Review: Antonia Bennett

In the best possible way, Antonia Bennett is musically every bit Tony Bennett’s daughter. She has down cold the kind of laid-back jazz-inflected gently swinging phrasing that her father perfected more than any other artist. If anything, her rhythmic sense is even a touch more sophisticated, which makes her tendency towards bossa nova arrangements so pleasing.

Again like the elder Bennett, Antonia is the furthest thing from musically flashy. She, too, exemplifies the virtues of subtlety, precision and seamless elegance. Her ability to communicate the meaning of a song comes less from anything to do with storytelling or acting, and more from a refined sense of what musicality can express all by itself, be it in the turn of a phrase, a slightly syncopated hesitation or any number of similar things.

Her set list is exclusively from the Great American Songbook, with a strong emphasis on Gershwin. She is ably supported by a skilled jazz trio, whose approach is every bit as subtle and measured as her own.

Bennett shows great musical confidence, and on stage she projects a warm, sweet charm rather than magnetic charisma. This works for the intimate setting of cabaret, though some witty scripted patter and theatrical shaping certainly would give her winsome appeal a better frame. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Chita Rivera

Every time you see Chita Rivera, you learn a lesson about performing. How to make an announcement about your legs with a piece of fabric. How to “make a huge entrance” when you have in fact been discreetly hidden in plain sight on stage for five minutes. In the case of her current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle, I learned why her, Liza Minnelli and other dancers favor sequined pantsuits; they are to dancers’ bodies what orchestrations are to a piano score: they amplify and glorify even the smallest movement. And Chita’s body needs amplification for the movements she makes in the small 2 feet by 4 feet area allowed her on the tiny Carlyle stage.

That said, those sequins are just razzle-dazzle in the service of an already great theatrical presence. She holds nothing back in this act, this diva is cutting loose as only she can. When she sang “Where Am Going” from Sweet Charity, she shed new light for me not only on that song, but on all of Sweet Charity. I understand the song now as an existential awakening for an already worldly woman, and the show as almost as profound as the Fellini film that inspired it.

Chita was always at her best playing “existential musical comedy” and thus became the muse for people with that aesthetic, first Bob Fosse, but then, more deeply, Fred Ebb and John Kander. No shock then that the majority of songs in the show come from a collaboration with either Fosse or Kander & Ebb.

She almost launches into “All That Jazz,” the most spectacular of her many signature Kander & Ebb numbers, at the top of the show. When she finally does it as her finale, it’s more than satisfying, it’s positively gratifying.

Chita never falters. About the worst I can say is that she didn’t sing the entirety of “America” from West Side Story. I am a Leonard Bernstein fanatic, this is his centennial and “America” is one of my most beloved Bernstein songs. Chita sings the hell out of her “America” fragment, leaving someone like me begging for more. But that would be greedy with all the artistic riches on display here. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Bandstand

This musical got robbed of the Tony noms it deserves. I think it’s certainly the best musical of the season, and Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score definitely one of my favorites. Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler did get a nom for his choreography – it would have been truly egregious if he’d been overlooked for that – but I think he deserves one for direction as well. Just a shonda all the way around.

Bandstand takes a hoary showbiz trope – underdog artists make good – and makes it so fresh it hurts. Every plot point turns expectations on their heads, and nothing comes easy for our heroes. Or is that anti-heroes?

The story follows fictional Cleveland native, WW II veteran and swing pianist / songwriter Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) as he tries to make the big time in post-war 1945 through a national radio contest. He and his small combo of fellow veterans struggle with the psychological wounds of war, which we would recognize today as post-traumatic stress. What could have so easily been nostalgic hooey is deeply humane, always engaging and even moving.

With Bandstand, Blankenbuehler joins the ranks of the truly great director-choreographers, a very small group. Every step, hell, even every breath in the show expresses something, nothing is wasted, though the movement tapestry he weaves is very rich indeed. This is far and away his best work, topping even his propulsive choreography for Hamilton.

He also, as I indicated above, demonstrates what an actors’ director he is. He helps performers like Cott and Laura Osnes (who plays the female lead, young Gold Star widow Julia) really show the full extent of their chops. Both of these talented young triple threats tend to get cast as stereotypical ingenues, but here they give riveting performances as full, conflicted human beings – they also should have been nominated, gosh darn it all. Egregious, so egregious! And highly, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jackie Hoffman gets entrance applause!! That just tells me that some things are right in the world, even with all the daily head-slapping news. Of course, this is due mostly to her big role in TV’s Feud as Joan Crawford maid Mamacita, but she is just as much fun as the permanently sozzled Mrs. Teevee in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

This musical is based on the children’s book of the same name, as was the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. While the show uses a couple of beloved songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from the film, the majority of the colorful and exuberant score is by Hairspray scribes Marc Shaiman (composer) and Scott Wittman (lyricist). The story (if somehow you’re not aware) follows chocolate-loving child Charlie Bucket as he longs for a “golden ticket” to tour master chocolatier Willy Wonka’s factory.

Shaiman’s music is charming – full of tasty licks as usual – and you can’t spell Wittman without “wit.” It is most unfortunate that muddy sound design often obscures those witty lyrics. Christian Borle portrays Wonka with his usual élan, with somewhat more humanity than previous incarnations. Director Jack O’Brien has presented a smaller-scale production than Sam Mendes on the West End, and while I’m not sure that was the right decision, it’s still sufficiently splashy and vivid. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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