Review: Charles Busch

Legendary playwright and drag performer Charles Busch has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. His current cabaret act, titled “My Kinda ’60s” is the first club act of his I’ve seen where we find Charles in boy drag – albeit with a subtle dash of rouge, wearing an emerald green paisley suit with rhinestone buttons.

Busch has a pleasantly throaty high tenor voice. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song: He finds corners I didn’t know existed in the Bacharach / David ballad “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” Busch sincerely loves artifice; usually, he invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style.

Here, the lack of wigs and dresses also signifies that Charles is going for something a little more personal and vulnerable. Because this isn’t just a random 1960s-themed show. It is, above all, a love letter to Busch’s Aunt Lillian, an eccentric and loving lady who helped him bloom as he came of age in that turbulent decade.

Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the feeling of trying to keep up with confusing changing times. As a matter of fact one of the definite high points of the show is a supremely confident rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” which, he observes, is even more timely today.

The act isn’t all earnest sincerity, though there’s more of that than usual. There are still plenty of quoted Judy Garland mannerisms. As always, he moves from one glittering camp archetype to another with effortless ease. It’s just the tone that has shifted. It’s fun, but the undercurrent of social comment that runs through all of Busch’s work is much more explicit. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Time and the Conways

This sturdy, smart play from 1937 is equal parts philosophical rumination on the “time” part of the title, and rigorously observed family drama about “the Conways.” In 1919, at the 21st birthday party for Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry), the titular upper-middle class British family see a sunny future ahead – I mean, the worst war in human history had just ended, how could it ever get as bad as that again? Then we jump to 1937, in what is either the actual future, or Kay’s dark premonition, or both.

In addition to its philosophical and “family psychology” themes, J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways is rich with political thoughts that range from the most idealistic socialism to the most mercenary capitalism, which speaks loudly to the anxieties of 2017 America. Director Rebbeca Taichman, fresh off her Tony win for Indecent, is an ideal match for this thoughtful material. Just as with Indecent, she creates several coups de théâtre that express Priestley’s ideas in breathtakingly simple theatrical moments.

The star in this production is Elizabeth McGovern, much loved as Downton Abbey‘s Lady Gratham, Cora Crawley. Here she plays family matriarch Mrs. Conway, a “monster mother” type familiar in American dramas from such characters as Tennessee Williams’s Amanda Wingfield or O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone – well-intentioned perhaps, but blinded by self-interest to the ways she damages her children. McGovern plays the positives here, going full-force into Mrs. Conway’s often unwarranted optimism to heartbreaking effect.

But as with the Williams and O’Neill characters referenced above, Mrs. Conway is not the central character of Time and the Conways. Though the play is in many ways an ensemble show, Kay is the character who holds the story together. Parry does a marvelous job with this sensitive, troubled yet hardy soul. The outstanding performance, though, is Gabriel Ebert as the quietly thoughtful and stoically content Alan. Quiet as Alan is, it’s clear when he does speak that much more is going on inside his head than those of the rest of the family combined. Ebert reflects every nuance, and gives a performance that shines from inside. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Rita Wilson

This lady is right in the middle of a sound that has run through the blood of Los Angeles since two midwestern boys – Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark – met while gigging in L. A. in 1964, and formed the group Jet Set, later to become the Byrds when they added native Los Angeleans David Crosby and Chris Hillman. The Eagles perfected the sound in the the 1970s, and it has continued to be hugely influential. A native Los Angelean herself, Rita Wilson most resembles – in both her singing and her songwriting – Sheryl Crow, a singer / songwriter heavily influenced by the Eagles.

In the evening’s first song, from her self-titled first album, is “Along for the Ride” Wilson invites the the audience to “Roll the windows down / Come along for the ride.” Wilson is a fine, powerful singer in the folk and country inflected L. A. Tradition, and her band are highly polished professionals.

A handful of songs come from her self-titled 2015 album, but the bulk of the evening are new songs that presumably will be on her new album, forthcoming in the new year. The most memorable ones are ode to jealousy “New Girl,” the mildy trashy dive bar anthem “Pay Me in Wine,” and the attitude-serving “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” All point to increasing songwriting strength from this long-time actor, just recently turned singer /songwriter. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lee Roy Reams

He’s the archetypal gay chorus boy made good. In 1970, Lee Roy Reams played arguably the first openly gay character with lines in a Broadway musical (Margo Channing’s hairdresser Duane in Applause!), and in 1980 he got one of the biggest breaks of his career, originating the role of Billy Lawlor in the Tony Award-winning musical 42nd Street. Just like the eternal gypsy queen he is, he has all the good dish on that show, and knows just how to spill it.

While Reams may have some choice words for certain people, there is not a single drop of malice in his storytelling. He tells the whole truth, but he tells it entertainingly and with an underlying warmth. He may admit he doesn’t know to this day whether Tammy Grimes is a good actress, but he also admits she has some kind of fascinating “star quality” and once he let her know he knew where to get laughs (but was willing to share the laugh) they became fast friends. His harshest words are for producer David Merrick, but even those are mixed with an admiration with Merrick’s unparalled ability to get the show up and get the tickets selling.

Reams intersperses the backstage human comedy (and drama and tragedy) with his own take on a hefty chunk of the show’s score. All of the interpretations are a pleasure to hear, but things lift an extra amount when he takes on the songs he personally sang in the show; it’s like some kind of muscle memory kicks in, and Lee Roy gets an extra BOOM to his sound. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Storm Large

What a voice! Storm Large has a vocal instrument that pairs the thunderclap power and clarity of Darlene Love with the bluesy grit of Janis Joplin. Her sensibility turns up what that voice can do with strong images of madness and gleeful violence running through everything she does. In her current cabaret act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, she applies that instrument and sensiblity to a wide variety of material, from hard rock originals and covers to a pair of Cole Porter songs.

Large thoroughly reinvents Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” teasing out the song’s dark stalkery side, with a highly dramatic “classic rock” arrangement that works surprisingly well. Also up for reinvention is Olivia Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted” delivered with a whacky introduction that (almost) makes sense of the insane venomousness that she forceably injects into the soft rock nugget.

Her original songs are each and every one passionate, each in different ways. The show opener, “Call Me Crazy” kicks things off with rousing fury and joy. The title of the cheerfully bawdy “8 Miles Wide” refers to her vagina. On the other end of the scale is the ballad “Angels In Gas Stations” which conveys the sense of spirituality she acquired when caring for a dying woman who had been a second mother to her.

Storm Large delivers a show that bristles with exquisitely controlled wildness. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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