Review: Latrice Royale

Large-and-in-charge Latrice Royale has crafted her latest cabaret show – entitled “Here’s to Life 2019” – solidly in the mold of traditional autobiographical cabarets. Her first cabaret show, called simply “Here’s to Life” was powerful and entertaining, telling as did her story from growing up gay in Compton, to finding her drag vision in Miami, and ultimately to the trail of tribulations that led up to the “unfortunate incarceration” she sometimes referred to when she was on Season 4 of Drag Race. She followed that up with shows that detailed her life since Drag Race. Those, while still entertaining, felt a bit thin by comparison, because they covered a shorter, less drama-packed time span. Now, she’s giving us the best of both worlds, keeping the strongest bits of her original show while keeping us updated on her life – in this case her marriage to her music director Christopher Hamblin.

It’s more talk than song, and Latrice’s story-telling is well served by her warm authenticity and infectious positivity. I would definitely like to hear her sing more, though, because she’s actually pretty damn good at it! There’s no attempt at giving you “girl singer” – “Barry White in drag” is how she describes her basso stylings – but she clearly models her approach to song interpretation on the likes of Aretha Franklin. She may not have Aretha’s pristine vocal instrument but she certainly understands her lessons in musicality and expression. And her take on cabaret standard “Here’s to Life” marks the first time I’ve heard it as a determined look at the future rather than a wistful look back.

Latrice is backed by a very able jazz trio led by her hubby on the piano. This feels more polished than the cabaret acts I’ve seen from other Drag Race alumni, while still running a bit on the long side (don’t repeat your thematic points, girl, we got you the first time). Latrice is the real thing, and I want to hear much more from her as a singer. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Count Basie Orchestra

You need a big brassy voice to sing over the Count Basie Orchestra – of its 20+ pieces, over 90% are brass. Carmen Bradford belts the Etta James classic “At Last” with more vigor and bluesiness than I’ve ever heard it done, so she certainly fits the the bill (and gives me Obama nostalgia). Basie’s orchestra powers through its extensive repertoire, dynamic and forceful as ever, even though Count Basie passed in 1983.

This big band has continuously toured (with the shortest of breaks in the early 1950s) for 84 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 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.

Though the band is known for the tightness of its ensemble playing, each member of the orchestra is a serious soloist in their own right. For the number “Basie Power” the alto sax section of Dave Glasser and Markus Howell traded solos with an intensity that edged towards bebop. Hot hot hot. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ethan Slater

In a really good way, Ethan Slater’s Feinstein’s/54 Below debut is about as far from his star-making role in Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants as possible. Here he emerges as a smart, earnest singer songwriter with impressive multi-instrumental skills. His songs have a quirky edge that reminds me of the solo work of Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies: like Page, Slater deals with themes of love, loss and healing, with rich veins of humor, ruefulness and wonder.

Slater is writing a handful of musicals, both on his own and with Nick Blaemire. One is intended as a film titled Write Me In, about two brothers, both writers. Another is a stage musical called Edge of the World, about a single father who relocates himself and his young son to Alaska – songs from this one are the majority of the evening’s repertoire. Thank goodness, too, that they are sturdy enough to sustain our interest, which bodes well for the musical itself.

There are a handful of songs not by Slater that help to anchor the evening. Folk music is an important background for Ethan, and he does one song apiece by Paul Simon and Dave Van Ronk early in the show. Tony Nominee that he is, he also does a smattering of musical theatre, including a very affecting rendition of “Happiness Is…” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and his big number from SpongeBob, “(Just a) Simple Sponge.” To top it all off, Slater is blessed with a golden voice, and tons of affable charisma. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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