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.

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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.

Review: The Boys in the Band

Director Joe Mantello has uncovered something important about Matt Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. At its base, it is a drama about an alcoholic dysfunctional family, much like Long Days Journey into Night. Unlike that play, however, there is much humor and hope in this chosen family, so much so that a character who has drunkenly said the most venomous lines, exits with a truly affectionate “Call you tomorrow!” See, the play, contrary to its reputation, portrays gays as better than straights. Boys is, at its root, about a group of exciting, vibrant men fighting like hell – against heavy opposition – for self-respect and love.

Michael (Jim Parsons), a recovering alcoholic, hosts a birthday party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) in his Upper East Side apartment, with six of their closest friends. The evening begins with this group of friends celebrating, singing and dancing; when left to their own devices these guys are happy. But when the world comes knocking in the form of Michael’s straight college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison) — or the form of toxicity between Michael and Harold that emerges when Michael falls off the wagon — staying happy seems like a steeper climb.

The big news for this production is a cast packed with movie and TV stars who are all openly gay, something that would never have happened in 1968 when the play premiered. Quinto’s performance as Harold is astonishing – he completely disappears in the role, and gives us a Harold with a greater sense of fun then I’ve every seen before, something that gives depth to the role. Parsons is terrific as guilty Catholic Michael. Matt Bomer, as Michael’s handsome friend with (occasional) benefits Donald, is his usual charming self.

I would be remiss if I didn’t report that Bomer gives us full backside nudity early in the show. It’s a testament to the high quality of his and Parsons’s performances that we’re able to get the important exposition that’s happening while Bomer’s fully or half-nude. The other standout performance is Robin de Jesús, who gives us a breathtakingly heartfelt interpretation of flaming queen Emory.

This is a revelatory production that casts an insightful eye toward both gay history and plain old human psychology. Essential gay viewing, and 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 has a muscular Broadway soprano, and she can deliver both hair-raising high notes and detailed, fully-acted musical storytelling. Her current act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, is a love letter to the women who have inspired her called 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 theme, “Love Is All Around,” because who doesn’t love Mary Richards? The song is all about youth and hope, and Callaway captures that marvelously. The show then briefly heads in a somewhat autobiographical direction as she intersperses a relatively low-key take on “Broadway Baby” with humorous tales of her exciting first days as a working actor in New York.

Your heroes don’t have to be older than you, and Liz 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 to titular dish set to a tricky patter. Tricky patter is the satirical target of the show’s other comical moment, 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: René Marie

What a great pleasure to discover a really good songwriter who also happens to be an accomplished jazz singer! I hadn’t heard of René Marie before seeing her at Birdland, and she presented a show entirely composed of songs from her new album The Sound of Red, all material composed solely by her. And, what do you know, every song is as engaging in performance as a sensitively rendered standard.

A lot of that has to do with Marie’s lyrics, which touch on universal subjects in a direct, sincerely-felt way. They don’t have the obviousness of cliché, but rather the deceptive simplicity of a Berlin or Hammerstein lyric – phrases that seem like they’ve always been there, but never said quite that way. Musically, however, these songs are quite sophisticated. She’s modest about her song “Go Home” (a rueful instruction to a man she’s having an affair with), calling it “maybe too country” at one point in her intro, but the song’s harmonies do subtle but odd shifts that could come right out of compositions by Dizzy Gillespie or Maurice Ravel.

As a vocalist, René Marie has a fantastic instrument: warmly supple, strong and profoundly expressive. Her confidence as a performer engages you from the first note; especially powerful in this performance where the first song is a haunting a capella she wrote the day of her opening night “Ain’t Gonna Be Long for this Earth.” Her between song talk is less patter, and more like a spontaneous, smiling decision to let you in on her secrets. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: My Fair Lady

Bartlett Sher directing tasteful yet thoughtful revivals of “Golden Age” musicals at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theatre – by this point it’s definitely “a thing.” This time Sher has turned his sights on Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the plot goes like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to act and speak like a lady, he gets more than he bargained for: Eliza Doolittle provokes his interest, his anger, and ultimately, his passion.

This astutely executed My Fair Lady is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit and proto-feminist point of view than any other production I’ve seen. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins than is found in the My Fair Lady book, and a much more self-possessed Eliza – and Sher leans toward that every chance he gets.

The excellent Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie on Downton Abbey) is central in this approach: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Lauren Ambrose is a fittingly strong-willed and vocally expressive Eliza. The most showstopping performance, however goes to Norbert Leo Butz, who fills Eliza scoundrel father Alfred with pointed glee. He really brings the house down with his delivery of “Get Me To The Church on Time” positively bursting with kinetic energy.

There’s always a great danger that My Fair Lady might play as romanticizing what essentially is a manipulative, borderline abusive relationship – that certainly happened in the film version. That is far from Shaw’s original intention, and Sher has largely succeeded in saving My Fair Lady from its worst impulses. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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