Review: John Pizzarelli

It’s always great to see a cabaret performer you’ve seen with smaller combos perform with a big band. Seeing John Pizzarelli with Swing 7 – a seven piece rhythm and brass band – is “too marvelous for words.” He’s a top exponent of cabaret’s jazzier side, playing a show composed of songs he’s recorded by Duke Ellington, arguably the greatest jazz composer ever, and by Johnny Mercer, arguably the greatest lyricist of the Great American Songbook. And, as always, he does it with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence.

John’s guitar style is amazingly fluid and elegant, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. But Pizzarelli is a great interpretive artist in more ways than one. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. 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. Both qualities are ideal when assaying Mercer, whose wit can be very subtle indeed.

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Alaska

This is the best Golden Girls tribute I’ve seen on stage, and for someone who has been covering gay New York entertainment for a long time that’s saying something (I think GG tributes are outnumbered only by Judy Garland tributes). I attribute its success to the fact that Alaska and her pianist Handsome Jeremy are huge Golden Girls fanatics themselves, to the point that they talk about the series being their scripture.

If that’s so, this show, entitled “On Golden Girls,” is all about songs from the hymnal, giving us stories and songs from each of the ladies in turn. This very, very tall queen is a natural for a Bea Arthur, but hilariously portrays Estelle Getty by walking in on her knees.

One of her greatest gifts as a performer is a knack for imaginative exaggeration – she’s is a talented caricaturist. Not to say that’s she’s amateurish or sloppy – not remotely! Caricature has room for precision, wit, intelligence and creativity, and Alaska displays all of this and more. The caricatures here are very loving, which gives the act its considerable heart. Plus, The Golden Girls is already gleefully exaggerated, making for a wonderful match of performer and subject.

Alaska’s always had a strong voice, and she’s increasingly a real song stylist – she can totally handle singing “Hard Hearted Hannah” going the full Bea Arthur. The show was snappy and short! That never happens in drag cabaret! I’m almost tempted to say she should flesh it out a bit and make it longer, but that seems like tempting the fates. 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: Straight White Men

This play is never less than fascinating. When I think of the phrase “straight white men” my first thought is the awful old straight white men who pull the levers of government and business in this country. Or the too-loud, too-cocky douchebags that infest New York City streets, wearing their blue shirts and brown shoes directly from work to the nightclub. Smartly, those aren’t the “straight white men” playwright Young Jean Lee has chosen to focus on. Instead, we spend time with an apparently more virtuous set of liberally-mind brothers, who gradually reveal their true, um, colors.

Lee fakes us out in several ways. She gives everything the appearance of a naturalistic family drama, but really the structure of the play has more to do with Beckett than with late O’Neill. In place of the vaudeville routines in Waiting for Godot, we have stylized roughhousing and the performative traditions that siblings create with one another.

The quiet engine of the play is the character Matt (Paul Schneider) who does temp work for a social service organization and then does the cleaning-up “women’s work” that neither his brothers or father will do. The moments when the action stops so we can watch Matt doing these jobs in real time are some of the most riveting moments of the play.

You see everybody’s worried about Matt, who doesn’t seem worried about much, but has an unexplained crying jag during Christmas celebrations. Novelist brother Drew (Armie Hammer) thinks Matt should see a therapist to treat what he perceives as Matt’s depression. Banker brother Jake (Josh Charles) admires what he understands to be Matt’s ideals, but encourages him to sell them better. Father Ed (Steven Payne) thinks throwing money at the problem of Matt’s student loans will solve things.

Lee seems to be driving at the idea that, in the United States, straight white men’s value is largely measured by capitalist success. This point she explores quite intelligently. But all Matt is doing, from his point of view, is trying to stop solving the unsolvable and do little things that would be immediately useful to others.

The biggest problem with Straight White Men is that I have just stated Matt’s POV more clearly than ever happens in the play. I understand trying not to provide easy answers for an audience, but I think Lee has landed closer to murkiness than the provocative ambiguity she was aiming for. The end of the play both leaves too much hanging, and, structurally speaking, ties thing up too neatly, straining for a symmetry that the subject and play both resist.

These are quibbles, though, with a thought-provoking and brilliantly acted play. I should also mention that transgender legend Kate Bornstein and two-spirit writer Ty Defoe have roles to play as well (though they were way too underused for my taste). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Spencer Day

This singer-songwriter – with a monthly residency at The Green Room 42 – knows exactly who he is, so I’ll let him tell it: “I’m the younger Harry Connick, I’m the gayer John Mayer,” “I love the the 1950s, but without the rampant racism, sexism and homophobia.” Funny guy, this Spencer Day. And comic relief is needed, since most of his songs have a dark noir tinge, even his recent Billboard Jazz Chart hit “72 and Sunny.”

After giving a moody rendition of that song, Day quips that a review cited the song’s allegedly “bright, hopeful lyrics,” to which he replies “really? I thought it was about clinical depression in beautiful weather!” Which it is. But it’s easy to see how Day’s wit and upbeat Mormon boy demeanor might convince one otherwise.

After making this observation about his own song, Day launches into a medley which reminds us that many of the songs that we have danced to or made us smile are, lyrically speaking, dark stories of co-dependency or desperation. From “Don’t Leave Me This Way” to “Baby Love” to even older songs from his beloved 1950s, Day has a point.

His humor also finds its way both into actual comic songs – “Too Old to Sleep My Way to the Top” and “Book of Faces” come to mind – and songs that turn ruefully funny after a yearning start, like “The California Yes” which, it turns out “is only a maybe at best,” and winkingly offers the advice: “when you’re on the Pacific / don’t get too specific / or think that you’ll see them again!” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Marilyn Maye

National treasure. International treasure, even. In this day and age, utterly unique. In the 1960s you could perhaps compare her to contemporaries like Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughn, Helen Merrill, Dinah Washington or June Christy. Perhaps even to the great – and a bit older – Ella Fitzgerald, who once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” At 90, Maye’s the only jazz singer in that style left. That’s not the only thing though. She sounds nearly the same now she did then. Also, she has never for a moment ceased working on her craft, and so is now such an impossibly stylish and expressive singer that there has perhaps never been anyone like her.

At the new Birdland Theater right now, she’s turning her towering talent mostly to showtunes. Maye has been rediscovered by New York audiences over the last decade or so, and the ever growing lovefest between fans old and new is palpable in the room, which only adds to the fun. She’s always included showtunes in her act, so there’s plenty of familiar stuff, especially from Hello Dolly and Mame, shows whose title roles she played in now-legendary regional productions. She also does a a medley of songs from My Fair Lady that climaxes in a stunning, hard-swinging rendition of “On the Street Where You Live.”

There are several other medleys, but Maye and her music director Tedd Firth – a gifted jazz pianist she coaxes into some hilarious deadpan interplay – handle medleys in an unconventional way, undercutting their potential for corniness with thoughtful storytelling and sophisticated jazz musicianship. If you love show tunes sung in sparkling and surprising ways, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lucie Arnaz

The daughter of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, Lucie Arnaz has forged a career of her own, including originating the role of Sonia Walsk in the hit Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song. In “I Got The Job: Songs From My Musical Past,” her new cabaret act at the newly opened Birdland Theater, Arnaz returns to her theater roots and looks back at some of the roles she has created on stages throughout the world, from her first roles in the Los Angeles area’s best high school for theatre, to a grandmother hanging upside down on a trapeze.

She opens with a mashup of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun and “Got a Lot of Living to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie – she cleverly avoids the chorus of “Show Business.” She does a lot of numbers from Annie Get Your Gun, clearly a favorite role of hers to sing. Same goes for Playing Our Song; she does the title song like gangbusters, and also the 11 O’Clock number “I Still Believe in Love” which she preface’s with a hilarious story about the rewrites it went through.

I wish she’d given even more detail about The Witches of Eastwick, which clearly had some juicy backstage stories she wasn’t telling. She does have a wickedly great time singing the hell out of the devil’s big number “Who’s the Man.” The entire show has a party-like feel, with such a talented and witty host. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Django Festival AllStars

Even though Django Reinhardt, the man who invented “gypsy jazz,” was a full-blooded gypsy himself, the genre has always felt more French than “gypsy” to me; the only things that it takes from traditional gypsy are the use of string instruments (bass, guitar) to create rhythmic effects, and a love of arpeggios. The use of violin and accordion is more redolent of bal-musette, an instrumental variety of Parisian cabaret music. Coming out of a festival of gypsy jazz named for the genre’s founder, The Django Festival AllStars play a particularly vigorous version of the music that incorporates elements of bebop and even jazz fusion, without ever leaving behind the distinctive sound that Reinhardt invented.

Gypsy jazz originated in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when “hot” was a byword for playing jazz hard, fast and fiery. And boy do these AllStars know how to turn on exactly that kind of heat! In particular button-accordionist Ludovic Beier improvises with a blazing intensity and swirling dexterity more often associated with horn players. Violinist Pierre Blanchard knew and was directly influenced by Stéphane Grappelli, Django’s own violin player; once again though, the playing is hotter and more fierce than Grappelli’s, even at times soulful.

Lead guitarist Samson Schmitt comes from a family of gypsy jazz guitarists with connections to Reinhardt (his father played with Django’s son), and while he can effortlessly play with the precision and flash of Beier or Blanchard, he is better thought of as the rock-solid center of this assemblage. Rhythm guitarist DouDou Cuillerier provides the genre-defining beat – provocatively called la pompe – and is also the genial goofball of the group, and proves a skillful vocalist on his single solo turn. Bassist Antonio Licusati has probably the least ostentatious role in this dazzling ensemble, but he supports Cuillerier’s pompe with subtle harmonic inventiveness. Le jazz hot, indeed! Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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