Review: Ravi Coltrane

In performance, jazz saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and his Quartet wander effortlessly across genres, sometimes within a piece, sometimes within moments. Influences from classical, rock and more experimental genres abound. But they never entirely depart from the tradition of avant-garde jazz with a spiritual element, which was his mother Alice Coltrane’s style as well (on the piano, organ and harp). And Ravi is part of a dynasty of forward-looking jazz going back over 70 years, since his father was none other than John Coltrane, arguably the most influential and adventurous saxophonists of the 20th Century.

Coltrane plays jazz of great intensity and density, but with a dexterity and expressiveness that not all such music achieves. This is music that flows like a river, sometimes in a ripple, more often in a overwhelming polyrhythmic torrent. In the case of the quartet’s very faithful rendition of Alice Coltrane’s “Los Cabollos,” that flow keeps accelerating to breathtaking breakneck speeds, while never being less that exactingly precise.

Of Coltrane’s uniformly superior sidemen, drummer Nate Smith was the one who stood out for me the most. It’s easy for a bass or piano to work quotes of other music into their improvisations, but much trickier for untuned percussion. Smith achieves this effect with astonishing frequency – and wit! Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Carmen Jones

Once Anika Noni Rose starts her sultry take on “Dat’s Love” (to the melody of “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera Carmen), you know at least one thing: this Classic Stage Company revival of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones is going to be an evening of beautiful music, beautifully sung. Not in a purely operatic way, but in that style sometimes called “legit,” somewhere between opera and musical comedy.

In adapting Bizet’s opera for the Broadway stage, Hammerstein moved the action from early 19th Century Spain to the American South during World War II. In Hammerstein’s version, Carmen (Rose) is a passionate but fickle and reckless parachute factory worker who desires – and is desired by – many men, including an airman and a prizefighter.

While I’m a great aficionado of opera, I’ve always been ill at ease with the pervasive misogyny and toxic masculinity in the repertoire. Carmen is a big offender in this area, with men vying to possess Carmen, and Carmen herself being portrayed as a “man-eater.” Hammerstein, one of the most humane writers in American literature, helps matters greatly with his more sympathetic portrayal of all involved, but that only makes her murder by the one she loved most all the more senseless, and not “tragic” in any larger sense. Still, the music is irresistible, and it’s hard not to be charmed by Hammerstein’s warmth and wit.

John Doyle’s direction is well within his minimalist, story-centric approach. Sometimes things get a little too still for my taste, but that also means when Bill T. Jones choreography bursts through it’s all the more powerful. It’s finally Rose’s show, though, and she is magnificent. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Paulo Szot

Mr. Showbiz, that’s Paulo Szot! And I mean this as the highest compliment. The man who has always been a master musician – and can hold a note for days – is also a master showman, which makes for a massively entertaining evening.

The openly gay Szot’s voice is a seductive, luscious instrument, a large part of the reason he won a Tony his first time in a Broadway musical (South Pacific) – by the way, it seems like a serious oversight that he hasn’t been back on Broadway since. Never mind, though, he’s doing tours of a Hal Prince-directed Evita in Australia, and playing the lead in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, and as a by-product of that, we get to hear an Evita medley and Bernstein’s “Lonely Town.”

He has incredibly solid musical taste, and real wit about the way he uses it. He talks about his fellow Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim’s collaborations with Frank Sinatra, and then weaves the single showtune Sinatra and Jobim did together, “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” into a South Pacific medley. The absolute high points of this Broadway-centric evening were a reading of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” that is perhaps the most rawly emotion interpretation I’ve ever heard, and the song from South Pacific that has rightly become a signature for Szot, “This Nearly Was Mine.”

Szot is now definitively the total package! So when are we going to get another Broadway appearance, or even some studio albums? Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming became an American citizen in 2008 and his new club act “Legal Immigrant,” happening at both Joe’s Pub and the Café Carlyle, is a pointed response to the current political drama over immigration. He makes clear every song he sings that was written by an immigrant – and it’s most of them, over a wide variety of genres.

Cumming is easily one of the most charismatic performers in America today, his take on songs – by composers ranging from Sondheim to Adele – so very original and fresh, his singing as bold, big and beautiful as can be.

Cumming’s patter is nothing if not frank, and the show as a whole is very emotionally direct, which makes for an experience that is both intimate and expansive. Oh, and did I mention really, really funny? It was his naughty sense of humor as much as anything else that made his Tony-winning turn in the revival of Cabaret a “star-making” one.

He’s just as sassy and silly here, singing a Sondheim medley with a teasing restraint that crescendoes into a roar of heartbreak in “Not A Day Goes By” only to snap back to flirtatious fun with “Old Friends.” Cumming can be hilarious and heartbreaking in the very same moment, no small gift. What a perfect and posh choice for Pride Week. Highly recommended.

For tickets to the Joe’s Pub performances, click here.

For tickets to the Café Carlyle performances, click here.

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

Review: This Was The End

Full disclosure: I’d consider two of the performers in Mabou Mines’s This Was The End an artistic aunt and uncle (even though I’ve never met them). Paul Zimet was in the Open Theatre with my artistic mentors Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman. Black-Eyed Susan was in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, whose one-time Artistic Director, Everett Quinton, I have directed (and been very inspired by) on a couple of occasions. This Was The End is closer to the Open Theatre’s work: abstract, highly visual, experimental, more concerned with theme and image than story.

There are fragments of a story here, the story of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In the play, Vanya asks, “What if I live to be 60?” In This Was The End, director Mallory Catlett probes for answers to that question, along with four luminaries of avant-garde theater all over the age of 60. This Was The End explores themes of loss, memory and aging in a deconstructed yet visceral way.

Zimet, as Vanya, is every bit as amazing as I remember him being (in videos of the Open Theatre’s early 1970s work). In one particularly breathtaking monologue he interacts with onstage sound designer / audio-visual manipulator G. Lucas Crane, imitating the way Crane distorts Zimet’s recorded voice with uncanny precision and accuracy. Sometimes he urges a rhythm to Crane with a spontaneity that feels like jazz improvisation.

Black-Eyed Susan brings whimsy and emotion to the proceedings, while never veering too far from the show’s bittersweet tone. She, like Sonya, the character she plays, injects a ray of hope into Vanya’s dark world. The other actors, Jim Himelsbach and Rae C. Wright are virtuoso actors on a par with Zimet and Susan. If you have a taste for challenging, somewhat abstract avant-garde theater, it doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: BenDeLaCreme

“What the Hell?” That’s the question posed by innovative drag performance artist BenDeLaCreme in her latest show, Inferno-A-Go-Go. BenDeLaCreme’s shows are truly unique, not just in drag performance, but in theatre as a whole. Sure, she includes the goofy song parodies and wisecracking comedy so common in drag. However, she’s after something far more sophisticated – her seductive strangeness creeps up on you.

The queen otherwise known as Ben Putnam is playing less of a ditz this time around, wryly joking about the fact that’s she’s chosen to do a drag cabaret based on Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century Italian epic poem Inferno. Coming off her unbeatable streak and self-elimination on Drag Race All-Stars, she’s more confident than ever. And why shouldn’t she be: Inferno-A-Go-Go is more profound than the most chin-strokingly serious straight play, while rarely being less than belly-laugh hilarious.

BenDeLa forever rebukes the notion that arts of clowning, drag, circus, burlesque and ventriloquism are somehow less than other performance forms, somehow stupid. Putnam takes the best of all those forms and whips them into something new, fascinating and intensely intelligent. Not only that, BenDeLa uses these popular forms to probe the very biggest questions, switching from deep existential angst to spiritual lightness in the space of a minute – in between double entendres about sex and booze.

BenDeLaCreme is all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately really about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things, like ethics and how to take care of ourselves and each other. She delivers a show that’s equal parts cheeky fun and insightful art, no small feat. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marcos Valle

I like bossa nova singer / songwriter and all around luminary Marcos Valle because he combines a strong sense of syncopation and groove with a rich and vibrant harmonic palette – these things will get my attention anytime. Add to that a sunny disposition and sensibility best expressed by his signature song “Summer Samba (So Nice)” (made famous by Astrud Gilberto), and I’m in musical love.

In his current club act at Birdland, Valle is backed by a quartet of musicians whose precision and energy border on the supernatural. When they lock into the groove that Valle is playing on the keyboard – which is most of the time – the room positively levitates with musical excitement in its most direct form. The effect is so dynamic, in fact, that I found myself wishing that Birdland had a dance floor. Even more than your typical samba, this is music that moves.

About half of the concert is with Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum and vocalist wife Paula, who were both in bands with the legendary bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. This show is partially a 60th anniversary celebration of the release of “Chega de Saudade,” considered to be the first recorded bossa nova song. Jobim wrote it, and most of the songs in this half are Jobim songs. Hot stuff, indeed!

Valle is also joined by his vocalist wife Patricia Alvi on a handful of numbers, and she brings a quality similar to the women of Sergio Mendes’s Brasil ’66, which works especially well on Valle’s 1967 bossa nova classic “Crickets.” Overall, one of the most stimulating cabaret shows I’ve seen in some time.

For tickets, click here.

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