Review: Latrice Royale

I knew from her last cabaret act that Latrice Royale can sing, y’all! And she’s actually pretty damn good at it! There’s no attempt at giving you “girl singer,” but she clearly models her approach to song interpretation on the likes of Aretha Franklin. She may not have Aretha’s pristine vocal instrument, but she certainly understands her lessons in musicality and expression. And her take on jazz composer Diane Schuur’s bluesy meditation “Life Goes On” (also the name of the show) makes a very good case for this solid but obscure song.

Like her previous act (titled Here’s to Life) Life Goes On is solidly in the mold of traditional autobiographical cabarets. However, since the earlier act told the story of most of Latrice’s life, and this is more of an update, the balance is slightly off. Both acts are more talk than song, but with less life material, some of the patter gets repetitive. Latrice has such presence that it never becomes unwatchable, but this particular show could use more songs for sure. Because when she sings something like “Nobody Does It Like Me” or the suggestive “Hot Nuts” it is pure drag gold.

Latrice Royale is backed by a very able jazz trio led by her fiance Christopher Hamblin on the piano. Life Goes On feels more polished than the cabaret acts I’ve seen from other Drag Race alumni, full of humor, soulfulness and candor. 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 jonathanwarman.com.

Review: John O’Hurley

This man has a finely tuned sense of the absurd, but he’s also capable of sincerity so complete that it’s almost embarrassing. Best known as J. Peterman on the NBC sitcom Seinfeld and as a champion on Dancing with the Stars, the early decades of O’Hurley’s career saw him as a fixture of daytime TV soap operas. More recently, he has spent a lot of time playing Billy Flynn in Broadway’s Chicago. Frankly, I think he’d be a revelation in something by Samuel Beckett, but maybe that’s just me.

His current club act at the Café Carlyle is called “A Man with Standards” a reference both to growing up in a more sentimental time, and to the Great American Songbook. As far as the songs go, they’re more 1950s swinging chart hits than the pre-WW II showtunes I associate with “the Songbook” – no Gershwin, Porter or the like. The closest he comes to that is Johnny Mercer’s later hit “Moon River”. That’s not a big deal, however; he does it all with panache and an enormous booming voice that almost renders amplification redundant.

There’s much talk of Sinatra. Most of it is in the abstract, but O’Hurley also tells about singing Sinatra’s own “You Will Be My Music” at a celebration Sinatra attended, and how much he prized Frank’s approval. Toward the end of the show, O’Hurley sings several songs written by Anthony Newley, and the fit of singer and material is terrific. If there ever was a songwriter who seamlessly combined the absurd and the sentimental, it was Newley, and he finds an ideal interpreter in O’Hurley – I’d love to see a whole show of him singing nothing but Newley. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Sweat

There’s no doubt Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is an important play, but boy is it depressing. Set in poverty-stricken working-class Reading, Pennsylvania (mostly in 2000), Sweat follows a group of friends who have shared many things while working together on a factory floor. But when ruthless management tactics result in layoffs and picket lines, life-long friends are at each others throats and repressed racist tendencies boil to the surface. Good times!

As desperate as circumstances are in this play, Nottage takes pains to let us know that it is possible to be humane and ethical in hard times – possible, but painfully difficult. With the thousand daily shocks that 2017s political climate pummels us with, Sweat makes the point that those at the bottom have been pummeled for much longer. So, yes, incredibly important, but definitely not easy or fun.

Nottage packs the play to bursting with thoughts, emotions and incident, and director Kate Whoriskey keeps all that on track and moving lucidly and fluidly. With all the points of view Sweat tries to cover, it is by necessity an ensemble piece, and is blessed with a ferociously talented cast.

For me, Carlo Albán is the standout as Colombian-American barback Oscar, the person lowest in this vicious pecking order. He does an amazing, understated job of communicating Oscar’s indomitable hope in the face of almost impossible odds. Not actual optimism, mind you, but a carefully hidden and protected hope. Dark as hell, but worthwhile, and therefore recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Price

I’m a little odd when it comes to Arthur Miller. The big hits, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible leave me cold. Oh, I can appreciate that they are thoughtful, insightful and well made, but beyond that? My fave Miller is the almost-never produced Depression epic, The American Clock. And now I can count The Price, about the lingering effects of the Depression thirty years on, as my second favorite.

Part of the reason I’ve taken to The Price: the usually too-earnest Miller injects some welcome humor into the proceedings, in the person of Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito), an octogenarian furniture dealer. Solomon’s also a former vaudevillian, which is more than evident in the charm and by-play he brings to his negotiations. Solomon is hired by Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) to appraise his family’s furniture, all that is left of his father’s estate.

As Solomon, DeVito is impeccably cast. Imbuing Solomon with nearly inexhaustible spunk, DeVito makes sure that we know the man has a purpose for every word he says, though it is almost never just what’s on the surface. He puts him across as the kind of guy who will make you absolutely love him, even though he may be taking advantage of you. Victor does his best to resist his wiles, but can’t help admiring him.

Victor is the character on whom all the play’s action hinges, and Ruffalo does a terrific job of conveying how the trauma of the Depression has never ceased to haunt and petrify him. Jessica Hecht, who plays Victor’s wife Esther, is one of the most skilled interpreters of Miller around, and gives Esther a good deal more love of both her husband and life than is actually in the lines, to compelling effect. Tony Shalhoub plays Victor’s cynical doctor brother, and does a great job of projecting surface confidence, when really there’s a terror of the abyss below – just as affected by the Depression as Victor, in his own way. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Come from Away

First off I want to give director Christopher Ashley a warm welcome back to Broadway, where he hasn’t directed in many years. He directed many of my favorite Broadway shows – from musical hit Xanadu to unjustly maligned brilliant flop comedy The Smell of the Kill. His work on new musical Come from Away is among the most expertly executed and tightly paced I’ve seen from him, and that’s saying something. Welcome back, Mr. Ashley!

Come from Away tells the story of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. With U.S. airspace closed, 38 planes and 6,579 passengers were forced to land in Gander, which had an unusually large airport, a relic of pre-jet air travel. Ashley keeps things moving with grace and ease.

This remarkable story is told with compassion but isn’t mawkishly sentimental; it deals with a national trauma, but comes at it from an oblique angle. Anybody who was in New York that day doesn’t need to be reminded of what it looked like, and thankfully Come from Away doesn’t use those images.

The married team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein co-wrote the book and score. The well-constructed and engaging book is stronger than the Celtic-folk-inflected score, which is pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable, except for “Me and the Sky” which tells the story of Beverley Bass, the first woman to captain on commercial fights (Jenn Colella knocks it out of the ballpark). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Suzanne Vega

I’ve said before that New York-themed shows seem to make the best fit for the Café Carlyle. Suzanne Vega is one of those performers who is quintessentially New York without even trying, like David Johanson or Debbie Harry (both of whom have played the Carlyle). Her current show goes further: Its core is a bunch of songs from her new album and show called Lover, Beloved, which is about novelist Carson McCullers, a Southerner by birth, but a true New Yorker by choice. There’s even a song called “New York is My Destination.”

McCullers was disgusted by the intolerance she witnessed growing up in Georgia, arrived in New York in her early twenties and wrote with great compassion about outcasts. As far as I can tell Lover, Beloved alternates between monologue and song, all written in McCullers’s voice. The songs from this project are every bit as good as Vega’s older songs, which are among the sturdiest, most original and beautiful that the singer / songwriter tradition has produced.

Speaking of those older songs, she opens with “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” which has chillingly fresh resonance in the era of the El Cheeto. Vega later juxtaposes one of her classic misfit anthems “Left of Center” with an even more potent new one “I Never Wear White,” to great effect.

And when you come to her biggest hits, well, “Luka” is merely a good song – that became a massive hit – by someone who regularly wrote much better ones. It’s to Vega’s credit that she sings it simply and cleanly, without a hint of condescension to the song or the audience.

“Tom’s Diner,” by contrast, comes across as a real monster live, showing itself to be one of Vega’s very best. A big reason that this song comes across so well is Gerry Leonard, her musical director and guitarist. A self-professed “equipment geek” Leonard turns his electric guitar into a whole band, rhythm section included. Stunning, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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