Review: Justin Vivian Bond

This show was intended to be called “Justin Vivian Bond is Regifted,” but somewhere between the time when Bond sent v’s title and blurb to the Joe’s Pub office and the time the tickets were printed, some device somewhere “auto-corrected” the title to “Justin Vivian Bond is Refrigerated.” JVB figured “well, the tickets have been printed,” kinda liked the title, and thought it wouldn’t take much to move the show in that direction. One of the adjustments v made was to open with a passionate version of Annie Lennox’s “Cold,” setting up the “fire and ice” dynamic that has always been JVB’s wheelhouse.

The legendary Kiki & Herb Christmas shows of yore were full of vitriol and blasphemy. More love than vitriol now (though when v touches on a subject worth the vitriol, v doesn’t hold back), and an end to blaspheming in favor of something more spiritually positive: Bond now puts v’s own pagan ambivalence about Christmas at the heart of the show. For instance there’s a dark little medley celebrating the winter solstice, dedicated to Judy Collins.

The musical backing from Matt Ray on piano, Nath Ann Carrera on guitar and Claudia Chopek on violin is sophisticated and rich. There’s nothing particularly jazzy about the arrangements – if anything they are redolent of folk rock and chamber pop – but there is a powerful sense of improvisational give and take.

Bond is one of the most original and potent performers of our time, whom I think everybody should see at least once. Or more often – there’s something new and freshly rewarding about every single performance.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Gunhild Carling

The Carling Family Band enters the Birdland Theater like a New Orleans “second line,” blowing the hell out of “Bourbon Street Parade.” Formatted like a large dixieland unit – or a small brass band – Gunhild Carling and her band of mostly family members are all about “Jazz Age” jazz. Oh sure, they draw influences from all kinds of music, but this music beats with the heart of a 1920s flapper.

Gunhild Carling, a trumpet player of great skill, as well as a singer and multi-instrumentalist, has dubbed her current Birdland show “Gunhild Celebrates the Holidays.” Well, Carling and her family are certainly celebrating – with irresistible swing and brio that gets your toe tapping – but the holidays only really enter into this show in guest pianist Ron Abel’s between-number Christmas melody vamps. The songlist is much more about blowing the blues in trad jazz favorites like “St. James Infirmary,” “Down by the Riverside,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” and the like.

There’s even a bit a vaudeville in the act, with juggling and (more than once) fiery dancing to the Charleston and Jitterbug. Also, Gunhild finds the swing possibilities in such unexpected instruments as recorders and bagpipes.

The show is so high energy, in fact, that it sometimes spirals out of control, skirting the edges of chaos. An excess of energy is not the worst problem to have, however, and it helps give the evening a consistent feel of light-hearted good times. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Alaska

This is light-years better than RuPaul’s holiday special. Not that that’s a very high bar, since RuPaul’s show was basically an update of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special – only in this one Grandpa Wookie had an album to sell. Seriously, though, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 from the Planet Glamtron has really been growing as vocal performer. Her greatest gift remains a knack for imaginative exaggeration, but behind all the odd vocal effects and comic lip movements, her actual singing voice is getting stronger and more assured.

This show is called “Christmas in Space,” and is a Star Trek-based holiday-themed evening. The holiday theme is very loose indeed, as Alaska mostly applies her unique vocalisms to songs by the likes of Melissa Etheridge and Heart. The show leans harder toward the “in space” part of the title, with references to the Jasmine Masters Nebula, and the mythical Robbie Turner Asteroid Belt. It isn’t her funniest show to date (that would be her Golden Girls tribute), but it is equal parts clever and haunting. Precision, wit, intelligence and creativity have been Alaska’s hallmarks for a while, and all of those are on clear display here.

Plus, the show was snappy and short (another Alaska hallmark)! That never happens in drag cabaret! I’m almost tempted to say she should flesh it out a bit and make it longer, but the Star Trek jokes were already beginning to wear a bit thin, so it is probably exactly as long as it need to be. Very gay, a lot of fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Cher Show

This ain’t no chickenshit gig! Whatever problems it may have (mostly the structural difficulties all jukebox bio-musicals share), The Cher Show is rarely less than spectacular, and derives a lot of comedy from it’s sharp-toungued, free-speaking subject.

Cher is played by three different actresses of different ages. The real star is Stephanie J. Block as the mature Cher, who narrates the show and sings the biggest numbers. (This isn’t the first time Block has played a gay icon – she played Liza Minnelli in The Boy from Oz. Is she on a quest to play all of them?). Cher’s a perfect fit for Block, who makes playing to the back row seem effortless. She, and the other two Chers, sing in a loose imitation of Cher’s style, leaning more on delivering the emotional core of the songs than a precise impersonation.

Bob Mackie, whose outlandish costumes for TV’s The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour helped form Cher’s public persona, also designed the costumes for this. Aside from adding glamour to the proceedings – especially in an eye-popping production number that is all about those outfits – Mackie reminded me that under the sequins, he is a visual storyteller of the first order, and a surprisingly subtle one at that. The sparkle will hook you, but the details are where he really does his work.

Jason Moore’s fluid direction smartly leans into variety show glitz and giddy kitsch, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is here to entertain and astound you with it’s energy and flash. The Cher Show is hardly perfect, but it’s undeniably lots of fun, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Pharoah Sanders

Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman once called Pharoah Sanders “probably the best tenor player in the world.” Tenor saxophone, that is, and based on what I experienced seeing him at Birdland, I’d have to agree. But he’s more than that: there’s something visionary about Sanders. When he begins to play, the room he’s playing in feels somehow different, lighter.

Sanders was an important player in the frequently dissonant free jazz scene of the early 1960s, but as he embarked on a career as a leader rather than a sideman, he reinterpreted what the “free” in free jazz meant. For him, it meant free and full expression using any and all means available, the tonal as well as the atonal, the sweet as well as the dissonant. It also meant exploring freedom in the political sense, and above all in a spiritual sense. One can easily interpret Sanders work from the late 1960s onward as one long exploration of what it means to be spiritually free – and how does one express that in music?

The first composition he performed began with the band playing a gentle, soothing pentatonic wash for several minutes. When Sanders joined in at first he went with that gentle flow, but then there was one of those angular, sharp, atonal runs that were a hallmark of Pharoah’s early avant-garde work, appearing with the speed, suddenness and uncanniness of lightning in a clear blue sky.

Some other astonishing moments: at the end of a yearning ballad, Sanders slows everything down in a short coda in which every note surprises and yet is exactly right, especially the breathtaking second to last note at the very bottom of his instrument’s range. After which he immediately bounces into a playful blues that finds this physically frail septuagenarian dancing around and hamming it up, strumming his sax as if it was a guitar. In this number each of the sidemen gets an extended solo; Nate Reeves’s solo stands as the single best jazz bass solo I have ever heard, jumping back and forth between virtuosic techniques with impossible nimbleness.

And at the very end, Sanders played a bit of his epic statement of purpose “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” singing in a strong warm voice, gently emphasizing one word, to powerful effect: “The creator makes but one demand / Happiness through all the land.” Then he launches into John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for a few soaring minutes before concluding with a return to “Creator.” Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Liz Callaway

This award-winning singer / actress delivers both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted musical storytelling with her muscular Broadway soprano. She’s crafted her current act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below as a love letter to the women who have inspired her, calling it 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 Show theme, “Love Is All Around,” because who doesn’t love Mary Richards? Callaway marvelously captures the song’s feeling of youthful hope. The show then briefly heads in an autobiographical direction as she intersperses a low-key take on “Broadway Baby” with humorous tales of her exciting first days as a working actor in New York.

Liz points out that your heroes don’t have to be older than you, and 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 for the titular dish, delivered as a tricky patter song. Callaway takes satirical aim at tricky patter in the show’s other comical highlight, 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: Chasing the New White Whale

There’s a visually impressive production of a impassioned new play about heroin abuse in the commercial fishing industry now playing at La MaMa ETC. Chasing the New White Whale uses the framework of Moby Dick to tell the story of New England fishing captain Robby Foerster, who is committed to old fashioned institutions of fishing – hook fishing, independent boats – but runs afoul of heroin addiction.

Both the play, by Michael Gorman, and the direction, by Arthur Adair are ambitious and aesthetically complex. A mysterious contingent of ghostly whale hunters and modern day commercial fishermen inspired by Ahab’s stowaway crew, “Fedallah and the Phantoms,” is a particularly effective device. Donald Eastman’s set makes very inventive use of boats that increase in size and height as the play progresses – later ones move on wheeled scaffolding.

While it is a compelling production, it’s not quite successful in what it sets out to do. The publicity material describe how Robbie “falls deeply into addiction after a fateful first encounter with heroin” – but we never see this “fateful” moment. There is a character called the Chaplain who recalls the long sermon in Moby Dick, baldy stating the plays themes in brief sermonettes. These little lectures are well performed and staged, but are simply not dramatically effective – too much telling, not enough showing.

The acting company, however, is uniformly strong. Alan Barnes Netherton’s portrayal of Foerster is intense and intelligent. Meredith Nicholaev is another standout in her soulful rendering of Robbie’s friend and sometime accountant Therese.

For tickets, click here.

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