Review: The Boys in the Band

Director Joe Mantello has uncovered something important about Matt Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. At its base, it is a drama about an alcoholic dysfunctional family, much like Long Days Journey into Night. Unlike that play, however, there is much humor and hope in this chosen family, so much so that a character who has drunkenly said the most venomous lines, exits with a truly affectionate “Call you tomorrow!” See, the play, contrary to its reputation, portrays gays as better than straights. Boys is, at its root, about a group of exciting, vibrant men fighting like hell – against heavy opposition – for self-respect and love.

Michael (Jim Parsons), a recovering alcoholic, hosts a birthday party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) in his Upper East Side apartment, with six of their closest friends. The evening begins with this group of friends celebrating, singing and dancing; when left to their own devices these guys are happy. But when the world comes knocking in the form of Michael’s straight college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison) — or the form of toxicity between Michael and Harold that emerges when Michael falls off the wagon — staying happy seems like a steeper climb.

The big news for this production is a cast packed with movie and TV stars who are all openly gay, something that would never have happened in 1968 when the play premiered. Quinto’s performance as Harold is astonishing – he completely disappears in the role, and gives us a Harold with a greater sense of fun then I’ve every seen before, something that gives depth to the role. Parsons is terrific as guilty Catholic Michael. Matt Bomer, as Michael’s handsome friend with (occasional) benefits Donald, is his usual charming self.

I would be remiss if I didn’t report that Bomer gives us full backside nudity early in the show. It’s a testament to the high quality of his and Parsons’s performances that we’re able to get the important exposition that’s happening while Bomer’s fully or half-nude. The other standout performance is Robin de Jesús, who gives us a breathtakingly heartfelt interpretation of flaming queen Emory.

This is a revelatory production that casts an insightful eye toward both gay history and plain old human psychology. Essential gay viewing, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress has a muscular Broadway soprano, and she can deliver both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted musical storytelling. Her current act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, is a love letter to the women who have inspired her called A Hymn to Her. Liz’s heroines come from all walks of life, and Callaway takes advantage of this to create an eclectic show.

She opens with The Mary Tyler Moore theme, “Love Is All Around,” because who doesn’t love Mary Richards? The song is all about youth and hope, and Callaway captures that marvelously. The show then briefly heads in a somewhat autobiographical direction as she intersperses a relatively low-key take on “Broadway Baby” with humorous tales of her exciting first days as a working actor in New York.

Your heroes don’t have to be older than you, and Liz gives high praise to Sara Bareilles before performing a moving rendition of “Everything Changes” from Bareilles’s Waitress. There’s also a heroine not actually mentioned but implied in Callaway’s pairing of Carole King’s “Being At War with Each Other” and her sister Ann Hampton Callaway’s “At the Same Time” – both songs have been sung by Barbra Streisand. That’s not the only reason they go well together: they are both heartfelt pleas for peace.

Callaway has a wonderful sense of humor, which produced two of my favorite moments in the show. She’s obsessed with Julia Child, and did a little known song of Leonard Bernstein’s called “Plum Pudding” which is simply a recipe to titular dish set to a tricky patter. Tricky patter is the satirical target of the show’s other comical moment, one of Callaway’s signature songs “Another Hundred Lyrics.” Songwriter Lauren Mayer’s re-lyricizing of Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People,” it gently pokes fun at Sondheim’s willful complexity. It’s no less complicated than a Sondheim song – perhaps its even moreso – and Callaway executes it flawlessly. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: René Marie

What a great pleasure to discover a really good songwriter who also happens to be an accomplished jazz singer! I hadn’t heard of René Marie before seeing her at Birdland, and she presented a show entirely composed of songs from her new album The Sound of Red, all material composed solely by her. And, what do you know, every song is as engaging in performance as a sensitively rendered standard.

A lot of that has to do with Marie’s lyrics, which touch on universal subjects in a direct, sincerely-felt way. They don’t have the obviousness of cliché, but rather the deceptive simplicity of a Berlin or Hammerstein lyric – phrases that seem like they’ve always been there, but never said quite that way. Musically, however, these songs are quite sophisticated. She’s modest about her song “Go Home” (a rueful instruction to a man she’s having an affair with), calling it “maybe too country” at one point in her intro, but the song’s harmonies do subtle but odd shifts that could come right out of compositions by Dizzy Gillespie or Maurice Ravel.

As a vocalist, René Marie has a fantastic instrument: warmly supple, strong and profoundly expressive. Her confidence as a performer engages you from the first note; especially powerful in this performance where the first song is a haunting a capella she wrote the day of her opening night “Ain’t Gonna Be Long for this Earth.” Her between song talk is less patter, and more like a spontaneous, smiling decision to let you in on her secrets. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: My Fair Lady

Bartlett Sher directing tasteful yet thoughtful revivals of “Golden Age” musicals at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theatre – by this point it’s definitely “a thing.” This time Sher has turned his sights on Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the plot goes like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to act and speak like a lady, he gets more than he bargained for: Eliza Doolittle provokes his interest, his anger, and ultimately, his passion.

This astutely executed My Fair Lady is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit and proto-feminist point of view than any other production I’ve seen. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins than is found in the My Fair Lady book, and a much more self-possessed Eliza – and Sher leans toward that every chance he gets.

The excellent Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie on Downton Abbey) is central in this approach: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Lauren Ambrose is a fittingly strong-willed and vocally expressive Eliza. The most showstopping performance, however goes to Norbert Leo Butz, who fills Eliza scoundrel father Alfred with pointed glee. He really brings the house down with his delivery of “Get Me To The Church on Time” positively bursting with kinetic energy.

There’s always a great danger that My Fair Lady might play as romanticizing what essentially is a manipulative, borderline abusive relationship – that certainly happened in the film version. That is far from Shaw’s original intention, and Sher has largely succeeded in saving My Fair Lady from its worst impulses. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Gentleman Caller

Wow, the prose in The Gentleman Caller is purple! That’s not a negative; when your two characters are Tennessee Williams and William Inge, two gay literary lights know for their loquacity, purple captures something important about them. It also means that the play, while loosely based on fact, isn’t exactly realistic – but it was Williams’s own Blanche DuBois who said “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” So let the queer magic begin!

The play takes place in 1944, while a “known” but not yet famous Williams is having out of town tryouts in Chicago for the play that will become known as The Glass Menagerie. In the first act, Tennessee is visiting his family in St. Louis, and agrees to be interviewed by local arts reporter William Inge. At this point Inge is firmly in the closet as both gay and playwright.

In playwright Philip Dawkins’s telling, they size each other up pretty quickly and engage in a game of sexual cat and mouse. Whether Inge and Williams ever had sex is open for debate. Dawkins hedges his bets by presenting some awkward sexual lunges at each other: awkward because of booze for Williams, awkward because of innate awkwardness (and booze) for Inge. But these never quite end in consummation.

This is less a story about them having a sexual or romantic encounter, and more about their artistic sensibilities colliding, and them sharing some queer warmth and mutual support. Director Tony Speciale has staged the play somewhat athletically, and with a strong sense of what Williams described as “plastic theatre” – a theatre that is simultaneously sculptural and kinetic. This is especially true in the sexual byplay, but pervades every moment of the production.

Juan Francisco Villa clearly relishes playing Williams as an unbridled sexual and verbal Dionysus, while Daniel K. Isaac captures both Inge’s tightly-wound nerves and the surges of emotion and desire that well underneath. It took a while for my ear to tune to the purpleness of Dawkins’s prose, but once it had, The Gentleman Caller had many pleasures to offer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Summer and Smoke

Now, while this is a very good Tennessee Williams play, I think it’s much less compelling than his later, rarely performed rewrite The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Both tell the story of Alma Winemiller, a minister’s daughter in Glorious Hill, Mississippi in the years before World War I. But Eccentricities gives us an Alma who is noticeably more self-possessed, while in Summer in spite of her best efforts, she is buffeted by the decisions of others.

Eccentricities also cuts a borderline offensive subplot about a Mexican father and daughter, and replaces overheated histrionics with something simpler and more genuinely touching. Thus, when somebody mounts Summer and Smoke, I always feel a momentary pain that they didn’t do the play that both I and Williams himself felt was better. Still, Summer and Smoke is actually a quite solid melodrama, the closest thing to a bodice ripper Williams wrote, while still having the penetrating insight into human psychology that never left him.

Director Jack Cummings III has shorn the play of anything but the most important elements. There are no props, and the actors don’t even mime using them, they just make a single gesture that confirms what the dialogue suggests. Cummings focuses on a fiercely precise rendering of language and characters, two of Williams’s greatest strengths.

This is another one of those plays that has to have a strong performance in the lead role to make sense. Marin Ireland is easily the best Alma I’ve seen, fully understanding that while Alma might not know herself too well, she is otherwise nobody’s fool. We see not only every self-controlling thought but also every uncontrollable emotion, which is truly dazzling and moving – and so Alma.

The play’s action is driven by Alma’s passion for the ne’er-do-well boy next door, young Dr. John Buchanan, who breaks all kinds of rules in the pursuit of pleasure, but feels intensely guilty about doing so. Nathan Darrow has exactly the languid charm needed to give life to this decidedly lost soul. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tammie Brown

After seeing a live show of Tammie Brown, I finally have a bead on this surrealist drag queen’s artistic core. She is, more than anything, a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what she found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her, to quote the title of her show, as a National Treasure.

Brown also proudly wears her South Texan origins, singing a couple of songs in Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie sways happily about the stage while her faerie fey guitarist Michael J. Catti converts all of her original oddball techno-pop songs from that style into something much more pleasant: SoCal-flavored psychedelic and/or “soft” rock. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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