Review: Prince of Broadway

I am, in some ways, this show’s ideal audience: an ambitious director / choreographer looking for inspiration from Harold Prince, one of the most successful Broadway directors ever. That makes me not only more attentive to details in his dramaturgy, staging and transitions, but also more forgiving of moments where he trades depth for clarity, or sacrifices complexity for more broadly comprehensible insights.

Because, you see, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective revue of Prince’s Broadway work, has come in for some – I think unfair – critical drubbing since its opening. Other critics have seen it as disorganized and shallow, where I would argue it is neither of these things.

It follows a largely chronological ordering of numbers from Prince’s storied career. The only times Prince (who also directed here) fiddles with the timeline is when a song from slightly earlier in his career makes a better transition or section finale. Which I think is very smart when it comes to structuring a show for an audience concerned with being carried away by a theatrical experience, rather than niceties of opening night dates and the like. In other words, the general Broadway audience that Prince has always been so brilliant at speaking to, pushing them as far as he feels he can get away with, and no further – which has been far enough to establish him as a stunningly prolific innovator.

Also, transitions between numbers are governed by what makes more sense in that particular moment. Sometimes you want to know what happened next for Prince, sometimes following a thematic trail directly into another song from another show makes more sense.

Plus, when those songs are delivered by performers this good, almost nothing else matters. Karen Ziemba totally redefines “So What” from Cabaret with a paradoxically luminous rage. Emily Skinner simultaneously and amazingly celebrates and erases Elaine Strich’s legendary take on “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. And Tony Yazbeck tearing “The Right Girl” from Follies to shreds is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Speaking of “The Right Girl,” that is a number where choreographer / co-director Susan Stroman’s work shines particularly bright. From the waist down, Yazbek’s energetic tap dance is pure exuberance; from the neck up his face is wracked with agony. This split between dancing and acting in one dancer’s body is pure Stroman. Recomended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Advertisements

Review: Raja

We always knew she was a goddess! One of the most effortlessly stylish queens ever to appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race is making her much-anticipated solo cabaret debut at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Aptly titled Gawdess, the show features a little bit of everything: some singing, a whole lot of fashion fierceness, and, thank you Gawdess, some good old-fashioned lip-synching!!! In particular, a slinky lip-synch to Sade’s “Is It A Crime” is legendarily good.

And even though she says “that all the choreography you’re going to get” after a handful of steps in her opener – a sung cover of Banarama’s “Venus” – don’t you believe it. Raja swirls, twirls and dips with aplomb throughout the entire act, most impressively undulating a large golden cape with such skill that she reminded of modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller.

The show isn’t ambitious – it’s peppered with life lessons Raja’s picked up, but she doesn’t linger on them – but it’s such a good time! Raja has a warm charismatic presence, which makes you think she’d be able to put over just about anything she puts her mind to. Here, she’s not trying to do anything but give us sheer glittery gay fun, and she succeeds splendidly. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lesli Margherita

In the best possible sense, Lesli Margherita is like a fabulous drag queen. She is the kind of brassy dame they rarely make anymore. But she’s also often surprisingly sweet and goofy, alternating her sparkling “I am the queen” persona with moments of disarming self-deprecation. As for the show as a whole, it’s hard to describe: a self-empowerment seminar given by someone with a personality the size of Bette Midler or Freddie Mercury? It’s certainly – and charmingly – unique.

Margherita is very good-looking, with bosoms ample enough to be the source of more than one of her stories. Her stature as a brunette bombshell means – to use her own Disney princess metaphor – she’s always cast as the prostitute Esmeralda when she yearns to play Ariel. Though when she did get her shot at playing that little mermaid at a Disneyland theme park show, she realized why – they had a hard time finding shells big enough to cover those bosoms.

There’s a multimedia element to the act as well, so that when she speaks of her inspirations in the country music world (a the love of hair extensions she gleaned from them) we see them in all of their big-haired glory. When she talks about the obstacles that face a performer, she wheels out a droll power point presentation.

Her music director Brett Ryback is an old pal of Margherita’s and they have an easy chemistry that has its fullest expression in a loopy medley of Lite FM duets. No two ways about it, Lesli Margherita is immensely entertaining. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Terms of My Surrender

This show goes unexpectedly very gay at the end. No Michael Moore isn’t gay (heaven forfend), but there are several delicious, completely apolitical, payoffs at the finale, which made this an even more satisfying evening for me. The Terms of My Surrender was already pretty satisfying, as I am definitely a part of the anti-Trump choir that Moore is preaching to in this often funny, often disturbing dolled-up political rally.

Because, make no mistake about it, much of Terms is what you’d expect: an anti-Trump screed, by turns despairing and gleeful. But ultimately it is more than that, it’s a call to action in the most general of terms. Moore exhorts his audience to get involved in the political process any way they can, and uses stories from his own life – mostly from before his career as a famous filmmaker and author – to drive home the truth that one person can make an enormous difference, and you don’t have to be famous or wealthy to do it. Moore’s own journey began with a trip to a vending machine to get a bag of Ruffles chips; beginnings don’t get more humble than that.

He even gives you a remarkably easy way to begin making that difference, which I will link to here: the website and app 5calls.org. Together with Moore, I urge you to go there now and start being part of the solution. And definitely go see Terms of My Surrender, it is a marvelous and surprisingly entertaining bit of encouragement in these dark days. Recommended.

Remember, 5calls.org!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra

This big band has been in continuous existence (with the shortest of breaks in the early 1950s) for 82 years now. I attribute their longevity and continued popularity to the fact that they are “the band that plays the blues” as their motto goes. A certain bluesiness has never gone totally out of fashion, being an important part of jazz, rock and hip-hop. They were “rhythm and blues” long before that term existed, and still can’t be beat for rhythm or blues today.

Add to that the fact that they are one of the most musically virtuosic of the traditional big bands around! Their command of volume control, both loud and soft, is astonishing. There’s even a number in their current songlist at Birdland where they put this on gratuitous display. Bandleader Scotty Barnhart gave the signal to bring the volume down, again and again, until you think they couldn’t get any quieter, and then take it down some more. Astonishing.

You need a big brassy voice to sing over this band – of its 20+ pieces, over 90% are brass. Carmen Bradford certainly fits the the bill, belting “I Wish You Love” with more vigor and bluesiness than I’ve ever heard it done. Though Count Basie passed in 1983, his orchestra continues as dynamic and forceful as ever. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein just keeps getting better. He’s consistently gained new vocal strength, and for a long time now he’s been soaring and belting with the best of them. In his latest cabaret act “Showstoppers” he brings together an eclectic set centered on the timeless standards that he’s known for – of which he is arguably the greatest defender and conservator.

“Showstoppers” does include several songs that fit what we usually think of that expression – they literally stopped the show in a Broadway musical with uproarious applause. For example, “Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)” from Lady In the Dark, which made Danny Kaye into a star. It is a devilishly difficult and complex song to sing, and Feinstein knocks it out with breathtaking confidence. He also takes on “Fifty Percent” from Ballroom – one of the biggest 11 O’clock numbers of all time – but sings it slightly relyricized so that it comes across as a passionate statement of love from a gay man. Quite moving.

He also does songs that took a circuitous route to being showstoppers, like Louis Jordan’s 1940s R&B hit “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” which eventually found its way into Five Guys Named Moe. Or the title song of Cole Porter’s Can-Can, which only became a showstopper when cabaret legend Bobby Short started singing all of the songs lyrics (which had been cut from the show) in his club act. He even extends his definition to the soft rock classic “If” by the band Bread, which he terms a “personal showstopper.”

Feinstein and company put on a really engaging show that adds chic fun to the summer season. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jerry’s Girls

Can’t get tickets to Hello, Dolly? Well for the rest of this week, you can hear all of the major songs from that show sung beautifully, plus just about every other great song Dolly composer Jerry Herman wrote, in the York Theatre’s “Musicals in Mufti” presentation of Jerry’s Girls, a revue of Herman’s best, designed for a trio of women. “Mufti” refers to “everyday clothes,” and this series from the York presents worthy but neglected musicals of the past in something between a staged reading and a full production, in rehearsal clothes with script in hand, minimal rehearsal and no design elements.

The stellar trio in this production are Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Avenue Q), Christine Pedi (Forbidden Broadway) and Stephanie Umoh (Ragtime 2009 revival). Umoh gets the biggest solo of the evening towards the end – a smashing “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles – but everybody stops the show at some point, D’Abruzzo with the wrenching “Time Heals Everything” from Mack and Mabel, Pedi with the comic gem “Gooch’s Song” from Mame.

Music Director and Pianist Eric Svejcar, a fine musical theatre composer in his own right, is very sensitive to the dramatic ebb and flow of the evening. So, too, is director Pamela Hunt, who has elegantly engineered entrances and exits with music stands on wheels (are those used in every “Mufti” production, I wonder?). All in all a terrific representation of the Herman songbook. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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