Review: Laura Osnes

Seeing how she marked a major artistic progession in her Broadway career with her turn as the conflicted war widow Julia Trojan in Bandstand, Laura Osnes would be perfectly within her rights to go the Broadway diva route and create a cabaret act that was all about her. It’s very refreshing, then, that her current Carlyle engagement is actually more of a group show devoted to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook. Called “Cockeyed Optimists,” the show equally features Osnes, fellow Broadway ingenue Ryan Silverman, and her sometime colleague and freind — and Tony-Award-winning orchestrator and music director — Ted Sperling.

They all are deeply musical people with classical music ambitions. In fact Sperling and Osnes worked together most recently on a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. That makes for a musically rewarding show that includes terrific songs from every phase of the legenardy songwriting team’s partnership, plus a lovely, breif medley of songs that Hammerstein wrote with Jerome Kern and Rodgers wrote with Lorenz Hart.

The good news is that Sperling is a terrific singer, if not quite in Osnes leading-lady-worthy league. As well sung as it is, the act could definitely benefit visually from a director’s touch. For example, when Osnes and Silverman are singing an immaculately delivered “Some Enchanted Evening” they stand to face to face, which means that in the intimate thrust stage arrangement of the Carlyle, maybe three people get the full impact of the moment.

Still, when Laura sings such sweeping songs as “Hello Young Lovers” and “A Wonderful Guy” — or her and Silverman play legendary sequences like the “bench scene” from Carousel or a scene from Oklahoma for Laurie and Curly — all set to Ted’s equally grand arrangements, this is pretty hard to resist. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Justin Sayre

The chairman of the International Order of Sodomites is back in town! This time with a solo cabaret act called I’m Gorgeous Inside, on the topic of “bad girls.” Mostly about prostitutes, but also about strong rebellious women of all types. And of course, how Justin has looked at these “bad girls” as great role models, after a fashion.

It’s mostly the kind of storytelling “stand up” Sayre became noted for in his popular variety show The Meeting*, with a few songs interspersed. It’s less directly gay than The Meeting*, but with a whole lot more gowns and wigs for Justin to wear. His tough yet femme persona remains in glorious effect, brassy and bellowing as ever.

He does much more singing than he ever did in the variety show, and has clearly been hard at work honing his chanteuse skills. A haunting take on the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” was particularly well-sung and moving.

If this very entertaining show has a flaw, it’s that it can get a bit rambling. Sayre’s stories and thoughts are engaging at every turn, but the show as a whole is a bit of a butt buster for the audience. A minor flaw in a witty, hilarious show I can happily highly.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Trixie Mattel

Drag Race fan favorite Trixie Mattel is out to prove her versatility with this new show, entitled Now with Moving Parts! The majority of the show sticks to her main talent: stand-up filled to the gunnels with comedy that’s either perverse or dark. She clearly has a natural aptitude for the form, and she’s been paying attention to how the best stand-up acts have been built for some time now – circling in from a highly topical and satirical beginning to a very personal and more thematically serious ending. Trixie’s also very gifted at meta-comedy, getting a secondary laugh when she reads the room’s reaction – or freely admitting she loves a certain bit so she’s keeping it, audience reaction be damned!

However, there is an extended, virtuoso lip-synch about “good christian bitches” that stitches together fragments of songs and movie dialogue in a manner that owes a lot to the legendary Lypsinka, which ends with a costume reveal that owes a lot to Lady Bunny. This girl pays homage to tradition, but also makes these moments uniquely Trixie.

Mattel also injects more music into her show this time – generally folksy comedy songs that prove “just how fucking white I am” – that include a hilarious acoustic take on a RuPaul dance track, some impressive live-sampled duets with herself, and as some autoharp fun for the finale. It’s all good clean dirty fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dianna Agron

This ain’t Quinn Fabray at the Carlyle, kids. You can tell a lot about the actual person and artistry of one-time Glee star Dianna Agron from her recent marriage to folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut.

With this act she’s making her first entry into the world of New York cabaret, starting at the very top. Understandably nervous on her opening night, which showed in her hesitant patter, she calmed right down when it came time to sing. No song was less than beautifully sung, but she was at her best when a song brought out the actress in her – most notably in “Bang Bang” a hit for Cher and then Nancy Sinatra, and “Play with Fire,” one of The Rolling Stones’ earlier bad boy songs to push their image toward the demonic.

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s liquid gold voice act the hell out of some of Marianne Faithfull’s darker material. But she needs very much to bring more of her considerable acting chops into her song interpretation. There were glimmers of that in this cabaret act, and they were tantalizingly excellent. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron needs to do more of that. I have full confidence that she is more than capable. (One techincal note: the show was overamplified for the tres intimate Cafe Carlyle. It could even be truly “unplugged,” totally unamplified).

Because really, I think if she comes in firing on all cylinders she could do truly legendary things in cabaret. Sing all of Faithfull’s Broken English, maybe? Or how about a whole Dylan album? You could call the show Blonde on Blonde on Blonde! In any event, Agron is already giving us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her act as it stands today.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

Karen Carpenter is the focus of Justin Vivian Bond’s latest cabaret act, with Karen’s awkward vulnerability and quiet passion setting the tone. Bond’s taste in songs is always impeccable, and with the Carpenters’ lovely canon to select from, it’s hardly surprising that “Down on Creation” ends up being a truly gorgeous show. As with everything she does, v approaches these Carpenters songs with the touch of a very careful curator – a curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it.

One of the best features of all Bond’s shows is v’s acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length) – Justin’s always open to the wildest tangents, here including a rambling dissertation on v’s relationship with bats in v’s country home. Bond’s sense of humor looks at society from a perspective that is simultaneously inside and outside, much like Karen Carpenter herself. Lance Horne strips down Richard Carpenter’s lush orchestration for the four-piece band, exposing how luminous the songs are even without rich production.

As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive, and is the perfect artist to do homage to Karen Carpenter. Highly recommended!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jinkx Monsoon

You know, Jinkx actually asked me not to review this show – she asked that of the whole audience, saying “you wouldn’t review karaoke would you?” But since I’m going to rave about her, I don’t think she’ll mind. For, as loosey-goosey as this show is, it’s light years away from karaoke.

Jinkx Monsoon’s rapport with the audience and ability to roll with the punches brings Marilyn Maye to mind, and that’s about the highest compliment I can give. She takes requests and interacts with the audience throughout, and makes it looks easy. Let me assure you, this is about the hardest kind of show to carry off without crashing and burning, and it takes a major talent to do it without falling to pieces.

Of course, Jinkx’s stage persona is a great distance from Maye’s. She has an acid sassiness that’s closer to, say, Bette Midler, Madeleine Kahn or even Jackie Hoffman. She skews interpretations to the raunchier and darker edge of entertainment. There’s never been a doubt that Monsoon is more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition – she’s much more than just another winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race – and she’s in fine fettle here.

Jinkx Sings Everything, as unstructured as it may be, is certainly much more thoughtful than your typical “by request” show. Let it be forever Monsoon season! Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christine Ebersole

This is the very pinnacle of cabaret. I never miss a single cabaret show by Ebersole, because they are almost guaranteed to be exceptional. One of her finest – and the first one I saw – was built thematically around her becoming an adoptive mother. The current one, titled “After the Ball,” finds her on the other end of that journey, becoming an empty nester and looking forward “to my approaching dotage” (a phrase she utters with comically bright cheer). And wouldn’t you know it, this act is nearly the match for that other one long ago, truly stellar cabaret and not to be missed.

One of the things (among many) I find most astonishing about Ebersole is her exquisite taste when it comes to vocal interpretation. She has a flawless sense of when to give a song a semi-operatic vibrato, when to belt it, and when to speak-sing. For example, she assays “What Did You Do to Your Face” a folk song by Susan Werner about plastic surgery with a spoken passage here, a slightly syncopated moment of doubt there. But when she sings Al Jolson’s hit “Toot, Toot Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” she gives it a shake-the-rafters belt that would probably intimidate Jolson himself.

The act takes a decisively rueful, reflective turn when she ruminates on the ways in which her children were never 100% from her. Her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” has real ache. But she also finds the humor in the situation, as when she comments on one child’s mathematical genius – “she didn’t get that from me,” she laughs, “the most she got from this cabaret singer was ‘snap on 2 and 4!’”

The final arc of the act finds Ebersole girding her loins to take on the future, most comically in Peggy Lee’s “Ready to Begin Again.” She takes inspiration from her own parents, and goes out on a high note. Very personal, and damned good. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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