Review: Thoughts of a Colored Man

This is a “slice of life in a neighborhood” play, let’s settle that first. And a pretty damn good one. Much was made in the marketing of elements of slam poetry, but there’s only a sprinkling of that here, like a splash of hot sauce. The neighborhood in question is a mostly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, where gentrification is encroaching, barbershops being replaced by Whole Foods and Paris Baguette.

At basis it is a love letter to the camaraderie of black men, symbolized by such barbershops. But Thoughts of a Colored Man is also rigorously critical of not only the daunting challenges created by systemic racism, but also the failings, individually and collectively, of black men. While the characters all have allegorical names like Love and Anger, they are actually finely etched characters who all have their good points and flaws – which is one the play’s great virtues.

While there are whiffs of toxic masculinity here and there, there is also an extraordinary moment when, in the key barbershop scene (one of the longest in the show), Lust (Da’Vinchi) tells a “fag joke” and is immediately rebuked by the shop’s long-time owner Wisdom (Esau Pritchett), allowing gay man Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark), who is new to the neighborhood, to come out by the end of the scene.

Happiness gets a couple more scenes, one a monologue detailing the difficulties faced by a middle-class black man married to a white man, including “being too black for my white friends and too white for my black friends.” He also has a scene with Depression (Forrest McClendon), a man who studied to be a engineer but was forced by circumstance to take a low-paying job at Whole Foods.

All the actors are seriously impressive performers and director Steve H. Broadnax III’s staging is understated while still being very dynamic. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Hot Sardines

This band is on a mission to put the “hot” back into “hot jazz.” Think Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven combos, with a pinch of the grit of swing revivalists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Their repertoire tends to pre-1930 songs, popularized by the likes of Sophie Tucker. Lead singer Elizabeth Bougerol is openly committed to “infotainment,” letting us know that the smattering of Christmas songs they did this gig (all originated in the 1950s by Rat Packers) were going to be done “hot and gutbucket” a very 1920s phrase.

Bougerol and pianist / bandleader Evan Palazzo met in 2007 after they both answered a Craigslist ad about a jazz jam session above a Manhattan noodle shop. Palazzo passed her litmus test – he knew Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” and could play it off the top of his head (they still do a scorching version). Since then they have been increasing the size of the ensemble; it’s presently a hot eight to nine-piece – depending on the night, and what friend is in town.

Perhaps most inventively, the band includes a tap dancer, DeWitt Fleming Jr., who intentionally plays the part of a percussionist more than a dancer. He conjured the very best of tap legend Gregory Hines. Bougerol was born in France and injects the occasional French-language vocal into the mix, regardless of whether the song was originally in French or not. This sort of playful irreverence forms a central part of the band’s aesthetic, showing up in Palazzo’s frisky fugue-like intro to “Comes Love”, again partially presented in French. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dana H

While actress Deirdre O’Connell expertly lip-syncs this entire show, this is galaxies away from, say, Lypsinka. O’Connell lip-syncs to recorded interviews of playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother Dana, regarding her harrowing experience being kidnapped by a murderously insane white supremacist in 1997 (Hnath edited the interviews into a cohesive hour-long piece). O’Connell is amazingly precise, down to every jangle of Dana’s bracelets, yet also brings a layer of expert acting to it that elevates the whole affair. Steve Cuiffo, the Lip Sync Consultant, must have a lock on that area of expertise – he has indeed been known to Lypsinka. He has certainly coached O’Connell well, she never misses a second.

Dana has long been a hospice chaplain in Florida, and in ’97 a suicidal Aryan Brotherhood member came under her care and became attached to her. Eventually he took her captive and tormented her for five months. Dana is quick witted and hardy, so her description of these events rarely descends into self pity. She is, if anything, oddly detached, which makes hearing about this horrible experience somewhat more bearable. But it becomes clear that she was truly powerless in a way she could not have understood before these events.

Director Les Waters stages the evening very minimally, with Dana mostly narrating events from a chair in a motel room (her captor essentially moved them from motel to motel). The moments that depart from that format are all the more effective because of the contrast with that simplicity. Mikhail Fiksel’s audio editing and sound design is truly a marvel. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Lehman Trilogy

Surprisingly brisk, this 3 plus hour drama follows the history of Lehman Brothers for as long an actual Lehman was involved, from 1844 (when Henry Lehman opened a fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama), to around 1969 (when the last Lehman family member to run the bank, Bobby, passed away). There is a brief coda about its decline and fall, but this is mostly the history of the Lehman family. It is a above all a portrait of “The American Dream.” It doesn’t shy away from that dream’s darker side: the brothers make their first fortune on the cotton trade, which at the time was driven by the historical crime of slave labor.

In a clever conceit, director Sam Mendes stages this saga in the offices of Lehman on the day before its 2008 collapse, projecting black and white imagery behind its glass walls to evoke the needed 19th and early 20th locales. Further, the three actors who play the founding brothers Henry (Simon Russel Beale), Emmanuel (Adrian Lester) and Mayer (Adam Godley) also play a host of other people as well. This causes some comedy when the stout, gray-bearded Beale plays a series of Lehman brides, who run the gamut from demure to deeply cynical.

The script, by Stephano Massimi (playwright) and Ben Powers (adapter), is comprised primarily of narration. These dexterous actors rather miraculously find ways to express action and emotion in the driest recitation of numbers and facts, which does a great deal to bring this story to vibrant life. Massimi has skillfully woven throughout the play thematic threads about bad dreams and ever-shortening periods of mourning for family members who pass away. The storytelling is uniformly crisp and exciting.

This so easily could have been tedious, but The Lehman Trilogy is tautly executed from beginning to end. This is the work of expert craftspeople and artists in every field of theatrical endeavor. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Seth’s Broadway Breakdown

Seth Rudetsky is best known as a host on SiriusXM’s “On Broadway” channel, but is almost as well known for his YouTube videos “deconstructing” showtunes – hilariously analyzing them second by second to show what is amazing about them, as well as moments that make no musical sense. For years he’s been doing live shows compiling those deconstructions, under titles like Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Show (now the name of one of his SiriusXM programs) and Deconstructing Broadway.

He’s back onstage with this fresh new version of that show that frames these analyses with the fanciful idea that Broadway left us for the last year and a half because we didn’t properly thank Broadway for all the wonderful things it gives us. So Seth will “break it down” for us.

First off he addresses a misconception that he hates “legit” sopranos – not true, he just loves belters more! From which point he gives us an gleefully detailed history of high belting, from Ethel Merman’s trademark high B, thorough Nell Carter’s high E in Ain’t Misbehavin’, to Patti LuPone’s 16 high E’s going to a high G in Evita. He goes on to compare LuPone’s version to Madonna’s movie version, which does not go in Madonna’s favor, to say the least. Howlingly funny.

In addition to having us listen along to Broadway cast recordings, Rudetsky joyfully lip-syncs, demonstrates techniques in his own voice where he can, and plays examples of arranging techniques on the piano. In particular he dissects an Osmond family Fiddler on the Roof where the arrangements blithely ignore what the songs are actually about, to hilariously ridiculous effect.

There are also archive recordings and live stuff that Seth, as a longtime Broadway musician and insider, has special access to. After seeing this show, you’ll have a clear idea of things like the difference between chest voice and head voice, especially when that head voice is “unwelcome,” which he explains through a side-splittingly funny deconstruction of “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. Seth’s overjoyed that Broadway is back, and I’m thrilled he’s sharing that joy with us. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lackawanna Blues

In this solo play, Ruben Santiago-Hudson celebrates the woman who raised him in her boarding house in Lackawanna (just outside Buffalo) who is known variously as Nanny, Mother and Miss Rachel. He not only portrays himself and Miss Rachel, but also some 20 other boarders who passed through the house throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when Ruben was growing up.

I’m usually suspicious of shows that are written and directed by the same person; usually they’re much better at one job than the other. Here Santiago-Hudson does both, as well as playing every part. Based on the tour-de-force result, I’d say the man has earned his bona fides – then again, he has worked with the likes of playwright August Wilson as director and actor, and acted for legendary directors like George C. Wolfe and Lloyd Richards.

Miss Rachel would take care of anybody who needed it, which is why everybody called her “Mother.” In mid-century Lackawanna, this led to a motley collection of misfits and crazies passing through her doors, all of whom Santiago-Hudson portrays with great sensitivity. Many were harmless, but many were violent, and Ruben doesn’t shy away from this. Nanny herself fearlessly stood up to these toughs and abusers, which leads to some of the show’s most dramatic moments, as Santiago-Hudson contrasts their toxic rantings with Miss Rachel’s terrifyingly steely calm.

This show isn’t called a blues for nothing: Almost the entirety of the play is accompanied by blues guitar-playing from Junion Mack, recreating the score created by long-time Santiago-Hudson collaborator, the late Bill Sims Jr. Ruben himself is a talent ed harmonica player, and pipes in with his “harp” at judiciously selected moments. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Is This A Room

Is this a play? It certainly is a transcript of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner (played here by Emily Davis), a 25-year-old former Air Force linguist charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in U.S elections. On June 3, 2017, Winner was surprised at her home by the FBI. In Is This A Room, we witness that interaction, filtered through the lens of conceiver and director Tina Satter’s staging.

That filter is of very mixed quality. Some of Satter’s staging is quite elegant, especially the way she indicates redactions in the transcript through freezes, lighting shifts and blackouts. But some is decidedly heavy handed, creating Pinteresque menace where the transcript doesn’t suggest it.

Some moments do feel like TV cop procedural tropes, but that’s largely because those tropes are rooted in truth. There’s Agent Garrick (Pete Simpson), the “good cop” (but who is also clearly a skilled interrogator); Agent Taylor (Will Cobbs), the “bad cop” (but mostly just the strong, silent, sometimes kind cop) and the name-unknown grunt cop (Becca Blackwell). The cast is uniformly terrific with Davis and Simpson skillfully carrying most of the show’s weight.

I’ll allow that the course of the interrogation has significant innate drama, but ultimately isn’t very insightful. The most significantly dramatic thing about Winner’s story is that she received an inordinately long prison sentence for what was ultimately a minor security leak. But that’s a story that isn’t told here, save for brief voice over by the real life Winner at the end. That’s the story I’d be much more interested in seeing.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chicken & Biscuits

The best way to see Chicken & Biscuits is to arrange to be in front of an enthusiastic church lady. By happy accident I was seated in front of just such a lady, who was definitely not shy with the occasional “Amen!!” and “Tell it!!” – it very much added to the fun of this already quite entertaining show.

The play focuses on the rivalry between the late pastor’s two daughters, the “holier-than-thou” Baneatta (Cleo King) and the flashily vulgar Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). Baneatta’s husband – and the church’s new pastor – Reginald (the magnificent as always Norm Lewis) tries to keep the peace while preparing the eulogy. There’s also a gay subplot involving Baneatta’s son Kenny (Devere Rogers) and his nebbishy Jewish boyfriend Logan (the ever-hilarious Michael Urie). Baneatta barely tolerates Logan, and Logan is terrified of Baneatta.

Director Zhailon Livingston (the youngest Black director in Broadway history) has assembled a first-rate group of physical comedians who deliver playwright Douglas Lyon’s zesty comic lines with flawless timing. Lewis in particular wonderfully manages a eulogy which begins with very awkward homilies, but eventually finds its way to barnstorming spirit and zeal (church lady loved that part too). The play deals with themes of forgiveness and kindness in well-tread ways, but since the world is in profound need of both qualities you won’t find me raising a strong objection. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

News: The Simsinz TONIGHT ONLY! (Friday 9/24)

One of New York’s best, most insane, drag shows returns for one night only, tonight, Friday September 24. The Simsinz is an unauthorized drag parody lipsynch tribute to The Simpsons which comes from the inventive mind of up and coming drag star Cissy Walken. In it Marge huffs ammonia and has hallucinations, while the rest of the family turns queer. A large portion of the lipsynch material comes from episodes that deal with gay themes. Even more, however, comes from pop songs and showtunes, and even some original material in which Walken sings in a perfect Marge Simpson voice (Walken has a reputation as a talented mimic, particularly for her Amy Winehouse).

Walken is a 2019 MAC Award nominee, and reigning Miss Stonewall. She stars as Marge, joined by Coco Taylor (host of Members Only Boylesque), Aria Derci, Pussy Willow and Andy Starling as a bevy of characters.

Even the male characters have exaggerated eyelashes and high heels. It’s shocking at first, but it is impossible to resist the charm of this loving tribute, especially from such a skilled company of lipsynchers. To say nothing of its sheer giddy comic loopiness – I mean the 11 O’Clock number goes to Ralph Wiggums for goodness sake!

The costume changes are truly dizzying, and the staging sophisticated and energetic. The last time I saw it, this joyous romp left me with a lasting grin on my face. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Pass Over

The simple fact offbeing back in a Broadway theatre, especially one as beautiful as the August Wilson, was a moving experience in and of itself. The play at that theatre, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, is several things. For one thing, this black-themed surrealist drama is an opening bell for the Broadway community’s commitment to being more diverse going forward. The play itself certainly has its heart in the right place, but the realization of its high ideals is a mixed bag.

The play mostly draws its inspiration from Waiting for Godot. As in Beckett’s play, we have two protagonists trapped in their situation, in this case a desolate urban street-corner in place of Beckett’s country road. As in Beckett, one, Moses (Jon Michael Hill), is a pontificating top dog, the other, Kitch (Namir Smallwood), a goofy wild card.

My issue: the play works too hard to hew to the outline of Godot. The moments where it deviates the most from Beckett’s model are its most effective, and I wish there were more of them. In fact the best part of the play is its conclusion, where Nwandu abandons Godot for a rapturously strange evocation of the Book of Exodus (not to leer, but it also features nudity, and the actors have clearly been working on their assets).

Also, Moses exhibits traits of toxic masculinity, and while Nwandu has clearly made that character decision intentionally, she offers no coherent criticism of that syndrome – and this in a play jam-packed with coherent criticisms. This just puzzles me. Hill makes the best of it however, sensitively playing to the wounds that led Moses to construct this fiercely defensive emotional armor. In spite of its flaws, Pass Over is an exciting and dynamic return for Broadway, and I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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