Review: John Pizzarelli

Pianist Isiah J. Thompson, bassist Mike Karn, guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli – this trio attacks with flashy jazziness so relentlessly that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Pizzarelli has framed this particular act as “Stage and Screen.” That casts a very wide net, since the vast majority of the Great American Songbook comes from Broadway or movie musicals. It works out to be just another excellent show from the John Pizzarelli Trio, packed with the very jazziest interpretations of standards selected with exquisite taste.

Particularly moving was a instrumental solo from John of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine” and Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”, favorites of his father, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Bucky passed away from COVID in 2020, and John teared up while playing this medley. John plays guitar with amazing fluidity and elegance, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. He mixed harmonics with regular virtuosity for this medley, to beautiful effect.

Then again, Pizzarelli finds many ways to put his own interpretive twist on the songs he performs. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, exposing hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. After a stirring yet playful rendition of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” (made famous by Blossom Dearie), John noted that he had done several “list” songs in a row, only to launch into another list song , “I Love Betsy” from Jason Robert Brown’s Broadway show Honeymoon in Vegas (“I like Shake Shack, I like MoMA, and New Jersey’s ripe aroma…Heck, there’s lots of stuff I like, but I love Betsy and she loves me. She likes hockey, no I swear, she likes guys with thinning hair”).

John Pizzarelli embodies cabaret’s jazzier side with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence. Also, as a singer John is very sensitive to the multiple meanings a good lyric can have, and has an uncanny ability to communicate several at once. Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

There is a lot of joy in for colored girls…, most of it connected to music and dancing, especially the salsa dura of artists like Willie Colón and Eddie Palmieri. Playwright Ntozake Shange did call the play a “choreopoem” after all. But there is also a lot of terror and sadness at the way black women are treated by men. Unfortunately, this is still as timely as ever.

for colored girls is a series of vignettes of life as a black woman that crisscrosses the United States and all kinds of experiences, from the ecstatic to the devestating. We meet, for example, a teenage girl in St. Louis who falls in love with a historical personage she read about in a book: Toussaint L’Ouverture, a heroic leader of the 1790s Haitian Revolution. On her search for him she meets a real St. Louis boy also named Toussaint – and suddenly is less interested in finding M. L’Overture. This sort of fabulist poeticism provides stark contrast to the play’s darkest moments, which include evocations of rape and murder.

The power of this choreopoem can be found in Shange’s truly pungent writing, with lines as powerful as these: “I found God in myself and I loved Her – fearlessly,” “six blocks of cruelty piled up on itself,” “I couldn’t stand being colored and sorry at the same time – it seems redundant in the modern world” “I survive on intimacy and tomorrow,” “I was missing something promised,” – truly an endless flow of pithy, evocative language.

Director and choreographer Camille A. Brown – the first black woman in many decades to execute both roles on Broadway – conveys a propulsive rhythm even in the stillest scenes, which really revs up when paired with composers Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby’s updated take on salsa dura. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: To My Girls

A gay sitcom that occassionally gets serious enough to register some important issues, especially those dealing with race and class, To My Girls is, in the main, pretty darn funny. Playwright JC Lee writes zingers that land because they a) tell the truth about joys of gay friendship or b) clock the little hypocrisies and unacknowledged prejudices that trouble such friendships. Does he cut much deeper than that? No. But how many gay plays that have reached the Off-Broadway scene this season have cut even that far? So, To My Girls is sufficiently insightful and entertaining…and sooo gay…to get my approval.

A group of gay friends who met in Brooklyn in the mid-2000s reuinite in 2022 in Palm Springs for a weekend getaway. Things don’t go particularly well, partially because most of them are growing wise to the fact that gorgeous, winsome white manchild Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson) is something of a narcissitic jerk underneath it all. We start off thinking this is his story, but it slowly becomes clear that the central character is his South Asian-American best friend Castor (Maulik Pancholy), who is the main object of both Curtis’s charm and his selfish manipulations.

Also in for the weekend from NYC is Leo (Britton Smith), who is what folks in the storytelling business call a “normative” character, that is, the truth-teller and voice of reason. Arriving to stir things up is Castor’s chiseled 20-something trick Omar (Noah J. Ricketts), who unexpectedly turns out to be the smartest person in the play. They are renting the place from gay eminence grise Bernie (Bryan Batt in his finest fettle) who is simulataneously insightful, and perhaps the biggest hypocrite of all.

These gurls musical taste seems to have frozen in time at 2008 (though Castor is revealed to be a fan of the 2010s vintage star Carly Rae Jepsen) – Britney reigns, and current divas like Dua Lipa or Lizzo get nary a mention. This could easily be a conscious choice on Lee’s part, since the arc of the play is from being trapped in the past to envisioning a better future. Lee gets points for addressing race and class, which few enough gay plays do. For that, and for its abundant humor, I can happily recommend To My Girls.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: John Lloyd Young

It’s no wonder John Lloyd Young was cast many moons ago in Jersey Boys to originate the role of Frankie Valli, in the process becoming the only American actor to win the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theater World Awards for a Broadway debut. He has one of the most mighty high tenors in all of musical theatre, paired with a falsetto which perhaps surpasses even Valli’s own in sheer power. He’s back at the Café Carlyle, where he just opened a new show for one short week.

Charismatic and still boyishly handsome in his mid-40s, Young still sings the Valli songs that made his name (he knows where his bread is buttered), but the remainder of his present act is satisfyingly eclectic. He burns through “Show And Tell”, the 1973 Jerry Fuller hit made famous by Al Wilson. He positively floats away in his version of The Stylistics’ “You are Everything”, paying homage to another great falsetto singer, Russell Thompkins, Jr. The evening’s most surprising number: “Ming Ri Tian Ya”, a Mandarin Chinese soundtrack ballad, telling a tragic story of love thwarted by death. Just the kind of “big sing” this son of Irish and Welsh melodrama loves to sing. Young, pardon the phrase, kills it. (He will be alternating it with other non-English songs throughout the run).

The only other musician on-stage, on piano and keyboards, is Tommy Faragher, a veteran songwriter (Taylor Dayne’s “With Every Beat of My Heart”) and Grammy-nominated producer (Glee‘s “Teenage Dream” featuring Darren Criss). He and Young wrote the break-up ballad “Cold Dawn Calling” – Young’s lyrics are not only emotional but also artfully wrought, and he sings them with an extra bit of heat. Faragher has a solo spot, doing a heartfelt cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me”. He does a more than creditable job, but I wish Young had sung backup on the call-and-response chorus. After all, Cooke’s backup singer was none other than the legendary Lou Rawls.

Young deliveres every note of every song with sophistication and passionate musical precision. He possesses an affable, assured presence, and displays a droll, disarming intelligence in his patter. Young relates “you never know who you are going to run into at the Carlyle Hotel,” revealing that Faragher had found himself at the bar sitting next to none other than Sir Paul McCartney. Young then launched into a blazing rendition of McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”. And maybe I am. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lady Bunny

This old queen has written new material (so much so that she has to read some of it off notes on a music stand)! In the same old spirit – zany lip-synched Laugh-In style routines, fully sung filthy song parodies, and the like – but now with melodies from Cardi B, Lizzo and Ariana Grande in addition to Toni Braxton, Madonna and Gaga. This “Lady” doesn’t put limits on what she’s going to say or do in her new cabaret act “Unmasked and Unfiltered” – one of the great charms of this show is its spontaneity.

Bunny repeatedly proves she is one of the smartest drag queens ever, even if the majority of her act is a steady stream of dick and poop jokes. She projects a powerful presence and also possesses a terrific sense of when to keep it light. Girl knows just how to milk it!

She never stays in one mode for too long, and while she might go all stream of consciousness at certain points, she never quite seems to ramble. Bunny isn’t afraid of sentiment, but she’s not sappy – she strikes a terrific balance, and it’s probably the only way you could tell these on-the-edge jokes in a manner that tickles the funny bone rather that truly offends.

As has become customary in cabaret drag, Bunny covers her major costume change with a YouTube video (Varla Jean Merman was the innovator of this approach many years ago). This one’s an hilarious parody song “Cumming Like a Firework” based on the explosive Katy Perry tune. It shows the hilariously low level of this energetic, all-for-laughs winner – definitely the funniest gay show in town! Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Plaza Suite

Playwright Neil Simon has never been my cup of tea, especially his early plays. From 1983’s Brighton Beach Memoirs onwards, I can appreciate his fully matured skill. And he had a gift for one-liners from his beginning in the TV comedy writing rooms of the 1950s, which makes even his most lackluster plays passably amusing. But on a thematic level, meh – too mild and old-fashioned. Plaza Suite (which originally opened in 1968) is on the high end of the “passably amusing” stack, moving from moody quippiness to increasingly entertaining farce.

The play is in three acts, but the only character that appears in all three is Suite 917 of the Plaza Hotel – so beautiful recreated by set designer John Lee Beatty that it got its own entrance applause as the curtain went up. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick play a different couple in each act.

The first one finds a businessman and his suspicious wife on their anniversary (during which the marriage essentially unravels). In the second, a successful Hollywood producer attempts to seduce a girlfriend from long ago in their smallish hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey. The final act is a raucous farce about a middle-aged couple whose daughter, in an attack of wedding day jitters, has locked herself in the bathroom.

Broderick and (especially) Parker are in fine form, especially since director John Benjamin Hickey has both doing the damn best phyisical comedy I have ever seen either do, which considerably elevates the production’s funny quotient. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are as handsome and well-considered as Beatty’s set, and are perfect for SJP. Yes, I know she can make anything look good, but these fit as well as the chic leather gloves Greenwood gives her in the second act. The best outfits conjure the Pucci / Gucci side of 60s “mod” with great élan.

It also helps a great deal that well-executed featherweight comedy is what the doctor ordered when the news is as grim as it tends to be these days. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dianna Agron

While she has always been an immensely talented singer, I feel like Dianna Agron’s current act at the Cafe Carlyle really finds her coming into her own. Agron applies her huskily golden yet liquid voice to some very “Carlyle” material, including Bobby Short’s “You Fascinate Me So” and Eartha Kitt’s “I Want To Be Evil”. When Agron goes after a song, she always acts the hell out of it, which makes her an exceptional interpreter and storyteller.

Folk rock, the meat of Agron’s first two shows at the Carlyle, is largely absent here, replaced by “songbook” and “soul,” both of which she excels at. She keeps breaking her own rules to put together a show that feels right; her baseline here is a show that is fun and pleasurable, and she has more than succeeded.

A couple of times she asked her band to take it back to the top. She seemed slightly embarrassed – Dianna I am here to tell you that one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had in cabaret was when Keely Smith unashamedly said “no that wasn’t good, lets do it again.” Own your mistakes, and be proud of the artistry which compels you to be the best version of the song you are singing! No apologies!

That said, Agron is all-around more confident and in command, which lends her off-hand comments a raffish charm. No song was less than beautifully sung, and she performs best when a song brings out the actress in her – most notably “It’s Oh So Quiet” (orginated by Betty Hutton, and returned to fame in Björk’s cover version). Agron in every case gives us wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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