masterpiece that Lenny’s West Side Story is – the book is famously problematic – but it is still enough of a joy that as long as you nail that sublime Bernstein score, it’ll be a grand night out. Nail it this company does, and the results are glorious.

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name, Candide follows the naïve titular character as he strives to maintain his optimism in the face of brutal experience. The sprightly, brilliant score is one of the best things Bernstein ever wrote, and starts with my personal choice for best musical overture of all time. This production was first staged for NYCO in 1982 by legendary director Harold Prince, featuring Voltaire as ringmaster of a circus. While the staging is showing some signs of age, Prince has refurbished many moments for an overall better flow.

Jay Armstrong Johnson imbues the title role with a charming guilelessness. Meghan Picerno plays Candide’s true love Cunégonde, filling her signature song “Glitter and Be Gay” with wit and surprise. Gregg Edelman attacks the campy business that Prince gives to Voltaire with real relish. Linda Lavin makes a full meal of the smaller plum role The Old Lady. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Roméo et Juliette

Well, this is lovely! I’ve never been a big fan of these star-crossed lovers; I thought of them as “stupid damn teenagers” even when I was a stupid damn teenager myself. But add some music to the story and it instantly gains a lot of interest – all that yearning gives abundant opportunities for making beautiful music. I’ve long been a fan of Prokofiev’s ballet version for that very reason. And Charles Gounod, composer of this operatic version, misses few opportunities for making glorious musical hay out of these adolescent passions, not only in the pair’s big arias and duets (which positively glow), but also in sensuously sparkling waltzes for the party scenes.

Director Bartlett Sher’s sturdy production drew inspiration from two films, Federico Fellini’s Casanova and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot. It leans more heavily toward the gritty grimness of Chéreau, where I would definitely have preferred more of the color, eccentricity and perversity of Fellini, but I’d call that a matter of personal taste. Sher’s staging certainly serves the material quite well. Choreographer Chase Brock, making a very impressive Met debut, makes those waltzes whirl and pulsate with a terrifically sculptural sense of space.

In the time that I’ve been covering opera at the Met, I’ve come to be a great fan of conductor Gianandrea Noseda. He triumphs once again here with a notably light touch, giving Gounod’s glittering score much welcome space and air. We also get a light touch from this productions Romeo, Vittorio Grigolo, but one that is not mutually exclusive with soaring passionate flights in the role’s upper register.

But the real story in this production is its Juliette, Diana Damrau. It was announced before the evening started that Damrau was suffering with a cold, but would be performing nonetheless. If we hadn’t been told, I would have been delighted by her liquid coloratura dynamics, but under these circumstances sounding so marvelous is nothing short of awesome. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

This tops many outlets “Best of 2016” lists, and is often compared favorably with super-musical Hamilton in terms of innovation and sheer vivacity. What do I think of it? Well, similar to the way I feel about Hamilton, I at least really enjoyed it about as much as everyone else. As for innovation, well, this sort of thing has been done a lot before, especially in the 1970s, though I can’t deny the dexterity of execution here far exceeds anything I’m aware of in this vein.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is composer / writer Dave Malloy’s inspired, stylistically eclectic musical adaptation of a 70-page slice of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of Russia under attack from Napoleon, War and Peace (some of the spicier and more romantic pages of the novel, it should be said). Director Rachel Chavkin has staged Malloy’s pluckily intellectual creation in a style that in the 1970s was called “environmental,” and today goes by the moniker of “immersive.”

Having worked on immersive productions myself, I’m not taken so much by the idea of Chavkin’s immersive staging – it’s just one of many ways this material could have been staged. What I am taken by is the breathtaking skill and creativity with which Chavkin has applied it.

Here’s one example that stands out for me: our hero Pierre visits a club. For this scene, a 1812 Moscow aristocratic private club is portrayed as S&M night at a 1990s mega-club. It’s a fun idea, but also a really dumb and corny one. Granted that things could get pretty wild at the 1812 club, what with the epic consumption of vodka, but it’s still really apples and oranges.

However, Chavkin, lighting designer Bradley King and choreographer Sam Pinkleton attack the sequence with such precision and energy that the sheer visceral impact is undeniable, even overwhelming, especially in this immersive context. Chavkin and her team bring this combination of smarts and virtuosity to every scene. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

Ella Fitzgerald once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world”. That’s no exaggeration; she may be the only singer alive who combines a great vocal instrument with interpretative flair and savoir faire equal to Ella’s own. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices but I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range – at 88, her voice is the envy of singers 40 years her junior.

She’s also a “saloon singer”, a singer who has a fantastic rapport with her audience, singing them beloved songs from a startlingly wide variety of genres. These shows at the Metropolitan Room take full advantage of this facet of her talent. Marilyn asks her audience to pick her “Marilyn By Request” set list by making song suggestions when making their reservations. It makes for an evening filled with surprises, and plenty of energy from both sides of the footlights.

Musical director Billy Stritch – a frequent foil for the likes of Liza Minnelli and Christine Ebersole – is the perfect match for this footloose kind of approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. And always, always fully at home in – and totally committed to – the music.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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